Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2011

Melbourne Writers’ Festival #4

Today was my last day at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival…

I went to a great panel session called ‘Switching to Fiction’, where all the featured authors – Leslie Cannold, Anna Funder, Christopher Kremmer and Malcolm Knox – were better known for writing non-fiction.

The chair, Geordie Williamson, began by asking all four why they had moved beyond ‘mere recitation of fact’ (which seemed to me to be a rather reductive view of non-fiction, but maybe I missed the context?):

Inhaling the Mahatma The Carpet Wars Christopher Kremmer was a foreign correspondent for the ABC and Fairfax, covering the turmoil in Asia as it makes the transition from tradition to modernity.  He has written travel and political non-fiction which includes The Carpet Wars (which I’ve read and enjoyed) and Inhaling the Mahatma (which I haven’t read yet).  He said that since 9/11 there has been an ‘explosion in commentary’ about The Other, but when non-fiction is all about The Other, you (the writer, the reader) are still The Other yourself.  He felt that ‘as a human being’ it was time to ‘look within to my own place’ and fiction seemed to fit his topic.

The ChaseThe impetus to write his new book, The Chasecame about because he stumbled across a bound set of old newspapers which featured his father who was an apprentice jockey.  Curiously, he didn’t buy these newspapers, but they preyed on his mind.  He realised, he said, that his whole life was about running away from his past and his father as a failed jockey.  His story grew from an interest in the intersection between the jockey’s story and the advent of dope-testing in the 1950s, a period which attracts him.  He wanted to ‘do something different’ with his writing, and to ‘grow‘.  He hopes he hasn’t disappointed his readers, but he has really enjoyed the challenge of writing fiction.  He also noted an interesting paradox: fiction can be viewed with hostility by those who’ve spent years researching the historical record, but the success of a novel is when it’s so convincing that people think it’s the real version.

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall Anna Funder is the acclaimed author of Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, a book which she said began as a novel.  However this was a book which had to be non-fiction because, she said, the unbelievable world of the Stasi could never have sounded credible as a novel – it was all too bizarre. (If you haven’t read this book, I can heartily recommend it.  It is essential in our modern world to understand how a preoccupation with surveillance, no matter how well-intentioned, ends up destroying a society from within).

Funder also felt a sense of wanting to honour the people she was writing about: to tell the story of their courage – on both sides of the Stasi regime.  She wanted it to be clear that these unbelievable people had actually existed.  (For me, the image of a room full of people trying to reassemble tonnes of shredded documents in an effort to find out what had happened to people who had disappeared, is the most poignant of these stories.  It seemed like such a futile hope, and yet there were people working on it day after day.)

All That I AmBut in Funder’s novel  All That I Am which traces events from the Weimar Republic to the present day, all the characters are dead already and everyone is ‘made up’.  (Though one of them is inspired by Ruth Blatt, a friend of my mother’s) .  Funder has used what she called ‘unknown shards of history’ which seem like they could have happened.   Interestingly she said that one of her characters was based on a man so truly awful that she had to tone him down in order to make him believable.  (This makes sense, would anyone ever have believed in Hitler as a character, if he hadn’t been the real evil that he was?)  I am looking forward to reading this novel very much.

What, No Baby?: Why Women are Losing Their Freedom to Mother, and How They Can Get it Back Dr Leslie Cannold is an author, ethicist, and commentator, best known for non-fiction activism which Geordie Williamson labelled ‘didactic’.  (Cannold rejected that label very promptly!) Her most recent non-fiction book was What, No Baby?: Why Women are Losing Their Freedom to Mother, and How They Can Get it Back but she says that her fiction topic ‘picked her’, triggered by an ABC/BBC doco about Joshua (Jesus) of Nazareth and his siblings…

The Book of RachaelShe’s always been interested in how the story of subject peoples can be told when all traces of it have been subsumed by the conquerors.  She was shocked, indignant and somehow insulted, when the documentary named the brothers of Joshua but made only fleeting references to his possible sister/s.  Her first instinct was to do the research that she thought the BBC should have done, but then realised that there was no way ever to know about his female antecedents because they were not considered important enough even to name.  Fiction was her only recourse, and The Book of Rachael  was the result.  (See my review).

On Obsession (Little Books on Big Themes)Malcolm Knox is a prolific author and an award-winning journalist.  He has written so many books that I don’t know where to begin with his oeuvre, but I like the look of On Obsession (Little Books on Big Themes).  He said that his experience with ghost-writing for very reticent subjects such as Bart Cummings had shown him how to use some of the tools of fiction to fill the gaps, but there were limits to that because an author can’t create an interior life for a subject.
The LifeTo write the story of his subject, the surfer Michael Peterson, Knox felt that he could expand on the mostly apocryphal stories on which the existing biography had been based, and so he wrote  The Life.   He wanted to be able to go into the ‘consciousness‘ and show the point-of-view of this man who had ‘flamed out with mental illness and drugs just before he became famous‘.  Like the others on the panel he had used a lot of real source material but he thinks most writers do that, and Leslie Cannold agreed that there’s a truth in human beings that you need to use, however you write and in whatever form you choose.

It was a fascinating session and a good one to end the festival on.  I was booked in to a session called ‘Fine Impressions’ at the State Library but it was a dead loss.  There were too many of us crowded round the display cabinets to see the exhibits and it was hard to hear the speaker.  I decided that I would come back later by myself so that I could see it properly, so I made my way home instead, finishing off The Map of Time in the train on the way.

So that’s it for 2011.  Now we look forward to the presentation of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards on Tuesday, and I’ll report on that in due course!


  1. Thanks for the terrific write-up Lisa. This one sounds especially interesting…

    (Oh, and what a pity you didn’t love READING BY MOONLIGHT — I thought it would be right up your alley. Just goes to show how subjective the experience of reading is, yes? I LOVED it….best thing I have read in years).



    • Hi Susan, it was a great sesssion – great guests, well chaired and a topic of interest to us all!
      Re RBM: I wanted to like it, I have three friends with breast cancer, but I found reading about the treatment quite harrowing. I think I’m in the tell-me-as-little-as-possible camp!


  2. Sounds really fascinating. Geordie Williamson would have made it a great discussion too, every time I have seen him have been really impressed


    • Actually, Becky, I thought the quality of panel chairs was first rate this year. I think it must be one of the most difficult things to do, to ask good questions that don’t flummox the panel but are also original and stimulating, and if it’s a big panel, to keep the conversation flowing amongst all the participants.


  3. This session is one that I would have liked to go to too, but unfortunately you can’t go to everything!

    Disappointing about the other session though.

    Thanks for the wrap up!


  4. Thanks for reminding me about Stasiland… I have a copy in mount TBR… have only ever heard good things about it.

    By the way, I appreciate your write-ups to the writers’ festival — it’s the closest thing to actually being there ;-)

    I remember the days (early 1990s) when it was a few sessions in the Malthouse at South Melbourne. I used to work in the book “store” (it was basically just a couple of tables) when it was sponsored by Myer.


    • Actually, Kim, I really liked the MWF at the Malthouse. It was more intimate and friendly. I guess it did have to outgrow that venue, but Fed Square is rather soulless, and because the festival has to share the space in public venues, there isn’t the same sense that everyone around you is a booklover that you could just strike up a conversation with.


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