Monday, September 14, 2009

Big Sky Writers Festival - report

Earlier this year I received an invitation to the Big Sky 09 writers festival, to be held by the Geraldton-Greenough regional library over three days in September. Geraldton is a coastal city abour 450km North-West of Perth, Western Australia, and in aussie outback terms 450km is a round trip to the shops. Accommodation & travel were all included, and it sounded like a great chance to meet some fellow authors and participate in panels on writing and science fiction.

I just got home last night, and I wanted to write a quick report on the festival while it's still fresh in my mind.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday last week preparing for a 2 1/2 hour 'meet the author' session (my first event of the festival), packed on Wednesday night and left home midday on Thursday. I brimmed the fuel tank just before I left, because my car generally does 450km on a full load, and 4 1/2 hours later I drove into Geraldton.

The library put me up at the Mantra apartments next to the marina, and I shared a very nice suite with all-round funny man and author, Jon Doust. (Jon is also with Fremantle Press, who recently launched his novel, Boy on a Wire - keep an eye out for it!)

The apartment was great - two bedrooms each with an ensuite bathroom, plus a lounge and a fully-equipped kitchen. There was the usual mini-bar stuff, but the Festival organisers had also loaded the fridge with goodies. There was fresh bread and the other basics, plus a fruit bowl, local olives and so on. Nice welcome.

The first evening was a catered dinner at the beautifully renovated home of Susan Smith, city librarian. I met the staff from the Geraldton library, which was great, and also most of the other authors & guests. Afterwards I did taxi-duties and chauffered Robert Drewe & Verity James and (someone else - sorry, forgot who!) to their accommodation (I was the only author to drive up from Perth - the others caught a plane. Me, I like to be mobile and free.)

Friday morning I drove to the Geraldton library for my first session. The library was huge and roomy, with a mezzanine floor and a wonderful light, airy atmosphere. The session was in the Council rooms next door, and I talked about writing & science fiction to a group of 30 lower-secondary students from a couple of the local schools. There were some good questions, a few laughs and a paper plane throwing session outside afterwards, which we managed to get in just before the skies opened.

I usually speak for 45-50 minutes in these sessions, but this time it was programmed for 2 1/2 hours with a 20 min refreshments break. That's why I spent two days working out what I was going to say, and how I was going to keep the audience awake. I extended my notes, and stretched the first 1/3rd of the material over the first half of the session, as well as throwing in a couple of readings ... including the first page of Hal Spacejock 5. By stretching out the first part I knew I could speed up in the second half, which is far better than rushing at the beginning and trying to extend & revamp the material to last another 20 mins at the end.

I did get one question about writing which left me searching for an answer: "What do you do if your parents won't let you write at home?" Over the course of each year I probably address a thousand students at various talks. On average, a handful are interested in writing fiction, and maybe one (or none) will go on to write later in life. So, when you hear from a student who is desperate to write but isn't allowed to, it really knocks you flat. Parents, if your child is keen to write - or has an interest in anything creative at all - please encourage them. If you don't, there's an excellent chance they won't dedicate their first novel to you ...

Friday evening was the gala opening, with Verity James as MC and an eloquent astronomer as guest speaker. All the authors were hauled up into the limelight, blinking in the glare of publicity, and then Jim Fisher entertained the crowd with a performance.

Afterwards it was off to the Geraldton Club for a buffet dinner with some amazing delicacies. Great conversation about books & reading, and fellow SF author Lara Morgan was on hand to help me push the SF barrow. (It was a table of eight, but unfortunately I don't have any names. I know the lady to my left was with the State Library of WA, I discussed kids with the lady to my right, and enthused about Asimov's Foundation series with a guy opposite.)

When we left it was pouring with rain so I lent Shelley Gare my jacket, dashed for the car, and then drove her and Jon Doust back to the Mantra. Stayed up very late watching episodes from season one of Bones.

Saturday morning I attended the keynote address by Anita Heiss, who gave an interesting talk about the Aboriginal perspective on astronomy and the night sky, and she then spotlighted her 'seven sisters' - seven Indigenous Australian authors and poets making a big name for themselves.

I disappeared from the festival for a couple of hours, and ended up driving around Geraldton. Haven't seen the place since 1985, and I decided it was time to update my memories.

Also did fascinating things like putting the washing on. (Told you the apartment had everything.)

At 1pm Liz Byrski launched her latest novel, Bad Behaviour, and I picked up a copy and had it signed for my mum. Liz signed it 'to the mother of Spacejock', which was a nice touch ;-)

At 2:15 there was a panel on the likelihood of extraterrestrial life. The panelists were Leonie Norrington, Liz Byrski, Jon Doust, Dean Alston and myself, and Verity James kept us all in line (and did a great job, too.)

Liz described the planet Geriatrica and Dean unveiled Hornbaggia, and between them they had the audience in stitches. Leonie shared a story about the white ghost, and I managed to find some deep space pics of thousands of galaxies, and we had those running on the projector in the background. Windows XP refused to cooperate, so I'd booted my laptop into Ubuntu - as luck would have it Ubu has a fantastic intergalactic screensaver, so that was a nice touch.

Radio Mama in Geraldton was broadcasting the panel live, and I saw the staff cringing every time the discussion ran off the rails, through the train yard and straight into the buffers. Which was often.

Later that evening I attended a dinner at Central West TAFE, where Kate Lamont shared her incredible knowledge of wine & food. Cast your eye at the menu:

Unbelievable. I usually don't drink, but I had a taster of each wine and they matched the food perfectly. (Although the word 'food' simply isn't appropriate.)

The table I was on was a real United Nations, with people either born in, living in or originating from places like Malta, Germany, Bulgaria, the UK and ... Geraldton. Having grown up in Spain and the UK myself, it was great to compare stories.

I drove two of my table companions home, then hit the apartment. Checkout was to be 10am the next day, so I stuck some pots of water in the freezer - I knew I wouldn't be home until 8pm Sunday night, and that meant keeping a few odds and ends cool in the boot of my car for around 10 hours. After packing bags and so on, I watched a few more eps of Bones. (I doubt I got more than five hours sleep a night while I was away.)

And then it was Sunday, the final day of the festival. There was a monthly trash and treasure fair so I wandered around for twenty minutes, mainly to soak up the sun. A few people had remarked how pale I was looking, which isn't surprising when you work from home and you're stuck in front of a computer most of the time. That, plus the lack of sleep I suppose.

At 11am I headed back to the Geraldton Universities Centre, where I had a panel with Lara Morgan on writing science fiction and fantasy. We sat in the middle of the table with the audience arranged in a circle, which was a good setup, and there was much discussion about writing techniques, plotting, editing and so on.

After the panel I was sporting a fantastic headache, which I'd had all day but which was now really hitting hard. The final event on the program was a 4-hour picnic lunch at Nukara, a bush venue 26km North of Geraldton. I originally planned to attend for an hour or so before setting out on my 4 1/2 hour drive home, but when I realised it was a 50km round trip, and factored in my headache, I was on the point of giving my apologies and driving straight home.

In the end I told the headache to get lost, told myself 50km was practically the end of the driveway in country WA terms, and drove out to Nukara. The first 6kmh were spent crawling through the suburbs at about 60km/h, but then the road narrowed and the speed limit went up to a more reasonable 110.

Flew through the countryside enjoying the rises, dips and tight corners:

Nukara wasn't what I expected at all. I thought it would be a wildflower nursury, but it was a rustic bush venue with a weathervane the likes of which I've never seen before:

(Yes, they're 44 gallon drums)

Had a very nice lunch with the other authors - spicy chicken wings, meatballs with chilli dip, ham roll, salad, coleslaw, everything. The lunch tray was enormous, and we all had a whole one to ourselves. (Someone must have researched authors and hit my recipe page, then decided we do nothing but write, talk and eat. Fair enough ...)

I stayed for an hour or so and listened to Anita Heiss, Liz Byrski and Verity James, chiming in now and then. Eventually I decided I'd better hit the road, else I'd be barrelling through the outback at 110 in pitch darkness for most of the trip. Not that I mind darkness, but it's much easier to overtake 35-metre-long road trains when you can see which way the road is turning.

I said my goodbyes, and then Lara mentioned her partner Grant had bought along all four of his Hal Spacejock books. They were well-thumbed and clearly well-read, and I happily signed the lot. I said goodbye to the other authors, organisers and library staff, then drove into Geraldton, filled up with gas, texted my wife to say I'd be back in 4 hours and 31 mins, then hit the road.

The drive back was actually quite entertaining. I was following a four wheel drive for some time, and a bright yellow VW 'New Beetle' was trying to overtake. The vee dub got past, and when I zoomed past the 4wd I overtook the beetle as well. They sped up, and we spent the next 200 kmh playing catch. (If I got ahead, they'd catch up, but each time we hit an overtaking lane I slowed a little so they could get past if they wanted, only for them to drop back again.)

Then we stopped at a roadhouse where I topped up my coffee, and that was the last I saw of the bright yellow bug. I don't even know who was driving, and for all I know it was someone from the Festival. Hope you had a safe trip, whoever you were.

Got home, said hi to the family, handed over gifts, gave them a potted summary, and then I packed away my gear.

I had a great time at the festival, the libary staff were terrific organisers and I really enjoyed all the different conversations and perspectives from a group of authors I wouldn't normally run into.

Big Sky? Big thanks from me, that's for sure.

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)