By Diana Jenkins
With Adelaide Writers’ Week celebrating 55 years on the festival circuit, it was appropriate that a recurrent theme in director Laura Kroetsch’s fifth program was memory, with many works probing the depths and vulnerabilities of arguably our most mysterious and vital brain function.
Best known for her two short story collections, American Laura van den Berg’s dystopian debut novel The Isle of Youth features a memory disease, while compatriot Jesse Ball’s equally unsettling premise in A Cure for Suicide involves characters voluntarily losing their memories in order to avoid bad ones. Along with Canadian Patrick deWitt and New Zealander Anna Smaill (long-listed in the 2015 Man Booker Prize for The Chimes), Kroetsch predicted Ball to rate among the real discoveries for the audience.
“He’s fascinating,” she says, noting in a conspiratorial whisper that Ball also teaches lucid dreaming and the art of lying. “He’s written six novels; they’re incredibly readable and often very funny in spite of the subject matter.”
Despite the thematic thread of failing or manipulated memories, no one’s likely to forget that Adelaide Writers’ Week is entirely free – there are no ticketed events – and for the first time, many sessions will be live-streamed to participating libraries around South Australia.
Says Kroetsch, “About 15 libraries [have signed up], including Ceduna, which is way out there. The libraries will make themselves available either for their own events or as a venue, so book clubs, writers’ groups, the curious, can come along as a group, have picnics, do coffee.”
In collaboration with SA Writers’ Centre, Kroetsch’s team is also sending out writers to participating communities, so audiences will watch live-streamed sessions with a writer on hand to continue the conversation afterwards. It’s a major undertaking, made possible by an Australia Council grant, but entirely in keeping with the festival’s inclusive, democratic character.
Idyllic riverside setting
Those able to attend in person tend to return, in part beguiled by the idyllic setting along the Torrens River, walking distance from downtown Adelaide. The historic Pioneer Women’s Garden is an inviting spread along the riverbank, with Writers’ Week taking place beneath a canopy of tall trees amidst a shaded, grassy wonderland. It’s an A+ for atmosphere before authors even come onstage.
According to Kroetsch, a whopping 54% of attendees have come for 5 years or more; the same number see at least 20 sessions across the week.
She proudly cites writer and poet Kate Llewellyn, who’s been coming since 1960 – “from when she was at university, to being pregnant, to now being a grandmother” – as a typical regular.
“It works best because it’s never gotten bigger,” Kroetsch adds. “It is a boutique festival … people have always been able to come to make discoveries and the audience really likes that. You just sit under the trees, have a coffee or a wine and listen.”
As befitting a mature writers’ festival – it was Australia’s first back when it was inaugurated in 1960 – Adelaide Writers’ Week is welcoming some esteemed Australians: Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Tim Flannery and Kate Grenville are all appearing, and poet novelist Peter Goldsworthy is curating a reading bound to pull local punters:
“Two emerging, two [mid-career] and two senior South Australian poets,” says Kroetsch. “It’s a nice way of recognising the talent that’s here too.”
The strong international guest list includes British charmers Andrew O’Hagan and Simon Winchester, the latter to discuss Pacific, his ‘biography’ of that formidable ocean; French sensation Muriel Barbery, who went into hiding after The Elegance of the Hedgehog and is back now, eight years later, with The Life of Elves; and Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, whose book The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, examines the lives and events leading to the Boston Marathon bombing.
Kroetsch is clearly tickled to welcome a number of Australian debut novelists, such as Lucy Treloar with Salt Creek, plus emerging stars of the short story form, into such elevated company.
“We have a lot of exciting, young fiction writers coming, which makes me really happy,” she says. “People like Fiona McFarlane, and Sonja Dechian, who wrote An Astronaut’s Life. I feel like it’s an exciting time for the young writers here. We have a lot of terrific [new talent].”
Literary sci-fi will resonate with locals at Adelaide Writers’ Week
Both Dechian and McFarlane, whose debut The Night Guest was a critical and commercial success, are attracting acclaim for recently released short story collections; McFarlane neatly dodged the notorious second novel hoodoo by writing a dazzling assortment of stories in The High Places instead. An avowed fan of the form, Kroetsch’s curatorship embraces a number of writers finessing their skills in shorts.
She says: “I’ve just read [The High Places] and it is genius. Etgar Keret, the Israeli writer, is another short story standout. He’s here with a memoir, [The Seven Good Years], but his stories are just mad and huge, huge fun.
“I always say novels are baggy monsters, but stories have to be perfect.”
A number of ‘baggy monsters’ speak to all too real contemporary anxieties: the environment, violence and the corrosion of various social contracts. Kroetsch thinks American writer Paolo Bacigalupi’s literary sci-fi, The Water Knife, speaks loud and clear to an Australian audience.
“He is obsessed with water,” she says. “I love the novel: it’s about the water wars in the States, but it will resonate here, being such an incredibly dry place.
“We’re worried about memory, we’re worried about the climate; we’re very worried right now… Interestingly, there’s [also] a lot of stories about parents, children [and] unhappy women.”
In Debra Adelaide’s The Women’s Pages – a novel The Sydney Morning Herald’s literary editor Susan Wyndham calls ‘a feminist echo of Wuthering Heights’ – a woman leaves; in O’Hagan’s The Illuminations, a woman decides to stay single; in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, female characters that are seen to transgress in some way are kidnapped and systemically debased – it’s a harrowing but gripping read, populated by very unhappy women indeed.
“I adored [The Natural Way of Things], [Wood] is such an extraordinary writer,” says Kroetsch. “The issue of violence against women is a real problem everywhere and […] I think Charlotte’s book will act … as part of [that] conversation about what it means to be a woman.”
Families rushed the Story Tent for another packed Kids’ Weekend, with Andy Griffiths (cue pandemonium and children “vibrating with excitement”); Maisy Mouse and her creator Lucy Cousins; leading Kiwi YA author Bernard Beckett; as well as local companies Story Trove, who tell kids’ stories in foley, like radio plays, and artistic outfit Nest Studios. As with everything else at Adelaide Writers’ Week, art-making materials were supplied free of charge.
Which leaves the Book Tent, with Kroetsch adamant that a core responsibility of Writers’ Week is growing readership through book sales, materially helping writers support their careers.
“That’s why I’m always keen to put a young writer on the stage, because everyone at Writers’ Week gets a huge audience – everybody. No writer gets the mortifying experience of 10 people in a room. The audience is amazing; they’re super engaged.”
She tells the story of a man who comes from country NSW each year. “He said to me, ‘We know the rules: if we like the writer, we buy the book.’”
For more information about what to do in Adelaide check out our guide to the best places to eat and things to see.