The Brisbane Writers Festival is back — and done for the year (it’s staying in May, now, and next year is the 60th anniversary). It was lovely to see people again, and sketch in the cafe, and listen to talks on history and life, poetry and family.
I (with Flyaway, although I got in a tangential reference to Travelogues!) was on the “Magic and Myth” panel with Krissy Kneen (The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen) + Tabitha Bird (The Emporium of the Imagination) + Melissa Ashley (The Bee and the Orange Tree).
Krissy ran a great discussion on three very different books (a novel of murder trials and fairy tale salons in 1699 Paris; a tale of a magical store that arrives by night in a Queensland town and heals sorrow; an Australian Gothic story of secrets and things in the trees; and Krissy’s memoir of searching through Australia, Slovenia, and Egypt for the true history of her grandmother). But there were many common elements too — secrets and generations, loss and what we cling to instead, and stories told and believed in different ways.
I usually have difficulty remembering what happened on a panel, but many people said lovely things about it afterwards, and there were some excellent questions.
I do remember one question on how you judge the parameters of magic/myth when writing it into a ‘real-world’ story. We all had different answers, of course — the fairytales in Melissa’s novel were specifically contained and retold within a historical, non-fantastic setting; Tabitha followed a theme and let the elements grow; I talked about (a) developing an ear for certain types of stories, so you can hear when you strike a false note, and (b) letting the magical elements sit in the setting/story until they start to change each other — and following the consequences.
There was another question, too, on the purpose/use of myth and fairytale. Melissa was specifically dealing with the way fairytales were used to communicate and argue around the restrictions of a society and royal censorship. Tabitha was using them as a way to allow the processing of grief and loss, and the preservation of what is mourned. I spoke about their usefulness as a template, because I find it more organic to use a fairy tale as a structural key than to think about acts and arcs — that’s a matter of familiarity and ease. But I also got onto another favourite topic, about how there are points in time where people sort of agree on how certain stories are to be told (you see it when artists agree what the basic cat should look like, which makes medieval cat drawings look implausible, until you meet cats who look just like them). I find that having a sheaf of alternative templates (fairy tales, for me) lets me shake those ideas loose, and look at them in a different light. So, for example, people are starting to tell post-lockdown stories, and those are starting to converge. But you could pick any number of fairy tales and retell the story through that: “Rapunzel” is an obvious one, but “Little Red Riding Hood” would work just as well (the year that was eaten by a wolf), or even Cinderella — I had just broken new shoes in at the start of 2020, and now I’m having all sorts of problems wearing them again.
I did make it to a few other panels! A few standouts were the First and Last Word bookends, Ellen van Neerven‘s talks, “The World’s Biggest Survival Story” (Melissa Lucashenko, Bruce Pascoe, Lisa Fuller and Thomas Mayor). And then of course so many wonderful conversations in the green room and the cafe, at signing tables and over drinks.
A particularly memorable panel I went to was “Out of the Wreckage”, in which Kelly Higgins-Devine interviewed Margaret Cook’s A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods and Jamie Simmonds’ Rising from the Flood: Moving the Town of Grantham. I still have very vivid memories of the 2011 floods (as well as being cut off, I’d started at the Department of Transport and Main Roads just days before they happened, and since something like 95% of the state’s transport networks were affected by that year’s rains, it was a crash course in the department’s responsibilities!), and was tangentially involved with some of the Grantham relocation. It was a vivid and compelling discussion (and surprisingly entertaining), so I am looking forward to reading these two.