Christchurch


Karen Healey‘s first experience with Margaret Mahy came early, as a toddler.

There’s a photo of me — I must have been about 4 — reading A Lion in the Meadow, sitting on the toilet, wearing a raincoat and wellies. I’d obviously rushed in without bothering to take them off, but had made enough time to grab a book to read.

Cover of The CHangeoverIn contrast Elizabeth Knox first picked up The Changeover while working in a museum shop in her twenties. She had only recently started reading books for young adults again after a self-imposed diet of 19th century poets. (“I think Mahy would have got on very well with William Blake,” Knox adds.) The strong sense of family present in Mahy’s works, similar to those by Diana Wynne Jones, have made both writers firm favourites of hers.

Karen Healey:

I first read The Changeover when I was about 13 and it just blew my BRAINS out. I was so excited by this book, because Laura literally writes herself into being a heroine.

Laura’s strong, flawed character will be the core of the forthcoming Changeover movie, filmmaker Stuart McKenzie confirms. While some aspects of the book have necessarily been trimmed (including Sorry’s backstory and, much to my regret, librarian Chris Holly), McKenzie assures us that they have been pruned to allow better visibility of Laura and her story.

The film is set in post-earthquake Christchurch, updated from 1984. The transformation of the city echoes the various changeovers present in the book, from Laura’s physical change from child to adolescent to the changeover of the title.

Cover of Guardian of the DeadAnother strong character in the movie will be Carmody Braque, whose malevolent presence seeps through the book like the smell of peppermints — yet in the end the reader almost feels sorry for him. We get a glimpse of the person he might have been once, possibly someone quite similar to Laura. Healey admits to stealing the amoral nature of Carmody Braque, a character who decides his need to live overrides your freedom, for her first novel.

Braque is terrifying because you get the sense that he sees himself as quite reasonable. He turns up everywhere in various guises, whether as the patupaiarehe in Guardian of the Dead, or Laurel in Fire and Hemlock. In some ways they are utterly alien, yet there is the possibility in all of us to become another Braque. This role-reversal and exploration of the slipperiness of our sense of self is a theme throughout The Changeover, asking: When do we stop being ourselves?

The Great NZ Crime Debate and Ngaio Marsh AwardI confess to feeling a little weary sitting in my seat at 8pm, after a full day of thought-provoking sessions at WORD Christchurch. “You’ll have to take notes for me, I’m too tired,” I said to my neighbour, slumping over my bag.

Well, if I didn’t take notes it certainly wasn’t because I fell asleep, it was because I couldn’t possibly keep up with the fast-paced repartee and banter exhibited by all the debaters. Full marks to all contestants! Some may have lost the debate, but all were surprising, hilarious, bawdy, and full of snark and self-mockery. Joe Bennett was as always an entertaining MC, despite enduring much slander from both debating teams. (Who knew our Mayor had such a raunchy sense of humour?!)

Arguing the moot that crime doesn’t pay were lawyer Marcus Elliott, crime novelist Paul Cleave and amateur bank robber Meg Wolitzer.

The opposition put forward the idea that crime is profitable, headed by Mayor Lianne Dalziel (which seems a little worrying for Christchurch). Even more disturbingly, she had journalist Martin van Beynen at her side, with Timaru Police Notebook fan Steve Braunias bringing up the rear. As Marcus Elliott argued, if the government and the media are in cahoots, what hope is there for democracy? Luckily reason prevailed and crime was voted to not be worth the bother. Debate attendees are doubtless spreading peace and goodwill over the city even as I type.

Cover of Where the Dead Men GoAt the end we were privileged to hear the results of the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, winner being Otago lecturer and crime writer Liam McIlvanney for Where the Dead Men Go. A big congratulations to all the short-listed finalists, especially Liam McIlvanney, as well as a really big thank you to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival organisers for creating such an entertaining event.

Image of Capes and Tights Session WORD ChristchurchI always love panel events because it can be much more of an organic conversation between panellists, bringing up themes and topics that might not otherwise be heard. I was especially excited about Capes and Tights because, well, firstly it’s about comics, and secondly, the speakers are all excellent people. The session did not disappoint.

Discussion began with an exploration of each speaker’s initiation into comics (Tintin and Asterix being the main offenders), and then their first experience within the realm of the superhero.

Damon Young confessed being drawn as a teenager to the rage and violence of characters such as Ghost Rider, the Punisher and Batman, whereas Dylan Horrocks and Jonathan King were both fans of the fun and absurd superhero comics of the 60s. Karen Healey was a relative latecomer to superhero comics, becoming fascinated with comics such as Kingdom Come at university despite an initial difficulty breaking into the genre as a reader.

Dylan Horrocks asked the panel for their opinion of the “dark and gritty” reboot of many characters, and the fetishization of violence in the superhero canon (comics often being produced with sponsorship by or advertising for the US Army and Air Force). Comments ranged from an appreciation of the way in which physical violence can be paralleled by verbal argument, to the disappointing flattening of a character consumed only by darkness.

Karen Healey brought up the problematic trend of fridging female characters and bemoaned the lack of a Black Widow movie (seriously, when will it happen? We’re ready), which segued into a discussion on copyright and our collective ownership of these characters.

Superhero comics are basically fanfiction. The writers, the artists are all fans of these characters and are creating stories in response to that history, but they have no legal ownership of that material.

All agreed that it is time for DC and Marvel to let “their” creations fall into the public domain, to be used as modern myths (à la Robin Hood or King Arthur) without threat of legal action.

What superpower would you most like to have?

Damon Young:Cover of Batgirl/Robin Year One

The teenager inside me would say mind control, because that would just be incredibly useful, but I think I’d like physical invulnerability.

Karen Healey:

At first I thought telekinesis, but then time-travel because imagine how much time you’d save on research!

Jonathan King:

I’ve always dreamed of flying, so I think I’d have to go for that.

And Dylan Horrocks opted for invisibility.
Capes and tights session

Photo of Elizabeth KnoxIt seems appropriate that Elizabeth Knox‘s inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture took place on a Sunday morning. Despite an audience so packed there were barely enough seats, we all sat still and quiet. We were so spellbound by her memories, funny and sad in equal measures, that when at the end Kate de Goldi tentatively opened the floor for questions there was only the collective held breath of a room full of people. I hardly know how to describe it — Elizabeth Heritage likened it to a religious experience, which is probably as close as I can get to conveying the atmosphere that a matter-of-fact writer created in a small, stuffy room.

This year has been the raven on my shoulder.

A refrain, repeated three times over the course of an hour. How to untangle the references to Odin and God, twined together with anecdotes of chemical-green glowing farts and a family of ghosts who lived among the convulvulus?

Knox discovered Mahy late, stumbling across The Changeover in her early twenties and describing her writing as “opening up a room in New Zealand literature I wanted to hang out in.” With so many books to her credit, ranging over several genres…

I write with genre, hand in hand with it, rather than within genre.

…I think we can safely say Knox has found her place in this unreal room filled with storms.

While the lecture won’t be published in the immediate future, it should be available soon on National Radio. Look out for it.

There are some similarities between Jules of The Interestings and the author, Meg Wolitzer admits.

I did go to an arty summer camp when I was a teenager, and I too was from the suburbs. Everyone else seemed to be from New York City and I found them fascinating, they were so sophisticated but not jaded. I met my closest friend at this summer camp, and at the end of it I was changed. I couldn’t go back to who I was before I went away.

So far, so similar. But The Interestings isn’t just a nostalgic look at one teenage sumMeg Wolitzer — WORD Christchurchmer, it’s about the moment when you find your people, your cohort. Kate de Goldi describes it as a novel about a group or community anchored by the main narrative of Jules. It’s a novel about how talent does or doesn’t last, the way some things fade over the decades, and the way we shuttle back and forth in time within our thoughts.

But what about Wolitzer’s other novels?

The Ten-Year Nap:

I was interested in exploring what happens when women stop working to be with their families. After you have children, time seems to stand still for a while.

The Uncoupling:

I wanted to write about the aging of women’s desire over time, but when I tried it sounded like a magazine article. Instead I used the idea of this literal spell that is cast over a town, because when you think about it love is like a spell. When you’re in love you want to talk to your lover ten times a day, but when you’re out of love suddenly you don’t think about them at all.

And then there’s Wolitzer’s upcoming novel for young adults, Belzhar, featuring a main character at a boarding school for highly intelligent teens with emotional issues. The title is a play on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and the novel asks, “What is the thing that we just can’t bear?”

Wolitzer talked about the angst that teenagers go through, and how there is no hierarchy of pain — the despair teens experience is the worst thing that has happened to them, and should be taken seriously. With that and Sylvia Plath it sounds like a grim read, but judging from the laughter during Wolitzer’s session and the humour inherent in her adult novels, I can’t imagine that it will be anything but enjoyable.

Cover of The Interestings Cover of The Uncoupling Cover of Belzhar

P.S. Just for reference, Wolitzer recommends pairing her books with a nice sauvignon blanc.

1 September 1888
Earthquake causes damage throughout City. Cathedral spire badly damaged.

Earthquake damage to the Cathedral spire, in 1888 and 1901 [1901] Christchurch City Libraries, CCL PhotoCD 3, IMG0059

Earthquake damage to the Cathedral spire, in 1888 and 1901
[1901]
See this image on our website.

4 September 2010
The Darfield earthquake woke Canterbury at 4:35am. The magnitude 7.1. quake was centred 40km west of Christchurch.

5 September 1985
French agent Dominique Prieur convicted over the bombing of the Greenpeace ship “Rainbow Warrior”, transferred from Mt Eden Jail to Christchurch Womens Prison.

6 September 1878
Railway to Dunedin officially opens. The occasion was marked by a banquet (The Star, 6 September 1878 via Papers Past)

7 September 1850
First Canterbury Association settlers sail from Plymouth, England on the Charlotte Jane, Randolph and Cressy.

7 September 1863
G. Lumley convicted of manslaughter. (Monday September 7 1863 Supreme Court in Lyttelton Times, 9 September 1863 via Papers Past)

More September events in the Chronology.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was going to write comics. When I would read Tintin, even the individual panels seemed like a little window I wanted to climb inside. Creating my own comics is a way to climb in that window.

Journey to HicksvilleDylan Horrocks

Dylan Horrocks was born in 1966 and raised on a diet of Asterix, Tintin and Captain Marvel. He was part of the 80s zine revolution, photocopying his own comics at school and giving them away. Despite learning (to his surprise) that writing comics is not a high-paying profession, he moved to London with the intention of making his way in the European comics market. It was in London, pores full of smoke, that he began to write comics set in New Zealand.

Hicksville started off as a side project, emerging from the stories I was writing for Pickle. Eventually Pickle was swallowed into Hicksville and that became my main thing.

Given the option by his publisher to either finish off the Pickle series or bring out Hicksville as a graphic novel, Horrocks decided to publish Hicksville.

After working on something so carefully planned out (Cafe Underground), I wanted to do something I could just make up as I went along.

There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in —Leonard Cohen

As someone who is fascinated by concepts such as Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots, writing ephemera and the mystery of unfinished drafts, I was excited to discover Horrocks is a fellow fan of the unpolished product (which I might have guessed from his recent title Incomplete Works). There’s just something alluring about the idea of what might-have-been:

A finished novel is like a palimpsest where if you scrape it away you find all the different Incomplete Works — Dylan Horrocksversions, all the drafts and different endings the author gave up on.

It reminds me of an anecdote in The  Changeover session, where Karen Healey recounted the experience of re-reading her own work and discovering she’d accidentally created a time capsule of pre-quake Christchurch. Every written word is a moment captured in time. Sometimes it can be a thought that will ring just as true across several centuries, and sometimes it will be a mystery to be puzzled over by a future reader.

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen

Titular Sam Zabel is in Christchurch for a conference when he is catapulted into a comic set on Mars. His adventures and attempts to make sense of himself make up the book soon to be published by Fantagraphics, and otherwise available on his website.

I just wanted to set up a situation that had plenty of potential for exploration. I wanted to ask: Does it matter ethically what we fantasise about? Do we bear a moral responsibility for our fantasies?

If you know the answer, please leave a comment and let me know!

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