Another country? Mainlanders discussing ourselves – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

I am bordering on late when I arrive at a packed out Upper NZI Room at the Aotea Centre for a session that, as a South Islander, I feel duty-bound to attend.

I’m pointed in the direction of of a clutch of empty seats near the back by one of the friendly festival ushers/helpers.

This session dares to ask – is the South Island, home to 23% of New Zealanders, another country? Is there something distinctive and different about hailing from the Mainland?

Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner
Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner (Image supplied)

Ready to answer these, and similarly not-that-serious questions are Christchurch writer Fiona Farrell, Otagoan, poet, and former sportsman Brian Turner, and transplanted Banks Peninsula raconteur, dog enthusiast and columnist Joe Bennett.

Radio New Zealand presenter (and non-Mainlander) Jesse Mulligan is in charge of wrangling this trio and extracting what wisdom he could on the topic of Te Waipounamu.

As a dyed in the wool Cantabrian myself the notion that the South Island might be considered sufficiently “different” and “special” from the rest of New Zealand to warrant it’s own hour of discussion was in itself a little off-putting. We’re the normal ones by which the rest of the country may be judged, thanks – I said to myself in a way that somewhat alarmingly reinforced the stereotype, and caused me to peer out from behind my metaphorical eyepatch. But I am not alone. When Mulligan asks who in the crowd was a Mainlander, a sea of arms waved in unison. No red and black stripey scarves were seen, nor are any couches set alight, but early days…

Yes, it seems that this corner of the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunwales with South Islanders. Here we had all converged…to hear us discuss ourselves. But perhaps if you’re a Mainlander who lives in Auckland, the chances to gather like this are rare? Kia kaha, my southern brothers and sisters, kia kaha.

Each representative of The Other Big Island is asked to read something that speaks to their identity as a South Islander.

Cover of The villa at the edge of the empireFarrell chooses a poignant passage from her book The Villa at the Edge of the Empire about solastalgia, the feeling of distress caused by the loss of a familiar landscape or environment. My one Cantabrian eye moistens noticeably.

Turner chooses to read several things by different authors including Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. I can’t remember the exact details but the theme seems to be that of the rural landscape being irretrieveably altered and damaged in the name of “progress”. What definitely sticks with me was how he describes himself as “a cussett sort of a coot”, because who, outside of a Larry McMurtry novel, talks that way? Splendid.

Bennett is rather less lyrical in his description of Turner who claims to sometimes call “my pet rock”. Certainly the difference between the two men is stark – Bennett all rambunctious energy, Turner barely moving and thoughtful. Mulligan, to his credit, manages almost to reign Bennett in at times, which is generally the best you can hope for, in my experience.

Bennett’s reading is of a very brief passage from a Owen Marshall short story “Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother”, which he chooses for a very specific description of dryness that he feels really perfectly captures that place.

I love the accumulated heat of the Canterbury autumn. When you rest on the ground you can feel the sustained warmth coming up into your body, and there are pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads. It’s not the mock tropicality of the Far North, but the real New Zealand summer. It dries the flat of your tongue if you dare to breathe through your mouth. After spending the vacation working on the coast, I was happy to be back in Canterbury.

Mulligan then asks a questioned designed to provoke, “why don’t you move to Auckland?”

Cover of Into the wider world: A back country miscellanyThe answers were vary in the degree to which they take the question seriously. Turner, with some earnestness observes that he needs wide open spaces and “the sounds of silence that aren’t silence”.

Farrell quips that she “probably couldn’t afford it” (A ha! An Auckland property market joke – they’re easy… but they’re still funny), and Bennett says it has never crossed his mind and points out how wrongheaded, presumptuous and arrogant the question is in the first place.

Discussion moves on to the portrayal of the South Island in the media and Bennett claims that the northern-driven media are often patronising and fall back on the trope of the South Island as “a visitable theme park of prejudice”. Cripes.

Farrell, recalls with dismay how, after reviewing the covers of a weekly publication that may also be a sponsor of the festival so shall not be named, *cough* The Listener *cough*, for the year 2013, found that 25 were about food, and Christchurch didn’t feature once. You can almost but not quite, hear the “tsking” from the audience.

Farrell also paints an interesting picture when discussion of a South Island personality comes up when she says that the myth of two old codgers meandering down a country road discussing cheese really is a myth – they’ve likely sold their farms to foreign interests and are incredibly wealthy, meanwhile the majority of the rivers have been left unswimmable. And yet, we should fight to try and keep some part of this myth of wide open spaces, and bucolic beauty alive and real.

In the end, did we learn anything about what it is to be a South Islander from this session? Maybe the northerners in attendance did? It was certainly entertaining enough to hear the conversation, though I couldn’t help thinking, since all the panelists were of a different generation from me, that what being a Mainlander means to them, might be quite different to what it means to a part-Māori Gen Xer from Linwood. But maybe that’s a different discussion again?

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Lists for the Listless

A popular read for cold, rainy days

It’s been a miserable, dark, rainy afternoon – I admit, it’s the first time in a long time but even so I’ve got used to good weather now …

As Autumn, (crisp and blazing riots of red and orange hued leaves) becomes clumps of wet, slippery mulch on pavements and in gutters, my thoughts turn to hugely enjoyable reads in the warm and dry ‘Inside’ that will blot out the slowly encroaching cold and wet ‘Outside’.

My reading recommendations normally come in the guise of ‘Have you read?’ conversations with friends; looking at the If you like… website page or the close scrutiny of library blog posts such as those recently written by the Library Angels attending the Auckland Writers Festival – I hastily place a hold on the work concerned and cross my fingers that the entire population of Christchurch are a little slower off the mark than me.

Roberta, Masha and Moata: Festival angels
2016 Auckland Library Angels. Flickr 2016-05-05-IMG_4074
a ‘gem’ of a read

Today, I engaged in a spot of ‘playing around’ within the Bibliocommons catalogue and found the following. If you type ‘Rainy’ in the search box and then choose the option ‘List’ from the Keyword drop-down menu you locate page upon page of lists created by people around the world who have the word ‘Rainy’ somewhere in the List headings they have created. Not just recommendations of books you understand, but DVDs, music, crafts for all age groups.

Of course the drawback is that you spend a long time wading through the information and writing down titles to put in your ‘For Later’ shelf but still it’s another way to locate a hidden  gem that needs to be read, listened to or watched.

Anyone else out there utilise this facility?  Anyone make their lists public for all to see and glean information from? Or place anything of interest in their ‘For Later’ Shelf from these Lists?

Don’t Panic! I’ve got my towel and I’m mostly harmless

25 May is Towel Day – here’s why you might like to carry a towel with you tomorrow.

I first encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a very long time ago on an old black and white TV. BBC TV produced the series based on the radio series. It starred Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, David Dixon as Ford Prefect, Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox, Sandra Dickinson as Trillion and Peter Jones was the voice of The Guide.

After that, I was hooked and I had to read the trilogy; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, the Universe and Everything. The trilogy expanded to include So long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and Mostly Harmless. Someone asked me what the books were about. How do you explain something as off-beat as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? I handed over my copy of the book so they could read the blurb on the back. I got the book back – eventually.

According to The hitchhiker’s guide, a towel is a necessity. To know where your towel is means to be in control of your life. The book lists many uses for a towel (including the traditional drying yourself) and goes on to explain that if you have a towel, a non-hitchhiker will lend you anything you need. Based on the assumption that you have lost your luggage, but still have your towel. I have put a towel to many uses: A bandage, a blanket, a sarong, a mop, a hat, a scarf, and have even used it to dry myself, but I have never tried travelling with a towel, but no toothbrush, brush, comb, shoes, or spare clothes, so I have never put Douglas Adams’ theory into practice.

Douglas Adams was born on 11 March 1952. He died of a heart attack on 11 May 2001. He was only 49. On 14 May 2001, one of his fans, D. Clyde Williamson, posted a tribute to Douglas Adams suggesting that a date two weeks after his passing should be observed as Towel Day. May 25th continues to be observed annually as Towel Day as an ongoing tribute to Adams. The fans are asked to carry a bath towel conspicuously with you for the day. Choose a towel that you like, and preferably isn’t tatty. Make sure it’s clean and have it with you.

Do you know where your towel is? Are you mostly harmless? If you answered ‘No’ to both of these questions, I recommend the following books:

Before his death, Adams was considering writing a sixth novel in the Hitchhiker’s series. Eoin Colfer wrote And Another Thing… from Douglas Adams’ manuscript. It was published on the thirtieth anniversary of the first book, 12 October 2009.

Making literary fiction exciting: Michel Faber – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michel Faber
Michel Faber (Image supplied)

Michel Faber’s novels defy easy categorisation. He has written in genres as varied as historical fiction (his novel The crimson petal and the white, is set in Victorian London), horror, and science fiction.

Born in the Netherlands, Faber’s family moved to Australia when he was 7 years old, and he describes himself as something of an outsider, an alien, an outlier. He now lives in Scotland, which for a migraine sufferer, has a much more overcast and hospitable environment.

When he sat down to talk at the Auckland Writers Festival with Kiwi writer Paula Morris about his work (and life), I was woefully unprepared for how raw and heartbreaking the conversation would become.

Cover of The book of strange new thingsThis unexpected poignancy was largely due to his discussion of the loss of his wife Eva, who died in 2014 from cancer. Her diagnosis was made while he was writing his latest (and what he claims will be his last) novel, The book of strange new things, and he admitted that her illness had an affect on how the book developed. The novel has a dystopian, futuristic setting, with a pastor sent to a far-off planet to minister to the indigenous population there. He is separated from his wife and themes of love and loss permeate the tale.

Although the setting is sci-fi one, this Faber says, is just “the furniture”, and to some degree is there for the entertainment aspect. At its heart the story is about human beings, faith and love. Though he lost his faith himself when he was 11, he still feels that religion has a purpose for being and he’s interested in what it gives to people.

Religion is intrinsically ridiculous but there is a reason that people have needed it.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-15-IMG_1939

Regarding the adaptations of his books for the screen, he was very happy with The Crimson Petal and the White,  and on such good terms with the star Romola Garai that he stayed at her house at one point when they needed to be in London for treatment for Eva. He’s even happier with the film version of Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.

His feeling regarding literary fiction is that it should be interesting and entertaining as well and that’s what he tries to achieve with this books. There’s a risk, he says, that literary authors will write for the entertainment of other literary authors thus forcing ordinary readers towards entertaining but not very good fiction, that doesn’t give them anything of depth.

He doesn’t want people to regret, after several hundred pages, reading his books – “how pointless is that?”

There is actually nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.

Shortly after the session started, a member of staff appeared carrying a pair of red women’s ankle boots. They were placed next to Faber’s chair, he uttered a quick thank you and carried on with what he was saying. Later on as Paula Morris asked him about what Faber would be working on in the future, since no more novels were in the pipeline, he talked about the projects that involved his wife and explained the mystery of the red boots.

His next projects will be working on Eva’s unfinished short stories as well as writing a biography of her life, not for publication, but for the family. As for the boots, he was taking them to parts of the world to which she had never gone and taking pictures of them in contexts in which he thought she’d be happy…

Then he read several poems from a new book called “Undying” (due out in July) which deals with Eva’s illness, her death, and the grieving process. And this was when everyone started crying. In particular, the poem “You were ugly” which describes the physical changes to Eva’s appearance in illness is brutally honest and heartbreaking with its revelation that after death those changes are forgotten, that her beauty returns. Even Paula Morris was seen to be dabbing her eyes after that one.

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Front lines: Michael Grant – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michael Grant is the author of some 150+ books, including the very popular young adult Gone series. He also co-wrote the Animorphs books with his wife, Katherine Applegate.

Michael Grant
Michael Grant (Image supplied)

At the Auckland Writers Festival last week he sat down with Kiwi young adult author Jane Higgins to discuss his books, how he comes up with his ideas, and his approach to writing. He spoke with a good deal of humour, to an audience that was a little younger than most at the festival, and had an easy, affable manner (and dimples, which I am rather fond of on a person).

Cover of Front linesHis latest book, Front Lines, the first in a trilogy, is set during WWII but with one key fact changed – a US Supreme Court decision means that women may be drafted to fight in the war.

In some ways a war setting is one that suits Grant well as he was raised in a military family with a dad who was a “lifer”. Despite this background, he has no love of guns, having misfired one in his youth, which left him having to explain to the downstairs neighbour why there was suddenly a hole in his ceiling. He’s sworn off having a gun in the house ever since. These days his only interaction with firearms are for research – viewing WWII training films on YouTube, for instance.

Research for books also forms the foundation of his holiday plans – his upcoming trip to Europe might not be what the younger members of the family were hoping for when he announced – “Kids, we’re going to Buchenwald*!”

He has a strong interest in history which he described as “the backstory of the human race” and he compared trying to view current events without this as akin to watching the most recent Marvel movie and not understanding why Iron Man and Captain America are fighting. You need the backstory of these characters to understand their motivations.

MIchael Grant at the signing desk
MIchael Grant at the signing desk, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00950

Grant admits to being a horrible workaholic, typically writing two books a year, and he becomes agitated and irritated when he’s not working – to the extent that he felt a little out of sorts taking a few days off to be part of a literary festival.

This compulsion probably explains his attitude towards the notion of “writers’ block” –

Writers’ block is self-pitying nonsense for lazy writers… If you just keep going, you tend, in the end, to get somewhere.

 

When the discussion turned towards the Gone series, a young man in the row in front of me did a double fist pump, which gives you an idea of how popular those books have been.

When asked about his inspirations for the series which features a world suddenly without adults and which the survivors live under a dome, Grant is keen to point out that he wrote the first book before Stephen King’s “Under the dome” came out (so no, he wasn’t copying that idea). Rather the inspiration for the books came from the TV show Lost, and Robinson Crusoe, both of which he believes to be riffs on the biblical tale of the expulsion of humanity from the Garden of Eden.

Festival bookshop - Michael Grant
Books by Michael Grant at the festival bookshop, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-12-DSC00894

Fans of the Gone series may be interested to know that he is planning, not a sequel exactly, but another novel set four years down the track in the same universe, in which some old characters may appear.

As a writer of fiction for young adults, he does his best to keep the language clean, but not for the reasons you might think. He doesn’t have a problem with swearing, and doesn’t think young people doing it is something to be concerned about, rather the lack of bad language in his books is for the benefit of… librarians.

Grant likes librarians (in a former life he was a law librarian), and doesn’t want them to get “wrath of God” grief (presumably from parents and school boards?) for stocking his books in their libraries.

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*Buchenwald was the site of a concentration camp in Germany.

Super sneak preview of next Johnny Danger mission

New Zealand author Peter Millett is the creator of the action-packed secret agent series for kids, Johnny Danger. This very funny series follows Jonathon Dangerfield, a boy who has fooled MI6 into believing he’s super spy Johnny Danger. So far there are two books in the series but the third book, Spy Borg, is due to be released in September.

We are super lucky to have a sneak preview of the cover and a little bit about the book from the author himself:

Cover of Johnny Danger: Spy Borg

‘Right now we are in the middle of creating Johnny Danger 3. It’s not coming out until September but I’ve been given the okay to show you a sneak peek of the book’s cover. I can’t give away too much about the storyline yet – but I can say that it involves a Siberian madman named Yuri who has developed a a series of killer terminator style robots that hunt down Johnny Danger. Using his wits and weapons Johnny must stop the world being flooded by evil Yuri-Nators!

If I told you any more I’d have to put you into a witness protection scheme! My lips are sealed now.’

While you wait for Johnny Danger: Spy Borg read the first two books in the series, D.I.Y. Spy and Lie Another Day.

We also have an interview with Peter Millett in our Kids section of the website. You can find out about his most embarrassing moment, who his favourite author is and what he thinks is the best thing about writing.

Jeanette Winterson: The gap of time – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Two thousand people are waiting for the start of Jeanette Winterson‘s The Gap of Time event on Sunday morning at Auckland Writers Festival.

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Jeanette Winterson, Image supplied

Suddenly the theatre is plunged into darkness and Cyndi Lauper’s voice rings out with Time after Time. Then the lights come up, and all alone in the centre of the stage is the tiny figure of Winterson. She’s wearing a plain shirt, jeans, boots and no other adornments. With her tousled hair (undyed) – that for sure sometime in this performance she will rake her hands through – she commands our attention. Behind her now Leontes’ voice rages from a scene in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Let the show begin.

The gap of time2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Winterson’s cover version of one his last plays – The Winter’s Tale – is both her tribute to Shakespeare, and the fulfilling of a life-long ambition to retell the story of Perdita, the abandoned child in the play. Winterson herself was an adopted child, and in re-telling the story in this her latest novel, she reaffirms what we already suspect – human emotions have not changed with time. The setting may be different but jealousy, rage, revenge and the redemptive power of love just keep trucking along.

Now, if you are anything like me, the link to a Shakespeare play will not be that much of a turn on. Sure we’ve all read them, and sure they are great literature – but won’t this just be like chewing old gum? You can go through the motions, but the flavour has long gone … And maybe you get that itchy feeling of looming potential inferiority. Are we going to be made to feel just the teeniest bit stupid?

But no. Winterson read the first chapter of her book to us and so captivated was the audience, that people left before question time in order to queue to buy the few remaining copies on sale. With only one short break from the mic – when darkness descended again and Stay with Me by Ed Sheeran filled the space – Winterson lead us into her story:

A black man finds a white baby abandoned in the night. He gathers her up – light as a star – and decides to take her home.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I was near the head of the queue to buy one of the last copies, nor that it seemed so vital to me that I bought it there at the festival, nor that I cried when the music filled the vastness of the auditorium, nor that this book will be inflicted on all my various reading groups.

I’ve told you next to nothing about the story. And I’m not really embarrassed about that either.

Just read it.

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The authenticity and secret obsessions of John Boyne – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Did you know that John Boyne is obsessed with stationery? And that Ireland has such remarkable literary tradition because of Guinness? No, me neither. But it is all true. It wasn’t only me who heard it, there was probably 200 other souls at John’s second session of the day. The first one was sold out, of course.

John is one of those authors, who knew they wanted to be a writer since they were little. Many people laughed at him then, but – no one is laughing now! Reading and writing were integral parts of his childhood.

JohnBoyne
It took John Boyne a long time to get over anger and write about the Catholic priesthood in Ireland.(image supplied)

Besides publishing nine novels for adults and five for young readers, John has always been writing short stories and published one collection. His work has been translated to 48 languages and the story of young friendship in holocaust, The boy in the striped pyjamas, was turned into a film. The list of awards and nominations is endless. When he speaks he addresses everyone. He radiates openness and sincerity.

His work captures two groups of voices: voices from very young people and voices from old people (and not many in between). He prefers to use different prepositions when describing his work: he writes ABOUT children and ABOUT adults, and not FOR them. His books classified as books for young readers are stories about children, who find themselves in the adult situation. John doesn’t believe in classifying literature by the age of a reader: these are modern, booksellers terms, he says. What is important is that story is told, not how it is labelled.

history  boy in stripped    boy mountain   absolutist

He considers himself as a happy person. So why so many scenes of dreadful sadness and even worse – sad endings? “My endings might be sad, but I like to think of them as authentic endings.” And so are his characters. Their complexity comes to surface in the challenging conflicts and difficult life situations they find themselves in. Like Father Yates, the protagonist in A history of loneliness. Its theme of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Ireland occupied most of the session. But complicity of such issues can only be addressed justifiably in art.

His advice to writers? Don’t take reviews personally. Don’t believe the good ones and don’t believe the bad ones. And if you meet a reviewer, who has been brutal with your work, shower them with kindness and praise – it will make them feel really bad!

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Auckland Writers Festival – how to do it on the cheap

One thing I absolutely love about Auckland Writers Festival is the atmosphere. The whole space, the plaza and Aotea Centre breathe together with the events! It is a festival in true meaning of the word. It doesn’t take much to soak up this atmosphere, you can just park yourself comfortably in one of the couches and be present.

Here are a few tips on how to do the whole festival thing with minimal financial input (ignoring the costs of travel and accommodation):

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Emergency poet Deborah Alma will diagnose you and prescribe – a poem.

Visit the emergency poet. For the last three days of the festival, an ambulance has been parked in front of the venue. Emergency poet Deborah Alma can asses your state and prescribe the right medicine, which is – a poem! Her 10 minute one-to-one consultation sessions are booked out, but she has an extensive collection of pre-mixed medications ready to heal you. I diagnosed myself with severe indecisiveness. I got a little red pill. Inside of it was a role of tiny piece of paper with Mary Oliver‘s (note the surname!) verse: “Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” (I’ll take it to the Writers Festival, I answered to Mary, and I was cured!)

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Deborah’s pharmacy.

Attend free sessions. There is plenty of very well-themed and diversely crafted free sessions on offer right throughout the weekend. Be it a debate, a reading, a discussion or a workshop-like event, you just have to bring your open mind and get in a queue.

Talk to a stranger, you might find a book mate. Standing in a queue is a perfect time to find out what else is going on at the festival and to update yourself on sessions you missed out. I never imagined it would be so easy to start a conversation!

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Reassuring piles of books.

Browse through the book stalls and catch glimpses of authors at the signing. Book prices are reasonable, so you can always buy one and get it signed by the author. Most of authors are very approachable, so you might get a chance of a chat!

Watch the fashion show roll out in front of your eyes. I would need an extra day at the festival just to sit in the corner of the foyer and watch the spontaneous fashion procession go by. It is so mesmerizing, it almost feels like being on another planet: diversity of styles, unpredictability of combinations, colours and materials is just divine. I wish my mum could see it!

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Find your own truth captured on one of the cards.

Look out for freebies. Make sure you sniff around properly. This year organizers printed out cards with authors quotes, which you might find lying around on the tables, and also a small charming booklet of stories and illustrations, some of them made especially for the festival.

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Festival love, exciting and new – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

After the second full day of public programming Masha, Moata and Roberta have got some highlights to share, and surprisingly have found great enjoyment from unexpected and unfamiliar quarters, finding new writers to enjoy.

Listen to part 1, highlights from the day (5 mins, 59 sec)

Listen to part 2, what’s on the schedule for Sunday (2 mins, 26 sec)

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