Writers On Writing / Vanessa Berry on pursuing the stories behind places and objects

We spoke with award-winning writer Vanessa Berry ahead of her one-day course, Thinking With Objects: A Memoir Workshop, on Saturday 15 February. If you want to find out about our other memoir writing courses, you can go here>> 

Your upcoming workshop at Writing NSW has a focus on exploring the power of objects to shape narrative. Can you tell us some objects you have incorporated into your writing?

When writing Mirror Sydney one of the elements I wanted to bring into the book was the material culture of the city, the ephemera and objects that can act as clues to the city’s stories. There are many in the book – 1906 postcards, railway lost property, 1980s theme park souvenirs – and even the name “Mirror Sydney” comes from an object: the cover of a 1960s photo album I found in an op shop. It has a photo of the city on the front, and then its mirror image on the back, so the city looks to have been reversed. I used the idea of the reflected city as a metaphor for the way that places are represented in literature, shaped by the author’s observations and perspectives.

Have you always been interested in writing about history and working with archives?

My main interest as a writer is memory and the different expressions of it that we make and encounter. Throughout my career this has led me to work with archives, including formal collections such as museums and libraries, and informal archives such as personal collections, op shops and secondhand stores. I find archival research quite addictive! I love to pursue the stories behind places and objects and events, and draw the connections between individual objects and wider stories. In the workshop I’ll be guiding participants through this process and how it can enrich their writing.

Who are some writers who inspire you?

I recently read the Olga Tokarczuk novel Flights and love the inventive way it weaves in objects and historical narratives. She describes it as a “constellation novel” as it is made up of short sections which connect together like a star chart. Writers who make bold an interesting formal decisions inspire me and in my writing teaching I often stress the importance of form. I tell my students that it’s something that should evolve as they write, so there’s a sense of unity between the shape of a text and the ideas it expresses.

Vanessa Berry headshot

Vanessa Berry is a writer who works with history, memory and archives. She is the author of three books, including Mirror Sydney: an atlas of reflections (Giramondo, 2017), which includes the award-winning essay ‘Excavating St Peters’ (Woollahra Digital Literary Award, 2017). Mirror Sydney won the Mascara Avant-Garde Literary Award in 2018. She is the author of the memoirs Ninety9 (Giramondo, 2013) and Strawberry Hills Forever (Local Consumption 2007).

Join Vanessa Berry for her one-day course, Thinking With Objects: A Memoir Workshop on Saturday 15 February, 10am-4pm. 

Thinking with objects_ a memoir workshop with Vanessa Berry Writing NSW (1)

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