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
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
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
Whatever your political leanings or beliefs about feminism, there is no denying that Gloria Steinem’s life has been an extraordinary one.
At 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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
His 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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
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.
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?”
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.
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,”
That’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.
How best to tell one’s truth? Inspired by Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant”, deft writers Steve Braunias (NZ), Joan Fleming (NZ), Vivian Gornick (US), and Chris Price (NZ) read extracts from their work to show us the many and varied ways in which this can be done.
Steve Braunias is like a jugular heat-seeking missile, and in his reading extract he had the NZ Green Party in his sights. Acutely observant, witty and irreverent, here’s some of his slanty truths:
Eleanor Catton: “from whose pages, it must be said, one does not come away clutching one’s sides in laughter.”
Metiria Turei: “one of the smartest people in the room, then someone gave her a ukulele. There followed the longest 4 minutes of my life.”
Poet Joan Fleming‘s writing is like “a shudder of light” in the dark venue. Erotic poetry like this is hard to listen to in a packed room shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers. But she read achingly beautifully from her book Failed Love Poems.
Vivian Gornick who read from her book The Odd Woman and the City has had many loves in her life and talks of herself as a person for whom “lovemaking was sublime, but it was not where I lived.” Friendship plays a much greater role, and her interactions with her friend Leonard bring out the best in her writing: “We share the politics of damage … our subject is the unlived life.”
Chris Price is also a New Zealand poet. She drew the short straw in terms of the line-up, as one of the features of AWF is that events follow in rapid succession and you have to queue to gain entry to some of them. Several patrons had to leave while Chris was reading. It must have been very distracting. And it was their loss, here is a quote from a poem about cross-dressing:
After raiding your wardrobe, I feel so much more myself
All these authors can write and read and speak and connect. The 45 minutes duration of these reading sessions just passes in a flash.
Now to elbow my way to the front of the queue for the next event!
Did you know that John Boyne is obsessed with stationery? And that Ireland has such remarkable literary tradition because of Guinness? No, me neither. But it is all true. It wasn’t only me who heard it, there was probably 200 other souls at John’s second session of the day. The first one was sold out, of course.
John is one of those authors, who knew they wanted to be a writer since they were little. Many people laughed at him then, but – no one is laughing now! Reading and writing were integral parts of his childhood.
Besides publishing nine novels for adults and five for young readers, John has always been writing short stories and published one collection. His work has been translated to 48 languages and the story of young friendship in holocaust, The boy in the striped pyjamas, was turned into a film. The list of awards and nominations is endless. When he speaks he addresses everyone. He radiates openness and sincerity.
His work captures two groups of voices: voices from very young people and voices from old people (and not many in between). He prefers to use different prepositions when describing his work: he writes ABOUT children and ABOUT adults, and not FOR them. His books classified as books for young readers are stories about children, who find themselves in the adult situation. John doesn’t believe in classifying literature by the age of a reader: these are modern, booksellers terms, he says. What is important is that story is told, not how it is labelled.
He considers himself as a happy person. So why so many scenes of dreadful sadness and even worse – sad endings? “My endings might be sad, but I like to think of them as authentic endings.” And so are his characters. Their complexity comes to surface in the challenging conflicts and difficult life situations they find themselves in. Like Father Yates, the protagonist in A history of loneliness. Its theme of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Ireland occupied most of the session. But complicity of such issues can only be addressed justifiably in art.
His advice to writers? Don’t take reviews personally. Don’t believe the good ones and don’t believe the bad ones. And if you meet a reviewer, who has been brutal with your work, shower them with kindness and praise – it will make them feel really bad!
Three of my favourite things came together at the festival this morning: art, books and networking! Barbara Brookes was giving a presentation on her beautiful book A History of New Zealand Women at the Auckland Art Gallery and I had a message for her.
When I booked a taxi from my home to the airport on Thursday morning (many long blogs ago), my taxi driver, Frank, was a chatty man – and when he heard I was off to Auckland Writers Festival, he said I should go say hello to his sister for him – her name is Barbara Brookes he said. What are the odds? So here I am doing my networking thing, Frank, hope you get to read this blog!
A History of New Zealand Women is a truly beautiful book. It is a book to own. Barbara spent 35 years researching it. She saw the writing of it as part of her personal journey through life. As she said: Some women are into slow cooking, I’m into slow writing!
It is a multi-layered book, and certain myths crash landed very early on: Myth number 1: That Pakeha brought an improved way of life for women. Wrong. In fact Māori women who married English men lost their traditional rights, even their landownership rights and became completely subservient to their English husbands. Myth number 2: That the arrival of the English meant more opportunities for Māori women. Wrong. What represented opportunity for English women, a new life in New Zealand, meant dispossession in many cases for Māori women.
So how did we all get to be on more or less the same page as women? Take your pick: childbirth, abortion, the fight against introduced diseases, two World Wars, the introduction of women into the workforce, the shared love of shopping and independence from the restrictions of marriage as the only way up and out, the rise of feminism, the fight for equal rights and equal pay, birth control. These were the bonds. And they were strong.
Many of the old problems are much reduced or gone. But this is life we are talking about, and new problems have come along to take their place. Like the over-sexualisation of young women and even children, domestic violence, and the one Brookes believes is the most worrying: the decline in importance of the male breadwinner and its effect on family dynamics, and the loss of quality family time as a result of the many freedoms that we all now enjoy.
Just when it was getting really quite depressing, I got chatting to a beautiful young woman in the signing queue who said: I’m one of the young women everyone seems so worried about, but we do know about the over-sexualisation of young women, and we know about the dangers of programmes like The Bachelor, but we are also strong, we are also aware.
It was like the baton had been passed on. There is a whole new wave of young women out there. The future is in their strong hands.
One thing I absolutely love about Auckland Writers Festival is the atmosphere. The whole space, the plaza and Aotea Centre breathe together with the events! It is a festival in true meaning of the word. It doesn’t take much to soak up this atmosphere, you can just park yourself comfortably in one of the couches and be present.
Here are a few tips on how to do the whole festival thing with minimal financial input (ignoring the costs of travel and accommodation):
Visit the emergency poet. For the last three days of the festival, an ambulance has been parked in front of the venue. Emergency poet Deborah Alma can asses your state and prescribe the right medicine, which is – a poem! Her 10 minute one-to-one consultation sessions are booked out, but she has an extensive collection of pre-mixed medications ready to heal you. I diagnosed myself with severe indecisiveness. I got a little red pill. Inside of it was a role of tiny piece of paper with Mary Oliver‘s (note the surname!) verse: “Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?” (I’ll take it to the Writers Festival, I answered to Mary, and I was cured!)
Attend free sessions. There is plenty of very well-themed and diversely crafted free sessions on offer right throughout the weekend. Be it a debate, a reading, a discussion or a workshop-like event, you just have to bring your open mind and get in a queue.
Talk to a stranger, you might find a book mate. Standing in a queue is a perfect time to find out what else is going on at the festival and to update yourself on sessions you missed out. I never imagined it would be so easy to start a conversation!
Browse through the book stalls and catch glimpses of authors at the signing. Book prices are reasonable, so you can always buy one and get it signed by the author. Most of authors are very approachable, so you might get a chance of a chat!
Watch the fashion show roll out in front of your eyes. I would need an extra day at the festival just to sit in the corner of the foyer and watch the spontaneous fashion procession go by. It is so mesmerizing, it almost feels like being on another planet: diversity of styles, unpredictability of combinations, colours and materials is just divine. I wish my mum could see it!
Look out for freebies. Make sure you sniff around properly. This year organizers printed out cards with authors quotes, which you might find lying around on the tables, and also a small charming booklet of stories and illustrations, some of them made especially for the festival.
After the second full day of public programming Masha, Moata and Roberta have got some highlights to share, and surprisingly have found great enjoyment from unexpected and unfamiliar quarters, finding new writers to enjoy.
Listen to part 1, highlights from the day (5 mins, 59 sec)
Listen to part 2, what’s on the schedule for Sunday (2 mins, 26 sec)