Back-to-back greatness at the Auckland Writers Festival

Herman Koch, Image supplied

Were you to go by the publicity mugshot of Herman Koch, you could be forgiven for thinking that he looks like a cool, severe, Nordic man – sad and distant.

But nothing could be further from the truth. He is in fact warm, self-deprecating, humorous and oh so patient with his presenter (who was having one of those days where she just couldn’t stop talking, or even finish her sentences) and he, bless him, is not an interrupter.

The DinnerI felt an instant bond with him: he can’t memorise lines easily, he never re-reads books and he uses the things he knows very well from his private life in his story-telling and writing. Tick, tick, tick. What he does do very well in his writing is to create characters in his books (such as The Dinner) who play around with issues that are often treated in a black and white way – like Autism, homosexuality, politics and prejudice against foreigners.

Even when I have created characters who are unsympathetic, I still try to love them.

I am going to stick my neck out here and say that his next book, from which he read an excerpt, Dear Mister M (yet to be released), is going to be very popular and may end up on my 2016 Best Reads list.

Jane Smiley, Image supplied
Jane Smiley, Image supplied

Straight after Koch’s event, came Jane Smiley. She is every bit as lovely and open-faced in person as she is in her promotional photo. There are so many reasons why I would feel a bond with this author: I love her books, we share a period of time in history as we are exactly the same age, and she is a slow but competent knitter (She was wearing a top that she had knitted out of soya bean wool). She was gifted an excellent presenter, and the whole event rocketed along in a very pleasing manner. Oh, and Smiley can interrupt.

Here are a couple of Smiley gems:

  • “The first step for a writer is reading”
  • “What drives me is curiosity”
  • “A writer is a gossip at heart”

In contrast with Koch, Smiley is a re-reader and does not draw from her personal life in her writing, nor does she try to love all the characters she creates. The final words however go to Koch – and although he was describing a character here, the quote could just as easily apply to writers:

Everyone can learn the steps, but not everyone can dance.

Here we have two authors who can do both – just not necessarily with one another!

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“Important things are happening” – Jane Smiley

At the Christchurch Art Gallery last night, a keen group of contemporary fiction fans gathered to hear American author Jane Smiley talk about her life, her books and her love of “playing” with fiction. Jane appeared at this WORD Christchurch event with thanks to the Auckland Writers Festival.

Jane Smiley - WORD Christchurch
Jane Smiley. Flickr 2016-05-09-IMG_4137

Well-known Christchurch literary promoter Morrin Rout introduced Smiley as a “formidable chronicler of her times” who has written 27 books including adult novels, books for children and young adults, and non-fiction works on subjects as diverse as craft, computers and Charles Dickens. This woman is one smart cookie. She studied Old Norse, Old English and Old German among other languages at university and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Iceland, an experience which prompted her to write The Greenlanders (which Jonathan Franzen considers to be one of the best novels ever to come out of the USA).

Despite all this heady stuff, Jane Smiley comes across as a warm, witty, engaging woman who, like many of us, loves nothing more than trying to figure out what makes other people tick. She openly admits she grew up in a “very gossipy family” and enjoyed the talkative, mentally challenging environment.

Not surprisingly, she builds her recent trilogy,  The last 100 years, around family of similarly formidable characters. The Langdons have roots in agriculturally-based Iowa where the main topics of conversation are firstly the weather, secondly gossip and thirdly the news. Sound familiar? This certainly struck a chord with the Christchurch audience who perhaps also live in a town where “important things are happening and no one pays any attention”.

Cover Cover Cover

Jane Smiley is aware of the rare talent she has “to express a feeling in terms of an image or metaphor”. If you haven’t read her yet and you’re looking for an insightful author who will make you think, you’re in for a treat.

Jane Smiley and Rachel - WORD Christchurch
Jane and Rachel. Flickr 2016-05-09-IMG_4147

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The Family Tree rant

early warningThis is a rant about books – usually family sagas – in which the relationships between characters cannot be understood without reference to comprehensive family trees. These tables or lists of characters are usually found near the front of the book, but occasionally (and perversely) are only discovered right at the back, by which time you have worked yourself up into quite a frothy.

Not a fan.

And don’t judge me until you have read all three of Pulitzer prize-winning author Jane Smiley’s latest trilogy on the Langdon family: Some Luck; Early Warning and Golden Age. Using the fictional and fascinating  Langdon family to walk us through a century of American history, Smiley tests my family tree tolerance to its very limits.

The Lord of the RingsResearch indicates that 9 important characters per novel is about all most of us can tolerate. Yet Tolkien created a whopping 923 characters in The Lord of The Rings series, and readers have been very forgiving. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, on the other hand, has copped a fair bit of criticism for a character list that stretches to 80 plus 2 accompanying family trees. Smiley’s Langdons – a reasonably fertile lot, grow from a cast of 45 in Just Luck, to 72 in Early Warning and a 105 by the final book Golden Age. I’ve no complaint with Smiley’s writing, it is brilliant, so what exactly is my problem?

  • I find it tiresome to have to flick back to the family tree whenever a new character is mentioned. A mere 30 or so pages from the end of Early Warning a new character, previously unmentioned, was not clarified in the text which meant that even at that late stage in my reading, I was still at the mercy of the family tree.
  • Vital characters – like best friends, crucial business colleagues, lovers, illegitimate children and live-in partners don’t make the family tree cut, necessitating paging back to reread bits of the book to remember who’s who.
  • I harbour a suspicion that good writing should not need to use devices like this, and would instead be able to make clear the relationships within the text of the story.

Wolf HallYet I read, with relish, all three of the books in this Smiley’s most recent trilogy – and have ended up knowing more about the Langdon’s than I do about my own family. And what fascinating, likeable, human characters the Langdons are, and how well Smiley plucks at the lute strings of family ties.

Jane Smiley is presenting at Auckland Writers Festival this year, and is in Christchurch on Monday 9 May thanks to WORD Christchurch. Maybe fortune will smile, and I will get stuck in a lift with her. Do you have any literary questions that you would like me to ask this great author, for I fear that left to my own devices I will just break down and sob:

Why? Why? Why?

Confessions of a Jane Smiley groupie

I’m a great fan of Jane Smiley. I came across her in the late 90s when I read Moo and was impressed by her ability to write about issues confronting contemporary humanity – in this case how agribusiness was impacting on academia – with a quick wit and a writer’s eye that can spot hypocrisy at a hundred paces.

I followed up with Good Faith in which good natured real estate agent, Joe Stratford, gets seduced by the rich pickings of the US property boom and becomes a wheeler dealer par excellence. I was hooked.

Cover of A thousand acresJane Smiley spoke at the Great Hall at the Arts Centre when she visited Christchurch to promote her 1998 historical novel The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton and I was there in the front row. Smiley shows her range in this novel by writing about American history as competently as she does contemporary issues. And, I mustn’t forget to mention, Smiley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres.

Jane Smiley is an author to watch. She doesn’t flinch from the big themes and her penmanship would make many fellow authors want to throw down their laptops in a fit of chagrin and take up a nice, easy career in brain surgery.

When I was offered the opportunity to see her WORD Christchurch talk at the newly reopened Christchurch Art Gallery on Monday 9 May, I jumped at the chance. I’ll make sure I get there early and I get a spot in the front row again. I’m a Jane Smiley groupie and I’m not ashamed to shout it to the world!