Capturing Quake Stories – Where to start?

Like many folk in Christchurch, I tend to stay in my neighbourhood these days, taking solace from the small signs of recovery I see – a wall fixed here, a pile of rubble cleared away, the tradesman’s van outside number 35A that indicates repairs are taking place inside. When I walked past the battered Arts Centre today, earthquake memories came flooding back. The question is what to do about these memories.

Freelance journalist Amanda Cropp has some suggestions. Her workshop ‘Capturing Quake Stories’ gave attendees some techniques for getting these memories down on paper. She believes it is important to do this for two main reasons. Firstly, the quakes are important historial event for our city and if you have younger children they may not remember much about them. Recording earthquake stories will help children understand what they’ve been through. Secondly, it informs people who haven’t lived with Old Bucky since September 2012 what it’s been like for us. Our stories are often not the stuff of headlines. They are the stories of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.

After the quake, Amanda Cropp’s editor at The Australian Women’s Weekly asked her to keep a diary. Some of the stories in it were published in the magazine and received positive feedback from readers who appreciated hearing the human side of the event. Amanda kept writing and went on to publish Shaken, Not Stirred: Family Survival in a Quake Zone.

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t kept your own diary. The author gave us some exercises to start capturing our stories now. She suggested writing about what we ate for dinner on the evening of 22 February and use our senses to record our experience. We brainstormed about what it was like to lose electricity. We wrote about one precious thing that was lost or saved in the quakes. We described a place that had been important to us that had changed. People read their paragraphs, often with shaky voices, but as we kept writing the stories became fluent and fascinating.

It was very apparent that we all experienced the quakes differently and that each person’s story is valid. We’re living in history and our experiences are important.

Once you’ve written your quake stories, you can self-publish your work for your family and friends.

If you’d like to share your story, why not donate your earthquake story to Christchurch City Librarie. Use this form or add your material to the Canterbury Earthquake Kete..

The multi-talented John Boyne

John Boyne is one of my favourite authors, so I was very excited about having the chance to ask him some of my burning questions this morning. John is an incredibly talented writer, who writes for both adults and children, and he’s probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I asked John about his quirky protagonists, writing for children, and how libraries have affected him as a reader and as a writer.

What do you like most about writing for children?

I had never really thought about writing for children. My first four books I wrote were all aimed at adults, so when I wrote my first children’s book (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) it came as a surprise to me. I entered a world I wasn’t familiar with – children’s book festivals, schools, and having to talk to children. I also discovered the wealth of contemporary children’s literature, which I had ignored as a reader since I was a kid.  In the year before The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas came out, I delved into that world and discovered what I was missing.  Children’s literature had changed a lot since I was a kid.  It had become more serious and explored adult themes in a non-patronising way.  It felt like a fresh challenge and I thought I could do both, I could write a novel for adults and a novel for children. I thought, why shouldn’t I if I have a story to tell.

How does writing for children differ from writing for adults?

The only main difference is that children’s stories feature child protagonists. They have children at the centre of the story and you see things through their eyes. I don’t change the language at all.  A school I visited in Dublin recently were studying Noah Barleywater Runs Away and the teacher got the children to write a list of words from the book that they didn’t understand and they had to look them up in the dictionary. I was quite pleased that those lists were so long and that they had to go and look them up because it showed me that I wasn’t dumbing the story down and using simple language. My children’s books are always told in third person narration, and when I think of children’s novels, I think I should always write them this way. I feel that I don’t want to put myself into the total mind of one child.

Barnaby Brocket is special because he floats.  If you could have a special ability what would it be?

I think I’d like to be in two places at once, because over the last 6 or 7 years I’ve spent so much time travelling. I like travelling and I like invitations to visit places, but I also like being at home. I’d like to spend all the time at home, in my own house, while at the same time being able to travel the world.

Barnaby meets lots of interesting characters in his travels all over the world.  Who is the most interesting character that you’ve ever met?

It would have to be John Irving. I was a huge fan of his growing up and he was the writer that really inspired me to be a writer. When I published my first novel in 2000, I sent him a copy of the book and wrote him a letter. He read it and wrote back, and we struck up a friendship. We’ve known each other since and when he was on tour in England this Summer I went with him as his interviewer. He has great insights into literature, how novels work, and all the time I’ve spent with him has been inspiring.

Oliver Jeffers has created some fantastic illustrations for Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket. Did you have any say in the illustrations or did you not see them until the book was published?

With each book we talked about it in advance and what we thought it should look like. I was very clear with Oliver the first time around that I just wanted him to do whatever he felt was right. I asked him to do Noah Barleywater originally because I love his work and think it’s wonderfully imaginative and creative. He’s very talented so I didn’t want to put any restrictions on him. 

Your characters, particularly your protagonists (Barnaby Brocket and Noah Barleywater) have brilliant names.  How do you come up with their names?

I’d had this name, Barnaby, for a while and I thought it was a great name for a character. I just tried different names and I thought an alliterative name would be good. I also liked the name Noah and the connection with water. You try different sounds and figure out what seems to ring true. You want your characters to be memorable and Barnaby Brocket is a memorable name.

Your heartbreaking novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has just been re-issued as a Vintage Children’s Classic.  How does it feel to have your book considered a ‘classic’?

It makes me feel about a hundred years old! It’s flattering, especially since the book has only been out for six years.  I hope that 50 years from now it feels like it’s earned its place on that list.

How did you find the experience of having The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas turned into a film?

It was exciting.  I had a very good relationship with the director and the producers, which a lot of writers don’t have.  I made a conscious effort at the start that I would be helpful to the process, not troublesome. A lot of novelists make that mistake, of selling the film rights and wanting to control aspect of the film. Whatever happens with the movie, it doesn’t change the book. I think they did a great job and that they really understood the book. 

How have books shaped you and what part have libraries played in this?

A huge part.  I grew up in Dublin and down the road from my house there was this really big library, in this really old building which is still standing.  As a kid, my mum took me and my siblings down there every Wednesday and we would get our three books.  I so looked forward to it!  It was so exciting to go inside this big, old building and I thought it was amazing that you got stuff for free.  The adult’s stuff was on the ground floor and the kid’s stuff was upstairs.  Like most kids, I loved re-reading.  You would go back to those books you loved, and get them out week after week.

How important are libraries to writers?

In a lot of libraries now, reading groups take place, creative writing groups meet, and libraries have become much more of a place to meet and be part of a collective experience of literature.  Book clubs and reading groups have been incredibly helpful to authors over the last 10 or 15 years, and I think libraries have played a great part in that.

John Boyne will also be appearing with Jane Higgins and Helen Lowe at the Why YA? Panel on Sunday at 9:30am.

Like mother, like daughter …

You wouldn’t want to have had a senior moment at this festival event. Two authors, both with names that begin with “M”, both “assimilated Jews”, both write books about the mother-daughter relationship, and photography plays an important part in both their lives. My brain synapses were hiring and firing like nobody’s business and to keep track of it all I devised a complex coding system that made absolutely no sense at all when I finally sat with a cappuccino and my laptop in a nearby cafe.

“Remind me never to blog for a festival” – I can hear you thinking, but you would be Oh So Wrong. I was attracted to this session with Miriam Frank and Mireille Juchau from the get go because I am one of those “piggy in the middle” women, caught between my 100 year old mother and my thirty something daughter and living far, far away from both of them.

Miriam Frank started the session with a reading from her memoir My Innocent Absence – Tales from a Nomadic Life. It was from the prologue to her book in which she sees her mother on her deathbed and thinks: “She looks so empty.” But her mother was dead whereas many people look empty long before their end has come. There is at least that comfort of a life lived to the full.

Miriam had a fraught relationship with her mother, but her death made Miriam feel “cast adrift, seeking my bearings, looking for answers.” She wrote her story as non-fiction because it was enough of a struggle to remember what really happened and she felt suspicious of tampering with the memories.

Mireille Juchau

Mireille Juchau wrote her book Burning In as a novel because “novels give you a chance to invent and exaggerate” and then, of course there is the care that a writer needs to take with regard to the potential betrayal of people because of exposure. Mireille gave a beautiful reading from her book which focused our attention on the many and varied ways in which mothers can really irritate their daughters.

There were lovely personal anecdotes as well. Miriam (who spent part of her youth in Christchurch having come here with her mother from Mexico in the 1940s) tells the story of coming down to breakfast in a red dress and being told by her aunt:

“We don’t wear red in Christchurch”

“What do you wear then?” asked Miriam and the answer came:

“We wear pastels.”

Mireille told a delightful story about a woman who was asked , before stomach surgery if she still wanted her bellybutton or could they just remove it. She replied:

Do not remove my bellybutton. It is my last remaining link to my mother.

Nothing like a good bellybutton story to focus the attention. So much so that at question time I found myself asking (and I know my network team colleagues will find this hard to believe) the only question I have ever asked at a festival:

Do you see yourselves, as mothers, repeating the same patterns with your daughters that your mothers did with you?

Miriam said that all she ever tried to do was the reverse of what her mother had done and that there was probably a whole book in that.

Mireille became very animated when she spoke of the push/pull that she was currently experiencing with her eight year old daughter. Then, she looked straight across at me, at my hopefully not empty face. She hesitated and then said (as if she knew my question came from some deep and sad place):

“You will do your best as a mother and your daughter will be who she is meant to be.”

And that is why I love to attend festivals. You never know what you are going to learn.

In so many words (in quite a lot of words)

Thursday 4.30 at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival saw a small but select group attending a panel discussion about social media. Donna’s already talked here about her fellow panellists, and interviewed them as well, so I will just try to give you a bit of a flavour of the actual event. Cheating, I know, but hey, it’s the new social media, where everyone shares everything, and no-one owns anything. That’s right, isn’t it?

Just before we begin, in a happy little piece of meta, panellist Moata takes a photo of the audience and tweets it, turning the tables on those of us who think we are there to report on them.  I find this train of thought so distracting that I completely fail to take a photo of them. You will have to picture for yourselves, then, the small geodome in Hagley Park, a couple of comfy couches, and a lineup that includes Chair Graham Bookman Beattie, and guests Moata, Donna, Lara and Will, all looking and sounding incredibly calm and relaxed.

Each of the panellists here today spend a large part of their lives online, personally and professionally.  The first question (How has your internet life changed from five years ago?), brings some great comments. Lara points out that the small black portable notebooks she always carried have now changed to a small black portable phone that she always carries; and that F Scott Fitzgerald (the inspiration for this habit of hers of recording the “cognitive surplus” of her life) would have been brilliant on Twitter.

Moata notes that where the internet used to be a kind of “go, look, read” kind of place, there’s now a real depth to it, and you can go, look, read but then keep going, get deeper in, be more involved and interactive. Donna talks about starting with her own personal blog, but then very quickly developing the CCL blog – launched at the 2007 Auckland Writers Festival, it had a sense of immediacy that was new in terms of coverage of festivals and events. She also makes the point that we used to think that technology was cold and impersonal, but the events of 2010 and 2011 have shown us that social media brings the ability for us to share more, help more, and build community in ways that wouldn’t have been possible in the past.

Will notes that the biggest change for him professionally has been the speed at which The Press has had to move – the expectation now from readers is that the news is being reported as it happens. He also notes that online comments have changed the game: where the Letters page of the newspaper is a very groomed product, online commenting is a completely different animal.

Looking five years into the future, Lara quotes Gibson and Mieville, talks about a crackdown on online piracy and DRM, and points out that although we think the internet is free, when we agree to the terms and conditions of websites like Facebook and Twitter, these sites are then able to monetize our thoughts and ideas for their own profit.

Moata hopes that the future will see bloggers recognised as ‘real’ writers, rather than being thought of as vaguely unsavoury lower ranks. Donna thinks that the idea of the death of the book is a load of bollocks, and that libraries will become a place of increased connectivity and interactivity, with more collaboration between galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Will asserts that The Press will still be here, still be on paper, and still be delivered to the door of anyone who wants it; but also that most people will get their news on a device, that they will happily pay for it, and that the best and most successful papers will be the ones that deliver intensely local news.

A round  of mostly great questions, with the seemingly mandatory That’s-Not-A-Question as well, and the session is over.  I must just run out now and see if I feature in that photo that Moata took …

Festival notes

Donna in the door of the green roomOkay, the  first two  sessions at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2012 under my belt and all the usual details of the festival site now checked out.

The are still tickets for some really interesting available and the prices are good so why not pop along to something.

Short, sweet: PechaKucha #15

PechakuchaPechaKucha #15 took place last night as part of The Press Christchurch Writers Festival, so this one had a literary bent. The crowd was young, international and hip. 11 speakers fronted up and had 20 seconds and 20 images to explore their theme. In the PechaKucha spirit, I will keep it brief – no more than 20 words to convey each speaker:

Chris Turney // scientist & writer // on scientific exploration
1912, 5 expeditions to Antarctic, all doing science. Penguins in corsets, penguins punched in face.

Rachael King // novelist // on creepy ’70s & ’80s children’s television
Rocks with eyes,  these shows were made for kids WTF? I hope Red Rocks scares the bejesus out of kids.

Doc Drumheller // poet // on haiku In transit
Beautiful sights, beautiful words. Beautiful sites. Beautiful words.

Anke Richter // journalist // on being Kraut, becoming Kiwi – why stereotypes work
Bavarians are the Aucklanders of Germany. Kraftwerk were good Germans. Battle of Britain party in NZ? RAF=Red Army Faction.

Michael Smythe // design historian // on Christchurch by design: top per-capital performer?
Robertson Stewart. 1974 Commonwealth Games design. Bill Hammond chunky toys. Bill Hamilton. Tait. Skellerup. John Britten. Edmonds “Sure to Rise” branding was 5 years before Coke.

Marianne Elliott // zen peacekeeper, change-maker & storyteller // on superheroes & the importance of your origin story
Captain America – polio. X-Men – born different. Superman – alien. Batman – loss … family tradition of missionary service – Papua New Guinea, Africa, South America.

Elizabeth Knox // writer // on Mt Cook, 1954
Dad a mountain guide at The Hermitage. Climbing. No fear of falling. Here he is standing on a peak:  “See the cigarette in his mouth, that’s what eventually got him”.

Mark Spurgeon // graphic designer / on hand painted signage
Ah the serifs. The earthquake revealed wonders, took them away. 17 of the signs on these photos have disappeared.

Veronika Meduna // science writer // on science in Antarctica
Researchers have drilled down to the Pleioscene. The ice is an archive of information. Underwater alive with colour.

Ross Gumbley // playwright and Court Theatre artistic director // on ‘If life were like the movies’
Alpha Centauri watches our movies and make deductions about life on earth. We have L shaped sheets to cover nipples of the lady, while the man is barechested.

Rebecca Priestley // science historian and writer // on New Zealand in the atomic age
NZ scientists on the Manhattan Project. 1955 – uranium discovered in Buller Gorge. Nuclear testing. Strontium and caesium in our bones. Protest. Norman Kirk. Nuclear free New Zealand. David Lange. Rainbow Warrior. A decade of research for Mad about Radium.
Slide from Mark Spurgeon's Pechakucha talk on signageSlide from Elizabeth Knox's Pechakucha talk on The Hermitage and her DadSlide from Mark Spurgeon's Pechakucha talk on signageSlide from Rachael King's Pechakucha talk on spooky 70s and 80s tv for kidsSlide from Chris Turney's Pechakucha talk

Burnham School Team: Picturing Canterbury


The Burnham school team. This team did not compete in any of the events, but gave a fine exhibition with the manual engine. The Canterbury times, 6 Mar. 1901, p. 34

“Imagination is a muscle that atrophies …”: A chat with Chris Cleave

The Press Christchurch Writers Festival is here. I’ve drawn back the curtains, kicked away the draft excluder and liberated myself from my thermals, after an epically long, damp and dreary winter I am ready for books and book talk.

And day one of the Festivale did not disappoint. I had a quick chit-chat with Chris Cleave the wonderful London-based author of Incendiary, The other hand and Gold. Here is a flavour.

All your novels have featured children. What do they bring to your books?

The children in my novels compel the adults to get it right. The ethical and moral questions I pose for the grown-ups are more potent because we desperately want to see the adults resolve their issues to the benefit of the children. They have to get their acts together. I also love the moral clarity of children; you just can’t bullshit them.

Qualities important for a writer?

Be a reader first. The best writers are readers. Imagination is a muscle that atrophies but as readers we fill in the blanks and bring just as much to the table as the writer.

You’ve described your novels as a mix of reportage and fiction, what do you want to achieve with your work?

I’m trying to write novels that are emotionally true, with the conscious desire to make a difference by either reinforcing ideas already held by my readers or by starting new thinking. Many people I respect disagree with my work but that’s fine. I want to start the debate rather than have the last word and I want the themes I raise, rather than my own opinions, to become the talking point.

On the topic of reviewers, Chris is emphatic:

They create their own hell. I don’t regard them as peers and many of them are just vicious. Reviewers get to comment on writers’ work but this is entirely one-way traffic, writers are never invited to the reviewers’ parties. I approach reviews with caution and don’t take them too seriously.

Have libraries been an important feature of your life?

I was practically brought up in libraries! I had weekly visits to our local library with my mum. Libraries were a lifeline to culture and helped make me what I am, without them I wouldn’t have become a writer. Sadly, libraries in Britain will only survive if there is a huge political shift but I also think libraries need to adapt. I’d like to see them as free speech arenas with emphasis on library events. This may require a shake-up in thinking and some new faces in UK library management.

Chris Cleave Joyce interviews Chris Cleave in the Geodome

Capital Letters: John Lanchester

John Lanchester signs my copy of “Capital”.

My festival kicked off with an interview with John Lanchester. You can’t help but feel the odd twinge of fluttery tummy when you are about to meet up with such a literary luminary – I seem to be becoming hooked on this particular form of terror. But he was a pleasure to chat to. It won’t be obvious from the transcript, but he thought carefully before he answered each question. It was fascinating stuff, see for yourself:

I’ve read all your novels John, but none of your non-fiction work. Yet I get the impression that you move effortlessly between these two types of content. Is that true and do they challenge your writing in different ways?

I wouldn’t say effortless, but I tend to do the thing that I’m interested in at any one point in time. In my book about my parents (Family Romance), I wanted to explain their story to myself because there was a mystery in my mother’s story that I only found out after she died and I wanted to make sense of it. The best way to do that seemed to be to write it and I didn’t think of it as: “OK now I’m writing a non-fiction book”, that wasn’t how it came about. I just wanted to tell it to myself. I finished that and started on Capital (a novel) and Whoops! (non-fiction) grew out of that.

The writing skills that I used for these books, both fiction and non-fiction are a weirdly similar skill set.  The word for fiction comes from a word for shaping things on a potters wheel and not from the word for “I make things up” and shaping is the core skill that goes from fiction to non-fiction. Crucially the tools that I use for both fiction and non-fiction involve shaping and selecting. The way you present characters is amazingly similar, I think, between fiction and non-fiction. For example when I wrote about my parents, everything in that book is true to the best of my knowledge, at the same time you do end up using fiction techniques to make people seem real.

Library users have an expectation that librarians have read every book and can comment on all of them. I love Capital and want customers and friends to read it, but when I describe it (possibly in somewhat gushy terms), I can see the lights go out, one at a time. How would you describe the book in a couple of sentences. I need help!

If I could have summed it up I would have written it in that many words! I was interested in the size and scale of everything going on in London and the length is part of that. At what point do you think that what you’re saying puts people off?

It’s when I use the words “stock” and  “market” and “crash” in the same sentence!

It was really “global” and “financial” and ” crisis”, but that mightn’t have been much help in keeping the lights on either! The specifics of what really happened are very baffling to people which is partly why I wrote Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. Let me know if you ever get a good succinct description of Capital that works, I’d be interested to hear what it is.

There is an unsettling refrain running throughout Capital: “We want what you have”. Did you mean that to refer specifically to money and possessions or did you intend it to have a wider meaning?

A lot of the characters think that the wanting and the having is all about money. It was clearer to me after I was finished with writing the book that they tend to think it is about money, the idea that what they have is mainly economic. The extent to which some of the characters in the book come to realise that there are lots of kinds of capital other than financial capital, is one of the organising principles of the book, because to varying extents they all tend to forget that.

Right now in Christchurch there is a lot of writing about the city going on. People are being encouraged to get their quake stories down and to share their experiences. After all, we have had a disaster, in a city that we love and we have a whole lot of fascinating characters too. The same skeins are present in Capital. What pointers would you give to potential authors to pull these three strands into a cohesive whole?

The difference between a man-made crisis and a natural one is that it’s a lot easier to seek for meaning in a man-made one. The financial crisis touches on things that had causes that you might have been able to prevent at a societal level if not at an individual level. A man-made catastrophe you can kind of study for lessons and think through, whereas  natural disasters are just great ill fortunes – nothing to be done about that and so would be harder to develop them into grand themes in novels.

I first heard about all your books in book clubs. What do you think of reading groups?

Book clubs are definitely a good thing. There is one tiny negative thing – overwhelmingly they are great but lately I’ve noticed that there is a trend nowadays for everyone to read the same book at the same time. I don’t quite understand what the drivers of that are. It is so much more common than 15 to 20 years ago. I feel that monoculture is bad in all fields of life and the same goes for what we read. People live longer and longer nowadays and reading and variety of reading is a way of keeping your brain active. It’s not going to stay active all by itself and it is going to be less stimulated if you’re all doing the same things at the same time.

What’s your take on libraries, how important have they been in your life?

Very, very important. It’s a really sore point that we have just lost a library in our street, just 30 metres from where I live. I’ve more or less grown up in libraries and my children were doing that too. It was a very, very important part of their early childhood. I do hope you will win the fight for libraries as places where people can be without having to buy a product.  You don’t browse for socks or  toothpaste, but you do browse for books and the act of browsing is what facilitates the discovery of newness and libraries are so important for that.

One last question, are you an e-book reader?

I use an e-reader for travel, it saves me about 10kgs in luggage weight. I’m not theological about it, but I am surprised by the extent to which I prefer physical books. I didn’t know that before I got an e-reader but I find I vastly prefer physical books. They’re just much much nicer!

London’s burning

Contemporary London – how has it gone from the Tottenham riots of 2011 to the smiley, happy place of the Olympics 2012.? What’s really going on? I hoped two sharp observers of that wonderful city, Chris Cleave and John Lanchester, would help me find out in their session London’s Burning at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival.

Both writers certainly delivered. Its clear that London is a novelist’s dream. Poverty and riches exist side by side, history is palpable in the streets and buildings, and every story in the world is there to be told. The Dick Whittington story still exists – John Lanchester spoke of the London dream which is like the great American dream. People come to London believing they will find opportunity and the chance for riches.

He talked about the obliviousness of London. A lot of problems are in plain sight but people and the media choose to ignore this. He spoke of how this creates an undefined space which gives room for the novel. Novelists can ask the hard questions, novels are cheap to write and you can have an edgy book more easily than edgy films and television.

The two novelists experienced London initially as a difficult place. John Lanchester thought of it as grey and provincial after Hong Kong and Chris Cleave’s child’s eye view after 8 years in West Africa was of a cold, hard place where he was punched in the face at school for speaking French and not knowing what football team to support. Chris told a lovely story of his mother finding himself aged 8 and his brother, naked and blue in the snow at the bottom of the garden. Coming from a very hot place both little boys only knew of taking your clothes off as a way to cope with extremes of climate. Both men came to see London as a powerful centre around which things revolve and both see London as a different planet from the rest of Britain, a situation exaggerated by increasing globilisation.

The impact of the financial crisis has seen the “hollowing out” of the middle class and the growing gap between rich and poor. The super rich are discrete but because they don’t care what anything costs this sets new inflationary benchmarks. There is “ethical inflation” as well – a well lived life has less value.

Asked which will leave a legacy – the riots or the Olympics, Chris Cleave spoke of feeling a recalibration of his relationship with his country and some unification between London and the rest of the country.He felt hopeful that most people chose not to join in the rioting and were clearly fed up with it. John Lanchester spoke of the power of London in the financial crisis – the feeling that nothing you can do will change it, a feeling that is scary but reassuring too. He described it as like watching a great river.

All in all a wonderful evening of ideas and humour and sharply tuned intelligence. Chair Kate de Goldi was the blue meanie for bringing it all to an end. There is still a chance to hear both men again at the festival:

Find out all about the festival which runs until Sunday.