Jackie Kay – ‘What you can survive makes you stronger’

Red Dust Road by Jackie KayOne of the highlights of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013 for me has been discovering the work of British author Jackie Kay. How did I manage to live so long and not come across this woman? She is a multi-award winning poet, short story writer, memoirist and novelist. She writes for children. She’s also one of the most endearing, funny, exuberant people I have come across. When she walks in a room, the energy lifts. You can’t help but be drawn to her bright smile and her genuine warmth.

Jackie Kay’s writing contains the bittersweet wisdom of someone who’s faced big challenges in their life. She was born to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father then adopted by a white couple with Communist Party affiliations. In 1960s Glasgow this was unusual to say the least. This, together with her candid sexuality, means she’s faced prejudice from many quarters. Throughout it all, she’s stood by what she believes in. Jackie Kay is one amazing woman.

Her latest collection of sJackie Kay at AWRF 2013hort stories, Reality, Reality is brilliant. You’ve just got to read it. I bought it off the stand at the Festival and wolfed it down. The title story introduces a woman who performs daily cook-offs against imaginary competitors to the blinking red eye of her security alarm. At her session, Kay read from ‘Those are not my clothes’, a tragically funny story of an elderly woman in rest home. The author says she’s drawn to older women characters because their stories tend to disappear under the radar.

When I spoke to Jackie Kay, she told me she was on her way down to Christchurch on a kind of pilgrimage. Her adoptive parents met in Christchurch at the Coffee Pot above the Communist Party Bookshop. She was looking forward to finding the street they lived in which has apparently just been released from behind the Red Zone. In addition, her old neighbour from Glasgow is a psychologist and is now living in our fair city.

If you see Jackie, make her welcome. You’ll be very pleased you did.

It’s (pretty) easy being green

Back to the land at CCLWhy is a Writer’s Festival like a box of chocolates? Because there’s something inside for everyone.

Today I saw Tony Murrell, from Radio Live’s garden programme, host a lively session with The Gardener magazine editor Lynda Hallinan and sustainable gardening writer Janet Luke. All three are highly regarded gardening experts. They’re passionate about plants and their enthusiasm was infectious. I’ve never seen the microphone passed to so many people so quickly. It seemed everyone in the audience had a question to ask or a comment to add.

Tony Murrell has noticed a huge resurgence in interest in growing food at home in recent years. He laments the fact that many of today’s gardeners have lost the skills needed to grow veges successfully and have to spend money on re-education, tools, catalogues, fertilisers, etc. This results in expensive crop of perpetual spinach, lettuce and tomatoes which people get bored with and ‘turn back into camellia hedging’.

His panelists disagree. “It’s not all about money, Tony,” said Janet. “You are such an Aucklander!”

Linda said, “Don’t spend anything! Don’t build raised beds, don’t hire a garden designer, don’t buy a tonne of compost. Just buy a spade, dig a hole and plant things.” She believes gardening journalism has made it sound difficult and it’s not. “It’s natural. Plants grow and produce fruit because they are fulfilling their biological function. People think it’s harder than it is.”

Some sustainable gardening tips:

  • Lasagne your compost heap
  • Pile fallen leaves into a black polythene bag, tie it off, punch a few holes in it and store behind your garden shed for a year. It makes great compost.
  • If your plants look great above the soil but have nothing beneath, your garden has too much nitrogen and not enough potassium.
  • Janet Luke and Lynda Hallinan at AWRF 2013Blue flowers attract bees. Plant rosemary and borage to help pollination.
  • Chop out the middle of your lemon tree and prune to a vase shape.
  • Avoid systemetic sprays – they hurt bees.

If you’d like to know more, visit your library and check out Linda Hallinan’s Back to the land and Janet Luke’s Green Urban Living. They’ll give you plenty of helpful advice on how to get your garden doing what comes naturally.

The Joy of Art – The Brilliance of Pat Hanly

Hanly at Christchurch City Libraries“People are too new here and nature absorbs them.” Pat Hanly

This afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Ron Brownson, Senior Curator of New Zealand and Pacific Art at Auckland Art Gallery, about the work of artist Pat Hanly.

The talk was given in celebration of the publication Hanly, edited by Gregory O’Brien, which is arguably one of the best art books published this decade. Ron Brownson believes this book is ‘better than a TV programme, it is better than a TV series. It is a mini capsule of excitement.’

Ron Brownson at AWRF 2013Ron Brownson is a charismatic speaker. He quickly engaged his audience and treated us to a feast of Hanly’s paintings blown up on slides to the size of the gallery wall. He said, ‘If you’re going to have colour, you’re going to have a glut of colour’ and that was certainly what this art-starved Cantabrian needed. Vibrant blues, reds, greens and yellows filled the space, engaging the senses and lifting the spirit, as Brownson took us through the major series of Hanly’s art.

Auckland Art Gallery has just been bequeathed one of Hanly’s Showgirl Paintings and the curators are anxiously awaiting its arrival on New Zealand soil. It is a work ‘delicious in its sensuality’ containing the figure of a dancing girl which is Chimera-like in spirt. It will be a great addition to the Auckland Gallery collection.

Gil Hanly at AWRF 2013No man is an island, not even a painter, and it was wonderful to see Pat Hanly’s wife, Gil, taking photos for the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. She added some interesting background information to the talk, in one instance filling us in on the events that led up to the painting Fire at Mt Eden. Warring gangs in the neighbourhood set fire to a house close to the Hanly home and the family watched as the flames leapt into the night. Although Hanly’s works are abstracted, they are of this world.

Some people say they don’t understand Hanly and Brownson believes he knows why:

‘They don’t understand about joy and happiness. (Hanly’s) painting is full of joy. It enjoys living.

Scarlett Thomas – Tapping into Creative Writing

The End of Mr Y at CCLScarlett Thomas teaches Creative Writing at Kent University in England.  She has written eight novels including Our Tragic Universe and The End of Mr Y which was longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Who better to write a book about how to write?

Her latest work, Monkeys with Typewriters, is a guide to creative writing and contains Scarlett Thomas’ best advice. In conversation with Paula Morris, she said this is the book she wishes had been available when she started out.

The title comes from the Infinite Monkey Theorem which puts forward the proposition that a monkey, hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, could almost surely type the complete works of Shakespeare. Let’s just say it’s a long shot. According to Thomas there’s a one in 15 billion chance of a monkey typing the word banana, but this isn’t the point. The point is that it’s the words on the page that matter because they are the story. What was going on in the writer’s mind or life when s/he wrote them is irrelevant.

Scarlett Thomas at AWRF 2013A couple of writing tips:

1. Make the task seem manageable. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a short novel of 60,000 words. Break that down into 3,000 words a day and you’ve written a novel in 20 days – doesn’t seem so hard now, does it?

2. The only thing that drives characters are desires and objectives. Like people they act for a reason. Find the one key driver that is a superobjective for your character, it could be the need for comfort/control/balance/fame/popularity, and you have the beginnings of a believable character.

Some authors moan about the difficulties of being a writer. Thomas believes this is because they haven’t worked at Pizza Hut. Her advice for discontented writers? “Do some rubbish jobs so you appreciate how wonderful being a writer really is.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – Interview with a true storyteller

The Prisoner of Heaven at Christchurch City LibrariesCarlos Ruiz Zafon is a publishing legend. He has published three novels out of a planned four that centre around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a metaphor for all the forgotten ideas from the world of thought, a depository of collective memory. He has sold 25 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages.

The author is passionate about storytelling, stage craft and the imagination. In his work he uses what he calls trickery or stage craft to enable his readers to ‘internalise history and feel they were there’. He is a highly visual person and says his stories unfold in the theatre of his mind.

I had the opportunity to talk to Carlos Ruiz Zafon (pinch me – it really did happen!) after his book signing session. I had to wait some considerable time. The queues of people waiting to see him looped around the auditorium like a restless python. His readers greet him like an old friend. Whatever Carlos Ruiz Zafon does, he connects with his audience in a way that touches people deeply. Finally, I grabbed my moment:

Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Rachel Huston at AWRF 2013The books you wrote around the Cemetery of Lost Books have become international best sellers. I know our customers at Christchurch City Libraries love them. Why do you think they’re so popular?

I think what makes books, movies or any piece of creative fiction  popular can be for different reasons. In general, I think when things are popular they are popular over time. They are not just the hype of the moment, or a fad. I think stories are about the way they are told… It’s the language, the story telling, the way things are staged. This is what the reader wants to experience. I think if you can enjoy that, then you want to share it with your friends… In this case, with my perception over the years and listening to readers, I think it is the way in which these stories are told… that provides excitement and engages readers and allows people to enjoy them and this is what lies at the bottom of their success.

Paula Morris referred to the four books as a cycle rather than a series. You referred to each book as a door into a central labyrinth. Each book reveals a different part of the story, the puzzle. Has this always been your intention?

Yes, that was my intention from the beginning. What I wanted was to create some kind of world that would allow people to explore the stories and the characters and the themes from different directions and to have a series of books in which a reader would read one of the books then perhaps two or someone would read them all and in any order and the experience of them all would be different…

Barcelona has become almost a character in your books. It is complex. It is full of dark forgotten places, mystery and intrigue. I come from Christchurch, a city that has has been virtually destroyed in our recent earthquakes. I’m missing our dark places. Where can I find them?

Every place has its own memories. Some cities are very old. Some are very modern. I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles which feels like a very modern city although it is much older than it seems. I’m intigued by cities. I see cities as if they were creatures. For me they’re organic. I look at them and I’m intrigued by their history and how they’ve become what they are. Every place, every city has its own history, its own soul and many, many cities have been destroyed many times… but still you can go there and you can smell the weight and the haunting of history. Your home place has been obliterated by an earthquake but I think there is a way – a city, the stories, the memories of people survive and if you’re there and you listen, the stones will talk.

Zac Harding and Carlos Ruiz Zafon at AWRF 2013I love the image of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. On Gala Night you spoke of the labyrinthine Acres of Books bookstore in Los Angeles. These containers of memory are like libraries. As a child, did you have much to do with libraries?

For me libraries and bookstores are kinds of repositories. They are a place for people meet books and for me that is what is important about libraries… because people are going to meet books they didn’t even know existed. This is a chance encounter. People may find a book that can change their lives and open their mind to many things and that wouldn’t happen if that place wasn’t there… Ever since I was a child I have been fascinated by places where the books are. It’s important to have places where people can find an old issue and this can’t happen online or at an algorithm at a company that wants to sell you what they decide you should run into. No. You just walk into a library or a bookshop and you find books and one of these books talks to you. Why? We don’t know why it is one book or the other but when you read it things happen and I think that’s important.

The Gentle Wisdom of Anita Desai

The Artist of Disappearance at Christchurch City Libraries“I never considered doing anything else but writing. It was all I ever wanted to do.”

When I saw the name Anita Desai on the AWRF 2013 programme, I knew I’d move heaven and earth to get to Auckland to see her. I first discovered her work in my 20s and have pounced with delight on any new title that’s appeared since. I find her gentle wisdom captivating and her point of view intriguing. To think I’ve had the opportunity to talk in person to one of my favourite authors still hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m so in awe of her!

Anita Desai was born in pre-Partition Dehli to an Indian father and a German mother. Although she didn’t realise it at the time, her home life was different to others around her. She listened to music from around the world and there were books on the shelves. She describes Indian culture as ‘rich, loud and complex’ with a strong oral tradition of storytelling in which it was considered rude to withdraw with a book.

She learned English when she was at school and chose to write in the language she considers more flexible, more elastic than other languages. English contains many different influences and can be adapted to suit an author’s needs. When she started to write those around her saw this as ‘a harmless eccentricity, a nice quiet thing to do, not like being a dancing girl.’

Anita Desai at AWRF 2013And thank goodness she was given the opportunity to write. Anita Desai has been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize, with Clear Light of Day  (1980), In Custody (1994) and Fasting, Feasting (1999). She has set the bar high for new Indian authors who are receiving attention from the western publishing world today.

The Artist of Disappearance is the author’s latest work. It contains three novellas and proved to the ‘the most intense writing process I have ever been through’. The stories came to her virtually complete in themselves.

The novella form enables an author to take a section from the lives of the characters in which they undergo change. Unlike the short story, the form requires no neat conclusion. Novellas are like a slice of time from which readers draw their own conclusions.

Western literature is often preoccupied with the triumph of the individual over circumstances. The work of Anita Desai tells a different story. Her characters are not in control of life and her stories contain the awareness that ‘one is swept along by the tide of one’s own temperament and of history which is more powerful that you or I.’

My conversation with Anita Desai will follow.

No gold bar from Gaddafi: In the Ring with Don McKinnon

In the Ring at Christchurch City LibrariesBefore I went to Don McKinnon’s session this morning, I knew little about the Commonwealth or the man who was Secretary-General of the organisation from 2000 to 2008. Now I feel I have an insight into the complexity of dealing with the leaders of the 54 member countries and the tenacity it takes to affect positive political change.

Sir Donald McKinnon, ONZ, GCVO, or Don as he likes to be called, was in conversation with journalist Jane Clifton, discussing his memoir In the Ring and entertaining an appreciative audience with insights from his time with one of the world’s most revered diplomatic organisations.

The Commonwealth is the longest established organisation in the world. Times have changed since the days of the British Commonwealth. Today there are only 16 realms in the group, most of the member states are republics.

Don McKinSir Donald McKinnon at AWRF 2013non spoke about the challenges of dealing with leaders from different cultures and the importance of forming strong personal relationships. He said we believe in transactional relationships in the west whereas in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, building relationships is key.

None of the countries in the Commonwealth are simplistic in their nature. They are complex and not always easy to deal with. Add to this the fact that ‘all leaders are in a permanent state of stress’ and you have a situation which would challenge even the most experienced politician.

Don recalled attending an African Leaders’ meeting and Colonel Gaddafi entered the room, kissed every person there three times, then gave them each a gold bar. To his disappointment, Gaddafi’s minders decided that Don didn’t qualify for a gold bar because he wasn’t actually an African leader.

Don McKinnon is a politician through and through and knows that success in politics centres around trust and making, and keeping, friends in all the right places. Don’t expect any gossip. The author is a career politician who knows his stuff. He is a captivating speaker and not afraid to state his opinion.

And as to the future of the Commonwealth? He says, as long as it sticks to its values, promotes itself strongly and makes sure people know what it’s doing, it will remain an important player in the world of international politics. “There are 180 million kids in the world who will never see a school in there life. There is no shortage of work to be done.”

Fleur Adcock returns to poetry and New Zealand: an interview

Glass Wings at Christchurch City LibrariesFleur Adcock is a legend in New Zealand literary circles. She is one of our favourite poets and, although she has spent much of her life in England, her popularity is as strong as it ever was judging by the long queues at the book signing session.

For ten years Fleur Adcock didn’t write poetry. Instead she ‘fell in love with facts and wanted to extract them and not deal with any of that airy fairy stuff you think up in your head.’ Her latest collection, Glass Wings, marks the end of this creative drought.

I was lucky enough to grab a few minutes of her time after her session.

Are you glad to be back on New Zealand soil?

I’m feeling rather overwhelmed at being back in New Zealand. I’ve been here for about five weeks so I’ve had time to get to know it again and get to know people again and remember how beautiful it is. Auckland is so beautiful – all the trees and the vegetation – and Wellington is kind of home so I do have those connections. Then I’m off again but this time I’m definitely going to come back sooner.

I really enjoyed your latest collection of poems, Glass Wings. Ancestry is an important theme running through your work?

Yes, it’s becoming more and more so in people’s lives but this happens as people get older. They start taking an interest in their ancestors. I often find when people say the kids aren’t interested, just wait twenty years. They’ll get around to it.

In the session you read your poem The Chiffonier which was published in 1986 and at the time hit a chord with many people who went out to buy The Listener especially to read this poem. It deals with the idea of rootlessness and being torn between places.

You realise you can’t substitute things for people but things are important too because they are symbolic of people. They remind us.

You spoke about the state of the libraries in England. Since the earthquakes in Christchurch, libraries have proved to be important places for people to come to. The thought that many libraries in England closing is quite frightening to me.

It is appalling. I suppose it will start creeping back again and they’ll realise what they’ve done. I think they’re trying to find substitutes and set up places in supermarkets and things but not in actual library buildings. These are often listed buildings, buildings that have been donated. There are so many other uses libraries can be put to. They can always extend their range and find ways of keeping them going – if they wish.

You said searching though the internet or on a computer is very different from searching for books in the library.

Just browsing you suddenly see an interesting looking volume down on the bottom shelf and you pick it up and you open it and it hits you with a new experience, a new realm to explore.

Fleur Adcock at AWRF 2013Did you enjoy being a librarian?

Some of the time, yes. I got stuck in cataloguing for six or seven years in the Foreign Commonwealth Office and that was very depressing because we had to keep training new, young cataloguers and I was the only one who could do it until I  finally trained someone who really liked it and she took over. Then I went into the reference section and I could do research and the things I like doing now. Answering questions from readers who had written it. That’s what I like doing – finding things for people.

Are you writing poetry now?

Yes, well not at this moment. I haven’t written anything for the last month. It’s impossible because I never stop talking. I’m in the middle of a new sequence and I’ve been doing some research for that about my father’s early days in New Zealand as a teenager so when I get home, as I have to call it, I’ll get on with that.

You mentioned the term ‘reclusive’. Is it difficult for someone who loves to spend time quietly working on their own, to come out to writers festivals?

No, I like doing things like that as long as there’s a home to go back to in the end. As long as you don’t have to get back to the husband. I can’t deal with that. I can’t wake up in the morning and have someone around the house because a lot of my thoughts, my ideas and impulses occur when I’m fresh when I wake up in the morning. It just wouldn’t work if I had to converse over breakfast.

Catching up with Tanya Moir

Tania Moir at AWRF 2013Guess who I bumped into this morning? Canterbury’s own Tanya Moir who is here at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013 to promote her new book, Anticipation.

Now, Tanya and I go back a long way. In another life, we wrote advertising copy together and I’ve followed her writing career with interest. I cheered when she published her first novel La Rochelle’s Road, an historical novel about British settlers on Banks Peninsula, and I was keen to hear what she was up to now.

PQ (Post Quake) Tanya moved to Auckland because her husband found work up here. She is living in a beach settlement half an hour out of the city where the surf crashes over a black sand beach. Auckland’s  west coast is a great place for old surfers and writers to hang out, a laid-back community tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. The couple plans to return to Christchurch permanently one day and they visit the region frequently as they still have a property on Banks Peninsula.

Tanya is currenAnticipation - Book Covertly working on a new novel. It’s a contemporary work and she feels she’s nearly half way through the process. When I ask if she’s happy in her work, she says everything else seems boring in comparison. She loves to write.

Her constant companion is a five month old Irish wolfhound puppy who is already the size of a well built Labrador. She says he’s crazy but a great companion.

Tanya will be appearing in History Repeating in the Limelight Room at the Aotea Centre on Sunday at 4pm. In this FREE session four writers will read sections from their work that reference the repeating of history.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Auckland, get along to the session. If not, place a hold on Anticipation at Christchurch City Libraries. Highly recommended contemporary New Zealand literature.

Anticipated highlights #2 – AWRF 2013

My paper copy of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival programme is a sea of pink as the highlighter continues to get a work-out.

My second most anticipated event features Rosemary McLeod; cartoonist, journalist, collector and all-round great writer whose work has been entertaining, annoying and making me think since I was a teenager. Actually that may be something of an exaggeration because she’s not much older than me, but then she could have started working on Thursday magazine when she was a teenager.

Thrift to FantasySearch for With bold needle and thread

I still look for her column first in The Press on a Thursday and her book Thrift to Fantasy is one of my favourites, so I’m really excited to hear her talk about The Secret Life of Aprons and her new book With bold needle and thread.

The occasion may call for the wearing of a very special ceremonial apron. Like a female Mason, if there was such a thing.

Embroidery Embroidery