It’s not about me – or is it?

I know the festival is over but I’m not ready to let go just yet and this was one of my favourite sessions. There were writers on the panel who may not have been discovered by readers here in Christchurch but who should be if their readings were anything to go by. Plus it was such a good festival I plan to bang on about it for quite some time, so there.

It may not be about me for the writers but as far as many readers are concerned it should be. I remember Margaret Atwood saying at an author event that after a character in one of her novels lost a lot of weight readers were always asking her how she did it. When she replied that she wasn’t the character, they would say “yes, but how did you lose the weight?”

For Christine Luenens going into character is like being an actor; it does come from the inside, almost like harnessing the extremely powerful imagination we express in our dreams.

Anya Ulinich’s novel Petropolis was one that made it onto my very long list of books to read after the festival – my notes say someone described it as “kinky, grotesque and very funny” – what more could any reader require? Horns were locked when Ullnich’s U.S. editor’s desire for the book to be about a girl discovering herself came up against Ullnich’s more political motivation.

Mark Sarvas’ experience raised the interesting question of what is a first novel. Is it the book you write first or the book that is published first? Sarvas set aside his first which was much more autobiographical than his second, for which he wasn’t remotely tempted to use his life, but has now returned to his first . This gave chair Rachael King the chance to ask if using one’s life was easier or harder, a very good question. “Inherently more difficult” said Sarvas, although this novel did have more serious subject matter.

One of the differences between non-fiction and fiction panels at festivals seems to be that non-fiction panels are much more about the topic of the book, while fiction panels get onto the lives and writing habits of the writers. Both can be good, but I’m a fan of the life and habits side of things – where else would you hear the lovely phrase “plume and feather duster”, which Christine Luenens used to describe her approach to writing and domestic duties since the birth of her children.

Having a practitioner as the chair was an advantage in this session, as it was in the non-fiction session Painting a Picture – New Zealand Artists on Sunday. It may be that King and Philip Norman are good at putting people at their ease but it seemed that their in-depth knowledge of what it means to produce a first novel or a biography helped them to establish a rapport with their panels.

3 thoughts on “It’s not about me – or is it?

  1. Rachael King 8 September 2008 / 4:25 pm

    Nice to get an outsider’s view as sometimes it’s hard to know how things go from the inside – they tend to go by in a breathless rush. I was very lucky to have such good talkers on the panel and I felt like we were just getting warmed up and could have talked for hours!

    Robyn, just a note that it was actually Christine Leunens first novel Primordial Soup that was described as “kinky” etc (and she is so mild-mannered it seems hard to believe), so you might have to track that one down too. Anya’s is great though. She is a clever woman.

  2. Jane 9 September 2008 / 9:01 am

    I particularly enjoyed Anya Ulinich, and went out and promptly bought her book – I think it’s a keeper! She was able to be political as well as fun, and I think that is a great mix. Mark Sarvas was probably at a disadvantage as his plane was delayed by fog and arrived late. It was hard therefore to get a total grasp on his book (which I enjoyed) and him. Rachael King was an excellent chair, it is a fine art to let the panel go, and get them really talking, alongside asking those few important questions that just have to be asked…

  3. Philip 9 September 2008 / 9:32 am

    I thought this was an excellent session as well and I was going to blog about it but ran out of time. Rachael King was first rate chairing the session as she said enough and obviously knew enough about the books and the writers yet she didn’t dominate unduly. The only book I had read before the session was the Mark Sarvas one and I had enjoyed it immensely but found him much less interesting than the other authors. Anya Ulinich was terrific – very enthusiastic and funny and I did enjoy Maxine Alterio describe how the extraordinary story of her novel came about. Christine Leunens was also immensely interesting and the chunk of her novel she read had an original take on what is obviously a disturbing and unusual story.

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