One of the things I love about writers’ festivals is the surprises – the authors you’ve never read and don’t know much about who unexpectedly captivate or intrigue you. I’ve had Elizabeth Stead’s novel, The Sparrows of Edward Street, on my bookshelves for months, but hadn’t yet gotten around to it. This week, I think I will.

Stead appeared on a panel with Mandy Sayer (Love in the Years of Lunacy) and Mardi McConnochie (The Voyagers). Her novel, based on her own experiences, is set in a housing commission camp in the 1940s. One reason she wrote it as fiction, she said, was because ‘I’m quite old and I can’t remember anything … so I had to make a lot of it up.’ She went on to say, ‘I believe in some hardship in people’s lives; it makes you grow strong.’ And indeed, despite her quips about being old, what was most striking about Stead was not her age (I think she’s in her seventies), but her poised wit, her straight-backed deadpan delivery and a frankness that fairly dared you to pity or judge her as she mentioned things like her mother’s addiction to pharmaceutical drugs, or leaving school aged 12 and working ‘every day of my life since’.

Talking about where she gets her writing ability from, she shrugged that ‘it’s in the genes’, prompting session chair Matthew Condon to invite her to show the audience the small white badge pinned to her chest: YES I AM. At writers’ festivals, she said, she was regularly asked if she was related to Christina. ‘I thought it would save time,’ she concluded, to peals of laughter from the crowd. (In fact, she is Christina’s niece.)

Sayer and McConnochie have both written novels set between Sydney and other places, during World War II – both featuring separated lovers, music and exploring the way the war enabled changing social and gender roles. ‘We hardly know each other, it’s weird,’ said Mandy, after Mardi joked that they’d obviously been on ‘eerily parallel tracks’. And yet, the pair are very different writers with very different styles – resulting in two very different novels (which I recently reviewed together for the Sydney Morning Herald).

Sayer said the inspiration for her book (which she’d been writing over the past ten years) could be traced to a comment by her first husband, 20 years ago. ‘All of your work’s so girly,’ he’d said. ‘Why don’t you write about war or something?’ (She quipped that maybe she should send him a copy of the novel.)  McConnochie’s inspiration came from her book club, after they’d lamented the lack of contemporary literary love stories. ‘It got me thinking about what a literary love story might be.’

‘I wasn’t interested in the war, but in what the war did to Australian culture, and to the music,’ said Sayer. ‘Also the drugs, the liquor, the food – how Americanised we became.’ She pointed out that wartime was when ‘the underclass finally got a go’, with the entrepreneurial opportunities of sly grog and prostitution.

‘I’m not that interested in war as a subject,’ said McConnochie. ‘I tend to write about women, and wars are very male. But World War II was such a total war; everyone got caught up in it. I write about spheres of activity I can imagine being drawn into myself.’ Stead, who was living in Sydney during the war, recalled ‘the sky being black with Lancasters going up to the Pacific’ and the darkness of the streets at night – and the perils of driving when it was considered too dangerous to use headlights.

McConnochie spoke about the fact that both of her main characters – American sailor Stead and Sydney music student Marina – are fearless, and not thinkers. ‘Music is not a brain art form, it’s a heart art form. Music tells stories through the heart, not brain. It’s something that brings my characters together, it’s the language they speak.’

‘What she said,’ laughed Mandy, saying ‘I wanted to write in a way that the reader would feel the excitement and exhilaration I feel when I hear this music.’