Sunday, September 6, 2015

Bookish Outing: Brisbane Writers Festival - Word Play

Last week saw the Brisbane Writers Festival celebrated, and as part of the festivities a program of awesome children's authors is put together as part of Word Play. Word Play is geared mostly towards school students, but the general public is also welcome to attend. Thankfully, because I was terribly excited about a few of the authors announced!

This year Word Play hosted Holly Black, Cassandra Clare and John Marsden, and of course I had to be there. So on Friday I attended two panels and a book signing with these amazing authors.

First up was Holly Black & Cassandra Clare's panel, Magisterium, in which they talked about, yep, you guessed it! Their series, Magisterium! I only recently read and enjoyed The Iron Trial and was half way through The Copper Gauntlet at the time of the panel. Black and Clare started their panel talking about the books they've had published, and then they told the story of how they came to write Magisterium together. It involved the both of them at an airport ready to go on tour for their respective book tours; Clare reading Percy Jackson and wanting to talk about it, while Black lay stretched out on the floor, drinking coffee and trying her best to wake up. Clare described it as her ranting about heroes and destinies while Black grunted at her, before the coffee finally hit Black and she came alive with an idea - they should write a book together. And so, Magisterium was born.

It was a great panel, full of laughter and writing advice. They answered heaps of questions about how they write together, who their favourite characters to write are, how they were inspired to become writers, what books they enjoy reading, how they feel about the comparisons of Magisterium to Harry Potter, how they feel about film and TV adaptations of their books, if they read fanfiction (not of their own works, but they have of each others!), and so on. I completely forgot to take a notebook so I could take notes, and unfortunately I can't remember their exact answers to all these questions. For the Harry Potter comparison question, they rightly pointed out the common themes between Harry Potter and other earlier works, explaining how magic school is a niche of the fantasy genre and that certain tropes are common and expected. Clare talked briefly about the adaptations of City of Bones, only mentioning that some things in the movie worked well while others didn't, and that she knows the TV series will be very different from her books. She visited the set and didn't recognise a lot, but she loves the cast and is very interested to see where they take it. Black told stories about the fairy books and folklore that inspired her, and about buying a dusty bottle of Cristal when The Spiderwick Chronicles movie was greenlit, only to open it and have her agent call to say it was cancelled again. I think my favourite story was about Black and Clare sharing some of their early work for a panel or competition with other authors where the worst of them won. Apparently Scott Westerfeld won, but Black thinks Clare's should have. It was titled The Beautiful Cassandra and was about a girl who met a boy, fell in love, kissed him, only then she didn't know where to go from there and so the boy got killed off. Then she met another boy, kissed him, and again, he died. This was a pattern that just kept repeating over and over again!

It's clear that Black and Clare have been friends for a long time. They had an easy and hilarious back and forth, teasing each other and knowing which of them should field what questions. It wasn't just the stories they shared but how they interacted with each other that made for a fun panel. During their signing there were so many excited students I almost got crushed in the crowd! I had to be taken out and straight to the front, which I felt bad about. But yay for meeting them quicker! They were lovely. Black and I exclaimed over each others hair colours, but she wins for having matching lipstick. Their line was much too busy for individual photos, but I was happy to have had the chance to meet them.

Next up, I attended John Marsden's panel, In The Beginning Was The Word. Now, I just have to say, John Marsden is an Australian author who has written a number of books since the 80s and his most popular is his Tomorrow series, about Australia being invaded and a group of teenagers of a small country town fighting back. I started reading this series when I started high school (20 years ago!), when the third book had just been released. For every year I was in high school a new book in the series would be released and I was always eagerly anticipating the latest one and would read it in a day. Marsden is one of my all time favourite authors. So I'm sure you can imagine how excited I was at the opportunity to attend his panel and meet him. Well, now imagine my reaction when he came into the hall early and sat next to me to wait for his panel to start. My teenage self was squealing in my head. Then he started chatting to me - wanting to know what panels I was attending, how I was enjoying them, if I read a lot, etc. My lovely mother had attended with me and they shared stories of which of their children were readers (4 out of 6 of his, 1 out of 3 for Mum - yeah, only me) and of course she had to mention how much of a fan I was of his. Mothers, they know just what to say to get you blushing, even at almost 32 years of age!

Marsden's panel was amazing and my attention didn't waiver from him once. He wanted to inspire those attending to find their own voice, their own way of writing that wasn't constrained by the rules they're inevitably taught, in school and by society as a whole. He began his panel with a story of a writing class he taught. He had the class sit along a cliff looking over the ocean and told them to write what they see. One girl immediately started writing and so he read over her shoulder. He was disturbed to see her first sentence began "The sparkling blue ocean" because it was an overcast day and the ocean was not blue at all. He couldn't understand how she wrote about "sparkling blue" and "golden sand" when right in front of her was the complete opposite. Marsden believes students are too programmed now, that as people grow up they lose the imagination they had as children so as to fit in. That there is this idea that language has to always be formal so as to imply some sort of high status, which he thinks is sad and untrue. Marsden believes such a thing impedes communication, that it doesn't allow people to stand out as themselves. He went on to share a bunch of anecdotes to highlight his meaning. Overhearing a father reprimanding his son over and over again for saying "um" while he tried to ask a question because "um is not a word", only for the son to stop talking all together (he wanted the students to know that "um" actually is a word, the dictionary says so); a mother who corrected her daughter again and again while she talked to him without realising it; about a father answering questions addressed to his son. Little things that maybe we don't think about, but that ultimately effect our own language learning. My favourite anecdote was about a little boy who received a static shock from his mother and stated that she'd "whipper snippered" him. Marsden loved that and went on to point out how as a child this boy might not understand his mother laughing at him for the cute comment; that children inevitably lose that way of creating their own language because "whipper snippered" would be 'corrected'. He wants the students he was talking to to aim to regain that creativeness. To be bold, funny, and unafraid to take risks. To not care what others think. Marsden recommends learning all of the rules, of grammar, spelling, and so forth, or of whatever craft you choose, but so you can then tear them up. His advice was about knowing what's in the box so that you can create out of the box. He advised us to carry a notebook everywhere and anytime we read/hear something we like, to write it down. From a word to a quote to a lyric. If we like it, collect it. He ended with an anecdote about his own time in school, how the teacher would state they'd be writing a story about pirates and ask the students to share all the words they associate with pirates. Those words would be written on the board and the students required to create a story using those words. He pointed out how for that reason all the stories would be much the same. So he'd go out of his way to write a story that didn't include any of those words. He hopes those of us attending his panel would find a way to use new and different words. He recommends reading anything and everything, to just collect language.

I have to say, I love the idea of 'collecting language'. Marsden was so very passionate and I told him when he was signing my book that I hope the students were inspired. He said he hoped the English teachers in the room squirmed! In another moment of my teenage self squealing in glee in my head I forgot to ask him for a photo, so then had to rejoin the line. Marsden thought that was funny. Well, at least my finally meeting one of my favourite authors was memorable!


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