Writers shine, Once Upon a Deadline

posterThe judges admitted they needed to have an “argument” to settle the hotly-contested Once upon a Deadline competition in front of several hundred people at the Wellington Town Hall on Monday night.

Six writers ended up making the starting line, and wrote the locations that they visited during the day and the experiences they had into the story. They wrote in a cage at the airport, a classroom at Wellington College, next to the cheese fridge, a coffee roastery / cafe and had A Day in Pompeii – the current exhibition at Te Papa Tongarewa.

The results? Stunning, relentless quality writing, inspired in scope and authentic in voice – and that’s what won Dianna Fuemana top prize. Her story, The Necklace, centred on the trials and tribulations of a middle-aged Samoan couple and their son (who had a thing for melons).  It was captivating tale, delivered with great timing and humour. Subtly-crafted, this was a real pearl of a story, made under the intense pressure of a competition.

David Geary thanked the minders and his editors, saying the writers got to behave “abominably” for a day. He got the lion’s share of the laughs and a fair snort of sympathy with Daddy’s going Potty, a story about a father unravelling under the day to day stress of parenthood. It resonated well with the audience who shared his pain when he said “I’d confess to any crime for some sleep”. If that wasn’t enough suffering, he also described the agony of trying to read Andre Agassi’s Open – nine times.

In The Inspiration, Neil Cross, scriptwriter for UK TV series Spooks, described how the stories “swerved to avoid” him all day. The nail-biting desperation driving him to consider bumping all the other writers off was like fireworks – peppered with sparky energy and wit. It was also delivered at such pace that it just about left you out of breath – like a writing marathon should. I look forward to seeing more of him at this festival.

Pip Hall delivered an incredibly structured and clever piece. A slow burner called Title, it ran through the elements of a short story, paid homage to Owen Marshall and gradually built up a brilliant conclusion where the title of the story was revealed. All of her side-story explorations compounded to add to the piece – the possibilities and permutations showed just how many ideas she had – the end form was rock solid and entertaining.

Impressive too were the two younger writers who stepped up to the challenge. Lucy O’Brien confidently delivered Shitzu on fire – a moody and intense piece about a young school leaver’s relationship with his mum – and it ended with a real slap. Some great imagery such as “her chicken throat moves up and down”, and some eager support from the audience set the scene for the rest of the night.

Eli Kent – one of David Geary’s students – warned the audience his story was dark, and he didn’t disappoint with his energetic and pacy delivery of The boy with the f*****-up face, about an ex-con now working in the fish department of the supermarket. He had a great turn of phrase and enjoyed delivering his characters’ words. His shirt could have been straight out of a Pompeii lava flow – a scorchingly hot orange.

So if this is what Wellington has in store, we’re off to a pretty fine start. All of these stories would last on a page.  Look out for these writers around the place – you won’t be disappointed. I hope Robert Mac, who developed the Once upon a Deadline concept, achieves his dream of taking this global – it’s a great format which strips away some of the mystery and the hoodoo about writing, and allows the writers to shine.

Once upon a deadline … inspiring words in Wellington

Sponsor logoSeven writers, seven laptops, seven mystery locations in  seven hours – that’s how the NZ Post Writers and Readers Week starts, with a session called Once Upon a Deadline. I had a chat with programme manager Laura Kroetsch to find out more about this full-on literary festival, which I’ll  covering on the blog this week.

I’ve been impressed with the approach the organisers take – it’s all about making the private activity of writing public. I’ll be heading along to the Once Upon A Deadline read-off tonight – it should be fantastic.

My schedule includes 17 sessions, with lots of superstar authors and big names on my interview wishlist – Simon Schama, Neil Gaiman, Audrey Niffenegger, Bill Manhire, Emily Perkins and more  – it promises to be a fascinating time. There are also sessions about ethics, 21st-century publishing and lots of creative non-fiction, with a dash of poetry to spice things up. Scientist Richard Dawkins will also get tongues a-wagging.

I’ll post daily so you can see what I’m up to, file reports from the different sessions, post audio and share images on our flickr photostream.

Please ask questions, comment and react to what you read – it’ll be great to have your company!

International Women’s Day – A time to pause and reflect?

International Women’s Day, Monday 8th March,  is a day set aside to affirm the advancement of women. It raises questions of social, economic and political emancipation. Around the world, women lack equal pay and representation in education, business and politics. Women of the West, after decades of effort and improvement, still have not completed their long journey. Others have much further to tread.

This is a day to remember our past and the struggles and positive victories of women now gone. Christchurch and Canterbury have been home to some strong, groundbreaking women:

  • Kate Sheppard MemorialKate Sheppard – a leader in the campaign for women to get the vote
  • Elsie Locke – writer, political activist, peace campaigner and feminist
  • Ettie Rout – most famous as a safe sex campaigner in World War One
  • The library also has a publication Unsung Heroines featuring biographies of Christchurch women, written to commemorate Women’s Suffrage Year, 1993. It demonstrates just how strong-minded and independent Victorian women could be.
  • Visit our page on International Women’s Day which links to on library and online resources including Contemporary Women’s Issues, a full-text database that brings together content  with a focus on the critical issues and events that influence women’s lives in more than 190 countries.

Let us grant greater generosity towards other women. Each day in ways great and small, each of us can help each other find our true place in the world – as women of courage, resolution and spirit. Such a journey begins with each of us, in our own backyards, in our own workplaces and in our own hearts.

Kim Morgan, Christchurch City Libraries

Dead Dames at Oxford

One of the best things about reading is when one book or one writer leads to another and before you know it you’ve read a whole lot of things you might never have  touched in the ordinary run of things.

Retrieving Dorothy L. Sayers’ novel Gaudy night from Store last year set me off on something of a jag (if three books so far can be called a jag) of books by women who attended Somerville College, Oxford, in the years immediately before and after the First World War.

Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall were the first women’s colleges at Oxford and International Women’s Day is a good time to remember they existed for a mere 41 years before the University granted degrees to women.

Sayers was a Somervillian and Gaudy night is set in a thinly disguised Somerville. Harriet Vane, detective novelist and Oxford M.A., spends the novel angsting about marrying Lord Peter Wimsey while solving some very nasty doings in the library and the Senior Common Room. 

I’m a sucker for all that folderol about cocoa parties, climbing Magdalen Tower on May Day and punting on the Isis and there’s a satisfying amount of it in Gaudy night.

Vera Brittain, best known as a memoirist although she wrote five novels, was up at Oxford three years after Sayers and she too used a thinly disguised  Somerville as the background for The dark tide, her first novel and a satisfying melodrama. In her case the disguise wasn’t quite thin enough and it caused a minor sensation when it was published.

Somerville hated its depiction as ‘Drayton College’ , banning circulation of the book within the college. Brittain also offended that ‘noble newpaper’ the  Manchester Guardian when a character in the novel bribes “an accommodating reporter with champagne”.

It’s hard now to see what the fuss was about, the one person who could have felt libelled was Brittain’s friend Winifred Holtby, who managed to stay good-humoured despite being portrayed as a clumsy, ill-dressed, perenially late loser in love; in fact the book is dedicated to her.

Holtby and Brittain met at Oxford and after inital hostility the two were  friends until Holtby’s tragically early death.  Holtby’s masterpiece South Riding is set in a thinly disguised East Riding, Yorkshire, rather than Somerville, but I’m also a sucker for a regional realist novel so that’s fine. South Riding bears comparison to George Eliot’s Middlemarch; there can be no higher praise.

There are other novelists who were contemporaries of Brittain, Holtby and Sayers at Somerville but sadly most of them are out of print.