I confess I didn’t read all of the books in my eyewateringly large pile of holiday reads. But I accidentally went all #AotearoaReads and it was ACE.
First up, I finished Can you tolerate this? Personal essays by Ashleigh Young. She tells stories about her family and relationships, but also little histories that have captured her imagination – a boy with a rare skeletal disease, a French postman and his project with stones. This combination of the personal and something more expansive (in both space and time) is a winner. I gave this book to my little sister at Christmas time, and she has whisked it away to London (where today it is snowing). She’s going to love it.
Editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew have again created a brilliant buffet of thoughts and words. You can dip in anywhere and read something that’ll grip you to the last full stop. It’s joyously diverse in topic – kererū, Rugby World Cups, tikanga, Hudson and Halls. It is also geographically varied. The stories are not just set in Aotearoa but range from London to Iceland as well as Kiwi locales like Poplar Avenue and Ashdown Place.
Tell you what reminds me of listening to Radio New Zealand. You’ll find yourself deeply immersed in something you never knew about, and didn’t know you were interested in. That’s magic.
The School for Young Writers in Christchurch is holding a Summer Writing School and Workshops, 16-20 January 2017. The Summer Writing School comprises a week’s worth of writing for teenagers, with special guest tutors alongside some of our regulars. On the final day students will get an opportunity for 1:1 mentoring as they complete a piece for the special magazine that they will produce.
Why go to The School for Young Writers throughout the year? Who is it for and what will they get out of it?
The School for Young Writers is for Years 3 to Year 13. Young writers get the pleasure of working with skilled teachers in groups of like-minded children. Regular tuition produces results. We also have a correspondence programme for those who can’t make the class times.
What kind of writing activities and exercises do you do?
Heather: Stories, poetry in all its forms, creative non-fiction, jokes, flash fiction, memoir, song lyric, play script, monologue, twists on genre, fantasy, slam poetry, whatever the children ask for and whatever our creative tutors can come up with.
Tell us about some of the tutors at the school.
Glyn: James Norcliffe is one of New Zealand’s most admired writers of poetry (Burns Fellowship and many other awards) and fiction for young readers. Heather is also an award-winning writer of fiction for young people as well as poetry, short story and flash fiction ( She is the current National “champ” in Flash fiction). Gail Ingram is New Zealand’s best poet for 2016 (New Zealand Poetry Society). Greg O’Connell is renowned for his interactive poetry shows and poems published in the School Journal. Stephanie Frewen is an award-winning scriptwriter. The plays her students write are broadcast on Plains FM and many are preserved for all time in Radio New Zealand Sound Archives.
Can you share some top tips for youth who want to write?
Join the School for Young Writers (of course). And enter the competitions in our Write On magazine. Teenagers submit to Re Draft – an annual anthology of the best teenage writing in New Zealand.
What about young people who think “I’m no good at writing…”
Glyn: Some of our best writers said that when they joined us. We are not there only for the gifted and talented. People don’t know they have a talent until they try it.
Heather: Sometimes young people have not had the opportunity to express their own creativity through writing. Our programmes are “low stakes.” We don’t use rubrics, mark or judge writing. Our goal is to help a young writer develop a piece to be the best expression of their ideas. This is a joyful process.
What changes do you see in the students over the course of the year?
Glyn says the changes are “immense” and Heather agrees: “For some it takes a few sessions to warm up and let their ideas free. Once they do then amazing things happen. Learning that all writers redraft is often key to the breakthrough.”
Can you share some highlights from the School for Young Writers this year?
Glyn: The greatest kick for me was to see the change in a young writer who came to us writing very dark stuff. By the end of the year, eligible to enter our annual Re-Draft competition for teenagers, this person won a place in the 2016 book The Dog Upstairs. This nationwide competition is for writers up to university level, so it’s a great achievement for such a young writer to win a place.
Heather: This year we held a poetry reading event in association with WORD Christchurch and New Zealand Poetry Day. It was a thrill to see usually shy young people stand up and read their pieces with confidence. I also love working in schools and a seeing the transformation over two days as reticent, vulnerable writers realise that they have something worthwhile to write, something that others want to read. Standouts have to be a group of Year 7/8 country boys (never laughed so much in a workshop) and a gorgeous group of teenagers in Queenstown who were open, enthusiastic and extremely talented. They even gave up their Saturday to attend.
Your favourite authors writing for children and young adults?
Of course we love James Norcliffe! Most of our young writers are also avid readers and they recommend writers to us!
Some of YOUR Top picks of books for youth in 2016?
Heather: Being Magdalene by Fleur Beale. I went back and reread her others. Anything Patrick Ness has written. I’m a bit behind on my YA reading having been a University student this year and reading the modernists. I’m looking forward to some holiday immersion in YA books.
What drives you to commit so much passion for this work?
Glyn: All of our tutors do it for the love of writing and with a passion for ensuring the future of New Zealand literature.
The School for Young Writers is based at Hagley College. What’s the association?
Glyn: Hagley College offered to support us and we gratefully accepted. We are a separate organisation and a registered charity. Hagley is our venue.
Tell us about the publications the writing school is associated with.
Glyn: The School for Young Writers has always emphasised the importance of publication. Without it, writing is like a house without a roof. Write On magazine gives everyone a chance to strive for the pleasure of seeing their name in print and encourages them to lift their game as far as possible. The Re-Draft competition began when we had developed teenage groups whose work was good enough to publish in book form. Re-Draft challenges our senior students to pit their skills against the best in the country. The results are amazingly good. New Zealand literature is alive and well and has a good future. Your blog should include this.
What are some things you’ve heard the students say about their experiences at the writing school?
Glyn: You should see the smiles on their faces when they emerge after two hours of fun learning. They don’t need to say anything. It shows. The younger ones often excitedly share their work with Mum on the way home.
Heather: They keep coming back and stay for years. For some of the students The School for Young Writers is their safe place, they make special friends and can be themselves. We love quirky. We value individuality.
Check out what is on offer for youth at the Summer Writing School this January.
What books have you loved this year? The following lists bring together the cream of the crop of 2016’s books – from the picks of our staff and customers, to the lists published by magazines, newspapers and booksellers. Have your say!
All of these were highly readable with characterisation and sense of time and place uppermost. I know we are doing “best of the year” so we don’t want negativity but I’d love to see these domestic unease thrillers that dominate the mystery genre now start to fade away. That Girl on the train is responsible for huge numbers of imitations.
There are several books which were my favourites of the year. In no particular order they are:
Rivers Of London Ben Aaronovitch
It turned me from being a rigid non-fantasy reader into a fan of Mr Aaronovitch at least. I like the British humour permeating and ridiculously he makes all the magic seem quite natural.
Bone Clocks David Mitchell
Again fantasy! Very clever writing that hung together well and kept me to the end.
The Invoice Jonas Karlsson
I loved the quirkiness but the slight hint of “is this our new reality”.
Shades of Grey Jasper Fforde
Futuristic with delightful humour and a great storyline. Mr Fforde has kept fans of this book waiting for several years but is promising the sequel in 2017. I do hope he delivers.
We are the ants Shaun David Hutchinson
It’s raw, emotional, harrowing, and very funny. Henry Denton has been given the power to stop the end of the world by aliens who casually and randomly abduct him. But is the world worth saving? His boyfriend committed suicide last year, his dad left with no reason, his brother has dropped out of college after knocking up his girlfriend, and his grandmother is losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. The he meets Diego, but is 144 days long enough to decide if the world deserves to be saved? Perfect for fans of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle. Henry’s voice is real and relatable and very in your face from the start; and there’s just the right amount of weird for entertainment.
Buzz D’s pick
The Peculiar life of a lonely postman Denis Theriault
Book written almost entirely in haiku, both the modern shorter version and the ancient 7 line format. A beautiful translation from the French, easy to read and inspired me to write a few haiku of my own.
I loved all her books I have read so far – I couldn’t put any of them down. My Brilliant Friend, the first in the Neapolitan trilogy, weaves the stories of two women, best friends but with very different destinies. Her voice is so direct and compelling, often violent, making her stories strange but insightful. I’m totally obsessed by Elena Ferrante.
An impossible decision – so I simply have to nominate two titles as they both warrant being my absolute favourites of the year so far.
Best selling author, Elizabeth Strout is an old favourite – who couldn’t adore Olive Kitteridge – so I took My Name Is Lucy Barton out with some trepidation and a slight expectancy of being disappointed. But I wasn’t. Her latest novel is what I call ‘one of those little big books.’ it’s A5 size and only 191 pages long, but boy, does it ever pack a punch.
Lucy’s very ill in hospital and her estranged, no-nonsense, mother comes to visit … in the hushed room of the hospital the family’s past comes tumbling out. Little by little, we discover how the past has affected the whole family and particularly Lucy – who is now married and a mother of two daughters.
As a reader, I felt I should have been somewhat distressed by some of the revelations but, quite amazingly, I wasn’t. Somehow this wonderful author draws everything together with compassion, empathy and understanding.
And right at the other end of the scale – a huge rollicking rollercoaster of a read. Mount! by Jilly Cooper sees this author totally back on form. This latest novel is equal to the hilarious delight of the very first title in the series – Riders – with all the old favourites back between the pages. The dialogue is supremely funny and the plot rollicks along.
It’s totally audacious, raucous and quite simply a hugely great read about the upper crust horsey world in England. This is a book that you can totally wallow in. Five Stars for sure (and I defy any woman not to instantly fall in lust with Rupert Campbell Black).
The Black Widow Daniel Silva
I enjoyed this book because although it is a fiction it really hits the mark on what has happened recently in Paris and other parts of Europe. Israel comes into the picture with the wonderful mysterious character Gabriel Allon. This book is an easy read, clips along at a good pace I couldn’t put it down. Thoroughly recommend.
The Atomic Weight of Love is the debut novel of Elizabeth J. Church and I hope we see a lot more books from her. This book is an ideal Christmas present. It appeals to a wide audience and will make a great holiday read and is not without a little racy love interest.
Meridian has won a place at the University of Chicago where she studies ornithology working towards a graduate degree and eventual doctorate. Just as her wings are opening and she starts to glimpse new horizons she falls in love with a college professor two decades older than herself and her wings are clipped.
It is written in a memoir style following Meridian as a woman growing up in the 1940s through the fifties and sixties into the seventies and the emergence of women’s liberation. You will find yourself reflecting at times how so much has changed yet still remains the same.
Meri marries Alden and follows him to Los Alamos where she attempts to fit into the group of ex-academic wives she meets there. It is the era when a wife is expected to follow their husband and make the best of it. She struggles to be a good wife while salvaging something of her studies by continuing to study Crows, having left her graduate study dreams behind her.
The novel’s dual strands, the place of women with the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, and the atomic bomb with its resulting anti-war Vietnam and Korean war movements, almost splits it characters by gender over its two themes.
Some of the characters could do with more development – they feel a little clichéd. It seems women have little to say on war in this novel and men little say on the home front. Even for the times this feels a little stretched. She skims over the women who Meridian meets in Los Alamos except her best friend Belle, a strong woman who urges her not to minimise herself yet when it comes to the crunch still tells her to stay in her marriage and try to make it work.
That being said bird studies draw amusing parallels between human and bird society. Each section of the novel starts with an ornithological reference “A Parliament of Owls”, “A Deceit of Lapwings, “A Murder of Crows”. When Meridian meets Clay, a young hippie ex-marine about two decades younger than her, it seems they are about to repeat past mistakes. Her husband seems not to understand her sacrifice while her lover urges her to soar again.
For a story with a lot of loud sound effects, David Walliams latest literary romp The Midnight Gang seems to have quietly tiptoed into publication, with this children’s chapter book sneaking up just in time for Christmas.
Shhhh! Here we are on the 44th floor of the Lord Funt Hospital in the Children’s Ward. Be quiet, it’s bedtime. This is not so much a home for peculiar children as it is for physically-impaired children. There’s a big cast of characters to get to know…some actually in casts! Meet 13-year old… Tommy? Tommy! (even he wasn’t sure of his own name after a bad knock on the head from a cricket ball), who finds himself stuck in the ward with his new and equally recovering friends like young Sally (bald from her ‘treatment’), wheelchair-bound Amber, tonsil-free George and temporarily blind Robin. They are overseen by a matron who despite running a children’s ward hates children, a young doctor who can’t stand the sight of blood and support staff that includes an unsightly Porter, Mr. Dead Squirrel on his Head, Mrs. Google-Eyes and Professor Comb-over, all delightfully illustrated by the illustrious Tony Ross.
But surely hospital has to be better than the boarding school his absent parents practically abandoned him at? It wasn’t less miserable for long! The hospital matron and his school headmaster are soulmates it seems. Lunch was awful offal… and boiled eel, roasted badger, pigeon soup, boiled cabbage and toads on toast – hilariously pictured. And in what might be a reference to Walliams’ own The Boy in the Dress, Tommy suffers his worse humiliation ever when the matron makes him wear a Pink-Frilly-Nightdress to bed. Midnight is the time when all children are meant to be fast asleep, except for the secret Midnight Gang! That is the time when their adventures are just beginning… Cue 12 chimes and we all know what happens in children’s stories at the stroke of midnight – magical and dangerous things of course.
Scrawly graffiti in the hospital basement announces: The Midnight gang woz ere
“…the Midnight Gang is nothing more than an idea really,” mused Robin. “One that’s passed on from child to child.”
“Like nits?” asked George unhelpfully.
“Yes, exactly like nits, George!”
Their ‘idea’ and secret aim is to bring children’s dreams to life. So it’s a shame Tommy can’t think of a dream he might have that’s worthy of coming true. And with their collective impediments, how can they possibly achieve their dreams? And who is the real leader of this gang anyway? George’s dream to fly goes awry in the gang’s biggest adventure and challenge thus far. First they have to work out how many balloons it takes to lift an elephant (97,282 apparently). And can you imagine a naked 99 year-old flying over the rooftops of London? You don’t have to, that’s in here too.
Walliams is the Dr. of Fun and even his fonts are having a good time – the louder it gets, the bigger the type. There’s plenty of indirect messages broadcast here too: Don’t judge someone by their looks, life is precious and oh, it’s no big deal that girls can marry girls. When Sally’s condition takes a turn for the worse her dream “to live a big, beautiful life” inspires them all, leading Tommy to finally find himself by caring about others.
Walliams, of Little Britain fame, turned his comedic talents to children’s novels including Mr. Stink, Awful Auntie, Grandpa’s Great Escape, Gangsta Granny, Demon Dentist, Billionaire Boy, The Boy in The Dress, Ratburger … whew, I’m exhausted just listing them – how does he do it? And there’s The World’s Worst Children also released this year. His stellar output is nearly annoying when my son tries to bring all his favourite books into bed with him. The Midnight Gang (perfect for ages 8 to 12) may be his biggest book yet – 416 pages.
Walliams has been compared to the irreverent Roald Dahl, one of his own favourite authors when he was growing up. A new generation of young children (like mine) are now growing up with both authors amongst their favourites. And now that he has a young child of his own, Walliams has branched out into picture books with his third one There’s a snake in my school recently published and reviewed on our site.
According to Walliams, New Zealand is one of the countries with the highest readership of his books. We were lucky to see Walliams when he visited Christchurch in 2015 at a WORD Christchurch event and he spoke to a sold-out audience of 700. There he gave advice on how to write a good story (have a good villain, write what you love…) and talked about the inspiration for some of his characters based on real people, such as Raj his neighbourhood dairy owner and his ramshackle shop. So the burning question is: Is Raj in this new book? Nobody likes a spoiler. All I can say is: Poppadoms anyone?
The art of typewriting
Our Selector has always found creating a picture using type to be rather appealing so has enjoyed the 570 illustrations ordered into letters and numbers, punctuation pictures, interlocking words, animals, household objects, maps and texts.
The Fall of the House of Wilde
A new and interesting slant on the many times subject of biography Oscar Wilde which puts him as a member of one of the most dazzling Anglo-Irish families of Victorian times, and also how the family were involved in the broader social, political and religious context of the times.
Black DollsFrom the Collection of Deborah Neff
Keeping with the doll theme, but from a totally differnt angle this book presents over 100 unique handmade African American dolls made between 1850 and 1930 from the collection of Deborah Neff, a Connecticut-based collector and champion of vernacular art. It is believed that African Americans created these dolls for the children in their lives, including members of their own families and respective communities as well as white children in their charge. Stunning photography.
Outlander Kitchen You’ve read the books, watched the TV series, now it’s time to cook Mrs. FitGibbon’s Overnight Parritch; Geilli’s Cullen Skink; Murtagh’s Gift to Ellen; Sarah Woolam’s Scotch Pies and Atholl Brose for the Bonnie Prince.
We’re so excited about the eagerly-awaited publication release of Annual from Gecko Press (edited by Kate De Goldi & Susan Paris). Annual is a real game-changer as the first publication of its kind in New Zealand.
Annual is a 136-page smorgasbord of stories, comics, satire, how-tos, poems, games and puzzles aimed at 9-12 year old children – and their families.
There’s a dictionary of crazy words that come in handy on car trips, a sophisticated ‘spot the similarity’, a found poem from school newsletters, a maths-nerd’s memoir full of tricky logic puzzles, and top-class fiction that spans Christchurch Botanic Gardens in the 19th century, the loss of a brother, a Kiwi beach holiday and a board game.
Kate De Goldi, co-editor of the Annual from Gecko Press, could see there was a “hectic” trend in children’s writing – popular books for children such as those that are slapstick or fantastical or series titles (think Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants). She says that while these books are great, the current market does not run in the favour of more nuanced, complex books.
Inspired by, and harking back to memories of children’s annuals in the UK like Bunty The Books for Girls, De Goldi reminisces that “Annuals were like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag – you always see something new every time you opened one.”
Annuals were full of literary miscellany – a home for practitioners, writes, emerging talent. Kate remembers being given annuals for Christmas and how for some children it may have been the only book they got in a year so it was something to be savoured and enjoyed all year long.
With Annual, the editors set out to “reimagine an iconic book format for today’s young readers.” Lorde, Taylor Swift and “selfies” are in there. Indeed one of the charms of Annual is how it manages to reference pop culture yet still feel nostalgic.
Christchurch writers, illustrators and artists showcased
Speaking of nostalgia, it’s evident Kate De Goldi has a soft spot for Canterbury. Born and raised here, a Christchurch connection appears throughout Annual in various forms: From local writers such as Gavin Bishop, Ben Brown and Renata Hopkins to the street art of Christchurch in a commentary on Wongi Wilson’s Whare & Whānau (2014) in Spray Can Renaissance.
Due to the CBD’s rebuild, Wilson’s mural, that was on the corner of Tuam and Manchester streets is barely visible now, making this snapshot of a certain time and place more poignant.
We asked Kate to tell us more about the inaugural Annual:
Kate, how did the idea for Annual came about?
For some time I’d been bothered by the fact that there seemed to be a dearth of good, original New Zealand reading material for readers between 8 to 12, the reading group that American publishers/booksellers call ‘middle-grade’ (between ’emerging’ readers and young adult readers), roughly between 8 and 12 years. Additionally, I was sorry that there were no publications anymore for emerging writers for that age group to publish short form material.
One day a couple of years ago while I was out running round the hilly streets of Wellington and thinking about these things, it suddenly occurred to me that an Annual – a miscellany of stories, comics, poetry, articles, art, puzzles, games etc – would be a great solution to both of these issues. By the time I’d finished my run I’d thought of two people who could help make it happen – Julia Marshall, the publisher for Gecko Press and Susan Paris, the editor of the School Journal.
Why is this ‘Annual’ so significant for New Zealand?
As far as we know there’s never been a New Zealand publication like this for New Zealand children. This is the first publication of new, commissioned material across a variety of forms for this age group. It’s also the first publication to draw contributions from such a wide range of writers and artists – well known writers and illustrators for children, but also new writers and artists or writer/artists who usually produce work for an adult readership.
Annual is also an attempt to broaden the notion of what is allegedly ‘suitable’ for children. We believe that the 9-12 age group is a very sophisticated readership, one that’s hungry for different kinds of reading – fiction, non-fiction, graphic material, and great art – so we’ve commissioned work that is varied and substantial and with real literary merit. But the editors (Susan and me) have a pretty developed sense of the absurd, too, so we wanted the Annual to have funny – even silly – contributions as well as solid stuff.
Tell us about your childhood memories of annuals?
I grew up in a house full of books, including a wide range of very good children’s books. Comics were kind of frowned on, though – but I loved them… I read them at other people’s houses whenever I had the chance.
All the well-known British children’s comics of that post-War period (Girl’s Crystal; Princess; Rupert; Beano, Bunty, to name some) also had an Annual (a kind of bumper issue of the comic) published in time for the Christmas market. As a non-comic household we tended not to get the Annuals either – except one year when, for some reason, my sister Clare got Bunty. She was 8 that year, but claims she was still reading that Bunty Annual until she was 18. I believe her – the thing I noticed about annuals was that they seemed to last forever…every time you picked up a well-thumbed, familiar annual there was somehow always something you hadn’t noticed before and were very pleased to read.
When we were first thinking about our annual we knew we wanted it to be like that – a gift that kept on giving. It’s roughly aimed at a 9-12 readership but we hope that those readers will keep on dipping in over the years; and we’re confident there will be both younger and older readers – and adults – outside the designated age group who will enjoy many of the contributions between the covers.
How did this annual come together?
Once I had the annual idea I contacted Julia Marshall who was immediately very keen on the idea of Gecko Press publishing a miscellany of this kind (Gecko’s catchphrase is ‘curiously good books’). Then I contacted Susan Paris, who is a good friend, but more importantly has 12 years experience commissioning and editing the New Zealand School Journal a publication embedded in the history of children’s writing and illustrating in New Zealand and which is in many ways like Annual – miscellany of varied forms, but for use in the classroom.
Susan and I began by dreaming up ideas for stories, poems, articles etc and then worked out who we thought would be the best writers and artists to work with those ideas. We needed to come up with the ideas ourselves to ensure a balance across the annual – different moods (sad, funny, silly, reflective); different settings (urban, rural); gender and cultural balance; different forms (realist, fantasy, historical etc). We worked hard to match our ideas with the right artist/ writer…for example, we liked the idea of a ‘found’ poem composed entirely of lines taken from school newsletters. We asked James Brown to have a go at that – we knew he was great with different poetic forms. We approached writers and artists who we knew enjoyed working within certain parameters but who could still make the piece their own.
Commissioning was just the first stage – we edited all the work for publication and worked with Gecko Press to find illustrators for many of the pieces. It was particularly interesting for me – a tyro* in this regard – to see a project of this size right through from inception to publication. Every aspect of the process was fascinating – and quite consuming…debating the best sequencing of all the contributions, debating the title and cover, the color of the cover…and more. And finally there’s spreading the word ahead of publication – talking to librarians, booksellers, teachers, any prospective buyers – preparing the website to go live. (* Tyro = beginner or novice).
Kate, you say that Annual is meant to be enjoyed by ‘backwards browse.’ What does that mean?
This was new to me – Julia told us that people nearly always explore a book, especially a volume of mixed material, from the back to the front.
It’s perfectly true. I do it myself, though I’d never noticed…and we’ve enjoyed watching people pick up Annual and check it out by fanning the pages from back to front. That’s good from our point of view – the first piece they see, then, is Naked Grandmother, the board game which is pretty entertaining. A ‘backwards browse’ will find you flicking through an annual until you fall on what you want to sink yourself into.
Annual’s cover is quite subtle compared to the treasure trove inside. Was that intentional?
Yes, that was intentional – the title written vertically and two lovely drawings by Gregory O’Brien…the chirping bird kind of heralding something good to come. And then there’s the color – a radiant orange.
We wanted the cover to be a striking design (that’s the work of Spencer Levine who also designed the interior) so that the prospective reader would be drawn to pick up Annual – and then begin the ‘backwards browse’ through the material between the covers – which is rich indeed, a real feast for the eye.
What is your hope for the book?
Firstly, I hope the book finds its way to the readers we had in mind when we were working on it – all those readers between 9-12 who are smart, curious and hungry for new material. I hope that readers outside that age group will check it out, too. I hope especially that it is bought by school libraries – that way Annual can reach readers who may not otherwise come across the kind of material inside.
We hope that Annual becomes an annual publication! We’re working on the second volume now and hope that we can keep on producing for as long as there’s an audience…We hope to keep on finding new writers and artists and giving them a platform to publish. We hope, too, that NZ writers and artists for children aspire to be published in Annual, that it builds an audience among practitioners as well as readers.
Kate, you’re very prolific. What is your next project?
Susan (Paris) and I are well launched on the commissioning of Annual 2 – which is huge fun…We meet twice a week and spend hours talking and pitching ideas to each other, refining them and working out how best and who might turn them into gold.
Congratulations on the amazing success of the recent WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival. Putting together a literary festival seems a massive undertaking. How long did it take you to plan and execute?
Each festival takes a year to plan, although some foundation work is done in the preceding year as well. This year we had a fantastic and very hard working team led by Executive Director Marianne Hargreaves. My job is to plan what the festival will look like – everyone else makes it happen!
The festival featured 80 events and over 150 writers and speakers. How did you put the programme together? Or to reprise the title of one of the festival events: Where do you get your ideas from? (Did you brainstorm with a committee or were these ideas all your own?)
I do call for input of ideas from our board of trustees, who are all avid readers, and from my Twitter followers who are a clued-up bunch, but mostly the ideas come from reading books, reading coverage of books on the internet, checking upcoming publishing schedules (and publishers sometimes pitch their authors to me), and generally thinking about the issues and themes that the world is concerned with. What moves people? What troubles them? What do they want to know more about?
Outside of my work hours I am constantly thinking about the programme and can get lost for days down the rabbit hole of the internet following ideas. We also work closely with the Melbourne and Brisbane Writers’ Festivals as well as Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, so we send each other ideas.
How did you hear about these various authors/speakers, and how did you decide which ones to invite over?
All different ways, but here are some examples. The Canadian writers (Ivan Coyote, Elizabeth Hay and Sheila Watt-Cloutier) came to me through Hal Wake, the director of the Vancouver Writers Festival, which I attended in October last year. I saw that Tim Flannery had a book out on climate change, which was a topic I wanted to cover; his partner Kate Holden came highly recommended to me by another writer.
I found Caitlin Doughty via Twitter, where she was tweeting macabre things that appealed to me, which led me to her website where to my delight I discovered she had recently published a book. Then I saw her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year and that sealed the deal. Ali Cobby Eckermann and Elisa Washuta came through the Christchurch Sister Cities programme – both writers were recommended to me by literary people in Adelaide and Seattle respectively.
Alok Jha was recommended to me by someone who had seen him in person in the UK. John Freeman I met in Auckland last year, then again in Vancouver and New York. He was coming out for the Melbourne Writers Festival so I extended the invitation to Christchurch.
Did you start with a theme in mind or did the theme emerge later?
You send out hundreds of invitations and hope that some will stick. In this case, the ones that were sticking started revolving around two common themes – the planet and its people. Nearly all the writers who had accepted my invitation write about quite political things, whether it is the environment, gender, human rights, sexual politics, life and death. I decided to declare the Planet & its People as the official theme because I knew it would appeal to people who care about what is happening in the world right now.
The festival ranged over a myriad of topics like climate change, water, feminism, sex, positive death-acceptance, true crime, LGBT issues, poetry, migrants’ voices, war stories, inclusive cities, and political cartoons. How did you know what topics would appeal to a general audience? What combination and balance were you looking to achieve?
These are topics that engaged people care about. I was looking for a combination and balance of thought-provoking, challenging, enlightening, uplifting and entertaining.
Do your literary interests span all these different genres, topics, and cultural hot buttons? Did you read all the books featured?
I wish I could say I read books by all 150 speakers at the festival but alas no, I didn’t have the time! My personal tastes run to literary fiction and personal essays mostly, but I can still appreciate a topic and trust my sources, and I always make sure the speaker is engaging foremost.
You’ll notice I managed to smuggle my musical tastes in there as well, with the Flying Nun celebration night and Hollie Fullbrook from Tiny Ruins, and also included comics, performance poetry, live storytelling, journalism and TV writing, so WORD is no longer just about books.
Some authors were interviewed on stage; others took to the stage by themselves; and yet others were part of a panel. How did you decide which format would best showcase each author’s talents?
A lot of it was led by the writers themselves. It is a big ask to get someone to prepare an address, so many authors prefer the ‘in conversation’ format. It is good to have a mixture of both, so I always ask which format the writers prefer.
Panels are a good way to make sure an international author has more than one opportunity to be on stage; and with local writers, they are a good way to include as many writers as possible, and to cover some interesting topics beyond ‘tell us about your book’.
How did you decide who would chair each panel or interview each author?
I attend a lot of writers’ festivals and am always paying close attention to the chairs! In many cases a good chair person is as important as the speaker people have come to see. Chairing takes a certain set of skills – confidence to carry the responsibility, but also the confidence to take a back seat and not dominate.
Chairing a panel is a kind of mediation as well, where it’s essential that you allow everyone on the panel to get their word across, and be prepared for conflict. Managing audience questions is another skill! I also look for chairs who can go with the flow of conversation rather than rigidly over prepare and stick to their questions no matter what. As far as who to match with whom: instinct.
What guided your decision-making regarding workshop topics and the people who would run them?
I wanted a range of topics, and we certainly had that: fiction, song-writing, the business of publishing, memoir, indigenous storytelling. They arose from looking at who was coming and who had experience teaching. The workshops were all very popular, so we will definitely look at adding more next time – and as Tracy Farr’s fiction workshop and Scott Pack’s How to Perfect Your Submission workshop sold out so quickly, will look at more fiction workshops next time and another about getting published. The Taku Kupu Ki Te Ao workshop had three teachers in addition to the facilitator, and by all accounts they got as much out of it as the students!
What gave you the idea to launch the immensely successful new events like Oratory on the Ōtākaro, and the New Regent Pop-Up Festival?
The Ōtākaro walk was conceived in consultation with Ngāi Tahu who are a great supporter of the festival. We are keen to regularly feature Ngāi Tahu speakers and stories. Look out for more walks at future festivals!
The Pop-Up was inspired by a combination of things – wanting to expand the fringe programme which creates accessible events in interesting spaces; wanting to include as many Christchurch writers in the programme as we could; and my visit to the Lit Crawls in Seattle and San Francisco last year. The organisers are keen for us to become part of the Lit Crawl family but there is already a LitCrawl (note different spelling!) in Wellington and we don’t want to detract from that. But the New Regent Street space was an excellent way to test the waters for this kind of event, and I hope it will become a regular feature of future festivals. It added so much character to the festival.
Any kinks you want to iron out for next festival or any things you want to redress?
Yes, but I’m keeping those to myself as they kinks mostly happened behind the scenes and we need to maintain the image of a swan gliding across a still lake while its legs work furiously below the surface!
What were the personal highlights of this festival for you?
Oh, so many! I’m not supposed to have favourites, and as I was behind the scenes, I missed much of the festival. But I will say I was pretty proud to have Ivan Coyote and Caitlin Doughty, and the Hear My Voice event and Flying Nun event gave me goosebumps. I thought the Stars are on Fire showcase went perfectly (but I am biased), and hearing Tiny Ruins debut a beautiful new song just about had me in tears!
What are the perks of being the festival’s literary director?
Meeting interesting writers! Championing books, especially New Zealand books. Getting to travel to other festivals and to collaborate with them as well. I get a lot of free books, which is a big bonus of course.
What ideas have already sparked for the next festival?
As it’s two years away, I’ll be reissuing invitations to some people who couldn’t make it this time around. But look out! We have an amazing line-up in the planning for our Autumn Season in May, in partnership with Auckland Writers Festival, and will also have a programme of events within the Christchurch Arts Festival next year.
What do you do when you’re not planning literary festivals?
I should be writing books! But the festival takes up too much of my headspace at the moment, so I’ll say I like walking and reading, spending time with my kids. And I have recently taken up horse-riding after a 25 year gap, so that is my current obsession.
Thank you very much, Rachael, for your time, and congratulations once again on the success of the festival!
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