In Sydney last Thursday and Friday, there was rain, and extreme rain. And on the weekend the sun sprinkled moondust in our hair, and golden starlight on the harbour blue. The Writers’ Festival on the Walsh Bay piers was mere backdrop for the majesty of nature’s moods.


And the winner is … (moi!?)

I’d gone up to attend the 61st Annual Book Design Awards on the Thursday night. (At which I had the pleasant surprise of picking up the award for Best Designed Literary Fiction Book for Murray Bail’s The Voyage [also jointly won by Allison Colpoys (cover) and Miriam Rosenbloom (interior) for Amy Esepeth’s Sufficient Grace.] And too good, I notched the Best Designed Cover of the Year for the same book.)

However, I had been forewarned that I was to receive The Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Design Hall of Fame Award, “presented periodically to a designer whose work has made a significant contribution to book design in Australia.” It was a great thrill, even as it came with complicated feelings — don’t they give you awards like this as an official hint to wind up? One nice thing is that this irregular, nominated award does not have a subtext of invidiousness; the other very nice thing is to be presented it before your friends, peers and colleagues. A line I had jotted down but didn’t use was: “We each of us work in design [or, insert activity] for our own reasons, but maybe half the meaning is in community.” (I’ll post something about the Design Hall of Fame soon; as an interview about book design.)


10am panel after a 3am night

We had the SWF book design panel the morning after the design awards. I left the Hollywood at 2am with Miriam R, the chair of the panel. (The party, we hear, raged on till 5am.) I can not recommend getting to bed at 3 and convening at 9 for a discussion of a discussion. The panel was worth hearing: the astoundingly talented young designer Allison Colpoys; the excellent Daniel New,  Art Director at Penguin; Helen Boyle, a children’s publisher at Templar in UK, who had very useful views about design, and design in the e-space, myself and chair Miriam Rosenbloom. Thankfully, a thorough report of that panel has been already been blogged — by John Boland at Musings of a Literary Dilettante. (John B, on behalf of us designers, thanks, and thanks for the kind words.)


Romy Ash saves the night

I spent the afternoon in the arms of Hypnos. That night, Friday, was the ABIA, the Australian Book Industry Awards, which celebrates many categories — from Regional Bookseller of the Year, to Distributor of the Year, to Newcomer of the Year (debut author) … to Publisher of the Year, which is traditionally awarded to Allen & Unwin. Stressful as it is to speak before 350 eminent industry peeps, I had the happy opportunity to make a brief speech about the use and value of design in children’s books as an introduction to presenting The Best Book for Older Children (8 to 14 years).

The MC for the night was Daniel Browning, of RN’s Awaye! program about indigenous culture. Browning is a small, neat man with beautiful tones. Unfortunately he was not well served by his scripts — early on he was about to call on me to introduce The Best Book for YOUNGER … No, no, my hands waved at him from stage side. Browning had already suffered a few missed cues and was discombobulated. Somebody give me a list, was his plaintive cry. At which point the correct introducer, the young and lovely Romy Ash, leapt up onto stage and said, Hi Daniel, I’m Romy Ash, I’m introducing the Best Book for Younger Children, and here is the shortlist.

Romy, whom I was sitting next to much of the evening, is the debut author of this year’s Miles Franklin shortlisted Floundering. She was too modest to mention her own book; instead her speech was about how, having spent four years getting into the headspace of an eleven-year old boy, she had a good idea of the big job that faced writers for children. (Floundering was nominated in three categories that night, but alas didn’t succeed. Romy, however, had already proved to everyone that she had the wit and grace of a winner.)

I should add that Text Publishing, for whom I design, picked up Small Publisher of the Year for the second year running.


The Cringe, alive and throbbing?

The next day I had coffee with an old friend, the fine author and a Professor of English and Creative Writing, Nick Jose. Among other things Nick regaled me with his Festival story. He had planned to see Michele de Kretser talking about her superb new book, Questions of Travel, also shortlisted for the Miles. Knowing how the SWF works (or doesn’t) Nick was going to queue at 11 am for 11:30.

But Thursday morning arrived in buckets so he couldn’t get to the station, and instead hailed a cab and forgot to direct the driver — a grave mistake. Though he arrived with 20 minutes to spare, the queue was already too long. In the pouring rain, Nick went up to the front of the line and said to the staff there, You have 300 people in this queue and the Bangarra Mezzanine holds 100 max. What are you going to do about this? The staff protested, No, no, we’ve counted; there’re only 100 people here. Of course, 20 torrential minutes later, 200 people were denied entry. Nick had stayed just to see what would happen — the overflow (pun, yes, pun) was then directed to areas where they could listen to the interview on speakers — not necessarily a rain-protected experience.

Why does an A-list local author get a 100 max room when there is a 3x demand to see her? Nick asked various of the waiting public if they had come to this session because it was free. They all replied they had read the book and were keen to see her; keen enough to get drenched. The publisher had asked for a larger venue. So, is this programming a symptom of Cringe? You decide.


The Moon is a watch tower

I caught up with Elizabeth Harrower, author of the recovered masterpiece The Watch Tower. (If you haven’t read it, I fully recommend it. As they say on The Voice, it’s a journey — thrilling, unsettling, intense and rewarding.) She told me she’d been interviewed for three hours by Ramona Koval and two photographers — who moved all the furniture around and instructed her to sit here, and here. But they were very tidy and put everything back, she noted. Koval has interviewed and filmed Harrower for The Monthly which is something to look out for. Harrower recalled she had left for England all those years ago — in the 50s — because she wanted to see more, and that Australia was not then a “serious” country. She is not sure that we’re serious even now, in comparison with what is happening elsewhere. But allowed that, yes, maybe it was nice that we didn’t have to be, lucky even.

Over the bay where she lives, a huge full moon rose in a deep purple sky. It made me think of Munch’s Summer Night on the Beach.


My Own Private SWF, and KOK the hot Nordic

If you stay at the Sebel Pier One, where many of the festival authors luxuriate, you could conceivably curate your own writers’ festival. But in fact anyone can compile their own birdwatching list of authors spotted outside the program confines. Eg, among others we spotted (and sometimes talked to): James Button, Sophie Cunningham — Chair of the Literature Board, Krissy Kneen, feelgood author of the moment Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project), Romy Ash, Nick Jose, Michelle de Kretser, Pankaj Mishra, Diego Marani (who had the room next door) and Michael Cathcart — who was testing his microphone for a live recording of RN’s Books and Arts Daily by counting numbers into the air. He came over, we shook hands and he asked, What do you think, is that like performance art?

But The One everybody — well, the women and girls, and James Button (yeah yeah, and every other male writer) — was bowled over by was Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of the controversial and sensational six volume autobiography, My Struggle. Of KOK women said to me: “He’s amazing!”; “Have you seen him, he is so hot!”; “That Norwegian guy, he is too much!”. KOK looks like a literary Rolling Stone, with the straggly chic that Viggo Mortensen perfected as Aragorn in LOTR.


Vivid over Sydney Harbour

We spent the last bit of the last night viewing the vivid festival over the harbour. Sorry Melbourne, city glamour doesn’t get more brilliant than this.