Friday @ the festival: Talent, tenderness and an artistic street fight

Perhaps one of the team’s busiest days yet at the festival! The wrap up has all the details:

  • Talented Australian literary editor Ben Naparstek’s post-modern style session where interviewer Guy Somerset interviewed the interviewer (Naparstek) who read a portion of an interview – about interviewing;
  • Marion’s time with Thomas Keneally, Sarah Thornton and Colm Toibin;
  • Roberta’s chat with Lionel Shriver – followed by her attempt to get William Dalrymple to stay still long enough to answer a question – as well as an hour with the tender style of an enchanting Alison Wong;
  • Bronwyn and Richard witnessed a spirited street-fight art-world style with Denis Dutton, John Carey and Sarah Thornton.

Please leave your comments on any of the posts – we’d love to hear from you. Saturday is another full day of programming, with some heavyweights on the card – CK Stead, Dick Frizzell, Chris Laidlaw sharing his view of modern rugby, and a stellar line up of poets. It’s all on!

Michael Otterman: The ‘unforseen, unthinking consequence’ of Erasing Iraq

I have decided there can be no light and witty blog title for a subject such as the one Michael Otterman tackles in his latest book, Erasing Iraq.  Chair Sean Plunket describes it as a difficult and uncomfortable read, and not a book to be curled up in bed with at the end of the day.  A collection of interviews with Iraqi refugees displaced all over the world, the very first tale relates the story of a Mendaean family whose son is kidnapped and murdered by fundamentalist extremists, and who then must go to retrieve the body.

The main thrust of the message is that the United States invasion of Iraq represents not a liberation, but an occupation, triggering what Otterman calls sociocide – the killing not just of a group of people but of a way of life, with the Mendaeans being a case in point.  A small and very insular group with strong religious beliefs, before the war they numbered around 50,000.  Now there are less than 5000 remaining, and with their cultural and religious beliefs precluding them from marrying outside their society, they are the last of their people.  Otterman describes the “unforseen, unthinking consequence” of United States foreign policy and actions, and has documented the devastating human cost of this thoughtlessness through the tales of those he interviewed.

The session was riveting, and had a deeply appreciative and attentive audience (apart from the dear old ladies sitting next to me, who on discovering which session they had wandered into, said rather loudly, “Oh, dear! That doesn’t sound very nice!”).  Nice it wasn’t, but compelling it certainly was, with Sean Plunket making some (rather brave, I thought) comparisons between what is going on in Iraq today, and the Holocaust.  As it turns out, however, Otterman’s own father and grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and he is more than happy to discuss the similarities and differences.

There’s no way I can do justice to the gravity of this message, and thus all I will do is relay the advice that Michael Otterman gave the audience, when asked what we as New Zealanders and as individuals can do:  read the book.  Read as much as you can find from outside mainstream media.  Go to Google and type in “Iraq blogs”.  Lobby the government to admit Iraqi refugees (in 2006 we took in just 86 Iraqi refugees, despite the fact that more than 3 million are now stranded outside their own country with nowhere else to go).  And remember that the Fox Network  should never be the sole provider of news and information from places like Iraq, or Afghanistan, or indeed, anywhere.

Stop that tenoring Colm Toibin, you’re a bass

cover of BrooklynNews – Colm Toibin is a bass and not afraid to burst into song as festival goers found out at the opening last night. He said he did it to “break the monotony of the reading”. We talked a bit more about his venture into singing when he joined a choir in New York, and how his experiences there may be the nucleus of a new novel. But a word of warning. I went into a technological death spin with the recording and Richard was only able to salvage a flavour.

A brief summary is that he was intrigued by the experience of a new vocal identity and he also had been listening to an American singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson who changed from a soprano to a mezzo soprano during her career, so he is writing about a woman who joins a choir and finds her voice changing.

His experiences do appear in his novels. A classic is the two cats who live on top of the dresser in the Blackwater Lightship. Garrick and Charlie are based on two cats he observed while staying in a house in Newfoundland. He admits to being a little bit of a people watcher and some scenes will stay in his mind and perhaps appear in his writing.

I asked the library question, and the Wexford Library of his teenage years provided a place where he could read widely and explore literature with the help of two kindly librarians, friends of his aunt, who made him feel special and welcome.

If you haven’t already, explore the writing of this lovely, humorous man whose writing is delightful.

An Outsider in the Art World

cover of Seven Days in the Art WorldSarah Thornton considers herself “an outsider with good access” who has used that access to write a fascinating bestseller about the world of contemporary art. Called Seven Days in the Art World she goes behind the scenes of auctions, prizes, exhibitions, studios etc for a witty and informative look at what goes on. We all know that for gossip and scandal the art world probably outdoes literature, music and even the theatrical worlds. Discuss.

Her next book will be on artists and Banksy is top of the list to interview. The elusive street artist is one of the delights of being in London. She describes it as “magical when you come across one of his murals”. The destruction of one of his murals on a Post Office back lot after only a few days she describes as tragic. The Royal Mail “couldn’t distinguish between vandalism and creative appropriation of a public space”. She thinks he is an interesting communicator, on a lot of different levels, and to different ages.

Her flying visit to New Zealand includes tackling “What Good are the Arts” with John Carey and Denis Dutton and going to a group show opening which includes artist Fiona Jack who appears in her book in the chapter about The Crit session. She is also visiting a couple of major collectors in their homes to see the works they have.

Her official website has a great list of articles if you want to find out more about contemporary art. If you are lucky enough to travel she recommends the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Lionel Shriver: Libraries are expressions of social generosity

PhotoAfter all the anticipation and, let’s be frank here, anxiety around the Lionel Shriver interview that I have been badgering all of you with for weeks now, I am delighted to say that it was great!

Lionel and I chatted in the cosy little library at her hotel and, over cups of coffee, it felt to me like all the bookish chats that I have ever had with any of my dear friends. Part of the reason for this is that Shriver is unambiguously a library lover. This is very clear in the audio clip below which you should listen  to as it will lift your spirits, warm the cockles of your heart and get your toes tapping – enough with all the body parts already.

At the end of the interview, Shriver drifted off to TV One (see her  interview on Breakfast) and I floated down Queen Street on cloud nine certain that she would rather be chatting to a librarian. Good on us!

There will be a fuller blog on this interview in a later post, but in the meantime, kick back with the audio clip and smile!

Tui Flower – Legend

Tui FlowerI like to think of Tui Flower as a special secret I am revealing to you all. People over a certain age will recognize the name but I was in a room of 20 and 30 somethings recently and when I said I would be interviewing Tui Flower there was silence and blank looks. So here she is – the doyenne of New Zealand food writers. Her first book was the self titled Tui Flower Cookbook followed up by the classic New Zealand Women’s Weekly Cookbook. If you don’t know it, your mothers will.

Tui Flower (what a gorgeous name, so redolent of her generation)  is a pioneer.  She  bravely went to Paris in the 1950s to study cooking and had many similar experiences to Julia Childs in that demanding environment where women were barely tolerated. Back in New Zealand she worked hard to adapt what she had learnt to an environment where neither many of the ingredients or the equipment we now take for granted were available (think life without eggplants, broccoli, garlic and olive oil!). She encouraged and mentored later generations of food writers here and widened many a culinary horizon.

It was great to talk to someone who is 84 and retains a passionate and expert interest in cookbooks and she still loves to delve into them. But she is also hip with Michael Pollan and agrees with a lot of what he says. She has no time for gladiatorial cooking on TV or celebrity chefs unless they are like Rick Stein and really know their stuff. If she had to eat out she would still choose French cuisine which she has always loved.

She talks with respect of the generations of women cooks who have gone before, creating magic with coal ranges and the minimum of equipment.

Her kitchen has the look of a working kitchen where everything is as she would like it. She is happy to simplify and whisk by hand but she has a food processor and a food mixer as essential appliances. She still uses recipes especially for baking and admits to the odd disaster still, although she described how she turned one such disaster into “having a play with some other ingredients” and coming up with some perfectly respectable baking. Hear Tui’s words of wisdom for the baking challenged:

Tui reads widely, especially history. On the go at the moment is Charlotte Grimshaw’s latest The Night Book. Spending time with Tui was a fantastic privilege and a glimpse into a life lived well and to the full.

Charlie Higson: traditional zombie

CoverThursday’s jam-packed school session with Charlie Higson got off to a slightly smutty start, with Nick Ward’s introduction including a reference to Higson’s ‘Swiss Toni’ character from his TV shows.  Swiss Toni compares everything he does to ‘making love to a beautiful woman’, and the suggestion was that Charlie might also be going to describe the art of writing the same way.  Some worried looks from teachers, and delighted “I’m not supposed to be laughing at this” giggles from the kids, and the man himself appeared on stage. 

For me, Charlie Higson will always be Ralph from the Fast Show, and I was slightly disappointed he was wearing writer-y black rather than wellies and tweeds, but his performance was just fab.  He grabbed the kids right from the start with his utopian description of life without adults (the premise of his new book, The Enemy), before hauling them back from paradise with the news that not ALL the adults had died from the virus, and that the ones left behind were HUNGRY …

An animated discussion followed, with references to the history of both zombies and vampires, and their current standing in the world today:  girls go for modern vampires because they are cool, moody, sexy and sophisticated.  Boys like zombies because they are shuffling, grunting, filthy, bad diet eaters – and so are zombies  (bada bing).

He referenced his favourite horror movies, chief among them our very own Brain Dead, but also Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and Dawn of the Dead, noting that the best place to survive a zombie attack has to be the American mall – gun shops, chainsaws and tasers;  as opposed to British supermarkets, which offer cans of soup and floor mops.

Questions from the kids included the compulsory, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, but he delighted the crowd by saying, “Well, I steal them.  There’s only a few stories you can tell in this world.  The only way to make them interesting and successful is the characters.”  He then listed some of the many works he’s ‘stolen’ from:  chief among them, Lord of the Flies, I Am Legend (movie and book), the movie 28 Days Later, and of course the Romeros; and talked about how he loved these movies and books so much he wanted his own kids to share some of the horror (!), and so he decided to write a young adult zombie series as scary as he possibly could. 

Just like Neil Gaiman did with Coraline, he followed the “children have been harmed in the making” route, and experimented on his youngest son, amping up the scares till a full-on screaming 4am nightmare was produced, at which point he declared, “Yes, I’ve cracked it!”.

My favourite part of the session, though, was inspired by another question from the floor (gotta say, those kids were fab):  Zombies: fast or slow?  After some to-ing and fro-ing, and interjections from the audience, Charlie declared himself a traditionalist, and demonstrated the classic zombie shuffle with supporting moaning, declaring that fast new-style zombies, while damn scary, were more like monsters or beasts, while the truly frightening thing about the slow zombie was that no matter how slow they were, they JUST. NEVER. STOPPED.

So, dear readers, I turn the question over to you:  traditional or modern, fast or slow, shambling and drooling, or lightning fast and slavering?

Dave Armstrong, playwright, puts it on the line

Reserve Bro'town DVDs and annuals at Christchurch City LibrariesGoing to the first public reading of Dave Armstrong’s new play reinforced to me how much creative people bravely put themselves on the line when they go public. Reading from a published work can be pretty brave but an unpublished work? (See the wrap up of the opening night of the Festival)

Two actresses, the director and the dramaturge (new word for me – literary manager, in this case of Auckland Theatre Company) on a platform reading through General Ward (yesterday the title was changed to Visiting Hours). They have had two days of workshops prior to this and Dave Armstrong had supplied rewrites the morning of the reading. So it is all under development.

Plot – two women Iona (white, middle aged teacher at a private school and played by Catherine Wilkin) and Shinayd (17, Maori, check out operator and graduate of Harakeke High, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes) find themselves side by side in the general ward of the local hospital recovering from serious surgery. After an initial period of cultural, generational and racial misunderstandings and disagreements they start to bond in their shared troubles of health and life and love.

The play has a way to go – the ending for instance needs work for the play to succeed and hearing the actors and the playwright talk and answer questions after the read was fascinating. The play begins with a lot of laughs and gets more serious as things go on. Shinayd about reading books “I had to read them at school so why should I do it now”. Shinayd on hearing about food and drink at the themed book club evenings that Iona loves so much. “So if you were reading Once Were Warriors you’d cook fried eggs and give each other the bash”

Dave Armstrong says he values workshopping as a potentially dangerous but valuable experience in writing a play. ATC is looking to include the play in its 2011 season. Dave Armstrong’s plays include Niu Sila (with Oscar Kightley), The Tutor, Le Sud, King and Country. His television writing includes Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, Bro’town, The Semisis, Skitz and Shortland Street.

Thursday @ the festival: Awesome day, enlightening night

It was a day of descriptive language, a reading that made audiences squirm, new insight into Lord of the flies and the buzz of the school sessions that can’t be denied.

Thursday @ the festival was also opening night. Sponsors The Listener would have been very happy with the number of people flicking through the latest edition, and there was plenty of excited hubbub as earnest decisions over the best seats were made. Celebrity spotting was rife, and a couple of women next to me read out the sponsors names as they appeared on the screen – just like we used to at the pictures when we were kids. The Voice Over Guy had chillled out this year, and we were all totally relaxed as Mark Sainsbury emerged from the darkness to get things under way.

After official formalities, the opening night consisted of writers Thomas Keneally, Emily Perkins, Colm Toibin, Lionel Shriver and William Dalrymple doing “whatever they want”. While some of the audience were disappointed there was no time to ask questions, the treat is hearing from the authors direct, and this group did not disappoint. In print they impress you – in person they astound.

Thomas Keneally had some masterful turns of phrase; Emily Perkins read an unpublished piece full of sensory detail; Colm Toibin read as if he was delicately tip-toeing a merry dance, even breaking into song; Lionel Shriver displayed her ‘beguiling barbarity’ – dropping some swear-bombs that had the audience squeezing their knees together, but also some stunning phrases  such as  ‘kisses that were like sucking a coin’;  William Dalrymple capped it all off with his fascinating descriptions of ‘religious lunatics’. Minstrels who make Glastonbury look like a Rotary dinner, an orthodox priest on the West Bank, and a cricket-loving Indian customs official who loved ‘Bottom’ – Ian Botham.

Have a listen to our thoughts and please add yours – we’d love to hear your comments.

Another full day of events ahead – stay tuned!