Thursday, 28 August 2014

Joan London: In Conversation

By Imbi Neeme

I have to confess: it’s been well over a year since I last read a book. It’s a pretty hard thing for someone who presents herself as a lover of literature to admit, but it’s true. If I had to give a note from mother at this point it would say “Please excuse Imbi from reading any books. She has been far too busy pretending to write her own book to spend any time reading anyone else’s.”

And then the opportunity to review a #MWF14 session arose and I found myself with the chance to dive back into the world of a novel that wasn’t mine. What a gift! It was like taking a literary holiday away from my own work with all the benefits of an actual holiday: perspective, rest, relaxation, inspiration and a tan. Okay, so not a tan.

The book was Joan London’s third novel The Golden Age and the author was appearing at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival in conversation with journalist and fellow-writer Jane Sullivan. I should add here that I enjoyed The Golden Age immensely - London’s prose was insightful and full of grace and her characters were beautifully drawn. But let’s get this straight: I’m reviewing the event here and not the book. Do I have to get my mother to write me another note? No? Good.

The event was very well attended - London can sure pull a crowd on a cold Wednesday night – and she was gracious and ageless on the stage. As I listened to her talk, I was given a second gift. It was this: as a writer, it can be incredibly useful to listen to other writers talk about their craft. I’d like to share some of my key learnings with you now:

1. Always invite Drusilla Modjeska to dinner. Well, maybe not Drusilla Modjeska herself, but when you feel too close to your work to see it clearly any more, do invite someone else to read your work (the dinner part is optional). When London finished her first novel Gilgamesh, she felt it was “romantic nonsense” and had shoved it away in a drawer. And then Modjeska came to dinner and heard about the unpublished novel in the drawer and she insisted on looking at it and then went on to encourage London to do something with it. It subsequently went on to win a billion literary awards and all I can say is that I hope London served a really nice dessert that evening.

2. Follow your dreams. I don’t mean give it all up and move to Hollywood, I mean literally follow your dreams. A lot of London’s work seems to have been inspired by her dreams - in fact, she dreamt the word ‘Gilgamesh’ without knowing really what it meant and the subsequent research into it lead to her first novel. Inspiration can be hiding in the strangest places and you just need to pick up the thread of an idea and see where it leads.

3. Become a collector. Not in a creepy John Fowles kind of way, but in a way that might inspire your writing. London collects hundreds of postcards of people’s faces – photos and paintings - that she uses as inspiration for her characters. As someone who recently spent an hour trawling Google Images in search of a photo of a ‘Mid-Life Critical Guy On The Verge of Getting An Earing’, this method was a revelation.

4. Be in a writers group with famous writers and influential editors. Okay, so London didn’t exactly choose to be in a writers group with famous writers and influential editors - it just turned out that way. The point here is how important it is to talk about and share your work with other writers on a regular basis and to remember how valuable that network can become. And yes, point 4 is a bit like point 1 but without having to feed Drusilla Modjeska dessert.

5. Eat something before you attend a 6pm session at a literary festival. A personal learning but one still worth sharing. I think my stomach was more vocal during the Q&A session than any audience member.

So that’s it. That’s all I got. Thank you, Joan London and the Melbourne Writers Festival, for my literary holiday. I’m back at my computer, refreshed and inspired. Who knows? I might actually write my novel now and not just pretend.

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