Canterbury – a hive of activity for 165 years

165 years ago this January, a ship called the Mary arrived in Lyttelton bringing two hives of honey bees from Nelson.

The history of introduced bees in New Zealand is unusually linked with women named Mary. Back in 1839, a woman called Mary Bumby first brought European bees to New Zealand. Miss Bumby, with her appropriately bee-ish name, was the sister of a missionary, and she was bee-autiful:

“A vision of delight. Soft brown hair, worn in ringlets after the fashion of that time, a complexion that entitled her to the name of the ‘Bonny English Rose’ and a smile that lighted up gentle hazel eyes, out of which beaned only loving thoughts.” ‘The Immigrant Bees‘ Peter Barrett (p77).

How she managed to keep a hive of bees alive on a ship for the seven month journey with only loving thoughts in her head, I can only wonder. Mary Bumby and her bees buzzed into Hokianga harbour in March 1839. Before then, we were not entirely bee-reft of bees – New Zealand has 28 species of native bees, but they weren’t great for making commercial honey. And kiwis are sweet on their honey – on average, we eat about 1.5kgs of honey a year – each!

Three years later in 1842, bees arrived the South Island. They were sent over from London by Mrs Mary Anne Allom and sailed into Nelson alive and well. Her reason for sending them over is remarkable:

“My son formed one of the ten cadets who sailed last year for Wellington. After he was gone, I began to reflect upon the many things he would feel at a loss for when he arrived, one among the many, butter; this, I thought might be remedied by substituting honey, when I found there was no bees, at least honeybees, in New Zealand, I accordingly determined that I would send some.” p95, The Immigrant Bees.

Some parents send money to their kids on their OE – Mary Ann Allom sent a colony of bees. You only hope her son (Albert James Allom, who was 16 when he left home and his mother in London) appreciated the effort. The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Adelphi, London certainly did – and awarded her with the silver Isis medal in 1845 for her successful introduction of the bees.

It could well have been descendants of these bees that were sent down to Canterbury by yet another Mary – this time it was the ship Mary, a schooner from Nelson to Lyttelton that arrived on January the 10th 1852 with two bee hives on board. (See the newspaper article in the Lyttelton Times, 17th January 1852 on PapersPast.)

From there, bees have spread through the rest of New Zealand. Māori were the first commercial beekeepers; by the 1860s they were selling large quantities of honey from bee nests in the bush. William Charles Cotton, dubbed the Grand Beekeper in New Zealand, published many books about beekeeping including one entirely in te reo Māori ‘Ko Nga Pī’ (The bees).

For the buzz on bees:
Comb through our catalogue for books about bees or beekeeping.

Cover of 'Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand'Cover of 'In Praise of Bees' by Alizaeth BirchallCover of 'The Honey Spinner' On the Trail of Ancient Honey, Vanishing Bees, and the Politics of Liquid Gold

Search for local beekeeping clubs on CINCH.

Photo of the Canterbury Bee-keepers’ Association, 1912
Canterbury Bee-keepers’ Association. The annual field day of the Canterbury Bee-keepers Association was held on February 27, at the apiary of Mr A. Ireland, the president, at Brookside. The situation is an ideal one for an apiary, being well sheltered by a belt of trees, while clover fields are within easy reach of the apiary. The President’s Apiary [bottom photo]. Members of the Association [top photo].
Swarm these eResources for more about bees:

  • NZ National Geographic Archive –  archive of New Zealand Geographic Magazine with all the articles and images.
  • NZGeo TV – contains hundreds of hours of natural history videos much of which is focused on New Zealand’s people, places, wildlife and environment.
  • Agricultural Collection – wide-ranging agricultural information, from practical aspects to scientific research.
  • Gardening, Landscape and Horticulture Collection – key issues in gardening, landscaping, and other areas of horticulture. Practical aspects as well as the scientific theory.
  • GreenFile – a collection of scholarly, governmental and general interest titles which examine the environmental effects of individuals, corporations and local/national governments, and what can be done to minimise these effects.

Back in time and half a world away

Armchair travel is always a big hit over the Summer holidays, so we’ve put together a travel list with a bit of a twist… Come, throw yourself backwards in time and half a world away.

Our new booklist, International Historical Fiction, has heaps of recommendations from all over the world, and from many different time periods.

My personal favourite is Eowyn Ivey’s new one To the Bright Edge of the World – Alaskan wilderness, science and exploration bordering on the world of magic and myth. Sophie, young and newlywed in the 1880s, is fascinated with the science of photography and a bit of a weird outcast among the other women, while her husband Allan is leading an expedition across the unexplored (by white people, at least) wilderness of Alaska. I could use lots of words like ‘frontier’ and ‘isolation’ and ‘fascinating detail’ and ‘gosh white explorers are awful when it comes to the native people.’

Cover of 'to the bright edge of the world'  Cover of 'Homegoing' cover of 'Barkskins'

If you like stories with huge scope that traverse through multiple countries and confront harsh historical realities, have a look at Homegoing, a story of half-sisters with two remarkably different destinies. One young woman, Effia, is given in marriage to a high ranking British official, while her half-sister, Esi, is held in the dungeons below as a slave. The ramifications of the distance between them and the unhealed scars of slavery run through this novel for seven generations.

Similar in scope is Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins. Both Homegoing and Barkskins begin in the 18th century, but Barkskins opens in New France. At over 700 pages it should keep you going all holidays, and take you through the two intertwining families through the generations.

Or if you want to load up on an entire epic series, let Conn Iggulden’s five book Conqueror series take you back to the time of Ghengis Khan on the Mongolian Plains, or head east, to David Kirk’s Sword of Honour if you want to meet some samurai out for revenge.

Cover of 'Conqueror' Cover of 'Sword of honour' Cover of 'Snow flower and the secret fan' Cover of 'Under the Udala Trees' 

For something perhaps a little gentler, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a beautiful story of a deep and powerful friendship between two women in 19th century China. Something a little bit more modern? Under the Udala Trees is set in the 1960s and 1970s in Nigera, a dangerous place to be if you’re a woman in love with another woman. A debut novel of gender equality and the right to love in a country recovering from civil war.

Recommended booklists from Christchurch City Libraries:

Staff pickles logo Or check out our Staff Pickles personalised lists, some choice lists with a historical or international flavour are:

  • Historical Fiction of the Masses – no drawing-room gossip or swooning in these novels! A list by Dan.
  • Translated Reads – a glimpse of a life and a world originally told in another language. A list by Roberta.
  • The World Wars: fiction and fantasy – stories of the brightest and darkest of humanities nature during two horrific time periods. A list by Alison.
  • Behaving Badly in the 1800s – mostly young adult fiction, these are books about people busting out and breaking rules. Another list by Alison.
  • Dead Dames – books written by dead women. A list by Alina.
  • Microhistories – discover the unusual and often surprising history of things like sugar, human waste, bananas, milk, coal, plants and that most mysterious of the cutlery family, the fork. Another list by Alina.

Loathly ladies: Women writing horror

Women writing wickedness: salute our sinister sisters by horrifying yourself this Halloween with some monstrous madams.

Horror can appear in different forms, and means many different things to many different people. It’s in whispers from an empty attic, it’s in jerky movements beyond the edge of the campfire, it’s in vast and unstoppable forces of evil or, scariest of all, in the things people do to each other. Like any emotion, it’s hard to perfectly pin down and describe, but these are books that may send a frisson of fiction down your spine…

Cover of 'Frankenstein' by Mary ShelleyIf you want to dig deep into the roots of the genre, one of the first horror writers of all was the fantastic Mary Shelley with her Frankenstein (also, basically the first science fiction writer ever, go Mary!)

Cover of 'The Lottery and other stories' by Shirley Jackson

Or prove to yourself that the classics still have the power to freak you out with Shirley Jackson. She’s inspired greats like Stephen King with her short stories, and her novels have a splendid atmosphere of terror. Her legacy is so great that the Shirley Jackson awards, given for outstanding physiological suspense, horror and dark fantastic fiction, commemorate her annually.

Cover of 'The Summer That Melted Everything' by Tiffany McDanielWant to know the best fictional name I have come across this year? In Tiffany McDaniel’s ‘The Summer that Melted Everything‘ one of our heroes – if you can call a man who publishes an invitation for the devil to come visit his sleepy backwater town a ‘hero’ – carries the incredible name of Autopsy Bliss. Strange accidents, deadly fevers, personal demons, and scariest of all, it’s set in the 80s…

For thirteen creepy, bloody, chilling tales, look beyond the more publicised male authors into the sinister hearts of these ghoulish gals:

Loathly ladies: Women writing horror – A Christchurch City Libraries list

Cover of 'Rise' by Mira Grant Cover of 'The Grownup' by Gillian Flynn Cover of 'Mayhem' by Sarah Pinborough  Cover of 'The Hidden People' by Alison Littlewood

Want even more? Head to Novelist Plus with your library card and pin, and try this list of horror titles by female authors.

Happy haunting… and keep the lights on.

Remembering the Somme

September the 15th marks the day the New Zealand infantry joined the battle of the Somme, and this year marks exactly one hundred years from that catastrophic day. It was our first major experience with the Western Front, a very, very different kind of battle to the ones we had experienced in Gallipoli, and would turn into the largest loss of new Zealanders lives in our post-1840 history.

More New Zealanders lost their lives on the Western Front than in Gallipoli, although Gallipoli still overshadows the Somme in the public memory. Today, let’s look at some of the local boys who lost their lives that day, and remember them, and the thousands and thousands of others that would follow them.

Frederick Everard Turner signed up in the very early days of the war in August 1914. He was an Anglican lad, who lived on Princess Street on Woolston. Though he survived the Gallipoli landings of the 25th of April, 1915, he was shot and killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. When he died, he was 25 years old.

Frederick Everard Turner, Canterbury Times, 18/10/1916, CCL-TurnerFE
Frederick Everard Turner, Canterbury Times, 18/10/1916, CCL-TurnerFE

Thomas Arthur Raxworthy grew up in Upper Riccarton, and was living in London Street, Richmond, when he enlisted. He worked for the Christchurch City Council, and married his wife Margaret in November, 1912. He was killed when he was 23 years old, on the 15th of September, 1916. His two children, Edith and Thomas, were still only toddlers.

Frederick Reginald Ashworth
Frederick Reginald Ashworth , Kete Christchurch

Frederick Reginald Ashworth grew up in Hornby and went to Hornby School. He and his brother John, who was also killed, were from a well known and highly respected family. Frederick enlisted in October, 1915, but less than a year later, on the 15th of September, he was killed in the Somme. He was 23 years old.

Travis Armitage grew up in New Brighton and went to New Brighton School. He had two younger sisters, Constance and Mary. When he enlisted, he was living up in the Manawatu with Ninna, his wife of four years. He was killed by a shell on the 15th of September. His friend, William Scott, witnessed his death. Travis was 27 years old.

In the days that followed, many more were lost. Edmund Lincoln Gate from Addington was killed the second day; Thomas Henry Ellis from Spreydon was wounded on the 19th of September and died the next day; Cyril Bigthan Cooke from New Brighton was only 20 when he died on the 1st of October, the same day that we lost Bernard Gabriel Joseph O’Shaughnessy from Halswell. The list goes on and on.

You can read more about these soldiers, and more, by searching ‘Somme’ on Kete Christchurch.

More information

Halswell Heroes

I started to research the Halswell Heroes late last year, as Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre was gearing up to open. The project involves staff from nearby libraries; Upper Riccarton and Spreydon as well as the staff from the old Halswell library. We all chose a soldier from the Halswell War Memorial, and have been researching him, his family, and his war service, in order to create a biography for him on Kete Christchurch and a poster to display in the library.

Posters of Halswell Heroes on display at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre
Posters of Halswell Heroes on display at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre

It’s been an excellent project and through it, I’ve learned heaps about the Halswell area and the men who enlisted (and some who were conscripted) to fight in the First World War. I feel like I know these men, and discovering different quirks about them helps us all remember that they were very real people.

I’ve learned that the Collins family lived near Halswell school and sent three sons to the war; Archie (Sarsfield), James and Frank (who signed up in Australia). James and Frank survived but Archie is on the Halswell War Memorial because he died from influenza a few days before the war ended.

Harry Manship too, died of illness, though unlike Archie he never made it home to New Zealand. Harry was part of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles, along with George Ferguson and John Alexander Huntly Holmes.

Patrick Cunningham was a farmer’s son, a quarry-man and a bacon curer, but the fact that stuck with me was that he was known as ‘Paddy White Waistcoat’ because of his snappy sense of dress. He was childhood friends with Patrick McGough, who was a ‘prominent figure at all entertainments’ (ie, he never missed a party).

Walter Bryden joined the army not long after his little brother Albert had been killed at the Battle of Fromelles, in France. Walter and Patrick Cunningham were killed on the same day, 13th of June, 1917.

Thomas Ellis loved hockey, Edward Moyna loved tennis, and John Holmes took his own horse with him to war. James Archibald was known as ‘Boysie’ and once got in trouble for swearing at an officer.

Albert Wills lied about his age to get into the army, had both measles and mumps when he was away at war, and was only nineteen when he was killed in France.

Isaac Warren was a conscientious objector from a huge Cornish family, who went to war with his younger brother Abraham and on the same troopship as Douglas Guiney. Douglas edited the troopship magazine called The Link to keep himself and the other men entertained on the long voyage from New Zealand to war in Europe.

Some of the men fought in more than the First World War. George Weir Ferguson fought in the Boer War when he was still a teenager, and was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915. Herbert Moyna, Edward’s brother, survived the First World War and went on to fight in, and survive, the Second World War as well, though he was unlucky at home; his girlfriend died before he left for the First World War, his wife died two years after they were married, and his mother died just before he left for the Second World War.

The display of Halswell Heroes at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre
Display of Halswell Heroes at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre

There are so many more stories; some of these stories we know, and you can read about them on the Halswell Heroes page of Kete Christchurch, or in the library at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre.

You can also see a magnificent Canterbury Mounted Rifles regiment display at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre, on now until the 30th of April.

You might know something about these men that we have not been able to find. If you do, please let us know, we would love to learn more.

This project is a work in progress. The staff at Te Hāpua: Halswell Centre have now started to research names from the Halswell Hall Roll of Honour, so do keep checking back as the list keeps growing.

You can see more pictures of local soldiers in our new collection of First World War soldiers portraits.

We Will Remember Them.

 

 

Can you handle the truth?

The truth can be rough, can be inspiring, or depressing, or fascinating – or all of the above. Good biography writers know that, and know exactly how to grip you in with stories of real people and the astonishing lives they’ve lived – or are still living.

Biographies are a way to see history and culture in a new way, through the eyes of someone who has lived it. Here’s four stories of four very different moments in time, straight from the top of my ever-growing For Later list.

Cover of "In Order to Live"

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park.

The story of how two brave woman, Yeonmi and her mother, escaped from North Korea through China. I’ve heard this book is equal parts harrowing and inspiring, as it gives her account of her escape, plus the story of her life in North Korea and her new life as a human rights campaigner in the US. She sounds incredible. An important book.

Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, by Laura Thompson.Cover of

“Enthralling” “charming” “scandalous”  are three descriptions I’ve heard of the sisters in this book. I had vaguely heard of the Mitford Sisters before but it wasn’t till a couple of months ago when I was travelling with my cousins when someone (charmingly) compared us to the six Mitford sisters that I started looking into them and hoo boy, they’re marvellous! This is going to be a good one.

Cover of The Girl Who Stole Stockings: The True Story of Susannah Noon and the Women of the Convict Ship Friends by Elsbeth Hardie.

Because stories of the women who were sent to Australia as convicts promise to be fascinating! This ship full of women, from murderers to pickpockets, shipped to the other side of the world. Honestly, what a story. Susannah Noon, who wasn’t even a teenager when she was convicted of theft, had an amazing life, from England to Australia and then over to New Zealand, as one of the first hand witnesses to the conflict between Te Rauparaha and the New Zealand Company!

Cover of 'A Life in Secrets'

A Life In Secrets; The Story of Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, by Sarah Helm.

Ok so, a couple of years ago I read this amazing book called Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, a story about two young female operatives in World War Two, a pilot and a spy. It was incredible, so when I found out that this book, A Life in Secrets, was highly recommended by the author, it was immediately part of my to-read list.

So, got any true stories on your For Later lists?

Etched in Pain

Chronic pain is one of many invisible disabilities – invisible, that is, unless you suffer from it, or are close with someone who does. The statistics are quite bad; according to the Chronic Pain health report from Arthritis New Zealand, as many as one in six New Zealanders will suffer some kind of chronic pain in their lives. Some of it is permanent, some of it is debilitating. Some of it reshapes your life and you have to find new ways to live in order to survive it.

‘Etched in Pain’ was a session at the Auckland Writers Festival where two New Zealand authors, both who suffer from chronic pain, came together to talk about their pain and their inspiration to write about it.

Cover of 'Giving Yourself to Life'Deborah Shepard began to write when a friend handed her a journal. She had just had surgery for her sciatica and was in severe post-surgical pain, but line by line, day by day, she began to “write through the fog” of pain till she had the start of her book, Giving Yourself to Life.

Written in diary form, Giving Yourself To Live goes back and forth between now and the past, telling the story of her growing up in Christchurch, losing family members when she was very young, the earthquake and the years that followed, and how through all of it she was compelled to write to stay alive.

Deborah spoke softly, gracefully, her words gentle. Writing was also about regaining something personal from her childhood. We grow up into a noisy world; we take on so many responsibilities; we forget to stop and look at the world; we’re too busy. The pain made her step back into something quiet, and she likes that quiet.

Cover of 'How Does it Hurt?'Stephanie de Montalk, who has written several poetry books, comes to us now with How Does It Hurt, her creative writing thesis that explores her own pain as well as the relationship between writing and pain in our literary history.

Both writers stood at podiums, which “you’ll understand if you know anything about back pain,” as sitting can be so painful. The podiums served a dual purpose – they made the invisible pain visible. It made me think a little more about how chronic pain makes you reshape the world around you to make it livable, physically, as well as spiritually.

And sometimes it isn’t possible to change the physical world enough to make the pain bearable, and that’s where art comes in. Chronic pain has been a part of art history for a very long time.

There is inspiration to be found in the lives of others who have suffered and have pushed through the suffering to make art. One quote that rang true with Deborah was from the painter Edward Burne-Jones, who suffered not from chronic pain but depression:

“If I can only work – it has saved me always – saved me through the most miserable times.”

Frida Kahlo started painting in pain, her life was marred by it from the age of six, when she contracted polio, followed when she was in her twenties by a terrible car accident that broke her spine in several places. She never recovered from this, despite over thirty surgeries, and suffered chronic pain which she expressed through her art for the rest of her life.

Matisse, too, suffered chronic pain as well as recurrent panic attacks. Art pulled him through even as he was bedridden with cancer pain. His art changed after his illness, but he felt that his illness had allowed him to liberate his true self.

The writer Stephen King talks about writing through the pain after his car accident in his book On Writing. Writing helped him forget himself, and separated him from his pain.

Cover of 'Frida Kahlo Song of Herself'  Cover of 'Henri Matisse, the cut outs' Cover of Stephen King's 'On Writing'

Deborah spoke about the importance of survival writing. “I understood the true meaning of invalid when I wasn’t writing. I felt invalid. Writing nourished me.”

She spoke of the importance of finding a method appropriate to your own self to help ease your distress. Writing gave her a focused mind, provided an opportunity to pause and reflect on her priorities, love and friendship and kindness. She wanted a book about people plowing through, living side by side with the pain, and though she felt quite vulnerable putting her personal account out there, she is pleased she did, and has almost finished the draft of her second novel.

Stephanie’s pain was something else, caused by a fall in 2003, her injury so rare and obscure that only three surgeons in the world were diagnosing it, and all their medical investigation proved fruitless. Stephanie talked about the invisibility of chronic pain, how friends doubted her pain because they could not see it, and the overriding assumption that chronic pain is mild. Her pain led to a sense of social isolation; all around her understanding and empathy were limited in a society that demanded stoicism.

“Someone needed to stand up and say something.”

This sense of isolation led her to seek out other peoples lived experiences, to validate herself and other sufferers and somehow ease the exile. The literature’s contemplation of permanent pain was marginal; there were plenty of self help books and books written by doctors but few written by people who were suffering the same way Stephanie was. No professionally written book has helped her. And though there are plenty of fictional accounts of characters suffering, the problem is that the narrative seems to demand that in the end, they recover.

What Stephanie found as she delved further into research was that chronic pain is silently reaching epidemic proportions. Silent, because would anyone other than a sufferer want to read their stories, to really understand? She wondered if writing a memoir of her own pain could really do the subject justice; chronic pain has many complex and diverse faces, everyone suffers individually. Besides, there would be no straightforward narrative, because it wouldn’t be a recovery story.

But she continued to write, even though she had to write lying down, sometimes through a haze of pain medication, and fatigue. It had been seven years since her fall, but the emotional and social impact of long term pain needed to be acknowledged somewhere.

“Someone needed to stand up and say something” became “I needed to stand up and say something.”

Stephanie then read an excerpt from ‘How Does it Hurt?’ on her thoughts before surgery, and then there was some time for questions. “Is there release from the pain in writing?” one audience member asked.

After a moment of thought, Deborah spoke: “Yes, there is a moment of release from the pain.” She also spoke about how steady routines, especially those involving her garden and nature, did help her stay peaceful in the midst of rasping pain.

Stephanie’s answer was more blunt: “No. The pain is always there. I am pushing back against pain constantly.” There was no relief, but there was some easement at the sight of a book. The thought that she was looking at carefully chosen words on a page would help, a little, with the pain.

After questions, a representative from Unity Books stood to present Stephanie de Montalk with the Nigel Cox award for her book How Does It Hurt, to great applause from the audience.

These women were two of the strongest people I met at the festival, and I really admire them. Few people in history have ever said that writing is easy, and writing through constant pain must, I can only imagine, be another level of difficulty altogether. Congratulations to them both for their achievements, and I am sure that their contributions will help ease, if not the pain, then perhaps a little of the isolation suffered by so many among us.

The Art of the Novel

It’s 8:15 on Sunday morning and there’s already a queue of at least thirty people waiting to get into the free ‘Art of the Novel’ session. It’s not due to start till 9am and by the time I’m half way through my coffee the line stretches round the corner and out of sight. The room seated 350 people and it looked pretty full by the time everyone was sitting down!

I sat between a very serious aspiring novelist and a group of younger chattier aspiring novelists. The men behind me were also deep in a conversation about writing and almost everyone had note pads.

Enter our three novelists. Stephanie Johnson from New Zealand, Emily St John Mandel from Canada, and from England came David Mitchell, wearing a pair of bright pink stripey socks, so I was immediately taken with him. His work is amazing too, of course, but the socks!

Cover of Station Eleven Cover of The Writing Class Cover of The Bone Clocks

The session was roughly broken up in to three parts, the ‘pre-writing’ stage, the writing itself, and then the editing and publishing stage.

“Research is great procrastination,” Stephanie Johnson said, as the three of them talked about building up their knowledge before (or just as often, during) their writing. For her latest novel, Station Eleven, Emily spent a lot of time on survivalist forums, which was fascinating, but a little scary.

David Mitchell’s ideas for his next book circle around his head like planes in a holding pattern, waiting to come down. He seems to have a very organised mind, or at least his mental organisation system resembles a kind of organised chaos. Whenever he finds a second hand book he thinks might be useful for one circling plane or another he’ll buy it and store it away, with a bookshelf put aside for each potential novel.

David and Emily both agreed that they would get so sick of working on old novels that the thought of starting a new one was terribly exciting! The new ideas can get very flirty and pushy, so it’s a matter of keeping them under control while you slog through the final days of your current project.

Some great bits of writing advice came out of the session:

About letting ideas sit and stew:

“You do need composting time. It’s good to have at least a part time job that forces you out into the world to pretend to be a normal.” – Stephanie Johnson

“I have to write the novel itself to figure out where the novel is going… it’s an incredibly inefficient way to write a book really.” – Emily St John Mandel

About fear, and challenging yourself by stepping outside your comfort zone:

“I want to know that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this time.” – David Mitchell

“I try not to think about the audience when I’m writing. Which audience member would I pick anyway? I write the kind of thing I want to read.” – Emily St John Mandel

“When you’re really writing and it’s going well, the experience shouldn’t be too different to reading, or knitting.” – Stephanie Johnson

On editing:

“Sometimes I retype my entire draft, or read it all aloud. A ‘random page edit’ is a great way to pick up mistakes, print out and pick up page 3, 250, 180, whatever, and you’ll find all sorts of errors that you won’t notice if you read your story in order.” – Emily St John Mandel

“I don’t try to make it perfect the first time, that first draft is just about bringing a thing into existance.” – David Mitchell

On writing odious characters:

“When we’re being odious ourselves, remember, we self justify. Have your villains do the same.” – David Mitchell

“No one is one hundred percent odious all of the time, or if they are, they came by it honestly.” – Emily St John Mandel

By ten o’clock it was clear that the audience would have stayed much longer but it was time to move on, or rather, move out into the signing queues for some quick one-on-one writing advice.

For the writers among us, do you have any writing advice to share?

History’s Shadow and the Life Beyond

How do you make the past come alive? How do you make the future real? Two reading sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival brought authors together to see how they answered these questions.

History shapes our behaviour, our culture, our landscape and stories. Four authors took the stage to showcase work that uses recent history as a backdrop for their novels and poetry.

Airini Beautrais, from New Zealand, was up first with a collection of poems from her unique Cover of 'Dear Neil Roberts' by Airini Beautraisperspective on life. She is interested in what parts of history we (as a culture, as individuals) remember, and why we remember events the way that we do, and the difference in remembering events that support the state and those that go against it. She wrote about Neil Roberts, a ‘punk rock anarchist’ and suicide bomber who detonated a bomb at the Wanganui Police Computer Centre in 1982. She was deeply discomforted by this story which led her to keep examining it through her poetry book Dear Neil Roberts.

Cover of The Impossible Knife of MemoryLaurie Halse Anderson, highly acclaimed young adult author from the United States, read from her latest book The Impossible Knife of Memory. Laurie had been speaking at the schools programme earlier in the week and praised the high quality and thoughtful questions that she’d received from New Zealand teenagers.

“We stumbled through those years badly,” she said, speaking about her father’s post traumatic stress and alcoholism after he returned from World War II, specifically the horrors of Dachau. She drew on these experiences when she found out that there were over 22 million living veterans in the United States, and The Impossible Knife of Memory explores what effects war and trauma can have on a family. She also drew inspiration from the Odyssey, saying that “the story of veterans coming home has been part of our culture as long as we have been making love or war.”

She read three sections, two from the point of view of a veteran and one from his teenage daughter, Hayley. “There is a bit of a love story for Hayley,” she explained, before reading. “Hope is the only thing that balances life out for anybody.”

Cover of 'In the light of what we know'Next up was Zia Haider Rahman, from Bangladesh, reading from his debut book In the Light of What We Know which is a fantastic title. He began by reading quotes from the beginning that set the tone for a story of exile and loss, then carried on with readings from his complex, glorious novel. It’s a story that sets out of explore the past decade, including the war in Afghanistan, and pulls together stories from all over the world: Kabul, London, New York, Islamabad, Oxford, Princeton, and Sylhet, covering such a broad range of subjects from love, philosophy, identity, finance, mathematics, cognitive science, to literature, and war.

Cover of 'Shifting Colours'Finally we had Fiona Sussman from South Africa, reading from her debut novel Shifting Colours. Fiona trained as a doctor, and helped set up the Auckland Charity Hospital. Shifting Colours is set in South Africa during apartheid and late twentieth century Britain, and the section she read sets up the scene for a heart-rending decision that a mother has to make about the life of her daughter.

Later on in the festival, we took a sharp step forward in time as another four great writers stepped up to talk about their visions of the future. They’re not easy futures, many of them are disquieting, but all show fantastic imagination.

Cover of 'MiStory'Philip Temple, another Kiwi author, got things started. Phillip has won a range of awards and writes extensively over fiction and non fiction. He read from his new book MiStory, his tenth novel. Set in Dunedin in the near future, it’s bleak, and it presses how important it is that we do something to save ourselves now. The book tackles climate change, dire economic circumstances, pandemics, government surveillance and more. It sounds like a great story, told in diary form, of an ordinary Kiwi bloke trying to make sense of his damaged world.

Cover of 'The Chimes'Anna Smaill published her first novel The Chimes to great acclaim and excellent reviews. Set in future London, in a time where people have lost language and memory, this novel tells the story of the main character Simon piecing his life together.

Anna had studied music and is a skilled violinist, and her familiarity with music came through in the lyrical way her story is put together. It’s also one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen this festival!

Cover of 'The Disestablishment of Paradise'Next we took a journey through time and into space, with sci-fi star Phillip Mann as he read from his first book since 1996, The Disestablishment of Paradise (with the charming subtitle ‘A novel in five parts plus documents‘.) It’s described as an ecological sci-fi thriller, set on Paradise, which is a “very nice planet… but visitors are very disturbed by it.”

“Paradise,” Phillip said, as he set the scene for his reading “is going rogue.”

Cover of 'Station Eleven'And finally one of my favourite new discoveries from this festival, Emily St John Mandel read from Station Eleven, her literary, post-apocalyptic, Shakespeare-studded, not-quite-horror. Not-quite-anything, really, as the novel refuses to fall neatly into any one genre. Twenty years after a strain of the flu wipes out most of the human population, we join a band of travelling Shakespearian actors and musicians as they tour from one pocket of humanity to the next.

Read:

Family Matters at the Auckland Writers Festival

One reason I think family history is so important is how strongly it can connect us with recent events. It’s quite a human way of making history personal; somehow it’s easier (and perhaps a little narcissistically so) to feel a connection to something, a war, a diaspora, if that’s part of the story of where you came from.

Family Matters was a sold out session at the Auckland Writers Festival that welcomed the audience into a troubled past, made so real, and so close, by two incredible authors and the stories of their families’ survival.

Cover of 'Give us this day'Helena Wiśniewska Brow is the daughter of one of the Polish evacuees who came to New Zealand in 1944, and her book Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile tells her father’s story alongside her own as she tries to find meaning from this exile.

Daniel Mendelsohn has won international awards for his book with this chilling title of The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, which tells Daniel’s story of uncovering the true story of the six family members that were lost during the Holocaust. While he was growing up, his older family members did not talk much about their lost relatives, and over the years his curiosity grew stronger and stronger about this ‘submerged continent’ of his own family mystery.

Cover of 'The Lost: a search for six of six million'The two books run parallel to each other, though the stories of their families during the Second World War are very different.

Daniel spoke of the danger that true events get buried under statistics and clichés as time passes. The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to comprehend, but to try and understand them by looking only at the numbers is wrong. To understand, Daniel wanted to find the true, specific stories of both the victims and the survivors.

“We have an ethical duty to restore to these people their own specificity.”

Daniel feels allergic to symbols, because “no one is symbolisable.” So many people died in so many different ways; the stories of one concentration camp cannot represent them all. He felt it was vitally important not to let these stories slip away, and as he interviewed the twelve surviving members of the town his family came from, he felt the pieces of his family’s puzzle begin to fall into place, and the lost members seemed to reanimate.

“Stories. There isn’t enough paper in the world to tell our stories.”

Food was such a vital part of many of these stories. Food is culture, culture is food. Helena told of her father’s escape from Poland, through forced labour in Siberia to refugee camps in Iran and finally to Wellington. Starvation was always present. By the time they reached Iran they had some food, and in New Zealand they were getting three meals a day, but starvation had rewired their brains, and the kids still hoarded bread under their beds, and raided food from nearby farms.

One survivor made Daniel wait an hour and a half in the middle of her interview while she cooked him a traditional dish:

“No one will ever cook this kind of food after I’m dead.”

At the end of the session there was some time for questions. One audience member asked the authors to describe the places and the cultures their families had come from before the war. “We were the first multiculturals,” Daniel said, telling us that his grandfather spoke seven languages, but this wasn’t unusual as there was such a vibrant, diverse cultural richness before the war.

After a long moment of thought, Helena summed it up in one simple, devastating sentence:

“For my father it was paradise, and now it’s gone.”