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Sydney Writers’ Festival – Writing for YA Books and Film

My third event for the Sydney Writers’ Festival was Writing for YA Books and Film. I was so overcome with the opportunity to see Patrick Ness, I was willing to ignore warnings about the distance between Carriageworks and Parramatta, and leave the previous event early to try to make it in time.

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This event was part of the #AllDayYA segment of the Sydney Writers’ Festival that was taking place at the Riverside Theatres. After a walking, train and Uber combo I finally made it to the event only a little after it has started. YA authors Patrick Ness and Jesse Andrews were being interviewed by Will Kostakis and when I snuck into the front, it looked like the interview was already in full swing.

Ness and Andrews had fantastic rapport from the very beginning. Andrews was talking about plots and how he thinks they’re overrated, and Ness quipped “The only ones who complain about plots are the ones who can’t do it.” Acknowledging that it was maybe a bit mean, Andrew later on asked Ness whether he wanted him to be mean back. Ness vehemently said no, and that “I am way to sensitive for that”. He said, “I tease with affection, but if someone teases me, all I hear is ‘I have always hated you’.”

A big part of the talk was about adapting books for film. Kostakis asked Ness how writing screenplays affects his writing. Ness said that he always encourages writers to try different mediums. He said that there is a big difference between small budget films and big budget films because so many people’s jobs depend on its success. However he did note that his book “Release” was basically unfilmable. Based on “Mrs Dallaway”, it takes place over the course of one day, from sunrise to sunset, and the story is mostly internal.

Ness talked about the difficulties he had with a particular screenplay where he was writing someone else’s story. The film had been in production for 10 years, the story was terrible, but he managed to rewrite it, keep some elements and turn it into a happy family comedy. The author was apparently so mad, he refused to renew the option unless Patrick Ness was fired. Ness leaned back in his chair and said that the film still hasn’t been made, so who is the real winner?

Kostakis asked how the authors felt about collaboration and not knowing how much of the film was theirs. Ness pointed out how much of a high class problem to have, like “not enough foie gras with your brioche“. Essentially though, he recommended that authors whose books have been adapted simply “take the money, buy a new kitchen and forget the rest”. Even when the film has been made, the book still remains.

Now, I cannot continue writing at this point without saying something about Jesse Andrews. Even though he was not the author I had come to see, he was incredibly funny and had a particular brand of visual humour that I’m now very curious to see how it translates into books. At one point he was flailing around in his chair (I can’t quite recall why), and he said “Please don’t take videos of this, it doesn’t translate well!” He actually reminded me quite a bit of seeing Jasper Fforde. I think comedy in books is quite an underrated skill and I think I will have to find myself a copy of “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” to read now. Kostakis was laughing so much at Jesse through the entire event that he didn’t really get the opportunity to say much at all.

At this point, Ness and Andrews took questions from the audience. One lady, who said she was a teacher, stood up and asked about the M-rating that Ness’ film “A Monster Calls” and talked about the difficulties she had experienced trying to show it to her students. Ness was visibly shocked at this question, and couldn’t believe that the film had an M-rating. He said, “it’s not like there were willies showing”.

Another young woman from the audience asked Ness how he felt about killing off main characters in stories. Ness said he felt great. The young woman said that she had played around with almost killing off main characters to which Ness replied “Almost doesn’t mean shit, honey.” He advised the audience to write what you would want to read yourself. If you’re having the best time murdering people left, right and centre, as long as it’s on the page, go for it.

It was hard not to notice that everyone had been asking Ness the majority of the questions, so Andrews jumped in to answer one as a joke. He asked, “Can I pitch Moby Dick in space?” to which Ness replied that his next book is actually going to be narrated by a whale.

The conversation then turned to whether authors can write about anyone. Ness recollected a time he had pitched an idea where every secondary character was a woman – shopkeepers, police officers – and wondered whether anyone would notice. He recommended not asking permission when it came to increasing diversity in your books. Andrews then interjected by singing, “White guys, we’re a bunch of white guys, talking about…” Andrews did go on to make some interesting points however about the make up of bestselling authors generally, and how that leads to certain kinds of characters being overrepresented and questions about who has access to storytelling.

He came back to the question of whether anyone can write about anyone. He said that there is no recipe for when it’s right. You can’t legislate because there is no clear answer except that you need fewer dudes, fewer white guys and fewer hetero people writing stories. Andrews concluded that one of the problems is that the financial backers are so risk adverse. Clearly black superheroes and women superheroes are successful, but there needs to be more diverse executives to invest.

This was really a brilliant event and I’m so, so glad I made the effort to trek across Sydney to see it. The icing on the cake was getting my book signed. The line was absolutely enormous, and I have to say I was amazed that some people had stacks of up to six books to get signed. When I finally made it to the front of the line, Ness was so delighted to sign a book for someone called Angharad. He asked me whether I had read his trilogy yet (which I haven’t), and he told me that he has a character called Angharad who is – wait for it – a talking horse. Now, I get a lot of books signed with the vague hopes that someone will name a character after me, but I have never had an author tell me that they already had written a book with my name in it.

I didn’t want to take up too much of his time, but I did quickly take the opportunity to let Ness know that I wished someone had been writing books like his when I was a teenager. He leaned in and said he did too – that’s why he writes them.

 

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Festival Muse

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This long weekend just past had a lot of things going on in Canberra, but one of the most exciting was the second annual Festival Muse. Muse is several things: bookshop, cafe, restaurant and wine bar but it is especially a venue for fantastic literary events. The schedule was jam-packed over four days and I managed to get along to two very interesting talks.

Turn Me On – Festival Opening

The opening event was at 6pm on Friday 9 March 2018. I had just finished a very long week at work, and so I very pleased to be ushered in with a glass of wine so I could take a seat and watch some intellectual weightlifting.

There were five speakers at this event from a broad range of backgrounds, experiences and beliefs and each gave a short monologue about what kick-started their engines and got them passionate about their chosen fields.

The first speaker was Michael Brissenden, ABC journalist and author, who is one of those rare people who actually grew up in Canberra in the 1960s. The Canberra nightlife wasn’t then what it is now, and people had to make their own fun. He described the house party culture as one of “cheerful desperation” – full of politicians and poetry, drunks and musicians. Brissenden read from his father’s book of ballads about Canberra, “Gough and Johnny Were Lovers“.

Next was Zoya Patel, editor of Feminartsy (a magazine I contribute to) and soon to be published author. While acknowledging the special kind of “affluent, privileged political echo chamber that is Canberra”, Patel nevertheless found plenty of opportunities while growing up to “keep the pilot light of her feminism burning”. Growing up in an Indian-Fijian household, Patel was an early adopter of feminism and began writing from a young age. When she became an editor for Lip Magazine, she witnessed the onslaught and impact of internet trolls against her writers first hand. Patel said that feminism is not about the individual but about the sisterhood and this experience motivated her to lift up her writers’ voices even more.

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The third speaker was not a writer, but conductor and musical director Roland Peelman. Peelman acknowledged early that he is a musician, a job of “no great political feat or activitism”. Rather, the is more interested in how music can bring people together with their hearts beating at the same pace. Peelman was born in Belgium, and reflected on the differences in politics between his native home and adopted home. He reflected that in politics, despite what people may think, compromise is not disfunctional and messy can be functional because an untidy government means making room for minorities. Coming back to his music, Peelman said that traditional formulas of economic rationalism do not necessarily apply even though he has encountered plenty of skepticism about how his organisations would remain sustainable. Art isn’t about satisfying shareholders, it has different objectives, and Peelman finished on the note that music is about building community.

The next speaker was neither writer nor musician, but local politician Elizabeth Lee MLA. Lee began by saying that even if her political beliefs are different, she still felt like she has lots in common with the other speakers. She drew parallels with Patel’s experiences and said that in her family, a Korean family with three daughters, her dad was the original feminist. Lee said that he would tell her that as the oldest, she was the needle and her sisters were the thread and where she goes her sisters will follow. After progressing in her legal career in both private practice and as a lecturer, Lee decided to follow her passions of organising people and getting people involved and run for the ACT Legislative Assembly. Lee has also experienced her fair share of sexist and racist online trolling, however has found that her firm responses have been a source of inspiration for young Asian women.

The final speaker for the evening was ACT Marriage Equality campaign director, Jacob White. He opened with a question: why are people into politics? For White, he was born into it. As the middle child with two sisters either side, he was born to be an agitator. He was also inspired by his Nanna and her disability advocacy for her daughter, White’s aunty. Although raised among political attitudes limited to “Paul Keating is an arrogant prick, John Howard is a weirdo and Mark Latham is a psychopath”, from an early age White was writing letters to his local council complaining about lantana in his cubby house. Using that gumption as a springboard, he eventually found himself leading the charge for marriage equality in Canberra.

After such a diverse array of speakers, the formal part of the event closed and Muse opened the restaurant area up with drinks and canapes. It was a great evening with plenty of opportunity for me to pursue one of my favourite hobbies: telling strangers what books they should be reading.

The Burning Issues of Now

Like a little bookend, the second event I went to was on Monday 13 March – the other side of the festival. Three panelists, journalist Gabrielle Chan, writer Siv Parker and reporter, presenter and broadcaster Dan Bouchier settled in for a robust discussion on what is going to be the next “big issue” in Australia now the marriage equality campaign is done and dusted.

Now, I must admit here that I was so captivated by the discussion that I actually didn’t take especially good notes, but on top of the list for Parker’s burning issues was the treatment of Aboriginal women. Parker reflected on her own upbringing as an Aboriginal woman in black-soil country in north-western New South Wales and Bouchier compared his own experiences in Tenant Creek, Northern Territory – “the Red Centre”. Parker explained that during her professional life working around the country, one constant that she has seen among Aboriginal women from all backgrounds is that they feel like they don’t have the opportunities to do what they want to do with their lives.

One of the biggest issues standing in their way is domestic and family violence, which Aboriginal women experience and even die from at far higher rates than other Australian women. Family violence has unavoidable spill-on effects on children’s outcomes as well. The panelists turned then to two issues that have been flooding the media: Aboriginal kids in youth detention and Aboriginal kids in care.

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Bouchier talked about the reaction to the terrible crime that happened in Tenant Creek recently, and the erroneous conflation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being in out of home care at 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children and the Stolen Generation. Parker explained that where the Stolen Generation was the result of a racist policy designed to make a generation of servants, the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in care is an issue tied to trauma and disadvantage.

Bouchier noted the reluctance of governments and media to explore these issues deeply due to a fear of not being politically correct. Chan said that as a journalist following the schedules of politicians, having to get across and report on multiple issues in a day with only limited opportunities to get a question in, it’s very difficult to report on issues in very great detail. The panelists talked about the many, many Royal Commissions that are supposed to investigate these issues in depth, but that even those get manipulated and the recommendations which are handed down can be ignored for decades.

The panelists then turned to last year’s historic Uluru Statement From the Heart, which, despite being a statement achieved from a convention of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from around the country, was dismissed by the Government. However, despite it not turning out to be the magic solution, the panelists were hopeful that this is not the end and that the Uluru Statement feels more like a strong beginning.

Both Turn Me On and The Burning Issues of Now were great, thought-provoking events with engaged, diverse speakers. Even though it’s only been a day, I can’t wait to see what Festival Muse 2019 brings.

If you want another perspective, check out Whispering Gums‘ post.

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