The Big Day In

Brilliant sunshine at the start of the day but by the time I surfaced enough to notice newcomers appeared to be wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas it was indeed raining. It didn’t really matter because the Embassy Theatre has everything a festival-goer might need – coffee at the start of the day, wine at the end, a nice line in sandwiches and very lovely toilets.

The day began at 9.30 with a typical arts festival audience, the sort of people who come with the crossword neatly excised from the paper so they can diligently apply themselves during lulls in proceedings and who chatter in the queue about how much time being a friend of the opera takes (not too much apparently).

Geoff Dyer began the day in conversation with Emily Perkins and set a high standard of urbanity and wit. Do these guys learn it at University along with their accents?   If Dyer were a website Perkins thought his tags would be travel, sex and ruins but that it was too early for the last two so they concentrated on travel. Coming from a family who preferred staying home and concreting the driveway to holidays Dyer travels but takes his habits with him wherever he is – around India with a kettle.

Glyn Maxwell was up next, a poet who has challenged the genre definitions by working as a novelist and playwright because if he only wrote poetry he would deal with it as many other have, “with a mixture of terror and booze.”

Then Geoff Dyer was back, joined by Philip Hoare to discuss the slippery question of creative non-fiction. As a young man in 1980s London, Hoare was obsessed with the equally decadent 1920s, and with Stephen Tennant, who straddled the two eras. He began with a biography of Tennant but when his birth to death biography of Noel Coward exhumed long-buried feuds to be worked out through him he became exhausted. It seemed objectivity was impossible and that it was more emotionally honest to put himself in the picture. Leviathan,or The Whale, Hoare’s latest book, combines personal memoir, a cause, research and literature and he admitted that this subject cannot leave him;  he was in Kaikoura yesterday and was disarmingly enthusiastic about the experience.

And that was just the morning’s authors.

Some themes of the (half) day-

  • Genre busting, defying, and challenging – Geoff Dyer, Phillip Hoare and Glyn Maxwell aren’t sticking to biography, or fiction, or non-fiction, or poetry or anything other than what the subject demands.
  • World War One – Dyer, Hoare and Maxwell all had grandfathers who fought in the war and all talked about how the eclectic re-invention of history can tell us more than mere chronology.
  • Tone, structure and form are still important. For Dyer and Hoare, practitioners of the elusive genre known as creative non-fiction, it’s more difficult to structure without chronological scaffolding, things have to be arranged, distilled and edited until they become clear. For Maxwell the free verse poets like Plath and Hughes could only break free of pentameter and form because they knew a lot about formal verse.
  • Key word – eclectic

An audience with Audrey

Wellington on a good day. The sun is shining on Lauris Edmonds’ “world headquarters of the verb'” and there is not a breath of wind. The enviably in-shape Courtenay Place street person is looking great in his loincloth, well dressed middle aged people with proper haircuts are assuring each other in the Te Papa shop that “we’ve just got time to duck into Kirk’s” and Audrey Niffenegger is my first NZ Post Writers and Readers Week outing.

I can report that the stage’s greenery and flower arrangements are of Ellerslie standard, that there are more men than at Christchurch festivals, fewer than Auckland and that the crowd is generally younger than at either. But that could just be Audrey’s audience. She does have red hair but I was not able to shriek “who are you wearing” nor ask any fatuous questions about Vivienne Westwood and The Queen. This is Wellington after all.

So, all about Audrey. She collects taxidermy, skeletons and vintage clothes, she’s a cat lover, she’s a trained typographer and she used the phrase “Killer Diller” to describe something she thought would be really good. So far so fabulous.

As a child Niffenegger thought she would write and illustrate books because that’s what children think books are, and she thought The Time Traveller’s wife would be a graphic novel “for about 45 minutes”. The success of that novel allowed her to have her 14 year labour of love The Three Incestuous Sisters, previously published in editions of ten hand set and hand bound books that ended up in specialist libraries, published commercially.

Her Fearful Symmetry is Niffenegger’s latest book, exhaustively researched and set in Highgate Cemetery, where she serves as a tour guide and where she wants to be buried (this piece of information was in answer to a question from the audience, not volunteered apropos of nothing you will be relieved to hear).

Highgate is the smartest of the seven cemeteries built on what was then the outskirts of London to ease the pressure on churchyards when the groundwater began to be contaminated by the build-up of bodies. Many famous people are buried there; Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot and Douglas Adams among them. Being British and upright Victorians, the authorities didn’t cheat like the fiendish French who reburied celebrities in Paris’ Pere Lachaise to encourage people to be buried there.

But that’s probably enough about cemeteries. Her Fearful Symmetry is an engrossing ghost story, a creepy twins story and a love story. Now Niffenegger is working on a novel about a girl with hypertrichosis, a novel whose characters escaped from a short story.

And I’m off to Don McGlashan.

The fine art of fiction – the writer’s adventure playground

coverFive very different writers will open the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers festival at the Embassy Theatre tonight. We’ll be bringing you a report of the action (as seen from the comfort of seat 569) later tonight. It promises to be a writer’s adventure playground: scrambling across form, genre, character and voice to get a glimpse of how these writers approach their work.

  • Kamila Shamsie wrote Burnt shadows, which was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Born in Pakistan in 1973, she  splits her time between Karachi and London. Shamsie says she “always wanted to be a writer – it’s an inextricable part of my life”.
  • Audrey Niffenegger is an American author whose popular novel The Time Traveler’s Wife has recently been made into a movie.
  • Gil Adamson hails from Canada, and wrote The Outlander, which has been billed as a ‘literary western’.
  • Thriller writer and scriptwriter for Spooks television series Neil Cross will hopefully read from his book Burial, but might talk about the memoir he has written, Heartland.
  • Chloe Hooper has had to stay in Australia – no word on her replacement yet.
  • Kate de Goldi – a reliable narrator if ever there was one for an event like this -will take the chair.

If there’s a burning question you’ve got please share it, otherwise look out for tonight’s report and whet your appetite with some of the images on our photostream.


Feverish anticipation is a must before fully enjoying any event, and counting the sleeps is well under way for 2010 New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

I’m going to lots of events, but full fandom is reserved for Neil Gaiman (overseas division), Don McGlashan (domestic) and The Arrival (Australian).

With Gaiman it’s the writer as phenomenon aspect that’s really interesting. Sure he’s written some great books, but so have lots of other writers.

But this is the man the New Yorker called  Kid Goth in one of those hugely long stories you only get if you’re a really big deal; the man who is engaged to Amanda Palmer, the man who smiled proudly on the red carpet at the Golden Globes while she changed her knickers and stayed good natured (“it is a very good thing for a shy author to have a famous and extroverted fiancee”) when captioned as her ‘friend’ even though he was there for Coraline.

Twenty years of The Sandman. Will the Town Hall be full of “twee bisexual Goth Girls with BPD who are drama majors and who are destined to become cat ladies”? I can only hope – they sound like my kind of crowd.

Don McGlashan is above such base concerns; he’ll just be great,  he always is. Strictly speaking he’s not part of Writers and Readers but he wrote most of the wonderful words he’ll be singing and that counts.

The Arrival is also a performance but it’s based on a book, so that counts too.  Four years ago at the Festival Shaun Tan, the narrative artist and “West Australian wunderkind”, spoke about the book he was working on.  It was to be something new, based on archival photographs of immigrants in the twentieth century. That book was The Arrival and it is a masterpiece of graphic art. If the stage adaptation is half as good as the book it should be overwhelming.

As for the rest of them, this year I’m attending as a person rather than a librarian so it’s going to be trivia all the way, none of this worthy stuff about writing methods and how  long they write each day or where they do it or when.

It’ll be what they’re wearing, how old their author photos are, the relative  corkiness and screwiness of their corkscrew curls (Neil Gaiman and Kate de Goldi – curl off. My money’s on de Goldi who outcurled Margaret Atwood).

And that’s just the authors. Equally enjoyable are the insidious comparisons between the Wellington,  Auckland and Christchurch audiences. Best-dressed? Best mannered? Worst mannered? Best male-female ratio? Youngest? Most matching/confounding of stereotypes?

Also the awarding of imaginary awards for the most pompous question, the most nakedly ambitious question, the best “it’s all about me” question and the question that takes longer than the answer.

Will they have a festival T-shirt?