Pop! Bang! That’s what happened – literally – when a group of New Zealand children’s authors and illustrators presented inspiring talks to hundreds of Canterbury school children, just ahead of the announcement of the 2017 winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Several of the nominated authors and illustrators toured the country speaking to school children about their work and craft. Hosted in conjunction with WORD Christchurch, they addressed primary and intermediate students who came from across Canterbury to hear them speak at St. Margaret’s College. They talked about what it takes to be a writer and/or illustrator and what keeps them inspired and shared their working processes, all with the aim of sparking readers and the next generation of writers and illustrators. We share some of the highlights here.
Session One: Tania Roxborogh, Leonie Agnew and David Elliot
“Any change for good is powered by fury and passion to make the world a better place” says Tania Roxborogh, and this idea is a driving force behind the story in her book about the Bastion Point occupation for Scholastic’s My New Zealand Story series, told from a child’s point of view.
Through the process of researching and writing this book, Roxborogh was reminded that: “Retelling history is never straightforward” because “people lie, self-edit, and mis-remember” and that “people remember different things.” She added that there is also the problem of bias in New Zealand media – from the right wing as well as the left wing – which she had to take into consideration when researching for this book.
When Roxborogh visited Bastion Point to help her find her point of view for the story, she found herself humbled, prompting her to ask: “What right do I even have to tell this story?” She realised, however, that regardless of who she was, the story of the protesters was a story worth telling.
Roxborogh teaches English and Drama at a Canterbury high school and has written over 50 books.
Snark – Being a true history of the expedition that discovered the Snark and the Jabberwock … and its tragic aftermath.
Elliot’s illustrated book was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, and the Jabberwock and his presentation of museum-like artefacts and the stories he told about them would have had some in the audience wondering if his tale of the mission to discover the snark was true or not.
Elliot says he spent time living in a cottage inside Edinburgh Zoo and you have to wonder if this influenced his work illustrating weird and wonderous creatures.
For The Impossible Boy, Agnew asked: “What if a kid believes in something so much that his faith in it makes it real?” like Peter Pan’s belief in fairies, and on the flipside, “if you were an imaginary friend, what if you discovered you weren’t real?”
Agnew recommended using a little bit of non-fiction to make your fiction more real. In this case, she used the war-torn streets of Beirut in Lebanon as the inspiration for her setting of the story.
Various authors at the event talked about the hard parts of writing, when you feel like quitting or at least taking a break. Writing can take time! Agnew wrote 100 drafts of her book over 6 to 8 years. She says if you’re stuck, consider what Einstein said: You don’t solve a problem by looking at it in the same way, try looking at things from a new angle.
Agnew fits writing into her job as a primary school teacher by getting up at 5:30am to write before the school day starts. What inspired her to become a writer? Agnew “grew up in a house full of books” and her dad was a journalist who writes non-fiction, but really, she says, she “just wanted to do it.”
In the first session with Tania Roxborogh, Leonie Agnew and David Elliot I felt an overall theme of the elusive – of capturing the elusive writing spark, capturing the Snark, and elusive invisible friends. Another theme that came through for me was the theme of imagination: imagine if someone was trying to take your land, imagine wondrous creatures and lands, imagine how an imaginary friend would feel if they discovered they weren’t real. Imagine.
Session Two: Des Hunt, Jenny Cooper and Simon Pollard
Des Hunt has a love of adventure stories, science, New Zealand animals and he combines all of these into his stories. Sunken Forest was inspired by a real life summer camp he went on when he was 15 at Lake Waikaremoana, a trip that was memorable partly for sparking his interest in geology. The lake was formed during an earthquake landslide that drowned the forest. Standing tree trunks eerily remain there underwater today. Also trapped there are eels which can’t make their way back to sea to migrate to the Pacific islands to lay eggs. Unable to leave, they grow exponentially large.
In Sunken Forest, one such eel befriends Matt, who is sent to boot camp after his father, a boy racer, is sentenced to prison. At camp, Matt has to deal with bullies and getting the blame for things he didn’t do.
In his talk, Des Hunt totally engaged his audience from beginning to end, by which time he had them on the edge of their seats. He cleverly demonstrated the idea of building tension in a story by blowing up a balloon… about to burst at any moment. How do you really build tension in a story? He says: Add conflict and injustice, a disaster and… Pop!… an explosive climax.
While many of those who spoke at the event started writing or drawing as early as their primary school years, surprisingly Des only published his first fiction book when he was about 50 years old but has since written heaps of books. His passion for writing is now so strong that he can’t imagine doing anything else and he hopes to be an author until he dies. This is good news for my young son who was so inspired by Des Hunt’s presentation he immediately went and read Sunken Forest, despite never having independently read a chapter book without pictures in it before. Des certainly inspired him reader to take his reading engagement to a higher level.
It was fantastic to see instant booktalking success in action! Des tours schools doing writing workshops so see if your school can be added to his schedule.
She especially does a lot of research for illustrating the war stories, hiring models and WWI artefacts and taking hundreds of photos to draw from so she could get the details correct. The war stories she works on are “hard to illustrate because they are so sad” but equally she says, they are “really satisfying.” She added: “Sometimes the hardest and most challenging things you work on were the most rewarding.”
This was a sentiment shared by several of the speakers. Getting to a finished product takes times and many drafts! She tries 6 – 10 layouts before she has a rough drawing and after that, a finished painting may take up to 6 hours.
Pollard is a spider expert, lecturing as an adjunct professor at the University of Canterbury and he has been working with spiders for 30 to 40 years. He is interested in telling stories about what spiders get up to and recently worked with WETA Workshop on the impressive display of oversized bugs for the Bug Lab show at Te Papa Museum.
Pollard is an engaging speaker and really brings bugs to life. He told stories (complete with eek-inducing pictures) about the jewel wasp that immobilises and enslaves a cockroach so it can use it as a living nursery, laying its eggs in it to hatch. Ingenious, but gross. We also heard about the clever Japanese honey bees that kill their enemy, the Japanese hornet, by gathering together in a ball around one and quivering – the heat of their buzzing wings stops the wasp from secreting their signal for more wasps to attack them.
Then there’s the insect that looks like a spider, but isn’t, just to scare off predators. After learning all these fun facts, we were left marvelling at the magic of the natural world.
Primary and intermediate students from all over Christchurch lined up to ask lots of questions of the authors and illustrators after they spoke. Here are their inquisitive questions, and answers aimed at inspiring young readers, writers and artists.
What were some of your favourite books (growing up and now) and what writers would you recommend?
An integral part of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults is the HELL Reading Challenge, now in its fourth year. It has been hugely successful in getting kids reading and enjoying the pleasure of stories (and pizza). Kids can pick up their reading challenge cards at Christchurch City Libraries (until December 2017).
Christchurch City Libraries is running two events:
Performance Poetry with Greg O’Connell Friday 25 August 10am to 10.30am, Shirley Library, 36 Marshland Road
Come along, be part of the fun…and experience poetry like never before!
Shirley Library is hosting a special poetry performance by children’s poet Greg O’Connell in celebration of Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day Perfect for kids aged 3 to 6 years. Find out more.
Poetry Workshop with Greg O’Connell Friday 25 August 4pm to 5pm, New Brighton Library, 213 Marine Parade
Are you a young person who loves to write poetry? If you answered yes! enrol in our free poetry writing workshop today! Ages: 6 – 9 and 10 – 13 years. Greg O’Connell is a poet, performer and literacy educator.
Limited spaces, bookings essential. To book phone 941-7923. Find out more.
More events and competitions
The Great Wall of Poetry UBS Canterbury is celebrating the readers and writers of poetry by building a Great Wall of Poetry. You’ve got until 20 August to enter.
Find out more on the Facebook event.
Take Two: Poetica: The Christchurch Urban Poetry Project
Young Poets Open Mic – ages 6 to 12 Young Poets Open Mic – ages 13 to 25 Thursday 24 August 4.3o to 7.30pm
XCHC Café and Exhibition Space, 376 Wilsons Road. Find out more on the Facebook event.
Sight and Sound at UBS Friday 25 August, 12:00-1:00pm
University Bookshop, University Drive, Ilam Come and see the University Bookshop’s poetry wall and hear James Norcliffe and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman. The winner of The Great Wall of Poetry competition will be announced and guests will be invited to read the work submitted by the members of the public. Find out more on the Facebook event.
Poetry Live, Christchurch! Friday 25 August, 5.30pm-7.30pm
Exchange Café (XCHC), 376 Wilsons Road, Waltham Be part of Poetry Live, Christchurch! at XCHC on Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day. Covert poets, come out of the closet in a friendly place. Join established poets, reading at the Open Mic. Free; koha appreciated. All ages welcome. Find out more on the Facebook event.
Politics and Poetry: Sailing in a New Direction (Title from the opening of Curnow’s ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’) Friday 25 August, 7:30 to 10 p.m.
Space Academy, 371 St Asaph Street Join us in this exploration of politics within poetry – and the poetry within the politics? Ben Brown, Danielle O’Halloran, Ray Shipley, Doc Drumheller, Andy Coyle and 20/20 Collection poet James Norcliffe will be reading work that engages with the big issues. Free entry, all welcome. Find out more on the Facebook event.
Free Public Workshop – Warm-down event 10.30-12.30, Saturday, 26 August 2017
The Writers’ Block, Hagley College, Hagley Avenue Free public Saturday workshop with renowned Lyttelton poet, Ben Brown. All welcome. Please register by Monday 21 August.
For further information and to register please contact Director, Morrin Rout, Hagley Writers’ Institute |Phone: 03 3299789 |Mob: 0210464189 |Email: email@example.com
Poetry Phone – Warm-up/NPD
In this great warm up for National Poetry Day you can txt or call Poetry Phone live poetry readings 022 300 8164 or 021 474 555. Poetry lines are open from Wednesday 23rd to Friday 25th August, round the clock. You can also make poetry requests for friends & lovers, and we will give them a call. Send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org or 022 300 8164, be sure to include a bit of info about the recipient so we get the right poem for them. Entry Details: R18, usual txt and call charges apply. Date/Times: 23-25 August, phones open round the clock.
Poetry in a Box – Many Places at Once Christchurch – Lyttelton Coffee Co/ Henry Traders / Lyttelton Market. Poet David Merritt will be touring 25-30 poems in a box around a cafe, library or market or seat bench and invite members of the public to read them. Free and open to all ages. Date/Time: Varies slightly from one venue to another but mostly 8am – 3pm, Friday 25th, Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th August
Find out more in the Facebook event.
National Online Poetry Competition Tararua District Library is celebrating Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day with our Online Poetry Competition for the whole country. Have your poem published online and be in to win a prize and the glory. Competition open 10th July to 20th August 2017. Winner announced 25 August. Up to 2 poems per entrant will be published on the Tararua District Library Blog. Find out more.
Feel A Little Poetic? Join poet Jenny Palmer and illustrator Evie Kemp, creators of the bestselling Feel A Little book, to make your very own blackout poem! Children of any age can print, create and share a Shy or Happy feelings poem at www.feelalittle.com. Free event open to children of all ages. To enter, find printable forms at www.feelalittle.com and submit completed with contact details via email email@example.com or social media www.facebook.com/feelalittle and @feelalittlenz by Poetry Day Eve 24 August 5pm
VOLUME Poetry Spam (Junk Poetry Competition) Choose a piece of spam or junk mail, an advertisement or other unsolicited words (either printed or received by e-mail). Write a poem using only the vocabulary of the piece of junk you have chosen. Entry details: Free to enter. Open now to all New Zealand residents. Submission Dates: Entries must be received by 18 August. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org or to VOLUME, PO Box 364, Nelson 7040. The winner will be announced on National Poetry Day (25 August) and in our newsletter
Download instructions at http://tinyurl.com/poetryspam
I am standing next to the old Government Building in Christchurch. It’s early morning and the air is crisp and smells of expectations. In front of me is the cathedral in ruins. But from where I stand, I can also see a new building coming up. The new central library, with its promise of healing …
I am waiting here to meet Fiona Farrell to talk about her new book, which has been launched last week. Decline and fall on Savage Street, a fiction sister to non-fiction The villa at the edge of the empire, is yet another joyful gift with sophisticated form, lovable characters, relevant issues and healing properties that should not be underestimated.
Congratulations Fiona, for another beautiful gift that you have given to the city of Christchurch and also to the wider community.
I was really impressed by the form of this book. It’s a novel but at the same time, each chapter works on its own like a short story and it stands on its own like a delicately crafted jewel. I was wondering where did the idea for the form come from?
From the city itself, from the fact that everything seemed to be falling into little bits. When I started writing The Villa at the edge of the empire, the fact one, that’s a twin to this one, I wrote that in small chunks. I thought of them as bricks or little pieces of timber, salvageable, and then you put them all together to make a shape, so it was like a salvage operation.
I also felt that it’s wasn’t just the physical destruction of the city, but what I was feeling as an older woman who has lived here for nearly 70 years, was the demolition of a social structure that sustained people, and its replacement with lots of individualist policies and theories that are affecting the way people live in this country. It felt like it wasn’t just a physical demolition, but a social and political one. So I wanted to put all these little bits together and try and reconstruct a sort of history out of all these bits and pieces. A bit like a Kiwi crib, when you knock all your bits together, I think that’s very New Zealand style.
The whole story is a great portrait of the 20th century. The history is often happening in the background, but the reader is constantly aware of it. I had a feeling that all the way through the story, the terrifying events in history were somehow distant, they were happening far away and to others. Only with the earthquake it becomes real and is happening to characters of the story. People are suddenly part of this terrible history.
Yes, it becomes very intimate and personal with the quake. One of the challenges in writing the book was to find a little link between an event (like World War Two), a personal intimate link with here and something that would leave its mark on a house, particularly this individual house in this imagined street.
Sometimes it would be because someone remembered the house. The man in World War Two, who is wounded, has a photograph of the corner of the house. Later on in the story, there’s a painting of him by a woman that he wanted to marry, who lives in a house. This painting has a shadow under a tree, which is a reference to him. So it would be a link like that, or someone might be directly involved in a major event, like WWII, or there might be a kind of echo of it. Like with Eric, the agent, who behaves like the McCarthy-ist spies in America, but does it in this little house.
Sometimes it’s a sort of an echo, and sometimes it’s a metaphor. So when the Berlin Wall falls down and all the barriers collapse in other parts of the world, it’s the kitchen wall that’s been taken down in the house, and two families are blended together. So sometimes it’s a metaphor, sometimes it’s an actual link.
Eric is one of the characters that I really didn’t grasp. He was the most mysterious figure in the whole story for me, but I did get a feeling that he might be a spy.
Yes, well, he’s an agent. He’s an agent of the government survey of the people who were suspected to be communists in the late 40s and 50s. There was this kind of anti-communist agitation here, as it was all over the world, in places like America and Britain. People were singled out if they were suspected of having communist sympathies. So he’s just an echo of that over here in Christchurch.
The other thing I was very impressed by was the form of each chapter, the way you form the beginning and the end. It seems very simple, but it’s extremely powerful because it gives you a feeling of a flow that’s beyond human control, that life is so much bigger and complex and stretches beyond the single events that are portrayed in the book.
I like leaving the beginning and the end of the chapter ragged, so you come in with a few dots in the middle of the sentence. Again it’s a part of that salvaging, it’s that the story is just a little piece that’s been salvaged and there’s a whole lot of other stories. So I’ve just got this one which has got torn edges and it doesn’t properly end either, it’s got a torn ending. So that story can continue out of sight.
I always think fiction is what you read, the story on the page, but then there are all the other stories that are implied within that book. That’s a sort of thing that’s been rather fashionable I suppose in the last 20 years or so, to make books out of minor characters for example or to say what would happen if something else had eventuated, to reframe the known story. That’s a sort of thing I’m working on as well, that idea that there’s a whole other narrative, a great big narrative, and you just choose this little bit. That’s the bit that you pick up from a ground, it’s just that little brick and you pick it up and you hold that one up. It’s kind of salvaging operation.
At the same time, that little brick tells the wider story as well, it’s so entwined in its context, which can have social, political, economic, environmental weight … so you can actually see a whole house in that little brick. I think that’s very hard to achieve and is at the same time the beauty of fiction.
Yes, that’s exactly right. In this particular fiction, it’s always a problem how you’re going to shape the material and tell a story. For me, it always has to start with structure. I always have to have a shape in my head. Other people might start with a character, or an event, or something like that, but for me, it’s a shape
I often find, when I’m talking about my books, I do this – an arch (Fiona draws an arch with her hand in the mid air) or a span. In this one, the shape is one hundred little pieces and once I have that in my head, once I have a shape clear, and the way I’m going to present it, everything falls into place. That dictates what I can tell, how long the book can be. It dictates how much you can actually pack into a short chapter, it gives you a very precise formula in which you can work.
It sounds a bit dry, but for me, it’s very reassuring, because it’s such a massive material and you could just tell a great sweeping saga that went straight through from A to B, but for me, it feels more comfortable. I feel at ease, writing this small precise pieces and it makes me very, very particular and very concentrated. It’s like writing a poem or a short piece of fiction. So I have to be economical, but I have to pack into that something about the character, I have to move the narrative forward, I have to put the reference to the house, there are particular things that I have to do within that tiny shape and it disciplines me.
I have noticed the voices of characters came through very well in each chapter. You can tell straight away which character is telling the story. I think you captured those voices really well.
I really enjoyed writing them all, I loved writing Poppy, she was my favourite. I liked all of them, even Eric in his funny, disturbing way.
I was really fascinated by the power of your imagination, I think it shines in the scope of various people who lived in the house and their stories. Where do you get the ideas from? There is such an abundance of them in this book.
The problem I have is too many ideas. The problem is limiting them. That’s really the problem I have, it’s the selecting.
Wow. It must be nice to have that problem, as a writer, I guess?
I don’t think it’s necessarily an advantage. It’s not an advantage to have loads of ideas because you still have to select and still have to discipline yourself, you have to restrain, what can happen, and make choices. It doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
I guess that’s when your form helps.
It does, because it let me write lots of different little stories, which I enjoyed. And I also liked discovering history, things that I found by coming to the library and looking through the microfilm. I still like sitting in the library and finding all material that’s there.
If we return back to the characters, and I might be a bit biased here, but I got a feeling that women characters are really holding up the households in the house all the way through the book until the earthquake hits. That’s when female character Janey intuitively gives up and her husband Rob is trying to save the situation and is trying to hold it all together.
Yes, that’s true particularly for the first part, when Violet is there for a long long time. And I suppose Min and the hippy commune as well. I wanted to try to keep the balance, because history is often told from a male point of view and particularly in this country, or anywhere really. It can very often be a history of great male figures. I’m an old 70s feminist and we’ve been fighting that one for a very very long time. All my life really. It’s also that I do know how female characters work. I’m less secure when I’m writing male characters. I can understand the complexities of a female thinking. I wanted to try to keep the balance.
I think it is a good balance, especially with Rob, he balances it out. And Paul as well.
I loved Rob. He keeps on trying to make his pizza oven, I thought he was gorgeous.
It was very interesting to observe different timelines, which exist in the novel. One is the human-scale time. The other two are much slower and they belong to the natural world, have their own rhythm. Again, these two timelines, one of the river and the other of the earth, they create a different perspective of events. They give the perspective of human insignificance compared to the natural world, a reality that just passes by in its own slow rhythm.
Yes, and very magical and wonderful one. I find eels, the journey of those big female eels when they’re eighty, ninety, hundred years old, back up to spawn, amazing. How that’s imprinted in a thing that’s a size of a whitebait on arrival! I’m just in awe of the natural world, and I’ve become more so as I get older. It just seems more and more extraordinary. And valuable and a real corrective to human self-importance. We just have to do the best we can here, and live as well as we can, but make it possible for everything else to live as well. We really have been on a crazy path.
I think out of your characters Sybil is the one most connected to the natural world.
She is, though she never moves outside of the house and garden, she stays there all her life, so she’s the one who lives the most restricted life in some ways. I wanted to show that idea that you can have this tiny, little, precise, fixed environment, but it’s got everything in it. If you just want to look at it. She looks, she’s the one who sees things. Partly because she’s been damaged slightly by almost drowning, after falling off the raft. But she sees the world very clearly and understands the beauty of animals and plants. She never moves much beyond the gate, very rarely.
Though she lives very rich life, she’s mostly turned inwards. And outwards to the beauty around her. I really liked her.
I did too. Solid little lady in her little grubby old dungarees. She’s great, little witch lady.
But also very strong at the same time.
Yes, she’s very determined, very strong, sure about who she is and what she’s doing. Yes, I liked her.
There are also many metaphorical layers in your novel. A lot of metaphors are kept in the frame of each chapter, but many flow all the way through the book. The most compelling one for me was the image of the architect at the beginning of the narrative. I saw it as a metaphor for a writer, who’s crafting lives of characters. Throughout the book it gains even greater importance, it’s almost a god-like figure. I imagined you in this figure of an architect.
It’s the story of creation. The Biblical story is the creation of the chaos and there’s the world, the natural world, and the God creating everything. But that’s the story of creation as an over-reaching western myth, or for some people it’s belief. But it’s also what actually happens, this idea of random existence and the way we create structures out of random events, whether they’re the way we interpret something that’s happened and make narratives out of it, or, whether we decide we need a shelter and we assemble lots of random pieces together from all over the place and we make a shelter for ourselves.
Because we need shelter, we’re a naked little animal without a shelter. It’s a necessity for us as a creature. What I liked about the architect is partly that he adds a little tower. He’s doing something very practical and right at the end, just before he goes off for his lunch, he adds a little detail, which is just a silly little tower, little turret with a room in it. And because of that tower, because he added that to the house, certain kinds of people keep getting attracted to the building, because it’s got a kind of romantic playfulness. There’s sort of joy in it. And each of them brings their own imagery to the idea of the tower or the turret.
What interests me is that the house never really grows into a character. It stays in the centre of the novel, it works as a setting, becomes a home and a sanctuary for so many generations, until the end, when it gets demolished and I think that’s when it becomes the most alive. It explodes into life.
Yes, just like the eel, living its 100 years and then it explodes. I love that. It wasn’t something I planned, but I love it. Thank you. I’m glad that’s how it seems.
This book is a perfect read for someone who hasn’t experienced the Christchurch earthquake and post-earthquake situation but is intrigued in how it must have felt, how it must have been on a personal level. I think you captured the aftermath, all the emotions, frustrations and everyday struggle extremely well. Only art allows us to capture life in such ways.
Yes, exactly, I think so too. I think there’s a certain amount you gain from reading facts, of course there is. You can read books about places or events, which are factual and have enormous power. But to really find out, to get in the intimate part of it, how it affects things like, how you are in bed with someone, or how a child feels, you do it through fiction. Often children’s feelings about war or big national or international events are at a distance or very limited. That’s what fiction can do, it’s investigative and curious.
According to Dale Spender and his work The mothers of the novel, the novel developed as a female form.It developed at the same time as men were going off on voyages of exploration and scientific enquiry, coming to New Zealand, apart from anywhere else. But women were not able to do that, and so stuck at home, within those four walls, they started speculating and investigating through fiction. And that’s how the novel started, at least in the English language, I don’t know if it’s the same across Europe. It was disregarded as something trivial, frivolous, something that was not important. That’s a sort of thing that you have all the time in Jane Austen: reading novels is a waste of time, it’s not important. She’s writing out of that kind of environment, but there were hundreds and hundreds of novels being written.
It’s always been investigative, a kind of scientific experiment. You are working on an experimental level, you’re saying, if I put these things together, what might happen. It’s a really profound art form. I really love fiction. That’s why I wanted to try to write about this. It was difficult, but I did want to try to write about this big event.
It’s interesting what you refer to in your note at the end of the book – that the first novel about WWII, Elizabeth Bowen’s The heat of the day, was written three years after the war finished.
Yes, the first that I could find anyway, yes. I think the difficulty is to get the mind calm enough to be able to write about such big events. And it is a kind of individualist expression and you do need a degree of calm to be able to do it. Just to be able to put the words on the page really.
You also need enough distance, a perspective, which takes time, I guess.
Yes, and the Heat of the day is a very peculiar book. It’s very sexual, that’s the thing that’s the most dominant about it. It’s about these fleeting sexual encounters in London after the Blitz. That’s possibly the expression of her personality, but also part of that confusion. It’s very primal. I think it does require distance, it’s quite confused book. I was trying to avoid that, keeping it very precise and very clear.
If we touch on political issues in the book, first of all, I really like the nickname – Big Buffoon. It’s very clear who that refers to.
Well, Rob can’t stand him. It’s a character, it’s not me.
Rob is very very angry and frustrated. I think a lot of people will easily relate to him.
That’s the other thing you can do in fiction, you can express multiple points of view of any given event. It’s not just one monolithic variation of how things are.
I think a lot of political issues that are expressed through characters in this book are done so in a very powerful way. When I was reading Liz’s story, I got so angry.
Yes, about women, not being able to access abortion. Absolutely. That’s based to some extent on a book by Margaret Sparrow, who was a doctor in Wellington, who fought to have abortion made legal. She, like a lot of people, who fought that particular battle, assembled a book of oral histories called Abortion then and now, which includes first person accounts of what it was like to get an abortion in an illegal way, in someone’s front room or back room. And the fear of it and sordid things that happened as a result of that. These women were often very young, very vulnerable and desperate, so people were able to exploit that. Not just financially, but also in other ways.
What happens in the novel is actually what people have reported. Not just once, that’s been the experience of loads of women. This issues had been raised again in this election. The prime minister has already flagged that he’s opposed to abortion. It may be something that comes up in the next term, who knows.
I think a lot of issues that are present throughout the story are extremely relevant to what’s happening today: war, conscientious objection, immigration issues, gender inequality, environmental problems …
Possibly that’s because whenever you write a historical novel, you’re actually writing about now. You’re writing about the past, but you’re really writing about now. It doesn’t matter what it is. The novels about Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I, they are to some extent reflections of our curiosity about celebrity. We are interested in clothes, in the machinations, just as we are in people like Trump.
The 20th century is a long period, but on some level, it’s also very short period and we are still engaged in it. We are still dealing with political things that were founded at the beginning of the 20th century, we’re still in those political parties, we’re still dealing with the same sorts of issues and they are not going to go away. It’s an ongoing flood. Like the river. And we are caught in it.
Thank you very much, Fiona. Would you like to share anything else about the book?
I hope that people find it a rich book. That’s what I really hope. That they’ll find things they’re interested in, or they share some of the feelings of the characters, that they can see them and that it’s vivid enough. I just hope it’s a rich book, with lots of pleasures for a reader. That’s what I’m hoping.
When Haruki Murakami came out of his study earlier this year and said to his wife: “I’m going to call my latest collection of short stories ‘Men Without Women’“, I wonder if she thought to say to him: “Hasn’t that title already been used darling?”
Because it has. Ninety years ago in fact, when none other than Ernest Hemingway named his latest offering of short stories Men Without Women. I’m sitting looking at both these books right now as I write this blog. Hemingway’s with its pugilistic cover and tribute by Joseph Wood Krutch (The Nation) – “painfully good”. And Murakami’s book, beautiful to behold, the hard cover version that I have bought (yes, I know!) strokable and with a satisfying heft.
I love Murakami’s writing, that deft thing he does where you are simultaneously drawn in and kept at arms length. And this book of seven stories about men and their complex relations with women is no exception. It is a long time since I have read Hemingway, but it is resolutely muscular writing. In his fourteen stories you are pulled right into the fray, be it in the boxing ring or in a touching dialogue on a railway siding.
There are no books in Christchurch City Libraries with the title Women Without Men. To be frank I was so taken aback that I checked several times. The nearest I got to it is a book by Virginia Nicholson Singled Out(How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War).
Something about all of this is niggling me. Why did Murakami give his book this name?
Two such brilliant writers. Two great works – 90 years apart. Both made up of short stories. One title. I fear that Murakami, in this one act, has doomed himself forever-more to endless queries about his choice of title at writers’ festival after writers’ festival in the up-and-coming year.
These were the words Fiona Farrell used on Tuesday night at the launch of her new book Decline and fall on Savage Street in order to describe her challenge of writing something big. This “big” is here now. It is complete. And it is a rich and endlessly rewarding read.
It consists of two parts: the nonfiction masterpiece, Villa at the edge of the empire, which explores Christchurch’s initial build and after earthquake rebuild in a factual way and its twin fiction sister Decline and fall on Savage Street – the latter one just freshly released, still hot from the press, its cover beautifully alluring.
Even more alluring that evening were words: Fiona in an electrifying conversation with Liz Grant, reading abstracts from both books, convincing, charged, punchy slices of masterly crafted writing, seasoned with a refined sprinkle of wit. Organised by Word Christchurch, the launch of the book was hosted in Christchurch Art Gallery and offered first glimpses in the imagined yet the entirely credible world, characters and events of a house on Savage Street.
But the house is more than just a setting, it grows into a structural device, it becomes the anchor of the novel – on narrative and formal level. It is the connecting point, a node, where stories of characters, who lived in the house, intersect. The idea for the form stems from the city and its shattering. The chapters work as separate stories and are like “little pieces of timber”, shattered disconnected pieces, “100 fragments of human condition”, as Liz described it. It is a salvage book.
It’s not the house alone which connects and binds all these pieces, all these different voices. It is the river, with its own time, rhythm and a creature, that runs through the novel and weaves in more balanced and assuring antipode, which belongs to the natural realm.
It takes a lot of discipline and masterful, intelligent mind to shape each single piece in such a concentrated and sublime way Fiona did – every single word has its own place and the magnificent is revealed in delicate nuances. Material for rich and powerful stories was sourced from real life stories, talks with friends and random strangers at the petrol stations, newspapers, books. “There was an amazing openness, everyone was ready to talk,” Fiona describes the post earthquake era, filled with stories.
Most often, the challenge of research and writing is rewarded with surprises: “Writing is constant discovery, it’s a constancy of surprises. One of the pleasures of writing is finding connections, where you don’t expect them.”
And such is the reading of this book as well – full of surprises and pleasure.
“I wanted to write something big. I wanted to make it the best I could,” concluded Fiona on Tuesday night. This book certainly is BIG and its greatness will grow with each single reading. Its sharp structure, complex characters, refined language and relevant political, social and environmental themes guarantee this work is destined to be a prize winner, but most of all, it deserves to be read over and over again by its readers.
What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?
I think just walking around the city again, taking it in. I haven’t been there for 3 years or so so it will be nice to scratch its back again.
What do you think about libraries?
I love them. I feel connected to the world when I’m in a library. And to a specific locality at the same time. And I feel like I’m around people who love stories and books. Libraries are full of kindred spirits.
What would be your “desert island book”?
I’ve just bought Les Murray’s ‘Bunyah.’ So it would be a perfect chance to glory in it.
Share a surprising fact about yourself.
I am made of 37 trillion cells that have no idea who I am.
Right at the end of the School Holidays I succumbed to ‘The bug’.
Temperature, shivers, face-ache, sneezing, splutterings, sore throat, several hot-water bottles, over the counter meds and copious amounts of tea/coffee/honey, lemon and ginger combos later, I am now dealing with a more head cold-like scenario. What really upset me is my diligence in having the Flu Jab appears to have been for nowt!! Swiftly moving on …
Streaming eyes and almost constant nose-blowing meant that the only source of entertainment I could tolerate was talking-books … Plug in and LISTEN. So I did.
First offering from OverDrive audiobooks was Round the Horne Movie Spoofs. In my weakened state I managed several wry smiles – OK 1960s British ‘camp’ humour admittedly, but quite clever for all that although one offering was sufficient as smiling wasn’t helping the face & teeth-ache symptoms!
Second offering was The Captive Queen the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine – wife of two kings – King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England, and mother of such notables as Richard the Lionheart and King John (of ‘Magna Carta’ fame). I just thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t live in huge, draughty castles and gratefully placed my hot water bottles in my ‘nest of rest’ set-up for the requisite warmth and comfort.
Third offering I had picked up from the library prior to being ‘felled’ – I persevered, but really CDs don’t work in a sick-room environment. The constant getting up to change the discs is tiring. It takes forever to rearrange yourself back to that exact comfortable position you had previously discovered. But then, adding insult to injury, just as you start to feel relaxed and drowsy, the sonorous tones of the narrator announce that ‘this ends Disc xx’. Do this manoeuvre fifteen times and you are ready to hurl said CD Player through the bedroom window. Common sense prevailed as this would have left me both freezing cold and wet as rain lashed down the east coast of the South Island. Sufficed to say I can remember little of the plot or characters.
Final offering is a BBC Radio dramatization of an Ellis Peters ‘Cadfael’ mystery and will keep me going until I feel ready to open the physical pages of a book.
My listening choices will, in all probability, not be yours, BUT the variety that is available is a fantastic resource to have with just a library card and a Pin/Password.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that most articles celebrating the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen this year will begin their tribute by incorporating this celebrated opening sentence from ‘Pride and Prejudice’.
And, what better way to start a conversation about Jane Austen? These are the words which introduced many readers to her world – an ideal world where the terrible Mr Wickhams and Mrs Eltons of life get the endings they fully deserve, and the worthy Elizabeth Bennets’, and Anne Elliotts are awarded the endings that invariably cause readers to whoop and swing from the chandeliers in undignified and un-Jane Austen-like fashions for hours on end.
This year, the world of Austen is being celebrated with many events and exhibitions such as a trail of Jane Austen book-benches, a nine day regency festival in East Hampshire, and even Jane Austen banknotes.Hampshire have promised to celebrate her bicentenary with a yearlong commemoration of walks, performances, competitions and much more. The tourism these events will attract is predicted to run into tens of thousands, bearing in mind that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ on its own has sold over twenty million copies over the past two hundred years and has never been out of print.
So why, you may ask, the continuing devotion to Jane Austen?
It’s as if each generation are reinventing Austen and making her into want they want (and, in some cases,) believe her to be. While this may sadden some devotees, it is a wonderful tribute to Jane herself. Like all enduring authors, we are comfortable with making her books very much our own. She has created a timeless world, and two hundred years on, the voice in her novels remains approachable, like a fun and faithful friend.
And contrary to popular opinion, Austen is so much more than regency Mills and Boon. Yes, men, I am looking at you – whether you are a closet Janeite or just too embarrassed to pick up one of her books, I am here to say rest assured, pick one up, you will be in good company. As I have painstakingly told many men who argue that there are no scenes of hand to hand combat in Jane Austen and all the men do is dance for crying out loud, there are actually many things about Austen which have historically appealed to men.
CS Lewis and Rudyard Kipling were proud fans, and wordy historian Paul Johnson has unabashedly admitted that he prays to Jane Austen each night. There are more reasons for this devotion than you may suspect. For a start, there are few authors more insightful when it comes to studying human nature. One only has to look at Lizzy Bennett’s journey to self-discovery, and her recognition of human frailties and deceptiveness – or to the sharply drawn, all too vivid characters like the dreaded Mr Collins and the awful Caroline Bingley. Somewhere along the way, we have all known people like this.
There is also timeless humour in Austen’s novels that any reader can appreciate. Take the classic Mr Bennett line –
“That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough”;
or Fanny Dashwood’s sharp observation that,
“People always live forever if there is an annuity to be paid to them”.
And of course, Jane Austen is a fine writer (this isn’t a news flash). Concise, witty, and sharp, her novels just couldn’t be bettered. Take the scene in Emma just after Knightley gallantly rescues Emma’s socially inferior friend by asking her to dance. Austen captures Emma’s growing appreciation of Knightley in just one concise conversation:
“Whom are you going to dance with?” asked Mr Knightley.
She hesitated a moment, and then replied, “With you, if you will ask me”
In just a few words, Austen has said everything.
Admittedly, she doesn’t tell epic stories on the scale of some of her peers (e.g. Walter Scott) but then, would we still be reading her so voraciously two hundred years on if she had? Readers will always be able to relate to the themes of love and friendship and part of Austen’s timelessness lies in this. Austen’s novels are the ultimate comfort read- we know that things will end happily and our favourite characters will marry the right man but we can also feel good, intellectually, about reading her novels. There is wisdom and perceptiveness in her work and unlike many novelists of her time, it is not injected preachily but with a sharpness and humour that make her a sheer delight to read.
So how to commemorate Jane Austen’s 200th death anniversary on July the 18th? I personally plan to get out my ‘Marrying Mr Darcy’ board game, drink from my favourite ‘searching for Mr Darcy’ mug and watch back to back adaptations of her novels clad in my prettiest gown and bonnet. My sister, currently studying in the states, is attending a Jane Austen ball on campus this year so maybe I can even borrow her beautiful regency dress and do my grocery shopping in style. If you are favouring a slightly more conservative approach, (understandable, I concede) then why not commemorate the day by sitting down with one of her books or television/movie adaptations and discover her for yourself. In her own words
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Hokitika Bill, Hokitika Bill. I remember chanting this poem aloud at Primary School.
Poet James K. Baxter was born in Dunedin on 29 June 1926. His parents were thinkers – his father Archibald was a conscientious objector and Millicent, his mother had been to College in Sydney.
The dichotomy of social order was represented by his family – his maternal grandfather was Māori, his paternal grandfather was Scots. This fed his mind with the differences and similarities between Clans and Tribes.
Baxter began writing poetry from age seven. His work is said to have become technically accomplished by the time he was a teenager.