Kathy Reichs really does know everything

Cover of Bones of the lostWith a capacity crowd at the aptly-named Legends Lounge on Monday night, the amazingly over-talented Kathy Reichs kept the audience at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival event  well entertained. Missy T and I arrived early, and it was just as well, as the room filled rapidly with adoring fans both young and old.

Most of what she said should have come as no surprise to fans. The questions from both QC Chris McVeigh and the audience were good and she graciously took every lead and followed it well. I’d not heard her speak before, and she looks like one of those frighteningly well-put-together women who manages everything and everyone into submission.  She is, however, warm and witty, charming and very easy to listen to.

She told stories of life both real and fictional, and I have to say sometimes I forgot whether it was Kathy Reichs or Tempe Brennan we were talking about, which was a bit disconcerting. For those who aren’t as familiar with her work, Dr Reichs is as fully qualified in real life as her main character is in the books, and she always uses a real-life case as the basis for each one of her books (albeit changing all details on the way). She explained that in real life her job is always about answering the same two questions – identity (who is this person?); and cause of death; and for both of these questions, it’s always about the bones.

So what can we tell you that might be new?

  • Contracted to write 19 Tempe Brennan and 5 Virals books, she is currently working on numbers 17 and 5 respectively.
  • The Bones TV series is now in its 9th season, with no sign of slowing down, but as with all TV there are no guarantees.
  • There’s an episode coming up called The Dude and the Dam, which will contain easter eggs – 5 clues from the book Bones of the Lost. Those who watch the episode and read the book will be able to enter an online competition to win stuff.
  • She knows the TV series has a different feel from the books, and gracefully accepted criticism from the audience suggesting that sometimes the show can seem a little flippant and Hollywood-y. She said everyone can see that the two storylines (book and TV) are different, and for those who are worried by this, it might help to see TV Tempe as being a younger, less polished version of Book Tempe – like a prequel.
  • She really loves working with her kids. She co-authors the Virals series with her son (who has been known to proclaim after a particularly brutal editing by Kathy “Mom, you’re murdering my art!”; and works on the TV series with one of her daughters.
  • Kathy often finds character names by reading local obituaries – if the book is set in a specific town or city, she will read past newspapers from that town and gather names from there.
  • The idea to do the Virals series came about after a conversation with one of her children, who suggested that teens would also love to read about forensics. The more unusual aspects of the books (what Kathy calls ‘elements of grounded fantasy’) were added because her publisher noted that teens nowadays seem to be obsessed with the supernatural, and she really didn’t want to do vampires. Or werewolves.

So a good night all round, really, with dozens lined up afterwards for what looked like it might be a long wait for book signing. And as always, a great big thank you to the The Press Christchurch Writers Festival team for another sterling event!

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Novel ideas from novelists

Rachael KingThe Press Christchurch Writers Festival event A novel idea at Christchurch Arts Festival was a corker. Author (and Christchurch Writers Festival literary director) Rachael King talked to novelists Stephanie Johnson, Sarah Laing, and Carl Nixon.

The authors read from their latest books. It worked well; each author was quite different in style and personality. They also had a lot to say about the creative process of writing.

Here are some quotable quotes:

There are more people writing novels than buying the bloody things. (Rachael)

Writing novels is like being a piece of fly paper. (Sarah)

Novels enable you to inhabit another person’s space … your own personality becomes richer and more informed. (Carl)

It is good to be struggling to find time to write. (Stephanie)

I have the rhythm of stories in my head. (Sarah)

Writers should have a really good bullshit detector. (Stephanie)

How about a quote from a character in a novel? Here’s Merle, from Stephanie’s novel The writing class:

The beauty of the novel in full sail will never be lost even though we are choking in a plume of electrical soot.

Sarah Laing, Carl Nixon and Stephanie Johnson

Cover of The Writing Class Cover of The virgin and the whale  Cover of The fall of light

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Lloyd Jones catches up to history

Cover of A history of silenceWhat is the best result for a writer when they talk?
That everyone wants to read your book, if they haven’t already. By that count, Lloyd Jones’ talk last night was a big winner.  Everyone who went to The Press Christchurch Writers Festival event at the Christchurch Arts Festival will be gagging to get a copy.

“I’m not fresh from the premiere of Mister Pip – I’m exhausted” said Lloyd as Morrin Rout introduced him and the crowd applauded.  But he wasn’t talking about that popular book, he was speaking about “a book I never anticipated ever writing” – his memoir A history of silence. I liked his definition of a memoir as “reoccupying the lived life”.

His first reading was about his early struggles with speech, and a time he saw artist Martin Creed struggle to deliver a speech. He discovered that “the presentation of self was a performance”.

Lloyd admitted the Christchurch earthquakes were the trigger for writing this book. The “wilful forgetting” and “misunderstood foundations” of our city were echoed in his family. The earthquake gave him a language. The dismantling and reassembling of the city’s heritage became a useful metaphor for dismantling (and reassembling) himself.

What happens if one is deconstructed?

When he visited Christchurch after the quakes, Lloyd was wearing his “novelist hat”:

Writers, seagulls, and hawks come from the same predatory tribe.

He visited the Basilica and the Bridge of Remembrance:

I discovered the beauty of the city through its destruction.

Lloyd confessed that he used to find Christchurch annoying. Its sense of history didn’t fit with him – part of his heritage was to be disdainful of heritage. He came from a family and a place where history had no visibility.

He explained a lot about the complicated and emotionally-charged heritage so integral to his tale.  His mother had been shaped by rejection and adoption.  She had a  “strange purpose” and would drive into Wellington from the Hutt – with him in the car – so they could sit and observe her estranged mother.
Lloyd Jones

Lloyd discovered more about his elusive grandmother in a court transcript from a divorce trial. He established contact with the family of his grandfather, visited the farmhouse where his mother was probably conceived. It was, he said, like “catching up to history”. He sat in his grandfather’s chair, and watched a home movie. It was an “act of magic” to see his grandfather on screen, a ghost getting out of a Buick. In an emotional coda Lloyd revealed members of that other family were in the audience.

How did he write this jigsaw of a book? He said the key to writing any book is finding the voice and the language – and in this memoir it required a very interior language. “Faults may appear haphazard but they are never random'” – the words of a geologist applied also to the mysterious behaviour of his mother.

Of all the interesting, emotional, and thoughtful stuff Lloyd said, the thing that resonated with me most was the most simple:

Nothing is lost.

Lloyd Jones

Kathy Reichs, Lloyd Jones and a full on literary lineup for Christchurch in September

Geez Wayne, if you are a Christchurch book lover September is your month!!! Crime writing superstar and forensic anthropologist Dr Kathy Reichs is here on 23 September. Book now, you don’t want to miss this one. Search our catalogue for her books, and we also have Bones on DVD (the TV series she produces starring the hardcase Temperance Brennan).

Cover of Bones are forever Cover of Flash and bones Cover of Code

And over at the Christchurch Arts Festival there is more writing and thinking to savour:

Search our catalogue for works by festival presenters and performers. Get yourself warmed up for a literary September.

Cover of Get off the grassCover of The Broken BookCover of From the big bang to GodCover of The fall of lightCover of With bold needle and threadCover of How to look at a painting

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Ghastly war and glorious romps: Sir Max Hastings

Sir Max HastingsSir Max Hastings  – author, journalist, broadcaster, editor – spoke in  Christchurch on Tuesday 14 May, a guest of The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. He will be in Auckland as part of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

It was a near-packed house and the audience was treated to a man who knows a lot about war and history, and can spin facts, anecdotes, letters, and diaries into an utterly compelling narrative.

Editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, introduced Max as “one of the giants of our industry”- a man with qualities of ballsiness, fearlessness and even a dash of foolhardiness.

Max talked about his book All hell let loose – a human history of World War Two. It contains his own thoughts on great issues.  He wondered if the “unfulfilled threat” of Luftwaffe attacks might have been worse than the actuality.

The book aims to convey “What was the war like?” as a “global portrait from the bottom up” – with a focus on the men, women and children of embattled societies. He acknowledges that for a small group of people WWII was a “glorious romp” (as it was for his father). But Max’s knowledge of relevant statistics and figures were sobering – 27,000 people a day died due to to war and its related effects. 92% of German military deaths were at the hands of the Russians. 350,000 Poles dies by Russian oppression. 1 in 4 Russian soldiers died.

Max also spoke about nationalistic perspectives of World War Two. Many French fought the British, and instead of fighting with the Free French, many evacuated Frenchmen went back to live in occupied France.

The situation in India was also complicated, as  Churchill refused to grant India independence. Nehru said “How can I fight for a thing that is denied to me?” In the Bengal Famine of 1943, between 1 and 3 million died of starvation while British officers continued to dine in their clubs. Churchill would not re-route shipping to get food to the people.

Food emphasised the relativity of suffering. The British has rationing. 4 out of 5 Belgian children had rickets. The Nazi and Japanese regime involved starving subject populations. The Americans had “fantastically generous allocations of food”. 800,000 died of starvation in Leningrad, and there were numerous incidents of cannibalism.

Max emphasised the moral ambiguities of war. In 1945 Stalin was in power in Eastern Europe, and the Poles in Britain were ostracised as “human sacrifices to the realities of power”. The West “lacked the political will and military means” to truly liberate those who were the original reason for going to war.

There was a lot of grief and sorrow in Max’s talk. Undertaking research for his book Bomber Command, he spoke to the crew of a flight where a young airman stayed on a plane to let the others eject: “What was the point of having a posthumous V.C. if you died at 19 without ever having kissed a girl?

Max answered a lot of questions from the audience. Behind me, was a Falklands navy veteran who reminded Max that he had been honoured to give the Editor of his favourite paper The Daily Telegraph a tour of his ship.

Speaking of his next book Catastrophe on how World War One came about, he explained the strong connections between WWI and WWII. The Kaiser’s plans were not much different from Hitler, except for Jewish genocide. The war poets spoke eloquently of the “ghastliness” of war, but offered no alternative or solution.

On today’s situation, he said the Afghan war is a “ghastly failure”. He called Dick Cheney “that idiot” for calling Muslim terrorism the greatest threat to Western civilisation, and advised “be very very careful what you get into” when discussing Syria. In his opinion:

“Something must be done” has caused more trouble in the world …

He ended with a funny maxim from his father:

Marry a girl with fat legs because they are better in bed.

Thanks Sir Max for a thought-provoking talk. If you are lucky enough to be going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival get along to one of his sessions.

Sir Max Hastings


I love Leonard Cohen (and literary events in Christchurch)

Christchurch has a stellar selection of book-related events coming up in May. Take a look!


Tuesday 14 May sees two events: Max Hastings and Sylvie Simmons will be talking at Middleton Grange.

I’ve just finished reading I’m your man: the life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. It is brilliant. Sylvie talked a lot to Cohen and those who know him. We delve into his family, personal life and history, and Cohen’s creative process is also unfurled and explored.

Her wealth of knowledge doesn’t get in the way of a  great story. I loved the anecdote about Iggy Pop and Cohen. Leonard spotted a personal ad in which a woman wanted to meet a man who combined the energy of Iggy and the class of Cohen. He thought they should reply as a double act – married Iggy was less keen – but the result is a fab photo of Iggy and Leonard on the couch. The Personal Ad woman must have flipped out.

PS If you want more Cohen stuff – CDs, DVDs, and books – the library has quite an impressive collection.

Max Hastings will be fascinating too. He is an author, journalist, and broadcaster who has written many books of war history and some great memoirs (I am in the throes of Did You Really Shoot the Television?: A Family Fable and it’s a witty and compelling read).

Sorry to report the Ben Goldacre event is cancelled …
Search catalogue for Bad scienceMonday 20 May: Another must-see is Ben Goldacre talking Bad Science, Bad Pharma at the Aurora Centre. Goldacre is the enemy of illogical baggy thinking. Bad Science is the kind of book that gets you all riled up. It stimulates your critical thinking and makes you look at the media’s reporting in a more jaundiced way. Crappy infographics! Science research corralled by advertisers! GGGrrrr.

His follow-up is Bad Pharma and it tackles the actions of pharmaceutical companies. Lots of library customers (including me) are keen to get their mitts on this.

These three authors will also be appearing at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

Want more literary stuff? Try The Press Christchurch Writers Festival workshops:

  • Workshops on e-publishing with author Felicity Price and publisher Jenny Howarth.
  • The Good Prose – a two-day session with Lyttelton-based columnist and author Joe Bennett.

War & rock n roll & a fab prize – The Press Christchurch Writers Festival

How is this for a fabulous literary night out? On Tuesday 14 May, The Press Christchurch Writers Festival brings you Sir Max Hastings and Sylvie Simmons:

Sir Max Hastings: Accounts from Abroad
Sir Max Hastings is an author, journalist and broadcaster whose work has appeared in every British national newspaper.
(Search our catalogue for Max Hastings’ books).

Search catalogue for All hell let loose   Search the catalogue for Editor   Search catalogue for Finest Years

Sylvie Simmons: Stories from the Life of Leonard Cohen
‘I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ is the definitive account of an extraordinary life. Sylvie Simmons, biographer, shares stories, insights and songs in this evening of recollections on Cohen.
(Search our catalogue for books by Sylvie Simmons)
Search the catalogue for I'm your man  Search catalogue for Neil Young

Not only do you you get to listen to these authors, there is a Auckland Writers and Readers Festival Competition. The prize includes:

  • Three nights’ accommodation and breakfast at Hotel de Brett, Auckland for two.
  • The nights are: Thursday 16, Friday 17, Saturday 18 May.
  • A Take Ten concession pass, which can be redeemed for 10 tickets to any core festival sessions (excluding special events and workshops)
  • Two additional tickets to the NZ Listener Gala Night, Thursday 16 May, 2013
  • Value: $1,430

Visit The Press Christchurch Writers Festival to book tickets for the sessions, and enter the competition.

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.

Two tales of Afghanistan

Marianne Elliott and Nicky Hager‘s books at first sight appear to be quite different beasts. Investigative journalist and author Hager needs no introduction, he has been illuminating New Zealand’s political, military and intelligence underbelly since 1996. His books are weighty tomes (metaphorically if not literally) replete with formidably detailed research. Zen under fire by Marianne Elliott, former United Nations’ human rights officer and lawyer, uses a more personal tale-telling technique to describe her time in Afghanistan and its impact on her, her nearest and dearest. Surprisingly the books taken together are complementary and sympathetic, providing a picture of Afghanistan, big and small.

Both Hager and Marianne felt compelled to write due to the lack of information on Afghanistan despite New Zealand’s involvement there. Further Marianne wanted to tell the stories of her Afghani colleagues, “to use the location and time in history to inform people”, to give context and reveal the discrepancies between the theory and practice of humans rights in Afghanistan.

For research Marianne relied on the almost verbatim notes she’d kept of interactions with warlords and non-governmental organisations. Her own “tenacious memory” informed the rest. Hager spoke to serving soldiers, senior officers and collected intelligence and military documents in the tens of thousands. The sheer volume of evidence “nearly melted down his brain” and Hager initially struggled to reduce this mountain of paper and find the essence.

Finding the “voice” of their respective books had challenges for them both. Hager didn’t want a critical, nagging voice. He wanted Other people’s wars to be a nation building book explaining who we are as New Zealanders, and to be read by the military, military families and the wider New Zealand public especially the young. Marianne wrote for her friends, women she knows and loves but who sometimes struggled to understand her experiences. She also felt strongly that most New Zealanders wanted to understand Afghanistan and be able to access nuanced information. The personal story was for her the best vehicle

Asked about what the next five years held for Afghanistan neither author was optimistic. Nicky Hager believes the slow collapse of Afghani society is inevitable once the West withdraws. Marianne likewise, despite her reservations about the West’s original involvement in Afghanistan, fears the lack of long-term political commitment will result in hardship for the many people who have experienced improved lives since Western forces entered Afghanistan. The transition needs to be slow and thoughtful and she hold real reprisal concerns for the many Afghani who have worked alongside the West.

This was a carefully structured and sensitive exploration of the writer’s craft rather than a febrile, political polemic. Well attended, the audience provided some thoughtful and topical questions.

“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.