Word for Word: National Non-Fiction Festival


Why Word for Word?

Attending the Word for Word Non-fiction Festival was a huge step for me in many ways.

It’s the first time I’ve even considered applying for an arts grant of any type. It’s also been the first time I’ve really embraced my work as a writer, more than just your local newspaper reporter.

Travelling to Geelong would not have been possible without the support of a Regional Arts Development Fund contribution and reflecting on the experience I feel it was worth every cent.

During the 12 sessions I attended I took copious notes, but I promise I’m keeping it brief here and sharing some of the best bits of wisdom from the weekend.

Helen Garner

I was thrilled to hear Garner, one of our nation’s greatest literary minds, speak about her writing career.

Garner reflected on The First Stone and the associated controversy which she described as finding out what it was like to be hated.

She said as distressing as those character attacks were, it also built strength as a writing because until that point she had been writing to be loved and the hatred released any inhibitions.

In terms of writing fiction versus non-fiction, Garner explained that you “can’t do a fancy flourish” to finish a story but putting yourself in true works can allow exploration of ethical dilemmas and orientate the reader.

Garner explained that crime in general doesn’t interest her, but those cases where a seemingly ordinary person’s “foot goes through the floor” and they lose all control (as explored in This House of Grief). She said even falling in love opens us to this dark side because we open ourselves up to pain.

It’s comforting to know that even Garner struggles with every piece of writing when facing that blank page, feeling wretched and that she can’t write a thing.

She also discussed the point in every book where it feels like you simply can’t go on: the only way through is to finish that book.

Fiction and non-fiction by Helen Garner

Sonya Voumard

For Voumard, longform non-fiction was a natural extension of her career as a journalist.

I found it fascinating to hear her speak about the honour of the interview and how breaking out of the slavery of the news cycle can allow journalists to reflect on the broader themes around current affairs.

Voumard also discussed the idea of the collaborative interview, which restores some of the power back to the subject and can in some cases reveal deeper truths and more candid reactions. 

Skin in the Game 

Gillian Triggs

The room was packed for this event, with Triggs the former President of the Human Rights Commission speaking about her memoir and reflecting on some of the most controversial elements of her role.

Triggs explained the truth every woman knows: that over and over again women in prominent positions are attacked, subject to more criticism and abuse than men in the same role.

Australia is the only democracy without a bill of rights and Triggs spent some time reflecting on the human rights abuses which have been allowed to fester because of that.

I was shocked to hear about the number of reports which are ignored by our politicians (which I shouldn’t have been, really).

In this, media are critical in moving hearts and minds, with Triggs citing the Northern Territory youth detention scandal as an example of the way reporting can change things by exposing abuse to the public.

Speaking Up

Word for Word National Non-Fiction Festival, Geelong

Vikki Petraitis and Robin Bowles

Both these writers approach true crime in very different ways, with Bowles adding personal reflections while Petraitis has always kept a distance from the story.

When discussing the importance of long form reporting, Bowles said true crime writers have an important role to play in trying to set the record straight because newspapers can only cover so much.

Petraitis spoke about how her 25 years of interviewing people dealing with grief and finding resilience had allowed her to work through her own losses and difficult times when they occurred later in her life.

In terms of the ethics of true crime, Bowles said if presented with information which may be contentious she will always ask herself if including that is truly moving the story forward or just salacious.

Accidental Death? and The Frankston Murders


Clare Wright

In contrast to Gillian Triggs, Wright was discussing a time when Australia led the world on human rights as the first to allow women both a right to vote and stand for election.

I’m excited to read You Daughters of Freedom because it explores in depth the lives of five Australian feminists who traveled to England to help boost the suffragette movement at the turn of the century.

The most fascinating element of this discussion was on the idea that while Australian history is now more widely taught in schools, women’s history is still considered quite a niche area of study.

It was the success on the international stage which should have shaped our young democracy, but Wright explained that the early 1900s optimism and progressive view was destroyed by the First World War. She noted that or nation ties much of our growth to militarisation which in itself is inherently masculine.

You Daughters of Freedom

Chloe Hooper

In her latest book, Hooper is exploring the mind of the arsonist who lit some of the deadly Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria.

Hooper explained the hardest part of the book was working out the appropriate distance from which to tell the stories of the victims. While trying to be sparing in the details of those stories, she said reproducing that terror was essential to understanding the story.

The book delves into the deeper aspects of the devastating fires, many of which were actually a result of power companies skimping on safety measures. Hooper said she wanted to explore this because journalists were good at telling the personal, but not looking at the institutional, big failings in an issue.

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

It was a pleasure to also meet Astrid Edwards, from The Garret podcast

Rachael Brown and Maryrose Cuskelly

Both Brown and Cuskelly believe true crime cannot transform or diminish the ugliness of murder, but it can help.

Cuskelly said in cold cases, true crime can lead to justice and can contribute to broader conversations we are having as a society (for example, around toxic masculinity).

Brown agreed, but said working on Trace and seeing how the community rallied around two men who had no resolution to their mum’s murder reminded her of the beauty in the world.

On the topic of ethics and true crime, Brown said she was disgusted by the way some listeners treated Trace as if it were entertainment.

As a reporter, she said compassion was key to holding ethical standards.

Likewise, Cuskelly said true crime was a potentially dicey area because books dealing with these issues will have aspects of entertainment, but must be approached with integrity and, again, compassion.

Cuskelly commented on the idea of the reputation of victims, saying it was not up to her to “rescue” their reputation, but through her writing she wanted to show they were real people who loved and were loved.

Trace: Who Killed Maria James and Wedderburn

I've previously written about entertainment and ethics in true crime. 

Jessie Cole and Rick Morton

Both Cole and Morton delved deep into their own family history and childhood experiences of trauma to craft their respective memoirs.

Cole’s book explores the effects of two suicides on her and her family, looking particularly at the language of suicide.

She said she faced “withdrawal of connection” and for many years believed it was because she didn’t have the language to discuss suicide appropriately. But, she has since realised that there is no cultural space to have that conversation and it was something she wanted to reclaim in writing Staying.

Morton also agreed the wording and language around trauma is crucial because if you can’t talk about it, you can’t fix it.

He said there was no way he could have written his book earlier because he had to work through his own anger. Having that work published has been a relief.

Morton’s parting wisdom was: don’t hide secrets because they only cause pain.

One Hundred Years of Dirt and Staying

Helen McGrath and Cheryl Critchley

I was fascinated by the concept of a psychologist (McGrath) and journalist (Critchley) working together to explore some of the country’s most shocking crimes.

There’s disturbing research to suggest that men who have killed their children have, before the act, searched similar cases to see how those men are eulogised. Which is why the way we report these cases is so important.

Everyone has the capacity to snap, but people with personality disorders do not have the resilience to cope with seemingly ordinary challenges.

McGrath has developed a resilience program which is being taught in schools and could be one of the best ways to prevent these cases in the future.

Get copies of Mind Behind the Crime and Why Did They Do It?

Affiliate links used throughout. I traveled to Geelong with the help of a Regional Arts Development Fund grant.