Friday 2 June 2017

Planning a Programme: how a conference organiser shares history - by Gillian Polack

I’m fascinated to find out different ways in which we learn about history, especially through fiction. One important way is through public events. If we go to a talk or attend a workshop or have coffee with someone at a conference we learn something quite different to what we might find out if we explore in libraries by ourselves. This is because the learning in conferences is influenced by the programme. 

This month I thought it would be a very good thing to talk to someone who is in charge of the programme for a major conference and find out more about the history presented and the contexts that conference presents from her view. It’s not just what she does – it’s how she designs that programme and what her thoughts are about it.

Elisabeth Storrs is responsible for the programme for the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA) Conference. She loves history., That should go without saying, given what she does. She programmes the HNSA Conference from a position of knowledge and of that love, which is why I asked her if she’d answer some questions. She’s also an author (the Tales of Ancient Rome Saga) and has done a great deal over the years to support other writers. She used to be the Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers’ Centre and is the co-founder of the HNSA. All of this explains why she does programming for the HNSA and why it works out so very well. 

One more thing you need to know about before we look at how Elisabeth approaches her work is what the HNSA conference is about and why it’s important to understand it. Conventions and conferences are a key link between readers and writers. They create communities of interest. The HNSA’s community includes readers of historical fiction, historians and other scholars, writers of historical fiction, and a range of people who work in publishing. At the very least, a conference can create a bond between their subject and those who love it through their approach to it. When the programming is done right, which it was last HNSA Conference as I reported here (which is why this interview, this year) new things happen to a genre. 

Elisabeth doesn’t open the doors to history when the plans a conference, she does the carpentry so that the rest of us on the programme can open doors into our way of seeing things. When there are enough doors and enough people going through them, the whole atmosphere changes. Her vision provides the direction and our writing and research the content. Events of all kinds do this. They help shape the history we read and the way we think about the past.

Let’s get a bit of an insight into how she lays that groundwork.

Elisabeth Storrs

1.      How do you choose your presenters and the role they play at the conference? Are there any people you feel are particularly necessary? Who are they? What do they bring?

How do I choose presenters? The HNSA 2017 Melbourne Conference in September features over 60 speakers. It’s a challenging juggling act! 

There were various goals the HNSA wanted to achieve when designing the programme. Firstly, we wanted to explore a theme that would resonate with both readers and writers in terms of Australasian history; secondly, we sought to elicit ‘personal histories’ from award winning authors for the purpose of inspiring and informing a general audience; and finally, we believed it was important to provide insight and instruction to writers into the craft of writing and researching historical fiction. Overlaid onto this was a desire to provide diversity in the conference line-up by including authors from a variety of backgrounds, particularly indigenous speakers. Fortunately, the success of the inaugural conference in 2015 placed us in a happy position to extend the programme to run two concurrent streams in 2017 to achieve this vision.
With our aims sorted, I was then charged with the task of deciding who our speakers would be.  Our conference theme is Identity: Origins and Diaspora as HNSA believes historical fiction plays an important role in interrogating how national identities have been forged by past struggles, injustices, sacrifice, survival, and clash of cultures. It was essential to secure the appearance of speakers who represented a range of perspectives to reflect this. Our round table discussion at the opening reception on 9th September features Arnold Zable, Hanifa Deen, Ngahuia te Awekotuku and Gary Crew who will discuss the role of the historical novelist in exploring first encounters in Australasian colonial pasts, the migrant experience underlying multicultural identity, and whether an author’s origins are relevant to the story telling.

The first stream of the Saturday programme will continue to highlight the theme with the keynote address from Lesley and Tammy Williams, authors of Not Just Black and White, followed by panels that will discuss the challenges faced in portraying the meeting of First Peoples with Europeans, and how historical novelists can breathe life into immigrant tales of prejudice, hardship, homesickness and adaptation. I chose authors who had produced books that directly addressed one or more aspects of the conference theme such as Nicole Alexander, Maxine Alterio and Kim Kelly. 

The remainder of the first stream concentrates on introducing readers and writers to the personal histories of high profile authors such as our special guest, Kerry Greenwood, as well as conversations with Kate Forsyth, Sophie Masson, Deborah Challinor and Lucy Treloar. Insights into the secrets of ‘the long haul’ of producing multiple books or series will be provided by Juliet Marillier, Libby Hathorn and Anne Gracie. 

The second stream required further difficult decision making. I chose to separate the sessions into three areas: research and technique, sub-genres, and trends in publishing. I matched authors to the topics using criteria such as prominent standing, favourable reviews, recommendations from HNSA patrons and committee members, and choosing some members from our HNSA Facebook group . Again, I hoped to achieve diversity in the panels. And my aim was to present authors who wrote across a range of eras and cultures while also including self-published writers with proven reputations. I was pleased to include a greater representation of New Zealand authors than in our 2015 conference. 

The result is a wonderful array of panels including popular novelists Sulari Gentill and Robert Gott discussing how they’ve successfully created sleuths constrained by the detective methods of their era.  I also thought it would be interesting to examine the difference between an historical romance and a love story. For this I chose Isolde Martyn whose work has been classified as both, and Lisa Chaplin who has gained a reputation as a romance writer (as Melissa James) but who now writes ‘straight historical fiction.’ The chance to dispel the assumption that writing fiction for Children and Young Adults is easy will be explored via experienced authors Pamela Rushby, Gabrielle Wang and Alan Tucker. I am particularly pleased that Kate Mildenhall and Melissa Ashley will be participating in a panel discussing ‘The Modern Voice in Historical Fiction’ given it is essential for an historical novelist to balance the readability of a novel for a modern audience with a commitment to authenticity. 

Without effectively adapting research, history merely becomes a backdrop rather than an integral part of plot, place and character. There will be two panels discussing this: one on how to transmute research into compelling fiction which includes translator Stephanie Smee whom I thought would bring a fresh perspective to this topic, and the other debating the perennial issue of balancing authenticity against accuracy with Pamela Hart (Freeman) who has moved from predominately writing CYA to concentrating on adult historical fiction. I have included Tim Griffiths on the panel to discuss how he grappled with wrapping his imagination around the challenges of depicting the true story of the famous photographer Frank Hurley. 

2.      What sorts of limitations are there on your choices? Is there anything you would have loved to do but that was impossible?

Limitations? Those imposed by lack of funds! HNSA believes authors should be rewarded for their appearance at writing events. As such we compensate our presenters but unfortunately we are not in a position to offer travelling and accommodation expenses. There were many authors (over 20) who were unable to accept our invitation because they lived interstate or overseas. 

HNSA’s next goal is to offer more to its authors at our 2019 biennial conference. This will ensure we achieve even more variety. And I have to extend a huge thank you to all our current speakers for their generous spirit and support, especially those who are prepared to wing their way across the Ditch or Australia for love of the genre.

3.      This is the second HNSA conference. How did the experience of the first feed into what you’re doing now?

The 2015 HNSA conference in Sydney was a huge learning curve. By analysing feedback from our surveys, we were able to identify favourite panels and features. Hands down winners were the interviews, our ‘In Bed with History’ session, and our First Pages Pitch Contest where aspiring writers pitch their ‘first page’ anonymously to industry experts (Alison Green, (Pantera Press) Mandy Brett (Text), Sophie Masson (Eagle Books) who then provide a critique of chosen submissions to the general audience. We are once again employing Rachel Nightingale as an actor to read the excerpts. Hearing words spoken aloud definitely accentuates what grabs the attention of readers, publishers and agents from the very first paragraph. 

Our 2015 ‘Tudorphilia’ panel was also very popular. In 2017, I decided to look at the appeal of World War fiction as I believe this is the current ‘flavour of the month’ among publishers and readers. Analysing why should involve an entertaining discussion between Paddy Richardson, Elise McCune, Julian Leatherdale and Justin Sheedy. And, of course, the weekend finishes once again with ‘Outside Your Comfort Zone – Writing Sex and Violence’ with less bashful authors Kate Forsyth, Luke Devenish and Anna Campbell.

4.      How does the programme meet the needs of writers and of readers?

I wanted to avoid the conference being geared solely to writers.  After all, readers are absolutely vital. This is why I developed a general stream concentrating on ‘In Conversation’ interviews as I believe both writers and readers enjoy learning how successful authors approach their craft and the steps on their publishing journey. However, our 2015 surveys revealed that the majority of attendees were aspiring writers. The second stream caters to those who wish to improve their craft and gain direction. And even the most experienced writers can learn new techniques by listening to different approaches so I hope the programme will be of interest to writers at all stages of their careers.

In addition, the conference aims to provide more advanced support than the panel discussions. HNSA has developed smaller one hour ‘super sessions’ where participants can gain tuition from established authors on a range of topics. In this way, people can learn how to use tools such as Trove (Rachel Franks) and Scrivener (Kelly Gardiner) or methods of developing a novel from family history (Eleanor Limprecht.) Lisa Chaplin offers a guide to successful pitching while Hazel Edwards provides practical advice about ‘The Business of Writing’. Attendees will benefit from high calibre authors such as Sulari Gentill, Anne Gracie, Isolde Martyn and Sherryl Clark in writing for specific genres. And a fantastic opportunity is available to a small number of registrants to attend master classes with Gillian Polack [me! Editor’s note – it was better for Elisabeth to talk about me in the third person than to tell me what I was doing, when I know what I’m doing and it’s readers who don’t know] on ‘Making History Come to Life through Research and Writing’. This involves her pre-reading 10,000 words of a manuscript so she can then provide in-depth feedback and practical writing exercises. Additionally, industry expert, Irina Dunn, will provide 1:1 manuscript assessments.

Our extended academic programme is open to all. These panels provide an excellent chance to listen to papers that deal with complex consideration of topics such as ‘Bio-fiction: Can you Defame the Dead?’ convened by Kelly Gardiner and Catherine Padmore, or ‘The Lie of History’ featuring Christopher Raja and Wendy J Dunn. We are also delighted to introduce the inaugural HNSA Short Story Contest with a prize of $500.

5.      Can you explain specific approaches to history that you’d like the people attending the conference to experience and how you shaped the programme to reach this goal (if you did) or why you didn’t (if you didn’t)?

Apart from our ‘Identity’ theme that examines Australasian history, I made a conscious decision not to highlight any one era in individual panels other than those considered as trends. Instead, the sessions feature authors who may write across a range of periods whether they are medievalists (Robyn Cadwallader, Prue Batten), a fan of the 1920’s jazz age (Natasha Lester), an ancient world lover (Wendy Orr), or a devotee of C19th mystery (Greg Pyers). By not separating history into silos, I believe the audience can better compare and contrast the inspiration, strategies and expertise of historical novelists to interpret and convey the past.

Thanks, Gillian, for giving me the opportunity to tell you a little about the HNSA 2017 conference. Creating the programme has been a challenge and a pleasure. I hope all who attend will find something which appeals to them. More details are available on the HNSA website  together with the complete speakers’ list  including our wonderful chairs and academic panellists.

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