The Stuff of Life – Laughter, tears and good food

Graham Beattie spoke with Joanne Harris, Nicky Pellegrino and Felicity Price this afternoon at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. It was a highly entertaining session about their work and ‘the magic and joy that can be hidden in the difficult, mundane stuff of everyday life.’

When Joanne Harris heard the topic, she thought the session was about food! She says that when she was eight or nine she decided she wanted to be a writer but her parents tried to dissuade her as their home library was full of works written by nineteenth century Romantic French Poets who had all ‘died penniless in the gutter from syphilis’. She didn’t let that put her off. She says, as a child of a French mother and an English father, she always felt different and her stories always seem to be about ‘someone who doesn’t fit in in one way or another’.

She wrote a ‘little book’ about life in a French village and her agent and publisher didn’t like it. Her publisher said it wouldn’t sell because it was full of old people and ‘no one in Europe really reads. It’s not a proper market.’ He suggested she set her novel in an American city and include lots of young people and sex. Of course, Chocolat went on to become a word-of-mouth bestseller then an Oscar-nominated movie. The experience taught her ‘no one actually knows anything at all’ and she’s continued to write her way. She is ‘fascinated with small communities and the volatile chemistry there’.

Nicky Pellegrino is also of mixed parentage. Her father is Italian and her mother English. Food has always been one of the things that crops up in her books. She believes ‘food is a way we show people we love them.’

In her most recent novel When in Rome, Nicky Pellegrino steps outside her usual approach to writing and bases the story around the life of tenor Mario Lanza. Although more famous that Frank Sinatra in his day, he’s been virtually forgotten. The author felt compelled to tell his story. She says, ‘the line between real life and your story becomes blurred’ which she sees as the most difficult part of historical writing.

Nicky Pellegrino says her work is often called an ‘easy read’ by critics but she says her whole aim is to ‘make the reader forget they’re reading’. She wants to give them a mini break, take them away from the problems in their lives. Nicky Pellegrino describes her work as ‘not chick lit but not hard work either’.

Felicity Price was adopted as a child. She says wine has more to do with her novels than food. She fell in love with writing when she was at school. ‘I would write poetry, bad poetry, during chemistry lessons,’ she says. When she left school, she went into journalism because it would enable her to write.

Her novels are written from the point of view of women – whether this is as wives of historical New Zealand figures or modern women juggling careers, children, husbands, and aging parents. Her Penny Rushmore novels are semi-autobiographical. They explore issues she was facing at the time such as breast cancer or a parent with Alzheimers. Her most recent book In her Mother’s Shoes looks at the issue of adoption and the impact it has on the birth mother, adoptive mother and child.

Felicity Price says she is ‘an advocate for good old fashioned realism in literature’.

These three authors have different approaches to writing but they all create worlds in which their characters play out our fears, hopes, disappointments and triumphs. They take us out of our own reality for a while. They give us a break, they revive and reassure us, so we can regain the strength to get on with the stuff of our lives.

There were four in the bed and the little one said …

The four in the coffee shop – Jolisa Gracewood, Tim Wilson, Laurence Fearnley and Carl Nixon.

From huts to heaven at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a close-up-and-personal event at the YMCA. The writers all met up at the next door coffee shop for a relaxed chat before the start, and that kind of set the tone. Inside the cosy venue, the stage  was crowded with big chairs and individual craning mikes and a precariously perched pot of yellow bulbs right over Laurence’s head. Jolisa joked that they looked like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young about to break into harmony. But no, the three New Zealand writers, with Jolisa as the Chair, were there to discuss novel writing in New Zealand to-day.

Carl Nixon kicked off with a reading from his new and yet to be published historical romance The Virgin and the Whale. Tim quipped: “It’ll sell better if you re-title it The Virgin’s in the Mail” but Carl is a brave man and just kept reading. Set in “Mansfield” (another name for Christchurch Carl freely admits), the narrator has a chatty, almost flippant tone which Carl hopes will help to lighten the book in the way that Kiwi authors are always being encouraged to do. The reading was warmly received – good luck with the rest of it Carl! Of all the writers it is Carl who has so far had the most success in getting some interest going in the publication of his books overseas.

Tim Wilson has been away from New Zealand for six years working as TV New Zealand’s US correspondent. He said coming back home was like returning to paradise – visually restful, clean and nice smelling. He read from a short story of his called Coming and Going which tackles the topic of Kiwis returning home after periods away, agreeing with Jolisa that it is people who get in the way of returning and resettling. As for the oft proffered advice that New Zealand writers need to lighten up and write for a more international audience, he quoted Tim Parks who said:

Writers write for the whole world, it is readers who are parochial.

Then it was the turn of the little one, who did not say “Roll Over”. In fact Laurence Fearnley is the most prolific of the three authors with eight books published and rolling over is so not what she does. “I only ever write for myself” she said. To Laurence writing is magical, looking at the book you have published in your hand, well – you come over all tingly. There is no better feeling. She read a very moving passage from her latest prizewinning novel The Hut Builder.

So far none of Laurence’s books has been published overseas (and this is a crying shame – trust me). She gets told that they are too New Zealand and, she believes, possibly too sad. Everyone wants jolly and Laurence does not really do jolly.

I start writing a book and I try to do a happy book and happy characters. But then something goes wrong.

Question time brought out an interesting crop, amongst them the issue of multiculturalism in Pakeha writing which was carefully considered by all three authors. The general consensus was that it would be a terrible strain for the writers to have central characters as Maori just because they don’t really know what that feels like and it would be so easy to get it wrong.

The final question came from a woman who confessed she’d not read any of their books but …

Quick as, Tim interjected:

You only have to buy them. You don’t have to read them!

And that’s the end of the Fest for me. It has been great!

Chris Turney: scientist, adventurer, storyteller

Scientist and storyteller, what a magical combination from  Chris Turney, author of 1912, the year the world discovered Antarctica. His session at  The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a delight for this most non-scientific of librarians.

Clearly 1912 was a crucial year for Antarctic exploration and research, with five expeditions in the Southern continent, four trying to reach the pole and one exploring the western Antarctic. In 1912 little was known about Antarctica, scientists were not even sure it was one continent. The Scott/Amundsen race is iconic of course, but how many of us know about the homicidal Germans, the unlucky Japanese and the combined Australian/ New Zealand team lead by Sir Douglas Mawson.

In 1912, the adventurer had to persuade both the scientific establishment and the general public to back an expedition, there was no government support. Mawson, who was only 28, was clearly a super fundraiser, netting over $20million US in today’s money.

Scott’s dedication to science lead to his team hauling 16kgs of rocks back from the Beardmore Glacier, even as they struggled to survive. They ditched equipment but not the rocks. This tale was supported by many others during Chris’s lively session and you could do no better than read the book  and look at his website which has lots of resources including film from the early expeditions. He even has his own YouTube channel so there is a feast for science and Antarctic junkies.

Chris is inspired by the fundraising skills of the early explorers and is involved in the privately funded Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013-2014. Marking 100 years since Mawson’s expedition the aim is “Taking a team of 30 women and men south, the new Australasian Antarctic Expedition will set out for two remote parts of Antarctica – Heard Island and Enderby Land – both of which have seen relatively little exploration over the past hundred years and for which we have few scientific measurements.” Anyone can join in supporting this.

Accessing the creative mind – How fiction writers write

Wow! How can I begin to describe Sue Woolfe‘s workshop Discovering the Power of One’s Own Voice? Insightful? Inspiring? Life changing? Let’s say, all of those things.

Sue Woolfe is an award winning Australian author who teaches creative writing at the University of Sydney. Festival organiser and director of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Morrin Rout, introduced the session by telling the  eagerly awaiting participants how lucky we were to be able to attend one of Sue Woolfe’s workshops. I heartily agree with her.

Sue Woolfe started the workshop by quoting publishing phenomenon, Stephen King, who said ‘Plot is the last resort of the good writer and the dullard’s first choice.’  This statement turns on its head any traditional notion of story writing which tells you take a blank page, write Chapter One at the top of it, start at the beginning and keep on going until the story is finished. Most budding authors facing this prospect don’t know where to start, feel they’re stupid and give up.

Early in her career, Sue Woolfe realised this approach didn’t work for her. She wrote her first novel,  Painted Woman, in what she describes as a haphazard fashion. She wrote fragments here, bits there and then put it all together. She spoke to fellow author, Kate Grenville, about this and discovered she did a similar thing. They decided to investigate further and interviewed other authors. In 1993, they published Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written. The results were conclusive – all these authors wrote haphazardly. It appears this is the way to write fiction.

The first thing writers need to do is still the mind. The imagination is a huge resource we seldom access. We live in our logical brain, ordering, sorting, reasoning, planning. To access our imagination we need to still the mind. There is neurological evidence to support this. In 1975, Colin Martindale investigated the thought processes of people he called Creatives and Non-Creatives. He asked them to think of  ‘table’. The Creatives all started with a stage of low brain activity before they burst into action. The Non-Creatives kept brain activity at a steady rate. The Creatives used more mental range. Their associations were more varied and unexpected.

In the workshop, Sue Woolfe encouraged us to still our minds and start blurting – let it all out. She set exercises which involved observing a real person in profile and imagining what was on the other side of her face. She got the person to leave the room. Where has she gone? Who is she meeting? Write freely and don’t edit anything until you’ve discovered your story. And then, edit only for suspense. ‘Plot goes on only at the end like a beautiful mantle,’ she says. ‘And that is why it is the last resort of good writers.’

If you’d like to read more about neuroscience and writing, get your hands on a copy of The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady. If you’d like to see how Sue Woolfe’s theory translates into practice, her new novel The Oldest Song in the World is a treat for lovers of literary fiction. Her website is informative and, if you ever get the chance to attend one of her workshops, go for it!

Fatal Attraction: Murder, mayhem and bunny boilers

Fatal Attraction: A manly panel of Michael RobothamJulian Novitz, Ben Sanders and local lad Paul Cleave at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival talking about writing crime fiction. Host Craig Sisterson noted the abundance of testosterone and I can also report lots of hairy bits. Beards, stubble and sideys are IN with the crime scribes. I don’t think the issue of what to wear on-stage had been filling the panel’s every waking hour, minute or even second, but slightly rumpled casual is oh-so-wearable and bang on-trend for Spring 2012. Likewise the shoes were solid, macho and in need of a good polish. No flak jackets or commando trews which I was disappointed by but points perhaps to the fact that these guys write crime not thrillers. I was amused to hear one festival helper/author wrangler had chided 22 year-old Aucklander Ben Sanders on wearing just a cotton shirt for a day in chilly Christchurch. No layers. The madness!

Now, the questions:

Why write crime?

For most of the panelists this was not a conscious choice. Michael Robotham didn’t initially see his novel Suspect as crime writing. However his publishers marketed it as such and his book-deal stipulated that he had to write subsequent book in a similar style. So crime it was. Likewise Julian Novitz’s Little Sister has a murder at the centre of the novel but it was his publishers who wanted to promote the literary crime elements. Paul Cleave wanted to write horror but his publishers marketed The Cleaner as crime. Only Ben Sanders identified crime as his target genre, wanting to emulate his favourite writers such as Lee Child, Michael Connelly etc. Michael Robotham and Julian Novitz were respectively prosaic and intrigued by the marketing decisions around genre but Novitz added he was “happy to be in any section, in any bookstore”.

Is genre fiction perceived as inferior?

Yes and erroneously seemed to be the consensus. Ben Sanders pointed to the misconception that crime writers have the same goals as literary novelists, he sees them as different creatures entirely. Michael Robotham said it was important to compare like with like and that often he sees the worst of crime being balanced against the best of literary. Julian Novitz wanted any novel he read to be fresh and not formulaic regardless of genre, while Paul Cleave felt that the general standard of crime writing was rising all the time. Host Craig Sisterson used Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels as an example of crime fiction using real-life themes and providing valuable social commentary. Likewise Michael Robotham and Paul Cleave have used a variety of real themes is their work: People trafficking, the global financial crisis, racism, youth drinking etc

Can you write a crime novel without a murder?

Ben Sanders’s gave an emphatic no, adding “homicide lends crime fiction its sizzle”. If nobody died in one of his books Paul Cleave would expect a lot of concerned calls from his friends and family about what was up with him. He added that the choice of victim not the murder per se was the critical issue in writing crime. Michael Robotham’s wife finds his tendency to bump off characters she likes infuriating, she’ll put the book down and punch him saying “bring them back you bastard”! Like Sanders he sees murder as the ultimate transgression and one that most crime novels must address.

Fun and relaxed, this session had a skimpy audience. It deserved more.

Joanne Harris: Living and breathing stories

This afternoon I spoke with internationally renowned author Joanne Harris. I must admit I was star struck.  As time for our interview approached, I found myself getting rather nervous. I needn’t have worried. Joanne Harris is every bit as approachable and engaging as her novels.

The author was here at The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival to talk about her latest novel, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, and her new short story compilation, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String.

Peaches is the third novel featuring her character, Vianne Rocher. The author believes Vianne’s popularity may be because she’s open to change and she isn’t perfect. ‘Vianne makes mistakes and people can relate to that,’ she says.

In this novel, Vianne comes up against her old rival, Francis Reynaud, but it seems life has taught him a few lessons since Chocolat. Even before Vianne arrives in Lansquenet, the priest acknowledges she has taught him ‘it’s better to bend a little than be broken’. His role in the church is under threat and he’s in need of an ally.  ‘I never saw him as a bad man,’ says the author, and she was surprised many readers thought of him that way. In Peaches, he becomes a hero in the end proving that we all have the potential for good and bad within us.

Joanne Harris admits she is one of those authors like Charles Dickens whose characters talk to her and tell her their stories. She says she likes her characters to have some autonomy. This makes writing interesting although it can be challenging at times especially if they head off in unexpected directions. She feels Vianne may still have more stories to tell but when is anyone’s question.

Lansquenet has also changed since the Chocolat days. The River Rats have gone and a Moroccan community has established itself at Les Marauds. Spices and incense merge with the scent of peaches and chocolate. There are some wonderful passages in the novel where people build friendships by sharing food. Joanne Harris believes that the enjoyment of food is shared by all people. Even the unhappy priest enjoys his peaches. The Catholics and the Muslim communities each have their unique rituals, festivals and beliefs but the needs of people to enjoy life and be accepted by others are the same.

Joanne Harris was once asked what three items she’d take with her to a desert island. She replied, ‘A cat, a hat and a piece of string. I’d bring the cat for company. The hat for shelter from the sun. The piece of string has multiple purposes, including to amuse the cat, or to keep the hat on in a high wind.’

But this is only one idea. She mischievously suggests one could kill the cat with the string and make a goulash in the hat. There are thousands of possibilities. This sparked her imagination and has become the title of the author’s new collection of short stories. Although they may initially seem unconnected, there are links within them to her novels and to each other. This reflects her belief that stories exist as ‘unfinished maps to as-yet-undiscovered worlds’. She is always on the lookout for new ones and wouldn’t be surprised if New Zealand inspires a tale or two.

As a child, Joanne Harris visited the local library because it was the only place she could find English novels. She was scared of the strict librarian there who wouldn’t let her borrow from the adult collection. They eventually came up with an arrangement whereby the young Joanne could read one adult novel if she completed three children’s ones but this adult book would have to be censored by the librarian. Joanne Harris laments the loss of libraries in the UK and has joined the ranks of authors rallying to support of these ‘essential places of community and culture’.

I apologised on behalf of Christchurch for not having a building to hold our Writers Festival in. Joanne assured me that it is quite the norm in England to stage festivals in marquees as the bigger book festivals attract thousands of people.

The author has enjoyed her time in Christchurch and looks forward to coming back and visiting us again. If you’d like to hear more from the author before then, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @JoanneChocolat– she’s a keen tweeter and always has something uplifting to say.

“I prefer books to be like a walk up a hill, rather than a walk down a hill”: Laurence Fearnley

I met up with Laurence Fearnley in a coffee shop for a chat about her writing and her books. She asked: “How will I know who you are?” and I replied: “I’ll be wearing 50 shades of purple”. Pity you can’t see the shoes in the photo!

When I arrived in New Zealand from South Africa twelve years ago, one of the things that I lost was my sense of place.  When I started to read New Zealand authors, and your books in particular, I was oddly comforted to realise that I might well have lost my place, but I had instead found yours! So I’d like to start by asking you to tell me something about your sense of place in New Zealand.

That’s a good question and I do know exactly what you mean. My parents came to New Zealand from Manchester and I always felt that we were somehow outside of that experience of the outdoors that all my friends had. My friends would go to motor camps and do that whole Kaiteriteri thing, whereas we always seemed to be a bit more introspective in the way that we went tramping and camping in little tents and things. I think that rather than just assuming a connection to the country, it was that thing of really trying to make sense of it and understand it in a way.

And I think also as I’ve got older and I’ve become more aware of the Maori connection to the land and how you fit in as a Pakeha and all that, my connection has become even stronger. And now I just feel as though I am extremely connected to the land . This is my place and I feel as if I belong here. When I go overseas this is the place I always want to come back to.

A bit like Dean in Butler’s Ringlet where he says: “God’s own country, all right. I’d rather die than leave it.” But if circumstances dictated that you had to live in another country, as happened to me, how would you go about establishing connections to the land in that new place?

My husband and I lived in Germany for 4 years in a town in Bavaria and I would have to say that I really didn’t feel any connection at all to the place except when I was out in the landscape. And the connections came about when I focused in on a much smaller plot of land. Like looking at the grass, the dirt and listening to the birds – but I think I would have to have been there a lot longer  to start to feel any connection. So it isn’t easy. I’ve been back to England as well and I feel no connection whatsoever, it feels like a completely foreign country to me.

I find your writing very visual, are you a visual/images person?

I’ve got a very good visual memory. I was really good at Art History because I could remember the pictures! I like looking at things and I like cinema and film and I also like gathering up images. When I am writing a book it’s kind of like gathering up images and arranging them in an album rather than using words.  And I think it’s basically because I don’t see myself as a very articulate writer. I think there are some writers who are  very good with words – they are often British writers. They can always find the right word.

I tend to create something by either getting into character or by seeing the surroundings and placing the character in those surroundings. I’m not a wordy person, I’ve got no ear for music, I can’t write poetry at all and I’m not very coordinated but I am good at sitting and looking. I like to see what’s in front of me and then look as deeply as I can into that, whereas more articulate people tend to look around the thing in front of them – to mold it into what they want. I like delving into things, the detail, the heart of the thing.

I’ve read all your books, but Butler’s Ringlet remains my absolute favourite.

It’s my favourite too!

When I picked up that book, my first thought was that this was a very brave writer. The cover is arty but not immediately eye-catching and I didn’t have any idea what the words Butler’s Ringlet meant. Then when I flicked through it, I saw all the black and white photos embedded in the text I thought: this wasn’t produced to be sold at book stores in airport departure lounges. This writer is so brave!  Are you a brave writer?

No, but I think that because writing takes such a long time (each of my books has taken up to a year to write) I will always write books that I want to write rather than trying to second guess the audience. I always write for myself, I don’t write for anybody else. Butler’s Ringlet was a hard book to write, I wrote it when I was living in Germany. I was feeling quite distant from New Zealand and I came back for a holiday and just loved being back.  It was that feeling of being torn, having to be in Germany because that’s where my husband was but really just wanting to be in New Zealand. So it was like that thing: Can you love a place more than a person?

How do you manage to swing those really good covers that you get?

The Butler’s Ringlet cover is one of my photographs and I did have a lot of say in that one. That car was in a ditch near Mosgiel. I took the photo and when I went back a week later, it was gone! Marketing does play a bigger and bigger part in cover designs these days, they seem to have become more blatant and vulgar.

The characters in your books seem to fall into one of two camps for me. They either live in the moment in an almost spiritual way or it’s the negative form of that: they don’t even seem to want to change. Which do you think it is?

Some of my characters just cannot live any other way than the way that they do. They just are. They are inarticulate but deep thinkers, stoic if you like. And then you get characters that are sort of dropped into a fast-moving river, like Maggie in The Mother’s Day and she’s just trying to struggle along. There’s kind of like external forces working on her. I quite like those characters too because I think modern day readers are getting impatient with characters who don’t just get a grip. They want them to get over it, move on, all that sort of stuff. They can’t be bothered with characters who are just doing the best they can. For many, many good reasons they can’t suddenly become what the reader would like them to be.

As a writer, can you ever really relax? Is writing quite stressful?

It’s kind of more magical. It’s kind of more tingly. My process is to write a book in a year and then the next year I kind of take off and spend it thinking about the next book. There’s something magical about getting the ideas for a book together and you let them just lie there and then , for some reason, some of them just stick. You don’t know what’s making them stick. It’s a gut intuitive reaction.

Usually I get about a third of the way through a book and then I completely lose it and have no idea what to do next. I like that because I like books that show a bit of struggle. I like books to be like a walk up a hill rather than a walk down a hill. I like that sense of watching where I’m going as opposed to dawdling along with my hands in my pockets.

Books need to have a feeling (if not of struggle) at least of tension and anticipation and uncertainty as to where the book is going to go next. I don’t like those really polished books, even if they are well written. I start to feel manipulated. I don’t like it if I feel that the author is being too clever. Like Ian McEwan maybe, so clever and self assured. There’s a coldness to writers like that.

How about libraries – any thoughts on them?

I love libraries! I loved when Christchurch library was … in the old building opposite the Police Station. We used to go there when we were kids from a very early age. It was a fantastic library. My dad, who really like art, used to take me into the grown-up section and show me the art books. It was such a thrill. I always go into libraries when I travel overseas as well. I love Melbourne Library Reading Room. I also love going in the stack areas. Sometimes you get books in Dunedin Library which are really old, published in 1891 and you can still take them out.  I find that very moving. Although I have an e-reader, I like real books best. There’s no doubt about that.

Christchurch – this week in history (3 – 9 September)

4 September 2010
The Darfield earthquake woke Canterbury at 4:35am. The magnitude 7.1. quake was centred 40km west of Christchurch.

5 September 1987
Canterbury Rowing Club 125th anniversary – believed to be the oldest sports club in New Zealand.

Opening of the season at the Canterbury Rowing Club [1893]
The view is north from Ward’s Brewery, on the corner of Kilmore Street and Fitzgerald Avenue. Beyond are the boathouses of the Avon and United Clubs.
6 September 1980
$9.5 million Wijenburgh Icon exhibition  opens at Robert McDougall Art Gallery.

7 September 1850
First Canterbury Association settlers sail from Plymouth, England on the Charlotte Jane, Randolph, Cressy and the Sir George Seymour.

7 September 1863
City’s first murder trial. G. Lumley convicted of manslaughter. ( see Monday September 7 1863 Supreme Court in Lyttelton Times, 9 September 1863 via Papers Past)

More September events in our Christchurch chronology.