The Perth Festival’s Writers Weekend is almost upon us. Its curator, Gillian O’Shaughnessy, a self-described “obsessive” reader and award-winning writer of flash fiction, has been flat out preparing for the big event. On February 26 and 27, the gardens of Fremantle Arts Centre will be a hub of authors and bookworms, gathering to hear the likes of Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Lisa Taddeo, Michelle de Kretser and Liz Byrski impart some literary gems. (Due to the pandemic, some of the writers beyond our shores will be live-streaming into the events.) Gillian chats to The Starfish:
What are some of the events that bookworms simply can’t miss?
The opportunity to hear Tim Winton speak is so rare, he doesn’t often step willingly into the public eye, so this is a truly unmissable event. There is not a single other author in the world who can speak to our relationship with the sea the way he can, both for its wonder and fragility and the way our coastal life is woven through our character and culture. I am very excited to hear Lisa Taddeo speak female desire and anger when she discusses the immersive journalism project which led to both Three Women and her new novel, Animal, a powerhouse grenade of a book. And Christos Tsiolkas is always both provocative and a delight, 7 ½ is a response to the pandemic and he decided to write about beauty. That makes me so happy.
As curator of the event, what’s been your main responsibility?
So much research. It’s about finding the best storytellers to speak to the ideas being dissected in the program, and choosing work that reflects WA and Australian stories in particular, then designing a schedule. It’s important to feature both debut writers and big names, so there’s a lot of reading involved to distil a vast range of books down to fit into the program vision. Once the authors and books have been chosen, the sessions need to be programmed, brochures written. An important part of the job is finding the right moderator to pair with each session; a good interview is a skill.
Is it a lot more work than anyone would imagine?
There is certainly no shortage of brilliant books, I could never hope to read them all, let alone program all the books I would like to include.
What’s the most challenging aspect of the role?
Having to choose. It keeps me up at night.
Please let us in on some of the books you’ve been reading that really had an impact on you?
As hard as it was to choose, there were some books I had to have.
Everything Helen Garner writes is impactful. How to End a Story was just so consuming though. It put me in a towering rage for weeks. I haven’t felt such a rampant swell of feminist fury for decades. I enjoyed it immensely.
I worked in journalism for many years so I was very affected by Jacqueline Maley’s book, The Truth About Her. It goes to the heart of modern media I think, asking very bold and timely questions such as; who owns a story, who has the right to tell it, and what is truth? It’s a page turner as well. I couldn’t put it down.
Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki is a generational story of the Noongar women in her family. In the book she writes of tracking ‘her grandmother’s stars to find her bidi home,’ and it still gives me deep shivers to remember reading these stories of resistance and love in the form of poetry, flash fiction, restorative story work and archival material. I held this powerful book in my hands a long time after I finished it and I can’t forget it.
Finally, Car Crash: A Memoir by Lech Blaine is a study in grief, masculinity and recovery. Lech was only 17 when he walked away from a crash that killed three of his friends and left two others in comas, one with permanent brain injury. We see this story played out in headlines almost every day. I wish everyone would read this book.
Obviously the Covid situation has poses challenges for the Festival. What has your team had to do to ensure the Writers Weekend remains a success?
I think optimism and flexibility are the two key approaches here. I am lucky to be working with the very experienced Sisonke Msimang, who curated Literature and Ideas in 2021 at the height of the pandemic and is a wealth of wisdom. Festival producers, Georgia Landre-Ord and Anna Kosky are both a study in practical positivity. Writers is part of the broader Perth Festival so there really is so much support and knowledge to draw on. It’s important at every level of the Festival that our artists and audiences feel safe. Yes, there are challenges, but I could not feel more confident in the teams to manage them as and when they arise.
You’re best known for your radio work, but you’re also an award-winning writer! I see that in 2020 you won the UK Reflex Flash Fiction Prize. How did that come about?
I started writing short fiction, or flash fiction during the pandemic when I signed up to a writing course online with Laura Keenan and Linda Martin from Night Parrot Press. I love it. I think I spent so many years working to very fast deadlines, I now like the process of submitting work because it gives me an end point, otherwise I’d edit stories into oblivion because I don’t know when to stop. There are a lot of flash fiction competitions open internationally, including Reflex. I was proud of the story, Mouse, a personal story about my grandmother and depression, but I also think there’s a huge element of luck involved. I’ll take it though!
Is Flash Fiction becoming much more of a ‘thing” and is it being discussed at the Writers Weekend?
It’s an umbrella term for short stories under 1500 words generally, and I think it’s been a thing for a long time. It’s the term ‘flash fiction’ itself that is relatively recent. You’ll find stunning examples by authors like Virginia Woolf, (The Haunted House is a classic) Ernest Hemingway and more modern examples in the work of people like George Saunders and Pip Williams. I think it’s popular because it’s both challenging and accessible, plus there are so many publishing opportunities for emerging writers. Little Fictions: the art of the short, short story panel at 2.30 on Saturday Feb 26 with Linda Martin, Mabel Gibson and Susan Midalia is devoted entirely to flash fiction. A great opportunity to find out more. It’s a great genre to look at if you’ve always wanted to try writing fiction but don’t want to tackle a novel. There’s so much room to experiment.
Aside from the Weekend’s “rock star” events (eg Tim Winton’s closing address), is there a panel discussion/ some smaller event you’re especially looking forward to?
I love crime fiction and it was fun putting together the panel of West Australian women, Karen Herbert, Sally Scott and Lisa Ellery who will talk to fellow crime writer, David Whish-Wilson about their debuts. I think crime writers like David, Dervla McTiernan and Alan Carter have helped put WA on the international map when it comes to this genre and it’s great to see these brilliant additions.
How impressed are you with the calibre of WA writers in general?
WA is killing it in every way. Juliet Marillier is an international superstar in the realm of historical fantasy, Natasha Lester is a New York Times best seller, Craig Silvey is a genius and a national treasure, Joshua Kemp who was a co-winner of this year’s Dorothy Hewett award has written one of the best Australian gothic novels in years in Banjawan. John Kinsella releases volume one of his collected works this year, he is one of Australia’s most lauded and prolific poets. Miles Franklin winner, Josephine Wilson is delivering the Randolph Stowe memorial lecture with Prema Arasu at Writers on the Sunday. There are so many stunning WA debuts out right now, many of which just missed out being released in time but seriously, you could easily program an entire Festival based on debut WA writers alone right now.
Do you think we West Australians make enough fuss of our local writers? Or are we too easily starstruck by writers from further afield?
I say yes, we do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all aspire to new heights of adoration. I don’t think anyone would mind. I think the local community is really supportive and all of us, from readers, to publishers and editors and independent booksellers love nothing more than to cheer on WA writers. More love never hurts and Writers Weekend is a great opportunity to celebrate our writers.
Any emerging writers who have caught your eye who we should look out for?
Maria Papas won the Tag Hungerford award with Skimming Stones, she is an exquisite writer, Mabel Gibson is a young Yamatji writer whose work has appeared in two Night Parrot Press anthologies plus in maar bidi: next generation black writing, she’s on the flash fiction panel. Scott-Patrick Mitchell is an established poet but I think their debut collection Clean from Upswell Press, which explores addiction and the meth crisis is worth mentioning here, as is the poetry collection, Vociferate from Emily Sun which looks at identity and belonging.
Writers Weekend is February 26 and 27. To book visit http://perthfestival.com.au. Suggested ticket fee per session is $19 but you can choose to pay any amount – or nothing.