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

Endless possibilities in creative non-fiction

coverHow do you make Harry Ricketts disappear? Put him at the middle of a discussion about creative non-fiction. As impossible as it sounds, that’s precisely what happened during But Beautiful, the conversation with Geoff Dyer and Philip Hoare at the New Zealand Post Readers and Writers Week today.

That’s not a joke at his expense either, it’s a total credit to him. Creative non-fiction is a young and exciting style of writing, and both guests were so keen to talk about it they were leaning forward in their seats, carrying the conversation forward with a minimum of prompting.

Hoare shared fascinating detail of his five-year biography of Noel Coward. Gore Vidal would moan mid-letter about Truman Capote. Audrey Hepburn offered him crab meat from an already opened tin, and he thought he might die if he ate it. He learned that reporting and recording biography and history cannot be objective, and eventually he felt completely legitimised to put himself in the story. He uses archives a lot and his job was to process the information on a way that is sensitive and exciting.

Dyer’s take was that they were both drawn to creative non-fiction because they remained fans of what they were writing about; amateurs in a sense.

“You get fed the creation myth – the Dostoyevsky in a room approach where you write a novel no-one wants and eventually get one published. We’ve gone the other way.”

Both writers have worked under the heavy historical shadow of World War I. Dyer marvelled that For The Fallen, by Binyon, was written before most of the fallen had had a chance to fall in 1914, and noted the sense of history being written before its time. He is also fascinated by places where “time has stood its ground”, where history becomes geography.

Hoare reminded us of some of the forgotten decadence of life at the time of the of World War I.

“One hundred and fifty illegal nightclubs opened in Soho,” he said. There were transvestites in the trenches, ballgowns in backpacks.

What I enjoyed most about this session was that the writers talked about possibilities and the way they could process and create history and statistics to give us new ways of approaching our understanding of any topic. They talked of the possibilities offered by e-books, rather than the threats; the power of mixing illustrations in to help tell the story, the possibilities of  mixed media approaches.

Both writers also have such a keen sense of history, and knowledge to boot, that they have the opportunity to let the story come out of what they are writing about. For me its a much more complete way of storytelling, compelling and powerful. I am in awe of their skill and will be reading much more of them in the future. You should too.

Emily Perkins: The pleasure of the long writing life

cover“One of the great pleasures is that the writing life is long.
You hope to get better.
But better at what?”

That was the question Emily Perkins left the audience hanging on at her session with Caroline Baum at the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week. Perkins, born in Christchurch, has been writing for a while now, as well as presenting TVNZ’s The Good Word.

Her reading from her next novel, which follows a young girl called Jess through different stages of life, demonstrated her ability to intertwine a sense of dis-ease into something as innocuous about a day at the beach. As the children play, the parents were on hyper alert for some as yet unexplained danger.

“When we tell stories were controlling time,” she said, “But I’m not sure how much I believe  in the comforting control of time.”

Her work involves battling the illuminating ending, exploring how people create versions of themselves, visiting ghost rooms in houses where she used to live. All of these aspects lead her to the discovery that “you can’t put a life in one narrative”.

In Novel about my wife she also skewers middle class status anxiety – the idea that more things or the right things can make the rest of your life bearable.

It’s fun, it’s a soft target and it’s my life too.
I would love to be a more more evolved person,” she said.

Fresh from the Adelaide Writers Festival, Perkins leaves Wellington tonight and is shortly to appear in Shanghai. She talked at length about how the business of building your writing career can get in the way of your writing – her approach is to hot desk at one end of a trestle table with another writer in a rented space. There’s no phone, internet or fridge to distract her. The writers are never there at the same time.

In short, another enjoyable session, chattily compered by Caroline Baum. Showing the many strings to her bow, Perkins later jumped chairs to interview for Geoff Dyer.

Inspiring words entry # 3

My third entry in the NZ Post  competition at I’ll be posting a few entries this week – why not have a go yourself?


Simple caress

Of my dark planet

Dyer’s ongoing moment sets festival on fire

coverIf it’s getting cold in Christchurch, get some Geoff Dyer to warm you up. I am totally new to his writing, but someone who knows a lot more about books than I do tipped me off that this was one to watch out for.

I arrived just in time to be told to turn my watch alarm off (does anyone have a watch alarm any more?) and to hear Emily Perkins describe Dyer’s writing as a mix of acute observation and exhilarating comedy. If he was a website, she said, the tags would be “travel, sex and ruins, possibly in that order”.

Dyer is a lanky Englishman, who delivers his material in the urbane and witty manner of Clive Anderson, or Douglas Adams.He started with travel, and how he started travelling because he had no desire to. His parents didn’t travel – preferring to stay at home and concrete the driveway. If they did go anywhere the thought of having to spend money made his father miserable. His grandfather got a trip away once – to the Somme.  You can get a feel for the territory we are in.

His advice to never write in public was spurred by observing that writing in a pub in England could get your head kicked in, and writing in a cafe in Paris would see you arm-to-arm with “six other proto-Hemingways”. He quoted Philip Larkin’s line: Beneath it all desire of oblivion, saying all his books are about the desire to give up, yet “weirdly, it keeps me going.”

I’ve come to realize I’m the spokesman
for the writer I used to be.

Perkins and Dyer have obviously known each other for some time, so there was a relaxed atmosphere which allowed the conversation to rove freely. The first reading was brilliant – a disorderly queue for a bank ATM in India became a “rictus of surpressed English rage brought on by years of terrible summers, ruined picnics,  and cancelled trains.” It was hilarious, and the crowd loved it.

Dyer went on to say that he’s always concentrated on his core writing skills – the setting, tone and structure. He’s no good at stories or characters, he says. He was equally candid about the form of his works. “I haven’t signed an oath of loyalty to the novel. I’m not married to the novel.”

He did however want to put the word diptych on the cover of Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi. His wife saw the proof and crossed it out, writing “pretentious w*****” in its place. He changed his mind.

This session really set the festival alight for me and I’d write more, but he’s on again in a few minutes with Philip Hoare and I have to get back for more. I’ll leave you with his thoughts on the sex part of the discussion:

There’s a belief in England that sex writing has to be comic.
It’s never seemed funny to me when it’s going well.

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.

Thursday @ the festival

Today’s schedule of our coverage at the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week:

Please send questions and comments through – we’d love to hear from you!

Inspiring words entry #2

My second entry in the NZ Post  competition at I’ll be posting a few entries this week – why not have a go yourself?

That joke summer
go on clouds pig
fly home.

Wednesday @ the festival

Today’s schedule of our coverage at the New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week:

Please send questions and comments through – we’d love to hear from you!

Anticipation (2)

Some may feel I have exceeded my Don McGlashan mentions for the year and now it’s just getting creepy  but surely anyone who has a ticket to one of his sold-out shows at the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts is entitled to a bit of a gloat. Or a lot of a gloat. So gloat gloat gloat.

The New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week 15 event Concession Pass is a good deal but it does mean I’m seeing a lot of people I haven’t read. Still, Arts Festivals are not about sticking with what you know you like, they’re about finding new things to like. Or loathe, so you can feel superior to fellow festival-goers who were impressed by some crashing bore you saw through immediately.

In the already like category:

  • Chloe Hooper. The tall man is one of those books read with a mounting sense of horror but a fierce desire to know what happens next. It is the story of Cameron Domagee, who died in police custody on Palm Island, one of Australia’s biggest remote Aboriginal communities. Hooper manages to get far beyond the bald facts of the news story to the reality of the lives endured in this place “15 minutes from the mainland…in a Third World part of the country”.
  • Audrey Niffenegger. On a far more superficial level I’ll be restraining myself from coming over all Joan Rivers when she was still allowed on the Red Carpet and shouting ‘who are you wearing’ at that fabulous red-head (if she still is one) .  Her fearful symmetry contains the immortal line” How can you be bored? You live in London! You’re breathing the same air as the Queen and Vivienne Westwood!” Do Her Majesty and Viv occupy the same level in the Niffenegger  pantheon? Does she consider the novel to be deeply immoral, as a Christchurch City Libraries colleague does? Should these questions be asked if the opportunity arises?
  • Susanna Moore.  The festival programme talks about the women in Moore’s novel’s negotiating “twilight worlds of sex and identity”. In the cut and The big girls were very sexual and more dead of night than twilight. It’s really difficult but fascinating to imagine what Moore will be like in the flesh.
  • Charlotte Grimshaw. Always provides a nice little shiver when anticipating just how prickly she might be.
  • Emily Perkins. Where does she store her internal organs in that tiny frame?