Thursday, 2 April 2015

The Historical Novel Society of Australasia: its first convention - Gillian Polack

I attended the first Australasian Historical Fiction conference in March. I know some of you would be very interested in a detailed report, full of life and colour. I meant to write that report, but when I looked at my notes I realised that it was such a very good conference that if I were to write up a proper detailed summary, even from my notes (which are scatty, for I was very much engaged with conference happenings) I would be writing 5,000 words. I don’t want to work through the programme and give you elegant highlights, either. What do I do, then? I give you a quirky report, with pictures.

Let me start with Kate Forsyth, the patron of the HNSA. My notes were riddled with quotable quotes by her. My notes would be more riddled if she had not given us a bedtime story about the history of the king and the oak tree, during the conference dinner. We were so busy participating that I quite forgot to record any of it. There's just one that's so important, I have to share it: thanks to historical fiction, she said, she’s never been without a book she wants to read, there’s always something to look forward to. She can always find the stories she wants. I’ve seen the piles of books that attendees bought at the stall (my Langue[dot]doc 1305 was there, among the timeslips and the historical romances) so Kate’s words have become, for me, the theme of the conference. There was so much advanced learning for writers going on, and so much sharing of stories and experience: it was an amazing event. 

Kate Forsyth welcoming conventioneers to the conference (Balmain Town Hall).

This focus was thanks to the committee. They did such a wonderful job that  when Colin Falconer gave his keynote address, he looked at us and explained how important HNSA was going to be to our region, to the world of fiction. He said we would say “I was there, at the first one.” 

This would have been immensely more reassuring if he hadn’t soon after said “I have nothing against ripping bodies: I think it’s a fine pursuit.” He was discussing the cultural importance of historical fiction as a genre, but a few of us took it out of context, on purpose. We didn’t take his deeper statements out of context, however. The focus of his speech was on how historical fiction can help us understand, rethink and question our myths. It made me think that in Australia so many of those questions come from newer migrants and from Indigenous Australian writers. Patrick White and Alexis Wright offer question and reinterpretations that change our realities. Colin didn’t talk about this aspect, but for me it’s very important. Current Australian politics are partly what they are to reduce dissident voices and diminish the questioning of myth.

Colin Falconer giving his keynote address at the HNSA conference

I was part of the great debate, which was itself part of the opening events (alongside an address by Sophie Masson and the launch of Felicity Pulman’s new novel).

Sophie Masson giving the opening keynote address at the State Library of NSW, Sydney.

We were supposed to tear out each throats and create blood on the floor. Historians and fiction writers, after all, are dangerous beings and see the world so differently. 

Except we didn’t. We came to amicable agreements and told jokes about pus. I am not guilty of the pus jokes, let it be known, though I did point to a certain scene in a Gabaldon novel (a long scene, with breast milk) as my contribution towards the use of the mundane in historical fiction.

We talked about how changes in historiography make it easier for us to engage in polite discourse. In other words, if we all realise what modern historiography is about, then historians and historical fiction writers find we’re on the same page, just telling different stories and telling stories in different ways. The trick is, of course, understanding each others’ work, seeing that words like ‘research’ have a range of meanings, and understanding that a narrative can have an index and footnotes and careful definitions of a subject and still narrate. I’m afraid I made the obvious joke that even my first novel had footnotes (for I was there as the historian more than the writer) and yes, the audience laughed. It was a nice audience.

Books on sale at the HNSA conference

Jane Caro on a panel devoted to the Tudors  said what I’ve heard quite a few Tudor writers say “I think that when I was a young girl I was looking for a Tudor hero.” Wendy Dunn underlined this a little while later when she explained “I can’t write something that I can’t believe of my characters.” Elizabeth I became Jane’s hero because she never married and never had to share her power, while Anne Boleyn became Wendy’s. Jane is always political and so it wasn’t at all surprising when she said, very soon after, “Tony Abbott can’t be misogynist because he has three daughters; well, Henry VIII had six wives.”

On another panel Linda Funnel, Sulari Gentill and Peter Corris talked about magic time. Gentill remembered lying on her back in a lawn. It was a hot Australian summer and she lay there, looking at the stars while her father told her stories. This encouraged her to take up astrophysics at university, but she left it behind because the lectures were “turning my beautiful constellations into balls of gas.” For her, as for most writers, story is at the centre of things and history is “the scaffolding on which my story is built.” The panel talked about this and agreed that one of the joys of historical fiction writing for some writers was to finding the gaps in history and filling them with story.

It’s all about the story, isn’t it?


Sue Purkiss said...

It sounds great! Thanks, Gillian.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I am so jealous! Maybe next year...

Gillian Polack said...

It was great, Sue Purkiss. The bad news, Sue B is they're every 2 years (the good news is that the next one is in Melbourne).

Sue Bursztynski said...

That IS good news! Let me know when it's happening.

Helen at SilverWood Books said...

Thank you for a lovely energetic write up. It's been so interesting following the progress of the conference through early notifications, then eager anticipation, and now reporting of the talks and events. It felt like being there, despite the geography!

Gillian Polack said...

It was a magic event to attend - I'm glad I could share it :)

stevenjared0853 said...

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