Carrie Tiffany

Everyman's rules for scientific livingCarrie Tiffany was one of the international authors attending the Writers and Readers Festival in Auckland last month. Her debut novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living is set during an intriguing byway of Australian history – in the 1930s when the government ‘better farming train’ travelled through the wheat fields and small towns of Australia, bringing city experts and advice to local farmers and their families. Carrie focuses on the relationship between soil scientist Robert and seamstress Jean, and the ancient and fragile landscape they travel through.

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living has propelled Carrie into the literary limelight. In 2006 her novel was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and the Guardian First Book Award, and was the winner of the Western Australian Premier’s Fiction Prize.

I asked Carrie some questions about her writing and inspirations:

Did you find doing your Masters in Creative Writing gave you a natural progression to writing a novel?

The masters degree put me in touch with a group of likeminded people; that was very worthwhile. But in fact a lot of my novel got a negative response from teachers and fellow students when I read sections as work in progress. They felt the science, the experiments, the lists… really didn’t work and that I should ditch them. Somewhere along the line you have to listen to yourself and trust your instincts.

Do you have a favourite author?

Too many to list but here’ s few: E.L Doctorow, Alice Munro, Richard Ford, David Malouf, Marilynne Robinson, Marianne Wiggins, Lloyd Jones, Ian McEwan.

What did/do you think when you realise people are loving your book, and that it is also gaining critical acclaim?

Well it is lovely, of course. It is especially wonderful to imagine people in far away places; New Zealand, the UK, the US, Germany, Holland…reading a book set in a small Australian country town.

I read that you have done research at the British Library in London. What are your favourite library memories?

The British Library is wonderful. You get the sense the reader really comes first. Some of my Australian library memories aren’t so positive. I think librarians can get confounded when they are trying to help somone who can’t really express what it is they are looking for — the experience of the fiction writer.

Australia’s landscape and natural environment seem to resonate with you. I think everyone has a place or a landscape that is almost a “spiritual home”. For me it is the West Coast – the rivers, the pounding rain, the mines, the old places where every family is known. Do you feel that way about Australia?

I was very moved by living in Central Australia — a flat spinifex landscape with red soil and huge deep blue skies. I think this is why I was drawn to writing about the wheat country. I live in Melbourne now but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. I like to get out a lot, either to farming country or to the bush.

An evening with Richard E. Grant – Chaired by Te Radar

Christchurch City Libraries won a free ticket to this event from the British Council – we gifted it to this anonymous poster – here are their thoughts

The queue formed early, headed by ladies of ‘a certain age’ (myself amongst them), most bemoaning the lack of allocated seating. However, it was enjoyable sharing one’s anticipation with a stranger who soon became a friend, or at least someone very pleasant to sit with and chat to. The young Chinese usher asked “Is he famous?” – she sat in on the session and had a better idea by the end of it.

The lower level of the ASB Theatre was quickly filled with the circle taking the overspill of the audience. My companion and her husband chose the middle of the 4th row, so we had an excellent view.

Radar: “It all began in Swaziland…” Richard: “It sounds like an obituary!”

But the self-confessed ‘Swaziboy’ (we now have the key to his passwords, luggage tags, email and psyche), from a background that sounded like “equatorial Ealing” according to Radar, entertained the audience for the next hour. In the course of a conversation that covered the actor’s career, but not linearly, he made us laugh till the tears came, read from his book “The Wah-wah diaries”, with acting, and also gave us much to ponder on – how for an actor life is lived between low self-esteem and a big ego – wanting to be noticed, but feeling like a fraud, constantly going through auditions where “the humiliation never stops” .

The questions posed by the audience elicited some kind and thoughtful remarks, while Richard himself was shocked and surprised to take a question from Mr Shirley from Swaziland, who knew his parents and remembered the School production of “Equus”, as well as hearing from the man who had been in Intelligence and who hailed from Manzini – not too far from Richard’s town, Mbabane – and from a woman whose family circumstances in Zimbabwe were similar to Richard’s own. The world is a small enough place, but one hopes that ghosts don’t haunt the poor man in Sydney.

Radar impressed Richard by not having notes, but his ‘winging it’ allowed to audience to feel part of a conversation, rather than an interview or performance. The well-worn anecdotes, with which we have become very familiar over the past weeks’ media interviews, were told differently or just touched on, rather than dwelt on.

As we left, I heard someone ask “and who is Te Radar? Is he famous?”

Thanks to Christchurch City Libraries and the British Council for an experience I am so pleased not to have missed. Now I have to buy the book.

Festival highlights

Aotea CentreHere is a look at my Festival highlights – from the sublime to frippery and footnotes.

Location, location – I love the Aotea Centre. It was an outstanding venue, managing to combine expanse and space with closeness and intimacy. Wherever you sat, you had a great view of the speakers.

Best looking panel – The Bards of ‘Treading the boards with the Bards’. Toa Fraser, Michael Galvin, Victor Rodger and Carl Nixon were a smart quartet – in words, ideas and looks.

Quotable Quotes

Wine is rock n roll, and sex and drugs – Keith Stewart

It was like trying to force a camel through the eye of a needle fictionally. There is only one way to do it. Shoot the camel, boil it, and spit it through the eye of the needle. – Tim Winton (who also spoke about standing up to read a 10 minute short story “with varicose veins popping out the side of the Levis”)

Best sessions:

  • The Bad Dads in Meltdown – artfully coralled by Festival creative director Peter Wells – intense, funny and honestly brutal
  • An hour with poet Shane Koyczan – Shane got a standing ovation (the only one I saw in the Festival) and he earned it and then some. Powerfully hilarious and tragic with words heavy as jackhammers and gentle as a kiss. Plus he made a George Bush speech out of Steven Seagal movie titles, and what’s more he has a poem about a lanyard.

Now I MUST read …

Anything by Tim Winton
The memoir Heartland by Neil Cross
Books about art by Justin Paton and Matthew Collings
Biographies – of Mary Wesley and Lee Miller
Design books by Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins

and write …

As writers like Rachael King observed, going to this festival doesn’t only make you want to read, it makes you want to write!

Loose Women

Is biography a form of  “higher cannibalism” as Rudyard Kipling put it?
The guests on the Loose Women session, Patrick Marnham and Carolyn Burke don’t think so. Along with chair Harry Ricketts, they talked about the subjects of their biographies – the “loose women” Mary Wesley and Lee Miller.

alt=””Cover of Wild MaryGod! When I think of the time I’ve wasted going to bed with old Etonians.

Mary Wesley

These two women lived unconventional lives and their careers didn’t follow any predictable trajectory. During World War Two Mary Wesley worked as a code breaker. She published her first novel in 1983 when she was seventy years old – and went on to write nine bestsellers, including The Camomile Lawn (which was made into a popular TV series). The books are funny, very sexy, with a dark thread running through them.

That naughtiness and sexiness was not diminished by age. When her favourite grandchild stayed with her and went swimming naked, a gaggle of German tourists appeared. Mary sat on the girl’s clothes and said “Don’t worry dear, it’s nothing they haven’t seen before”. When a plumber found a toilet blocked by condoms, he said “Well it wasn’t you was it Mrs” she was affronted he should assume that (she was in her 80s).

Lee Miller,  “iconic model, photographer, muse, journalist, mother, sexual adventuress, and gourmet cook” constantly pushed the boundaries of discretion. She looked for “the flash of poetry” in her photography, and found it also in her life. She had her only child, a son, when she was 40 and in a letter written to her husband the day before she gave birth admitted she had no regrets:

I would be even more free with my ideas, my body, and my affections.

Why is biography so fascinating? Patrick Marnham said we expect to know more about each other’s lives than we used to. The importance and value of an individual life is “a form of history”. Carolyn Burke spoke of biography as to “understand a compelling life in its historical context”.

“Loose Women” ended with an interesting question for future biographers. How will biographies work in an email age, without the revealing resource of letters? Interviews will become even more important – and they must be done in time, before people die and links are lost.

Swazi Boy

alt=””RichardWe laughed, we cried (and so did he) as Withnail did his thing in front of a near capacity crowd of fans. Te Radar was the host and he talked a lot more than most other festival hosts, but the banter between him and Richard was acid and bitchily funny.

He spoke about the traumatic youth that fuelled the making of the movie Wah-Wah. Swaziland was a hotbed of the three Bs of colonials – Booze Boredom and Bonking. His family did all three “to Olympic standard”.

Richard spoke about his career, how getting the part of Withnail in “Withnail and I” changed his life, how lucky he has been to work with Altman, Scorcese and Coppola, and the turkey that was “Hudson Hawk”.

My favourite moment in Richard’s talk was when a question came from the floor. Harry Shirley, formerly of Swaziland and now of Auckland knew Richard from his younger days. He even had a theatre programme. This led to Richard remembering a stellar role he once had – in a rollerskating version of “Scott of the Antarctic”. While vigorously skating, he (accidentally) kicked the police chief in the testicles.

Richard loved chatting to Harry, and showed he is still a Swazi boy at heart – with a watch on each wrist. One showing English time, and one Swazi time.

Best of the fest.

My personal nominations for who might appear on the red-carpet if there was such a thing at book festivals (which there should be)

Best use of props:

Philip Ardagh with Malcolm the stuffed stoat – he couldn’t stand on his tail but did that really matter?

Best appearance by a Prime Minister:

Helen Clark – evident enthusiasm, saying she was envious that she couldn’t stay for the whole weekend and just taking the time.

Best voice:

Richard E. Grant – yes I know he’s a trained actor but one could just bask.

Best quoteworthiness:

Tim Winton – ” she had a cleavage lound enough to cause an echo”. And too many others to list here.

Best chair:

Peter Wells – well-prepared, scrupulously inclusive, thoughtful, quick-witted, responsive – he could give lessons on how it should be done. Patrican good looks don’t hurt either.

Best Australians – Tim Winton and Kate Grenville – maybe there are pretentious up-themsleves Australian authors but if there are I didn’t see them at this festival. These two were serious without being po-faced, funny, self- deprecating and they’ve written some of the best books ever.

Best session:

Traycloths, dance cards and white swans:

A very personal choice but during this session I thought to myself that this wouldn’t be happening anywhere in the world but here, that listening to these women link our New Zealand stories with the objects we have made and valued and with the ways we have chosen to spend our time is very special. The gracious response of the panellists to the audience who were eager to share their stories made it a shared experience rather than an author/audience one.

Best of the best:

Tim Winton – yes this is his third appearance on my list but it’s my list and he deserves to. “Up to his freckle in various causes”, reader of stories that made you laugh and cry in the space of ten minutes, owner of the best pony-tail (another award he could have won but then you’ve got to stop somewhere) he called Paul Henry a tosser on nation-wide TV and then told Richard E. Grant about it. I am going to read every word the man has written and so should every reader everywhere.

Treading the boards with the bards

“Despair young and never look back” was the cheery quote that opened the session – from sanguine Samuel Beckett. The playwrights on the panel had all suffered some vicissitudes in getting their work onto the stage but they did seem to still hold out hope for the future of theatre in New Zealand. Michael Galvin began writing while hanging around waiting for his next scene as Dr. Chris Warner in Shortland Street, Carl Nixon got his start here at The Court in Christchurch with children’s plays,  Victor Rodger struggled with a novel for years before it turned into a play he finished in two weeks.  They all agreed that what leaps out of a play scipt is the ideas, that studying drama helped to identfy what good dialogue is, and seeing personal experiences reflected back was one of the most satisfying things about writing for the theatre.

Philip Ardagh

 Philip Ardagh had a small but perfectly formed audience for one of the standout sessions of the festival. This man is a true performer, all 6 foot 7 inches of him. Years of school visits talking to children about books had honed his presentation skills to a razor sharp edge that had the audience in fits of laughter. “What’s it like being the greatest writer of your generation?” “Mother, stop following me.”  Ardagh began writing while he waited to outgrow his brother so he no longer had to wear second-bottom underpants (so much more evocative than second-hand), he has written a book with Paul McCartney, and he would only agree to visit Australia if he could tour the Neighbours set. An hour-long session passed in the wink of an eye.

Collectomania

Collecting is no dusty academic pursuit, it is driven by passion, obsession and, yes, a little mania. Judging by the large number of people attending this session, collectomania is common in New Zealand. Maybe it is, as the chair suggested “the contemporary version of hunting”.

Cordy’s auctioneer Andrew Grigg was the chair, and his guests were William Cottrell, who has recently published the encyclopedic tome Furniture of the New Zealand Colonial Era, and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins who has written on New Zealand designers.

Cottrell is driven by “the thrill of the chase” and doesn’t look at the price of a piece to the very last moment, so the revelation of a price can be a joy or a disappointment. He is motivated by “uncovering history and putting it back in public view … by highlighting the heritage”.There is a narrative in collecting – fashion, culture, social history. In his book, he attached the furniture to people’s lives via diaries and letters.

Douglas Lloyd Jenkins spoke about choosing your area of collecting. He suggested that it is always best to buy or research what is out of fashion.

One of the interesting questions from the audience was “What is being made today that will be remembered”? Douglas suggested that is important to be collecting and commissioning work now, because that will form the basis for future collecting. Vintage computers is one field he suggested that is an upcoming area. William thought “rarity is a big motivator” and that prosaic everyday items may be the things that won’t survive (and will thus be rare and collectable).

An interesting tidbit was that William suggested with $30,000 you could decide to focus on a collecting area and establish a collection of national importance. And both men felt it was possible if you chose well, you could become an expert in that area through your collecting and research. So there could be benefits in this mania.

Tim Time

Tim Winton

There’s something about laconic Aussie Tim. He is not a show off, he is not “up himself”, he is just an ordinary guy with an extraordinary gift – he writes with a combination of intelligence, insight and a sense of what’s real.

Stephanie Johnson chaired our hour with Tim. She revolved the discussion around Cloudstreet, The Riders and his latest book The Turning.

Tim spoke of the collection of The Turning as “stories lying around waiting for a home”.

He spoke of “the dignity of people who know they can’t win” and all they have is their dignity. His mother worked as a cleaner, and as a young man he would sometimes help out. He remembers how sanguine his mother was, but he felt anger about having to deal with other people’s mess – Pulling other people’s hair out of plugholes galvanised him.

The large friendly crowd laughed when Tim complained about having to read from a story: “I thought my job was just to write them!”

Tim spoke of how people are connected; how we are at the mercy of what everyone else is doing. It is a “mire of suppurating consequences”. This man has such a gently powerful way with words.

Australia, he said, is the most secular country on earth, based on the most spiritual location on the globe.

Speaking of The Riders, Tim remembered how strongly many readers reacted to the character Scully, and to his wife leaving the family. He recalls playing footie in the park and a man pulling over in his car calling to him “You must really be angry at women”.

Dirt Music was 12oo pages as Tim went to post it to the publishers. He spent a day wrapping and unwrapping. Eventually he didn’t send it but started a major rewrite. He speaks of the experience:

It was like trying to force a camel through the eye of a needle fictionally. There is only one way to do it. Shoot the camel, boil it, and spit it through the eye of the needle.

Writing and reading are a big deal to Tim, and similar in their transportive power. Reading is “the moment of being in the eternal present tense”. Writing is the same process, just a bit more precarious. For Tim, there really is this “other place”.