The Surprise Salad (or Why Writers Festivals Are Still Fun After 26 years)

My first writers festival was Brisbane, in 1989. That’s a story in itself involving dancing chickens, some terrible poetry on my part and time as a storytelling armchair, but for now let’s stick to my latest writers festival experience: Sydney, yesterday. I’m well over a hundred festivals into this job. I should be over it now. Thankfully, I’m not.

I’m not over it because a well-run festival is at worst a pleasant experience (meeting readers, catching up with writers you haven’t seen for a while) and a poorly-run festival doesn’t kill you (or at least hasn’t yet, in my case). But my favourite thing about festivals is their capacity to surprise – to offer a whacky experience sitting somewhere beyond the imagination horizon, but that is suddenly handed to you in the real world. And I had one of those yesterday. And, like most of experiences of that kind, it spent a good while teetering on the brink of grand-scale embarrassment while falling back the right way and ending up a total gift.

By mid-yesterday, my Sydney Writers Festival experience was going well. The whole festival seems to be. The room at Campbelltown Library on Thursday booked out (okay, so not everyone made it, but life does that), the catering there was great (so many enticing varieties of mini quiche – who’d have thought?), my driver was a smart guy called Wayne and I learned a thing or two from him.

Yesterday morning’s workshop was full of clever people who worked hard and worked me hard and turned out some fine ‘show don’t tell’ work that suggested some real writerly skills.

After a lateish night on Thursday and three hours of workshopping, my brain felt like 1.4kg of pizza dough by mid-yesterday. I left the workshop building at 12.30 and, the day being as scheduled it was, spent the walk back to the festival doing an interview with a smart young writer (yes, you, Madi M), arriving at the festival precisely on time to walk into the temporary ABC studio there to play a two-hour game on radio. A game Dominic Knight, the host had pitched to me the week before and that I had been unable to resist. And he knew about my timing problems, so offered lunch as part of the deal.

Here was the brief: write a children’s story in under two hours in front of a studio audience, responding to cues from the audience, with several live updates on progress during the show. Now, that could go badly wrong, and therein lies its charm. My tolerance for embarrassment is now so great, that I’m way more able to be persuaded out of my comfort zone than I once was. Partner Mal Meninga in a canoe race? Sure. Place soccer in a celeb curtain raiser to a big game in front of 30,000 people? Bring it on. Crazyarse borderline-impossible storytelling in full public view? I’m your writer.

This was to be my dose of festival quirk, and it delivered quirk way beyond my expectations. Here’s how.

Dom’s show was chock-full of great, possibly one-off, ideas. Idea #1: interview Annabel Crabb, host of the irresistible Kitchen Cabinet (for those not in the know: a TV show in which she goes to the homes of federal ministers and opposition front benchers and interviews them while they cook her a meal), with Dom’s genius idea being to turn the tables – in two ways – by making her prepare a meal on stage during the interview, and by sampling her TV show to have her interviewing herself.

Annabel made a Greek salad, and this is where the event, from my point of view, went from great to something even better.

I was led to my spot. Had there been an orchestra pit, I would have been in it, but there wasn’t one. I had my back against the stage, a card table in front of me for my laptop and, immediately in front of it, an audience of several hundred.

It was time for the prompts. Dom gave me a heroes name: Valentine. It’s probably no coincidence that we were in the timeslot James Valentine usually occupies. Dom asked the audience for a villain: they nominated ‘The Budgie Smuggler Thief’. Thanks for that. He called for a quest and they suggested some kind of search for treasure. Then came the words that had to be incorporated. The dozen or so suggestions were written on a recycled TV gameshow-type wheel, which was duly spun and gave me ‘blender’, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘spectacles’. Thanks heaps. There’s got to be a great instant story in those. But that’s the game, isn’t it?

At each update it was spun again, giving me ‘frog’, ‘Minecraft’ and ‘Tony Abbott’, then ‘nose/knows’, ‘wind’ and ‘dishwasher’. Great. Dishwasher.

On statewide radio and with a packed room, the task had debacle written all over it, and that suited me. Off I went, as soon as I had my first three words. But where was the lunch I’d been promised?

Um, well, this was the ABC and in a stroke of budgetary genius it wasn’t something from the cafe. it was … Annabel’s interview Greek salad, repurposed as an actual meal.

So I have now had the brilliant unrepeatable experience of being wedged in the gloom between a stage and a sizeable audience and having to create – in full view, in no time at all and for live statewide broadcast – a children’s story from a ludicrous word salad of suggestions, while eating a salad Annabel Crabb has just made for me, direct from the big pink salad bowl and using the big spoons she’s used to toss it, with a growing pile of olive pips on my card table.

And this is maybe the biggest reason why writers festivals are still fun after 26 years of them. You do your panels, you catch up with old friends, you make a few new ones and then, when you least expect it, you sign up for a crazyarse radio game and someone you’re a big fan of makes you lunch.

I can never see myself getting bored with that.

Thank you Dom, thank you Annabel, thank you Sydney Writers Festival.

[Note: The story itself, such as it is, with its slender storyline, dodgy references to body parts and demographically inappropriate political allusions, is likely to appear on the 702 ABC Sydney site early next week]

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6 Responses to The Surprise Salad (or Why Writers Festivals Are Still Fun After 26 years)

  1. Norah says:

    That’s hilarious, Nick. Thanks for sharing. I laughed out loud a number of times – haven’t done that reading a blog post for a while! 🙂

  2. Jo says:

    That’s pure gold. Love it…& look forward to reading it…

  3. Stacey Donnelly says:

    You are invited to my 50th birthday party on Sat 13 June in West End
    Anne Maree Britton

    Sent from my iPhone


    • nickearls says:

      I’d love to be there, but I’m already signed up to cook dinner for a friend’s birthday that night. I’m sure you’ll welcome in the new decade well. I’m already on the other side of the milestone, and haven’t fallen apart yet.


  4. Joan Fraser says:

    What a challenge! Good to see you are still enduring(?) the festivals. Byron Bay next?

    • nickearls says:

      Byron would be nice, but I’m giving them a break from me this year. Next up I’ve got Meet the Writers – a big School festival in Adelaide. I’m working on something different to offer the festivals next year – we’ll see how that goes. Of course that’ll require a bit of time at home writing first, so no more Crabb salads for me.

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