Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 9, 2020

2020 Yarra Valley (online) Writers Festival: A Place in the New World Order, with Alice Robinson, Meg Mundell, Karen Viggers & Elizabeth McCarthy

The next session at the Yarra Valley Writers Festival featured two authors dear to my heart.  The topic was A Place in the New World Order, and it featured Alice Robinson, author of The Glad Shout (2019) and Anchor Point (2015) and Meg Mundell, author of The Trespassers (2019)  and Black Glass (2011) and a NF anthology about homelessness, We Are Here, Stories of Home, Place and Belonging (2019), together with well-known Karen Viggers (author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife and many other titles) and broadcaster Elizabeth McCarthy from 3RRRFM.  (Elizabeth had me on her book review show once,  talking about Gerald Murnane.)

Elizabeth began by asking how working writers were coping creatively with the lockdown.  Karen is a working vet, and she’s found that she’s been less creatively inspired than she’d hoped.  For Alice, who’s just relocated from country living to apartment living in Melbourne, has found it difficult with two primary aged children at home, and her creative work has been impacted in terms of time allocated to it, and the things she can write about.  Meg has a similar situation to Alice in a way, though she’s a bit less socially isolated than before, but she’s not getting any creative writing done because of the demands on her.  She mentioned a child’s project that he needed a whole lot of help, and helping her students writing grants applications.  She’s not creatively blocked but just doesn’t have time.

Meg’s book The Trespassers is about a pandemic.  How does she feel about it now?  She initially felt guilty about making a piece of art about the present situation but now she’s worried that people won’t want to read it because they’re fed up with the pandemic.  Her connection wasn’t very good so it wasn’t easy to hear her, plus she had the same problem with a dog barking that I have during my French lessons when Amber starts barking!

Does Karen feel that the pandemic is infiltrating her writing? Karen, who has older children, who bring different challenges and her life is also very influenced by the bushfires because her husband works in that field.  She finds it interesting to see how politicians have been so assertive about dealing with the pandemic, compared to their hesitancy on dealing with climate change. Her work tends to be about environment and conservation issues, and often in a rural community, but her current novel is urban.

Alice’s next work was going to be about another disaster in Bali, but she’s having difficulty trying to write about a situation that’s still unfolding.  She’s feels a bit sheepish saying that she’s trying to write about it — comparing the Australian experience to other places in the world. she feels as if in a way that despite the difficulties, her life is untouched.  Elizabeth asked: Is Australia a bit ‘sheltered’ from the pandemic, compared to other countries?  Meg talked about thinking about what she wants to do, having coffee with friends and so on, and has switched off from much of the media because it was affecting her, and feels torn between thinking that we are being over-cautious, and yet she’s basically a ‘very obedient person’.  She is wondering how we are going to re-establish intimacy when things are all over.

Elizabeth asked: How does place impact on writing?  Karen thinks that place is vital, in order to establish a connection with place for the reader.  It can be an era, a location or a whole lot of other things, but it orientates the writer and then the reader.  The place is then used to explore concepts of being human and our the impact of our actions in the world. She wants to use words to explore connection and being in that place to create a sense of being and presence.  Place is the building block that the story rests on.  Alice talked about the research she does about place… her first novel was a bush novel and the imagined town was based on a landscape she grew up in.  What was gratifying was when the publicist she had said that she’d recognised the place as familiar, and it turned out to be not far from the place that she’d based the story on.  Alice also shared a funny anecdote about trying to site a story on the Spirit of Tasmania before she’d ever seen it, and her first reaction when she saw the size of the ship was that she couldn’t fit her characters into it.  Meg shared how she immerses herself in places as a way for the reader to inhabit, and like Alice, she also feels the terror of climate change in our future.  Place is where her stories start, it always comes first.  She talked about Black Glass and I can vouch for what she said about the Melbourne she invoked there.  Even though the story was a dystopia, I could recognise my city.  And likewise, in The Trespassers, the ‘place’ in that novel felt like the ocean liners I travelled on as a child and the way the ship becomes a world of its own.  Now I know that this was informed by Meg’s own experience of coming to Australia for the first time on a boat which she helped to crew.  She’s also very interested in the idea of ‘home’ which informed the NF anthology that she edited, and sees that borders and no-go zones as impacting on the sense of belonging that people feel.

Elizabeth asked: how are social justice threads worked into the story without ‘hitting the reader over the head with it? Alice wanted to focus on that in her first novel, but had to push it to the back of her mind in order to make the story work and be appealing to readers.  She did not want to be didactic.  She says it’s a hard problem to solve, torn between making a good story to be at the forefront without the issues being overwhelming.  She thinks it’s become easier as she’s grown as an author.  Karen agrees that it’s important not to be didactic, an author needs to be subtle.  She tries to ‘hover above’ in her stories and leap in with her own opinions, and show the different perspectives of all kinds of people, carefully built into the story, gently leading readers to engage with it and think about it. But you don’t always know what your book is about until it gets written. It evolves as the writing takes place.

Elizabeth also asked about reading.  She had a ‘bad week’ when she couldn’t read anything at all.  Meg reading something by Jesse Ball (sp?) and Manhattan by Jennifer Egan, She’s reading, she laughed, not to have a nervous breakdown so she’s choosing what to read very carefully because she doesn’t want to be plunged into depression by what she’s reading.  She’s also doing some research reading.  Karen said it had been a challenging time for her apart from COVID_19 because she’s just lost her mother-in-law to ovarian cancer.  (Condolences to Karen, I know how that feels, it’s a wicked cancer.) But she’s been reading Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and well as the books by the other panellists.

PS This piece has not been proof-read because I’m publishing on the run.  Corrections to me via comments!





  1. I would never normally correct but for you asking. It was Karen’s mother-in-law who has recently passed away, no less significant, but I knew you would prefer to be accurate.

    I enjoyed this panel ’round up’. Thanks 😊
    I will confess, I felt guilty reading Meg’s worry that people won’t read her book right now because they are fed up with the pandemic. I am actively avoiding books like that at present for that very reason. I just can’t go there, I’m so fatigued by it all.


    • Thanks, Theresa, I’ve fixed it.
      I’m brain dead, this is not like being at a f2f writers festival because there are always 15 minute breaks between sessions whereas I’ve used the breaks to finish off the post and set up for the next one!
      Don’t worry too much about what you read, for every person not reading it there are others who are, and none of us can read everything we want to.
      You’ll be glad to go back to work… the children will refresh you, I know they will:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Lisa, no wonder you’re exhausted, thanks for the reviews. The one that interested me the most was Fire & Climate, with Tony Birch, Alice Bishop, Tom Griffiths & Michael Cathcart. I too would have missed the Crimes!


    • Thanks:)
      I like that one very much too: an interesting combination, two novelists and an historian, but it worked really well.


  3. […] above”, using the perspective of different characters to explore issues. And again,the indefatigable Lisa….  (How does she have the […]


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