Apologies to Kate Atkinson fans

Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson

As you can tell by the number of posts during the Writers festival, it was pretty busy.  This is my excuse for why, somehow, unbelievably, we seem to have missed out on posting anything about Kate Atkinson’s session.  This is a shame, because those who went really enjoyed it.

The session was scarily chaired by Lynn Freeman from The Arts on Sunday Radio Programme, (her warnings about what she would do to anyone whose phone went off during the session was enough to get me rifling through my bag to double recheck that my phone was off). However she asked some really good questions and kept the mainly female audience in strict control.  We all knew exactly where we stood thank you very much!

Kate Atkinson read a chapter from her new book When will there be good news.  I thoroughly enjoyed sitting back and being read to, but I did hear murmurings about not coming to a session to spend half of it listening to a chapter of a book that they had already read!  Others however …

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Blogging with Donna and other people

The last session I went to at the Festival was one where the star blogger of Christchurch City Libraries, was on a panel with New Zealand novelist Rachael King and American novelist Mark Sarvas, known for his literary blog, The Elegant Variation.

In the chair was Guy Somerset and he was excellent in getting the goods from the three bloggers. I thought Donna was excellent and a credit to our library for the way she described how the library started a blog, how it grew, what worked and how our blog had gradually built up a reputation. Rachael King’s blog is more literary and is not about book reviews but more on what she is reading and writing and ruminations on this. Apparently she gets a number of other Kiwi writers adding their voice to the blog, including Keri Hulme (now come on Keri, stop blogging and get that “Bait” novel out there to your public!)

Mark Sarvas may live in California but he reminded me of a New Yorker in that once he got the floor he wouldn’t let up. He was as much a motormouth as Mark Billingham but not as funny. He tended to dominate the session and though I’m sure a lot of the audience liked him I wondered if our good old cultural cringe means we think that anyone who comes here from the Northern Hemisphere must automatically know more about anything than we do. I wondered – even though it’s none of my business – how he can put so much time and energy into a blog that has no commercial sponsorship. Someone afterwards suggested private income and if that’s the case good luck to him (he said with peevish envy).

Also there, in the front row, was Graham Beattie whose blog is one of the best known in New Zealand and a blog that you could use as your one and only (other than the CCL blog of course). He said a few words and was as generous and unassuming as ever. So, with the two Kiwis on the panel and Mr Beattie in the audience, it was obvious to me that we can do it as well as anyone in the world.

And as this is my last blog from the Festival, I have to say it was great fun and my initial reaction on Friday (that it didn’t have the pizazz of the Auckland Festival) was knocked on the head in the weekend as the readers and writers came out in droves and there was a real buzz about the place.

Sorry I haven’t the time to go through some of the funnier moments but perhaps a later blog could go into such moments as Mark Billingham and the nipples in the bath scene from his latest book where he singled out a woman in the audience (one of our very own bloggers no less) who was doing a facial “Whaaaaaaaaaat?!” at some faulty research on his part

Philip (now back and knowing his place in downtown Sydenham)

Festival faves

Bookman Beattie has posted his best of the fest, here’s mine:

  • Festival crush – Arnold Zable – collector of Yiddish curses
  • Best hair – Vanessa Collingridge
  • Best baby – Vanessa Collingridge – so well behaved he could come to a poetry session
  • Most terrifying CV – Vanessa Collingridge
  • Best chair – Philip Norman – not just an easy chair but a self-confessed la-z-boy
  • Best shoes – Kate Mosse – platform sneakers
  • Best handling of a disgruntled book lover – Lloyd Jones when he invited a woman who had “paid money to hear him” but couldn’t to sit beside him on the couch
  • Best description of bad writing about art – Hamish Keith “prose so opaque it could well have been made from clay” (of a piece about pottery)
  • Best unknown (and unlikely) fact about a personal hero – A.S. Byatt is a Terry Pratchett fan
  • Best controversy – Fiona Kidman giving the Montana fiction fight another airing, much to Marion Halligan’s delight
  • Never miss the opportunity to see this woman read award – Tusiata Avia
  • Discoveries: Arnold Zable, Karlo Mila, Anya Ulinich

It’s not about me – or is it?

I know the festival is over but I’m not ready to let go just yet and this was one of my favourite sessions. There were writers on the panel who may not have been discovered by readers here in Christchurch but who should be if their readings were anything to go by. Plus it was such a good festival I plan to bang on about it for quite some time, so there.

It may not be about me for the writers but as far as many readers are concerned it should be. I remember Margaret Atwood saying at an author event that after a character in one of her novels lost a lot of weight readers were always asking her how she did it. When she replied that she wasn’t the character, they would say “yes, but how did you lose the weight?”

For Christine Luenens going into character is like being an actor; it does come from the inside, almost like harnessing the extremely powerful imagination we express in our dreams.

Anya Ulinich’s novel Petropolis was one that made it onto my very long list of books to read after the festival – my notes say someone described it as “kinky, grotesque and very funny” – what more could any reader require? Horns were locked when Ullnich’s U.S. editor’s desire for the book to be about a girl discovering herself came up against Ullnich’s more political motivation.

Mark Sarvas’ experience raised the interesting question of what is a first novel. Is it the book you write first or the book that is published first? Sarvas set aside his first which was much more autobiographical than his second, for which he wasn’t remotely tempted to use his life, but has now returned to his first . This gave chair Rachael King the chance to ask if using one’s life was easier or harder, a very good question. “Inherently more difficult” said Sarvas, although this novel did have more serious subject matter.

One of the differences between non-fiction and fiction panels at festivals seems to be that non-fiction panels are much more about the topic of the book, while fiction panels get onto the lives and writing habits of the writers. Both can be good, but I’m a fan of the life and habits side of things – where else would you hear the lovely phrase “plume and feather duster”, which Christine Luenens used to describe her approach to writing and domestic duties since the birth of her children.

Having a practitioner as the chair was an advantage in this session, as it was in the non-fiction session Painting a Picture – New Zealand Artists on Sunday. It may be that King and Philip Norman are good at putting people at their ease but it seemed that their in-depth knowledge of what it means to produce a first novel or a biography helped them to establish a rapport with their panels.

Not another bloody blog

It was a proud moment to see our very own Donna Robertson on the podium on Sunday, looking cool calm and collected, and not a sign of nerves to be seen.

Rachael King, author of The Sound of Butterflies, and a blog with the same name talked about her blogging being useful for her writing process. She finds that creating and keeping the blog going gets her fired up to continue on her second book, and she enjoys the feedback from other authors. Her blog is primarily about being a writer, but she avoids getting too personal.

Harry, revised
Harry, revised

Mark Sarvas, the third panelist is the author of Harry Revised, and the founder of the literary blog The elegant variation (I must reinforce here the word literary, not a piece of genre fiction ever makes it to this blog, I can assure you). If you have read his blog he often refers to both “I’ and “we”. I (as opposed to we ), thought there was more than one person writing for this blog, but no, he uses “we” when he is in reviewer mode and “I’ when it is more of a personal post…. Silly me.

Our Donna reinforced the fact that the team of Library bloggers can more or less blog about whatever we like, even (gasp) genre fiction. I swelled with pride.

Now Mark Sarvas doesn’t mind a bit of controversy. Apparently, when he criticised another author this year for writing what he saw as an appalling book, the comments box went hot. I can’t remember the author’s name or the title of the book, but I have this strange compulsion to track it down and read it. For some reason I think I might enjoy it.

Rachael King said how much she enjoyed being able to go to our Readers and Writers blog at the end of the day, and catch up on some of the sessions that she had missed.

Bookman Beattie, as the most iconic of all New Zealand bloggers, acknowledged that his job is a full-time one, and it is certainly incredibly worthwhile to consult his blog you want to know anything about books, both here and throughout the world.

So thanks to Donna for waving the flag. It’s been a long, fun, interesting weekend, and having Donna as our editor has made it all the more so.

Oranges are not the only prize

Author, Tim Lott created a bit of a controversy earlier this year when he questioned the relevence of the Orange prize and suggested it was a sexist con-trick.  Talking today about this prize and the general relevence of prizes in general, Kate Mosse – author and co-founder of the Orange prize managed to drop into the conversation that Tim Lott was known as being a bit of a grump anyway!

Other panel members recounted various successes with prizes, amazingly, some only finding out that they had been nominated for the short list once the winner of the prize had been announced. 

It was Kate Mosse however who was particularily interesting.  She talked about the setting up of the Orange prize, and believed that prizes should be about getting readers in touch with great writers, and also should have other roles such as funding literary and Education courses.  During the initial stages of setting up of the prize, Kate Mosse was contacted by a wealthy elderly woman who wanted to donate money to the prize, as reading had been such an important part of her life.  Later on when the initial controversy was still in full flight kate Mosse rung her as she was worried that this woman may have been concerned about what she was putting her money into.  The reply from this elderly woman was totally reassuring. “My dear, it was much harder when we were trying to get the vote”.  Puts it all into perspective really.

Fiona Kidman talked about the controversy surrounding this years Montana Book awards, and the decision to only choose four books instead of the usual five.  All panelists agreed that being nominated for the short list for any prize is a wonderful opportunity, it raises your profile, and even though you may not win, the publicity is incredibly worthwhile.  By not nominating a fifth book, an author in New Zealand had been denied this opportunity.

So although there was no sign of any obvious argy bargy, it was good to get a bit of insight into the world of writing, and to realise that these authors are gutsy and willing to stand up for themselves.  They have to be, all are competing for the same small pool of money.  Fiona Kidman did suggest that New Zealand could do with some more literary prizes, and I’m inclined to agree with her.

Oranges Are Not the Only Prize

I came being prepared to not enjoy this session as I feared it might degenerate into total focus on special treatment for women etc etc but in fact it was a good session. The panelists – Marion Halligan, Fiona Kidman, Kate Mosse and Sara Knox, talked about their experiences of prizes. What came through was more the value of writing awards which both validated their work and gave them money to focus solely on their writing.

Being writers they had great stories – Fiona Kidman told of being smuggled into Parliament with a blanket over her head for an interview with Ian Fraser and Faye Weldon (at the time she was banned from the precincts after incidents in the 1981 Springbok tour protests). Marion Halligan talked about Helen Demidenko the Australian writer who won awards while pretending to be Ukrainian. She talked of judges who were thrilled to make a new star – King or queen making. Sara Knox talked about the value of prizes to first time novelists who have to compete in the marketplace with authors who are “known quantities”.

All the authors spoke strongly about the importance of the long and short lists being promoted. Fiona Kidman was passionate about this year’s row over the size of the fiction shortlist in the Montana Awards. She felt the judges were giving a terrible message for those writers who did not make the shortlist.

Kate Mosse has been involved in the Orange Broadband Prize since its inception. She thinks its importance is not only the focus on writing by women but also the fact that it is international. The money for the prize came from an anonymous, elderly woman donor, the sculpture the winner receives a bronze cast of each year came from the actor David Niven’s sister and Orange Communications became sponsors at a time when cell phone uptake by women was low and most marketing was based on “fear messages”. The sponsorship has continued to be a positive one for Orange. The Prize focuses on working with publishers and booksellers to market the short lists and also invests in projects involving writing and literacy. I liked the fact that it also includes a prize for new writers and a prize for book group of the year.

After the session I asked Kate Mosse what she thought of the idea (as promoted by some publishers) that people should not use libraries because they undermine the sales of books. She said she didn’t care if people borrowed or brought her book as long as they read it. Libraries are very important and she likes to work with and in libraries when she can.

Language and Identity

Karlo Mila
Karlo Mila
The final lunch-time poetry session involved no less than 6 poets who had been brought together to share political poetry. Judging by the panel, the main writers of political poetry in New Zealand are beautiful young (well, under 40 anyway) women with Maori and/or Pacific Island heritage. The panel also included 2 men – Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and James Norcliffe – whose political poetry was written a little less from within the scrum and more from a philosophical and historical perspective. I enjoyed Norcliffe’s “My Alien Vegetable,” a quirky and deadly serious look at terrorism.

And what a range of voices and stances and styles there are when it comes to using poetry for political purposes! Hinemoana Baker was awesome, funny, generous and extended an invitation to playful new ways of seeing. She read two poems by other writers from the anthology she has just co-edited, Kaupapa: New Zealand Poets, World Issues, one with the help of a whiteboard, to share with us the poet’s brilliant use of

     space*

           ii) and the [notation] of “mathematics” and *logic.

Tusiata Avia’s poetry is boldly political, feminist and, like Baker’s, funny. She performs it with total facial, vocal and rhythmic characterisation, almost singing the poems. Richard described her tone as that of a “sweet assassin,” and that captured it beautifully – feminine, dulcet and deadly, considering (on behalf of the Samoan people) whether to accept Helen Clark’s apology (on behalf of New Zealand) or to kill and eat her.

Karlo Mila surprised me with not only powerful poetry but an entire slide-show to accompany her two poems, both about very particular political events in Tonga, told from a very personal, emotional, perhaps even therapeutic perspective.

And it was Hana O’Reagan who most properly filled the image of a political poet, so sure of her cause, so passionate and insistent, and also full of humour, hope and good-will.

The Original Branch Manual

Catalyst 7: The Original Branch Manual offers 7 poets, 7 artists and 7 musicians in a neatly packaged DVD case with CD and booklet. Providing an answer to my earlier query about the relationship between the different groups of poets that seem to have gravitated towards the peninsula, it turns out that Catalyst’s featured 7 are a diverse group, spanning a range from current university student Rachel Douglass to follicle-minding Irish stand-up Sean Joyce and including Bernadette Hall, a poet who is also represented in Land Very Fertile.

The 7 musicians are present not only on the CD, as musical collaboration for spoken word, but also in the booklet, their lyrics in print alongside the non-sung poems, really foregrounding Catalyst’s editorial drive to include not only poetry but also song lyrics, theatrical texts and experimental writings of other types.

The launch event at Al’s Bar included readings by 4 poets and live music from Lindon Puffin and Le Mot Cafe. Jody Lloyd, whose recording label, “She’ll Be Right Records,” produced the CD, was also present and probably performed after I left – a pity to miss his incredible brand of wordsmithery.

Tonight Catalyst is running a mini Poetry Idol competition in the upstairs bar at the Dux de Lux … your last chance for a dose of local poetry before the end of the festival. Catalyst runs a monthly open mic night, however (which has been running on and off for several years), so it isn’t your last chance ever…

Mark Billingham – The dog’s bollocks!

Sleepyhead
Sleepyhead

What is wrong with people, why weren’t they at Mark Billingham’s comedy romp through the world of crime? Shame on Christchurch’s Lazybones, Sleepyheads and Scaredy cats! A very skinny crowd wasn’t it?

Bronwyn: It was, but those of us who were there were well rewarded. Who would have thought that stand-up comedy and crime fiction had so much in common. Comedy and crime writing , Mark considers, both have the aim to lead the audience down a path and deliver an unexpected punchline. Crime just has a darker punch.

Joyce: It’s a confidence game, Billingham reckons. He also had a lot to say about literary fiction versus the crime genre. Actually he became somewhat demented at this point, and with good reason. He sees a lot of bias against and snobbery directed at crime fiction particularly from the English broadsheets.

Bronwyn: Yes, he finds it frustrating that literary fiction is always measured by its very best examples and crime fiction by its very worst. Popularity is the biggest crime in literary circles, “good gawd you actually want to sell books, how terribly vulgar”!

Joyce: He also commented on female dominance in the crime writing and publishing industry. It’s women doing the slicing and dicing these days while the male writers navel gaze. Why?

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