The theme for this year’s Canberra Writers Festival is Power, Passion and Politics. With many big-name politicians and journalists appearing at the Festival, it will be easy to find power and politics, but where should you look for passion? Maybe try one of the sessions featuring local writers, because most likely they are dedicating much time to the craft of writing for little monetary reward.
One such session is Canberrans Taking on the World. Facilitated by Dr Craig Cormick, it will feature three local writers—Cat Sparks, Dan O’Malley and Karen Viggers. I caught up with Cat and Karen recently and asked them whether they are passionate about writing. “You pretty much have to be,” responded Cat. The market place is brutal and while its easier than ever to get ‘published’, it’s harder than ever to get readers and to get paid for writing, she explained. Karen also cited the toughness of the job as the reason passion is required. A novelist is with a project for a long time, “and to give it your best and continue to love it, because you don’t always love it, and continue that journey you need to be passionate about what you’re writing,” she said.
Cat writes science fiction and fantasy short stories and last year released her debut novel, Lotus Blue to much critical acclaim. It is an action adventure story set 500 years in the future in a world ruined by climate change and war. She moved to Canberra two years ago because of the large community of speculative fiction writers working here. But since living here, she has found much more than she was expecting. “It’s absolutely beautiful,” she said. “I had no real comprehension of what a lovely place visually this is, and you’ve got all the services of a big city but you’re so close to this beautiful landscape and country and animals, so I really love it.”
Karen Viggers writes contemporary fiction threaded with history. She is interested in “what we inherit from our past, from our families; the baggage we inherit and how we handle that in the journey of life.” Karen has written three novels with her fourth due out next year. Like Cat, Karen also loves the access to the arts in Canberra without the big city hassles and the supportive writing community here. “I’ve got some fabulous fellow authors of different persuasions here in Canberra and I really love that sense of community.”
As well as being published in Australia, much of Cat’s work has been published in Britain and America. Karen’s books have been translated into eight languages: French, Norwegian, Slovenian, Italian, Spanish, Croatian, Romanian and Dutch. Her second novel, The Lightkeeper’s Wife, was very popular in France, selling half a million copies. But despite their talent and broad appeal, both these writers need to supplement their writing with other work. Karen works as a vet one or two days a week and Cat has recently completed her PhD and teaches sporadically. Cat is under no illusion that writing will make her rich and is clear about what success means to her. “For me, success is when you have readership, you have fan mail, you have people writing about your work, you get invited to speak … I accept the reality that I’m not going to make much money out of this business,” she said. Whereas Karen is more circumspect. “Everyone wants to be a super best seller … I suppose that’s the public’s measure of success, isn’t it? But I think success, in the end, is being true to yourself … and writing something good, something you’re happy with. Feeling like you’ve got the words and the rhythm right, that you have a story which is well written and carries people through and helps them understand something about life.”
There is something we can all do to support local writers: buy and read their books and become passionate about doing so. Through their books, we can discover for ourselves the literary voice of our town. The sessions at the Canberra Writers Festival featuring local writers are like the farmers market version of the Festival—encouraging us to read local. They are a great way to be familiar with the writers among us. Cat and Karen are appearing in the session Canberrans Taking on the World, in the Conference Room of the National Library of Australia, 1 pm Sunday. Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for concession, and $12 for juniors.
Other sessions featuring local writers include:
Where: National Library of Australia
When: Saturday, 9:30 am
Facilitated by Dr. Sandra Phillips, an academic researcher of creative industries, this session features three successful local authors—Jack Heath, Ellen Broad and Andrew Hutchinson—discussing what drives them to write and whether they’ve made it yet.
Where: Common room, University House, ANU
When: Saturday 1 – 2 pm
In conversation with 2CC broadcaster William Summers, RiotACT co-owner Michael McGoogan and citizen journalist and finalist in the 2017 Walkley awards William Summers, discussing the state of journalism today.
Where: Old Parliament House, Senate Chamber
When: Sunday 1 pm
In conversation with Simon Troeth, Alison Booth discusses her latest book, A Perfect Marriage, which explores the issue of middle-class domestic violence.
Where: Circa Theatre, National Museum of Australia
When: Sunday 1 pm
In conversation with Canberra Times reporter Karen Hardy, Roger Rooney discusses his book, True North which is a well-researched military story set during the Vietnam War.
Where: Visions Theatre, National Museum of Australia
When: Sunday 9:30–10:30 am
In conversation with the National Portrait Gallery Director Angus Trumble, Robyn Cadwallader discusses her latest novel, Book of Colours which is set in 14th Century London and tells the story of three people drawn together to create a magnificent prayer book.