As a writer, one of the big attractions of moving to Canberra was the observation from afar that the city had a vibrant creative community and the kind of writers’ networks I could only dream about in Copenhagen.
Over the past few months, I’ve been dipping tentative toes into these waters and have travelled from daunted, to doubtful, to impressed.
Why daunted? Well, it seems to me that roughly half of Australia’s population wants to be a writer. Whole industries have sprung up around these ambitions, some genuinely helpful, others more interested in extracting an income from literary dreams. And, whereas in Copenhagen the list of decent English language writers in town would barely fill a small paper napkin, here, competition is much more intense.
At the recent NSW Speculative Fiction conference in Sydney, hundreds of wannabe authors crammed into packed sessions to hear the views of agents, editors, booksellers, publishers and authors on the state of the market, routes to publication and what might be ‘the next big thing’ in Aussie speculative fiction. Delegates eagerly jotted down words of wisdom and were eager to catch the eye of anyone they thought might help their ambitions along.
Chastened at such a large community of clearly ambitious authors, it was with some trepidation that, a couple of weeks ago, I went along to Canberra’s own speculative fiction convention, Conflux, now in its eleventh year.
A few of the faces on the speaker panels were familiar from the NSW event, particularly the two guests of honour: author Isobelle Carmody and publisher Tehani Wessely. Fantasy/steampunk author Richard Harland was also in attendance, as was prolific sci-fi and Star Wars author Sean Williams.
Over four days they and many others talked about how they got started, how things have changed in publishing over the years, offered tips for those wanting to break in, and signed books and chatted freely with anyone who wanted to talk.
The event struck two chords with me. First, and this perhaps serves as a metaphor for Canberra itself, Conflux was smaller, friendlier and more welcoming than its cross-border cousin. Second, the Canberra region is perhaps disproportionately blessed with literary types, and is certainly overflowing with talented ones.
I left the NSW event feeling like a bit of an outsider, perhaps at the back of the queue to be noticed when other delegates seemed to know everyone so well. But I left Conflux feeling like I’d been welcomed into a smaller, more intimate family of writers. By the end of the event, people I didn’t really know were nodding at me in familiarity, sharing the occasional joke and inviting me to join in conversations. One, on learning that I was about to head overseas for a few weeks, even followed up by emailing me some of his stories to read on the plane – and very enjoyable they were too.
An author’s route to publication can be notoriously rocky and hard to navigate, but Canberra seems to have a network of knowledgeable, supportive writers’ groups that are able to relieve some of that journey’s uncertainty and solitude.
And, while potentially not of interest to everyone reading this blog, seeing this side of the city has played a big part in reassuring me about our decision to move here.
I think I’m going to enjoy being a Canberra-based writer, and that I’m going to enjoy the company of those who make up the writing community here. Yes, there’s a lot of competition to get a book published, but the people I met here weren’t in competition with each other, they were helping each other, learning from each other, applauding each other’s successes. That in itself is worthy of applause too.