This is a reflection on the 2015 Avon Valley Writers Festival by Melissa Davies.
Avon Valley Writers Festival is in its third year. The inaugural festival was first in the town of Toodyay, with subsequent festivals since held in Northam. Brandishing a line up of local authors, including Amanda Curtin, Sami Shah and Susan Midalia it was an opportunity too good to miss. A road trip AND writers festival… perfect!
When I got to the venue for the festival, the Northam library, a sign on the door told me that the festival had been relocated, to a place called Killara, a map on the door gave me directions. It wasn’t far, only a block away.
Killara, it turns out, is the local respite centre. Now I know that a respite centre is very different to a hospice. At the time, I did not know that. At the time all I could think about was how eerily quiet it was. How empty the rooms were. Had they moved all the residents into a shed for the day?
My first workshop was with Fiona Palmer, a rural romance writer. The panel was held in the “cottage” which was accessible only with a member of the festival staff through locked gates. I found a circle of older women sitting in armchairs and joined them, they were talking about their bad backs so I joined in and told them about my dicky knee. Luckily they were also there for Fiona and I hadn’t just stumbled upon a knitting group.
Fiona’s workshop was titled ‘Connecting People in Writing’; she gave us a fascinating insight into how she came to be published. She had never set out to be a writer, she left school early and never did particularly well at English. But she felt like she had a story to tell, and so she wrote it down without having any notion of having it published. She wrote because she loved story telling, not because she loved words or was in any way literary. It wasn’t until a friend sent her a book, published by Penguin, which told a similar story that she thought she might have a go. She sent her manuscript to Penguin and miraculously it got picked up from their slush pile and published. Just like that. The physical embodiment of an urban myth— the mythical author who gets published after being found in a slush pile.
Fiona Palmer— Photo: Avon Valley Writers
Once Fiona’s workshop was over we all went back to the main building, everything had run a little late so it was decided that we break for lunch early. Lunch was provided for us by the organisers: home made flan, a platter of cheese & biscuits and some delicious cake. Oh the cake! From now on can all writers festivals offer cake please?
Next was Susan Midalia’s workshop on short story writing, and really the reason for me coming to this particular day. Susan only began writing in her 50s and has written 3 short story collections. The most recent, Feet to the Stars, has just been published by UWA publishing. As someone who regularly teaches short story writing, Susan came prepared with handouts for us all, 11 exercises in total that we could use in order to become better writers. We did a few of them; all of them were brilliant at being able to conjure that thread of creativity that sometimes dangles just out of reach.
She likes this particular form because short stories show us that we live our lives in moments in time and show us glimpses of this. If a novel is a marriage, then a short story is a love affair, or even better, a one-night stand. A good writer, Susan says, respects that a reader will be able to understand. Don’t tell them what to think. Don’t be lazy - use words that make the reader think for themselves.
Sami Shah was the next workshop, although as a comedian he said that he much prefers to talk at people, so rather than a workshop this would be more of a lecture. But a funny lecture, obviously, not like at school. He talked about using the same principles of writing comedy to writing fiction, setting up the scene, then tell the story but always go back to the original scene or idea - it makes the audience feel included (and delighted) put your hero into the same situation and show the reader how their reactions change from their journey. Sami’s talk was upstaged completely by the granddaughter of one of the organisers sneaking behind him and stealing cheese from the lunch table like a little mouse.
Sami Shah—Photo: Avon Valley Writers
Kelli McCluskey and the theme ‘Is it Art or is it Drama?’ was the final workshop. I was in two minds about staying for this but in the end God am I glad that I did. It was bonkers. Part of PVI Collective exploring the idea that big changes often start with acts that seem pointless at the time, that these tiny acts of rebellion generate something much larger, Kelli’s projector didn’t work so she wasn’t able to show the video she wanted to, so she decided we’d go to the centre of Northam (which is a single street) and write down bits of text that we saw. Parts of advertising, street signs, over heard conversations. We then formulated these things into s story or poem. Wrote them on blackboard speech bubbles and photographed them. It was so much fun.
Avon Writers Festival was probably the oddest writers festival experience I have ever experienced, but it was also once of the most fun. Despite the problematic start everyone I spoke to was so enthusiastic and involved in the community. It was utterly charming and I will definitely be returning next year.
This is a FOMO piece, part of a series where writers reflect on their experience of literary festivals around the world. To read more like this, click here.
Melissa J Davies is a writer who was born in South London, but now lives in Perth, Western Australia. Her natural habitat is the local pub, where she can be found with red wine and trying to overhear other people’s conversations. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and sometimes pretends to be writing a book. Her work has appeared in publications in Australia, America and the UK. You can follow her on twitter @msmeldee