john safran

My Picks: MWF 2014

It’s that time of year again, when I buy my one newspaper for the year, and carefully extract and peruse the Melbourne Writers Festival program for 2014. I booked my leave from work and bought my Paperback Pass.

I spent the better part of an afternoon working my way through the program, with an incredibly diverse range of writers, readers and thinkers to choose from, I didn’t want to rush it. There are over 400 events to pick from, on almost as many different topics.

After much consideration these are my selections…

GeraldineGeraldine Doogue: Women of Influence
“Geraldine Doogue and Louise Adler discuss The Climb: Conversations with Australian women in power, Doogue’s inquiry into how the beliefs and values of Australian women are changing, informed by candid and personal conversations with 14 of Australia’s most powerful women.”

I don’t know who the fourteen women are, but I can’t wait to find out. I’m fairly sure I’ll be inspired but the end of this session.

Sonya Hartnett: In Conversation
“Sonya Hartnett is an outstanding and versatile author who can probe psychological states with uncanny accuracy and depth. A writer who has always pushed the boundaries of literature for both adults and young people, Hartnett returns to adult fiction with Golden Boys, a dark suburban tale. In conversation with Jo Case”

Probably no surprise to anyone that I booked a ticket for this one, quick-smart. I’m a big fan of Sonya’s writing, particularly her books Of a Boy, and The Midnight Zoo. As an special treat, this is a free session, being held mid-week at the Wheeler Centre.

mwf2014fullPhilip Hensher: Handwriting
“When English writer Philip Hensher realised he didn’t know what a close friend’s handwriting looked like, he felt that something essential was missing. Hensher explores the lost art of handwriting, how it made us who we are, and why it still matters. In conversation with David Astle.”

I love handwriting, and am always buoyed when I hear of someone else who does too. Plus, I’m looking forward to hearing from David Astle, I’ve been part-way through reading his book Cluetopia for months.

Media Makers: Media Darlings
“Simon Crerar (Buzzfeed), Emily Wilson (The Guardian) and Barrie Barton (The Thousands) will take part in a broad-ranging and diverse discussion about media in Australia and how a new spate of international online mastheads are changing our media landscape. In conversation with Gay Alcorn.”

In today’s life and times, this topic is not only interesting, but incredibly important. Diversity is key.

Limits of Fiction
“Australian Mark Henshaw and British writer Philip Hensher discuss the interplay of voice, form and structure in their writing and how novelists can exploit other forms of writing, such as thrillers and memoir, to create something new. In conversation with James Ley.”

With this session, I continue my quest to pin down exactly what makes a good novel tick. What makes some writing work and some not, how can an author drag you in to their tale and not let go until the final page (and them some)??

john safranTrue Crime
“John Safran (Murder in Mississippi) and Julie Szego (The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama) have each turned their hand to writing true crime after stumbling across their Truman Capote moment. They discuss their immersion into the complex worlds of crime and justice. In conversation with Damien Carrick.”

Having read Murder in Mississippi earlier this year, I’m keen to hear from John and Julie. I’m hoping they might be able to shed some light on what it is about True Crime that fascinates readers so much, despite (or because of) all its horror.

There are also a handful of free sessions I’ll try and get along to as well. As you can see, I’ve been able to pick a really interesting range of sessions – different topics, people, opinions. Now to just wait until August!

The festival will be held, at venues around Victoria, from 21 – 31 August 2014, and you can find out more about MWF 2014 at their website. You can check out this year’s program here…

Are you going to be at MWF 2014? I’d love to hear about what you’re going to see…

True Safran: Murder in Mississippi

As we swelter away in our first real heatwave of the season, what’s better to do than read, or write or better still – both?!

Today’s review is of a book that I’ve recommended to at least a dozen people since I read it in November. John Safran’s Murder in Mississippi (Penguin) is skilfully written, effortlessly compelling and a really easy read, despite its dark subject matter…

murder in mississippiWhen filming his TV series ‘Race Relations’, John Safran spent an uneasy couple of days with one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists. A year later, he heard that the man had been murdered – and what was more, the killer was black.

At first the murder seemed a twist on the old Deep South race crimes. But then more news rolled in. Maybe it was a dispute over money, or most intriguingly, over sex. Could the infamous racist actually have been secretly gay, with a thing for black men? Did Safran have the last footage of him alive? Could this be the story of a lifetime? Seizing his Truman Capote moment, he jumped on a plane to cover the trial.

Over six months, Safran got deeper and deeper into the South, becoming entwined in the lives of those connected with the murder – white separatists, black campaigners, lawyers, investigators, neighbours, even the killer himself. And the more he talked with them, the less simple the crime, and the world, seemed.

As a true crime title Murder in Mississippi has been compared to numerous other true crime books, most particularly Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Having read Capote’s book a couple of time I’d say this is a fair and interesting comparison to make. Both expose a deprivation, a kind of evil that is hard to comprehend, but in a very factual manner. They communicate shock and bemusement but not indignation. This allows the reader to observe the situation, the crime itself, objectively and almost calmly, giving us the best hope of somehow making sense of a moment of violence.

John is a talented writer and a deft storyteller but interestedly, one feature of his writing that differentiates him from other true crime writers is his subtle self-deprication. This habit of poking fun at himself (and the people around him) is fairly typical of Safran’s work, you’ll find it in his documentaries and radio work as well, and I think it adds a humility, a ‘realness’ to his stories.

“You need to know about my job to understand all this. I’m a documentary filmmaker, or sorts. That’s how I pay the bills for the flat where I’m typing these words. That’s how I buy the bagels from the bakery one minute from my flat. I say ‘of sorts’ because they’re not the straightest of documentaries. I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie – like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race not space.

This story really begins – although I didn’t know it at the time – about ten years ago. I was filming a segment for a television series call ‘John Safran vs God’, in which I tried to join the Ku Klux Klan even though I’m Jewish.”

As a reader, his bluntness and honesty made me really trust the story that he was telling, and it’s an incredible story, made all the more incredible by the fact that John was himself, a part of the story, even if he didn’t know it at the time. He was personally involved in the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the murder of Richard Barrett, and as he revisits Mississippi, he endeavours to complete the picture, to fill in that gap that is ‘during’.

“Every time I feel I’ve got a hold of Richard, he slides off again. I haven’t been able to get any sort of consensus on whether Richard might have made a pass at Vincent, and an aggressive one at that. I wonder whether the people who think Richard was gay are using ‘gay’ as another word for ‘just suspicious’. He was queer, bent, but as he literally homosexual? He was a racist, but was he aggressive enough to threaten Vincent?”

By the close of Murder in Mississippi we have a pretty good picture of the before, during and after of this violent tale, but as testament to Safran’s honestly, it’s still very difficult to say that anyone will ever really know what happened between Richard and Vincent. Richard takes his lies, double-life and ‘queerness’ to the grave, and Vincent seems to be an incarcerated bundle of misdirections, delusion and contradictions. Makes for a damn good story though…

For lovers of true crime or fans of John Safran’s work, this book is a must read. You can find out more, and pick up a copy over at Penguin.

Are you a fan of true crime? Do you have a favourite?