As I sit and watch the fog roll in over the Adelaide Hills, my thoughts travel back to the short story conference that I recently attended in Vienna. For one week in July 2014 I was surrounded by intelligent, funny, thoughtful and brilliant short story writers from all over the world who had come together in Vienna to celebrate the form, to listen to each other read and learn from scholars in the field at The 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English. I had arrived with no particular expectations. It was the tail end of a one month long trip to Europe, most of which had been spent in Sweden researching my new ‘novel constellation’ and visiting family and friends. Put simply: I was blown away! I think this conference might have changed my life forever.
The conference was the most welcoming, friendly, thought-provoking and hilarious conference I have ever attended. I kept thinking: ‘These are my people!’
No matter which sessions I chose, who I had lunch with, which events I attended, brilliance was everywhere. Vienna itself was the perfect setting for this conference. Everything was within walking distance, the weather was gorgeous (too hot for some, but I’m South Australian after all) and the local food and cultural antics were plentiful.
My conference experience was off to a great start with a fantastic bike ride around the city, where wonderful Rebekah Clarkson and I were taken to see the sights by night.
The day before the actual conference program began, I attended two workshops, one with Andy Kissane and another with Robert Olen Butler, which were both informative. Andy talked about ‘free indirect speech’ where you use the character’s way of saying something even if it is in third person. This resonated with me as I tend to get close to my characters this way, without tagging for speech for example. There is a suppleness with this style as the narrator can glide in and out of the character. Robert talked about writing coming out of being in ‘the zone’, a kind of writing trance. He emphasised the importance of characters questioning themselves and yearning for something (a sense of place or identity), which also struck a chord with me.
My own reading was at the first session of the first day, which was great because I could stop being nervous after that but at the same time, as I got to know more people I wish it had been later in the week so my friends could have been there to listen. I was lucky enough to still have an appreciative audience, including lovely radio producer Jeremy Osborne and heart-warming couple Sandra Jensen and David Crean, who I became close friends with over the course of the week.
I attended sessions on how to read short stories, on short story cycles and on new braids of publishing but there were many more parallel sessions I would have liked to attend. However, one of the best things about this particular conference is that it takes writers very seriously. Alongside academic papers there are readings and I chose to attend quite a few of those sessions, which were all amazing.
Over long, lazy lunches in shady outdoor cafes with firm waitresses we got to know each other and I bonded with fellow Aussies Cameron Reynes and Paul Mitchell, as well as with a bunch of fabulous writers from the UK, Ireland, Canada and the USA, too many to name here but you know who you are.
The evening activities took on a slightly different flavour. They began with a bi-lingual reading in English and German, where we were encouraged to close our eyes and simple be immersed in the language we didn’t understand.
One night we decided to find somewhere to dance. Armed with a group including funny buddies Paul McVeigh, director of London Short Story Festival, and Cate Kennedy, Australia’s short story writer extraordinaire, we headed into the night.
Somehow, Paul and Cate snuck off to the dance venue but lovely Adnan Mahmutovic, newfound soul mate Lucy Durneen and I found ourselves instead contemplating a ride in one of Vienna’s many horse drawn carts.
The last night with its conference dinner was an experience not to be missed, including live music and a wild ride in a car bursting to the seams with excited writers up to the lookout to contemplate Vienna by night.
And so the days and the nights passed, in endless moments of clarity and hours too short to contemplate. I befriended so many people that I know I will meet again, that I will work with, laugh and cry with; writers whose work I adore and admire.
There are so many other moments I could recount from this conference – what about the dumplings, Cafe Central, the impromptu readings, the silliness, the yearning, the computer program that turned Paul McVeigh into a chipmunk and made me cry so hard I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to stop. Perhaps I haven’t stopped laughing yet.
If we, as short story writers, can surround ourselves with this positive force field, even if it is only for a week every two years, we can grow stronger in the knowledge that we are not alone. In fact, there are many of us and we can help each other thrive. Shanghai 2016 seems far away but I can’t wait!