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!

“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.