What Reading Means to me was the beguiling title of a session that I attended at Melbourne Writers Festival this week. A great panel with Cassandra Golds, Andrew McGahan and John Boyne. This was another session in the schools program and the vast majority of the audience were school groups and their teachers, although some older ladies seemed to be there because the tickets were $7, still they enjoyed it too I think.
The moderator said that she had asked the panelists to think about three questions. What do writers read? Do the books they read when they were young still matter? And do you need to be a reader to be a writer?
Cassandra Golds spoke of her 6 year old self hearing a recording of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid, and crying, the first time a work of art had made her cry. She knew from that young age that she wanted to be a children's author! At 9 she discovered Narnia, and discovered the possibility of another level of reality. At 11 or 12 years old she was most moved by The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray, and described it as funny, magical and moving, a fantasy story with a fully developed psychology. I hadn't heard of this book before, but it does sound intriguing, being a retelling of Rapunzel from a cat's point of view.
Andrew McGahan described growing up as a rather bookish child on the family farm in Western Queensland. The house had a large library, and he had easy access to a rich storehouse of stories. He first loved horror and ghost stories like many boys, and then entered the world of fantasy via Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson.
However he came to realise that these were all European or North American settings, that none of the books he was reading were set in Australia, and none had any relevance to the flat farming land of the outback that he saw each day. He then read Patricia Wrightson's work, particularly The Ice is Coming and found it quite altering. Here were books set in Australia, drawing on Aboriginal mythology, with creatures that fitted the landscape that he knew.
Andrew McGahan has only recently become a children's author, his first work for a younger audience, The Coming of the Whirlpool, was only released recently. He made his name as an adult author and perhaps his most famous and lauded book, The White Earth, he described as having been written entirely in Patricia Wrightson mode.
John Boyne grew up in Dublin, and described his joy at the half school day on Wednesdays. Not just that it was a half day, but he would go to the library that day and carefully select the books that he would read that week. As a young boy he loved Bobby Brewster and Noddy books. He discovered the world of Narnia at 9 years old while recuperating from an appendicectomy. At 12 he was reading Dickens, preferring the works with child protagonists- David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby. Indeed he rereads David Copperfield to this day.
He cited A Monster Calls as one of the best books of the last few years. So many people do, I really must read it. He felt that there was very little rubbish published in the YA world, and I must agree.
They each talked about their writing selves too. Naturally, each of them felt that you needed to read to become a writer. Cassandra Golds felt that her reading had given her her voice. That each of her books was a response to all the books that she's loved, and a response to things that have happened to her. John Boyne described fellow Irish author Joseph O'Connor (Sinead's brother) as having written out Hemingway as a young writer to learn how to construct sentences and dialogue. John Boyne always carries a notebook to jot down ideas, while Andrew McGahan encouraged daydreaming. There'll be no time for daydreaming with the multiple books that have just been stacked on top of my already tottering TBR.