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Tracey Hawkins

Canberra Writers Festival 2019

25 August 2019

It’s festival season again and I chaired the first panel of the Canberra Writers Festival weekend. It sold out all 200 seats within two days of going on sale! How great is that?!

It was the largest panel that I’ve ever chaired, with six writers: Paul Daley, Marion Halligan, Tracey Hawkins, MP Andrew Leigh, Nicole Overall and Marg Wade. As chair, the challenge is always to ensure that everyone gets enough ‘air time’ and that the conversation flows seamlessly. With such a big panel that’s more of a challenge than ever, but the feedback from audience members was so overwhelmingly positive that I’m pretty sure we nailed it. And the panellists each brought such unique and interesting perspectives to the discussion.

Marg Wade, Andrew Leigh, Marion Halligan and me

We were there to talk about our much-derided capital, using a new anthology, Capital Culture, in which we all have stories, as the springboard. I think it’s fair to say that few countries show as much contempt for their capital as Australia. Canberra bashing is a national pastime and the fact that journalists use ‘Canberra’ as a shorthand for federal parliament doesn’t help. (Paul Daley and Marion Halligan both spoke about being on a mission to change this.) It is often conceded that Canberra is indeed a liveable city, but it is not lovable. According to its detractors, it is a city without a soul.

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I was once one of those detractors. While I was living in the UK my family moved from Melbourne to Canberra. I was outraged. ‘I will never live in Canberra!’ I declared. But by the time I had tired of England’s consistently moody weather, I missed my family too much not to join them. I enrolled in a creative writing degree at the University of Canberra. I told myself that I would stay only three years, get my family fix, and then head back to Melbourne. Twenty years later I’m still here. Four of my five brothers have moved back to Melbourne but I love it here. I don’t know if I’ll ever leave (though I’m now wary of grand definitive statements!).

Question time — not quite so greulling as parliament, though clearly we took it very seriously

The conversation on the panel was wide-ranging and fascinating. We spoke about what makes Canberra so great (yes, it is), including the wonderful writing community (which I am so grateful for) and the hills and bushland that surround us (which I am equally grateful for). We also talked about the more problematic aspects of our city, with Paul noting that Canberra’s poor are largely rendered invisible. I always find it difficult to provide a detailed account of an event that I’ve been part of, but Sue Terry from Whispering Gums has written up a most excellent summary.

 

I also managed to get to some other fascinating sessions. The highlight was a session with asylum seeker, journalist, author and filmmaker Behrouz Boochani, live from Port Moresby, where he was moved several days ago, and his translator Omid Tofighian who was present in the National Library theatre. Omid spoke about how Behrouz has changed his life and been ‘an enormous inspiration’. Indeed, Behrouz is clearly a dignified and intelligent man who has now been imprisoned for six years, simply for seeking asylum.

I was particularly struck by his comments around censorship and that the government’s greatest weapon is to refuse to acknowledge him, or any of the other refugees, by name. In this way the government denies them their identity and the ability to be human. But Behrouz’s work through literature and film has meant that many of us now are able to see the human cost of the government’s inhumane policies. If you haven’t read Behrouz’s book, No Friend but the Mountain, I’d recommend that you get your hands on a copy immediately. It has rightly won two major literary prizes.

There was so much love in the room for Behrouz, with the session concluding with a standing ovation. I feel privileged to have spent an hour with him, and we would be fortunate indeed to have him as an Australian citizen. Our government continues to disgust me.

The last panel of the festival was another highlight. David Marr, Sally Rugg and Sally Wheeler, brilliantly moderated by Nigel Featherstone, spoke about growing up queer. The conversation was both extremely funny and deeply moving. They each shared their coming out stories, which were for the most part ‘disappointing’ in that they weren’t met with any surprise.

A lot of time was spent discussing the postal survey on marriage equality and the emotional toll that it took. LGBTIQ activist Sally Rugg said: ‘It was utterly shameful and saw the worst in our parliamentary system, but also the best in people.’ David added that the government can never take away the fact that 61.9 per cent of people voted for marriage equality. The panellists all agreed that the legislation was a powerful symbol of equality.

Sally Wheeler compared the Australian process to the English one, which she experienced firsthand, noting that in England the legislation was passed painlessly and without fuss. It left me thinking again about Behrouz Boochani’s assessment of the Australian government, and the means by which it attempts to control its citizens. Behrouz urged us not to be complacent — to be mindful of the ways in which the government is eroding our freedom and liberty.

A good festival should challenge us and get us thinking about the world and our place in it. CWF 2019 certainly did that for me.

Update: The stats from the CWF team are in and it was lovely to hear that the panel I chaired was the second most popular session, behind only Simon Winchester and Richard Fidler. For deatils on the different stats, Whispering Gums has an excellent post that breaks it all down.

Reading memories

6 June 2017
One of the perks of being Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge is visiting schools to talk about my favourite topic—books (duh). This week I headed to Holy Trinity Primary to meet the Year 1s and 2s. Here we all are getting a bit crazy together.

Talking about reading got me thinking about my own special reading memories, and one teacher in particular. Her name was Miss O’D and she was my Grade 6 teacher. She wore blue mascara and shoulder pads and was every kind of eighties cool. She was young, not that long out of university, and she made everything fun. And I mean everything. It was the only year that I enjoyed maths as we played ‘The Footy Game’ to learn our times tables. It involved an actual footy and four teams and much laughter. That year everyone’s understanding of maths skyrocketed.

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But for a booklover like me it was the literary activities that got me all shiny-eyed. Every week Miss O’D wrote a Poem of the Week on our blackboard and illustrated it with Dr Seuss-style characters. We would copy out the poem (using smelly glitter pens) and create our own illustrations. I still remember the time I got a rare and coveted 10 out of 10 for my work. ‘Perfect!’ she wrote, and my feet did not touch the ground for the rest of the day. She also constructed a haunted house reading corner from a massive crate painted black. It was full of cushions and dangling streamers and clearly sent one message: reading is fun. But best of all, she got us to write, illustrate and ‘publish’ our own picture books. I had been writing stories and making my own books at home for as long as I could remember, so the opportunity to create a shiny hardback (well, more laminated cardboard) had me practically salivating. I still have those two books and I often take them with me on school visits, as I did to Holy Trinity, to encourage kids to make their own.

So as all the Reading Challenge Ambassadors head out for their school visits, I thought I’d ask them about their own special reading memories. Here’s what they had to say.

Jack Heath: At Lyneham Primary School I had a wonderful teacher librarian named Kay Pietsch. When I missed school due to a crippling ear infection, she hand-picked books for me to read during my recovery. Thanks to her I discovered Claire Carmichael, Jackie French, Brian Jacques and many others. When I finally got back to school, I wasn’t behind my classmates. I might even have been ahead.

Harry Laing: There’s a nursery rhyme that’s always stuck in my head with a particularly vivid quality. I think my grandmother read it to me (and I’m sure my mother and maybe a favourite great aunt). I think it was probably just before I was reading properly so the words had that talismanic quality…

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark
Beggars are coming to town
Some in jags, some in rags
And one in a velvet gown.

Listening to this as a child gave me a delicious shiver. Something to do with the wonderfully tight and expressive sounds and rhymes of hark/bark and jags/rags. It was scary to think of the beggars coming to town, and their power to provoke the dogs with their rags and then the really scary last line ‘and one in a velvet gown’. What did that mean? I’m sure I barely understood what velvet was or even a gown but it was such a smooth and sinister phrase. I still get the same feeling 50-odd years later. I can go back and look at Mother Goose and there’s the nursery rhyme with illustration but it’s the sound of the words that lingers. And how precious that is, to be able to go straight back to being five years old with nothing in-between. Mind you I did have to look up the meaning of ‘jags’ (tatters, rags).

Tracey Hawkins: As a child I owned a boxed set of Golden Press books, Wonderful World of Walt Disney. There were four books in the set, Fantasyland, Worlds of Nature, America and Stories from Other Lands. My favourite was Stories from Other Lands. Turning the pages took me to a world far away from the small coastal town I lived in. Books provided knowledge and escapism, and fascinated me. Reading fed my imagination as I unearthed the mystery, myths, legends and cultural diversity of other countries. I read thousands of books as a child, but I believe it was this book led me on my future path as an adult to explore and travel the world.

Tania McCartney: One of my earliest and most precious reading memories is with my mum, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. The intriguing thing about this persistent memory is that it’s not the actual story I remember. It’s the warmth of her lap. It’s her arms around my shoulders and the rumble of her voice, resonating from her diaphragm into my back. It’s the smell of her clothes and the smoothness of the book’s pages. I can still feel my little toddler fingers poking through the holes in the page as the caterpillar eats its way through a multitude of delicious treats, and how the paper scratched my skin. I can also feel the rumble in my tummy, wanting to join the caterpillar for cherry pie, watermelon and a lollipop. It’s all those tactile elements, yes, but it’s also the less tactile—that envelope of love, that feeling of belonging, that parental attention and sheer enjoyment of story. And that, my friends, is how children fall in love with books.

Just look at all those hands! Such enthusiastic little readers!

As Ambassadors we all hope that our school visits will inspire kids to explore many more books and develop a lifelong love of reading. So I was so thrilled to receive a stack of letters from Holy Trinity with beautiful words of thanks and equally beautiful illustrations. I wish I could include them all here but since there’s not space here’s my lounge room carpeted in them, and one of my favourites from Lachy. His exclamations (‘Your visit…OH! I loved it. Please come again!’) brought a big grin to my face. Also, I am ‘awsem’. That’s the best bit of being an author right there.

 

Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge wraps

11 December 2016

reading-challenge-wrapA celebratory event at the National Library saw the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge wrap for the year. It was wonderful to see so many students from so many schools in attendance, and for us ambassadors to celebrate our year of working to get kids hooked on books (not that it feels like work!).

And what a year it has been. 2016 was the most successful yet, with 31,000 kids from 90 schools reading at least 15 books between May and September. That’s an increase of an incredible 5,000 students from last year!

The challenge was launched back in 2004 as a way to encourage and develop a love of reading in students from preschool to Year 8. There is no set reading list which, in my view, is part of the program’s strength. I am a firm believer that if we want kids to fall in love with reading, then we need to allow them to choose the books that they are interested in. So the students participating can read pretty much anything, including books in languages other than English.

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One little star read a phenomenal 240 novels during those five months (I feel quite jealous of all those reading hours!). He traced the spines of every book on a long sheet of paper, and it turns out that he read a whopping 4.8 metres worth of books! I’m betting he cracks five metres next year.

It’s been an honour and a pleasure to be an ambassador for the challenge alongside Virginia Hausengger, Tracey Hawkins, Jack Heath and Tania McCartney. Yay books!

Blizzards, baths and the bush: Where writers write (part 2)

10 July 2015

My recent post on ‘Where writers write revealed all sorts of weird and wonderful places writers have found themselves putting pen to paper. And interestingly, as Sue Terry of Whispering Gums pointed out, when inspiration strikes most writers still seem to favour the pen over any kind of digital device, even in places where paper is a hindrance. In the bath, for example. In response to my post, Jen Squire tweeted, ‘I was just given 5 packets of AquaNotes for my birthday because I’m always writing in the shower and the swimming pool’ (evidence pictured). Jen is not the only one partial to writing in baths, as you’ll find in this second installment. Enjoy!

Tracey Hawkins: Many years ago my late father was in a High Dependancy Unit for coronary care, waiting for a heart bypass operation. I sat on the floor beside Dad’s bed, carefully placed between IV lines and electrical leads to heart machines and monitors, and tried hard to engage him in my creative work to keep him alive and interested in life (he did survive his operation). I was writing a murder/mystery at the time; he had been a police officer for 25 years and knew his stuff. Albeit, perhaps not appropriate to write about death in a room full of very sick men on the very edge of dying. I tried to keep it low key and even though I whispered thoughts/plots and motive to my Dad, the other men often heard what I was talking about. They soon became intrigued in the mystery and before I knew it, they looked forward to my visits and were very keen for updates on the work. At one point I even had the Sister doing the drug/medication round offering suggestions for a powerful poison (I was needing a good poison to use as the murder weapon).

During the weeks I was there, I finished the mystery. The time spent creating was two-fold — the men looked forward to my visits, and I, too, felt I offered them something outside the square that took their minds off the severity of their health issues, if only for a short time.

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Karen Viggers: I find that my best ideas come to me in wild landscapes far from comfort and people. One of my special spiritual places is in the snow, and several times I have braved blizzards and freezing fingers while cross-country skiing in the Snowies to jot down the perfect line. Solitude and harsh places stimulate my muse and allow me to tap into my deepest creativity. Writers write everywhere … I never leave home without a notebook.

Nicole Hayes: When my second child was born, the only break from my demanding toddler often came during the midnight/early morning feeds. I remember sitting by my infant daughter’s crib, one hand cupping her head while she breastfed, the other scribbling barely legible words on a notebook propped on the arm of my chair. I wrote an entire novel in the first year of her life, about half of it in that very position.

Kirsten Krauth: I don’t choose to write in strange places, but my writing chooses them, usually in moments when I don’t have access to paper, pen, screen. When I’m driving on the freeway from Castlemaine to Bendigo and can’t pull over is common. Or while I’m lying in the bath. I’ve got the kids in bed. It’s freezing. My head submerges in the warm water. Time to relax. Then my brain powers up and all the connections that I’ve struggled for during the day come together and I fight them, hoping I’ll remember in an hour’s time, because writing them down now means having to get out of the bath.

Jack getting a haircut on deadline

Rebecca Lim: On a laptop balanced on a pack of toilet rolls in the car in the school car park. A nine-pack will work but a 20-pack is better!

Jess Knight: In bed 59 of the kidney ward at Royal Melbourne Hospital. With a needle in one arm and a flirty old man in the bed next to mine.

Jack Heath: I write six books per year, and the tough deadlines aren’t always conducive to consistent grooming. But I can’t show up to an event looking like Chewbacca, so my wife has been known to cut my hair while I type.

Katie Taylor: Last year I went on a trip to New Zealand. I didn’t take my laptop, but I did take a notepad. One night I went to a rather nice pub in Christchurch, which was called Strange Co. It was a Saturday night so the place was very busy and noisy — we’re talking wall-to-wall drinkers, plus pounding music. Even so, I sat down by the bar and scribbled away over a pint of White Rabbit. Finally a tipsy patron came over and asked me what I was doing. My deadpan reply was, ‘I’m writing a story about a guy who can turn into a phoenix exploring an ice cave full of sentient polar bears.’ Every single word of that is true, I swear. It’s just too bad I never finished the story; it had potential.

Susan Johnson: Well, the difference between writers and aspiring writers — or wannabe writers to use a possibly less flattering term — is that writers write. Writers write when they have no money or are shot full of fear or when they are on holiday or when they can only write between the cracks of doing another job. I’ve written when my head was exploding with terror about running out of money, or full of pain from a broken marriage, or when my eyes could barely remain open because I was so tired when I was a new mother. I had a new baby, and a temporary colostomy, when I was writing my memoir, A Better Woman. Writers write to get the book written, often at the cost of marriages and friendships. Ideally, I write best alone in a room — any room, with or without a view, but preferably in France or Greece or by the beach in Australia — but I’ve also written at kitchen tables in small, dimly lit flats, at desks in the corners of bedrooms. It’s my love, my curse, my job.

Belinda Murrell: I have a beautiful office at home, full of books, with a fireplace and a view over the garden so ideally I prefer to do most of my work there, with a cup of tea at my elbow and my dog, Rosie, at my feet. But then with three children life is a constant juggle — so I’ve been known to work cross-legged on the floor in the corridor outside the orthodontist’s office, in the car waiting for sport pickups, at the kitchen bench while also making dinner, and poolside during kids’ swimming lessons. Far more inspiring, were the many beautiful and wild places I wrote while I was away travelling with my family for two years — in the Kimberley in far north Western Australia, in the Scottish highlands, on the verandah of a friend’s cattle farm, on remote outback stations, in a beach shack at Margaret River, in an 18th-century Parisian apartment …

Melinda SmithI keep a notebook with me all the time and write wherever I can, whenever I have the headspace. When my kids were younger this meant writing in the parent’s waiting chair outside therapy appointments for my eldest son, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. I have also started more than one poem at the parents’ tables at Kid City in Mitchell.

Of course before kids I wrote in all sorts of exotic places, including in a deckchair at the Orchard Tea rooms at Grantchester near Cambridge (former haunt of Rupert Brooke and some of the Bloomsbury set, including Virginia Woolf), and on a beach on Ko Lanta Yai in southern Thailand (many years pre-tsunami).

These days the headspace and time often coincide more often when I am ‘on the road’ going to a writers’ festival or an interstate launch or reading event. This means I have written in Murray’s Buses, on trains from Sydney to Newcastle and Blackheath, and in any cafe anywhere I can scrape together the cost of a soy latte. I have started many drafts in the Arthur McElhone reserve just down the hill from Elizabeth Bay House (because it is the closest park to the CWA in Potts Point, where I like to stay when I am Sydney. Goodness knows how I will manage when they cease operations at the end of this financial year!). I have polished drafts at Tamarama beach and in the cafe at Bondi Icebergs and at Gertrude and Alice bookshop. One poem I recently finished was begun in the fourth-floor cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art (pictured), and polished up many months later at Strathnairn Gallery in the utter west of Belconnen. I do tend to find that for me first drafts and polishing work better if they are done in different locations. A great deal of my book First… Then… was written in Harvest cafe in Civic (first drafts) and just up the hill in the Library of the ANU School of Art (polishing).

One place I find it quite difficult to write is at home, although I do a lot of my ‘admin’ from there. I am such an inveterate procrastinator I need to put myself in a position where there is literally nothing else I can be doing. Home, with its clothes-drifts and dirty-crockery-formations, definitely does not qualify.

For part 1, ‘Trees, trains & hospital trolleys: where writers write’, featuring Brooke Davis, Rosanna Stevens, Susanne Gervay, Tania McCartney, Craig Cormick, Lee Kofman, SJ Finn, Paul Daley and Alec Patric, click here.

MOTHERHOOD AND MAYHEM: CBCA CONFERENCE 2014

23 May 2014

I was thrilled to be invited to talk on a panel of local authors — billed as ‘local treasures’ no less — at the National Conference of the Children’s Book Council of Australia. Motherhood and Mayhem was our topic — with three kids aged three to almost 11 could there be any literary panel more perfectly aligned with my life?

What any of us said on the day is a bit of a blur. There were lots of laughs, I remember that. And it was a joy to share the stage with Tania McCartney (Chair), Stephanie Owen Reeder and Tracey Hawkins. I somehow managed to cleverly position myself in front of the wine (what we all need at the end of the day) and perhaps not so cleverly in front of Tracey’s body parts (she’s an ex-cop and has been known to take inspiration from her former life).

I’ve never seen a panel on this topic before but last year when the four of us started discussing what we might do it seemed like an obvious choice. There are so many women out there trying to balance the need to write with the needs of family. And both are needs. If only the washing did itself, or writing paid enough to hire an in-house chef. One can dream.

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The question we all constantly get asked is, ‘How do you do it?’ I’m still not sure that I have an answer. What I do know is that I never stop. And I’ve got very good at wearing blinkers to shield me from the housework when I have a precious hour or two in which to write.

The response to the panel was wonderful (and to the lady who said that I don’t look old enough to have an 11 year old — bless you a thousand times!). We knew when we were planning our topic that everyone could relate in some way or another to the challenges of multitasking. Lots of the teacher librarians came up to say that the whole juggling act was familiar territory managing classes of children. And then there were the mother/writers who sat in the audience nodding in recognition.

I stumbled across this summary of the conference and love that we get a mention under the heading ‘Cool Canberra author chicks’! Angela Moyle goes on to say, ‘What a revelation!…These awesome ladies…have inspired me to make the time to write, and stop making excuses!’ Well now, that just makes me happy.