MWF 2013: History’s Script and This Is Scotland

It’s that time of year again – Melbourne Writers Festival! I really regret not buying my tickets earlier this year – three of the events I wanted to attend were booked out when I got my act together (Tavi’s World, Book Club and Lucrezia Borgia). I have booked tickets for four events now – not nearly as many as I would like to attend, but money and time are two issues that I can’t really compromise on at this stage of my life, so it is what is is. Today, however, was my first of three festival days!

I took the tram in to ACMI at Fed Square and fronted up for History’s Script at 11.30. Michael Cathcart from Books and Arts Daily on Radio National was interviewing Sarah Dunant and Jane Sullivan, and recording the whole session to broadcast on Tuesday. Before I even talk about the session, I just have to say that it made me even more ticked off that I’d missed the Lucrezia Borgia session. Like, ragey. It would have been so good (especially as Sarah Dunant was involved, and has just written a novel on the Borgias called ‘Blood and Beauty’).

Sarah Dunant is a well-known historical fiction and thriller author who studied history at Cambridge, but her interest was really piqued from reading historical fiction. She feels that gender affects people’s approach to history and her obsession and specialisation in the Italian Renaissance was influenced by Florence, where she now spends a lot of her time.

Jane Sullivan is a journalist who has written two novels, the most recent of which is called ‘Little People’ and set in Melbourne in 1870. She came to Australia in the late 1970’s and found out that Melbourne used to be known as ‘the Chicago of the South’. She has not studied history beyond high school (she studied literature at university) but came to history through her love of stories.

Both of these women were excellent speakers, and their passion and enthusiasm was evident. Sarah Dunant likes to put the ‘soil’ in place in her manuscript first – the politics, culture etc – then create a character from that, and stick to the character the stuff that she knows. There was much discussion of the ‘licence to invent’ when writing historical fiction and where the lines are drawn, and the existence of different truths – after all, ‘the victors write the history’ that is most commonly known/accepted. Sarah Dunant in particular talked about her disagreement with the Showtime series of ‘The Borgias’ – why add sex and violence and nudity and sensationalism, when the real truth of the history is just as crazy and exciting? Jane Sullivan pointed out the importance of afterwords – how they can acknowledge what’s true, what’s untrue and what the author/historians are still not sure about.

Michael Cathcart spoke about ‘pluralising’ history – how history is inclusive of lots of different versions of truth and we know have British histories instead of British history and Australian histories instead of Australian history. Sarah Dunant also expanded on her theory of gender and historical fiction – men are now coming to read historical fiction more and more, so have the men changed, or has the historical fiction changed? It’s also important for women, particularly young women, to read about times (often quite recent) where women didn’t enjoy the same rights we do. It shows us how carefully we need to protect what we do have.

Having thoroughly enjoyed myself, I inhaled some caffeine and went to the Deakin Edge simply stunning Atrium for the This is (Sparta) Scotland panel. Liam McIlvanney was chairing, and the Scottish writers taking part were John Burnside, Kirsty Gunn and Doug Johnstone, which pretty much meant it was an hour of auditory bliss with that many accents floating about. They read pieces of their work to us, and then discussed what it meant to be a Scottish writer, and the literary backdrop of the country. There was particularly interesting mention of different brands of nationalism and the discomfort of being appropriated into it, being known as the ‘voice of a nation’. Coming from a nation famous for their crime writers, Doug Johnstone deliberately includes family life and mundane domesticity in his high-octane crime dramas in order to explore those contrasts. John ‘bleak is my middle name’ Burnside expressed delight that here at the Melbourne Writers Festival ‘you can walk from one cultural experience to another without getting drunk along the way’, and they all mentioned other writers who had influenced them in various ways – Iain Banks and Irvine Welsh (Doug Johnstone), Neil Gunn (Kirsty Gunn – no relation!) and Hugh MacDiarmid and John Muir (John Burnside).

I came home to blog about these sessions in preparation for tomorrow, when I’m going to No Safe Place, and also a Women of Letters salon. Expect another blog in the next 48 hours! Meanwhile, I have some reading to catch up on.

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