Monday, April 13, 2015

NEWCASTLE WRITERS FESTIVAL 2015: Opening Night, The Book That Changed Me

It's been a few weeks since the Opening Night of the Newcastle Writers Festival and I am still thinking about the wonderful panel discussion about "The Book That Changed Me."

After all the important speeches by those involved in the festival, including the luminous founder of the festival Rosemarie Milsom, we were delighted by the outstanding panel as we sat in Newcastle City Hall, our home for the next few days.

The panel, hosted by Caroline Baum, were Helen Garner, Jessica Rudd, and Michael Robotham.

Now I have to say I worship the ground Helen Garner walks on, so you have been forewarned. And she made me love her even more, which I didn't think possible. However, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Jessica Rudd and Michael Robotham also, both being authors I don't read.

Listening to them all talk about the books that changed their lives was fascinating. As a Librarian, I always love insight into people's choices in terms of literature.

Helen started it off by mentioning Arthur Mee's The Children's Encyclopeadia. This immediately struck a chord with me, I remember pawing through them at my grandparent's when I was a child. I couldn't get enough, and Helen was the same when she was a child. Surely this would make us firm friends if we were to meet! She also mentioned Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which is one of my life changing titles, so I then knew we would be firm friends, though I knew if I ever came close to meeting her my knees would shake and words would never form, thus making any thoughts of friendship fail before I ever had a chance!

Caroline moved through the panel many times with interesting questions and here is what I remember.

Helen belongs to a Reading Group - this is different to a bookclub - they select a book and take turns at reading it aloud until it is finished, what a marvelous idea! They have recently completed The Illiad!

Helen can read other books while she is writing, though she usually gets caught up in her writing and doesn't get time. Both Jessica and Michael do not read in their genre while writing as they find it can influence their writing in a negative way.

Jessica Rudd's books that changed her were Pride and Prejudice, she read every year during high school, and Primary Colours, which saddened her as she had always been very idealistic about politics. Pride and Prejudice is one of my all time favourite books, but not life changing for me. Helen Garner mentioned she loves it, and finds it very funny. I do too Helen. Primary Colours was a cracking romp. As I read it it was obvious it was about Clinton, and a few months after this my thoughts were confirmed.

Rudd also loves Caitlin Moran, as do I, and called her the feminist of our generation, that I am not so sure of. As a feminist writer she is good, but flawed. Roxane Gay writes about this in her book, Bad Feminist, which I read a week after the festival. I love it when topics turn up and confirm your thoughts immediately after having them.

Michael Robotham also listed A Moveable Feast, both Helen and Michael had read it whilst in Paris when they were younger, he set out to go to every location mentioned in the book. I too read it in Paris, and visited some areas, but not specific haunts, I am saving that for my return trip.

Helen also spoke of Charles Reznikoff, an American Jewish poet, as the writer that most changed her life. She spoke so beautifully yet at times stumbled over the correct words to describe her feelings, which for a writer as spare and eloquent as Helen shows the impact he has had on her. He writes poetry based on court testimonies, specifically The Holocaust, but other topics as well. You can see, given her own writings, why she would be attracted to such unusual words.

Helen also spoke of police crime photography that also influenced her work, she described what was essentially ordinary photos of macabre scenes in such a magical and beautiful way. I always knew her brain was a thing of beauty, and her heart and soul full of respect and kindness, as this shines through in her extraordinary writing. But to hear her speak about such things was something else all together!

Michael Robotham had the most moving stories. One from his childhood years, the cat and mouse game he played with a battered copy of The Lord of The Rings and his school Librarian was as funny as it was poignant. He is such a natural storyteller, he had the audience in the palm of his hands, myself included. But it was his story about Ray Bradbury that had me in tears. He loved Ray as a kid (or maybe teen?) and read all he could get his hands on, but not everything written was published in Australia. He wrote a fan letter to Ray, and Ray wrote back and included a copy of all the books not available in Australia. How amazing is that? He wrote again to Ray later on in life to explain he was a writer now and again Ray responded, and Michael was to meet him on a recent American tour but Ray passed away just prior to the meeting. Robotham was clearly upset at this, but thrilled for the experience.

Michael also spoke of a less than impressive day at John Irving's house and Helen, a similar story, in meeting her hero, Janet Malcolm. The later showing, that everyone gets tongue-tied in the presence of their heroes.

It truly was a fabulous night, one we were sorry to see end.

But it made me think of The Book That Changed Me. The Diary of Anne Frank was my immediate choice, I read it in my early 20s and it had a profound effect on me. Then I came up with A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway, having bought a copy of it in Paris and read it whilst there. Also Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, which I read in my early 30s after the breakdown of my then relationship, her (far worse) pain helped me through my own. I realised that I had a book for each decade of my life, Hemingway being my early 40s. I am still thinking about what - if any - changed my childhood and teens. And this will be the subject of a post in time, so stay tuned.

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