David Mitchell Über Novelist

Portrait of DavidMitchellDavid Mitchell uber novelist is addictive, it’s official.  Cloud Atlas stays with you long after you have read it, and makes you question the way the world works, what it could become and the part individuals play in that. The series of ethical journeys the characters traverse through the book explore how people prey on each other and corporations prey on societies. The themes of interconnectedness and cause and effect heightened by reincarnating the main character.

Cover of Bone Clocks by David MitchellNow after reading The Bone Clocks – only my second David Mitchell novel – I begin to see his recurring themes of power, communication or miscommunication and connectivity. The consequences of random and considered actions we all make on a daily basis underlies much of his work, such as Holly Syke’s young actions.

David says his work explores how random or crafted connectivity powers reality. His skilled craftsmanship blends several different genres into one great novel in The Bone Clocks going from the realism to futuristic and fantasy elements, sometimes it feels like you are reading several books at once. The different styles – together  with the different voices to narrate each section – mean you’ll need to keep your wits about you so you don’t miss that crucial references, but I’ll give nothing away.

This author really loves language. You see that he finds it an ally, a trusted friend, and it is a joy to read – but sometimes he criticises himself.  The character and novelist Crispin Hershey’s ideas make you think the author himself he is having doubts about novel’s structure, or is he just making us think?   You can imagine I am very excited  to see him at WORD Christchurch tonight (Sunday 17 May).

Fans can follow breadcrumbs to pick up on references to characters from other works, tying them together.  Search out his fan site for insights into his works.

Here are some clips:

Keep calm and read Haruki Murakami

The crowd waiting for Murakami was a fragrant one. I smelled Commes des Garcon, something from L’Artisan. There were lots of cool looking young uns. And when we got into our seats, Haruki came on stage in a tshirt saying “Keep calm and read Murakami”, pinkish pants, and nifty sneakers. Older than I know him from his author photos.

The crowd gave him a mighty round of applause after a fine intro by John Freeman.

Readers, we were in for a treat. We got to learn so much about Murakamiworld, from his own mouth. The audience was one of the most attentive, attuned, and excited I’ve ever sat in. We weren’t allowed to tweet, take pics, – but I don’t think that was why the crowd was so focused. We all wanted to be there – big time – and didn’t want to miss a thing.

Haruki told us first about the moment he decided to become a writer. He was 29, watching a baseball game, and it came to him: “I can write”:

Something fell from the sky, and I caught it. I  can still feel the feeling, I was so happy.

He went to the stationers to get a pen, and voila.

His background was in film, he wanted to write screenplays but didn’t have anything to say. When he began to write, he first wrote in Japanese, then translated it into English, then back into Japanese. This combination gave him his distinctive style:

My English vocabulary is so small. What I write is very simple and very clear. That is what I want. I made up my style.

He doesn’t do that now, but that initial double translation made that Murikami style.

We journeyed through Murikami’s life, he talked about being a teenager in the 1960s,  being part of an idealistic generation:

As we grow up the world should be saner, more reasonable  – it’s not … I am still holding my idealism in my mind … it’s a kind of warmth.

His literary inspirations are diverse. He has parents who are teachers of Japanese literature, but he bonded with Brautigan, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Raymond Chandler.

And he loves cats, and has 11,000 records!:

I love my books. I love my music. I love my cat. … Cats and music and books are very important to me.

Cover of UndergroundHaruki left Japan when he was “hated” on by the Japanese mainstream literature crowd. He went to Italy and wrote there, then to the States. But he returned home to Japan in 1995 after the twin disasters of the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo sarin gas attack. From this time came the book Underground.  He interviewed 60 survivors:

Everybody as his or her own story. They are my people on the train. I got to know my people better.

This led to a strain of questioning on evil:

I go into the darkness of my mind. Everyone has a basement beneath the ground. Some people have a basement in their basement … It’s easy to go into the darkness, sometimes it isn’t easy to come back.

What sort of books does Murikami write? Gotta like his classification system:

  • Big
  • Medium
  • Short stories

I  come and go. When I want to write big ones, I write big ones.

And he doesn’t always know which one it is going to be.  His latest – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage started out as a short story, but it got longer. The story made it happen.

It’s not an easy job to do being a writer, so Haruki runs to keep fit.  A day in his life goes a bit like this:

  • Get up at 4am. Not using an alarm clock.
  • Drink coffee.
  • Start writing.
  • Sometimes he works while listening to music – low volume, classical background music.
  • 4 to 5 hours writing.
  • Do translations in the afternoon.
  • Don’t work after sundown.
  • Watch baseball.
  • Go to bed at 10pm, no nightlife.
  • “Just so”.

The translating he is working on at the moment (English into Japanese) is a book he discovered during a trip to Oslo – Novel 11 Book 18 by Dag Solstad.

1Q84 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Kafka on the Shore Norwegian Wood

Why are your stories so sad, Haruki?

I am always looking for the bright side of things … But most of my fictions are not happy endings. I don’t know why. He is looking for something, finds it, but it’s not what he expected.

And what happens at the end of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage with the marriage proposal?

I have no idea. I don’t know what is going to happen. That is life.

And with that it was question time. We had questions about being a writer, more about cats, and the surprising revelation that Haruki’s favourite foods:

I am a donut addict … Doughnuts and Tofu.

And finally:

The stories must be unpredictable to myself.

Congratulations to the Auckland Writers Festival crew for getting Haruki Murakami here, and Kia ora Haruki.

After the Quake  Sputnik Sweetheart The Elephant Vanishes Cover of The Colorless Tsukur Tazaki

The silly and serious sides of Morris Gleitzman

Morris Gleitzman is the only author at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival to have interviewed themselves. Whether it was planned this way or not, Morris Gleitzman spent his session on stage talking just to the audience, rather than an interviewer. He is a great speaker and talked to his audience for almost the full hour, telling us about his books and his strong connections to his characters.

Morris describes writing as ‘a collaboration with the main characters,’ who can be a boy or a girl that are facing the biggest problem that they have in their life. He became known for books that have humour and warmth with a silly surface, but this changed over the last 10 years. The surface of his books have changed and now have are much more serious.

My favourite books by Morris are the Once series (Once, Then, Now, and After) about a boy called Felix, set in Poland during and after the Second World War. With this series he didn’t set out to write about war, but about friendship. Morris says that the danger about writing about friendship is that the story can seem too cosy and too feel-good. He decided to put friendship to the test by surrounding his characters with the most unfriendly behaviour – war.

It took him many years of research to write these books but he still had trepidation because he was aware of the feeling among many people of ‘if you weren’t there, don’t go there.’ He has jumped around in the timeline of Felix’s story when writing it (from during the war to the end, forward to when Felix is 80, then back to just after the war), but he hasn’t finished telling Felix’s story yet. The next book in the series, Soon (coming later in the year), is about Felix picking himself up when he thought he could give a huge sigh of relief. He needs to reconnect to the optimism that has gotten him this far. After writing Soon, Morris realized that he couldn’t leave Felix quite yet, especially after he has been a part of his life for so long.

Morris plans on writing a total of 7 books in the series before he lets Felix go completely. For this I am incredibly thankful to Morris Gleitzman as I have been hugely touched by Felix’s story and don’t want to let him go either.

Morris also talked about his latest book, Loyal Creatures, which is about the men and horses of the Australian Light Horse brigade during World War One. The book started off as a play that Michael Morpurgo asked him to write to accompany the stage show of his books War Horse when it toured Australia. The story sounds incredible and I will be hunting it out at my library when I’m back in Christchurch.

Morris’ next book will be serious but with a much more comedic surface. Apparently it is going to be a book for younger readers about wine, possibly called Plonk. He hinted that when he tours this book it could be accompanied by wine tasting. I’ll look forward to reading it when it shows up on our library shelves some time soon.

David Mitchell’s Middle Earth

Writers festivals are just as much about discovering new authors as they are meeting your favourites. David Mitchell is one of those authors I keep meaning to read. I hear lots of great things about his books and the blurbs sound interesting but that’s as far as I’ve got so far. After listening to his session at the Auckland Writers Festival today his latest book has gone to the top of my reading pile and I’ll be searching out his earlier books.

The interviewer started by asking David about the inter-connectedness of his novels. Although each of them is a stand alone novel, there has been much discussion by fans about how characters overlap in his stories and the very ‘Middle Earth feel’ of his work. David explained that, as a kid, he made his own Middle Earth by drawing imaginary maps. He would scrawl these huge worlds and locations on paper. His impulse with his writing is to make something enormous. He wants each book to be individual and for people to not have to read all his books, but each book is a small piece of something bigger.

David described himself as ‘such a nerd for names.’ He mentioned that it’s very important to get the names right and that he spends lots of time working on them. High Scrabble scores apparently make very good names.

David’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, is his ‘midlife crisis novel.’ It deals with immortality and the price you might pay to have immortality. The story is made up of multiple parts and each one is written in a different genre. David wanted to put many different ideas in the book but make them co-exist. The only way to do this was to compartmentalise them by genre. The interviewer pointed out that the book’s protagonist, Holly Sykes, is David’s first proper female protagonist. David found it particularly nerving and frightening writing a female protagonist as he hadn’t done so before. The Bone Clocks sounds amazing and I certainly can’t wait to delve in to David Mitchell’s world.

The inevitable question about his influences was asked, and I loved David’s response:

The world is made of potential ideas; you just take from it what you want.

Christchurch, you are lucky – you can see David Mitchell at WORD Christchurch Sunday 17 May 6pm at Court Theatre. Buy tickets now.

The Weird and Wacky World of David Walliams

Cover of Awful AuntieI’ve been a huge fan of David Walliams since he introduced the world to Little Britain. His weird sense of humour was right up my alley and I was excited when he decided to turn his humour to books for kids. Though a little sceptical at first (another celebrity trying their hand at writing children’s books) David Walliams soon showed that this wasn’t a phase he was going through. He is an absolutely wonderful writer for children, introducing children and adults alike to the weird and wacky characters that live inside his head.

It was clear by the massive audience that came to meet him at the Auckland Writers Festival this morning that he has a huge fan base of children of all ages in New Zealand.

David Walliams started his session by telling us that he writes for the love of writing and that his ideas coming from his ‘dark and troubled mind.’ Evil characters are always his favourite characters to create and he clearly has a lot of fun doing so. The inspiration for the villain in his book, Rat Burger, came from a contestant on the show Britain’s Got Talent, a strange man whose act was eating live cockroaches.

David tries to think back to what books he would have liked to read when he was a kid and write those sorts of books. He believes that it is really important for kids to find books that they really want to read. This is how he discovered Roald Dahl, a favourite from his childhood. Illustrations are a huge part of his books as he thinks they’re important to grab readers, especially those children who aren’t readers.

It was watching comedians like John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson and the Monty Python crew that made David want to be a comedian who wrote his own material. While writing for his show, Little Britain, he realised that writing was his passion. He thought it would be great to do something like Little Britain – but suitable for kids. After writing his first few children’s books, he found that he enjoyed writing for children so much that he kept on going. He has now written 7 novels and 2 picture books, with plenty more ideas to come. His picture books, although he admits are harder to write, are a great way for younger family members to get in to his books. They have the same great humour and are incredibly wacky.

Several of David’s books have been made in to movies, including Mr Stink and Gangsta Granny. David often thinks of actors when he’s writing his books and has both written the screenplay and starred in each of the movies of his books. The character that he has most enjoyed playing was the Prime Minister in Mr Stink, although children often get confused and think he is the Prime Minister in real life. When asked if he would like Sir Peter Jackson to make a movie of one of his books he laughed and said ‘if he made it it would be a 9 hour epic!’

My favourite part of the session was when David Walliams read parts of his books. He reads them so well and does lots of great voices for his characters. David told us that outside of the UK, he is most popular here in New Zealand so hopefully we’ll get to see him again some time soon.

Christchurch City Libraries connects you with the Auckland Writers Festival on from 13 to 17 May at the Aotea Centre. You can follow the action by reading our Festival posts.

The role of the critic – Wystan Curnow and Peter Holland at the Auckland Writers Festival

Cover of The Critic's partShakepeare critic – and doppelganger – Peter Holland, and New Zealand art critic Wystan Curnow were on stage with Rosabel Tan, editor of the awesome must-read Pantograph Punch. This was a meaty and intellectual session to kick off my Auckland Writers Festival.

There was much to ponder on and unpack – the idea of critic as a mediator, the differences between criticism and reviewing, understanding, judgement, objectivity.

Peter Holland talked about “reviewing for history”:

I want to know that moment.

He had an appropriately Shakespearean reference on hand  to explain the role of the critic “to help other people see best”:

See better, Lear.

Wystan Curnow’s sense is that:

The really dedicated critic is full of desire for the work.

Both have difficulties with the word “critic” and people’s perception of it. “The word is a slippery one” said Peter.

It’s so easy to be rude …sneering puns and jokes, that’s the reviewer showing off.

Neither felt it necessary to be a “put the boot in” kind of critic. Both prefer the critic’s role to be one of explanation, elucidation, focus, and mediation.

Wystan said:

What you don’t write about is in itself a judgement.

In Auckland Writers Festival sessions, not only do you come away wanting to read – or re-read – the books by the presenters, you get some topnotch reading tips. Peter’s suggestions:

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Auckland Writers Festival

Survival is insufficient – Emily St John Mandel at the Auckland Writers Festival

Cover of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John MandelTalk to me about the future!

Talk to me about the end of the world; about plagues and the collapse of civilisation. Talk to me about fame and dead ends and the different ways people find themselves stranded; talk to me about the art people make in order to stay alive, stay human, because survival is insufficient.

This is Emily St John Mandel’s latest book, Station Eleven. Full disclosure, I had not heard of Emily St John Mandel before I opened the programme for the Auckland Writers Festival, but the synopsis of her book grabbed me. Set in part twenty years after the end of the ‘era when it was possible to press a series of buttons on a telephone and speak with someone on the far side of the earth’ and in partly in the time before, Station Eleven is almost definitely going to make it into my Best Books of 2015 list.

This has to be one of my favourite images out of everything I’ve read this year: Because survival is insufficient, painted on the side of a caravan twenty years after a strain of the flu wiped out most of human life on earth. A Star Trek quote (Seven Of Nine), painted on the side of a old, stripped down pick up truck, the dead weight of its mechanical guts torn out, now pulled by horses, transporting a young woman in a cotton dress with knives on her belt. She’s part of the Travelling Symphony, who are rehearsing lines from Shakespeare for their next performance which may or may not be for a doomsday cult that has (naturally) sprung out of this dire and beautiful landscape.

Art is a lot of things, but sometimes I think the art (literature, music) that gets the best reaction out of me is art that is fiercely about survival. The landscape of Station Eleven reminds me of the abandoned and terrifying landscape The Walking Dead (minus the zombies) and the people; the wonderful, surprising and sometimes equally terrifying people. That’s a lie – the people are always more terrifying than the landscape. Creepy children as sentries for doomsday cults? Sign me up!

Yet there are stories woven in about little things – comparatively little things when you hold them up against a story about the end of the world. Stories about actors struggling with fame and relationships breaking up, and yet not once did I find myself thinking get back to the post-apocalyptic acting troupe because Emily St John Mandel’s writing is so captivating. These little, apocalyptic moments echo the greater apocalypse to come, yet are by no means overshadowed by it.

Emily St John Mandel (St John is her middle name, says her website: you can find her books shelved under M) spoke at the Auckland Writers Festival today. She talked about the inspiration for Station Eleven; how she wanted to write about this incredible world we live in, the global scope of our lives, all the technology that connects us across oceans and borders and huge distances. A very powerful way to write about this, though, was to write about  its absence.

What would the world be like without any of this technology? How stranded our lives might become. How local.

Unlike a lot of other post apocalyptic fiction, Station Eleven is set when the world has had a little time to settle down. Mayhem, Emily says, isn’t a sustainable way of life. She didn’t feel the need to detail every horror, as she believed that what the audience could imagine is as dark as anything she could write.

This absence of the gritty details, and the hints she drops about what those details are, makes for some perfectly unsettling images, some of which are going to haunt me for a very long time.

It’s not all dark though. Despite having killed more than 99% of the human population, the book is scattered with lighter, funny moments. Despite being haunted, I laughed. The darkness and the humour complement each other wonderfully.

At the end of her session, she answered some questions. One from the audience was: Why is post apocalyptic fiction so popular these days? There are lots of theories Emily has heard over the years. Part of it might be the dire times we find ourselves in, with the ever growing reality of climate change, with debts that will take a lifetime to pay off, with technology bringing every detail of distant disasters directly into our daily lives. Part of it might be because humans have believed that the world is ending for as long as we have been aware of ourselves; it’s a little narcissistic, yes, but very human to think that we are living in the most important age of history.

Another part of it, though, might come from a kind of human restlessness. We have mapped out the globe, and there are very, very few places where we can move to make an entirely fresh start. Post apocalyptic fiction gives us an entirely new beginning, with none of the hangovers from the old world.

It was an excellent talk. Emily St John Mandel speaks beautifully, she is warm and gracious, drawn to dark subjects and the sparks of human light that can be found within them. She’s the winner of the 2015 Arthur C Clarke award, author of four books, and writes for The Millions (I can particularly recommend her essay on book titles “The ___’s Daughter“, because things like trends in book titles excite me. Also there are graphs!)

Cover of The Dog Stars by Peter HellerAs if it wasn’t obvious already, I highly recommend Station Eleven, but if you are looking for more, Emily herself recommends Dog Stars by Peter Heller, a book to which she owes a great amount of inspiration.


Alan Cumming: “As an artist, I don’t want to entertain people, I need to provoke.”

Not My Father's SonWith the ease and playfulness of a youth, acclaimed actor of theatre and screen Alan Cumming comes on a stage and positions himself in a chair. He used to be annoyed by the media description of him as elfin, but now he claims himself a “Scottish elf trapped in the middle-aged body”. Evoking the child (and his voice), repressed so early in his childhood, was one of the best things he could do!

“I have a voice because of my work.”

Alan was a guest of the Auckland Writers Festival last night. In front of a huge curious crowd, he talked about the difficult relationship with his father with admirable genuineness. His new book Not my father’s son is his memoir of this traumatic childhood, packed with violence and his own struggles for liberation. (According to Alan, it reads like a thriller).

Zac meets Alan.

“I’m not a cheese. I don’t have a process.”

Alan’s memoir is the second in a line of his writing experiments (the first one, Tommy’s tale, 2002, talks about the inner conflict of a man’s wish to become a father and his overpowering sexual drive).

He became a familiar face through films (Emma, Golden Eye, the Spy Kids trilogy, X2: X/Men United), TV (High life, The Runaway, Who do you think you are?, The Good Wife) and theatre (Hamlet, Cabaret, Bacchae) work. He has won multiple awards (A Tony for his Broadway role as Cabaret‘s Emcee, Emmy and Golden Globe nomination for the role in TV series The Good Wife), played Hamlet in three different productions at various times in his life and been appointed an OCB.

As an artist, his role is not to entertain people, but to provoke (slightly provoking, yet amusing is his line of fragrance body care called Cumming).

When his students in New York asked about the process behind his acting technique, he said:”I’m not a cheese. I don’t have a process.”

“I said no to shame!”

Alan’s confrontation with his father, his grandfather’s mysterious death (the discovery of which was prompted by filming of a British TV series Who do you think you are?) and his own sexuality (Alan is a strong and vocal advocate of LGBT rights) was a long and rather painful process.

“Shame is crippling and I said NO to shame.” Alan says, and then he picks up his book and reads out the most touching and intimate story of how he – as a teenage boy – faced a shame and battled with it. In front of thousand strangers. With such an ease.

“Truth can hurt, but not knowing can hurt more.”

A substantial part of Alan’s confrontation with his family’s truth turned out to be writing. Telling a story was a way of managing it, of beating the denial and evoking the child, whose childhood was taken from him too soon. His advice to writers, artist, actors and every human being? “Remain yourself. Your experience is the most interesting. Be what you are.” And keep that child in you curious and playful!

More from the Alan Cumming event

Auckland Writers Festival coverage