Revolutionary romance novels and Bookers on beer coasters: what we learned at Melbourne writers’ festival

Richard Flanagan reveals how not to lose a first draft, Betty Grumble weaponises art, and intersectional feminism gets raunchy

Advice columnist Daniel Mallory Ortberg, artist Betty Grumble and Man Booker prize-winning author Richard Flanagan delivered home truths at the Melbourne writers’ festival.
Advice columnist Daniel Mallory Ortberg, artist Betty Grumble and Man Booker prize-winning author Richard Flanagan delivered home truths at the Melbourne writers’ festival. Composite: Sarah Lee/Lexi Laphor/The Guardian

Daniel Mallory Ortberg really can solve all your problems

There is a particular level of intimacy usually only reached at 2am after sharing several bottles of wine with a close friend, or immediately with a drunk girl in a nightclub bathroom. It’s the point at which your friend can lean in, push your hair out of your eyes and say lovingly and without judgment: “Listen: you need to dump him.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg, it turns out, can get that intimate right away, drawing an auditorium of several hundred people in with him. We were all the drunk girl in the bathroom, leaning in and nodding as Ortberg dispensed advice to a series of absent letter writers. The letters, written in to Ortberg’s long-running advice column Dear Prudence, were displayed on the screen behind him and co-host Clementine Ford. It was the first live taping of Slate magazine’s Dear Prudence podcast in Australia.

“Love sometimes leaves a long-arse echo in one’s life,” he said to a person who wrote in saying they can’t stop dreaming of their ex, three years after they broke up.

“He has had 15 years to have a plan,” he reassured a woman concerned about quitting a small business run – and apparently thoroughly misunderstood – by her cousin’s husband.

Together, Ortberg and Ford tackled such thorny questions as: how do my husband and I ensure we do not crowd our new joint boyfriend, who is on the rebound from a long-term relationship? How do I handle having a crush on an ex-student, who I have met again as an adult? How do I stop stalking my emotionally abusive ex on Instagram?

Each question was handled with humour and compassion, tinged with the practical advice of your favourite aunt. Get therapy, trust that you deserve good treatment, talk to your partner, and read Barbara Pym. And if that doesn’t work, try therapy again. – CW

Don’t throw out your beer coasters

If you’re going to write a draft chapter for a Man Booker prize-winning book on the back of beer coasters at a pub, make sure you put them somewhere you’ll remember for safekeeping.

Richard Flanagan misplaced his scrawled-upon beer coasters while writing his sixth novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which went on to win the 2014 Booker. He was close to giving up on the entire project when he found them again years later and was able to get the novel back on track.

The other take-home message from his conversation with Toni Jordan on Saturday night was: it can be easy to feel consumed with despair for the state of the world when you look at the behaviour of those in power, but hope can be found in other places: in the people around us, and in everyday acts of love and kindness. “We make too much of power and we make too little of ourselves,” he said. - LM

Romance writers are secret revolutionaries

There was a rage for secret babies a few years ago, bestselling Mills and Boon/Harlequin author Melanie Milburne told the audience at the Romance as Resistance panel on Sunday. It made Milburne quite uncomfortable.

Secret babies, for the uninitiated, are the babies that result from a one-night stand, are never disclosed to the father, and are then discovered either later in the pregnancy or after the child is born. Like all tropes in romance fiction – a genre that thrives on tropes – it can be handled very well or very poorly.

“Women have lots of options if they fall pregnant after a one-night stand, and marrying a perfect stranger is not one of them, in my opinion,” Milburne said.

Her discomfort is part of a tension being felt in some areas of the romance community in the wake of #MeToo, and in the context of debates around consent and reproductive rights.

“It takes a village to rape a woman and romance writers are part of that village,” Milburne said.

It’s a tension inherent in a genre – filled with women many of whom consider themselves feminist – that is regularly painted as both challenging and upholding patriarchal ideas. For authors such as CS Pacat, the challenge is ensuring that romance is not only feminist but intersectional. Her bestselling series, the Captive Prince series, a queer male love story, was only picked up by a “big six” publisher after it became a self-published bestseller.

Publishing houses are less apt to challenge old-fashioned ideas of what romance should be, said author Anne Gracie. Self-publishing on Amazon has filled that gap. – CW

Coroner’s court records are terrible

Delving through the records of deaths in custody for Guardian Australia’s Deaths Inside project was made more difficult because getting access to court records – especially older ones – is difficult, the Guardian’s Indigenous affairs editor, Lorena Allam, said.

But she had a quick answer for how she dealt with the intense trauma revealed inside the files: this is the reality of life for Indigenous Australians.

Allam, Guardian Australia editor-in-chief Lenore Taylor and former student journalist Jack Banister, who worked on the project, explained how they built their database of deaths and what it revealed about the lack of progress since the royal commission into deaths in custody wrapped up in 1991.

Depressing but important stuff. BB

Raunchy performance art saves lives

Can art save the world? Yes, according to artists Betty Grumble and Callan Hales. Grumble, who has the rare job description of ecofeminist sex clown, said: “Artists are the weapons in the fight against capitalism and climate change.”

Hales agreed. Clad in a G-string with two crushed Coke cans for nipple shields, and following a performance involving a dildo, a $50 note and a southerly orifice, Callan said: “Art saved my world because I would have killed myself if I couldn’t express myself like this.”

The panel’s “token norm” Scott Ludlam dissented. “Art can’t save the world unless it is coupled with organising and action,” he said, urging the audience to support Extinction Rebellion and boycott “predatory platforms” like Facebook.

However, it was cabaret artist Sarah Ward who stole the show with two short, punchy performances and a manifesto – proudly written on the back of a toilet paper wrapper – about art’s role in environmental activism. “Look after artists and we’ll look after you,” she declared. “Because how can art save the world if all the artists have starved?” – PC