I had the great pleasure of attending the Newcastle Writers Festival this weekend with my eldest son. The festival is relatively new so I went with no idea what to expect and was blown away by both the program and the execution. The speakers were all first-rate, and everything was really well attended, but there was a lovely laid-back quality to each session that encouraged mingling and audience participation. Conversation flowed easily between attendees and presenters, and carried over downstairs to the cafe and MacLean’s Booksellers festival bookshop. This was the first time I attended the festival but it definitely won’t be my last!
Here are some of my highlights:
Beyond the Crime Scene with Wendy James and P. M. Newton, hosted by Megan Buxton
Both writers are celebrated within their genre but what struck me was that neither of them intended to be crime writers. P. M. Newton worked as a police officer and later, a detective, for over a decade but got sick of meeting people “for the first time on the worst day of their lives” so she resigned and started to travel, but a chance encounter with a crime scene overseas sparked her interest and her writing career grew from there. With Wendy, it wasn’t until she had won something called The Best First Australian Crime Novel Award for her debut novel that she even realized she was writing crime at all! I found these revelations really interesting because I think there’s this myth that crime-writing is about following a formula, whereas both of these writers arrived at it far more serendipitously.
Romance Is Not a Dirty Word with Fiona McArthur, Kelly Hunter, and Anne Gracie, hosted by Kaz Delaney
I think this session was supposed to be about the stigma and snobbery against Romance as a genre, but the writers couldn’t help themselves – they wanted to focus instead on how much they love what they do! There were a couple of things that really jumped out at me from this session. Kaz began by rattling off a list of sales figures and not only did Romance top the list, it topped it by billions! The writers attributed this to love being one of the most universal themes, which means not only does romantic fiction appeal to a wide audience, but it is easily translatable and can be published in vastly different countries without losing something along the way. Another thing that hit me in this discussion was how acutely aware these writers are of their readership. I think with literary fiction there is a tendency to encourage authors to “just tell the story you want to tell” and worry about the reader after, but the women on the Romance panel were extremely concerned with what a reader might be looking for in their work — escapism, optimism, positivity, hope — and they were committed to making sure they not only met but exceeded those expectations.
Through the Eyes of a Child with Brooke Davis and Favel Parrett, hosted by Courtney Collins
Brooke and Favel have both written wonderful books that feature young protagonists. What I took away from this session was that they didn’t choose their characters as a device, or as part of some desire to fit into a particular market — they just felt that a child’s voice and perspective was right to tell their individual stories, even though they weren’t necessarily writing for children. They did speak a little bit to the difficulties this presents with regards to categorization and marketing (Brooke, for example, said her book has been packaged as YA in the States but not in Australia) but ultimately felt that they had written the characters that needed to be written and would leave the publishing decisions to, well, the publishers! They also discussed having to make the somewhat strange transition from author to public-speaker, which I found really interesting as both books are so intimate it must indeed be a bit of a shock to step away from writing them and living in their inner landscapes to having conversations about them out in the “real” world!
So, all up, I found my first visit to the Newcastle Writers Festival really engaging, stimulating and inspiring. I loved how this festival was so varied and I found it refreshing that it was inclusive of genre-writing, which often gets marginalized at literary festivals. I also thought the festival provided a great balance between national and local talent. I didn’t make it to any poetry events this year on account of personal logistics, but I was pleased to note the number on offer. Lastly, my favorite aspect of this festival by far was the relaxed, convivial atmosphere. I look forward to going again in 2016!