Historical Fiction of the Masses

Historical fiction is beaut and I read LOADS of it!

I find that it’s an opportunity for talented writers to explore a tiny part of history and expand on it in a way that keeps within the spirit of the times. With the added bonus of hindsight, they might get into some areas that perhaps weren’t fully described by contemporary historians in factual writings.

There’s another side to historical fiction too, and this is the tendency to lean towards topics & settings centred on ladies holding court in the drawing room or the Upstairs-Downstairs type narrative full of posh English aristocrats, much like the recently popular Downton Abbey or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall which has had the tele treatment.

There’s nothing wrong with these stories, some of them are written beautifully and they sure make good TV fodder, but my concern is that we may be boxing the term “historical fiction” into these aristocratic themes and subsequently some other great works about the “historical common people” are not reaching audiences that would love them. So let’s get into the gritty side of what I like to call (for lack of a better term) Historical Fiction of the Masses.

CoverA fine example of Historical Fiction of the Masses (and I may be showing by Tasmanian roots here) is one of my favourite books of all time – Gould’s Book of Fish – a Novel in Twelve Fish by Richard Flanagan. He’s a Tasmanian author who most recently won the Man Booker Prize for his work (also historical fiction) Narrow Road to the Deep North.

In Gould’s Book of Fish he delves deeply into the corruption, lunacy and brutality of the penal system of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in the 17th/18th centuries. This is a history not often told in its full brutal reality by history’s keepers, until quite recently when shame around the perceived “convict stain” was turned around and many people began speaking with pride of their convicted and transported ancestors.

CoverThere’s another very accomplished and award winning Tasmanian author who writes good “Historical Fiction of the Masses” – Rohan Wilson. His two titles – The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost are full of grit and reality and are based on real points of history, and the characters based on real people.

And there’s other great international titles in this vein too, The Revenant by Michael Punke is a survivalist story set in the 19th century Rocky Mountains frontier and has recently achieved a lot of attention with Leonardo Dicaprio claiming his first Oscar for his role as the main character.

CoverThe North Water by Ian McGuire dealing with life on a whaling ship in the North Sea & the ship’s morally corrupt crew was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize

There’s a huge depth of writing in this style and a new title piqued my interest after I heard an interview with the author Eowyn Ivey on Radio New Zealand.

CoverHer book is titled To the Bright Edge of the World and during her interview she expressed her admiration for minimalist writers such as Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. She even said that one of her best-loved books was Gould’s Book of Fish by Flanagan – how could you resist!? Her book is written as diary entries and other correspondence amongst a group travelling through the wilds of frozen Alaska, their families & their descendants. It’s brutal, realistic and believable with strong engaging characters, a weight of mysticism and a deep plot – all the elements for a fine example of Historical Fiction of the Masses!

Go get some titles like these and get reading! Ma Te Wa.

Monster Making 101

Recently I braved the heaviest rain of winter to attend the WORD Writer’s Workshop “Teaching the Monster to Speak” hosted by the energetic Tracy Farr.

Tracy-Farr-2015-creditMattBialostocki-131
Tracy Farr (image credit, Matt Bialostocki)

Cover of The life and loves of Lena GauntTracy, who was born across the ditch but who we’ll claim as a Kiwi as she’s lived in Wellington for the past 20 years, wrote The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt in 2013 and received accolades for creating characters so real they could walk off the page. Tracy started her second novel and was determined to achieve the same rich characterization. She investigated her writing process so she could replicate it. The twenty or so other workshop attendees and I were fortunate enough to be able to share her wisdom.

To make truly original, realistic characters, Tracy advises authors to stitch them together, physically and psychologically. To extend the Frankenstein metaphor further, she suggests splicing character traits and collecting body parts. Take your mother’s dark eyes, your cousin’s dress sense (or lack of), your colleague’s habit of giving you compliment sandwiches and your dentist’s squint, and you’re on the way to making your Monster. Tuck away images or sayings specific to your Monster into a real or virtual folder via Pinterest or Scrivener. Make mood boards and observe, collect and record “whatever buzzes”. Place your Monster into a setting and move it around so it can start to take on a life of its own.

The idea is to transform/invent/disguise people you know to create your characters. Tracy says “be aware of when you’re copying and when you’re creating” and encouraged us to do a writing exercise every day. She assured us that, if we do this, something (or someone) will turn up.

Cover of WriteTracy based her workshop on four main writer’s resources: Sarah Quigley, Write; Linda Barry’s nearsightedmonkey Tumblr; Jason Steger, It’s fiction and that’s a fact (on Helen Garner’s The Spare Room); and The Exercise Book: Creative Exercises from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters (see also modernlettuce.wordpress.com/tag/the-exercise-book)

Tracy Farr’s new novel, The Hope Fault, is due for release by the Freemantle Press next year. Make sure you keep an eye out for it – an eye, his ear, your brother’s obsession with drones, the butcher’s stutter, the purple coat you saw at Farmers… Make it real then make it strange. Happy stitching!

More WORD Christchurch

“All Eyes” – Justin Cronin – WORD Christchurch

“All eyes” I sure will keep my eyes out for those “virals,” “flyers,” “slims” or “smokes”.

Signed copy of The City of Mirrors

Justin Cronin had us all eating out of his hand during his interview with local young adult author Karen Healey.

His motivation for writing his virals trilogy – still can’t bear to call them vampires – was his daughter Iris who was then something like 9 years old. A prodigious reader she had taken a look at his previous novels Mary and O’Neil and  The Summer Guest and pronounced them boring and wanted to read a book about a girl who saved the world! Each day they would cycle around Houston and talk about what would be in such a book. Through this process he lost his inner critic.

Iris has an audiographic memory (like a photographic memory but for sound) she would always know what chapter they where up to when returning to a book. She had lots of suggestions –  there would be a girl with red hair like her and she named the characters. There was only one rule about what would be in the book – it had to be interesting. After a while he realised his current novel wasn’t going so well and he had 30 pages of notes so he thought he’d write the first chapter and see if it went anywhere – and here we are ten years later with the last volume of the trilogy.

Justin Cronin and Karen Healey
An evening with Justin Cronin. WORD Christchurch event, supported by Hachette. The Piano. Thursday 15 September 2016. Flickr 2016-09-15-IMG_6021

An English professor at Rice University, his only rule for Iris at college is don’t take any creative writing courses I can do that. Now  publishing her own work it looks like dad has successfully taught her the family business although I don’t know who taught who …

Why vamps? They are the most interesting out of the four monsters in human form: Frankenstein, werewolves, vampires and zombies. Although I wonder if he forgot about yeti, and Karen was putting a great case for old-fashioned fairies. He excuses himself saying those other Vampire stories were not on his radar, at the time Twilight had only just come out.

At the heart of the vampire noir is the premise that immortality is a terrible state to reassure us that we would rather be human than live forever. He takes vamps and puts them into a new narrative and that’s what makes it interesting. Vamps but with a twist –  you’ve always got to bring something else in to make it interesting like a road trip and a viral epidemic. He was inspired by a couple of B grade movies one called Near Dark directed by the talented Kathryn Bigelow. It blended to the western narrative of a drifters story also Magic Johnson had just come out and there was the AIDs epidemic.

Justin’s not averse to a bit of vampire seduction but in a different way, a seduction utilising rhetoric. Fanning as the charismatic narrator, Fanning sitting around for all those years in a library reading books using language to seduce Amy. A rhetorical seduction to make us feel sympathy with him.

On characters and community

  • Since you are running for your life what is the one thing you would carry with you? In most cases people would carry someone else, therefore you have a love story and bonds of community.
  • Survival is not sufficient. We read end of the world stories for reassurance and resurrection is an important part of that.
  • You need survivors to have hope for their children. You think what does it mean to have a child? A child is a deal you make with the future.

Describing the novels as an apocalyptic western road trip,  part of the inspiration for The Passage trilogy was the depressing world events at the time. Hurricane Katrina had just hit, G.W. Bush had been re-elected and a second less known Hurricane Rita had triggered an evacuation of Houston which he found himself in the midst of.

One morning stuck on the motorway at 2 am going nowhere in a massive traffic jam watching the fuel gauge go down he did the maths and decided they weren’t going to make it out and made a u-turn and headed back home. Luckily the main force of the hurricane hit further off than predicted.

He is interested in the response of community to disasters like the Christchurch earthquake how community survives. Community is a social lifeboat with a group of mostly good people who are resilient.

Why Mirrors

“The vampires can’t see themselves in the mirror and after a certain age that is the case with everybody”.

On making things creepy

I look to nature things that creep me out like fish why do they all turn the same way like that? Crickets how they can jump so much further than their body length, the virals are like bugs in hives.

On imagination

He deliberately doesn’t describe the virals too much leaving it to you to bring the things that scare you to your picture of them. Everyone’s picture of a viral would be different. That’s why movies can be disappointing and on that topic he has sold the film rights but it may be a TV show will eventuate. TV shows are now where the story is at not so many special effects.

Favourite things

Watching The walking dead and The Americans.

What drives him crazy

When the guns don’t run out of ammo on The Walking dead, and cars start whose batteries would have gone for years and the tyres aren’t flat. You have to think these things through.

Justin Cronin and Karen Healey
An evening with Justin Cronin. WORD Christchurch event, supported by Hachette. The Piano. Thursday 15 September 2016. Flickr 2016-09-15-IMG_6032

It’s raining Raina

CoverIt seems apt to be writing about American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier’s latest graphic novel Ghosts (released September 2016) after a night or two of ‘dark and stormy’ wild weather across the country. I lay in bed snuggled up with my children to keep warm, making up spooky stories to tell them as the wind lashed the trees. It was the kind of weather that gets one imagining something eerie in the air… like ghosts, perhaps.

Ghosts is a little bit different from Raina’s previous, award-winning, autobiographical graphic novels Smile (2010) and Sisters (2014). For fans expecting another story from her real life, she points out this is her first true fiction story “not at all based on real stuff.”

However it does similarly revolve around two sisters:

Eleven-year-old Catrina and her family are moving to the small coastal town of Bahía de la Luna because her younger sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends, but she tries not to complain because she knows Maya will benefit from the clean, cool air that blows in from the sea. As the girls settle in, they learn there’s something a little spooky about their new town…

Have a peek at an excerpt of Ghosts set in the missions of foggy northern California and during the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).

As a fan of graphic novels, especially autobiographical comics, it was exciting to meet Raina and hear her speak at the recent International Board for Books and Young People Congress (IBBY), held in Auckland in August 2016.

CoverRaina’s illustrated stories of her life growing up appeal to 7, 17 and 37 year-olds alike. I thought it was curious that my copy of Raina’s book Smile had gone missing from my bedside table one night and when I went to check on my young son, supposedly asleep in bed, I found he had taken it and was totally absorbed and asking for more – I suspect it was the smiley face on the cover that attracted him. He quickly became a big fan of Raina’s despite the content of her books being from a female perspective and about sisterhood and female friendships. This is a great reminder not to gender stereotype readers’ interests.

Moreover, graphic novels are a great hook for reluctant readers. I like to think of Raina’s comics as ‘gateway graphic novels’ and wanted to meet Raina partly just to thank her for really igniting my son’s reading. I also blame Raina for my son wanting a pet fish (her fish poo scene had him in hysterics) as well as his first iPod for his birthday (just like her character in Sisters, although in her case it was a cassette player, being the 1980s). Happy Birthday son – you’re also getting Ghosts for your birthday too!

American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier
American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier at IBBY Congress 2016, Auckland. Flickr 2016-08-19-Raina-Telgmeier-speaking

Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My life as a Comic and Comics are my life

The title of Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My Life as a Comic and Comics are My Life highlights how interchangeable these two aspects are for her. Indira Neville, from the National Library of New Zealand in Auckland – and a cartoonist in her own right – introduced Raina by acknowledging her impact on making a greater space for women in comics. Raina then talked about her influences on her comic-making as a child.

Early influences

Raina shared her early influences and inspirations as a child growing up in the 1980s in America (like me) such as the Care Bears, the Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake and Scooby Doo cartoons. Perhaps a reminder not to write off children’s seemingly vacuous television viewing. She was talking about my childhood too! She also highly rates the comic series Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Waterson and Bone by Jeff Smith as both being important in her becoming a cartoonist.

Raina was also a huge fan of realistic fiction such as that of Judy Blume and of Beverly Cleary and her stories of sisters Beezus and Ramona. Raina was interested in what kids her age were doing and was enamoured with For Better and for Worse by Lynn Johnston – in this comic strip the characters grew up every year alongside her and her family in real life so they felt like friends or neighbours to Raina and for her, lives blurred between reality and comics – much like her own work does.

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Growing Up

CoverA seminal comic she received was from her father, Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, which ends with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She said she cried for two days after the ending and was fascinated with how “comics can make you feel a huge emotional response” – this resonated with her from a young age. She credits Barefoot Gen with waking her up to the power of storytelling.

“Comics can make you feel a huge emotional response.”

Another spark was a 1st grade teacher who set a year long assignment of diary writing where the teacher would write back and forth to the students in diaries they were keeping. Raina helped illustrate her school annuals and yearbooks and she kept an illustrated journal all through school and college, drawing her day in a visual diary. She still keeps a weekly comic diary. She says “all my influences get chucked into a blender and what comes out is my own original work.”

Making It

Raised in San Francisco, Raina went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, “having been enamoured with the city due to shows like Sesame Street”, and there she studied illustration and comic-making. She made mini-comics “back in the pre-internet days” and distributed about 7,000 copies of her her mini-comic ‘Take-out’ (7 issues, 12-pages black and white). She sold them for a whopping $1 a piece and would be thrilled when she received a cheque for $2.50 for selling a few comics. Her advice at the conference on how to get good at drawing comics? “Trace and copy is a great way to learn how to make shapes.” Simple as that.

CoverRaina frequented comic conventions to promote her work and was approached at one by Scholastic Book Group, who were kicking off Graphix – an imprint of Scholastic. Raina had only done short comics up to that point so wasn’t sure what to do for a larger book so they asked her what she really liked reading herself as a kid. Answer: The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, which just happened to be in Scholastic stable of books and wow, two weeks later she had a book contract to illustrate the beloved series. She lifts the dialogue straight from the books and each of the four books took a year to make. Initially in black and white they have been reprinted in colour and since then have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list (colour sells!) She says she can see herself across several characters in The Baby-Sitter’s Club but Kristy is her favourite and of course the character in her comics she can relate to the most is herself… She went on to write and illustrate several graphic novels about her experiences growing up, also published by Scholastic.

Smile

CoverWarning: Contains graphic content (of a dental nature)
Smile (2010) depicts the aftermath of an incident that led to Raina having her teeth reconstructed between the ages of 11-15, after falling over and damaging her permanent front teeth. This was a very self-conscious time of life and her graphic novel lays bare these awkward years and the accompanying bullying as well. There is something innocent and wholesome about Raina’s stories and she comes across as cheerful but there were certainly no smiles when she presented a photo in her talk of her gruesome dental files from this time period. Set in the time covering the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, Raina says in Smile: “I survived a major earthquake. I guess in the grand scheme of things losing a couple of teeth isn’t the end of the world.”

Sisters

CoverSisters (2014) was based on one panel in Smile about a family road trip and delves into the relationship with her younger sister Amara and wider family dynamics many readers will relate to.

Raina can’t wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren’t quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she’s also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn’t improve much over the years, but when a baby brother enters the picture and later, when something doesn’t seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all…
Present-day narrative and perfectly placed flashbacks tell the story of her relationship with her sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.

What’s the drama with Drama?

CoverAfter the dramas in Smile came the real Drama (2012). Set in middle school years, partly Raina’s intent with Drama was to honour the technical people who do the work behind the scenes in school drama and stage productions (as opposed to the select few who make it on stage). Drama is a homage to these friendships and the camaraderie that occurs between them. In the story are twin boys who are gay, just like her best friends were at school. On the controversy of having young gay students depicted in Drama, she says she is pleased Scholastic backed her and notes her based-on-a-true story graphic novel is actually indicative of the real world compared to fantasy-driven comics which get less questioned. Moreover she says:

“I hear from kids thanking me for validating their existence.”

This I think is the essence of what makes her work so popular among readers young and old alike – they can find themselves in her stories: in the sibling spats, in the humiliating experiences, negotiating friendships and in the minutiae of school and home life.

What other comics and books does Raina recommend for readers who love her graphic novels?

She gave special mention in her presentation to:
El Deafo (2014) by Cece Bell Raina rates it as: “The best middle grade memoir about hearing loss you will ever read.” Okay, it may be the only one.
Roller Girl (2015) by Victoria Jamieson. A graphic novel adventure about a girl who discovers roller derby right as she and her best friend are growing apart.
Sunny Side Up (2015) by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. From the brother-and-sister creators of Babymouse, Sunny Side Up follows the lives of kids whose older brother’s delinquent behaviour has thrown their family into chaos.

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Festival Faves – WORD Christchurch

A few of my favourite things at WORD:

  • Cover of His Whole LifeCanadians. Who would win the nicest people in the world smack down? Us or them? I think them. I’m going to read every book Elizabeth Hay ever wrote. And I might start reading a poem a day at breakfast time just because she does.
  • Ted Dawe’s shirt. Possibly Rata flowers and leaves, perhaps Pohutukawa. Either way very pleasing to look at.
  • The ‘question’ at the No Sex Please We’re Teenagers session that began “I’ve watched a lot of porno tapes…”
  • David Levithan’s inspirational Margaret Mahy Lecture. “We raise our voices, not shouting but singing”.
  • When writers I like like other writers I like. DCover for Another Dayavid Levithan likes Francesca Lia Block. And Feed is his favourite Young Adult novel.
  • When writers I like dislike writers I dislike (even better). Paula Morris just couldn’t get over kids reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven for school. I’m with you Paula; we’re going to Hell in a hand-basket.
  • Pondering on matters like why so many great writers are called Margaret: Atwood, DrabbleLaurence, Mahy,
  • Watching Toby Manhire have the measure of Bromhead at peak “I’m so loveably irascible” schtick.
  • Seeing Alex Casey who does The Real Housewives of Auckland power rankings for The Spinoff. A thrill. And good to resist the impulse to come on all fan-crone and tell her what a good writer she is.
  • Adding lots more books to my For Later shelf. 1108 and counting.

My least favourite thing at WORD:

Those who cannot tell the difference between a question and a statement. You know who you are. Or perhaps you don’t. Think about it people. Does the question take longer to ask than to answer? Then don’t ask it.

Celebrate Roald Dahl’s 100th Birthday

Roald Dahl Day is coming up again on 13th September it is extra special this year. If Roald Dahl were still alive he would be celebrating his 100th birthday!

Roald Dahl

There are heaps of special events taking place all over the world, and of course we are celebrating at Christchurch City Libraries.

Have a look at our events to celebrate Roald Dahl.

He wrote so many wonderful books that children and adults alike love. Quite a few of his books were made into movies, including Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Witches, Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG have had two different movie versions. We were lucky to have a special preview of The BFG movie and it was absolutely fantastic!

There are lots of different ways that you can enjoy Roald Dahl’s stories in the library. We have paper books, eBooks, audiobooks, and DVDs, so you can get Roald Dahl stories any time of the day or night.

Check out all the Roald Dahl stories that we have in the library and make sure you also check out the Roald Dahl website. There is heaps of information about Roald Dahl as well as activities, games and quizzes that you can do.

More Dahl stuff

About a Boy – WORD Christchurch

Canada’s Elizabeth Hay and New Zealand’s Tanya Moir and Emma Neale talked with Morrin Rout about their novels – all of which feature a boy finding his way.

Elizabeth Hay, Image supplied.
Elizabeth Hay, Image supplied.

CoverEach author talked about their boy before reading a passage from their novel. Elizabeth Hay introduced Jim, ten years old, and in a car on the way to Lake Ontario, asks of his parents “what’s the worst thing you have ever done?” Jim is a boy out of step with where he is in life, a cross border boy (a Canadian mother and New Yorker father) sorting out who has claims on his love and loyalty.

Tanya Moir introduces us to Winstone Blackhat at age 12, he is living on his own, living rough above the dams in Central Otago, sees himself as an outlaw and is surviving by fishing and stealing food from tourists.

Tanya Moir. Photo by Fiona Tomlinson. Image supplied.
Tanya Moir. Photo by Fiona Tomlinson. Image supplied.

CoverEmma Neale’s Billy is 8 (going on 9) and is a quirky, imaginative child whose vivid imagination becomes a problem to his parents when he believes he is a bird.

Each author read a passage from their novel. There is something magical about authors reading aloud from their own work, the characters come to life as the writer intended and the audience is left wanting to know more.

Morrin asked how did they each decide how to tell the story of their boy? Elizabeth said “His Whole Life” came about from a long drive she was on with her own son and he asked that question “what is the worst thing you have ever done?”. She was unable to answer that question at the time and he was unable to tell her in return his worst thing but the question remained. She wanted to explore that question further so created her fictional characters and set them on a journey to further explore the mother / son bond. The character of George the husband explores the notion of the husband as a fifth wheel.

Emma Neale. Photo by Graham Warman Burns. Image supplied.
Emma Neale. Photo by Graham Warman Burns. Image supplied.

CoverTanya said “The Legend of Winstone Blackhat” told Winstone’s story through the mechanism of a Western film inside his imagination. Winstone’s thoughts and feelings are described by a third person character, not by him directly.

Emma “Billy Bird” said she wanted to write a verse novel with three distinct voices, the three voices are those of Billy, his mother and his father. This allowed her not to be limited to the child’s perspective but his voice was playful and madcap and lifted the book when the subject matter deals with tragedy.

Elizabeth’s novel deals with the question “what’s the worst thing you have ever done?” but links in Canadian politics and the question of “will Quebec ever leave Canada?”  Canada and Quebec is described as a bad marriage – where Quebec really needs to leave. Quebec can also be described as an adolescent who will never achieve independence without leaving Canada.

Tanya’s novel is cinematic, she has taken the devices and clichés of cinema and put these back into words. She described writing her novel as imagining it as a movie scene with a camera tracking though the shoot and taking that and turning it into a sentence doing the same tracking with words.

Emma explored the family seeking counselling help to deal with their tragedy. Billy’s bird behaviour is a problem so she looked at what options would a family have to get help? She did this through researching and talking to professionals – but noted that sometimes the writer needs to abandon the research and let the character lead.

Read

More WORD Christchurch

Cath Parr

Sex, & Sex, drugs & Rock n roll, & rock n roll – WORD Christchurch

IMG_5797Warning: as the title indicates, there may be some adult content in this post.

There is nothing like being ushered into a writers festival session with the question”Sex, drugs, and rock n roll?” It feels very non-cardigany!

This was a bit of an ongoing theme of my WORD Christchurch experience. First up, on Thursday evening I went to the launch of new erotic magazine Aotearotica at the New Regent Street pop-up.

Melanie McKerchar
Aotearotica at G+A Creative. Readers/Performers: Isabelle McNeur, Jodi Sh. Doff, Melanie McKerchar, and Laura Borrowdale. New Regent St popup festival.WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. Flickr 2016-08-25-IMG_5746

The readings were fabulously varied in their saucy flavours. After an intro by Aotearotica editor Laura Borrowdale, Melanie read a sexy jewel from Anaïs Nin, Isabelle shared her honest raw love tales, and Jodi Sh. Doff told a story about a verrrry seductive subway ride.

By the way, if you can write or draw, Aotearotica is looking for submissions for Volume Two.

After the sex, the Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll. This session featured more of the middle vice. Bianca Zander, Jodi Wright, and Kate Holden with Charlotte Graham (who was a very clued up chair). Charlotte wondered why sex, drugs and rock n roll books have such appeal? Taboo and rite of passage were two suggestions.

Panel for Sex, Drugs, and rock n roll
Panel for Sex, Drugs, and rock n roll: Charlotte Graham, Kate Holden, Bianca Zander, Jodi Wright. Flickr 2016-08-27-IMG_5808

Kate read stories about drugs before she became an addict – but while she was using, she read fantasy books. As heroin took hold in Australian in the 1990s, it appealed to soft, dreamy types because when the world is a bit abrasive “opiates are a great softener of that feeling”. She also explained how “anthropologically fascinating” brothels are – incredibly moving, compulsively interesting.

Kate’s memoir In my skin shows how important her family is, and she made a good point:

Family doesn’t get written about much in junkie memoirs.

Now that her memoir’s film rights have sold, everyone is re-reading and they are impressed all over again.

Jodi Wright - Sex, Drugs, and rock n roll
Jodi Wright, Flickr 2016-08-27-IMG_5800

CoverJodi couldn’t remember enough to write a memoir, so used her experience as the basis of a novel. She tried to find out what caused her addiction, going to psychiatrists to find the inciting incident: “What I needed to do was get unstuck”:

The story is what I have.

CoverBianca “always wanted to write a great rock n roll novel … I don’t think this is it”. It’s elusive trying to capture the spirit of rock n roll in words. Her book The Predictions was inspired by a story about an ashram kid, parented by the whole group, who went looking for his mum in a crowd. She thought about those kids without a solid foundation, unmoored out there in the world.

Two  points I took away from this session:

  • Good “Sex, drugs, and rock n roll” novels and memoirs take away the feeling of other, and make us think “us”.
  • Men are often feted for doing/writing this kind of stuff, and yet women get demonised. Hmmm.

And finally the rock n roll. I went to the Flying Nun In love with these times session at Blue Smoke. It was a joy. Russell Brown was our MC and on stage were Roger Shepherd, Graeme Downes, Jay Clarkson, Bruce Russell, and Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins). There were plenty of Flying Nun alumni in the audience which definitely added to the flavour. Roger Shepherd’s book is not just a great tale about a music scene, it’s a pretty powerful look into Christchurch’s history too.

Highlights? Jay Clarkson playing Spooky, and her perspectives on being a young mum and muso. Graeme Downes’ new song Dunedin Spleen (and his general loucheness and academic nous). Russell Brown’s super knowledgeable MCing and questions. The lugubrious Bruce Russell. This was something special.

More Sex, Drugs, and rock n roll

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How to be a writer: Steve Hely – WORD Christchurch

Steve Hely author photo for The Wonder Trail
Steve Hely (image supplied)

I’d be willing to bet cold, hard cash that of all the writers who took part in WORD Christchurch this year, Steve Hely is the only one who has “actor: flautist and shirtless bohemian, The Office (US)” on their CV. Assuming that he does, in fact, even have that on his CV… and if not, why?

One possible reason is that despite this and at least one other noteworthy appearance on 30 Rock, Steve Hely is actually a writer.

He’s also one of those annoying people who are intelligent, funny, and interested in lots of things and therefore make the rest of us feel bad with their rampant overachieving.

In addition to having worked on some of the best comedy shows EVER (in addition to The Office and 30 Rock, there’s American Dad and chaotic political comedy Veep – pretty sure those are on the CV), he also does a podcast, The Great Debates, in which he argues passionately about the big questions in life… such as whether dogs should be allowed on the beach.

He’s also written several books. His novel “How I became a famous novelist” is a satire of the literary world (and somewhat awkwardly, given the context of this talk, literary festivals).

His two non-fiction efforts are both travel books, of a kind. The first, The Ridiculous Race, documents the competition he and friend Vali Chandrasekaran undertook to travel around the world, in opposite directions, without air travel. First one back to Los Angeles won. The second follows him on his trip down the west of the South American continent, right down to Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of Chile.

On Comedy writing

Toby Manhire started out asking him quite a few questions about the process of television comedy writing*, and how it differed between shows like Late Night with David Letterman and 30 Rock.

Letterman had much more of a factory approach where people worked independently like “12 monkeys at 12 typewriters”, which answers the question “if infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters will eventually produce Shakespeare, what will a drastically smaller number get you?” A Letterman top ten list, is the answer.

Toby Manhire with Steve Hely
Toby Manhire with Steve Hely, WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. Flickr File Reference: 2016-08-27-IMG_2495

Sitcoms, according to Hely are a more collaborative kind of environment, though being employed as a writer on a show that is already hugely successful is pretty intimidating. Of his arrival at 30 Rock, says Hely “I was a scared little puppy trying to help out”.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Great television writers have a magpie-ish ability to retain “something weird, some odd sentence that someone said to them” and turn that into a gag or even a whole episode. There is also such a thing as “riffing” for comedy writers though it’s “embarrassing to talk about compared with guitar music because it’s less cool, but it is, in a way, similar to how music is made”.

With regards to his forays into sitcom acting, it was definitely useful, as a writer, to have that experience, to be able to understand what it’s like for the actors.

 “The feeling of being an actor is terrifying and strange.

And in a long-running show like The Office, the actors have spent more time with their characters than many of the writers have so “you’re wise to listen to the actors’ ideas about their characters.”

On Travel

Hely admits to a certain kind of wanderlust and feels that travel breaks a person out of the routine ways of doing things, creating a certain kind of heightened awareness. Where will I get food? Where will I sleep?

“It really makes you feel alive”.

He’s also interested in the whole genre of travel writing – the history of going somewhere and reporting back on it, from Herodotus to Mark Twain (another American writer who has visited Christchurch, by the way).

Cover of The wonder trailThere are examples of this interest in The Wonder Trail, which in certain chapters feels like a meta-travel book (a travel book about travel books) when Hely documents the history of what what travellers of old have made of the place that he’s visiting in the present, which allows you the perspective of seeing what has changed (or not) in the meantime. It’s an amusing, enlightening, and informative read, whether you’ve any interest in travelling to South America yourself or not, there’s plenty to keep you reading.

On Trump, Clinton and Sir Edmund Hilary

There’s no denying it, things have gotten weird. Or as Hely puts it “that satire is being outpaced by reality is alarming”. Er, yes, it is rather.

Hely is in a good position to say just how alarming as he got press credentials for and attended the Republican National Convention. He found it “upsetting”, though in the wake of Ted Cruz not endorsing Trump it felt “like a pro-wrestling match – I enjoyed the chaos of that”.

A lot of Trump’s political success, he believes, is “because politicians are boring”… as they should be – “I want boring people working on policy,” he says.

Trump is woefully unprepared for the job.

“His plans for being president don’t seem like those of someone who thought about being president for more than an hour…”

Whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton has probably been thinking about being president “since the second grade”. This is not to say that he’s necessarily a fan of HRC. In fact he thinks she’s very cavalier with the truth, going so far as to call her “chronically dishonest”.

An amazing example of this was the time she claimed to have been named after our own Sir Edmund Hilary. Later fact-checking revealed that Clinton was born years before Sir Ed and Sherpa Tensing reached the summit of Mt Everest. So why lie? Did she even really claim that? Was it a joke that got misreported? If not had she just, as Hely put it “wigged out” and made it up, or did someone in her family tell her it was true and she believed it?

We know from audience member (and veteran political cartoonist) Peter Bromhead, who knew Sir Ed and spoke with him about this very topic, that Clinton certainly did relate the story as fact and that the man himself had believed it to be true initially. As to why Clinton lied…well, who knows? Or as Hely suggested, was it true after all? Might her parents have just been really, really keen on beekeepers?

Reading recommendations

Cover of The PossessedHely is a fan of Cormac McCarthy but also evocative non-fiction like The Possessed by Elif Batuman. He’s also loves the design of Penguin classics.

*And one from me. If you’re at all interested in the topic of American comedy writing, may I recommend And here’s the kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humour Writers on Their Craft.

More Steve Hely

More WORD Christchurch

How to start a magazine – The Sunday Fringe at WORD Christchurch

The Sunday Fringe at the WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival was at one of my favourite new Christchurch places – Space Academy / Kadett Cafe in St Asaph Street. It’s just such a pleasant space to be in – great hot drinks, yummy food, AND an exhibition of The Smiths posters.

I was keen to go to this session, being a magazine lover from way back – raised on Twinkle, Tammy, and Misty comics, then Mizz, Q, Select, NME, British Vogue … Also, the library has just launched a magazine uncover – huraina.

The panellists on How to start a mag are eminently qualified to talk MAGAZINES: Debbie Stoller’s mag-baby is BUST (up to issue 100), Luke Wood (Cheap Thrills), and Duncan Greive from online mag The Spinoff (via Real Groove). The session was ably chaired by RDU’s breakfast host James Dann.

How to start a magazine
How to start a magazine. Flickr 2016-08-28-IMG_5856

In the world of magazines, the tension between quality content and business/advertising/the Web is massive:

  • Don’t sell your soul to the advertisers. Magazines can become deformed by demands of the advertiser and fat with ad pages.
  • The culture and the capital are never going to be compatible.
  • How on earth do magazines make money?
  • How do you sell magazines when there are fewer bookshops and less people buying mags?
  • Why would people buy content they can get free on the web?
  • NZ Herald and Stuff are both trying to be gossip sites, magazines, and provide serious news. The broken economic model dictates incoherence.
  • A world without intelligent discourse gets you Trump and Brexit.
Duncan Greive at How to start a magazine
Duncan Greive. Flickr 2016-08-28-IMG_5852

Who wants to advertise to smart, funny feminists? Turns out – no-one.

Debbie Stoller at How to start a magazine
Debbie Stoller. Flickr 2016-08-28-IMG_5850

So why make a magazine when it’s all against you? The big driver is PASSION. As Luke Wood said:

As a designer I guess I do fetishize the object. Somehow when it is in print, it is more archived. I believe in the content that we’re publishing.

And the experience of reading a magazine is different to consuming “weird snackable crap” on the internet. Debbie Stoller said:

It’s the quality of the time that you spend with it. It’s a more quiet focused time – it sticks in your memory more.

Luke Wood at How to start a magazine
Luke Wood. Flickr 2016-08-28-IMG_5853

I can’t finish with mentioning this rather splendid quote from James:

Magazines smell really good; the Internet doesn’t.

Agreed.

WORD Christchurch

Photos from How to start a magazine