The program for The Toowoomba Writers’ Festival looked quite impressive. They even had a web page and a Facebook page. And it was being held in the Toowoomba Philharmonic Society for goodness sakes. What a Philharmonic Society is, I have no idea, but it sounds impressive … arty even. And, they emailed to say my story ‘Broken’ would be in the anthology, launched at 3.30pm in the Playhouse! Also, I could have six minutes on the main stage to read one of my stories. They even posted my photo and Bio on the World Wide Web.
Of course Linda came. She had to reschedule her yoga workshop but she was not going to miss her man’s big moment.
Hey, let’s take the campervan and make a weekend of it, we said. Who knows I might be snapped up by a publisher and given a hefty advance to write the great Australian novel!
OK, hang on Sean. Stay real … just get a copy of the book, attend the workshops and don’t fuck up the reading.
The heavy fog from Esk to Toowoomba was not for a minute seen as an omen, more just part of the adventure. The perfect poetic atmospherics to incorporate into my response to, “When did you feel you had made it as a writer, Sean?” That question would no doubt be asked on radio, television, the Sydney Writer’s Festival and at the Man Booker.
“I was driving through thick fog on my way to a quaint little writers’ festival in rural Queensland when …”
I had the address and a Google map. Turn left off the main drag, Ruthven Street that is, then left off something-or-other and then left again.
Hang on we’re in suburbia. No large edifices capable of hosting a gala literary event around here, surely.
I pulled over and checked the map. Oh. Okay, we’re close.
“Maybe it’s in someone’s house,” quipped Linda. She’s acquiring my sarcastic wit by osmosis I fear. We look at each other and laugh.
I spot a green and white striped, Big W, poly-vinyl gazebo in someone’s front yard. “Look, there,” I say. “Now that’s fancy.” Touché!
We drive around a bit more. On a corner ahead two coloured balloons are tied to a telegraph pole and a chalk board leans up against its base. The calligraphy is charming and says, “Writers’ Festival.”
I see it is Matthews Street. This is it. We park and walk into the Philharmonic Society Building which if you didn’t read the sign you’d swear it was a Uniting Church built in 1971.
My debut Writers’ Festival is looking more like a Country Women’s Association Conference. I visualise the anthology being run off on a Gestetner machine out the back and stapled by someone’s elderly Uncle who has dementia and psoriasis and nothing better to do on a Saturday in Toowoomba. Linda looks at me like you would look at a kid when they have had a big disappointment. We struggle to keep the laughter at bay.
An old man is being interviewed on stage by his publisher. She has to prompt him to recall anecdotes from his book about his experiences in the war – I assume it must have been the Crimean War by the state of his skin and memory. Maybe he stapled together the anthology?
We head off to our first workshop, Finding Your Tribe, run by the Queensland Writers’ Centre. Glad we booked as there are only fifty empty seats. But never mind, the QWC people never show up.
Nobody seems to know what is happening. We ask some organisers and they shoulder shrug.
A writer selling Young Adult Fiction novels from a side table agrees to run something about character development. Linda and I decide to skip this last-minute-backup and go to the main hall to listen to the next author.
She is Guatemalan and short – no connection I’m sure. And she has no idea how to adjust a microphone stand. So with her accent and the strain of standing on tippy toes I think she said something about working for the United Nations in all sorts of dangerous countries. I couldn’t quite understand the part about why she decided to settle in Toowoomba.
Anyway, the next workshop was on and the presenter did turn up. It was about writing a memoir. I already had my opening clause, “I was driving through thick fog from Esk to Toowoomba …” The presenter was a lady dressed up in a $2 shop super-hero costume and she started her session with a breathing exercise for herself only. Then she told us that she wrote her memoir whilst locked up in a psych ward. If you don’t believe me ask Linda, it’s true. What is also true is that it was a pretty good session. The day was looking up.
Up next was the headline act of the day—Gold Coast based writer, editor and academic, the one, the only, Dr Sally Breen. Her workshop is on writing a novel, this was my pick of the program. I’ve been pumping out the short story form, but novel, well that’s a major quantum leap for this ol’ late starting author!
Sally didn’t show either. Again a mystery.
A lovely lady was bumped forward in the schedule to talk about writing for children. It was going great guns and she was getting to the crescendo when an organiser interrupted to say that the people from the Queensland Writers’ Centre had shown up, nearly three hours late. Talk about Finding Your Tribe! The poor children’s author was simply dismissed.
Linda and I were appalled by the way she was treated. Who are these Queensland Writers’ Centre people anyway? Three hours late, broken down car?? More like precious pretenders if you ask me.
We were hungry and drove back from the boondocks into the Toowoomba town centre where at least you could buy food. The book launch wasn’t until 3.30pm and the Open Mic for my reading debut wasn’t till six. At least we could eat and be back to enjoy those events.
When we got back – and let ne say for the record, Toowoomba is a lovely town – it was three thirty and a bearded man was on stage reciting poetry. A chap I had met earlier said that the organisers were looking for me as the Open Mic was moved forward and underway as we spoke.
I saw the table out the front, that previously had been draped in a white tablecloth, was now unveiled to reveal a single display copy of the anthology titled, Brio. The book launch had happened.
I noticed all the author stands had been packed up and the original small crowd had shrunk to a vestige of its former magnitude. If any brio did exist at all at this event, it was well and truly gone by now. (I looked up brio in my dictionary before the festival, and it is a word)
The bearded poet finished and I was called on stage. I was still picking out some Jogan Rosh from my teeth from lunch. I walked up, I read my story “Dad Jokes” and sat back down next to Linda, my tribe of one. Linda was furious – not at my story, but at the rescheduling of everything – and she was wanting to rip someone’s head off.
A few kind people approached me to commend my tale of daggy father humour. Some were daggy fathers, the others were clearly victims of daggy dads.
Meanwhile, Linda hunted down some people we knew by osmosis as somehow connected to this massive balls-up. They sheepishly apologised and deflected blame to other nameless faceless people supposedly in charge. In charge? My foot.
The box of anthologies had been packed away and I and another short-listed author, who also missed the launch, demanded, with $10 notes waving in the air, that the box be re-opened so we could purchase our words in print.
We thought we’d be at the festival until 7pm at least but here it was 4pm and the show was over—no prize, no glory, no contacts, no contracts, no six figure advances. But I had a book in my hands with my story in print, and I didn’t fuck up the reading.
Outside the sky was greeny black and lightning sent us bolting, home that is. Farewell Toowoomba, thank you, I wasn’t ready for literary fame and fortune, not yet anyway. And I have another funny story to plump up the memoir that I will get to after my second Man Booker!!