Author interviews and Ice Queens

PhotoThe film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin  starring Tilda Swinton is being touted as a winner of the  Palme d’Or at this years Cannes film festival.

This time last year our intrepid blogger Roberta interviewed the author at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival,  so we can feel somewhat connected, even if it is vicariously!

Whenever I think of that particular book it sends shivers down my spine, and Tilda Swinton I think is an inspired choice as the mother – “the original ice queen” as a colleague just commented.  I wonder who will be the stand out author at this year’s festival?  There always seems to be one or two that the team take a particular shine to.

A Wreath of Laureates

Following on from my post last week about New Zealand’s Poets Laureate – Poetry Personified – I’ll Drink To That! – I went along to this session at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival expecting to be informed, entertained and transported to imaginary worlds via the spoken word. It was all that, and so much more.

Fiona Farrell, herself an internationally renowned poet, fiction writer and playwright, calmly chaired the event, introducing each P.L. in order.

First up was Bill Manhire (inaugural P.L. 1997-99), so well known he doesn’t need an introduction. Many New Zealand poets and authors have him to thank for launching their international careers. He read ‘Because Of The Lucky Lotto Shop’ a commissioned work that had the beautiful line ‘after a time of drought, the whole heart dances’. This was followed by ‘Hotel Emergencies’ a clever, repetitive poem, then finished with ‘Erebus Voices’ that was read out by Sir Edmund Hillary at the 25th anniversary of the Erebus disaster in Antarctica (apparently Sir Ed ‘quite liked it’).

Unfortunately one Poet Laureate (hereinafter known as P.L.) has already passed on to the great writing room in the sky (Hone Tuwhare – P.L. 1999-2001) and his memory was honoured with Auckland poet Robert Sullivan reading some of his works. These  included his most famous poem No Ordinary Sun (the poetry collection of the same name is the most widely read collection in New Zealand), and my personal favourite ‘Rain’.

Elizabeth Smither (P.L. 2001-03) treated us to poetry that was prose-like but mesmerising. These included ‘The Nurses Are Coming’, ‘The Birth Dressing Gown’, ‘Gargoyles’, and the tender ‘Fatherhood’. One line from a poem about Mozart stuck in my mind – ‘a complexity so alive it is still working itself out’.

Brian Turner is overseas at the moment (P.L. 2003-05) so Bill Manhire stepped in to read on his behalf. Apparently Brian didn’t mind what was to be read out and said “gidday” from London to everyone. Bill chose a classic selection of poems – ‘Chevvy’, ‘Semi Kiwi’, ‘Some reasons why I got this job – to be taken with a grain of salt’ (written with a hangover, the day before his inauguration as P.L. – it was impressive), and the shortest poem he’s written –

New Zealanders – A Definition/born here/buggered it up

Jenny Bornholdt (P.L. 2005-07) is quietly spoken, but her intense observations of daily life are still powerful. She read ‘Summer’ with the line ‘my husband glowing in the dark’ (sunburn), ‘Medical’ where she imagines that a doctor can hear the story of her life, by listening to her chest, ‘Inner Life’ (from new book ‘Hill Of Wool‘) and ‘Time’ – ‘we woke to Spring nuzzling at the window’.

Michele Leggott (P.L. 2008-09 and co-founder of the NZ electronic poetry) chose a different method of delivery, performing what she called ‘MP3 karaoke’. She is vision impaired and had her new guide dog Olive on stage with her. Her oration was outstanding, belting out her poetry as if they were songs to be heard at the back of a concert hall. She spoke ‘Dear Heart’, ‘Wonderful To Relate’ (a poignant piece about a ‘lost’ niece being welcomed into the family) and concluded with Olive – a piece that combined the Pike River disaster with the arrival of Olive into her life. As incongruous as this sounds, it worked well – ‘fear waits with its next fuse’.

Cilla McQueen is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate (2009-11) and read two pieces, both with long time friend Hone Tuwhare as part of the subject matter. The first ‘Letter To Hone’ imagined them sitting by the fire together and drinking whiskey, and ‘Ripples’ also mentioned the late Joanna Paul. A well-crafted line was ‘cabbage trees – green faced wild cats’ (wind blown).

All different, all very talented, and everyone in the audience entranced by this rare opportunity to see the stars of the New Zealand poetry scene performing together.

Rising star: Tina Makereti

LogoTina Makereti’s collection of short fiction, Once upon a time in Aotearoa, contains stories about the young, the old, the mythical, the alien and more. She gives old stories new treatments, has characters it feels like you have known forever, and a knack for dialogue and observation that is perceptive and dreamy, yet down-to-earth at the same time.

In this interview I talk to her about her new collection, her writing style and her first time on stage in Auckland [10 min, 10.4Mb .mp3]:

Barbara Strauch and the mystery of the missing keys

Barbara StrauchLate Friday afternoon at the Festival brought me to a session for the middle-aged (which it turns out I am – age range is apparently 40 to 68, although Barbara describes this range as ‘squishy’ (which I also am …)).  A vigorous conversation between Barbara Strauch and Kim Hill, this was a great introduction to Barbara’s recent book, Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain.  I’m about halfway through this book at the moment, and am finding it both scary and reassuring.

Sadly for many in the audience, the particular mystery of the missing car keys remained unsolved during the session, although the book has a lot more clues about what’s going on in our minds as we age.

There’s both good news and bad, it seems.  There are just some things that decline with age, and episodic memory is one of them.  It sucks, but it’s life, apparently.  The good news, however, is that other abilities have been shown to improve with age, things like logical reasoning, and problem-solving.  And although parts of our brains are dying off, we have what’s called a ‘cognitive reserve’, a kind of emergency stash of brain power that we can call on as needed.  Also, according to new research, and in contrast to previously held beliefs, we can and do create new brain cells, even as we age.

Barbara described some of the myths of middle age – empty nest syndrome (based on a study of 15 or so women living in a mental institution), and the midlife crisis (apparently suffered by only 5 % of the population).  She also talked about the ‘culture of decline’ in the West, where we have been conditioned to believe that life is all downhill after 35.

This was another of those fascinating sessions that it’s impossible to do justice to in a short blog post, and as I said in a previous post – go, find the book, read the book, discuss the book!  And then you can come and help me find my keys …

It’s all about stuff: Paul Gilding, the global economy, and the end of shopping

Paul GildingPaul Gilding’s session this afternoon on climate crisis and the global economy was by turns challenging, terrifying, depressing and invigorating, and certainly was a test of my speed-writing skills.  I have seven pages of closely written notes to condense into 300 words, so forgive me if I skim!

Chair Grant Redvers introduced him, and then Paul leaped straight in with the statement, “The earth is full”.  This was a rhetorical statement, he said, but is also literally true in terms of physics, chemistry and biology.  He utilised a ‘low-tech powerpoint presentation’ (aka: waving his hands around in a meaningful manner) to illustrate his point that the world economy is currently one and a half times bigger than the actual world, and that our ongoing focus on a growth economy is making this imbalance even greater.   By 2050, at current rates of growth, the problem will grow from 1.5 times capacity, to between 4 and 5 times.  This, he said, simply can’t happen – we literally cannot sustain those levels of growth.

Basically, we are currently living on a ‘credit card system’, both environmentally and economically:  living beyond our means, and borrowing from the future.  And not only have we max-ed out our own credit cards, we have done the same for our kids’ credit cards, and are now working on our grandkids’.

In further depressing news, he said that it was already too late to prevent long-term damage to the environment, but that we needed to acknowledge this and grieve, then get over it and get on with saving civilisation.

However, he said: All is not lost.  Using a brilliant analogy with England’s World War II experience, he stated his belief that we can and will get through, and shamelessly appropriated Churchill’s words by saying that when the crisis point actually arrives, we will do not what is best, but what is necessary.

There was a heap more along these lines, all riveting, and all challenging, and surprisingly positive somehow, and really there is no way I can do any of this message justice here, so I’m going to stop here, and just say, go find the book and read it, then come and find me and we can talk about it all at length!

The novel is a portable Narnia wardobe …

David Mitchell“And then you are away …”

David Mitchell waved his arms and made a take-off noise as he said this to a large crowd on Saturday morning at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Away from the concerns off the world, and off on a journey, somewhere fantastic. It was in answer to a question about writers that consciously influenced him.

He added that he wanted to emulate writers – that rather than influence, it’s more aspiration that stuck with him. He “ached to do to other people what writers had done to me”.

The “imaginatively intelligent” writers he read when he was 11, 12 or 13 merged with the cellular structure of his brain, and spurred him on. Tolkein was the main writer he mentioned.

Emily Perkins reminded the audience of one of Mitchell’s great lines:

The world contains but one masterpiece – itself.

Mitchell said “I stole it from a Leonard Cohen song. The best line on the book, and it’s not even mine!”.

Asked about the film of his book Cloud Atlas, Mitchell quipped “they don’t call it Hollyweird for nothing”.

He said it had been languishing in the hell where optioned books go. There was a ladder leading out of the hole and poor, exhausted Cloud Atlas was a few rungs from the top. He was confident that the filmmakers would do a good job, optimistic that it would happen, but hoping the film wasn’t too like the book as so many adaptions fail on that score.

A large crowd queued for book signings, and despite a little jet-lag, Mitchell managed to give fans plenty to think about. He will certainly be on my reading list.

Paula Green steals the short fiction show

I’m still buzzing after an intense and absorbing hour listening to three writers talk about the joys – and otherwise – of writing short fiction.  Poet Paula Green chaired the session, uttering one beautiful observation after another about the works of Claire Keegan, Tina Makereti and Sue Orr.

Paula began by saying that she was going to have a conversation on stage and we would be eavesdropping. She spoke about each author in turn, saying that Claire Keegan ‘navigates the unexpected. She takes hold of your heart and wrenches it’; Tina Makereti’s voice ‘is dependent on an astute ear’ and Sue Orr ‘writes with exquisite clarity, rhythm and mist’.

She told the audience that she imagined writing short fiction would be like folding an A4 page into little pieces, and that there would be seams of emotion in the folds. Awww, how do you top that?

Claire Keegan read  a story from Walk The Blue Fields , about a man called Stack, who lived with a goat named Josephine (sharing his life and bed), and the arrival of a woman called Margaret into the house next door. All set in the bogs of rural Ireland and told in her mesmerising, mellow Irish accent.

Tina Makereti read Kia te Aki from Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa, a tale of an elderly kuia finding a little lost boy on the side of the road, and taking him home.  She uses short sentences to great impact and te reo was sprinkled throughout the story. Later she said that she didn’t provide translations, as she hoped that the story would convey the meaning – a technique that worked wonderfully.

Sue Orr read Scratchy from Under the over coat, a witty and wry tale of a grandmother’s view of her life (which includes pulling down her once-favourite grandson’s low-riding jeans with two swift tugs until ‘they were a blue puddle on the pavement’, and looking out through her ‘eyelash prisms’ to spy on her husband.

As to the question of whether short fiction is a type of apprenticeship for going on to write novels, all three writers were dismissive of the idea. While they are all working on novels, none of them would ever give away the succinct beauty of short stories.

Their personal favourites? Claire Keegan – Chekhov‘s The Kiss; Tina Makereti – The Long And The Short Of It (new publication) and Sue Orr – The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield.

One last Paula-ism to finish – she said that she didn’t wear perfume, but imagined that rewriting old classic short stories (as Sue Orr and Tina Makereti have done with their latest books) would be like 10 different people wearing the same perfume, but each giving out a different whiff of fragrance.

The inside word on outsiders

Catherine Boyd and Laurence FearnleyAt the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, I attended a fascinating session (chaired very ably by Carole Beu), listening to three women writers from the south who have published books in the last year – all with the theme of outsiders.

Carole entreated the audience to believe that Laurence Fearnley, Charlotte Randall and Emma Neale are some of the best writers in the world, and to go out and tell everybody else the same thing. She is certain that they will all feature in upcoming book awards this year.

All three authors are approachable, likeable and intelligent speakers. Laurence Fearnley’s book The Hut Builder is about Boden, a small town butcher’s son who also writes poetry. He’s an introverted character who tagged along with a group of people he knew from school and constructed a tramping hut  in the mountains near Mt Cook in the 1950s. Near the end of the trip, he climbed to the summit of Mt Cook with famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.

Laurence donned a black beanie to help set the scene when reading an excerpt from the book, where young Boden sees the Mackenzie Basin in winter for the first time. He sees the dog with him leaping through snow ‘like a dolphin surfing waves’ and ‘walking on a field of stars’ and is moved to compose his first poem in his head.

Charlotte Randall is witty and forthright. She showed a photo of the Canterbury Gold Escort, taken at 9am 4th December 1865. Uniformed and armed men who rode on horseback, escorting gold from the West Coast to Canterbury. This photo was her inspiration for Hokitika Town, set in 1865, and tells the story of Halfie, a mixed race Maori/Pakeha boy who tells his story in a strange patois that he has picked up from the multi-national inhabitants of the goldfields.

Emma Neale has precise, clear diction and told the story of Boo, the 7ft tall ‘man’ covered in a pelt ‘like the feathers on a Golden Retriever’s tail’ who was discovered in a forest. He is the main protagonist in her latest novel Fosterling. She writes beautifully and there were many examples of metaphorical brilliance, my favourite being ‘he watched a wood pigeon that had a breast as stout as a cream jug’.

All three writers preferred to twist their non-fiction research to fit the story that they wanted to tell. Laurence Fearnley said that she always began her work with a single image in her mind, and went from there. Charlotte Randall said she only writes about what interests her, and that that changes all the time. Emma Neale has young children and is particularly affected by the thought of them going out into the world, and coping on their own.

Sharp wit in a sharp suit – the intriguing A. A. Gill

A. A. GillI hadn’t originally planned to attend A.A.Gill’s session at the 2011 Auckland Writers And Readers Festival, as everything I’d heard and read about him sounded dreadful. I was sure that he was a grumpy Scots curmudgeon who would be boringly self-important to listen to.

How wrong I was. I was in fits of laughter for most of the session, as he used his savage wit to cut swathes through chefs (most of them left school by 14), TV programmers (the only profession I know that eat their own young), trawler fishing in the UK (the boats are designed for fish, so if you’re human on board, there’s nowhere to be comfortable, and of course for the fish, if they’re on board, they’re dead), restaurant dishes (I once tasted foie gras sushi – it tasted like something off a vet’s biopsy tray) and so much more.

Restauranteur Al Brown (Hunger For The Wild TV star) struggled to rein in his guest’s loquacious tendencies, and at times sat dumbstruck, unable to break into the verbal stream that flowed spontaneously with very little prompting. Mr Gill was open about his previous battles with drink and drugs (his first job was as a drug dealer and hence was exempt from paying the minimum tax rate), and told of reinventing himself through Oxfam clothes. He went through a period of wearing very weird outfits (tutu or monocle anyone?) in the hope that one would be the right fit character-wise for him.

He is extremely dyslexic (in his words “middle class stupidity”) and was sent to the only vegetarian boarding school  in Britain as a cure. He spent “hundreds of years” in art classes, as they were the only ones that didn’t have exams, and as a consequence thought he was an artist. He became a journalist at the ripe old age of 40, gained a contract earning more money than his dad, and now fills in his days either by watching TV (as a critic), eating food (as a critic) or going on holiday (as a critic) – are you seeing a pattern there somewhere?

I wouldn’t like to be under the spotlight of his ascerbic wit but he is a great comedy act to watch, which surprisingly included some  moments of real pathos, particularly when talking about the last meal he had with his Dad who was an alzheimer’s sufferer. I want to read his books now, and will be able to picture him, a sophisticate in a Saville Row suit, withering his opposition with words.

Friday @ the festival: Can we get some more superlatives, please?

A. A. GillA busy day for the festival team – interviews with New Zealand authors Tina MakeretiHana Schofield and Atka Reid, as well as sessions including Laurence Fearnley, Madhur Jaffrey,  New Zealand Poets Laureate, some secrets for keeping your brain healthy and the hilariously complex A. A. Gill. Listen, enjoy and wish us luck as we search for some new words to describe how incredible this festival has been!

[1o min, 10 Mb .MP3]