Dip your pen in your own psyche: An interview with Francis Spufford (WORD Christchurch event, Weds 7 March 7pm)

WORD Christchurch is bringing Francis Spufford to Christchurch, next Wednesday 7 March, 7pm at the salubrious venue of The Piano. Francis is in New Zealand as a guest of New Zealand Festival Writers and Readers. He has written seven books, on topics as diverse as science, history, theology, and politics. The Child That Books Built was a love letter to literature, and his first novel Golden Hill won the Costa Award for Best First Novel – it’s “a rollicking, suspenseful tale set in mid-18th century Manhattan, the novel pays loving tribute to the literature of that era”. Francis Spufford appears in conversation with Chris Moore.



Joyce is heading along to the session, and asked Francis some choice questions:

I read in a previous interview that you wished you’d had the gumption to write fiction earlier in your career. What held you back? And did you ever feel pigeon-holed by your publishers and readers?

The short answer is cowardice. I was and am a great believer in the scope for non-fiction to do adventurous things, revealing things. I never felt pigeon-holed or limited by non-fiction. But still, it seems to me that fiction draws much more directly on the writer’s understanding of human character and human behaviour. When you write a novel, you dip your pen in your own psyche, inevitably. You have to. And for a long time I was afraid that I didn’t know enough to write imaginary people without making a fool of myself.

The sex scene in Golden Hill was particularly squelchy, torrid and memorable! Traumatising as a reader, how on earth did you manage to conceive the scene and write it?!

Good! I wanted it to be clear that both parties were doing something completely disastrous, carried away by different kinds of fear: but which was very pleasurable to them both in the moment, in a greedy kind of way. I wanted the reader to be peeking through their fingers going ‘No! No!’ yet also feeling the gross turn-on of what they were doing. And to this I could bring the pre-Victorian novel’s ability to be a lot lewder than you were expecting, complicated by the grossness being channeled through a very book-dependent narrator who, though mischievous, is really not enjoying themselves at this point. That’s about six literary ambitions for one episode of torrid squelching.

I loved the contrariness, passion and conviction of your youthful characters, especially juxtaposed with the complacency and corruption of New York’s elder figures. Do you see that generational gulf in action in modern society too?

Isn’t it permanent that youth is contrary and passionate and idealistic, and age is complacent and corrupt? (Or at least corrupt-seeming to young people.) Having said that, I do think this is a moment in history when, in the U.K. and the US at least, the fears and the weaknesses of the middle-aged and the old really have led us into stupidities at which young people are rightly gazing with horror – because they’re stupidities at their expense, at the expense of the future. As a fifty-something writer I enjoyed getting to be, temporarily, twenty four-year-old Mr Smith and nineteen-year-old Tabitha.

Golden Hill portrays a young New York and embryonic America, with considerably more time passed do you see the USA as a successful society?

I think America grew up into a reservoir of idealism and principle which the world needs, and has benefited by incalculably. But I think that contemporary America, like the embryonic America Mr Smith visits, is also a culture which is not very self-knowing: a place which, to a dangerous degree, contrives to forget the darkness which has always been the flip side of its virtues.

Quickfire Questions!

Last time you cried?

While watching *Coco* at the cinema.

Book you wish you’d written?

Marilynne Robinson’s GILEAD.

Favourite biscuit?

I’m a slut for the chocolatey ones.

Describe the role of public libraries in 5 words

Portals to past, present [and] future.

Thanks, Francis!


And the winners are…

not a winner in these awards but the Commonwealth Writers Prize is probably a good consolation prize
Christos Tsiolkas - not a winner in these awards but he's probably not too bothered since the Commonwealth Writers Prize is quite good too.

Well, it was an intense period of listening and watching and reading and writing “up north” but we’ve come out the tail end of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival a little wiser, a lot tireder, and much the richer for the experience.

Joyce and I have been brainstorming a little on our respective festival experiences and feel that there are a few noteworthy folk who deserve some unofficial accolades from us, so here are our picks for festival faves…

Smartest, sexiest silver fox award – Marcus Chown.  Tintin hair, big brain and easy charm got him the gong.  A strong showing also from Todd Blackadder in this category but at the end of the day quantum physics was the winner.  David Geary also gets an honourable mention.

Best Chair – Voting was split in this category due to our attending different sessions.  I rate David Geary as chair in the Greg McGee and Sam Mahon session, with his ability to gently take the mickey without making it all about him.  Joyce awards this prestigious prize to the ubiquitous Paula Morris.  With the added bonus of not having a cold at this year’s festival Paula was as always knowledgeable, genuinely interested in her interviewees and terribly, terribly droll. Continue reading

And I was so looking forward to it …

Familiar with the literary fiction versus genre fiction debate? It’s been running forever and a day, at the recent Christchurch Writers Festival dear Mark Billingham got quite vexed on the subject, he also name-checked Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith as a crime fiction title that had managed to span the great “high/low culture” divide and gain acclaim, most notably as a long-listed Man Booker nomination.

So how looking forward to that was I? Well, champing at the bit and how disappointed … massively. The early chapters were gripping, starting with Stalin’s forced famine in the Ukraine, the almost comical perversion of Communist ideology and the first of a number of grisly, heart rending murders but the central character Leo and his beautiful but aloof wife Raisa never came to life. After lots of frenetic racing around, dead-ends, red herrings and a bewilderingly enormous cast of characters, the final denouement was satisfying but a little Hollywood. In fact the book felt ready for a film treatment, Keira Knightley trout-pouting as Raisa and maybe her squeeze Rupert Friend as Leo Demidov, the handsome disillusioned war hero.

I think I’ll stick to Le Carre, Alan Furst or Robert Harris for energetic and emotive thrillers

Opening night

Here we are to relate all the thrills and spills of the opening night of the Auckland Writer and Readers Festival

Joyce: Kim Hill sashayed in looking leggy and dangerous, killer heels and swivel hips. Witi was resplendent in velvet and Junot, well he was the epitome of the literary rock star, effortlessly cool, mmmmm… I feel a little breathless. Over to you Philip, dish the dirt baby!!

Philip:  All I can say is that Kim looked like a predatory femme fatale she slunk across the stage in way that Sharon Stone might do. Continue reading

Books on the box: a conversation

A conversation between 2 librarians on their first session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Books on the Box (a panel discussion about TV book programmes, featuring Hamish Keith, Hermione Lee and Colin Hogg, and chaired by Noelle McCarthy).

Donna: Well that was a riproaring and fighting start. What was your favourite bit?

Joyce: Noelle’s shoes – her two tone shoezies were fab (editors note: they were pink and gold and very high) but the vibrant green earrings were plain wrong.

Continue reading