Belonging at the Brisbane Writers Festival

This was the first writer’s festival I have ever been to and I loved it. My interests in writing murder mysteries influenced the sessions I chose to attend.

The festival ran from 7 – 11 September at the State Library of Queensland with themes of connection, belonging and identity.

Here is a brief overview of the sessions I attended.

Being masterful with Caroline Kepnes

As soon as I saw that Caroline Kepnes was offering a master class on ‘Character’, my credit card took on a life of its own and my ticket was purchased without hesitation. Having recently read both You and Hidden Bodies, I jumped at the opportunity to learn from the mind of the writer who created loveable murderer, Joe Goldberg.

Then I freaked out a little bit. What even is a master class? I looked up a definition. Everything I read described a master class as being taught by an expert to ‘advanced’ and ‘highly talented’ students.

There’s no question that Caroline Kepnes is an expert in her field, but I didn’t consider myself to be masterful in any way! I might be masterful at sleeping in and eating an entire block of Cadbury Dairy Milk with Oreo Mint (maybe two). But writing amazing characters? Was I going to be way out of my depth?

My fears were assuaged when Caroline walked into the room on the day of the class. Her sunny smile, friendly disposition and natural sense of humour immediately made me feel at ease. She was not going to force me to stand up and read my work and then ask the rest of the class to point out the flaws. In fact, using an example from her own experience, Caroline’s advice was “don’t listen to praise, don’t listen to criticism” and to trust yourself.

Caroline was supremely knowledgeable about all things ‘Character’ and I was hooked on her every word (similar to how I felt reading her novels). Using Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, she made the following key points:

  • Appearance isn’t just about physicality. Think about how a character appears to other characters when written from their point of view. For example, what does a student think/feel about their teacher when they see them outside of the classroom for the first time? What is their impression of the teacher in the ‘real world’ compared to the classroom?
  • Break down an action (e.g. if a character gives someone a Kleenex, when do they do it? Do they do it as soon as they start crying or do they watch them cry for a while first? Those decisions say a lot about a character. Maybe they derive some sort of sick pleasure from being around people who are sad).
  • Describe thought as an action. For example, in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, action is described by Susie as she watches the earth from her heaven and observes souls as they travel, i.e. she “realizes things”).

As the session came to a close, Caroline Kepnes resolved to master the art of koala photos and I resolved to master the art of character. Stay tuned!

Historical fiction about women doing “shocking” things

In my festival booking frenzy, I also seized my ticket to see Natasha Lester discuss one of my favourite novels of the year A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald in a Q&A session with Kathleen Jennings.

Natasha has been my tutor while I’ve been undertaking the course ‘Year of the Novel’ with the Australian Writers’ Centre. She has provided invaluable advice and inspiring words of wisdom to keep me and other students motivated as we write the first draft of our novels. I was thrilled to finally meet her in person. (And she signed my book! Squee!)

An avid reader of her blog (which everyone should check out if they haven’t already), I already knew a lot about her process writing A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald. However, it was wonderful to hear her speak in person about the intense amount of research that she undertook in order to bring to life the tale of intelligent and determined Evelyn Lockhart who works as a Ziegfeld Folly in 1920s New York City in order to pay for her studies to become one of the first female obstetricians. A self-professed lover of archives, Natasha even consulted old fire maps of New York City to find out what buildings existed and where at the time the novel was set. That is dedication! And it certainly paid off because the descriptions of setting and place in the novel are flawless.

Upon reading the description of the Ziegfeld girls (measurements 36-28-38) in A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, I have to admit that I measured myself – curious to see if I would have stood a chance if I had auditioned alongside Evelyn Lockhart. Alas, not quite. I can’t sing or dance either but as Natasha noted, that didn’t matter so much to Ziegfeld as long as you looked the part. Today, if a woman wants to study medicine, there are study assist options available, more employment options available (including as a performer if she so desires) and expressing a desire to study anything, including medicine, is more likely to be encouraged by family rather than scorned.

However, despite this, Natasha also spoke about being approached by several women working in the medical profession today who told her that women are still experiencing bullying, similar to the type of bullying that Evelyn experiences from work colleagues in the novel. I discussed this with my friend afterwards and she wondered if this may be due to the fact that there are still older people in the medical profession who have retained that outmoded mindset. I can only hope that the explanation is that simple and that within a few years those people will retire and take their archaic views with them.

Natasha also spoke about visiting Paris to research her next novel (can that please be my life, too?) set in the 1920s/1930s at a time when the cosmetics industry was burgeoning and people were starving on the streets but were still horrified to see a woman wearing rouge. Scandalous! I cannot wait to read it.

It’s personal – crime that’s close to home

Senior Crown Prosecutor and author of true crime novel Kidnapped, Mark Tedeschi was quick to point out that the crowd who turned up to the “Crime and Curiosity’ panel was almost entirely female. He also noted that it’s usually males who commit crimes, but did the turnout at this session indicate that females are more interested in analysing those crimes?

I was very interested to listen to Mark, Kate Kyriacou (Senior Crime Reporter for The Courier Mail and author of true crime novel The Sting) and Emily Maguire (author of An Isolated Incident) talk about why society is so obsessed with pretty dead girls. Or in the case of these speakers, real examples of two dead little boys, namely Graeme Thorne, an eight year old boy kidnapped and held to ransom in 1960 and the subject of Kidnapped; and, Daniel Morcombe, who was murdered in 2003 by a paedophile whose capture almost a decade later forms the subject of The Sting.

A key point was how the authors used inspiration from their past, personal connections to write their stories. Mark spoke about being the same age as Graeme Thorne and keeping photographs of him so that he would recognize him if he saw him. Similarly, Emily lived in New South Wales in 1986 at the time when nurse, Anita Cobby, was abducted and murdered and that her sister caught the train from the same station in Blacktown.

Emily spoke passionately about victims and misconceptions about what make a woman “at risk”. In stories about murders that pique media interest, the victims often attract criticism, usually on social media. She shouldn’t have been walking down that dark alley. She shouldn’t have been wearing that outfit. Emily stated that based on the high levels of domestic violence homicides, women may be at risking by simply “living with a man”.

Emily’s empathy for the victim is at the forefront in An Isolated Incident. She told the audience that her intention was to not to write a traditional crime novel about forensics or the plight of the detective investigating the case. In fact, the novel contains no gratuitous descriptions of what actually happened to Bella Michaels, the victim in the novel. Instead, she wanted to focus on how Bella’s death affected those around her. I appreciated this as a point of difference to my own novel which is a cozy mystery and is much more about a detective solving the puzzle. However, after listening to Emily, I am inspired to think more carefully about the loss experienced by those who loved the victim.

Psycho or Socio?

Author Justine Larbalestier told the audience at the ‘Psycho’ panel that although people use the term sociopath more often these days, psychopath and sociopath are synonymous. However, I’m not sure Muse’s song Psycho which hisses the lyrics “psycho, psycho” would be as effective if Matt Bellamy sang “socio, socio”.

Nevertheless, the auditorium was packed to hear the vibrant and entertaining Meg Vann interview Caroline Overington, Caroline Kepnes and Justine (who, based on the fact that all three panellists have lived in the United States, noted that if her name was also Caroline, they would be the least diverse panel at the festival) about just that – the PSYCHO.

Justine is the author of My Sister Rosa, a story told from the perspective of the sibling of a ten year old “psycho”. She has thoroughly researched the disorder and responded to Meg’s question “what is a psycho?” by talking about epigenetics, how genes aren’t “fixed” and how environmental factors have an impact on the development of the brain. As she also states on her blog (which I recommend reading as she discusses complex things in a way that people like me can understand): “… the answer to nurture versus nature is BOTH. Psychopaths, like all humans, are a product of their genes, their environment and their brain morphology. None of those things are fixed”.

As Justine listed attributes of people with a psychopathic/sociopathic disorder, I mentally checked myself – lack of empathy and remorse (I cried in Marley and Me so I must be okay), being a thrill seeker (I’m terrified of rollercoasters so I must be okay) and charisma. Not the type of charisma that comes from a place of warmth and caring within a person but that strange kind of charisma that leaves you feeling drained and exhausted. Caroline Kepnes described these people as vampires who suck the life right out of you. Caroline Overington then told the audience that if we knew someone like that who wasn’t good for us, to just cut them dead. But not literally. (Because then you’d be a psycho).

A journalist for The Australian who has covered hundreds of murder cases, Caroline O also chilled the audience with her recollection of being in the court room for the trials of Gerard Baden-Clay and Brett Peter Cowan by stating that she knew she was in the presence of evil.

Caroline Kepnes then spoke of her experience being in the presence of a real life psycho by describing her gym teacher at high school, whom everyone always referred to as a psycho because of his behaviour. When the girls had their periods, he demanded proof by requesting to see their panties. Caroline K told the audience that, years later, this teacher was in Time when he attracted media attention for brutally murdering his wife and making up an unbelievable story to explain what had happened.

Talking about her fictional psycho, Joe Goldberg, Caroline K stated she invented a set of rules or a moral code for Joe to justify what he, as a character, thinks is acceptable. For example, Joe would never rape anyone. He’s not that kind of psycho. Instead, she describes him as a “veterinarian” who decides when people need to be “put down”.

To finish on a comment from Justine – everyone has a story about someone who is toxic. We should take Caroline Overington’s advice to “cut them dead” (figuratively).

Then we should put them in our books and cut them dead (literally).


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