May 25, 2010

AWRF 2010 - Ben Naparstek - In conversation

"In conversation: encounters with great writers" is the title of Ben Naparstek's first book, published last year. Tim from Readers Services went to hear Ben in conversation (with Guy Somerset of the NZ Listener) about "In conversation" at AWRF 2010. I had to wait a bit for his comments (not a reprimand, I haven't gotten all mine up either, that's how it is at busy Central Library - did everyone see us written up in Canvas yesterday?) but it was super worth it. Here is Tim on Ben N. (and his anagram Mr P.) for all to enjoy:  

Overheard after the talk:

"So...that was Ben Pasternak..." ( joking, old fellow's voice -- joking, I thought, but couldn't see his face to verify.)

"Yep" said his friend (tall).

Old Fellow:  "His diction wasn't so good..."

Tall Man- ""

O.F.-"He mumbled so I couldn't hear was a little rambling..."

He didn't mumble, to my ears at least, but Ben Naparstek did lack the seasoned delivery of a literary talk circuit veteran. He didn't command the stage or have the practiced sound bites ready at hand. My first impression was of an unassuming fellow -- quiet and maybe a little shy. Was he in the right place? His tie was a little askew, his hair a little messed up, he slouched to the side a little, and it is true what they say about him being very young -- The "Doogie Howser" of journalism he has been called.

Certainly, young and fresh-faced for someone in his position (age 24, but already editor of the Australian magazine of politics, society and  culture The Monthly, with close to a decade of top level journalism under his belt, interviewed such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami at a tender age... ).
Occasionally he stumbled over his words- like when he read from his piece on Chomsky- and that's when he reminded me of a high school student reciting homework aloud. But one couldn't be shy or stumbling when interviewing such a towering figure, surely. His answer to the question if he got intimidated interviewing these people was "". He seemed a little nonplussed at the idea. The purpose of the interview is get material, not to impress his subjects, he said.

There would be no room for shyness running a magazine either, whatever your age. He told of how he first heard, aged eighteen, that The Monthly was in the works and needed an editor. He said that at first he didn't think of it as a magazine he might edit (aged eighteen!). At first. But he applied anyway.

He was asked at the beginning of the session how he likes to open an interview and he replied that it can be good to wrong-foot the subject a little, and by the end of the hour I felt as if I had been a little wrong-footed by my first impression of him. It became apparent that this fellow was smart and unflappable. He didn't display a gift of the gab, but he was articulate and thoughtful. I wondered if he used his boyishness as part of his journalistic tool kit -- to wrong-foot people, disarm them so as to get the genuine reaction, the telling quote...

Over the course of the talk he touched on his early academic leanings (idealised academic rigour only to be disillusioned by academic insularity, gave up the ivory tower in favour of writing for the wider public), the craft of the interview (he always makes full transcriptions of interviews so as to find the hidden telling phrase not so immediately apparent), and the job of managing a magazine.

Not much in the way of gossip about famous people though.
As they wandered away the Tall Man said to his friend that he would have approached the Norm Chomsky interview differently, asked him about his philosophy, politics, serious stuff, you know... Norm Chomsky? Maybe  Ben Pasternak would have done a better job.

May 20, 2010

AWRF 2010 - Emily Perkins and Damien Wilkins

Simon tells us about his next appointment at AWRF 2010 -- but neglects to say if he sampled the wares of the coffee cart first.

Coming to this event after the more harrowing morning topic of "forgotten victims in a post 9/11 world" made it feel like light relief. It was also heavy on interesting discussion, with two New Zealand authors discussing their vocation with passionate candour. 

Chair Fergus Barrowman began by comparing the similar career arcs of Emily Perkins and Damien Wilkins. Both had studied at Victoria University, and both authors had enjoyed early critical success; Perkins with her shorts collection Not her Real Name (1996) and Wilkins withThe Miserables (1993).  Both were now teachers, and both had recently put out what were being hailed as career highs; Perkins' Novel About my Wife and Wilkins' Somebody Loves Us All

Barrowman then posed that elusive question: when did you KNOW ....?

Emily Perkins. Perkins said she had first become cognizant of what she felt (despite technical imperfections) was her own artistic "voice" whilst doing Bill Manhire's undergraduate Creative Writing Course. Wilkins was a little more self-effacing. He spoke of the shame he harboured for his early attempts at at writing, thus not daring to enrol in a writing course that would encourage exposing works in progress to one's classmates. However, he was struck by a comment a teacher had written on one of his essays, complimenting the "rhythms" of his prose. This was the small kernel of positivity Wilkins needed to suspect that perhaps he too HAD something. 

Damien Wilkins. Both authors spoke positively of the role teaching English plays in their own work. Perkins found it rejuvenating, and Wilkins said he felt excited to be hearing new voices in an embryonic state, the originality of ideas often shining through technical flaws. 

An even more elusive question: What is literature FOR....? 

Perkins said her reasons for writing were always evolving, but that presently she was more interested in writing something that produced sensation as it was being read in the moment, rather than writing something that was "significant."As a reader, she was not bothered by weak endings if taken on a journey throughout. In fact, she contended, sometimes the misshapenness of a novel could be a strength. Wilkins felt that while it could not be argued that writing improved the author's life, (thus debunking the notion of writing as effective catharsis for author) what it did produce was a piece of work that was FOR someone - FOR a reader.

As for the process of writing, whatever the previous novel's strengths, "there wasn't a guild," maintained Perkins. One wanted to do something different once one's strengths had become habitual. A new novel was always a chance to "repudiate" the previous one she joked. Wilkins contended that the distance between a well established writer and a beginner was in fact very small. 

Both authors then read segments of their work to an attentive audience, and Barrowman wound up by noting an increase in "garrulous speech" in current New Zealand fiction, (as demonstraed by the dialogue-heavy passages in Wilkins's latest novel), and a moving on from the archetypal lonely misunderstood NZ narrator to something more social.

AWRF 2010 - Poetry Live

Thanks to Jade for this post on the Poetry Live event at AWRF 2010, chaired by Christine O'Brien from AUP. I love the idea of a poem about hanging out washing as I too have had some vivid experiences relating to putting out laundry. One was when I hung a set of sheets to dry in the back yard of a house in Wichita, Kansas and came out an hour later to find them already dry. I had just arrived a few days before and it marked the moment that I realized just what "Great Plains" -- such a fixture of American mythology -- really meant.

Introduced as a “feast of poets”, the audience was treated to a veritable banquet of poetry from seven New Zealand poets and one Australian poet, Alicia Sometimes.

Alison Wong was first up reciting one of her new poems, a witty comparison between hanging out washing in Geelong and Wellington. This poem was obviously memorable as on Sunday, I found myself hanging out sheets in such a way as to avoid tui droppings whereas if I had been in Geelong it would have been parakeet droppings I wanted to avoid.

Ian Wedde, Bernadette Hall, Sam Sampson, Jessica le Bas, Ben Brown, Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and Alicia Sometimes each read eight minutes worth of compelling verse.  However, the most moving poetry for me was extracts from Jessica le Bas's Walking to Africa. Introduced by the poet as a mother’s story about caring and families, this poem related the experience of adolescent mental illness in a very compassionate way.

May 19, 2010

AWRF 2010 - An evening with William Dalrymple

That friendly librarian helping you with the travel and history books at Central Library might be Jade, whose career includes an exciting 14 months as a VSA volunteer at the National Library of Cambodia. Ask her if she attended “An evening with William Dalrymple” at AWRF 2010 and then you’ll know, especially if she describes it to you like this: 

The audience waited with anticipation for the evening with William Dalrymple to begin, and after being formally introduced, he was quickly on stage, telling us he was going to read from four of his travel books, not from the latest one only, as I had expected.

 He began with his first travel book In Xanadu written when he was 22, which he called a “student romp” as he retraced, during his summer break, Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to Shangdu (Xanadu). He read an excerpt from his humorous account of going to the cinema in China where he and the locals watched James Bond in Dr. No.

The City of Djinns was his second travel book and explored his fascination with Delhi, its history and wonderful array of eclectic inhabitants. Dalrymple recounted for us his adventure with taxi driver Ravinder Singh in the hazardous Delhi traffic where “might is right” and the “driver of the loudest vehicle” wins.

His third book, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium, written in a more serious tone, examined the Christian minorities in the Middle East and the complexity of the relationship between Christianity and Islam which historically have co-existed closely, sharing holy places and religious practices.

Dalrymple’s final readings were from Nine Lives: In Search of the Modern in Sacred India, published in 2009. Not written in the style of more traditional travel writing, Nine Lives is what Dalrymple called “nine nonfiction short stories”, told by the nine people whose stories impressed him most as he travelled throughout India. Each of the individuals embraces a different religious or sacred tradition, and includes a Tibetan monk, a Sufi, Tantric sadhu, a sacred prostitute, and a Theyyam dancer. Dalrymple wanted to show how a variety of traditional faiths is surviving in contemporary, globalised modern India. He read a couple of excerpts from the first story about a Jain nun who became grief-stricken when her fellow nun and travelling companion of twenty years died through taking her own life according to the Jain tradition of Santhara, or fasting until death.

During question time, we learnt that Dalrymple, himself a Roman Catholic, believes that there are many paths up the mountain of religious faith. When asked what his Indian readers think about Nine Lives, he told us that while he had aimed it at a Western audience, it had touched the Indian readers more and that they were now his biggest reading audience. He reflected how his previous works were written more from an outsider’s point of view and I think his latest work shows a new maturity in travel writing that enables the people to speak for themselves.

AWRF 2010 - John Freeman: Shrinking the World

Pam from Mt. Roskill Community Library tells us how she found Shrinking the World and AWRF 2010 quite mind-expanding. 

This was my first Writers and Readers Festival and everything I saw was new and exciting. By the time I got to John Freeman’s talk I was well versed on the festival format - dimmed lights, slide show, sponsors voice over…until the highlight, a relaxed conversation between chair and guest.

Freeman’s talk reaffirmed what I have been thinking for quite some time, that our lives are far too busy.  He’s not anti e-mail, but believes the amount  we receive on a daily basis is a contributing factor in our sped up lifestyles, and that we need to slow down and think about the necessity of our words before hitting the send button.  Communicating today is about quick and instant; to the point where in some circles it is acceptable to text and email in the middle of a dinner conversation.

It was amusing to be reminded of how we used to wait for a daily mail delivery, and that we did and survived! 

When asked if he thought we were being ‘dumbed down’ by technology, Freeman laughed, ‘’We’re being blown to smithereens!’

I’ve yet to read his book Shrinking the world : the 4000-year story of how email came to rule our lives, but it is reassuring to know that towards the back are suggestions for managing information overload.

The Writers and Readers Festival has got me hooked and I will definitely be back next year.

AWRF 2010 - Forgotten Victims in a Post 9/11 World

Simon from Readers Services must have been scribbling notes on his takeaway coffee cup, presumably after he'd drained it, to have gotten so much into his write-up. Here it is (you may want to make a coffee first):

Now this was a heavy topic for 10am in the morning - particularly if you'd had a late night, overslept, missed your bus, and found yourself hoofing it from Grey Lynn to the Aotea Centre sans breakfast, walking so fast that coffee was spilling out through the sipper hole in your takeaway cup. But I digress. Thankfully the talk turned out to be so compelling that I soon forgot the less than ideal circumstances under which the morning began. 

The speakers were Michael Otterman, an American journalist and human rights consultant, and Antony Loewenstein, a Jewish-Australian freelance journalist, author and blogger.

Chair Kris Gledhill began by talking of the history of human rights awareness since World War 2. The horrors of the Holocaust were a catalyst for the formation of the U.N and an increasing public awareness of the need for human rights law. The problem, it was contended, was that it was western world human rights that were most protected, and western world human rights abuse that was most reported on by the media. Otterman and Loewenstein, in their capacity as journalists, contended that since 1945 up to the present day many human rights abuses sanctioned by the U.S govenrment were slipping under the mainstream media radar. Victims were being forgotten, and this problem had surged in a post 9/11 world, with many forgotten victims in the Middle East.

The pros and cons of torture as a method of seeking information from suspected terrorists was discussed. Neither Otterman or Lowenstein saw any pros. Lowenstein said there was much evidence that both the victim and the torturer suffered longterm post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. It also led to a lot of false intelligence, as many victims will say whatever they think is being sought from them in order for the torture to end. A further argument against torture was the spreading resentment against the U.S in the Middle East. Al Qaeda numbers had reportedly risen since the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos in 2004. 

Both men pointed out the failure of the mainstream press to expose the full (and continuing) extent to which torture is being used by the U.S military, and the misleading nature of "Orwellian euphemisms" used such as "enhanced interrogation techniques", and the ultimately sourceless context of any content that begins with "Administration officials say...". These misleading tones were entrenched in compromised media outlets such as Fox News which operated as commercial businesses. 

The lack of coverage was also down to the covert nature of the U.S Government's military legislation, authorising torture techniques like sense deprivation and sleep deprivation in places outside of the U.S such as Guantanamo Bay, some methods of which were still authorised under the Obama regime; not to mention the increasingly common phenomenon of "embedded jourrnalists" whose reporting would inevitably be heavily partisan.  Egypt's torture chambers were discussed, and the disenchanting irony of Obama's speech in Cairo about a new Muslim beginning when there were U.S tax dollar funded torture chambers nearby. 

Aside from the inspiring legacy of independant journalists such as Robert Fisk and Patrick Coburn, both men agreed the internet was a vital tool for the voices of forgotten victims to be heard. Groundbreaking footage and coverage from the "blogsphere," (eg.CNN running twitter feeds during the Iranian uprising, Saudi Arabian youtube clips of women driving in a country where it is illegal for women to drive) was seen as far more vital than so-called "fair balanced journalism," and the most important revelations came from human rights groups rather than journalists. Lowenstein was reluctant to be optimistic about the chances of resolution in the Palestine/Israel situation. Both men hoped that the freedom of the internet could enable a new investigative journalism from inside and outside the Middle East, making true democracy possible.

AWRF 2010: Voices from the crowd

"What was your favourite moment at AWRF 2010?"

On occasion, finding myself in a semi-captive crowd -- coffee cart queues, Opening Night Party huddles and similar -- I would take out  my stenographic pad, and thus disguised as a roving reporter shamelessly assault my fellow attendees, asking them to recall what the stand-out moment of the Festival was for them.

Phil, cutler and grandfather:
“When they asked Thomas Keneally ‘Why do you write?’ and he said 'Because it makes me drunk with joy.'"

Carole Beu of The Women’s Bookshop:
“The best moment for me was the Elizabeth Smither event (blogger’s note: which Carole chaired) – her wit and wisdom and her knowingness of human behaviour.”

'South-west of Eden: a memoir 1932-1956' by C. K. Stead. Christine O’Brien from Auckland University Press, Chair of the Poetry Live event:
“As a publisher, my favourite moment was when 40 people were turned away from Karl Stead's event (blogger’s note: CK Stead's new book South-West of Eden: A Memoir, 1932-1956 is published by AUP); but as a poetry lover my favourite moment was at the poetry session, when Ben Brown started off by saying ‘I’m about to do two things you should never do in New Zealand unless you’re very sure of yourself: that’s reference J.K. Baxter and wear sunglasses onstage.’”

Greg, man about town and husband of a librarian:
“John Reynolds wearing the big white Mickey Mouse hands.” (blogger’s note: Reynolds's line was “Let me put on my curator’s gloves here.”)

English teacher at Kati Kati College:
“When they were talking about Whale Rider at the Script to Screen event and Witi Ihimaera said Keisha Castle-Hughes became Moby Chick who rode the whale all the way to Hollywood.”

Friend of English teacher at Kati Kati College:
“When Rachael King said that Winston Churchill’s mother had a 'tramp stamp', when she was talking about the research she had done for her book.” (blogger’s note: Yes I asked. It was a snake around her wrist)

Veronica, woman-at-large:
“When Colm Tóibín said ‘It’s a sin to be boring.’"

Mattie, arts lover and Festival volunteer:
“When Chris Finlayson made that speech at the Opening Night with all those jokes about the Labour Party, as he was leaving the stage someone yelled “Boo!” – well, the word here is that it came from the direction of Bob Kerridge!”

Paul Reynolds, internet guru:
“The panel I chaired expressed a group disquiet at the changes at the University of Canterbury Library and were very concerned at the downgrade of the library services for students. My favourite moment was when Mike Dickison, the Learning Advisor, said that in the digital arena, librarians are the most relentlessly forward-thinking profession that he knows of.”

Couldn’t hear name over roar of Opening Night Party (just kidding, actually I don't think he owned up to it), from ArtStation:
“Seeing how tastelessly dressed Simon Bridges's wife is.”

Callum who will be starting at Ponsonby Intermediate next year:
“Charlie Higson reading out loud from The Enemy.”

Pete Bossley, architect:
“Lionel Shriver ending all her comments with this emphatic nod of the head as if she were saying 'Take that!'”

Librarian from Rodney Libraries:
“When Charlie Higson said he was going to have angry zombie librarians coming down the street to eat the children in his next book.”

Friend of Librarian from Rodney Libraries:
“At the Colm Tóibín event when after 15 minutes of talking about  Tóibín being gay, Damien Wilkins said well let’s talk about your writing, and the audience hoorayed.”

May 18, 2010

AWRF 2010: An hour with Yiyun Li

When I first heard of Yiyun Li, it was as a young Chinese woman living in Oakland, California, writing stories unpublishable in China, described with words like horrifying and brilliant. I imagined her looking a bit like Lucy Liu in "Kill Bill", with a zap of electrifying politics of the kind Oakland is famous for (cf Huey P Newton).

Yiyun Li. So it was a real surprise when my copy of The vagrants arrived from Harper Collins and the author photo revealed her to be round-cheeked and womanly, someone who would bake. The round-cheeked and womanly were still there when I got to see her in person, but there was something more, a quizzical turn of mind which made her seem both more worldly than that, but also more impractical. I decided she probably isn’t a baker.
It turns out that she was not a firebrand a la Beijing Coma, exiled to America in the wake of Tiananmen. The year of Tiananmen Square, she was only 16. Her father was a nuclear physicist, her mother a school teacher; she studied at Peking University and went to America to study immunology. But the school she chose happened to be the University of Iowa, home of the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop frequented by greats like Raymond Carver and John Cheever, and also some who were usually sober, like Michael Cunningham and T. Coraghessan Boyle. And one day she thought, I might...

At the Festival she was interviewed by John Freeman, the young and shiny editor of Granta. Last arrived as always, I ducked into a seat in the third row and discovered next to me the excellent librarian, now retired, Jennifer Wiseman, who inspired me no end when I was just starting out by talking both Vincent O’Sullivan and an All-Black with an Irish bloodline (Sean Fitzpatrick?) into coming into the library and reading out loud from Ulysses for our Bloomsday Centenary celebration in 2004. It was she who whispered to me that the somewhat ghostly figure on my other side was James Wallace.

John Freeman’s sprightly questioning (“essentialise” ? I looked it up, yes, it does exist, a perfectly good word I have never heard anyone use) opened a window on Li's formative years in Beijing.

“Fiction was the most dangerous thing in the world. Where I grew up, having anything to do with art was dangerous.”

“The public library was not open to the public, just to a select few.”

“But in the early ‘80s the newspapers printed stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev…”

“And then in my middle school library, we had Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jack London, An American Tragedy (the most terrible book I’ve ever read, so long and boring) and Sister Carrie…”

This intrigues me. Check for Hemingway, Jack London and Theodore Dreiser, anti-fascists the first two and social realist the third, but how did DH Lawrence sneak in? Are we talking Sons and Lovers and the horrible dark dirty coalmining Midlands (thousands of Chinese dying every year in coal mine explosions) or Women in Love, Western decadence, smart women, Gudrun and Ursula in coloured stockings? Or was it simply the whim of some high-up Party official with a secret stash of Glenfiddich and an obsession with DH Lawrence?

“My first pieces of fiction were falsified school notes I wrote to skip school…”

“Chinese families don’t talk about people who aren’t there – only about real things. I made up a story about my grandmother, whom I had never met. That was my first story.”

“The writer Elizabeth Bowen said ninety percent of writers don’t move beyond writing to be felt. I started writing not to be felt but to feel other people…”

“I say I am not a political writer. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t know what’s good or bad. I think the different shades of gray between the black and white is where fiction lives.”

“I grew up in a culture where goodness is more important than happiness. Best of all is to be a martyr. I could ask is this Chinese or Communist Chinese culture? It’s very difficult for Westerners to understand.”
"I am a sad person in the closet."

The final question was "Are you a Chinese writer? An American writer?"

The firm answer: “I like to think I’m an international writer.”

Coming up, some good reasons you should read Yiyun Li's The vagrants, from Claire at Central 3.

The vagrants by Yiyun Li

Claire Ryan contributed this review of The vagrants, whose author, Yiyun Li, appeared at the AWRF 2010. It's set in provincial China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

It's not often that you read a novel that feels polished, truly finished. One definition of art is a creation which holds a mirror to reality, and this book does it so beautifully that the mirror-looking is effective, yet almost painless.

The characters in The vagrants come to life so vividly it's as if they're on film, rather than sketched out in words on the page. It's astounding how one book can capture so much -- about China, her history and people, spirit, fate, hopelessness, mistrust, courage and love in all forms. It leaves you wondering about your own strength. When you ask people who have lived under communist rule: "What was it like under communism?", and they cannot or will not say, this book provides the answers.

Whether you're looking for a political or historical snapshot, a tale of humanity or piece of art, The vagrants will leave you contemplative, sombre but peaceful. Yiyun Li's writing is sublime, delicate and capable of portraying the most powerful, observant images. The vagrants is gentle as a lullaby, yet Li's firm voice streams through.

AWRF 2010: An hour with Rick Gekoski

“What demographic group steals most books from Blackwell’s? Clerics!”

-- Rick Gekoski

First of all, go to the Creative Review blog to see some wonderful photos of rare book dealers in their habitats from an exhibition called The London Book Trade by portrait photographer Mike Tsang. There are many things to enjoy in the photos but the best thing is how the subjects all match their surroundings, just like that crazy “disappearing” artist who paints himself to look like a background and has his photo taken in front of it.

The London book trade is Rick Gekoski’s world, and, in fact, his is one of the portraits. In the AWRF programme Rick Gekoski is referred to as “Bill Bryson on books”, a catch phrase coined by The Tatler which blurb writers everywhere seem to have latched onto. Having now seen Rick Gekoski at AWRF 2010, and having seen Bill Bryson a few years ago at a North Shore Libraries event, I think it's a very superficial description (now why doesn’t this surprise me?)

Yes, they are both Americans living in England, and they both have beards, are funny, and write books. But there’s a major difference. At heart, Bill Bryson is always that “barefoot boy with cheek of tan” from Iowa. He’s funny about the BBC and Scandinavians with big hair, but with important people what comes through is -- leavened by a gentle quip or two -- boyish respect.

The main thing about Rick Gekoski, on the other hand, is that he has no sacred cows. He is deliciously wry about everyone, including himself. He’s a raconteur whom I picture holding forth to Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, tankard in hand at whatever Inn it was where their literary circle, The Club, used to meet. In fact, both he and John Carey, my favourite personality at the Festival and the Chair for Gekoski’s event, would be perfect for The Club, whose membership requirement was to be the type of man that if two of  them were to meet they would be able to entertain each other without needing anyone else. It’s exactly what they did.

A biographer by trade, John Carey started off with a query about Graham Greene (Gekoski having had some dealings with Greene which he wrote about in an amusing piece in his memoir Tolkien’s gown) and his relationship with his authorised biography and with Norman Sherry, the man he allowed to write it, but only after making him promise he would visit every spot Greene had ever visited, read every letter, and so on. The finished work asphyxiates you with detail and I have yet to meet someone who has actually finished it.

“Norman Sherry is a pretty devastated chap.” John Carey proferred.

Gekoski was happy -- as indeed he proved to be on any topic-- to gave us his take, and it was a good one.  “I think Greene would have said 'He will scurry around; he will leave my inner self alone; and he will do it so assiduously that no one will ever do it again.' So Sherry produces this lunatic, pathological biography, which ends up at 3000 pages.”

Gekoski’s background is in philosophy, which he discovered when still at high school. “I told my father ‘Existentialism means you choose who you are’ and he said ‘Tell that to the Jews who died in the concentration camps.’”

Undeterred, he went on to get his PhD at Oxford. It was the time of the war in Vietnam and England was a good place to be. “I’d have been 1-A if I went to Harvard.”  He became a lecturer at the University of Warwick. It was the time of Derrida and Academe was not a good place to be. “Derrida ruined the lives and careers of a generation of academics.” Gekoski gives it the cognoscente pronunciation : Der-ri-dah' but manages to make it sound stupid. He chose book dealing instead.

“Learning through intimacy”
John Carey muses “Is there a way of studying literature?”
RG: "I think there’s a way of reading literature – with your finger on the page. Learning through intimacy.”

Great question, John; Great answer, Rick
JC: “Who is the most unpleasant author ever?”
RG: “I think Paul Theroux might take a little bit of beating.”

Horton, Holden and Huckleberry
JC: “Who are your role models?”
RG: “The first one was Horton from Horton hatches an egg. And then, Holden Caulfield. That was the first real voice in fiction that I could internalize. It was the first teenage voice in fiction.”

What about Huckleberry Finn, I thought. Should I ask? Is he going to think I'm trying to catch him out and be cutting? Too late. The Club adjourned. We put down our tankards, um, I mean put away our pens, picked up our umbrellas and headed for the door. As we filed out I asked Mark Fryer of the NZ Herald, who had been sitting next to me, and whom I know would never be cutting, “But what about Huckleberry Finn? Wasn’t he a teenager?” “That’s what I was thinking too, " he said. "What about Huckleberry Finn?”

And this from a man born on the Mississippi River! Dear Mr Gekoski, this will be the first question for the next meeting of The Club.

Rick Gekoski's books at the library:

AWRF10 - "Somebody stole my game" with Chris Laidlaw

Barry O'Callaghan from Otahuhu Community Library feels he wuz robbed!  Read what he has to say about his event of choice at AWRF 2010.

I hate writers festivals. Hardly a soul under 30 present, let alone an under 30 male.  Writers festivals are strictly mature female territory, which is a shame. 

I used to like rugby, but not so much these days.  That's why I thought "Somebody Stole My Game", a discussion about the state of the national game with two of the country's most experienced commentators, would be a invigorating exchange of ideas about rugger.  But I was wrong.  You can't expect invigorating when you have Chris Laidlaw talking.  Surely one of the most boring men around.  His Scottish counterpart Gregor Paul was a bit more interesting but never really got that much time to speak.  Instead it was the very nice Lloyd Jones taking up all the time pitching his questions to the panellists.  But they all missed the point. 

Where was the in-depth thrust and volley of disagreement, instead of an insipid Chris waffling on about nothing we don't know already? What about rugby in the provinces, what about the thrill of Southland lifting the Ranfurly Shield for the first time in 50 years?  What about the lack of daytime rugby, the overbearance of Northern Hemisphere politics? 
For a while it got interesting. Chris mentioned how the rules are killing the game.  The man could see into the future.  I can see into the future as well and see that his forthcoming book, "Somebody Stole My Game" will incite much navel gazing about the game at present.  Me, I'd rather listen to Martin Devlin on the wireless.  At least he can work an audience, ask and answer the questions and be entertaining

AWRF10 - An hour with Marti Friedlander

I'm really sorry I couldn't make it to this event as I am a huge fan of Marti Friedlander -- her talent and her personality both. Luckily my colleague Juliana went and contributed this report for Books in the City.

Leonard Bell, art historian and author of the book “Marti Friedlander”, began this session by talking about photography as the art of “drawing with light”. And then he introduced the woman who was to keep a packed audience entranced for the next hour. 

Marti Friedlander. For fifty years Marti Friedlander has been documenting New Zealand and New Zealanders. Early on she made a conscious decision to try and capture the faces of emerging artists. As portrait after glorious portrait of artists and writers appeared on the screen, Marti talked about the photographs and the subjects. She explained how she uses only available light, her own “bossiness”, the vulnerability and strength of her subjects when the photograph was taken and what was happening in her own life at that time. There was a lovely moment of interaction with the photographer Gil Hanly, who was in the front row taking photographs and on the screen circa 1968 with husband Pat Hanly.

Marti talked about her love of faces and how hard she was finding not being able to see us, her audience. It was,she said, like “talking to shadows”.

The hour flew by we followed the “Clap, clap, clap” message on the screen with enthusiasm and warmth. We could have listened and looked for a lot, lot longer.

AWRF10 - Saturday May 15: Charlie Higson

Thanks to Claire Scott for contributing this post about Charlie Higson's appearance at the AWRF 2010.  I'm sure he is very popular at the beautiful Grey Lynn Community Library she manages so well (that's her customers talking, not me, although I think it too!)
Having worked as a comedy writer and performer in British television, Higson's name wasn't really linked in any notable way to penning books until the immensely popular Young Bond series for children and teens hit the streets in 2005. For Higson, the request from the Fleming Estate to write the series of five books on James Bond as a boy and young man was too good an offer to resist. Not only was he starting with a ready made character in the form of Bond, he got to write about every male's ultimate lifestyle. You never see him at home in any of the Bond movies or books, you never meet his family, and you never see him performing mundane domestic tasks such as washing the dishes or unblocking the loo.

However, in giving Bond a past, Higson didn’t have much to go on. In fact, the only clues were found in Ian Fleming's book You Only Live Twice in which James is believed to have died, and M writes a fairly full obituary. From that we learn that his parents died in a mountaineering accident, that he had no brothers or sisters, and that he was educated at Eton. So setting the scene for James the boy required continuity in this regard. The rest was over to Higson. "After all," he says. "It's every parent's fantasy to have no kids, and it's every kid's fantasy to have no parents."

Higson admits he had no experience at writing in this genre, so he tried chapters out on his own three boys as he completed them. "More death and murders!" was their clear opinion, so he upped the violent ends to evil characters a notch. Of course, diehard Bond fans found the new series hard to take. They didn't want a "Harry Potter" boy Bond.
Higson has now moved on to a new series, the first of which, The Enemy, was published last year, and the second of which, The Dead, is due out in September. He has changed genre completely for this teenage zombie series, some of which has had to be watered down and children's ages advanced to meet the more protective and sensitive United States market requirements.

He is still writing adult comedy and has recently completed a new series about post-apocalyptic Britain called Bellamy's People for the BBC. When asked about the possibility of movies being made of theYoung Bond series, Higson felt that this was unlikely. As all rights are controlled by the Fleming Estate, it would be very confusing to produce both adult and children's versions of the same character simultaneously. Explaining away the time differences between adult and children's movies would be just too confusing, as the Young Bondseries is set as Fleming intended it, in the 1920s and 30s.

And finally says Higson, "It would just be too hard to find a 13 year old boy with the charisma of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig."

AWRF10 - Friday May 14: Michael Otterman - Erasing Iraq

Jo Davidson's sharp mind stands her in good stead in her job as ACL Serials Librarian. At AWRF 2010 she put it to another good purpose by going to hear Michael Otterman, author of "Erasing Iraq", interviewed by Sean Plunket.  Here's what she took away from this important event.

Otterman's contention is that the American occupation of Iraq has led to conditions approaching ‘sociocide’, that is, the destruction of the Iraqi foundations of society. This conclusion doesn't rest only on civilian loss of life – the total is hotly disputed but may be as many as one million if all those who succumbed as a result of the 12 years of economic sanctions from 1991 to 2003 are included. It is also measured by the number of displaced people which, at over 5 million, is the largest movement of people since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The book also details the cultural loss resulting from the looting of the country’s libraries, museums and archaeological sites while the occupation forces stood by and watched, securing only the Oil and Interior Ministries. Donald Rumsfeld’s comment on this was that “Freedom’s untidy”.

The use of embedded journalists whose output is vetted by the military and the self-censorship of the mainstream media has led to little information being available on the effects of the occupation on the Iraqi people. Interestingly, two-thirds of Americans polled after the first Gulf War of 1991 felt that “military censorship is more important than the media’s ability to report important news”.

Any positives? According to Michael Otterman the proliferation of Iraqi bloggers telling their stories has helped redress the lack of information and he points to the last elections in Iraq which saw a shift away from fundamentalism back to secular parties.

Is there anything concerned individuals can do? Give the message to politicians that we could help by taking more Iraqi refugees. Sweden has 50,000. New Zealand has 86.

The predominantly over-50’s audience listened attentively to Michael Otterman but unfortunately there was little time for questions. Sean Plunket introduced the session with an anecdote relating to a game of golf he played with a stranger in Queenstown in 2001 who turned out to be a former top aide of Richard Nixon. When asked what the American military planned to do after going into Afghanistan in 2001, the aide said go back to Baghdad to finish the job started in 1991, then on to Iran or Syria – they weren’t sure which yet.

AWRF10 - Friday May 14: An hour with Alison Wong

Thanks to Carolyn from Central Library for contributing this thoughtful write-up of an AWRF 2010 event which I heard many people speaking highly of -- as you would expect with Bookman Beattie at the controls.
Alison Wong. Photo credit: Alan Knowles. "An Hour with Alison Wong" proved to be both enlightening and entertaining. Alison Wong is an emerging voice in New Zealand literature. Her work reflects her heritage – she is a New Zealander of Chinese descent who has lived in the Hawke’s Bay, Wellington and China, and is now residing in Geelong, Australia.

Wong described the long path to becoming a writer. As a shy girl growing up in the Hawke’s Bay in the sixties she was always seen with a book in hand, but the books were usually bought from a fair and she didn’t believe them to be of a great quality. Back then writing wasn’t thought of as a responsible job – her family and peers thought of a career in terms of becoming a lawyer, accountant etc. and she initially followed this path by studying mathematics at University.

However, from an early age her love for poetry was evident. She frequently wrote short poems before going to sleep, and once even wrote an entire school social studies project on India in poetry. After attending University, Wong worked in IT and spent several years in China, where she began writing. She later was accepted for the legendary creative writing course at Victoria, where she was encouraged to pursue her interest in writing and introduced to some of the writers who would influence her own work.

Alison read us the poem "Playground" from Cup, her first poetry collection and a finalist in the 2007 Montana New Zealand Book Awards for Best First Book of Poetry. It’s about her three year old son and is set at the playground next to the Titahi Bay Shopping Centre and at Porirua McDonalds. Real places and events are scattered throughout her works.

The chair of the session, Graham Beattie, pointed out that As the Earth Turns Silver is more than just the love story between a Chinese-born immigrant and a Pakeha widower. It also is an historical novel chronicling a dark period in New Zealand history when racism was commonplace and Chinese immigrants were forced to abide by laws which adversely affected them, such as the Poll Tax and naturalisation legislation.

Alison Wong provided an insight into the craft and practicalities of writing her first novel. She commenced work on As the Earth Turns Silver in 1996 but it was not published until 2009. She talked about the long struggle and meticulous research undertaken to complete this book. The result is a tribute to her artistry. Her poetic acumen influences her prose to provide the reader with a significant œuvre d'art. Her style is highly readable, but it may take several readings to discover some of its nuances and subtleties. I recommend you try some of her work. You won’t be disappointed.

AWRF10 - Sunday May 16: An hour with David Levithan

The first thing that strikes me about this write-up is that it is awesome. It's by Rachael from Onehunga Community Library.

The first thing that strikes me about David Levithan is that he is totally and completely awesome. My companion and I both spent the whole hour thinking about how well we would all get along as friends. It took some serious restraint not to yell out how awesome he was at the end of the session, but I was too giggly and giddy to get it out. I have never felt this way about an author, and I haven’t even read a single one of his books.

Well, it turns out perhaps I have in years past. Full of surprises, he has been responsible for editing the Babysitters Club books for Scholastic for some years now! The man is an author and an editor as well as writing ‘novelizations based on movies’, including the ones for ‘Ten Things I Hate About You’ and ‘Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle’ (Not that I’ve read that one!)

David (I’m going to call him that because we’re destined to be firm friends) is smart, funny, likes great music and writes books that really just talk about real people and real life. From what he said in his session, it’s actually simply a publishing decision that these books are marketed as teen or young adult fiction because they are definitely as interesting and applicable to adults as they are teens.

He thrilled us all with his iPad from the future, from which he did a great reading from his most recent book Will Grayson, Will Grayson. The section he read highlighted the difference between the miserable Will Grayson (there are two Will Graysons in the book) and a character named Tiny Cooper ("he may be the world's largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world's gayest person who is really, really large.") The section ended with a hilariously cringe worthy performance of a number from Tiny’s autobiographical musical, ‘Tiny Dancer’.

As well as the fun, he reflected on some big topics- I was particularly taken with his take on romantic love vs. non-romantic love and the different weights society puts on each of these. David clearly places a great importance on the magic that is non-romantic love between two closest friends, and this is illustrated in his books.  I imagine it is quite hard to paint the portrait of deep love between two friends, but I already felt and understood it, even from his short reading.

I only attended a few Readers and Writers Festival sessions this time around, but several attendees have commented that in their sessions there was too much focus on the sexuality of the authors. This was also the case with some of the questions from the audience in David’s session. It was surprising that people chose to ask about how hard it is to be gay, rather than focussing on the amazing way that David collaborates with people in his work or how his love of music has influenced his writing. However, David handled these questions with honesty and wit and his easy use of language got us back on track to his books, his characters and their world. Which is exactly where I wanted to be.
When the lights came up, my friend and I were both smiling. The people around us were all smiling. David (my new buddy) was smiling. The next day, back at work, and I am still smiling. In 60 minutes, he managed to take someone who once half saw a movie based on a book he wrote, and create a lifelong fan with piles of holds on all his books. Pretty amazing really.

May 17, 2010

Script to Screen: Toa Fraser, Witi Ihimaera and John Barnett

The characters:

John Barnett, CEO and co-owner of South Pacific Pictures (Whale Rider, Sione’s Wedding, etc)
Witi Ihimaera, novelist and short story writer
Toa Fraser, playwright and film director, co-author (with Vincent Ward) of screenplay for River Queen, writer and director of  No. 2
Vanessa Alexander, The Chair, producer, director (Magik and Rose), writer and lecturer


The camera pans the faces of the public, revealing a higher percentage of men than we’ve seen at any other event. Lots of beards, too, real beards, not shave-every-3-days stubble. It travels down the blogger’s row, showing us that every single man is wearing jeans except for one bearded Thor Heyerdahl-type in cargo shorts, and then zooms in on the group on stage.

What makes a material suitable for adaptation?

Cut to John Barnett, looking like the cat who ate the canary.

You will have to love it every day for a very long time – something like 4 years. In the case of Whale Rider, 17 years. Then the story… lots of books leave you with a sense of desolation, and cinema audiences -- (aside, smiling) much larger than book audiences – tend to stay away from that kind of story… You can have a re-imagining, or a deconstruction, or a reconstruction, but you need to make sure you know which it is, what is your purpose.”

Cut to Witi Ihimaera, in a black velvet suit jacket, jeans, and a koru pendant which is so glittery as to seem inlaid with diamonds (maybe is?).

It’s always been a dilemma for me to adapt my work for screen. Film only sees what it sees. It looks down the barrel of the camera and it doesn’t see the edges. Of course we authors love to see the edges.

Cut to Toa Fraser, conversing about the choice of the African-American actress Ruby Dee to play the Mt. Roskill Fijian Nanna Maria in No. 2.  and how some people were against it but they were proven wrong. Individual lines hard to make out because blogger has noticed a modern day Colette look-alike in turquoise leotard and black smock, then a Gertrude Stein look-alike in ankle boots with heels, blue jeans, a man’s suit jacket and a big scarf, and is looking around for a third inter-war littérateur to put in the blog.

     Voiceover by blogger
I just need one more. There’s got to be a Zelda Fitzgerald here. Aargh, they’re dimming the lights…  

Film clip: Mia Blake and Ruby Dee in No. 2  (Ms. Dee in bed, Mia Blake helping her put on lipstick. Ms. Dee is a pro indeed. Mia Blake steps out of the room and pauses, emotive, looking off into the distance. Behind her, a map of Fiji on the wall)

     Blogger voiceover again
Hmm, that looks kind of constructed, she just happened to stop right by the map of Fiji?
Film clip ends.

(Warm applause)

Man did you see the great lighting in that scene when Mia Blake comes out of Nanna Maria’s room and she stops in the hallway and the lighting just picks out the map of Fiji on the wall and makes us notice it?

     Blogger  voiceover
Oh, umm. Anyway it looks like a good movie, I think it's the kind that would have me choking up a few times. Wow, Ruby Dee flying out to New Zealand to make this movie two weeks after her husband died. They were always making movies together. She was so beautiful when she was young. They had a TV show together too. Wow. It’s really like they say. The show must go on.


An hour with Lionel Shriver at AWRF 2010

This utterly singular description of an hour with Lionel Shriver, chaired by Ms. Singularity herself, Charlotte Grimshaw, was contributed by Campbell, from the Readers Services team. 

The new book is So Much for That .

Lionel Shriver wears dark colours; her hair is pulled back. She tells jokes. She is not that funny and they are not jokes, but there is always some sort of laughter. Things get tense after the wrong questions are asked. Charlotte revises her notes, takes more time, and brings up Tolstoy. There is a big silver snail on the stage. The new book is about a woman who is dying but refuses to admit it. She clings to hope. Her friends stop going to visit her. They are too awkward and too afraid of their own mortality to be there for her. This is a problem with our society and with people in general. This is a personal tirade against people deserting each other. We will all have our chance at this unfortunately. Healthcare is another huge problem, obviously. I do not want to think about it.

She reads from her book. Her voice is dramatic but stern, like CNN. The characters are Flicka, Glynis and Shep. Her reading illustrates her point perfectly. It comes to be time for questions. Someone asks a cheeky one and gets a good laugh. She does not answer the question properly but we all understand.
It was raining heavily outside and now inside, it is warm but it still feels wet. I do not want to get sick. I cannot get sick this winter. I want my warm bed and my pyjamas, my lemon, honey and ginger and a stupid movie.

AWRF10 - Friday May 14: What good are the arts?

Yes, this was clearly an Event event, not a Talk event nor even a Debate event. Up on stage they were all having fun and so were we. The Gus Fisher Gallery’s Linda Tyler set the tone right from the start with her warm, clever and stylish introductions. Her eyeglass frames were super stylish as well, definitely the Festival’s tops.

Then it was "On with the show!" To one side, we had Denis Dutton’s oversize silvery blow-dry (pointing to North American origins I hadn’t suspected in the founder of Arts & Letters Daily, but confirmed the minute he opened his mouth) bobbing about in energetic appeciation of his own wit and wisdom. John Carey, who started it all with his book What good are the arts? perched in the middle, with a glint in his eye, a bit like a rapacious bird anticipating the pleasure of the hunt. And then we had Sarah Thornton, strongly giving the impression of being a top-of-the-class, yet for my money, being irredeemably outclassed by the afore-mentioned "two old cats like us" (cf Hank Williams jr).

Some of the best lines:

John Carey: “I was brought up to believe art made you a better person, but looking at artists’ lives – as a specimen of humanity they’re abysmal!”

Denis Dutton: “Value judgments about art are always subjective. There are three types: “Art is what God loves”, “Art is what lights up your brain on an MRI scan” or “Art is what you know how to judge”.” 

When Sarah T curls her lip and says that John’s book “mentions” the superiority of literature over the visual arts (nb, it’s the thesis of an entire section of the book), he sings out “Just my view!” with a self-deprecating wave and a cheerful tone which is positively demonic.

John Carey:  “You can’t know what’s inside another person. That’s why God was created. I’m opposed to the claim that there are eternal values. When Marghanita Laski was studying ectastic states she discovered that people named all kinds of different things as causing them to have transcendental experiences: childbirth, sex, football… Art and literature were quite far down the list.”  

Sarah Thornton on Duchamp’s urinal (after reminding us in an Art 101 kind of way that it is called “Fountain” and is signed “R.Mutt”). “Most people still don’t think it’s art (Omigod, really?).  I realised this while writing an article on rogue urinals.”

John Carey: “You cannot develop an idea except by language.”

Sarah Thornton, in reply to a question from Denys Trussell, poet and musician, about the position of music in all this: “My PhD was in popular music. I can’t speak properly to Shostavokich.” (yes, sic)

Denis Dutton: “Why do University Art Schools own art and the rest of the world can go to hell?”

John Carey, in response to a member of the public’s statement that an experiment in Toronto showed that people who read fiction were more empathetic:  “Empathy yes, but what about behaviour? On the contrary, I think that if you get your kicks out of weeping over people in fiction, you’re quite likely to ignore them in real life.”

The audience:  loud gasp!

AWRF 2010 - Friday May 14: Best of Both Worlds

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s book Best of Both Worlds about the historic relationship, 115 years ago, between the Tūhoe chief Tutakangahau and the self-taught anthropologist Elsdon Best was published this year. Holman appeared at AWRF 2010 in an event with Hemana Waaka (Ngai Tūhoe) which was described in the Festival programme as a talk “about the place of these two men in Tūhoe history”.  Teri Ta’ala, who selects the material for Auckland City Libraries’ Maori, biography and history collections, was in the audience, and to her that was just the starting point. Here's her story:
When my father took a trip down the Whanganui awa in the early 60’s he stayed with a tohunga known as old man Pokiha.  When old man Pokiha relinquished a few gems of Maori knowledge to him, my father questioned why he was giving this knowledge to him, a Pākehā?  Pokiha told him “Better to fill a bucket with holes than none at all.”

Like my Dad, Jeffrey Holman, author of ‘Best of both worlds’, is Pākehā and like my Dad felt that his identity and that of Pākehā in general is intertwined with and inseparable from Māori. Like old man Pohika, Tutakangahau, Tūhoe ariki and Best’s informant for the book ‘The children of the mist’, was passing on te mātauranga o Tūhoe in a hope to record the history and knowledge of Tūhoe.

Tūhoe had endured years of the Crown’s scorched earth policy when Best turned up in the Ureweras.  The onslaught of colonialism was eroding Māori ways of being and knowing. Holman’s book juxtaposes Best and Tutakangahau as anthropologist and informant, Māori and Pākehā, noble savage and colonialist.  In doing so, it cannot escape the wider story of New Zealand’s colonial past and more specifically Tūhoe’s struggle to maintain te mana motuhake o Tūhoe, a struggle that we see playing out in national media today.

I think the discussion would have benefitted more had the issue of ownership and kaitiakitanga been raised (whether in relation to the current situation over the Ureweras or Best’s ownership of te matauranga o Tūhoe). While Holman and Hemana seemed comfortable with Best’s role as ‘salvage anthropologist’ and while Tutakangahau’s intentions to preserve the ways of Tūhoe are clear, it is difficult for me to be comfortable with Best’s role as ‘frontier intellectual’. Let us not forget Best helped to clear out Parihaka as part of the armed constabulary. Or the role of anthropologists in general who are the scourge of indigenous people, often getting things wrong (Margaret Mead’s ‘Coming of age in Samoa’ for example) or receiving all the credit, as Best has with ‘The children of the mist’ (it’s his name on the book, not Tutakangahau’s).

Without doubt, Aotearoa’s identity is all the more richer for the research(?) of frontier intellectuals like Best and I am grateful for Māori such as Tutakangahau for having the foresight to have matauranga Māori recorded. Nevertheless, issues over the ownership of Maori cultural/intellectual property continue to be debated and Māori continue to negotiate the tricky trail between accessibility, ownership and kaitiakitanga.

AWRF 2010 - Saturday May 15: Dick Frizzell & John Reynolds

The Festival programme promised “Two of our wittiest artists talk about their art, their inspiration, the health of visual arts in New Zealand and what matters to them in the creative process.”

I didn’t hear anything about the health of visual arts in New Zealand but as that was exactly the part I would have recommended leaving out – as my mother used to say, “To be really elegant, just before you head out the door, take one thing off” --  this was only an improvement, in my eyes.

Dick Frizzell and John Reynolds have both recently produced books of and about their art: Dick Frizzell’s is Dick Frizzell: The Painter, and John Reynolds’s is Certain Words Drawn. I didn’t know this before AWRF 2010; what I did know, and why I went, was that Dick Frizzell did the portrait of Hamish Keith on the cover of Hamish's memoir Native Wit and is a friend of Hamish’s, and I am assuming also of Marshall Cook’s, who has a Dick Frizzell hanging on the wall of his living room if I remember rightly (correction on 28/5 after having been back to Marshall's house: I remembered wrong, it's his bathroom, and there are two of them) and this made me think he must be good company;  and that John Reynolds has to be an interesting person if his imagination could parturate Cloud, 7000 little white canvases billowing across a huge wall, each with a word from the Dictionary of New Zealand English on it in silver letters, which is one of my favourite works of art by a New Zealander.

The first thing that got said, as soon as they filed onstage with Chair Ian Wedde,  was "Take a seat" and it was John R to Dick F. The best thing about this mildly amusing throwaway was that the seat that John R then ended up with, the one that Dick F didn’t have, was too close to the potted palmetto just behind it, so that he was actually in its clutches, so to speak, all through the event, like a figure in a Rousseau junglescape.

Dick Frizzell. Instead of a naked woman on the other side, we had Dick Frizzell in a white suit jacket. In fact, Ian Wedde introduced him as “Dick in the white jacket of course as you will know.” I’ve got three adjectives for his t-shirt and whatever order I put them in it doesn’t seem to work, so I will just list them: French, boat, and striped; then there were jeans and Sperry Topsider-type boat shoes (I don't really know my boat shoe brands but the point is, leather and brown, not horrible Gucci bicoloureds) and a square-faced wristwatch.

I can’t remember if Ian referred to John Reynolds’s hat when introducing him, but I’ll describe it to you because unlike Ian, I am not assuming we are all in the club: clearly a trademark hat, a 1950s fedora on vacation in a sunny clime. Accompanied by a brown shirt with white polka dots, half-open to reveal a red t-shirt, baggy black jeans, and a gorgeous wristwatch of the type with no numbers at all.

I admit to checking if Ian Wedde had a wristwatch too. He did! And he had a good turn of phrase, as befits a poet with a wristwatch. For John Reynolds's speaker bio, on the subject of John’s Diner, the coffee joint JR opened on his return from America: “It didn’t cling to any of the glummer stereotypes of New Zealand glamour.”

Followed by a good question:  “Why a book?”

JR instantly had three answers. “It was a way of engaging in one of my greatest loves which is reading, and you know, when the subject is yourself… And for an artist, when you do a book, you’re collaborating with someone, not like with paintings where you’re always alone in a room… And also so that before the academics get a hold of you, you can do your own distortion.”

DF explained that the idea had been that Hamish Keith would write the book, and he was just going to make some bullet points for him, but then he kept filling in between the points. He built the book with "How to build a book" software and took it to Random House, who wanted it but wanted it in their house style. “Yeah, their style had -- what can I tell you, more spaces between the dots. We had a big fight." He laughs. “I hope Jenny’s not listening to this.” “I am.” comes the voice from the audience.

JR, slyly: “I’ve got a shonky little theory I’m going to share,” and, leaning gleefully out of the palmetto, “Frottage!” At least I think it was “Frottage”  - it sounded a bit like “Frottard!” which I assume would be one who practices “Frottage”. So I wondered, does shonky have a meaning I don’t know? Because “frottage” to me meant what men do who ride the Metro to rub up against women. In fact, despite shonky not meaning that kind of thing (I googled it to be sure), JR does actually mean something like that. His theory is that “to rub up against books, or works of art or (pause) people”, will set your molecules twitching and just in itself will reap you all kinds of benefits.

Dick Frizzell looked on patiently, looking rather like I always imagined Aslan, the lion of the Narnia books. He has a bit of a leonine face – the profile, the bridge of the nose, the set of the eyes.

JR went on to discuss tropical sadness, Claude Levi-Strauss, tattoos, etc. Put on a pair of Mickey Mouse hands “Let me just put on my curator’s gloves,” (appreciative laughter from the house) “I got these at Disneyland.” Knocked his mike off, couldn’t get it back on with the Mickey Mouse hands.

I liked Dick Frizzell’s explanation of his "Bad tikis" paintings: “I saw bad Maori art disappearing and only good Maori art remaining, but you can’t have good art without bad art, so I made it my mission to provide this. I went and painted a lot of bad tikis, and I made it government-sanctioned with a catalogue so it would be impossible to shoot down.”

I noticed that the woman next to me, in a leopard print, lots of gold, and sunglasses which said Dolce e Gabbana in zircons, was wearing a red wristband which gave her entrance to the events – a sponsor, perhaps? Her friend, also in wild beast prints, also jeweled, had one as well. Leopard #1 was taking notes with what appeared to be a fat, shiny fountain pen. I leaned closer, pretending to scratch my ankle. In a twist Dick Frizzell would appreciate, I feel, it turned out to be an Air New Zealand pen.

Ian Wedde: “How do you keep your joie-de-vivre?”
Dick Frizzell: “An American artist said, ‘If you’re thinking too much, you’re getting it wrong.’ That certainly appealed to me!”

May 16, 2010

AWRF10 - Wednesday May 12: NZ Listener Opening Night

An evening of Bottoms at AWRF 2010

I double-timed it over from Central Library where we had been celebrating New Zealand Music Month with Nick Bollinger, and just managed to find a seat in the packed ASB Theatre before the disembodied voice of the PA began to declaim the names of the AWRF sponsors. Was it just the extra oxygenation from my jog that made it sound so incredibly dramatic?

“The Lion Foundation! North Shore City! The Edge! Geon!”

Positively Shakespearian. “Pea’s-blossom! Cobweb! Moth! Mustardseed!”

Come to think of it, it was "A Midsummer's Night's Dream" in more ways than one. Was not the evening's chair, Mark Sainsbury -- exuberant and hairy -- a perfect Nick Bottom?

My favourite moments from the evening's revels:

The passage about Aborigines Thomas Keneally read from his book Australians: From Origins to Eureka, which he referred to as “My book on Australian history, which no one else but Australians are interested in – and it’s hard to get Australians interested in it too!”

Colm Tóibín’s reading from Brooklyn: a beautifully described scene in which the girl who has to emigrate to America is looking at her suitcase, already packed, and thinking, if only it were somebody else who would be going to wear these dresses. I give him as well the award for the evening’s best quip: The difference between the two destinations available to Irish emigrants was made clear to him when as a boy he witnessed President Kennedy’s triumphal visit to Ireland, land of his forebears. “If your family had emigrated to America you could become President, but if they emigrated to England, it would be very hard to become Queen.”

Lionel Shriver, who did have notable shoes, lace-up ankle highs (Camper, she told me afterwards), when it was her turn to read from her book So much for that, which most people by now have heard is about a woman dying of cancer, “I’m here to beguile you into thinking that my new novel is not a drag.”

William Dalrymple, by way of introducing his new book Nine stories, in which he tells the stories of people who belong to strange religious sects in India: “I was brought up by Benedictine monks and consequently have had a lifelong interest in bleeding lunatics.” He also gave us, appropriately, a funny anecdote about Bottoms. To make a long story short (not me, this is part of the anecdote) he decides to tell a fussy Indian border guard that he is English, thinking that to bring Scotland into it would confuse and delay things even more. At which the guard asks: “Ah, English, is it? You like bottom, sir?” “Well, some bottoms” answers Dalrymple, not wishing to offend.

In the end it transpires that the guard is merely trying to ascertain if he is a fan of Ian Botham, as all the English are, or of a rival cricketer beloved of the Pakistani. I tried googling Ian Botham rivalry to find out who it was, so I could tell this anecdote the way it deserves, and I couldn’t find it, but I did get a Daily Mail article about Ian Botham the “squashbuckling cricketer” (sic), possibly written by a relative of the border guard.

And now, how could we end without a Best-dressed acknowledgement -- actually two!

Best-dressed (classic): Roger King, creator of the Taranaki Arts Festival, with a green linen jacket draped over his shoulders. 

Best-dressed (post-modern): Graham “Bookman” Beattie in fedora and bright red blazer – very Jazz Age.

AWRF10: Anne Salmond & Thomas Keneally

Ana from Readers Services enjoyed Anne Salmond and Thomas Keneally's stories at their first AWRF 2010 event, ie the pure state (Kim-less) one. She shares a few with us.

Two historians talking about two different countries but with one thing in common: they are both passionate about history, and like to bring forgotten stories back to life.

Anne Salmond went to Auckland University to study Maori history and Anthropology. There she met Eruera and Amiria Stirling, an amazing couple, and spent a long time with them talking and listening to people recounting oral history and talking about their ancestors on the marae.

Thomas Keneally was a schoolteacher in Sydney and was studying law but gave up everything to become a writer. He said he did this because he was ignorant and didn’t know much about publishing houses. He likes writing novels because he says he can tell lies if he wants.

They took turns presenting, and switched between Australia and New Zealand. What they do as historians is “time travelling” because, as Salmond says, you look at a map many times and try to guess where Captain Cook’s ship was positioned, but this is not enough. “You need to go to the places and smell the smells”. Keneally agrees with her, but this got him into trouble when he was writing “Towards Asmara” about the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and he had to go there, even though, he says, he is a coward.

Salmond said that New Zealand and Australia were very different countries before the Europeans arrived. She has always been very curious about the first meeting between Maori and Europeans, when Captain Cook’s ship “The Endeavour” arrived. He came to shore with other sailors in small boats, having left four sailors guarding the ship, but they were surprised by Maori and attacked with spears. One of the Maori was shot. And that's the way it was, in those days.

Keneally pointed out that New Zealand had the Treaty of Waitangi but there was never a treaty in Australia. In Australia the Aboriginals had a “land title”. There were two reactions by the Aboriginals to becoming an occupied people. On the one hand, they wanted to “enchant” the Europeans away, make them disappear. On the other, they wanted to attack them.

Keneally spent a long time researching and writing about Irish convicts, and told how “even very obscure Irish peasants become alive for you” until "they are drinking beer with you".  For Salmond, too, after reading all the logs of Captain Cook and his adventures the people in his voyages become a presence.

AWRF10: William Taylor - Telling Tales

Juliana Austen is Childen's Advisor at Auckland City Libraries and a passionate reader. Attending Friday morning's AWRF 2010 event with William Taylor, chaired by Tessa Duder, gave her a new title for her reading list, as she tells us in this guest post:

This session was a joy – I felt I was eavesdropping on the lively conversation of two good friends who just happened to be William Taylor and Tessa Duder, renowned authors of books for children and young people.

William Taylor started writing novels for adults, “a useful apprenticeship for the much harder task” of writing for children and teens. He became a full time writer and his funny, often controversial books have been published and acclaimed all over the world. One, he assured us, was still in print in Albania!

His latest book is a memoir Telling tales, a life in writing. Tessa Duder encouraged the writing of this memoir based, he said, on the frequent telling of the story of the unveiling of the Ohakune carrot. You see, William Taylor was the mayor of Ohakune, he was also the Principal of the Ohakune School, a single parent, part owner of a restaurant and by some quirk of local body politics registered as the sole living resident of the Ohakune cemetery!

I can’t wait to read it.

AWRF10 - An hour with Colm Tóibín

Nick from Readers Services at Central Library recently wrote a recommended list of New York novels. Hearing Colm Tóibín this morning at AWRF 2010 inspired these considerations from him:

I always get one of the best seats in the house at the ASB Theatre because no-one else can see them. They are the aisle seats right at the back, with unlimited leg room, positioned so that your neck doesn't get sore one bit and you don't have to step over anyone to sit down. If they're mic'd up well I never feel the need to get real close to hear writers speak. Next year they should not include the steel mollusc sculptures in the stage design. The palms are a lovely gesture but the shells aren't.

So I went to hear Colm Tóibín in conversation. With Damien Wilkins, who introduced Mr Tóibín by contrasting him with writers who feel they have nothing more to say than what their work already does. Say. This of course was a good thing for the audience, especially for those (including me) who have not read any of his books. He was an entertaining speaker and some of the things he and Wilkins talked about were: How he is gay but sometimes forgets this because he's too busy thinking about semi-colons; how many writers are interested in Cezanne because you can see how he painted in his work and he likened this to putting words on a page; how during his childhood, among his family, being boring was the worst thing; a lot about his newest book, Brooklyn.

This novel began as a short story with the simple intention to create an 'arc' of a storyline, a plot, inspired by Jane Austen's work. Once he started he realised it would become a much bigger thing. It is about a woman, an Irish emigrant to New York in the 1950s, and though it is entirely focussed on her story, it is also the story of Ireland, because, as Tóibín said, every Irish family has someone who left and never came back. Tóibín is from a small town in Ireland, where three of his four grandparents were from. So he's very connected to a place, has a very intimate knowledge of where he is from, and also Irish history in general.

This was a very good talk, even better because it finished with some quite interesting questions (not, "How did you become a writer?"). One lady was interested in how the occasion of Ted Kennedy's death last year seemed to highlight important contributions by the Irish to the USA. Tóibín responded by talking of Henry James's family, who were from an earlier and possibly overlooked wave of Presbyterian immigrants. He felt they were just as important as the Kennedys. Henry James: we just got some new copies of Washington Square, which is also a book of New York.

May 12, 2010

AWRF10: Welcome Auckland Writers & Readers Festival!

The Auckland Writers & Readers Festival is about to kick off. Books in the City will once again be providing its fantastic coverage with everything you wanted to know about the events you couldn’t get to. Will we encore our famous footwear reviews? I can’t say. Who would dare to predict where inspiration will strike?

I read Lionel Shriver's new book So much for that in two days, 400 pages, staying up until 2:00 AM the first night, and yes, the next day was a working day. Do I need to say I really liked it? I am always a sucker for biting humour and for cleverness – and the book has both of these in spades. There’s a topical issue, the US Health Care system, and a non-topical issue (in as much as it’s an issue for all times and places) which is terminal illness, but it is definitely not "an issue book".

Sitting on my table I’ve got Yiyun Li’s two books, William Dalrymple’s Nine lives, John Carey’s biography of William Golding (noted for having to be subtitled The man who wrote Lord of the Flies) and Paul Millar’sNo fretful sleeper, a life of Bill Pearson. I’ve made inroads into all of them but what I really need would be a Read in Bed day. Had you heard of this fantastic initiative? In England, Jayne Ramage spent a day in bed in her bookstore to publicise the benefits of such a day, which she recommends be celebrated 4 times a year. I see that in Australia Kevin Parker has picked up the idea and promoted it on his blog.

Here’s his idea of how it might work:
"The National Read in Bed days would require that each of us retire to our bedroom for at least 24 hours with a novel, a non-fiction work, a poetry book, a children's book, a life style book, a biography / autobiography and one work translated from a language other than our own. Each hour a compulsory lap around the bed to keep the circulation flowing and a change of genre would be advised. If we are lucky enough to have a partner and a double-bed or larger, other exercise options might be available. A snooze every few hours is suggested."

(read the whole post, which includes a long list of expected benefits such as greater bonding with your cats).

We can’t get left behind on this one. So yes, if you see someone at the Festival soliciting signatures for a National Read in Bed Day initiative, that will probably be me. I might suggest to Festival directors Jill Rawnsley and Anne Rodda that they get some of the authors to talk from bed next year, as a start.

May 01, 2010

"Balkan Beetle!"

Tintin. I came across this a while back and saved it because I knew that a day was going to come when it would be good to have it up my sleeve. And now that the recent investiture of Peter Jackson has Tintin once again in the news ("Arise, Sir Peter, and get that Tintin movie finished already!") I think this might be the moment to play my card.

Well, David’s card actually.

According to the website www3.sympatico, which I like to think is intended to be pronounced "Très simpatico", David Brooks is an arts consultant and Van Gogh specialist who lives in Toronto. He is also the creator of a wonderful Captain Haddock webpage, featuring a long list of his favourite Captain Haddock insults, or curses, as he quaintly calls them.

You will say, perhaps, oh yeah, we’ve seen those. But David’s is better. First, it’s not alphabetized. Alphabetising the insults, which every other list compiler seems to do, absolutely countermands their genius which of course lies in the unexpectedness of the absurdity. It's just not fair to present “Fancy-dress Freebooter!” right after “Fancy-dress Fatima!”.

Not to mention the problem with runs, as when the letter 'n' seems to have all the words for stupidity (do we know why, I wonder):  numbskulls, nitwits (and nitwitted ninepins), nincompoops etc etc. How you pine for a good “Ectoplasmic by-product!” or “Mineral water drinkers!”.

Secondly, David doesn’t try to explain the curses. You’d be surprised how many people are out there providing definitions of Captain Haddock’s terminology. This gives rise to such gems as (my favourite, from a site with the rather didactic name, harbinger of things to come, "language in tintin"):

"Balkan Beetle! --  a type of insect from eastern Europe."

Just after I saw that, a scream rang out. It was my daughter who had picked up her scarf and found a cockroach underneath. My husband grabbed two of the many remote controls which hang out in our living room (they are never there when you want to watch TV but apparently they do have some uses after all) and gave it a left and a right which put it out of action long enough for me grab it in a paper towel and drop it into our insinkerator. Just as I hit the switch -- it was my Fargo moment --  he said “Do you think it really was a cockroach? It looked different, somehow.”

And I thought,  Balkan Beetle!

Raising my glass to Tintin, one of the greatest literary creations of all time.

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