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The writer: staying home, making it there or on the literary trail

Griffith ReviewRASHMII BELL

BRISBANE - Managing connections, exploring ideas and interpretations, refining skills or simply absorbing literary knowledge are amongst the array of reasons why writers and readers gravitate towards each other.

The shape of these meeting points differ, as does their meaning and significance.

Consider the fictional ‘Letters Library’ in the young adult novel, ‘Words in Deep Blue’ by Cath Crowley:

“Customers are allowed to write in the books in the Letter Library. They can circle words that they love, highlight lines. They can leave notes in the margins, leave thoughts about the meaning of things…they leave whole letters and put them between pages in the books…Mostly people write to strangers who love the same books as them – and some stranger somewhere, writes back.”

Crowley’s multi-award nominated book follows the exploits of teenager Rachel Sweetie, whose experience of family grief pivots the trademark stumble from awkward adolescence to adulthood.

Rachel and best friend Henry Jones narrate their changing relationship and share the lives of the small group of dedicated writers and readers around them.

Moments in these lives are revealed through introspective notes and letters placed in the ‘Letters Library’ of the Jones’ family-owned second-hand bookstore, Howling Books.

At last weekend’s inaugural Queensland LoveYA event, Cath Crowley was in conversation with fellow Australian young adult (YA) author, Steph Bowe.

Manoeuvring through a series of author-to-author questions, Crowley explained the inspiration for Howling Books as being drawn from her interconnected view of books as an implement of time travel and second-hand bookstores as a portal for communication through time and place.

And so the imaginary ‘Letter Library’ was created, leaving mock letters in bookstores throughout the Victorian suburbs of Carlton and Yarraville – the fictitious Howling Books bookstore as a centre for communication.

In mid-April, the Creative Industries Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology through its ‘On the Terrace: Writers Seminar’ series explored ideas around defining a literary centre, its importance to a writer’s development and what it means for a writer on the ‘outskirts’.

Esteemed Australian literary identities Nick Earls, Jane O’Hara and Rohan Wilson were panellists driven by thought-provoking questions by academic, lecturer and author Karl Gislason, who sought to address the question of whether Brisbane could be identified as a literary centre.

Panellists agreed that Brisbane has pockets where literary activity thrives, with some places drawing more prominent identities and audiences. The Brisbane Writers Festival Powerhouse, Avid Bookstore (West End) and Riverbend Books (Bulimba) were all cited as forums of storytelling, debate, discussion and sharing ideas to influence how a writer’s craft may take shape and to provide answers to readers’ questions.

Jane O’Hara referred to New York as a long-standing literary centre because of the attitude of an entire industry of writers, illustrators and publishers unapologetically not leaving their place to go elsewhere to be able to ‘make it’.

Nick Earls’ reflections encompassed his early days a writer in Brisbane during the 1980’s, recalled as a time when the literary culture was near-absent and what there was somewhat mocked.

Earl’s first experience of presenting his work was at a poetry night at an art gallery in the suburb of Grange. As a full time doctor pursuing writing part-time, the publication of his early novels did little to stir an urge to leave Brisbane to ‘make it’ as a writer.

Even when transitioning into full-time writing, Earls’ admiration for the Australian reader to contextualise content, in contrast to the process of Americanisation in US publishing, solidified his conviction to ‘stay home’.

Earls’ pondered the potential of centres becoming insular, assessing that this may not necessarily be constructive for the developing writer.

In similar vein, Rohan Wilson’s attachment to his hometown in Tasmania remains a source of inspiration, motivation and productivity.

Viewing an absence of Tasmanian writers as an advantage, Wilson contemplated the early days of his career as a period of increasing dedication to refining his work. Although now residing in Brisbane, he advocates that if writers are progressing well in their craft, productive and actively refining their skills, leaving the place they call home to ‘make it’ elsewhere may be counter-productive.

Jane O’Hara’s extensive experience as a curator of literary events pointed to the Jaipur Literature Festival as a literary centre of renown and success in its ability to attract a high number of authors, publishers and readers.

But she emphasised the reality of selling the idea of writers’ festivals to potential donors and backers is particularly difficult, hence the importance of continual lobbying of government for funding.

O’Hara commented that some writers are content with writing and selling a few books, whilst others aim to sell a multitude and follow the trail of promotional tours, literary festivals, author talks and so on.

He said there are authors who start out mainstream then opt for self-publishing, working with the advantage of an established reader-following. O’Hara also observed that some writers who initially self-published have later gone on to sell rights to large publishing houses.

Attending Avid Bookstore’s launch event of Griffith Review's Issue 60, ‘First Things First’, gave me an opportunity to see authors including Dr Sandra Phillips and Dr Joanne Watson speak on the issues of their craft in a setting much like that of the fictional Howling Books.

In particular, it was the presence of award winning Goorie writer Melissa Lucashenko that illuminated the manner in which writers may spread themselves across a range of literary centres.

Lucashenko’s appearance as a session panellist at the April ‘Women of Wonder’ (WoW) Festival and other events illuminated the way in which access to a variety of places is integral to developing a nation of writers and readers.

This article was prepared for the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. Attendance at LoveYA18, On the Terrace: Writers Seminar (Creative Industries Faculty, QUT) and Griffith Review 60: First Things First Launch event at Avid Bookstore (were all undertaken as literary activities of the MWTE Fellowship 2018.  The fellowship commenced in mid-March 2018 and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by fellowship recipient, Rashmii Bell, may be found here or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh .


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Simon Davidson

Rashmii - Thanks for sharing this information.

I got fresh and many new ideas on the possibilities of organising a writers conference.

The writers in PNG will feel privileged to have writers festivals to gather the writers, publishers and readers, to take the writing in PNG to the next stage.

Rashmii Bell

Perhaps in some way connected - though in what way I'm not sure (haven't given it thought!) but I remembered having written something awhile back about a writer's process, reason for doing so etc :


Philip Fitzpatrick

Queensland has long been at the forefront of literature in Australia, right from the early days. A lot of it came out of regional areas but Brisbane has certainly contributed its fair share. In that sense I don't think there's any question about Brisbane as a literary centre.

Writers in PNG would also be aware that it was a Brisbane-based arm of publisher Jacaranda that produced Vincent Eri's groundbreaking novel, The Crocodile.

I'm a great fan of self-publishing, especially in it's modern iteration. Among other things it can free up a writer to pursue their own ideas rather than be constrained by market trends - that's a huge relief if you are dedicated and not driven by economic imperatives.

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