Sunday 2 September 2012

What Reading Means to Me

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.


bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a wonderful panel! I agree with them - you can't be a writer without being a reader.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

The thoughts of these authors remind me if the enormous responsibility of my job as school librarian; I must share the amazing world of stories with children who are just learning to read a little for themselves and that work starts next week as I don my Queen of the Library attire. Now which book to begin with....

Thanks for sharing the stories of these authors. All I can say is,"More, more, more!"

Louise said...

I do too Kathy, I'm sure the vast majority of writers are, at least I've never heard of one who isn't. Although I guess they wouldn't advertise it.

Thanks Debbie. There are more posts to come (I still haven't done all I could from Adelaide, I don't want to be that slack!). You do have a wonderful job, I hope your student know how lucky they are to have someone as passionate about the love of reading as you are. I'd love to know which book you do pick.

Genie -- Paris and Beyond said...

What an indepth retelling of the writers' stories. Not only do I love to read, but I want to know about the writer and the events that contribute to the body of work.

I looked up "A Monster Calls" and found a very personal review by Danielle Smith ( It just went on my list. I wondered about the suggested age of 10.

Thank you for this post.


Marg said...

John Boyne talked about A Monster Calls in his In Conversation session as well. I read it last week (before he mentioned it but after it got rave reviews from lots and lots of bloggers) and it is an amazing book but you do have to be warned that it is very emotional. I had to create a new blog label for it - 'ugly sobbing crying'

Louise said...

I'm fascinated by writers too, I always enjoying reading articles about them, or interviews, they're so much more interesting than actors to me, and I rarely ever read an article about them. I hope you enjoy A Monster Calls, I've seen so many bloggers rave about it. I'd love to hear how you like it.

You were so lucky to go to John Boyne's In Conversation session Marg! I left booking too late and sessions like that one were full already. Good to hear that you loved it too. I'll be interested to read your post. I love your new label!

Hannah said...

Oh yes, the HCA The Little Mermaid made my heart catch in my throat to! Oh, devastating.

Louise said...

I don't know that I've ever read it Hannah! You know that I really want to now...