(Overdue) Notes from the Sydney Writersʼ Festival

sydney_writers_festival_2011_posterI have, in the last couple of years, had the opportunity to meet several of my heroes. No-one you might call a megastar, but then, who would want to meet a megastar? They are terrifyingly hot and often 20 million times the size of the sun. (Oh dear.) Unfortunately for me, I have never quite managed to remain cool during these encounters. (Stop. It. Now.)

There was the time I accused Shaun Micallef of plagiarising (myself. Oh dear me.) and the time I inadvertently gave Reif Larsen the impression I was about to ask him out. (ʻI was just wondering if …ʼ) Never before have I seen such terror in a manʼs eyes. Oh and when I had the opportunity to go hobnob with Ben Naparstek and Steve Toltz, I literally ran away. (Got in car and went to maccas instead, if youʼre interested.)

At the Sydney Writersʼ Festival this year, there were a lot of writers to get oneʼs self in a tizz about. But the biggie for me was Sonya Hartnett. I was genuinely surprised that Hartnett was not mobbed at her signings, but then, she is a little intimidating. The lack of mobbing did mean that I got to meet Ms Hartnett and was afforded requisite opportunity to make a fool of myself. However I am not going to reveal whether I did so until the end of this blog, so read on, dear Overlanders! (Or, you know, go read the debate between Michael Brull and Dr Tad Tietze.)

If you do not know who Sonya Hartnett is and you call yourself a literary rat, book worm, or whatever common household pest you associate your reading habits with, I suggest you take a long hard look at yourself, then go out and buy one of her books. I dare say if she wasnʼt a woman we would hear a lot more about her. Hartnett joined Markus Zusak, who Iʼm fairly sure was mobbed, for a session called ʻBright Sparksʼ, so titled because of the freakishly young ages they were when first published. Hartnett was thirteen when she wrote her first published novel. Yes thatʼs right, thirteen. Once one can stop hating her for this long enough to read her work, it becomes clear why she is considered so damn good at what she does.

During the discussion Hartnett and Zusak talked about all sorts of very interesting things which I will not go into here. What I will go into here, however, is the discussion about endings, more specifically having the balls (or otherwise) to end a story properly – even if this means killing off your favourite characters. Indeed, the reason this blog is so very overdue is that I have been terribly bogged down in writing an ending myself. (Excuses, excuses.)

At this point it is only fair to issue a spoiler alert for Hartnettʼs Of a Boy and Zusakʼs Book Thief, both of which have brutal endings. At least in the case of The Book Thief one does have the knowledge from the outset that being WW2 Germany and all, the ending is unlikely to be all sunshine and strudels. Of a Boy offers the reader a less explicit warning.

It tells the story of nine-year-old Adrian. To borrow from Penguin’s eloquent blurb: ʻHe loves to draw and he wants a dog; heʼs afraid of quicksand and self-combustion. Adrian watches his suburban world, but there is not much he can understand.ʼ

Adrian lives an emotionally isolated existence; his grandmother is cold and distant and her interactions with him are largely perfunctory. He forms a friendship of sorts with a girl whose life is equally arid. In the very last pages of the novel, they both fall beneath the covers of a swimming pool and drown. It is gut-wrenching to say the least and has ruined my own winter swims forever; swimming in a partially covered pool is now a sinister experience.

Hartnett said that her thirty years of novel-writing experience has given her the confidence needed to pull off such an ending and that she couldnʼt have done it earlier on. In her view it is inexperience that leads some authors to write endings that are too neat or cloying. However, she did admit that she regrets ʻkilling offʼ Adrian. I was somewhat pleased to hear her say this as I felt it was an ending that went for brutality at the expense of subtlety.

Speaking of favourite characters and pesky opinionated readers, Markus Zusak mentioned that readers constantly ask him how he could have killed Rudy at the end of The Book Thief. Rudy had been Zusakʼs favourite character ever since he painted himself black to reenact Jesse Owensʼ Olympic sprint. Zusak knew all along he would have to die. He even accused himself of being overly sentimental when it came to letting Liesel live. ʻIf I had done a proper job I would have knocked her off too.ʼ

Given all this, one could be forgiven for thinking that a ʻproperʼ ending requires a good dose of tragedy. To name but a few: The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, Madame Bovary, Heart of Darkness and Mrs Dalloway all end with significant characters falling off the perch. (Proverbial or otherwise, in the case of Mrs Dalloway.) Yet knocking off a character (or several) could sometimes seem to be the easy option when it comes to adding a touch of drama. One suspects that at times an equal measure of boldness is required to allow certain characters to survive. In the end (sorry), balance is the essential ingredient.

Epic LogSo to this blogʼs own ending. Did I approach Sonia Hartnett at the festival signing-table only to make some terrifyingly inappropriate faux pas, causing her to beat me to death with a copy of Of a Boy in a fit of rage? No, that would be overly dramatic and implausible. (Of a Boy is far too slim a book to beat anyone to death with.) Instead I told her she had ruined winter swimming for me forever, something she seemed to appreciate. And then she signed my book. I am definitely getting better at this.

Claire Zorn

Claire Zorn is a Sydney-based writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been published in various literary journals and she has a particular passion for writing young adult fiction.

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