Words. In Sydney

Yes, this past weekend was indeed my annual trip north to join my friend, M for three days at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Notice I’m acquiescing to using the official title with that rogue apostrophe? I don’t feel the need to revisit that whole writers/writers’ debate right now. I have faced my demons and I am now, in fact, apostrophicly-chilled.

I did however, have a chuckle at the official slogan for the Festival, which was displayed on projected screens at the start of each session. “Words. To live by” was obviously written by a copywriter with my sense of punctuation humour.

It wasn’t raining this year for a change. My talents as a drought-breaker are waning. In fact, each day at Walsh Bay was glorious and I was cursing the fact I had left my sunglasses at home in Melbourne. M and I scoured her car for any of her daughter’s glasses that may have been lurking there, but to no avail.

Blue sky!


There was a little time between some of our sessions to soak up the sun with lunch or coffee and a glance at the Sydney Morning Herald, but most importantly for M and me to catch up on each other’s news.

Some highlights from the Festival itself:

We got ourselves into the Club Stage early on Friday evening in order to snare some seats for “Thank God It’s Friday” with Richard Glover. Apparently this show is a ABC Radio Sydney institution. Getting in there early allowed us to catch the end of Richard Fidler in conversation with Daniel Swift, an author whose book (Bomber Country) tracks his search to discover what happened to his grandfather (a World War II bomber pilot) when he disappeared in a night raid over Germany. It sounded fascinating. Anyway, back to the main attraction… we got our seats and prepared for “Thank God It’s Friday”. It is a weekly irreverent panel comedy show and this special Festival edition with a literary theme went live to air from the Club Stage with guests Tim Ross, Libby Gorr and Richard Fidler.  Lots of laughs and very enjoyable.

Leslie Cannold’s novel, The Book of Rachel tells the story of Rachel, an imagined sister of Jesus. We went to a session with Cannold ‘in conversation’ and were intrigued by her explanation of how she attempted in this novel to tell the women of Nazareth’s story, and had to constantly steer herself away from the men’s story which is, unlike the women’s, already well-documented. It was quite obvious that many in the audience (like M and me) had not already read the novel…but were becoming more and more likely to do so as Cannold described it. So it was extremely annoying that the chairperson of the session seemed determined to spoil the plot, despite protestations from both the audience and Cannold herself. Once could have been forgivable, but she went on several more times to try to give bits away. Grrrrr.

M and I usually start each day with a plan of the sessions we’ll attend (some are ticketed prior, some are free and you just have to queue). On Saturday afternoon, we had planned to finish up with a session about how writing couples manage to live and work together, but we decided to ditch that one and just choose another at the same timeslot – preferably the most random one we could find. Thus, we ended up in a session entitled Cassandra Clare’s Underworld, along with an audience about 50 percent comprised of teenage girls. Clare is an author of a series of contemporary vampire books for young adults – The Mortal Instruments series, plus its prequel The Infernal Devices series.

When an author starts a session describing how another author (Holly Black of Spiderwick Chronicles fame) owed her a favour, after Clare had helped out with some research, and that research involved Clare driving around for several hours in Black’s car, with Black concealed in the boot of the car, you suspect it is going to be an entertaining session.  And it was.

Especially interesting were the questions the young fans asked. As older readers, I think we sometimes forget how invested in and connected younger readers can become with the characters in the books they love.

One of the sellout sessions we went to featured A.C Grayling, who is a favourite with writers festival audiences. He is a Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and has written and edited over twenty books on philosophy and other subjects. He is also a columnist with several newspapers and magazines.  Which, at first glance, all sounds a little dry. He is anything but.

His latest publication, The Good Book was thirty years in the making, and “draws on the wisdom of 2,500 years of contemplative non-religious writing on all that it means to be human – from the origins of the universe to small matters of courtesy and kindness in everyday life”.  To communicate what he came up with, he modelled the format on the King James version of the Bible.

The Good Book sounded fascinating, and if it was not for the fact I have a pile of unread books by my bedside that threatens to fall and crush me in my sleep, I would definitely have bought a copy.  I think it is destined to be a classic, so at least I can buy a copy later and say, “I was there to hear A.C.Grayling talk about this book when it was first released.”

I’ll especially remember his story about how, as a philosophy professor, taxi drivers are always challenging him with, “So, guv…what’s the meaning of life then?” To which he replies, with certainty, “The meaning of life…is what we make it.”

To finish up on the Sunday afternoon we chose a light-hearted session – The Curious World of Dr Karl. Karl Kruszelnicki has degrees in physics and maths, biomedical engineering, medicine and surgery and has worked as a physicist, tutor, film-maker, car mechanic, labourer, and as a medical doctor at the Children’s Hospital in Sydney. Now he is an author and media personality, spreading the word about science and its benefits in an easy-to-understand and humorous way.  As it says on his website, “his enthusiasm for science is totally infectious and no one is better able to convey the excitement and wonder of it all than Dr Karl Kruszelnicki”.

Dr Karl jumps from topic to topic communicating the facts and dispelling myths at a breakneck speed. The kids in the audience were hanging off his every word, and many of them were busting their guts to ask questions at the end.

And then sadly, it was time for me to wing my way back to cold Melbourne. Another writers festival over.  Boo-hoo. I do like a Sydney Festival.

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