Somerset: students, lamingtons and book cakes.
It’s taken me ten days to write this post because I have been having festival withdrawals. I find the weeks following a festival difficult. It’s hard returning to a life that does not include a buffet breakfast every day and constant book-centred conversations. You see, two weeks ago I was at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, held by Somerset College in Queensland. Basically the people of Somerset believe that books are so great they should be celebrated annually with three days of author talks, giant stationary sculptures and poffertjes (dutch pancake things that should probably be illegal.) There were also books made out of cake. In my opinion this is a feature grossly neglected by other literature festivals.
From the reactions of most of the students it’s fair to say they thought the whole thing was pretty freaking great. I agreed. The closest thing I ever experienced to something like this was when Mem Fox came to visit my school when I was in year one. I was so overwhelmed with awe that I couldn’t meet her, I just sat trembling in a corner gazing in her general direction in a way which is really only excusable if you are six.
To me, writers were like movie stars. In fact, if offered the choice between seeing Mem Fox or some megawatt Hollywood star face-to-face, I’m sure I would have chosen the woman who invented the disappearing possum.
Twenty six years later I am only marginally better at keeping it together in the company of authors. I find that I enter a surreal, hyper head space where I need little sleep and tremble constantly from excitement. I have come to know this as Festival Syndrome. Let’s be honest, I spend most of my time either alone staring at a computer screen or conversing with two small humans whose idea of a good time is to see how much spaghetti they can force up their noses. So any adult conversation is generally stimulation overload for me. At festivals these conversations tend to involve my favourite people: writers and readers. So yeah, my brain tends to go a bit haywire.
The thing that is so brilliant about Somerset (other than the book-cakes) is it’s all about the students. Most literary festivals have a couple of days worth of events for students before getting on to the real serious business of adult books for adult audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily talk to anyone about books and writing with a microphone. I don’t care how old they are, it’s a privilege. But my favourite people to talk about this stuff with are teenagers. The Somerset Celebration acknowledges the wonderful truth that the books we read as youngens can shape us for the rest of our lives. It acknowledges the fact that young people are important, their ideas are important, their brains are important. It also does something else quite wonderful in that it takes a group of writers and plonks them fair and square in the middle of the school’s life. We wander around between talks eating poffertjes and fairy floss and are encouraged to mingle with the students.
I didn’t get to casually mingle with authors when I was at school. I came to view them as etherial beings with unobtainable literary super-powers and it took me a good seven years after school to even begin to imagine that I could be a writer. It seems to me that one of the things young, aspiring writers need most is encouragement. They need to know that people who do this for a living often write crap. They need to know that everyone finds writing stories difficult. They need to know they they don’t need special super-powers to be writers. There is no better way to learn these things than by asking an author face to face. (And if the said author is feeling brave enough, they may even share some of their early, particularly bad writing.)
But for me it works both ways. I get as much of a kick out of meeting readers as they get out of meeting authors.
The opportunity to meet with ones readers is pretty great if you are like me and still have trouble comprehending the idea that you even have readers. (This isn’t something that necessarily wears off, so Thomas (NAME DROP) Keneally told me.) It’s great to read positive reviews written by adults. But they aren’t really who I write for. Nothing quite compares with being told – in person- by a scruffy, surly teenager that your book is ‘heaps good’. From time to time I have entertained the idea of abandoning YA to focus on writing stories about adults for adults. But Somerset reminded me why I write for teenagers: because for some reason (probably only understood by psychoanalysts) it is their opinion which I value the most.
At Somerset I met some amazing authors, many of whom I have admired for a long time. But the highlight of the festival, for me, was meeting a small group who had travelled six hours on a bus from their remote town to come to the festival. They came to see me speak in the morning and then flagged me down when I was on my way to get more poffertjes. Some had read The Sky So Heavy and liked it enough to want photos. With me. They talked about their favourite characters with an affection that I haven’t witnessed in anyone other than … myself. It was magic. No adult could ever match the enthusiasm these kids had for the book. They gave me lamingtons.
And if you remember anything about Possum Magic, you will understand why this is significant.