What distinguishes a great festival session from a good one? I think I can answer that after my session to-day: A Place to Stand.
A small, sell-out session with Swedish author Karin Altenberg and New Zealand writer Amy Head, this exploration of the importance of Place punched way above its weight, and reminded me what a great event should be like:
- First up a great session needs a really good interviewer, and Liz Grant was the best interviewer of this festival for me. With extensive knowledge about the books of both the authors (teetering perilously on very high chairs on either side of her), she was very good. Well done Liz.
- A great session should engage you, there should be no mind wandering and fidgeting. We were all riveted.
- You can judge a good session on the quality of the questions it provokes at the end, and this session came up trumps there as well.
- You are sorry when a great session ends.
- Hours later you are still thinking about it, wishing there had been more time. Mulling over questions you would have liked to ask.
- You want to buy both the books!
Both Karin and Amy revealed their Turangawaewae (Place to stand). Karin’s is a small rocky outcrop off the West Coast of Sweden (it’s not even on a map) where her parents own a simple hut. Near there is a footprint shape in the rocks where, when Karin places her foot in it, she feels absolutely connected. Amy’s place is on the West Coast of New Zealand just outside Westport, a place of isolation and risk, it is “not a passive place” according to Amy.
They both always wanted to be writers but came at it from very different directions – Karin through landscape architecture (because writing wasn’t considered the done thing to do where she grew up). She never did any creative writing courses and tends to start all her writing from the landscape which she then peoples with characters and lets their story unfold. This is how her novel Island of Wings, which is set on St Kilda’s near the Outer Hebrides, unfolded. Karin also did the best reading from a book in the entire festival. A powerful passage beautifully read.
Amy came to writing through her research on addiction, using the resources of the Salvation Army to find out more about the Rotoroa Home for Inebriates. Amy never thought she could be a writer, she had to go through a slow personal transition from reading to writing. She is a thoughtful young woman who considered all her answers very carefully. In the writing of Rotoroa she took the unusual step of combining a real-life person with fictionalised characters, and setting the whole story in the 1950s – a period of time long before she was born.
This was a very meaningful session for me, as I myself have a strong sense of place. I shall be thinking about it for some time to come.
And that is the highest praise I can give any festival event.
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