Writing and writers

Cover of Pacific: The Ocean of the FutureWeeks after NaNoWriMo ended, and still no blog post! Alas, I didn’t reach 50,000 words — finished up around 35k — but I achieved my main goal, which was to write every day. I’ve continued to write on and off since the 30th, but Christmas panic is definitely descending so who knows how long that will last.

My current distraction has been flicking through the New Zealand Festival lineup, which will be held in Wellington next year. All of the events look great, but I’m especially excited about the Writers Week. I want to see almost all of them! I’ve narrowed it down to some favourites:

  • Kate Beaton. I’ve been enjoying her online comics since she was on livejournal.com, and I own all her published material (which now includes a picture book, the adorable Princess and the Pony). She is so clever and funny and writes about my favourite subjects (history! feminism! fat ponies!).
  • Jasper FfordeCover of Hark! A Vagrant. I haven’t got around to reading his more recently published works, but I thought the Thursday Next books were super fun. If you like quirky books about books, with dodos and national croquet, then start with The Eyre Affair.
  • Mariko Tamaki. I first came across her in collaboration with her cousin Jillian Tamaki, whose comic Supermutant Magic Academy came out this year. Together they’ve published graphic novels Skim and This One Summer, both beautifully illustrated reflections of adolescent experiences.
  • Simon WinchesterWriter of recreational non-fiction, most recently Pacific, all about our neighbouring ocean. I can’t wait to read it.

Needless to say there are loads of other authors I’d like to see, including Anis Mojgani (spoken word poet) who Alireads blogged about last year, but those are my top five.

Is anyone else planning on going to the New Zealand Festival? What events are on your must-see list?

New Zealand Festival

Ten quotes from The Villa at the edge of the empire: One hundred ways to read a city

Cover of The Villa at the Edge of the empireNew Zealand’s most important book in 2014 was Dirty Politics by Nicky Hager. This year it is The villa at the edge of the empire: One hundred ways to read a city by Fiona Farrell.

I thought about how to express its power – it’s about Christchurch, but is bigger than that. It contains deep wisdom and a powerful historical sense. It is about the world. So I’ve decided to sample Fiona’s words – here are ten quotes.

1: This city took time to assemble. (p.55)

2: An earthquake is not simply a geological event. It occurs within a specific social and political context. (p.73)

3: For a second, as the entire city is flung into the air, there is unison. Then we fall back to earth and the map smashes into a hundred tiny pieces. (p.88)

4: In this city, it is easy to feel lost. (p. 103)

5: In the meantime, through the cracks, other kinds of art have emerged. The art gallery has been closed, but artists have covered walls newly exposed by demolition with imagery and colour. (p.129)

6: The personal is political. (p.158)

7: Forgiveness and retribution are a theme in L’Aquila, as they are in Christchurch. (p.224)

8: We are ‘stoical’. We are ‘strong’ and ‘southern’. To complain is to be a ‘carper’ or a ‘moaner’. It is a sign of weakness. Viewed from another city in another country, however, this resilience can also be seen as a weird suppressed passivity. (p.237)

9: I take a kind of deep comfort in reading thoughts prompted by an earthquake 2000 years ago and thousands of kilometres away. I like the vision of the world as a squirming thing filled with breath, not so far from the Polynesian vision of the great woman lying on her back with us all, naked as newborn kits, upon her belly. (p.248)

10: I’ve come to love this city … now it seems fragile, vulnerable and precious in that vulnerability, as do other cities in this country no matter how cocky they may have tried to be … (p343)

More Fiona Farrell

Geraldine Brooks and the Pulitzer Surprise!

The Secret ChordWhen Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel March in 2006, she had no idea that her book was even up for consideration. At home with her eight year old son, painting figurines, she did not even believe the first caller. Her little boy answered the door when a florist delivery came and said: “Mummy can’t come now, she is having a Pulitzer Surprise!”

And last night in Christchurch at a WORD Christchurch event, The People of the Book were out in full force to hear Pulitzer prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks chat about writing and her most recent novel The Secret Chord. There – in Rangi Ruru’s beautiful new theatre – sat a petite, young Geraldine Brooks and her interviewer, Morrin Rout (wearing it must be said, distractingly eye-catching brick pattern tights). Let the excitement begin!

MarchGeraldine was originally a journalist who worked in the Australasian Bureau of The Wall Street Journal – a job which taught her that you can’t write around what you don’t know. She admitted to a New Zealand connection for her front page story on our research into Climate Change and Methane Gases – with its catchy title: The Farting Sheep Story.

When she talks about writing, Brooks several times made mention of finding the void in a theme and filling it:

Historical fiction works best when you have some blanks to fill. The trick is to let the story tell you what you need to know.

people of the BookThe viewpoints of different women is often the way for Brooks to get a fresh view on an old story that we think we know. It is still so true that you can get to powerful men through the women in their lives and she ranks an afternoon tea with Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife Khadijeh as one of the most remarkable afternoons of her life.

On her latest book The Secret Chord, she said her interest became piqued when her son asked for classical harp lessons (she’d been hoping for the recorder) and that David appealed to her as a character because every single thing that life can fling at you seemed to happen to him. She was particularly interested in how women affected David and how they wielded power in subtle ways.

Best of all Geraldine Brooks would slot right into any one of my book groups, her reading tastes are so similar. She is currently enjoying The Chimes by Anna Smaill (2015 Man Booker Prize longlist); thinks that the best book she has ever read is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (who won the Pulitzer Prize the year before her in 2005); is a big admirer of Hilary Mantel and can’t wait for her next book and (Geraldine was born in Sydney) she admires Tim Winton‘s writing as well.

I’d had an evening of minor mishaps prior to this event: a near miss at the restaurant where I was to meet my colleague (we sat waiting for one another in different parts of the venue). Then we held up the signing queue trying to get my photograph taken with this wonderful author – in the end the photo was out of focus. In the confusion, Geraldine misheard and signed the wrong name in the book. It took time for her to draw flowers over the mistake and insert the correct name (that copy is now valuable!). Finally I lost my car keys and had what felt like the entire theatre in an upheaval helping me look for them. You’d be forgiven for thinking “I wish I’d also gone to hear Geraldine Brooks – just not with them!”

But, I drove home on a high – so happy to be in the car, moving through my mundane surroundings to my precious home, and all the time thinking: I have met a Pulitzer Prize winner. I am so fortunate.

We have Geraldine Brooks’ works in book, eBook, and eAudiobook format.

You can also listen to Geraldine talk about The Secret Chord on RadioNZ.

The courage to write

Cover of A Way of LoveCourage Day is held on 15 November each year. It is the New Zealand name for The International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. The day acknowledges and supports writers who defend the right to freedom of expression.The day also stands as a memorial to writers who have been killed because of their profession. It was started in 1981 by PEN, the international writers’ organisation.

The New Zealand Society of Authors named the event after Sarah Courage and her grandson James Courage. Sarah wrote Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life: Twenty-six Years in Canterbury, New Zealand. This book was not well received by her neighbours. They didn’t like how she portrayed them. The neighbours burnt the book.

James Courage was born in Amberley and educated at Christ’s College in Christchurch. His novel A Way of Love was banned because he dared to express homosexuality in his writing prior to the setting up of the Indecent Publications Tribunal in 1964. He has a plaque on the Christchurch Writers’ Trail outside his old school.

It takes a lot of courage to write a book that challenges our society’s views on what should or should not be in print. It takes even more courage to defend that right even when faced with persecution, imprisonment or death. As Heather Hapeta, previous chair of the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors, once said, ‘This New Zealand name of Courage is also appropriate because of the bravery required by those authors who face opposition in its many forms’.

On the 15th of November, let us celebrate the author’s right to write and the reader’s right to read.

NaNoWriMo one week on

NaNoWriMo word countIt’s over a week since I started writing this year’s NaNoWriMo, and it’s been rough going. Since my plot has veered markedly off-plan I’ve been frantically trying to keep one step ahead of my typing, but often my brain is slow in coming up with ideas. And the plot holes! My god, the plot holes are so large I could fly a spaceship through them.

One way I attempt to inspire myself into writing is to read books with the same kind of tone that I’m trying to achieve. Since my initial idea involved gothic adventure this has meant a lot of Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Henry James. I might re-read Northanger Abbey next to add some humour.

If you’re also writing this month, what have you been reading? Or are you all novel all the time?

Cover of Northanger Abbey Cover of Don't Look Now and Other Stories Cover of The Haunting of Hill House Cover of The Turn of the Screw

Geraldine Brooks in Christchurch on 18 November – Toppling the hero…

Make sure not to miss this on Wednesday 18 November at 7.30pm – WORD Christchurch and Bookenz, in association with Hachette NZ, are proud to present an evening with Pulitzer prize-winning writer Geraldine Brooks, in conversation with Morrin Rout.

Cover of The Secret ChordHuman nature being what it is, we place certain personalities on pedestals only to vilify them on later occasions, normally when they have no right of response as they have departed the earthly world. Very rarely do we internalise why this situation arises, but usually the social barometer (public opinion) swings from left to right with alarming rapidity and then finally settles down somewhere in the ‘middle’ when a humane account i.e. their follies and their strengths make them more human.

Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel The Secret Chord based on the life of King David set 1000 BCE is a work of fiction, but reading it we have access to a creditably flawed and complex individual. His childhood is harsh but he survives it with an arrogance and self-belief system that is truly amazing. He is a tyrant and murderous despot who, having vast armies at his disposal, eventually becomes King.  He is loved as a figurehead by his subjects and his soldiers; yet his wives have reason to both love and fear him, and his children plot against him and betray him in their adulthood.

It’s a fantastic, hugely enjoyable epic story and lovers of historical fiction will probably race to get their copies.

Other works by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks can be found on our library shelves and on the library eBook and eAudiobook platforms (including our latest downloadable eAudiobook platform BorrowBox).

Avian Flu and the ‘Quiet Days of Power’

It started with the destruction of the world via avian flu and ended with mind control and memory loss via music. My last few weeks have been filled with two books from my go-to genre, dystopian science fiction, and both were rip-snorters.

Cover of Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a classic post-apocalyptic tale. A deadly flu that kills within hours sweeps through the entire world population, laying waste to all but a few hardy souls. We follow a group of survivors, whose lives intersect at various stages throughout the book. The interesting decision by the author to switch between the time when the flu hit and then twenty years later to see how society survived, coped and altered gives the story movement and contrasts, and I loved seeing where and when the characters met and re-connected.

The main story centres around a band of actors and musicians who travel through mid-west USA performing Shakespeare and classical music to the few survivors in scattered outposts: people eking out an existence without any infrastructure, centralised government and dwindling resources. Holding onto history, art and culture in such a bleak landscape seems both foolhardy and wonderful in equal measures.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill is a very different animal. Yes, people are struggling, living in a London very different to the one we know, but things are very different from Station Eleven. There is a power in charge, a cloistered order that have developed a powerful weapon they use on their own people to keep control. The weapon? Music.

Cover of The ChimesThe Chimes are sent through the air and there is no escaping them; they wipe people’s memories and keep them subdued: you almost feel music has become an opiate that makes the populace feel safe. With no written word, people use music and song to remember things, such as how to travel from one place to another. They also keep objects that help them remember family, places and their history.

I love the use of musical terms in their language, many of which I had to look up, such as Lento, which means slow and Tacit, which means a sudden stop in a piece of music. I was fascinated by the way music was both their prison and their saviour, the way the protagonists in the story used music to keep themselves alive and to try to bring down those in power.

The run was tacit. Clare and I followed the first of the two strange, twisting melodies. Ours moved straight into the fourth chord and pushed on presto, skipping and meandering and returning almost completely on itself  before branching straight out in a modulation to the dominant.

Simon, our main character, is an orphaned young man who soon discovers he has a gift that could change all of this forever.

Both books fit my ideal of dystopia. People struggling in an alien world, even if it is our own in a different time or altered state. Heroes, villains and fascinating ideas to transport you and challenge you. Both books get the Purplerulz  purple seal of approval… read them now!

To learn more about the writing process and ideas behind The Chimes, read Masha’s great post about her interview with Anna Smaill.

No plot? No problem!

NaNoWriMO participantNational Novel Writing Month started on Sunday, the 1st of November, or for the super keen, after midnight on October 31st. To the uninitiated, this is the month set aside for those of us crazy enough to attempt to write 50,000 words by the end of November (about 1667 words a day).

This isn’t my first time attempting NaNoWriMo — I first joined (and won) in 2003 — but the past few years have been flops, ill thought out ideas quickly dying on the page. This time I’m slightly better prepared, having characters and plot in mind before starting to write. I was all set to write a gothic science fiction adventure — you know, Jane Eyre in space, that sort of thing — but I’ve only written 2,000 words and already it’s heading off in a totally different direction. Sigh.

Never mind; this year my goal is simply to keep writing, no matter what rubbish comes out. While one of my writing buddies is already on 25,000 words (how?!) my style of writing is more like… staring in desperation at the ceiling after every sentence, kind of thing. Hopefully by the end of the month I’ll be more in the groove, but not the grave. Although, thinking about it, being buried alive is very gothic novel, so you never know.

Is anyone else mad enough to attempt NaNoWriMo this year? What are you writing about?

Cover of Bird by Bird Cover of Writing Down the Bones Cover of On Writing Cover of Everything I Know About Writing

Chatting with New Zealand’s Threatened Species Ambassador

Nicola Toki and a kiwiToday marks the beginning of Conservation Week and who better to talk to about nature and conservation than New Zealand’s own Threatened Species Ambassador, Nicola Toki.

A what ambassador? The Threatened Species Ambassador is a new role that was established within the Department of Conservation earlier this year. Perhaps we’d best ask Nic what that involves exactly…

What does a Threatened Species Ambassador do?

My job is to raise awareness and profile of our threatened species in NZ, and the issues they face that are impacting on their survival. NZ has the dubious honour of having one of the highest numbers of threatened species in the world (799 threatened and another 2700 ‘at risk’).

New Zealand’s flora and fauna is so amazing it has been described by author Jared Diamond as ‘…as close as we will get to the opportunity to study life on another planet’ because it is so unique from anywhere else. Rudyard Kipling described NZ’s environment as the “Last, loneliest, loveliest…”

How does someone get to do a job like that?

I have worked in a bunch of jobs where I have been an advocate for nature in New Zealand, in DOC last time around I was lucky enough to write and present “Meet the Locals” a series of 200+ mini wildlife documentaries for TVNZ’s digital channels. I also worked for Forest & Bird as a conservation advocate, and I used to have a job taking people swimming with Hector’s dolphins a very long time ago when I finished University. (I also sold a lot of polar fleece while at Varsity at my local Kathmandu store).

What made you want to be New Zealand’s Threatened Species Ambassador?

I have been a ‘nature nerd’ for as long as I can remember – lots of family trips camping in our wee pop-top caravan (which I now go camping in with the bloke and our two year old son), and I was lucky enough to spend part of my childhood in Mount Cook National Park and Twizel, so spent a lot of time outdoors. I was constantly bringing home animal skeletons, shells, feathers and assorted nature paraphernalia.

What one thing could we do to help a threatened species survive?

The best thing you can do is learn more about what makes our wildlife here so special and unique. Read lots of books about it, go outdoors and have a poke around! The more you learn, the more you’ll be blown away by how ancient and wonderful our flora and fauna are. Did you know that our native frogs are so ancient they were literally hopping around the feet of dinosaurs?

In practical terms, the best thing you can do is set up some pest control at home. Get a good rat/stoat trap and give local birds and reptiles and invertebrates a place to thrive. If every person in every house in NZ did this, who knows what we could achieve for our native wildlife. Kiwi in our backyard maybe! Then you can build on that by finding out what are the best things to plant in your area, then you’ll have a whole mini-National Park at home!

For more on wildlife conservation –

The Secret Lives of New Zealand Children’s Authors

Which New Zealand illustrator often gets chocolate on her artwork? Which New Zealand author once wet her pants in fright? Whose nickname is Giggleswick? Who loves to eat strawberry sandwiches? You can find out the answer to all of these questions in our New Zealand Children’s Author pages.

In our New Zealand Children’s Author pages we have interviews with New Zealand children’s authors and illustrators.  You can find out their favourite foods and authors, embarrassing moments, nicknames, what they were like at school and much more.  You’ll find interviews with authors like Margaret Mahy, Des Hunt, Elizabeth Pulford and Melinda Szymanik.  Some of our featured authors have even written short stories that you can read anywhere, anytime.  There is Giant Jimmy Jones by Gavin Bishop, The McGoodys by Joy Cowley, and It’s Quackers Around Here by Maria Gill.

We’ve added two more interviews recently, with R.L. Stedman (author of A Necklace of Souls) and Sue Copsey (author of The Ghosts of Tarawera).

This week we are celebrating New Zealand Book Week so there is no better time to check out these fun, entertaining interviews with some of our wonderful New Zealand authors and illustrators.