The more we change, the more we find out who we are – WORD Christchurch

Karen Healey‘s first experience with Margaret Mahy came early, as a toddler.

There’s a photo of me — I must have been about 4 — reading A Lion in the Meadow, sitting on the toilet, wearing a raincoat and wellies. I’d obviously rushed in without bothering to take them off, but had made enough time to grab a book to read.

Cover of The CHangeoverIn contrast Elizabeth Knox first picked up The Changeover while working in a museum shop in her twenties. She had only recently started reading books for young adults again after a self-imposed diet of 19th century poets. (“I think Mahy would have got on very well with William Blake,” Knox adds.) The strong sense of family present in Mahy’s works, similar to those by Diana Wynne Jones, have made both writers firm favourites of hers.

Karen Healey:

I first read The Changeover when I was about 13 and it just blew my BRAINS out. I was so excited by this book, because Laura literally writes herself into being a heroine.

Laura’s strong, flawed character will be the core of the forthcoming Changeover movie, filmmaker Stuart McKenzie confirms. While some aspects of the book have necessarily been trimmed (including Sorry’s backstory and, much to my regret, librarian Chris Holly), McKenzie assures us that they have been pruned to allow better visibility of Laura and her story.

The film is set in post-earthquake Christchurch, updated from 1984. The transformation of the city echoes the various changeovers present in the book, from Laura’s physical change from child to adolescent to the changeover of the title.

Cover of Guardian of the DeadAnother strong character in the movie will be Carmody Braque, whose malevolent presence seeps through the book like the smell of peppermints — yet in the end the reader almost feels sorry for him. We get a glimpse of the person he might have been once, possibly someone quite similar to Laura. Healey admits to stealing the amoral nature of Carmody Braque, a character who decides his need to live overrides your freedom, for her first novel.

Braque is terrifying because you get the sense that he sees himself as quite reasonable. He turns up everywhere in various guises, whether as the patupaiarehe in Guardian of the Dead, or Laurel in Fire and Hemlock. In some ways they are utterly alien, yet there is the possibility in all of us to become another Braque. This role-reversal and exploration of the slipperiness of our sense of self is a theme throughout The Changeover, asking: When do we stop being ourselves?

The Great NZ Crime Debate – WORD Christchurch

The Great NZ Crime Debate and Ngaio Marsh AwardI confess to feeling a little weary sitting in my seat at 8pm, after a full day of thought-provoking sessions at WORD Christchurch. “You’ll have to take notes for me, I’m too tired,” I said to my neighbour, slumping over my bag.

Well, if I didn’t take notes it certainly wasn’t because I fell asleep, it was because I couldn’t possibly keep up with the fast-paced repartee and banter exhibited by all the debaters. Full marks to all contestants! Some may have lost the debate, but all were surprising, hilarious, bawdy, and full of snark and self-mockery. Joe Bennett was as always an entertaining MC, despite enduring much slander from both debating teams. (Who knew our Mayor had such a raunchy sense of humour?!)

Arguing the moot that crime doesn’t pay were lawyer Marcus Elliott, crime novelist Paul Cleave and amateur bank robber Meg Wolitzer.

The opposition put forward the idea that crime is profitable, headed by Mayor Lianne Dalziel (which seems a little worrying for Christchurch). Even more disturbingly, she had journalist Martin van Beynen at her side, with Timaru Police Notebook fan Steve Braunias bringing up the rear. As Marcus Elliott argued, if the government and the media are in cahoots, what hope is there for democracy? Luckily reason prevailed and crime was voted to not be worth the bother. Debate attendees are doubtless spreading peace and goodwill over the city even as I type.

Cover of Where the Dead Men GoAt the end we were privileged to hear the results of the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, winner being Otago lecturer and crime writer Liam McIlvanney for Where the Dead Men Go. A big congratulations to all the short-listed finalists, especially Liam McIlvanney, as well as a really big thank you to the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival organisers for creating such an entertaining event.

Read it again! WORD Christchurch

Book cover of The Were-nanaThe youngest readers weren’t forgotten in the WORD Christchurch festivities. On Saturday afternoon Read It Again! let five picture-book authors share their creations with an eager audience of three to eight year olds. Sheila Sinclair of Christchurch-institution The Children’s Bookshop chaired the session.

Melinda Szymanik read the NZ Post Children’s Choice award winner for 2009, The were-nana. Little sisters in the audience were positively gleeful at the morality tale!

Gavin Bishop brought a special guest: Teddy one-eye, author of an upcoming autobiography. Teddy one-eye was a dishevelled but very accomplished bear who taught himself to read over schoolboy Gavin’s shoulder. Gavin also shared the story behind Teddy’s tragic eye loss: as a youngster he admitted to his Grandma “I’ve swallowed one of teddy’s eyes.” “You’ll probably die.” was the reasurring reply. Happily, he’s survived long enough to read Stay awake, Bear!  to an attentive audience.

Charisma Rangipunga shared a song she sings to her children about a witch who lives in their wardrobe and tries to tempt them out of bed with lollies. Unfortunately for naughty children, the lollies turn out to be worms and the children are then forced to work in her dirty sock factory.

Book cover of Teddy one-eyeKristin Hersh read a story inspired by her son’s dislike of touring: Toby Snax. By the end of the story, lots of the kids in the audience would’ve been eager to head off for international adventures of their own.

Damon Young concluded the session with a continuum of ninja-knowledge and a rowdy reading of My Nanna is a Ninja, which he described as a “celebration of the fun of grandparents, the verve, the energy!”

Capes and Tights – WORD Christchurch

Image of Capes and Tights Session WORD ChristchurchI always love panel events because it can be much more of an organic conversation between panellists, bringing up themes and topics that might not otherwise be heard. I was especially excited about Capes and Tights because, well, firstly it’s about comics, and secondly, the speakers are all excellent people. The session did not disappoint.

Discussion began with an exploration of each speaker’s initiation into comics (Tintin and Asterix being the main offenders), and then their first experience within the realm of the superhero.

Damon Young confessed being drawn as a teenager to the rage and violence of characters such as Ghost Rider, the Punisher and Batman, whereas Dylan Horrocks and Jonathan King were both fans of the fun and absurd superhero comics of the 60s. Karen Healey was a relative latecomer to superhero comics, becoming fascinated with comics such as Kingdom Come at university despite an initial difficulty breaking into the genre as a reader.

Dylan Horrocks asked the panel for their opinion of the “dark and gritty” reboot of many characters, and the fetishization of violence in the superhero canon (comics often being produced with sponsorship by or advertising for the US Army and Air Force). Comments ranged from an appreciation of the way in which physical violence can be paralleled by verbal argument, to the disappointing flattening of a character consumed only by darkness.

Karen Healey brought up the problematic trend of fridging female characters and bemoaned the lack of a Black Widow movie (seriously, when will it happen? We’re ready), which segued into a discussion on copyright and our collective ownership of these characters.

Superhero comics are basically fanfiction. The writers, the artists are all fans of these characters and are creating stories in response to that history, but they have no legal ownership of that material.

All agreed that it is time for DC and Marvel to let “their” creations fall into the public domain, to be used as modern myths (à la Robin Hood or King Arthur) without threat of legal action.

What superpower would you most like to have?

Damon Young:Cover of Batgirl/Robin Year One

The teenager inside me would say mind control, because that would just be incredibly useful, but I think I’d like physical invulnerability.

Karen Healey:

At first I thought telekinesis, but then time-travel because imagine how much time you’d save on research!

Jonathan King:

I’ve always dreamed of flying, so I think I’d have to go for that.

And Dylan Horrocks opted for invisibility.
Capes and tights session

NoViolet Bulawayo: The Interview. WORD Christchurch

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Chatting with NoViolet at WORD

Straight after NoViolet Bulawayo‘s presentation on her book We Need New Names at WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival, I cornered her for a chat. We settled at a table with a view at Rydges Hotel, one that overlooked Latimer Square and the Transitional Cathedral. Perfect. I set up the recorder, the coffee arrived and we were on our way:

You’ve just spent an hour, centre stage, talking about your book to a very large audience. How do you feel about speaking in public like this, is it similar to the story-telling of your childhood?:

I have had to get used to it, but what makes me more comfortable is if I am talking to people who are interested, who have read the book and who have actually paid to hear me! So that makes me feel OK. As for the story-telling, I can say Yes and No. It does feel like oral story-telling in some ways, only now I am having to do it in English and I can feel the language being a barrier all the time, in ways that I don’t feel when I am talking in my home language where it just flows better for me.

How do you fit writing into your day?

For the most part I write in my apartment though I also feel comfortable writing at my school library because I spend quite a bit of time on campus. I write wherever I am, I don’t have any really serious requirements. The actual writing is just part of my everyday life, but I do prefer working early in the morning. I go to bed early, like 9:30 at night, then I wake up early and work. I write better at that time of day, but  sometimes a story just comes to me and wants to be written. Then I won’t wait till morning!

Tell us a bit about teaching writing:

I was teaching at Cornell, then I took a two year break to do my writing Fellowship but I am going back to teaching now. It is a fun and rewarding experience. I base most of my teaching on my own writing experience as opposed to my reading experience because it helps me to speak from the bone. I do read widely, and I bring that to my teaching as well, and I also learn from my students – all the time!

You must be seen as a role model for young writers, what advice would you give any aspiring young writer?

Be comfortable in your own voice. Young people are at a time in life when they are not so sure if they are enough. They may not have seen themselves in books yet. I start by giving them the licence to be who they are. I also encourage them to read, a lot. They have all sorts of distractions nowadays, what with Internet, but if they want to write, they have to read.

Was reading important in your home when you were growing up?

Unfortunately not. I was brought up by people who had not been to school. So it is hard for them to pick up a book and read. But after mum died (NoViolet’s mother died when she was 18 months old), I lived with my aunt. When my sister, who is two years older than I am, went to school, I had a hard time staying at home, so they let me go to school and see how I would fit in. And I was intelligent enough and I just carried on from there. I was always two years younger than everyone in my class, right through to matriculating from high school.

Let’s get the Zimbabwe connection clear, do you still have family back in Zim, and are they proud of you?

Oh yes, most of them still live there, and they are learning to understand what I have achieved, as I don’t come from a literary heritage. It was hard for me even to explain to them what the Booker Prize was! Once I had the physical book in my hands though, that changed. My father came to both my book launches and I think that is when he realised what I had done. Even though he won’t talk to me about the book, he expresses his pride to other people. We did not grow up with compliments. It is a cultural thing, not a success thing. Still I love my country and I am hoping, in the future, to spend my time between the US and Zim and maybe give something back to my country.

How about books and libraries?

Oh, I must laugh here, because I used to steal library books. Well, not steal-steal, but my friend borrowed the book and never gave it back. I will never forget that book, it was called The Growing Summer. So for all my primary school years I could not use the school library. I was just heartbroken. When I got to high school, it was such a relief for me to be able to use the library again! I could just inhale a book in a day or two. My father would read the books too. It was one of the ways we started to bond. Now, because I am such a sucker for languages, I read all the time, I am reading  Jhumpa Lahiri right now. I don’t read graphic novels, but many of my students do.

Last week  Doris Lessing‘s estate bequeathed 3000 books from her personal library to Harare Library. What do you think of that gesture?

It is an extremely generous gesture. It shows a connection with Zimbabwe that means a lot. Our libraries are really hard pressed for books. Even our bookshops are empty now. She did a great thing there. It helps us to start to think in terms of giving back.

Then it was time to take the photo, get NoViolet to sign my copy of her book, and say good-bye. I hope we will meet up again sometime soon.

WORD Christchurch:

An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms – WORD Christchurch

Photo of Elizabeth KnoxIt seems appropriate that Elizabeth Knox‘s inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture took place on a Sunday morning. Despite an audience so packed there were barely enough seats, we all sat still and quiet. We were so spellbound by her memories, funny and sad in equal measures, that when at the end Kate de Goldi tentatively opened the floor for questions there was only the collective held breath of a room full of people. I hardly know how to describe it — Elizabeth Heritage likened it to a religious experience, which is probably as close as I can get to conveying the atmosphere that a matter-of-fact writer created in a small, stuffy room.

This year has been the raven on my shoulder.

A refrain, repeated three times over the course of an hour. How to untangle the references to Odin and God, twined together with anecdotes of chemical-green glowing farts and a family of ghosts who lived among the convulvulus?

Knox discovered Mahy late, stumbling across The Changeover in her early twenties and describing her writing as “opening up a room in New Zealand literature I wanted to hang out in.” With so many books to her credit, ranging over several genres…

I write with genre, hand in hand with it, rather than within genre.

…I think we can safely say Knox has found her place in this unreal room filled with storms.

While the lecture won’t be published in the immediate future, it should be available soon on National Radio. Look out for it.