“Journalism needs mongrels”: Tim Wilson and Martin van Beynen

Martin van Beynen and Tim WilsonThe world ends, and the world carries on.

Tim Wilson (New York based correspondent for TVNZ) and Martin van Beynen (senior writer at The Press) have something in common – they’ve both journalists who have written books. They spoke at the On the spot session at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. For both, their experience of the human response to disasters was central to their book. They took the stage with Philip Matthews, senior writer at The Press, as chair.

Philip asked Tim and Martin about their biggest stories. For Martin, it was the 22 February 2011 earthquake. He was driving to work, and saw an apple fall from a tree. He drove towards town to see what had happened “I didn’t think too much about my family”. He was very conscious of getting images:

I knew just how powerful they would be.

Martin talked about the situation for reporters after the 22 Feb earthquake. They had to make the decision to go into work (for the biggest story of their life) or to deal with the home front.

For Tim, it was Hurricane Katrina. He noted that when communications are down in a disaster and the helicopter view is not available: ‘You don’t know where the big story is’.

In the big New York power blackout, people would just look at their phones in disbelief:

Normal service will be resumed shortly, but normal is over.

Trauma and creativity

Do journalists get traumatised by reporting on disasters? Martin says you couldn’t do the job if you became emotionally involved in every story. People are willing to talk to journalists – but Tim reckons there is a spectrum from reticience to oversharing.

Martin’s book was a responsibility (he spoke to people who had been trapped after the 22 February earthquake):

People had trusted me to tell their story in a very professional and gripping way. I had to do my best with these people.

Does journalism encourage creativity? Martin reckons its a fairly good training ground. Tim wonders a bit, as journalism can encourage cliche and hyperbole:

Journalists never expresses grey emotions, they express primal Greek emotions.

Journalism as a career

Tim talked about his career.

I wanted to be a poet when I was a festering young man.

He was a taxi driver, and entered a Metro competition and as the co-winner.

Journalism school is a rort … you can’t train for curiosity, aggression, callousness, functional alcoholism …

He got into working into TV. The story involved having someone else’s cellphone, and a call from Pam Corkery.

Martin had been a lawyer, amongst other things, but did a journalism course when he was about 30.

The future of journalism

There will always be a market for good journalism.

Martin and Tim talked about the “terrible, transitional phase”  we are in – paywalls locking up content and the decline of investigative journalism.

David Bain

Discussion turned to Martin’s reportage of the David Bain case. He attended the trial and thought:

I saw all the evidence … I think he’s guilty. I think he executed his own family.

His article “seemed to touch a nerve” with the public.

What does journalism need?

As the eminently quotable Mr Tim Wilson says:

Journalism needs mongrels.

Notes on a paper bag and 24 drafts: Kate Grenville

book coverYou can’t help liking a writer who has spent four days in town and has clearly got out and about to explore. Kate Grenville, whose session at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival this morning was a smasher, has popped in to festival sessions, visited Sumner (admiring the view back to the mountains and the lenticular cloud display yesterday), walked to the South City Mall, visited Central Library Tuam and has been wearing a vibrant knitted scarf throughout which she picked up in the Worcester Boulevard market.

Kate Grenville, with Owen Marshall as chair, talked about her writing process and the historical and personal background to her work.  An inspirational place to start is Searching for the secret river, the book about how she came to write The Secret River:

No cure for the bite of the past.

Her latest book Sarah Thornhill has dramatic connections to New Zealand. She was thinking about a followup to The Secret River but had not written anything when she visited Auckland and climbed Rangitoto. There she had an”oogyboogie moment” when a voice spoke to her and dictated the outline of the book and the first two sentences. This is not something that usually happens to her. She wrote it down on the only paper to hand – her lunchbag , which she produced.

One of those sentences is about the little half Maori girl who arrives on the Hawkesbury River after being taken from her home in Southland after the death of her parents:

None of us knew how to say her name so we called her Betty

This story is the heart of the book for its impact on Sarah Thornhill who realises the wrongs of the massacres of Aboriginals and stolen children like Betty cannot be repaired but at least the truth can be told. This is Kate Grenville’s philosophy too.

Kate  did indeed write 24 drafts of Sarah Thornhill, by draft 12 she had a sense of the book and could continue to shape it. She encourages people to write because you really want to know what happens and worry about your audience later.

This was a great session from a writer who believes “pbooks” will endure but embraces ebooks as well. Fans of her work will be pleased to know there is another book underway based on her mother’s memoirs of her family. It is struggling to take shape but anything is possible with Kate Grenville.

The pivotal role of silk knickers

Friday evening’s Festival session with John Lanchester in conversation with Rod Oram saw a capacity crowd in the GeoDome. What had the potential to be a depressing comment on Western society was immediately set on a different track when Rod, introducing his guest and talking about the fall of the West, said, “Sorry if I sound excited, but I am!”, and then went on to talk about silk knickers. Those who had read Lanchester’s book Capital clearly understood the reference, but there were a few slightly startled expressions in the audience as well. Oram did promise that by the end of the session he would return to the knickers, and with that assurance the questions started.

Lanchester started writing Capital before the bubble burst, saying he knew that at some point the boom would turn to bust, but he ended up effectively writing ‘in real time’. Oram asks about the connection between Capital, published this year, and Lanchester’s non-fiction commentary on the global financial crisis, Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay (2011).  Lanchester says,

You can do anything you like in a novel, but you you can’t explain: explanations break fiction.

He says that fiction has to feel true, without necessarily being true, unlike in real life, where things often don’t feel true but are. (I think to myself, that could pretty much sum up Christchurch’s experience of the last two years).  There’s more talk about some of the words that came up in the session with Chris Cleave on Thursday – obliviousness, and Shaw’s concept of the suspension of disbelief. Lanchester points out that in some ways this could be a mitigating factor for the behaviour of the super-rich financiers and those economists who have toppled us into this crisis.  I’m not sure that the audience buys into this, but he says whatever their actions, they did (mostly) believe in what they were doing – it’s just that there was a fundamental flaw in their model of the world.

So many thoughts and words and ideas to try to sum up from this session – Lanchester talks about the ‘prioritisation of fragmentation’: the increased speed of living which means that all of us feel we are running faster and faster just to stay in place; the shift from economics being about philosophy and ethics, to being just about mathematics, and the belief that economists stopped asking questions about how things work because they thought they’d figured it all out, that they ‘understood’ the market, and the world.

Oram asks a question about the state of play in Europe and whether we should be afraid.  Lanchester says a total meltdown in Europe would have terrible consequences for everyone in the world, not just the Northern hemisphere.  He says we are really close to the cliff edge, and that fundamentally we are just waiting for Germany to get the chequebook out.  He thinks eventually Greece will default and be kicked out, and that then Germany will use that as leverage.

There are questions about rising inequality, about the Occupy movement (it’s a harbinger, not an anomaly), and the trickledown effect (“manifestly not true”).  Lanchester notes, “Luxury by definition is completely pointless, but we talk ourselves into believing it’s essential: ‘If I could just have that, I’d be happy’.”  (Back to the silk knickers at this point).

Lanchester’s answer to Oram’s final question: What do you think about foreign investment bankers? brought a quote from a previous session with Chris Cleave: “Hanging’s too good for them …”, which was met with thunderous applause from the audience; and with that the session was over.  And thanks to all for another thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging hour at the Festival!

Fiction writer bends time: Emily Perkins

Kate Grenville, Sue Woolfe and Emily PerkinsSaturday 9.30am – people will get out of bed for Emily Perkins. A healthy crowd filled the YMCA venue and they were treated to a great session. Novelist Rachael King was the perfect host (Emily’s exact contemporary) and it was a conversation between two fine New Zealand writers.

Both Emily and Rachael were born in 1970, and coincidentally it is the only year ever mentioned in The Forrests. Throughout the novel, Emily doesn’t mention the year, or get too absorbed in period detail – it is a story of feelings and relationships, and gives only clues to the passing of time. Otherwise it could be:

Then Dorothy strapped her hovercraft to her back …

The move from London to Auckland has an impact on Emily’s work. She felt on a high from lushness and colour, and the seasonal change from a sludgy wet winter to spring “everything crisps up and becomes tingly”.

Rachael pointed how well Emily evokes an atmosphere, and the centrality of language. Expressions like “prinkling” and unusual words just came to her:

I wanted the language to have the texture that life has … I wanted to be open to the weirdness of language.

One of the titles that influenced her was The Ask by Sam Lipsyte with its exhilarating “open loose wave” of language.

The discussion turned to Emily’s attention to detail:

I do love the writing that’s about things … the concrete surrounds of our lives … paying attention in an acute way to daily domestic details is of value. We spend most of our time being very ordinary.

One of the lovely things we can do as fiction writer is bend time.

The structure of the novel is interesting:

Things do accrue and add up and come to a different kind of significance.

Emily noted that in life anything can happen, and that we in Christchurch know that better than most …

It’s a discontinuous narrative, because “our lives aren’t a narrative”. Philosophers suggest there are two camps – those who see life as a continuous narrative with a trajectory, and those who say “Was that me then?” Certain things we experience very fully, and then shed. Lives not lived also provide narrative tension.

Emily discussed the novel’s origins. The Forrests began as a 50,000 word MA thesis, with no chapter breaks. It was then expanded and she had to decide between the primacy of structure and another unusual, experimental element she wouldn’t tell us about (because she may use it in another work). She chose structure, and made it easier to connect with.

Taking questions from the floor,  I asked about the novel’s ecstatic ending. She mentioned Damien Wilkins, who said endings should “turn up the volume”.

This was a brilliant session – the only improvement would have been making it a two hour gig with Emily and Rachael swapping roles halfway through. They were both brilliant at getting to the core of creativity.

Is the term YA creating a barrier for teens?

My final session at The Press Christchurch Writer’s Festival session this morning was probably the one that I was most looking forward to. Three great writers, John Boyne, Jane Higgins, and Helen Lowe, sat down with James Norcliffe to talk about YA or Young Adult fiction.

After a very detailed introduction, James Norcliffe asked each of the authors whether YA was a word used to describe their writing. John Boyne felt that YA is very much a term used by publishers, media and bookshops, and that putting labels on books tend to exclude people. John doesn’t think of himself as a ‘YA author’ and doesn’t really know how to write for a 14 year-old.  He alternates his writing between a novel for adults and then a novel for a young audience, and his younger books have featured an 8 or 9 year-old protagonist.  He is ‘not interested in categories, just whether it’s a good story or not.’

Jane Higgins didn’t read YA fiction when she was a teenager, preferring adult science fiction writers, books that weren’t ‘tagged as a young person’s read.’  Jane doesn’t think that we are helping teens by having walls between YA and adult fiction, but she does think that it’s important to have guides, like librarians, who can point them in the direction of a new book or author.

When Helen Lowe sits down to write, she doesn’t consciously consider her audience.  She was quite surprised when Thornspell (her first published novel) was published as a children’s title, and when people tell her that her Wall of Night series is young adult.  As a teen, Helen would read anything she could get her hands on, and reading adult books got her thinking about hard issues and the way the world is.  Helen wondered if the thing that makes a book YA is that the protagonists are teens.

Each of the authors then discussed whether they thought there was a genuine divide between adult and teen writing or whether YA is just a marketing term. John pointed out that marketing for YA books relies on the fact that they’re in a series (look at Twilight or The Hunger Games for example). John’s books all have natural endings and he said that he doesn’t have any ideas for series, and he doesn’t really want to write a series. Jane highlighted the extremely careful marketing campaign for The Hunger Games, which developed over time.  They figured out how they wanted to market it and released reviews at specific times.  Jane wondered if, by having a specific area of a bookshop or library set aside as “Young Adults'”we are saying ‘this is your area of the bookshop. This is where you go.’

The teen reading habits of boys also came up in the conversation. John pointed out that boys read a huge amount between 8 and 12 years of age, and that in order for them to keep reading in their teens, we have to keep giving boys good stories to read. He is keen to get boys reading, because books changed his life. As a writer, Jane said that it’s dangerous to say ‘this is a book for boys and I’ll put this in it’ or vice versa. As John pointed out in his session, you have to write for the unknown reader. Helen said that you shouldn’t underestimate boys.  They like quality stories and believable characters too and they’ll pick up on any inconsistencies. One thing that all the authors agreed on was that their goal is to break barriers.  They want boys and girls to be reading the same books.

To end the session, James asked the authors if there were any ‘no-go’ areas in writing for teens.  John suggested that there aren’t any no-go areas, only different approaches to subject matter. John feels that he doesn’t want to write about puberty ‘so if you set the story before then, say around 8 or 9 years, boys and girls can just be friends.’  Helen mentioned that at any age there are things that go over our heads when we read, like the icky things when we’re younger, and we take different things from books at different ages.

Jane’s last comment summed up the whole session for me – ‘Reading at that age is finding stuff you love.  If you don’t like it, you’ll go and find something else.”  So whether we have specific areas for YA in our libraries or bookshops, or group books for teens under the term ‘YA’, in the end, they’ll find something they want to read.

Bringing the story back to the tribe – travel writing today

Three men on a stage. One very puckish –  I swear he must have little cloven hooves and carry a lyre in his back pocket. That’s Joe Bennett who is chairing today’s session on travel writing (Wish you weren’t here). Next to him sits the enigmatic, ever-smiling and Buddha-like Patrick Holland. And centre right, casually draped all over the furniture we have an astonishingly Christ-like looking Aaron Smith. Scene set. This should be good, so I settle in for the ride.

Ever since P.J.O’Rourke wrote Holidays in Hell, I have been a sucker for travel writing that knocks the stuffing out of all the “Wish You Were Here” pretty postcards, and instead takes you by the scruff  in more of a  “Postcards from the Edge” kind of a way.

Multi-lingual Patrick Holland has written the meditative Riding the Trains in Japan. He regards himself as a fiction writer but as many other authors have pointed out at this festival, the boundaries between these two great classifications are becoming fudged. He says that though most of his travels might seem like nice little adventures, some – like standing on the roadside in the Gobi desert at minus 35 degrees – are more like the nineth circle of hell.

Aaron Smith’s Shanti Bloody Shanti is more of a rollicking adventure in India with all the smells, the hawking, the chaos and the danger. Smith claims :

I can take most things on the chin, but not before brekkie.

Joe wasn’t going to let that pass unchallenged and came back with:

I don’t remember any mornings in your book at all, let alone brekkies and you never seemed to wash your smalls either!

Patrick Holland

Patrick just smiled.

Both men travel as unplanned as possible. In fact, Holland ended up riding the trains in Japan because he couldn’t find any accommodation in Kyoto during festival time. Now he’s got a book to show for it. Smith was fleeing his shady Australian past when he first pitched up in India, I think we can safely say he’d not booked ahead for an Ibis room.

The spirituality of the East was one of the topics the two authors found fascinating. Holland took the totally uncompromising stand that absolutely everything in Japan (and Vietnam) is spiritual. Even the dogs bark differently at ghosts than they do at a living man. Smith however, feared that with encroaching industrialisation and improved communications this will slowly be eroded. He himself went to India a confirmed atheist and left it a confused agnostic:

I now realise I know nothing.

There was only time for one question from the floor and the poor man asked what they thought of Lonely Planet guides (he was a huge fan). Joe went for the jugular and said Lonely Planet guides were as bad, nay worse, than travelling on a cruise ship for retired accountants. Aaron said he threw his out of the window of a train in India because a Jamaican Rastafarian had said “you don’ need that mon”.

That’s what travel writers do, the same that storytellers have done throughout time: they bring the story back to the tribe.

I bought both their books. It just didn’t seem right to choose one over the other.