I had an extremely limited, though, nevertheless, incredibly rewarding, experience at the Sydney Writers' Festival this year, mostly revolving around interactions with one of my favourite authors and the subject of my thesis, David Mitchell. Before the weekend was over, I would hear him speak at three events, meet him at two book-signings, and have my photo taken with him.
Walking to see Mitchell a second time at the Theatre Bar at the End of the Wharf for Coffee and Papers with the Sydney Morning Herald and David Mitchell.
Mitchell and I after his third appearance (and my second book-signing) at the Roslyn Packer Theatre for 'Imagined Futures'.
My favourite interaction, however, was the first: Friday night at the City Recital Hall Angel Place event 'David Mitchell: Bending Time', where he was interviewed onstage by Kate Evans. The night had a number of highlights, including when Mitchell claimed to be, in fact, a novella writer rather than a novelist, an assertion Evans rebutted with a single heft of his latest 595-page behemoth, The Bone Clocks; when he revealed that the tea he was drinking was made accidentally with sparkling water (it happens to the best of us); and when he suggested that the key to avoiding the dystopian though all-too-plausible near future he depicts in The Bone Clocks is to 'vote in more idealistic politicians who will need to pass things that cause us some financial pain' and not to 'listen to demagogues that says, 'Vote for me and I'll scrap the carbon tax', met, of course, by enthusiastic applause from the predictably assenting literary festival audience.
Kate Evans interviewing David Mitchell, sparkling water tea in hand.
Two questions before the end of the interview, Evans invited audience members to start making their way to the microphones positioned around the hall. As she asked her final question, I noticed they were all still vacant, so I plucked up my courage and seized the opportunity. When I got to the microphone, Mitchell was still making his way through his answer. I felt conspicuous standing there, ten or fifteen metres away from where they were seated onstage, blocking the view of the audience members behind me with my not inconsiderable height, so I decided I would crouch in the aisle, which also felt somewhat ridiculous, but the best choice under the circumstances.
Then came my moment. 'Now, is anybody going to make their way to—' began Evans, before I sprung up from my position like a Jack in the Box.
'Hello!' said Mitchell jovially, before assigning me seven years good luck for being his first questioner and offering me some of his (nearly entirely in tact) block of Cadbury's vegemite chocolate.
'That's actually kind of relevant to my question', I began. The whole event was recorded and broadcast by Radio National, and you can hear our full interaction from about 37:45 here (look for number 7. 'David Mitchell – The Bone Clocks'), but here's a summary, starting with my question:
'So, I just wanted to say thank you first for coming and speaking to us and your wonderful work. Cloud Atlas actually really changed my life ... mainly through kind of clarifying my personal ethics, just by thinking about it a lot and the ethics that I find embedded into it. One of the main things was that it kind of removed the last ethical blocks that I was putting up into vegetarianism and now veganism. So I couldn't take you up on your offer to eat the chocolate.' We laughed. 'You were talking before about how, you know, we make ourselves feel better by dehumanising those that we exploit. And I wondered if you have any feelings about the way that that would apply to eating animals and farming animals and killing animals.'
'Yeahhhhhhh ...' he said in a long, thoughtful sigh. 'Not a contentious question, then!' he added, eliciting a round of laughter from the audience. 'Uh, thank you. Yeah, you're right. Thin ice, because I'm not a strict vegetarian. I'm an occasional guilty lifeform-eater. I'm riddled with hypocrisies and this is one of them. I don't eat mammals any more, though, um, because—because they love their mums, and they don't wanna die.'
We all laughed at this. 'I'm glad to hear it!' I enthused.
'And their mums love them as well', he added. 'I'm sort of working towards where you are, I suppose.' For some reason this struck us all as hilarious as well. Perhaps the incongruity of it all – that I had hijacked the event to talk about animal rights and, unexpectedly, I suppose, for many omnivores in the audience, Mitchell was agreeing with me.
The best response I could offer, as an aspiring writer speaking to one of his literary idols was, 'I'm working towards where you are as well,' which the crowd loved – the round of applause that followed is clipped from the Radio National recording, but it was there!
From there he discussed his progress in slowly crossing birds off the list, and then fish, and how it's interesting to think of the shock that would ensue if it became part of the syllabus to send secondary school students to abattoirs to learn about the process. He concluded his answer by saying something that took me quite by surprise:
'You seem incredibly healthy. You sort of radiate health,' he said. 'You're a walking advertisement for veganism,' prompting another burst of laughter. Personally I'd attribute any glow to the fact that I was talking to a literary legend and he was speaking positively about veganism, but I'll take it. 'You just seem one of those healthy people. You know sometimes you see someone and they're looking a bit "uhhhhh"' – here he made a groaning zombie noise. 'You had an enormous slab of cow for lunch, didn't you?'
For the rest of my interactions at the festival this question gained me some sort of notoriety. Immediately afterwards several people congratulated me on asking it, and everywhere I went afterwards people would say, 'You're the one who asked that question!' It also meant I stuck out in Mitchell's mind, so that he had some personalised messages for me when I got my books signed. I couldn't be happier that the man who wrote the book that set me on my current path, and who continues to delight me with his fiction, is of a similar mind to me, and is on his way to fully embracing the ethics that he so talentfully depicts in his work.
Helen Razer and Bernard Keane at the only non-David Mitchell event I got to attend.
My haul from the festival – all signed!
Thanks for reading!