Anna Smaill – from a writing musician to a musical writer

Meeting Anna Smaill is almost like a scene from a modern James Bond movie. Hurrying up the stairs of Aotea Centre, she is not aware that I am following right behind her. Once inside the lobby, she reaches for her phone. Before I can say hello, the phone in my pocket starts to ring. Anna slowly turns around, puzzled, still holding her phone close to her ear. We find ourselves in an awkward moment. We don’t know what to do with our hands – greet each other or turn off the phones. Looking at each other, we burst out laughing, leaving the phones to echo around the lobby.

Cover of The Violinist in SpringEven though Anna published her debut novel The Chimes at the beginning of this year, she is definitely not a new name in New Zealand literary landscape. Her poetry featured in Best New Zealand Poems in 2002 and 2005, as well as numerous journals and magazines, before it found a permanent home in her first collection of poetry Violinist in spring (2006). Despite her dedicated academic pursuits – Masters in English Literature (Auckland University), Masters in Creative Writing (IIML, Victoria University of Wellington) and a PhD (University College London) – she never felt entirely suited for academic world. Most of all, she enjoys writing fiction. “It’s because it draws on all parts of me and it’s fun.” She quickly adds how “really really hard” it sometimes is.

The ChimesHer musical background has evidently marked not only her poetry but also her prose. Themes and style of The Chimes, dystopian novel set in alternative England, stem from the idea of music as an overpowering and navigating force of reality. An immense musical instrument, the Carillon, controls lives of remaining population. Brainwashing happens regularly with Matins, which tells “Onestory” – the only acceptable truth about the “Allbreaking”, the fatal discord, that broke with the past (now refered to as a “blasphony”) and established the present order. This is followed by violent erasing of – not only personal but collective memory as well – at Vespers with the Chimes. Among “memoryloss”, people who have suffered incurable damage, and “prentisses”, workforce which helps maintain the functioning of this complex musical tyranny, run by the Order, are outcasts. They forge for the “Lady”, a metal substance out of which the Carillon is made, and hold on to their “objectmemories”, the only remnants of their previous lives and selves. These enable them to trigger and nurture their personal memories.

The main character of the story, Simon, is a young orphan, who joins the pact of outcasts and soon realizes he possesses a special talent, that might change everything. With its unique style, which draws from the music, myriads of themes, relevant to a present day, and a clever narrative this work holds a reader in a grasp of perplexity and amazement until the very end.

I met up with Anna at Auckland Writers Festival to talk about her work, her life and The Chimes – of course.

Lives of people in The Chimes basically depend on their memories. What are your first memories of books, reading or libraries?

We used to go religiously to the library on Friday nights with my family. But I used to go to the library every day on my own after school as well, so it was almost like a second home for me. On Friday night we actually got the books out and we had a big red sack that we filled with books. I remember coming home and feeling reassured and excited. It was a bit like coming home from a supermarket after you just bought enough food for the week – only that I had enough reading material for a week. I was a total bookworm. Also, my family didn’t have a television.

Cover of TintinWe, children, were really lucky as our parents read to us a lot. I do remember the frustration before learning to read. I was trying to get my sister to read out Tintin comics for me. I also remember wishing to escape to my room to be able to read in peace during children’s parties. I found reading much more exciting.

Libraries are – just like museums and galleries – treasurers of collective memory. What is your opinion on cutting down library fundings, which is becoming a real fashion all around the world?

It’s a worrying development. People have a right to access literature. I do see it as a worrying sign. Although here in New Zealand libraries are so much part of the community, they are used by a broad section of the community and they feel very vital. In the UK, it didn’t feel like they were being that well used. There is more time to go to the library, here in New Zealand. In UK people are time-poor.

What has brought you to writing? Where does the need to write stem from? Is it just the fear of letting memories slip away, as you mentioned in a post on your web page, or are there any other inner motives and impulses?

The first impulse is the sense of time going past. It’s almost having the experience of pathos in the moment, having feeling of something happening that is already gone. I’ve always had very acutely this feeling of things being transient and ephemeral and I wanted to capture them.

Continue reading

The Art of the Novel

It’s 8:15 on Sunday morning and there’s already a queue of at least thirty people waiting to get into the free ‘Art of the Novel’ session. It’s not due to start till 9am and by the time I’m half way through my coffee the line stretches round the corner and out of sight. The room seated 350 people and it looked pretty full by the time everyone was sitting down!

I sat between a very serious aspiring novelist and a group of younger chattier aspiring novelists. The men behind me were also deep in a conversation about writing and almost everyone had note pads.

Enter our three novelists. Stephanie Johnson from New Zealand, Emily St John Mandel from Canada, and from England came David Mitchell, wearing a pair of bright pink stripey socks, so I was immediately taken with him. His work is amazing too, of course, but the socks!

Cover of Station Eleven Cover of The Writing Class Cover of The Bone Clocks

The session was roughly broken up in to three parts, the ‘pre-writing’ stage, the writing itself, and then the editing and publishing stage.

“Research is great procrastination,” Stephanie Johnson said, as the three of them talked about building up their knowledge before (or just as often, during) their writing. For her latest novel, Station Eleven, Emily spent a lot of time on survivalist forums, which was fascinating, but a little scary.

David Mitchell’s ideas for his next book circle around his head like planes in a holding pattern, waiting to come down. He seems to have a very organised mind, or at least his mental organisation system resembles a kind of organised chaos. Whenever he finds a second hand book he thinks might be useful for one circling plane or another he’ll buy it and store it away, with a bookshelf put aside for each potential novel.

David and Emily both agreed that they would get so sick of working on old novels that the thought of starting a new one was terribly exciting! The new ideas can get very flirty and pushy, so it’s a matter of keeping them under control while you slog through the final days of your current project.

Some great bits of writing advice came out of the session:

About letting ideas sit and stew:

“You do need composting time. It’s good to have at least a part time job that forces you out into the world to pretend to be a normal.” – Stephanie Johnson

“I have to write the novel itself to figure out where the novel is going… it’s an incredibly inefficient way to write a book really.” – Emily St John Mandel

About fear, and challenging yourself by stepping outside your comfort zone:

“I want to know that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this time.” – David Mitchell

“I try not to think about the audience when I’m writing. Which audience member would I pick anyway? I write the kind of thing I want to read.” – Emily St John Mandel

“When you’re really writing and it’s going well, the experience shouldn’t be too different to reading, or knitting.” – Stephanie Johnson

On editing:

“Sometimes I retype my entire draft, or read it all aloud. A ‘random page edit’ is a great way to pick up mistakes, print out and pick up page 3, 250, 180, whatever, and you’ll find all sorts of errors that you won’t notice if you read your story in order.” – Emily St John Mandel

“I don’t try to make it perfect the first time, that first draft is just about bringing a thing into existance.” – David Mitchell

On writing odious characters:

“When we’re being odious ourselves, remember, we self justify. Have your villains do the same.” – David Mitchell

“No one is one hundred percent odious all of the time, or if they are, they came by it honestly.” – Emily St John Mandel

By ten o’clock it was clear that the audience would have stayed much longer but it was time to move on, or rather, move out into the signing queues for some quick one-on-one writing advice.

For the writers among us, do you have any writing advice to share?

The Quotable Auckland Writers Festival

Here are some of favourite quotes which I managed to write down during the Auckland Writers Festival. I was struggling to rank them in a list from best to awesome, but you can judge them according to your own taste and preference.

“Reality is a bit more than we think it is.” Ben Okri

“The only limit with your story is imagination.” David Walliams

“If people read their authors, it’s their richness.” Ben Okri

“My stories are always unpredictable to myself” Haruki Murakami

“You feel like a magician when you write.” David Walliams

“I’m writing books for my people, not for my country.” Haruki Murakami

“Good thing is that people are writing books about what we’re doing wrong.” Charlotte Grimshaw

“I like the audience to have their view of the songs.” Hollie Fullbrook

“It is important to try and inspire those ones who don’t read, to read.” David Walliams

“Truth can hurt, but not knowing can hurt more.” Alan Cumming

“Curiosity is willingness to step in somebody else’s shoes.” Atul Gawande

“We don’t love our past enough to bring it into our present.” Aroha Harris

“History is one of the most powerful colonizing tools available. Especially if you are writing it from your point of view as a hero.” Aroha Harris

“More knowledge from parents to children.” Xinran

“We are in an age, when a move from home is a mythic experience.” Anna Smaill

“Everyone has an amazing story to tell.” David Walliams

“Remain yourself. Your experience is the most interesting. Be what you are.” Alan Cumming

“Hearts get broken over the breakfast table.” Anton Chekhov (only present in spirit and quoted by Hollie Fullbrook).

“You should always have a picture of a 100% boy, even when you have 78% husband.” Haruki Murakami

What I realized transcribing these quotes is that some of them are deeply embedded in the context of writer’s work or their life experience. But what makes them so beautiful is their universality. Everyone can interpret them in their own way.

8 reasons to visit Writers Festivals

It is hard to believe that my three days of booky awesomeness are over. Being part of the library team visiting Auckland Writers Festival, it felt like living in a bubble of joy and excitement for a few days. When I felt it couldn’t get better, it did!

Here is a list of reasons why you – I believe you must be a passionate reader, if you have come across this blog – should not miss out on the next booky event:  AWF

  1. An inspiring amount of people come to the same place to listen and talk about books, reading and writing. It is amazing to be part of such passionate and versatile crowd that vibrates in chords of harmony.
  2. A day at the festival exists of librarian’s favourite things: listening to authors, reading, writing, sleeping and eating. OK, I admit – buying books as well.
  3. Patient queues. Never in my life have I experienced such patient and polite queue-ers! Queues start to form 45 minutes before the event. It is great to see people connecting and conversing about books and sessions they’ve seen. Queuing is a great way to catch up with the content of sessions you were not able to attend or just to meet lovely people (It is also a perfect time to tweet or post on Facebook as audience is not allowed to use the devices during some of the sessions).
  4. Kids. Excited kids. Kids excited about books. Tons of them! As a librarian I started to feel hopeful about this planet’s future when I saw hundreds and hundreds of kids and their parents pouring into the festival venue to listen to their favourite authors and patiently queueing for more than 2 hours (!) to get their books signed. Never mind parents spending their wages to buy their little ones more books! Certainly a memory to hold on to, it will come handy next time I have my dark day.
  5. Extremely patient and helpful staff. Working in public service myself, I deeply admire these people’s patience and friendliness. I imagine there were moments, when – if being one of them – I would have happily hid in the toilets and pretended I’m not there.
  6. Paper bags! Paper bags at the book sellers. My level of serotonin increased by double, when I realized those paper bags people are carrying around contain newly bought books. That’s the way to go, people!
  7. Law of attraction. Being in the same place as so many other people you admire and are there to listen too, seems to attract some sort of good energy. One moment, they are on the stage, next moment, they are in the crowd and you can be sitting right next to them. Law of attraction surely does the magic during the festival. I must have been destined to meet Xinran. First, I was sitting next to her on the plane to Auckland and also bumped into her after the festival in the restaurant. She left me speechless – her genuineness and humbleness are admirable. She hugged me before saying goodbye. It felt so natural.
  8. Last but most obvious reason – authors. Amazing humble giants! You don’t have to read all of their books to see how amazing they are. You can just listen and let yourself be charmed. Again. And again. And again …

Ben Okri: “Reality is a bit more than what we think it is.”

“4am is a good sport.” says Ben Okri apropos Murakami’s no alarm clock early risings. “I have my best dreams at 4am,” he adds.

Time stretches and brims over the edges of yet another unforgettable afternoon at Auckland Writers Festival. This time the magician is Ben Okri, author of eight novels as well as collections of poetry, short stories and essays. He has won many international prizes, including the Man Booker Prize for The Famished Road in 1991. His work has been translated into over 20 languages. Okri is often described as one of Africa’s leading writers. He was born in Nigeria but lives in London. And if you are still wondering – he gets up between 7 and 8.

Cover of The Famished Road      Cover of Starbook     In Arcadia     Infinite Riches

He is in New Zealand to talk about his work and latest book The Age of Magic. Each book explores a particular universe, he believes, and his last one talks about evil and fame, but also – like most of his books – the reality, which resonates magic in its deeper tissue.

The latest book nests many silences, pauses, gaps, spaces. The book as a page-turning machine is not Ben’s notion. Books are about the mood, the internal journey:

“Reading is not about the book, it is about reader’s mind, mood, heart, history.”

Ben talks about the leitmotiv of his work – comprehension of reality and relativity of what we perceive as real. Unexplainable coincidences, perceptions of each other, time as emotional construct, evanescence of dreams, (in)capability of our senses, configuration of reality through our consciousness – what intrigues him in life, finds a form and a voice in his work.

His writing is often associated with magical realism, but Okri prefers to avoid this categorisation. “What you find in One Hundred Years of Solitude, you will never find in my novels.” When a possible connection between his works and the world of myth is suggested from a listener in the audience, his reaction is dubious yet indicative: “I love those myths where bird turns into a fish – that’s how I want to write.” But he is more interested in the quiet magic of life itself and he describes his work as “extraordinary things, happening on the page with internal logic.”

First page of The Age of Magic with dedication and signature
First page of Okri’s latest book – with his own dedication and signature!

Ben is convinced that reality is a bit more than we think and while (con)figuring it, we are not employing all the senses we could. Our relationship with reality works like a boomerang effect: what we put out, seems to come back.

Our perception and understanding of reality stems from what we are taught in early years. “We teach our children, what reality is. When you’re young you just see, what you see, you are not told, what reality is.” Ben refers to endless childhood afternoons, when time did not yet exist and reminds us how time slows down, when we are in special emotional states: “Time runs differently if you are on your way to the dentist or if you are about to meet your loved one.” It bends, stretches and expands according to our emotions.

Ben generously stretches the time of his session – he steps to the edge of the stage and amplifies the magic that we have just bathed in – he thanks us. His gratefulness to be in Aotearoa shines from his face:

“New Zealand is myth-infested land. Stories pop up everywhere.”

I could not agree more, Ben!

If you like stretching time by reading long novels, check out Ben’s Man Booker Prize Winner The Famished Road, Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches.  If you prefer something shorter, go for Tales of Freedom. And if you are a poetry junkie, make sure to read some of Ben’s poems on his website.

Hack Attack: WORD Festival Event 12 May 2015

Cover of Hack AttackNick Davies, the author of Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch, was the subject of a Q&A session with Joanna Norris, the editor of The Press, in the chair.

We learned from Joanna Norris’ introduction that George Clooney was making a movie based on the book.

When asked about the difficulty of digging deeply into the phone hacking scandal for several years, Davies answered that he had a very reliable source who had guided him through his investigation for over two years. He said it was clear from the outset how extensive the crimes were, but the difficulty was in proving the truth of the story when up against a powerful corporation headed by a ruthless operator like Rupert Murdoch.

All along through the investigation, paradoxically, the impetus was driven by News Corp. itself because the company’s staff acted stupidly, arrogantly and aggressively. News Corp. kept up relentless attacks on Davies and The Guardian, which spurred Davies and his editor on to follow the story, knowing it must have substance.

Cover of Flat Earth NewsThe ball got rolling when Davies was giving a radio interview about a previous book, Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media. His source was listening to the interview and contacted him about the dodgy dealings that were going on at The Sun and News of the World, both Murdoch tabloid newspapers.

When asked if he thought his book had made any difference to the behaviour of the UK press, Davies answered that, unfortunately, it was business as usual. It remained a “journalist’s fantasy” that writing about a bad thing could make it stop. He gave, as an example, The Sun conducting a campaign to undermine Labour in the most recent UK election as proof Murdoch’s power remained unchanged.

Davies disclosed that he had discovered that UK tabloids were “peculiarly ruthless” and the journalists who staffed them were “almost like a parody of themselves”.

It was Davies’ belief that it was the arrival of Princess Diana that triggered this avalanche of celebrity investigative digging and bred an attitude of journalistic cruelty where “nothing is off limits, nothing is private”. But the tabloid journalists’ hypocrisy was astounding. Andy Coulson and Rebecca Brooks were having an eight-year-long affair while callously exposing the sex lives of public figures.

All through the long investigation by The Guardian into the phone hacking scandal, Davies was pilloried in all the right-wing Murdoch newspapers. He observed that no-one threatened him with physical violence to stop investigating, but the Murdoch empire indulges in what Davies called “reputational violence”, trying to ruin people’s reputations.

Towards the end of the session, in response to questions from the audience, Davies gave the view that the internet had broken the model of newspapers across the world and journalists no longer had the funding nor the resources needed to do their jobs properly.

He thought that the Leveson Enquiry was a powerful one, but Lord Justice Leveson’s report had been deliberately smothered by powerful people in the UK.

The audience got the impression that Nick Davies would go on fighting the good fight, but he was weary and cynical as to the extent he could make a change for a better society.

Read our other blog posts about Hack Attack by Nick Davies.

(Don’t) Stop tweeting

Are writers dilly dallying round on Twitter when they should be writing and submitting their work for publication? Simon Wilson, editor of Metro, posited this and got some writerly hackles up. Hence this session Stop tweeting … Commit! A Twitter Odyssey at the Auckland Writers Festival, and on Twitter, starring Russell Brown aka @publicaddress, Jolisa Gracewood @nzdodo, Simon Wilson @metromagnz and chaired by Janet Wilson @bespokemedia – and featuring The Real People in the audience, and on Twitter.

#stoptweeting

This session was crackling with intelligence, but I wanted to hear more from the Yays …

Keep calm and read Haruki Murakami

The crowd waiting for Murakami was a fragrant one. I smelled Commes des Garcon, something from L’Artisan. There were lots of cool looking young uns. And when we got into our seats, Haruki came on stage in a tshirt saying “Keep calm and read Murakami”, pinkish pants, and nifty sneakers. Older than I know him from his author photos.

The crowd gave him a mighty round of applause after a fine intro by John Freeman.

Readers, we were in for a treat. We got to learn so much about Murakamiworld, from his own mouth. The audience was one of the most attentive, attuned, and excited I’ve ever sat in. We weren’t allowed to tweet, take pics, – but I don’t think that was why the crowd was so focused. We all wanted to be there – big time – and didn’t want to miss a thing.

Haruki told us first about the moment he decided to become a writer. He was 29, watching a baseball game, and it came to him: “I can write”:

Something fell from the sky, and I caught it. I  can still feel the feeling, I was so happy.

He went to the stationers to get a pen, and voila.

His background was in film, he wanted to write screenplays but didn’t have anything to say. When he began to write, he first wrote in Japanese, then translated it into English, then back into Japanese. This combination gave him his distinctive style:

My English vocabulary is so small. What I write is very simple and very clear. That is what I want. I made up my style.

He doesn’t do that now, but that initial double translation made that Murikami style.

We journeyed through Murikami’s life, he talked about being a teenager in the 1960s,  being part of an idealistic generation:

As we grow up the world should be saner, more reasonable  – it’s not … I am still holding my idealism in my mind … it’s a kind of warmth.

His literary inspirations are diverse. He has parents who are teachers of Japanese literature, but he bonded with Brautigan, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Raymond Chandler.

And he loves cats, and has 11,000 records!:

I love my books. I love my music. I love my cat. … Cats and music and books are very important to me.

Cover of UndergroundHaruki left Japan when he was “hated” on by the Japanese mainstream literature crowd. He went to Italy and wrote there, then to the States. But he returned home to Japan in 1995 after the twin disasters of the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo sarin gas attack. From this time came the book Underground.  He interviewed 60 survivors:

Everybody as his or her own story. They are my people on the train. I got to know my people better.

This led to a strain of questioning on evil:

I go into the darkness of my mind. Everyone has a basement beneath the ground. Some people have a basement in their basement … It’s easy to go into the darkness, sometimes it isn’t easy to come back.

What sort of books does Murikami write? Gotta like his classification system:

  • Big
  • Medium
  • Short stories

I  come and go. When I want to write big ones, I write big ones.

And he doesn’t always know which one it is going to be.  His latest – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage started out as a short story, but it got longer. The story made it happen.

It’s not an easy job to do being a writer, so Haruki runs to keep fit.  A day in his life goes a bit like this:

  • Get up at 4am. Not using an alarm clock.
  • Drink coffee.
  • Start writing.
  • Sometimes he works while listening to music – low volume, classical background music.
  • 4 to 5 hours writing.
  • Do translations in the afternoon.
  • Don’t work after sundown.
  • Watch baseball.
  • Go to bed at 10pm, no nightlife.
  • “Just so”.

The translating he is working on at the moment (English into Japanese) is a book he discovered during a trip to Oslo – Novel 11 Book 18 by Dag Solstad.

1Q84 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Kafka on the Shore Norwegian Wood

Why are your stories so sad, Haruki?

I am always looking for the bright side of things … But most of my fictions are not happy endings. I don’t know why. He is looking for something, finds it, but it’s not what he expected.

And what happens at the end of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his years of pilgrimage with the marriage proposal?

I have no idea. I don’t know what is going to happen. That is life.

And with that it was question time. We had questions about being a writer, more about cats, and the surprising revelation that Haruki’s favourite foods:

I am a donut addict … Doughnuts and Tofu.

And finally:

The stories must be unpredictable to myself.

Congratulations to the Auckland Writers Festival crew for getting Haruki Murakami here, and Kia ora Haruki.

After the Quake  Sputnik Sweetheart The Elephant Vanishes Cover of The Colorless Tsukur Tazaki

David Mitchell’s Middle Earth

Writers festivals are just as much about discovering new authors as they are meeting your favourites. David Mitchell is one of those authors I keep meaning to read. I hear lots of great things about his books and the blurbs sound interesting but that’s as far as I’ve got so far. After listening to his session at the Auckland Writers Festival today his latest book has gone to the top of my reading pile and I’ll be searching out his earlier books.

The interviewer started by asking David about the inter-connectedness of his novels. Although each of them is a stand alone novel, there has been much discussion by fans about how characters overlap in his stories and the very ‘Middle Earth feel’ of his work. David explained that, as a kid, he made his own Middle Earth by drawing imaginary maps. He would scrawl these huge worlds and locations on paper. His impulse with his writing is to make something enormous. He wants each book to be individual and for people to not have to read all his books, but each book is a small piece of something bigger.

David described himself as ‘such a nerd for names.’ He mentioned that it’s very important to get the names right and that he spends lots of time working on them. High Scrabble scores apparently make very good names.

David’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks, is his ‘midlife crisis novel.’ It deals with immortality and the price you might pay to have immortality. The story is made up of multiple parts and each one is written in a different genre. David wanted to put many different ideas in the book but make them co-exist. The only way to do this was to compartmentalise them by genre. The interviewer pointed out that the book’s protagonist, Holly Sykes, is David’s first proper female protagonist. David found it particularly nerving and frightening writing a female protagonist as he hadn’t done so before. The Bone Clocks sounds amazing and I certainly can’t wait to delve in to David Mitchell’s world.

The inevitable question about his influences was asked, and I loved David’s response:

The world is made of potential ideas; you just take from it what you want.

Christchurch, you are lucky – you can see David Mitchell at WORD Christchurch Sunday 17 May 6pm at Court Theatre. Buy tickets now.

Stories for everyone : Auckland Writers Festival – New Zealand Listener Gala night!

Last night was the very grand opening of the Auckland Writers Festival and it was excellent! I came away from it feeling inspired and buzzed and had already broken my (admitted weak) promise to myself that I wouldn’t buy any books this festival. I have since downgraded this to ‘don’t buy all the books’ which I believe is a more manageable goal…

The line up was a mixture of writers I had read, writers I should have read, and writers I am definitely going to read now that I’ve heard them speak. The topic was “Straight Talking” and each speaker had seven minutes to tell it to us straight, with the freedom to decide what ‘it’ was going to be.

Amy Bloom was first up with a great story about family, love, death (and a little bit of sex). A little sad, but bursting with humour and very relatable, her talk totally inspired me to get my name on the waiting list for her latest book Lucky Us.

Cover of Lucky us Cover of Gallipoli Cover of Tangata Whenau Cover of This House of Grief

Next up was Peter FitzSimons, who told a very fast-paced collection of stories about rugby, including the tale of how he was the first Wallaby to be sent from the field against the All Blacks. It seemed like the only time he stopped talking to breathe was when the audience was laughing.

The powerful Aroha Harris told us a very moving story about her tā moko, her decision to get one, the tradition behind it, and the judgement and racism she has faced since.

Helen Garner was excellent, with a hilarious story about getting older, and more importantly, fiercer. She is not a woman to be messed with!

Cover of Arms Race Cover of Not my father's son Cover of Michele A'Court Cover of Ben Okri

Nic Low‘s story was about ambition and fraud, and included a new word he’d made up: ‘fraudescence.’ Fraudesence is the feeling you get when you are mistaken for something you are not, but you don’t correct anyone because actually, you wish it was true. Nic first felt this when he was mistaken for being much more famous than he actually was, and talked about how it fueled him to work a lot harder to get there. He spoke about the way New Zealanders are often ashamed to own their own desires, and urged the audience to admit to ourselves what it was we really wanted, and do something about it.

Following in the vein of openness and honesty was Alan Cumming. Alan – who is a well known LGBT advocate – began by pointing out the hetero-normative, patriarchal roots of the phrase ‘Straight talking’, before diving into his star-studded story full of laughs that culminated in the moral that if you are genuine with other people then there is a much greater chance of them being genuine back.

Michele A’Court earned her title as a comedian with her story about her rather epic quest, crossing oceans and getting stuck in a lift, to get to her daughter’s side so she could be there for the birth of her granddaughter. She is quite the advocate for swearing when the need arises, summing it up with a great quote from Max Beerbohm “vulgarity often cuts ice which refinement scrapes at vainly.”

Finally, Ben Okri took the stage. Of all the stories tonight, Ben’s was my favourite. He explained that he would be doing some ‘indirect straight talking’ because, as a poet, he is used to using stories to illustrate larger truths. He told us about growing up in Nigeria – he was eight when the civil war began, and spent two days alone at school after everyone else had been picked up by their parents, before his mother was able to reach him. For food he was ‘foraging for roots,’ he said, his tone light and humourous in contrast to the stark terror of the rest of the story.

Secondly, he told us a story of his mother’s death, and spoke with such open honesty about grief. His storytelling was evocative and beautiful, and if he can do that in seven minutes, then I can’t wait to spend much longer than that reading my way through his books.

Stories connect us, whether they are true stories told straight, or true stories told indirectly. Our host for the evening said that books bring us something fundamental and humane, but whatever that fundamental, humane spark is, it’s in oral storytelling too. It’s in any kind of storytelling you can imagine. I agree with my colleague Masha who wrote a blog post lately about storytelling. Stories for everyone, always; they change and connect us all in a myriad of different ways.

What connections are you going to make, this festival?

Check out the New Zealand Listener Gala Night even page for speaker bios and links to other events!