Welcome to Planet Perth

Last night I attended an, ‘An Evening With …’ session with a visiting American writer Jonathan Franzen.

I am really glad I went, except that possibly it should have been called, ‘An evening with… People of Perth’.

To say Perth is uncultured would be unfair, but there is never an event like this where at some point, I don’t start feeling the need to sink a little lower in my chair. Having said that, it probably happens the world over and it because I am always so starkly self conscious that Australia’s cultural identity, while flourishing, is still early in its development (nothing wrong with that – it is an exciting time) and Perth, being so isolated loses much of its home grown talent to the eastern states and the eastern states has the same problem with people leaving to go overseas.

So it is brilliant that we have our own writers’ festival and it is equally brilliant that they managed to pull off an out of season event to take advantage of the willingness of a high profile writer to come across from Melbourne, because Perth has some pretty brilliant and unique bird life and he is a huge fan of the species.

I was flying solo on this one, so got there in good time to ensure I secured an aisle seat in the unreserved seating of the beautiful Winthrop Hall at UWA. This gave me adequate time to watch the other audience members come in. There was the occasional squat bearded creature with a chunky sweater and jeans, an over abundance of mature art-scene types, dressed all in black with cropped hair, and oversized ‘statement’ black-framed glasses. There was even one young bloke sporting a man bun that looked as though someone had balanced a huge hairy walnut whip on top of his head.

Basically the place looked like it was peopled from a scene written by Graham Lineham and they had just called in Central Casting to fill the hall with ‘types.’

JF, as I am now going to call him, because I am too lazy to keep typing his name, was introduced and read a few pages from his latest novel. He has the most amazing accent (if you want to hear it I recommend his reading on the New Yorker fiction podcast) and then sat down to talk with the books editor of the local paper, an impossibly tall man wearing statement black-framed glasses.

Far from being dragged here licking and screaming, JF, it turns out has long wanted to visit Perth as he is a bird lover and has a particular interest in the diverse fauna we have to offer. Clearly, he had reckoned without the diverse fauna in the audience. He spoke for about an hour, prompted by the occasional question from his on stage host and then the floor was opened to questions from the assembled people.

One man who raised his hand was handed a microphone. Maybe that was the first mistake. The man was mature, grey haired and started out complimenting the author on his works, but just as one might have expected him to then follow with a question, he veered off into some mad list of …  stuff with the occasional reference to JF’s work. Whenever he seemed close to the end of a sentence, he would do some circuar breathing trick and veer off at another tangent. It was like watching Rowan Atikinson in that scene from the Secret Policeman’s Ball.

For the first five seconds, he had both the author and the audience, then the audience began to twitch. A gentle muttering broke out. At around thirty seconds, someone shouted, ‘Ask a question!’ But he appeared not to hear. People began physically shifting around as the monologue carried on.  I started looking at the floor. Eventually, even JF interrupted to say he wanted to get through more than one question so it would be great if he could answer the first – if there was one. Around the one minute mark, the man asked about the title of the latest novel and was immediately tackled to the floor and the microphone taken from him.

Anyone who thinks a minute is not that long needs to listen Mark Kermode reviewing on the radio, because he can deliver a full movie review easily in under a minute.

I think we all felt a bit easier when the mic was next handed to a young one girl, but it turned out that she wanted to protest about the removal of trees in an area of the campus and there were some audible groans. Fortunately this was habitat to some birds and he had already signed the petition. SIT DOWN. NEXT

I did have a question, but was by now so disheartened, I did not want to ask it. The next speaker looked like she was going to ramble on a bit, but after insulting him by implying that he was unable to edit, by citing The Wonder Boys (a great movie all the same) and comparing him to Michael Douglas’ character,  got to her point and the Q&A then finished with a young girl asking him for some advice on first vs third person narrative. He responded by declaring that he loved technical questions – (why am I not surprised!) and giving a full and generous answer.

I bought a couple of his books and queued up to get a signature, not because I wanted one in particular, but so that there was a big queue and I could express my joy at his reading of David Means’ The Spot. I wanted him to know that we are not all nutters in WA, but come to think of it, I did express my admiration by citing the work of another author (it is OK, they get along). He was heading down to the South West today, so I took my leave, wished him a great trip and told him to look out for snakes.

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2 thoughts on “Welcome to Planet Perth

  1. You must have found a kindred spirit in Franzen when he described his low tolerance for stupid people. I’m wondering what was your question and why on earth you didn’t rush at the chance to demonstrate your superiority?

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    1. I don’t assume people are stupid, as a rule, and I don’t think the man who asked the question was either, but I think that there is an (unwritten) understanding of how a contract with a presenter and an audience plays out (depending on the context) and I fully admit that is part of my own cultural prejudice. My anxiety about it definitely comes from a concern that people overlook Perth (as opposed to Melbourne, for example) because of the perception that Perth is full of ‘hayseeds’ and that is wrong.
      For the record, my question was about editing – specifically whether it is helpful to have an editor who asks very concrete questions to bring the writer back to earth, and what kind of position he might approach when looking to edit his own work.

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