My WORD – Anne on the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

Ever since WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival ended on Sunday I’ve felt rather sad and a little lost. When I’ve been to other literature festivals I’ve been enthused, happy and have absolutely gorged myself on as many sessions as possible. Then they ended and that was that. WORD was different to that and also, for me, significantly different to previous WORD festivals. Let me try and explain how.

For me, WORD 2016 was like having my best friend visit for a full on weekend of anecdotes, reminiscence, political discussion and culture. Now they’ve gone back home and I miss them.

The main sessions which stood out for me were those related to feminism, short stories and storytelling. The sheer numbers attending the feminist sessions from Dame Fiona Kidman, Helene Wong, Debbie Stoller, Tara Moss and Barbara Brookes was heartwarming.

Book sale stand, WORD Christchurch
Books for sale at The Piano. Flickr 2016-08-24-IMG_2459

However, the absolute highlight of the festival, for me was the oral storytelling of Ivan Coyote. It is a rare thing to find oral storytelling events in literature festivals. It is, as the saying goes, “as rare as hen’s teeth” to find storytelling for adult audiences. But WORD programmed this to audiences who lapped it all up and hungrily asked for more. Oral storytelling is the one thing above all that I’ve missed since moving to New Zealand from the UK over 7 years ago. I hadn’t come across Ivan Coyote before, so my choice of their sessions was purely guided by the words “storyteller and raconteur”. My punt paid off as these sessions were fantastic. Like most storytelling events, they were just too short and that’s a great criticism to have!

So now, I have a few more books and collections on my shelves just like an album of photos to remember the weekend. Until the next time, WORD.

Sister Cities/First Nations – WORD Christchurch

We all consider ourselves good people, so it can be confronting to realise that we’re unwittingly contributing to oppression. For peace of mind it can seem easier to ignore the evidence rather than engage in change, thinking if we cover our eyes then it isn’t there, it’s all the past, it doesn’t affect me. Or we go to the other extreme, demand our education from those we meet rather than listen to those already speaking.

Ali Cobby Eckermann. Photo by Adrain Cook. Image supplied.
Ali Cobby Eckermann. Photo by Adrain Cook. Image supplied.

Ali Cobby Eckermann (Aboriginal Australian descended from the Yankunytjatjara language group) and Elissa Washuta (member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe) are two who are well worth listening to. First Eckermann read from her poem Black Deaths in Custody:

when I walk down this wing and peer

into this filthy room the door closes behind me

the feeling in my heart is changing

from a proud strength of duty to fear

all the stories I have ever heard

stand silent in the space beside me—

a coil of rope is being pushed

under the door of this cell

And Washuta read out her essay This Indian Does Not Owe You, which I recommend reading in full:

When you quiz me on genocide highlights — “Were those smallpox blankets real? I’ve always wondered about that” — to sate your hunger for facts, I do not owe you a free education of the kind that my university students pay for, and I am not so flattered by your interest in my people that I might unfurl a lecture on 500 years of colonization for your edification.

Elissa Washuta. Photo by Elizabeth Ogle. Image supplied.
Elissa Washuta. Photo by Elizabeth Ogle. Image supplied.

Nic Low asked about the role of anger in writing. Both have been through traumatic experiences – rape, disordered eating, the removal of a child – but are still gentle, kind people in person. Writing provides a safe space for anger. Eckermann brought up the idea of good anger and bad anger, and Washuta responded:

We have that bad anger and what do you do with it? A lot of us just destroy ourselves with drugs and alcohol, because that bad anger has just embedded itself, and then we’re told Oh that’s all in the past, that was hundreds of years ago, get over it. The reality is that in our communities we are experiencing ongoing colonisation every day, all the time. We are still a colonised people.

Eckermann agreed – they don’t want to hurt others, so they hurt themselves. She hopes writing can bring us closer to a collective understanding and healing. By acknowledging pain, maybe some can begin to heal.

Cover of Inside My MotherWho are you writing for?

Initially I thought I was writing for myself, or for my community, but now I think I’m writing for the future. Poetry is supposed to change and inform lives… I mean statistically we know that one in four women is raped in their lifetime, but we have to share our stories so it’s not just statistics, it’s life lived. – Eckermann

I wanted to see people like me on the page – I didn’t know any other native people at college, I was diagnosed bipolar, raped, had an eating disorder, and to me they all seemed interconnected but I couldn’t find anything that reflected my own experience. So my books are a gift to other college students. I knew there had to be other people like me, and there are. – Washuta

How do you feel about your country?

I’d like to remove the culture of denial in Australia.  It’s been really rewarding going to other countries that know their histories, who aren’t afraid of their history. — Eckermann

There’s this cheerful narrative about the brave pioneers who crossed the continent to create something out of the “pristine untouched wilderness” when really people were doing all sorts of maintenance work. The pioneers just didn’t understand how the land was being used, or couldn’t see it. But it’s always “It’s really nice that the Indians helped the settlers make something out of this super boring place.” — Washuta

The session ended with a plea for greater friendship and connection in the face of the tsunami of racism that seems to be washing over the world.

So listen to others. Be kind. And go read their books.

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How are we doing, Christchurch? – WORD Christchurch

For a session dedicated to an honest discussion of how Christchurch people are coping post-quakes ‘How are we doing, Christchurch?’ had a lot of laughs in it.

Mind you, there’s a dry sort of humour that I’ve grown to associate with Christchurch people and the quakes. Jokes in the midst of loss and grief, of chaos, of fear – for some people a wry quip in a tight spot is the only sane choice. The panellists were very much of this sort – though a flippant remark was often an entree to a more thoughtful, sincere response.

Each had a completely different background and area of expertise, coming from a range of professions – Sam Crofskey, owner of C1 Espresso; Katie Pickles, historian and author of Christchurch Ruptures; Ciaran Fox, of the Mental Health Foundation and All Right? campaign; and Robyn Wallace, CEO of He Oranga Pounamu who is also involved in both iwi and local government organisations in the Waimakariri District/Ngāi Tuāhuriri rohe.

Katie PicklesCiaran FoxBronwyn Hayward Robyn Wallace

So how are we?

Not doing “number twos” in the backyard any more but possibly not as well as we’d like?

It was really interesting to me that Crofskey admitted outright lying to outsiders about how they were doing, early on, saving his honesty for those in his family and community. “I didn’t have the words for people who weren’t affected,” he said.

This particularly hit home for me yesterday when I read a New Zealand Herald column, by a visiting Aucklander who that mentioned that he’d heard “very little whinging” from Christchurch people during a recent stay. The column was a light-hearted one admittedly, but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t reflect the reality of Christchurch in the slightest. And certainly not the genuine concern mixed with weariness I felt in that room.

Crofskey’s experiences as a central city dweller, in the early days of the post-quake response emphasised this idea of outsiders not really understanding, when he spoke of “White knights in hi-luxes” trying to out-aid each other and others imposing their own ideas of what was needed –

Let’s put on a rugby game for them and make them happy again.

Cover of Christchurch rupturesThere was also a really great discussion about whether the Christchurch we’re rebuilding is for everyone, or if it’s for the men in suits who run things. Pickles’ hope, certainly, is that we can break out of some of those old pre-quake patterns of operating and make a city that everyone feels at home in. Perhaps we need another 4 or 5 Margaret Mahy type playgrounds around the city, for instance?

Crofskey’s wish for future Christchurch was a simple one – “I want a city my children want to stay in”.

One of Fox’s points made a lot of sense for me personally. He simply pointed out that we’re all really tired, and that being tired affects your ability to see solutions to problems. You fall back on the tried and the true. It certainly hinders your ability to be innovative and to take risks. If you scale the personal up to the organisational level, is it possible that this is part of what’s hindering a really creative, innovative recovery?

All panelists were in agreement that Christchurch people have had a “crisis of trust” in various systems and mechanisms / bureaucracy which are not working for them. There were many, many sounds of agreement from the audience on this point.

Audience questions ran the gamut from rants about the consenting process, to concerns about post-quake democracy, and how to keep and spread the energy of innovative projects like GapFiller into other arenas.

Did we solve Christchurch’s problems? No. But I certainly came away from the session feeling less alone, and comforted by the fact that many other people feel more or less as I do about our shared home.

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Tales from the Ice – WORD Christchurch

With the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival winding down, this was an event to cool our heels on.

Matt Vance, Alok Jha, Rebecca Priestley, Simon Wilson
Matt Vance, Alok Jha, Rebecca Priestley, Simon Wilson

Dispatches from Continent SevenTales From the Ice was brought to us by Dr Rebecca Priestley (VUW NZ) – Dispatches from Continent Seven; Matt Vance (NZ expedition leader) – Ocean Notorious; Alok Jha (ITV science corresponder) – The Water Book and chaired by Simon Wilson (Metro magazine). These books collect experiences of the fragile, beautiful, brutally unforgiving Antarctic Southern Ocean, and the element that makes it all possible; water.

From explorers Captain James Cook  and Robert Falcon Scott, early and modern scientists, to modern writers from the Artists to Antarctica Programme such as Bill Manhire and Gregory O’Brien, Dispatches from Continent Seven makes fascinating reading with a scientific flavour.

Ocean NotoriousIn Ocean Notorious Matt Vance shares his own experiences of lonely Southern Seas and the Islands and of taking refuge there. Along the way he gathers tales of heroic explorers, sailors, wartime coast-watchers, wildlife and conservationists.

Alok Jha shared the incredible fact that water on Planet Earth originated from meteorites crashing here. By default all life on Earth is Alien!

This panel conveyed a real sense of adventure from the sunny warmth of my festival seat.

Last words:

“Run the World like we run Antarctica – a co-op.” – Matt Vance.

“Stop (Antarctica) melting. There is still time…” – Rebecca Priestley.

“Help me get back there!” – Alok Jha.

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Tickled Fiction – WORD Christchurch

Can Kiwi writers do comedy? New Zealand writers are repeatedly told that their work is too dark, too serious. Is this true? Three local writers got together at this event to tickle this topic. Here’s what emerged:

Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins. Image supplied
Damien Wilkins. Image supplied

Damien read from his novel Dad Art – in his words ‘a mid-life crisis book about a basically contented life with a pulsing vein of anxiety’  – and it was funny. Not in a here’s-a-funny-joke way, but in subtle observations that make you think ‘I know someone exactly like that’  (and it may even be me). His excerpt was an account of a motley crew in a Te Reo class. Think I recognised myself there! Damien feels that one of the ways that comedy works in fiction is through structure, that is repeated references within the story. A sort of insider knowledge type of humour, one in which he has ‘created echoes’.

Danyl Mclaughlan

Danyl McLaughlan. Image supplied
Danyl McLaughlan. Image supplied

Danyl read from his novel Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley. Set in the Aro valley near Wellington, Danyl researches his novels very carefully – after all he knows people who live there. When asked if readers take offence at some of his observations, he replied that what seemed to offend them most was if he altered the geography in any way! He’s a big believer in writing funny stuff in, thinking it is fantastic and then removing most of it on the next reading. Definitely a ‘less is more’ approach to comedy in writing. He also likes to make fun of conventional wisdom but feels that makes his humour unpalatable to the ‘cultural gatekeepers’.

Robert Glancy

Robert Glancy. Image supplied
Robert Glancy. Image supplied

Robert (call me Bob) was all set to read from his latest work Please Do Not Disturb, but had brought the wrong book. By this stage we were nicely warmed up so we all thought that was hilarious. Instead he read from Terms and Conditions – his novel on being a Corporate Lawyer. In this book the devil is in the detail. He calls himself ‘the devil’s ghost writer’. His advice to readers is – always read the small print! He loves the act of writing but says that self-editing ‘is like performing an autopsy on yourself’. Bob finds tackling topics from weird angles can be funny. He also writes what he likes. You are always going to offend someone in his opinion. If that’s a worry to you, you’re in the wrong job.

They all hated the title given to this festival event – Tickled Fiction, finding it childish, shallow and borderline pervy. Put on the spot in question time Bob said he liked ‘You Write Funny’ as an alternative.

As indeed they do, write funny, that is.

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WORD Up to Flying Nun – WORD Christchurch

Flying NunThe WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival was an absolute blast.

The highlight for me was a celebration of In Love With These Times – My Life With Flying Nun by Roger Shepherd, at Blue Smoke in the Tannery. It’s been a while since I had to queue to get into a gig!

Playing to a packed house, the evening was a mix of nostalgia, pass the mic, performance and hope. While I felt 20 again listening to Graeme Downes play “Two O’clock in the Afternoon” and Jay Clarkson covering the 3Ds, Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins) wished she had been around in the heydays. I’m glad she wasn’t, because she is an excellent flag-bearer for the future of Flying Nun.

Roger Shepherd, Russell Brown, Jay Clarkson, Graeme Downes on Guitar
Roger Shepherd, Russell Brown, Jay Clarkson, Graeme Downes on Guitar
Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins)
Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins)
Graeme Downes
Graeme Downes

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Reimagining Journalism – WORD Christchurch

Relentless and unstoppable digital forces have changed the flows of information in recent years. And there’s no going back. There’s a multiplicity of media sources out are all vying for our precious time: pushing hard news and hard bodies at us through every possible platform.
Arguably, no other sector of the economy has been rattled by such changes as that profession and bastion and truth – journalism!

To discuss this, an extensive panel was formed at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. Cate Brett, Simon Wilson, Morgan Godfrey, Duncan Greive and Paula Penfold got together on stage and thrashed it all out. The message seemed to be that such circumstances are a mixed blessing.

Simon Wilson. Image supplied.
Simon Wilson. Image supplied.

Some say “the news has been democratized”, giving everyone with a digital device “a voice”. But then, “everyone” includes your friendly neighbourhood skinhead. Others claim we’re all being exploited by commercial entities, who distract us from real issues by pitching to our carnal desires. Little New Zealand media sources can’t compete with behemoth businesses, resourced to catch a bigger share of public attention.

So, how do wholesome Kiwi journalists and news sources secure capital to compete for space within the saturated market, which is rather dominated by cashed up multinationals? Annoyingly, so many solutions seem to present a paradox – because the most critical and fundamental principle underpinning “The News” is OBJECTIVITY. Therefore, relying on government funding becomes a problem if your scrutinizing the behaviour of government: “biting the hand that feeds you”!

Getting help from unions or trusts was pitched as means to secure funding. But then, that’s also a problem when such entities also have political and ideological positions which journos feel compelled to honour!

And then there is advertising, which also means pandering to cut throat corporatism … These are some of the most important questions of right now. Because a robust and free press is right up there with free and fair elections and the right to vote!

CoverFortunately, an awesome new book has been released, which seeks to address the flux with innovative angles – Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Check it out.

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Ask A Mortician: Caitlin Doughty – WORD Christchurch

If Caitlin Doughty had her way, we’d all be dealing with death very differently. Mortician and author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes she believes we have become too distanced from caring for our dead. Less than 100 years ago, that was what people did, they cared for their own dead. A sold-out Concert Hall audience at The Piano was ready to be convinced.

Caitlin_Doughty_in_red_evergreen_background
Caitlin Doughty. Image supplied

This was one of those events that barely needed a co-presenter. Not that he did any harm, but the forcefield of Caitlin’s presentation was so dynamic that I believe it would have been better to just give her a podium and free rein. She is just bursting with life, engaging, articulate and with the Best Hair At The Festival (a hitherto unexploited literary category.)

Our current means of dealing with the dead is 99% money driven. We have bought into the juggernaut that is the funeral business. In particular Doughty has the embalming business in her cross hairs. Nowadays she believes most embalming is completely unnecessary, expensive and results in corpses that do not even look like the deceased. Yet we continue with this practice – and I use that ‘we’ intentionally – apparently New Zealand ranks second in the world after the States in embalming statistics.

Not only is this bad for our pockets, but Doughty does not believe it has done our grieving process any favours either. Take children, for example. Doughty herself had a traumatic first encounter with death when she was about eight years old. No one spoke her through it and the spectre of death haunted her for ages. She jokingly refers to her relationship with death as the longest relationship of her life.

Smoke Gets in Your EyesHow did it all start? Straight out of a Medieval History degree she ‘tricked’ her way into employment in a funeral home where she was lucky enough to be given opportunities to do all aspects of the work, like scrape bones out of ovens, fetch bodies from where they had died under bridges and deal with grieving family members. She remembers (and how could a girl ever forget) at the age of 22 being left alone in the morgue to shave her first corpse. She feared she would get this horribly wrong with her wee pink razor and lashings of shaving cream. But bodies she says are just people, only a lot easier to deal with.

What are the alternatives to the expensive over-professionalised approach to death we are currently saddled with? The first hurdle to get over is to believe that the dead body is beautiful just as it is and that there is a sacred quality to caring for the dead.  Everyone deserves ‘a good death’ but to get that you need to think about your own death and you need to talk about death to your family members. A good death is not going to happen all by itself.

The second hurdle is to become better informed about alternatives. Like initiatives to develop the composting of bodies, where instead of burning corpses, they are allowed to rot in an enhanced composting environment and so turn into soil in 6-8 weeks. There is also alkaline hydrolysis which flash decomposes the body and finally there is conservation burial where burials happen in endangered land and conservation areas.

Question time. Oh dear. First two not too bad – we got the afterlife question. Nada for her, said Doughty. She sees her life as a film reel that just runs out eventually and flaps about for a bit before it goes still. God forbid that the afterlife should be peopled by everyone she has ever known – all those dead people lining up to meet her at the Pearly Gates, thanks but no thanks. We got a question on hospital deaths, a euthanasia query and a formaldehyde question (look it up on Google lady!) Then the mic fell into the hands of a man who rambled all over the terrain, couldn’t get to a question, and just at the point when you want to trample over other patrons heads and wrench the mic out of his hand to ask your own perfect question, Doughty somehow managed to wrest a possible interpretation from his ramblings out of him.

As for my question, it might not be perfect, but I could have spat it out in nine words:

“Has being a mortician ever affected your love life?”

I believe she would have loved it!

Caitlin Doughty and Marcus Elliott
Caitlin Doughty and Marcus Elliott

See our photos from the Caitlin Doughty session.

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The Right to be Cold – WORD Christchurch

As a fellow introvert I find Sheila Watt-Cloutier incredible, going from interpreter/nurse at the Ungava Hospital to International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, among other things. Here’s someone who won’t need Tara Moss’s book Speaking Out as she has already been speaking out for decades via various platforms, successfully raising awareness of Inuit and global issues (and as she points out, the two are interlinked). Hers is a voice we need to hear more of.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Image supplied.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Image supplied.

So who are the Inuit?

The Inuit people are spread over four countries — Greenland, Canada, Alaska (US), and Siberian Russia. They total 165,000 all at the top of the world, most very far away from each other (not helped by the current airline routes). The same language is spoken with different dialects, the same food is eaten, the same legends, the same hunting practices, the same songs. The same people.

The motivation behind The Right to be Cold

Watt-Cloutier spent her first ten years in the Arctic in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik, which is located in Northern Quebec (Canada). She grew up in a very close knit family, raised by her mother and grandmother, travelling by dog-sled, and maintaining a close connection to the local environment and community. After leaving for school age ten and returning almost a decade later, the stark changes wrought in those few years propelled her onto a more political platform.

I felt a sense of responsibility to write the book from a personal narrative, through the experiences of those graphic changes, because I can still remember those more traditional times. It wasn’t generations ago, it was in my lifetime, things have changed very rapidly. I wrote it from a place of trying to connect all these pieces of how we had come from such a powerful, independent culture, strong and valuable, to the addiction, violence and abuse problems we deal with today. I wanted to put into context these wounds, to piece together what has happened in our family systems, societies, and communities.

The disappearance of the dog teams

It wasn’t until I was an adult starting to work in politics that stories began to come out. It was such a shameful time, the wounds were so deep that the men in our communities didn’t talk about that era. There was a time in history when the authorities of the day decided (supposedly for health and safety reasons) to remove the dogs. Thousands were shot and killed, families would come in from outpost camps to barter only to have their dogs shot and therefore their transport removed… It was a great trauma.

How did this affect the Inuit communities?

The dog slaughters and the demolition of the sealing industry changed the way hunters could provide for their families. They began to turn to rifles, ammunition, and motorised boats rather than traditional hunting practices, but the loss of the cultural tradition of hunting plus the degradation of the ice through climate change have caused a lot of damage to their sense of worthiness, integrity, identity.

Traditionally Inuit hunters are calm, reflective, inclusive, wise people. While Western impressions of hunters are often as aggressive men with rifles, hunting in the Arctic leaves no room for anger; any foolish decisions place yourself and your family in jeopardy in such a harsh environment. By losing that identity as proficient provider the hunters have begun to act out, passing their hurt on to women and children through violence. To circumvent that cycle of abuse Watt-Cloutier feels it is important to reclaim and understand their history. By reconnecting with their culture and past hopefully some will regain a sense of place in the community.

Cover of The Right to be ColdIf I could just help one person alleviate part of the burden that they carry, then I will have accomplished what I set out to do.

I haven’t really delved into the more environmental part of the talk because there was a lot of information packed into that one-hour session, but I highly recommending reading her book The Right to be Cold to learn more about how we can make this a better planet for everyone, not just the polar bears.

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Adventures in Publishing – WORD Christchurch

Eat. Sleep. Read. Scott Pack’s t-shirt made a nice statement and I felt an immediate affinity. Eloquently introduced by Tracy Farr author of The Life and loves of Lena Gaunt, this could well turn out to be one of my favourite sessions.  Scott Pack could quite easily give up his day job and become a stand-up comic, a lovely British self deprecating humour always wins me over.

ScottPack1
Scott Pack. Image supplied

Changing the title of the talk to How to accidentally become a publisher: A story in 10 books is a crowd-winning way to lead us through his career in publishing.  It turns out that Scott Pack is a bit of a risk taker who surprisingly listens to Radio New Zealand, (but more about that later). The  books he uses are varied and prove a clever way to describe career highlights.

Blood Sweat and Tea by Tom Reynolds

Scott Pack left Waterstones where he had worked for about 10 years and became involved in The Friday Project.  Ebooks have taken off by this point and bloggers were also starting to make their mark. Tom Reynolds had been writing a very popular blog about his life as an ambulance driver, so The Friday Project were the first publishers to turn digital on its head and publish a digital format ie a blog into a print format book.  It became a best seller, and as we know the rest is history as there are now any number of blogs becoming books.

White Noise by Don De Lillo

9780330291088White Noise was used to highlight the National Radio story. Scott Pack suffers from tinnitus and finds it much harder to get rid of the white noise sound when it is quiet at night. After trial and error he came upon the solution of listening to Radio New Zealand, which gave him something good to listen to but because it wasn’t necessarily British or local he could also go to sleep and not get too caught up in the interviews as he would with a British made programme. This led to his next book The Life and loves a Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr. He heard it read on Radio New Zealand, loved it, contacted Tracy and ended up publishing her along with Fiona Kidman and Damian Wilkins all in the space of about 5 months.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

The Wisdom of Crowds was a nice lead into one of Scott Pack’s latest venture Unbound – kickstarter (or crowdsourcing)  for books.  The curators of the site put up a chapter of a book that has been submitted by a writer that they think shows some merit.  As a reader you get to like a book and give the amount of money that you think it is worth to the kickstarter or crowdsourcing site.  If the book raises enough money it is published and you get your name in the back of the book.  Authors can also offer other means for you to support them – a chef for example who is trying to get his/her book published could  (for a price) to come to your house and cook  you dinner.

Lastly he talked about and area that he is obviously passionate about.  He is on the hunt for lost, forgotten or out of print books.  The Iron Chariot by Stein Riverton was apparently the 2nd best Norwegian crime novel of all time. (Why 2nd best no one seems to know) but it is long out of print and  has now been translated. Scandinavian crime is still a ‘thing’ and he hopes it will sell well.

Plenty of food for thought, this was a great session for aspiring writers…and I think there were a few in the audience, but it was also highly entertaining and informative for those of us who just love books and enjoy listening to someone who shares their enthusiasm.

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