The role of writers festivals has been in the news recently, with commentators, audiences and writers questioning the prominence of Barnaby Joyce on one program and a farewell to pets on another.
And while there are many reasons why writers festivals should test boundaries, expand and evolve, for me, the best part about writers festivals has always been the opportunity to hear the voices and tap into the wisdom of the authors of books I have read and loved.
Fortunately, as writers festivals have evolved, so have the ways in which readers can hear from their favourite writers. In discovering some of the many literary podcasts that are available, I have been able to tap into the thoughts and inspiration of some of the world’s best novelists, and here are some of the things I have learnt.
Margaret Atwood on the BBC Bookclub: It would be hard not to listen to the author of The Handmaid’s Tale without being impressed by her eloquence, intelligence and common sense. When asked about how to get through difficult political eras, she said, “Just keep living,” explaining that most political climates came and went as populations tested and rejected different ideals.
She spoke about the political divide, and how often politicians had to choose between two unappealing scenarios, but had to choose the lesser of two evils in doing so. However, as humans do not like cognitive dissonance, they tended to pick a side and argue that the other choice was unquestionably wrong, if not, evil. Her example was the choice between violent pornography and censorship, recognising that options were troubling in different ways.
She also brought her considered opinion to gender politics, expanding on the background to The Handmaid’s Tale. She explained that every measure taken in Gilead (the dystopia of her book) had a precedent somewhere in human history.
Arundhati Roy on The Guardian Books: Listening to Arundhati Roy’s musical voice as she speaks about why her second book was so long in the making is a pleasure. She said she was willing to wait for the book to come to her, and she would have been happy even if it had never had happened. “I couldn’t have written this book without the 20 years of other writing.” Her intonation alone was worth listening to, quite apart from her articulate and considered words.
Alexander McCall Smith on ABC Conversations: The author of books including The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency waxed lyrical about the joy of sailing, and his ideal day on the water. He also spoke about why he wrote the accessible, feel-good type of book that he did¸ and of the perils writers face in harming an animal in their fiction. I learnt he likes to be called ‘Sandy’, of his dramatic experience aboard a boat on the Mediterranean, and the more literary themes of why he set his books in Scotland and Botswana, and why he chose to focus on such polite and kind characters in his books. McCall Smith speaks as engagingly as he writes, with warmth and humour.
Kim Scott on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas and The Garret: In contrast with Roy and McCall Smith’s clipped vowels, Kim Scott had a lilt that is undeniably Australian. Scott spoke of the impact of the book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, on his life. He also spoke about the ability and willingness to give, which a group of Indigenous Australians had displayed despite terrible hardship and oppression, could alter the power relationship between the oppressed and the oppressors.
Lionel Shriver on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas: An increasingly divisive author, Lionel Shriver is the author of one of my favourite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Shriver spoke about her disdain for her label as an activist, believing that a writer was implicitly an activist, picking up on social ills or issues and interpreting them for readers. However, she said she was concerned by writers’ increasing fear of expressing political views, as societies suffered if writers were afraid to comment or interpret political issues. She said that, ultimately, it was the role of writers to be unpopular, and put forward unpopular views. Shriver’s words are reflected in novelist Richard Flanagan’s recent article in The Guardian, in which he defended the role of writers to offer unpopular views: “A writer, if they are doing their work properly, rubs against the grain of conventional thinking. Writers are often outcasts, heretics and marginalised.”
Michelle de Krester on The Garret: In a podcast aimed at writers, but just as interesting for readers, de Krester spoke about how winning prizes for writing impacted on the book she was working on – namely in buying the writer time to write, and how she chose the number of characters and stories that readers could follow in her books.
She also spoke about her prizewinning The Life to Come, and how much of her novel truly represented the literary community in Australia. She said that her book satirised the book industry, and so there was at least a kernel of truth in her fictional portrayal of it.
Helen Garner on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas: One of Australia’s most respected writers spoke about how she had written Monkey Grip as almost an extension of her diary of the time when she lived with a heroin addict. She said that she never really understood there was a possibility she could become a writer, as the career seemed so remote from her own world. She also talked about the way that one of her most controversial books, The First Stone, had introduced her to not being liked by those who had different views from her own, and how that experience freed her for her future books.
She said that she was surprised by people who said that they were uninterested in reading her book about an infamous crime where a father who drove his children into a dam, as they did not believe he deserved their attention. However, Garner said that she felt it was important to understand what had happened, and the social landscape in which the tragedy occurred.
Madeline Miller on The Guardian Books: It was intriguing to hear the background to Madeline Miller’s Circe, and all of the work in the ancient classics that had led her to write her modern interpretation of the character in Homer’s Odyssey. She spoke with passion about how great a role the ancient classics had played in her life, both personally and academically, and how they remained relevant to modern society. In particular, Circe addressed sexism, centring on a character who had been mentioned almost in passing. And so, while Odysseus was a character of greatness in the work of Homer, it was Circe who prevailed in Miller’s story.
Listening to the thoughts and influences of some of my favourite writers, I can understand why many were so dogged in trying to uncover the identity of Italian writer Elena Ferrante, who wishes to remain anonymous.
I can also see why many might argue for writers festivals to remain arenas for novelists to speak and audiences to listen. The voices of writers can be just as fascinating as their books, revealing a rich intellectual world in which they work and from where their novels, that we so adore, have spring.
As in their books, they have much to say about the world in which we live and the diverse characters that inhabit it.