Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 16, 2020

2020 Melbourne Writers Festival Sunday 16/8/20

My sessions for today were:

Michael Christie: Greenwood

Genealogy isn’t a simple story,’ says Michael Christie. ‘In my own personal life and experience, families are built much more than they are born.‘ A novel that reckons with legacy, inheritance, nature and sacrifice, Greenwood reveals layer by layer one family’s secrets – and the forest that binds them across generations.

Christie has constructed a time-hopping, world-spanning, page-turning family saga that’s as intricately constructed as the rings of a tree. With Sophie Cunningham (author City of Trees, see my review here).

The Language of Animals:

What would happen if we could understand what animals were saying? Chris Flynn (Mammoth, on my TBR), Erin Hortle (The Octopus and I, see my review) and Laura Jean McKay (The Animals in That Country) have each explored this question in their latest books – with fascinating results.

Harnessing both the surreal and the serious, these works pose inventive and urgent questions about our place in the world and what it means to be human. With Elizabeth McCarthy.

In Which Two Friends Discuss Reading:

Books are often seen simply as a source of diversion and pleasure. But they are more than that. They can offer not an escape from real life, but a richer engagement with the business of living.

Two great readers – Charlotte Wood (The Weekend, see my review) and Tegan Bennett Daylight (The Details, see my review) – sit down to discuss how they find comfort, refuge and power in both reading books and writing them. With Nicole Abadee.


Michael Christie: Greenwood

Sophie Cunningham loves trees and she was the perfect person to do this interview.  She asked Michael if when he looks at a house, does he see wood or does he see trees?  He answered by saying that the book shows the different relationship that five generations of a family have with trees, starting with pioneers using timber to make a simple house; then a tycoon cutting down acres of timber to make a fortune; his daughter is an environmental activist; her son is a carpenter making fancy furniture for the rich; and the final character is an environmental scientist.  He went on to talk about the magic of trees and forests in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (and a spinoff of those stories, the name of which I didn’t catch).  This fascination with trees is because wood has been alive and is similar to human flesh in that way. [This made me think of the trees in The Lord of the Rings]. Cultures across the world also have scores of legends and stories about trees.

Sophie noted that the intergenerational perspective enables a kaleidoscopic view which covers a lot of issues.  Michael said that the seed of the story was a character of a hermit living hidden in the woods and finding a baby abandoned in the forest.  This fairy tale quality is like the woodcutter refusing to kill the baby in Snow White, which expands around it in the novel.  This scene is in the middle of the book, which led on to a discussion of the structure.

The book is structured like the rings of a tree, beginning in 2038, then progressing back to 1974, 1934, 1908,  and when you reach the heartwood in the middle, the book goes back in these nested rings to the future.  [This sounds like the structure of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a book I loved].  This idea to mimic the structure of a tree came from when Michael cut down a tree to make way for his driveway, and when he counted the rings, it was older than he was.

Sophie went on to ask about influences on his characterisation, such as his work for the homeless.  [I liked it when he said he was never going to write about suburban people worrying about whether their lawn is nice.  He hastily added that these books are great, but hey, I reckon I knew exactly what he really meant!]

In the book’s future scenario, there is The Great Withering— a dust storm (like in the 1930s America due to industrialised farming in California, as in The Grapes of Wrath).  This Withering is a phenomenon which has caused trees around the world to fall prey to many diseases, all of them attributable to climate change.  In his scenario, only rich people can have afford to have an environment which supports trees.  But he says this aspect of the book is not sci-fi dystopia because this imagined phenomenon is not so far-fetched.  Near where he lives trees are withering due to drought stress, and we have the same here in Australia.  Desertification causes dust storms here, notably last summer, the legendary one in 1983, and those which rolled through the Mallee and elsewhere long before that.

I also liked the conversation about the way the novel investigates different ideas of family and contests the idea of blood descendants having some kind of significance to a family.  Families are much more complicated than the traditional notion of family implies.  He says it’s fiction’s job to complicate the notions that we have!

Apparently there is a scene in which a woman loses her home library in a tornado… I shall have to steel myself to read that bit!

Michael Christie is from Canada, a country whose literature has similarities to ours.  The late Kevin from Canada, sorely missed from the LitBlogSphere, wrote an illuminating essay about it here.


The Language of Animals:

What these three novels have in common is that they feature animals with language.  Mammoth is narrated by an extinct mammoth; The Octopus and I is about a woman who develops an affinity with an octopus, and The Animals in That Country features a flu which has as a side effect that humans can understand animals.  Pulling this off in novels for adults is no easy task but it’s been done before e.g. by Eva Sallis in Dog Boy.

It was interesting to hear how the writers chose a ‘voice’ for the animals: they can’t just be the same as people, to succeed artistically they need a voice of their own.  Species also need to be differentiated.  Laura Jean talked about how it was when she worked out the voice of her insects that her writing really ‘took off’.  Chris Flynn (who’s had experience working in an animal shelter and understands how we all talk to our companion animals and how they ‘talk’ back to us) also made his animals speak through the different eras in which they were brought to a museum, e.g. in Nazi Germany.  It was difficult for him, however, to research how extinct animals moved and behaved, and what environments they lived in.  Erin talked about spending a lot of time researching how an octopus learns, and also finding a way of recreating and then disrupting the rhythm with which an octopus moves.  It’s the shortest chapter in her book but it took a year to write.

The conversation took a sombre turn when the issue of animal extinction and possible cloning DNA to bring them back, focussed on human responsibility.  Like the authors this is something I feel deeply about; like many Australians I’m haunted by that video of the Tasmanian Tiger in the Hobart Museum.  It was a very interesting session, well-chaired by Elizabeth McCarthy.

In Which Two Friends Discuss Reading:

Nicole Abadee began by asking how these two friends met, and it turns out that Charlotte received a fan letter about Tegan’s book.  They both belong to a writers’ group, and Tegan is often acknowledged by Charlotte as the first reader of her work.  Membership of this group waxes and wanes, sometimes they go away and work together but they don’t do a lot of workshopping along the way.  But Charlotte says she has to be really ready to share her work with Tegan because Tegan will be honest!  It’s obviously a close and respectful professional relationship as well as an enduring friendship.

Reading as comfort and refuge is very pertinent at the moment: what are they reading now? Tegan began with Wolf Hall at the beginning of Lockdown, which she liked but found it a little grim towards the end because there were so many deaths. Then, triggered by her daughter’s reading of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, she read works by Lawrence Durrell. She liked his joy in life, and this resonated for her at the time, especially because My family and Other Animals was her mother’s favourite book, and she read it to her when she was dying.  Tegan noted that there’s a lot of books about trauma at the moment, she hasn’t found much other reading as solace, except for Durrell.

Charlotte read Improvement by Joan Silber, who she’d just met at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival and then ordered everything else by her, but the only one that’s come so far is Lucky Us.  She loves Joan London, and Tessa Hadley.  And now she’s reading Fierce Attachments: A Memoir by Vivian Gornick.

What books do they turn to when times are tough, and why?

Charlotte: books that are character-based like Elizabeth Strout’s that reveal the private thoughts of people in an ego-less way, examining the interior worlds of people.  Quieter books are comforting, such as The Good Parent by Joan London who loves Chekhov because there’s no ego in his work, he’s a complete observer… Charlotte says that she would say the same thing of Joan London.  Writing that doesn’t show off or draw attention to itself. [She probably wouldn’t like Thea Astley?]

Tegan: she doesn’t want books straining for relevance or contemporary issues or dealing with concentric rings of horror that we are all dealing with at the moment. She wants books that offer a world unto itself, complete in itself.  I would have liked her to expand on this.

Nicole quoted Charlotte from an essay she wrote: the more I go on, the more I am convinced that a great book is one that leads readers away from the worn path of what they already know to… wild new worlds…

… and then *bother!* I lost the thread of the quotation so I tried to rewind, and lost the connection.  And despite repeated attempts could not get it to play again.

So that’s it folks, it’s a pity the technology let me down at the very end, but it’s been a great festival and big bouquets to all concerned especially Gene Smith, who directed the festival this year.  He has set the bar high for his successor!



  1. Loved all of this, thank you for sharing it and sorry the technology let you down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it may have been because there’s some kind of system on it to prevent repeated downloads or something like that. If I’d left it alone, or been content to watch it again from the beginning instead of trying to get back to where I was, it probably would have been ok.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great sessions, Lisa, thanks for sharing. My favourite takeaway from what you’ve written about is Christie’s statement that fiction’s job is to complicate the notions that we have.

    In personal positive news, we will hand over the keys to Mum and Dad’s unit tomorrow. A sad moment, but also a relief to have that responsibility off our backs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s a very hard job, packing up the lives of those we love. It’s very distressing when it’s all so raw, but with the passage of time it can become cathartic.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely adored Greenwood, but unfortunately, I missed this session, despite booking in and paying for it! I was too late even for the 3 hour window, very disappointing, but I’m glad for your write up. I did catch the Animals session, just clicked in 15 mins shy of the 3 hour window for that one closing! I won’t have a write up though as my head was elsewhere for the duration and I really absorbed very little.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s a pity about the three-hour window, I would have liked to spread the sessions out a bit, it’s a long day sitting in front of a computer…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was thinking when I read this post that you must have been hankering for a brisk walk after all those sessions!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I deliberately left some time in the middle to take Amber for a walk…

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks again Lisa – this was all so interesting! :D

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. […] too.  But I romped through it in two days because I couldn’t put it down, and I thank the Melbourne Writers Festival for bringing it to my notice.  My review is coming […]


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