Bravo Maurice Gee

Maurice Gee is the first Honoured New Zealand Writer, a new Auckland Writers and Readers Festival award:

Conceived to celebrate New Zealand’s most accomplished writers, their body of work and the immense contribution they have made to the literary landscape of New Zealand.

Maurice GeeSo this could have easily been a worthy session, a bit of a literary pat on the back for one of our finest. It was far more.

Maurice Gee, ably assisted by publisher Geoff Walker,  overcame his nervousness and reluctance to appear in public. When he turned 70, his present to himself was to say no to any more public speaking – but he thought it would be mean-spirited and churlish to refuse this honour.

He talked about his themes:

I keep going back to the little town I grew up in.

The two leitmotifs in his work are the creek (danger) and the kitchen (his Mum there representing home and safety). He remembers a family walk that led to an encounter with a naked man cleaning himself in the creek: “I’ll never forget his black stare”. Apparently there were swagmen around Henderson in 1936. The other memory is an episode of bullying. A fat child was caught peeking in the girls’ changing room so a bit of mob justice is administered.

Writing was a natural thing in our family … It was no strange thing to write.

Gee talked about his mother’s writing career. He also had uncles who wrote, as well as an aunt and his grandfather. His dad was a carpenter who had at one time been a successful boxer. It was his dad that gave him the first book he ever enjoyed, a Chums annual from around 1917. It was a violent and savage thing.

After that he became an avid reader. He got into Zane Grey and “read 45 of his novels in an uncivilised gulp”. When he was 16, he met an old man called Ben Hart who asked “Do you like Charles Dickens?’  He thought it looked old-fashioned but gave it a try:

I fell in love with Dickens in Chapter Two … Ben handed out the novels one by one, mostly in order. Fellow feeling took the place of facile identification.

Gee’s novel Plumb saw him utilising the life of his grandfather the Reverend James Chappell:

Every novelist should have a remarkable grandfather.

The Reverend became an evolutionist, left “this great lying church”, was a pacifist and became a communist. Gee’s mother was the 11th of  his 15 children. He dragged the family to American in WWI and came back when the States entered the war.

Geoff Walker asked Maurice Gee why there are so many old people in his fiction:

Old people are full of years and full of experience … They have an abundance of stuff in there.  They present whole lives … yet they can be living intensely themselves in the present time … Past and present are flashing lights to each other.

His technique is to explore this “interleaving of past and present” … and then add “a little sharp bit at the end”.

When questioned about a perceived darkness in his work, Gee said:

I didn’t invent darkness and violence … You’ve got to be aware of the things that lurk. A violent act is a great peg to hang a story on. It creates behaviour and generates more story.

Maurice then mentioned the poem Childe Roland to the dark tower came by Robert Browning. He read it in 1948 and always wondered about the ending. He came to the conclusion that Roland had to fight the dark part of himself.

He paid tribute to his wife Margareta. Her diaries, and her research, has informed his work – even to the extent of using her diaries as a 16 year old to create the character of Ellie. He read from Prowlers – his feeling is that it is his best novel. He read an excerpt, acting the character of soil scientist with astonishing character, a diatribe against a pretty young relative and beauty under surfaces. It’s not every day you get to see a venerable older gentleman say: “Put on a brassiere, slut, before you come questing here again”. The reading ended with:

Here they come, the asteroids, the basalt moons.

Rachel Barrowman is working on a biography of Maurice, and he is also writing pieces of memoir himself:

I seem no longer to be able to write fiction … I can invent well enough but I seem to be inventing the same old thing … I quietly closed those exercise books … I have a sense of completion. I’d like to write a great big comic novel … I’m not a humorist.

His final words will resonate – they sum up the honesty and modesty of an extraordinary person:

I look back on 30 or so novels and think that’s ok.

Tweet tweet revolution

Tweeting the revolution
Top tweeps

This session saw tweeple out in force. Panellists Toby Manhire @toby_etc and Vaughn Davis @vaughndavis were chaired by Russell Brown @publicaddress. All three absolutely know their stuff when it comes to social media.

Russell referred to the article Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, 4 October 2010. The premises in this article are:

  • The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like the strong activism of the past.
  • The platforms of social media are built around weak ties.
  • Weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Toby argued that the Arab Spring and the activism that arose in it proved Gladwell “mostly wrong”.

Would the revolution have happened without the tools Russell asked. Vaughn reckoned if there was social media involved in The Lord of the rings, Frodo would the ring a lot faster.

Tweeting the revolutionI liked that Vaughn then mentioned one of my own bug bears, an obsession with the tools themselves. He reckons we should see Facebook and Twitter and the like not as ‘tools’ but as “spaces where people live their lives”. There are always people who are better connected than others, but it’s worth remembering that they have the power to connect with their own communities and the wider world.

The team discussed the difference between what happened in Egypt and what is happening in Syria. Egypt had a lot of bloggers, and consequently it’s not surprising there was 10o times more social media chatter.

The strand of social media activism are mobilisation and dissemination.

Toby talked about the closure of the internet in Egypt leading to 25% more people on the street. Activists were smart, they rode in taxis and talked on phones about meetings and protests. Taxi drivers listened in to their conversations and spread the word.

Kony 2012 was the first big example of slactivism. A 30 minute video from the Hidden Children organisation went viral. Oprah and other key social media people shared it, until “people started to unpick it a bit”. The concept of “Defeat the bad guy by making him famous” seemed to appeal. As Toby observes, “This wasn’t all made up … A lie can get a long way around the world, it can circumnavigate it a couple of times”.

Vaughn said it is native to social media to be human in public … “We all put ourselves in the story”.

There are 150 -200,000 Kiwis on Twitter, therefore it is not a representative group. They (the government) “can’t help but listen to us”. An example is the blackout protest and the consequent dropping of changes to copyright law. Yet as Vaughn says:

Decisions about social media are being made by people who don’t know what it is … It’s odd for a white guy to feel colonised.

The team talked about a potential ban on maliciously impersonating people. This is a form of political speech, as the parody Twitter @DrBrash indicates. Anonymity on the internet can be an excuse to be evil, possibly a troll, but is also a license to speak truth.

Incidents such as the London Riots and bombings have revealed citizen journalists are the ones who disseminate information in real time, and sometimes traditional media just acts as an aggregator. The #eqnz hashtag users after the Christchurch earthquakes proved to be a self-regulating group – false rumours would arise, but the community would then collectively correct them. On the other hand, there was some terrible reportage from mainstream media of unverified information.

At the end of the session I met people I follow on Twitter – @jduvalsmith @nzdodo @moatatamaira and  @annagconnell –  a little piece of serendipity.

Useful resources related to this session:

  • Kony – Toby Manhire links to resources that explain Kony 2012.
  • The wisdom of crowds – a seminal work by James Surowiecki subtitled Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economics, Societies, and Nations.
  • Tweet this book! by Vaughn Davis

Donna @ChristchurchLib

Fiona Kidman – The Trouble with Fire

The Trouble with Fire

Friendship has meant a great deal to me over the years.

An Audience with Dame Fiona was a session I was looking forward to. I’m a great fan of Fiona Kidman. She made the decision to become a writer when she was 22 years old and hasn’t looked back. During her writing career she’s produced novels, short stories, plays, and poetry and has over 30 books to her name. Her stories are deceptively understated, real, evocative and moving. In the 1970s she was seen as a strong voice in the feminist movement and has fought relentlessly to improve opportunities for writers in New Zealand.

At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, she was in conversation with friend and book disributor, Carole Beu. The mood in the room was relaxed. The audience was mainly women. Many were of Dame Fiona’s generation, most younger. She was greeted like an old friend.

In my interview with the author, Fiona Kidman tells me of an experience she had in the early 70s when she was on book tour. It was early in her writing career. It was pouring with rain and she had to stand on a wooden crate in the mud to speak. She didn’t expect many people to turn up in such awful conditions but over 2,000 women came to see her talk that day. It was then she realised that women were desperate to hear the voice of their generation. Her sincere interest in people and the events that shape their lives has kept her writing voice current. She writes our stories and we love her for it.

The Trouble with Fire is Fiona Kidman’s most recent collection of short stories. A central theme of fire, real and metaphorical, runs through the work. Lady Anne Barker sets fire to large tracts of Canterbury tussock land in the title story while fire-spotter, Samson, in Extremes surveys the forest for flames not realising that “there’s a fire burning on the hearth at home”. His wife is playing away.

Unplanned pregnancy is a topic touched on several times. Today, it’s hard to imagine how few choices women had only a generation before mine. As the author says, you either got married in a hurry if some chap would have you or you “went up north for a while”. Extremes is the story of two women who contact the Sisters Overseas Service (SOS) in Wellington for terminations and the decisions they make. Part Two follows the life of Joy Keats and the impact an unplanned pregnancy has on four generations of women connected to her.

Fiona KidmanFriendship is important to Fiona Kidman. She was born an only child and grew up without cousins. In the session, she spoke of three great friendships in her life. Her 28 year friendship with writer Lauris Edmond, her bond with Angela Carter, and her close attachment to Lois Minnit who was involved in SOS with her. Her oldest friendship is with a school friend she’s known for 66 years.

She keeps a folder full of interesting snippets from newspapers. Fiona Kidman connects deeply with people and it’s from her profound humanity that her stories flow.

Chatting with Andrew Miller about Snowdrops and life

Andrew Miller is the author of Snowdrops (his first novel) which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011. He is also the only author – correction – the only person in Auckland who asked me:

How are things in Christchurch?

Congratulations Andrew on your Booker shortlisting! How has this recognition changed your writing and your life?

Well, it changed my life in a very concrete way. Because of the Booker thing, my book got lots more attention than it otherwise would have. As a result of that I’ve kind of rejigged my life a bit. I only work part time now, the rest of the time I’m trying to write another novel. When I was writing Snowdrops, I wasn’t at all sure that it would even be published, so to have it noted by the Booker people was beyond my expectations. My confidence has grown as a result.

Do you read reviews of your books?

The literary world is a new one for me and I must confess it is not always a very collegial one. I do read them though, I’m not strong enough not to I’m afraid. It’s a bit like looking at road carnage, even when you try not to.

I take it from what you’ve said that you want to continue with writing fiction

I like being a journalist. I think it has lots of overlaps with fiction. But in terms of writing books I am going to concentrate on fiction. I want to have another crack at fiction – it is very challenging but very rewarding. There are a few parts of my book which I did to the best of my abilities and of which I am proud.

Which parts would those be?

Interestingly enough (as I like to think of myself as a nice guy), they are the dark parts of the novel which expose the nastiness, the psychological torture the people in the book are capable of.

A.D. Miller and RobertaSnowdrops is one of those books that has polarised my bookclub into those readers who love it and those who are disappointed in it because they define it by what it is not – it’s not a murder mystery, it’s not a love story, it’s not a travel book, so they have thwarted expectations. What sort of book is it?

The title Snowdrops is supposed to symbolise psychological things rather than criminal acts. I think the narrator thinks it is a love story, but I hope the reader can see that it is not. What is it then? I guess it’s a character study, it is a portrait of moral decline.

How often do people confuse you and Nick, the book’s narrator?

Often. In fact I thought of having a disclaimer in the front for my mother-in -law, so that she didn’t get herself all wound up about the really racy bits!

One of the aspects of the book that I loved was that the narrator was writing this story to his fiancee who remains resolutely off stage. I hated at the end when he says: now I’ve told you all of this “it’s up to you what you do with it”. I felt that was a cop-out on his part and just absolved him from responsibility.

Well, he’s that kind of guy – always avoiding responsibility. There is a note of passive aggression towards the fiancee which crescendos at the end. What are his feelings towards her? What indeed is his motivation for telling her the story in the first place? I think she’d be mad to marry him after all of this.

Has the book been well received in Russia?

The Russian translation hasn’t come out yet. I have had some criticism from some people about how it’s an overly bleak portrait of Moscow, but those people haven’t been Russians.

Did you visit libraries in Russia?

I didn’t use the libraries a lot but I lived quite close to Lenin Library. They tend to be very disciplined places, presided over by formidable women.

Are libraries important in your life now, back in England?

Well, as you probably know, libraries are under enormous pressure in England at the moment. Certainly my children use them all the time. Libraries play different roles in our lives at different times, and that is perhaps their real strength. We never outgrow them.

Rhys Darby – rhythm dancer and pub storyteller

Rhys Darby & MoataWe welcome Moata Tamaira as a guest blogger. Moata used to work at Christchurch City Libraries, but nowadays she’s known for the Blog Idle – her popular blog on Stuff. She works for Aotearoa People’s Network Kaharoa.

It was no great surprise to find that it was a full house in the ASB Theatre for An Hour with Rhys Darby. Whether you find his particular brand of comedy amusing or not, in recent years he has achieved the kind of success that few stand up comedians from Pakuranga could dream of. People are generally curious about successful people (this can be the only reason you’d have Donald Trump fronting a reality show. In my opinion, he’s a boor of the highest order – overachieving in that field as well as the financial).

It starts with the outfit. Darby looks like 2 or 3 different Doctor Whos glommed into one. He sports a trilby shaped hat. Thick-framed spectacles. A bowtie. A striped jacket that belongs with another outfit entirely. He’s already entertaining and he hasn’t said anything yet.

His partner in crime or “enabler” for this evening is journalist Tim Wilson who over the course of the hour flicks through Rhys’ book This way to spaceship periodically thrusting it into Darby’s hands and indicating passages that he thinks he should share very much in the manner of an affable English teacher. And Darby does need a little teacherly encouragement to focus. To start with his tendency to mine every moment for comedy is a little frustrating. Was that his genuine answer or did he just say that to be funny? I find myself wanting him to give a straight answer.

Perhaps in response to his continued quipping, Wilson asks if he has ever wanted to be serious? Has he ever wanted to be … Leo Tolstoy? Unsuprisingly the answers is no, no he hasn’t. While it’s true that Darby makes his living by being funny it’s not something that he can just turn off.

Being funny is my job but it’s also who I am… I treat comedy as a way of life.

However he understands that he isn’t everybody’s cup of comedy chai, and at Wilson’s suggestion he reads a passage describing the first time he was confronted by this in the form of a “hater”.  Naturally this encounter occurs at a urinal … (As a cautionary note, never critique a comedian when he can see your penis. In subsequent retellings it will always be referred to as “tiny”).

Fortunately Darby seems relax into the session as he goes along and gives some insight into his writing process. While I’ve heard other writers at this festival discussing their narrative choices, the context in which they might prefer the first person over the third person, for instance, Darby just wanted his book to be the written version of a conversation that he has with the reader. He wanted it to be as if he were just telling the story to you at the pub and he seems satisfied that this is what he has achieved.
Rhys Darby display at Whitcoulls
His thoughts on Kiwi vs American humour is that we’re a lot more subtle. “We’re not a set-up-punchline nation” and I tend to agree. And of the famed Kiwi self-deprecating wit he says, “We really like taking the piss out of ourselves. We’re very confident in that”. He also praises the Kiwi ability to punch above our weight on the world stage and puts at least some of that down to creativity. “Creativity,” he says, “is more important than sport”. Naturally this is a sentiment that is very well received, what with it being a literary festival and all. Is it really so long since we were in the grip of RWC fever? Would he have got away with saying that last year?

It was a very entertaining session but also one that did give the audience a little insight into the hows and whys of Darby’s writing. In the end the comedy-literary balance was harmonious enough. At least until the very end when Darby demonstrated, to a “Rhythm is a dancer” backing track some of his night club dance moves. That was pure comedy. Unless you could call the “James Bond in a ski chase” portion of his routine a literary allusion to Ian Fleming…

Where are the good guys?

Just so you know upfront, I shed a few tears at this Auckland Writers and Readers Festival event.

Caroline Moorehead got involved in Human Rights because she was plagued by the question:

How can we as a species treat our fellow human beings with such cruelty?

We learnt of her early experiences reporting on human rights infringements and of her growing involvement with refugees and the almost paranoid xenophobic reaction that the mere word “refugee” inspires. She protected us from the worst horrors that she had witnessed … but still.

Even when our hearts are in the right place, things can go shockingly awry. Like the Dinka refugees (seven foot tall, ebony black people from the heat of the Nile Basin) who, as a result of their resettlement in Lapland,  stood out like very unhappy sore thumbs and who had about zero chance of assimilation into their new home –  mad, mad, mad.

She also chatted to us about her latest book: A Train in Winter. The story of 230 French women who, because of their resistance to Nazi occupation, were “disappeared”. Two hundred and thirty women started this train journey to a concentration camp. Only 49 survived. For this book Moorehead interviewed the remaining four survivors and the 169 children who inherited this legacy from their mothers – both dead and alive.

She also scoured old records and praises the French archives that she used in her research. She is not a fan of online research, which is no substitute in her opinion:

There is no pleasure greater than going into an archive, making your request and having old boxes of material delivered to your quiet desk for your perusal.

As a writer Caroline Moorehead tries to emphasis the positive, in the case of A Train in Winter it is the formidable bonds of friendship that pulled the women through the worst atrocities.

When asked what “good guy ” countries (like Australia and New Zealand), could do to help with these human violations, she said sadly:

I’m not sure there are good guys anywhere anymore.

Penguins, pencils and a room full of happy

I have a great view of the stage for this session – for one thing, the audience here is a lot shorter than previous ones; and I’ve also chosen to sit up the front – I am here to see Oliver Jeffers, critically acclaimed award winning author and illustrator of multiple bestselling picture books, and he’s going to be DRAWING. On stage.  Right in front of us.

New Zealand’s own award-winning graphic novel artist and author Dylan Horrocks introduces him. Oliver has chosen to tell us his bio using slides, and once again I have to make Choices – do I Write or do I Watch? Clearly I watch (and you can too, here, although we get to see some extra special bits here at the Festival that he’s added just for us). He talks his way through the slides, and as well as photos of him as a child, and some of his work, we also get to see lots of pictures of things people have sent him, from crocheted penguins, to crazy glasses, and frighteningly, an oversized, realistic model of a human heart. On a pedestal. The room is already full of Warm, and Happy, and by the end of what is, after all, just an introduction, we are all in love.  Everyone, including all the grownups, is wearing an identical goofy grin.

We are still wearing the grins an hour later as we leave. Thanks to an outstanding tagteam live drawing collaboration with Dylan, we now know

  • how to draw a penguin
  • what a Huey does when he wants to stand out from the crowd
  • why you should be wary of sofas
  • what the trailer for his new film looks like
  • where his ideas actually come from
  • whether he can, in fact, draw feet
  • why you should always eat a cheese sandwich just before bedtime (special thanks to Dylan for this tip)
  • whether he can not just make but also AIM a paper plane
  • how to defeat a 20 foot tall giant banana with laser beams for eyes
  • why eyebrows are the only thing you will need in life
  • and finally, how to make an entire audience feel like we’ve been hugged by a giant penguin in a beanie.

The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso

The Hungry HeartWilliam Colenso – “a fantastical construct in my mind”

Author, playwright and award winning man of letters Peter Wells was in conversation with Francis McWhannell, manager of Bethune’s rare book collection at Webbs. He discussed his recently published biography of William Colenso. McWhannell describes the work as remarkable for its fluency, compassion and elegance.

The Hungry Heart: Journeys with William Colenso is a meticulously researched work that provides valuable insight into the character of one of New Zealand’s most complex historical figures.

William Colenso arrived New Zealand in 1834. He was a church missionary and printer. He was not well received by the Archbishop of New Zealand, George Selwyn, but managed to ‘chisel’ his way into becoming a Deacon. Bishop Selwyn arranged Colenso’s marriage to Elizabeth Fairburn who was a talented teacher and spoke Te Reo fluently. At the time it was necessary for church deacons to be married for etiquette’s sake and because of the enormous workload missionaries had when moving to the backblocks of New Zealand.

There was no immediate attraction between William and Elizabeth, but they were married and sent off into obscurity in the Hawkes Bay. They established a large mission station at Waitangi (near Napier) with the help of local Maori. There were Pakeha whalers in the region at the time but the Colensos were the first respectable Christians in Hawkes Bay.

Peter Wells takes a different approach than earlier biographers, Bagnall and Peterson, whose 1948 publication focuses on Colenso’s work as a surveyor, botanist and printer. Colenso extensively explored his parish that covered a quarter of the area of the North Island. Wells refers to him as ‘the Patron Saint of Trampers’.

Peter WellsInstead, the biographer concentrates on examining the character of the “ghost that walks the landscape of Hawkes Bay”. Wells’ mother comes from Napier and the author moved to the small provincial town six years ago. He searched for a way to dig himself into the place and saw the enormous presence and contradictory nature of Colenso as a way of achieving this – peterwellsblog

Colenso’s marriage to Elizabeth was fraught with difficulty. Elizabeth suffered in childbirth and announced to her husband that she wouldn’t bear him any more children. Colenso fathered a child with a young Maori woman, Ripeka. The scandal that followed cost him his job and his marriage. He fell into depression then emerged as Treasurer for Napier, then a City Councillor, then a Member of Parliament. He spoke out against the Treaty of Waitangi and vigorously instructed Maori not to sell their land. He was a stutterer and an obsessive letter writer who wrote over 1000 letters in the last year of his life – a biographer’s dream (or nightmare).

Peter Wells finds the early colonial past of New Zealand fascinating and brings to life the “glittering consumer age arriving in the most distant islands in the world”.  The cultural isolation of the missionaries, the restraints of British society, the despair involved in a broken relationship are all vividly described and colonial Hawkes Bay opens up before the reader’s eyes. This is a biography that is not only factually accurate but emotionally engaging. It’s a hard work to put down.

One of my colleagues tells me she’s read Wells’ collection of short stories, The Duration of a Kiss, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I look forward to experiencing more of the work of this talented author. He writes beautifully. I leave you with a passage in the biography in which Wells describes the anguish of Colenso’s five year son, Latimer.

“the boy’s haunting voice calling his father to come home, plangent as a piper played over windswept dunes.”

Fiction in the shadow of history

On Canaan's SideLife: An unexploded diagramSalvage the Bones

Before I came to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, I wrote that there was a theme of shadows running through my selections. It seemed fitting I should be the one to attend a session called “In the shadow of history”.

This session brought together three writers who’ve written fictional works about real, significant, historical events. These authors, their books and the events in question are:

Given the significant historical events that have happened in dear old Christchurch, I was interested to hear how these authors used the stuff of fact to create fiction. How does a writer create art out of the shadow of history?

Mal Peet is interested in how historical events shape human identity. He says, in his dry laconic way, that there are ‘floating particles of history in the air all the time’ and he’s fascinated with the concept that there are three molecules of Julius Caesar in everyone alive today. Life: An Unexploded Diagram plays with the notion that if we could explode people, break them down to their atoms, we could see the historical and biological patterns that make them up.

In Life, the characters are aware of the Cuban missile crisis but they live in their personalised present and do little about it. It’s a story about “bluff, double bluff and bumbling” where no one seems to realise they’re taking part in history until after the event. Then, there’s an epiphany and the author explores how  events change lives.

Sebastian Barry spoke in general terms about his novel On Canaan’s Side. He observes that Irish literature never seems to go to war. It’s much more concerned with portraying marginalised people.

There was no conscription in Southern Ireland during World War 1 but 200,000 soldiers went to war and 50,000 died. The soldiers were all volunteers. When the survivors came home in 1916, they didn’t get a hero’s welcome. They were forgotten because the war didn’t fit the national story. These men were damaged by the horrors they’d seen, and the shadow of their experiences haunted them and the lives of those who loved them. His book follows the story of Lilly Bere who is forced to flee Ireland after the war as she tries to make sense of the sorrows of her life.

Jesmyn Ward bases her novel Salvage the Bones on her own experience of  living through catastophic Hurricane Katrina which destoyed large areas of New Orleans in August 2005. She became angry about the unjustness of the commentary in the media. She gives the example of a newspaper photograph showing a white couple going through a rubbish skip accompanied by the caption ‘foraging for food’ whereas a black man doing the same thing was accused of looting. She wrote her novel to “offer people a fuller experience of what it was like for the people that lived through it.” Sebastian Barry made the observation that the storm of racism that followed Hurricane Katrina was even more heartbreaking than the terrifying natural storm.

Jesmyn Ward didn’t start to write her novel until two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, Mal Peet writes of events that occurred in the early 1960s and Sebastian Barry looks back in time to WW1. It may be too early yet to see how the Christchurch earthquakes will impact upon the New Zealand literature, but the fact is that significant events shape our identities and out of the shadow of history comes art.