Newington College Festival of Literature for 2021

In April I had the plea­sure of attend­ing the New­ing­ton Col­lege Fes­ti­val of Lit­er­a­ture for 2021. It was my first fes­ti­val appear­ance since the eas­ing of Covid restric­tions in Syd­ney and a glo­ri­ous way to cel­e­brate the return of some­thing vague­ly resem­bling nor­mal­i­ty. Over the course of three days I deliv­ered nine pre­sen­ta­tions: ‘Plagues and Peo­ples in North Korea’ for Year 11 and 12 Mod­ern His­to­ry and Legal Stud­ies stu­dents, ‘Empire of Words: Sto­ry­telling in a Time of Cri­sis’ for Year 11 Eng­lish, and ‘Myth, Fan­ta­sy, and Empire of the Waves’ for Year 7 Eng­lish stu­dents. With Year 7 I had the plea­sure of speak­ing to a cohort of stu­dents who had all read my nov­el cov­er-to-cov­er, offer­ing a chance to dive deeply into the world of Empire of the Waves.

Talk­ing Empire of the Waves with Year 7 English

It was won­der­ful to catch up with my fel­low authors in the green room, to meet the won­der­ful teach­ers of New­ing­ton, and work along­side so many book-lov­ing stu­dents. The stu­dent jour­nal­ists described my pre­sen­ta­tion about North Kore­an his­to­ry and pro­pa­gan­da as “phe­nom­e­nal” and fol­lowed up on the final day with a short one-on-one inter­view. An edit­ed tran­script may be found below. 

Thank you once again to Ann Jag­ger and Sabine Tanase for organ­is­ing such an extra­or­di­nary fes­ti­val! This was my third con­sec­u­tive vis­it to the fes­ti­val and I hope I’ll be back again next time. 

Kate Forsyth, Jack Heath, Christo­pher Richard­son, Oliv­er Phommavanh

Inter­view by New­ing­ton stu­dent jour­nal­ists Peter Koumoulas and Richard Bai

Pho­to­graph by Hamish Ingham

Why did you start writing?

I’ve always been a writer. Writ­ing is just play on the page… 

I like to tell the sto­ry of when I was in Year 6 and the teacher put togeth­er a spe­cial cre­ative writ­ing club, which was invi­ta­tion only. I wasn’t invit­ed and it was absolute­ly dev­as­tat­ing. Under protest the teacher allowed me to join. The first thing we did was to enter a cre­ative writ­ing com­pe­ti­tion. You can prob­a­bly guess the twist, which is that I won the com­pe­ti­tion. The prize was $500 worth of books each for me and the school. So there was a lit­er­ary lega­cy on the shelves that proved the teacher made a mis­take and should have let me join. My point? If you want to be a writer you have to just keep on writ­ing, even when peo­ple doubt you. After win­ning, I met an amaz­ing Aus­tralian writer, Diana Kidd, and it was a spe­cial moment for me to hear that a writer actu­al­ly liked my work.

Do you have any oth­er pas­sions apart from writing?

So many. I’m a very pas­sion­ate per­son who feels that life is far too short and the days are far too short. I love music, I’m crazy about cin­e­ma, and I’m always real­ly hap­py to meet oth­er peo­ple who like weird or old movies. I’m a Chris­t­ian, so I’m very pas­sion­ate about the­ol­o­gy. One of my weird­est hob­bies is my belief in extrater­res­tri­al life.

So what do you think you would be if you weren’t a writer?

I can’t imag­ine myself as any­thing oth­er than a writer. It’s real­ly impor­tant for a writer to not think about pub­li­ca­tion too much. I didn’t start my debut nov­el think­ing it would get pub­lished. Writ­ing has to be a pas­sion. What­ev­er life has thrown at me, I would still be writ­ing. I love books, I love words, and I love writ­ing. Words are cen­tral to my life.

Why were you curi­ous about North Korea?

North Korea is a coun­try that every­one thinks they know some­thing about. Yet every time North Korea is in the news you see the same five stock images, the same images of march­ing in Kim Il Sung Square, or mis­siles tak­ing off. On the oth­er hand, you have car­toon depic­tions, James Bond depic­tions, of North Korea. So I want­ed to break the wall of pro­pa­gan­da that was being gen­er­at­ed by North Korea itself and also by its ene­mies. There’s 25 mil­lion peo­ple who live there, so I want­ed to know what it was like to be North Korean.

What was the most unex­pect­ed thing that you encoun­tered in North Korea?

Well, I’m ashamed to say this now because now I know so much about North Korea and so many North Kore­ans, but it was the warmth and love­li­ness of the peo­ple. If North Kore­an pro­pa­gan­da was as pow­er­ful as it claims to be there wouldn’t need to be so many peo­ple in polit­i­cal prison camps. They would­n’t have so much sur­veil­lance and wouldn’t need to have a heav­i­ly patrolled bor­der. There is a rea­son why, and that’s because there are actu­al­ly 25 mil­lion indi­vid­ual lives there with their own sto­ries to tell, but all we hear are the sto­ries of the peo­ple in power.

So what you are say­ing is that they are putting on a fake act for tourists so they can pro­mote North Korea?

Yes, the pro­pa­gan­da is a per­for­mance for us, the audi­ence, and for the fam­i­ly in pow­er. The peo­ple liv­ing in North Korea do not need to like their gov­ern­ment, but must act as if they do. It’s an abu­sive rela­tion­ship where some­one has to per­form love and affec­tion, even if they secret­ly hate you, because there is no alternative.

What book are you most proud of and what was your inspi­ra­tion behind it?

Empire of the Waves. I learned how to be a writer by writ­ing this book. This book has opened so many doors for me. The two great things about being a writer is the process of writ­ing and the peo­ple you get to meet.

Your next nov­el is about North Korea. Does this book help us under­stand more about the country?

It’s a huge respon­si­bil­i­ty to write about some­thing that it is true. I have spent a decade think­ing about North Korea and hope to do it jus­tice. I have writ­ten a PhD on the top­ic, but there are only so many peo­ple you can reach through acad­e­mia. Hope­ful­ly, with a nov­el, I can reach a wider audi­ence. Mean­while, more and more North Kore­ans are speak­ing for them­selves. Young North Kore­ans in South Korea and else­where are com­ing of age and tak­ing their place in soci­ety and telling their own sto­ries. And that is as it should be.

What ideas do you have in the future in your writ­ing career?

I have to do some edits on my North Korea nov­el, then focus on the busi­ness side of things for a while. I real­ly want to write a sequel to Empire of the Waves. In fact, I’m work­ing on it!

Christo­pher Richard­son with New­ing­ton stu­dents Peter Koumoulas and Richard Bai