Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Captain Underpants!

Captain Underpants is one of the most popular book characters for kids and his books are hardly ever on the library shelves.His hilarious adventures have kids laughing out loud. On Sunday morning at the Auckland Writers Festival, I joined hundreds of Captain Underpants – both young and old – to listen to his creator Dav Pilkey talk about his books.

Cover of Captain Underpants Cover of Dav Pilkey Cover of Captain Underpants Cover of Ricky Ricotta

Here are 10 things you may not know about Dav Pilkey and Captain Underpants:

  1. Dav Pilkey was a super happy kid because he could do what he liked all the time…until he started school. School wiped the smile off his face because he found it really hard.
  2. He has ADHD and dyslexia but he hasn’t let this stop him from doing what he loves the most – writing and drawing comics.
  3. His teacher gave him the idea for Captain Underpants when she used the world ‘underwear’ and all the kids in his class cracked up laughing. He discovered that underwear is very powerful. He drew his first picture of Captain Underpants that day.
  4. That same teacher told him he couldn’t spend the rest of his life making ‘silly comic books’. He proved her wrong!
  5. He likes to be close to nature and loves kayaking.
  6. He has a pet giant beetle called Megalon.
  7. He writes his books in a cave.
  8. He has written two more Ricky Ricotta books because he pinky-swore to a kid a signing that he would finish the series.
  9. The Adventures of Dog Man, written by George and Harold in kindergarten, is coming out next year. This will be Dav’s 60th book!
  10. There is a new Captain Underpants book coming in August – Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinksalot. In this book we get to meet the adult versions of George and Harold.

Dav Pilkey’s presentation was full of action, thrills and laffs and was one of my favourite sessions of the Auckland Writers Festival.

Come and meet Dav Pilkey in Christchurch!

You too could meet Dav Pilkey in Christchurch this weekend. Dav is going to be talking and signing books at Fendalton School this Saturday 23 May from 12 to 1pm. If you would like to go along you’ll need a ticket, which can be collected from The Children’s Bookshop.

Xinran at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

It was interesting to hear Xinran speak at a WORD Christchurch event. She spoke for more than an hour and we could have listened to her for much longer. Xinran is a very good story teller. She told many stories from her 300 interviews in China. She spoke about some negative effects of the one child policy, especially the way these children were treated as little princes or princesses, spoilt, cossetted, and given very little opportunity to grow up as independent people.

Cover of Buy me the sky Cover of The Good women of China  Cover of Miss Chopsticks Cover of China Witness

Some stories were hard to believe and in fact were probably isolated cases, such as the child who demanded that her mother buy her the river. Other stories concerning mothers doing everything for the child were not so surprising when there was so much pressure on children to perform academically. For the same reason, we heard similar stories of Japanese children in the past, even if there were two or more children in the family. Xinran admitted that the one-child family was probably a necessity, however. It’s hard to know how these negative effects could have been avoided.

Many people wanted to ask her questions. One woman wanted to know more about her charity The Mothers’ Bridge of Love concerning girls who were adopted out to foreign countries like New Zealand. Xinran talked a little about this and how such girl babies were smuggled out by mothers. The long term result of a preference for male children is now the huge imbalance of adult men unable to find partners, especially in rural areas.

Her speech only covered negative aspects of the one child policy. I am looking forward to reading her book Buy Me the Sky to find out if it also includes some positive aspects.

Anna Sun
Upper Riccarton Library

What matters – Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. His Auckland Writers Festival session was sold out, and I can see why. He explains the most important stuff about life, and does it in an interesting and engaging way.

His latest book Being Mortal looks at “the realities of aging and dying in his patients and in his family” (his father had a brain tumour). It has been a bestseller, surprising Gawande who thought its release in the holiday season might not make it an obvious pick:

Who is going to buy a book called Being Mortal for their Dad?

Atul talked about end of life priorities. The medical system works to preserve life at all cost, and yet people’s priorities aren’t necessarily living longer. He talked about a longrange medical stufy which revealed that older people may have disabilities and bad health, but they are often happier than the young. Older people can also have a sense of poignancy about life. The medical profession needs to be aware of this:

Our duty is bigger than health.

Cover of Being MortalCover of The Checklist Manifesto Cover of Better Cover of Complications

The care of the elderly has a strong emphasis on safety – resthomes are selling this to adult children rather than the aged, who are more concerned about having freedom and autonomy:

Safety is what we want for those we love; autonomy is what we want for ourselves.

Atul talked more about the hard conversations around the end of life, and that those discussions are a process and not an epiphany. Doctors should be talking less than 50% of the time. These are conversations that count:

70% of us will die with someone else making the core decisions.

A question from the audience about The Checklist Manifesto took us right to what is happening in medicine today. Auckland is one of the eight cities in the world that use this system. It has been enormously successful – the use of a checklist has led a 47% reduction of deaths in surgery. A childbirth checklist is being devised for use in Northern India.

Atul is about medicine, but very much about people.

On Chatham Island time with David Mitchell

The WORD Christchurch event with novelist David Mitchell ran on Chatham Islands time. With no session before or after, time was flexible. It started a little late and David was generous with his time, going well over the nominal finishing time. David was thankful for the restorative properties of Whittaker’s Hokey Pokey chocolate and a power nap. He was on top form with the conversation flowing easily between him and Rachael King – an award-winning author in her own right. David assured us we could go at anytime, he didn’t want to hold anybody’s babysitter up but we could have listened to this self-effacing Englishman all night. It was amazing for us starstruck fans to hear it took three days to get over his own fanboy awe and introduce himself to Haruki Murakami at breakfast.

On Middle Age and the role research plays in his novels

He used to go off around the world whenever he wanted to research his books, staying at backpacker hostels when he was researching Cloud atlas on the Chatham Islands, and drinking with the locals. Now he negotiates absences from home with his wife, and he stays at comfortable hotels. Interspersing quality time at home with stints at literary festivals allows his wife to have time to do things, and him to tuck the children into bed. He wrote Crispin Hershey from the Bone Clocks as a foil against believing the publicity machine. Several of the literary festivals Crispin attends have since invited David – a great way to travel to parts of the world – a tip for new authors maybe? He chooses the literary festivals he attends carefully, hoping to pick up useful experiences and nuggets of information from the places he visits, and they may later be woven into his books. Should we expect to see Iceland featured in a novel sometime?

Sometimes there is no substitute for being there. Without having ridden a bicycle in the snow in Europe, he wouldn’t have known that despite how many clothes you put on you still end up with snow up your nose, down your neck, up your sleeve and in your armpit:

Snow’s up my nose, snow’s in my eyes, snow’s in my armpits, snow howls after us through a stone archway into a grotty yard with dustbins already half buried under snow, snow, snow. Holly fumbles with the key now we are in…

Hugo Lamb with Holly Sykes, Bone Clocks

On Children

Rachael explored the Faustian aspects of David’s work, and whether we fear more for our children than ourselves. Rachael and David discussed how now having children has affected them, and their fears for their children and the world they could inherit. The world ravaged by climate change and desperately short of oil David describes in the last chapter of Bone Clocks is a warning.  Despite recurrent themes of death and cheating death, he doesn’t like to write too much sadness in novels. They are ultimately are for your enjoyment. David said as a parent he would never write anything in a novel that hurts children – if he puts them in harm’s way ultimately he always kind of saves them.

Cover of The Bone Clocks Cover of The Thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet Cover of Cloud Atlas Cover of number9dream

On writing and being a nerd

The upcoming new Slade House novella and the Bone Clocks are part of an overarching Uber novel where characters and references pop up in other novels. He delights in these nerd-like aspects of his work, creating links between characters in his books in a Tolkienesque way. He’d like to put more of this in his work, but he feels he is already asking a lot of his readers with the way he structures his novels.

On the fantasy scale he feels he is only about a 3 or 4, partly due to his books being character and not plot driven. Despite being a bit of a nerd and creating back stories for his characters, he doesn’t have his entire novels mapped out. He has an idea where the novel is going, the characters drive how it gets there. The characters need to develop depending on the limits of the period and the setting as with Orito Aibagawa the daughter of the Japanese Doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. His wife warned him not to make her a whore and he always listens to his wife! Orito needs to come and go from the island of Edo-era at will. The problem was the island of Edo-era the one window on the West for Japan at the time  had very restricted access, so he makes her a doctor’s daughter she has a certain status which means her presence is not questioned and she can move around freely he also gave her a disfigurement or why would she still be single.

He pleads guilty to research. David limits his writing output, so he can spend a couple of years researching novels such as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and he relishes it. David says when he is researching he scoops information up. Later it shines light on your work as sun on leaves synthesises results.

Last time he was in Christchurch he had barely four hours to research the Chatham Islands in the Christchurch public library, taking notes from Michael King’s A land apart : the Chatham Islands of New Zealand  before we gently chucked him out at closing time. The character at the start of Cloud Atlas who collects teeth from skulls on the beach comes from that research. He would dearly have loved to able to have met Michael and shouted him a drink.

Scoop information up – later it shines light on your work, as sun on leaves synthesise results.

The Quotable Auckland Writers Festival

Here are some of favourite quotes which I managed to write down during the Auckland Writers Festival. I was struggling to rank them in a list from best to awesome, but you can judge them according to your own taste and preference.

“Reality is a bit more than we think it is.” Ben Okri

“The only limit with your story is imagination.” David Walliams

“If people read their authors, it’s their richness.” Ben Okri

“My stories are always unpredictable to myself” Haruki Murakami

“You feel like a magician when you write.” David Walliams

“I’m writing books for my people, not for my country.” Haruki Murakami

“Good thing is that people are writing books about what we’re doing wrong.” Charlotte Grimshaw

“I like the audience to have their view of the songs.” Hollie Fullbrook

“It is important to try and inspire those ones who don’t read, to read.” David Walliams

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

“Curiosity is willingness to step in somebody else’s shoes.” Atul Gawande

“We don’t love our past enough to bring it into our present.” Aroha Harris

“History is one of the most powerful colonizing tools available. Especially if you are writing it from your point of view as a hero.” Aroha Harris

“More knowledge from parents to children.” Xinran

“We are in an age, when a move from home is a mythic experience.” Anna Smaill

“Everyone has an amazing story to tell.” David Walliams

“Remain yourself. Your experience is the most interesting. Be what you are.” Alan Cumming

“Hearts get broken over the breakfast table.” Anton Chekhov (only present in spirit and quoted by Hollie Fullbrook).

“You should always have a picture of a 100% boy, even when you have 78% husband.” Haruki Murakami

What I realized transcribing these quotes is that some of them are deeply embedded in the context of writer’s work or their life experience. But what makes them so beautiful is their universality. Everyone can interpret them in their own way.

8 reasons to visit Writers Festivals

It is hard to believe that my three days of booky awesomeness are over. Being part of the library team visiting Auckland Writers Festival, it felt like living in a bubble of joy and excitement for a few days. When I felt it couldn’t get better, it did!

Here is a list of reasons why you – I believe you must be a passionate reader, if you have come across this blog – should not miss out on the next booky event:  AWF

  1. An inspiring amount of people come to the same place to listen and talk about books, reading and writing. It is amazing to be part of such passionate and versatile crowd that vibrates in chords of harmony.
  2. A day at the festival exists of librarian’s favourite things: listening to authors, reading, writing, sleeping and eating. OK, I admit – buying books as well.
  3. Patient queues. Never in my life have I experienced such patient and polite queue-ers! Queues start to form 45 minutes before the event. It is great to see people connecting and conversing about books and sessions they’ve seen. Queuing is a great way to catch up with the content of sessions you were not able to attend or just to meet lovely people (It is also a perfect time to tweet or post on Facebook as audience is not allowed to use the devices during some of the sessions).
  4. Kids. Excited kids. Kids excited about books. Tons of them! As a librarian I started to feel hopeful about this planet’s future when I saw hundreds and hundreds of kids and their parents pouring into the festival venue to listen to their favourite authors and patiently queueing for more than 2 hours (!) to get their books signed. Never mind parents spending their wages to buy their little ones more books! Certainly a memory to hold on to, it will come handy next time I have my dark day.
  5. Extremely patient and helpful staff. Working in public service myself, I deeply admire these people’s patience and friendliness. I imagine there were moments, when – if being one of them – I would have happily hid in the toilets and pretended I’m not there.
  6. Paper bags! Paper bags at the book sellers. My level of serotonin increased by double, when I realized those paper bags people are carrying around contain newly bought books. That’s the way to go, people!
  7. Law of attraction. Being in the same place as so many other people you admire and are there to listen too, seems to attract some sort of good energy. One moment, they are on the stage, next moment, they are in the crowd and you can be sitting right next to them. Law of attraction surely does the magic during the festival. I must have been destined to meet Xinran. First, I was sitting next to her on the plane to Auckland and also bumped into her after the festival in the restaurant. She left me speechless – her genuineness and humbleness are admirable. She hugged me before saying goodbye. It felt so natural.
  8. Last but most obvious reason – authors. Amazing humble giants! You don’t have to read all of their books to see how amazing they are. You can just listen and let yourself be charmed. Again. And again. And again …

Satirists at large – Steve Braunias and David Slack

Writer and editor Stephen Stratford (@stephenstra) (blogging at Quote Unquote) joined two of Aotearoa’s top satirists to discuss satirical writing at the Auckland Writers Festival. The aforementioned satirists:

And what a sharp-witted triumvirate they were.  Stephen kicked off with a great potted history of satire – Juvenal, Jonathan Swift, Private Eye, The Thick of it – into New Zealand’s own history – John Clarke,  A week of it – McPhail, Gadsby, A. K. Grant, Chris McVeigh (in the audience apparently).

He riffs a bit more:

Steve Braunias is the finest satirist Mount Maunganui has ever produced.

And not only that:

Fielding is the epicentre of New Zealand satire.

Steve Braunias explains his Secret Diairies. They have an inbuilt narrative:

I regard them rather pretentiously as motifs.

How do they choose their victims? David Slack says you don’t punch down, you punch up:

Who’s asking for it? Who apart from John Key?

Discussion turns to left wing /right wing satire, and Braunias wryly imagines:

Bomber Bradbury but with nuance and jokes, or Chris Trotter with a laugh track.

Cover of Madmen Cover of Smoking in Antarctica Cover of Fish of the week Cover of Civilisation

How do people respond to having the mickey taken? Unexpectedly well sometimes. David Slack ended up getting some work from Gareth Morgan:

Sometimes satire is a sort of LinkedIn thing.

and at the Beehive:

Every minister’s office is full of cartoons of themself.

We gained insight into writing satire. Steve spoke of:

long slow lugubrious magic … I don’t have a first draft, every line is written one line after the other.

There were SO MANY cracking anecdotes in this session – complaining letters from Judith Collin’s family, a tattoo of Paul Holmes,  upsetting Julian Assange, giving it but not being able to take it …

And as a finale, a well-deserved award for Steve:

Top stuff, satirists. As you were.

Ben Okri: “Reality is a bit more than what we think it is.”

“4am is a good sport.” says Ben Okri apropos Murakami’s no alarm clock early risings. “I have my best dreams at 4am,” he adds.

Time stretches and brims over the edges of yet another unforgettable afternoon at Auckland Writers Festival. This time the magician is Ben Okri, author of eight novels as well as collections of poetry, short stories and essays. He has won many international prizes, including the Man Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991. His work has been translated into over 20 languages. Okri is often described as one of Africa’s leading writers. He was born in Nigeria but lives in London. And if you are still wondering – he gets up between 7 and 8.

Cover of The Famished Road      Cover of Starbook     In Arcadia     Infinite Riches

He is in New Zealand to talk about his work and latest book The Age of Magic. Each book explores a particular universe, he believes, and his last one talks about evil and fame, but also – like most of his books – the reality, which resonates magic in its deeper tissue.

The latest book nests many silences, pauses, gaps, spaces. The book as a page-turning machine is not Ben’s notion. Books are about the mood, the internal journey:

“Reading is not about the book, it is about reader’s mind, mood, heart, history.”

Ben talks about the leitmotiv of his work – comprehension of reality and relativity of what we perceive as real. Unexplainable coincidences, perceptions of each other, time as emotional construct, evanescence of dreams, (in)capability of our senses, configuration of reality through our consciousness – what intrigues him in life, finds a form and a voice in his work.

His writing is often associated with magical realism, but Okri prefers to avoid this categorisation. “What you find in One Hundred Years of Solitude, you will never find in my novels.” When a possible connection between his works and the world of myth is suggested from a listener in the audience, his reaction is dubious yet indicative: “I love those myths where bird turns into a fish – that’s how I want to write.” But he is more interested in the quiet magic of life itself and he describes his work as “extraordinary things, happening on the page with internal logic.”

First page of The Age of Magic with dedication and signature
First page of Okri’s latest book – with his own dedication and signature!

Ben is convinced that reality is a bit more than we think and while (con)figuring it, we are not employing all the senses we could. Our relationship with reality works like a boomerang effect: what we put out, seems to come back.

Our perception and understanding of reality stems from what we are taught in early years. “We teach our children, what reality is. When you’re young you just see, what you see, you are not told, what reality is.” Ben refers to endless childhood afternoons, when time did not yet exist and reminds us how time slows down, when we are in special emotional states: “Time runs differently if you are on your way to the dentist or if you are about to meet your loved one.” It bends, stretches and expands according to our emotions.

Ben generously stretches the time of his session – he steps to the edge of the stage and amplifies the magic that we have just bathed in – he thanks us. His gratefulness to be in Aotearoa shines from his face:

“New Zealand is myth-infested land. Stories pop up everywhere.”

I could not agree more, Ben!

If you like stretching time by reading long novels, check out Ben’s Man Booker Prize Winner The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches.  If you prefer something shorter, go for Tales of Freedom. And if you are a poetry junkie, make sure to read some of Ben’s poems on his website.

Hack Attack: WORD Festival Event 12 May 2015

Cover of Hack AttackNick Davies, the author of Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch, was the subject of a Q&A session with Joanna Norris, the editor of The Press, in the chair.

We learned from Joanna Norris’ introduction that George Clooney was making a movie based on the book.

When asked about the difficulty of digging deeply into the phone hacking scandal for several years, Davies answered that he had a very reliable source who had guided him through his investigation for over two years. He said it was clear from the outset how extensive the crimes were, but the difficulty was in proving the truth of the story when up against a powerful corporation headed by a ruthless operator like Rupert Murdoch.

All along through the investigation, paradoxically, the impetus was driven by News Corp. itself because the company’s staff acted stupidly, arrogantly and aggressively. News Corp. kept up relentless attacks on Davies and The Guardian, which spurred Davies and his editor on to follow the story, knowing it must have substance.

Cover of Flat Earth NewsThe ball got rolling when Davies was giving a radio interview about a previous book, Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media. His source was listening to the interview and contacted him about the dodgy dealings that were going on at The Sun and News of the World, both Murdoch tabloid newspapers.

When asked if he thought his book had made any difference to the behaviour of the UK press, Davies answered that, unfortunately, it was business as usual. It remained a “journalist’s fantasy” that writing about a bad thing could make it stop. He gave, as an example, The Sun conducting a campaign to undermine Labour in the most recent UK election as proof Murdoch’s power remained unchanged.

Davies disclosed that he had discovered that UK tabloids were “peculiarly ruthless” and the journalists who staffed them were “almost like a parody of themselves”.

It was Davies’ belief that it was the arrival of Princess Diana that triggered this avalanche of celebrity investigative digging and bred an attitude of journalistic cruelty where “nothing is off limits, nothing is private”. But the tabloid journalists’ hypocrisy was astounding. Andy Coulson and Rebecca Brooks were having an eight-year-long affair while callously exposing the sex lives of public figures.

All through the long investigation by The Guardian into the phone hacking scandal, Davies was pilloried in all the right-wing Murdoch newspapers. He observed that no-one threatened him with physical violence to stop investigating, but the Murdoch empire indulges in what Davies called “reputational violence”, trying to ruin people’s reputations.

Towards the end of the session, in response to questions from the audience, Davies gave the view that the internet had broken the model of newspapers across the world and journalists no longer had the funding nor the resources needed to do their jobs properly.

He thought that the Leveson Enquiry was a powerful one, but Lord Justice Leveson’s report had been deliberately smothered by powerful people in the UK.

The audience got the impression that Nick Davies would go on fighting the good fight, but he was weary and cynical as to the extent he could make a change for a better society.

Read our other blog posts about Hack Attack by Nick Davies.

(Don’t) Stop tweeting

Are writers dilly dallying round on Twitter when they should be writing and submitting their work for publication? Simon Wilson, editor of Metro, posited this and got some writerly hackles up. Hence this session Stop tweeting … Commit! A Twitter Odyssey at the Auckland Writers Festival, and on Twitter, starring Russell Brown aka @publicaddress, Jolisa Gracewood @nzdodo, Simon Wilson @metromagnz and chaired by Janet Wilson @bespokemedia – and featuring The Real People in the audience, and on Twitter.

#stoptweeting

This session was crackling with intelligence, but I wanted to hear more from the Yays …