Sydney Writers’ Festival 2010 – Reading Muster 1
Or as I like to think of it: Meeting Melina Marchetta.
Well, maybe that’s not quite fair. This panel featured four female Australian authors reading excerpts from their books, and each of them sparked my interest in different ways.
But I can’t lie. I was there for Melina Marchetta.
Pier 4 was teeming with people when I arrived a few minutes before 10am for the session. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Attendance at Reading Muster 1 seemed fairly small, which meant I got a great seat … looking straight at Marchetta.
What? I’m a big fan!
I confess I wasn’t expecting much from this session. I’m not big on written stories being read aloud, and I’m also not convinced that authors are the best people to read their work. I’m happy to say I was wrong. Some of the readings today were deeply moving even if—or perhaps precisely because—the delivery lacked polish. At times I felt close to tears, I chuckled out loud, and for the most part I was totally absorbed in the stories.
Piano Lessons by Anna Goldsworthy
Chris Pash kicked off the session by introducing each author. Anna Goldsworthy started the actual reading with excerpts from her memoir, Piano Lessons. I liked her selections a lot—they were poignant and quirky and amusing—and I ended up buying the book and getting it signed so I can give it as a gift. (Maybe. I’m tempted to keep it and read it.) I think what ultimately sold me was the excerpt about learning to interpret Shostakovich’s piano trio. I don’t really know much about classical music, but that’s one of the pieces I do know and love, and the scene was so vivid in my mind as she told the story.
In this superb and original memoir, Anna Goldsworthy recalls her first steps towards a life in music, from childhood piano lessons with a local rock muso to international fame as a concert pianist. As she discovers passion and ambition, and confronts doubt and disappointment, she learns about much more than tone and technique.
Goldsworthy evokes the hopes and uncertainties of young adulthood, the fear and exhilaration of performing, and the complex bonds between teacher and student. An unforgettable cast of characters joins her, drawn with wit and affection: her parents; her fellow musicians, both friends and rivals; and her schoolmates, in all their teenage glory.
Above all there is her teacher, Mrs Sivan, enigmatic, charismatic and intimidating all at once.
Stillwater Creek by Alison Booth
Alison Booth’s reading from her debut novel, Stillwater Creek, was a bit hampered by her voice. I’m not sure if she had a problem with her throat or she was just extremely nervous, but I had to concentrate hard to absorb what she was saying. It didn’t help that the authors had their backs to the window and the light coming through made it difficult to focus on the speakers. Although hers wasn’t the kind of story I’d normally go for, the prose sounded quite lovely, and if you’re interested in stories set in 1950s Australia, this book is worth a look.
It is 1957 and, after the death of her husband, pianist Ilona Talivaldis and her nine-year-old daughter Zidra travel to the remote coastal town of Jingera in New South Wales. Ilona, a concentration camp survivor from Latvia, is searching for peace and an opportunity to start anew. In her beautiful vine-covered cottage on the edge of the lagoon, she plans to set herself up as a piano teacher.
The weeks pass, and slowly mother and daughter get to know the townsfolk – including kind-hearted butcher George Cadwallader who is forever gazing at the stars; his son Jim, a boy wise beyond his years; Peter Vincent, a former wartime pilot and POW; and Cherry Bates, the publican’s wife who is about to make a horrifying discovery…
For Jingera is not quite the utopia Ilona imagines it to be – and at risk is the one thing Ilona holds dear…
The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta
And then it was Melina Marchetta’s turn! She looked exactly as I had imagined her—you know, like her publicity photos!—and she read from The Piper’s Son, a book I couldn’t stop rereading and my copy of which is still littered with post-it flags to mark my favourite passages. Marchetta skipped around the book a fair bit but I loved her selections. Loved! I think they reflected her voice and her characters perfectly. The last excerpt she read was, I think, one of the funniest exchanges in the book. Certainly, the audience loved it.
Um, I need a moment. *SQUEE* Ahem.
Thomas Mackee wants oblivion. Wants to forget parents who leave and friends he used to care about and a string of one-night stands, and favourite uncles being blown to smithereens on their way to work on the other side of the world.
But when his flatmates turn him out of the house, Tom moves in with his single, pregnant aunt, Georgie. And starts working at the Union pub with his former friends. And winds up living with his grieving father again. And remembers how he abandoned Tara Finke two years ago, after his uncle’s death.
And in a year when everything’s broken, Tom realises that his family and friends need him to help put the pieces back together as much as he needs them.
‘The Cricket Palace’ by Charlotte Wood
The last author to read was Charlotte Wood, who read from her short story, ‘The Cricket Palace’ in the anthology Brothers & Sisters, which she also edited. Again, it’s not the kind of story I’d ordinarily seek out, but the prose was lovely and I think Wood read her work very well. If you like family dramas and a more introspective kind of narrative, it’s worth a try.
A girl sneaks into her brothers’ rooms to rummage through their pockets while they’re out. A man boards a plane to go to his brother’s funeral. Another man’s brother comes home from jail. A young woman watches her sister embrace life and London while she is left behind. Two girls compete for the colour pink and their father’s love.
Trespass and abandonment, old secrets and new truths, rivalry and protection, love and fear: twelve of Australia’s best writers tell surprising stories of the abiding bonds—bad, beautiful or broken—between brothers and sisters.
Questions from the audience? Yes, yes I have a question!
At the start of the session, Pash mentioned there would be a Q&A after the readings. The angst! I almost asked Twitter for help, I was so determined to, you know, like, almost kind of talk to my author crush.
So anyway, the first question was from someone who wanted to know if Marchetta would be writing a book for Jim Hailler, one of the characters from Saving Francesca who was missing in Tom’s story. I’d read her answer to this somewhere, so I wasn’t surprised when she said it would depend on whether or not the story every came to her. She mentioned the current book she was writing but didn’t really elaborate on what it’s about.
I totally forgot the second question because I raised my hand up at the same time and was too busy trying to remember the question I wanted to ask. This makes me a bad blogger, I know. I’m almost sure it was addressed to Goldsworthy. (If anyone who was in the session reads this and remembers the question and answer, I’d love it if you can enlighten me in the comments.)
My question was third and I directed it to the panel (mainly because I had already read Marchetta’s answer to a similar question in an interview, so I couldn’t direct it to her). I asked them if it would be very disappointing to find out that a reader had peeked at the ending of their book. Pash extended the question by asking the authors if they themselves read the back of the book first.
Goldsworthy said that it doesn’t really apply to her as her book is non-fiction. However, her grandmother just had to read the back of the book first, to the point where the family would cut out last page from books as a prank.
Booth said she liked to read the back of the book and didn’t mind if readers did it to her book. She said—and I was tempted to buy her book just from this comment—that she liked to read the ending first so she could enjoy the rest of the book and read it at the right pace; otherwise, she would race to the end and miss the middle.
Marchetta said she peeked at endings and hated it when people died at the end. She said her books also have death, but they usually occur at the beginning. She mentioned reading an online review in which the blogger mentioned reading the ending first in one of Marchetta’s books (I’m assuming On The Jellicoe Road because it’s the only one with a twist at the end) and she felt that would’ve spoiled the surprise at the end, but couldn’t be hypocritical given that she did it herself.
Wood seemed shocked to learn she was the only one who didn’t peek at the ending of a book. She said she’d never do it, although joked that perhaps she should, given everyone else does. I think she said she’d be disappointed if readers peeked at the endings of her books.
The final question followed on from mine and the audience member asked if the authors wrote in chronological order or not. Again, Goldsworthy said that hers was a memoir so it was a bit different from the others. Booth said she wrote out of order. Wood said it depended on the book, but she would write out of order if that’s how the story came to her. Marchetta said she always knows the beginning and the end of a story and the process of writing a book, for her, was about filling the gap in the middle. She said her beginnings and endings never change, even though the characters (as she understood them) usually do, and it becomes like a jigsaw that needs to be put back together to form a whole.
Author signing at Gleebooks (in which I’m a total dork)
After the session, I quickly found the Gleebooks tent to line up for the author signing. Amazingly, there was no line. So I bought a copy of Goldsworthy’s book and had it signed, then waited for Marchetta with the four book I brought with me. When it was my turn, she asked my name and when I asked her to excuse all the flags on my copy of The Piper’s Son, she asked if I was studying the book. I told her that I was a review blogger and it turns out … she remembered our blog!
I think I may have blacked out for an instant. At any rate, I completely forgot anything I had planned to say or do (take a picture, for example!) and kind of babbled in a very confusing way. She was very gracious and kind and I wish I had stopped babbling so she could have, you know, actually talked more. I’m embarrassed to say that I was completely without wit.
Never mind. I’ll be back on Sunday. I’m determined to get that photo.
The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs from May 15 to May 23, 2010. Click here for event details. (And if you’re coming to Sunday’s session with Melina Marchetta and David Levithan, let me know!)