Joe Bennett and his unfeasibly cheap underpants

Where do underpants come from

Joe Bennett stepped more or less straight off a plane from Hong Kong onto the stage at the ASB Theatre. You would never have known it, because he leapt about the stage with a manic energy that kept the sizeable crowd happily entertained for a full hour. It wouldn’t have been out of place at the comedy festival.

Bennett also took the step of encouraging questions from the outset, which was appreciated by those in attendance. Where underpants come from is the story of Joe’s journey to source the origin of a five-pack of man-skin style gruds and a pair of “Authentics” – for “special occasions” back to their origin – the economic powerhouse of China.

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Thomas Kohnstamm

Thomas Kohnstamm caused a bit of controversy when his book Do travel writers go to hell came out. There was a lot of outrage over ‘desk updating’ of travel guides and Kohnstamm’s description of how travel books were written. An article even made the front page of the New Zealand Herald.

Travel writer and novelist Thomas KohnstammI’m sure that took its toll on him in an I’ll-never-work-again kind of way, but if there’s one quality that screams out from his work it’s that you can’t keep a good man down. Which is just as well – on the way to the airport to catch his plane to New Zealand his car was hit by a “large commercial truck”.

“The car looked pretty much like a cigarette butt,” he laughed, adding something to the effect that hindsight is a great rear view mirror.

Kohnstamm is irrepressible – he has seen some wild and crazy times. Cue predictable comparison to Hunter S. Thompson for his drug-dealing attempts and other, ah, sexploits, but the salutory lesson from reading Kohnstamm is that every choice has its price.

And the price of his travel writing workshop today was a bargain for those that attended. The place was packed – and audiences have been wall-to-wall this weekend – and the book signing queue took about 20minutes to die down. If there are more writers as honest and courageous as Kohnstamm I think the travelling pu blic is better off.

He is now looking forward to the Sydney festival and planning a book about “the joys of illegitimate fatherhood”.

Watch out for archivists dropping kittens on your head …

I sat with the team from Palmerston North City Library for this session; it was good to chat with a lively bunch of librarians and erstwhile bloggers. This was a ripper; chair Harry Ricketts observed that Simon Sebag Montefiore and Hermione Lee were pretty much doing all the work – this gave the event a natural flow. The hour was up in no time.

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Crime and its fascinations

Joyce and I went to this session featuring Mo Hayder, Joan Druett, Peter Temple and Philippe Claudel with Mike Johnson in the chair.

Philip:It was an interesting session but somehow it didn’t really catch fire, did you think, Joyce?

Joyce: It was a bit flat wasn’t it. Mike Johnson the chair didn’t seem vastly knowledgable about crime fiction and some of his questions were drearily longwinded. His opening gambit was about genre fiction and the perception that genre fiction is somehow inferior to literary fiction. What did you think about what that cheeky minx Joan Druett said?

Philip: You mean the bit where she blamed libraries for categorising fiction into genres? That was a bit rich considering that bookshops do the same and so do publishers in the first place.

Joyce: She better watch herself, don’t dis libraries Joanie. Mo Hayder’s take on the genre issue is that the lines are currently blurred with people like Kate Atkinson and John Banville previously considered to be literary authors moving into crime

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“A piece of work”

Edith WhartonThe Michael King memorial lecture

Hermione Lee characterised biography readers as “greedy readers with an insatiable appetite”. Her biography of Edith Wharton at over 800 pages would represent using that analogy a very hearty three course meal. The biography took seven years to research and write and following in the Wharton footsteps involved Lee in travel to Italy, France, England and New York.

Lee accessed Wharton’s diaries, letters, notebooks, unfinished works, her library and annotated books and also made use of Wharton’s two autobiographies. There are however many gaps in the archive, few family letters and very little about her unhappy marriage. As the research progressed Lee felt she grew to like and admire Wharton more and more; her humour, her stoicism and the variety of her tone.

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An hour with Peter Temple

Peter TempleQuick, droll, self-effacing and effortlessly amusing, Peter Temple delivered the goods in his hour in the sun at the Writers and Readers festival 2008. Originally hailing from South Africa and an Australian since 1980, Temple has a muted South African accent but for those who’ve read his novels he certainly knows how to capture the Australian idiom.

Temple taiked about his experience of working as a reporter and sub-editor in South Africa during the apartheid era. He said it was clear what could and couldn’t be said, the line was drawn. The options were pretty stark, either you accepted the status quo, spoke out and went to jail, or left the country. He ultimately chose to leave but recognised “the extremely brave journalists in South Africa who paid a high price for protest”, he also noted that “for people with no social conscience it was an extremely pleasant life” in South Africa.

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Up close …

Thanks to Paul and Helen of McGovern Online and to Random House publishers, last night we got to meet an amazing bunch of authors, librarians, publishers … and we’ve met some others during the festival that we want to mention.

Man Booker Prize winner, Anne Enright

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Junot Diaz, the devil and me

New York author Junot DiazPulitzer prize winner Junot Diaz has sparked a great deal of interest at this festival – he is the total package, as they say. He won us over when we first met him and hey said: “Libraries? I love libraries. You guys saved me.”

Be warned that we covered a fair bit of ground in this interview- we roll from the 28th floor of the Crowne Plaza, past his discovery of Margaret Mahy, hang out with disappearing cultural rhythms, drive by the tyranny of the master narrative, negotiate a Spike Lee chicane in a New York conversation kind of way and discover the dream of the unwritten book. Are you ready to get down with that?

You can read what he has to say about libraries here, or read the full story in the interview.

Festival Quick Fix: Sunday

Not a very lazy Sunday at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. It’s day five, promising a non-stop schedule of events for our team in Auckland covering the festival for you. After mingling with the literati last night, they’re currently feasting on a full Auckland breakfast (a trim latte and a cereal bar?), fuelling themselves up for a crazy final day.

Listen to their Daily Festival Wrap – Saturday for a round-up of yesterday’s events. There’s so much good listening that it’s split into two parts, the first featuring Fiona Farrell. Listen on our Festival page, or right here.

Part one – Duration 6 mins 26 secs:

Part two – Duration 9 mins 35 secs:

So, back to today. What can we expect?

  • After chasing elusive travel writer Thomas Kohnstamm for an interview (we hear he missed his flight to Auckland), Richard is looking forward to today’s Travel Writing Workshop, “especially after the ruckus over his latest book.” (As if you haven’t heard, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? alleges some questionable practises at Lonely Planet). Event details
  • An hour with Mo Hayder – Joyce says “Mo is often touted as being unsurpassed in her ability to find horror in everyday things, hopefully not my interview, and is promoting her latest novel Ritual.” Read our Mo Hayder profile and interview.
  • Richard is also looking forward to spending An hour with Anne Enright, considered the outsider by some to win the Man Booker Prize in 2007 with The Gathering. Read our profile of her.
  • Closing event Books left on buses, billed as confessions of a group of “national and international super-stars” who “vent about shameful books” they’d rather have left on a bus than mentioned “in public… at a literary festival… before a discerning audience.”

Expect blog posts throughout the day as usual, and all the good stuff – including our exclusive interviews – is also on our festival page.

Junot Diaz on libraries and librarians

How valuable are librarians to authors? Well, if the author’s a “snot-nose kid from the Dominican Republic” who worked his way to become one of the most distinctive and fascinating writers in the United States today, the answer is below… 😉

Junot with Joyce and DonnaClick the more link to find out what he thinks about the stereotype of librarians in popular culture.

A full transcript of the interview with Junot Diaz will be posted on the Christchurch City Libraries website later today. Here’s a tasty snippet:

“Libraries are a weird thing if you actually think about it. It’s sort of like the logic of capital minus the logic of capital. It’s a place where you can get books for free – and as long as you bring them back – everything’s cool.

“Could you imagine a clothing cultural component like that? Where you could, as long as you orderly waited and wrote your name on a list, rent out an Armani suit in brand new condition and just wear it and bring it back?

“Both are products, it’s just an accident of history that we’ve attributed one a cultural component and the other not. For a poor kid a library to me was as like a miracle to me as if you discovered if you could sign your name and take out a whole wardrobe of Armani clothes. Every day. For the rest of your life. That’s what a library felt like.” Continue reading