The Boobs That Came Too Soon: An Account of the Melbourne Writers Festival

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In late August the Melbourne Writers Festival cranked up again, celebrating its 25th anniversary. There were ten days of scheduled programming, most events jostled tight into two weekends. The official maxim of the festival this year was to ‘Expect the Unexpected’ and silly as that aphorism is, it also proved true. Below is my account of some sessions I attended, which included talks with Bret Easton Ellis, China Miéville and DBC Pierre, a gala event with Joss Whedon, a poetry reading by Les Murray and a Skype link-up with Neil Gaiman.

*** This entire piece pays homage to Rozalia Jovanovic’s Subjective Accounts.***

Peter Beinart

FRIDAY, AUGUST 27, 2010 1:00pm – Peter Beinart After a morning of hearing some local Australian writers read from new works and then others discuss how to twist history into fiction, it felt time for some American flavor. Peter Beinart was here to promote his latest book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. I heard him before I saw him – brash and barking, but it was zeal behind his bite, not aggression. An ardent Zionist, he described the arrogance of Washington on the eve of all its wars. “The problem is bad analogizing,” he said. Both the political and literary types in the audience nodded. Ten minutes from the end, Beinart stopped mid-sentence, the microphone hovering in no-mans-land between mouth and lap. “Are you okay, sir?” he said. Everyone craned to glimpse the elderly gentleman who had fallen out his seat into the aisle. The interviewer immediately called a halt to the event, thanked Beinart for his time. The audience applauded and the man on the ground, surrounded by kneeling family, didn’t move. 4:00pm – Happy Deathday Albert Camus It’s 50 years since Camus died in a car accident, so we crowded into a café to celebrate. His life and work, that is. Academics Justin and Jacqueline guided the conversation, which was hijacked several times by a woman solely interested in talking about the various translations of The Stranger, and a different woman with a winding French accent who strained to harangue everyone in her second tongue. 9:00pm – Joss Whedon The Melbourne Town Hall was cavernous and impersonal, though handsome to look at. Bookish types were elbowed out of the way by a costumed religious sect, here to worship at the feet of Joss Whedon. I never caught the fever myself, despite being the prime adolescent age when Buffy and Angel took hold. An argument broke out across aisles as to whether Firefly should’ve been axed. Females in heavy eyeshadow looked left and right, left and right. The guy next to me doesn’t blink. A woman nearby had a pair of crochet dolls of Buffy and Spike. Whedon talked Buffy: “The internet happened to sort of come up the same year as we did, and that worked out pretty well. Communities started forming and something started to exist that was bigger than the show, because the show was never very big. It was on a tiny network and it was watched by at most five million people which would not keep you alive for three weeks on a major network.” Someone asked him how it feels to be God. “Well, when I made the mountains, I thought ‘they’re good’. But I don’t believe in me, which is actually awkward.”

DBC Pierre

SATURDAY, AUGUST 28, 2010 10:00am – DBC Pierre “Thanks for coming out of a morning,” said 2003 Man Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre. “We were kinda half-expecting there would only be enough of us to round up a small group and go to the pub.” Hoping, maybe. Anyhow, he brought the pub with him – specifically a bottle of red wine, of which he was already a couple of glasses into, sharing with the interviewer. It was the same red wine that appears in his latest book, Lights Out in Wonderland. Pierre is notorious for his hedonism, and being allotted the first morning slot didn’t dampen his spirits. His voice was more croak than anything. “We’re in a curious period where ideologies have gone…the Concord’s gone, all the icons of progress are gone, and society has decided it’s a good time to have a drink.” He divulged that his three books form a loose trilogy that focus on three themes: mass media, widespread migration, and free market capitalism. “I wanted them to be a very dark snapshot of the first decade of a new millennium.” And apparently everything that occurs in his newest novel is true – that is, he experienced it first or second hand. Seizing Templehof Airport in Berlin for a secret party. The recipes for panda wrists, koala legs, and tiger cubs. Drinking perfume when no alcohol can be found. “I’ve brought a little bit along.” Pierre pulled a vial of perfume from his jacket pocket. “This is a perfume from 1889. It was the very first perfume to have three notes of flavor.” He dabbed pre-cut swabs and passed them around the audience. “It starts with a high citrus note, and across twenty minutes or so, it sinks down to a vanilla base.” I was in the back row, and held the swab to my nose for a few minutes. It’s heady. “We’re in a curious limbo between ages, and nobody’s talking much about it yet,” Pierre said. I slide the fragrant paper into my pocket. He smiled, teeth stained: “It’s a good time for the tortured artist.” 2:00pm – Interview with Emili Rosales (Yesterday I ran into an old school friend who now works at a publishing house. She told me she is looking after three international authors during the festival – shuttling them between hotels and events and interviews – and I asked without thinking if there is any chance I can interview one of them. Two hours later I received an email that says Emili Rosales will meet me after his event. I have no idea who Emili Rosales is. But by the time I slid into my front door last night, after a few sly beers with some slippery characters, his novel has been dropped into my letterbox. Speed. I spent approximately 24 minutes googling him – the majority of content is in not-English – and I read eight pages of his novel before falling asleep.) Rosales spoke with a heavy Catalan accent, wore thick glasses that enlarged his eyes, and was gracious. “I know Calvino and I read Calvino and I like very much Calvino,” he said. Here is the whole interview transcript.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2010 10:00am – Neil Gaiman The festival had been a bit sneaky, a bit cheeky. In the lead-up they’d promoted Neil Gaiman as an international guest, but he appeared via Skype video link up, and only for an hour. He talked graphic novels and illustrated stories with local artists Shaun Tan and Andrea Innocent, part of the mid-week schools’ program. The place was full of children, all ages, hundreds of them. They were excited. But shit, we’re had technical difficulties. Gaiman appeared, but couldn’t hear us. He disappeared. He appeared again, and we can’t hear him. He disappeared again. Forty minutes later they finally got him back. The tech crew blamed him: “He’s at a bloody farm in the middle of nowhere – how are we supposed to get a decent connection?” Gaiman relayed a different story via his Twitter account: “@neilhimself They ‘pulled the network plug accidentally’ at their end. I’m sort of unimpressed.” Gaiman made it back for audience questions. “I always think in pictures,” he said. But he never draws his own books, letting the artist have free roam. “Only once – for a book that hasn’t yet come out – have I actually sat there and drawn the book, and given it to an artist, which I felt terrible doing, but it was so much quicker than any way I could’ve described it.” Gaiman has a distinctive way of talking. He elongates some words, most often those that end with the letter t. And he pronounces these t’s stiffly, so that I’m hearing this: “…mostly I donnnnnn’teh, mostly there’s no poinnnnnteh…” A young boy asked him about Batman. Gaiman is off Batman for the moment, but is looking over his shoulder. “Approximately 24 years ago DC comics paid me a thousand dollars for a story in which Batman goes to the circus, it’s called ‘The Night Circus’, and the artist who was meant to do it then flaked out, so I’m still waiting the day that somebody at DC notices that I owe them a thousand dollars and come after me for their Batman comic.”

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 2010 2:30pm – Les Murray “You’re an ankle,” said Les Murray, twinkling. “That’s an insult. It means: two feet lower than a cunt. I learned that yesterday.” He spoke about music and poetry with August Kleinzahler and a couple of others, but wants to deviate from the set theme of the event. I have buckets of Murray’s poetry on my iPhone, the man himself reading the work. He is classic. A real corker. I’m not that flash with poetry, but this man, lauded as he is, creates simple-on-the-surface word-noises that insist on your attention. “They’ve turned music into muzak but not poetry into Prozac,” he said to the crowd, who tittered accordingly. The other panellists looked flummoxed by this great big heaving white man and his one-liners, but all knew not to interrupt him, especially on his home turf. Then he read a poem that he said is related to music. It’s called ‘Bat’s Ultrasound’.

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening’s a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah, eyrie-ire; aero hour, eh?
O’er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array
err, yaw, row wry—aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.

A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

Steve Toltz

4:00pm – Steve Toltz “When I was writing A Fraction of the Whole I would go to parties and try out lines I had written that day. Funny lines, sentences of philosophy, you name it. It was always instant dismissal – shut up Steve.” Steve Toltz, shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, is in conversation with Sleepers Publishing director Lou Swinn (one-half of the duo who discovered the currently-trending Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam). Toltz was gentle, softly-spoken, smiling. He pretty much sparkled. He could bite the head off a kitten and we would’ve all cooed. “I am guilty of laughing at my own work,” he said. “Doing violence to reality is the creative act.” I scribbled away like mad. Was everything Toltz said gospel, or was I just bewitched? I had been introduced to him earlier in the day, and so I asked him to sign two copies of his novel, Father’s Day gifts for both mine and my girlfriend’s dads. First time I’ve ever asked a writer to sign a book, and I was sheepish as all get-out. Then someone I knew gave me another copy of the book, a spare. Toltz spotted me with it, and came over and asked if I wanted that one signed too. What can you say to that? To Sam, Enjoy. Steve Toltz. But back to his magnetizing of the audience. “I’d never met a writer until my first appearance at a literary festival,” he said. Gosh, darn. “Oh, except for Kate Grenville. She plays oboe with my friend’s mum, and I met her.” Toltz lives in three cities – I’m not sure how – but he does: New York, Paris and Sydney. A real floater. “I’m an impatient person.” He can’t write in one place for more than two hours, but keeps on the move, from home to café to park to library. He looked at the ceiling, recognized that he is technically Australian, although this doesn’t mean much to him. And it’s irrelevant to most of the world. “Living in Australia is like living in a faraway bedroom in a large mansion. You can do what you want and no one will notice.” He did acknowledge his Jewish background though: “I’m Jewish, and when I was younger there were lots of jokes about money, and noses, and money falling out of noses.” The shininess faded, but was being replaced with sincerity and controversy. “The reason we have so many missing children is that we give such harsh treatment to people who like to fuck children.” He suggested leniency might in fact save lives. The humor was there, too: “Say what you say about the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, but we’re going to have a great Paralympic Games.” Toltz finished up with an anecdote about his grandma, who decided to write novels when she turned sixty and wrote nine manuscripts in the decade until she turned seventy. None were ever published. The one that sticks in his mind was about a twelve-year-old with huge breasts. It was titled, The Boobs That Came Too Soon.

China Miéville

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 2010 2:30pm – Frontiers of the Imagination with Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville “I wasn’t partial to the twenty minutes of bum sex, but that faster-than-light sequence was amazing,” said Miéville jokingly of envelope-pushing SF writer Samuel R. Delany. “He gives good spaceships.” China Miéville and Alastair Reynolds sat side-by-side and the science and speculative fiction fans came out in droves. Miéville was here last year and is a bit of an adopted hero around these parts. People love him; he seems to be a walking paradox. He’s charming, but looks like a Romper Stomper. He’s masculine in form and tone, but feminine in his movements. He writes speculative fiction, but isn’t a douchebag. Plus he has great big muscles, biceps like loaves of bread, something that many can’t seem to see past. A friend tweeted, “It wouldn’t be the Melbourne Writers Festival if everyone wasn’t talking about China Miéville’s guns.” A double negative, sure, but true. Together Reynolds and Miéville cited Enid Blyton as a first influence. (Every time I hear of Blyton I’m reminded of the fact that I thought she was a he for many years of my reading life. I’d never meet an Enid, and simply thought it sounded like a man’s name.) Both Brits gave props to H.P. Lovecraft as well. Miéville then warned of the opposite, the reads that can harm. Luckily bad SF novels can be spotted a mile away. “Punitive fantasy,” he called them. “Books that punish you for wanting to read fantasy as you read them.” Reynolds was asked of his background as an astronomy physicist. He doesn’t miss the work. “Being a science fiction author has opened far more doors for me in the scientific community than would ever open in my career as a scientist,” he said. “I’ve met the head of NASA, I’ve seen a spaceship take off.” According to Reynolds (and seconded by Miéville) the authority of the scientist has crumbled in the past couple of decades. “Scientists lied.” Miéville was asked an obscure question by an audience member who read a quote out of his exercise book. Amusing answer: “The problem with the internet is that you say something and no one ever forgets it,” Miéville said. He moves on to a discussion of genre, a term he shies away from. “’Literary fiction’ is a genre, but it’s a genre that has run a hugely successful marketing campaign to convince everyone that it’s not a genre.” The thing that separates science or speculative fiction is the inherent assumption all SF writers must take on board: “The impossible is true.” This lead on to talk of monsters. His latest book features a giant squid; previous novels have contained far weirder creatures. “I’ve always been interested in monsters and the fact that humans have always been a monster-creating species.”

Bret Easton Ellis

REWIND TWO WEEKS TO FRIDAY, AUGUST 13, 2010 7:30pm – Bret Easton Ellis appeared pre-festival (though part of the festival, somehow) He whipped himself a whirlpool of partiality did Bret Easton Ellis, throughout the country. How? By being a bit of a dickwad. It’s his thing, and it was mesmerizing. People who liked him now love him, people who hated him now like him. He was asked questions in interviews and gave completely unrelated answers. The best interview of his whole Australian tour was conducted by this guy with a hangover who didn’t know much of Ellis’ work, and admitted it. In this Melbourne Writers Festival event, Ellis admitted to feeling a bit down that his events are drying up. “Ennui. Kind of like a heavy sadness is settling down,” he says. “I’m getting a bit depressed. It’s that thing where you are in front of so many people and everyone is really so nice to you and you meet hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people at events and then, you’re alone.” The audience was hushed, muted. “John Mayer tweeted about this. He said: Rocked 30,000 in Denver! Alone in Denver hotel room. Then he tweetpic-ed a photo of a sandwich.”

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Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Sam Cooney is a writer of fiction and nonfiction pieces that have been published around and thereabouts. He also does some editing stuff, most recently with Sleepers Publishing, Overland lit journal, and Voiceworks magazine. He occasionally posts writing here. He lives in Melbourne, although is relocating to Berlin via the US and the UK. More from this author →