Secrets (and lies?) at Wellington Writers and Readers Week

Cover of The Secret RiverKate Grenville appeared at an Auckland Readers and Writers festival a few years ago, talking about The secret river, a book based on the stories her mother told about her great-grandfather Solomon Wiseman, who was transported from England and “took up land” on the Hawkesbury river.

Grenville’s family’s eyes glazed over at these stories, but in 2000, walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge in a Reconciliation March, Grenville looked down, imagined a convict ship off-loading in the harbour and wondered – how did Solomon Wiseman “take up land”? Wondering led to The secret river, and, while at that Auckland Readers and Writers festival talking about the book, she climbed Rangitoto.

While she was climbing, a voice spoke to her with a synopsis of a novel and its first lines. She had nothing to write on except the brown paper bag her lunch came in, a bag she produced triumphantly on the stage at the Embassy in 2012.

Cover of Sarah ThornhillThe novel was Sarah Thornhill, and it features the story of Solomon Wiseman’s grand-daughter, a six-year-old Maori girl who was plucked from her family on Stewart Island after her parents died. To research the book Grenville visited The Neck on Stewart Island, as she believes novelists have to visit the place they are writing about, as a matter of respect, acknowledgement and humility.

Her books question everything about being a white Australian. In writing them Grenville says “let us not forget this”, but she has been attacked by the ‘commentariat’ annoyed that historians don’t sell many books, whereas writers of historical fiction do. Obviously really smarting from this criticism, Grenville gave some opinions I hope I’m reflecting accurately, opinions shared by a few fellow authors who also talked about historical fiction, but not by others.

Ron Rash seemed to be a kindred spirit as they both used the Faulkner quote “The past is not dead. It’s not even past”. Grenville said she writes fiction about the present set in the past; Rash said his book The cove was written about what is happening now in America, set in 1918.

The three ’emerging’ writers who were all writing books set in the past felt that just rendering time and place is not the point of  writing historical fiction. When Peter Carey wrote The true history of the Kelly Gang he “made it all up”; when Michael King reportedly suggested that Maurice Shadbolt distorted the historical record, Shadbolt’s’ reply was “it’s true if I say it is”.

I’m not sure what I think. Where does history end and the novel begin? Should history be registered in a “contemporary poetic”? Is voice the most important thing?

Placement at Wellington Writers and Readers 2012

Cover of Serena by Ron RashDenise Mina and Ron Rash were two discoveries for me at Wellington Writers and Readers 2012. Two different writers setting their books in very different places, but seeing them together examining the importance of place in their novels was a real treat. For a start I could listen to their accents all day, but what they were saying was just as good as how they said it.

Although the fabric of their landscapes is far apart, from Rash’s rural Appalachian Mountains to Mina’s gritty, mean streets of suburban Glasgow, they are connected by a strong sense of history.

According to Mina, Scottish people are obsessed by history; it’s a part of being poor. Rash’s Southerners are poor too,  less mobile than other Americans with roots running deep into the history of the place they live in, where something as long ago as the Civil War can be very near.

Cover of Winter's BoneBoth writers distiguished between local colour and regional writing. Local colour is concerned with what makes an area different, while regional writing is universal, looking out from the inside. We tend to think of things being neutral if they are set in New York or London, but that is exactly what they’re not. It’s not true that New York is never regional and that London doesn’t have an accent.

When I thought about books with a strong sense of place the first that came to mind was Winter’s Bone, set in the Ozarks and written by Daniel Woodrell, who happens to be a friend of Ron Rash’s. Woodrell’s Ozarks are a long way from suburban Christchurch and Ree Dolly may be moving through a very particular landscape, but what keeps her searching is universal – love for her family.

What books would you recommend for their strong sense of place?

Secret Lives at Wellington Writers and Readers Week

Cover of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham9.30 a.m. on the first day of Wellington Writers and Readers Week. Turning up at this hour on a Saturday shows true dedication to literature, but plenty of people were there to see Selina Hastings talk about her biography of Somerset Maugham.

Gratifyingly for those among us who like our authors to look the part (that is, me), she looked and sounded just as the biographer of Rosamond Lehmann and Nancy Mitford should: like an immaculately groomed English gentlewoman whose skin has never felt the relentless rays of the harsh Antipodean sun, and whose vowels were rounded at Oxford.

Hastings was attracted to telling the life story of that ‘dissolute charmer’ Somerset Maugham because, like so many of us, she read him off the shelves of her parents’ library when moving from children’s to adult’s books.

Maugham was once the most famous author in the world, although he said of himself: “I know just where I stand, in the very front row of the second rate”.  Probably best remembered now for his stories of the British in the Far East, his spy stories are his true legacy. John le Carré has said the modern spy story begins with Maugham’s Ashenden stories as he was the first author to write about the actuality of espionage. Winston Churchill, a life-long friend, actually told Maugham to destroy 14 of the Ashenden stories because they breached the Official Information Act.

Maugham was implacably opposed to the idea of a biography, holding a large bonfire of his personal papers and embargoing the rest, even writing to old friends ordering them to tear up his letters. All for naught though, as Hastings was granted access to his papers by the Royal Literary Fund, his literary executors. She even tracked down the notes made by his first biographer, who had spoken to people who knew him when he was alive. These notes were owned by a reclusive book collector in Sydney who was also very helpful.

Maugham’s stated conviction that “a life of myself is bound to be dull” seems to be very far from the truth; he trained as a doctor, completed over 90 undercover missions as a secret agent, survived a disastrous marriage to Syrie, the most celebrated interior designer of her time and the woman responsible for the craze for the all-white room, became fabulously wealthy and lived a long life on the South of France, that “sunny place for shady people”.

I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for Maugham, going to such lengths to thwart future biographers and being ultimately unsuccessful, but, as Hastings said, he died in 1965, so there is no-one left alive to be hurt by anything that could be said about him, he was an important figure and people are interested in him.  And I plan to read her book so I can’t get on any sort of high horse.

Should the wishes of those who don’t want to be written about after their deaths be honoured?

Emerging at Wellington Writers and Readers Week 2012

Being an ’emerging’ writer is an interesting thing to be. What is the criterion for emerging? Is it that you are young? Not Cover of The Rehearsalaccording to one questioner at the New Zealand’s Emerging Writers session  at Wellington Writers and Readers 2012. Slightly unkindly, he observed that Eleanor Catton, Hamish Clayton and Craig Cliff didn’t look particularly young to him, causing each panellist to ‘fess up their age. All under 40, which might be a sign that they are young, because I’m not sure anyone who is not would announce their age from the stage of the Embassy.

Can a writer still be emerging when they have won prizes?  That would exclude Catton, whose debut novel The rehearsal won the New Zealand Book Award for Best First Book of Fiction, and Craig Cliff, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award for A man melting.

Perhaps writers are still emerging when they have only written one book so far. So how did these writers begin to emerge?

Catton wanted to break the convention of the coming-of-age novel – the idea that there is some sort of arrival into adulthood.

Clayton had an urge to write but nothing to say so he went to university, thinking that if you want to be a decent writer you need to be well-read. (If only it was that easy, I thought to myself). He discovered that you do have to be very patient for overnight success.

Cliff found that a 21-year-old man alone in a room writing a novel is never a good idea. A few years later he tried again, and it still wasn’t a good idea. Then he thought of trying the short story form, where a first draft can be finished in the first blast of inspiration.

All three are now working on novels set in the past, a departure for Catton and Cliff, but not for Clayton whose first novelCover of Wulf Wulf is about early 19th century New Zealand, its explorers and that fascinating and terrifying character Te Rauparaha.

Clayton and Catton saw some problems with the talk around Historical Fiction. For Clayton it is limiting; faithfulness in the rendering of time and place is not the point.   Catton sees the problem as the present foisting onto Historical Fiction the things we are most  preoccupied with now, resulting in works that exist only to confirm what we already know.

Craig is reading a lot (The story of a New Zealand River was mentioned) and using the part everyone reads in The Count of Monte Cristo as a model for the book he is working on, leaving out the bits everyone skips.

This was all very interesting as I don’t read much Historical Fiction. The last book I read in the genre was Wolf Hall, which led to some heated debates. I loved it, but others dismissed it out of hand because of its modern voice.  Any dedicated H.F. readers out there with an opinion?

Ron Rash at Wellington Writers and Readers Week 2012

One of the great things about writers’ festivals is stumbling across a writer you’ve never heard of. 11 a.m. on the first dayCover of The Cove of Writers and Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival 2012 and the temptation was to hit one of the coffee bars.

I’m very glad I decided to take a punt and hear Appalachian writer Ron Rash instead. Not only did I learn I’d been saying Appalachian wrong all these years (Rash said it with what sounded like a T in it, as in Appalatchian, rather than a Y, as in Appalaychian), but I found another writer to add to my endless ‘For Later’ shelves.

A poet, short story writer and novelist whose family has lived on or around the same patch of land for 200 years, Rash was very entertaining (a Southern accent never hurts, I find). It can be a mixed blessing to be a Southern writer as there’s often an unspoken ‘just’ before the Southern, but being in the company of William  Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote and Tennessee Wiliams is some consolation.

The cove, his latest novel, is set in one of the German internment camps set up in the U.S during the First World War, examining what it means to be a patriot. Other novels include Serena, with a main character who is a cross between Medea and Lady Macbeth, and One foot in Eden, which is shaped like a tragedy although the reader never really knows where it is going.

Rash’s short readings of his work really whetted my appetite to check it out further. The moral of the story? Always go for literature over caffeine.

Queen Denise – Wellington Writers and Readers Week 2012

“The Queen of Tartan Noir”.  Who could resist her session at Wellington Writers and Readers Week 2012? Not me, even Cover of Exilethough I was unaware of quite what constituted Tartan Noir nor of ever having read any.

Denise Mina is the Queen in question and was the winner of the best-dressed author and best author’s hair competitions, contests held only in my irredeemably trivial head. She is the owner of an enviable quiff, a raconteuse of the first order and an award winning writer.

Born in Glasgow, but brought up as part of an ‘oil family’ who moved 21 times in 18 years, Mina ended up back in Glasgow after studying ceramics in Galway. At  University in a Law Faculty full of crime fiction fanatics, her PhD topic involved mental illness in female offenders, but, instead of completing her thesis, she began Garnethill, her first book. When she told her supervisor she was dropping out of her PhD to write a crime novel his first question was “what’s it about?”.

According to Mina people read crime fiction for fun. If they don’t like it they’ll say it was bad, but if they don’t like literary fiction they’ll say they didn’t understand it.  Having bought one of her books on the strength of seeing her sessions, I’d have to say it wasn’t exactly fun although it was extremely enjoyable, and it made me want to read all her books.

She’s been selected to write the graphic novels of Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy; selected in that she was sent an email asking “do you fancy this?”.  The headline for that piece of news read “Queen of Tartan Noir to take on Tattoo Girl”. I can’t wait.

A disobedient girl

Susanna Moore

Susanna Moore was a symphony in colour co-ordination at 11 a.m on a Saturday and a wholly fascinating subject, ably conversed with by Caroline Baum.

Commendably Baum dispensed with an introduction but not the detail that when Moore left Hawaii for New York she took with her 20 pairs of alligator shoes. Asked about sharing a home state with President Obama, Moore let drop that they went to the same school.

This combination of the seemingly trivial with the serious set the tone for the rest of the session, which ranged from whether or not Moore believed Warren Beatty has slept with 12,000 women (she worked for Beatty and thinks the figure is a little high), to her opinion of the Roman Polanski case (he’s her daughter’s godfather, she doesn’t want to see him in jail but she thinks he should return to face the consequences of his actions).

Moore’s latest book, The Big Girls is ostensibly about women in prison but really it is a study of families in their endless manifestations. Moore read a lot for two years before she began writing, at the beginning she thought all the women on death row for killing their children would be mad and at the end she hadn’t changed her mind, although she found she liked some and loathed others.

Moore has taught writing in a jail but was kicked out for bringing in magazines and books for the prisoners, although the real reason was probably that she became more trouble than she was worth to the guards. Teaching two days a week at Princeton is something of a contrast, although the prisoners can be more inventive and creative, less inhibited, simply because there are no expectations.

In the Cut is probably her best known work, possible due to the film version with Meg Ryan. Questioned about  whether the heroine  was punished for refusing to be afraid, Moore answered no,  they get you either way, you might as well go out fighting.

Some of the audience were disappointed that One Last Look, her novel set in colonial India, was not discussed, and it does sound fascinating. Reading the journals of Emily and Fanny Eden, who joined their brother Lord Auckland on his passage to India, Moore noticed the adoration Emily felt for her less-than-impressive brother and thought “Hmmm”.

Moore was one of the people I was really looking forward to seeing at this festival and she did not disappoint, I’m going to hunt out her first three novels (sometimes known as the Hawaiian trilogy) and catch up with One Last Look.

Publishing in the 21st century: The end of the golden weather?

I was really looking forward to this session after hearing Derek Johns speak earlier at the festival. Obviously, so were lots of other people as the Downstage Theatre, a brutalist structure that would be at home in any corner of Christchurch, was packed to the gunnels.

Noel Murphy from the New Zealand Book Council did the appropriate thing for any discussion about publishing and made sure everyone had a drink – water of course -and then abruptly copped some unnecessary flak for talking too fast. There were also some yelps about lack of volume, but as the guests were introduced – Johns (A P Watt), Michael Heywood (Text), Sam Elworthy (Auckland University Press) and Laurie Chittenden (HarperCollins) – the audience mostly composed themselves and got on with listening.

Learning about each guest’s career roles gave us an insight into the world publishing scene and a potted transtasman publishing history. The former “lucrative dumping ground” of the Australian and New Zealand market has now taken two different paths – Australia is a rights territory and does not allow parallel importing, New Zealand has no geographical rights and publishers here can potentially be competing against overseas imprints of their own works.

Murphy’s cleverly put questions gave broad scope for the panel to answer. Is this the golden age of publishing? The large number of formats and wide availability of books, plus the high levels of readership / literacy in places like New Zealand, Australia and Iceland would seem to be ideal conditions.

  • Derek Johns said silver age – very optimistic about reading, he said that digital offered a great deal of potential but there were many systemic publishing issues to be worked out. In Britain, at least, he said, people didn’t pay enough for books. The novel was a function of nineteenth-century leisure time – digital was much more flexible.
  • Michael Heywood was impressively relentless in his support of independent publishing, and authors. Festival and reading culture in this part of the world is in great shape, but at risk are quality independent booksellers and smaller publishers. The best work is done when publishing is the daily bread of a company. His summation? Golden-ish. The digital expansion will be fast  – but what was really exciting was the range of titles on best-seller lists.
  • Sam Elworthy said New Zealand publishing was exciting as in many areas there hadn’t been books published before, and that the process of finding new talent was one of discovering authors who could encourage a broad audience, even for academic subjects.
  • Laurie Chittenden also said golden, but wasn’t sure what came next.  She made the encouraging point that the American market is much more diverse now and the ‘Americanisation’ of manuscripts has largely stopped.

What would have made the session a stand out for me would have been if there were some digital books on display, or a datashow of what some of the devices look like. I’m not sure the audience would have been able to see them, or may have thought the Kindle was something you light the fire with, but that’s probably festival fatigue talking.

I’ve tried books on my iPod touch and quite like the format, and this week the number of available books overtook games  on the iTunes store. Perhaps the audience would have a better handle if they saw some of the technologies and possibilities. Audrey Niffenegger was right when she said that they are evolving quickly and are quite primitive, sneakily imitating the book, and that soon new forms would spring up for them. Being able to enlarge the text, or slow down the speed at which a book is read to you, or increase the volume – these are options that digital books offer people – this audience may have been reassured by that.

The panel were also all agreed that the publishing process was valuable for readers – the development of authors and manuscripts, the aggregation and quality assurance functions, for instance. They didn’t focus on any threat that digital might encompass, but were eager to ensure that the publishing industry – including authors and readers – had a long future yet.

Neil Gaiman: The Amadeus Mozart of post-modern fiction

Neil GaimanThat’s how chair Kate de Goldi described the phenomenon that is @neilhimself, and the crowd which pushed the Wellington Town Hall and the signing queue to its limits backed up her lavish praise.

Gaiman started the final Town Hall Talk of the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Festival with something he decided to read at the request of a fan – Locks, “The nearest thing I have to a credo”.

He then also read “with apologies to Mr Browning” My Last Landlady, and a new and unpublished piece – Rehlig Odhrain – about the death of St Oran and St Columba on Iona in Scotland. It was a great cross-section of his work.

First and foremost Gaiman is a wonderful reader, with great timing and command of different voices. He is also a attentive listener to questions and generously open with his answers. Unlike the Simon Schama session, where a sedate old fudger like me could get to the front of the theatre in time to ask something, fans rushed the mics to take their chance.

And the questions that came from the audience were rapid-fire, lucid and interesting – better put than many other questions at the festival. And his answers were gold. A young fan asked about advice for aspiring writers, and as close as I can quote it, so fast did it roll off his tongue,  here is the response:

“You have to write. And when I say that some people look at me as if I was keeping a great secret from them, like they wanted me to say: Take a goat, slaughter it at midnight and stand at the door. You will hear three knocks. Do not answer the door. You will then hear five knocks. At that point you will answer the door and Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and me will be there to tell you how to write… Write. Finish it. And do whatever you can to get it published. Then, don’t even wait for it to be published, write the next thing.

Kate de Goldi showed her knowledge of her subject like she always does and explored the influence of G. K. Chesterton, Shakespeare, Victorian style clubs stories and even the write-to-order aspect of his work.

One fan asked if he was going to return to comics, and Gaiman said he would love to, but wasn’t sure when. “Last year I got to kill Batman, that’s not the kind of thing you plan for”.

Some other great Gaiman quotes and facts from the night:

  • “I’m an awesome procrastinator. Not only can I put stuff off to tomorrow, I can put off stuff till, like, Thursday. More than that, I can put off deciding if I’m going to procrastinate …”
  • Currently re-reading Journey to the West – a 15th century tale
  • “All art needs boundaries. You need boundaries to chafe at.”
  • The joy of Shakespeare is that he was writing for actors. (The speech is four minutes long because the person he is talking to next has to get changed).
  • “My love of Greek myth came from C.S. Lewis”.
  • Nothing improves  your writing like seeing yourself in print.
  • Favourite mythological creature is the basilisk. It’s a dragony thing hatched by the cockerel from the egg of a serpent or toad, that can kill you or turn you to stone. It’s weakness is the odour of weasel.
  • “Someone out there has a bag of weasels”.

The queue for signing stretched out into Civic Square and Gaiman signed and drew pictures non-stop. I took pictures till the battery ran out. All ages and stages were there, taking their own photos and video and enjoying seeing their hero. It is quite moving to see so many people so genuinely made happy by reading a single author and his storytelling in all its forms – books, comics, novels, scripts, whatever.

Gaiman’s words say it best: “We owe it to each other to tell stories.”

Wednesday @ the festival

Today’s schedule of our coverage at the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week:

Please send questions and comments through – we’d love to hear from you!