I was really disappointed to miss Ivan on their last trip to Christchurch last year, so as soon as I learnt they would be back this year, I made sure to get my ticket in my hot little hand. I have been a fan of Ivan’s work since reading Missed Her several years ago, and have only become more of a fan with Gender Failure and Tomboy Survival Guide.
The audience who attended An Evening with Ivan Coyote was – to quote one of my neighbours – ‘quite an eclectic crowd’. Despite any differences in age, gender, or any other identifier, however, everyone was completely drawn in by the stories of growing up in small-town Canada: What’s it like to be the only little girl in the world who didn’t want to grow up to be Princess Di on her wedding day?Why open the door to someone empty-handed when there is plenty of road-kill around to offer? What songs would you include in the soundtrack of your life? And how cool is it to live near a World Record-holding giant squash?!
Much of the material was from TomboySurvival Guide, Ivan’s most recent book, but the fact that I’d already read the stories did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the evening. Ivan’s portrayal of different characters had me laughing out loud, nodding in agreement with their observations of life, love and public toilets, and feeling like I was watching more than just one person. The elderly grandmothers, the best friend from childhood, and the ball players and sports coaches – Ivan’s storytelling and use of voices brought these characters to life, and it was a parade of the weird and the wonderful that we saw up on stage.
With a large number of gender-diverse audience members, Ivan also had words of encouragement and support for those who don’t look or act the way boys and girls ‘should’ look and act – be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and embrace what it is that makes you individual and unique. Be yourself, and know that asking people to use the ‘singular they’ pronoun to refer to you is not going to cause the end of the world!
Ivan is a fantastic storyteller, with some great stories to tell, and I look forward to hearing more from them. With sold-out audiences this year and last, Ivan has said they will be back, and I know that there will be keen interest in their next show. Until we hear about their next visit down to Aotearoa New Zealand, however, have a read of Ivan’s books available here at the library.
I could almost be in Dublin right now. It’s 13 degrees and in the freezing rain I bike up to the beautiful Piano venue on Armagh Street, for the last event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. Anne Enright, first Laureate for Irish Fiction, is here to talk about her book The Green Road.
Winner of Irish Novel of the Year, The Green Road is a family saga, reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s ‘Great American Novel,’ The Town and the City. Is this Enright’s Great Irish Novel? Well she did get her prize…
Family, says Enright, are a common focus in many of her novels. The Gathering, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is about a family of nine who reunite for a funeral. Other common themes are the drinking father, the difficult mother, and the death of a parent or sibling.
There’s nothing brings a family together like a good funeral.
Often splitting her stories between characters before gathering the threads back together, Enright insightfully examines different perspectives of a common experience or issue.
The Forgotten Waltz, (a lyrical story about a love affair), is more introverted. Both lyrical and ironically funny, it follows Gina as she navigates her way through an affair, and the death of her mother. Apparently it has long been illegal in Irish culture to talk in the first person: “It’s not about you…!”
Enright is part of a new canon of Irish writers who “write what they like”. She discovered women writers were overlooked in Ireland, and figured no-one would read her… so wrote for her own pleasure.
The landscape is a strong character too. Quietly dominating the prose at times, foreshadowing perhaps a storm to come in story:
“The sky was full of weather.” (The Green Road).
Enright felt she could not write about it at first but remembered a connection with the cliffs around County Clare.
Enright is the first to say that she doesn’t want to be “abouty”. She means that she doesn’t want each book to be about the same theme, though issues do inspire her. The drinking father persona of Ireland, the difficult mother…
When asked what inspired the story for The Forgotten Waltz, I was blindsided by her answer: the economic boom and bust of Ireland… the dishonesty and financial fallout of the affair being a vehicle for Irish investment in a failing property market… So there you go.
Enright‘s narrative voice charms the reader from the first paragraph. After a week of reading The Forgotten Waltz, my mind was speaking in brogue. So it was a pleasure to hear her read Hannah’s trip along the Green road with her Da, and the dramatic scene around Holy Thursday dinner.
Her observations of human experience have been described as an unblinking eye. I see it more as winking. Like the Catholic Church, (nurturing, but subversive, ‘you can’t get out of it” she says,) her work is poignant, with the humour that comes along with the dramas of life.
The author of numerous books of a scientific bent is careful with his words and keen not to ruffle any feathers. It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder if his experience is that, on the topic of Time Travel, passions might sometimes become inflamed?
A curious full house gather at the Piano for this WORD Christchurch session featuring Gleick and fellow New Yorker Daniel Bernardi (erskine fellow, film and media studies scholar, science fiction expert and documentary filmmaker). They discuss the ins and outs, twists, turns and paradoxes of Time Travel. Before long there is, as is the new tradition when two educated Americans speak in the presence of non-Americans… a jocular swipe at the current US president.
Fortunately this science-loving audience is not in the least offended by the joke.
Gleick’s book Time Travel: A history is an exploration of the literature, science and zeitgeist of Time Travel. It’s far-ranging, smart and brain-expanding.
But what made him want to write on that topic in the first place?
I discovered this weird fact – that Time Travel is a new idea. That didn’t make any sense to me.
Why did it take until H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine for people to explore that as an idea? It seems a few things came together: photography and cinema were showing people a slice of the past in the present; instantaneous communication was suddenly possible making the lack of temporal alignment in different places more obvious; and time standards became a thing for the first time. As Gleick puts it, “the way people thought about Time was up for grabs”.
Then Einstein came along and things got really interesting.
Though Einstein’s theories allowed for the possibility of a sort of Time Travel, Gleick is quick to point out that it’s not the punching-a-date-on-a-machine or opening-a-portal-to-another-era kind. It’s really just the acknowledgement that there is no universal time. Everyone’s experience of time is personal and given the right set of circumstances (speedlight travel, for instance) your version of time can slow down relative to everyone else’s. This means that the Time Travel stories of the “Rip Van Winkle” (or Futurama) kind become technically possible. But Gleick doesn’t believe the imaginary, sci-fi type Time Travel that continues to excite our imaginations exists, or that it will. Though he seems apologetic about it, as if he’s mindful of deflating the aspirations of wannabe Time Travellers in the audience.
On the enduring appeal of Time Travel in literature and popular culture, Gleick feels that it lets people explore many things about families and relationships – it gives you the ability for “a do-over”. Like the movie Groundhog Day. He points out that a lot of Time Travel stories are about fathers and mothers, families and parents.
Take Back to the Future – isn’t this really just a movie about looking at your parents and realising they were once young like me, and wondering “what was that like?”
This is far from the only reference to Time Travel in popular culture, and many in the audience probably come away from this talk with a reading/watching list that includes:
A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – indicative of pessimism about the future of “our benighted country”.
Doomsday book – H. G. Wells never wrote about going into the past but Connie Willis does.
Looper – Movie that nicely skirts over the paradoxical plot difficulties by having Bruce Willis tell his younger self “If we’re going to talk about Time Travel sh*t we’re gonna be sitting here making diagrams with straws all day”.
Interstellar – Bernardi’s pick as the film that best visualises the science of Time Travel.
Arrival – A film that Gleick feels works very well in performing a “subtle trick” on the audience. All Time Travel stories have to do this but in this film you barely notice it happening.
Twelve Monkeys – Another Bruce Willis film that deals with a Time Travel loop and deals with a death.
“Blink” – Gleick’s favourite episode of Doctor Who, in particular a scene set in a spooky old house, “old houses are great time travel machines”. It’s also the first episode in which the phrase “timey-wimey” is used.
Gleick is at great pains to try and describe these stories in a way that does not reveal any important plot twists. In the case of Planet of the Apes this is… is adorable the right word? The movie came out in 1968. But no spoilers!
Another appealing aspect to Time Travel is that it’s a way of escaping death. After all, (spoiler alert!) Time will kill us all in the end.
When we hear Time’s winged chariot it’s not delivering good news.
But what is Time (other than universally deadly)? Scientists may tell you that Time is the 4th dimension and that it’s similar to the other physical dimensions in that we inhabit one spot and the rest stretches out away from us, both backward and forward. This rather flies in the face of what Gleick says we know “in our guts” about Time i.e. that the past has happened and the future hasn’t.
It seems an oddly obvious statement to have to make, and Gleick says it’s not a scientific one but a religious one.
Some of the audience questions delve into this idea of religious thought versus Time Travel and at this point I get lost, draw a spiral in my notebook and label it “loop of confusion”. Questions like “is God in Time with us?” and “doesn’t an interventionist God imply that the future isn’t set?” do somewhat “screw my noodle”. Given the heady topic, it seems inevitable that I lose the thread of the discussion at some point in proceedings. Perhaps it always has, and always did happen?
Other questions posed include one from my colleague Fee (who wrote her own post about James Gleick) and wonders if the future is set, then what about premonition? Which Gleick says (gently) that he does not believe in, though it’s a powerful idea.
Another question asks how it is that Gleick can explain such scientifically complex stuff in ways that non-scientist folk can understand. He says simply that he’s a journalist so he asks lots of questions and that a big part of it is just getting scientists to talk you as they sometimes “live in their own abstruse world”.
I am lucky enough to get the last mic grab of the night and ask my own question (which if I could have a Time Travel do-over for, I would make slightly less waffley). It’s with reference to the way we think about Time in terms of spatial metaphor. In the Western world we conceive of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us but in Māori culture this is flipped around – the past is known and therefore visible before you and it’s the future that approaches you from behind. In the course of researching had he found any other cultures that view Time this way? Gleick replies that the language we use, the words that we use to describe Time really shape how we think about it and that in some Asian languages Time travels on an “up and down” axis or “right to left”.
And if I thought my noodle was screwed before it definitely is now. As I exit the theatre along with the rest of the audience I concentrate on travelling forward through space and backwards/forwards/vertically through time.
Time: The real history of science fiction – BBC programme that discusses several of the films discussed in this session as well as the Grandfather paradox and other Time Travel tropes. (log in with your library card number and PIN to watch online)
There was an understandably big crowd at The Piano last night for A. N. Wilson in conversation with Christopher Moore. Part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, we were treated to insights about the eminent novelist and biographer’s new and upcoming works, as well as his distinguished career.
As you can see, I was quite a long way back!
Wilson – or Andrew as I think we’re allowed to call him – was inspired to write biography after reading Lytton Strachey‘s Eminent Victorians and wanting to write as well as him. While he is generally commissioned to write biographies, he chose to write about the lives of Leo Tolstoy and Walter Scott. Scott was pretty much the father of historical fiction, with his tales of the Scottish Highlands allowing people to imagine what it was like to live in the past instead of simply regurgitating facts.
One of the things that fascinated Andrew about Tolstoy was the fact that while we know him as a great novelist, in Russia he was more known for his political beliefs – including his idea of passive anarchy which went to to inspire people like Gandhi. However, after digging into Tolstoy’s domestic sphere he concludes that:
he would not like to be Mrs Tolstoy.
Andrew’s latest novel is Resolution, about the German botanist Georg Forster who travelled with Captain Cook on his second voyage and later became a revolutionary in France. Interestingly, in Communist East Germany Forster was seen as a champion of class struggle and became a national hero. It’s great to hear about different and interesting people and I’m looking forward to reading this book.
An obvious favourite of Andrew’s is Queen Victoria who he describes as “taking being an embarrassing mother to new heights”. However, he is now researching Prince Albert, who is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, Andrew describes him as being
deeply strange and complicated.
He also believes that although Victoria was madly in love with Albert, he never fell in love with her and controlled her to a great degree. Look out for this biography in 2019, as its going to be fascinating!
Andrew obviously has a passion for the people he writes about and it was fabulous to have the opportunity to listen to his great storytelling here in Christchurch – which, he reminded us, is very much a Victorian city.
Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?
I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.
Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.
“There’s no place like home”
Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.
Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:
You know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?
She shook her head.
He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.
— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy
When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!
Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.
I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.
Ian Rankin was born in Fife. I was born in Fife. Ian Rankin studied at Edinburgh University. I studied at Edinburgh University. Ian Rankin writes successful, suspenseful and gritty crime fiction. Nope, nothing. But I am most affirmatively a mahoosive fan-lassie for his thrillers set in the Athens of the North a.k.a. Edinburgh and featuring Mr Booze John Rebus.
Last night Christchurch played host to Ian Rankin as the opening event of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season and it was a full house at the Charles Luney Auditorium of St Margaret’s College. It was also a slightly more blokey audience than most book events attract, albeit it in a very metro, groomed and grizzled with grey fashion. Marcus Elliott, the Christchurch coroner, was asking the probing questions.
Rankin claims most crime writers would rather be rock stars than writers. Aged 12 he created a band called The Amoebas. With no musical ability himself – and no friends who actually wanted to be in a band – The Amoebas were entirely fictitious, but Rankin still managed to create world tour itineraries, lyrics for top 10 hits and music press interviews.
Writers are shy, nerdy kids who create worlds
he said, and while for most people the adult world draws a halt to childish imagination, for writers it keeps going. Rebus is his imaginary friend, but one who wouldn’t like Rankin in the real world. Rankin claimed Rebus would label him “a wishy-washy liberal”.
The first Rebus novel, Knot and Crosses is celebrating its 30th anniversary and Rankin said the character of Rebus leapt “fully formed” into his head. He didn’t entirely realise he was writing a crime novel and was a little perturbed to see what he thought was the next great Scottish novel appearing in the then “not sexy” crime section of his local bookstore.
He was aware early on he needed help with creating an authentic police world and wrote to the then Lothian Police to get some advice. He was also briefly a suspect in a missing person/murder case!
Asked if he counted policeman amongst his fans, Rankin said “weirdly yes”. Everyone likes a maverick and Rebus is his own man but also on the right side. His novels represent authentic investigations but with all the boring bits taken out, a streamlined version of a real investigation.
Rankin added that keeping the series fresh wasn’t too challenging as Edinburgh, Scotland and Rebus had all changed. Rebus has retired, and after years of booze, fags and fried food, his body is starting to wind down. Rankin has recently gifted Rebus Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) but added he needs to work hard at remembering new story elements, for example he forgot he’d written in a pet dog for Rebus and then had to re-write and add the pooch in later!
Rankin said he likes to explore different social issues and each novel starts with a theme: immigration, people trafficking, xenophobia, banking crisis or business scam – but he is mindful that he also needs to create an exciting read. He says he doesn’t plan too much and sometimes the ending changes because the narrative knows better and he has to “trust to the muse”. All his books end before the criminal trial because, he says, he knows nothing about the Scottish criminal system and is too lazy to do the research.
Marcus Elliott asked about the TV versions of Rebus, and Rankin said there was early interest from the actor Leslie Grantham better known as Dirty Den of Eastenders’ fame. Later the BBC wanted the rather rotund Robbie Coltrane to play Rebus, and Rankin was like “Jesus you know he (Rebus) was in the SAS”! He recently got the rights back and would like to see them filmed in a more leisurely Scandi-style rather than the breakneck a-novel-condensed-to-an-hour speed of the ITV series. Writer, and fellow Fifer Gregory Burke is involved and the actor Ken Stott may even reprise his role.
There was time for a few questions from the audience, and it was the usual mixed bag with questions that aren’t questions and some sneaky self-aggrandisement. Rankin was asked about his love for the music of the late Jackie Leven, a prolific Scottish singer-songwriter, who he collaborated with on a CD and series of stage performances. He was also asked how he researches and makes authentic the criminals that appear in his fiction. He has spent time in prisons particularly through literacy in prison programmes, but was recently shocked when a fan described his recurring crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty as a “big, huggable, loveable bear of a guy”. He fears he has perhaps over-identified with Big Ger and is going to make him horrible again.
The session started to wind up but Rankin still had time to apologise for Donald Trump being half-Scots and to warn us of the seething rage and stabby darkness carried inside romantic fiction writers. This was a witty and polished session with truck loads of well-executed anecdotes and crime fiction insights.
Last year, I went to two events run by WORD Christchurch, and I fell in love with Ivan E Coyote.
I first saw them (Ivan goes by the gender-neutral pronoun) at Speaking Proud which I’d attended to see old favourite David Levithan. Ivan read their reply to a letter someone had written them, ‘Shouldn’t I feel pretty‘. It was a powerful, powerful letter and we were both tearing up by the end of it. All Ivan’s writing is performed impeccably – for them, writing goes hand in hand with performance – and is simultaneously moving and stunning. The letter was about more than just gender identity, it was about surviving in the world.
At the end of the session, I bought their book Missed Her – a collection of moments, autobiographical stories, things you might read on the blog of a friend. There’s a wicked punch of honesty in each of the stories. When I went up to get the book signed, Ivan thanked me for being part of the audience “I saw you listening intently.”
Then the Christchurch Art Gallery hosted Hear My Voice, a non-stop hour and a half of spoken word poetry, and Ivan was there, a storyteller among the poets. They read ‘literary doritos’ – not quite poems or prose, but little anecdotes, some of them deeply upsetting, some so full of hope. There were stories of cruel, cruel words spoken by adults and poignant, brilliant words from kids who haven’t learned to hate yet.
“I don’t think he is a lady” said a young girl named Rachel, “I think he is a man… but with really pretty eyes.”
A year on and I can still hear Ivan’s delivery when I read those lines. Their storytelling power is epic, the kind of epic that, if you possibly have a chance, you must hear in person to really believe it.
And for those who can’t make it, I really encourage you to pick up one of their books and read a story. It won’t take much time, some of them are only half a page long, but it will be worth it. Or look them up on YouTube (Ivan’s done a great TED talk about the use of public bathrooms, and you can also find several performances of their work).
But try and get there if you can; it’ll be a night to remember.
Now it’s confession time … I’ve never read an Ian Rankin novel.
In my years working in public libraries, Rankin’s books have been ever-present and always on the move. Their uniform cover design makes them stand out really well among the larger collection and they all portray a sense of grim foreboding and cold realism.
Rankin’s name is always the first and largest text (before the title) and this is tribute to his popularity. And speaking of popularity, his Rebus novels in particular have a huge following of readers, some of whom have regularly suggested that I read his work. But I’m afraid I’ve never gotten around to it (so many books, so little time!), UNTIL NOW!
I’ve just begun his first Rebus novel Knots and Crosses, and already I’m loving it. All the elements of a good noir crime story are there — an overworked under-appreciated borderline protagonist, a system of bureaucracy to overcome, the doggedness to get to the truth, and a series of gruesome crimes committed by a dangerous and difficult-to-understand sociopath … it’s gripping!
I’m now an “almost-fan” and really looking forward to hearing about the author’s background, inspirations and where he’s headed to next in his writing. My experience at his talk may go either way for me in regards to my reading further works by him, but I’m excited at the prospect of gaining some extra knowledge to fuel my new reading. Who knows I might get all the way through the series! There’s currently TWENTY ONE titles in the Rebus series so it’s a decent list to invest in, and the latest Rather Be The Devil has his loyal readers queuing up for our library copies!
So, if you’re like me — a lover of gritty noir crime, but have never picked up a copy of an Ian Rankin book — then I would implore you to do so. You won’t regret it. If you’re already one of his legion of loyal followers, then come and see the man himself at 6pm on Sunday 14 May.
The Gathering, Anne Enright’s fourth novel and winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, centers around the nine children of a large Irish family who gather together for their brother’s funeral. It starts off with the main character, Veronica Hegarty having a memory about something that she might have witnessed about her brother years ago in her grandmother’s house, problem is that she has no idea if it really did happen or not …
Her latest novel, The Green Road (2015), won the Irish Novel of the Year. It follows the lives of four adult children spread over three continents, each struggling to cope with their own lives as well as with their difficult mother who announces that she will be selling the family home. The self-absorbed children return to the small Irish town in Country Clare where they grew up, and are forced to confront the realities and complexities of their family situation.
Moving, humorous yet sad, Enright’s intriguing writing style has captured the attention of fans around the globe. She was recently named the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.
With her quick wit and fantastic sense of humour deeply engaging audiences worldwide, an evening with Anne Enright is one event you don’t want to miss!