The most surprising thing you will ever hear Simon Schama say

You have to know
when to shut up

This was another well-attended New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week  session with an eager audience at the Embassy Theatre. It was followed by some equally eager spending as the queues for book signing snaked their way around the theatre lobby.

Spare a thought for Margo Lanagan. Yesterday she shared the stage with Neil Gaiman, (“I’ve said his name so you can all whoop”) and today she was co-starring with one of the world’s best known historians, Simon Schama, in a session called Making History. He dominated proceedings a little, simply because of his ebullience. Unfortunately too, a couple of questions that started out being directed at Lanagan ended up as questions for Schama. At one point she waved to remind us that she was there.

As  Schama openly admits, and Sean Plunket found out last night, it’s hard to keep him to task.That said there were some real pearls in this session:

  • On the genesis of a project Schama said he begins with “wistful reflections on the mistakes I made in the last project”. He likes to deal with memories lost, and the people on the receiving end of history. Lanagan likes to have two ideas that clash – she relies of fairy tales and lore and a pre-industrial world as well as an enchanted forest: “It has to feel real and vivid, but not part of history”.
  • Both authors dislike hand feeding the reader. Lanagan prefers oblique references, and as she said in a previous session is “stingy with clues”; Schama says if people “forget how it ends while they’re reading” then he’s done his job.
  • Schama paid compliment to the myth and lore aspects of Lanagan’s work when he said that history stripped of “mischevious myths” and “topographical empathy” was dull. “Multiplicity helps stop historical certainty, which is the close cousin of boredom”.
  • Schama also lamented that too often in history “storytelling is seen is a sign of conceptual vacancy”.

“If you’re going to do something intellectually challenging start with respect for the daunting challenge of the narrative.”

Lanagan said creating a narrative was a matter of “tumbling towards it”. “What a story is trying  to do is unglue things, lay out the pieces and say ‘how do they come together?’. The narrative voice is calm and watchful, putting them together and allowing them to have their head.”

Schama replied: “You’re more of a historical narrator than I am.”

Some further other memorable quotes from questions starting with a response as to whether books were, ‘weapons of war’, as Picasso said of paintings.

  • Schama: “I want my stories to keep people up at night, not to put them to sleep.
  • Lanagan: “They’re more weapons of snark, really”.
  • Schama: “I’m so grateful of spending life with the written word. The word has the power of pushing you into shock, without which we don’t understand what is at stake.”
  • On how the the first decade of the 21st century, Schama said there were two main things to note: The “slow death of the planet and the reality check for the engine of indefinite economic and the unexpected shock of the revival of theocratic tyranny – Christian Muslim and Jew – and those prepared to slaughter in the name of their certainties.
  • And overheard after the session:
    Woman: “I love watching Simon Schama flounder.”
    Man: “If only I could flounder like that.”