Jackie French – WORD Christchurch

Jackie FrenchWhat do cheese, Juliet and wombats have in common? Australian children’s laureate and prolific storyteller Jackie French has written about all of them, and all were discussed in her session this morning along with history, Hitler and Hamlet. But most of all, she talked about the importance of reading.

When you have books, you have the power to create the future.

Reading to children

We need to keep reading to children past the point where they themselves learn to read; their understanding and their reading level are often mismatched, and there’s nothing that will put someone off reading more than being given simplistic, boring texts when they’re capable of understanding The Lord of the Rings. We need to read to them until they’re telling us to stop, it’s too embarrassing now.

With the best intentions, we could be giving our children the wrong books. What are the wrong books? (Is there such a thing?) Books that will put their children off reading, books that kids Should Read because it’s Good For You (what an attractive prospect), books, in short, that their children don’t want to read. Jackie suggested letting children find their own books — letting them loose in a bookshop or a library and seeing what fires them up. It doesn’t matter if it’s non-fiction or fiction or if it’s The Day My Bum Went Psycho or Jane Eyre, as long as they find a book that they can’t stop reading, that’s enough. They’re hooked. As an example she talked of a teacher who had tirelessly found and purchased books specifically to meet the needs of Jackie (and considering the way she inhales books, that’s impressive).

Hatred is contagious, but kindness can be, too.Pennies for Hitler - Jackie French

When discussing Pennies for Hitler and Hitler’s Daughter, she asked: How do you know what is good when you are 14? We’re a product of our society, our upbringing and our history. If you’ve been fed false information, how are you to know what is right without the benefit of wide reading and experience? And what happens when what your beliefs turn around to bite you?

Jackie mentioned Georg in Pennies for Hitler, passionate believer in the Aryan race, who upon the discovery of a Jewish ancestor must flee and hide his German identity and pretend to be first English and then Australian in order to escape persecution. When Japan joins the war on the other side he is overjoyed because now he, too, can hate something. They are all united in the hatred of the Enemy.

That’s pretty heavy stuff, how about wombats?

Jackie laughs:Diary of a Wombat

Everyone secretly wants to be able to get what they want by bashing up a garbage bin, but we can’t because we’re humans and we have to be nice. If you’re a wombat, you can. It’s the ultimate fantasy.

Books give us empathy, they give us hope, and they give us the imagination to create our own lives and decide what kind of people we want to be.

What kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?

A novel relationship: WORD Christchurch

Carnival SkyIn all my years of reading and attending Literary Festivals, I have never once been in the same room as a writer and an editor. WORD event The Novel Relationship, with two writers and their editor in the same space at the same time, was therefore a must for me.

The event, “chaired and refereed” by Chris Moore seemed to promise, if not blood on the walls, at least a bit of bruising and the possibility of raised voices. I took my umpteenth coffee, got my pen and paper ready and settled in for the fray.

The two authors were Laurence Fearnley, whose writing I love: Butler’s Ringlet; Edwin and Matilda; The Hutbuilder. She has a new book The Reach, which will be available in September. And Owen Marshall, whose work I have yet to discover. The editor was Anna Rogers and if ever I write a book, I will want her to be the person to guide it to publication. She was great.

They all know one another, so the event got off to a smooth start.

Laurence Fearnley likes a soft edit:

I like an edit that takes into account pace and tone. I like to meander into my sentences. Then an abrupt sentence can happen. The pace needs to match the character progression. I like sentences that walk into the sentence. Anna is good at that with me.

Owen Marshall appreciates that Anna is a writer herself and that they can actually get together to discuss any possible changes.

Editors are the traffic cops of writing, but they can only suggest.

Anna feels that an editor’s job should be in the background:

I’ve done my job if I am not seen.

The tension really ratcheted up when they had to decide who would read first. It was that civil. But I love to hear authors read their own work and I was not disappointed with their renderings.

But my mind wandered just a teensy bit to Lionel Shriver who famously dumped her editor and friend of long standing after she had been disparaging about Shriver’s book We Need to talk About Kevin, ran off with her ex-editor’s husband, married him, found another editor and made a lot of money.

Try as we might (and there were questions about self-publishing and the isolation and smallness of the New Zealand market), this event remained resolutely sweet and fluffy. A little lambkins-frolicking of an occasion. Dare I say it – and any editor would get the machete out I am sure: It was a nice event.

More WORD stuff


Aunty and the Star People: Documenting Lives

Gerard SmythOne of the most successful films at the New Zealand International Film Festival had a New Zealand author as its focus: Jean WatsonAunty and the star people explores the “fascinating double life” of Jean Watson (author of Stand in the rain) who started a children’s home in Southern India. It was completely sold out during the Festival and will be released in cinemas very soon.

Gerard Smyth (the director of Aunty and the star people) and Jean discussed her life and work in India as part of WORD Christchurch.

28 years ago, Joy Cowley invited Jean to accompany her to India to explore her interest in religion. During the trip, Joy had to rush home but Jean decided to stay. She says she’s been there “ever since, emotionally when not physically”.

For the last 27 years, Jean has set up, funded and run Karunai Illam, a Children’s home in India where children from dysfunctional or destitute homes live and attend school. They now also have a school and vocational training community college. There are currently 43 children in the home and 269 attending the day school. Jean spends about three months a year in India. She says “When I’m there, I forget about here. When I’m here, I can’t forget about there.”

Jean first found literary success with Stand in the Rain, a fictionalised account of her life with Barry Crump. Gerard described this novel as meeting “with huge acclaim”. Jean countered with “Not huge acclaim.” “Some acclaim.” Gerard compromised, Jean clarified with “Well, there weren’t many writers then…” Needless to say, Jean is very humble. She said “my ordinary life seems described as extraordinary in the media, to me it is an ordinary life, maybe I should make it more extraordinary.”

Throughout her career, Jean has met many New Zealand literary luminaries:

  • Bob Lowry: He gave Jean a job after he inadvertently got her fired from the Salvation Army by showing up to visit her in an inebriated state. Jean said he was renowned as the best typographer in New Zealand and taught her how to set up type.
  • Dennis Glover: “Very sort of sarcastic, open person. You could never take offence at him. I remember him calling me a middle aged Ophelia. Whatever that means.”
  • Janet Frame: Jean met her when she was trying to get a reference to get into University from Frank Sargeson. Janet eventually wrote her a reference as well. “Just a young lady with red hair who seemed to me extremely nice and empathetic.”
  • Joy Cowley, long-time friend and Patron of Karunai Illam, said “Unwrapping Jean’s writing takes you to  place beyond words.” Jean now wants to focus on her existential writing, similar to Address to a King, complete her autobiography and write a follow-up chapter for Karunai Illam, her book describing the establishment and running of Karunai Illam. Although her goals may change; when Gerard reminded her that “55 [her age when she started the Illam – ed.] is quite old to start a new life.” She countered with “I don’t know, maybe I’ll start a new one tomorrow. Time is an illusion.”


The Stars are out tonight – WORD Christchurch

Last night’s event at the Cardboard Cathedral was a corker.  SEVEN guests did their thing, and MC John Campbell was so engaging and literate I can’t help thinking – when is his book coming out?

I livetweeted the event, and hope it conveys the colour and brightness of this very special WORD Christchurch night.


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Happy Birthday, Janet: WORD Christchurch

Janet FrameAugust 28 2014 marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of one of New Zealand’s most celebrated authors (so far) Janet Frame. As part of WORD Christchurch, Bernadette Hall, Owen MarshallTusiata Avia and Janet Frame’s niece and literary executor, Pamela Gordon discussed her work and influence.

Owen Marshall said that although he met Janet Frame three times, the thing that most closely aligned them was their shared common experience and knowledge of Oamaru and the fact that he “loved her work very much indeed”.  He read her description of returning to Willowglen, her family home, after the death of her father. Owen Marshall also visited Willowglen, when it was in a derelict state, and took a plug and chain as a souvenir, which he showed to the audience.

Tusiata Avia, the winner of the 2013 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award, read four beautiful poems from Stories will tell: I take into my arms more than I can bear to hold, If I read St John of the Cross, Drought in another country and The end.

Bernadette Hall told us about her attendance at Janet Frame’s 70th birthday party as part of the New Zealand Arts Festival in Wellington. She remembers her as a ‘sturdy, white curly haired figure” with her handbag on her lap, underneath which was a book with her bookmarks and speaking notes. As she stood up to giver her speech, her book and marking papers fell out which Bernadette felt “rather charming”.  Once she gathered up her notes she read two passages, My Cousins ‐ Who Could Eat Cooked Turnips and an excerpt from Daughter Buffalo about two dogs mating. Bernadette enjoyed the juxtaposition of the writing with the formal occasion she was presenting it in. Malfred’s train journey from A State of siege was the work she choose to read, with emphasis on the quote:  ‘Where were the people to look on the scene and know its meaning?’

Book cover of A state of siegeBernadette also shared her original poem, Dark pasture, written with permission of the Janet Frame Literary Trust. Alternating lines from A State of Siege and Hall, it ends with the Frame’s line: “where is the Ministry of Imagination? the Secretary of Empathy?”

Pamela, chair of the Janet Frame Literary Trust, said she was also “lucky enough to be her friend” and that people are surprised that the real Janet was “ribald and quite funny”. The Janet Frame Literary Trust believes “exaggerations and errors of biographical fact” abound about the life and personality of Janet, and states that as time passes, “the Janet Frame ‘story’ hardens into a legend”. The biographical page of the Trust hopes to debunk some common myths about the writer; including her mental health and reclusiveness.

As her works were read at the event, it is hard to argue with Pamela when she said “her work remains strong and vibrant today.”

Tusiata Avia