coverLike many New Zealanders, I know James Belich through his TV work – he’s a kind-of bearded version of Simon Schama, except in a more earthy coloured suit. Or perhaps he’s history’s David Bellamy. Either way, his grasp of detail amid the sweep of history is made more engaging because his content is so much more local.

His session at the New Zealand Post Readers and Writers Week filled more than half of the Embassy Theatre and his reading showed that his new work, Replenishing the earth, is centred on exploring settlement as it happened in New Zealand  and comparing it to various examples of settlements around the world.

At its heart is the boom and bust rhythm of the massive migrations of settlers from 1793 to 1939. It laid the basis for the British and American economic wealth as the trade flow went back and forth and the Napoloeonic wars hamstrung expansion of other European powers.

The scope of Belich’s research is quite breathtaking – Argentina, Siberia, the US and Canada, South Africa and Australia. He said it was easy to laugh at the grandiose prophesies of the boom mentality, but at the time there was no set of limits. Chicago, for instance, went from a population of 50 to 1.1million in a single lifetime. A population could double in ten years – imagine Christchurch having a million people in 2020. Or New Zealand having eight million.

The idea that fortunes could be made and the endless plenty of nature would never subside drove a change in population and geography that had far further-reaching and longer-lasting implications than the imperialism of empire expansion. This idea was also discussed at Simon Schama’s Town Hall Talk when Schama said the first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as the time when this kind of economics were given a reality check.

Whereas the empire needed indigenous populations, settlers were indifferent to them and chewed them up and spat them out. Belich brought it all to life with immense detail.

“Pigs were the sewerage system … the streets have no names … think of a shanty town building site full of anthills of humans.”

Interesting too was the role of technology – wind, water and wood technology was widely available and combined with mining and iron technology it “fused and merged” to help fuel the booms. The busts were big too – New Zealand on its own has 240 ghost towns, he said.

Belich said “getting under the skin of history”, in a similar way as historical novels, was where the fun lay for him; getting past the cardboard cutouts. His work was moving more toward historical analysis – turning other historians into unpaid research assistants.

Quotable quote: Historical scholars were less confident in their discipline than the public – “they keep stabbing the horse they’re riding”.

I was really looking forward to this session after hearing Derek Johns speak earlier at the festival. Obviously, so were lots of other people as the Downstage Theatre, a brutalist structure that would be at home in any corner of Christchurch, was packed to the gunnels.

Noel Murphy from the New Zealand Book Council did the appropriate thing for any discussion about publishing and made sure everyone had a drink – water of course -and then abruptly copped some unnecessary flak for talking too fast. There were also some yelps about lack of volume, but as the guests were introduced – Johns (A P Watt), Michael Heywood (Text), Sam Elworthy (Auckland University Press) and Laurie Chittenden (HarperCollins) – the audience mostly composed themselves and got on with listening.

Learning about each guest’s career roles gave us an insight into the world publishing scene and a potted transtasman publishing history. The former “lucrative dumping ground” of the Australian and New Zealand market has now taken two different paths – Australia is a rights territory and does not allow parallel importing, New Zealand has no geographical rights and publishers here can potentially be competing against overseas imprints of their own works.

Murphy’s cleverly put questions gave broad scope for the panel to answer. Is this the golden age of publishing? The large number of formats and wide availability of books, plus the high levels of readership / literacy in places like New Zealand, Australia and Iceland would seem to be ideal conditions.

  • Derek Johns said silver age – very optimistic about reading, he said that digital offered a great deal of potential but there were many systemic publishing issues to be worked out. In Britain, at least, he said, people didn’t pay enough for books. The novel was a function of nineteenth-century leisure time – digital was much more flexible.
  • Michael Heywood was impressively relentless in his support of independent publishing, and authors. Festival and reading culture in this part of the world is in great shape, but at risk are quality independent booksellers and smaller publishers. The best work is done when publishing is the daily bread of a company. His summation? Golden-ish. The digital expansion will be fast  – but what was really exciting was the range of titles on best-seller lists.
  • Sam Elworthy said New Zealand publishing was exciting as in many areas there hadn’t been books published before, and that the process of finding new talent was one of discovering authors who could encourage a broad audience, even for academic subjects.
  • Laurie Chittenden also said golden, but wasn’t sure what came next.  She made the encouraging point that the American market is much more diverse now and the ‘Americanisation’ of manuscripts has largely stopped.

What would have made the session a stand out for me would have been if there were some digital books on display, or a datashow of what some of the devices look like. I’m not sure the audience would have been able to see them, or may have thought the Kindle was something you light the fire with, but that’s probably festival fatigue talking.

I’ve tried books on my iPod touch and quite like the format, and this week the number of available books overtook games  on the iTunes store. Perhaps the audience would have a better handle if they saw some of the technologies and possibilities. Audrey Niffenegger was right when she said that they are evolving quickly and are quite primitive, sneakily imitating the book, and that soon new forms would spring up for them. Being able to enlarge the text, or slow down the speed at which a book is read to you, or increase the volume – these are options that digital books offer people – this audience may have been reassured by that.

The panel were also all agreed that the publishing process was valuable for readers – the development of authors and manuscripts, the aggregation and quality assurance functions, for instance. They didn’t focus on any threat that digital might encompass, but were eager to ensure that the publishing industry – including authors and readers – had a long future yet.

Neil GaimanThat’s how chair Kate de Goldi described the phenomenon that is @neilhimself, and the crowd which pushed the Wellington Town Hall and the signing queue to its limits backed up her lavish praise.

Gaiman started the final Town Hall Talk of the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Festival with something he decided to read at the request of a fan – Locks, “The nearest thing I have to a credo”.

He then also read “with apologies to Mr Browning” My Last Landlady, and a new and unpublished piece – Rehlig Odhrain – about the death of St Oran and St Columba on Iona in Scotland. It was a great cross-section of his work.

First and foremost Gaiman is a wonderful reader, with great timing and command of different voices. He is also a attentive listener to questions and generously open with his answers. Unlike the Simon Schama session, where a sedate old fudger like me could get to the front of the theatre in time to ask something, fans rushed the mics to take their chance.

And the questions that came from the audience were rapid-fire, lucid and interesting – better put than many other questions at the festival. And his answers were gold. A young fan asked about advice for aspiring writers, and as close as I can quote it, so fast did it roll off his tongue,  here is the response:

“You have to write. And when I say that some people look at me as if I was keeping a great secret from them, like they wanted me to say: Take a goat, slaughter it at midnight and stand at the door. You will hear three knocks. Do not answer the door. You will then hear five knocks. At that point you will answer the door and Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and me will be there to tell you how to write… Write. Finish it. And do whatever you can to get it published. Then, don’t even wait for it to be published, write the next thing.

Kate de Goldi showed her knowledge of her subject like she always does and explored the influence of G. K. Chesterton, Shakespeare, Victorian style clubs stories and even the write-to-order aspect of his work.

One fan asked if he was going to return to comics, and Gaiman said he would love to, but wasn’t sure when. “Last year I got to kill Batman, that’s not the kind of thing you plan for”.

Some other great Gaiman quotes and facts from the night:

  • “I’m an awesome procrastinator. Not only can I put stuff off to tomorrow, I can put off stuff till, like, Thursday. More than that, I can put off deciding if I’m going to procrastinate …”
  • Currently re-reading Journey to the West – a 15th century tale
  • “All art needs boundaries. You need boundaries to chafe at.”
  • The joy of Shakespeare is that he was writing for actors. (The speech is four minutes long because the person he is talking to next has to get changed).
  • “My love of Greek myth came from C.S. Lewis”.
  • Nothing improves  your writing like seeing yourself in print.
  • Favourite mythological creature is the basilisk. It’s a dragony thing hatched by the cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad, that can kill you or turn you to stone. It’s weakness is the odour of weasel.
  • “Someone out there has a bag of weasels”.

The queue for signing stretched out into Civic Square and Gaiman signed and drew pictures non-stop. I took pictures till the battery ran out. All ages and stages were there, taking their own photos and video and enjoying seeing their hero. It is quite moving to see so many people so genuinely made happy by reading a single author and his storytelling in all its forms – books, comics, novels, scripts, whatever.

Gaiman’s words say it best: “We owe it to each other to tell stories.”

You have to know
when to shut up

This was another well-attended New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week  session with an eager audience at the Embassy Theatre. It was followed by some equally eager spending as the queues for book signing snaked their way around the theatre lobby.

Spare a thought for Margo Lanagan. Yesterday she shared the stage with Neil Gaiman, (“I’ve said his name so you can all whoop”) and today she was co-starring with one of the world’s best known historians, Simon Schama, in a session called Making History. He dominated proceedings a little, simply because of his ebullience. Unfortunately too, a couple of questions that started out being directed at Lanagan ended up as questions for Schama. At one point she waved to remind us that she was there.

As  Schama openly admits, and Sean Plunket found out last night, it’s hard to keep him to task.That said there were some real pearls in this session:

  • On the genesis of a project Schama said he begins with “wistful reflections on the mistakes I made in the last project”. He likes to deal with memories lost, and the people on the receiving end of history. Lanagan likes to have two ideas that clash – she relies of fairy tales and lore and a pre-industrial world as well as an enchanted forest: “It has to feel real and vivid, but not part of history”.
  • Both authors dislike hand feeding the reader. Lanagan prefers oblique references, and as she said in a previous session is “stingy with clues”; Schama says if people “forget how it ends while they’re reading” then he’s done his job.
  • Schama paid compliment to the myth and lore aspects of Lanagan’s work when he said that history stripped of “mischevious myths” and “topographical empathy” was dull. “Multiplicity helps stop historical certainty, which is the close cousin of boredom”.
  • Schama also lamented that too often in history “storytelling is seen is a sign of conceptual vacancy”.

“If you’re going to do something intellectually challenging start with respect for the daunting challenge of the narrative.”

Lanagan said creating a narrative was a matter of “tumbling towards it”. “What a story is trying  to do is unglue things, lay out the pieces and say ‘how do they come together?’. The narrative voice is calm and watchful, putting them together and allowing them to have their head.”

Schama replied: “You’re more of a historical narrator than I am.”

Some further other memorable quotes from questions starting with a response as to whether books were, ‘weapons of war’, as Picasso said of paintings.

  • Schama: “I want my stories to keep people up at night, not to put them to sleep.
  • Lanagan: “They’re more weapons of snark, really”.
  • Schama: “I’m so grateful of spending life with the written word. The word has the power of pushing you into shock, without which we don’t understand what is at stake.”
  • On how the the first decade of the 21st century, Schama said there were two main things to note: The “slow death of the planet and the reality check for the engine of indefinite economic and the unexpected shock of the revival of theocratic tyranny – Christian Muslim and Jew – and those prepared to slaughter in the name of their certainties.
  • And overheard after the session:
    Woman: “I love watching Simon Schama flounder.”
    Man: “If only I could flounder like that.”

audiobook coverIt wasn’t Sean Plunket’s legendary interviewing skills that were needed for this session at the Wellington Town Hall, it was his skills at holding a lid down on a conversation. Plunket, like the rest of the hundreds in the audience, was a passenger as Simon Schama’s energy, wit and stand-up comedy brought the house down – almost literally.

Schama couldn’t wait to get on stage, prancing out like a court jester to rapturous applause. During the first answer he sent his microphone flying as he jumped up to demonstrate a point.  Soon he was asking how much insurance the festival had if he dipped the microphone into the water and electrocuted himself. Then Sean had to warn him to move his chair forward otherwise he’d go over backwards.

Yet at the same time as the sideshow, we learnt so much about Schama and his life and his passion for history. British history was always alive for him – his father read Dickens aloud, so the characters seemed real. He was born the night Dresden was bombed – houses on either side of the nursing home he was born in were flattened.

He told how he grew up with a sense of  “imperishable Albion and  extremely perishable Jewish” history. His most well-known work, History of Britain, was partially so good because of the “panic-driven excitement of learning one week before the show” about what he was re-telling.

Schama had taken “a lot of brick bats from the academy” for his performance style, and that he was “proud but not complacent” about his work. Popular history nourishes scholarly history, he said.

“Writing a good script that asks difficult questions without making it feel like homework is the most exacting thing you can do. It makes you think visually and apply a strict and disciplined process of selection.

Making history compelling enough that people wouldn’t turn over to the snooker was a “dramaturgical art,” he said.

“Pay audiences the compliment of communicating difficult subjects in a story-telling way. We are nothing without our stories but our [non-fiction] stories differ from fiction by the courage of the questions we ask.”

So with that in mind, when it came to question time I headed up to the front to ask Simon Schama a question. I got my turn after Wyatt Creech, and I asked how libraries and archives should meet the digital deluge of information so that historians like him (and everyone else) could benefit in the future.

“Embrace it; totally rush to it,” he said.

We are in the “bring it on phase”. More people are reading historical texts now than ever before. The danger comes only when people are unaware that some items are forgeries, and in the moral question about who are the gatekeepers of truth.

Schama is a star, and a brilliantly funny man. If this festival is about inspiring words, he is the embodiment of them. Lots of them. His stand-up jokes about bears are pretty good too.

authorsA kind mum put the request to Neil Gaiman on behalf of her eight-year-old son: Please write a Blueberry book for boys.

Gaiman took it on the chin and said he also gets told off for not writing books for dads, who also get a hard time in children’s stories. He’s addressing this with a new book called Fortunately the Milk, where a dad gets to have an adventure. He also revealed how he originally wrote the Blueberry Book for Girls as a poem for Tori Amos when she was pregnant.

It was a fitting note near the end of the session – both Gaiman and well-known Australian author Margo Lanagan had spent much of the time with Kate de Goldi explaining that they struggle to be prescriptive as to whether a book is for children or young adults when they write it.

The success of Coraline, Gaiman said, was due to the young daughters of his agent. The agent had initially said that Coraline wasn’t a children’s book as she was terrified reading it. They worked out a deal whereby she would test it on her children and if they were terrified they’d sent it off as an adult book, and if they loved it, it would be sent off to the children’s publisher.

They did love it – but Gaiman found out at the premiere of the musical that one of the children was actually terrified – she had said she loved it because she knew she wouldn’t get the rest of the story if she said otherwise.

When asked what a young adult novel was Margo Lanagan said “It’s a place in a bookshop. Beyond that it’s a very large argument.”

Librarians teachers and parents and “and other throwers round of their weight” want young people’s books to have particular themes or outcomes. She does put some “concessions” in her books she says, but is now moving much more towards fantasy writing which helps get around the problems.

Gaiman related how when he was reviewing book in the 1980s all he saw were prescribed fictions by teachers and librarians. “A proper book should be kid in south London in a tower block who’s older brother was having trouble with heroin,” he said. The books always featured a noble teacher who would point out the error of the youth’s ways.  “Horrible,” he said.

Diana Wynne Jones was the kind of writer both authors admired. She is often quoted as saying ‘when you write for children you only have to say things once’. Gaiman put it slightly differently: “She assumes that kids are really smart and are paying attention”.

After Gaiman’s professed love of libraries earlier in the day, this was an interesting cautionary note. Encourage reading, don’t gatekeep. What do you say librarians? Are you “throwers around of your weight”?

Today’s schedule of our coverage at the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week:

Please send questions and comments through – we’d love to hear from you!

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