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
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
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
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
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.”
We’re in negotiations with Jehovahs to give away free copies at
“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
“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
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
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
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
“Anyway,” the waitress says. “We’ve got to move the
“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
“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
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
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
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
I run into another writer, who looks shaky and lost in the
“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
Open copulation, decadence, and the human condition devolving
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
Answer: No one has
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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