Popular Australian writers of the 30s, 40s and 50s rarely appeared in public, were heard on radio or seen in the early days of television. Writers like Arthur Upfield, Nevil Shute and Frank Clune did not give readings or talks. One of the most popular writers in the period was E V Timms. I read Timms’s sexy (for the time) historical novels with great enjoyment and didn’t even think to ask whether the writer was a man or a woman*. Writers were disembodied figures with their books, as it were, standing for them.
That all changed in the 1960s and 70s with the advent of the publicity tour. Then there were the literary festivals, first in Adelaide in 1960 and later in other capital cities and regional centres. Writers like Thomas Kenneally, (Bring Larks and Heroes), Helen Garner (Monkey Grip), and Robert Hughes (The Fatal Shore) and many others, became personalities. They were invited to writing events here and overseas, encouraged to launch their books in bookshops and give talks at libraries and universities. The publishers were all for it and readers turned up to see the writers in the flesh.
Television and radio also played a part, with Frank Hardy appearing on Would You Believe it? on the ABC and other TV shows, and programs like ‘Books and Writing’ and book readings coming on air.
I’ve had my piece of the action and, over the years, have been invited to most of the Australian writing festivals and to others in Stockholm, San Francisco, Grenoble and Noumea. This is small potatoes compared to the invitations extended to the likes of Tim Winton, David Malouf, Peter Carey, Kate Grenville and younger high-flyers like Christos Tsiolkas.
Still, if I chose to accept all the invitations that come my way I could be making at least six appearances a year. I limit myself to one or two. One reason for this is the demand it puts on the writer to come up with new material.
Some performers are better than others. Frank Moorhouse, Don Watson and Michael Wilding for example, are good. Among crime writers, Shane Maloney and Peter Temple are very good. It’s best not to go on a panel after Maloney or Temple have spoken. Best to go on before them, collect your laughs and modest applause and let them bring the house down.
Like most writer-performers I have a stock of anecdotes. My favourite concerns my launching of a book at the State Library of New South Wales. The woman who introduced me spoke rather softly. I have a loud voice. After I spoke, an elderly woman came up adjusting her hearing aid.
‘I just wanted to say,’ she said, ‘how good it was to hear you speak so clearly. I couldn’t hear a word that woman said. And I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed Oscar and Lucinda.’
‘Thank you very much,’ I said. It always gets a laugh but I have to be careful not to use it too often or to a substantially the same audience.
I’ve never been seriously harassed when speaking in public but a ticklish moment came when, after talking about crime writing at an event where a number of different lectures were going on, a woman stood up and said, ‘I assume you had scholarships all the way through your university career?’
What’s this? I thought, but I said I did.
‘Then what are you talking about this rubbish for? You should be putting back something in return for your free education.’
‘Madam,’ I said, ‘I think you’re in the wrong room.’
It wasn’t much of a rejoinder but the best I could come up with.
Did Patrick White ever appear at a writing festival? I doubt it – it’s hard to imagine him waiting his turn on a panel, or being very patient with hecklers, or answering the eternal question, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’
*The author was a man, Edward Vivian Timms.
**You can see Peter Corris at two events at the Sydney Writers Festival this Thursday 17 May, in conversation with Mark Dapin: at 2.30pm at Pier 4/5 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay (free, no bookings), and at 6.30pm at Ryde Library, 1 Pope Street (within Top Ryde City shopping centre), Ryde (free, bookings essential 9952 8352). Details here.