A Writer’s Journey (…to Byron) by Justin Sheedy (Part 2)
For me, Sunday August 8th 2010 was D-Day.
At least, I hoped it was D-Day – The good guys won that… I just prayed to Bruceos, Ancient Greek god of Getting What You Want, that it wouldn’t be my Waterloo.
Back in March I’d had the unbelievable good fortune to have been allowed onto the Official Program of the prestigious Byron Bay Writers Festival on the strength of my first book, Goodbye Crackernight. Beneath the demeanour of immaculate smoothness that I’m known to project, an aura described by one social commentator as ‘Sheedy’s extraordinary calm’, the truth is that I’m a nail-biter. And this year, in anticipation of my Festival spot, I’d stopped narrowly short of gnawing both me arms off.
Still, the year so far had progressed well enough…
In March I’d been knocked happily flat by a phone call from Julie of the Byron Shire Echo, who said she loved my book and planned to give it key coverage in the special Festival Week issue of the Echo. Since that time there’d been solid ongoing Facebook activity in response to some articles I posted on this website re my festival involvement. I’d enjoyed some excellent email exchanges with celebrity and veteran authors with whom I’d be involved at the Festival or whom I’d mentioned in my articles, one response featuring the highly perceptive pronouncement by Kathy Lette that I was a ‘literary love-god’. The first week of August finally arrived with the news on which I’d sweated a river: The Byron Shire Echo had printed one of my articles as the lead story of their Writers Festival Supplement and, if that wasn’t Christmas enough, that very day ABC North Coast Radio called and invited me to do a phone interview. (Just a reminder here re my offer in Part 1 of this article to all highly successful and prolific yet strangely ‘introverted’ authors: My offer remains OPEN. I understand and sympathise with your ironic condition and am more than happy to relieve you of any and all radio spots you get offered as you won’t enjoy them but I will.)
On August 6th, with my maroon vinyl Qantas in-flight kit-bag strapped diagonally to my person, I flew to Byron where, due to some subtly but crucially unfavourable alignment of Jupiter and Mars, apparently, I missed Festival Opening Night by precisely 24 hours.
One adult male sobbing fit later…
And it was Saturday, August 7th.
Whereupon, VIP Pass around my neck, I entered the Festival gates. D-Day minus 1: a day of reconnaissance during which I lapped up live readings and discussions from such comic, literary and cultural figures as Tony Martin, Kathy Lette, Gretel Pinniger, Mike Carlton, Susan Maushart, Mungo MacCallum, Blanche d’Alpuget and Bob Hawke live on ice. Well, on stage anyway…
But today, Sunday, it was my turn on that stage.
As you will remember from Part 1, on this day I was to sit on the following ‘Author Panels’…
10:45am-12, “You Can’t Pick ‘Em But You Can Pick ‘Em Clean: Families as Fodder For Writing” with Tony Martin, Susan Maushart and Brian Thacker, chair, Irina Dunn. Plus “Simpler Times: Boyhoods of the Past” 4-5pm with veteran authors Peter Skrzynecki and Rodney Hall, chair, Dr Phillip Edmonds.
I started the day with my own private rehearsals of the sections from my book I intended to read out with punctuating comments as relevant to the respective theme of each panel. I had, in fact, been devising and rehearsing every night for the last week. I felt like an over-conscientious girly swot to be going over my routine yet again but, hell, I am what I am.
After being driven by my dad through another jewel of a morning down that long, sweeping, evergreen and blue sparkling left into Byron, I walked in the Festival gates now familiar to me, though feeling just a little like my first day at school – me dear old mum on me arm. Sharing a ticket, Mum would see my first panel, Dad would be back later in the day for my second. I so hoped these performances would go well – my first in just over an hour’s time: a good audience reaction might generate good sales of Goodbye Crackernight in the Dymocks Books Marquee. But more than that… It just might induce my bottom-line holy grail for the Festival weekend: being ‘noticed’ by a Publishing person whom I would tell all about my New Book.
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But now we linked up with my eldest sister, inveterate Byron Writers Fest-goer (my whole family features in Goodbye Crackernight, names changed to protect the guilty…). I suggested we take a brief look-in at the bustling Dymocks Marquee: After yesterday, I know Manager Neville will slip me his public address microphone and I’d love to heighten the experience for Mum and Sis if I can, certainly I’d like to shift a few books… Happily for me, after years in rock bands and community radio, I have no fear of the mike. I swan in, Mum and Sis in tow, Neville passes me the conch…
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name’s Justin Sheedy…” Standing in front of the shelf with my books on it, I hold one up for all to see. Everybody in the whole store has stopped and is looking at me. “As a first-time author, I am medically stoked to have been invited here to the Byron Bay Writers Festival and this is my book, Goodbye Crackernight, a portrait of growing up in 1970s Australia, back when a child’s proudest possession was not a Playstation but a second hand bike…” This induces smiling eyes from many, I continue for a few moments, mentioning my upcoming panel appearance on the theme of family as fodder for writing, I conclude, thank them for listening, there is moderate applause. Hopefully not just for the fact I’ve stopped.
They say you can ‘over’-rehearse… So, though I’d have to miss the end of it, I headed across with Mum and Sis to catch the remarkable young Kim Traill ‘In Conversation’ with Chris Hanley re Kim’s Red Square Blues: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union: Possibly something to do with the fact, to paraphrase Kim’s devastatingly straight-forward insights, that Stalin sent half of it to Siberia, this half returning home ten years later it find the other half had moved in, causing everybody to resent everybody else to this day, their only coping mechanism ever since being the non-existence of bottle tops: Their vodka bottles have only foil closures, Kim explains, which, when removed, are thrown away, the bottle being finished in one sitting. Though I assume there is a Russian word for drinking while lying down…
Yet I had to depart, be in the ‘Green Room’ (traditional theatre name for performers’ pre-stage standby room) 30 minutes prior to my panel appearance – Mum and Sis would be in the audience for it.
Outside the Green Room marquee, there it awaits! The Executive Porta-Loo!!! Which, right now, I feel no small need to visit… As I approach, beyond it I see a pacing figure: Clearly, comedy veteran Tony Martin doesn’t seem to think you can be ‘over-rehearsed’… Just out of earshot he’s visibly preparing for his stage appearance, completely engrossed, reading aloud from his book, full of movement and hand gesture…
I use the Executive Porta-Loo, and head into the Green Room marquee. There they all are: authors Susan Maushart, Brian Thacker, chair, Irina Dunn, Tony still outside rehearsing. Though each of them have had at least one stage appearance already this weekend, it’s my first. Still, I feel prepared.
I confirm the running order with Irina Dunn: Audience greeting then general introduction of panel and topic, introduction of each of us in turn, some general discussion, then we each get a strict 10 minutes max to read and comment re our own works in relation to the topic, then general discussion and audience questions. Irina says she likes people who’ve done their homework (“What? Me miss Opening Night?! …Vicious rumour.”), also my spelling of publishing ‘czarina’ re my reference to her as such in the Bryon Shire Echo article – She actually is of Russian stock…
Brian Thacker’s a nice bloke, quietly intelligent, unaffected despite his huge success as an author. I tell him how much I enjoyed his tale of travels with his old dad on the “Costa del Concrete”…
I chat to Susan Maushart about ‘introverted authors’ and on the spot she admits to being one. I was just about to ask her about her upcoming radio spots when Irina says we must go. We’re on.
The Byron Bay Writers Festival 2010, Sunday August 8th, 10:45am: “You Can’t Pick ‘Em But You Can Pick ‘Em Clean: Families as Fodder”.
On the way over, I spoke to Tony Martin. My comic hero. About what, I am buggered if I can remember…
We approach a huge marquee, within it a raised stage, spotlights, PA system, hubbub of the crowd. Just across a grass thoroughfare is another huge marquee. Both are packed. Sidling between the front row of the crowd and stage I have butterflies in my stomach that I know I’ll long savour. Behind the others I climb the steps to the stage, and take my seat. As a sound engineer adjusts my microphone, I take in the crowd before us. I can’t help smiling at them, faces smile back, and not just Jody and Lynda from Facebook – They’re mischievously waving as well. Towards the back of the first marquee I see my mum and sister. How to describe my mum at this moment? Think a cherubic Judy Dench on the knife’s edge of gladness wrapped in a red shawl. Please God don’t let me fuck up…
A hush comes over the crowd as, over the PA, a facilitator acknowledges the traditional owners of the ground we occupy, the Bundjalung people, then the empty chair up on stage with us – a sombre remembrance of writers living under oppressive political regimes. She then introduces Irina Dunn, applause from the crowd, and it begins.
Irina introduces us in turn, including reference to me as an ex-go go dancer brought up by the Little Sisters of No Mercy, and our 75 minutes unfolds in a happy blur. Brian Thacker has them round his comic little finger, Susan Maushart impresses with her dry and wicked wit, and though I don’t have them in the stitches that Tony Martin does, I do make them laugh: I read the sections of Crackernight where my baby private parts are painted purple, also where Dad paints the Valiant lime green… But the nice thing is that, at the end of my 10 minutes, I’ve induced a respectable quotient of tears: I finish with a part from my story that is a homage to Mum, and an evocation of how bloody lucky I was to have her as mine. Though I certainly didn’t expect to be, I find myself a bit choked up by the end of it: the true account of a wonderful personality born of a childhood rich in nothing but love. But what makes it such a special moment is that the crowd knows Mum is present.
The session draws to an end with more laughter thanks to Tony, Susan and Brian, Irina thanks all, closing with a reminder that our books are available for purchase and signing in the Dymocks Marquee. And my appearance on this panel seems to have gone well enough: I haven’t stepped off the stage yet when a woman from the front few rows draws up to it and says with a tearful smile, “If you can make my cry like that, I’ll buy your book.” Right behind her is another Facebook face, that of Sandy Neilen, who, in the lead-up to the festival, wrote the lovely blog review of Goodbye Crackernight I mentioned in Part 1 of this article. I’d been so looking forward to thanking her for it in person, and now I could.
Wedging my person behind the book signing table at the Dymocks Marquee, I wouldn’t say the line for Goodbye Crackernight went round the block, but they did line up. Which was a relief. It would seem I had not fucked up.
For me, the afternoon promised a must-see panel entitled “Clever, clever men: Writing Satire for Performance”featuring John Doyle, Tony Martin and Tim Pye. Tony Martin brought the house down once again, TV producer Tim Pye’s insights were fascinating, but it was John Doyle, comic god in human form, who elevated the crowd, I would say, to a sort of Mount Olympus of mirth: His amplified voice is like soft, comforting music, though couched within that music is the precision of a criminal mastermind, a genuine iconoclast, and here he was giving a masterclass in comedy: He gave examples of his comic thinking that began with the ordinary comments by other people that he (with Grieg Pickhaver of ‘Roy & HG’) picks up and runs with, the prompting material from which his own conceptual anarchy progresses. One case he cites is a comment by some media spokesperson in Melbourne Cup week re the cruelty of racehorses being whipped: Naturally, and Doyle makes it sound so very natural, his instant broadcast was that horses LIKE being whipped – in fact, they LOVE it – his ideal Melbourne Cup scenario being the Winner as just a ball of mince plopping over the finish line. On the same theme, he cites a recent piece of comic stimulus being some billionaire’s plans to revamp the Royal Randwick racecourse, including a so-called ‘Theatre of the Horse’… If only you’d heard the genuine menace in Doyle’s voice when he recounted of this concept, “Ohhhh, this we liked very much,” reducing the audience to hysterics. The key challenge, he surmises, re stage performances within any such theatre, would be that of inevitable loud horse noises coming from the wings as Phar Lap attempts to play tortured Hamlet…
The conversation of the panel turns to the very notion of ‘the Joke’… On this subject, Doyle, master of the comedic, muses that he doesn’t, in fact, like ‘jokes’: “Jokes,” he hums, “are designed for people who aren’t funny.”
In my opinion, when you look up ‘Brilliance’ in a modern dictionary, it should quote that statement as a working example. Tony Martin agrees with him on the spot, reflecting that, in all his long experience in the world of both amateur and professional comedy, he can’t remember a single case of two comedians sharing ‘a joke’. Rather, they share observations of people and things that are inherently funny. To me, Doyle’s suggestion is a highly interesting one, as in the Joke in its traditional structure of set-up, development and punch-line is merely a means for us mere mortals to ‘seem’ funny by following someone else’s script. Still, I’m fond of the joke for the ancient form that it is.
An Irishman, a horse and a piece of string walk into a bar. Barman says, “What is this? A joke?”
Afterwards, I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Doyle by the Executive Porta-Loo during which I couldn’t help but take the opportunity of thanking him for his mighty contribution to our comic culture. In immediate hindsight, I should have been listening to him. Look up ‘Very Nice Man’ in the dictionary, it has his mug-shot. He even said he might buy my book.
By this time, Dad has arrived, Mum transfers her Festival ticket to him and drives home, Dad taking in a few author panels, also one of my several spruiking sessions in the Dymocks Marquee, where I tell the crowd over the mike re my book and upcoming panel: “Simpler Times: Boyhoods of the Past” featuring yours truly with veteran authors Peter Skrzynecki and Rodney Hall from 4-5pm. Meeting Rodney Hall, I tell him how much I enjoyed his book, Popeye Never Told You, and ask him how on earth, actually, do you pronounce Peter’s surname. “Shernetzy”, says Hall. At various points in my Dymocks Marquee forays during the afternoon I do attempt this pronunciation, also “Shernitzy”, “Skrz-nitzy”, “Skrz-i-necky” and “me mate Peter”. Just before 4, walking with the man himself from the Green Room to our panel via the Dymocks Marquee for a last-minute spruik about it, he says I should be in Marketing. Hopefully he doesn’t mean this as in instead of Writing…
We’d been told that, as the Sunday 4-5pm session was the last session of the Festival, crowd numbers could be light on… Arriving at the marquee, coming out of it are the crowds from the session just finished. “Turn back!” I command them. “Or if you must go, seek brief refreshment and return!” I outline the imminent panel, brandish my book. “You know you want to!” Smiles from the passing crowd. Also smiling at me is a half-way pregnant woman. “What happened?!” I put to her. We hit it off and she turns out to be a Publisher.
I give her the elevator pitch for my next book, she says she likes it very much, gives me her business card and takes her seat for our panel in the marquee which in just a few minutes, thank heavens, is full of people who have either stayed or returned.
From my seat up on the stage I can’t see Dad too well so won’t see his reactions to the ensuing event. Ah, my poor father… His son’s professional career, if ‘career’ it be deemed, has been a rocky one. Mum has confided in me that, of late, she can’t stop him telling strangers in shops about his son, the published author. Thanks, Dad…
The panel begins, chair Phillip Edmonds introduces us, we each talk on the nature of the long-gone childhoods we’ve committed to print, me on the importance of Crackernight within mine: the one night a year when your father was letting you play with Fire, but more important, the night he was tacitly saying to you the greatest thing he ever could: “I trust you.” On their own childhoods, the veteran authors I’m sharing the stage with are two bundles of serious literary intensity. So I’m relieved when in the course of our discussion Edmonds turns to me and says, “So, Justin. Comedy…”
I enthuse to the crowd on how fundamental was the gift of Laughter to my childhood – as it was to my adolescence and is to my present – a gift bestowed by people such as Tony Martin, John Doyle, and by all the comedy greats who inspired them, and I list a string of them – audience approval… At this point I decide to throw out what I’ve rehearsed, and read from my book the following section entitled ‘Heroes’…
When my brother Pat wasn’t parading around the cul-de-sac in drag or engaged in rampaging destruction with the McGinty Boys, he was to be found engaging in slightly lower-intensity acts of destruction with his friend John Vandermark. John’s house down the lane was a paradise to enter. It had a basement rumpus room with a pool table and, most magical to me of all for some reason, a cocktail bar. Once John set up his train set on the pool table with his pet mice for passengers! The issue of animal cruelty here might have occurred to me if the sight of the white mice literally shitting themselves around the track hadn’t had me and Pat in such uncontrollable hysterics. Not John, though. He was too busy making it all happen for us, his eyes full of evil focus beneath sandy locks.
Then there was the time we went smashing light bulbs. And not just the little bulb-shaped ones; I’m talking great, long fluorescent tubes. We speared them off a shallow cliff into bushland behind John’s house and they’d explode on impact with the rocks below. Bang! Bang! Bang! When we ran out of them, ‘Hang on a sec,’ said John, racing back up into the house to reappear a minute later with a fresh supply of tubes and his usual wicked smile. A smile that said, ‘Fun is my birthright. And there is no fun I cannot or will not engineer’. What his electrician father would have to say about it just didn’t seem to matter at the time.
When we’d completely exhausted Mr Vandermark’s stock of fluoro bulbs, to round off the fun we all took a piss off the edge of the cliff, steam rising from all the broken glass as it was a foggy winter morning. There was me at nine, my brother at fourteen, John at fifteen and me pissing twice as high as either of them. John’s expression down at me was priceless, a mixture of hilarity and disbelief as he blurted straight out with it.
‘Jesus, Justin, you’ve got a strong cock!’
John was a superb kid, kind as well as wicked. I was in awe of him. But best of all, he had a drum kit in the rumpus room! And not only could he play these great, long drum solos but really loudly! John did it all, had it all.
The audience responded really well to this tract and when I’d finished I put to them, “Do kids today ‘look up’ to older kids in the way I did?” But then the mike was handed to the floor and they started asking me questions… One of them was “What, in your opinion, has replaced Crackernight for kids today?”
“Nothing,” I replied. Though perhaps I should have said, “Masterchef.”
With the panel concluded, I was met with a respectable bevy of smiling women, one insisting, “I’m with you!” Another swore that her husband was cranky with me.
She’d been reading my book each night at bedtime, she explained, and her bouts of laughter were depriving him of sleep.
I signed copies of Goodbye Crackernight for a final time in the Dymocks Marquee – my book had been selling. Yes, I’d like to have sold a few hundred more copies but at least I’d landed the Publisher’s business card that had been my ‘holy grail’ for the Festival weekend. Still, some instinct reminded me of the ‘Three Golden Rules of Publishing’ I mentioned in Part 1 of this article…
…And that I’d soon be revisiting all three.
Thanks for reading.
Justin Sheedy, 2010.
Post Script: In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned that I met Tony Martin on Day 1 where, just about to step on stage for his reading from his book, Lolly Scramble, which we’d spoken about via email in the lead up to the festival, he said to me, “Hey, that bit you said you like from Lolly Scramble, that’s what I’m doing today!” Well, I didn’t expect it to be necessarily so but Tony just confirmed in his own post-festival account at his website, The Scrivener’s Fancy, that it was indeed at my suggestion that he picked the piece in question to perform. All I can say is I’m privileged to have been, in some small way, part of something that went off so bloody well.
ALSO AVAILABLE IN PRINT-ON-DEMAND PAPERBACK AT AMAZON.
AND NOW AT DYMOCKS BOOKSTORES – GEORGE ST SYDNEY, BONDI JUNCTION, BROADWAY, CHATSWOOD, MACQUARIE CENTRE, NORTH SYDNEY, ROUSE HILL & CAMBERWELL!