Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2009

Melbourne Writers’ Festival #1

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival kicked off yesterday with the keynote speaker Bernard Schlink and the presentation for The Age Book of the Year which was awarded to Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam – but of course I was at work so I had to wait for the weekend…

My first session was Spotlight on Andrea Goldsmith, and it was excellent.  Michael Williams from the Centre for Books, Writing & Ideas is a skilled interviewer, teasing out all sorts of interesting snippets from one of Melbourne’s best-loved writers.  (She was short-listed for the Miles Franklin for The Prosperous Thief).  Andrea talked about themes of betrayal, obsession, delusion and guilt in her new novel Reunion, which like her other novels is a novel of ideas, driven by characters with rich personalities.  She’s a generous speaker, sharing ideas about the craft of writing in ways that a would-be novelist like myself can really appreciate.  It’s always a pleasure to hear her speak.  This was a great start to my day.

Kate Grenville and Ann Michaels spoke next, at a session called Oranges are the Only Fruit, a reference to the fact that they had both won the Orange Prize.  The Lieutenant is Grenville’s follow-up to The Secret River and she talked with her trademark passion and honesty about the painful business of writing it – 30 drafts!  No wonder she is one of Australia’s finest authors, and yet she is acutely aware of the peril in writing a book – not just the fear of a failure of imagination, or an inability to see all possible answers to the questions raised by the novel, but also because each novel teaches the writer a new mode of enquiry, so that despite her experience she is always a beginner.   Anne Michaels – whose The Winter Vault sounds like an intriguing novel written around the rescue of the great temple at Abu Simbel when the Aswan Dam was being built in Egypt – reminded us that some questions remain unanswerable.  The novelist must resist the human tendency to want to solve problems when it’s not right.  It’s important to respect the complexity of what we write about.

It was in this session that I became conscious of the BMW Edge as a venue.   I was perched up at the top of the steps, looking through a crazy lacework of metal triangles onto the Yarra.  There were rowboats trickling along, cyclists meandering along the bike path, sunlight sparkling on the river and gulls arcing across the vista.  Palms framed the boat sheds, dwarfed by the pale bark and grey-green foliage of massive gums rising high above the canopy.  This tracery of green and the spray of leafless winter exotics  moving idly in the sunshine brought the outdoors inside, with our ferris-wheel oddly incongruous on the periphery.   Later on, in a somewhat disappointing Elizabeth Jolley lecture (too academic, too focussed on a Jolley none of us recognised from her writing) I was struck by how ordinary this room is from lower down the steps where you can’t see the river and are more aware of wood and metal confining the view. 

Flaws in the GlassBetween sessions I checked out the Readings Festival Bookshop and the book stalls, and found a first edition of Patrick White’s Flaws in the Glass for a song.  I wandered up to Readers Feast and found a lovely illustrated edition of Greek myths to read to the children at school, and a copy of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller which I have been hunting for ever since I read Matt Todd’s seductive review.  I started reading this in a coffee shop in the Block Arcade before meeting up with The Spouse at the Capitol Theatre for Big Ideas: Does the End Justify the Means.  This was a fascinating session, where Julian Burnside interviewed David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency expert responsible for a revised and apparently more humane strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The MWF promo made this sound like a Boys Own Adventure session but it was a sober and intelligent discussion about the importance of western democratic nations behaving ethically if they want to defeat terrorism.  The crucial advantage that democratic governments have is that they have legitimacy, and the rule of law, and these important fundamentals should not be set aside in the quest to overcome barbarism. 

A quick risotto at Young and Jackson’s, and we were back for Antony Beevor talking about his book D-Day: The Battle For Normandy with Finance Minister and Member for Melbourne Lindsay Tanner.  We have most of Beevor’s books here Chez Tim & Lisa,  and this is one I must read when I finish The Battle for Spain.  (I have a fair way to go –  Beevor’s books are all hefty tomes, though very readable.) 

BTW All links are to Readings Book Shop because they are major sponsors of the MWF and they deserve your custom!


  1. Thanks for this Lisa – I was thinking of you yesterday. Sounds like I should be glad I didn’t fly down especially for the Jolley lecture. Who was the Jolley that he described? I guess it’s in his bio. I have a cheap (but not first ed) copy of Flaws in the glass next to me right now – picked it up in the last year or so at a local independent store that always has a very tempting remainders table. It’s been the First Person book on Radio National as you probably know and so I had dragged it out to be by my side. Anyhow, enjoy today.


  2. I remember when the Myer Melbourne Bookstore used to sponsor the MWF — I was a part-time staffer and had to work on the stand. This was the early 1990s, and the festival wasn’t particularly big.


  3. In relation to the Burnside/Kilcullen debate
    I thought this was a complete sell-out on Burnside’s part as he persisted with hypotheticals on killing a single figure head in AlQaeda, completely sidestepping the ethics of killing 1000s of civilians in the collateral fall-out. Iwas also hoping for some debate over the morality and justification for trying to impose a western style political and economic system on cultures where this is completely foriegn. Disappointing session from that respect


    • Hi Sam, thanks for commenting:)
      Well, they sidestepped the whole issue of the morality of the invasion in the first place, as well as the resulting civil war. However, I wasn’t disappointed by that because – let’s face it – we’ve heard all that before. Before and in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, there was extensive coverage of the principles of a just war in the mainstream media (i.e. Radio National, the ABC, The Australian and The Age, and elsewhere as well e.g. 3CR). What’s more, Howard & Bush are gone, and their replacements never approved of the war in the first place. So I thought this was a good session in terms of where-to-from-here, and it tackled the usually B&W issue of ‘negotiating with terrorists’ both from an ethical and practical POV. What I *would* like to see is ongoing intelligent and respectful discussion about these issues in the media and the parliament…and not just at writers’ festivals!


  4. Hehe, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been called seductive. I like it.


  5. Surely not, Matt?


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