Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 7, 2018

2018 Melbourne Jewish Book Week Monday 7/5/18

My first session today was called ‘Other People’s Lives’ and it was chaired by Mark Baker, whose memoir of his parents The Fiftieth Gate (1997) I admired very much.  For an investigation into the ethical and literary issues of writing other people’s lives, the panel consisted of Bram Presser, Heather Morris and Sarah Krasnostein.

Sarah Krasnostein is the award-winning author of The Trauma Cleaner and she talked about the pragmatic issue of telling a story when the subject herself had memory loss.  Krasnostein was initially drawn to the story because she was curious about her subject’s work as a ‘trauma cleaner’.  (Like most of us), she’d never heard of it and was intrigued to learn more about the cleaning up of crime scenes and the chaotic houses of hoarders.  But that work turned out to be the least interesting part of Sandra Pankhurst’s life because there was so much more to know about this woman. Krasnostein’s background is academic and legal, and she found the gaps in the narrative frustrating but they steered her towards making sense of the loss of memory, due to her subject’s own traumatic life.

I’d heard Bram Presser talk about his book The Book of Dirt yesterday, but he had a different angle today.  He talked more about his journey from curiosity about his grandfather to a desire to ‘bring him to life’ and how he used dirt as a metaphor, especially in his use of the mythical Jewish golem.  (See my review for more about that).

Heather Morris talked about being invited to tell the story of an old Jewish man in her book The Tattooist of Auschwitz, (on my TBR) and how she realised that while he was revealing the story of his time in Auschwitz, what he really wanted to tell was the story of his beloved wife.  For the author, this relationship became a friendship that has outlasted his death, and she says that when she hired researchers to confirm the details of his story it horrified her so much that she did not include all of it in the book, because ‘it does no good’ for people to know the horrible things that happened to this lovely old man.

My second session was called Difficult Women.  Chaired by Megan Goldin (who writes thrillers), the panel consisted of Rachel Kadish (The Weight of Ink, an unputdownable novel which I’m now half way through!); journalist Kerri Sackville; and Nicole Trope who finds the catalysts for her bestselling novels in the pages of the newspaper.  It started off really well with definitions of ‘difficult women’ as those who refuse to fit the mould and ‘poke holes in what the story is supposed to be’.   Kadish spoke about the really interesting ‘difficult’ women in The Weight of Ink – as she says, ‘nice women don’t make history’.  Helen the main character in the present century is a very prickly and uncommunicative academic on the verge of retirement, and in the 17th century the young woman who takes on the proscribed role of a rabbi’s scribe is determined not to put up with the limitations of her gender either.  The author’s task is to make sure that her readers respond to these tough women without rejecting them, and she’s been pleased to find that the character most readers are dubious about is the arrogant young American postgraduate student.  (I’m warming to him now that it looks like he’s having to eat humble pie!)  But after that the session became a bit strident, and from my conversations afterwards with others in the audience, I wasn’t alone in feeling that the session had been hijacked by venting about unpleasant interactions on social media and stories of the unfair treatment of women in Trumpland.

My last session was great: Nadine Davidoff is a book editor and writing/editing teacher, and her session on critical reading skills was called ‘Reading Fiction with X-ray Eyes’.  In an interactive session with the audience, she used examples from a wide range of books to demonstrate how authorial choices have different effects.  Apparently the session was based on a short course held at the Jewish Museum of Australia, and if this was any indication, I think that course would be brilliant for would-be authors to hone their skills.

I bought one more book today: I had a quick chat with author Fiona Harari about Bram Presser’s contention that books shouldn’t be written about the Holocaust unless they have something new to contribute, and realised that I couldn’t resist her book We are Here, Talking with Australia’s Holocaust Survivors…

I’ll finish by congratulating the organisers and everyone else who made this such a beaut festival to go to.  Everyone involved is a volunteer, but everything ran super smoothly and the program was great.   While I hope by now that they’re all sitting down with a well-deserved cup of tea, I’m looking forward to the next one!


  1. Thanks again for giving a taste of the sessions for those of us who couldn’t be there! Now there are more books on my to-read list.


  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. Sorry I’ve been late responding. I enjoyed this write up and would love to have attended if I were in Melbourne. Reading fiction with x-ray eyes sounds right up my alley – but the other sessions you attended do too.

    The weight of ink session – did the panelists become strident or was it the Q&A?


  4. […] Day 2 of Melbourne Jewish Books Week Heather Morris admitted that she was selective about which elements of Lala’s story to […]


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