A weekend at Sydney Writers’ Festival

This year the theme of Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015 was ‘How to Live?’. Over two days, I heard many writers speak about their work and toss about ideas that help us make sense of the world.

A weekend at Sydney Writers Festival: www.feetonforeignlands.com

The last week of May seems to come around quicker and quicker each year. Can it really be 12 months since I was last in Sydney with my gorgeous friend, M at the 2014 Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF)?

Attending SWF with M is one of my annual highlights (you can see all the previous years’ reports here) and this year did not disappoint. Plus, once again the folks at Vivid Sydney Festival very thoughtfully scheduled the start of that two week festival of light, music and ideas to coincide with my weekend north. I’ll be posting specifically about Vivid Sydney later this week, so check back then to be dazzled by the illuminations.

Once again, M and I stayed at Pier One Sydney Harbour, which is the closest hotel to the Walsh Bay precinct where most of the Writers’ Festival events are held.  The lobby, restaurant and bar area have undergone a bit of a renovation since we stayed last. And it’s still a great place to be a literary groupie, and spot the famous writer over the breakfast buffet. I assisted one gentleman with the intricacies of the coffee machine, only to see him up on stage at a session we attended later that day.

And of course, the best part of the weekend is the chance to catch up with an (almost) lifelong friend at length. There’s lots of time spent waiting in queues to get into sessions, and we were able to use that time to discuss our lives in depth (plus mess about taking some queue-selfies with our iPhones).

Anyway, back to the Festival itself. What were some of the highlight sessions?

Co-Conspirators: Helen Razer and Bernard Keane talking about their book, A Short History of Stupid

A weekend at Sydney Writers Festival: www.feetonforeignlands.com

This session (which focused on the book A Short History of Stupid, co-authored by Helen Razer and Bernard Keane) was chaired by Benjamin Law, who we’ve now seen in several sessions and always proves himself to be extremely capable, intelligent and entertaining. He guided a discussion of the concept of ‘stupid’ – what stupid is, where it comes from, and the impact it is having on serious public debate. Razer and Keane had particularly interesting things to say about the role of media (both mainstream and alternative forms) in informing debate and opinion, and posited the view that proximity and availability of knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to an understanding of that knowledge, contributing to the rise of stupid.  Possibly the most memorable line from the session was Helen Razer quoting an old Italian proverb, “the mother of idiots is always pregnant” (in Italian: La madre dei cretini é sempre incinta).

Imagined Futures

A weekend at Sydney Writers Festival: www.feetonforeignlands.com

Four novelists who have all pushed the boundaries of the imagined future in their works: Emily St John Mandel (Station 11), Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City), James Bradley (Clade) and David Mitchell (The Bone Clocks) discussed their fictional futures. And their futures did not seem all that pretty. A pandemic flu, the fog of amnesiac displacement in a post 9/11 New York City, a peak oil crisis, climate change… These writers discussed how their fiction is shaped and influenced by the anxieties of today.

This session was one of several that were part of a digital live-streamed project taking Festival sessions to ten regional centres (arts centres, libraries and writers’ groups) across NSW, as well as Parramatta Library. Audiences at the regional events had the opportunity to send questions through via tweet and text message.

Give me back my pre-Internet brain

A weekend at Sydney Writers Festival: www.feetonforeignlands.com

I often hanker after the days when I had a pre-Internet brain, as opposed to my current mind which usually feels like I have a hundred browser tabs open all at once. So I was really looking forward to this session.

Cultural critic Douglas Coupland (Earthquakes), Booker Prize winning novelist Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) and cognitive scientist Sally Andrews (From Inkmarks to Ideas) spoke with facilitator Adam Spencer about the effect the internet and current technologies have had on the way we work, the way we read and the way we socialise.

An interesting point raised by Sally Andrews was that studies show that handwritten information is remembered more easily that typed notes. I’m passing that gem onto all the Year 12 students I know.

And I thought Douglas Coupland hit the nail right on the head when he described the use of highlighter pens to annotate notes as indicating, “This is what I’m never going to look at again.”

Richard Flanagan suggested that English prose style has changed more in the last 10 years that in the previous 100 and that we are living in a hyper-literate age. Everyone is texting, emailing, updating social media etc…so we are communicating through written rather than verbal language at greater rates and frequency than ever before.

In an aside close to my heart, Douglas Coupland stated that some of the best writing nowadays can be found in the 1-star reviews of hotels on TripAdvisor. Restrained by TripAdvisor’s policies against profanity, reviewers find creative ways to express their extreme displeasure and pent-up emotion about that hotel experience!

The Golden Age of Television

I was oblivious to it, but apparently television is experiencing a new golden age. And that is exactly what this session was about. Debra Oswald (Useful), Daniel Mendelsohn (Lost and An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic) and Shaun Micallef (Preincarnate) discussed whether quality TV drama has overtaken film and the novel in its ability to tell a story, and whether television is now a crucial element of our cultural literacy.  Fans of the Australian TV series, Offspring, will recognise Debra Oswald as the creator of that series, and she had some fascinating reflections on the rise of the power and celebrity of the screenwriter in recent times.

There was a very interesting discussion about why TV drama series always seem to falter in Season 3. Daniel Mendelsohn described it in terms of the natural narrative story arc of the drama and the need to manufacture ‘plottiness’ in Season 3 because the original arc has already met its conclusion. Sitcoms, on the other hand, can go on for many seasons because the characters and the scenarios reset at the end of each episode.

Benjamin Law was also facilitating this session and towards the end, asked each of the panelists to offer three suggestions of what we should be watching now. I thought Debra Oswald’s suggestions all sounded really interesting, so I’ll be adding Justified, Friday Night Lights and Transparent to my to-be-viewed list (which is almost as long as my to-be-read list).

A weekend at Sydney Writers Festival: www.feetonforeignlands.com
A queue for a paid event. Waiting for the doors to open.

The Happiness Dilemma

I’m a sucker for any session that contains the word ‘happiness’ in the title. I’m a bit fascinated by the process of the pursuit of happiness and by studies of life-satisfaction. In this session, professor of behavioural science Paul Dolan (Happiness by Design), writer Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive) and novelist Amanda Lohrey (A Short History of Richard Kline) discussed what happiness is all about.

I was particularly interested in Paul Dolan’s contributions to the session. He is an internationally renowned expert on happiness, behaviour and public policy and advises the US National Academy of Sciences on measurement issues in happiness research. In recent times, so many ‘happiness gurus’ have written books or websites based on nothing more than anecdotal evidence, so it was very refreshing to hear the views of someone who uses hard data in his research. His definition of happiness as being the optimal balance of pleasurable and purposeful experiences over time makes a lot of sense.  Some of us, he says, are pleasure machines, seeking out immediate gratification without any real purpose; others are so focused on purpose that we miss the pleasure along the way. The happiest people are the ones with a balance between the two.

Matt Haig also made a lot of sense when he said that the dangerous thing about focusing on the pursuit of happiness all the time is that it makes people feel unhappy. I’ve long suspected that the minute you’re asking yourself whether you’re happy, you’re probably not.

A weekend at Sydney Writers Festival: www.feetonforeignlands.com
Queues for the free events at 4.30pm on Saturday afternoon were huge. Luckily we had a paid event in that timeslot.

Dangerous Women

Why are we so fascinated by women who murder? That was the question explored in this session by three panelists who have all written about ‘dangerous women’: Kellinde Wrightson (The Notorious Frances Thwaites), Xanthé Mallett (Mothers who Murder) and Caroline Overington (Last Woman Hanged). 

Among the examples examined by Xanthé Mallett in her book is the case of Kathleen Folbigg who was found guilty of killing four of her children, even though there was a lack of any forensic evidence proving her guilt. Mallett and Overington hold quite differing views about this case, and Mallett quite diplomatically agreed to disagree with the very vocal Overington.

Overington vehemently expressed her outrage at the media suppression of details of various cases, arguing that the information belongs to public and exhorting the audience to “fight for it”.

The fine line between tragedy and farce

A weekend at Sydney Writers Festival: www.feetonforeignlands.com

Our final session for the weekend was on the fine line between absurdity and sincerity, and how humour can be used to make serious issues more accessible to the reader.  Debra Oswald (Useful),  JM Donellan (Killing Adonis) and Assaf Gavron (The Hilltop) discussed questions such as: How far is too far in dark humour? At what point does tragedy become funny? Does farce translate into another language easily?

Oswald’s Useful is a comedy that begins with a suicide attempt, JM Donellan’s Killing Adonis takes on corporate greed and corruption through a humorous lens, and Gavron’s The Hilltop paints a satirical picture of life in an Israeli settlement.

Some interesting aspects of the discussion included how Oswald undertook a two day course in asbestos removal as research for Useful (and is now qualified to removed non-friable asbestos); how Donellan set up a Twitter account as his novel’s protagonist Freya, and would play mental games of ‘what would Freya do/say?”; and how Gavron read JM Donellan’s book and didn’t realise until he received an email referring to ‘Josh’ Donellan that the author was male, not female.

All three novels sounded like entertaining stories with worthy subject matter, and they all feature on my TBR list below.

So what’s going onto my TBR pile tower?

In previous years, I’ve usually walked away from SWF with at least one new book (okay…sometimes a lot more than one). But this year, I resisted. I have a pile of TBR books that is seriously in danger of toppling during the night and crushing me in my sleep. And that’s before I include all the ones I have on Kindle, or queued in my TBR list on Goodreads. So I thought I’d ruminate on it for 24 hours or so, then add some that still took my fancy to my Goodreads list, and see if I ever get around to reading them. After reflecting on what I heard over the weekend, these are the titles that I’d like to one day get to:


Some may think it is a luxurious indulgence to take a couple of days from your life to think about nothing else but books, words and ideas for 48 hours, but to me it’s an annual necessity. It is so refreshing to set aside time to focus on thoughts and ideas that are bigger than the day-to-day, and the weekend always provides me with new insights or outlook on whatever projects I may be working on at the time (plus numerous additions to the TBR and TBV lists!)

But of course, half the fun is having a great partner-in-crime for the experience. Someone you can think out loud with, and mull over the previous session. Thanks for being such an excellent festival companion, M!

And my advice for anyone wanting to make a special trip to one of the world’s great Writers’ Festivals? I can certainly vouch for Sydney. The Sydney Writers’ Festival is pretty special – great content in a stunning location, with a fabulous festival atmosphere.


Are you a fan of Writers’ Festivals? Are there any where you live?


Disclosure…in most cases, I’ve added the most recent book by the writers mentioned, in bracketed italics after their name. These are afflilate links to bookdepository.com. Click through to the SWF website for bios on each of the writers and/or more information about each session. 


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