Melbourne Writers Festival 2018 – the middle bits

I managed to get to three mid-week Melbourne Writers Festival events (honestly, my children thought I’d taken up residence at Federation Square…).

Paul Kelly

I wonder why we don’t refer to Paul Kelly as a ‘national treasure’? He is. His music has been part of the soundtrack of most of my life. He was in the line-up at some of my first concerts at the Myer Music Bowl – those endless summer gigs where there would be one band after another; he was the campfire music of my uni days; his was the background song playing when I first met the guy I’d end up marrying.

Despite being a self-confessed introvert, Kelly was a natural fit for MWF – every one of his songs tells a story. The event, titled ‘Other People’s Words’, began with Kelly performing poetry put to original music. Poems from Dickinson, Plath, Yeats and more, were a beautiful match for Kelly’s distinctive, understated style of music. Between songs, he shared a little bit about why each poem was meaningful to him. To introduce Barn Owl by Gwen Harwood, he said, “To paraphrase Chekov, if there’s a gun in a poem it’s probably going to go off.”

Kelly’s performance was followed by a conversation with fellow writer and poet, Maxine Beneba Clarke. They talked about their creative process and Kelly said that using other people’s words changed how he worked – ordinarily, he writes a melody and then comes up with lyrics but by using existing poems, that process is reversed.

Clarke asked why he had started putting music to existing poems and he replied, “I’ve been a songwriter for over 40 years… I’ve probably said enough.” I don’t think his audience agreed but they were certainly thrilled to hear his interpretation of poetry.


Tim Winton

To be frank, I had reservations about the Judith Lucy/ Tim Winton pairing for his session – I find her too brash, too caustic, too much of the same joke for the past twenty years. But I had to eat my words. Lucy was the perfect foil to Winton’s reserved, almost sedate style.

Lucy didn’t hold back on her thoughts about Winton’s latest main character, Jaxie, labelling him a ‘narcissistic, bigoted little arsehole’. Winton agreed, saying, “I’ve spent years writing stories about people who aren’t articulate but have strong feelings.”

In creating the character, Winton said “I just surrendered to Jaxie. He wasn’t for parking. It’s like a relationship you hadn’t planned on.” But Winton was also relieved to say goodbye to Jaxie, “…being trapped in that lexicon (Jaxie) made the heart heavy.”

Winton went on to talk broadly about boys, men and the importance of social connections. It’s Winton’s belief that in terms of communities and families, “…we’ve deskilled in a few generations”. He didn’t have an answer for this problem so Lucy lightened the mood by making him read a section from The Shepherd’s Hut that I think he would have preferred not read (page 116 if you’re interested),

I really enjoyed this rare public appearance from Winton but was a little baffled and disappointed to hear that he had come out the following day with disparaging remarks about ‘non-writers’ being included in writers festivals. I’m assuming he collected his appearance fee before going to the media…


Ta-Nehisi Coates

Sometimes you hear authors talk and every single thing they say is a quotable quote. Such was the case with Ta-Nehisi Coates. He talked about his childhood; Thanksgiving (he’s not a fan – “We’re essentially flat-earthers. That’s why we have Thanksgiving. It’s obscene.”); how he came to journalism; and his meetings with Obama.

Of course, it was his thoughts on Trump that had the audience riveted. Looking back to before Trump was elected, he said “…I thought ‘white people are at least self-interested enough not to do it’ {vote for Trump}. I underestimated whiteness.” He noted that “…the very fact that Trump was in the race was enough to show people had lost their minds”, let alone “…elect someone manifestly unqualified, save for being rich and white.”

Funnily, host Santilla Chingaipe, admitted to not reading comics. Coates was suitably aghast and sung their praises – “Comics allow for your own private experience – you have to fill in the space between panels… it’s your experience but you can have an exchange with other people about that experience.”

Coates finished by talking about his creative process and the constant pressure to produce ‘great work’. He is mindful not to assume too much from success – “I’d rather write five bad books but keep trying. I fear resting on my laurels.”

11 responses

    • Winton is often criticised for having just one character/ just one story. There’s some truth in that – he writes masculine coming-of-age stories. I do admire his writing about landscape and in particular, water. If I had to choose where to start with Winton, I’d go for Cloudstreet or Breath.

  1. I’ve been to some Paul Kelly concerts but I generally like my music louder and less coherent. Still I’d rather listen to Kelly again than Winton for the first time. Coates I don’t know, though it’s interesting that Gillard and Obama were followed by Abbott and Trump –
    that seems like old white voters reacting badly to change.

    • I’ve been kind of surprised by the Winton-hate – I didn’t realise people felt so strongly about him!
      Coates had a lot to say about Obama/ Trump – wish I could have recorded the whole thing (because he’s not the kind of guy you want to misquote).

  2. Great writeup about an interesting set of sessions. I like Kelly too, though have only seen him live once I think, when he was a warm up for Leonard Cohen back in 2009. I love the little movie One night the moon. How great to have seen him with Maxine Beneba Clarke.

    I think I would have had the same concern as you about Lucy-Winton. That’s interesting that he commented so the next day. Was it out of context I wonder. He seems more laidback – I mean, more openminded than that. I wonder if he feels writers need as many opportunities as they can get and not focusing on them denies more of them?? Who knows.

    Coates sounds great. I couldn’t believe the number of college-educated white women who said they’d vote for Trump, as I heard on interviews on the ABC (though none of the ones I know in the USA did!)

    • It was fantastic to hear Clarke talk about her poetry – I have heard her speak a couple of times (each has been terrific) but the topic has always focused on her experience as a person in minority rather than her creative process.

      I thought Winton was more open-minded too – along the lines of ‘you do your thing, I’ll do mine, we can all be happy”. It’s possible that he was taken out of context given that the Festival was copping a lot of negative and positive press about the format – the debate centred around what constitutes a ‘writers’ festival. I guess if Winton believes that writing must have a book cover, then this year’s MWF would not have sat well!

      Coates talked a lot about who voted for Trump and the fallout (and shame) post-election – I wish I’d made more notes during the talk!

  3. I’m currently reading Winton for the first time (I know! So ridiculously late.) and I’m enjoying Dirt Music (I’m right at the start though). I know a lot of people seem not to get on with him but he did a couple of interviews over here recently for The Shepherd’s Hut that I liked so I thought I’d give him a try.

    Coates sounds great 🙂

    • Dirt Music isn’t one of my favourites but you’ll get a very good idea of his style. I guess when an author writes the ‘same story’ over and over, fans really compare the books (I do that with John Irving – compare as opposed to thinking of it as a stand alone story…).

      Interesting that he did interviews – they must be pumping his book hard because he’s known to be reclusive in Australia.

  4. Pingback: Six Degrees of Separation – from The Outsiders to The Other Typist | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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