Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, Part One and Part Two
Sydney Writers' Festival, Part One, Part Two and Part Three
This was always going to be a big day. The announcement of the winners of the CWP best first book and best book was never that prominent an event on my itinerary. I'd been focussed firstly on the outreach events (and felt suitably warm, fuzzy and inspired afterwards), then the more traditional festival activities. I was most anxious about my two panel discussions on Saturday as I felt unqualified in terms of the subject matter, let alone the fact I'd never been on a panel discussion at a festival (let alone the 3rd biggest in the World) about anything other than my book and myself.
First up it was 'Mirth of a Nation', about whether Australia had lost its sense of humour "in these times of relative economic prosperity." The session was chaired by Steve Cannane, himself a funny guy (I remember listening to him on Triple J when I lived in Brisbane). To my left sat Richard Glover, a radio personality (he hosts the most popular drivetime show in Sydney), in addition to being the author of a dozen books and writing a popular newspaper column for over 20 years (!). To my right: Tim 'Rosso' Ross, radio and TV personality (most famously as one half of Merrick and Rosso), stand-up comic and author. Both Aussie institutions in their own way. On the SWF programme I was listed as "Kiwi Craig Cliff" and felt very much like the token New Zealander.
|Me yarning at 'The Mirth of a Nation'|
The night before I listed about four HILARIOUS anecdotes and I managed to squeeze them all in to our discussion. To my relief they were received with much laughter (my retelling of the counting to seven for the GG was particularly funny). It was all going great. I looked at my watch, thinking it must just about be the end of the hour, but it had only been thirty minutes. Gulp. I was out of material and the conversation was starting to veer off in the subtle differences between Australian states…
I was definitely the quieter of the three panellists the second half of the session, but I think I managed to hold my own. My posse (Marisa, Shannon my publicist from Random House, and Katrina Best) all said I did well. Which, given the fact I was plonked on the panel without being consulted and with little qualifications other than the fact I'm from across the Tasman, is probably a lucky break for the festival and everyone who attended the session (though it was a free event).
I should add that I managed to mention my book of short stories in passing (can’t quite remember how anymore), but I wasn't expecting much love at the signing table afterwards. And not much love is what I (and Richard Glover and Tim Ross) received. In fact, I only sold/signed two books, one to Richard and one to Tim. Rosso grabbed a couple of copies of his book, 'Mum Had a Kingswood' and signed one for me. 'Just take it,' he told me. 'I can't steal it,' I said. 'No one will notice,' he said. 'You're a bad influence!'
Afterwards I went and purchased Richard's book 'Why Men are Necessary' and got him to sign it in the greenroom after lunch as we were panel-mates again. This session was entitled, 'A True Bromance' and asked whether there was more to male friendship than mateship? This was a paid event and it was SOLD OUT well in advance. No, pressure, eh?
Joining Richard and I was actor/screenwriter/novelist Brendan Cowell. The session was chaired by journo and author Mark Dapin. Again I felt under-qualified and overmatched. Richard's recent book, The Mud House, is about his thirty year effort to build a house in the boonies with his best (male) friend. Brendan's first novel, How It Feels, is about the close friendship between two blokes. My short story collection is pretty devoid of bromance, which is kind of difficult to do when you're mostly writing about males and have a whopping 18 stories at your disposal.
I did managed to talk about how technology has created a kind of false friendship where males can be completely open about their feelings, but that this is still somehow superficial without shared experience (it's my contention that guys need to be doing some physical activity together for it to truly be friendship). I reference the mini-story in 'Orbital Resonance' where one guy shares his browser history with another, and this prompted a discussion of blokes sharing porn, and the strange intimacy this might bring about, which wasn't really what I had intended, but I went with it.
I also admitted I had a mancrush on David Mitchell since I read Cloud Atlas a few years ago and being in his presence this week still made me a bit of a giddy school girl.
The session was filled with laughs, but for all the stuff we said about how guys don't need to talk or share feelings to connect with one another, the four of us (Mark Dapin included) shared a lot of personal information. Richard, Brendan and Mark all shared the details of how their parent's had split up and I spoke briefly about my father's death when I was a teen. We all agreed that the father-son relationship is an important model for how other male-male friendships will work, and we all at times felt adrift or on the outer.
Mark Dapin was a great chair in that he gave each of us plenty of chances to keep bringing our books back into the discussion (I spoke about the relationship between the grown-up Danny and the fat kid Barry in 'Fat Camp', for example, as an instance of guys bonding over shared activities, and that the expression of feelings only came when a suitable rapport had been established).
But again, despite an enjoyable session, we were not mobbed at the signing table. I might have signed one book, I can't remember now.
I was on a mini-high after surviving my two Saturday sessions. Only after making it to the otherside could I understand how truly awful they could have been. I think if I hadn't built up a layer of confidence from my previous sessions in Auckland and around greater Sydney, and hadn't been surrounded by writers and publishers, and hadn't had a great time riffing with school kids and juvenile delinquents, I would have bombed. But I had bought into the misconception that I was supposed to be there, and managed to get away with it.
(Now that I'm back at work in Wellington, it all seems rather amazing and unreal. Not that future festival organisers should shy away from putting me on random panels… I'll just need to refind the switch)
And then there was nothing else to distract me from the very real fact that in a couple of hours, one of myself, Katrina, Cynthia or absent Mischa would be elevated to be a winner twice over (we were all regional winners already). I didn't rate my chances of winning Best First Book. My reasoning went something like: short story collections never win these sorts of things, and even if they did, Katrina's and mine share a similar sly sensibility, while hers is brief and consistently pleasing, mine is three times longer and inevitably uneven: thus I figured we'd cancelled each other out. So it was down to Cynthia and Mischa. I haven't read Mischa's book yet (I have it with me now), but it sounded like the kind of book that always comes out trumps in these sorts of situations. Equally, hearing Cynthia talk about her book over the past week, I believe it too would be a worthy winner - what better intension can a novel have than to give her friends and other women in her generation something to read, something they can connect with?
So I didn't bother composing a thank you speech, even in my head. It felt like such an action would open the floodgates for disappointment. We were all to be seated on stage when the winner was announced. I didn't want to look disappointed, because (especially if it was one my new friends, Katrina or Cynthia, who won) I didn't want to look like I thought my book was better than any of the others.
So anyway, the session started at 6.30pm in the 900 seat Sydney Theatre. The event was free but we were competing with other big events on what is biggest day of the festival. I'm not good at estimating numbers, but there might have been 200 - 300 people there.
The event was MC'd by Jennifer Byrne, the host of ABC's TV book show, The First Tuesday Book Club. To start there were the obligatory speeches from the Governor General , and Danny Sriskandarajah, the interim director of the Commonwealth Foundation who managed to have a dig at New Zealand in his speech.
I was first up after the speeches to read for 2-3 mins. I started by thanking the GG etc, but jokily neglected to thank Kiwi-bashing Mr Sriskandarajah. I think I said something like, 'If I win, I'll have to think long and hard whether to include you in my thank yous…" to which I quickly had to add, 'Not that I think I'll win…'
I then read from the opening of 'Parisian Blue'. After reading I had a 2 min chat with Jennifer Byrne about how the story started as a scene in the novel I wrote for my MA in 2006, and how I wrote the short story as a way of stopping myself working on the novel anymore.
|David Mitchell reading at the Commonwealth Writers Prize announcement|
A rep from the sponsor, Macquarie Group Foundation (love you guys!), and the GG came on stage and things went still. A short speech was given of which I can remember nothing. She started to open the envelope, saying, 'And even I have no idea who it will be…'
A long pause. Time enough for me to finally consider the possibility that it's my name inside the envelope. And in that moment it felt possible for the first time. Perhaps even likely. Hadn't I played the role of promising young writer so well that week? Didn't I believe in my own book, my own stories?
And she did say my name, and I stood up, went over the Governor General and received a sealed envelope and another bony handshake, and soon enough found myself at the podium.
Okay, I thought, just thank the important people. I took a breath and started with the Macquarie Foundation (without someone to bankroll such a prize, there'd be one less chance for a big break for first timers like me) and the Commonwealth Foundation and all the people who'd helped make this week a reality. I thanked my fellow first bookers, who I now count as friends, and the best bookers, who I count as older, cooler siblings who've gone away to university in far off countries. I thanked Random House NZ for publishing me and Random House Australia for looking after me in Oz. I felt I might start to ramble so I said something like, 'I could stand here and thank friends and family for more time yet, but I think it's time I sat down.'
Flash forward to twenty minutes later (Amanita Forna has been awarded best book and delivered a speech which also seemed impromptu, though she managed to segue into her well rehearsed riff about what Nadine Gorier calls 'witness fiction'… being the experienced hand that she is) and I'm signing my first book of the night. There's a shiny gold sticker proclaiming it the winner of the 2011 CWP Best First Book. I look over to the wings where Marisa is standing with Shannon the publicist and realise I friggin' forgot to thank her! My fiancée. My first reader and nicest critic ('I think you should put a comma there, but whatever').
Man did I feel dumb.
I called her over and apologised for not thanking her. She seemed cool about it. She could tell I was a bit shocked up there and knew I hadn't prepared a speech.
Phew, bullet dodged. I signed some books (I wasn't in a state to count) was interviewed by two different ABC radio shows and BBC world service and went downstairs for the big CWP dinner. People kept congratulating me and asking how it felt. I don't know what I said, but on reflection it felt like floating.
Over dinner my cup kept being refilled and then when the party moved back to the Sebel the wine kept flowing. On the walk back to the hotel Marisa and I were joined by David Mitchell who seemed in good spirits, considering. He gave me advice about writing what I want to write and taking my time etc etc, then told me about the Reality TV show he and Kim Scott had devised called, ‘Bunch of Losers’. It took its starting point from the night's events, but after the announcement of the overall winner, they’d then play the acceptance speeches the non-winners had been forced to pre-record before the event. Then there were a series of greater and greater embarrassments until the non-winners were stripped naked and forced to act as furniture for the winner while they signed copies of their book. According to Katrina Best, Kim and David also came up with a theme song for the show, though I wasn’t lucky enough for a rendition.
|Cynthia Jele, me and David Mitchell (with Rick Gekoski in the background)|
People from other events poured into the Sebel and many of the ones I'd met over the course of the week came and congratulated me. Someone stuck a Best First Book sticker on the lapel of my blazer. The wine kept flowing. People ebbed away, up to bed, back home, into the night. Eventually it was just me, Marisa, Amanita Forna and her cousin with a strong Irish accent, sitting on the floor of the Sebel surrounded by everyone's half-finished and abandoned wine bottles. I didn't feel that drunk. We floated up to bed.
That morning I was hungover like I haven't been for many years. The kind of twisted-liver dry-wretch hangover I used to get when I took a certain kind of medicine. It was as if the ill affects of all the booze I'd drunk the past week had been deferred until that day. When I thought about the fact I'd won, I felt sicker, the ache in the back of my head boomed louder. I told Marisa this.
'Why?' she asked.
'I don't know,' I said.
Maybe it was the new weight of expectations someone in my position might feel. Maybe it was guilt at being held up above my new friends. Maybe it was just that my small cerebrum couldn't compute this crazy, crazy new development.
Around 1pm I was finally mobile and we went for a walk to the Rocks' Sunday Market. Over lunch I googled myself and saw the growing list of news articles about Aminatta's win (with my win nicely there on her coattails).
At 3.30pm we were driven to the airport in one of the SWF's flash fleet of brand new Audis. At 6.30pm we were on a plane back to Wellington. At 1pm NZ time we were in bed. At 8.30am the next day I was at work at the Ministry of Education. They'd already seen the news in the Sunday Star Times, and also on stuff.co.nz. Someone had printed out the following quote and stuck it to my monitor:
"…found it harder to flick the switch between public policy and fiction (believe it or not, they do differ)"
- Craig Cliff, Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best First Book winner 2011