Francis Spufford, non-fiction writer, made no bones about it: “Fiction is king, the true stuff” … to his mind it is writing with wings fully extended. The Child that books built was a good session; he was in conversation with Bill Nagelkerke who had a clear understanding and appreciation for Spufford’s work.
There was an impressive sized crowd to listen, with Margaret Mahy in the front row. Francis spoke about his book The Child that books built and how as a child he lived in ‘a world of unbearable knowledge’ and acknowledged that the ‘constructedness’ of books made that world more shaped and manageable. He was sure that constructedness didn’t rule out a book being ’emotionally alive’.
Spufford’s most loved books were those that started in this world and led into another. He wanted there to be a portal, doors into another world. And to him the pinnacle of this was the journey through a wardrobe, through a pool in an orchard … Narnia. The Chronicles of Narnia “made me feel like I had taken hold of a live wire” he said. These stories represented ‘essence of book’ , the Platonic ideal.
The joy of being a reading child was the lack of limits and he certainly didn’t regret the experience of reading books he only half understood.
The book The Backroom Boys: The secret return of the British Boffin was also discussed, exploring the idea that engineers ‘do their imagining solidly’.
His insight into his book I may be some time: Ice and the English imagination was fascinating (Francis is in Christchurch for the Imagining Antarctica conference as well as the Writers fest). He made a comparison – in human terms our knowledge of Antarctica is as old as jazz, yet in geological terms it is as ancient as Gondwanaland.
Francis says he thinks of Antarctic hero Scott as the perfect figure of a writer. When dying he did his best to ‘create the scene’, as if his demise were held within ‘the capsule of words’. And yet Antarctica is the continent where ‘words run out’.
There couldn’t really be a more apt introduction to four days of thinking about words, imagination and writing.