A novel relationship: WORD Christchurch

Carnival SkyIn all my years of reading and attending Literary Festivals, I have never once been in the same room as a writer and an editor. WORD event The Novel Relationship, with two writers and their editor in the same space at the same time, was therefore a must for me.

The event, “chaired and refereed” by Chris Moore seemed to promise, if not blood on the walls, at least a bit of bruising and the possibility of raised voices. I took my umpteenth coffee, got my pen and paper ready and settled in for the fray.

The two authors were Laurence Fearnley, whose writing I love: Butler’s Ringlet; Edwin and Matilda; The Hutbuilder. She has a new book The Reach, which will be available in September. And Owen Marshall, whose work I have yet to discover. The editor was Anna Rogers and if ever I write a book, I will want her to be the person to guide it to publication. She was great.

They all know one another, so the event got off to a smooth start.

Laurence Fearnley likes a soft edit:

I like an edit that takes into account pace and tone. I like to meander into my sentences. Then an abrupt sentence can happen. The pace needs to match the character progression. I like sentences that walk into the sentence. Anna is good at that with me.

Owen Marshall appreciates that Anna is a writer herself and that they can actually get together to discuss any possible changes.

Editors are the traffic cops of writing, but they can only suggest.

Anna feels that an editor’s job should be in the background:

I’ve done my job if I am not seen.

The tension really ratcheted up when they had to decide who would read first. It was that civil. But I love to hear authors read their own work and I was not disappointed with their renderings.

But my mind wandered just a teensy bit to Lionel Shriver who famously dumped her editor and friend of long standing after she had been disparaging about Shriver’s book We Need to talk About Kevin, ran off with her ex-editor’s husband, married him, found another editor and made a lot of money.

Try as we might (and there were questions about self-publishing and the isolation and smallness of the New Zealand market), this event remained resolutely sweet and fluffy. A little lambkins-frolicking of an occasion. Dare I say it – and any editor would get the machete out I am sure: It was a nice event.

More WORD stuff


Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother

Lionel Shriver did have a “big” brother, he died from an apparent obesity related illness as 55. This knowledge made her latest book Big Brother feel all the more uncomfortable. It is a no holds barred look at the obese, fat, weight challenged  – call it what you like, but it’s a bumpy ride.

Pandora’s older brother Edison comes to visit. She hasn’t seen him for four years and he is unrecognisable. Weight gain has left him bloated and barely able to walk. Pandora is horrified but pretends that she isn’t. By the end of the first chapter I am feeling uneasy.

Search catalogueEdison is portrayed as gross, out of control, aimless and self-centered. Pandora’s husband – the taut, tight Fletcher – is a manic cyclist and health food fanatic who is equally as horrible,  and Pandora is somewhat cold and detached. She has made a fortune producing custom-made dolls that resemble the people who receive them. Each doll has a talk function where they utter scripts provided by the giver, usually an opportunity to provide sly digs about the recipient’s bad behaviours. The dolls are funny but with a sting in the tail, a bit like Shriver perhaps as again she has compiled a cast of fascinating, brutally honest and utterly unlikable characters.

Pandora eventually acknowledges to Edison that she is worried about him, but he steadfastly refuses to cut back on his food intake. Descriptions of massive amounts of cheese, fast food, cream, piles of pancakes and butter left me feeling somewhat unwell. Just as  unappetising is Fletcher’s quest to become the ultimate lean machine, producing dry, bland,  fibre based meals laden with self-satisfaction.

Pandora decides that she will take Edison in hand, and rents them a flat for a year in which he will have to lose 163Ibs or be sent packing.  They both embark on the diet shake based system-  as Pandora is horrified that she put on a bit herself, and the abandoned Fletcher remains bitter and twisted in the family home while brother and sister bond over their joint sense of deprivation.

Will Edison lose all the weight? Can Fletcher and Pandora’s marriage survive the separation and accusations that go with Pandora’s quest to help her brother? Will I ever be able to eat again without  memories of Edison’s rather unfortunate episode in the toilet?

I am left with a huge sense of ambiguity about this book, I can’t decide whether it gives the finger to our obsession with diet and weight, or literally feeds into it. Would I recommend it? Yes, most definitely but be warned, it’s not pretty.

Family blues

The Year of Magical Thinking was Joan Didion‘s book about the death of her Book coverhusband, novelist and journalist John Gregory Dunne.  Blue Nights is about the life, illness and death of her daughter, Quintana, and it’s a read to set any parent thinking.

I was particularly struck by the chapter that begins:  “I do not know many people who think they have succeeded as parents”, because I don’t either.

Fictional failures can bring some comfort, so I’ve been idly compiling “My List of Books Featuring Parents who are Worse than Me”.

Top (mostly because it was read most recently) would be The Family Fang.  Camille and Caleb Fang are performance artists who use their children as props in their work. Buster and Annie, or Child A and Child B as they are known when taking part in the always confronting and often cruel situations their parents construct, find adult life something of a struggle.   The adult Fangs are fiends, but Kevin Wilson doesn’t make it all too bleak.

Next is We need to talk about Kevin, both because it’s a great if painful read, and because I saw Book coverLionel Shriver at a Writers Festival a few years ago. Kevin has shot nine people at his high school, and his mother is writing about it to her estranged husband.  Using such an event in a novel turned Shriver into an expert in school shootings, at least in the minds of the journalists who would contact her for comments after each horrible incident. Who is to blame? Shriver is skilled enough to show, not tell.

Coraline ends up with an uncomfortable number of parents when she enters the identical flat next door. The Other Mother  is so much better than Coraline’s busy real mother, distracted by her computer. The Other Mother has time for Coraline;  it’s just a shame she wants to replace Coraline’s eyes with black buttons.  The  incomparable Neil Gaiman is at his very best here.

Any advances on this crew as the worst parents in fiction of this or any other year?

Author interviews and Ice Queens

PhotoThe film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We need to talk about Kevin  starring Tilda Swinton is being touted as a winner of the  Palme d’Or at this years Cannes film festival.

This time last year our intrepid blogger Roberta interviewed the author at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival,  so we can feel somewhat connected, even if it is vicariously!

Whenever I think of that particular book it sends shivers down my spine, and Tilda Swinton I think is an inspired choice as the mother – “the original ice queen” as a colleague just commented.  I wonder who will be the stand out author at this year’s festival?  There always seems to be one or two that the team take a particular shine to.

Lionel Shriver: Libraries are expressions of social generosity

PhotoAfter all the anticipation and, let’s be frank here, anxiety around the Lionel Shriver interview that I have been badgering all of you with for weeks now, I am delighted to say that it was great!

Lionel and I chatted in the cosy little library at her hotel and, over cups of coffee, it felt to me like all the bookish chats that I have ever had with any of my dear friends. Part of the reason for this is that Shriver is unambiguously a library lover. This is very clear in the audio clip below which you should listen  to as it will lift your spirits, warm the cockles of your heart and get your toes tapping – enough with all the body parts already.

At the end of the interview, Shriver drifted off to TV One (see her  interview on Breakfast) and I floated down Queen Street on cloud nine certain that she would rather be chatting to a librarian. Good on us!

There will be a fuller blog on this interview in a later post, but in the meantime, kick back with the audio clip and smile!

Nine lives, two interviews, one jangle of nerves

In addition to reading, blogging, panicking and spreading the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival word – there’s also the little matter of  The Interview.

The Interview involves equipment which I have only met in an online-dating kind of a way. Here’s hoping we prove to be compatible because I am down to interview William Dalrymple and Lionel Shriver. Be still my beating heart.

Way back in the sixties, you too may have succumbed to the delights of An Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I know I did, so I decided to start with William Dalrymple’s latest book:   Nine Lives: In search of the Sacred in Modern India. As a partially out-of-the-closet Hindu with a love of Indian music, Paisley patterns, Persian miniatures and a good curry this felt like it would be a suitable fit. And it was.

Dalrymple loves India and he has walked the walk to prove it. It has taken twenty five years to collect the nine stories that make up this book. Even if you have scant interest in the history of India, leave the room when reincarnation comes up for discussion, loathe books with clusters of foreign, hard-to-pronounce place names and like your non-fiction to have a smattering of photographs, I still believe that you will find yourself captivated by Nine Lives.

The reasons why are simple. Dalrymple is eminently readable , the characters in the stories are as bizarre as anything you would find in science fiction and you will probably find yourself drawn, possibly against your better judgement, to identify with at least one of them. As in: Were I to follow a sacred path in India, which one of these would it be? Actually, even if you are only following a secular path in a job like mine at  Christchurch City Libraries, there will have been bad days  which turned you briefly into The Lady Twilight in Chapter 8 whose story begins thus:

“Before you drink from a skull,” said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, ” you must first find the right corpse.”

OK, so it’s not in the current library training manual but I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Fascinating as these nine tales are, in the end it is Dalrymple’s  own life that I find myself wanting to know more about – perhaps he will relent and write an autobiography one day.  Any questions anyone would like to have asked in the interview will be received by me with little whimpers of joy and may even earn you good karma.

Let the nevers bite the dust

CoverI’m Roberta, and I’m going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival this May.

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would see in print – and it feels good! In fact, with that one sentence a whole bunch of “nevers” bite the dust: I’ve never been to a literary festival in New Zealand, never been to one anywhere in the world for that matter and, cherry on the top – I’ve never been to Auckland either.

Of course I’m euphoric. I’ve got a spring in my step and a great big smile on my mug. That said, I am waking up at 2am with sweaty palms and the words “podcast” and “blog” beating a merciless tattoo behind my terrified eyes. But together with the rest of the team we’ll be firing on all cylinders before too long.

What this means is that I have been given the chance to rediscover the joy of focused reading. Of course I read for pleasure all the time, but to resurrect the thrill of reading with a purpose is a special privilege. Next to my comfy chair, on my round table with a specially angled reading lamp, there now stands a gently leaning stack of books I must read and be able to comment on with some degree of insight by the 12th May  –  and I am in my element. The pile includes Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That and William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.

And yes, I have bought new stationery for those of you who must know. Really, it doesn’t get better than this!

We need to talk about Lionel

The more shallow in the audience might have been anxious to check out Lionel Shriver’s appearance after she so boldly went into print in Vogue about how she is routinely mistaken for being years young than she is. She certainly did have a very youthful appearance, but the truly literary among us were interested in her work, not her appearance.

Shriver’s break-out book, There’s something about Kevin, made her an ‘overnight’ success after seven earlier novels and twenty years in the business, but she’s not bitter. She knows it is a business and that critical acclaim does not affect the bottom line and observed that the achievement later rather than sooner was more pleasing to her in terms of narrative structure. The success of Kevin transformed her life, not always for the better, as she became an instant expert on school shootings, pursued for comment after the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech.

Would-be writers might take heart from her story, as Shriver lost her agent after they disagreed about Kevin and she schlepped it round 15 or 20 others before a small American publishing house took it on, then she had to send it to 30 publishers in the U.K. “I was bookstore poison”.

Her latest novel, The post-birthday world, has parallel stories; what happens if you kiss someone whio is not your husband and what happens if you don’t? “What are the impications of whom we love?” is the question Shriver is out to answer in this book, a subject she has looked at before in Double fault, her novel about two tennis pros and what happens to their relationship when one goes up the rankings and one goes down.

Shriver seemed very serious on opening night but she was definitely not without humour in this session, although as she said herself “In my experience, love isn’t comic”.