Historical fiction is beaut and I read LOADS of it!
I find that it’s an opportunity for talented writers to explore a tiny part of history and expand on it in a way that keeps within the spirit of the times. With the added bonus of hindsight, they might get into some areas that perhaps weren’t fully described by contemporary historians in factual writings.
There’s another side to historical fiction too, and this is the tendency to lean towards topics & settings centred on ladies holding court in the drawing room or the Upstairs-Downstairs type narrative full of posh English aristocrats, much like the recently popular Downton Abbey or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall which has had the tele treatment.
There’s nothing wrong with these stories, some of them are written beautifully and they sure make good TV fodder, but my concern is that we may be boxing the term “historical fiction” into these aristocratic themes and subsequently some other great works about the “historical common people” are not reaching audiences that would love them. So let’s get into the gritty side of what I like to call (for lack of a better term) Historical Fiction of the Masses.
In Gould’s Book of Fish he delves deeply into the corruption, lunacy and brutality of the penal system of transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in the 17th/18th centuries. This is a history not often told in its full brutal reality by history’s keepers, until quite recently when shame around the perceived “convict stain” was turned around and many people began speaking with pride of their convicted and transported ancestors.
There’s another very accomplished and award winning Tasmanian author who writes good “Historical Fiction of the Masses” – Rohan Wilson. His two titles – The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost are full of grit and reality and are based on real points of history, and the characters based on real people.
And there’s other great international titles in this vein too, The Revenant by Michael Punke is a survivalist story set in the 19th century Rocky Mountains frontier and has recently achieved a lot of attention with Leonardo Dicaprio claiming his first Oscar for his role as the main character.
The North Water by Ian McGuire dealing with life on a whaling ship in the North Sea & the ship’s morally corrupt crew was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize
There’s a huge depth of writing in this style and a new title piqued my interest after I heard an interview with the author Eowyn Ivey on Radio New Zealand.
Her book is titled To the Bright Edge of the World and during her interview she expressed her admiration for minimalist writers such as Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. She even said that one of her best-loved books was Gould’s Book of Fish by Flanagan – how could you resist!? Her book is written as diary entries and other correspondence amongst a group travelling through the wilds of frozen Alaska, their families & their descendants. It’s brutal, realistic and believable with strong engaging characters, a weight of mysticism and a deep plot – all the elements for a fine example of Historical Fiction of the Masses!
Go get some titles like these and get reading! Ma Te Wa.
Literary festivals are wonderfully educational things. If you open your ears and listen, seemingly the wisdom of the world will made available to you.
And some of it is quite pithy too. Now that the extended programme events have been completed we’ve gathered together our favourite quotes from the writers and thinkers of WORD Christchurch 2016. Read and receive their wit and/or wisdom.
“To create Lena, I took elements from a wide range of … characters and sources. These were the disparate, disconnected limbs and organs I harvested and stitched together to make my monster. It was my job to add flesh and skin, and then to animate her.” Tracy Farr
“You’re writing fiction; take liberties.” Tracy Farr
“We have over-simplified things for children. Children’s sentences need to be longer. We need more semi-colons.” Kate de Goldi on writing for children
“Writing is a form of changing energy into words.” John Freeman
“The worst place for creativity is a desk. I need to be out-and-about stealing ideas!” Alice Canton on creativity
“I wanted to create a journal of stories that would silence a dinner party.” John Freeman on his new journal Freeman’s
“Do I have any chips for writers? No, I don’t share my chips.” Nobody can grab Andy Griffiths’ ghost chips.
“My job as a writer is to stop my characters from solving problems.” Andy Griffiths
“You get tragedy and farce in all of life – and politics is a part of life” Peter S. Field on the US Presidential race.
“His plans for being president don’t seem like those of someone who thought about being president for more than an hour…” Steve Hely on Donald Trump.
“You want boring people in government. You want outrageous people on TV.” Steve Hely on what makes a good politician.
“Politics doesn’t just happen in parliament – it affects lives. Laws aren’t made in a vacuum” Fiona Kidman
“A world without intelligent discourse gets you Trump and Brexit.” Duncan Greive tells it like it is.
“It’s like watching a political version of the O.J Simpson trial.” Dr Amy Fletcher regarding the Trump/Clinton political situation and its polarizing effect.
“I venture to suggest that a man who dyes his hair is a man not to be trusted” Peter Bromhead referring to Prime Minister John Key
“I don’t think men should read my book” Jodi Wright dismisses a male reviewer who used the words “sex slave”.
“My body is not an apology” Tusiata Avia reads from her poem.
“There’s not a lot of money in feminism.” Debbie Stoller
“I find it hard to have respect for people who say they are not feminist” Debbie Stoller
“Because wanting equality as a human being is exactly like the Holocaust” Tara Moss on the term “feminazi”
“Do what works for you, however weird it seems.” Tracy Farr on weirdness
“Magazines smell really good; the Internet doesn’t” James Dann is not wrong.
“I’ve watched a lot of porno on tape…” the start of an audience question at the No sex please we’re teenagers session.
“New Regent Street – a time period that has never existed in New Zealand” The Unicorn
“I appreciate this dystopian polemic, sir, but is there a question?” Kim Hill to a persistently long-winded audience member.
“When it is someone you love, a bit of decomposition doesn’t matter.” Caitlin Doughty on dealing with our own dead.
“Being “othered” is something that pervades your daily life in New Zealand.” Alice Canton
“I know it’s after 10pm and Christchurch, emphasis on the Christ…” The Unicorn
“Community is a social lifeboat…” Justin Cronin on disaster response and community
“A child is a deal you make with the future.” Justin Cronin
“We raise our voices, not shouting but singing” David Levithan
Recently I braved the heaviest rain of winter to attend the WORD Writer’s Workshop “Teaching the Monster to Speak” hosted by the energetic Tracy Farr.
Tracy, who was born across the ditch but who we’ll claim as a Kiwi as she’s lived in Wellington for the past 20 years, wrote The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt in 2013 and received accolades for creating characters so real they could walk off the page. Tracy started her second novel and was determined to achieve the same rich characterization. She investigated her writing process so she could replicate it. The twenty or so other workshop attendees and I were fortunate enough to be able to share her wisdom.
To make truly original, realistic characters, Tracy advises authors to stitch them together, physically and psychologically. To extend the Frankenstein metaphor further, she suggests splicing character traits and collecting body parts. Take your mother’s dark eyes, your cousin’s dress sense (or lack of), your colleague’s habit of giving you compliment sandwiches and your dentist’s squint, and you’re on the way to making your Monster. Tuck away images or sayings specific to your Monster into a real or virtual folder via Pinterest or Scrivener. Make mood boards and observe, collect and record “whatever buzzes”. Place your Monster into a setting and move it around so it can start to take on a life of its own.
The idea is to transform/invent/disguise people you know to create your characters. Tracy says “be aware of when you’re copying and when you’re creating” and encouraged us to do a writing exercise every day. She assured us that, if we do this, something (or someone) will turn up.
Tracy Farr’s new novel, The Hope Fault, is due for release by the Freemantle Press next year. Make sure you keep an eye out for it – an eye, his ear, your brother’s obsession with drones, the butcher’s stutter, the purple coat you saw at Farmers… Make it real then make it strange. Happy stitching!
His motivation for writing his virals trilogy – still can’t bear to call them vampires – was his daughter Iris who was then something like 9 years old. A prodigious reader she had taken a look at his previous novels Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest and pronounced them boring and wanted to read a book about a girl who saved the world! Each day they would cycle around Houston and talk about what would be in such a book. Through this process he lost his inner critic.
Iris has an audiographic memory (like a photographic memory but for sound) she would always know what chapter they where up to when returning to a book. She had lots of suggestions – there would be a girl with red hair like her and she named the characters. There was only one rule about what would be in the book – it had to be interesting. After a while he realised his current novel wasn’t going so well and he had 30 pages of notes so he thought he’d write the first chapter and see if it went anywhere – and here we are ten years later with the last volume of the trilogy.
An English professor at Rice University, his only rule for Iris at college is don’t take any creative writing courses I can do that. Now publishing her own work it looks like dad has successfully taught her the family business although I don’t know who taught who …
Why vamps? They are the most interesting out of the four monsters in human form: Frankenstein, werewolves, vampires and zombies. Although I wonder if he forgot about yeti, and Karen was putting a great case for old-fashioned fairies. He excuses himself saying those other Vampire stories were not on his radar, at the time Twilight had only just come out.
At the heart of the vampire noir is the premise that immortality is a terrible state to reassure us that we would rather be human than live forever. He takes vamps and puts them into a new narrative and that’s what makes it interesting. Vamps but with a twist – you’ve always got to bring something else in to make it interesting like a road trip and a viral epidemic. He was inspired by a couple of B grade movies one called Near Dark directed by the talented Kathryn Bigelow. It blended to the western narrative of a drifters story also Magic Johnson had just come out and there was the AIDs epidemic.
Justin’s not averse to a bit of vampire seduction but in a different way, a seduction utilising rhetoric. Fanning as the charismatic narrator, Fanning sitting around for all those years in a library reading books using language to seduce Amy. A rhetorical seduction to make us feel sympathy with him.
On characters and community
Since you are running for your life what is the one thing you would carry with you? In most cases people would carry someone else, therefore you have a love story and bonds of community.
Survival is not sufficient. We read end of the world stories for reassurance and resurrection is an important part of that.
You need survivors to have hope for their children. You think what does it mean to have a child? A child is a deal you make with the future.
Describing the novels as an apocalyptic western road trip, part of the inspiration for The Passage trilogy was the depressing world events at the time. Hurricane Katrina had just hit, G.W. Bush had been re-elected and a second less known Hurricane Rita had triggered an evacuation of Houston which he found himself in the midst of.
One morning stuck on the motorway at 2 am going nowhere in a massive traffic jam watching the fuel gauge go down he did the maths and decided they weren’t going to make it out and made a u-turn and headed back home. Luckily the main force of the hurricane hit further off than predicted.
He is interested in the response of community to disasters like the Christchurch earthquake how community survives. Community is a social lifeboat with a group of mostly good people who are resilient.
“The vampires can’t see themselves in the mirror and after a certain age that is the case with everybody”.
On making things creepy
I look to nature things that creep me out like fish why do they all turn the same way like that? Crickets how they can jump so much further than their body length, the virals are like bugs in hives.
He deliberately doesn’t describe the virals too much leaving it to you to bring the things that scare you to your picture of them. Everyone’s picture of a viral would be different. That’s why movies can be disappointing and on that topic he has sold the film rights but it may be a TV show will eventuate. TV shows are now where the story is at not so many special effects.
“Who has ever blocked the plug in the shower and let it fill up as much as you could just to see what would happen?” asked Andy. How did he know?! I glared at my son in the seat next to me who does this all the time! (And even brings tin foil into the shower to keep it sealed in). Andy asked his audience to imagine a shower was filling up with water with the doors sealed shut with silicon… “How would you get out?!” He was milking the audience for their ideas. It felt like a riddle to solve – one that he doesn’t actually know the answer to but is making up as he goes along.
In the Treehouse series the two main characters Andy and Terry (named after the author and illustrator Terry Denton) get up to some ridiculous stuff that would horrify a health and safety inspector. Andy says “It would be no fun if I had my characters think ahead about the consequences to their actions. A sensible forward-thinking character is a useless character who doesn’t belong in a story.” What he needs are “idiots who never think ahead.” Andy adds: “My job as a writer is to stop my characters from solving problems.” Andy also loves to do what he calls “wasting the reader’s time” – as witnessed by endless pages in his books with the same word written over and over and over and over and over and over…
Dressed in his finest fake tuxedo t-shirt, Andy spoke to hundreds of fans in New Zealand to coincide with his newly premiered book The 78-Storey Treehouse: Movie Opening Night (2016) about the making of a movie about Andy and Terry ‘s adventures (but Andy’s kicked off the set). Oh, and it features spy cows that go around stealing ideas from them. Their justification? “For years the humans have milked us. Now we’re milking them, for their ideas.”
“So how do you get your ideas?” – an audience member asked Andy. “I steal them!” he confessed. “Haven’t you ever heard of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree?” he joked. Seriously though, he loved the feeling of expansion and freedom when he read The Faraway Tree books years ago and he tries to copy that feeling. Playing in trees is inherently dangerous – and he keeps his that way by not putting fences around the crazy levels they build such as a chain-saw juggling area and crocodiles under a skateboard ramp. His storytelling advice is to ask: “What is the worst thing that can happen?” and to “think the opposite of what would happen and do that.” He says he does the opposite of what the reader expects because shock and surprise equals reader laughter. “I never underestimate my readers’ stupidity.” He means that in a nice way.
Now back to that shower rapidly filling up to the ceiling with water, and you trapped naked inside: “What would you do? All you have is a rubber duck” he said, waving a rubber duck toy in the air. He suggested using the duck’s squeaker as a distress signal to call emergency services (it didn’t work by the way, he tried it live). You could plug the shower head with the duck but it would fill and expand and being killed by an exploding rubber duck, he says, would be an embarrassing way to die. “What’s the worst that could happen?!?” You could break your way through the ceiling by hammering it with the rubber duck but then get trapped in the ceiling and float through the roof space until you came crashing down naked into your sister’s sleepover party. Humiliation overdrive. In case he hasn’t made his point with his young readers (and potentially budding writers themselves): “It’s all about brainstorming.”
Another great way of generating ideas? Making lists – such as the lists of what kind of levels they could have in their treehouse – a bowling alley, a game of snakes and ladders with real snakes and, in The 78-Storey Treehouse, what about an all-ball level for sports fans? Including fire balls and wrecking balls. There’s also Andyland, Terrytown and Jillville (to home the Andy, Terry and Jill clones left over from the previous book), a combining machine (eg. electric eel + unicorn = Electricorn) and a Scribbletorium.
Speaking of scribbles, Andy shared with everyone Terry’s early drawings of their treehouse complete with marshmallow machine and vegetable vaporiser and certainly their most dangerous hazard of all, their publisher Mr. Big Nose whose nose explodes when he gets angry, usually caused by Andy and Terry not making another deadline on the book they are meant to be writing. Andy’s character tends to get a bit cross in his books too which just makes Terry funnier.
Hands up – who likes Terry better than Andy? About half the room. Andy says he has to be mean to Terry since he steals his chips and that’s why he had to create a high-security potato chip storage facility in his latest book, complete with 1000 mousetraps, 100 lasers, a 10-tonne weight and an angry duck – to deter those friends and family who like to steal our chips from us (you know who you are). In real life, Andy and Terry endlessly amuse each other – into their third book in the Just series (Just Crazy, Just Stupid etc…) they felt they just didn’t have enough bad ideas and were having trouble getting a book together …so how about a book about a book that never gets started?
Andy showed a few slides of amazing, and amusing, trees and treehouses. A child in the audience reprimanded him for his picture of a tree that looked like a bum: “That’s inappropriate!” He joked back: “You have to do some serious introspection when a six year-old tells you that you are inappropriate.”
Andy says he has been writing since he was about 5 or 6 years old. He says one of his earliest ‘books’ he made was a get-well card for his dad that read “Get well soon …or you are doomed” with a drawing of a tombstone. Andy reminisced about how when he was a child he read cautionary tales – German tales from the 1800s such as Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter– and similar to Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary verses – unlovely bedtime stories – about what frightfully horrible things can happen to you when you play with matches or suck your thumb. And did that teach him to be a good boy? No! That taught him that “Reading is cool.” “I don’t know what will happen when I read!” he enthused. The same can be said about his stupendous stories.
Joking about all the dangers in his books he says that’s why he came to New Zealand, because there were no scary things, like poisonous spiders… um, uh, Andy! Watch out! The audience were quick to educate him about the redbacked spider and the katipo. Andy said that he doesn’t believe in cruelty to animals in his books but an audience member called him out: “But what about when the shark is fed Terry’s underwear?” Well, Andy points out he had Jill (their animal-whisperer sidekick) perform open-shark surgery to save it. Andy says the moral is: “Don’t wash your undies in a shark tank – or just don’t wash your underpants” full stop. Andy Griffiths doesn’t miss a beat.
“Is Jill really your sister?” someone was desperate to know. “Let’s hope not! I’m married to her in real life” said Andy, who met his wife Jill Griffiths in 1997 when she was the editor of his first book Just Tricking and was quick to add that Jill is funny in her own right (she composed the Ballad of the Ninja Snails in The 52-Storey Treehouse). He says Jill stops him from taking his jokes too far (although I’m not sure how much further they could go).
“Will there be an actual Treehouse Movie?” an eager fan inquired. “Not so far” answered Andy, sounding unsure how his books would translate on screen. But is he working on another book? He did some quick mathematical calculations (adding 13 to 78) before confirming that, yes, a 91-Storey Treehouse is under construction – due to be built by August 2017. Great news! Because the worst that could happen for fans is that Andy and Terry stop reaching to new heights.
It seems apt to be writing about American cartoonist Raina Telgemeier’s latest graphic novel Ghosts (released September 2016) after a night or two of ‘dark and stormy’ wild weather across the country. I lay in bed snuggled up with my children to keep warm, making up spooky stories to tell them as the wind lashed the trees. It was the kind of weather that gets one imagining something eerie in the air… like ghosts, perhaps.
Ghosts is a little bit different from Raina’s previous, award-winning, autobiographical graphic novels Smile (2010) and Sisters (2014). For fans expecting another story from her real life, she points out this is her first true fiction story “not at all based on real stuff.”
However it does similarly revolve around two sisters:
Eleven-year-old Catrina and her family are moving to the small coastal town of Bahía de la Luna because her younger sister, Maya, is sick. Cat isn’t happy about leaving her friends, but she tries not to complain because she knows Maya will benefit from the clean, cool air that blows in from the sea. As the girls settle in, they learn there’s something a little spooky about their new town…
Have a peek at an excerpt of Ghosts set in the missions of foggy northern California and during the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos).
Raina’s illustrated stories of her life growing up appeal to 7, 17 and 37 year-olds alike. I thought it was curious that my copy of Raina’s book Smile had gone missing from my bedside table one night and when I went to check on my young son, supposedly asleep in bed, I found he had taken it and was totally absorbed and asking for more – I suspect it was the smiley face on the cover that attracted him. He quickly became a big fan of Raina’s despite the content of her books being from a female perspective and about sisterhood and female friendships. This is a great reminder not to gender stereotype readers’ interests.
Moreover, graphic novels are a great hook for reluctant readers. I like to think of Raina’s comics as ‘gateway graphic novels’ and wanted to meet Raina partly just to thank her for really igniting my son’s reading. I also blame Raina for my son wanting a pet fish (her fish poo scene had him in hysterics) as well as his first iPod for his birthday (just like her character in Sisters, although in her case it was a cassette player, being the 1980s). Happy Birthday son – you’re also getting Ghosts for your birthday too!
Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My life as a Comic and Comics are my life
The title of Raina’s talk at the IBBY Congress My Life as a Comic and Comics are My Life highlights how interchangeable these two aspects are for her. Indira Neville, from the National Library of New Zealand in Auckland – and a cartoonist in her own right – introduced Raina by acknowledging her impact on making a greater space for women in comics. Raina then talked about her influences on her comic-making as a child.
Raina shared her early influences and inspirations as a child growing up in the 1980s in America (like me) such as the Care Bears, the Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake and Scooby Doo cartoons. Perhaps a reminder not to write off children’s seemingly vacuous television viewing. She was talking about my childhood too! She also highly rates the comic series Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Waterson and Bone by Jeff Smith as both being important in her becoming a cartoonist.
Raina was also a huge fan of realistic fiction such as that of Judy Blume and of Beverly Cleary and her stories of sisters Beezus and Ramona. Raina was interested in what kids her age were doing and was enamoured with For Better and for Worse by Lynn Johnston – in this comic strip the characters grew up every year alongside her and her family in real life so they felt like friends or neighbours to Raina and for her, lives blurred between reality and comics – much like her own work does.
A seminal comic she received was from her father, Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, which ends with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She said she cried for two days after the ending and was fascinated with how “comics can make you feel a huge emotional response” – this resonated with her from a young age. She credits Barefoot Gen with waking her up to the power of storytelling.
“Comics can make you feel a huge emotional response.”
Another spark was a 1st grade teacher who set a year long assignment of diary writing where the teacher would write back and forth to the students in diaries they were keeping. Raina helped illustrate her school annuals and yearbooks and she kept an illustrated journal all through school and college, drawing her day in a visual diary. She still keeps a weekly comic diary. She says “all my influences get chucked into a blender and what comes out is my own original work.”
Raised in San Francisco, Raina went to the School of Visual Arts in New York, “having been enamoured with the city due to shows like Sesame Street”, and there she studied illustration and comic-making. She made mini-comics “back in the pre-internet days” and distributed about 7,000 copies of her her mini-comic ‘Take-out’ (7 issues, 12-pages black and white). She sold them for a whopping $1 a piece and would be thrilled when she received a cheque for $2.50 for selling a few comics. Her advice at the conference on how to get good at drawing comics? “Trace and copy is a great way to learn how to make shapes.” Simple as that.
Raina frequented comic conventions to promote her work and was approached at one by Scholastic Book Group, who were kicking off Graphix – an imprint of Scholastic. Raina had only done short comics up to that point so wasn’t sure what to do for a larger book so they asked her what she really liked reading herself as a kid. Answer: The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, which just happened to be in Scholastic stable of books and wow, two weeks later she had a book contract to illustrate the beloved series. She lifts the dialogue straight from the books and each of the four books took a year to make. Initially in black and white they have been reprinted in colour and since then have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list (colour sells!) She says she can see herself across several characters in The Baby-Sitter’s Club but Kristy is her favourite and of course the character in her comics she can relate to the most is herself… She went on to write and illustrate several graphic novels about her experiences growing up, also published by Scholastic.
Warning: Contains graphic content (of a dental nature) Smile (2010) depicts the aftermath of an incident that led to Raina having her teeth reconstructed between the ages of 11-15, after falling over and damaging her permanent front teeth. This was a very self-conscious time of life and her graphic novel lays bare these awkward years and the accompanying bullying as well. There is something innocent and wholesome about Raina’s stories and she comes across as cheerful but there were certainly no smiles when she presented a photo in her talk of her gruesome dental files from this time period. Set in the time covering the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, Raina says in Smile: “I survived a major earthquake. I guess in the grand scheme of things losing a couple of teeth isn’t the end of the world.”
Sisters (2014) was based on one panel in Smile about a family road trip and delves into the relationship with her younger sister Amara and wider family dynamics many readers will relate to.
Raina can’t wait to be a big sister. But once Amara is born, things aren’t quite how she expected them to be. Amara is cute, but she’s also a cranky, grouchy baby, and mostly prefers to play by herself. Their relationship doesn’t improve much over the years, but when a baby brother enters the picture and later, when something doesn’t seem right between their parents, they realize they must figure out how to get along. They are sisters, after all…
Present-day narrative and perfectly placed flashbacks tell the story of her relationship with her sister, which unfolds during the course of a road trip from their home in San Francisco to a family reunion in Colorado.
What’s the drama with Drama?
After the dramas in Smile came the real Drama (2012). Set in middle school years, partly Raina’s intent with Drama was to honour the technical people who do the work behind the scenes in school drama and stage productions (as opposed to the select few who make it on stage). Drama is a homage to these friendships and the camaraderie that occurs between them. In the story are twin boys who are gay, just like her best friends were at school. On the controversy of having young gay students depicted in Drama, she says she is pleased Scholastic backed her and notes her based-on-a-true story graphic novel is actually indicative of the real world compared to fantasy-driven comics which get less questioned. Moreover she says:
“I hear from kids thanking me for validating their existence.”
This I think is the essence of what makes her work so popular among readers young and old alike – they can find themselves in her stories: in the sibling spats, in the humiliating experiences, negotiating friendships and in the minutiae of school and home life.
What other comics and books does Raina recommend for readers who love her graphic novels?
She gave special mention in her presentation to: El Deafo (2014) by Cece Bell Raina rates it as: “The best middle grade memoir about hearing loss you will ever read.” Okay, it may be the only one. Roller Girl (2015) by Victoria Jamieson. A graphic novel adventure about a girl who discovers roller derby right as she and her best friend are growing apart. Sunny Side Up (2015) by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm. From the brother-and-sister creators of Babymouse, Sunny Side Up follows the lives of kids whose older brother’s delinquent behaviour has thrown their family into chaos.
When the WORD blog team put their hand up to cover different sessions at WORD Christchurch, I was fortunately alone in choosing both “The Storyteller” and “Black and Blue Storytelling” with Ivan E. Coyote. As the event continued and audiences enjoyed the stories, people kept coming back for more and more. By Sunday morning, “The Storyteller” session was sold out and WORD volunteers brought more chairs in.
Ivan hails from the Yukon, Canada and their stories are autobiographical, exploring family history and dynamics, gender identity, social justice and equality. At times self-deprecating, but with a good sprinkling of wit and humour so that the messages they are conveying are all the more powerful for being from personal experience. To deliver these messages in any other way, would perhaps come across as a lecture. Ivan has taken pains to point out that that is not their intention. In a Radio New Zealand interview Ivan explained that the medium they use is very traditional, whilst the subject matter is not. They write the story down and craft it before learning it, then once it is learnt, they are able to really tell it and tweak it and ad-lib for the audience. The result is a very natural, polished telling by a gifted raconteur.
Autobiographical storytelling requires a fine balance between truth and privacy. Ivan applies a strict set of criteria to their writing / telling. They ensure that the story is honouring and they thoroughly examine their own motivation in writing the story – for example are they trying to ensure that they have the last word? The essence of this is ensuring that they show compassion and that they “use their powers for good”. Ever since the sessions during WORD, I keep thinking what a great attitude and approach it is to aim to make everyone, even the most challenging person in the room comfortable and included. At the end of the day, why can’t we all just get along?
Ivan uses story to recount interactions with people with absolute attention to detail. “I’m not so much OCD but ATD – that’s attention to detail”. Through “Scars” we learnt a little about the mysterious world of a hand model, the map of childhood accidents and ultimately the effect of top surgery. This was moving for both the teller and the listeners. The humane telling elicits empathy, groans and sighs from the audience. On Sunday morning there was barely a dry eye in the room.
The session ended on a lighter note with Ivan telling a series of “literary doritos” short, bite-sized stories inspired by overheard snippets of conversation and a standing ovation.
I asked Ivan if they intended readers to read their collections in order, as it seemed that Missed Her was intended that way. Ivan said that it didn’t matter although the Tomboy Survival Guide would probably be better if it was read in order. You read it here first…
Christchurch Zinefest 2016 is happening on Sunday 18 September, 11am to 5pm at Space Academy / Kadett (371 St Asaph Street). I spoke to one of the Zinefest organisers, Alice Bush – a graphic design student at University of Canterbury. She’s been making zines for four years. As well as going to Christchurch Zinefests, Alice went to Wellington Zinefest last year.
Tips for Zinemakers
Don’t feel intimidated by what is out there already!
Start making, not worry too much about what you’re making. Know that it will be accepted in a community. I think that all zines are valid – no matter how hi-fi or lo-fi they are.
At the moment, I’m really into Riot grrrl feminist type stuff. What she said by UC Femsoc is a great feminist zine. Filmme Fatales from Melbourne is another great read.
I always love a good funny zine as well, batshit weird … I saw a zine in New York dissecting Home Depot as an art store. There was one at Wellington Zinefest called “Sock review”, which was pretty awesome.
I like zines because they can be anything that you want them to be, no matter how weird your idea is.
Zine culture in Christchurch
There is Zinefest once a year, but that’s about the only event we have at the moment. The zine culture has been laying low, and the Zine Library that was in the Darkroom disappeared last year. I’m trying to build up the culture a bit more, getting people involved and doing more stuff.
Space Academy has started having zine nights. The culture is there, but it is not as big as in Auckland and Wellington. It’s hard to do creative stuff in Christchurch when everything goes into rebuilding.
Zines and the Internet
People used to make fanzines and send them to their friends, now fan-culture has moved on to the internet and there’s not really any need for zines in that culture anymore. It’s interesting to see zines or digizines on sites like Issuu. It is for magazines, but I’ve seen tons of zines up there.
I’ve been reading this article by Bryce Galloway. He’s been involved in zines for a long time. In the early 2000s it started being closed off, and away from the outside world and the Australian and American zines. It’s good when people put their stuff up on the web, because then everyone can see it. You’re getting your work out there to everyone.
Zines and libraries
I visited the Wellington zine collection when I was there. Zines have always been away from the mainstream way of publishing, and it is interesting that they are now in that context of the library.
Zines have been made since the 1920s. They started with sci fi, fanzines, and poetry. I’ve been trying to track down things from that era, most of it is in America. So it’d be great if the zines we make now will last to influence and encourage aspiring zinemakers in the future. I’m all for archiving things and making sure that things last.
Each author talked about their boy before reading a passage from their novel. Elizabeth Hay introduced Jim, ten years old, and in a car on the way to Lake Ontario, asks of his parents “what’s the worst thing you have ever done?” Jim is a boy out of step with where he is in life, a cross border boy (a Canadian mother and New Yorker father) sorting out who has claims on his love and loyalty.
Tanya Moir introduces us to Winstone Blackhat at age 12, he is living on his own, living rough above the dams in Central Otago, sees himself as an outlaw and is surviving by fishing and stealing food from tourists.
Emma Neale’s Billy is 8 (going on 9) and is a quirky, imaginative child whose vivid imagination becomes a problem to his parents when he believes he is a bird.
Each author read a passage from their novel. There is something magical about authors reading aloud from their own work, the characters come to life as the writer intended and the audience is left wanting to know more.
Morrin asked how did they each decide how to tell the story of their boy? Elizabeth said “His Whole Life” came about from a long drive she was on with her own son and he asked that question “what is the worst thing you have ever done?”. She was unable to answer that question at the time and he was unable to tell her in return his worst thing but the question remained. She wanted to explore that question further so created her fictional characters and set them on a journey to further explore the mother / son bond. The character of George the husband explores the notion of the husband as a fifth wheel.
Tanya said “The Legend of Winstone Blackhat” told Winstone’s story through the mechanism of a Western film inside his imagination. Winstone’s thoughts and feelings are described by a third person character, not by him directly.
Emma “Billy Bird” said she wanted to write a verse novel with three distinct voices, the three voices are those of Billy, his mother and his father. This allowed her not to be limited to the child’s perspective but his voice was playful and madcap and lifted the book when the subject matter deals with tragedy.
Elizabeth’s novel deals with the question “what’s the worst thing you have ever done?” but links in Canadian politics and the question of “will Quebec ever leave Canada?” Canada and Quebec is described as a bad marriage – where Quebec really needs to leave. Quebec can also be described as an adolescent who will never achieve independence without leaving Canada.
Tanya’s novel is cinematic, she has taken the devices and clichés of cinema and put these back into words. She described writing her novel as imagining it as a movie scene with a camera tracking though the shoot and taking that and turning it into a sentence doing the same tracking with words.
Emma explored the family seeking counselling help to deal with their tragedy. Billy’s bird behaviour is a problem so she looked at what options would a family have to get help? She did this through researching and talking to professionals – but noted that sometimes the writer needs to abandon the research and let the character lead.
Warning: as the title indicates, there may be some adult content in this post.
There is nothing like being ushered into a writers festival session with the question”Sex, drugs, and rock n roll?” It feels very non-cardigany!
This was a bit of an ongoing theme of my WORD Christchurch experience. First up, on Thursday evening I went to the launch of new erotic magazine Aotearotica at the New Regent Street pop-up.
The readings were fabulously varied in their saucy flavours. After an intro by Aotearotica editor Laura Borrowdale, Melanie read a sexy jewel from Anaïs Nin, Isabelle shared her honest raw love tales, and Jodi Sh. Doff told a story about a verrrry seductive subway ride.
By the way, if you can write or draw, Aotearotica is looking for submissions for Volume Two.
After the sex, the Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll. This session featured more of the middle vice. Bianca Zander, Jodi Wright, and Kate Holden with Charlotte Graham (who was a very clued up chair). Charlotte wondered why sex, drugs and rock n roll books have such appeal? Taboo and rite of passage were two suggestions.
Kate read stories about drugs before she became an addict – but while she was using, she read fantasy books. As heroin took hold in Australian in the 1990s, it appealed to soft, dreamy types because when the world is a bit abrasive “opiates are a great softener of that feeling”. She also explained how “anthropologically fascinating” brothels are – incredibly moving, compulsively interesting.
Kate’s memoir In my skin shows how important her family is, and she made a good point:
Family doesn’t get written about much in junkie memoirs.
Now that her memoir’s film rights have sold, everyone is re-reading and they are impressed all over again.
Jodi couldn’t remember enough to write a memoir, so used her experience as the basis of a novel. She tried to find out what caused her addiction, going to psychiatrists to find the inciting incident: “What I needed to do was get unstuck”:
The story is what I have.
Bianca “always wanted to write a great rock n roll novel … I don’t think this is it”. It’s elusive trying to capture the spirit of rock n roll in words. Her book The Predictions was inspired by a story about an ashram kid, parented by the whole group, who went looking for his mum in a crowd. She thought about those kids without a solid foundation, unmoored out there in the world.
Two points I took away from this session:
Good “Sex, drugs, and rock n roll” novels and memoirs take away the feeling of other, and make us think “us”.
Men are often feted for doing/writing this kind of stuff, and yet women get demonised. Hmmm.
And finally the rock n roll. I went to the Flying Nun In love with these times session at Blue Smoke. It was a joy. Russell Brown was our MC and on stage were Roger Shepherd, Graeme Downes, Jay Clarkson, Bruce Russell, and Hollie Fullbrook (Tiny Ruins). There were plenty of Flying Nun alumni in the audience which definitely added to the flavour. Roger Shepherd’s book is not just a great tale about a music scene, it’s a pretty powerful look into Christchurch’s history too.
Highlights? Jay Clarkson playing Spooky, and her perspectives on being a young mum and muso. Graeme Downes’ new song Dunedin Spleen (and his general loucheness and academic nous). Russell Brown’s super knowledgeable MCing and questions. The lugubrious Bruce Russell. This was something special.