For the last few years, I’ve headed up to the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival to partake of some literary goodness. This is a festival for literary writing not genre writing with the exception of crime. I could bang on about how the lack of other genres is a serious omission, but that argument is becoming boring. The organisers want this festival to be what it is and on the whole I enjoy it. GenreCon up in Brisbane in October will fill the gap in that area.
Every year I discover a writer I either didn’t know about or had only a vague knowledge of. One year it was Karen Hitchcock with her wonderful short stories, another year it was Jesse Blackadder with her historical novel. She’s also published what sounds like a fascinating novel on Antarctica.
This year there were three standouts for me.
Cate Kennedy comes across as a warm, normal (which is always a treat) and wonderfully insightful writer who crafts beautiful short stories. She lives on a farm in rural Victoria and has written novels but is more known for short stories. Her description of her writing process and view of the world, plus the extract she read, made me purchase her collection Like a House on Fire immediately. Dipping into the first story was a joy but had to be postponed because of other reading priorities. More later.
MJ Hyland is an all together different type of writer. Intense, vaguely neurotic, black-black hair, red-red lipstick, heavy black eyeliner, she crouched in on herself like someone wanting a dark cave instead of the light of Byron Bay. And indeed that’s exactly what she said. She writes about what can happen in a cave. No mobile phones or modern conveniences. I bought her novel This is How set in the early 1960s and started reading. The feeling of menace and claustrophobia grabbed me in an instant.
Glenn Carle is a New England Yankee and ex-spy (or is he?) I didn’t expect much from his presentation but found myself absolutely enthralled. For an spy he’s a great storyteller. His book The Interrogator: An Education outlines what happened when he doubted the project he was called upon to complete – the interrogation of a high level al-Qa’ida operative using any means necessary, including torture. I found myself seeing William H Macy play him in the movie.
There was much discussion in my group of friends about whether his book and what clearly is now a career on the writers’ festival circuit, was just another CIA plot. Is his whole current persona just a device to reassure the liberal intelligentsia that the American intelligence apparatus permits dissent? Don’t know, but it ads spice to the mix.
There were other highlights; Anne Summers and George Megalogenis which resulted in some heckling from the audience; Jennifer Mills talking beautifully about woodwork and writing and MJ Akbar on why Australia is obsessed with China and is missing out on a worthwhile relationship with India.
The weather was gorgeous, the size and pace of the whole event manageable (unlike the Sydney Writers’ Festival) and the choice excellent. Let’s hope it’ll be the same next year.