Philosophy, love, classical music, poetry and showbusiness - these were some of the topics covered in the inaugural Norfolk Island1 Writers' and Readers' festival, held from 20 - 25 July, 2003. Over 20 well-known authors and celebrities spoke at the festival, including patron Dr Colleen McCullough (author of The Thorn Birds), entertainers Toni Lamond and Barry Crocker and former ABC newsreader Richard Morecroft.
The festival started with a buffet dinner on Sunday night in Rawson Hall, which was decorated with hibiscus and palm fronds and lit by candlelight. Before dinner, visitors mingled with the authors and obtained autographs or had books signed. Dr Colleen McCullough, now a resident of Norfolk Island, gave the keynote speech in which she talked about her career as a neurophysiologist and a writer. Some of the islanders performed, dressing up as convicts and soldiers to explain the history of the island. A man and woman sang a song about the bounty mutineers and Tahitian women meeting and falling in love. Three young women of Polynesian descent sang a song about Norfolk Island having everything that Tahiti has except for coconut trees. A local poet, Archie Bigg, read out two of his poems - one was about the festival, and the other was the children's story The Three Little Pigs rewritten in the local Norfolk language.
Author and television presenter Di Morrissey gave a speech titled 'Dreams and Details' on Monday morning. She said that she had dreamed of becoming a writer ever since she was a young girl, and started writing little stories when she was seven. However, things didn't work out as she had hoped. She travelled extensively overseas with her diplomat husband, then obtained a job hosting 'Good Morning Australia' on Channel 10 before writing her first novel. It was published when she was 40. She went on to publish ten other novels as well as writing for radio, film, television and theatre and working as a journalist, editor and advertising copywriter. Morrissey set all of her novels in Australia, believing that it was very important to write Australian content. She explained that even as a full-time writer she works standard office hours, getting dressed in the morning then walking across the hall to another room to begin writing.
Bradley Trevor Greive
Bradley Trevor Greive, cartoonist, artist, designer and writer, talked about his life. He was once a paratroop commander in the air force, leaping out of aeroplanes at night and trusting his life to his fellow soldiers. Later he became very interested in conservation. He felt it was very important for people to do what they liked and subsequently be happy and thereby bring happiness to other people. He published a number of small books including The Meaning of Life, The Blue Day Book and The Incredible Truth About Motherhood. They used photographs taken by other people, for which he wrote captions. He joked that he had probably written less words than Colleen McCullough had written exclamation marks. To show his interest in conservation, he handed out stuffed toy bears (representing an endangered species) to some of the audience who asked him questions.
Robert G Barrett
Robert G Barrett, a down-to-earth bloke from Terrigal, turned up to the festival wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and talked about his popular Les Norton novels. He travels around Australia talking to locals and collecting stories to use. A former butcher, he started writing aged 40, but initially earned very little money from it. He had to work as a kitchen hand even after publishing four novels. He has now published 19 books, which have sold over one million copies.
Late on Monday night, adventurer Yossi Ghinsberg talked about his travels and his philosophical beliefs. He asked for the stage lights to be dimmed and the hall lights turned up so that he could see the audience, and then walked around on the stage in the semi-darkness talking about the Greek philosophers Socrates and Diogenes. He said that Socrates' idea to 'know yourself' is the most important thing a person can do. Also, people shouldn't search for happiness but should concentrate on what is happening here and now ('happeningness'), because that's all that matters.
Ghinsberg was born in Israel, but calls himself a citizen of the world, and said that people should concentrate on their common humanity instead of emphasising differences. He talked about his travels in the Amazon, attempting to help the local Indians, and his travels with the nomadic Bedouin Arabs in Africa. His book about his Amazon adventures is titled Heart of Amazon.
The only publisher to speak at the festival was Henry Rosenbloom, owner of Scribe Publications, who gave a speech on Tuesday afternoon about 'Publishing Books that Matter'. He talked about the business methods he used to build up his company from 'microscopic' to 'small'. He was very enthusiastic about his work, publishing what he described as important, serious books, mostly non-fiction. He believed that the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September, 2001, and in Bali on 12 October, 2002 caused people to become more interested in reading non-fiction books on topics such as politics. He mentioned the difficulty in obtaining quality manuscripts, as authors usually approached large publishers first. However, distribution was easy as large publishers are now willing to offer distribution deals to small ones.
Richard Morecroft talked about his 20 years' experience as a newsreader for the ABC. He described his role as a performer, presenter and storyteller, as he didn't write any of the news stories himself. He talked about being recognised in public, being almost recognised (eg, being hugged by an old lady who thought she knew him), and being mistaken for the weatherman. After giving up his job at the ABC he had more time for his other interests such as writing and wildlife.
He co-wrote several books with his wife Alison, who is also his business partner. Twenty Years from the Waist Up - Tales of a TV News Anchor was about the lighter moments of being a newsreader, and also included the story of how he raised a baby flying fox named Archie. He read an extract from the book, a humorous account of taking Archie to a post office to weigh him on the scales. He also read an extract from his book on killer whales, in which a whale named Bernard hunts a sealion, and read an extract from his children's book Impossible Pets in which a young girl brings home a variety of exotic pets, such as a wildebeest and a komodo dragon.
The First Panel Discussion
On Tuesday night Richard chaired a panel discussion on the topic 'In an Electronic Age, Are Readers Dinosaurs?' The panel included Andrew Jakubowicz, Toni Lamond, Sue McCauley, Bradley Trevor Greive, Mara Moustafine, Richard Zachariah, Henry Rosenbloom, Belinda Green, Yossi Ghinsberg and Peter Haran. They discussed the fact that people seem to be reading fewer books these days because new media such as computer games, the Internet and SMS are more popular, particularly among the young. However, newspapers are still widely read. There was some debate about whether the interest in new media is a good thing or not. Some panel members pointed out that the Internet and other media can bring people around the world together and increase communication.
There was also a discussion about the recent surge of interest in non-fiction, including biography and autobiography. People read these for a variety of reasons such as integrity, an interest in other people's lives, a search for meaning in their own lives, or because they're looking for dirt.
Towards the end of the discussion the panel members turned their attention to the restricted media coverage of the war on Iraq, and suggested that electronic media allowed people to communicate more freely and find out the truth about what was happening.
The next morning Englishman Stuart Harrison talked about his life and his writing experiences. His first attempt to write a novel was when he was 20. He hired a cottage in Devon during the winter intending to write, but discovered that he had nothing to say. He travelled to the Isle of Man and later to New Zealand seeking inspiration, then got married and worked for a while in sales. He wrote two novels which were rejected, then wrote a third, The Snow Falcon, which immediately interested many agents and publishers and earned him a NZ$1,000,000 advance. He believes it was popular because it was a very emotional story and one that he was passionate about. Harrison went on to publish three more novels.
Author Sue McCauley also lives in New Zealand. She always wanted to write fiction but worked as a journalist first, using it as 'training'. She said that in previous times people would treat a woman according to her husband's social status, and therefore treated her very well while she was married to a respectable man but treated her like dirt after she divorced and became involved with a 16-year-old homeless boy. They married and later had children, and McCauley wrote a book, Other Halves, about the relationship and people's reactions to it. It became a best seller in New Zealand and overseas. She wrote four more books, short stories, and plays for theatre, radio and television. She read out two of her short stories: Footnotes, a literary story, and Life on Earth, a humorous story about the horrors of a school dance.
She lamented the quality of writing being published these days, saying that much of it is stylish but pointless. She blamed the proliferation of writing courses which encourage young writers who lack life experience and therefore write beautifully about nothing much. She also blamed modern technology such as computers which make it easier for people to write. She complained that New Zealand writers didn't want to set their novels in New Zealand, using more exotic locations instead.
Doris Brett, Melbourne-based psychologist and poet, talked about her battle with cancer. She started writing poetry after being diagnosed and later wrote a novel about it, titled Eating the Underworld. She said she was inspired by a Russian folk story titled I Go I Know Not Where, I Bring Back I Know Not What, about a person confronting fear and achieving seemingly impossible tasks, which she likened to living with cancer. She joked that cancer was a good cure for writer's block. She included poetry, journal entries and notes about fairytales in her novel. Brett read out several of her poems about operating theatres, chemotherapy, blood tests and CT scans.
Toni Lamond, Logie Award-winning actress, singer and entertainer, talked about her 60 years in show business. She was introduced to it at an early age (11), as both her parents were involved in it - her mother was a singer and her father a comedian. Over the years she sang, danced, acted and did comedy. After her husband died she became addicted to prescription drugs, but recovered and became interested in writing. She wrote an autobiography, First Half, after being offered a contract on the basis of two chapters and an outline. It became a bestseller. She wrote a follow up autobiography called Still a Gypsy, about her years performing in the United States.
The other famous actor at the festival, Barry Crocker, appeared on Thursday morning. He quoted a Banjo Patterson poem from his new play Barry's Banjo, then started relating his life story - but told so many anecdotes and jokes that he ran out of time before he got through his early years. Unlike Toni, his family were working class and had no involvement in show business. He grew up in Geelong, left school aged 14, and worked in a variety of jobs: selling newspapers, selling photos, killing rabbits and working for a soft drink company. He met a young woman he liked and joined the Musical Comedy Company to be near her, and quickly realised that being in showbusiness was what he wanted to do with his life. He also married the young woman. His autobiography is titled The Adventures of Barry Crocker.
Christopher Lawrence, ABC radio presenter, discussed his love of classical music. He pointed out that music has a strong effect on people and that they often associate major events in their lives with certain pieces of music. He talked about his career, which started with leaving school aged 15 and getting a job at the ABC, cleaning records. He eventually progressed to broadcasting. He told an amusing anecdote about how he applied to Sydney University to study arts, but was rejected as he hadn't completed year 12 of high school. Instead, they offered him a job as a teacher. He turned it down, and was later given a doctorate by the University of Queensland, without doing any study.
He said that when he started hosting the Classic FM breakfast programme many people complained about the change - for the first six months he received hate mail and insulting telephone calls. Eventually the listeners accepted him. He introduced a classical music segment called the 'Swoon Segment' which became very popular. Over four months he wrote a book called Swooning, which he described as a combination of musical anecdotes, his own memoirs and a self-help guide. He also wrote a book called Hymns of the Forefathers which sold millions of copies worldwide.
Richard Zachariah, journalist and television presenter, posed the question 'Is Love Worth it?' He called himself 'a romantic without the sentimentality' and wrote a book about love, which he originally started as a response to his ex-wife's book, before progressing into more introspective material. Quoting poets, writers and philosophers on love and reading some extracts from his book, he concluded that love is the most important thing in life.
The Second Panel Discussion
On Friday morning a second panel discussion was held, this time on the subject of 'The Write Stuff. How to Write. Talent or Tenacity?' Graeme Blundell, journalist and biographer, chaired the discussion. Panel members included Christopher Lawrence, Robert G Barrett, Alex Skovron, Jill Blee, Di Morrissey, Barry Crocker, Doris Brett and Stuart Harrison. Brett wore a purple wig with purple clothes to cheer everyone up on this, the last day of the festival.
A Writer's Life
The panel discussed what it's like working as a writer. Di Morrissey said that to her, writing is like breathing. Everywhere she went, she looked for information to put in one of her books. Barry said that while writing his autobiography he relived moments of his childhood. Alex, a poet, said that very few poets in Australia could earn a living from writing. Robert said that writing is work, but fun as well. He thought it was a good job because he could work from home. Doris, who had been writing since she was four, agreed with Di's comment about writing being natural for her, but said that it wasn't effortless and could be painful at times. Christopher talked about the differences between writing non-fiction and fiction, and said that writing the former was similar to journalism. He called writing 'an act of meditation on something I love'. Stuart said it was a 'funny job' and that he called himself a storyteller rather than a writer or author. He wrote in an office every day from 8.30am to 3pm. Jill said she liked to write dialogue, and talked to her dog at home or to herself in her car. Because her books were set in the 19th Century and many of her characters were Irish, she found herself talking that way.
Graeme asked the others about their writing routine. Doris still worked full time and struggled to find time to write. Chris worked every day from 5am to noon, setting himself a certain number of words to write. Barry admitted that while writing his autobiography he had procrastinated each day, but once he got started he didn't want to stop. It ended up being 330,000 words long, hand-written. Di found herself under pressure when she was commissioned to write a novel, and had to set aside a certain time for writing every day, seven days a week. She now writes a book a year. Alex said that he did freelance editing in the mornings and wrote poetry in the afternoons. Jill, a former scientist, gave up her full-time job and took up a position as a boarding school mistress to allow more time for writing. Later, she turned to writing full time.
One question that sometimes arises is whether to use real stories or people in books. Doris said that she never used stories she heard during her work as a psychologist because they were confidential. She hated writing about real people because she knew how it could affect them. Graeme, who wrote a biography about Graham Kennedy, used information from the tabloid press to give his writing style, but attempted to check facts and stories. Stuart said that he sometimes used real situations in his books, or took an idea from real life, and built on it and changed it. He kept a story file on his computer to add ideas to. Barry obtained approval from people before using their stories in his book. He originally had a lot of stories he had heard about Barry Humphries (who he did some shows with), but had to remove some of them because people disapproved or because of legal problems. Robert said that he hadn't had any legal problems and didn't 'bag people out much'. Di, who lives in Byron Bay and used it as inspiration for one of her novels, said that she rang people to ask permission before basing characters on them. She had to be careful because Australia is a litigious society.
All of the authors agreed that self-promotion is very important these days. Doris said that authors had to be marketable or have some sort of gimmick, which was sad, as it meant that some good writing wouldn't get noticed by publishers. Di suggested that word of mouth was a good marketing tool, and that writers should be tenacious. Robert agreed that it's important to push books and mentioned that he had a website and sold Les Norton T-shirts. Jill claimed that short, grey-haired old women were invisible in society and that she had to keep on saying 'Look at me. Read me.' Alex said that poets were invisible too and needed to read their poems in public, go to festivals and publicise their books. However, Chris disapproved of creating a public persona and said that the most important thing was to keep his mind on his work.
Dr Colleen McCullough
Dr Colleen McCullough gave a speech during the closing ceremony and luncheon. She claimed that she started writing poetry while she was very young, 'before she learned how to write', then started writing prose. As an adult she worked as a neurophysiologist during the day and wrote at night, sleeping only once every three or four nights. She wrote a number of novels for herself, then destroyed them all, without regrets, once she started writing for publication. The reason she decided to write for publication was that she was worried that medicine wouldn't provide enough money for her retirement. She was very poor until she wrote The Thorn Birds, which was an immediate success. She then found that fame made it difficult to continue to work as a scientist and took up writing full-time. She has published 15 books and is working on a 16th.
McCullough said that she writes on an electric typewriter, typing 140 to 150 words per minute with two fingers, and sometimes works for 12 to 18 hours a day when she's on a roll. Calculating that she produces an average of 10,000 words a day, she explained that she writes best at night, starting at midnight and working through until the morning. She does research before she does any writing and never allows anyone to see her books until at least fourth draft, and advised writers to ignore comments about their work from friends, relatives or enemies, and only pay attention to editors and agents.
A farewell concert was held on Friday night. Toni Lamond told jokes and sang, accompanied by her long time musical director Ron Creager on piano. She invited the audience to join in with 'You Are My Sunshine' and a few other songs. Barry Crocker sang, told anecdotes, did impressions and sang a tribute to Frank Sinatra, again accompanied by Ron Creager.