Interview: Chip Rolley, artistic director of Sydney Writers’ Festival

This year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (14-20 May) is the third to be programmed by artistic director Chip Rolley. He spoke to Andrea Hanke.

What do you think will be the highlights of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival?
It’s always difficult to pick favourites, especially in a festival that features over 400 participants in over 300 events. Judging by the early ticket sales, Edmund de Waal and Jeffrey Eugenides are runaway bestsellers. But others are knocking on the door.

What sessions or which authors do you think will attract the big crowds?
There’s a lot to choose from, but I think the largest crowds will be lining up for Jeff ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ Kinney, Jeanette Winterson and Jeffrey Eugenides. And then we’ve got Roddy Doyle together with Sebastian Barry and Tom Keneally. Of course Stella Rimington and Kathy Lette will pull in crowds. And there’s a lot of curiosity about Joe McGinniss and Michael Hastings.

What about your personal picks? Which authors are you most looking forward to hearing talk about their work?
I am really keen to hear Susan Swingler, whose memoir House of Fiction (Fremantle Press) lifts the lid on one of our literary legends Elizabeth Jolley. And I’m always attracted to the new voices—authors like Sjon from Iceland, Riikka Pulkkinen from Finland, Chad Harbach with The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate). And I’m keen to hear Jesmyn Ward, whose book Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury) is one of the most moving novels I have read in some time.

How did you decide on the theme for this year’s festival?
I’ll never forget when the ex-News of the World journo Paul McMullan told the UK Leveson Inquiry into the media, ‘Privacy is for paedos.’ The audacity of it: if you’re concerned about privacy, you must have something to hide. That crystallised for me the question of where we draw the line between public and private. The sense that that line is vanishing has been building for years. Not just because of UK scandal rags, or even the increased state security apparatus. But with social media we post things about ourselves that in previous times we might not have even told our loved ones. It seems to me it’s the question of our time—and it’s a question writers have been asking themselves for years. For us, it was a perfect way to give the festival itself a narrative.

Will you be doing anything different this time around? Any strategies for attracting younger crowds?
I learned a long time ago (back when I worked in magazines in New York) that the minute you start trying to attract younger crowds, you’ve lost the game. Smells like Teen Spirit. If we ensure our programming is driven by strong ideas, people of all ages—young, old and every age in between—will come to the events.

You’ve got a couple of pretty big-name authors in attendance (Jeffrey Eugenides, Jeff Kinney …). Any outrageous tour riders?
Are you referring to that rumour we have to buy a life-time supply of drawing paper and Textas in 36 colours? I’m contractually bound not to say anything about it.

BOOK REVIEW: A Cook’s Life (Stephanie Alexander, Lantern)

For many Australians, Stephanie Alexander is a household name synonymous with her bestselling foodie’s bible, The Cook’s Companion. In her long and distinguished career, she has been an outspoken champion of quality Australian produce and the value of good food in our lives. But we meet a much more private Alexander in her memoir. Growing up in Rosebud, where her parents ran a caravan park, Alexander’s childhood was shaped by her mother’s love of food and her father’s passion for books. Her parents were both incredibly hard workers, and this must have had some influence on Alexander’s own indefatigable spirit. It was her incredible drive and pace that saw Alexander, newlywed and also a new mother, open her first restaurant, Jamaica House. Eight years later she opened Stephanie’s Restaurant, which quickly established itself as one of Melbourne’s finest. Again, the breakneck speed with which she juggled motherhood, marriage and the all-consuming task of running the restaurant is testament to her energy and ambition. After 21 years, Stephanie’s closed but Alexander’s vision for new projects, columns and cookbooks, as well as her inspiring Kitchen Garden Foundation, show how dedicated she is to food in Australia. This is an engaging read for foodies and fans alike, and a perfect Mother’s Day gift.

Sarina Gale is a freelance writer and bookseller at the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: The Office: A Hardworking History (Gideon Haigh, Miegunyah Press)

We have had histories of salt, porcelain and even double-entry bookkeeping—so why not the office? It is an integral part of many people’s lives and yet we know so little about it. With the publication of this excellent book, that need no longer be the case. Tracing its history as far back as ancient Egypt (but concentrating on the 20th century), author Gideon Haigh presents a thorough and interesting account of the office over time. His approach is not merely a collection of facts but rather an attempt to understand the office’s impact on our culture and society, and vice versa. Haigh is an adept writer—clear, informative, perhaps not as lively as a Bill Bryson but certainly not dull.  His information is drawn from an astonishingly wide range of sources, including pop culture. The book is also peppered with photographs that increased both my understanding and enjoyment. This should do well in the nonfiction gift market and will appeal to readers of Mark Kurlansky and Bill Bryson.

Ian Hallett is a senior bookseller at Pages & Pages Booksellers in Mosman. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

Bestsellers this week

The books from Suzanne Collins’ ‘Hunger Games‘ series (Scholastic) dominate the charts once again, with Catching Fire still at the top of both the bestseller and highest new entries charts. The classic edition of the first book The Hunger Games is second on the bestseller chart followed by the classic adult edition of Mockingjay. The box-set of all three books, The Hunger Games Trilogy, is a new addition to the charts this week; it appears in 10th place on the bestsellers chart and fifth place on the highest new entries chart. Coinciding with the British-Irish boy band One Direction’s Australian tour, One Direction: The Official Annual: 2012 (HarperCollins) has hit the shelves and the book is in second place on the fastest movers chart. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (Arrow) is first on the fastest movers chart this week—Weekly Book Newsletter.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mothers’ Group (Fiona Higgins, A&U)

The Mothers’ Group provides enough ‘aha’ moments of recognition to make even the most sleep-deprived mum smile. And I should know: I read it while juggling my three-month-old daughter. This debut novel from Fiona Higgins (author of the memoir Love in the Age of Drought) covers the full spectrum of the parenting experience. It’s set in Sydney’s Northern Beaches and follows the lives of six very different mums who are thrown together in the same mothers’ group—insert conflict here. The book is divided into six sections, each detailing the life of one of the characters. There’s workaholic Ginie; Balinese immigrant Made; Suzie, a single mother; Pippa, who suffers postnatal depression; Cara, whose marriage is teetering on the brink; and Miranda, the unfortunate stepmum. Add to this themes such as the failure of Western society to support new parents, infidelity, substance abuse, birth deformities and more, and it’s beginning to sound like a depressing read. But this is no ‘misery mumoir’. The Mothers’ Group eschews what Higgins calls ‘the Eat, Pray, Love happy ending’ but still provides a hopeful (albeit unflinching) conclusion. This is sure to be popular with bookclubs.

Felicity McLean is a freelance writer and former book publicist. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

Interview: Felicity Higgins on ‘The Mothers’ Group’ (A&U)

Fiona Higgins’ debut novel The Mothers’ Group (published in excellent time for Mother’s Day) follows the lives of six very different mums in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. It covers some ‘dark territory’ but is no ‘misery mumoir’, writes reviewer Felicity McLean. She spoke to the author.

The Mothers’ Group is your first novel (following your memoir, Love in the Age of Drought). How did you find the shift to fiction?
Liberating. With Love in the Age of Drought, I was constrained by the truth. It was my life I was writing about—and if I didn’t tell the truth, a bunch of witnesses (including my husband) would be holding me accountable! The Mothers Group freed me up to explore themes about parenting and relationships in a really creative way, taking my ideas and storyline in almost any direction. It was such a different and satisfying experience. That said, I think the characters in the novel are all very real. In fact, it was as if this group of real people just came and plonked themselves inside my head while I was writing! And their issues are real: they’re striving so hard to be the mothers they want to be, yet so often they fail (in their own eyes, mostly) to achieve that goal. This is the experience of many mothers I know, including me.

You cover some dark territory in The Mothers’ Group, exploring issues such as infidelity, substance abuse and birth deformities. Was any of this content based in your own experiences of motherhood?
I’ve chosen to explore some of the hardest issues about mothering that people rarely talk about, that’s true. The thing about taboos is, you’ve got to give them a decent airing before you can start tackling them. But the novel is equally about love, friendship and commitment—all of which I’ve experienced intensely since becoming a mother myself. None of the content in the novel is a direct replication of my own experience of motherhood, but certainly there’s an aspect of myself in all the characters. So, for example, there’s quite a tough, brittle character in the novel called Ginie, who is almost diametrically opposed in temperament to a gentle and generous Balinese character called Made (pronounced Mar-day). Well, on a bad day in my household, I’m Ginie. On a good day, I’m Made. And I think this is the experience of many mothers—they have good days, bad days, and everything in between. The question is—can society, and can women themselves, be generous enough to accept this reality: the imperfection of the flawed mother?

Who do you see are readers for The Mothers’ Group? Fathers not just mothers? Women beyond just those with children?
While I think the book will appeal most directly to women and men who are parenting younger children, there’s plenty in it for anyone interested in human relationships and family dynamics—dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or women who are childless by choice or circumstance.

What was the last book you read and loved?
The Life
by Malcolm Knox. I was hospitalised at the time, just before Christmas, so had this unexpected window to read it. I’d picked it up before but had been daunted by its style. But this time, once I was in, I was hooked. The main character—a washed-up former champion surfer, living with his mum in a retirement village—was so poignant and compelling. I found the style and language utterly engaging and, living on Sydney’s northern beaches, I felt like I’d met a few of the characters. Once I was discharged from hospital, I went out and bought copies for surfer mates of mine.  And funnily enough, it’s a book where maternal power is brought to bear with devastating force. Once again, it’s all about mum!

BOOK REVIEW: 10 Futures (Michael Pryor, Woolshed Press)

Sam and Tara are best friends. Sam has an artistic bent and loves working with his hands, while Tara is passionate and driven by social justice. Across the 21st century and into the 22nd, these things are the only constants. These 10 short stories explore a range of possible futures, investigating social and technological possibilities ranging from the astonishing to the terrifying. Each future examines the implications of a potential development, from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering, global warming, cloning, financial collapse, life extension and more. Through the eyes of Tara and Sam, we experience 10 different scenarios for the next 100 years. Michael Pryor returns to the field of science-fiction to give us this collection of stories in the best tradition of futuristic speculation. Pryor combines his usual deft touch at characterisation with some well-informed futurism to produce an engaging range of stories. He explores ethical dilemmas that arise in worlds that we would consider utopias as well as much darker futures. The book is supported by an excellent selection of teacher resources aligned with the Australian Curriculum. This is a thought-provoking read for middle secondary students.

Heath Graham is an educator currently working at the State Library of Victoria.  This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

Andrew Wilkins: Literary awards – what are they good for?

As it’s been a while, regrettably, since Wilkins Farago published a book eligible for any of the state premiers’ awards, I don’t feel I have a vested interest in the future or otherwise of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, which were summarily axed this week by incoming Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman.

However, one is bound to feel regret at the passing of any government support for the literary arts, given how meagre that support is in the first place.

But politics and state premier egos aside (Stuart Glover has written a helpful background to the Queensland awards), what are such awards good for?

We have a lot of literary awards in this country. One hundred and thirty three, according to the last edition of Thorpe-Bowker’s Australian Literary Awards and Fellowships (2007). Everything from municipal poetry prizes to short story competitions. Some offer a book voucher or medal; others offer cash, ranging from enough to buy you lunch to enough to buy you a decent new car.

Apart from the big international awards like the Man Booker, local awards that actually stimulate people to go into a bookshop and buy the prize-winning book are actually few and far between. The Miles Franklin Award (the ‘longlist‘ for which was announced last week) has an impact. So too do the Children’s Book Council of Australia‘s Children’s Book of the Year Awards (the shortlists for which were released this week). Most others are scarcely noticed by the general public, and do little to sell books.

Do actual sales of books matter if an award ends up putting some money in the pocket of a deserving (and generally impoverished) writer? I think they do.

While a cash grant or an award may buy valuable time for the writer, and give them vital encouragement and validation, ultimately what will give someone a long-term career as a writer is a readership for their work. That’s people buying, reading and discussing their books.

As Heather Dyer of Fairfield Books observed in the July 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine

An award will help a book stand out, and it might penetrate the consciousness of the customer, but that in itself isn’t enough. A book still needs all, or some of: prominent shelf space, marketing, a ‘saleable’ author and endorsement from friends or a trusted bookseller.

Often, in the rush to bestow prestige on the recipient (and benefactor), administrators of literary awards can forget that giving out an award is only half the job; it also needs to be promoted. If an award falls to a writer and no-one notices, was it actually given?

This isn’t an argument for cutting awards, but more for funding them properly. $244,000 for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards sounds like a lot (not really when its divided between 14 winners), but think what could have been achieved if, alongside the prize money, an equal amount or more had been spent, with the involvement of publishers, booksellers and libraries, promoting the work of the prizewinners to the people who ultimately finance the award: Queensland’s taxpayers.

Books would have been sold and read in numbers, readerships created, communities stirred. (One could argue also that more marketing would have increased the Awards’ profile in the community, making them harder to axe.)

Actually, matters have improved since the days when, as a book publicist, both myself and an author heard through the grapevine a week after the announcement that they had won a Western Australian literary award. Some money is being directed towards marketing and I note that the current review of the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards is considering how to ‘maintain and enhance the prestige and authority of the awards’. Let’s hope the newly authoritative and prestigious NSW awards will take into account the importance of building an audience for the writer. That’s what will ensure they get publishing deals at home and overseas into the future.

Here, in no particular order, are just some of things that Australia’s literary award givers could consider doing to promote their prize winners. There are no particularly original ideas here, and some are already being employed by some awards already, but the point is to do things that develop readers, have long-term benefits and are properly resourced. I’m sure you’ll have your own ideas.

  • Author tours across the state or country
  • Wheel out the award judges for public talks, blogs and podcasts
  • Employment of a publicist to generate media interest in the award winners
  • Payment for prominent displays in bookshops (e.g. window displays)
  • Special promotional editions of the winning books to be sold at a special low price
  • Provision of stickers, bookmarks and shelf-talkers
  • Posters for display in bookshops, cafés, public transport and libraries
  • Advertising in local papers
  • Social media advertising
  • Travel, translation and promotion grants to assist with the promotion of the work overseas (this would help the development of an international audience for the authors’ work and amplify the work already being done by the under-resourced Australia Council)
  • Conditional marketing grants to publishers to encourage them to give the book another marketing push
  • Free sample ebook chapters
  • Order copies of the winning book(s) for every library in the local area/state/country
  • Pre-order copies of the author’s next book for every library in the local area/state/country

Finally, a thought on the funding for awards. Some Newman-applauding Queenslanders have helpfully suggested that if the literary community values such awards, it should finance them themselves. It’s actually the model followed by the two successful awards I mentioned at the top of this post: the CBCA awards and the Miles Franklin. After years of chasing transitory patronage and sponsorship, in the end the CBCA decided the only way to ensure its awards were sustainable was to set up a million dollar trust fund, which it built up painstakingly over many years. Of course, we owe our major literary award to the generosity and vision of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin herself. This point was obviously not lost on the founders of the new Stella Prize for women’s writing, who have been busy raising money for their award.

Andrew Wilkins is the director of independent publisher Wilkins Farago. This post first appeared on Wilkins Farago’s blog.

INTERVIEW: Tony Cavanaugh on ‘Promise’ (Hachette)

Tony Cavanaugh is a film and television writer who has just published his first crime novel, Promise (Hachette), a serial killer thriller set on the Sunshine Coast. He spoke to reviewer Ian Hallett. (See the book review here.)

Your novel switches between two narrators: Darian, a hard-bitten ex-homicide cop, and Winston, a depraved serial killer. How much research went into Winston’s character?
A lot; I had been studying the behavioural patterns and methodology of psychopathic violent repeat offenders for about 10 years before I wrote the book. This was for a TV series (that didn’t get made) and a film (that did). This work led me to develop a close working relationship with the then Chief Inspector of Homicide in Melbourne and with an FBI-trained criminal profiler who was with Homicide in Melbourne and now has his own business. Additionally I read quite a lot on the subject, most notably Without Conscience by Robert Hare (Guilford Publications). This research allowed me to understand the narcissistic and grandiose strains to these people’s characters; also the absolute lack of empathy to other people, especially their victims, the bragging and the belief that they are special and, finally the creepy ability to mimic other people’s emotions even though they cannot experience these emotions themselves. In writing Winston I assumed he was clever and had accessed this material so that he understood, on an intellectual level, how he operated.

Just reading Winston’s sections made me feel slightly soiled—he is such a vile character. What was your experience living inside his head, and how did you wash him out of yours at the end of each writing day?
Aside from the standard writer’s procrastination of vacuuming and cleaning up the kitchen on a far too regular basis, I had to have a lot of showers. Every time I finished a passage from Winston’s point of view I felt quite unclean. It was horrible. On the one hand I was happy with where I was going with him, on the other he was so creepy I felt tainted. Dirty. At times I worried that people would think I was a weirdo myself. Indeed a couple of the very first comments that came back to me from friends was that I must be sick. That bothered me and I have to confess that I did think about diluting Winston. But then I figured I had to stay true to his voice; it was my job to lay him down in all his nakedness.

I guess because of my background as a story editor with other scriptwriters and as a producer I was able to step back and analyse him as a character within the world of the book. In that respect I considered the most horrible criminal in modern culture: Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter. With Hitchcock’s great quote ‘The stronger the evil, the stronger the film’ in my mind, I set out to make Winston as compellingly awful as possible. Being able to analyse him in this regard, as a tool I suppose, made it easier for me to deal with him internally. Luckily he didn’t invade me when I slept and the showers worked.

This book has a very strong sense of place. What attracted you to the Sunshine Coast setting?
In terribly embarrassing and very poor circumstances I sped my car off a dirt road on the Noosa North Shore and into a tree. It was six in the morning and I had a bottle of vodka by my side. (Those days, I hasten to add, are well and truly behind me.) After I was escorted into the back of a paddy wagon I was driven to the Noosa police station. The middle-aged cop who was trying to get my blood alcohol reading (from a dodgy machine that wasn’t working) told me that he’d come up to Noosa from Victoria for the ‘cruisey’ lifestyle. It was at that moment that I just thought, what would happen if there was a really nasty serial killer on the Sunshine Coast? The police just aren’t equipped to handle that level of crime. They do drunks and sinking tourists in the surf, guys who grow a little weed, misdemeanours, that sort of thing. It was specifically that question which led me to expand my thinking about the Sunshine Coast. Full of tourists, itinerants, lots of little villages and vast tracts of land that are pretty much unexplored.

While this is your first novel, you have extensive experience in writing for film and television. How do you think this has influenced your writing style?
Writing for film and TV is so different because the script is not intended to be published. (At the end of a shoot you literally chuck them all in a bin.) Elegance of language, even grammar, isn’t really that important. One of the basic rules in film and TV writing is you ‘show’ don’t ‘tell’. Therefore you rely on basic action in the stage directions and let dialogue inform the characters. Another is that you can’t do an inner monologue or an internal conversation—I think that actually being aware that I was freed from these restrictions in the writing of the book was a huge influence and I tended to really go for it, with both characters. (I was, at the time, also reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (Picador), where the poetry of language is so overwhelmingly powerful.)

American screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that all great scripts are due to structure, structure and structure. That’s been a huge influence in my screenwriting and I was lucky enough to start out as a script editor in plotting meetings on The Sullivans in the late 70s where I learnt how to plot and then how to structure. As I was writing the book those lessons really came into play. At the same time, I had recently been toying with non-linear structure in some of the TV and film dramas I’d worked on. Avoiding the standard narrative of ‘what happens next should follow’. In that respect I went back in time to Darian’s past as a cop and as a detective to hopefully inform the present tense narrative of him hunting Winston.

The other really big influence comes also from Hitchcock who writes about the audience instinctively second-guessing where the story and characters are going. Being as unpredictable as possible in cutting to the next scene (in what you see on the screen) is really important and I sort of tried to follow that line with the way I’d enter a new chapter, knowing that the reader would be expecting a certain event or action to occur.

That said the most important thing I ever learnt about writing when I was first starting out on The Sullivans was: be clear and don’t be confusing. (The second most important thing was: don’t ever be boring. Kubrick’s great ‘rule’ on what makes a good film was that it had to be ‘interesting’.)

Were you inspired by any other crime writers while you were working on this novel?
Yes, absolutely. I re-read some Raymond Chandler and have been mightily impressed by the great works of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Robert Crais, James Lee Burke and Harlan Coben. American crime fiction, at the moment, is just so awesome. Each of these authors is so good at narrative, at the exploration of the darkness within the soul and, like Chandler, in using great wit.

BOOK REVIEW: Promise (Tony Cavanaugh, Hachette)

It was a pleasure to read this debut from Australian film and television writer and producer Tony Cavanaugh. Promise is a sharply written and well-plotted crime novel, with mostly clear characterisations and the occasional flash of wit and even wisdom. It also evokes an excellent sense of place, reminiscent of Peter Corris’ ‘Cliff Hardy’ novels. The story is set in and around Noosa and the Sunshine Coast where a serial killer is on the loose and hunting teenage girls. Ex-homicide cop Darian Richards has moved up from Victoria to seek a quiet life. This is obviously not to be. The novel switches between two narrators: our hard-bitten hero Darian, and Winnie, the serial killer. This device both steps up the pace and allows us to see into the minds of both characters. While Darian is clearly troubled, Winnie is simply depraved; his chapters are unsettling, disturbing, even revolting. Readers of Val McDermott’s ‘Tony Hill’ books will be familiar with these feelings. The best thing about this book is that it looks like there will be a second one.

Ian Hallett is a senior bookseller at Pages & Pages Booksellers in Mosman. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.