New Zealand design has no bullshit and a twinkle in its eye: Michael Smythe

The Design of delight? at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a smörgåsbord of New Zealand product design spanning the 1800s through to the modern-day, the sublime and the mundane: Edmond’s “Sure to rise” baking powder, Christchurch ceramist Mark Cleverley’s Crown Lynn designs, David Trubridge’s unique lighting and furniture, the Fisher & Paykel SmartDrive and DishDrawer, the Mountainbuggy, John Britten’s V1000, the Zespri “Cut and Scoop” designed by Peter Haythornthwaite and the undisputed champion of Kiwi design, Buzzy-bee designed by Maurice Scheslinger circa 1940.

The range, for a design ignoramus such as moi, was astonishing but this litany of design achievements was also tinged with nostalgia. The glory days seem to be locked in the “Pavlova Paradise” of the past and the challenges facing modern-day New Zealand product designers operating in the global marketplace are massive. Michael Smythe’s prescription for Kiwi design success was to foster “a self-confidence with minimal self-consciousness” and to remember New Zealand’s secret weapon, our unique capacity for cross-disciplinary team-work.

Smythe identified design personalities unique to their country of origin i.e. clean and wholesome Scandinavia, Italian flair and style , German rationality, robustness and reliability and The Dutch? Dry and wry! But what of New Zealand design? He characterised it thus:

  • Neither opulent nor sterile
  • With a light touch, not a heavy hand
  • Direct and honest
  • No bullshit with a twinkle in the eye
  • With a delight in what it is, who it is for and how it is made

Smythe also linked in the Maori tradition of ihi, wehi and wana; utility, impact and physical thrill or awe. Smythe looked in some detail at early Maori design, identifying a basalt toki as being one of the first Maori design pieces to give him a tingle up his spine.

While Smythe has put much deep thought into how to frame New Zealand’s design persona, as evidenced by his NZ Post Award winning title New Zealand by design, he was clear that he wanted to generate discussion and the question mark attached to the phrase “Design of delight?” leaves room for alternative encapsulating concepts.

This was a lovely, low-key session with a very engaged audience which included high school students, industry professionals (I saw my first hi-vis vest and hard hat of the festival!) and interested lay-people. The Q&As at the end of the session both expanded and rounded off the topic nicely.

Poetry for Lunch – Seven tantalising courses

The seven poets taking part in this lunchtime’s poetry session served up a veritable feast of words.  The readings were held at the YMCA in a room which proved to be an excellent venue. As chair Bernadette Hall told me, the intimate space was a positive change from large, impersonal lecture rooms which the poets were usually invited to speak in. The appreciative audience enjoyed the opportunity to listen to the work of some of New Zealand’s finest poets up close and personal.

It is always a challenge to review a group poetry reading and do the artists justice. This session was particularly difficult. The poets were all extremely gifted and their styles dissimilar.

Tusiata Avia started the session. Her bold, powerful poems resonate with me now. She’s a skilled performer and it is impossible to take your eyes off her once she starts to read.

Doc Drumheller followed with his unique brand of urban humour. His poem The Wunderbar rang true with all of us who spent our youth in the bar in Lyttelton. His palindromes pieced together from slogans he collects are fascinating.

Kerrin Sharpe read five poems, my favourite of which was Sewing the World. Kerrin teaches at the Hagley Writers’ Institute and her work appears in many New Zealand compilations.

David Eggleton, writer in residence at the University of Canterbury, gave a mesmerising performance. The Colour White and The Drift North are descriptive and insightful. It was a pleasure to see the poems performed as the rhythm of language in an essential feature of his work.

Siobhan Harvey‘s poetry focuses on migration and the issues faced by people who move from the familiar. Relativity is a theme that ties her work together. While Karen Zelas‘ gentle, reflective works gave the audience plenty of food for thought.

The charismatic Ben Brown finished the session. His is a natural born orator and I was so captivated I didn’t miss a word. Unfortunately, I did miss out on the two copies of his CD he had for sale. I’m hoping he will produce another one soon.

Check out New Zealand Poetry online at New Zealand Poetry, NZEPC or at Christchurch City Libraries.

“There’s a fine line between having an imagination and having a mental illness”: Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris is probably most well-known as the author of the Chocolat, which was later made into a movie, starring Johnny Depp.  She has written 14 novels, including Runemarks and Runelight for younger readers, and 2 cookbooks.  I’m a huge fan of her writing so I was looking forward to spending an hour with her at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival on a Saturday afternoon.

Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure, a follow-up to Chocolat, is Joanne Harris’ latest book and most of the session focused on this. When asked why she keeps revisiting Vianne Rocher, Joanne admitted that Vianne keeps on knocking at the door, and she keeps wondering what happened to her and where she has gone.  Over the course of the three books, Vianne has changed and some readers haven’t been happy with this.  As Joanne pointed out though, the nice, comforting thing about stories is that things stay the same, but life has changed Vianne.

Another reason Joanne wanted to revisit Vianne and her family was that she felt that both she and her characters had unfinished business.  She wasn’t daunted about writing about Muslims, but a lot of people couldn’t understand that. As she explained, she was writing about people who were Muslim or Christian, not about the actual religions. Her story is simply about ‘individuals living in certain circumstances, facing certain situations.’  She just wanted to write the story and people would get what they wanted to get from it.

Joanne delved into her characters and where they came from.  A lot of people are quite disappointed that she doesn’t look or act like Vianne, but that there are aspects of her personality in the character. The relationship that Vianne and Anouk have in her books is very much the relationship that she has with her own daughter. The most memorable thing she said about characters and the way that they get inside your head is that ‘there’s a fine line between having an imagination and having a mental illness.’

Joanne felt that she had been put in the camp of ‘comfortable writers who write with a quill pen’ but she has also written some quite dark stories.  She’s a seasonal writer, so her lighter, sunny books have been written when it’s sunny, and her darker books in the dark and gloomy months.

You may not know that she’s also written books for younger readers (aged 12 years and up) called Runemarks and Runelight.  Joanne started writing from the minute that she realised books weren’t enough, and she would write continuations of stories she loved and would bring her favourite characters back to life in new stories.  When she was first published she told her publishers that they were never to give her a deadline and never to tell her what to write.  Something that I found really interesting was that nearly all of her books have been published out of sequence and giving readers the illusion that she writes a book a year (which she doesn’t). If you follow her on Twitter @JoanneChocolat, you’ll know all about her writing shed, which has its own personality (and has more followers than her).

The hour flew by and I could have listened to Joanne talk for another hour. I highly recommend Joanne’s books, especially Lollipop Shoes and Runemarks, and they’re all available in the library for your reading pleasure.

In breaking news – Neil Cross wins the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel

It’s 9.39pm and I have just returned from The Great New Zealand Crime Debate, which acted, as was stated tonight, as either precursor or foreplay to the presentation of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel 2012.  Tonight was another one of those events that you really should have gone to. Ms Scotland and I laughed till we cried, applauded loudly at many places, were vastly entertained and occasionally startled, and on one memorable occasion somewhat shocked by the proceedings.  Joycie will no doubt give a full run-down of the evening’s entertainment soon, but in the interests of getting the news out in a timely manner, I would now like to announce that the winner of the third annual Ngaio Marsh Award was Neil Cross, for his book Luther: the Calling.

Charmingly, he had made no preparations for winning, and had no speech prepared.  We therefore got an off-the-cuff acceptance speech about his wife’s hate mail, the time he nearly got killed (note: the word ‘killed’ here is a substitute for another word I hesitate to use on a family-friendly blog) and eaten on the way to a literary festival, and how much in love with New Zealand he still is.

A big congratulations to all the short-listed finalists, and especially to Neil Cross, as well as a really big thank you to The Pres Christchurch Writers Festival organisers, who once again provided a fantastic evening’s entertainment.  Well done all, and THANKS – we love you!

“We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people”: The secret life of the novel

The Secret life of the novel at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a “let’s have a look under the hood” examination of the process of writing. It worked well with Owen Marshall in the chair and Aussies Sue Woolfe and Kate Grenville and Kiwi Emily Perkins on the panel – they’re all teachers of writing.


Kate likes Bernard Malamud’s statement “I don’t teach writers, I teach writing”. She encourages her students to write playfully, and not to worry about grammar or the market. It is important to “give people permission to speak with the voice that is uniquely theirs”. Sue’s classes are unusual in that students don’t read their work aloud. She thinks it is important to help students “stumble upon something they almost didn’t dare say”. In Emily’s classes, students read each other’s work out.


Owen asked the panellists about reading. Sue said “books parented her”. She loved Enid Blyton, and families not as weird as hers. Kate loved Captain W.E. Johns (Biggles) though says it was “the most appalling tripe”. She made an interesting distinction between “reading as a reader” and “reading as a writer”. Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out was a revelation to her as a writer: “It’s not that good”.

Emily felt a bit the same about reading some of Katherine Mansfield’s earlier work (such as The Tiredness of Rosabel): “You can see the workings … so unlike what she came too” in terms of authorial voice. For Emily

When I think of my childhood, I think of books.

Camping holidays as an adult are a revelation, because now she looks at the landscape whereas before she’d have had her nose in a book.

Fixations and character and research

Emily: “I’m really interested in how we construct ourselves … I find character in fiction so fascinating. All the different alchemies that go with writing and reading … We don’t write real people, we don’t read real people … Character is made on the page. I don’t see hard lines around them …”

Sue: Characters are more a consciousness … “at the end I give them hair and eyes … I don’t create them, I collude with them … they are like imaginary friends.”

Kate:  “There is something quite spooky when character takes over …”

Kate: “I resist the term historical fiction. I avoid it like the plague …. Research shows the contradictions. It doesn’t make sense but I know it happened.

Writing and the arrival of ideas

Emily: “You enter a bubble .. the skin of the world of the book is all around you.”

Kate wrote the outline of her new story on a brown paper bag containing her lunch. Has written ideas on a opened up Panadol packet at a kid’s birthday party.

Sue writes down odd phrases, bits of sentences.

Emily has documents in a computer, and has been known to text ideas to herself if she has no paper.

How to get writing and calm your inner editor

Emily: Just write. “You can’t fix nothing”.

Sue: “I was just writing, I wasn’t trying to make a novel … scene after scene, it made itself into a book … Sometimes the dialogue is right, but it’s been given to the wrong character … Everything is fluid.”

Emily: “Everything is malleable until the last minute”.

Antarctica is all about the science

The Big Chill was a brilliant session about Antarctica. The able and amiable Chair was Ed Butler who knows a bit about this place as the manager of Antarctic Science, Antarctica New Zealand.

Prof Chris TurneyChris Turney is the Professor of Climate Change at the University of New South Wales, and has a particular interest in past and future climate.

Chris talked about his book 1912: The Year the World Discovered Antarctica. In 1912 there were five polar expeditions – The Brits, Norwegians, Australians and Kiwis, Germans and Japanese all went there “to do science”.

Chris loves the ripping yarns associated with the expeditions. There was mapping and scientific measurements – and another layer of personalities and conflict. The German team imploded, there was even “Teutonic threats of duels” and it descended into “real Lord of the Flies stuff”. But the science was invaluable and revealed Antarctica’s involvement in intrinsic ocean circulation.

Veronika MedunaVeronika Meduna is a scientist and journalist and her latest work is Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica. She spoke about Antarctica’s importance in big global systems and how its 4 km thick ice cap “hides an archive of information”. Drilling reveals information on a time beyond even the last days of the dinosaurs.

Rebecca PriestleyRebecca Priestley has a PhD in the history of science. She is working on an anthology of Antarctic science writing to be published next year. Her latest book is Mad on Radium – New Zealand in the Atomic Age and it features an Antarctic component. There was a nuclear reactor at McMurdo in the 1960s called “Nukeypoo”. Given that half of the stuff freighted into Antarctica is fuel, it is understandable that another energy source was trialled. The uranium 235 fuel sources for Nukeypoo were delivered via Lyttelton.

The panellists were asked about science writing. Chris noted that sometimes long accepted anecdotes could be revealed as untrue when you do research. Veronika enjoys uncovering individual bits of science, and then thinks about bringing it all together in one thing. Rebecca said you’ve got to be passionate, but you also have to know when to stop: “It’s as much about what you leave out as what you leave in”.

How do these writers make science accessible? Veronika thinks it becomes readable by including the characters as well as the science. Chris agreed “People are interested in people.” He finds Twitter and social media useful: “trying to encapsulate what you’re doing in 140 characters focuses the mind”. Rebecca likes to employ analogies: “metaphors are often a really great way of describing science”.

The panellists agreed on the concept that Antarctica is “the monitoring station for the health of the planet”.  It “still fuels the imagination” and is “the biggest place where science is the main currency”. They explored the current state of the ice caps.

I think anyone who went to this session will now have these books on their “Damn! I must absolutely read this” list. Bravo science whizzes.

Kate Grenville: “I was about to stop writing”

Kate GrenvilleI was thrilled to interview Kate Grenville, while trying hard not to trip over myself with the eagerness of a fan. Her books are beautifully written and convey a powerful Australian presence and history. Her book, Searching for the secret river, is a fascinating account of the evolution of a novel and the personal quest underlying it.

It was great to find that someone whose work you admire is such a nice person to talk to. She spoke  about the qualities needed to be a writer and what a challenging life it can be. At one point she was ready to give up being a writer because she could not make a living and was not getting the acknowledgement she needed to continue.

You need to enjoy your own company for hours on end. For the long haul of a novel you need to be able to be alone with your thoughts and not need anyone’s input. You need to be able to operate with  a very high threshold for uncertainty because a novel can take years and you don’t know if you’ll have a publishable novel at the end and you need to separate your creative or imaginative work from the need to make a living, not to try and make a living at your creative inner life – that gets very confusing

What is it like winning big prizes (she has won the Orange Prize for The Idea of Perfection and been shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Miles Franklin prizes)? Did it change her life?

The Orange Prize did change my life because I was about to stop writing … I couldn’t afford to go on writing. So I thought I have to listen to what the world is telling me … nobody particularly wants what I am doing. When I wrote The Idea of Perfection it was received in Australia to resounding silence, it didn’t do well. I thought alright that’s it, that’s my last novel, I’ll give up writing.

When a year later the book won the Orange Prize it gave her money and it encouraged her to keep going although by that time she had written most of The Secret River.

Her descriptions of the Australian landscape in her books are striking and I asked her about the importance of the bush to her. She loves the bush and grew up with her family camping out while they built a house, which took many years, going there every school holidays was the best time . Now she has 100 acres of bush and her own bach. When she feels particularly oppressed, she loves driving out there and “some dark thing just rolls away”

Kate’s writing is very sensitive to the issue of Aboriginal Australians. I asked her what she thought about the question of  ownership of a story particularly between cultures.

It’s very important not to tell other peoples’ stories for them particularly if the subject is as uneasy as the colonial heritage. I would never choose to tell an Aboriginal story. We took everything from them, to take their stories seems like the last indignity. I’m careful never to try and get into the heads of my Aboriginal characters or try to tell their stories. These are absolutely the stories of white fella Australians looking at Aboriginal Australians and trying to make sense of them.

When I was writing The Secret River, which was the first of a trilogy, I knew in a way how I was putting my head in a noose because I was writing about a subject in Australia which is still emotionally charged.

She grew up thinking Aborigines had basically died out and was not aware of meeting an indigenous person until she was in her twenties. She expected controversy because they do go head on into the heart of Australian white fella sensibilities.

Her connections in New Zealand include a great great uncle who was a sealer and lived on Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) with his Maori wife and children. Visiting Southland several years was like a pilgrimage into a rather dark bit of family story and it made her feel very connected particularly to Stewart Island. The New Zealand dimenson of Sarah Thornhill actually confronts the issue of stolen generations because when her great great uncle and his wife drowned, their two little girls were taken to Australia and raised away from the only culture and family they had known.

What kind of a relationship do you have with New Zealand?

I feel very warm towards New Zealand. There is something about the people I really respond to. I think its a quality of not worrying about what the rest of the world thinks, particularly in writing and just getting on with producing extraordinary things because you are not worrying  ‘are we world class’ .  You are doing something unique and doing it unselfconsciously.

Do you find yourself being pigeon holed as a historical writer?

I’m not a historical writer, I write fiction set in the past. To me there is a very important distinction. I’m not intrinsically interested in recreating the past, I’m actually writing books about today, the problems that we have today and the reason that we have them today is because of what happened in the past. I’m telling a story about yesterday but the reason I’m writing it is about today. So I resist that label historical novelist. If you look at my books, perhaps only one of them, maybe only one or two of them are not set in the past. I hate being labelled because I don’t enjoy reading historical fiction by which I mean a certain kind – like making a diorama of the past… I would much rather read history than to read that. So I’m writing fiction, its just that its set in the past. I do a huge amount of research so its accurate in general terms.

Have librarians and libraries been important in your life?

The school library at my primary school happened to be in the boys section … I needed a note every time I wanted to go to the library which was every couple of days because I got through books very quickly. That library was a bit of a lifeline for me and the librarian there was very supportive. My local council library also was fantastic. I remember wanting to take out some adult books at an age when I wasn’t an adult and the librarian preparing to say that’s not allowed and changing her mind … I remember her stopping and thinking and saying oh well alright and that was fabulous because I was interested in reading beyond my age. I owe a great debt to libraries and librarians.

Writing for the unknown reader: An Hour with John Boyne

After interviewing John Boyne yesterday morning and asking mostly about his writing for children, I was curious to find out more about his adult novels. I’ve often seen them on the library shelves and wanted to read them, but when you hear an author talk about their books that you haven’t read, it often inspires you grab hold of the books immediately. This was certainly the case with John Boyne’s adult novel The Absolutist.

John focused on this novel  which is about conscientious objectors during the First World War.  He shared an extract from this book and talked about why he wrote this story.  He mentioned that he hadn’t read much about conscientious objectors prior to writing The Absolutist.  Most conscientious objectors would be involved in the war effort in some way, such as working in field hospitals, but John came across the term Absolutist (meaning those conscientious objectors who refused to absolutely anything connected with the war) and he thought it would make a great title.

John wanted to write a novel about the First World War, but didn’t want to recycle any ideas used by other authors.  I think this is something that makes John’s writing stand out, his stories are always unique and he looks at historic events from a completely different point of view.

We also got an insight into writing life of this very disciplined and focused writer.  Each author approaches their writing differently and John is one of those authors who writes every day, grabbing a quick bite to eat as he types. His first three books were planned out before he started writing, but for the last five or six books he only knew the general idea of the story. He mentioned that this approach doesn’t work well for a lot of writers, but with time, it’s much more important to just write and see where it takes you.

He writes short stories occasionally, but finds these incredibly difficult to write, especially the really good ones. He really enjoys the process of writing and “being taken where your imagination leads”. John says that one of the most important things you need to remember as a writer is to “write for the unknown reader” so there can be no in-jokes.  He tends not to return to the same subjects for his books and says ” don’t do sequels”.

When writing for children, he says he wants to write something for a positive message for children and you would never find him writing “something like Twilight”. John is also very active in social media, using his blog, Facebook and Twitter to interact with his fans.

John’s is now working on a 19th century ghost story.  He had been writing  that morning in his hotel room. In it he wants to take all the ghost story cliches and make it something fresh.  He also plans to collaborate on more books with the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. I certainly hope we have many more books from him to look forward to.

Felicity Price: “There must be humour despite the pain”

I caught up with Felicity Price at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival yesterday. The author is here to promote her new book In her Mother’s Shoes which is available through Amazon and Felicity’s website.

Before we started talking about her new work, we had a chat about Felicity’s much loved Penny Rushmore series – Split Time, A Sandwich Short of a Picnic and Head over Heels. Penny is someone many of us can relate to. She’s a woman of a certain age juggling work, relationships, children and elderly parents and trying to keep sane in the process. She seems like a friend to me. I asked Felicity if she was a friend to her too.

Yes, she is. She is also part of me. Penny has to deal with some big issues. I seem to have had a lot to deal with like so many of us have. In A Sandwich Short of a Picnic Penny has a brush with breast cancer. I had a brush with breast cancer. There’s nothing like a threat to your health to make you look at what is important in life and slow down. As women, we try and do too much.

We need to take time to smell the roses.


The Dominion Post describes your work as ‘chick lit meets feminism’. Your work has a bright and breezy tone but holds a serious message.

I believe there must be humour despite the pain. Like life. It’s full of laughter and tears. Penny has to deal with aging parents. She sees her mother suffering from dementia.It’s hard but it does throw up some laugh out loud moments. Many of us are going through this.  It’s hard being the sandwich generation. Just for the record, my own mother doesn’t have dementia – she wants to make it clear she still has all her faculties!

You say on your blog that you seem to be attracted to semi-autobiographical subjects. Could you explain this term?

The great novelists I’m influenced by use their life experience as a background for their stories. Take Dickens for example. Much of David Copperfield is written around events that happened in his life. AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble do a similar thing. It makes the story real. In Her Mother’s Shoes deals with adoption. I was adopted as a child and I wanted to write a book that confronts this issue in my life. I understand how hard it must have been for my birth mother to have come down to Christchurch to have me, she wasn’t even allowed to hold me, then head back up north and say nothing about her pregnancy. She wore a mantle of shame her whole life. In 1996, the law changed which enabled adopted children to seek out their birth mothers. My birth mother had told her husband about me but no one else. She was so scared of what would happen if everyone found out. When I came back in to her life, her family was pleased. They welcomed me. The shame fell away from her and she’s been so much happier since.

How did study at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters last year impact on your writing?

It was wonderful. I wanted to write about this major issue in my life and I needed help to go about it. The course helped  me to structure my writing. It’s a complicated story and needed a lot of organising.

Your publishers weren’t prepared to publish In her Mothers Shoes. Did this surprise you?

No, not really. The novel is not my usual style which they know will sell. The publishing market currently wants Fifty Shades of Grey and vampire romances. In her Mother’s Shoes is neither of these things.

Was it difficult to publish through Amazon?

It’s been really easy and Amazon have been incredibly supportive.

Will there be another Penny Rushmore novel? Has she said goodbye to you yet?

I don’t know. She may have more to say. We’ll have to wait and see.

Did you visit the library when you were a child?

Yes, indeed I did. I have many happy memories of going to the old library building on the corner of Hereford Street and Cambridge Terrace. It was so big and grand, built of red brick. To this day, I always enjoy visiting the library.

Felicity Price is appearing in the session The Stuff of Life with Joanne Harris and Nicky Pellegrino in the Geo Dome on Sunday at 2:00pm.

Make mine a Double Happiness with a supersized side of bullshit

What would life be like without bullshit? Joe Bennett would really like to know and last night to a packed Geodome audience at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival, he filled the stage with a full-scale rant on that very subject.

I’m fifty-five now and everything pisses me off.

And bullshit pisses him off the most, so much so that he has written a book to help us hone our BS detectors and know exactly how we are being manipulated. It is the stunningly named and packaged Double Happiness – How Bullshit Works.

It was a tour de force performance. Bennett was like a compact, enraged, snarling little pit bull terrier. With a beer in one hand and the audience in the other he filled the stage and the room with his booming voice (including a rather endearing little lisp every now and then and the odd spray of spittle). He was very funny as he bullshitted his way through a tirade against commercial, political and religious manipulation.

He took no prisoners: pukekos, Valerie Adams, Coca-cola (aka God), travel advertising and the Olympics all came in for a lampooning. Oh, and Imprezas – he loathes Imprezas.

The seat next to mine was taken at the last minute by a tall and tanned and young (you see where this is heading?) man . He sauntered in at the last minute as if he had just come off a Camel cigarettes photo shoot. With those complicated amber and bone bracelets that signal “I have backpacked barefoot through Cambodia” and a knuckleduster of a turquoise ring, everything about him screamed “I do not come from Christchurch”. In fact with the ease of long experience of airport delays he told us he was Aaron Smith and he’d come to do a recce on Joe who is the Chair at his event at the festival on Saturday. There was something endearing about that and he appeared to thoroughly enjoy the show. But at the end he seemed subdued, as if  he wondered what he had let himself in for. As I left, I leant across and said: “If it gets ugly to-morrow, just remember that he loves dogs!”

The truth is this could have been the shortest blog of the Fest. Just five little words:

You needed to be there.