I felt like I’d stepped back in time when I arrived at the Perth Writers Festival yesterday. Set in the lovely grounds of the University of WA, I had flashbacks to my university days; the thought entered my mind more than once in the day … “Should I do another course?”. This year marks the first time I’ve been able to make it to the festival – February is always a full-on month for our family – but after yesterday, it won’t be the last. I’m still walking around with a big grin on my face.
First up was Fairy Tales with Kate Forsyth (Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl) and Danielle Wood (Mothers Grimm, Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls) in conversation with Delys Bird. Both writers have drawn on the dark and sometimes subversive themes of fairy tales in their own retellings, with Wood repurposing them in contemporary settings, and Forsyth leaning towards historical retellings.
Wood said her love for fairy tales began when she read a fairy tale compilation in as a child (“The Little Mermaid” was a favourite) and developed in her teens through Jim Henson’s TV show, The Storyteller: ‘Stories were told in such a beautifully bittersweet way … There are fingerprints of The Storyteller all over Mothers Grimm.” She said her coming-of-age book Rosie Little’s Cautionary Tales for Girls was not for “little girls who stay on the path when they go to their grandmother’s. Her Mothers Grimm book, a collection of four contemporary fairy tales about the dark side of motherhood, was created out of her fascination with relationships between women; one is based on “Rapunzel”, with Wood particularly interested in the relinquishing mother. “Who would give up their child in exchange for a bunch of leafy greens?”
“I’m a bit of a bower bird. I’ve picked out the bright bits of the fairy tales and used them in my own stories.” – Danielle Wood.
Forsyth held the audience spellbound as she shared where her love of fairy tales originated. Her oral storytelling abilities are amazing – audience members were mesmerised, some brushing away tears, as she spoke from the heart about spending much of her early years in and out of hospital following an horrific dog attack. One night her mother pressed a copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales in her febrile hands: “I opened that copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and I began to read.” Of all the stories, “Rapunzel” was the one that spoke to her the most – like Rapunzel, she was a girl locked away from the world against her will. The motifs of imprisonment/escape, roses/thorns and wounding/healing eventually made their way into her novel, Bitter Greens.
“Rapunzel haunted me from the very first time I read it.” – Kate Forsyth
Other themes that came out of this session included the women-centric nature of fairytales and need for stories to have memorable motifs and relevance (to audiences and the teller) if they are to endure.
“A story only lives if it is retold.” – Kate Forsyth
The second session was Big Little Lies with Liane Moriarty. Angela Meyer quizzed Moriarty about her novel Big Little Lies; Moriarty kept the audience laughing with her self-deprecating manner and funny anecdotes. Her down-to-earth manner was refreshing, even as she discussed everything from helicopter parenting and bullying to playground politics, suburban life and her writing methods. Quote of the day has to go to this one about whether she’s a helicopter parent:
“My babies are IVF babies – they cost a lot of money!” – Liane Moriarty
With her books attracting attention in Hollywood (Big Little Lies film and TV rights have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon and her Pacific Standard, with David E Kelley writing the series), Moriarty is keen to keep taking risks as a writer. “I want to keep seeing what I can do,” she said.
Radio program Afternoons with Gillo in Tropical Grove was next. This laidback two-hour session involved listening to Gillian O’Shaunessy interview writers Elizabeth Gilbert, Graeme Simsion, Anne Buist, Andy Griffiths and Tom Rob Smith about their most recent books. I particularly liked what Elizabeth Gilbert had to say about the freedom she experienced writing The Signature of All Things after the phenomenal success of her memoir Eat Pray Love (one of those love-it-or-hate-it books).
“Pretty much everyone’s already made up their mind about me … (so) I’m just going to write what I want to write.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
Pitching a “500-page novel about a spinster virgin who spends her life studying moss” probably wouldn’t have worked with publishers, so instead, she just wrote it.
Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect) and wife Anne Buist (Medea’s Curse) spoke about how they write together – not the same books, but in the same space, admitting that often it was a case of “who was going to stop first and get the bottle of wine”. Laughs ensued when Graeme said he had read some of his wife’s erotic fiction (written under the name Simona Sinna) and thought: “This was in my wife’s head?”
Andy Griffiths, one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors, chatted to Gillo about writing for children. Growing up, Bear and Monkey loved Griffith’s work, especially the “Just” series. So did I. I was certainly not one of the disapproving parents. If you don’t live in Australia, but you have young children, especially boys, get hold of some of his books. Do it!
“I’ve never met a child you can’t entertain with a story.” – Andy Griffiths
Lastly, Tom Rob Smith spoke about his book The Farm, and the true story that planted the seed for this psychological thriller. I’m hoping to have a copy of this book in my hands very soon. It sounds fantastic!
“The biggest source of suspense is people. There’s an element of tension in everything … I find the everyday suspense is where I mine my writing.” – Tom Rob Smith
The final session for the day was Character Quirks with Graeme Simsion and Emma Healey (Elizabeth is Missing). The discussion, led by David Cohen, centred on the quirks of each authors’ protagonists – Don Tillman from The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, and Maud from Elizabeth is Missing, before heading into definitions of unreliable narrators, the need for drama to underpin comedy (and vice versa), and commercial success over recognition. I loved this quote from Simsion about creating the character of Don:
“Let’s write a story about a geek, but as a central character, not as a figure of fun.” – Graeme Simsion
Food for thought in that. And here are a few quotes writers might find useful:
“They cry, they buy. As an author you are trying to touch people’s emotions.” – Graeme Simsion
“Of all the things I do to sell books, tweeting is the least productive.” – Graeme Simsion
“I don’t write to make a statement. I think you set out to tell a story.” – Graeme Simsion
Overall, a fantastic day that probably did Blue Eyes’ head in more than mine, because he had to listen when I got home. Of all the sessions, Fairy Tales was my favourite, but I left each one feeling inspired and best of all, motivated to keep writing my own fiction. I can’t wait for next year’s festival!