Capital Letters: John Lanchester

John Lanchester signs my copy of “Capital”.

My festival kicked off with an interview with John Lanchester. You can’t help but feel the odd twinge of fluttery tummy when you are about to meet up with such a literary luminary – I seem to be becoming hooked on this particular form of terror. But he was a pleasure to chat to. It won’t be obvious from the transcript, but he thought carefully before he answered each question. It was fascinating stuff, see for yourself:

I’ve read all your novels John, but none of your non-fiction work. Yet I get the impression that you move effortlessly between these two types of content. Is that true and do they challenge your writing in different ways?

I wouldn’t say effortless, but I tend to do the thing that I’m interested in at any one point in time. In my book about my parents (Family Romance), I wanted to explain their story to myself because there was a mystery in my mother’s story that I only found out after she died and I wanted to make sense of it. The best way to do that seemed to be to write it and I didn’t think of it as: “OK now I’m writing a non-fiction book”, that wasn’t how it came about. I just wanted to tell it to myself. I finished that and started on Capital (a novel) and Whoops! (non-fiction) grew out of that.

The writing skills that I used for these books, both fiction and non-fiction are a weirdly similar skill set.  The word for fiction comes from a word for shaping things on a potters wheel and not from the word for “I make things up” and shaping is the core skill that goes from fiction to non-fiction. Crucially the tools that I use for both fiction and non-fiction involve shaping and selecting. The way you present characters is amazingly similar, I think, between fiction and non-fiction. For example when I wrote about my parents, everything in that book is true to the best of my knowledge, at the same time you do end up using fiction techniques to make people seem real.

Library users have an expectation that librarians have read every book and can comment on all of them. I love Capital and want customers and friends to read it, but when I describe it (possibly in somewhat gushy terms), I can see the lights go out, one at a time. How would you describe the book in a couple of sentences. I need help!

If I could have summed it up I would have written it in that many words! I was interested in the size and scale of everything going on in London and the length is part of that. At what point do you think that what you’re saying puts people off?

It’s when I use the words “stock” and  “market” and “crash” in the same sentence!

It was really “global” and “financial” and ” crisis”, but that mightn’t have been much help in keeping the lights on either! The specifics of what really happened are very baffling to people which is partly why I wrote Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. Let me know if you ever get a good succinct description of Capital that works, I’d be interested to hear what it is.

There is an unsettling refrain running throughout Capital: “We want what you have”. Did you mean that to refer specifically to money and possessions or did you intend it to have a wider meaning?

A lot of the characters think that the wanting and the having is all about money. It was clearer to me after I was finished with writing the book that they tend to think it is about money, the idea that what they have is mainly economic. The extent to which some of the characters in the book come to realise that there are lots of kinds of capital other than financial capital, is one of the organising principles of the book, because to varying extents they all tend to forget that.

Right now in Christchurch there is a lot of writing about the city going on. People are being encouraged to get their quake stories down and to share their experiences. After all, we have had a disaster, in a city that we love and we have a whole lot of fascinating characters too. The same skeins are present in Capital. What pointers would you give to potential authors to pull these three strands into a cohesive whole?

The difference between a man-made crisis and a natural one is that it’s a lot easier to seek for meaning in a man-made one. The financial crisis touches on things that had causes that you might have been able to prevent at a societal level if not at an individual level. A man-made catastrophe you can kind of study for lessons and think through, whereas  natural disasters are just great ill fortunes – nothing to be done about that and so would be harder to develop them into grand themes in novels.

I first heard about all your books in book clubs. What do you think of reading groups?

Book clubs are definitely a good thing. There is one tiny negative thing – overwhelmingly they are great but lately I’ve noticed that there is a trend nowadays for everyone to read the same book at the same time. I don’t quite understand what the drivers of that are. It is so much more common than 15 to 20 years ago. I feel that monoculture is bad in all fields of life and the same goes for what we read. People live longer and longer nowadays and reading and variety of reading is a way of keeping your brain active. It’s not going to stay active all by itself and it is going to be less stimulated if you’re all doing the same things at the same time.

What’s your take on libraries, how important have they been in your life?

Very, very important. It’s a really sore point that we have just lost a library in our street, just 30 metres from where I live. I’ve more or less grown up in libraries and my children were doing that too. It was a very, very important part of their early childhood. I do hope you will win the fight for libraries as places where people can be without having to buy a product.  You don’t browse for socks or  toothpaste, but you do browse for books and the act of browsing is what facilitates the discovery of newness and libraries are so important for that.

One last question, are you an e-book reader?

I use an e-reader for travel, it saves me about 10kgs in luggage weight. I’m not theological about it, but I am surprised by the extent to which I prefer physical books. I didn’t know that before I got an e-reader but I find I vastly prefer physical books. They’re just much much nicer!

Christchurch children meet local legends

The GeoDome was filled with the excited chatter of Christchurch school children this morning as The Press Christchurch Writer’s Festival kicked off with the Read Aloud Schools Programme. Children from around the city got the chance to come along and listen to stories from three of our best local writers, Gavin Bishop, Kate De Goldi, and Rachael King.

Kate De Goldi was up first and she told us all about her new book, that’s coming out in October, called The ACB with Honara Lee. Like her other novels, her latest story is set in Christchurch, and the Beckenham Loop in particular. She describes it as an ABC book within a story, that’s set in an old people’s home (hence why the title is slightly mixed up). Kate came up with the idea after our earthquakes left cracks, not just in our roads and homes, but also in our community. This got her thinking about the cracks in the memories of old people. Kate found the idea of setting an alphabet book in an old people’s home interesting, because it’s putting something that is very orderly in a place that certainly isn’t. The main character in the ACB with Honara Lee, Perry, is a girl who wants to have younger people to hand out with (rather than just her boring parents) and less to do after school, but she ends up making friends with the old people at her grandmother’s rest home.  Most can’t remember her name or the ABCs, but they know she always brings good baking.  I love Kate’s books, especially The 10pm Question, and I can’t wait to read this interesting new story.

Local legend, Gavin Bishop, talked about how he finds himself looking back into the past more and returning to his childhood when writing and illustrating his stories. Gavin grew up in Kingston in the 1950s, where there were only a few houses, a school (with only 12 students) and a pub. He has captured some of his memories of his childhood in Kingston in his wonderful book, Piano Rock. He read one of the stories from Piano Rock, the only story in the book that he ‘made up’ and told a funny story about his younger brother, who his parents found in the cabbage patch.  Gavin also brought along his tattered old teddy bear, who used to follow him everywhere when he was growing up.

Rachael King is used to talking to large groups of adults at book festivals, but this was her first time talking to a whole audience of children. After asking that the children laugh at all her jokes, Rachael told us about her wonderful new book, Red Rocks. She mentioned that she dedicated the book to her two young boys, and when she excitedly showed them the dedication, they were more interested in getting back to Cartoon Network. Rachael is fascinated by the myths of the selkie (seals that shed their skin on land and become human) and so she decided to write a selkie story set in New Zealand. Red Rocks is one of my favourite books of 2012 and you can read my review on the Christchurch Kids Blog.

The children who came along for the session really enjoyed meeting the authors and hearing all about their stories.  My favourite part of the morning was seeing crowds of children queuing up to get their autographs at the end, and hearing several children begging their teachers, librarians and parents to get copies of the books that were talked about.  Thanks to the organizers for a great event!

 

Double happiness!

Double HappinessIt’s my Double happiness time! I get to blog on another literary festival and it’s The Press Christchurch Writers Festival right here in Christchurch. I’ve been on the blog team for this event twice before and each time the earth moved.

Third time lucky.

It was only after I’d submitted my selections of preferred events (from my very readable and striking lime green Festival booklet) that I realised I’d chosen only easy-on-the-eye male authors who’d apparently all been born under wandering stars – seems this festival is about the importance of Place for me. See for yourself:

  • Aaron Smith: Shanti Bloody Shanti (An Indian Odyssey)
  • John Lanchester: Capital (London) and Fragrant Harbour (Hong Kong)
  • Chris Cleave:  Incendiary and The Other Hand (Great Britain)
  • Joe Bennett: Double Happiness – How Bullshit Works (the whole world)

There’s no way I could live down a totally male line-up, so I added some ladies to the mix:

The main character in The Secret River gets to the heart of the importance of Place in our lives with this quote:

A chaos opened up inside him, a confusion of wanting. No one had ever spoken to him of how a man might fall in love with a piece of ground … He had not known until this minute that it was something he wanted so much.

How about you, do you have a place that you’ve fallen in love with? And when can we expect to see the book?

Writer’s festivals aren’t just for adults

There is a great line-up for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival this year, and not just for adults.  Christchurch school children get the chance to listen to some of our best writers read their stories aloud, and some of our international guests are just as well-known for their children’s stories as they are for their adult novels.

John Boyne, Joanne Harris and our own Rachael King are all fantastic writers who write unique and interesting stories, both for adults and children. John Boyne is probably most well-known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and in the last couple of years John has also written two stories for children, called Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Terrible Thing That Happened To Barnaby Brocket.  John is also known for his adult novels, including The House of Special Purpose and The Absolutist.

Joanne Harris is known for her adult novels, including Chocolat and Five Quarters of an Orange, but many of you may not know that she has also written two teenage novels featuring Norse gods, called Runemarks and Runelight.

Our very own local author, Rachael King, has also recently published her first children’s novel, called Red Rocks, which is just as amazing as her adult novels, The Sound of Butterflies and Magpie Hall.

As well as the sessions with these authors I’ll be attending the Read Aloud Schools Programme (featuring Gavin Bishop, Rachael King and Kate De Goldi) and the Why YA? panel, where John Boyne, Jane Higgins and Helen Lowe will discuss Young Adult literature as a genre.  I’m also very excited to be interviewing John Boyne about his books for young readers and his writing.

Follow our pre-, during, and post-Festival words:

Following The Press Christchurch Writers Festival

It’s not long till Christchurch becomes Literary Love-in City. The Press Christchurch Writers Festival kicks off on 30 August 2012.

We’ll be there – reporting on the events and nabbing facetime with some of the authors.

Follow our pre-, during, and post-Festival words:

We’ve got a rather alluring blidget on this page – you are welcome to use it to embed our coverage on your blog or news site.

I’ll be on stage for the FREE and blog & Twittertastic session In so many words with panellists:

Make sure you’re in touch with the official Festival information too, we’ve got brochures in our libraries (it’s an exotic shade of green, you can’t miss it) and: