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The Brisbane International Writers Festival

Rob Payne is the author of Live By Request, an acclaimed debut novel, and Working Class Zero. He is the former editor of Quarry Magazine and has edited two anthologies of Canadian short fiction, Carrying the Fire and Pop Goes the Story. Early in 2002 one of Payne’s articles in The Globe and Mail caused uproar in the CanLit community when he asserted that Canadian literature is dominated by historical fiction, or what he called "MMD"—books that "Make Me Drowsy."

He attended the 2003 Brisbane International Writers Festival and files this report.


Brisbane International Writers Festival – Day One

 I’m up at four am, throwing together the last of my things for the forty-five minute drive to the airport. I’m buoyant, jumpy, and ready for my first-ever writing festival. My girlfriend has volunteered to drive me to the airport, though not exactly happily. I point out the revitalizing cold nip in the air and the stillness and peacefulness of the world. She turns up the radio.

The plane trip itself is like every other: incredibly dull, generally cramped, and featuring a passenger somewhere nearby who hasn’t showered in a couple days. I doze, read Time and eat whatever they give me because I’m THAT BORED. Tomato frittata, fine. Dry shriveled croissant, excellent. A napkin, bring it on. It’s all going into my mouth. I get delayed an hour in Melbourne, but manage to locate my first fellow writer, Elliot Perlman. He’s in the middle of a publicity tour for his novel Seven Types of Ambiguity and has already been to Brisbane once this month. As we board, kd lang’s familiar face sheepishly watches the incoming crowd from a first class window seat, as if pining for recognition. I think about making a stupid ‘how’s it going, eh?’ Mackenzie Brothers remark, but my brain decides there’s nothing more tragic than sucking up to a celebrity, especially one you’re not particularly interested in. Behind her, Tony Bennett feigns sleep in a classy double-breasted jacket. I pass and look back a few seconds later to see Elliot shaking his hand and getting an autograph.

“Did you wake him up?” I say.

“Yeah. I nudged him with my elbow and said I love your work, Mr. Sinatra. Of course not, he opened his eyes. It’s for my girlfriend. And I do have a couple of his CDs. So I have no pride. I don’t care. The man’s a legend.”

It’s like listening to an Australian Woody Allen.

            Brisbane is warm, gently humid and sunny when we arrive. We catch a cab with another nomad writer wandering helplessly around the gates and drive along the river to the festival grounds. I’m not sure what I expect of this weekend, but have a faint sensation of getting my due. I have the idea that festivals are the one time when writers are exotic – maybe even sexy – in the way other creative artists like actors and musicians always get to be. There’s a rock and roll buzz in the air. kd and Tony, me and Elliot, strum and twang.

I’ve been doing a lot of publicity for Working Class Zero, but being at the ass-end of the country (world?) in Perth, it’s been almost exclusively phone based. I’m currently living in the most isolated state capital in the world and lately have begun to feel it. The city is nice, probably the most beautiful I’ve ever known, but there’s a lack of potential – a missing feeling that great things could happen at any moment. Even my publicity seems to be for somewhere else, everywhere else, connected by newsprint and airwaves. Australian radio has been fantastic. I’ve done more than a dozen interviews so far, mainly ten-minute spots that act as pseudo commercials. I’m pleasantly surprised at the enthusiasm – Australians seem to get me. I feel like doing a Sally Field Oscar night You Like Me, You Really Like Me.

            We hit the welcome party and circulate for an hour, shaking hands and using pneumonic tricks to remember all the names. I know a few Australian writers, but most elude me. I have a brief discussion with Anthony Swafford, the ex-marine who is here to talk about Jarhead, his memoir of the first Gulf war, and the current state of the Union. Anti-Americanism is so high in this country that I’m tempted to ordain many people honourary Canadians – not that I see this as our finest trait. Anthony is slightly nervous, apprehensive, and clearly knows not a soul.

The party trickles to a close as everyone slides off to get ready for the evening sessions and I’m left in the bar with a Sydney based poet and a tray of white wine, which we dutifully polish off. We arrange to meet up for the Irish Knees Up, which an Irish novelist confides is actually a cockney term (not that he’s offended, just mildly amused). I have a suitably late night, using up the adrenalin of new faces and uniqueness, keeping my place at the table until my wiring shorts out and I need a bed.

Brisbane Festival – Day Two

The hotel has Fox Sports and I spend the morning watching the baseball playoffs and eating room service breakfast off my naked chest. I can’t open the windows and the air con is giving me a migraine, but Ivan Rodriguez is behind the plate and my hangover is too great for human contact. I look around and wonder how I got here, not just to this room, this foreign city, this festival, but also to this baseball-less country, this current life of extended dislocation. There’s so much to be gained by leaving your homeland, yet so much to be lost. I’m overwhelmingly homesick. This was no doubt the festival’s plans: give me cable, make sure the playoffs are on, and put me on an afternoon panel discussion entitled Stranger in a Strange Land. And that is exactly what I am. For all the perceived similarities between Canada and Australia (colonial past, population, media development), to my eyes the countries are radically different. Canadians have major flaws: we lack enthusiasm, judge ourselves harshly, care too much about the United States and ignore the hell out of innovators and artists unless they’ve made it elsewhere. And yet we’ve got a wonderfully tolerant nature, socially and artistically, and are more curious than most. We feel empathy. We are a more complex society than we think. I jot down thoughts for the panel on hotel stationary.

  • I’ve always been an outsider, no matter where I’ve been, most often by choice. 

  • Writers are best when they observe, when they document and try to understand human nature. 

  • Politics ruins creativity and individualism. 

  • Though I love the place, Toronto has a good assortment of pretentious twats, most in some way connected to The Globe and Mail

  • Writers aren’t special – writing is special.

My panel consists of myself, a 52-year-old former TV gardening guru turned memoir-travel writer, an academic and the author of a sensual love story set in India. I’m a last minute add-on (thanks to the late withdrawal of a British writer on my original panel), which might explain the schizophrenic composition of the group. I look out over a sea of gray perms and fight the urge to run. Apparently the gardener is beloved, one of the big draws for the weekend, and sells hundreds of thousands of books.

My opening jokes fall flat and I mentally scramble to regroup and adapt my thoughts while words tumble awkwardly from my flapping gums. I look from one side of the room to the other, attempting to key in on a sympathetic face. This is one of the tricks for public speaking I was taught: by focusing on individuals you transform an open presentation into an intimate conversation. Unfortunately, the face I keep coming back to is a round, red orb in a perpetual scowl that keeps her good arm and her broken arm firmly clasped to her chest. She’s the craned neck of a human lemon looking from the gardener to me.      

I tell the crowd that place doesn’t matter, except for two things: as a way of gathering material and insight; and to readjust perspective. I can write about a fictional Canada much more easily when I’m away, because there’s no background noise – Toronto becomes a constant in my mind, defined by the strongest impulses and impressions, but lacking the minutia of the daily grind. God might be in the details, but fiction requires precision, editing, concentrated telling and that’s easier to do when you can let go of a city’s inherent contradictions. This is probably why so many people write historical fiction, because you can control your environment, manipulate the gray areas or creative them from scratch. The Toronto in my mind is only half-realized, but it suits my purposes, because I can warp the rest to suit my diabolical needs.

            Not that most in the audience care…

            In the signing tent, I sell a couple books to people in their 20s and 30s who were obviously hidden among the wide sunhats and floral frocks. The gardener gets her own table, her lineup snaking thirty yards into the thoroughfare. I can’t remember which is worse, jealously or envy. A university-aged girl slides in and hands me a copy of Working Class Zero.

            “Wasn’t really your crowd,” she says.

            “Yeah, but in thirty years, watch out.”

            “They say that most novelists only have ten good years. What do you think of that?”

            “Sound like a disgruntled failed writer to me. They’re often known in my country as reviewers or freelancers. To whom should I make this out?”

            “Nadia… What would you do if you weren’t a writer?”

            “Probably work at MacDonald’s.”

            I get the feeling I’m ruining the allure of the profession. My publicist helps wrap up the session and we leave. She makes me carry around a pen for the rest of the afternoon, in case anyone sees me and needs an autograph. I tell her I am in no way expecting spontaneous signings and feel like Bob Dole with this pen hanging uselessly from my hand. She doesn’t get the joke, not having grown up in the tsunami that is North American culture. I’m getting used to jokes falling flat for lack of common cultural cues. At first I was embarrassed and talked less, now I move on and filter my references better. I switch from Mike Bullard to Rove McManus, Sloan to Silverchair, Montreal to Melbourne, Stomping Tom to Slim Dusty… I carry two countries on my back. Thankfully, the basic mechanics of mockery are universal.

            Throughout the day, ex-pat Americans and Canadians come up to me like I’m an old friend. They want to know my reactions to being here, wonder why I’ve come, and probe me for news of home like thirsty refugees who have just crawled out of the desert. Canadians might bitch about Americans, but abroad our nationalities often drift together, fortress North America taking shape before us on an almost unconscious level - Free Trade in gossip and yearnings for drive-through donut shops. Festivals being inherently public, I get trapped at an outdoor table with a fifty-something American woman who tells me she finds my gray temples divine and says if we were in Italy our ages wouldn’t be an impediment to love. She offers to finish a fellow writer’s salad and as she lunges across the table for a plastic fork, I stealthily make a break for it. Exposure: it’s key to this weekend, from both a media and personal point of view. But the arts promote a strange intimacy, a special bond that practical pursuits will never match, and some readers feel the right to ask for more than what is on the page. Art is a connective tissue between minds. But the flow of ideas only goes one way. That’s the way I like it. I need readers, but I don’t want to be everybody’s friend. A guy in jeans and a t-shirt falls into step with me.

            “Hey, describe you book in less than ten words,” he says.

            “It’s funnier than the Bible.”

            “No, seriously.”

“Yeah, seriously. We’re in negotiations with Jehovahs to give away free copies at airports.”

“I might buy it if you do a good job.”

            I can live without this chucker’s two-dollars, but know these encounters can have elements of karma – the Valhalla of word-of-mouth sales. I’m on my way to the bridge, to explore Brisbane city and take a break from banter. I should keep going, retain my sanity, but I stop.

            “OK,” I say. “It’s about office politics, odd family relationships and communication problems.”

            Honest to god, he counts the words on his fingers.

            “That’s eleven,” he says.

            “No, it’s not.”

Honest to god, I count the words on my fingers.

It’s is two words because of the contraction,” he says. “Hey, I’ve got a book. It’s a lot like yours. Young guy getting shit-on by the world, can’t get a break… Maybe you could introduce me to your publisher.”

            And this, of course, is another side of festival life: everyone has a book; everyone has a story; everyone thinks you can help him or her because you MUST know the SECRET. (Which is, of course, in order: talent, hard work, persistence and blind fucking luck)

 Brisbane Festival – Day Three

            Morning – more baseball, less room service, and nagging questions about pubic hair:

Why does it stop growing when it reaches a certain length?

How does it know to grow back when cut?

What would the world be like if we had to go to pubic barbershops once every few weeks or months?


            I spend the day doing radio interviews and visiting bookshops with my publicist. I’m encouraged by my placement on shelves and tables, flattered that a bookseller has deemed Working Class Zero good enough for one of those tiny cards scribbled with a personal recommendation. My social patter, always suspect after weeks of solitary writing, is well-greased now as I attempt to score a few laughs and establish a personal connection with the people selling my books. After answering “What’s your book about?” and “Is it autobiographical” dozens of times, I’ve got my spiel down pat. I am evolving into a soundbite, my own brand. I have familiar slogans and well-rehearsed anecdotes. I aspire to be downloaded.

            I go free in the late afternoon and meet up with an old friend. We sit in a pub beer garden near the festival grounds soaking up sun until a mixed assortment of bookish professor types and mondo-geeks begin setting up microphones. A beefy man wanders by in a technicolour shirt, the pattern like one of those computer-generated 3D pictures you see in newspapers. I have to look away before it induces a fit. A woman in a cape comes out of the bar with a white wine, followed closely by a young waitress who comes to our table and asks us if we’d mind moving.

            “There’s a science fiction session for the writers festival,” she says.

            “No shit,” my compatriot says, flashing her the Spock Live Long and Prosper finger sign. “I knew stereotypes came from somewhere.”

            “Anyway,” the waitress says. “We’ve got to move the tables.”

            “What if we’re with the festival?” I say.

            “Oh, are you guys writers?”

            My compatriot looks at me. “Should we tell her?”

            I laugh. “Do think we can trust her?”

            He scans her slowly. “We’re looking for a man named Lord Lucan. He was accused of bludgeoning his nanny to death in Britain in the 1970s and we’ve heard rumours he’s around here somewhere, in Australia, maybe even at this festival, probably living under the alias Barry Halpin. Have you ever heard of the Mucky Duck Bush Band?”

“Uh, no… What does this guy look like?”

“Large bloke with a long beard, squinty eyes and small lips.”

            He’s just described most of the patrons of the pub.

“What do you want this guy for?”

            “We want to interview him for Vogue,” I say. “We’re thinking cover issue. Nannicide is big this season.”

            “And then we’re going to write a book about him.”

            “Oh,” the waitress says relieved. “I thought for a minute you were cops or something.” 

We forego tales of space and glory and stumble back to the main grounds to a party being thrown by my publisher – their way of enhancing their reputation, rewarding their writers, courting the media and hopefully poaching a couple authors from other companies. I am falling in love with festival world, this planet where my every need is met: drinks, food, books, and adoration… I could live here. I could become the Ben Affleck of the literary world, wearing eye makeup, descending into consumable mediocrity and not realizing my own ridiculousness. I’m fed wine and moved around the room like a chess piece, chatting with the media and getting my picture taken with booksellers as if I’m someone important to the canon. I’m due to give a reading at eight o’clock, but performers go overtime, and by nine thirty my legs are wonky and my eyes are blurred. A small entourage of professional and personal acquaintances moves with me to the main tent. We sit near the front and listen intently as an angry young woman with short jet-black hair reads snippets of a story involving (a) her first fisting encounter (b) rough group sex and (c) the repeated use of “long pink hard penis”.

            “Is this your worst nightmare?”

            My publisher grabs my arm as I go up to the stage.

            “Don’t mock her,” she says. “I’m sure a lot of people here came to see her.”

            I am the vision of propriety, reading my sexless, penis-less, fistless tale of a lowly office worker meeting his girlfriend’s parents. The only time I look up or pause is when my old friend and compatriot falls off his chair. Whether or not he’s spotted the elusive Lord Lucan is anyone’s guess.

Brisbane Festival – Day Four

I’m wearing my least comfortable underwear. Something has happened to the elastic waistband. I don’t need this sort of distraction. I’ve left my jacket in one of the bars and there’s a half-drunk bottle of wine near the sink; the smell is making me ill. I ended the night drinking in the hotel bar with a fiftysomething Big L serious literary writer after everyone drifted off. I remember snatches of conversation from the night: a serious conversation about fathers and moral codes; a long description of a blue and orange pinstripe suit I need to buy; general bitchiness and gossip about fellow writers. I’m fairly certain I haven’t insulted anyone, though I am aware of using “fist-fucking story” very loosely at regular intervals whenever anyone asked about my reading.

            There’s no baseball today, and just as well.

            My third panel is entitled “Make Me Laugh”, which through the course of the festival I’ve chosen to refer to as “Dance Monkey Dance”. I’m on with a standup comedian and a performance poet. I am neither a comedian nor a performer. I am a writer who crafts funny situations and dialogue while hiding behind a keyboard. I spend the morning making notes, practicing, telling the story of how I got to be in this position, how I became a humour writer almost by accident, because the first “serious” draft of a novel didn’t sell.

            This is the first time I’ve been nervous. Pacing in my hotel room, glancing at the clock every four to six minutes, I wonder what I’ve done to deserve this fate. There’s a panel on America and the World that I’d love to sit on. There’s no pressure in geopolitics, not like comedy. Everyone knows the way those political discussions go – psuedo-intellectual, lovehate, envydigust displays that reveal people’s contradictory attitudes to America -- schitzo lust as obviously and inseparable as the tattoos on Robert De Niro’s knuckles in Cape Fear.

            I have a lovehate relationship with America, Canada, Australia and ultimately with myself. My puritanical/Catholic guilt is kicking in. I look around the messy room – the do not disturb sign protecting me from the outside world. I’ve had too many take-out trays, too much pampering, too many free soaps and complimentary cookies. I’m feeling strange urges to abuse the cleaning staff, be insolent with the front desk clerks, write a letter of complaint about the coffee not being up to my exacting standards.

            The horror, the horror…

            Geezus, “Make Me Laugh” – what masochist decided on that title?

I see more gray hairs on my temples than I had when I flew in, red blotches on my face, like I might be in the process of contracting some rare skin disease.

            I bump into Elliot as I get out of the elevator.

            “Looks like it might rain,” he says. “I’m going back up to get my umbrella.”

            “Shouldn’t you have at least one publicist to help?” I say.

            I run into another writer, who looks shaky and lost in the lobby.

            “How was your panel?” I ask.

            “Awful. Not His Real Name showed up late because he was apparently screwing Not Her Real Name in his hotel room. I know he sells a lot of books, but that’s not classy. I mean, come on…”

            Open copulation, decadence, and the human condition devolving into chaos.

            The crowd for MAKE ME LAUGH (as it now appears in my mind) is a mixed demographic, from teenagers to eighty-year-olds. The standup does a routine on family relationships, the performance poet rhymes about the prime minister, and I talk about the craft of humour – I’m the only one who actually talks about books and writing. I tell them that a televangelist healer in white shoes was my lightening rod of inspiration, that without the allure of mass religious hysteria I wouldn’t be here today. I simply had to mock him and the very notion of blind faith. I say my humour comes from frustration at life, at human relationships and the tenuous systems of belief that bind and divide us in equal measure. I tell them that joviality is the key to our humanity and the only way that I feel I can make a positive contribution to a chaotic and often evil world.

            I sit down hoping they will appreciate my confession. We enter question period – the time of Koans, riddles and enigmas.

Why don’t they make funny movies these days?

Answer: I have no idea, I write books.

Why don’t you write movies?

Answer: No one has asked.

Where’s all the subtly gone in humour?

Answer: Fuck off.

By the time the session is done, I’m done. I’ve said so much this weekend, to countless people, made the same jokes far too many times and need to retreat to my solitude and ordered mind. I limp through the faces to my hotel room. Around me the festival doesn’t end; it disintegrates. It’s the end of the school year, Camp Brisbane. Writers scuttle off, looking wrecked, carrying their luggage awkwardly in gnarled hands, bow-backed and in need of isolation, less glamour, a typewriter and a room of his or her own.


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