Six of the best – Ian Rankin, Anne Enright, and more top writers coming to Christchurch!

WORD Christchurch has joined forces with the Auckland Writers Festival to bring amazing authors to Christchurch in May.

The WORD Autumn Season, which runs from 14 to 17 May, features:

  • Bestselling Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin;
  • Man Booker Prize-winning Irish novelist Anne Enright;
  • Highly-respected British historian and biographer A. N. Wilson, author of The Victorians;
  • Science writer James Gleick exploring the mysteries of time travel;
  • Novelist and Kiwi expat Stella Duffy, who is currently completing Ngaio Marsh’s unfinished novel Money in the Morgue;
  • Canadian storyteller Ivan Coyote, who was the breakout star of last year’s popular WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival.

WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

WORD Christchurch’s programme director Rachael King says:

The audience for our last festival increased by 50% on the previous festival, showing there is a real appetite for these thought-provoking events in Christchurch. We are thrilled to collaborate with the Auckland Writers Festival to be able to bring such high-calibre speakers to the city.

What should you do now?

  1. Have a good look at the programme of events on the WORD Christchurch website.
  2. Get your tickets now. If you buy tickets by 21 April, you do in the draw to win a 10-session pass to the Auckland Writers Festival, which runs 16 to 21 May.
    Another great option is the Autumn Season Pass – it costs $90 plus $3 booking fee and gets you into all six events. All season pass holders automatically also go in the draw to win books from all six writers, courtesy of UBS.
  3. Get reading these six writers – visit our page WORD Autumn Season and find their books in our collection. Or go to your local bookshop.

See you at the WORD Autumn season!

Petina Gappah on the elusive nature of writers’ satisfaction – at Auckland Writers Festival

“Thank you for coming today, when you should all be in church. You will all go to hell.”

This is how Petina Gappah charms the audience at Auckland Writers Festival right at the start of her Sunday session. And than she just keeps the jokes coming.

This Zimbabwean born author has, until recently, had an impressive career in international law in Geneva, while being an award winning writer and a single mother at the same time. She says she hasn’t slept since she had her son, which was 12 years ago. “But I am not as efficient as Margaret Thatcher,” she adds.

Petina Gappah
Petina Gappah – writer, translator, single mother and lawyer. (Image supplied)

Looking at her work, that’s hard to believe. Her first published book, An Elegy for Easterly, is a collection of short stories and has won, among other awards, the Guardian First Book award in 2009. Even though it was labelled by her publisher as “the voice of Zimbabwe”, Petina does not feel comfortable talking on behalf of a whole Zimbabwe, never mind the whole of Africa. She feels that labelling writers as “coloured” comes with expectations of what they should write about.

And what does Petina write about? Corruption, hypocrisy, abuse of power, exploitation, memory, love, loss and – superstition. While her collections of short stories bring a multitude of voices of modern Zimbabwe, the story in her first novel, The Book of Memory, is a monologue narrated by an albino woman, who was sold off as a child by her parents and ended up in a maximum security prison in Harare for murdering her adoptive father. She is prompted by her lawyer to write down her memories, her story as she remembers  it – so Memory finds herself writing for her life – both literally and metaphorically.

Cover of An elegy for easterly
The winner of Guardian First Book award in 2009.

Even though Petina has been writing since she was 11, it took her 6 years to finish the story of Memory. As it was her second published work, it put her under a lot of pressure. As usual expectations were huge. When asked about how she overcame this “second novelitis” crisis (term coined by Bianca Zander), Petina laughs: “Who says I  got over it?” But she manages to see the crisis of confidence in a more complex way: “The beauty of being a writer is the elusive nature of satisfaction. I always want to develop as a writer, to always be in  battle with myself.”

After the great success of The Book of Memory and after her son “took himself to boarding school” she decided to hand in her  notice at work so she could dedicate more time to writing and exploring. “I want to take a gap year. That thing kids do before the university.”

Cover of The book of memory

I am with you, Petina! Let that gap year roll into another and another and another …

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Things that you learn about yourself at a festival – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Mother TongueYou’d be forgiven for believing that what you learn at a festival is all about writers and readers and books. But, truth is, you learn a whole heap of other stuff too – like yourself. You learn a lot about yourself.

Here’s what I learnt:

  • I cannot pack light – I even pack “what if” stationery.
  • I’m really good at taking notes in the dark. My “blind” notes are superior to those written in the harsh light of fluorescence. It is a minor and little-recognised talent.
  • Big haired people will traverse entire auditoriums to sit right in front of me, thereby affording me the opportunity to write poisonous little asides in my notebook – in the pitch dark.
  • At a festival, I can attend events all day, contribute to an audio recording at night, and then blog well after midnight. All this on a diet of caffeine, darling little ginger friands and Japanese noodles from the outlet across the road, that is: nothing green and crunchy passes my lips. This is not the me most of you know. There is, admittedly, a lot more in the way of colourful language while I’m doing it. But it can be done.

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    Masha, Moata and Roberta: late at night – still blogging to be done!
  • But one of my main festival joys is being regifted the beauty of the English language. At festivals, I am reawakened to an abundance of words that I have just stopped using. I am jolted out of my language laziness and fall in love with words all over again. Not all these words are that rare, but they are heard less and less nowadays, words like this:

All languages change: new vocabulary is created and many wonderfully evocative words fall out of use. But what can I do to stem the dumbing down of English? For starters I can be on Red Alert for the beauty and specificity of our wonderful language.

And that is the gift of Auckland Festival to me.

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Quotable Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Author quote postcards at Auckland Writers Festival 2016
Author quote postcards at Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Quotes are one of those serendipitous things, that infest every festival session. You forget to expect them, until they poke out of the conversation, like fireworks, showing off their intelligence, wit and subtlety with a style and a good measure of flamboyance.

Here are some of the top quotes of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival – hand picked by festival angels Moata, Roberta and myself:

Laughter is crucial – it’s like an orgasm of the mind. // Gloria Steinem

Even if love is not going to save anyone, we keep on doing it. It has no result in culture that is so result orientated. // Hanya Yanagihara

If one dream dies, I’m going to dream another dream and I’m going to dream it bigger. // Pettina Gappah

The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late. // Jeanette Winterson quoting her mother

My endings might be sad, but I like to think of them as authentic endings. // John Boyne

I’ve had the kind of happy childhood that’s so damaging to a writer. // Thomas Mallon

Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem
Janna Levin, Thomas Mallon and Gloria Steinem (Image supplied)

In the story “The Princess and the Pea”,  I never wanted to be the princess. I wanted to be the pea – writing helped me do that. //  Vivian Gornick

Characters of children’s books need to be rebels. // Edward Carey

If you don’t understand the book, read it again. If you still don’t understand it, read again. If you still don’t understand it, throw it away. // David Eggleton on importance of understanding a book when writing a book review

Most opinions are just emotions in fancy dress. // Joe Bennett

Assumptions are the mother of all stuff-ups. // Helene Wong

Opening night Awf16
Carmen Aguirre, Tusiata Avia, Joe Bennett, Pettina Gappah, Peter Garrett, Vivian Gornick, Herman Koch and Jeanette Winterson. (Image supplied)

I have a brain tumour. I experience many unfamiliar and unreal moments. I am frequently unfamiliar even to myself. // Tusiata Avia

I could never see the distinction between Science and Art. Medicine is art to me. // Jean-Christophe Rufin

Creativity is a kind of anchoring. It is a lie detector which prevents us from living life in a blur. // Jeanette Winterson

Fancy some more? Read other blogs from Auckland Writers Festival and find your own favourite quote!

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Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba Clarke on friendship and reading beyond the colour – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Do you remember the excitement of finding a true friend in high school days? When you were lost but then found yourself by finding a friend? When you realized there is someone else out there, who likes the same weird books as you do, listens to the same music and shares the same humour and passion for so many other exciting things? The one you could talk to late into the night and (nearly) never run out of things to say? And when you did, it was nice and comfortable to just be quiet. Together.

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Tusiata Avia (Image supplied)

I came across such friendship at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. Though it revealed to me on the stage, it was clearly not staged. Christchurch born poet Tusiata Avia and Maxine Beneba Clarke, Australian poet and writer, were like two shy girls, who have gathered in their hideaway, somewhere far from the adult’s world, to share their most precious and beloved sweets with each other. Sitting behind the coffee table on the stage, they were begging each other to read another poem. And another. And another – almost forgetting about the presence of the audience.

There was something truthful and playful in their relationship, in this game of exchanging tiny little gems. In the era of authorship and general egocentrism, it is very rare to see such genuine friendship amongst authors. Most of the time, we read about one single author, we listen to her or him speak on the stage about their work. So having two minds and hearts tripping on each other with such sincerity was really refreshing.

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Maxine Beneba Clarke (Image supplied)

Maxine and Tusiata read poems from their award-winning books. There was a big stack of them on the table, with stationery stickers in various places, marking pages populated by voices that wanted to be heard. Gifts that Maxine laid on the table included her newly released poetry collection Carrying the World, a collection of short stories Foreign soil and three other collections of poetry. Tusiata brought along her Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, Bloodclot and freshly launched Fale Aitu | Spirit House, all poetry collections as well.

Voices captured in their work are voices of diaspora. Many different voices, who speak many different Englishes. But for Maxine as well as Tusiata the main reason why these voices need to be heard and their stories told lays in the human experience and not in the cultural aspects these voices bring with them. So they are both getting a bit tired of culturally and racially focused receptions of their work, when their intention is to show something universal, something human. “It is not a great position to be in,” says Tusiata. “If you are a ‘writer of colour’ you are pigeonholed at the beginning of every presentation. People need to identify you before they engage with your work.”But at the same time, she confesses, that identification is unavoidable, as “poetry is so personal and our personal paths are about where we are from.”

Cover of wild dogs undermy skirt  Cover of Fale aitu -  spirit house

They are not the only ones raising their concern about the biased reception of work from ‘writers of colour’. During the Sunday session titled The Diversity debate, Marlon James declared, half jokingly, half serious, that he will not be attending any sessions about diversity any more. Pettina Gappah earlier that afternoon talked about the burden that sort of labelling gives to ‘coloured writers’: “This label comes with expectations of what you talk about in your work.”

I could feel myself being challenged after each of the sessions. They made me think of myself as a reader and my own reception of work written by ‘writers of colour’. And they also made me wonder, if true friendship happens, when we look at the world above and beyond pigeonholes of colour, sex, race, ability, language, culture, age and socio-economic status. According to Maxine’s inscription in my copy of her book, that may as well be true. “From my heart to yours”, it says.

Which, when read again, it could also sound like a tutorial on how to read.

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Another country? Mainlanders discussing ourselves – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

I am bordering on late when I arrive at a packed out Upper NZI Room at the Aotea Centre for a session that, as a South Islander, I feel duty-bound to attend.

I’m pointed in the direction of of a clutch of empty seats near the back by one of the friendly festival ushers/helpers.

This session dares to ask – is the South Island, home to 23% of New Zealanders, another country? Is there something distinctive and different about hailing from the Mainland?

Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner
Joe Bennett, Fiona Farrell and Brian Turner (Image supplied)

Ready to answer these, and similarly not-that-serious questions are Christchurch writer Fiona Farrell, Otagoan, poet, and former sportsman Brian Turner, and transplanted Banks Peninsula raconteur, dog enthusiast and columnist Joe Bennett.

Radio New Zealand presenter (and non-Mainlander) Jesse Mulligan is in charge of wrangling this trio and extracting what wisdom he could on the topic of Te Waipounamu.

As a dyed in the wool Cantabrian myself the notion that the South Island might be considered sufficiently “different” and “special” from the rest of New Zealand to warrant it’s own hour of discussion was in itself a little off-putting. We’re the normal ones by which the rest of the country may be judged, thanks – I said to myself in a way that somewhat alarmingly reinforced the stereotype, and caused me to peer out from behind my metaphorical eyepatch. But I am not alone. When Mulligan asks who in the crowd was a Mainlander, a sea of arms waved in unison. No red and black stripey scarves were seen, nor are any couches set alight, but early days…

Yes, it seems that this corner of the Aotea Centre was packed to the gunwales with South Islanders. Here we had all converged…to hear us discuss ourselves. But perhaps if you’re a Mainlander who lives in Auckland, the chances to gather like this are rare? Kia kaha, my southern brothers and sisters, kia kaha.

Each representative of The Other Big Island is asked to read something that speaks to their identity as a South Islander.

Cover of The villa at the edge of the empireFarrell chooses a poignant passage from her book The Villa at the Edge of the Empire about solastalgia, the feeling of distress caused by the loss of a familiar landscape or environment. My one Cantabrian eye moistens noticeably.

Turner chooses to read several things by different authors including Margaret Atwood and Ronald Wright. I can’t remember the exact details but the theme seems to be that of the rural landscape being irretrieveably altered and damaged in the name of “progress”. What definitely sticks with me was how he describes himself as “a cussett sort of a coot”, because who, outside of a Larry McMurtry novel, talks that way? Splendid.

Bennett is rather less lyrical in his description of Turner who claims to sometimes call “my pet rock”. Certainly the difference between the two men is stark – Bennett all rambunctious energy, Turner barely moving and thoughtful. Mulligan, to his credit, manages almost to reign Bennett in at times, which is generally the best you can hope for, in my experience.

Bennett’s reading is of a very brief passage from a Owen Marshall short story “Cabernet Sauvignon with my brother”, which he chooses for a very specific description of dryness that he feels really perfectly captures that place.

I love the accumulated heat of the Canterbury autumn. When you rest on the ground you can feel the sustained warmth coming up into your body, and there are pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads. It’s not the mock tropicality of the Far North, but the real New Zealand summer. It dries the flat of your tongue if you dare to breathe through your mouth. After spending the vacation working on the coast, I was happy to be back in Canterbury.

Mulligan then asks a questioned designed to provoke, “why don’t you move to Auckland?”

Cover of Into the wider world: A back country miscellanyThe answers were vary in the degree to which they take the question seriously. Turner, with some earnestness observes that he needs wide open spaces and “the sounds of silence that aren’t silence”.

Farrell quips that she “probably couldn’t afford it” (A ha! An Auckland property market joke – they’re easy… but they’re still funny), and Bennett says it has never crossed his mind and points out how wrongheaded, presumptuous and arrogant the question is in the first place.

Discussion moves on to the portrayal of the South Island in the media and Bennett claims that the northern-driven media are often patronising and fall back on the trope of the South Island as “a visitable theme park of prejudice”. Cripes.

Farrell, recalls with dismay how, after reviewing the covers of a weekly publication that may also be a sponsor of the festival so shall not be named, *cough* The Listener *cough*, for the year 2013, found that 25 were about food, and Christchurch didn’t feature once. You can almost but not quite, hear the “tsking” from the audience.

Farrell also paints an interesting picture when discussion of a South Island personality comes up when she says that the myth of two old codgers meandering down a country road discussing cheese really is a myth – they’ve likely sold their farms to foreign interests and are incredibly wealthy, meanwhile the majority of the rivers have been left unswimmable. And yet, we should fight to try and keep some part of this myth of wide open spaces, and bucolic beauty alive and real.

In the end, did we learn anything about what it is to be a South Islander from this session? Maybe the northerners in attendance did? It was certainly entertaining enough to hear the conversation, though I couldn’t help thinking, since all the panelists were of a different generation from me, that what being a Mainlander means to them, might be quite different to what it means to a part-Māori Gen Xer from Linwood. But maybe that’s a different discussion again?

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Gloria Steinem: Encouraging trouble-makers – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Whatever your political leanings or beliefs about feminism, there is no denying that Gloria Steinem’s life has been an extraordinary one.

Cover of My life on the roadAt the Auckland Writers Festival recently she discussed her beliefs, hopes for the future, and life’s journey as encompassed in her memoir My life on the road.

The audience was full of feminists of all ages. Teenagers to grandmothers, gathered to hear what she had to say. And as it turned out, to talk to each other about it afterwards. By far, of the all the sessions I attended at this year’s festival, this was the one that had the most noticeable sense of community about it, even as disagreements occured – but more on that later.

I arrived early, and was treated to an unexpected glimpse of the woman herself – off to the side in a roped off area in the balcony concourse of Aotea Centre – Gloria Steinem was addressing a small crowd in some kind of reception hosted by the US Embassy.

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem addresses a small gathering organised by the US Embassy, Auckland Writers Festival 2016, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00954

Later when she walked out on stage to sit down with Nick Barley, The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, there were a higher than average number of “whoops” from the crowd, which led me to wonder if the Americans in the audience might be responsible, and sure enough, Steinem herself confirmed that the mayor of Los Angeles was in attendance.

Given the incredible life that Steinem has had, it’s difficult to recap that here and this session, even with it running slightly over time, was never going to be long enough.

But here are just a few things that stood out for me the most –

Steinem reading out the dedication from her book which is to the English doctor who provided her with an abortion when she was 22 years old, had just broken off her engagement, and was en route to India. It was illegal at the time and the doctor made her swear to secrecy. This is not a topic that women often discuss this openly and plainly and for that reason alone it made an impression.

Her discovery in India of “talking circles” and the realisation that the ability to talk about terrible experiences is transformative.

All movements start this way, with consciousness raising groups – now we call them book clubs…

Gloria Steinem at the signing desk
Gloria Steinem at the signing desk, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-13-DSC00942

Her mild (I can’t believe it’s only mild) annoyance that, in her eighties,  she’s still described by people as an ex-bunny because of the 1963 exposé she wrote on conditions for the women working at the Playboy Clubs. She was a journalist and went undercover for a time as a bunny in order to reveal shocking practices like telling women that they were required to undergo an gynaecological exam in order to serve liquor in New York State.

At my advanced age people still introduce me as an ex-bunny. It has been a blight in some ways… People say “What does she know? She was a bunny”.

Her thoughts regarding feminism and the trans community.

Anything that blows up the gender binary is a good thing… It’s fundamentally the right thing because it’s dispensing with false categories.

On the younger generation of feminists, and the concerns that some mothers have that their daughters aren’t sufficiently well educated about feminism.

Women say to me with some alarm, “my daughter doesn’t know who you are!”

But does she know who she is? Because that’s the whole point.

As you would expect there were some really challenging questions from the audience covering topics as broad as decriminalising prostitution, if feminism is supportive enough of women in non-Western countries with different cultural norms, how to promote feminism at your high school (answer: find something that’s sexist and unfair and fight to fix it) and abortion law in New Zealand (over which there was some confusion and disagreement in the audience, but is, as one woman asserted, covered by the Crimes Act 1961.) One woman read out a question which she had rather appropriately written on the back of her birth control prescription!

But probably the best part was that Steinem threw the mic open, not just to questions, but to women wanting to make announcements for upcoming events and “troublemaking meetings”. She also encouraged everyone, as they left, to talk to two or three other people and to try and make connections. Because, I suppose, this is how movements that aren’t just book clubs happen.

No doubt there was a lot of talking and making of connections in the book-signing queue after the session as it was so long it nearly made it out the door and into Aotea Square. An hour later Steinem was still signing.

Signing queue for Gloria Steinem
Signing queue for Gloria Steinem, Auckland Writers Festival, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00957

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Front lines: Michael Grant – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Michael Grant is the author of some 150+ books, including the very popular young adult Gone series. He also co-wrote the Animorphs books with his wife, Katherine Applegate.

Michael Grant
Michael Grant (Image supplied)

At the Auckland Writers Festival last week he sat down with Kiwi young adult author Jane Higgins to discuss his books, how he comes up with his ideas, and his approach to writing. He spoke with a good deal of humour, to an audience that was a little younger than most at the festival, and had an easy, affable manner (and dimples, which I am rather fond of on a person).

Cover of Front linesHis latest book, Front Lines, the first in a trilogy, is set during WWII but with one key fact changed – a US Supreme Court decision means that women may be drafted to fight in the war.

In some ways a war setting is one that suits Grant well as he was raised in a military family with a dad who was a “lifer”. Despite this background, he has no love of guns, having misfired one in his youth, which left him having to explain to the downstairs neighbour why there was suddenly a hole in his ceiling. He’s sworn off having a gun in the house ever since. These days his only interaction with firearms are for research – viewing WWII training films on YouTube, for instance.

Research for books also forms the foundation of his holiday plans – his upcoming trip to Europe might not be what the younger members of the family were hoping for when he announced – “Kids, we’re going to Buchenwald*!”

He has a strong interest in history which he described as “the backstory of the human race” and he compared trying to view current events without this as akin to watching the most recent Marvel movie and not understanding why Iron Man and Captain America are fighting. You need the backstory of these characters to understand their motivations.

MIchael Grant at the signing desk
MIchael Grant at the signing desk, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-14-DSC00950

Grant admits to being a horrible workaholic, typically writing two books a year, and he becomes agitated and irritated when he’s not working – to the extent that he felt a little out of sorts taking a few days off to be part of a literary festival.

This compulsion probably explains his attitude towards the notion of “writers’ block” –

Writers’ block is self-pitying nonsense for lazy writers… If you just keep going, you tend, in the end, to get somewhere.

 

When the discussion turned towards the Gone series, a young man in the row in front of me did a double fist pump, which gives you an idea of how popular those books have been.

When asked about his inspirations for the series which features a world suddenly without adults and which the survivors live under a dome, Grant is keen to point out that he wrote the first book before Stephen King’s “Under the dome” came out (so no, he wasn’t copying that idea). Rather the inspiration for the books came from the TV show Lost, and Robinson Crusoe, both of which he believes to be riffs on the biblical tale of the expulsion of humanity from the Garden of Eden.

Festival bookshop - Michael Grant
Books by Michael Grant at the festival bookshop, Flickr File Reference: 2016-05-12-DSC00894

Fans of the Gone series may be interested to know that he is planning, not a sequel exactly, but another novel set four years down the track in the same universe, in which some old characters may appear.

As a writer of fiction for young adults, he does his best to keep the language clean, but not for the reasons you might think. He doesn’t have a problem with swearing, and doesn’t think young people doing it is something to be concerned about, rather the lack of bad language in his books is for the benefit of… librarians.

Grant likes librarians (in a former life he was a law librarian), and doesn’t want them to get “wrath of God” grief (presumably from parents and school boards?) for stocking his books in their libraries.

Find out more

*Buchenwald was the site of a concentration camp in Germany.

Jean-Christophe Rufin: Walking your way to happiness – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Two thousand people packed the ASB theatre at the Auckland Writers Festival on Sunday to hear Jean-Christophe Rufin (co-founder of Doctors Without Borders and former French Ambassador to Senegal) talk about walking.

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Jean-Christophe Rufin, Image supplied

He loped on stage – tall, slim and packed to the gills with a kind of laconic Gallic charm. They are rare these men, but I have met one or two in my life, and what distinguishes them is their seamless fusion of Science and the Arts. When praised for his phenomenal CV he shrugged and said:

I am a doctor who writes, that is all.

Being the French Ambassador in Senegal is a bit like being the Queen in the British Isles. When his three year ambassadorial stint in Senegal ended, he found himself without all the trappings of a very high profile job. He had a reduced social status, no social calender, no servants and no idea what to do next. His life seemed to have become very pared down. In a fit of pique he thought to himself, so I will pare it right down. I will walk. I will walk a long way. I will walk the Santiago de Compostela. And you should try never to have that thought he said, because once you do it is like a virus, it will never let you go, you are entirely at its mercy.

The Santiago PilgrimageBut first you must pack your bag. That backpack will be your world. At the start everyone has huge bags. The weight of the bag represents your fear. Some people pack several raincoats. They are afraid of rain. Some people pack much water. They are afraid of thirst. What you pack in your bag will tell you a lot about yourself. When asked what he was afraid of on the walk, he jokingly replied – the snores of my fellow travellers.

But, one week from the end of the Pilgrimage, when he met up with his wife (they wanted to walk the last part together), he looked at their two bags. Hers was massive – packed full of beauty products and accessories. His was tiny. He had walked off his fears.

What do people talk about when they meet up as pilgrims on the Compostela? There are three main questions that get asked:

  • Where did you start The Way?
  • When did you start?
  • And most importantly: How are your feet? You meet people, and you love them, and it all starts with the feet.

That is all. No one ever asks: Who are you? What do you do? These questions are superfluous on the Pilgrimage. But sore feet will be lifted on to the table and viewed by all, like they were the maps of the soul.

And of course, he shrugged, he would love us to read his book – The Santiago Pilgrimage.

But he is adamant. You can gain no real benefit from reading about walking the Santiago. You have to do it. One painful step at a time, until you fall in love with the world again, and you find that you are happy.

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Marlon James – the author who just comes in and is cool – Auckland Writers Festival 2016

When asked about how does it feel writing a new book, Marlon James does not hide the dread of writing vocation: “It’s like a childbirth. You think, how the hell did I end up here again! Was it not bad enough the last time?”

marlon
Marlon James (image supplied)

Last years Man Booker Prize winner is a guest of this year’s Auckland Writers Festival. His book, A brief history of seven killings, stretches not-so-briefly over 600 pages, opening questions of power, class and race with diversity. It features a plethora of voices: deceased, witnesses, killers, drug dealers, journalists and reporters, detectives, FBI and CIA agents, beauty queens, members of parliament and also Keith Richard’s drug dealer. It is an exploration of Jamaica before and after the attempted murder of Bob Marley.

Why the shooting of Bob Marley? Because the year 1976 was an exclamation point of social and political instability and general fear in Jamaica. The shooting, Marlon explains, was highly relational not just to Marley’s life, but to life of all Jamaicans – if they can shoot Marley, they can shoot anybody. Marlon turned this moment into a storytelling device, that navigated him through the exploration of “10 different Jamaicas”.

He finds writing hard work and it demands a lot of discipline, but there is nothing else he could do. During the process of  writing, his characters surprise him but also disappoint him. They become human and he often finds himself saying: “I didn’t see that coming!” The only voice he was not interested in, while writing A brief history of seven killings, was his own. It soon became clear that only one voice won’t do either. There had to be more of them, they had to be three-dimensional and authentic. Like the journalist. “He’s such a bad writer, he writes like I did in high school,” Marlon adds, keeping the amount of humour nicely balanced through out the session.

james marlon
Marlon at the signing table.

But how do characters arise? Where do they come from? Some of them support different points of view, others come to existence because of demands of the plot, or emotional credibility of the story. “But some of them just have to come in and be cool,”

seven killingsThat’s where beauty and creative power lies in the novel, in the polyphony of voices. It is this that makes the novel Marlon’s favourite literary form. The novel has also been a place of escape. As a fiction it offers the possibility to explore forbidden things – and there is quite a few of them in his novel: “You have to risk going too far. Discomfort happens all the time.” Rather than talking about love, he risks pornography.”I don’t do love, I am a literary fiction author” he sums up, grinning.

If you tried reading Marlon’s book and didn’t like it, there is a great chance you would like Marlon himself. No matter the size of the stage he finds himself on, he is relaxed, communicative with the crowd, witty and amazingly well read. He just … comes in and is cool.

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