‘If you could have dinner with anyone outside of your circle, who would it be?’ It’s a question asked both at celluloid dinner parties and by journalists aiming to learn more about their subject. Some find the question easier to answer than others, but most agree that the opportunity is one to seize. Tapping into new knowledge from someone well respected helps us to understand our world more deeply, to see it through others’ eyes and to learn from their experience. I wonder if The Control Room is a concept unique to the Emerging Writers’ Festival. It’s the conference equivalent to that dinner-date. An established practitioner sits at the head of a table, ready to take questions. Conference delegates circle around and drive the conversation entirely. There is the occasional conversational lull, but the freedom to ask an expert anything makes the awkward easy to overcome, particularly when the writer is as generous as Walter Mason.
Mason describes himself as a ‘writer, scholar and dreamer’. He’s researched and written while circumnavigating the globe (check out his book Destination Saigon: Adventures in Vietnam). He gives us some great tips on international research and navigating cultures outside of our own. ‘When travelling, say yes to everything. It gets you into crazy situations,’ he advises. Those crazy situations give you unique things to write about, and take you deeper into the local culture than otherwise.
Mason encourages writers to get into the undertow of different cultures but warns that in doing that we need to respect all aspects of those cultures – including protecting our sources and subjects from the legal and political frameworks in which they live. He often changes up genders, locations and gives his characters aliases to ensure they don’t get into trouble when he writes about them. ‘Put yourself in their rule,’ Mason advises writers. This phrase applies to both what we choose to write about our sources and how we conduct ourselves overseas. Be very careful of filing your writing from within a foreign country says Mason (if you can, it’s better to wait and file from home). Think about where and when you need to label yourself as a ‘writer’ (particularly in paperwork).
With an almost-filled notebook in hand, Mason shares his travel writing process. In one trip of three to six months he’ll easily fill half a dozen of these hand-written tomes. He has special marks he uses to index and navigate them. He is always careful to note specifics (names and addresses of places for example). He uses those details to help fill up his imagination once he gets to writing. Mason also allocates two hours a day for writing during his travels. One hour has to be outside with his journal taking hand-written notes. The other hour is inside with his computer (this writing is more prosaic). Mason writes both on location and once he returns home.
He describes himself as a post-modern writer. ‘I just write about what I want to write about,’ says Mason. He doesn’t worry too much about plot-progression while he’s writing and says his stories are more impressionistic than involving a narrative arch. Mason questions the value of the ‘journey narrative’ in travel writing, arguing that because readers are travelling more themselves the journey itself has less interest.
Emerging writers are always interested to know how more established writers got their first break. Mason is a firm believer in networks (indeed at the Seven Enviable Lines session that kicked off the conference ‘network’ was Mason’s number five: ‘I’ve never been hired on my skills and abilities,’ he quipped). ‘Do stuff for other people,’ he tells The Control Room. ‘Get ahead by helping others.’ Mason says his sales job in publishing gave him the contacts he needed. But it wasn’t the job itself that got his work read by editors, it was the efforts he made in navigating that world, in meeting and helping people.
Soon the hour-long session is up, and we are all closing our notebooks and gathering our coats (this writer at least, feeling very much inspired). ‘Let me know what you’re doing. I’d love to help out in any way I can,’ Mason says in closing, encouraging us to extend our network. We all nod shyly.
Later I realise there is something he might be able to help me with, so I introduce myself to him at another session. Dinner, I’m sure, would too awkward (and anyhow, he’s based in Sydney) but I do appreciate the possibility of a telephone call or email exchange with someone who is not only outside of my circle but also well respected.