The pivotal role of silk knickers

Friday evening’s Festival session with John Lanchester in conversation with Rod Oram saw a capacity crowd in the GeoDome. What had the potential to be a depressing comment on Western society was immediately set on a different track when Rod, introducing his guest and talking about the fall of the West, said, “Sorry if I sound excited, but I am!”, and then went on to talk about silk knickers. Those who had read Lanchester’s book Capital clearly understood the reference, but there were a few slightly startled expressions in the audience as well. Oram did promise that by the end of the session he would return to the knickers, and with that assurance the questions started.

Lanchester started writing Capital before the bubble burst, saying he knew that at some point the boom would turn to bust, but he ended up effectively writing ‘in real time’. Oram asks about the connection between Capital, published this year, and Lanchester’s non-fiction commentary on the global financial crisis, Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay (2011).  Lanchester says,

You can do anything you like in a novel, but you you can’t explain: explanations break fiction.

He says that fiction has to feel true, without necessarily being true, unlike in real life, where things often don’t feel true but are. (I think to myself, that could pretty much sum up Christchurch’s experience of the last two years).  There’s more talk about some of the words that came up in the session with Chris Cleave on Thursday – obliviousness, and Shaw’s concept of the suspension of disbelief. Lanchester points out that in some ways this could be a mitigating factor for the behaviour of the super-rich financiers and those economists who have toppled us into this crisis.  I’m not sure that the audience buys into this, but he says whatever their actions, they did (mostly) believe in what they were doing – it’s just that there was a fundamental flaw in their model of the world.

So many thoughts and words and ideas to try to sum up from this session – Lanchester talks about the ‘prioritisation of fragmentation’: the increased speed of living which means that all of us feel we are running faster and faster just to stay in place; the shift from economics being about philosophy and ethics, to being just about mathematics, and the belief that economists stopped asking questions about how things work because they thought they’d figured it all out, that they ‘understood’ the market, and the world.

Oram asks a question about the state of play in Europe and whether we should be afraid.  Lanchester says a total meltdown in Europe would have terrible consequences for everyone in the world, not just the Northern hemisphere.  He says we are really close to the cliff edge, and that fundamentally we are just waiting for Germany to get the chequebook out.  He thinks eventually Greece will default and be kicked out, and that then Germany will use that as leverage.

There are questions about rising inequality, about the Occupy movement (it’s a harbinger, not an anomaly), and the trickledown effect (“manifestly not true”).  Lanchester notes, “Luxury by definition is completely pointless, but we talk ourselves into believing it’s essential: ‘If I could just have that, I’d be happy’.”  (Back to the silk knickers at this point).

Lanchester’s answer to Oram’s final question: What do you think about foreign investment bankers? brought a quote from a previous session with Chris Cleave: “Hanging’s too good for them …”, which was met with thunderous applause from the audience; and with that the session was over.  And thanks to all for another thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging hour at the Festival!

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!

Remembrance of festivals past

Christchurch Writers Festival 2012 logoIn the city of memories it’s hard to resist looking back. When was the first Christchurch Writers Festival I attended? I used to have a full collection of programmes so I could have checked, but not any more.

It was certainly held in the Arts Centre in the winter, because I remember the fire burning in the Great Hall. There have been so many great writers over the years; who stands out? In a quietly powerful  New Zealand way Noel Virtue and Beryl Fletcher. In a “hairs standing up on the back of your neck I can’t believe what I’m seeing here” sort of way Tusiata Avia. In a “this guy wrote a book that was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg” way Tom Keneally.

Margaret Mahy, mesmerising on the stage and asking the most amazing questions from the floor.  And Don McGlashan with the Seven Sisters in the Town Hall.

Cover: GoldEnough looking back, it’s time for some new memories and not long to wait for The Press Christchurch Writers Festival 2012. On my most likely to be memorable list are Emily Perkins, John Lanchester, Chris Cleave, Michael Smythe, Joanne Drayton.

Who am I kidding? I’m looking forward to all the writers. I’ll be at every session humanly possible. I won’t be in a Great or a Town Hall, but in two years’ time I might be blogging about how the Geo Dome was the most memorable of all.

What memories do you have of past writers festivals? And who are you looking forward to this time?

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?

Musings on Capital

Are you like me and always read the acknowledgements and author biography? I love seeing who is thanked, who is loved and who is appreciated. “Thanks to my creative writing class” always makes me feel a bit nervous, but an author thanking family and friends warms my heart. The other thing I like to look at is the author photo. This brings me to John Lanchester, author of Capital, he has an interesting friendly face and I immediately wanted to enjoy his book , and enjoy it I did.

Lanchester uses Pepys Street, a fictional street in London to introduce us to a multitude of people who either live, visit or work within its boundaries. Pepys Street houses are the domain of the upwardly mobile, but the people who work there – nannies, shop owners, builders or meter readers – are new immigrants.  This book contains a huge number of characters which could be off-putting, but it is worth persevering as each character is finely detailed and it doesn’t take long to have a vested interest in each of their lives.

The title is a clever link to London being a capital city and the capital within in, both in human and financial terms. The common link is that each household starts receiving flyers saying “We want what you have”, and the mystery behind these increasingly sinister messages is one of the intrigues that holds this book together, alongside the disparity between those who own the houses and those who work for them, those who are English-born and or are new to the country, those who control the city finances and those who reap the cash rewards or who suffer the consequences of bad decisions.

Capital is a big book about big topics.  I became involved in each character’s story, but I especially enjoyed the Banksy like character,  and the  local Indian shop-owner’s family, both of whom become implicated in the mysterious fliers. It is a book that is worth taking time to come to grips with, and it would be a good candidate for a mid winter holiday read.