In November of last year I went on an amazing adventure. For three and a half weeks, in the company of four other writers, two mastermind visionaries, a designer and a problem-solving dynamo, I travelled across India. We presented at over thirty events, gave countless interviews to the media, climbed on and off trains and in out of buses, cars and auto rickshaws. We covered over 2,000 kilometres and we carried more than 300 kilos of baggage – most of which consisted of six handmade trunks packed full of Australian books. This was the Bookwallah Roving Writers Festival.
Tomorrow night, at Federation Square, the Bookwallah documentary film will be screened for the first time.
The documentary was produced, directed and filmed by Catriona Mitchell, one of the masterminds who, along with Nicolas Low of Asialink, dreamt up the whole crazy scheme. Although the writers took centre stage at public events, it was Nic and Catriiona who made the adventure possible.
I’m not much of a photographer. I forget to take pictures when I travel. I tend to reconstruct my memories and experiences with words and build the story of my experiences through narrative, rather than images. . But when I saw the documentary of the Bookwallah adventures in an early preview, I was amazed at how Catriona had given the journey a distinctive narrative, shaped it in a way that made sense of the heat, the chaos, the night trains, the events and destinations.
The Bookwallah will be on the big screen at Federation Square tomorrow night a 6.30 and then every Monday night in August at 6.30.
You can also see it on a tiny, interactive screen at the State Library of Victoria in the Cowen Gallery where the beautiful, travel-worn trunks are on display.
Outside my window, Lane Cove National Park lies green and glossy. I’m sitting in our caravan, Gloria, while rain patters down on the roof and the muted roar of Sydney drifts across the parklands. Sydney is simply amazing. A crazy juxtaposition of landscape and architecture, harbours, rivers, rocks and lush bushland.
My first visit to Sydney was in January 1974. As my dad drove through the city, I hung out the window and breathed in the hot, heady odour of a place that seemed the polar opposite of my hometown of Melbourne. Sydney smelt of steamy heat, sweat and beer (six o’clock swill). The doors of every pub were flung open and the footpaths were crowded with men in blue singlets drinking glasses of ale. Everything seemed golden and larger than life. Last night, just after the Professor and I arrived, we walked through Lane Cove National Park and the air smelt as foreign as I’d remembered it – sweet and heady, of winter wildflowers and damp earth.
In the early 1980s I spent eighteen months living in share houses around Sydney. I was a bit of a punk and Sydney suited me down to the ground. The landscapes of Sydney seeped into my imagination and decades later became the backdrop for my novel Vulture’s Gate. The wildness of the north shore provided plenty of hideouts for the runaway kids in Vulture’s Gate and a base for a tribe of Festers and the scary Sons of Gaia.
Tomorrow, the Professor will perform two Punch & Judy shows at Vaucluse House. I haven’t visited Vaucluse for a long time but I took elements of it to create a house used by the corrupt Colony to house young children in Vulture’s Gate.
When the Professsor told me about his shows up here, I decided to tag along for the ride. I didn’t expect so much of my past to come back to me nor how many scenes from the imagined future of Vulture’s Gate would come back like flashes from a life I’ve never lived. Stories do that sometimes, the past, the present and the future all intermingling to make for a much bigger life, a brighter canvas, a different way of seeing the things you take for granted. It’s hard to take any aspect of Sydney for granted. Definitely, a city of wonders.
(Apologies to my beloved hometown, Melbourne).
This is the view from my desk. But the reality is much better than the washed-out photo. The water is deep blue, the sky moves from shades of morning gold and azure through to mauve and orange at sunset.
We’re camped on the banks of Kona Inlet, a peaceful stretch of water that links up to Lake Kununurra. I think this particular campsite has to rate as one of my favourites. The only drawback is the water is full of freshwater crocodiles, which puts a little bit of a pall on the idea of swimming in it.
In a little while, we’ll be heading off to the official opening of the Kimberley Writers Festival, though it feels as though the festival has already been going for a couple of days. We met up with some of the other authors and the lovely library staff who are engineering the festival on Wednesday night for dinner. Last night there were pre-festival drinks and tonight it will be a little more formal with all the authors finally in town, a big crowd of readers and the festival fully underway.
Today I did three sessions with students at Kununurra High School. They were a great mob – funny, intelligent and attentive. Over the course of the weekend I’ll be doing readings and sessions with adult audiences, whom hopefully will be as much fun as the kids, though perhaps not. The reason I write for younger readers is partly because I like their company. I also love the way they behave as characters within the context of a story. I’m always a little bewildered when I meet authors who write for and about kids but don’t actually like them.
When the festival is over, the Professor and I will head back into the Northern Territory. I have a lot of writing to catch up on. The Kimberleys is a landscape that inspires all sorts of story. It’s ancient, exquisitely beautiful and yet very complicated. I’m currently reading a Mary Durack novel set in the region, Keeping My Country, which I’m enjoying but I’d love to be reading some children’s and YA fiction set in these landscapes too. A few years back I read Leonie Norrington’s YA novel The Last Muster which was a great read and very under appreciated. It captured so many layers of the complex stories that belong to this landscape. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write something set in the Kimberleys – I’d need to spend more time soaking up the place – or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to come back.