Kim Williams: Rules of Engagement at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Kim Williams’ new book, Rules of Engagement, focuses on what is important to him – “enthusiasms, passions, ideas, and the energy of thinking” – rather than any recent controversy.

Williams has had an illustrious career as a media executive, heading high profile media organisations such as News Corp, Foxtel and the Australian Film Commission, as well as music-oriented organisations including Musica Viva Australia and the Sydney Opera House trust. He also studied the clarinet at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. “I had a very long and lovely relationship with the clarinet,” he said, smiling.

It is no surprise, then, that in his Sydney Writers’ Festival address he revealed that music is the central force in his life.

“Music is with you always,” Williams said. “I have music playing in the back of my mind all the time.” He was quick to clarify. “I never, ever listen to music playing while I work. I don’t understand playing music when you’re not really listening to it.”

He also believes that music helps with conflict resolutions. “Bach uses a series of discords that resolve themselves. Understanding the discipline of music is understanding the notion of tension and release.”

Williams’ passion for music underpins his disbelief that the Coalition federal government has no arts policy, and that creating one is not a priority. He believes that music is one of the things you acquire to lead a productive life. He said that, in particular, the lack of compulsory music education for children is concerning. “Children are among the most abused in society because they don’t have a say. Music should be compulsory for children; it’s fundamental.”

The reason for this, he insisted, is the growing inability to listen in order to make change.

Williams stressed the importance of listening in a world that is often too cacophonous. “There is a severe onslaught against listening,” said Williams. He traced this in part to the effect of the rise of social media and narcissism. According to Williams, listening is the key to rescue our future.

Drawing on history for a particular example, Williams praised Captain Cook’s leadership qualities. “[He showed these abilities in] endeavouring to engage and the way he documented. He is a role model for leadership, and made sure everybody came along. A splendid human being.”

Originally posted at Sydney Uni Life


Evie Wyld talks “All the Birds, Singing”

Evie Wyld won the 2014 Miles Franklin award for her second novel Evie Wyld was the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin award for her second novel, All the Birds, Singing. Wyld was born in London and moved to Australia, where she grew up in New South Wales. Her novel focuses on notions of place, navigating between the harsh Australian landscape and the UK with gothic flavour.

All the Birds, Singing seems strongly influenced by themes of ‘place’, or lack thereof. Given the fact that you have dual citizenship in the UK, how tied to a sense of place do you think a writer is?

I guess it depends on the writer, but for me personally, my writing all starts with a sense of place. It’s more about imagining the place before the character, and the character is kind of a construct of their environment. Jake, in particular, is a bit wild, she’s a bit grotty, she suits the muck and the cold but she also suits the sweat and the heat of Australia. For me, the landscape and the place is just another character. It’s totally essential in what I’m interested in – how a person on their own behaves in a landscape. So they become the same thing to me, I enjoy Australia as a country because in the remote landscapes you don’t have human eyes watching you and I think people behave differently when they feel totally alone, they move differently. That was a real consideration with my first book – that I wanted people to interact with the landscape and not with people so much.

As well as experimenting with notions of place, you also use time in an interesting way, as the scenes in Australia unfold from present to past. How did you come up with this idea?

I’d had a vague idea of how I wanted to write the story and what happened generally, and then structure for me is the really playful part. You can have a lot of fun and sort of work out the best way of telling the story, which is not always linear. This story in particular works with a sense of suspense and holding things back – it’s all about memory, really – it’s about holding things back and leaving things out.

It came to me quite late; I’d tried a few other things. The parts set in the UK in the present are written in past tense and the bits in the past are in the present tense. I suppose it was in playing with what makes the most sense in the story. I wasn’t trying to be tricky; I don’t think I’d do it with another story – partly because it became very complicated towards the end. If you’re going to use a funny structure you have to stick to your rules, which meant taking out a lot of writing that I’d done because it didn’t fit within the confines of the structure. Every time I write something there’s a point where I think what shape this has to be to fully exist.
How did people respond to experimenting with past and present?

Some people find it really exciting, some people find it incredibly frustrating and confusing. I didn’t do it to be tricky but at the same time I enjoy disorientating myself, as much as readers. Writing a novel you get lost in it and making a storyline is how you find your way back. I wanted that sense that, I trust readers that they come to a book and they want to trust that I’m telling them a story and if they enjoy getting there, then it’s not a problem. I don’t think you necessarily need to be completely aware of what’s going on at all times. Like in life, some things are open ended. Your own imagination works more if you’re a little bit confused, you bring a lot to the novel as a reader.

The protagonist in the novel’s name, “Jake” is very unique and androgynous, and the male character “Clare” – how important do you think the process of naming a character in a novel is?

You can’t just dole out any old name – I think there’s a tendency to want to make your character seem very serious by giving them a name with gravitas, something like “Raven” [laughs] I think Jack is a very common name for a strong, lead action character. So it is really important, and important enough that you have to be aware of all of the connotations of a name. You wouldn’t be able to have an Adolf or an Obama without thinking about what that means. Clare is a man really struggling with his masculinity and how he sees himself to be perceived by others. I knew I wanted Jake to have a one syllable name, something you can shout, something gruff, something that implies she hasn’t had an easy life. She’s a big person, she’s quite gruff, she’s got this grunty name – she’s not an Isabella with pigtails, not one of the popular kids. That can really inform stuff. Quite often when I’m writing short stories, I don’t give characters a name at all. I think the names are so – readers have connotations of names. If your mother-in-law is called Barbara, that’s who you picture, and you have to work hard to break that interpretation. I spend a lot of time thinking about names. Lloyd started off as Roderick, and my husband hated it so much – after 2 years he finally wore me down and I changed it. Roderick reminded him of Roderick from Life of Brian.

There is a mix of light and dark in the novel, there’s bleakness but there’s humour and moments of kindness and empathy. Is it important to keep a balance? (There seems to be a current conception in modern media that bleak stories are more ‘deep’ and meaningful)

My mum is quite emotional and doesn’t enjoy sad stories and won’t watch murders on telly – I told her it was quite odd she enjoys my books, but she said “but they’re so funny!” She reads them as comedies! For me, it’s like you can’t have one without the other and comedies tend to be incredibly dark, comedians are some of the most depressed people I know. I also think when things are dark the whole way through it just gets really boring. You don’t get that contrast. People have said my books are depressing, but I don’t think they are. Far worse stuff happens in the real world, to people. People talk about the relentlessness of the stuff that happens to Jake and I thought well, people have much harder lives than that – and find the time to laugh about it.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in the novel, which relies on the reader’s imagination. How do you think this informs the reader’s impression of the story?

Everyone who reads Wuthering Heights has a different image of Cathy and of the moors, the weather – that’s what’s amazing and that’s why people get pent up about books. I was in a restaurant last night and people were having a proper row about a book, and it’s because they both have different ideas of what it is, and they’re both totally right and that’s what’s great about it. I probably go to a greater degree than some people in leaving things up to the reader – I like to leave quite open endings. I feel like life is an open ending, and you finish a book and all the ends are tied up neatly and you kind of go “alright, that’s sorted out…” and you close the book. On the other hand, if you problematise that, it’s something you might think about for a while. You might send the author an angry email!

Has that happened to you?

Oh yeah. This book, more than anything else I’ve written. People are like “look, I invested the time reading this, I demand to know what the thing at the end is.” I think that’s so funny, that they think that I would know more than is in that book.

You have also written several short stories. How different is the experience of writing a short story to a novel?

It’s totally different. Short story writing is so precise. I started off writing short stories and now writing my third novel – it’s made me look back at my short stories and really think “wow, they’re not good enough.” They were fantastic in getting me where I am as an author but when I look at people who are fantastic at short stories – such as John McGregor – I’m worried I’ve written myself out of writing novels. I still try, but the process of writing is so different. You cant have a novel worked out in your head, you have to navigate yourself or you’ll get lost. With a short story, you have it in front of you and you have to do the best you can with that information, there’s nowhere to hide.

Who are your favourite Australian authors?

I started reading Tim Winton when I was about 13. Richard Flanagan, Kate Grenville, a lot of Miles Franklin winners. Fiona McFarlane – I love her books. I run a bookshop back home with an Australian and we both have a beady eye out for Australian authors.

Originally posted at Sydney Uni Life

Roland Fletcher: On Past Futures at Sydney Writers’ Festival

Professor Roland Fletcher discussed climate change and how we can learn from the past.
Professor Roland Fletcher discussed climate change and how we can learn from the past.

Something that is really frustrating for archaeologists such as Roland Fletcher is the total disregard people have for the origins of their food. “You really couldn’t give a damn!” he joked in his Curiosity Lecture Series talk at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. “You might think archaeologists are a bit mad, because they spend their time grovelling through other people’s garbage. But if you look through someone’s garbage bin, you can see what people really do, not just what they say they do.”

Fletcher is a professor of archaeology at the University of Sydney and instigator of the Greater Angkor project, which uses laser imaging to map the “lost” ancient megacity Angkor in Cambodia. “It’s strange that they call it a ‘lost city’ – as if the locals were so incompetent that they’d lost it,” Professor Fletcher said. “The local people showed explorers how to get there.”

He believes that by comparing the destruction of the ancient city to what is occurring in present day societies, we can be better prepared for the effects of climate change. “We have to have memory for a reference point for what we do, and a reference point for our relationship with others,” he said.

The temple of Angkor Wat – which is the size of the University of Sydney – was once a testament to the creativity, imagination and skill of its people, until it suffered the effects of severe erosion as a result of the transition from the Warm Medieval Period in the 14th century to the Little Ice Age in the 16th century.

“Angkor went through mega monsoons interspersed by severe drought, which led to the destabilisation of the city,” Professor Fletcher explained. “[They] had re-engineered their landscape and destroyed forests to create the city. There was a period of severe erosion and redeposition of thousands of tonnes of sand into their water systems.”

According to Professor Fletcher, this occurrence is significant. “Angkor was a giant, low density city, cleared of natural vegetation and hit by an extreme period of climate. The city became impossible to repair.” Sound familiar? Professor Fletcher finds it “disturbing” that 50 per cent of humanity currently lives in urban environments, a far larger statistic than in previous historical periods. Considering the worsening effects of climate change, he believes we are beginning a transition into a new climate period. “It might be worth paying attention to the material memory that lies in our past,” Professor Fletcher said. “Most of Angkor’s population reformed the community around its perimeter, and the same thing happened in Sri Lanka.”

Professor Fletcher suggests part of the solution lies in decentralisation. “It’s important to diversify your base. Committing to mega infrastructure means that if a disaster occurs it can be almost impossible to repair. There should be variety, and many means of power and transport.” He rounded out the discussion by expressing his desire for new urban studies programs that go beyond current short-term orientations, and instead incorporate more of a focus on the past to build a better future.

Originally posted at Sydney Uni Life

An open letter to HBO, Dan Weiss, David Benioff, and Bryan Cogman (re: sexual violence in Game of Thrones)

(trigger warning for discussion of rape, domestic violence)
Courtesy of
Dear HBO,
I am writing to express my concerns about Dan Weiss and David Benioff’s handling of the adaptation of Game of Thrones. There have been several instances now over a few seasons where scenes that were, in the source material, scenes of consensual sex – have been portrayed as rape scenes. Rape has also often been shown in the background, for no particular purpose other than to show the severity of certain situations, which could have been illustrated in less degrading, egregious ways. These depictions show a concerning theme in enacting sexual violence against women.
After much deliberation, I regret to tell you that after five years, I have decided to cease watching this show, and will stop publicising it on my blog and various other social media.
You can imagine my distress when Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss decided to include a particularly disturbing storyline from the book series through transferring the plot to Sansa Stark – a 14 year old girl who has suffered abuse with little comeuppance since the first season of the show. While Sansa in the book series is learning and becoming more confident, show Sansa has been put in this storyline which involves her rape, emotional and possibly physical torture at the hands of a psychopath. Bryan Cogman stated, “there was a subplot we loved from the books, but it used a character that’s not in the show” – it is concerning to me that, with all the changes that have been made in this adaptation (many that have been reductive to the representation of women), the writers chose to prioritise this storyline over one of empowerment for Sansa, especially considering her storyline thus far had a pointed lack of agency.
HBO promoted Sansa’s transformation (dyed black hair, black clothes, new alias) as something to be celebrated. This year is the first time in five seasons that she has been granted merchandise – a Funko pop figure and a Dark Horse figurine – both of which display this new look. If HBO and the writers of Game of Thrones only see this version of the character as marketable, why have they gone to such lengths to victimise her again?
Some might just say “it’s just fiction” – but as someone who works with television you must know the importance of fiction. Nothing is created in a bubble – writers bring preconceived notions about the world to their writing, whether they do this consciously or not. Game of Thrones is one of the most popular television series in the world right now, I know fourteen year olds who watch it, it is important that the stories remain as respectful in representation as possible. Raping a 14 year old female character for shock value and to eventually “empower” her, is not good representation.
This episode has left many upset and planning to cancel their HBO subscriptions. Some well known pop culture websites, such as The Mary Sue, are no longer going to be promoting the show.
I would love to see Mr. Benioff, Mr. Weiss and the other Game of Thrones writers make more effort to portray their female characters, in a way that doesn’t involve the constant, unnecessary additions of rape and sexual abuse. Nearly every female character on the show has been subject to sexual assault. The way the series is going is causing many viewers to lose faith in the storytelling, and it’s a shame that a show that has been so strong in the past, and shows such promise, should be tarnished by such a misogynistic reputation.
Since the episode’s airdate, multitudes of social media users have complained that “if it bothers you so much, why are you watching this show?” “Gore and murder is much worse.” In Australia, where I live, 1 in 6 women are raped each year. That’s twice the rate of women worldwide. In most cases, the perpetrator is known to their victim. Many of these cases are marital rape, which is often not even considered rape by the general population. The average woman is much more likely to experience first hand this kind of violence than any sensationalised gory murder on television. This is a reality for many. And that is why it is so difficult to watch, over and over again, without thought or reason, on your show.
Women do not need to be raped in order to have a compelling storyline.