The Big Issue at MWF

25 August 2014 Katherine Smyrk

The Big Issue at MWF

Events at the Melbourne Town Hall always feel significant and last Thursday evening was no different. It was a winter evening, and the golden light falling out into the street felt warming, inviting you in. It was the launch of the 29th Melbourne Writers Festival, not a hugely significant anniversary, but a number big enough to have some grandeur and weight. I felt a buzz as I mounted those glorious stairs that split the entrance down the middle. I had put on some perfume; worn a nice dress – it was the same deep red colour as the thick carpet, held in place with shining golden fixtures.

Anticipation was building amongst the people that lined the floor and upper levels of the great hall. Arnold Zable led an introduction, and his heartfelt words on the importance of fighting to maintain equitable higher education only built the mood. Halfway through one particularly rousing sentence the audience burst into loud applause, unable to wait until the end to express their support.

Talk soon switched to the keynote speaker of the night, Helen Garner. I was bubbling with excitement; I was introduced to Garner’s writing at 16 and her books have lined my shelves ever since. The speakers described her as “legendary”, a “literary icon” and other well-deserved titles. It might have just been me, but it felt like the audience was urging for the introductions to end, so the main event could start.

Then, finally, she walked out onto the huge stage; a normal looking older woman in jeans, with a thick scarf wrapped around her shoulders. She was quite small. She looked a bit like my mum.

But then she launched straight into a reading from her new book, This House of Grief, and the audience was hanging on every word, sentence, paragraph that Garner conducted. 

Following the reading, Garner sat down one of two chairs that were casually placed in the centre of the stage. They looked a little incongruous in the grand setting.

“I just really love courts,” she said simply, with a small giggle, responding to the question about why she wrote a novel centered on a murder trial (for the second time).

Her new book follows the many years of trials of Robert Farquharson, who was accused of murdering his three sons, when he drove his car into a dam on Father’s Day, 2005.  

Garner had gone to the first committal hearing of Farquharson and started to hear the story about his family and his history.

“Following that, there was a curiosity which I’ve learnt to take notice of,” Garner said. She likened this to hearing your phone go off in the next room, a quiet ding.

Throughout the life of this book she has been drilled about whether Farquharson was guilty.

She quotes a young woman who accompanied her a lot throughout the trials:

“That is the least interesting question you could ask,” she said.

Garner is without a doubt an Australian literary legend. But despite the grandeur, the resplendent room, the flowery speeches, she remained an amiable and calm presence. She was just a person who was drawn to a story, and couldn’t help but write about it.

The interviewer may have been looking for a grand, trumpeting gesture from Garner or a resounding statement about good and evil that the audience could take away to chew over.

But the impression I was left with was a quiet, determined curiosity and a drive to tell stories. And if that’s how the Melbourne Writers Festival continues to be framed, I think we have a lot to look forward to. 

>> Katherine Smyrk is the Staff Writer/Editor at The Big Issue