Saturday, August 30, 2014

Last Day in Melbourne at the Melbourne Writers Festival

Wow, what a great day!

It was my last full day in Australia before flying to Christchurch tomorrow morning, and I spent the day pretty much all at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I started with a free session called Sh*t Asian Mothers Say, about a book of the same title by siblings Benjamin and Michelle Law, born in Australia to Chinese parents who moved from Malaysia to Australia to make a new life for their family. The brother and sister authors were very entertaining as they quoted from the book and talked about their family, exploring to what extent their book was inherently racist for reinforcing stereotypes about Asians, and Asian mothers in particular. The session was a lot of fun.

From  there I moved upstairs in the ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image - a film-centric museum currently hosting a big Dreamworks exhibit) to my first paid session of the festival. The session title was License to Thrill, and it featured authors Lauren Beukes (latest book: Broken Monsters) and Terry Hayes (I am Pilgrim) talking about what it takes to write a thriller. Hayes talked about the balance of suspense (when you expect something to happen and it doesn't) and surprise (when you don't expect something to happen, and it does). Beukes talked about how in order to get away with the supernatural elements that are common to her stories, she needs to construct a credible, real-world scaffold to support that. I came out of the session wanting to read both their books.

I grabbed a hot dog for lunch from a stall in the Flinders Station, and enjoyed it in Federation Square while watching one of the performances celebrating Melbourne's 179th birthday today. Then I hopped a tram to my next session, near the State Library of Victoria. I had some time to kill, so I had a fabulous dessert at a chocolate shop: an ice cream sandwich of dark chocolate ice cream between two macarons.

Then I hung out in front of the library reading for a while. The place was full of people spread out on the lawn enjoying the beautiful day, as well as a large Falun Gong demonstration, similar to what I have seen in Toronto, but noisier.

My final session of the Melbourne Writers Festival was the one that had been shown as sold out, that I managed to get a ticket for anyway. I chose it because one of the speakers was Dave Eggers, and I've enjoyed a few of his books (You Shall Know Our Velocity and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). I didn't really know much about the publishing company he established, or the quarterly literary magazine McSweeney's at the heart of it, and I did not know that he had established 826 Valencia, which is "dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their writing skills". The session was about how McSweeney's was established and how it has survived, and a bit about what goes on at 826 Valencia. That's both the name of the non-profit organization and its address in San Francisco (there are now branches in a few other cities). Dave Eggars explained how the zoning on Valencia required a retail presence, so they set up a Pirate Shop up front, selling silly pirate merchandise. Apparently that retail operation generates enough revenue to cover the rent, which was not expected!

I loved the session, and was very interested both in exploring the McSweeney's quarterly, which introduces new writers to its audience, and likes to experiment with its format each issue in some zany ways, and in learning more about 826 Valencia, which seems to be doing amazing things for some kids who need help in school and in life. After the session I bought two McSweeney's books, and stood in line to get them autographed. The line was short, but moved slowly because Dave Eggars spent time with each person. I got him and the other two people there from McSweeney's to sign the books I bought. The host of the session was Chris Flynn, who I had seen speak yesterday. I had bought his book for my Kindle, and as he was still there as well, I got him to sign the back of my Kindle with a Sharpie! I think it was the first time he had been asked to do that, and he got a kick out of it.

Had a yummy Thai dinner and then returned to the hotel, ready for an early night, since I need to be up around 5am to get to the airport in the morning.

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