The Red Rotunda at the Cowen Gallery at the State Library of Victoria is filled with silver-haired literary giants, and a young woman enters, sweaty and carrying two bags (she has walked from work). She sees a couple of familiar faces but is too intimidated to talk to them. She clasps a glass of champagne and waits.
On the table is a tome – a collected literary history and culture. She opens it and notes names so disparate as Gwen Harwood, Ern Malley, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Frank Moorhouse, Michael Gow, Sonya Hartnett and Nick Cave. There are some of the names she knows. There are many she does not. There are Greek and Vietnamese and Aboriginal names. She is excited by the invitation of this book – to learn, to enjoy, to grow; and of this room – to become.
When she looks up again she catches the eye of Ivor Indyk, the publisher of Giramondo, and editor of HEAT. She re-introduces herself, having heard he enjoys her blog. He compliments her for the Tom Cho interview, and they discuss the exciting potentials of the medium, and the literary culture in Melbourne. Indyk is intelligent and warm, and when two men come over, he introduces her as a ‘wonderful reviewer’. She does not catch the rest. She is still overheated and the room has become crowded and loud. But she does catch their names and repeats them as she leans in to shake their hands – Thomas Shapcott and Rodney Hall.
Hall is short with an open face, young for his years. Shapcott guzzles champagne as he talks, mustachioed and leaning on his walking stick. His speech is difficult. Indyk enquires after his health. Conversations float around the four, including one about Shapcott’s 102 year-old mother-in-law (or aunt) who is sharp and completely switched-on. The young woman thinks about that being more than four of her lifetimes, and how much she could live and write if given that herself.
She asks Shapcott if he has a piece in the book. ‘Doubt it’, he says. She finds later that he does.
Whilst conversing with Indyk, another man joins Hall and Shapcott. Indyk says ‘that’s Alex Miller’ and the young woman’s heart jumps out of her chest. Alex Miller, author of one of her favourite books of all time, Prochownik’s Dream. What a fortunate surprise. She sweats worse now, and burns up as she tries to catch his eye. Library staff bring around plates of exotic nibblies: fishy, crunchy and a little too large to be bite-size, inhibiting conversation. Hall and Miller are actually making Miles Franklin jokes – she hears them say something about ‘four between them’. She is finally introduced and tells him immediately ‘I really love your work’. Miller says ‘you’re blushing’, and his manner is spritely and confident. She says ‘no, it’s the heat’ and waves her hand at her face, then regrets the silly gesture. She says (ever honest) ‘maybe I am blushing a little’, and he smiles. She tells him Prochownik’s Dream is her favourite of his works. ‘Ah! I love that you were brave to say it like that’ he says, ‘Prochownik, Prochownik – it’s like the Americans say, how hard is it?’ She laughs uneasily – she’s never said it out loud before, is he for real or is he having a poke? Indyk says ‘I’ve always said Pro-chov-nik, how did you know?’ Did she know? She accepted a top-up of her drink.
Miller, Shapcott and the young woman continue to talk. Miller says some Parisians are adapting Prochownik’s Dream for the screen. ‘The Parisians understand it’, he smiles (a conspiratorial smirk?). They discuss how many film options never get up. The three discuss Vladimir Nabokov, starting with Lolita. The two men give the young woman suggestions for further reading. Shapcott says he read some of Nabokov’s stories that the New Yorker published, and they were among the best he’d ever read. Shapcott corrects the other two on their pronunciation: ‘Nabokov’. Miller plays around saying ‘Lolita, Lolita’ in an American accent, sticking his neck out. He likes to do voices. Somewhere during the conversation Shapcott leans to Miller and whispers something about ‘youth’. She pretends not to hear. They segue to Joyce and others, but then the proceedings begin, and the guests turn to the front.
She cannot concentrate during the introductions, still hot and flushed, already beginning to go over the should-have-saids, such as ‘why didn’t I tell them I was a writer?’ instead of an employee of the Aus book trade magazine, and a blogger. Do writers in their 70s bother reading blogs? They really didn’t seem that old to her though. Besides feeling small and inadequate, she could have soaked up their conversation for hours.
Amongst the speakers are Chris Wallace-Crabbe (whose poetry she adores); Alexis Wright (who she has seen read many times now but hasn’t yet read Carpentaria– it is on her long to-read list); Chi Vu; publisher Elizabeth Weiss; and the general editor of the anthology Nicholas Jose. Crabbe emphasises the need to bring our national literature back to the classroom (school and university). She remembers her own experiences and agrees that she found Australian literature on her own, through self-devised units in her honours year and so on. It seems strange and ridiculous that it isn’t taught more. Weiss also mentions the Productivity Commission’s suggestions to remove parallel import restrictions on books – a huge danger to our literary culture, for both writers and publishers. Heads in the room nod.
So the young woman feels impassioned, with this book in her hand. She also feels empowered (and young and silly and idealistic), thinking about bridges to build between communities, and education, and getting people reading, and reading broadly. She thinks of connecting stories and worlds and opening up an eye or a heart or a mind or two, somewhere, sometime. She thinks about the young guy who checked off her name on the way in, and how he said he’d read her blog a few times. He was outside the room, these authors were inside, and she was somewhere in the middle.
She thinks of being inspired, of stories and truths and ‘secret lives’, as Alex Miller might say, forging connections and pushing boundaries and remaining passionate… She is a sponge, and it’s still a little messy when she’s squeezed, but with some work and patience, a nourishing drop will form.
She talks with more people – the poet, the painter, the exhibition curator – after the presentation, but her head is full and she needs to go home and write something out. She will lie awake for hours (this is not new). She will regret being too shy to find Alex Miller again to say goodbye. She hopes they will meet again.