Lies and truth tangential at Sydney Writers’ Festival
EVELEIGH: The theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival was “Lie to Me” and the program promised that the line-up of writers would examine white lies, deceptions, malicious lies and the ways that writing can be employed to deceive people in “an increasingly post-truth world”.
Of the sessions that I attended, this theme was, at best, only addressed tangentially – but the festival was nonetheless very interesting and topical. Having a theme for such a diverse range of writers and books seems quite arbitrary and unnecessary. People come to the festival because they want to hear their favourite writers speak or they wish to learn more about the latest books that have hit the market.
People don’t need to have read the books of the authors who appear at the festival but the success of the sessions owes much to the people who are chosen to interview the writers. If there is a good interviewer, the writer(s) and the audience are much better served. While there were some big names represented at the festival including the Pulitzer Prize winner, Andrew Sean Greer, it wasn’t always a given that they were more interesting than debut or early career authors.
Some sessions, which should have been fascinating owing to the calibre of the author interviewed, were only fair to middling because the interviewer was either not well versed in the writer’s works or was in awe of their achievements. In one particular session, the interviewer kept asking the two renowned writers what it was like being a famous writer and was it all that they had hoped it would be? This line of questioning led to some less than inspired responses and the session fell flat as a consequence.
One of the best interviewers to my mind was Suzanne Leal. In a session called “Literary Worlds” she interviewed Carla Guelfenbein, Toni Jordan and John Purcell. The session covered a great range of material and the three authors were shown at their very best. Another excellent interview was with the Australian writer, Chloe Hooper, who wrote The Arsonist. This was an absorbing session and Hooper was generous, cogent and considered in all of her responses. Anyone in the audience who hadn’t read her work would be intent on reading it in the very near future.
Of the early career writers who were represented, the standout was probably Kristen Roupenian, the writer of the short story collection You Know You Want This: Cat Person and Other Stories. Perceptive and highly intelligent, she will be a writer to watch in the future. Another writer who shone was Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room. Kushner had gone to great lengths to explore the American prison system, particularly as it pertains to women, and the stories she related and the excerpt she read from her book generated much interest.
The Sydney Writers’ Festival covers a great deal of ground in terms of authors and subject matter and this year’s festival was no exception. Getting to all of the sessions is an impossible task but attending and enjoying the ones that truly resonate is very much tied up in the quality of the interviewers’ questions and their knowledge of the authors represented.