Writing and writers

Cover of Pacific: The Ocean of the FutureWeeks after NaNoWriMo ended, and still no blog post! Alas, I didn’t reach 50,000 words — finished up around 35k — but I achieved my main goal, which was to write every day. I’ve continued to write on and off since the 30th, but Christmas panic is definitely descending so who knows how long that will last.

My current distraction has been flicking through the New Zealand Festival lineup, which will be held in Wellington next year. All of the events look great, but I’m especially excited about the Writers Week. I want to see almost all of them! I’ve narrowed it down to some favourites:

  • Kate Beaton. I’ve been enjoying her online comics since she was on livejournal.com, and I own all her published material (which now includes a picture book, the adorable Princess and the Pony). She is so clever and funny and writes about my favourite subjects (history! feminism! fat ponies!).
  • Jasper FfordeCover of Hark! A Vagrant. I haven’t got around to reading his more recently published works, but I thought the Thursday Next books were super fun. If you like quirky books about books, with dodos and national croquet, then start with The Eyre Affair.
  • Mariko Tamaki. I first came across her in collaboration with her cousin Jillian Tamaki, whose comic Supermutant Magic Academy came out this year. Together they’ve published graphic novels Skim and This One Summer, both beautifully illustrated reflections of adolescent experiences.
  • Simon WinchesterWriter of recreational non-fiction, most recently Pacific, all about our neighbouring ocean. I can’t wait to read it.

Needless to say there are loads of other authors I’d like to see, including Anis Mojgani (spoken word poet) who Alireads blogged about last year, but those are my top five.

Is anyone else planning on going to the New Zealand Festival? What events are on your must-see list?

New Zealand Festival

English as She is Spoke

Do you write letters to the newspaper bewailing the falling standards of English or, when you see such letters, do you shrug your shoulders and mutter “wodever”? Either way, here is a Christchurch Writers Festival event for you – English as She is Spoke which pairs Dr Elizabeth Gordon and Simon Winchester in what promises to be an event that is scintillating enough to render me speechless.

Elizabeth Gordon writes a regular column in The Press and her latest book Living Language: Exploring Kiwitalk tackles issues around language change in New Zealand. In other words, she writes really well about language. Simon Winchester on the other hand writes brilliantly using language and his The Professor and the Madman (aka The Surgeon of Crowthorne) is a must read for anyone interested in English.

I can’t say I am going to this event entirely without leanings. At times Gordon’s column has made me emit high-pitched keening noises whilst stabbing at the page with a blunt instrument. What is more, I have on occasion refused to stay in places which cannot correctly spell the word accommodation, recently joined a group called “there, their and they’re are not the same”  and feel heartbroken when some young people in libraries appear unable to articulate the simplest of requests.

That said, I will be in the queue for this event with an opinionated open mind (if there is such a thing), my mouth shut and my posture leaning to the side of the aisle on which Winchester sits. How about you?

PS – I am dedicating this blog to the patriarch of the Festival Team, Richard Liddicoat who for some time now has suspected that I am incapable of writing a blog of under 300 words. This one comes to exactly 299 Richard. Do I get a chocolate fish?

The Festival Bug

CoverThere is a bug doing the rounds and I have got it again. No worries though, because this is The Festival Bug and it is a good bug –  strikes once, lasts forever and engenders feelings of terrific euphoria. What is more, you can get it too!

This time it is The Press Christchurch Writers Festival that has me all a-twitter. I learnt that I was to be part of the library team covering this event whilst sitting in a hot, dark, funky little internet cafe in Durban with a backdrop of blaring township rap.

In the mood to celebrate my good news, I bounced out of the cafe and straight up to Musgrave Centre where I sat myself down with a cappuccino and my best holiday read – the latest Barbara Trapido novel – Sex and Stravinsky. Famous for her first book Brother of the More Famous Jack, I cannot wait to meet this author at the Christchurch Festival.  We grew up in the same city, lived in the same suburb, attended the same University and studied in the same faculty. Then she went on to become rich and famous. Say No More.

It was then that I was struck by how often I have read books in the places where they are set. And we are not talking Lonely Planet travel guides here either, but books like The Bone People by Keri Hulme which I read while on holiday at Okarito and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett,  read in the atmosphere of Norwich Cathedral.  A large part of Sex and Stravinsky is set in Durban and I had a clear view  from the coffee shop of the very escalator that  is mentioned on page 148 in the book. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I am curious to know if any of you have experienced this with books and how it affected you?

The festival has a great line-up and Atlantic: The Biography of an Ocean by Simon Winchester is also high on my list. In the spirit of reading books on-site  I asked Greg how he felt about a little Atlantic cruise, with me on deck sipping G&T’s whilst paging through Winchester’s book. His look said it all. I am lucky apparently, but not that lucky!

Boring subjects, fascinating books

This is a bit of a misleading title but I wanted to talk about narrative non-fiction – and how strange, little known, weird and esoteric subjects you think couldn’t care less about  … can make the most interesting books of all. Our library catalogue defines it as: “a hybrid literary form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalism in an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events”. Often it focuses on the strange byways and figures of history.

Simon Winchester is one of the kings of this sort of thing, and he has a new book coming out soon called Bomb, book and compass (also published as “The man who loved China”). It tells the story of Joseph Needham, a distinguished biochemist at Cambridge University. He fell in love with his wife’s Chinese research assistant, and was sent to China on a government mission during the Second World War, and while there began to research what became the longest, most authoritative work on China ever written in English. He was also an eccentric character: “a nudist, amateur dancer, unabashed singer, socialist and serial adulterer”. (see The National Post review)

Surgeon of Crowthorne
Surgeon of Crowthorne

The first book I read by Winchester was The Surgeon of Crowthorne, another story of an eccentric forgotten by history.  W.C. Minor was one of the keenest volunteers involved in creating the Oxford English Dictionary. He was also a millionaire American Civil War surgeon turned lunatic, imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum for murder.

Longitude by Dava Sobel is one of the big successes of narrative non-fiction. It’s a wonderful book about the scientific quest to solve “the longitude problem”, and of John Harrison’s 40-year obsession with building a  chronometer. It was made into a tv series starring Michael Gambon and Jeremy Irons.

There’s an if you like guide for Longitude that features some of the best (and strangest) titles around: Mauve: how one man invented a colour that changed the world, Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world and Nathaniel’s nutmeg: how one man’s courage changed the course of history.