Time Out Sydney's Editorial Director Alyx Gorman joins us this year as guest writer, to provide daily wrap-ups of the Festival's most stimulating discussions and exciting events.
Here, Alyx recaps our Gala event Origin Story, featuring Tom Keneally, Joy Williams, Robert Dessaix and Ian Rankin.
Not always, but usually, teenagers have less than flawless taste. Teenagers like things that are overly dramatic, pretentious, violent or deliriously silly – because while you’re figuring out not only who you are, but also how to adult, you’re likely to oscillate between all those attributes, or embody them all at once.
That’s why asking writers to talk about their origin stories – the books that made them want to write – can be such fraught territory. You’re asking someone to undo themselves and show you what could well be their most embarrassing part. Luckily, ABC RN's Kate Evans is able to navigate that territory with grace. She was our host for the SWF Gala: Origin Story.
First to unzip was Thomas Keneally, who took us on an exhaustive tour of his adolescent bookshelves starting with Biggles and ending with Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Along the way we learned that at school, he’d carry books of Dylan Thomas poetry around in his breast pocket, in the hope that the words would shimmer into his blood and make him more successful with the girls at the school across the street — his primary success was in ruining his school uniform.
Joy Williams may be a “writer’s writer”, but she’s not a writer’s reader. Instead, sunglasses on, she shared a little about her process. Judging from the form it took, her origin story begins with psalms — perhaps not surprising, given she’s the daughter of a minister. “There's something unwholesome about the whole writing process,” she began. “A writer starts out trying to be a transfiguring agent, and ends up making contact. Just contact… A writer's awareness must never be inadequate, but it will never be adequate.”
“A writer is an exhibitionist and yet he is private. He wants you to admire his fasting, his art. He wants your attention and yet he doesn’t want you to know he exists.”
Joy may not have paid tribute to those that she’s read, but those who read her will take comfort in knowing her deadlines are just as rough as yours. “Whenever the writer writes it's always three o'clock in the morning. It’s always three o’clock or four o’clock or five o’clock in the morning in his head.”
Next came Robert Dessaix, who confessed to us a youthful desire to become “a dilettante” when he grew up, to loiter “another rude word, in English.” He said, "I wanted to love things, not do things." His origin story begins with another’s origin story, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s quote, "We all come out from Gogol's 'Overcoat'." Dessaix, specifically, comes from The Overcoat’s pocket.
Reading with pleasure a page from Diary of a Mad Man he told us, “Gogol gave me a way of writing about things that matter to me.” It was a speech-like way of writing, called skaz. “What I took from inside Gogol's overcoat was a chattiness from an upside down world.”
Finally, Ian Rankin took to the stand, and within a few passages demonstrated that, if you haven’t read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange with a thick Scottish accent in your mind, you’ve been doing it wrong.
'...if you haven’t read Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange with a thick Scottish accent in your mind, you’ve been doing it wrong. '
Growing up, Ian tried his best to fit in with his town’s gang culture. He wore the Doc Martens bother boots and he and his peers would pass around the Richard Allen skinhead novels that seemed to come out every other week. “I did the short hair cut, and I would hang around the street corner with the young tough kids. Then whenever they would say ‘right, that’s it. We’re heading off to Lochgelly, to have a fight with the gang up there, the Young Lochgelly Mental’ I would make my excuses and leave. Then I would go back to my bedroom and write about it.”
Ian was obsessed with the cinema, and 1972 was a golden period for X Certificate films. Unfortunately his best friend’s mum worked behind the ticketing booth of the local theatre, so The Godfather, Jaws and A Clockwork Orange were all out of reach. Not so at the library.
“Nobody stopped me reading books. They were forbidden fruit that the adult world wasn’t supposed to let you see, but the librarian said ‘fine’. They were passed around at school. One day my friend at school leant me his older brother’s copy of A Clockwork Orange, and I never did hand it back.”
“It was different. Yes, these were bother boys. Yes, it was violent. But it was written in an extraordinary language, that was exciting and graphic and visceral. It was written in a way that made you excited about the possibilities of language, and it took on big moral themes. About goodness, about evil, about self-control and consciousness... I was obsessed by it. I was consumed by it. And I began to write imitations of it.”
He’d sit quietly in his room and stash his work whenever someone came in. “I didn't tell my parents I was writing, I think my mother thought I was a drug addict... But it was much more shameful than that. I was a poet.”
Later that night, at a drinks session for people speaking at the Festival (that I’m frankly surprised I was allowed to attend), I resolved to talk to Ian Rankin. I wanted to tell him that in mid 2000s Australia, teenagers were still wearing Doc Martens bother boots and pretending to be tougher than they felt. That sitting high on the shelf in my own literary history, above mouldering homoerotic vampire novels and corset-bursting fantasies is A Clockwork Orange. I wanted to tell him how his words reminded me of something formative.
So I pushed down my natural disinclination to bother strangers, bowled up to him beside a surprisingly fancy pasta station, and told him as much. He murmured some kind of thanks and walked backward out of our conversation, holding his gnocchi with sage butter near his face as he watched me, warily.
Something sank inside me. My friend Carrington insisted I Google Image search Ian Rankin. It turns out he hadn’t appreciated my moment of flattery because he was not, in fact, Ian Rankin at all. He was Norman Ohler, author of Blitzed, whose upcoming talk High Hitler — about substance abuse in the Third Reich — sounds fascinating.
Later, Michaela McGuire revealed I was the second person that night to make that mistake (they’re both tall, you see). It’s not just our teenage eye that has the potential to reveal and embarrass. We’re still perfectly capable of doing so as adults.
— Alyx Gorman, editorial director of Time Out Sydney
Alyx Gorman is the editorial director of Time Out Australia, and the fashion editor of the Saturday Paper. Alyx has worked for Elle Magazine, the Mamamia Women's Network, Fairfax Media and Oyster Magazine, and written for The Guardian, Meanjin and i-D.