Emerging at Wellington Writers and Readers Week 2012

Being an ’emerging’ writer is an interesting thing to be. What is the criterion for emerging? Is it that you are young? Not Cover of The Rehearsalaccording to one questioner at the New Zealand’s Emerging Writers session  at Wellington Writers and Readers 2012. Slightly unkindly, he observed that Eleanor Catton, Hamish Clayton and Craig Cliff didn’t look particularly young to him, causing each panellist to ‘fess up their age. All under 40, which might be a sign that they are young, because I’m not sure anyone who is not would announce their age from the stage of the Embassy.

Can a writer still be emerging when they have won prizes?  That would exclude Catton, whose debut novel The rehearsal won the New Zealand Book Award for Best First Book of Fiction, and Craig Cliff, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award for A man melting.

Perhaps writers are still emerging when they have only written one book so far. So how did these writers begin to emerge?

Catton wanted to break the convention of the coming-of-age novel – the idea that there is some sort of arrival into adulthood.

Clayton had an urge to write but nothing to say so he went to university, thinking that if you want to be a decent writer you need to be well-read. (If only it was that easy, I thought to myself). He discovered that you do have to be very patient for overnight success.

Cliff found that a 21-year-old man alone in a room writing a novel is never a good idea. A few years later he tried again, and it still wasn’t a good idea. Then he thought of trying the short story form, where a first draft can be finished in the first blast of inspiration.

All three are now working on novels set in the past, a departure for Catton and Cliff, but not for Clayton whose first novelCover of Wulf Wulf is about early 19th century New Zealand, its explorers and that fascinating and terrifying character Te Rauparaha.

Clayton and Catton saw some problems with the talk around Historical Fiction. For Clayton it is limiting; faithfulness in the rendering of time and place is not the point.   Catton sees the problem as the present foisting onto Historical Fiction the things we are most  preoccupied with now, resulting in works that exist only to confirm what we already know.

Craig is reading a lot (The story of a New Zealand River was mentioned) and using the part everyone reads in The Count of Monte Cristo as a model for the book he is working on, leaving out the bits everyone skips.

This was all very interesting as I don’t read much Historical Fiction. The last book I read in the genre was Wolf Hall, which led to some heated debates. I loved it, but others dismissed it out of hand because of its modern voice.  Any dedicated H.F. readers out there with an opinion?

3 thoughts on “Emerging at Wellington Writers and Readers Week 2012

  1. Helen Lowe 25 March 2012 / 9:28 pm

    Robyn, I think the NZSA ‘officially’ classifies a mid-career writer as one with 3-4 books published, so ‘technically’ I suppose anyone with less than that, like me, Jane Higgins, Karen Healey et al must be “emerging.” But then what to make of writers like Harper Lee who only ever published the one book–one could hardly call her ’emerging.’

    With respect to Wolf Hall–and as one of those lovers of historical fiction–I shared the concern about the modern voice of Wolf Hall. I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, enjoyed it well enough in fact, but it will never be a top level historical read for me for that reason: because Cromwell’s views / perspectives were fundamentally those of a late 20th/21st century man, and not consistent with what we know of his period or the beliefs of the man himself. For me, the best historical fiction bridges that uneasy divide between engaging a 21st century reader’s interest and potentially sympathy, while giving a flavour of the people that is true to their time, ie that give us a sense of real history.

  2. berniceccl 27 March 2012 / 3:00 pm

    I totally agree. There is nothing more annoying than reading historical fiction which blatantly reflects values ofcontemporary society rather than those appropriate to the historical period portayed. It shows a lack of respect for history and the society the author is exploring.

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