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Friday, August 31, 2012

Melbourne Writers Festival recap: 'Reading into Writing' with Emily Rodda, John Larkin and Penni Russon.



Wednesday was, sadly, my last scheduled event to attend at Melbourne Writers Festival. Unfortunately, and much as I have enjoyed living in a bookish fugue at Fed Square, work beckons me back. So I sucked the marrow out of my last session, ‘Reading into Writing’ with Emily Rodda (‘The Three Doors Trilogy’) John Larkin (‘The Shadow Girl’) and, Penni Russon (‘Only Ever Always’) chaired once again by the lovely Jordi Kerr from the Centre For Youth Literature.

The MWF website described ‘Reading into Writing’ as: What do writers read, and how does it affect their writing? Do the books they read when young still matter to them? And do you need to read to be a writer? Three writers share the inside story on the books that matter to them.

•    Jordi kicked the discussion off with ‘what do you read?’ (of course!). Emily Rodda replied that she reads everything but non-fiction (the very occasional autobiography will cross her path) but most of the time she likes *stories*. She also has a love of 19th century authors like Dickens, and she loves a good mystery. Penni Russon doesn’t believe in a children’s/YA category, because she never stopped reading them even as an adult – so she will often read books intended for younger readers (and also because she has three children, so reads whatever they feel like). Penni did say that she gets into reading ‘themes’, and at the moment she’s interested in WWI poetry. John Larkin said that writers are usually guilty-pleasure readers, because whenever they're reading they're thinking "I should be writing". Never the less, John listed a few of his favourite yearly reads – ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, ‘Catch-22’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. But at the moment he’s in danger of having his man-card revoked, because he’s reading (and enjoying!) ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ – although he would love to write the man version.

•    Penni mentioned that all her children are currently obsessed with Maurice Sendak’s ‘In The Night Kitchen’ and she has been reading it to them everyday for the last few months – which has taken Penni to a point where she’s almost transcending the reading. Emily said she envied Penni her children’s choice of reading, because when her own kids were younger they were obsessed with a book called ‘Miffy Goes Flying’ which was dull, dull, dull! But Emily understood it wasn’t so much the story that her daughter loved, but the comfort in the fact that the story would never change – each reading, the same sequence of events would unfold.

•    Jordi then asked *how* they read, since they’re also writers. Emily said that reading a really great book can leave her feeling awed and chastened, and quite envious. Penni said she definitely reads as a writer – so an indication of a good book is one that makes her forget editing and academia and just enjoy the story. Emily agreed with this statement, and likened ‘Jane Eyre’ to Mozart – reciting a scientific factoid that says people have been proven to feel calmer when they listen to Mozart, and so too does Emily feel peaceful when reading ‘Jane Eyre’. John also said that he reads ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at least once a year, because it’s “like being massaged with coconut oil and words.”

•    Talk of the late, great Maurice Sendak got the three authors reminiscing about what they read as children. John Larkin confessed that ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ transported him as a young boy. He said that his own sister was a ‘wild thing’ who would regularly threaten to kill him (with a butter knife, most often) but that book was his escape from her, into another world. Emily read ‘The Saggy, Baggy Elephant’ when she was just a toddler, and remembers her parent’s friends warning them that she would “strain her little brain” if they let her keep reading so young. Emily said she wasn’t reading the book, but memorizing it from her parents reading to her – still, she suspects she owes a great deal of her reading life to that Saggy, Baggy Elephant.

•    One of the school-kids in the audience asked a question of all the authors – ‘where do you get your story ideas?’ John said that he actually met the young girl who inspired ‘The Shadow Girl’ at a year 8 schools event, and told her he would write a book about her one day. She was homeless, living on trains and spent all her time reading. He explained that she didn’t have a TV to watch and unwind with things like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘The Shire’ (as an aside, he said that watching ‘The Shire’ is like being dead – no difference between the two states. He should be pleased to hear that Channel Ten today announced the show’s cancellation) so she read instead, and that was how she relaxed. Emily said that the idea for the ‘Three Doors Trilogy’ came to her because she has always thought of books like doors – opening up into other worlds – and that was the thought that sparked the series. Emily said ‘Deltora Quest’ came about because she was fascinated by the idea of collecting things, and the power of gems. Penni referred to a conversation she had with her young daughter about heartbeats, that was the inspiration for ‘Only Ever Always’, because her daughter was so sad to think there wasn’t another her somewhere in the world.

•    The conversation then shifted to how we read as adults, compared to how we read as children and re-reading a book at different ages. Emily believes there is a mechanism inside all of us that changes the reading of a book as we get older, so it’s as though we never read the same book twice. Penni used a beautiful example, and said re-reading is like being unable to enter the same river twice – because the water is constantly rushing and changing.

•    John the spoke about the last really powerful book her read, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was editor of a French fashion magazine before he suddenly suffered a massive stroke that left him speechless and paralysed, only able to blink his left eyelid. He was able to communicate to nurses by blinking, and let them know that he still had all his brain functions, and when he was asked what he wanted to do, he blinked that he wanted to write a book. And that’s what he did. He blinked a book – 500,000 blinks. John was astounded by this (I am too!) and warned the kids in the audience to think next time they whinge about having to complete a writing assignment of a couple hundred words – just remember, Jean-Dominique Bauby was so determined that he blinked a book. Never think you can’t do it!

•    Somebody in the audience asked how they all became writers, and all three had such different answers! Penni became a writer after trying to be an editor, and being told the world had too many editors but needed more writers. So that’s what she did. Penni also said that she became a writer at the same time that she became a mother, so the two experiences are forever entwined. Emily said that she could clearly remember reading ‘Jane Eyre’ when she was eleven-years-old (so young, because her parents never restricted her reading choices) and being aware, for the first time, that there was a person responsible for that book, and wouldn’t that be a nice job? But it wasn’t until Emily was telling a story to her seven-year-old one night, making it up as she went along, that she thought; “that was quite good” and decided to write it down. John came to writing in the most round-about way. He was not a big reader as a child (unless you counted copies of his mum and sister’s CLEO magazine. Talk about a reading experience) but he also said when he was younger, there wasn’t the same children’s reading culture as there is now and that most books seemed to be very Americanized and Britishized. So John was actually a professional soccer player for Leeds United, until he blew his knee out when he was 21. Recovering in hospital, he received a book from his ‘wild thing’ sister, which was ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, and that set him off on his new writing ambition. John then asked the boy who had originally put the question to them if he wanted to be a writer one day, and the boy replied with an affirmative. John told him to “Stick at it. Go to the well every day” and write. He said some of it would be rubbish, but promised that if he sticks at it long enough he would be published one day.

•    Somebody in the audience asked all three authors what it is they love about reading. Emily said she reads for a main character that resonates with her, and Penni agreed – saying she loves it when it’s like an author has peeked into your brain and you could swear they’re writing about you.

•    On the subject of which one of their books is a favourite – all responded that the one most recently finished is usually the favourite. Although Emily did cave and say she has a soft spot for ‘Rowan of Rin’. Penni said ‘Only Ever Always’ is her current favourite, but she also loved the writing process of ‘Dear Swoosie’ that she wrote with Kate Constable for ‘Girlfriend Fiction’ – she loved writing that book because she and Kate are friends, and they were just writing to make each other laugh so that book is like a suspended moment in time, a nice memory of writing with her dear friend.

•    Another origin of inspiration question, and John replied “being a writer isn’t something that I do, it’s something that I am,” and that “writers are great observers of life, not great participants in it.” Nevertheless, he has a lovely memory of breaking a large Ming-Vase umbrella-holder at home, and his daughter coming in and asking; “Daddy, do you want the sticky-tape?” which had him envisioning his daughter travelling the world with her trusty sticky-tape, saving people and fixing things. Basically, inspiration can crop up in funny places.

•    The final question of the session was a lovely one to finish on – “what’s your favourite part of writing?” put to all the authors. Emily enjoys writing the end of a book more than the beginning. Penni said there’s less problem solving as a reader than a writer, but she loves finding the answers to the problems of a story or character as a writer. She likes that the ‘answers’ come from everywhere – while she’s on the train, or in a beam of inspiration. John said: "I love when the story takes over and you just follow behind sweeping up." John also said he doesn’t want to be too aware of how he writes; “Please don’t tell me how I work, because I choose not to know.” And, finally, Penni left the session off on a beautiful transcending art metaphor – that when sculptors receive a lump of clay, marble or wood they have to find its ‘true form’, and writers do the same thing. Writers chisel out the story because it’s already there in existence, we just have to find it.

This was such a wonderful event to cap-off my 2012 MWF. John, Penni and Emily are all such different writers (and readers!) but I felt like this was a truly affirming session, and much of what these three authors said I had been hearing echoes of throughout the Festival. 
For instance, John bought up the fact that when he was younger, there wasn't such a vibrant children's/YA reading culture as there is now. This was something Vikki Wakefield touched on, which got me thinking how lucky we are that books for younger readers are so embraced these days, there's such choice and (from 'Harry Potter' to 'Hunger Games') they're the books that are dominating the literary world!

 Emily spoke about reading 'Jane Eyre' when she was 11-years-old, partly because her parents didn't put an age-restriction on what she could and could not read. That reminded me of Morris Gleitzman's statement that
"if it's in the world, it's for them" - with regards to seemingly 'taboo' subjects appearing in children's book. I think this came down to not underestimating young readers; in their reading material, or the subjects explored within ... and I wholeheartedly agree!
And I really loved Penni's final thought, about writers being sculptors and having to chisel away at a story until we can find its 'true form' that is 'already in existence' just waiting to be discovered. Melina Marchetta said that she hesitates to write a story that's in her head down on paper, for fear that it won't be as good as she imagines - and I feel like that's all apart of the process of chiseling and getting to the heart of the matter.

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