As a ‘festival virgin’, a clueless debut novelist invited to their first ever writers’ festival, I was nervous about attending the Bellingen Writers and Readers Festival.
In fact, when first invited, I wondered if I could get out of it. Though dimly sensing only a complete idiot would try and dodge this amazing opportunity, I wondered if I could think up some kind of excuse, or break my own leg – anything that would graciously excuse me from being onstage with other, far better and cleverer writers, facing an audience expecting something more than, “Um, so yeah, the book? I guess it’s like this big, um, road trip and, yeah, stuff happens.”
A public speaker I am not.
But, I figured I owed my brave little publisher, Brio Books, some payback for publishing me. After all, with no marketing budget and mid-pandemic, literally no one knew about my novel, let alone was buying it. Brio weren’t doing well from their investment in me. So I vowed to go and do my dib-dib-dib best. (I was a cub in the Scout movement for a few weeks when I was about seven, and the only thing that stayed with me was “dib-dib-dib, dob-dob-dob”. No, I don’t know what it means but there’s clearly still a part of me forever wearing shorts and long socks.)
Arriving at Coffs Harbour, alone and timid, I was greeted by Liz who instantly relaxed me and took me to my billet, something I dreaded mainly because all I could think about was the discomfort of having to poo in some kind strangers’ house while they were also in it. I know, but that’s how my mind works.
And then this amazing thing happened. The strangers in whose house I was inevitably fated to poo in, Beth and Tim, weren’t just nice, super-focused and intelligent in a relaxed and inclusive way, they weren’t just the sort of people who’d ignore me pooing in their toilet – they were immediate friends whom I felt relaxed and happy to be with. I had the weird sensation that they were simply a couple of my oldest friends I’d inexplicably forgotten I had. Now, if one of them needed a kidney, I have one to spare.
In other words, I was ready to poo and it would be a happy poo.
A whisky hangover later, the next day saw the Festival Opening with the two raconteurs, Miklo (Michael Jarrett), and William McInnes. Miklo brought us together by teaching us all to adjust our POV and ask for welcome to country. McInnes, playing a calculated casualness, appeared to ramble while actually applying the raconteur’s razor sharp wit. Then, a poetry slam, packed with locals trying out their best lines. Young and old, literary and loose, funny and grim, naïve and sophisticated – anyone could and did have a go. It was egalitarian, engaging and funny.
It began to dawn on me that I was in a community who loved words and story. Was this my ‘tribe’?
Writers advice 101: Find your tribe. What does that mean? For a recluse who lives in a remote mountain valley in Tasmania, it meant little. The idea is that you, as a writer, write in a certain genre, so you need to find those fellow authors, and your readers, who are, ultimately, part of the same ecosystem. For those of us writing multiple genres, unsure where we fit in, or struggling with introversion, finding a tribe sounds like the opposite of what we’d naturally do, which would be to find the quiet corner of the party by the bookcase, and try to blend in with the curtains.
So I’m nervous about my Big Day. I’m due on ‘Mornings’ – a chat with Organiser and MC Adam Norris at 9.45, then a speculative fiction panel with Nike Sulway and Rohan Wilson at 1.45 – followed by a book-signing, and finally an author-reading beside the wise and funny international bestseller Michael Robotham, fearless and tender journo-author Mohammed Massoud Morsi, and acutely incisive word-dancer poet Rebecca Jessen at 5.45, followed by another book-signing. Me, the awkward introvert on stage saying…stuff.
What can I say about the day I feared most? The day on which my pretense to authenticity as a writer would be cruelly exposed in front of writers and readers smart enough to know bullshit when they saw and heard it.
I’m such an idiot. From the moment Adam Norris’ dulcet, radio-perfect voice asked the first questions, I felt myself cupped and comforted by him and our small audience. I didn’t have to try and fail, I only had to be honest and helpful. I didn’t have to please people, I only had to share a little love and insight with them.
The spec-fic panel with Nike Sulway and Rohan Wilson had me relaxed and cheerfully sharing what I could, impressed by Nike’s generous moderation and Rohan’s deep and incisive insights into writing and politics.
Then, finally, the bit I'd feared most - the author-reading.
I asked my fellow authors for advice, and they kindly gave it. “Avoid reading passages with lots of dialogue.” “Don’t read your first few pages.” “Don’t, for the love of God, do accents.”
What did I do? I think you can see where this is going.
I started by clearing my throat, then, in a heavy south London accent… “Chapter One. My name is Blanco…”
My forever thanks to Adam, Liz, Sue and all who organised Bellingen Readers and Writers’ Festival, to my publishers David Henley and Alice Grundy, to my hosts Tim Cadman and Beth Gibbings, to the kind, clever and endlessly wise authors I met, especially Kate Forsyth – a gracious and wise Empress of empathy, Rohan Wilson – a constant font of insights, kindness and boyish enthusiasm, Rebecca Jessen – the soft-spoken word-dancer whose poetry instantly took me to other places and times, Mohammed Massoud Morsi – good humoured rogue journalist and novelist who brought us all, and himself, to tears, Mirandi Riwoe for kind words and great advice despite a teeth-grinding migraine, Michael Robotham – international superstar – who kindly admitted I hadn’t completely fucked up the ‘sarf Larndin’ accent, the audience – a diverse group of people who loved and listened to it all, and finally, those lovely kind people who asked me to sign their copies of The Last Circus on Earth.