Writing from the heart: An hour with Chris Cleave

What has been the best day of your life?

What has been the worst day of your life?

What do you hope for?

What do you fear?

These are the questions Chris Cleave poses hapless interviewees during the exhaustive formal research he conducts for each of his novels.

His informal research he characterises as “quite creepy” and involves stalking innocent members of the populace foolish enough to have heartfelt conversations on public transport.

Like any great hunter, Chris uses disguise and cunning, he sits behind his targets wearing unconnected ear buds, nods his head in time to the imaginary beats and captures their vocabulary, grammar and idiom. You have been warned. Stay alert for insanely grinning Englishmen, they want to pinch your charming Kiwi-isms.

Host Kate de Goldi, who described Chris’s books as “politicised, moral and completely readable”, asked Chris about his debut novel Incendiary. Written as an open letter to Osama Bin Laden from a grieving mother whose child died in an imagined London terror attack, it was due for release on 7/7/2005. Two thousand pre-publication posters depicting a smoking London city-scape and the words “What if?” were plastered all over the London Underground. Then that same day, the real London attacks kicked off, and Cleave, with his publishers, had the novel pulled from the shelves. This was for him a “fraught, frantic and complicated decision” but he still believes it was the right one.

The Geodome audience then paused for a few minutes while a bumble-bee drunk on the aroma from some onstage freesia was corralled and dealt to by festival organiser Morrin “No8 wire” Rout.

Chris next talked about the influence of parenthood on his work. Incendiary was written to mark the occasion of the birth of his first child and engaged with themes that previously had been purely abstract: grief at the loss of a child, injustice and the task of keeping loved ones safe in a potentially volatile and dangerous world.

Chris now dislikes his pre-fatherhood writing and characterised it as smug, self-reverential, full of ridiculous pyrotechnics and hubris. His youthful writing was in the pursuit of glory and was as a result terrible.

This self-analysis prompted New Zealand product design writer Michael Smythe to ask whether this was exclusively auto-critique on Chris’s part or whether another party had nudged him towards this realisation?

Cleave gleefully admitted that yes, several rejection letters for at least two full length manuscripts had eventually caused him to reconsider the direction of his writing. The fate of these rejected masterpieces, The Roadkill Cookbook and Tequilla Mockingbird, was not alluded to but the “rather charming” publishers’ rejection letters are filed in Chris’s big envelope of bitterness.

This was a delightfully wise and witty session from an author of compassion and curiosity, and from a man who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. I’m going to ask myself some of Chris’s questions but I suspect they will, rather like his novels, make my heart hurt.

“Don’t forget I grew up in a world where she was a monster” – an interview with Joanne Drayton, Anne Perry’s biographer

Joanne Drayton and Liz GrantJoanne Drayton wrote about Juliet Hulme in The Search for Anne Perry. Think murder of the most sensational kind, intense local interest and some critical responses. If someone has been punished for a crime, can they go on to lead a useful life and can they gain some form of forgiveness from society?

Joanne is a Christchurch person and I asked her when she become aware of the Parker-Hulme story.

My mother was at school with them, at Girls High. She was a couple of years older and remembered the massive fuss, the incredible swirl around it and the massive shock and horror. When I grew up that story was always there. It was a cautionary tale, but my mother was always quite sympathetic, that in some way she could identify with what it was like to be a teenager. I think she thought some of the headlines in the papers were quite cruel. It was unusual at the time, another teenager putting herself in their position.

What drew you to write about Anne Perry?

I had written a biography of Ngaio Marsh and I’m interested in the crime fiction genre for all different kinds of reasons. It’s interesting in terms of the biography of the person who writes them but also in terms of popular culture and why it’s become so interested in crime fiction.

When Anne Perry was revealed as Juliet Hulme, Joanne Drayton sent one of her books to her mother, and her mother often sent her clippings about the story: “It was part of my relationship with my mother”. The story of Ngaio Marsh and the Parker-Hulme murder were stories from her place – Christchurch. “Its about understanding the stories in your life” She saw Ngaio Marsh as a model, and thinks what Anne Perry has gone on to achieve is amazing.

Would you agree that Anne Perry is and always has been a powerful personality.

Yes. The answer to that is quite complex. She is a person who is quite a strong presence, she has quite definite ideas about things, she can be quite dogmatic, but she’s also a person who has a sort of need to be reassured. There is something in her makeup that is unsure, insecure and at times a little bit needing, I don’t think needy. The difference – the needy person is quite demanding and it’s all about them. Sometimes she needs that reassurance but she doesn’t ask for it and doesn’t expect it. She is quite a distinctive person. She seems self confident but if you scratch a little bit she has been quite affected by her life… You can’t make a quick assessment of this person.

How did you deal with writing about such a person. How do you avoid the perception that it would be easy to be manipulated by such a strong person. They might say that you were writing the approved Anne Perry version?

I am a  biographer, I’m quite used to dealing with those issues with lots of families. Everyone wants you to tell their story. I am only as good as my own integrity and my ability to find my own voice, there is no way that I would be brought out by anything. I go into every situation with quite a critical mind, you’ve got to weigh everything up. Don’t forget I grew up in a world where she was a monster. Anything that sees what I’ve done as simple, biased or influenced is just naive. I will not write a defence of what I’ve done but I will give an oral one because I’m not going to waste my time with pathetic commentary. I’m aware of what’s out there, the accusations and negativity, frankly I’d rather not waste my time, I’d rather write my next book. I’m happy to talk about issues but that’s the way I’d like to deal with them as an oral response.

Perhaps some of it has come from your focus not so much on the crime but on her life after that?

I’ve dealt with every aspect that is relevant to my book which is to deal with her adult life. It was intended to be a literary biography. That is the story that is new, that helps complete the other one … It was important for people to understand what in fact New Zealand had got right. Because this woman had been through a horrific experience –  self-created but horrific – and New Zealand left her in a position where she could become what she’s become and I think that ‘s a credit to New Zealand. Why do we always have to look at things in the negative, why can’t we take some credit for that woman, 21 years old when she left New Zealand, she’s pretty normal, as normal as you can be after doing what she has done and having the life experiences she’s had, and she’s gone on and made something of her life.

When you are back in Christchurch do you see the landscapes of the story differently now because you can see the young Anne in that?

I could only see Juliet in there always and for me knowing her … for me I’ve made peace with some of that story as well … Having discovered the adult, it takes away some of the brutality of it. There is nothing less brutal about that murder, but to be able to see that something positive has come out of it, it’s quite cathartic. When I go back to those places … I see Anne, who I know and I feel comfortable with and who I like. It’s nice for me to come back with this story. It would be nice if she could come back.

Do you think she’d want to?

No. I think she would come back if she was welcomed, if she felt that people wouldn’t be hostile and critical and accusatory. I think it would be quite helpful for her but that won’t happen and she knows it won’t happen. In some ways it would be real closure for her. It’s acknowledgment for her coming back to the place where she did something that is really really wrong and has gone on and made a life for herself I think would be quite a victory in a way. I haven’t talked about that with her… I think she’d be very tempted to go back to Auckland but she does get hounded by New Zealand media. People don’t realise that. She’s constantly approached and sometimes threatened.

What kind of threats?

We’re going to make this programme on you (bit like the threat I made with the book) and if you don’t want us to just say what we like, we want you to participate.

Everyone will have a different take on this complex story but I can only recommend that you read it and also read So brilliantly clever. You could also read the Diana Wichtel interview and watch the Guyon Espiner 60 minutes interview or the Anne Perry Interiors documentary if you can, and make up your own mind.

The Stuff of Life – Laughter, tears and good food

Graham Beattie spoke with Joanne Harris, Nicky Pellegrino and Felicity Price this afternoon at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. It was a highly entertaining session about their work and ‘the magic and joy that can be hidden in the difficult, mundane stuff of everyday life.’

When Joanne Harris heard the topic, she thought the session was about food! She says that when she was eight or nine she decided she wanted to be a writer but her parents tried to dissuade her as their home library was full of works written by nineteenth century Romantic French Poets who had all ‘died penniless in the gutter from syphilis’. She didn’t let that put her off. She says, as a child of a French mother and an English father, she always felt different and her stories always seem to be about ‘someone who doesn’t fit in in one way or another’.

She wrote a ‘little book’ about life in a French village and her agent and publisher didn’t like it. Her publisher said it wouldn’t sell because it was full of old people and ‘no one in Europe really reads. It’s not a proper market.’ He suggested she set her novel in an American city and include lots of young people and sex. Of course, Chocolat went on to become a word-of-mouth bestseller then an Oscar-nominated movie. The experience taught her ‘no one actually knows anything at all’ and she’s continued to write her way. She is ‘fascinated with small communities and the volatile chemistry there’.

Nicky Pellegrino is also of mixed parentage. Her father is Italian and her mother English. Food has always been one of the things that crops up in her books. She believes ‘food is a way we show people we love them.’

In her most recent novel When in Rome, Nicky Pellegrino steps outside her usual approach to writing and bases the story around the life of tenor Mario Lanza. Although more famous that Frank Sinatra in his day, he’s been virtually forgotten. The author felt compelled to tell his story. She says, ‘the line between real life and your story becomes blurred’ which she sees as the most difficult part of historical writing.

Nicky Pellegrino says her work is often called an ‘easy read’ by critics but she says her whole aim is to ‘make the reader forget they’re reading’. She wants to give them a mini break, take them away from the problems in their lives. Nicky Pellegrino describes her work as ‘not chick lit but not hard work either’.

Felicity Price was adopted as a child. She says wine has more to do with her novels than food. She fell in love with writing when she was at school. ‘I would write poetry, bad poetry, during chemistry lessons,’ she says. When she left school, she went into journalism because it would enable her to write.

Her novels are written from the point of view of women – whether this is as wives of historical New Zealand figures or modern women juggling careers, children, husbands, and aging parents. Her Penny Rushmore novels are semi-autobiographical. They explore issues she was facing at the time such as breast cancer or a parent with Alzheimers. Her most recent book In her Mother’s Shoes looks at the issue of adoption and the impact it has on the birth mother, adoptive mother and child.

Felicity Price says she is ‘an advocate for good old fashioned realism in literature’.

These three authors have different approaches to writing but they all create worlds in which their characters play out our fears, hopes, disappointments and triumphs. They take us out of our own reality for a while. They give us a break, they revive and reassure us, so we can regain the strength to get on with the stuff of our lives.

There were four in the bed and the little one said …

The four in the coffee shop – Jolisa Gracewood, Tim Wilson, Laurence Fearnley and Carl Nixon.

From huts to heaven at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival was a close-up-and-personal event at the YMCA. The writers all met up at the next door coffee shop for a relaxed chat before the start, and that kind of set the tone. Inside the cosy venue, the stage  was crowded with big chairs and individual craning mikes and a precariously perched pot of yellow bulbs right over Laurence’s head. Jolisa joked that they looked like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young about to break into harmony. But no, the three New Zealand writers, with Jolisa as the Chair, were there to discuss novel writing in New Zealand to-day.

Carl Nixon kicked off with a reading from his new and yet to be published historical romance The Virgin and the Whale. Tim quipped: “It’ll sell better if you re-title it The Virgin’s in the Mail” but Carl is a brave man and just kept reading. Set in “Mansfield” (another name for Christchurch Carl freely admits), the narrator has a chatty, almost flippant tone which Carl hopes will help to lighten the book in the way that Kiwi authors are always being encouraged to do. The reading was warmly received – good luck with the rest of it Carl! Of all the writers it is Carl who has so far had the most success in getting some interest going in the publication of his books overseas.

Tim Wilson has been away from New Zealand for six years working as TV New Zealand’s US correspondent. He said coming back home was like returning to paradise – visually restful, clean and nice smelling. He read from a short story of his called Coming and Going which tackles the topic of Kiwis returning home after periods away, agreeing with Jolisa that it is people who get in the way of returning and resettling. As for the oft proffered advice that New Zealand writers need to lighten up and write for a more international audience, he quoted Tim Parks who said:

Writers write for the whole world, it is readers who are parochial.

Then it was the turn of the little one, who did not say “Roll Over”. In fact Laurence Fearnley is the most prolific of the three authors with eight books published and rolling over is so not what she does. “I only ever write for myself” she said. To Laurence writing is magical, looking at the book you have published in your hand, well – you come over all tingly. There is no better feeling. She read a very moving passage from her latest prizewinning novel The Hut Builder.

So far none of Laurence’s books has been published overseas (and this is a crying shame – trust me). She gets told that they are too New Zealand and, she believes, possibly too sad. Everyone wants jolly and Laurence does not really do jolly.

I start writing a book and I try to do a happy book and happy characters. But then something goes wrong.

Question time brought out an interesting crop, amongst them the issue of multiculturalism in Pakeha writing which was carefully considered by all three authors. The general consensus was that it would be a terrible strain for the writers to have central characters as Maori just because they don’t really know what that feels like and it would be so easy to get it wrong.

The final question came from a woman who confessed she’d not read any of their books but …

Quick as, Tim interjected:

You only have to buy them. You don’t have to read them!

And that’s the end of the Fest for me. It has been great!

Accessing the creative mind – How fiction writers write

Wow! How can I begin to describe Sue Woolfe‘s workshop Discovering the Power of One’s Own Voice? Insightful? Inspiring? Life changing? Let’s say, all of those things.

Sue Woolfe is an award winning Australian author who teaches creative writing at the University of Sydney. Festival organiser and director of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Morrin Rout, introduced the session by telling the  eagerly awaiting participants how lucky we were to be able to attend one of Sue Woolfe’s workshops. I heartily agree with her.

Sue Woolfe started the workshop by quoting publishing phenomenon, Stephen King, who said ‘Plot is the last resort of the good writer and the dullard’s first choice.’  This statement turns on its head any traditional notion of story writing which tells you take a blank page, write Chapter One at the top of it, start at the beginning and keep on going until the story is finished. Most budding authors facing this prospect don’t know where to start, feel they’re stupid and give up.

Early in her career, Sue Woolfe realised this approach didn’t work for her. She wrote her first novel,  Painted Woman, in what she describes as a haphazard fashion. She wrote fragments here, bits there and then put it all together. She spoke to fellow author, Kate Grenville, about this and discovered she did a similar thing. They decided to investigate further and interviewed other authors. In 1993, they published Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written. The results were conclusive – all these authors wrote haphazardly. It appears this is the way to write fiction.

The first thing writers need to do is still the mind. The imagination is a huge resource we seldom access. We live in our logical brain, ordering, sorting, reasoning, planning. To access our imagination we need to still the mind. There is neurological evidence to support this. In 1975, Colin Martindale investigated the thought processes of people he called Creatives and Non-Creatives. He asked them to think of  ‘table’. The Creatives all started with a stage of low brain activity before they burst into action. The Non-Creatives kept brain activity at a steady rate. The Creatives used more mental range. Their associations were more varied and unexpected.

In the workshop, Sue Woolfe encouraged us to still our minds and start blurting – let it all out. She set exercises which involved observing a real person in profile and imagining what was on the other side of her face. She got the person to leave the room. Where has she gone? Who is she meeting? Write freely and don’t edit anything until you’ve discovered your story. And then, edit only for suspense. ‘Plot goes on only at the end like a beautiful mantle,’ she says. ‘And that is why it is the last resort of good writers.’

If you’d like to read more about neuroscience and writing, get your hands on a copy of The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady. If you’d like to see how Sue Woolfe’s theory translates into practice, her new novel The Oldest Song in the World is a treat for lovers of literary fiction. Her website is informative and, if you ever get the chance to attend one of her workshops, go for it!

Fatal Attraction: Murder, mayhem and bunny boilers

Fatal Attraction: A manly panel of Michael RobothamJulian Novitz, Ben Sanders and local lad Paul Cleave at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival talking about writing crime fiction. Host Craig Sisterson noted the abundance of testosterone and I can also report lots of hairy bits. Beards, stubble and sideys are IN with the crime scribes. I don’t think the issue of what to wear on-stage had been filling the panel’s every waking hour, minute or even second, but slightly rumpled casual is oh-so-wearable and bang on-trend for Spring 2012. Likewise the shoes were solid, macho and in need of a good polish. No flak jackets or commando trews which I was disappointed by but points perhaps to the fact that these guys write crime not thrillers. I was amused to hear one festival helper/author wrangler had chided 22 year-old Aucklander Ben Sanders on wearing just a cotton shirt for a day in chilly Christchurch. No layers. The madness!

Now, the questions:

Why write crime?

For most of the panelists this was not a conscious choice. Michael Robotham didn’t initially see his novel Suspect as crime writing. However his publishers marketed it as such and his book-deal stipulated that he had to write subsequent book in a similar style. So crime it was. Likewise Julian Novitz’s Little Sister has a murder at the centre of the novel but it was his publishers who wanted to promote the literary crime elements. Paul Cleave wanted to write horror but his publishers marketed The Cleaner as crime. Only Ben Sanders identified crime as his target genre, wanting to emulate his favourite writers such as Lee Child, Michael Connelly etc. Michael Robotham and Julian Novitz were respectively prosaic and intrigued by the marketing decisions around genre but Novitz added he was “happy to be in any section, in any bookstore”.

Is genre fiction perceived as inferior?

Yes and erroneously seemed to be the consensus. Ben Sanders pointed to the misconception that crime writers have the same goals as literary novelists, he sees them as different creatures entirely. Michael Robotham said it was important to compare like with like and that often he sees the worst of crime being balanced against the best of literary. Julian Novitz wanted any novel he read to be fresh and not formulaic regardless of genre, while Paul Cleave felt that the general standard of crime writing was rising all the time. Host Craig Sisterson used Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels as an example of crime fiction using real-life themes and providing valuable social commentary. Likewise Michael Robotham and Paul Cleave have used a variety of real themes is their work: People trafficking, the global financial crisis, racism, youth drinking etc

Can you write a crime novel without a murder?

Ben Sanders’s gave an emphatic no, adding “homicide lends crime fiction its sizzle”. If nobody died in one of his books Paul Cleave would expect a lot of concerned calls from his friends and family about what was up with him. He added that the choice of victim not the murder per se was the critical issue in writing crime. Michael Robotham’s wife finds his tendency to bump off characters she likes infuriating, she’ll put the book down and punch him saying “bring them back you bastard”! Like Sanders he sees murder as the ultimate transgression and one that most crime novels must address.

Fun and relaxed, this session had a skimpy audience. It deserved more.

Joanne Harris: Living and breathing stories

This afternoon I spoke with internationally renowned author Joanne Harris. I must admit I was star struck.  As time for our interview approached, I found myself getting rather nervous. I needn’t have worried. Joanne Harris is every bit as approachable and engaging as her novels.

The author was here at The Press Christchurch Writers’ Festival to talk about her latest novel, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, and her new short story compilation, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String.

Peaches is the third novel featuring her character, Vianne Rocher. The author believes Vianne’s popularity may be because she’s open to change and she isn’t perfect. ‘Vianne makes mistakes and people can relate to that,’ she says.

In this novel, Vianne comes up against her old rival, Francis Reynaud, but it seems life has taught him a few lessons since Chocolat. Even before Vianne arrives in Lansquenet, the priest acknowledges she has taught him ‘it’s better to bend a little than be broken’. His role in the church is under threat and he’s in need of an ally.  ‘I never saw him as a bad man,’ says the author, and she was surprised many readers thought of him that way. In Peaches, he becomes a hero in the end proving that we all have the potential for good and bad within us.

Joanne Harris admits she is one of those authors like Charles Dickens whose characters talk to her and tell her their stories. She says she likes her characters to have some autonomy. This makes writing interesting although it can be challenging at times especially if they head off in unexpected directions. She feels Vianne may still have more stories to tell but when is anyone’s question.

Lansquenet has also changed since the Chocolat days. The River Rats have gone and a Moroccan community has established itself at Les Marauds. Spices and incense merge with the scent of peaches and chocolate. There are some wonderful passages in the novel where people build friendships by sharing food. Joanne Harris believes that the enjoyment of food is shared by all people. Even the unhappy priest enjoys his peaches. The Catholics and the Muslim communities each have their unique rituals, festivals and beliefs but the needs of people to enjoy life and be accepted by others are the same.

Joanne Harris was once asked what three items she’d take with her to a desert island. She replied, ‘A cat, a hat and a piece of string. I’d bring the cat for company. The hat for shelter from the sun. The piece of string has multiple purposes, including to amuse the cat, or to keep the hat on in a high wind.’

But this is only one idea. She mischievously suggests one could kill the cat with the string and make a goulash in the hat. There are thousands of possibilities. This sparked her imagination and has become the title of the author’s new collection of short stories. Although they may initially seem unconnected, there are links within them to her novels and to each other. This reflects her belief that stories exist as ‘unfinished maps to as-yet-undiscovered worlds’. She is always on the lookout for new ones and wouldn’t be surprised if New Zealand inspires a tale or two.

As a child, Joanne Harris visited the local library because it was the only place she could find English novels. She was scared of the strict librarian there who wouldn’t let her borrow from the adult collection. They eventually came up with an arrangement whereby the young Joanne could read one adult novel if she completed three children’s ones but this adult book would have to be censored by the librarian. Joanne Harris laments the loss of libraries in the UK and has joined the ranks of authors rallying to support of these ‘essential places of community and culture’.

I apologised on behalf of Christchurch for not having a building to hold our Writers Festival in. Joanne assured me that it is quite the norm in England to stage festivals in marquees as the bigger book festivals attract thousands of people.

The author has enjoyed her time in Christchurch and looks forward to coming back and visiting us again. If you’d like to hear more from the author before then, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @JoanneChocolat– she’s a keen tweeter and always has something uplifting to say.

“Journalism needs mongrels”: Tim Wilson and Martin van Beynen

Martin van Beynen and Tim WilsonThe world ends, and the world carries on.

Tim Wilson (New York based correspondent for TVNZ) and Martin van Beynen (senior writer at The Press) have something in common – they’ve both journalists who have written books. They spoke at the On the spot session at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. For both, their experience of the human response to disasters was central to their book. They took the stage with Philip Matthews, senior writer at The Press, as chair.

Philip asked Tim and Martin about their biggest stories. For Martin, it was the 22 February 2011 earthquake. He was driving to work, and saw an apple fall from a tree. He drove towards town to see what had happened “I didn’t think too much about my family”. He was very conscious of getting images:

I knew just how powerful they would be.

Martin talked about the situation for reporters after the 22 Feb earthquake. They had to make the decision to go into work (for the biggest story of their life) or to deal with the home front.

For Tim, it was Hurricane Katrina. He noted that when communications are down in a disaster and the helicopter view is not available: ‘You don’t know where the big story is’.

In the big New York power blackout, people would just look at their phones in disbelief:

Normal service will be resumed shortly, but normal is over.

Trauma and creativity

Do journalists get traumatised by reporting on disasters? Martin says you couldn’t do the job if you became emotionally involved in every story. People are willing to talk to journalists – but Tim reckons there is a spectrum from reticience to oversharing.

Martin’s book was a responsibility (he spoke to people who had been trapped after the 22 February earthquake):

People had trusted me to tell their story in a very professional and gripping way. I had to do my best with these people.

Does journalism encourage creativity? Martin reckons its a fairly good training ground. Tim wonders a bit, as journalism can encourage cliche and hyperbole:

Journalists never expresses grey emotions, they express primal Greek emotions.

Journalism as a career

Tim talked about his career.

I wanted to be a poet when I was a festering young man.

He was a taxi driver, and entered a Metro competition and as the co-winner.

Journalism school is a rort … you can’t train for curiosity, aggression, callousness, functional alcoholism …

He got into working into TV. The story involved having someone else’s cellphone, and a call from Pam Corkery.

Martin had been a lawyer, amongst other things, but did a journalism course when he was about 30.

The future of journalism

There will always be a market for good journalism.

Martin and Tim talked about the “terrible, transitional phase”  we are in – paywalls locking up content and the decline of investigative journalism.

David Bain

Discussion turned to Martin’s reportage of the David Bain case. He attended the trial and thought:

I saw all the evidence … I think he’s guilty. I think he executed his own family.

His article “seemed to touch a nerve” with the public.

What does journalism need?

As the eminently quotable Mr Tim Wilson says:

Journalism needs mongrels.

Notes on a paper bag and 24 drafts: Kate Grenville

book coverYou can’t help liking a writer who has spent four days in town and has clearly got out and about to explore. Kate Grenville, whose session at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival this morning was a smasher, has popped in to festival sessions, visited Sumner (admiring the view back to the mountains and the lenticular cloud display yesterday), walked to the South City Mall, visited Central Library Tuam and has been wearing a vibrant knitted scarf throughout which she picked up in the Worcester Boulevard market.

Kate Grenville, with Owen Marshall as chair, talked about her writing process and the historical and personal background to her work.  An inspirational place to start is Searching for the secret river, the book about how she came to write The Secret River:

No cure for the bite of the past.

Her latest book Sarah Thornhill has dramatic connections to New Zealand. She was thinking about a followup to The Secret River but had not written anything when she visited Auckland and climbed Rangitoto. There she had an”oogyboogie moment” when a voice spoke to her and dictated the outline of the book and the first two sentences. This is not something that usually happens to her. She wrote it down on the only paper to hand – her lunchbag , which she produced.

One of those sentences is about the little half Maori girl who arrives on the Hawkesbury River after being taken from her home in Southland after the death of her parents:

None of us knew how to say her name so we called her Betty

This story is the heart of the book for its impact on Sarah Thornhill who realises the wrongs of the massacres of Aboriginals and stolen children like Betty cannot be repaired but at least the truth can be told. This is Kate Grenville’s philosophy too.

Kate  did indeed write 24 drafts of Sarah Thornhill, by draft 12 she had a sense of the book and could continue to shape it. She encourages people to write because you really want to know what happens and worry about your audience later.

This was a great session from a writer who believes “pbooks” will endure but embraces ebooks as well. Fans of her work will be pleased to know there is another book underway based on her mother’s memoirs of her family. It is struggling to take shape but anything is possible with Kate Grenville.

The pivotal role of silk knickers

Friday evening’s Festival session with John Lanchester in conversation with Rod Oram saw a capacity crowd in the GeoDome. What had the potential to be a depressing comment on Western society was immediately set on a different track when Rod, introducing his guest and talking about the fall of the West, said, “Sorry if I sound excited, but I am!”, and then went on to talk about silk knickers. Those who had read Lanchester’s book Capital clearly understood the reference, but there were a few slightly startled expressions in the audience as well. Oram did promise that by the end of the session he would return to the knickers, and with that assurance the questions started.

Lanchester started writing Capital before the bubble burst, saying he knew that at some point the boom would turn to bust, but he ended up effectively writing ‘in real time’. Oram asks about the connection between Capital, published this year, and Lanchester’s non-fiction commentary on the global financial crisis, Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay (2011).  Lanchester says,

You can do anything you like in a novel, but you you can’t explain: explanations break fiction.

He says that fiction has to feel true, without necessarily being true, unlike in real life, where things often don’t feel true but are. (I think to myself, that could pretty much sum up Christchurch’s experience of the last two years).  There’s more talk about some of the words that came up in the session with Chris Cleave on Thursday – obliviousness, and Shaw’s concept of the suspension of disbelief. Lanchester points out that in some ways this could be a mitigating factor for the behaviour of the super-rich financiers and those economists who have toppled us into this crisis.  I’m not sure that the audience buys into this, but he says whatever their actions, they did (mostly) believe in what they were doing – it’s just that there was a fundamental flaw in their model of the world.

So many thoughts and words and ideas to try to sum up from this session – Lanchester talks about the ‘prioritisation of fragmentation’: the increased speed of living which means that all of us feel we are running faster and faster just to stay in place; the shift from economics being about philosophy and ethics, to being just about mathematics, and the belief that economists stopped asking questions about how things work because they thought they’d figured it all out, that they ‘understood’ the market, and the world.

Oram asks a question about the state of play in Europe and whether we should be afraid.  Lanchester says a total meltdown in Europe would have terrible consequences for everyone in the world, not just the Northern hemisphere.  He says we are really close to the cliff edge, and that fundamentally we are just waiting for Germany to get the chequebook out.  He thinks eventually Greece will default and be kicked out, and that then Germany will use that as leverage.

There are questions about rising inequality, about the Occupy movement (it’s a harbinger, not an anomaly), and the trickledown effect (“manifestly not true”).  Lanchester notes, “Luxury by definition is completely pointless, but we talk ourselves into believing it’s essential: ‘If I could just have that, I’d be happy’.”  (Back to the silk knickers at this point).

Lanchester’s answer to Oram’s final question: What do you think about foreign investment bankers? brought a quote from a previous session with Chris Cleave: “Hanging’s too good for them …”, which was met with thunderous applause from the audience; and with that the session was over.  And thanks to all for another thought-provoking, inspiring and challenging hour at the Festival!