M.T. Anderson

When Kate de Goldi recommended M. T. Anderson’s Feed on the radio a few years ago she put me on to the work of a truly remarkable writer.  Now I’ve seen the recommender and the recommendee on the same panel, a very pleasing turn of events.

All Anderson’s books for children and Young Adults are good but the two books that make up The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing truly are astonishing.

I keep pushing them at readers young and old because the story, the language, the utterly engrossing re-imagining of the past  makes them  extraordinary and while they’re not exactly hidden away in the Young Adult area they deserve to have as wide an audience as possible – these books are classics in the best sense of that overused word.

Anderson and fellow panellist Mal Peet  were described by chair Kate De Goldi, no slouch herself, as two heavyweights of the Young Adult writing world. At this juncture I would like to take time out to commend De Goldi on her considerable talents as a chair. She is quick witted, well prepared, willing not only to let the authors shine but to actively help them do so and she knows about books. It’s a pleasure to watch her work.

Anyway on to the authors. Anderson and Peet may be from different sides of the Atlantic but the hearts of their stories are the same; the journey of young men to adulthood, the rite of passage placed in context against the backdrop of big questions about power and politics and the eternal questions of who am I? Why am I here?

Octavian Nothing may be set in the past but he is making a point about the present day and the accommodations we all make to preserve our level of comfort at the expense of others.

Peet denied using soccer as a metaphor, claiming that as all existing books about  soccer were crap he had to write a better one, breaking the conventions about soccer books being for young men and having to be written in a crudely journalistic style.  What he wanted was to write a fantastical lyrical book about football that women could read. And I would have to say he succeeded in Exposure.

For both authors it’s all about the voice; language is as much a part of the books as story, the words determine the world of the novel and the production of character and reality within it.  As a teenager Anderson felt underestimated by the stunted form of the YA novel and an irritation at being talked down to but both writers feel that there is something of a renaissance in YA writing happening, possibly because whatever is profitable is beautiful and H.P. (the boy wizard, not the sauce) is nothing if not profitable.

Why did they choose the genre? Peet puts it down to immaturity – he does write for a teenage boy and that boy is him.  Anderson took the less sanguine view that writers in general are broken so they have to re-hash things in their lives that the less talented of us just get over.

Both do other stuff, Peet was a cartoonist and would still like to do a Graphic Novel, Anderson’s other stuff is music. He has written children’s books about Handel (so many children were clamouring for a life of the master of the Baroque fugue) and Satie.

 Advice to young writers? Peet’s first piece of advice is don’t, but if you absolutely have to, read a lot because the more words you know the more you have to choose from. Books are words, not ideas. Anderson’s advice is to apply yourself to it practially and constantly. And READ.

De Goldi was agian to be commended for asking the panellists what they read. Peet is still voracious and he likes the tough laconic American crime writers like Elmore Leonard. Penalty even has a couple of characters who are an homage to Leonard.

While writing  The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing Anderson read lots of 18th and early 19th century novels, not that here’s anything wrong with that, but the first thing he read when he had finished was Raymond Chandler.

These two writers share a serious obsession with understanding history, with using it to learn about who you are in the light of who you were and who we all were. It was a privilege to hear them discuss their work  and I look forward to hearing them read it tomorrow.

Short and sweet

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2009The short story may be a form burdened with the reputation of being abstruse but it seems New Zealand has produced some of the better practitioners of the art. A panel of prize winners gathered to talk about ‘the excitement of being brief”.

Tim Winton wasn’t there, but I was reminded of what he said a couple of years ago about his publisher groaning when he said he wanted to publish a short story collection. Received wisdom is they just don’t sell but as David Malouf said he has to write what grabs him at the moment. Admittedly he has drawers full of ideas that have not made the distance but that short story your publisher wasn’t too keen on might just turn out to be your most memorable piece of writing.

Charlotte Grimshaw felt no great urge to write short stories – she was asked to write one and found she liked the  discipline of economy, although she’s back to the novel now.

Paula Morris loves the opportunities of smallness, the freedom to experiment with form and the chance to play with material.

Owen Marshall started writing them for several reasons; because he enjoyed reading Chekhov and Hemingway; for the conciseness, directness and personal nature of the form – what Frank O’Connor called ‘the lonely voice’; and because he was a part-time writer for some time and the time taken to write a novel was daunting.

So how do the writers know when the stories are finished? For Paula Morris it’s when the deadline arrives. David Malouf wants an ending that cannot be prdicted from where the story begins. Charlotte Grimshaw, whose short stories are linked by the characters, makes a distinction betwee the characters carrying on and the action being completed. Althought the characters can reappear each story is a discrete work with a beginning a middle and an end. The ending is crucial; it’s important not to tail off but to have an element of surprise and to give the reader something unexpected. Owen Marshall likened  a good ending to the last course of a banquet – the last taste that is left in the mouth.

I am firmly in favour of the fashion for panel chairs to ask panellists about their favourite practitioners of the form in question. Last night the Russians were name-checked furiously, but this crew all had a different favourite.

Owen Marshall rates John Cheever for his wonderful perceptions about middle-class life.

For Paula Morris William Trevor is the master of manipulation of atmosphere, fully displayed in his On the streets, his sinister story from the A bet on the side collection.

Charlotte Grimshaw admired Alice Munro’s terrifically clever story Family furnishing, typical of Munro’s dense, rich, and economical work , an opinion I share. I’m sure Charlotte would be glad to know that.

David Malouf found it hard to choose but eventually plumped for Joseph Conrad. Unfortunately he did not name the simple story of a simple action, a completely interiorised story but one with every moment so clearly visualised.

A session that was more concerned with the technical aspects of the form than others I’ve been to today, and a fascinating one.Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2009

M.T. Anderson

Octavian Nothing
Octavian Nothing

Francis Spufford has a lovely book called The child that books built, and we festival bloggers like to ask the authors we interview what books built them.

For M.T. Anderson it was Ray Bradbury, not just because it is Science Fiction but also because it is an amazing source of Americana, which lead him to American Literature. The Moomintrolls were another favourite (also of my husband’s, in fact Anderson is the only other person I have ever known who names it as a favourite. I resisted sharing this with him). Enthusiasm got the better of me however when he mentioned one of my favourite books, Virgina Woolf’s To the lighthouse.

Another stock question for sad old librarians is to ask about favourite libraries – Anderson’s is The Boston Anthenaeum, a private library that has amazing treasures like George Washington’s campaign journals and a resource he used heavily while researching Octavian Nothing.

The Octavian Nothing books wear this research lightly – they don’t have that awful dragging sense of a writer determined to have every single fact they have amassed going into the book that bedevils some historical fiction. Anderson puts this down to doing so much research that you can afford to let some of it go. Also it puts off having to start writing very nicely. I was dying to know if his research darkened his view of human nature and yes it did – “how could it not”.

The novels are all very different on the surface but once you get past the subject matter the thing they share is an absolutely convincing voice. He got the voice of the obsessive consumer teens in Feed by reading magazines like 17 before he began writing.

In the light of the phenomenon that is Twilight I asked him about his first book, Thirsty, which was a vampire novel – kids at the youth programmes he does also ask him about it and his answer is that his was a failed romantic hero, rather than a successful one like Edward.

To me there is nothing about Octavian Nothing that means it should be in the Young Adult area of the library other than the age of its protagonist, but Anderson wanted Octavian to be there because Young Adults deserve to be taken as seriously as any other reader, to be challenged with language, plot and ideas. He sees a tendency to elevate YA fiction and other genre fiction, once someone decides it’s good enough, and to place it ‘up’ with literary fiction.

My final sad old librarian question was about his favourite literary period as a student of English literature – it’s the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans for the potency of their language.

Can you hear me Whangaparoa

Further on the signature dish front. It seems that Janet Frame was not content with being one of the twentieth century’s great novelists, she also had some specialities she whipped up for Charles Brasch when he came to visit. Cookies, hot date scones and fresh baked bread.

Anyway enough of the cooking obsession. 2009 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charles Brasch and this session was made up of readings from the unpublished letters of Brasch and Frame. It was an original and moving tribute, attended by a big crowd.

Brasch’s and Frame’s voices came strongly down the years; some things have changed, some are the same. Brasch writing to Frame that “bulldozers on Waiheke sounds like sacrilege” is all too familiar, but Frame’s description of Brasch as having “discipline instead of marrow in his bones” could not be applied to too many people now.

Last year Frame scholar Patrick Evans said in a public lecture that lots of his students loved ‘Janet’, the Janet of the autobiography, but weren’t quite so keen on actually reading her novels. I was interested to hear what Charles Brasch thought of some of them.

He thought Daughter buffalo “a very beautiful, persuasive fable”, A state of seige “above all a poem” , The rainbirds “haunting and troubling” and he loved Scented gardens for the blind. He even went so far as to give readings of the novels to the Balclutha P.T. A. , hoping to gain Frame a few more readers. I’d have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that literary soiree.

Brasch made it a rule of his life that if he admired any writing he always told the author, a rule I might start following in the next few days when I come across some of the “good old immortal artists” of our time, in memory of two from another.

Stefan Aust on libraries

We’re asking all writers we get to interview what libraries mean to them or to share some library experiences. Here’s what Stefan Aust, once described as Germany’s editor-in-chief, had to say:

That’s the memory of the world – so libraries are very. Very important. I was working for Spiegel magazine for 13 years and the main asset Spiegel has, except the people working there is the archive. The archive is a library – nothing more and nothing less – with newspaper articles and a lot of books. So I never had to go to public libraries because we had our own. If I needed a book we had it. Libraries are very important.

I point out that a lot of media organisations are shying away from libraries – Aust anticipates my question and jumps in:

Because they think everything is accessible on the internet. In a certain way it is true. It is much easier to do any research today as a journalist when you have your internet access, but nevertheless this stuff must come from somewhere, and where does it come from? The internet is not an asset itself . The real thing is the book.

I’m off to his session now before interviewing Christos Tsiolkas – keep the comments coming! And does anyone have anything to ask Eleanor Catton?

David Veart

Last year at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival the programmers had the inspired idea of  hosting a three course lunch with each course chosen by a food writer. David Veart  got to choose the dessert, an easy task given his collection of over 600 cook books, which he began when he was researching his M.A. thesis on Maori market gardening in Auckland.

He’s observed a few changes in attitudes to food himself, having once worked in a restaurant where the customers were given plastic corks to sniff and where the mixing of the dressing for the Prawn Cocktails was a matter of sticking your arm into a huge drum. Those were the days.

At a session hosted by Marie-Chantal of Greece lookalike Victoria Wells (only prettier),  the editor of dish, Veart and Alexa Johnston, author of Ladies a plate, were simultaneously heartening and dispiriting to me as the world’s worst cook.  I’ve always been in agreement with Lady Barker’s statement that cookbooks are only useful if you already know how to cook so I was heartened by the trend to numbered steps, exact ingredients and, Halleluyah, bold dark type with none of this pale blue on pale grey nonsense.

Dispiriting was the observation that some funerals feature the deceased’s  cookbook. I have recently noted references to signature dishes in eulogies and worried that there could be none at mine. Now I have to worry that this cookbook tomfoolery will take off and the lack of a cookbook will be noted post mortem.  As if it’s not bad enough to be a culinary inadequate in life but further humilation awaits in death.

Anyway they were a very engaging duo, Peta Mathias was in the audience and she is as gorgeous and opinionated as ever, and I might just get a cookbook out of the library and work on a signature dish.  Historical cookbooks are fascinating and we’re lucky in Christchurch to have a great collection in the Aotearoa New Zealand Centre, ready for perusal if not for borrowing, which in a way is even better because then you don’t have to even try  to cook from them.

Opening night wrap-up

A large crowd enjoyed a wide range of styles and authors at the opening night of the Auckland Writers and Readers festival. It really is amazing to see the support the festival gets from the public and the sponsors in Auckland. A large part of this success is Jill Rawnsley, the festival director. She got the hugest bunch of flowers I have ever seen presented to her on stage last night as a thanks for her work, and it was announced that she is leaving the festival. She will leave some big shoes to fill 😉

You can listen Richard, Robyn, Moata and Joyce’s impressions of the opening night in this seven-minute recording below, and see the latest photos on the library flickr.

The team have a busy schedule today:

  • Richard is interviewing Stefan Aust about the Baader-Meinhoff terrorist group, meeting Christos Tsiolkas and catching up with Eleanor Catton;
  • Robyn is looking forward to readings with M. T. Anderson, Mal Peet and Kate De Goldi as well as David Malouf, and Wekas and Queen Cakes;
  • Moata is starting her day interviewing Marcus Chown, astrophysicist, enjoying time with the engaging and articulate Ranginui Walker, before a secret adventure… and
  • Joyce takes on Monica Ali, Marcus Chown and Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately the Kirtsy Gunn session has been cancelled due to a breavement.

A busy day of work and play – please send us your comments and questions, we’d love to hear from you.