When you read Devin Murphy’s immersive coming of age novel The Boat Runner, you are carried away into a world where doing the morally right thing no longer seems so straight forward.
Devin Murphy spent eight years working on this debut novel, inspired by his own and his wife’s family history. He draws on the stories of the war he heard as a child, and his own personal experiences as a young man exploring the oceans. He also incorporates his struggles to find his own purpose.
Devin’s love of storytelling means he describes those little details that make you feel you are actually there.
Exploring the moral perspectives of the Dutch and German boys thrust into the campaign, we see events through the eyes of 14 year old Jacob Koopman. Jacob’s story in the novel exposes how people came to accept the German invasion and the propaganda of the times, and how morally complex those dark days were.
The book shows a young naive man striving to determine his own path when war threatens and family values are being reexamined. In his search to do what is right, he has to reexamine how he sees his family and what it means to be human. The novel traverses the pre-war days of the Hitler Youth Camps and the build up towards war.
As war erupts, Jacob is quickly thrust into events beyond his comprehension, and we learn the story of the young Dutch boys thrust into the German war machine. It is a fast-moving tale of boyhood, honour, and bravery – tempered by painful realization of the horrors of war and the story builds toward the decision which changes the path of his life forever.
There was an understandably big crowd at The Piano last night for A. N. Wilson in conversation with Christopher Moore. Part of the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season, we were treated to insights about the eminent novelist and biographer’s new and upcoming works, as well as his distinguished career.
As you can see, I was quite a long way back!
Wilson – or Andrew as I think we’re allowed to call him – was inspired to write biography after reading Lytton Strachey‘s Eminent Victorians and wanting to write as well as him. While he is generally commissioned to write biographies, he chose to write about the lives of Leo Tolstoy and Walter Scott. Scott was pretty much the father of historical fiction, with his tales of the Scottish Highlands allowing people to imagine what it was like to live in the past instead of simply regurgitating facts.
One of the things that fascinated Andrew about Tolstoy was the fact that while we know him as a great novelist, in Russia he was more known for his political beliefs – including his idea of passive anarchy which went to to inspire people like Gandhi. However, after digging into Tolstoy’s domestic sphere he concludes that:
he would not like to be Mrs Tolstoy.
Andrew’s latest novel is Resolution, about the German botanist Georg Forster who travelled with Captain Cook on his second voyage and later became a revolutionary in France. Interestingly, in Communist East Germany Forster was seen as a champion of class struggle and became a national hero. It’s great to hear about different and interesting people and I’m looking forward to reading this book.
An obvious favourite of Andrew’s is Queen Victoria who he describes as “taking being an embarrassing mother to new heights”. However, he is now researching Prince Albert, who is quite a different kettle of fish. Indeed, Andrew describes him as being
deeply strange and complicated.
He also believes that although Victoria was madly in love with Albert, he never fell in love with her and controlled her to a great degree. Look out for this biography in 2019, as its going to be fascinating!
Andrew obviously has a passion for the people he writes about and it was fabulous to have the opportunity to listen to his great storytelling here in Christchurch – which, he reminded us, is very much a Victorian city.
Fiona Kidman’s latest book All Day at the Movies explores what it means to be a woman in New Zealand. It’s an episodic novel set over six decades. She explores where families were at and where they are going now.
Family is important to me as an only child I was often an observer looking in on families.
But she also says “I try not to put my family into books”.
This novel was inspired by the sight of abandoned tobacco kilns. Her father grew tobacco in KeriKeri and the memories of the Nicotiana scent drew her to setting her central character in the tobacco field of Motueka. The novel features a lot of pregnancies – as Owen Marshall observes, some more welcome than others. One of her characters doesn’t know who her father is.
Fiona acknowledges pregnancy is a huge issue in women’s lives. She is an adoptive mother herself, and acknowledges adoption was not handled well in the past. Recently her novels are set around a central historical character – but in this novel she wanted to say something about politics, how decisions made in Wellington affect people’s lives.
Fiona has always been a political animal. She was part of the 1981 Springbok tour movement as explored in her novel Beside the Dark Pool. Exploring the social context her characters inhabit over the decades gives her a vehicle to say something about how Wellington decisions affect their lives.
Looking at her characters as they deal with illegitimacy, estrangement, and abuse you may think she has a negative view of life and of men. But she says “I love men”. There are at least 5 positive men in the book, even though it may not seem that men come out well.
“I have had a lucky life” one of her characters says in the novel (and she observes it of her own life) which ends on an optimistic note. She looks at the circumstances of her characters and why things happen without making judgments. Authentic characters are important – how real people deal with things and how it affects them in 20, 30, 40 years time. Her characters become very real to her – they stand at the kitchen bench and come for rides with her in the car. By the time she sits down to write a novel they have their own voice which has to be listened to. Sometimes she is ready to let them go after a novel, and sometimes they don’t want to go away and reappear in another form like her character Jessie Sandal from Songs of the Violet Café.
Fiona has always been a feminist writer as is evident in A breed of Women. She sees herself not as a woman’s writer but a writer writing for women. She first thought of herself as a writer as a 22-year-old in the 1960s. It was in an era when it was embarrassing to be pregnant. She had worked at Rotorua Library and moved to Rotorua High School library when she married her husband who also worked there. When she got pregnant, students remarked “Got her up the duff eh Sir!”, leading to a request for her to leave the school. Such were the expectations of the era.
She left and started writing – submitting a play for a competition. Her play evoked the comment that it must have been written by the dirtiest minded young woman in New Zealand.
I felt I did know stuff about being a woman that a middle-aged man in Wellington seemed not to know.
Fiona often struggled with expectations:
What am I doing sitting at the kitchen table, buying the kids clothes not preserving hundreds of jars and doing this.
She worked as a secretary of PEN and the NZ Book Council and hoped to help authors think of writing as working.
Her favourite genre is short stories but they don’t sell a lot of books and she loves poetry but working in other genres is necessary. She made as much money working in television in a month as writing in a couple of years.
Through working in television, she learnt to see as you would through the camera
through radio work she learn to listen especially to the silences
through journalism she learnt to ask questions
All have been useful in her writing work. Poetry is not so much thinking about the audience more spontaneous.
Canadian Elizabeth Hay has to write about what means most to her. In her latest book His whole life, she writes of the close mother-son bond. As the marriage comes apart, the mother-son bond deepens. In her earlier novel Late nights on air she revisits her years as “An old radio hack”.
On the publishing scene
New Zealand authors will sympathize with her comments that publishers aren’t always aware how much Canadians interested in Canadian tales. Publishers want books to be set outside Canada with an eye to foreign sales.
“He knows he’s not the smartest guy in the world” unlike Harper. He’s done some things like the Montreal Gay Pride march, does he overdo it? – Sometimes. Under former president Harper, Canada was very tar oil sands orientated. Under Trudeau it is different – landscape and environment is at the heart of the country now.
On the landscape
You can’t live in Canada without having a sense of it because there is so much of it and a need of landscape which is at the heart of our writing”.
Observations from the 2016 New Zealand Festival Writers Week
Every person I sat beside had a fit bit thingy instead of a watch.
Science sells – by far the biggest attendance at any of the sessions I went to was at Adam Rutherford (no relation). The person I sat beside there went to sleep immediately and stayed that way for the entire hour. Perhaps her fit bit was able to tell her if it was REM sleep or not.
Some sessions featured Sleater-Kinney T-shirts and Lea DeLaria haircuts, most did not.
Things some of the writers love
Ted Dawe loves librarians – “they are my heroes”. He was reading A Little Life and he couldn’t put it down. On the strength of this recommendation I bought it at Wellington Airport and now I can’t put it down but sometimes I can’t hold it either, due to sobbing.
In an attempt to tame her ever-growing For Later list, Robyn has decided to share with us on a regular basis the titles that she has recently added to her list. The theory being that, even if she doesn’t ever get round to reading them, she can perhaps do so vicariously through you… So please do share your opinions of her picks – are they worthy, do you think, of inclusion in that lofty list?
Pink Up Your Life: The World of Pink Design Embarrassing but irresistible. Who knew there was such a thing as Pink Design? I’m game though. “Pink for old and young. Pink for everyone!” Perhaps a pink feature wall is just what I need.
The Hollow of the Hand by P. J. Harvey
Polly’s poetry combines with the images of photographer/film-maker Seamus Murphy to tell the story of their travels around the world between 2011 and 2014. Harvey wanted to “smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with”. Should be interesting.
The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits by Simon Schama Portraits and Simon Schama seem like a good match; Schama has a lovely light touch with art and history. This book has been produced to accompany an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London where Schama considers what makes a successful portrait, grouping portraits from the gallery’s amazing collection into themes: Power, Love, Fame, Self and People. According to The Times reviewer Schama’s approach here is “not systematic but wonderfully compelling” and the book is “entertaining and idiosyncratic”. Let’s see about that.
We’re all very excited to hear New Zealand author Anna Smaill is on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for her book The Chimes. I’ve read it, and loved it. It’s a dystopia, yes, and also timeless and full of history, music and atmosphere:
Have just finished reading The Chimes. After is a different place.
You can hear Anna talk in Christchurch at a WORD Christchurch session Imaginary Cities, on Sunday 30 August along with Fiona Farrell, Anna Smaill, Hamish Clayton, and Hugh Nicholson (chaired by Christchurch Art Gallery’s senior curator Lara Strongman). It’s part of a Shifting points of view season in the Christchurch Arts Festival.
The first impulse is the sense of time going past. It’s almost having the experience of pathos in the moment, having feeling of something happening that is already gone. I’ve always had very acutely this feeling of things being transient and ephemeral and I wanted to capture them.
I definitely think the impulse to write first came from that. Of course it is also a way of working things out for me. Just to process my experiences, work out what I think about things. It always seemed a necessary thing to me. And also it’s a great entertainment.
The WORD Christchurch event with novelist David Mitchell ran on Chatham Islands time. With no session before or after, time was flexible. It started a little late and David was generous with his time, going well over the nominal finishing time. David was thankful for the restorative properties of Whittaker’s Hokey Pokey chocolate and a power nap. He was on top form with the conversation flowing easily between him and Rachael King – an award-winning author in her own right. David assured us we could go at anytime, he didn’t want to hold anybody’s babysitter up but we could have listened to this self-effacing Englishman all night. It was amazing for us starstruck fans to hear it took three days to get over his own fanboy awe and introduce himself to Haruki Murakami at breakfast.
On Middle Age and the role research plays in his novels
He used to go off around the world whenever he wanted to research his books, staying at backpacker hostels when he was researching Cloud atlas on the Chatham Islands, and drinking with the locals. Now he negotiates absences from home with his wife, and he stays at comfortable hotels. Interspersing quality time at home with stints at literary festivals allows his wife to have time to do things, and him to tuck the children into bed. He wrote Crispin Hershey from the Bone Clocks as a foil against believing the publicity machine. Several of the literary festivals Crispin attends have since invited David – a great way to travel to parts of the world – a tip for new authors maybe? He chooses the literary festivals he attends carefully, hoping to pick up useful experiences and nuggets of information from the places he visits, and they may later be woven into his books. Should we expect to see Iceland featured in a novel sometime?
Sometimes there is no substitute for being there. Without having ridden a bicycle in the snow in Europe, he wouldn’t have known that despite how many clothes you put on you still end up with snow up your nose, down your neck, up your sleeve and in your armpit:
Snow’s up my nose, snow’s in my eyes, snow’s in my armpits, snow howls after us through a stone archway into a grotty yard with dustbins already half buried under snow, snow, snow. Holly fumbles with the key now we are in…
Rachael explored the Faustian aspects of David’s work, and whether we fear more for our children than ourselves. Rachael and David discussed how now having children has affected them, and their fears for their children and the world they could inherit. The world ravaged by climate change and desperately short of oil David describes in the last chapter of Bone Clocks is a warning. Despite recurrent themes of death and cheating death, he doesn’t like to write too much sadness in novels. They are ultimately are for your enjoyment. David said as a parent he would never write anything in a novel that hurts children – if he puts them in harm’s way ultimately he always kind of saves them.
On writing and being a nerd
The upcoming new Slade House novella and the Bone Clocks are part of an overarching Uber novel where characters and references pop up in other novels. He delights in these nerd-like aspects of his work, creating links between characters in his books in a Tolkienesque way. He’d like to put more of this in his work, but he feels he is already asking a lot of his readers with the way he structures his novels.
On the fantasy scale he feels he is only about a 3 or 4, partly due to his books being character and not plot driven. Despite being a bit of a nerd and creating back stories for his characters, he doesn’t have his entire novels mapped out. He has an idea where the novel is going, the characters drive how it gets there. The characters need to develop depending on the limits of the period and the setting as with Orito Aibagawa the daughter of the Japanese Doctor in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. His wife warned him not to make her a whore and he always listens to his wife! Orito needs to come and go from the island of Edo-era at will. The problem was the island of Edo-era the one window on the West for Japan at the time had very restricted access, so he makes her a doctor’s daughter she has a certain status which means her presence is not questioned and she can move around freely he also gave her a disfigurement or why would she still be single.
He pleads guilty to research. David limits his writing output, so he can spend a couple of years researching novels such as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and he relishes it. David says when he is researching he scoops information up. Later it shines light on your work as sun on leaves synthesises results.
Last time he was in Christchurch he had barely four hours to research the Chatham Islands in the Christchurch public library, taking notes from Michael King’s A land apart : the Chatham Islands of New Zealand before we gently chucked him out at closing time. The character at the start of Cloud Atlas who collects teeth from skulls on the beach comes from that research. He would dearly have loved to able to have met Michael and shouted him a drink.
Scoop information up – later it shines light on your work, as sun on leaves synthesise results.
Here are some of favourite quotes which I managed to write down during the Auckland Writers Festival. I was struggling to rank them in a list from best to awesome, but you can judge them according to your own taste and preference.
“Reality is a bit more than we think it is.” Ben Okri
“Remain yourself. Your experience is the most interesting. Be what you are.” Alan Cumming
“Hearts get broken over the breakfast table.” Anton Chekhov (only present in spirit and quoted by Hollie Fullbrook).
“You should always have a picture of a 100% boy, even when you have 78% husband.” Haruki Murakami
What I realized transcribing these quotes is that some of them are deeply embedded in the context of writer’s work or their life experience. But what makes them so beautiful is their universality. Everyone can interpret them in their own way.