I attended the Outsiders event at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival this evening and it was simply, simply marvellous. The panel was made up of M.J. Hyland, Nikki Gemmell and debut writer Catherine Therese and they discussed what it meant to be an outsider and how outsiders feature in their work. All three panellists were incredibly engaging and wonderful readers when they read aloud a section of their work. I’m not usually a fan of being read to but all were spirited and articulate.
The discussion began with Nikki who detailed her life as an ex-pat, moving from Australia and living the better part of the last decade in London, and moving back to Australia again, frustrated by her inability to finish her book (Book of Rapture). She fled London with her three young children and rented a one bedroom shack in the country where they intended to stay for three weeks. They stayed for three months and her experience reawakened her longing for home: Australia and for her children to know their roots.
Next was Catherine who discussed her dysfunctional childhood and family who are sadly still very dysfunctional today. She recounted her teenage pregnancy with a boy who had half a thumb, who, upon discovering she was pregnant, gave her $20 to go have an abortion (which she didn’t). Catherine’s family was not one for talking and, rather than tell her parents, she let the pregnancy carry on, she herself also denying the situation. Her parents were only told when Catherine felt the baby kick for the first time during dinner. When Catherine notified her parents that her book/memoir was imminent, they packed up the car and drove from Sydney to North Queensland and called her book ‘filth’. Catherine made a memorable comment when she said (and I’m paraphrasing) “your life begins when you first realise you are you”.
Finally, it was M.J, or Maria’s, turn. Her voice was the first surprise. It’s deep and full with a strong British accent tinted with a faint Irish note. I had assumed she would have an Australian accent since she spent her teenage and young adult life here. The second surprise was how funny she was. There were numerous times when she had the audience in stitches. When introducing her, the chairman (in the first of some several major slip ups!) butchered the pronunciation of her main character’s surname. Her latest book is This is How and the main character epitomises an outsider. M.J (the other panellists called her Maria but I have her as M.J in my head) read the first few paragraphs from her book before throwing it aside, exclaiming how she hated doing this because all it does is make her want to edit the entire thing.
In discussing her inspiration for the book, M.J drew on several other works that helped mould her story. Albert Camus’ The Outsider, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and another book that I didn’t catch and that I was stupid enough not to remember to ask her later when she signed my book! I’m still kicking myself. It is a companion or a response to Camus’ The Outsider.
The hour went very fast and there were some light hearted moments towards the end. M.J even took a photo of the entire audience with her camera which I find endearing. She also broke some tension when the chairman accidentally called an older woman in the audience “that gentleman” during question time!
The three authors did book signings after the event so I had to quickly go purchase a copy of This is How from the numerous book stores downstairs (bliss!). However, due to my silly nerves about speaking to M.J, my mind went blank and as I handed her my book, clutched in my sweaty hands, all I could stupidly squeak out was “I really enjoyed your talk”. Ugh!
Edit: I have since found out from another M.J. Hyland interview that the companion book the Camus’ The Outsider is The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke.