Audrey Niffenegger: Originality and sneaky technology

coverBy the time I got out of the Derek Johns session the queue for Audrey Niffenegger was filling up the bookshop. Anxious people in line texted friends and waved like excited children when they showed. Lynn Freeman’s introduction laid a great foundation for the discussion ahead – Niffenegger creates “worlds as recognizable to us as our own, but which follow slightly different rules of the universe”.

My elegant colleague Robyn has covered the substantial detail of the session, so I wanted to touch on some of the other aspects that appealed.

I admire Niffenegger’s pursuit of originality and her DIY approach. Speaking of Her fearful symmetry, she said:

… Everything started to acquire opposites and pairs … [there was ] no rhyme or reason, it was a little thing that multiplied. The way you grow things creatively is ask questions; they prompt answers and you ask more questions … and seven years later you have a 463-page novel. That’s how you do it, you don’t have to take MFA course…

Sneaky technology: She cleverly observed how when new technology comes along it imitates the old technology. Book; E-book.

“They will look primitive to us soon,” she said. “I hope they are well designed, I  hope typography and page design are done well  – we had perfected them on the page …”

She was also optimistic about the possibilities technology offers writers – something I suspect publishers might prefer we didn’t think about. They can do things books can’t like enlarge type and make allowances for people who have limited hand movement. A new “killer diller” art form will eventuate. “Bolder and sexier”, we will eventually make material for it and  they will be “stupendous”. She also said she though it won’t be the end of the physical book –  the two will live in symbiosis.

Finally she also mentioned a couple of authors worth following up:

Endless possibilities in creative non-fiction

coverHow do you make Harry Ricketts disappear? Put him at the middle of a discussion about creative non-fiction. As impossible as it sounds, that’s precisely what happened during But Beautiful, the conversation with Geoff Dyer and Philip Hoare at the New Zealand Post Readers and Writers Week today.

That’s not a joke at his expense either, it’s a total credit to him. Creative non-fiction is a young and exciting style of writing, and both guests were so keen to talk about it they were leaning forward in their seats, carrying the conversation forward with a minimum of prompting.

Hoare shared fascinating detail of his five-year biography of Noel Coward. Gore Vidal would moan mid-letter about Truman Capote. Audrey Hepburn offered him crab meat from an already opened tin, and he thought he might die if he ate it. He learned that reporting and recording biography and history cannot be objective, and eventually he felt completely legitimised to put himself in the story. He uses archives a lot and his job was to process the information on a way that is sensitive and exciting.

Dyer’s take was that they were both drawn to creative non-fiction because they remained fans of what they were writing about; amateurs in a sense.

“You get fed the creation myth – the Dostoyevsky in a room approach where you write a novel no-one wants and eventually get one published. We’ve gone the other way.”

Both writers have worked under the heavy historical shadow of World War I. Dyer marvelled that For The Fallen, by Binyon, was written before most of the fallen had had a chance to fall in 1914, and noted the sense of history being written before its time. He is also fascinated by places where “time has stood its ground”, where history becomes geography.

Hoare reminded us of some of the forgotten decadence of life at the time of the of World War I.

“One hundred and fifty illegal nightclubs opened in Soho,” he said. There were transvestites in the trenches, ballgowns in backpacks.

What I enjoyed most about this session was that the writers talked about possibilities and the way they could process and create history and statistics to give us new ways of approaching our understanding of any topic. They talked of the possibilities offered by e-books, rather than the threats; the power of mixing illustrations in to help tell the story, the possibilities of  mixed media approaches.

Both writers also have such a keen sense of history, and knowledge to boot, that they have the opportunity to let the story come out of what they are writing about. For me its a much more complete way of storytelling, compelling and powerful. I am in awe of their skill and will be reading much more of them in the future. You should too.

Emily Perkins: The pleasure of the long writing life

cover“One of the great pleasures is that the writing life is long.
You hope to get better.
But better at what?”

That was the question Emily Perkins left the audience hanging on at her session with Caroline Baum at the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week. Perkins, born in Christchurch, has been writing for a while now, as well as presenting TVNZ’s The Good Word.

Her reading from her next novel, which follows a young girl called Jess through different stages of life, demonstrated her ability to intertwine a sense of dis-ease into something as innocuous about a day at the beach. As the children play, the parents were on hyper alert for some as yet unexplained danger.

“When we tell stories were controlling time,” she said, “But I’m not sure how much I believe  in the comforting control of time.”

Her work involves battling the illuminating ending, exploring how people create versions of themselves, visiting ghost rooms in houses where she used to live. All of these aspects lead her to the discovery that “you can’t put a life in one narrative”.

In Novel about my wife she also skewers middle class status anxiety – the idea that more things or the right things can make the rest of your life bearable.

It’s fun, it’s a soft target and it’s my life too.
I would love to be a more more evolved person,” she said.

Fresh from the Adelaide Writers Festival, Perkins leaves Wellington tonight and is shortly to appear in Shanghai. She talked at length about how the business of building your writing career can get in the way of your writing – her approach is to hot desk at one end of a trestle table with another writer in a rented space. There’s no phone, internet or fridge to distract her. The writers are never there at the same time.

In short, another enjoyable session, chattily compered by Caroline Baum. Showing the many strings to her bow, Perkins later jumped chairs to interview for Geoff Dyer.

Why Evolution is True!

Cover of The Greatest Show on EarthLet’s get things straight – the above is not the title of Richard Dawkin’s most recent book The Greatest Show on Earth.  But it might as well be (and you get the feeling that Dawkins is slightly miffed that Coyne got the better title in last year’s plethora of books about evolution celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species).

If anyone could be described as my “hero” then it is probably Dawkins so I am delighted to be attending The Press Literary Liaison on Thursday. Dawkins is an entertaining speaker, an outspoken atheist and a champion of science (he was the Professor for Public Understanding of Science in the UK until 2008).

His arguments for the case for evolution are rational, evidence based, logical and very thorough. He discusses how we know the Earth is very old  from from counting tree rings to radiometric dating.  He explains in very easy to understand terms evidence that animals change over time, both in history and today. This includes an experiment with flasks of bacteria in a lab that have been evolving independently for over 20 years, molecular (DNA) evidence, evidence from embryology, and the “unitelligent” design of many animals.

With so much evidence to support Evolution and nothing found to contradict it, for Dawkins, the fossil record simply the “icing on the cake”.

Both he and Coyne introduce their books with a worrying statistic that less than 40% of adults in both America and the UK “believe” in Evolution and prefer Creationist explanations for life.

Dawkins is a man who is right and who knows he is right. His frustration at the supporters of creationism and intelligent design is apparent from the transcript of a radio debate. Dawkins repeatedly tells a creationist opponent that fossil evidence is available in the Smithsonian and to go look, but she adamantly denies such evidence could exist “or she would know about it”. Dawkin’s repeated and insistent  imploring to “go look”  shows why he has earned the nickname “Darwin’s Rottweiller”.

He does come across as somewhat arrogant and smug (his writing is peppered with name drops) but he is one of the best at explaining biology; engaging and entertaining  his readers.  So I am very excited about going to hear him talk.

Other resources about Evolution:

Inspiring words entry # 3

My third entry in the NZ Post  competition at I’ll be posting a few entries this week – why not have a go yourself?


Simple caress

Of my dark planet

Dyer’s ongoing moment sets festival on fire

coverIf it’s getting cold in Christchurch, get some Geoff Dyer to warm you up. I am totally new to his writing, but someone who knows a lot more about books than I do tipped me off that this was one to watch out for.

I arrived just in time to be told to turn my watch alarm off (does anyone have a watch alarm any more?) and to hear Emily Perkins describe Dyer’s writing as a mix of acute observation and exhilarating comedy. If he was a website, she said, the tags would be “travel, sex and ruins, possibly in that order”.

Dyer is a lanky Englishman, who delivers his material in the urbane and witty manner of Clive Anderson, or Douglas Adams.He started with travel, and how he started travelling because he had no desire to. His parents didn’t travel – preferring to stay at home and concrete the driveway. If they did go anywhere the thought of having to spend money made his father miserable. His grandfather got a trip away once – to the Somme.  You can get a feel for the territory we are in.

His advice to never write in public was spurred by observing that writing in a pub in England could get your head kicked in, and writing in a cafe in Paris would see you arm-to-arm with “six other proto-Hemingways”. He quoted Philip Larkin’s line: Beneath it all desire of oblivion, saying all his books are about the desire to give up, yet “weirdly, it keeps me going.”

I’ve come to realize I’m the spokesman
for the writer I used to be.

Perkins and Dyer have obviously known each other for some time, so there was a relaxed atmosphere which allowed the conversation to rove freely. The first reading was brilliant – a disorderly queue for a bank ATM in India became a “rictus of surpressed English rage brought on by years of terrible summers, ruined picnics,  and cancelled trains.” It was hilarious, and the crowd loved it.

Dyer went on to say that he’s always concentrated on his core writing skills – the setting, tone and structure. He’s no good at stories or characters, he says. He was equally candid about the form of his works. “I haven’t signed an oath of loyalty to the novel. I’m not married to the novel.”

He did however want to put the word diptych on the cover of Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi. His wife saw the proof and crossed it out, writing “pretentious w*****” in its place. He changed his mind.

This session really set the festival alight for me and I’d write more, but he’s on again in a few minutes with Philip Hoare and I have to get back for more. I’ll leave you with his thoughts on the sex part of the discussion:

There’s a belief in England that sex writing has to be comic.
It’s never seemed funny to me when it’s going well.

Hens, Herbs and Hints

Bok choy is the ideal plant for the beginner or less than green thumbed gardener, the best way to kill a chook is to chop off its head, cook bok choy by shredding and cooking in sesame oil in a wok then dressing with rice wine and sugar… I left the Ellerslie show with my head buzzing with helpful hints.

I’d been talking to featured speakers at the show Lynda Hallinan and Heather Cole. Lynda is a  passionate advocate for growing your own fruit and veg – she positively buzzed with energy and spoke, answered (and asked) questions for the best part of two hours.  At the end of each session she was besieged by fans, still asking questions and thrusting forward magazines to be autographed.

I managed to catch up with her for a few questions at at the moment her favourite plant is a cottage garden one orlaya grandiflora which is something like Queen Anne’s Lace and her least favourite plants are  natives, no pittosporums, no badly pruned pittosporums!”  Her plant passions are many and change often. Best book of the moment is Nigel Slater’s Tender.

I also talked to Heather Cole from Mapua Country Trading. She will be giving two talks at the show on Friday at 3pm and Sunday at 11am on “Keeping chooks and ducks happy”. Her talks will be published later on the Mapua Country Trading website so keep an eye out. In the meantime dip into our collection of books on poultry.

Derek Johns: novels “better and cheaper” than psychiatrist

Wakening by Derek Johns

A late addition to the schedule, Derek Johns is a literary agent for A P Watt as well of the author of four books about Billy Palmer. Watt also represented Dickens, Hardy and Kipling and in more recent times authors such as Monica Ali.

Johns said that being an agent was and “odd, shadowy” trade that involved being an editor, a nanny, a shrink – all with the goal of furthering and fostering an author’s career.

Johns first turned his hand to writing in his 20s, with a book he didn’t name. He even tried to suppress the book by buying up copies on Amazon. He succeeded only in “driving up the price”. The novel went from $3.00 to about $91.00.

Johns’s books are two-thirds fiction, one-third autobiography and the readings showed both a lyrical touch for descriptions of place, and some strong, slightly wistful use of childhood memories and experiences.

The novels were a “better and cheaper” way of working out his terrible relationship with his father, rather than going to a psychiatrist. And he got paid for it.

Well chaired by Noel Murphy from the New Zealand Book Council, the numbers were light for this session, but those who did go got an interesting insight into the publishing world from someone who’s been on both sides of the fence.

Johns also provided a sneak preview of the session about the future of publishing, which I think will be fascinating discussion tomorrow.

An audience with Audrey

Wellington on a good day. The sun is shining on Lauris Edmonds’ “world headquarters of the verb'” and there is not a breath of wind. The enviably in-shape Courtenay Place street person is looking great in his loincloth, well dressed middle aged people with proper haircuts are assuring each other in the Te Papa shop that “we’ve just got time to duck into Kirk’s” and Audrey Niffenegger is my first NZ Post Writers and Readers Week outing.

I can report that the stage’s greenery and flower arrangements are of Ellerslie standard, that there are more men than at Christchurch festivals, fewer than Auckland and that the crowd is generally younger than at either. But that could just be Audrey’s audience. She does have red hair but I was not able to shriek “who are you wearing” nor ask any fatuous questions about Vivienne Westwood and The Queen. This is Wellington after all.

So, all about Audrey. She collects taxidermy, skeletons and vintage clothes, she’s a cat lover, she’s a trained typographer and she used the phrase “Killer Diller” to describe something she thought would be really good. So far so fabulous.

As a child Niffenegger thought she would write and illustrate books because that’s what children think books are, and she thought The Time Traveller’s wife would be a graphic novel “for about 45 minutes”. The success of that novel allowed her to have her 14 year labour of love The Three Incestuous Sisters, previously published in editions of ten hand set and hand bound books that ended up in specialist libraries, published commercially.

Her Fearful Symmetry is Niffenegger’s latest book, exhaustively researched and set in Highgate Cemetery, where she serves as a tour guide and where she wants to be buried (this piece of information was in answer to a question from the audience, not volunteered apropos of nothing you will be relieved to hear).

Highgate is the smartest of the seven cemeteries built on what was then the outskirts of London to ease the pressure on churchyards when the groundwater began to be contaminated by the build-up of bodies. Many famous people are buried there; Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot and Douglas Adams among them. Being British and upright Victorians, the authorities didn’t cheat like the fiendish French who reburied celebrities in Paris’ Pere Lachaise to encourage people to be buried there.

But that’s probably enough about cemeteries. Her Fearful Symmetry is an engrossing ghost story, a creepy twins story and a love story. Now Niffenegger is working on a novel about a girl with hypertrichosis, a novel whose characters escaped from a short story.

And I’m off to Don McGlashan.

Rolling in the clover – Image of the week

Mr E. G. Church’s traction engine hauling 15 tons of clover from Greenstreet to A.E. Small’s dairy farm at Wakanui, Ashburton. c.1919

Mr E. G. Church's traction engine hauling 15 tons of clover from Greenstreet to A.E. Small's dairy farm at Wakanui, Ashburton

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