Never judge a book by its cover

Tea ObrehtTea Obreht bounced on stage at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, looking for all the world like a stereotypical cheerleader – thick long blonde hair, shiny white teeth in a large smile, standard American TV accent. But hang on, hasn’t she written a world famous novel? Yes, it’s called The Tiger’s Wife, she began it at 19 and finished it at  22.

She spoke with Paula Morris about her Balkan heritage and how she comes from a tradition of rich storytelling, where even a trip to the shop is retold as an epic event. She is a fan of grand layered narrative and wrote this novel out of sequence – choosing to write sections at separate times, then wove them together later to make a seamless whole, that is virtually three dimensional in its complexity.

Her inspiration for the novel came from a National Geographic documentary she watched one snowy winter about Siberian tigers,  then combined that with traditional stories she’d grown up with, and she’d also loved reading The Jungle Book and Just So stories as a child. She is a zoo fanatic, has visited Auckland Zoo whilst here, and proclaimed it one of the best she’d seen.

Before starting this novel, she was commissioned by Harpers magazine to go to remote Serbo-Croatian villages to gain information for an article on vampires (this being the start of the Twilight era). She knocked on many doors, had a few slammed in her face, but at others was invited in and she listened to nonagenarians talk about their first hand experiences with these bloodsuckers. Not the average temporary job for a teen, and you can only admire her level-headedness at such a young age.

Tea has a second novel under way, but is making slow progress on it. The Tiger’s Wife was written as her grandfather was dying (Obreht is his Slovenian surname – he made a deathbed request that she dedicate her book to him, and she has, as well as taking on his name), and the novel was cathartic for her. Consequently it has taken her a while to come up with another idea that will be equally as meaningful to her. I wish her all the best for it because, let’s face it, she’s certainly got time on her side.

On the way to Sydney, we stopped in Auckland

David MitchellIn a packed session at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Nicola Legat (publisher at Random House, Festival trustee) spoke with three regional winners of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. You can read some background information about these writers and the Prize itself in a previous blog of mine. These writers are on their way to the Sydney Writers Festival for the announcement of the overall winner of the prize.

Aminatta Forna (whose mother incidentally lives in New Zealand) was born in Sierra Leone, and raised in the UK. She won the Best Book category for the Africa region of the Prize with The Memory Of Love. This novel, about love and war, is set in Sierra Leone, and in her deep radio-quality voice, she read us an excerpt. She has well-crafted turns of phrase – “leaning across her frame like an old woman at the garden gate” (a child using a bamboo(!) walking frame). One of the protagonists is Kai, a young doctor in a hospital that is severely underfunded, coping with shortages of what we would call essentials, with equanimity  – “scalpel poised like a conductor when the generator fails, waiting for the lights to go back on”, and of proceeding with operations with no anaesthesia available, tying patients to the bed, giving them a twisted sheet to bite from until they faint from pain – whew. Continue reading

This one’s for Christchurch

This one's for ChristchurchI was a little nervous prior to attending  The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival session (kindly hosted by the2011 Auckland Writers And Readers Festival) – was I wearing waterproof mascara? Would I sit there, squirming uncomfortably, while listening but not wanting to listen to horrific earthquake stories? Did I really want to be reminded of what is an enduring reality back home?

This session came about because last year’s The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival was cancelled due to the September quake. Then this year’s one because of the big kahuna in February. They’re now aiming to have a Festival in September 2012 – as long as a big enough venue can be found (a rather scarce commodity post-quake). I applaud their tenacity, and well done Morrin Rout and Ruth Todd (Christchurch festival organisers) for perservering to bring us a well-needed cultural diversion.

Fiona Farrell spoke of writing a poem ‘The Horse’ (to help her animal mad sister understand what was happening). She gave the quake a horse persona, and it quivered and stamped as tiny flies (aftershocks) bit it, and we, lying  “on the back of a huge beast”, hang on for dear life. This was followed by ‘The Tarp’. The chimney in her Christchurch flat fell through the roof and “when the rain falls, it scribbles decay on the ceiling”. A young man placed a tarpaulin over the damaged roof and a poem was born. Last was ‘Julia At Tai Tapu’ and is about the strange beauty of liquifaction volcanoes in the night – “and Julia glides about her park, a sweet vibration in the dark”.

Tusiata Avia read a poem about driving to find her young daughter in the CBD – “everyone is leaving for their home in the sky”. She spoke about coming back later to search for the memories of buildings and read ‘St Paul’s Trinity Pacific Church’, which had the repetitive phrase “no evidence of” , referring to events that have happened in the past at the church, but now “we all fade into the archaeology”. Last was a poem about the CTV building, that had its lift shaft left standing, long after the rest of the building was removed – “the inner workings of The Rapture, sheared open for all of us to see”.

Charlotte Randall is a novelist, and  as “I usually write 80,000 words, so that would have taken too long to read out” she instead discussed the exciting idea, that she is thinking of continuing Halfie’s story (new novel Hokitika Town, set in 1865 goldrush Hokitika), setting him as an adult in San Francisco during the 1905 earthquake. She then went on to talk about the benefits of natural disasters – that neighbours get to know one another, go out to dinner together, all sorts of ‘social cocooning’ going on.

Carl Nixon was only on stage briefly, and appeared to be quite upset to be talking about ‘his’ Christchurch, the one of the past, where he has set the majority of his work. He appeared at a loss as to how to incorporate the ‘new’ Christchurch into his imaginings. He read part of a short story ‘The Last Good Day Of Autumn’ because it was set near buildings that now no longer exist or are badly damaged (Antiqua Boatsheds, Museum, Arts Centre).

Joanna Preston is a poet who spends a lot of time in Australia, but had arrived back in Christchurch 24 hours before the September shake. She told of hearing car alarms ‘screaming like children’ afterwards, and the beautiful Spring day that followed – “it felt like walking in the Underworld, everything was so quiet and unreal”. She read ‘Aftershock’ written by Shaun Joyce (one of her students), ‘The Fault’ – how that word now has so many meanings, and lastly ‘The City And The City’ which had the haunting line “a bright shop front translated into a coffin lid”.

Berlin resident Sarah Quigley has written a column for The Press for the last 13 years and was due to email one through, when she heard about the February quake from a friend. Whilst frantically trying to establish whether her family and friends were alright, she wondered whether or not there would indeed be a paper published in the next while. She was amazed to find that yes, The Press would be printed, under very difficult circumstances, and her column featured on 26 February. She read out that column, (I remember sitting on my couch at home, reading that same column, marvelling at the speed with which she had written it and made it into print) and it was heartrending to imagine someone sitting on the other side of the world, unable to help, not knowing the fate of her loved ones.

Morrin Rout led a round of applause for The Press, saying that she too had been amazed to find a copy on her doorstep the morning after the February quake, and spoke of how reassuring it was to hold it in her hand and be able to read the news of the disaster, rather than just listening on the radio or following it on TV. Ruth Todd concurred heartily, as she’d been without power at the time.

So, no tears from me, though a few throat wobbles at times. At first it felt strange to be sitting in a large multi-layered building, with many, many other people in it, in a city that has skyscrapers and beautiful verandahed, brick-fronted heritage buildings, and know that it is light years away from Christchurch in every way. But, afterwards I left with a warm fuzzy feeling of comradeship, perserverance and hope. Thanks Auckland for letting a little bit of Christchurch shine.

Paula Green steals the short fiction show

I’m still buzzing after an intense and absorbing hour listening to three writers talk about the joys – and otherwise – of writing short fiction.  Poet Paula Green chaired the session, uttering one beautiful observation after another about the works of Claire Keegan, Tina Makereti and Sue Orr.

Paula began by saying that she was going to have a conversation on stage and we would be eavesdropping. She spoke about each author in turn, saying that Claire Keegan ‘navigates the unexpected. She takes hold of your heart and wrenches it’; Tina Makereti’s voice ‘is dependent on an astute ear’ and Sue Orr ‘writes with exquisite clarity, rhythm and mist’.

She told the audience that she imagined writing short fiction would be like folding an A4 page into little pieces, and that there would be seams of emotion in the folds. Awww, how do you top that?

Claire Keegan read  a story from Walk The Blue Fields , about a man called Stack, who lived with a goat named Josephine (sharing his life and bed), and the arrival of a woman called Margaret into the house next door. All set in the bogs of rural Ireland and told in her mesmerising, mellow Irish accent.

Tina Makereti read Kia te Aki from Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa, a tale of an elderly kuia finding a little lost boy on the side of the road, and taking him home.  She uses short sentences to great impact and te reo was sprinkled throughout the story. Later she said that she didn’t provide translations, as she hoped that the story would convey the meaning – a technique that worked wonderfully.

Sue Orr read Scratchy from Under the over coat, a witty and wry tale of a grandmother’s view of her life (which includes pulling down her once-favourite grandson’s low-riding jeans with two swift tugs until ‘they were a blue puddle on the pavement’, and looking out through her ‘eyelash prisms’ to spy on her husband.

As to the question of whether short fiction is a type of apprenticeship for going on to write novels, all three writers were dismissive of the idea. While they are all working on novels, none of them would ever give away the succinct beauty of short stories.

Their personal favourites? Claire Keegan – Chekhov‘s The Kiss; Tina Makereti – The Long And The Short Of It (new publication) and Sue Orr – The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield.

One last Paula-ism to finish – she said that she didn’t wear perfume, but imagined that rewriting old classic short stories (as Sue Orr and Tina Makereti have done with their latest books) would be like 10 different people wearing the same perfume, but each giving out a different whiff of fragrance.

The inside word on outsiders

Catherine Boyd and Laurence FearnleyAt the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, I attended a fascinating session (chaired very ably by Carole Beu), listening to three women writers from the south who have published books in the last year – all with the theme of outsiders.

Carole entreated the audience to believe that Laurence Fearnley, Charlotte Randall and Emma Neale are some of the best writers in the world, and to go out and tell everybody else the same thing. She is certain that they will all feature in upcoming book awards this year.

All three authors are approachable, likeable and intelligent speakers. Laurence Fearnley’s book The Hut Builder is about Boden, a small town butcher’s son who also writes poetry. He’s an introverted character who tagged along with a group of people he knew from school and constructed a tramping hut  in the mountains near Mt Cook in the 1950s. Near the end of the trip, he climbed to the summit of Mt Cook with famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.

Laurence donned a black beanie to help set the scene when reading an excerpt from the book, where young Boden sees the Mackenzie Basin in winter for the first time. He sees the dog with him leaping through snow ‘like a dolphin surfing waves’ and ‘walking on a field of stars’ and is moved to compose his first poem in his head.

Charlotte Randall is witty and forthright. She showed a photo of the Canterbury Gold Escort, taken at 9am 4th December 1865. Uniformed and armed men who rode on horseback, escorting gold from the West Coast to Canterbury. This photo was her inspiration for Hokitika Town, set in 1865, and tells the story of Halfie, a mixed race Maori/Pakeha boy who tells his story in a strange patois that he has picked up from the multi-national inhabitants of the goldfields.

Emma Neale has precise, clear diction and told the story of Boo, the 7ft tall ‘man’ covered in a pelt ‘like the feathers on a Golden Retriever’s tail’ who was discovered in a forest. He is the main protagonist in her latest novel Fosterling. She writes beautifully and there were many examples of metaphorical brilliance, my favourite being ‘he watched a wood pigeon that had a breast as stout as a cream jug’.

All three writers preferred to twist their non-fiction research to fit the story that they wanted to tell. Laurence Fearnley said that she always began her work with a single image in her mind, and went from there. Charlotte Randall said she only writes about what interests her, and that that changes all the time. Emma Neale has young children and is particularly affected by the thought of them going out into the world, and coping on their own.

Sharp wit in a sharp suit – the intriguing A. A. Gill

A. A. GillI hadn’t originally planned to attend A.A.Gill’s session at the 2011 Auckland Writers And Readers Festival, as everything I’d heard and read about him sounded dreadful. I was sure that he was a grumpy Scots curmudgeon who would be boringly self-important to listen to.

How wrong I was. I was in fits of laughter for most of the session, as he used his savage wit to cut swathes through chefs (most of them left school by 14), TV programmers (the only profession I know that eat their own young), trawler fishing in the UK (the boats are designed for fish, so if you’re human on board, there’s nowhere to be comfortable, and of course for the fish, if they’re on board, they’re dead), restaurant dishes (I once tasted foie gras sushi – it tasted like something off a vet’s biopsy tray) and so much more.

Restauranteur Al Brown (Hunger For The Wild TV star) struggled to rein in his guest’s loquacious tendencies, and at times sat dumbstruck, unable to break into the verbal stream that flowed spontaneously with very little prompting. Mr Gill was open about his previous battles with drink and drugs (his first job was as a drug dealer and hence was exempt from paying the minimum tax rate), and told of reinventing himself through Oxfam clothes. He went through a period of wearing very weird outfits (tutu or monocle anyone?) in the hope that one would be the right fit character-wise for him.

He is extremely dyslexic (in his words “middle class stupidity”) and was sent to the only vegetarian boarding school  in Britain as a cure. He spent “hundreds of years” in art classes, as they were the only ones that didn’t have exams, and as a consequence thought he was an artist. He became a journalist at the ripe old age of 40, gained a contract earning more money than his dad, and now fills in his days either by watching TV (as a critic), eating food (as a critic) or going on holiday (as a critic) – are you seeing a pattern there somewhere?

I wouldn’t like to be under the spotlight of his ascerbic wit but he is a great comedy act to watch, which surprisingly included some  moments of real pathos, particularly when talking about the last meal he had with his Dad who was an alzheimer’s sufferer. I want to read his books now, and will be able to picture him, a sophisticate in a Saville Row suit, withering his opposition with words.

Agony, ecstasy and letting your writing go

logoAnyone who has ever slaved over a piece of prose or poetry knows the agony of finally admitting that it is ready to be released into the wild, to take its chances amidst the front-runners and also-rans in the publishing world.

As soon as your manuscript has been prised from your hot little hand (or keyboard), you are stricken with doubt: should I have edited it one more time? Did I let it slip from my grasp before it was fully matured, a mere wordy stripling competing with mature authorial oaks?

Ok, ok, enough metaphorical hand wringing, you get the picture – it’s hard to let your baby go and be judged by others. At the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival session we’ll hear from several experienced writers regarding this problem:

Aminatta Forna: born in Glasgow, raised in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom. She is the award-winning author of  The Devil That Danced On The Water (a memoir of her dissident father and Sierra Leone),  Ancestor Stones (linked short stories set in Sierra Leone), and her new novel The Memory Of Love (a story of friendship, war and obsessive love).

Gail Jones: an Australian author who has won many awards (including the WA Premier’s Award for Fiction, the Age Book Of The year Award, the Adelaide Festival Award For Fiction and many others), been shortlisted for international awards and her fiction has been translated into five languages. She has five novels published – Black Mirror, Sixty Lights, Dreams Of Speaking, Sorry, and her most recent Five Bells.

David Mitchell: an English novelist who has written five novels, Ghostwritten; number9dream; Cloud Atlas; Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. number9dream and Cloud Atlas were shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001 and 2004 respectively.  He has lived all over the world and has known that he has wanted to be a writer since he was a child. Mitchell has the speech disorder of stammering and has said that he ‘outed’ himself by writing a semi-autobiographical novel, Black Swan Green, that is narrated by a stammering 13 year old.

Tea Obreht: born in the former Yugoslavia, and spent her childhood in Cyprus and Egypt before immigrating to the US. Her short stories have been widely published, and her first novel The Tiger’s Wife was published in 2010.

David Vann: an assistant professor of English at the University of San Francisco, teacheing creative fiction and non-fiction. He is the author of a memoir – A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea, and has had other work appear in many magazines. He has also written two novels – Legend Of A Suicide; and Caribou Island.

Having personally filed many pieces of work into a bottom drawer, never to see the light of day again, and agonised time and again over exactly when a story has been edited for the final time, I’m looking forward to hearing how ‘real’ authors have coped with sending their work out into the world.

Uncommonly good writers

At the upcoming 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, three 2011 Commonwealth Writer’s prize regional winners speak  and read from their works, along with publisher and festival trustee Nicola Legat.

Craig Cliff – (Best First Book, South East Asia & South Pacific – A Man Melting) was born in Palmerston North, has lived in Australia and Scotland, and now resides in Wellington. He has had short stories published both here and in Australia.

Aminatta Forna – (Best  Book, Africa – The Memory Of Love) was born in Glasgow, raised in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom, and lives in London. She is the author of a memoir and two novels, and her works have been translated into 10 languages.

David Mitchell (Best Book, South Asia & Europe – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) is an English novelist who has lived in Sicily and Japan and is currently living in Ireland.

The Commonwealth Writers’ prize is a leading award for fiction that was established in 1987 and covers the regions of Africa; Europe and South Asia; the Caribbean and Canada; and South East Asia and the South Pacific (that’s us folks).

It aims to recognise the best fiction by both established and new writers from these countries and ensure their works reach a wider audience, and almost 200 books have now been recognised with literary prizes since the scheme began. Each year prizes for Best Book and Best First Book are awarded in the four regions, then the eight winners compete for the overall pan-Commonwealth prizes.

New Zealanders have been well represented in the past, including: Lloyd Jones (Mister Pip); Janet Frame (The Carpathians); Witi Ihimaera (The Matriarch);  Mo Zhi Hong (the Year Of The Shanghai Shark);  Kapka Kassabova (Reconnaissance); Catherine Chidgey (In A Fishbone Church); Charlotte Randall (Dead Sea Fruit); Beryl Fletcher (The Word Burners); John Cranna (Visitors); and Craig Cliff (A Man Melting).

It gives hope to all writers beavering away on their magnum opus, that apart from waiting to hear back from publishers, there is another way of getting recognition for your toil . Everyone needs to start somewhere, and it is heartening to read the above list of New Zealander’s who weren’t above entering a competition or two.

Southern women write about southern men

logoA trio of writers from the South Island are set to take to the stage at the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival to talk about their recently published books which all have the connecting theme of  ‘outsiders’.

Charlotte Randall is a novelist whose first book Dead Sea Fruit (1995) won the Reed Fiction Award and Best First Book Award in the South East Asia/Pacific section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her second novel The Curative and fourth novel What Happen then Mr Bones? were runners-up in the fiction section of the Montana Book Awards (2001 & 2005 respectively). Her latest novel – Hokitika Town – is about a boy called Halfie and is set during the gold rush in 1865 Hokitika.

Emma Neal is a poet and prose writer who has had writing published extensively and was the inaugural recipient of the New Zealand Society of Authors Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature in 2008.  Her new novel Fosterling  is about a young man found unconscious in a remote forest, who is seven-foot tall and hairy!

Laurence Fearnley is an author and curator who has written extensively on New Zealand craft artists and has received many awards and grants for her work. Her seventh novel The Hut Builder focuses on a southern small town (Fairlie) and its most famous inhabitant – the butcher/poet who climbed to the summit of Mt Cook with Edmund Hillary.

All three novels have male protagonists, so I’m keen to listen to the authors talk about their work, and hear if they had any difficulties writing from a male point of view.  Also, the stereotypical image of a southern man revolves around beer, horses, dogs and countryside found in the Southern Alps – a far cry from downtown Auckland, mate! I have no doubt that they will offer a wholly more sensitive image – of men living in interesting times.

Poetry personified? I’ll drink to that!

coverWhat do you call a gathering of New Zealand poetry rock stars (a.k.a. Poet Laureates)? A diligence of describers? A ponderance of poets? A promise of perfection?

There have been many notable poets to have held the post of Poet Laureate (including the late Hone Tuwhare, 1999-2001), so having the opportunity to hear four past and the present Poet Laureate perform together is a rare delight indeed.

At the 2011 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, we’ll be treated to well-crafted words from Bill Manhire (inaugural Poet Laureate 1997-1999), Elizabeth Smither (2001-2003), Jenny Bornholdt (2005-2007), Michele Leggott (2008-2009) and Cilla McQueen. Brian Turner, who held the post from 2003-2005 is presently overseas.

The Office of Poet Laureate has been in existence since at least 1389 when Geoffrey Chaucer was titled thus and granted an annual allowance of money and wine. The salary has varied over time, but alcohol is still traditionally included.

John Dryden in the 1670s had a pension of 300 pounds and a ‘butt’ of canary wine – equivalent today to 477 litres of sherry. One would need to drink 1.3 litres/day in order to get through the annual stipend – conducive to either incoherent ramblings or inspired genius!

New Zealand’s Poet Laureate Award was established by Te Mata Winery in 1996, its centenary year. From 2007 the Award has been administered by the National Library of NZ. The Award is selected biennially and as a distinct improvement from a butt of canary wine, the Poet Laureate is awarded with a tokotoko (carved walking stick) for ceremonial use, as well as a stipend of Te Mata wine.

A Poet Laureate’s drafts, podcasts, readings, online and published works are preserved in National Library’s Digital Heritage archive, and in collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.