Crime Writers’ Gossip

First published in The Eye magazine February 24, 2000

Dave writes about his experiences at the 2000 Perth Writers’ Festival

Illustration from The Eye
Illustration from The Eye

For me, the Perth Writers’ Festival was going to be not just a literary experience but a Chevvy Chase one. My wife, Nicole, and my two daughters, Violet (4) and Venice (1), were coming too. Things got off to a bright enough start with the excellent kids’ pack, the helpful Ansett flight attendant supplied for the flight. Unfortunately, she wasn’t our F.A. for the trip.

Judging on their service, the two doing our end of the plane, may have been hoping to drive the price of the carrier down so the staff could purchase it at bargain basement prices. The German woman next to me who had the temerity to ask for a glass of water was told brusquely, “We’re doing a drinks run in a moment.” The fact the woman had first asked for the water some fifteen minutes earlier, gave her no dispensation. And we reckon the Germans are tough!

At one point, Venice had decided to commandeer the aisle of the plane. Everybody (except the attendants) were understanding enough to politely step around her. One immaculately dressed man didn’t even mind his trousers copping Venice’s butter-smeared palm. Later, I realised that the elegantly dressed gentleman was David Malouf. When I mentioned I’d been travelling with the little ones, he said, “Oh that was your child? She’s extraordinarily beautiful.”

Now my wife wouldn’t know a Malouf from a Renouf, her literary field runs from Ed McBain to marie claire. However, when I told her that this was if not quite a blessing from the Pope, for a writer the next best thing, she was ecstatic. She has purchased several Maloufs for our return, and I’m expecting the Balgowlah chateau to take on a distinctly Tuscan flavour in the near future.

The cocktail party at the newly opened Heytsbury Gallery, in the salubrious redeveloped East Perth, was an informal and pleasant affair to welcome us authors. Of course writers are an anonymous lot , so it was hard to tell who was famous enough for one to be sucking up to, although the wine-waiter bore a striking resemblance to Salman Rushdie, and I therefore spent my time at the rear end of a long queue of writers fawning over him. In the absence of a Pammy Anderson and Tommy Lee as THE celebrity couple to ogle, eyes fixed on Natasha Hyphen Democrat and her partner Hugh Riminton. They looked affable and approachable but all us writers were too shit-scared to crash their personal space, so we sipped wine and looked on from a distance.

At 8am the next day, the Festival was officially launched at a writers breakfast. Many bright sparks from the previous evening looked glazed and disoriented. It transpired this was not due to vast quantities of excellent Vasse Felix being quaffed into the early hours, but rather the foolish experimentation of writers and publishers with something they should know well enough to stay away from -ART. In this case, the Chinese Opera.

Robert Dessaix launched the festival with a humorous and thought provoking bouquet. At its heart was a declaration that writers use their lens to make the ordinary, extraordinary. This was a sentiment with which all us writers agreed. Of course some writers are more extraordinary than others, especially when it comes to “performing” live at seminars like “DIAGNOSING THE ROLE OF HUMOUR” – which I copped. My fellow authors were stand-up comics Nic Earls and Bruno Bouchet, with Liane Shavian (chair). Nic went on first with an hilarious piece that travelled everywhere from a CD about sex to a dead cat.

I was up next. The last time I’d felt this scared was at the Comb’n’Cutter Hotel, Blacktown, in 1978 when my band had to go on after Mi-Sex. Actually the physical conditions weren’t dissimilar to a pub gig in steamy Sydney. It was 36 degrees outside and we were in an air-conditioned tent. Well, air-conditioned except right at the dais. There it was hotter than the inside of Jeff Fenech’s glove. I battled through with some readings from my new book, eXXXpresso. As the sweat dripped off me, I was waiting for the hecklers to start on the “Butter Boy”. It was the first time I had done one of these panels while wearing reading glasses, so my eye contact with the audience was relegated to peering at a greasy smear in the distance, while up front a giant microphone loomed at me like a hungry Venusian. Anyway, I survived. Bruno Bouchet then read a brilliantly satiric piece about a role-play group, and we all retired to the cool of the book signing tent where Nic had almost as many fans as those legions of young girls who used to hang outside the Mi-Sex band room.

My afternoon session on CRIME WRITING was the last of the day. Many of those who had kept the tent full all day had headed home to get changed for the Chinese Opera, The Weir or French Acrobats. At least that’s what Gabrielle Lord, J.R. Carroll and I, told ourselves. We all spoke on how we go about writing our books. It was a revelation that three people in the same genre could have such different approaches. Gabrielle loves research, which I loathe. She spends a long time re-writing her first act and then things flow from there. John Carroll on the other hand just starts in and lets things rip from page one. I usually start with one key idea that I then try to expand this into a novel by intricate plotting. What each of us did say, and what echoed the earlier comedy seminar, was that you have to write your own stories in your own way. If you try and write what you think you ought to write, it just doesn’t happen for you. Many of us acknowledged that we started out trying to write great literature, but in the end were published when we settled for something a lot less grand; a readable book.

Sunday saw the temperature hit 37C. I was slotted in for an afternoon session of readings at the Lamont winery, along with my compatriots J.R, and Gabrielle, supplemented by Jessica Adams and Derek Hansen. The last time I could recall such dry searing heat was traipsing around the palace at Luxor, and in fact sitting up at the table in a state of heat induced stupor, I must have been a dead-spit for some ancient mummy. Actually, being a writer on one of these panels is sometimes very much like being an artefact that the bold and curious come and study, not so much for genuine pleasure but out of some sense of scholastic duty.

Fortunately, the venue was cool and air-conditioned and in this case, the tourists to our tomb were terrifically attentive and cheerful. Two women, Ann, and Mardi, both of whom had come solo, summed up for me what makes these occasions so important. These are the people who keep the barbarians from the door, who prevent literature being totally trampled under the sole of the giant Nike, or Puma. Hell, Ann and Mardi are the people who stand up in the face of overwhelming yob dollars, and say, “stuff you all, maybe it’s not hip but I’m still going to read.” Following our readings, beneath a cloudless, darkening, we ate superb food, drank magnificent wine and listened to Stephanie Alexander, Christine Manfield and Annette Shun Wah on the passion of food. Between courses we chatted with book club gals. It was fun.

Finally, my fellow authors clambered aboard the mini-bus and with droopy faces reminiscent of dogs being driven off to the kennel, headed into the dry night, enviously watching while I stayed behind to mop up the dregs with a few old mates more used to rock’n’roll hours than literary ones. We in the first festival wave had passed the torch, or rather the cold bottle of dry white, to the next regiment of lucky buggers; Dermot Healy, Richard Zimler, Rick Moody, Ningali Lawford and many others who would next weekend continue the fight for the realm of ideas and imagination, against the world of the 4 Wheel Drive and the Trade Weighted Index. Lynda Dorrington and her fellow Festival organisers had given the authors a fab three days. I can only hope that in return we gave Ann, Mardi and the rest of those who came to hear us, half as much pleasure.

Article copyright © Dave Warner, 2000. Illustration from The Eye.