You know what we Australians are like: we don't think something is really good until somebody from overseas tells us so. In that spirit I report that Alex Johnson, author of Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word, has named the Victorian gold-rush town of Clunes as one of the top four or five book towns in the world that people should visit.
I'm not sure what a sophisticated international travelling bookworm would have made of Clunes last weekend, but I think he or she would have had fun. For a tiny place, the annual Clunes Booktown Festival packs a lot in.
There were bookshops all over and stalls up the main street selling every kind of book, from collectors' items to bargain titles such as Cats In Sweaters, Equine Emergency Bible and Losing It In France (losing weight, that is). A growing trend is self-published writers setting up booths to sell their wares, much as country market people sell their homemade jam or soaps.
You could go to author talks and panels with themes such as teen reading, country crime, nature, refugees, local history, memoir and queer experiences, or just sit in the sun with a coffee and a pie taking in the bands, the straw bale maze, the roving poet, the juggling waiter and the strolling crowds.
I've never been to a writers' festival with so many children and dogs. Kids could even go to a workshop showing them how to write stories about their pet.
What about the writers? The star was undoubtedly Richard Flanagan, who packed them into the Town Hall for a lively chat with his old mate, Readings bookseller Mark Rubbo.
Flanagan gave us a taste of his provocative politics ("The only problem in Australia is our politicians are 20 years behind the people"), pithy aphorisms on writing ("Without form, the novel is a jellyfish pretending to be a white pointer") and the odd funny story. For his latest book, First Person, he'd invented "a dark, brooding, idiotic German philosopher" named after his German publisher.
Both Flanagan and the historian Bain Attwood spoke about the need for monuments to Indigenous Australia. Flanagan said they would give us a chance to connect with a 60,000-year-old civilisation. In another session, Attwood said he was struck by the sight of so many memorials around the country to wars fought elsewhere, but so few to the wars fought here.
But there was a danger in just putting up monuments to the Aboriginal dead, he said. We should look to the stories that Indigenous people tell about the past: about survival, adaptation, outwitting the stupid whites – stories of empowerment.
In a session on crime fiction, Emma Viskic told us how she'd decided to make her detective hero deaf. While reading through a draft of her first novel, Resurrection Bay, she realised that Caleb reacted the same way as a profoundly deaf girl she'd known at school.
That stopped her dead: she didn't want to write something so outside her own perspective. But eventually she decided to do courses in lip reading and sign language, spoke to many people in the deaf community and went out and about with plugs in her ears. "Lip reading is very, very hard, and you stuff up in public. Caleb ordering coffee is my experience."
Viskic was doing something Flanagan talked about. "You have to trust in the mystery of the story," he said. "It's in the mystery of the story that we discover ourselves." Maybe there's not much mystery in, say, Cats In Sweaters. But you never know.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter