Mortification: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

There are few things I enjoy as much as a true tale of shame and embarrassment told by a gifted spinner of yarns. Even better if the story in question doesn’t have me as its protagonist, though this isn’t compulsory. In fact, many’s the time I’ve found myself in some ridiculous predicament only to think “ah well, at least this’ll make a good story”.

Such was the basis, I suspect, of Robin Robertson‘s 2003 anthology Mortification: Writers’ Stories of their Public Shame, a book that grew out of his work in publishing that required him to travel the country talking with writers. He discovered both a rich vein of mortifying stories, and certain one-upmanship in storytelling (I have certainly experienced this myself, and the phrase “you think that’s bad…” is usually in the mix).

In this WORD Christchurch Festival session Robertson revived Mortification in a live format. It’s one thing writing an embarrassing anecdote down for publication – is it better or worse to have to read it in front of an audience? It’s hard to know if the writers involved are Robertson’s victims, or simply masochists but they all acquitted themselves with dignity… or at least as much as could reasonably be mustered. Which in the case of Jarrod Gilbert (whom we’ll get to later) wasn’t much.

Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson, with Rachael King, Mortification
Jarrod Gilbert, Megan Dunn, Steve Braunias, Paula Morris, and Robin Robertson being introduced by Rachael King, Mortification, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Saturday 1 September August 2018. File reference: 2018-09-01-IMG_1570

The session kicked off with a pre-recorded yarn from Irvine Welsh who, due to a family bereavement, was unable to attend in person. While I’m sure it would have been even more entertaining to hear Welsh tell his appalling tale of gastric misadventure and horrifying toilet facilities in person, I didn’t feel let down by his absence at all. Talking down the barrel of a cellphone camera, Welsh was devastatingly matter of fact in describing his attempts to “get away” with his unexpected befoulment, believing that he had done so… only to have his shame revealed by the unfortunate arrival of a group of pub-crawling Glaswegians. Welsh admitted that he is no stranger to public shame or the subsequent “crumbling down effect when your face collapses”, saying:

I’ve become really inured to the kind of embarrassment that really f***s up other people.

Apparently if you’re mortified often enough it sort of stops bothering you.

Paula Morris, respected writer and mainstay of the New Zealand literary scene, might beg to differ. She offered up, not a single, horrifying tale, but a thousand small humiliations instead, ranging from critical underwear failure at an operatic recital to childhood trauma via angry goat. Shorts that inexplicably opened during a speech. The shame of being at a signing table where noone wants your signature. Repeatedly being mistaken for poet Paula Green. And most significantly, her failed attempt at guiding a blind woman and her dog between London tube stations. It was a hard act to follow Welsh, but Morris can hold her head up high… in shame.

Steve Braunias told a clever and complex tale set during a period of unemployment, when his lodgings were less than salubrious. Braunias is a great storyteller – you don’t quite see the punchline coming, even as the clues of it are laid out carefully as he goes along, the slightly dopey loser persona he adopts adding to the comedic effect. The audience were in stitches. And yet… to me it felt very much like carefully crafted humorous story… that didn’t really happen. Which is fine as far as humorous stories go, but there’s something about the vulnerability of a true story, told by the person it happened to that is far more affecting. Being clever isn’t the point. Being shamefacedly honest is. Call me cynical, if you will, but I struggle to believe that Steve Braunias did, in fact, give Helen Clark fleas at a classical guitar concert.

On the other hand, I didn’t have any trouble believing that Megan Dunn (author of Tinderbox) attended a mermaid class in Florida, nor that she was not particularly gifted in the art of mermaiding. Synchronised swimmers aside, who would be? One of the reasons I believe this story is that Megan Dunn is currently writing a nonfiction book about mermaids (the pretend adult woman kind, not the mythical creature kind – no, I didn’t know there were different kinds either) and because if you’re going to invent a story that involves shimmying into a lycra mermaid “tail” it’s not going to be orange. Still, I felt like the actual mortification levels in this story were comparatively low because “failing to be sufficiently mermaidy” just isn’t that embarrassing. Fascinating, yes. A topic you’d rather didn’t come up round the Christmas dinner table? Not so much.

Finally, Dr. Jarrod Gilbert, award-winning author, University of Canterbury lecturer and, according to Braunias, “the thinking man’s drinking man” shared an inspiring* tale of bloody-minded determination vs good sense, reason and dignity (but who needs them anyway?). As is often the case with tales of humiliation it began with guys egging each other on – a friend simply said that Gilbert couldn’t run a marathon in 3.5 hours. So rather than let his friend be right about something, Gilbert endeavoured to do just that. What resulted was hallucinatory levels of physical and mental pain, and a impromptu bowel movement – Gilbert walking to the centre of the stage and adopting a crouching posture so as to paint a more vivid image in our minds (that wasn’t really necessary). This took place on the Sumner Causeway, or as Gilbert described it, “possibly the most exposed piece of geography on Earth”.

But there’s a happy ending! Gilbert achieved his marathon goal (thereby disproving his friend’s assertion) with less than 2 minutes to spare… admitting “it’s very difficult for me to describe just how little satisfaction that gave me”. It’s almost as if a person shouldn’t undertake a massively time-consuming and difficult task just to prove a point wasn’t in great need of being made.

Though saying that, it’s probably not in the spirit of the evening to try and extract a moral from any of these stories. Then again, “beware inopportune Glaswegians” does have a certain ring to it.


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True Crime – WORD Christchurch

Betrayal is in the journalist toolkit. You’ve got your notebook, you’ve got your recorder and you’ve got your sense of betrayal. — Steve Braunias

Given that crime fiction is one of the more well-thumbed genres in the library, I’m not surprised that true crime is equally popular.   Whether it’s because we’re attracted to extreme circumstances, because we’re appalled by violence inflicted on the innocent, or because of our voyeuristic tendencies — all theories floated by at the True Crime session — the only sure thing is that the trials of Teina Pora, Mark Lundy and David Bain were all avidly followed and judged by many.

Steve Braunias. Image supplied
Steve Braunias. Image supplied

Is the role of media in true crime positive or negative?

Steve Braunias asserted that crime is now under-reported, with many potentially high-profile trials going unnoticed due to a lack of journalists dedicated to the subject. Media can be helpful in uncovering critical evidence, specifically in identifying Teina Pora’s foetal-alcohol disorder in the Pora trials, according to Tim McKinnel. Both mentioned the disconnect between what is actually happening in the courtroom compared with what is reported the next day. People can also form completely different opinions based on the same evidence (e.g. did David or Robin Bain do it?). (Post your theories in the comments.)

Tim McKinnel. Image supplied
Tim McKinnel. Image supplied

Do you have faith in the jury and police system?

McKinnel voted yes to the jury, as it is more democratic than any alternative, but found the police variable. He prefers to make judgements based on individual officers rather than judge the police force as a profession.

Braunias agreed less enthusiastically, mentioning a number of trials where he considered the jury’s verdict led by spite, ignorance and/or hysteria.

Jarrod GIlbert WORDphoto
Jarrod GIlbert. Image supplied.

Other highlights:

  • Jarrod Gilbert reading from Scene of the Crime, in which Braunias makes a sometimes boring and lengthy murder trial vivid and interesting. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the Jailhouse Snitch, an almost stereotypical character who seems to have popped up on more than one occasion.
  • Braunias describing the faces of various professions. McKinnel has a cop face — guarded, concealed hurt; Gilbert sports an academic face; and Braunias himself, of course, a journalist’s: shrewd, rat-like and optimistic.
  • Braunias’s impressions of David Lundy. Not very likeable as a human being, not a good man, guilty regardless of whether or not he committed the murders. I have no opinion on his culpability or otherwise, but it did remind me of a blog post I re-read recently by author Shannon Hale, on the myth of the innocent victim. It’s uncomfortable to think that bad men can be innocent of the crime they’ve been accused of, just as we will rack our brains for reasons why violent crime might happen to an otherwise upstanding young woman, because we can’t possibly just blame the perpetrator and leave it at that. (But I digress.)

The session ended on a relatively positive note, with Gilbert mentioning the decrease in crime in New Zealand despite impressions to the contrary. Hopefully soon the most violent crime in the country will be limited to Paul Cleave‘s latest novel.

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Read In Dark Places The Confessions of Teina Pora and An Ex-cop’s Fight for Justice which features Tim McKinnel.

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Tell it slant – Steve Braunias, Joan Fleming, Vivian Gornick and Chris Price at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

How best to tell one’s truth? Inspired by Emily Dickinson’s “tell all the truth but tell it slant”, deft writers Steve Braunias (NZ), Joan Fleming (NZ), Vivian Gornick (US), and Chris Price (NZ) read extracts from their work to show us the many and varied ways in which this can be done.

Four Writers Read, Image supplied

Steve Braunias is like a jugular heat-seeking missile, and in his reading extract he had the NZ Green Party in his sights. Acutely observant, witty and irreverent, here’s some of his slanty truths:

Eleanor Catton: “from whose pages, it must be said, one does not come away clutching one’s sides in laughter.”

Metiria Turei: “one of the smartest people in the room, then someone gave her a ukulele. There followed the longest 4 minutes of my life.”

failed Love PoemsPoet Joan Fleming‘s writing is like “a shudder of light” in the dark venue. Erotic poetry like this is hard to listen to in a packed room shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers. But she read achingly beautifully from her book Failed Love Poems.

Vivian Gornick who read from her book The Odd Woman and the City has had many loves in her life and talks of herself as a person for whom “lovemaking was sublime, but it was not where I lived.” Friendship plays a much greater role, and her interactions with her friend Leonard bring out the best in her writing: “We share the politics of damage … our subject is the unlived life.”

Beside HerselfChris Price is also a New Zealand poet. She drew the short straw in terms of the line-up, as one of the features of AWF is that events follow in rapid succession and you have to queue to gain entry to some of them. Several patrons had to leave while Chris was reading. It must have been very distracting. And it was their loss, here is a quote from a poem about cross-dressing:

After raiding your wardrobe, I feel so much more myself

Great stuff.

All these authors can write and read and speak and connect. The 45 minutes duration of these reading sessions just passes in a flash.

Now to elbow my way to the front of the queue for the next event!

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Setting the Kiwi murder scene – Steve Braunias at the Auckland Writers Festival 2016

Steve Braunias has a very specific take on what makes New Zealand murders quintessentially Kiwi. And it all comes down to setting in his opinion.

The Scene of the CrimeMost of us have a stage-set notion of the perfect murder scene: cold, dark, with driving rain and a gothic castle in the background. Not so says Braunias, most Kiwi bad stuff goes down in the dullest of suburban settings: dreary, dull, ordinariness is where it’s at.

And he has evidence to support this: he peers over fences, peeps through windows and generally finds fascination in the homes of the many murder victims and perpetrators he has followed. Like Ron, who at 82 has served his time and is back living in the same house in which horrific abuse of his daughter took place. Braunias can tell you that Ron’s home has no bookcase and one red and one blue gingham tea towell hanging on the washing line. You feel you already know that place.

And he is very taken up wth the Mark Lundy case. From his description, I can picture that home now: the daisy bush outside the window, the coffee mug on the draining board, the huge king size bed in the small bedroom, the single sock hanging on the washing line. The blood stains on the carpet. And it is that very ordinairiness that sucks us in.

Steve Braunias, Image supplied

In question time a brilliant query was lobbed Steve’s way: New Zealand has almost no serial killers. Why not? Even Australia has them. Braunias was very impressed with this question and you could almost hear the cogs whirring: Is there another book in this?

Finally: “Murder illuminates the lives we lead” according to Braunias – and in New Zealand, he maintains, most of us are living narrow, pinched, ordinary lives. The contrast between the brutal act of murder and the banal settings in which the murders take place is in fact who we are.

So, in the same way that you should always wear clean undies in case of a car crash, you should also keep your house full of books and eye-catching decor – just in case!

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Satirists at large – Steve Braunias and David Slack

Writer and editor Stephen Stratford (@stephenstra) (blogging at Quote Unquote) joined two of Aotearoa’s top satirists to discuss satirical writing at the Auckland Writers Festival. The aforementioned satirists:

And what a sharp-witted triumvirate they were.  Stephen kicked off with a great potted history of satire – Juvenal, Jonathan Swift, Private Eye, The Thick of it – into New Zealand’s own history – John Clarke,  A week of it – McPhail, Gadsby, A. K. Grant, Chris McVeigh (in the audience apparently).

He riffs a bit more:

Steve Braunias is the finest satirist Mount Maunganui has ever produced.

And not only that:

Fielding is the epicentre of New Zealand satire.

Steve Braunias explains his Secret Diairies. They have an inbuilt narrative:

I regard them rather pretentiously as motifs.

How do they choose their victims? David Slack says you don’t punch down, you punch up:

Who’s asking for it? Who apart from John Key?

Discussion turns to left wing /right wing satire, and Braunias wryly imagines:

Bomber Bradbury but with nuance and jokes, or Chris Trotter with a laugh track.

Cover of Madmen Cover of Smoking in Antarctica Cover of Fish of the week Cover of Civilisation

How do people respond to having the mickey taken? Unexpectedly well sometimes. David Slack ended up getting some work from Gareth Morgan:

Sometimes satire is a sort of LinkedIn thing.

and at the Beehive:

Every minister’s office is full of cartoons of themself.

We gained insight into writing satire. Steve spoke of:

long slow lugubrious magic … I don’t have a first draft, every line is written one line after the other.

There were SO MANY cracking anecdotes in this session – complaining letters from Judith Collin’s family, a tattoo of Paul Holmes,  upsetting Julian Assange, giving it but not being able to take it …

And as a finale, a well-deserved award for Steve:

Top stuff, satirists. As you were.

The Secret Diary of The Civilian: WORD Christchurch

The Civilian Logo“The Civilian is not a force for good.” Ben Uffindell, founder of The Civilian website, was very clear in his discussion with Steve Braunias that The Civilian isn’t trying to push an agenda or change the world. Steve introduced Ben as a “much loathed and somewhat loved enfant” to a crowd of WORD Christchurch attendees on Saturday night. Steve talked about his enjoyment of Ben’s work, but also his fear that Ben would “be heralded by one and all as Mr Fun-Times”.

Ben’s place on the political spectrum was an early topic of discussion: “It’s not about staying impartial, everyone has opinions…I try to be friends with everyone, which doesn’t work out at all.” Throughout his life he has held the breadth of political views so sees “why people believe what they believe.” Although he doesn’t know where he stands on the political spectrum anymore. “I’m trying to be the devil’s advocate.” He aims to “create chaos on the page” and “people will take from it what they want.” He has had people from different ends of the political spectrum interpret his articles according to their own views and beliefs: “Satire’s supposed to challenge us, but no, it doesn’t. People use it to reinforce their own ideas.”

The discussion covered various topics:

  • The Colin Craig lawsuit. Steve said that Ben “handled that with breathtaking aplomb.”
  • Free speech: Ben believes that “to be as open as possible is good for our discourse.” He worries that “People get far too concerned about things that are said and not enough about things that actually happen.”
  • Bertrand Russell: “Far be it for me to argue with Bertrand Russell, though it’s a lot easier now that he’s dead.”
  • The Canterbury earthquakes: “It had to move you and if it didn’t, you’re a bit soulless – sorry.”
  • His first parody: The Lord of the Rings while at Intermediate.
  • Other projects: A novel about lepers that he hopes to complete one day.

The most surprising quote of the night came when Ben claimed “I feel like the Pope.” He explained that he sees why things are funny, then has to try and communicate that information to the wider world. He did a good job on Saturday night.

Steve Braunias: WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival is a mere few weeks away – it kicks off on 27 August. We’ve asked three quick questions of festival guests:

Cover of CivilisationSteve Braunias

What (or who) are you most looking forward to at WORD Christchurch?

If I have time, I really want to go the botanic gardens and see if there any little shags roosting in the tree over Kiosk Lake.

What do you think about libraries?

Libraries are pretty much the only sign in some towns of civilisation.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

In all the times I’ve  bought raffle tickets, I have never won a meat pack.

“Soon is partly a novel about story-telling, about fiction and about art”: an interview with Charlotte Grimshaw

Jane interviewed New Zealand author Charlotte Grimshaw who will be speaking at the The Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Steve Braunias will be talking with Charlotte and her father C.K. Stead about how power plays out in their fictional landscapes.

Charlotte Grimshaw is a New Zealand author of five books and two short story collections. She has been the recipient of many awards and also writes a monthly column for Metro.

Soon is her latest book, a follow on from the Night Book with Simon Lampton now on a summer break at the Prime Minister’s holiday home. He is negotiating the  fallout from his affair, tricky family machinations, corruption and a crumbling mental state. A parallel fantasy story told to the Prime Minister’s son by his wife Roza introduces an uncomfortable story about a character called “Soon” which has uncanny parallels to the dramas that are developing in the lives of the adults present.

When I finished Soon it felt like there was more to come.  Are you planning a third book in this series?

I’m now writing a sequel to Soon. Many people have said to me they want to know what happens next – particularly since the book ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger – so I decided I wanted to know too.

If there is to be a third book do you think we might hear more from Dr Lampton’s rather rebellious daughter, I found her quite intriguing and enjoyed the relationship she had with her father.

Of all the women in the novel, Dr Lampton’s rebellious daughter is the one whose personality is closest to mine. I’ve drawn on my own memories of being a teenager. It’s not a self-portrait, but I have a lot of sympathy for her struggles. She is bound to resurface somewhere, either in the next novel or in a subsequent one.

I was intrigued that I wanted Simon Lampton to succeed in his deception about Arthur Weeks’ death (even if it was accidental). Was it your intention for readers to have this sort of reaction?

I’m very pleased that you wanted Simon to succeed in his deception about Weeks’s death. I hope this means I’ve created a character for whom a reader can have empathy, as he gets himself into more and more trouble.

How did Roza’s fantasy story that she tells to her son Jonnie develop, was it something you planned or did it evolve as the novel was written?

Soon is partly a novel about story-telling, about fiction and about art. The fantasy story is a commentary and a satire on the main action, and Roza is, in comic terms, an anarchic artist. I had two statements in mind when I wrote the novel: 1) Ford’s line, “It is not intellectually good enough to be apolitical” and 2) The Woody Allen line, “The artist creates his own moral universe.”

The novel explores those ideas, which are not necessarily contradictory. As for the fantasy story, I had it all in my head, because I told my younger son a continuous Soon story from when he was three years old to when he turned ten, every day, often for up to an hour a day. It was exhausting, but rewarding. I have used only a fraction of seven years of Soon in the novel. The way the story started was exactly as it happens in the first chapter of the book. Having said all that I should add that the character of Roza is nothing like me. She is an entirely invented person, different from me in many many ways.

I would say in general that we love to hate our politicians. Certainly the ones we meet in The Night book and Soon are rather unpleasant.  Are they an indication of what you think about politicians?

I don’t hate politicians generally, although some are quite hateable as individuals. When I wrote The Night Book and Soon I partly had in mind the relationship between Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler. To put it briefly, Speer was a technocrat, and fairly apolitical, and he fell in with a group of politicians who led him very much astray.

We are always interested to know what part libraries have played in writers lives?

Libraries are vital and indispensable and should be preserved at all costs. I’ve used libraries since I was a child, and all my children have always had huge benefit from libraries.  Having said that, all writers wish people would buy their books rather than say they’re waiting for a copy at the library.

Do you believe that in order to write you need to read?  Is there anything you have read lately that you would recommend to our customers?

You can’t be a writer without reading all the time. In fact if anyone says they’re a writer but they don’t read much, you can tell straight away they won’t be any good. Lately I’ve reread The Untouchable by John Banville, Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest and I’m about to read Canada by Richard Ford.

I see that you are speaking alongside your father at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival about how power plays out in your fiction. Does power come from money and status or is this too simplistic?

My book is about political power in New Zealand, which can be achieved without too much money, (unlike in the U.S., say.) My father’s book is more about money and power, in that it’s about banking.

Are you planning to go to any of the sessions at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and if so, what are you looking forward to?

I’ll be going to as many festival sessions as I can.

Best regards,

Thank you Charlotte for giving such interesting answers. We are getting to as many festival sessions as we can too, only days away now …

An ‘intense’ hour with Steve Braunias

Roosters I have known
Roosters I have known

What a talent Steve Braunias is – suffering from a heavy cold, he trooped through this session and delivered the goods to a very receptive audience. Extra seating was needed in the conference room, such was the interest in his keen wit.

He spent considerable time explaining the intense process of interviewing people for his book. Meeting people for two or three hours and then writing about it.

Strange encounters with Ross Meurant, who he described as “one of the most loathsome” figures in NZ history in the 80s, for instance. From meeting in a dark corner of a Remuera garden shop, talking through the plants. Chasing Meurant through Auckland to try to get of a photograph of Meurant’s young Russian partner. When the article was published Meurant called incessantly. Braunias ignored the phone as long as he could – eventually, about twelve hours later, they talked. Meurant said: “It could have been worse. Cheers!”.

Braunias also mentioned some intriguing correspondence from Bob Parker, which he described as ‘fulsome’. I was left wanting a little more of this, but the audience was swept along by hilarious retellings of people who fell for the made-up characters in his columns – and a fair number of Christchurch people were among them, appearing in court, been had up for slander and the inside word of where he got the names for some of his characters – a cartoon soccer team, George Best’s girlfriend in 1974, that kind of thing.

I also enjoyed the insights into Braunias’s life – watching Parliament TV with his daughter, whose favourite word is ‘Order!’ and how he has had enough of interviewing for the time being – he wants to leave people alone for a bit.

It was a great session and fantastic to see a full house. Intense fun, thanks Steve.