Melbourne Writers Festival 2017 – Day 2

Two events today –

The Dark Side of Womanhood

The Dark Side of Womanhood featured the Festival’s headline international act, Joyce Carol Oates. Joining her was Megan Abbott and the conversation was chaired by Sophie Cunningham.

The session was billed as a discussion about the ‘depictions of the dark, complicated interior lives of women’ but the conversation went in various other directions. Now I have to be perfectly frank – Joyce Carol Oates was rather uncooperative to begin. Sophie asked a number of questions that JCO answered with “I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about it” which left Sophie floundering and Megan having to pick up the slack (which she did very, very well). Honestly, it was all a bit awkward.

Thankfully toward the end, the conversation moved to things that clearly sparked JCO’s interest (particularly Trump) and she said of her latest book, A Book of American Martyrs, “I finished it before Trump was a household word… Even before he was a ghastly mirage on the horizon.” She went on to say that given the prophetic element of the story, she’d “…happily take the novel back and have a sane and qualified President to run our country“, adding that she and Megan were afraid to go home and could they ask for asylum? (I’m sure if she understood Australia’s management of asylum seekers, she’d think again!).

The session ended with a quick discussion around the fact that both JCO and Abbott’s books examine women’s loss of agency over their own bodies – alas, it seemed we got to the guts of things too late. A shame.

I realise you can’t see any of the panel in this pic but I just love the Deakin Edge space – the light, the Yarra as a backdrop…

The Art of Life

Next up was Elizabeth Kostova  and Heather Rose talking about the significance of art in their novels (and the fact that they both have novels that feature the Balkan region). Kostova and Rose have only very recently met but from the outset, it felt like a warm, generous conversation between old friends.

I was particularly interested to hear Rose talk about the very tricky process of blending fact and fiction, and for added complexity, writing about someone who is alive. The Museum of Modern Love focuses on performance artist Marina Abramovic and her piece, The Artist is Present.

Rose was visiting a Dutch Masters exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2005 when she happened across a photograph from one of Abramovic’s performance pieces. The blurb mentioned her Great Wall of China walk and Rose immediately wanted to know more. There was little available online and so for a few years, she simply made it up. But then came The Artist is Present and Rose sat with her four times (WOW!). After her first sitting she knew that she couldn’t fictionalise Abramovic, her life was too rich, so she requested permission to write about her –“I had an enormous sense of responsibility, I had to depict things accurately. As a writer, I couldn’t just give her a glossy exterior, I had to get inside…”

The fourth time Rose sat at The Artist is Present, she telepathically asked Abramovic if she could write about her. Rose reported that in response, Abramovic lent forward ever so slightly (if you watch any of the footage you’ll see that she very rarely moves) and telepathically replied “You must do it but you must be fearless!

Of course, Rose’s final sitting could be the work of a very good storyteller (which Rose obviously is) but I’m not sure Abramovic is someone you’d pick to tell made-up stories about. Like the rest of the audience, I was absolutely enthralled.

17 responses

      • Seriously, they should hire you as an official blogger. They used to do this, maybe they still do, but the bloggers they chose that I saw just wrote shallow stuff that showed they didn’t read the kind of books or care about the issues that I was interested in. There’s a new director next year claiming to be interested in new audiences, maybe a submission to her, well in advance of time, with a recommendation or two from people like me, pointing out that if it’s good enough to podcast sessions, it’s good enough to hire citizen journalists who know what they’re talking about.

      • *blushes* Thanks Lisa for your kind words. If I was in some kind of official role, I’d have to take a week off work so that I could get to loads of sessions, wouldn’t I? *sign me up*

      • Did I hear the new director was Marieke Hardy. But, Lisa’s point is a good one re their using citizen journalists.

        BTW Were Cunningham’s questions poor, or was JCO being snooty?

      • It is Hardy. Will be interesting to see what direction she takes things.

        JCO started out snooty and then Cunningham got flustered and wasn’t as succinct as she would probably want to be, so it was a bit of both. Thankfully Abbott was saving the day!

  1. It does annoy me when writers or whoever act petulant in interviews. You’re in an enormously privileged position, people have paid money to see you, I don’t care if you’re bored answering an obvious question for the eleventy-millionth time, suck it up & do your job! *deep breath* Rant over – sorry!

    It’s so interesting to hear about the events you’re attending, thanks so much for sharing 🙂

    • I agree – there’s no reason to do these events if you don’t like them (Donna Tartt does alright for herself and she never does events, and rarely interviews). These kind of events sway my opinion – perhaps I’m fickle but I’m less inclined to rush out for JCO’s latest after hearing her speak. The opposite has happened though – I’ve never been a fan of Franzen in interviews (he comes across as arrogant to me) and yet, when I heard him speak a year ago I was pleasantly surprised – he wasn’t exactly humble but he was thoughtful and intelligent and quick off the mark. My opinion of him improved and I moved Purity up the TBR stack.

  2. Oh I should have gone to the Heather Rose session (I love her book )! I was at the Joyce Carol Oates and agree it was a bit awkward. I didn’t think Sophie Cunningham asked very good questions! And it made me contemplate on what we actually want from these sessions…(Julianne)

    • Heather Rose was absolutely lovely, and honest, and willing to share.

      I think Sophie got flustered and dropped the ball a bit – she was certainly under pressure. Thank goodness Abbott helped her out!

      I thought about what I want from author talks as well and it’s this – I want to know what their inspirations or driving forces were/are. I want to know a little bit about their process (it amazes me how this varies so much for every writer). I also want some little ‘extra’ that I wouldn’t get reading an interview (I liken that to going to a concert and enjoying the musicians banter between songs, given that you can listen to the songs anytime, but the banter is the ‘extra’).

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