Our girls Paula and Rachael

Well, I say ‘our girls’, but really, we are having to share them both with the rest of the world – both are being published overseas in ever-increasing degrees.  Paula Morris’ latest book for teens, Ruined, is part of a three-book deal with Scholastic, and Rachael King’s earlier work The Sound of Butterflies has now been translated into eight languages (we counted them). 

A full room, a great chair (Dorothy Vinicombe),  and a very engaged audience meant the hour flew by, and I took so many notes I don’t even know where to begin.  Rachael has promised to chat with us back in Christchurch next week, but in the meantime, here are a few of the questions asked, and their respective answers.

What are the perils and pleasures of writing historical fiction?

Rachael: The pleasure comes in letting your imagination run away with your choice of character (you can choose someone as far removed from yourself as you like – Magpie Hall features as one of its main characters a 19th century heavily tattoo-ed English male taxidermist), but then you do need to ground them in some sort of reality.  And this is the perilous bit, she says: “When you’re reading my book, I don’t want you to be thinking about me and my research.  If you are, I’ve failed in my job.” 

Paula:  Once you’ve started a story, your research can lead you much more deeply into that story, if you let it:  “One thing leads to another.”  And if sometimes the research reveals facts that don’t fit with your plot, you must either choose to change your story, or to ‘ignore’ those facts. 

Exactly, comments Rachael:  “If this is fiction, I should be able to make things up, otherwise it’s not fiction.” 

Tell us about how you developed some of the other characters in your books.

For both writers, this turned into an exploration of ‘object as character’.  For Rachael:  In Magpie Hall, Henry’s cabinet of curiosities was pivotal enough, and had so much impact on those around it, that it really did attain ‘character status’; and for Paula, the same could be said of Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, the setting for much of the action in Ruined.  In fact, Paula’s editor felt so much ‘love’ was going into the cemetery descriptions, she was asked to stop, already!

And finally, a question about how connections with new books can inspire revisiting of older classics.  For example, the Twilight series has awakened a huge surge of interest in Wuthering Heights, just as Bridget Jones’ Diary introduced a whole new set of readers to Austen.  The question then became:

Team Austen or Team Bronte?

RK:  Has always been Team Bronte, and although she hated Austen as a student, now fully loves P&P.

PM:  Both Team Austen and Team Bronte, always. 

Rachael did comment, however, that for her Wuthering Heights has always been a novel not of great love, but of great revenge, a statement fully supported by Paula, who added, “Yes, and a sadistic one at that”. 

Other highlights of the session included a detailed description of how to skin a tiger (Rachael), an illuminating discussion of tattoos in high society (Churchill’s mother apparently had one!), and a brief mention of Paula’s earlier career as ghost writer, featuring “trashy shopping and kissing novels set in San Tropez”.

A great session, great authors, and great books – go find them and read them both.  Now.

The Guys That Draw

CoverThis session with Dick Frizzell (Dick Frizzell: The Painter, John Reynolds (Certain Words Drawn) and Ian Wedde was one of the most relaxed and unassuming sessions I have attended so far. I took it as a good omen that in a sea of arty black, the man who sat in front of me wore a brilliant pink and orange striped shirt – and it was.

No doubt about it, the art boys and the word boys come from two different galaxies. Both Frizzell and John Reynolds have however achieved a remarkable crossover in the art books they have just produced. They have turned books about art into art works in their own right. The art book publishing world will never be the same again. Reynolds referred to this as getting ahead of the pack in terms of  biographical writing by “starting the distortion process on your own terms”.

Reynolds introduced a theory that I think every librarian will buy into. He maintains that proximity alone to great art works or books or objects of beauty will cause “the molecules to twitch”. All you have to do is be in its presence or “rub yourself against it” and the benefits will accrue. This is heartening for all of us who have looked at customers streaming past everything that libraries have to offer to sit glued to their facebook page on the computer. This does not mean that we have to push the users against the books Dean, or hide the computers behind piles of classics but rather that just being in the library environment itself could be life enhancing.

The final masterstroke for me was when Frizzell revealed that he is involved in the branding of the up-and-coming Rugby World Cup in 2011. For the first time I find myself looking forward to this event!!

Lit Crit Mag Eds: challenges and opportunities for literary magazines

No, I haven’t become a babbling heap, or found transcendent ecstasy by finishing the Times crossword – Lit Crit Mag Eds was the title of a fascinating session with editors of literary magazines including Fergus Barrowman (Sport),  Ben Naparstek (The Monthly) and John Freeman (Granta). The session covered how each person got started, the challenges of the role, and the opportunities literary publications offer and the contrast between the New Zealand, Australian and the United States situations made for an engaging discussion.

The Monthly launched in 2005, with the aim of being an Australian New Yorker. Naparstek became editor last year. John Freeman, who often apparently beats Naparstek to interviews,  was a freelancer before becoming US editor for Granta. New Zealand Sport was launched by Fergus Barrowman, and others, in 1988, and he remains his “own interfering proprietor”.

Freeman outline the tortured method used to distribute Granta: The print issues go to a warehouse in London, transit through Ireland, take the Belgian postal system to Pennsylvania, and I think he said a train to Jacksons, Mississippi before hitting bookstores. If copies are not sold, it all comes back. Magazines are going in two directions, he said. The non-profit model where they can raise money as charities, or patronage.

Naparstek said he thought it was an achievement to have The Monthly printed in Sydney when he was based in Melbourne.

Both overseas magazines have wealthy but at least slightly hands-off proprietors; Fergus Barrowman said he had “fierce internal arguments” about editorial decisions. He also said that Sport has always broken even on above the line costs – writers fees, printing and postage – and occasional wine for parties. That’s quite impressive when you realise how much work the overseas publications commission – up to 60,000 words, 12 times a year.

Whilst John Freeman lamented the lack of belief in fiction as “depressing”, it was encouraging to hear all three panellists talk positively about the future.

Freeman said Granta were experimenting – ebooks on Amazon, iPhone app, using filmmakers, websites, and more. “It has to be three dimensional and multimedia” and “digital publishing makes it easier to get shipped to Mississippi”.

Naparstek said The Monthly was about to launch an iPad app,  and already collaborated with SlowTV – an internet channel which films major talks at writers events, festivals and launches. Using new media was to complement print media, he said.

Barrowman had a bob each way when he said he was a complete believer in everything new, and everything old. Sport will remain a beautiful object, and permanancy is important. The New Zealand Electronic Text Cente convert Sport into text a year later, so back issues are available online.

Great session, ably chaired by Guy Somerset.

This is a Short Post – C.K.Stead

coverThis is a very short post because I couldn’t get in to the session with C.K. Stead.

Not even Bookman Beattie could make the cut.

Nothing like a juicy literary row around a figure to draw the crowds! Stead rouses strong emotions in the literary world.

Read what Jolisa Gracewood has to say.

Before the Rain – Colm Toibin

It was sunny when I went into the Aotea Centre and raining in great torrential sheets when I came out. It was such a Colm Toibinshock because I had been in a cocoon in the ASB Theatre totally absorbed in Colm Toibin and Thomas Keneally.

Words and ideas poured out of Colm Toibin. We heard the portrait of the writer as an artist whose sentences are brushstrokes. Those sentences had been influenced by Hemingway’s style which made a huge impact on the teenage Colm. He talked about readers finding the feeling between and behind the words.

Jane Austen and Henry James have influenced him with their depictions of young women characters whom people disregard – Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Catherine Slope in Washington Square. He wanted to be writing about that sort of character in an Irish setting and so the person of Eilish in Brooklyn emerged.

He rejects writing for a particular audience or being labelled  gay, Irish etc. “Writing is an obliteration of self to write about another self”. Talking about the challenges of writing he said that bringing the story along versus writing the detail which engages the reader’s imagination and emotion is always “a game of time and a game of texture, playing off one against the other”

Although he is not often living there he talked of the importance of home – the town of Enniscorthy and the Wexford area – in his life. And throughout the session ran a lovely strain of humour

  • “there are only six fine days a year in Ireland and they all occur in this book (Brooklyn)”
  • Talking of being invited to the White House for St Patrick’s Day last year he said the Americans thought about who to invite – Irish religious (in disgrace), Irish bankers and economists(in disgrace), Irish politicians (also in disgrace) that just left Them (Irish artists).

This was a wonderful session that made me want to go away and read every book Colm Toibin has every written.

Caring about every word with Alison Wong

CoverAfter the rollercoaster ride of the interviews with Lionel Shriver and William Dalrymple, the festival event with  Alison Wong talking on her book As the Earth Turns Silver was like a soothing balm to the soul. Wong does not just write fiction, she writes poetic fiction and freely admits that “I care about every word”.

This book is a slice of life in Wellington in the early 1900s where inter-racial prejudice was rife. It is a love story about a clandestine relationship between a pakeha woman and a Chinese man. It is never destined to have a happy ending. Wong researched this period very thoroughly and slowly – the book was about 12 years in the making. It is quite beautiful and flawless – like a little gem. I believe that it will be well loved in the many reading groups around the country and certainly my book club can look forward to meeting up with it sometime very soon.

Wong wrote from when she was a little eight year old girl and found early on that she loved books with “emotional substance” she mentions two books that she remembers affected her very deeply, The Hill of the Red Fox and Owls do Cry by Janet Frame. She finds writing poetry easier than fiction writing and confessed that she often does not feel like writing, saying “it is a real test of character for me”. When inspiration is flowing though, she likes to write in little cafes and coffee shops where she can be seen sitting with her laptop, a latte and a view of the Wellington coast that she loves so much.

There is a scene towards the end of this book involving two Devonshire teas that made me weep. It is so beautiful it cries out to be painted. Instead I will make do with the thought that the character has while she sits with her cream scones: “There is nothing more empty than that which was full.”

Festival quotes: A selection of short, sharp sentences

Festival scene
All go at the festival

It can be hard to capture all of the ground that is covered in the festival sessions. More than wide-ranging discussion, conversations here can be free-range, become free-base, and then end up anywhere in the literary galaxy.

So From my outpost 2403 on the metropolis planet Libhoo, here are some of the insightful and inspiring lines, phrases and sentences  from the festival so far:

  • Te Radar introduced us to the SINBAD – single income, no boyfriend and desperate.
  • “Stuff the general public”. Ben Naparstek shared this quote from an academic that ended his romantic idea of the public intellectual and helped him decide to end his studying days. Why bother studying and becoming an expert if you don’t want to communicate it, he asked.
  • The Ghost of Eion Scarrow. Te Radar’s response to Steve Braunias’s assertion Radar was the thinking man’s Eion Scarrow – which was followed by a power cut to the set.
  • “A cluster of squabbling sub-cultures” – Sarah Thornton describes the art world.
  • “Abysmal specimens of humanity” John Carey on artists. He said he was brought up to believe that the arts made you a better person, but the more he studied artists, the more he found that wasn’t true. Chekhov was an exception.
  • “Makes Glastonbury look like a Rotary dinner”. William Dalrymple on the Baul minstrels of Bengal.
  • The rest of her life would be a struggle with the unfamiliar. Colm Toibin reading from Brooklyn.
  • Gomez, Morticia and Uncle Fester – Emily Perkin’s description of Gordon McLauchlan, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Finlay Macdonald.
  • The book is dead, but the story goes on. Te Radar summing up The Good Word debate.
  • Luke’s CD $20. Handwritten sign on Luke Hurley’s busking set-up on Queen Street.

Ben Naparstek and Doogie Howser

PhotoIt’s okay to make the comparison above, because I am merely quoting chair Guy Somerset’s introductory remarks about the wunderkid of interviewing, Ben Naparstek.  He himself gets very tired of all the focus being on his age (he’s 24), but truth told it really is astonishing that he has managed to do so much in such a short time, and so incredibly well (particularly given that it has taken me 187 years to even do my first interview).

Beginning his journalistic and interviewing career at the tender age of 15, and with hundreds of interviews with dazzlingly famous people since then, Ben is now the editor of the Australian magazine The Monthly.  He is well-spoken, erudite, and solemnly serene.

He’s here talking about his recently released book, Ben Naparstek: In Conversation, a collection of 40 interviews with, as the blurb says, “the famous, the difficult, and the sometimes downright elusive”.  Many of the names he’s talking about are unfamiliar to me, particularly the names of other journalists and editors, but there are many nodding heads in the room, and I figure it’s just me being uneducated, and clearly not widely-read. Perhaps because of this, I find myself strangely mesmerised by Guy Somerset’s rather daring stripe-y socks,  and I resolve to ask Richard if he has fared better with the names.

I do, however, manage to take away a few gems for future thought – that the ethics of interviewer-interviewee relationships are immutable; that fact-checking is vital; that interviews should never be ‘friendly’, but always focused on delivering the outcome; and that the purpose of an interview is never to impress the interviewee with your own knowledge, wit, social ability or fashion sense (just as well, really, from my point of view!).

William Dalrymple on libraries

PhotoWilliam Dalrymple has impressed the festival crowds with his energy and wit. In this excerpt you can hear him talk  with Roberta Smith about the library system in India, the London Library – a private library where you can borrow up to nine books until the next borrower wants them – and how libraries are ‘major feeders of the mind’.

He begins by describing the situation in India, where he lives.

Things we’ve learned (so far)

1.  The clothes change as the sessions change – What Good Are the Arts? inhabited by paisley/scarves/tweedy/horn-rimmed glasses/pea-green velvet smoking jackets AND A CRAVAT, while both the Jill Dawson set and the Michael Otterman lot are a mix of the twin-set and pearls crowd and the casual-rumpled-suit-sans-tie guys.

2.  Some people have really cool toys:  I sat behind a woman yesterday who was reading Mark Twain ON A KINDLE.  And David Levithan did his on-stage reading FROM HIS i-PAD.  I forgot to ask if I could touch it, but perhaps that’s for the best …

3.  It’s still perfectly acceptable to knit before, during and after sessions.

4.  Also to just randomly buy tickets and not have a clue what a session is about till it starts.  I love this, and say, Big Ups to you brave and passionately supportive people.  After all, every session is going to be a winner on some level. 

5.  It is actually possible to begin to miss vegetables.

6.  Shoes.  Shoes are really important.  You should, however, be careful never to wear pink patent leather heels with your burnt orange long-line cardigan.  No, really, don’t.  Also, two-tone lace-up brogues appear to be the shoe of choice.  I’m still looking for the ultimate ‘Festival Shoe’, but will let you know when I find it.

7.  Festival volunteers are here because they love what they are doing, and we love them.