The Somerset Experience

It’s one of those literary events that all kids’ authors talk about. It’s one that everyone wants to attend. And this year I was lucky enough to be invited along as a speaker to the Somerset Celebration of Literature.

Held on the Gold Coast by Somerset College, it is open to students from other schools, with kids in their thousands flocking to hear authors share their writing experiences. Three days of literary goodness with over 30 authors.

Did it live up to my expectations? No — it surpassed them.

It got off to a wet start with the Gold Coast hitting its visiting authors with a downpour. But as the rain dried up, the heat rose and the humidity climbed… higher and higher and ever higher. My smaller sessions were in air-conditioned classrooms. Cool! But my two larger sessions were in the Great Hall — up on a stage. Everyone knows that heat rises. I was literally dripping with sweat when I finished my sessions there.

A little uncomfortable, yes. But also memorable. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The perspiration-drenched performances certainly contributed to the whole rock-star experience!

And really, for three days, that’s exactly how I felt… like a Rock Star! Not that I actually have any idea what real rock stars experience (I suspect there may be more alcohol, illicit substances and room trashing involved. Oh… and probably some music.). But in my mind it was akin to what it might be like for them. Sweat-soaked appearances on stage. Cheering crowds. Long autograph queues. Photo requests. Enthusiastic fans. And the festival bookstore almost sold out of my You Choose books — only two left after the dust had settled.

As you may have guessed, I had a ball. The students were engaged, enthusiastic and intelligent, asking great questions and getting involved in discussions. I also met a whole bunch of wonderful teachers and librarians. They too had great questions, and I had some wonderful post-session conversations about reading, writing and teaching.

There were also, of course, the other authors. I got to meet writers whose work I admire. I had fun green-room chats. I got to hang out with my fellow Random House authors. And, when I wasn’t presenting myself, I attended some of their sessions. Wow! So many different styles, so many wonderful speakers — from RA Spratt’s theatricality to Jen Storer’s simple and straightforward connection to her audience. I wish I had been able to attend more sessions, as there is always so much to learn from other presenters.

There are two speakers that I really must single out.

Melissa Keil, author of Life in Outer Space and The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl, spoke about her writing with the aide of a comprehensive Powerpoint presentation. I’ve always avoided using Powerpoint for fear of speaking to the slides rather than the audience. Melissa’s presentation showed how to use Powerpoint effectively while still engaging with your audience. At no point were the slides distracting. In fact, they added a lot to what Melissa was saying. And hearing her speak about geek culture, which is an important part of her writing, inspired me to head straight for the bookstore after her session. Mind you, at one point I almost jumped to my feet and raced to the front of the room to argue with her about the latest season of Doctor Who. Her opinion differs from mine and it took great restraint on my part to stay silent in my seat. :-) Well… in my humble opinion Series 9 was the best since Series 4. And Capaldi is brilliant in the role. Do you hear me, Melissa? BRILLIANT! BRILLIANT, I say! [Deep breath. Stay calm. Move on.]

Christine Bongers, author of Henry Hoey Hobson, Intruder and Dust, was completely different. Speaking about her life, and growing up in rural Australia, she related it all back to writing and to the shared experiences of her audience. She spoke with such laid-back authenticity, making her life and writing so accessible. She is a natural storyteller and her off-the-cuff style, no doubt making each audience member feel as if she was talking directly to them, was so engaging. Sitting at the back of the room, I could see kids nodding to each other and identifying with what she said. Pure gold! Again, I ran straight to the bookstore.

Presentations weren’t the only things on the agenda. There was a massive Prologue Party on the first night, which was open to the public, with free lollies, entertainment AND fireworks. There was an author meet & greet dinner before the festival and an amazing Long Table Dinner, with an evocative and entertaining speech from Icelandic author and academic Kári Gíslason, to finish things up. Oh my goodness, I still dream about the Table of Cheese at that final dinner. I kid you not, there was an ENTIRE TABLE filled with an assortment of cheese. (Damn… now I’m drooling on my keyboard.)

But the highlight for me was the Student Dinner, which allowed students some more personal interaction with the authors. Students were divided up into groups of 6-10 and sat at a table with an author of their choice for a carb-loaded dinner of pizza and pasta (Note: There was a salad on each table as well, but I don’t think so much as a single lettuce leaf was consumed.) with ice-cream and sprinkles for dessert. And then, 45 minutes to plan and rehearse a performance on an assigned topic, that was then presented before all attendees. It was a gloriously creative and chaotic experience, with added randomness. My group’s topic was “The Alien”, which led to a morality tale about alienation that still managed to include mind control, an arguing two-head creature, an irate Frenchman and, of course, Doctor Who. So much FUN!

Personal festival highlights for me included fellow Doctor Who fans (students, teachers and authors) seeking me out for chats; a plastic sword versus toy sonic screwdriver confrontation at the Prologue Party; and my two student minders Xenavee and Anneka. Each author had two students to look after them over the course of the event. With grace and good humour, Xenavee and Anneka made sure I was at my sessions on time, didn’t run overtime and didn’t get lost. AND at the end of it all, they gave me a present — Tim Tams and a chocolate Easter bunny. :-)

My Somerset experience was amazing! HUGE congratulations to the organisers!

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