Reflections on the Wonders of Adelaide Writers Week

Why would I, an ex-accountant and ex-economist – a numbers man – want to sit for days listening to a variety of people talking about the books they have written?  And why would that be one of my most valued events of my year?

OK, I confess I’ve written 17 published books, but they have all been academic, research-based, teaching-oriented technical books – not the fiction, biographic, historical works or poetry promoted here.  This year I was fascinated by topics as wide apart as 400 years of Russian history, stolen girls in Mexico, a year of reviewing and living in hotels, the Boston bombers, settling in the Coorong in the 1850s and how to create cultural gender equity for a society.  (I’m sorry, but I’m not attracted to the poetry sessions, but they are well attended, so others obviously value them.).

What is the attraction ?  Where’s the value? (I’m always concerned with ‘value’ in its widest sense.)

There are several key differences from the Melbourne (and other major?) festivals that create great value.  All the sessions are FREE!  There is only a choice of two concurrent sessions, but they are right next to each other and, if you don’t like one, it cost nothing and you can easily move to the other. There is only a 15 minute gap between sessions, so it’s not long to wait till the next topic – it’s a very efficient use of time with 7 sessions a day. And it’s a great setting. The sessions are outdoors, under the cover of large plane trees augmented with minor shade cloths.  You can even lie on the grass on the hill at the side, hearing everything or perhaps dozing off.  And, being outside on the edge of the CBD, you can watch the passing parade of city people, uni students, tourists and more going about their business, blissfully unaware of the deep issues being explored.

What I particularly enjoy is the insights I get into and about other peoples’ lives  (and often my own, by association) through exposure to the topics, which are usually related, directly or indirectly, to the author’s own experience. I’ve never liked history, but the summary of Russian history gave me a quick summary that enabled me to better understand ‘Russia’ (there’s debated about exactly what constitutes ‘Russia’ geographically it seems) and how current Russia fits into that.  I don’t want to live in hotels, but the comparison to home living – especially if your home life is not so attractive – and what makes a hotel attractive or not, was fascinating as I have spent many nights and more than a year myself in them.

And coming to realise that, for women to have equal cultural opportunity, not just legal equality, requires men to also be free culturally to take on previously women-dominated roles (and that, as a society, for this to happen we need to better value -culturally and probably economically – the ‘care’ work done in the society mainly by women – raising and educating children, caring for growing and ageing families, supporting individuals in times of crisis).

You get to see the best local authors and some wonderful internationals too.  Thomas Kenneally, Richard Flanagan, Kate Grenville, David Malouf, Roxane Gaye, Lisa Genova and Alexander McCall Smith are just a few of the ‘names’ I instantly recall from the last two years.

Learning of the personal connections the author has to the book, details of the researching process, discovering that some authors plan and write to meticulous daily schedules while for others the book just comes out of them and on to the page, regardless of their personal views are often fascinating. (Hearing Charlotte Wood describe this on her disturbing, upsetting but wonderful book, The Natural Way of Things, helped me understand how writing can surface ideas that do not reflect the writer’s actual or desired life experience, yet they come from a deep sub-conscious).

Hearing about the research experience involved in gathering material, nderstanding the author’s perspectives on a character, a scene, a concept, the whole book, makes the subsequent reading of the book more meaningful. Hearing how the book fits in to the author’s previous writing and their other paid work (academics, lawyers, media are common backgrounds) deepens my understanding of both the book and the author – experience that helps in subsequent work or reviews or reading.

And finally, getting a set of books or themes or ideas for reading for the next year is a valuable outcome that arises more easily than reading endless reviews of books whose authors I can’t visualise, as I can the authors I see here.

Adelaide in March is a wonderful place.  As well as Writers Week, there’s the monthlong Fringe Festival, the ‘proper’ Festival of Arts that started all this off 50 years ago and the Clipsal 500 car race weekend fighting for attention.  Coupled with the predictable dry, warm weather and catching up with old friends, it’s a highlight of my year.  Want to join me?

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