The Chameleon Reader

I become the books I read.

Chameleon like, I take on the speech patterns and idiosyncracies of the characters on the page. This is not too detrimental to everyday life and personal relationships when I am reading something sunny and upbeat, but when I am in the throes of a dark, dysfunctional read – woe betide.

David Vann is one of the authors at the . I took his book Caribou Island on a recent trip to Sydney. From the get go, the book and real life became intertwined. As the plane ascended, the passenger in front of me took ill and the fruits of her labour flowed back into my handbag narrowly missing Caribou Island. A clear case of real life mirroring the many physical discomforts of this book.

Fortunately there wasn’t much time for reading in Sydney or, given my chameleon tendencies, I’d have morphed into an unfulfilled wife sniping at her husband’s bumbling failures. Add in a whole bunch of “searching for self” young people in bitterly cold, isolated Alaska and the scene is set. Sounds bleak I know, but the message that comes across (live your  dream, not someone else’s) is so well wrought, I guarantee you will relish your reading of this book.

The sick passenger on the plane was tended to by a very young doctor, the apple of his mother’s eye to be sure, who had (after eight years of study and vast sums of money) chosen this day to wear his  “Musician Searching for Groupies” t-shirt!

So Vann-like.

And the chameleon in me does not believe it would have happened like this had I been reading a  Danielle Steel!

The past awaits: An hour with Vincent Ward

CoverThe Boston Globe describes Vincent Ward as one of the world’s great image-makers, and the session I attend today at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival would certainly back this up.

As Vincent talks with Charlotte Ryan from bFM (who has great hair, by the way), we are treated to a selection of photos, movie stills, paintings and film clips that have mostly been selected from his recently published book, The Past Awaits: People, Images, Film. Accompanying this visual feast are anecdotes, notes and asides from Vincent, not just about the book and the process of making it, but also some truly deliciously icky Hollywood gossip, some secret (he made us promise not to tell) details about what he’s working on at the moment (a movie, a book, an art exhibition), and some real insight into what motivates him. 

In the past, he says, there has always been a division between different media. Film, photography and painting were all kept quite separate. “What interests me,” he says, “is saying, What if you didn’t have any of that separation?  If you could use all these media in layers in a single work, to express something in whatever way you need to?”

There is a great deal of audience buy-in, and supportive nodding, and some great questions at the end.  The session finishes with a question about what his overall message or theme might be, and Vincent says it’s about “… trying not to drown, but to swim, and trying to fly and not to fall.” 

This, I think, is a fitting description, perhaps, for what all the writers (and us festival-goers too) are trying to do, and I think about this, and write it down, and leave the festival behind for another year.

Fantasy worlds: “A strange hooded figure came to my door … “

Cover… and offered me writing skills, in exchange for a piece of my soul “ and that, apparently, is how Garth Nix got started writing fantasy.  He says.  We are not sure we believe him, and the other authors on the panel at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival this afternoon also look a little startled by this – their answers to the question of how each of them began their writing careers were a little different from Garth’s. 

Elizabeth Knox grew up creating fantasy worlds with her sisters, Cassandra Clare simply wrote what she wanted to read, and Margo Lanagan’s was a pragmatic decision to move to fantasy because she wanted to sell more books than she had been. 

I was really looking forward to this session, and wasn’t disappointed.  Entitled Fantasy: Freedom all round, and chaired by Paula Morris, it was crammed full of discussion about everything from ‘adult’ book covers, to themes of social commentary, genre snobbery, escapism versus reality, plotters versus pantsers*, urban exploration and shadow cities, and how fantasy writing is simply a socially acceptable form of lying (Garth Nix again – this man is seriously funny.  Also, I think he might lie a lot). 

As always with sessions where there is a panel of people, it’s impossible to fully share what everyone said about everything.  And so I will say again what I have said a lot this weekend – find the books, search the web, read up on all these guys, and then come find me and we can talk glorious genre fiction like total fantasy nerds!

* as in flying by the seat of your …

Sunday @ the festival: Push your literary limits

Auckland viewHere’s our audio wrap-up from our final day at the festival – and as we bid farewell to Auckland, we thank the organisers, writers, poets, experts, volunteers and audiences for their energy, dedication and all-round pleasantness over the last few days.

We have tried to convey the breadth and depth of the festival, and hope you have enjoyed the coverage. Keep your eye on the blog for the final few posts over the coming days.

Festivals like this are, in the end, about people who love reading and writing. They’re also about trying the unknown, and pushing your literary limits. So, if you want to write, write. If you need to read, read. Your library is a permanent literary festival. Use it.

[12 min 54 sec, 12.1Mb .mp3]

If it looks like magic, we agree: 34 minutes with Rives

A present for TessaRives and I began our chat by sharing earthquake experiences. He’s had his fair share whilst living in Los Angeles.

If you haven’t heard of Rives, seek him out – he is a master-craftsman with a huge ability to deliver knock-out lines which “break your frickin’ heart”.

We went on to talk about paper engineering (he made a pop-up brochure for my daughter); life and love and libraries, and sometimes love in libraries; about poetry on stage and page; the importance of quietness; and his desire to respond to circumstances more than the demands of his diary.

He also likes to encourage others to have a go – last night he invited people to meet him outside if they had any questions or would like to talk – I began by asking him how it went:

[34 min, 31.9Mb .mp3]

Handsome agreeable people: a conversation with Sarah-Kate Lynch

Sarah-Kate Lynch and Bronwyn10am – it’s the first session for me today, and it almost feels more like I am just hanging out in a friend’s lounge.  Maggie and Sarah-Kate are old friends, and this is really clear from the way they are chatting and sharing memories together.  The atmosphere is warm, although the room apparently is not – Sarah-Kate feels the cold, and has packed pashminas ‘just in case’ – a red one for her and a lime green one for Maggie.

I need to point out at this stage that Sarah-Kate has hands-down won the award for best-dressed festival speaker: an impeccable LBD, perfectly accessorised bracelet, handbag, shoes and necklace, and yes, even the emergency pashmina matched.  “Colour-coordinating to a fault”, as Maggie points out.

In her introduction, Maggie comments that Sarah-Kate has ” … the knack of writing books that we wish we could be in …”, and the room thoroughly agrees.  Her latest book Dolci di love is about families and friendships, babies and biscotti. Set in Tuscany, it’s a warm read, with gorgeously drawn characters:  “All my books are full of handsome agreeable people”, she notes; and like all of her novels, it makes you laugh and cry and laugh again.  There are some tough issues to deal with in this book, but somehow, as always, hope wins out.  As Sarah-Kate herself points out, “I want to believe that there’s hope and that there’s a happy ending for everybody.”

As well as talk about Dolci di love, there’s also some discussion of her next novel – set in Manhattan and Charleston, South Carolina, it’s about bees, she says.  And a character called Honey, or Sugar, or something else sweet (I forget which!  I am a note-taking failure!). 

There’s talk about blogging – after years of disparaging blogs, Sarah-Kate has fallen under their spell, and now has her very own blog.  She recommends a book (Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton), recalls her earlier days in journalism, mentions her editor’s jobs, her new role at Next magazine and her columns in Women’s Day magazine, and generally makes me feel like I am the laziest, most unachieving-est person in the world.

At the end of the session I go and introduce myself – we did an email interview a month or so ago, and it’s great to be able to go and say hi face-to-face – and I skip off to my next session a very happy festival-girl indeed.

Saturday @ the festival: This one’s for Christchurch

This one's for ChristchurchAnother massively busy day at the festival for the team, capped off with a special event – This one’s for Christchurch. There was a large contingent of Canterbury people in this session, hosted by Morrin Rout and Ruth Todd. The Christchurch writers festival has been cancelled twice due to earthquakes, so it was teleported to Auckland for a mini-festival.

Special mention was made of The Press for its commitment to supporting the Christchurch festival, and its incredible determination to publish come hell or high water. In Bronwyn’s words, we felt “proud to be Christchurchians”.

We also talk about David Mitchell, Cassandra Clare, New Zealand poetry, Antarctica, and reveal some little known facts about Vincent O’Sullivan. [13 min 44 sec, 12.8Mb .mp3]

A Wreath of Laureates

Following on from my post last week about New Zealand’s Poets Laureate – Poetry Personified – I’ll Drink To That! – I went along to this session at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival expecting to be informed, entertained and transported to imaginary worlds via the spoken word. It was all that, and so much more.

Fiona Farrell, herself an internationally renowned poet, fiction writer and playwright, calmly chaired the event, introducing each P.L. in order.

First up was Bill Manhire (inaugural P.L. 1997-99), so well known he doesn’t need an introduction. Many New Zealand poets and authors have him to thank for launching their international careers. He read ‘Because Of The Lucky Lotto Shop’ a commissioned work that had the beautiful line ‘after a time of drought, the whole heart dances’. This was followed by ‘Hotel Emergencies’ a clever, repetitive poem, then finished with ‘Erebus Voices’ that was read out by Sir Edmund Hillary at the 25th anniversary of the Erebus disaster in Antarctica (apparently Sir Ed ‘quite liked it’).

Unfortunately one Poet Laureate (hereinafter known as P.L.) has already passed on to the great writing room in the sky (Hone Tuwhare – P.L. 1999-2001) and his memory was honoured with Auckland poet Robert Sullivan reading some of his works. These  included his most famous poem No Ordinary Sun (the poetry collection of the same name is the most widely read collection in New Zealand), and my personal favourite ‘Rain’.

Elizabeth Smither (P.L. 2001-03) treated us to poetry that was prose-like but mesmerising. These included ‘The Nurses Are Coming’, ‘The Birth Dressing Gown’, ‘Gargoyles’, and the tender ‘Fatherhood’. One line from a poem about Mozart stuck in my mind – ‘a complexity so alive it is still working itself out’.

Brian Turner is overseas at the moment (P.L. 2003-05) so Bill Manhire stepped in to read on his behalf. Apparently Brian didn’t mind what was to be read out and said “gidday” from London to everyone. Bill chose a classic selection of poems – ‘Chevvy’, ‘Semi Kiwi’, ‘Some reasons why I got this job – to be taken with a grain of salt’ (written with a hangover, the day before his inauguration as P.L. – it was impressive), and the shortest poem he’s written –

New Zealanders – A Definition/born here/buggered it up

Jenny Bornholdt (P.L. 2005-07) is quietly spoken, but her intense observations of daily life are still powerful. She read ‘Summer’ with the line ‘my husband glowing in the dark’ (sunburn), ‘Medical’ where she imagines that a doctor can hear the story of her life, by listening to her chest, ‘Inner Life’ (from new book ‘Hill Of Wool‘) and ‘Time’ – ‘we woke to Spring nuzzling at the window’.

Michele Leggott (P.L. 2008-09 and co-founder of the NZ electronic poetry) chose a different method of delivery, performing what she called ‘MP3 karaoke’. She is vision impaired and had her new guide dog Olive on stage with her. Her oration was outstanding, belting out her poetry as if they were songs to be heard at the back of a concert hall. She spoke ‘Dear Heart’, ‘Wonderful To Relate’ (a poignant piece about a ‘lost’ niece being welcomed into the family) and concluded with Olive – a piece that combined the Pike River disaster with the arrival of Olive into her life. As incongruous as this sounds, it worked well – ‘fear waits with its next fuse’.

Cilla McQueen is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate (2009-11) and read two pieces, both with long time friend Hone Tuwhare as part of the subject matter. The first ‘Letter To Hone’ imagined them sitting by the fire together and drinking whiskey, and ‘Ripples’ also mentioned the late Joanna Paul. A well-crafted line was ‘cabbage trees – green faced wild cats’ (wind blown).

All different, all very talented, and everyone in the audience entranced by this rare opportunity to see the stars of the New Zealand poetry scene performing together.

Rising star: Tina Makereti

LogoTina Makereti’s collection of short fiction, Once upon a time in Aotearoa, contains stories about the young, the old, the mythical, the alien and more. She gives old stories new treatments, has characters it feels like you have known forever, and a knack for dialogue and observation that is perceptive and dreamy, yet down-to-earth at the same time.

In this interview I talk to her about her new collection, her writing style and her first time on stage in Auckland [10 min, 10.4Mb .mp3]:

The novel is a portable Narnia wardobe …

David Mitchell“And then you are away …”

David Mitchell waved his arms and made a take-off noise as he said this to a large crowd on Saturday morning at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Away from the concerns off the world, and off on a journey, somewhere fantastic. It was in answer to a question about writers that consciously influenced him.

He added that he wanted to emulate writers – that rather than influence, it’s more aspiration that stuck with him. He “ached to do to other people what writers had done to me”.

The “imaginatively intelligent” writers he read when he was 11, 12 or 13 merged with the cellular structure of his brain, and spurred him on. Tolkein was the main writer he mentioned.

Emily Perkins reminded the audience of one of Mitchell’s great lines:

The world contains but one masterpiece – itself.

Mitchell said “I stole it from a Leonard Cohen song. The best line on the book, and it’s not even mine!”.

Asked about the film of his book Cloud Atlas, Mitchell quipped “they don’t call it Hollyweird for nothing”.

He said it had been languishing in the hell where optioned books go. There was a ladder leading out of the hole and poor, exhausted Cloud Atlas was a few rungs from the top. He was confident that the filmmakers would do a good job, optimistic that it would happen, but hoping the film wasn’t too like the book as so many adaptions fail on that score.

A large crowd queued for book signings, and despite a little jet-lag, Mitchell managed to give fans plenty to think about. He will certainly be on my reading list.