The man who would be King – An Hour with John Burnside

LiesI went along to an hour with John Burnside the Fife born poet and novelist. Held in the main ASB theatre the audience was subjected once again to the dreary roll-call of event sponsors. All delivered in a booming movie trailer voice, I may possibly run amok if I have to endure it again! Or maybe I’ll take ear plugs.

Siobhan Harvey was the chair, herself a poet, and John gave to readings one from A lie about my Father his memoir and the second from Glister, his latest novel.

John talked about the need as a poet and novelist to keep those worlds and styles of writing separate, he said he had no desire to write a “poetic novel” and doesn’t want to be a poet novelist. He was initially drawn to poetry as it fitted in with his schedule, he was at that stage working full-time in the computer industry and didn’t have much time to devote to writing. He eventually handed over his company car keys and resigned so he start writing his first novel.

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Stalin, when the Sopranos meet Bin Laden

SimonA joint take on Simon Montefiore from Joyce and Philip

Joyce:  Philip first thoughts?

Philip:  On what?

Joyce:  On what, on what, I’ll give you on what … Simon Sebag Montefiore of course.

Philip:  The books or the shoes?

Joyce:  Those shoes were something else, for our reader let me explain, gleaming, jet black patent leather slip-on shoes. Now there is a thing you don’t see everyday especially not with stripey socks and a rather dazzling silver belt. Wow!

Philip:  The belt was more Dolly Parton than serious historian but good on the chap. But seriously, he was a very impressive and entertaining speaker. He began the session talking about his new novel Sashenka, an intimate family story set at a significant time in Russian history. Montefiore had been itching to write fiction to highlight how ordinary people survived such terrible events.

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Monsieur Claudel

Grey soulsPhilippe Claudel is a French novelist whose novel “Les ames grises” was published in English as Grey souls. He’s written a number of other books, including children’s fiction and he’s recently scripted and directed a film called “Il ya longtemps que je t’aime.” which was shown successfuly at a European festival and is going into release soon .

I’d seen him at an earlier session on book into film so there were some overlaps in that we saw once again the opening bit from the earlier movie. There were a lot of French people in the audience and my ear was out to their conversation but I’m afraid my franglais can’t comprehend their francais. Interestingly he started with a reading en francais from his novel with a translation up on the big screen for the rest of us.

When he spoke about the novel, he reverted to English and this was of course much slower than his reading in French! He’s a very interesting and thoughtful character and his novel, which is a sort of mix of crime fiction and literary novel, is an attempt to make what he called a parallel between “big history” and “small history.” (i.e. the big events and the ordinary people whose everyday lives are shaped by things bigger). This was, I felt, one session where having read the book first would have been an advantage.

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An hour with J.M. Coetzee

Saturday morning and after a long night at the Crown Plaza with the other three library scribes and three authors (try the audio for a hopefully coherent chat against the background of the rugby on Sky, noise at the bar and the distracting ascent of the stairs by young professional ladies in low-cut dresses), it was breakfast and then a mad gallop to this session.

This was the fullest session I had been to and there was hardly a seat left in the theatre. I think we had mentioned in an earlier post that Coetzee was an interesting speaker but he didn’t quite have the pizazz of many of the others. I realise we are talking about a man who has won two Bookers and the Nobel Prize so it’s not as if we’re talking about James Patterson here (always room for a gratuitous slur on Mister Tiny Paragraphs) but the way the audience was sitting in such expectancy you would have thought we might have to kneel when he took the stage.

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J. M. Coetzee on censorship

The Coetzee session has just finished, and as I write this a huge queue is snaking through the Aotea Centre – filled with people waiting to have a book signed by the great man. There was a massive buzzing crowd for the Nobel Prize and Man Booker (twice) winner. Coetzee, now a citizen of Australia, was introduced by Witi Ihimaera who spoke of him as a writer unflinchingly going for the jugular and as one of the greatest writers of our times; he praised his highly intellectual and scrupulous fiction and said he believes every NZ family should have one of his books in their library.

Coetzee spoke about censorship, and then did some readings – from In the heart of the country, Waiting for barbarians and The Life and Times of Michael K. His revelations about censorship were astonishing and gave new knowledge of how the old South African regime was run.

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Festival Quick Fix: Saturday

As the weekend rolls in, the Festival rolls out all the big names in their own sessions – including J.M. Coetzee, Simon Montefiore (read our exclusive new interview), Anne Enright, Mo Hayder, Michael Pollan, John Gray, and Hermione Lee. See the programme for more details.

After a hectic Friday, you can hear the team review the day’s events in our Daily Festival Wrap – Friday. Our own Richard, Joyce, Donna and Philip are joined in conversation by special guests Brit writers/poets John Burnside, Sarah Hall and Jacob Polley, who share their thoughts on the festival and Auckland itself. Duration 7 mins 30 secs. Listen on our Festival page, or right here.

On the ground in Auckland, the library team have their eyes on a few events in particular today:

  • An hour with J.M. Coetzee. The Nobel winner will be reading from, and talking about his work, but won’t be answering questions as our team mentioned in their Daily Festival Wrap – Thursday. Read our profile of him.
  • Tessa Duder launches her new book Is she still alive. Our own Richard caught up with Duder at the festival, and you can read his interview with her. “I think this book fits quite nicely into the idea of crone-lit,” she says.
  • The Michael King Memorial Lecture: An hour with Hermione Lee, biographer of Virgina Woolf, Willa Cather, and most recently, Edith Wharton. Our profile of Lee.
  • Running throughout the day is Open Mike, giving budding poets attending the festival the chance to recite their work alongside James Brown, Alison Wong, John Burnside, Ryan Knighton, and Karlo Mila.

Keep sending your comments through, including questions you’d like us to ask at the festival, and you can find all our author profiles, interviews and audio wraps on our Festival page.