Monday, May 16, 2011

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, Post #2

You can read my first AWRF post here.

I am typing this in the International Terminal at Auckland Airport. It will, however, be much later by the time I’ve posted this online as I refuse to pay $10/hr for internet (wireless or a dummy terminal).

Anyway, to finish up on Saturday’s sessions...

At 4pm I went to ‘Antarctica’, where Steve Braunias and Jane Ussher spoke with Finlay MacDonald about their experiences down at ‘the ice’. It was interesting to compare the way a writer and a photographer might respond down there, and to also compare the famously grumpy Braunias’ reaction to other, more romantically inclined writers.

Braunias had to be nagged to go, and stayed for 10 days. At one point during the session he said that he finds Dannevirke beautiful and only finds Antarctica “ugly, childless and nihilistic.”

In contrast, Ussher had begged for the opportunity to get down to Antarctica and spent 5 weeks there. She spoke of the challenges of the Antarctic summer (24hr daylight for a photographer who prefers shadow and dimness). Fortunately, the huts of Shakleton and Scott provided the dimness. I recently read Shackleton’s “Endurance” about his ill-fated attempt to cross the continent and subsequent effort to return to safety, and found the images of the huts shown on the screens at the session beautiful and sad, and recommend her book: Still Life.

Next up it was The Best of the Best NZ Poems, chaired by Fergus Barrowman and featuring readings by Bill Manhire, Emma Neale, Vincent O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither, Cilla McQueen, Tusiata Avia, Paula Green and Robert Sullivan. Most read their poem that had been selected for the new book anthology (TBOTBNZP) from the 10 years of the Best NZ poems website, as well as two or three others of their choosing. Highlights were O’Sullivan’s ‘Domestic’ about having sex while peeling an onion, and McQueen’s ‘Soapy Water’ which begins by considering the impact of an economic downturn on poetry...

My final session on Saturday was ‘This One’s For Christchurch’, featuring Carl Nixon, Fiona Farrell, Joanna Preston, Tusiata Avia, Sarah Quigley and Charlotte Randall, and tag-team chaired by the directors of the Christchurch Writers Festival, Ruth Todd and Morrin Rout. The writers all addressed the earthquake(s) in various ways and it was interesting to compare the poets with the prose writers. The poets all had earthquake poems to trot out (some of them quite moving) while the prose writers’ response is likely to be ready in 2-3 years: Charlotte Randall spoke about her next novel which will take her character Halfie from Hokitika Town and follow the events of the 1904 San Francisco earthquake, while. Carl Nixon chose to read out an old short story set in the old, lost Christchurch.

Later in the evening I attended the Writers’ Party and got to meet such NZ lit luminaries as Emily Perkins, Sarah Laing, Steve Braunias and Laurence Fearnley (my time with them ranging from a handshake to a couple of lines of conversation before they found someone more interesting to talk to). I also spoke with most of the members of the Publishing Panel I'd attended that morning (and posted about in Part One) and caught up with some of writers I have met before, including Emma Neale (the nicest person in NZ books, I reckon) and Elizabeth Knox (we spoke about Australian writers festivals; she’s been to Sydney twice, Melbourne twice, Brisbane twice, and Adelaide and Perth once apeiece so she knows a thing or two).

I know this sounds like name dropping but I include these details because this was one of the most important, exciting and stimulating parts of my festival experience. I got a buzz talking to these people, being in that situation...  Being coy about this wouldn’t paint a true picture of my festival experience.

At midnight, I found myself talking to Hal Wake, the artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Festival, as we were being ushered out of the Alelujah Cafe (HW: “I’m sorry, but we only get funding from Creative NZ to bring one NZ writer to Vancouver every year, and this year we’ve got Lloyd Jones coming...” CC: *fist shake at Lloyd Jones*) and we followed a crowd that included other festival and publishing types down into what turned out to be a pool hall. I was suddenly hit with a wave of fatigue after attending 5 sessions (6 if you count my own, which I probably should) and did the classic ‘Oh, my cellphone is ringing,’ move and went back upstairs so that I could hear the imaginary person on the other end, and kept on walking till I got back to the Langham.

Classy move, I know. (I’m not sure anyone even noticed at the time, so I should probably have just left that part out).


Sunday at the Festival

My first and only session as an audience member on Sunday was Aminatta Forna in conversation with Hal Wake (Mr Vancouver). This was probably the best session of the festival for me (one on one sessions always tend to be; though the panels always sound more interesting in the festival programme).

Some highlights:

Forna chose to structure her latest novel (the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Orange Prize finalist, The Memory of Love) so that it takes a long time to get to the horrors and atrocities Westerners may associate with Sierra Leone so that readers would experience the period the way her family and others in Sierra Leone had, that it was a slow decline; that there was beauty, and by putting it upfront, it made this more evident for Western readers.

She described the “layers of silence” at play in Sierra Leone (including the silence of trauma and the silence of oppression) and the challenge this poses for the Western character Adrian who goes to Sierra Leone to help (he’s a psychologist).

The novel in a nutshell: “In a country of silence, why is Elias the only one that is willing to tell his story?”
Another aphorism: “This is a book about people living in Africa, rather than a book about Africa.”
Forna was a fluent and engaging speaker (her history in broadcasting shows) and Wake was an able chairperson (clearly a festival pro).

After this session I met up with some whanau for coffee, and then it was time for my second session, which just so happened to be with Aminatta Forna and festival hot property David Mitchell. The session was framed by the fact we’d all won our respective categories (them: the big prize; me: best first book) for their regions of the Commonwealth (AF: Africa, DM: UK/South Asia; CC: SE Asia and Pacific).

The session was chaired by Nicola Leggat, a festival trustee and my publisher! No favouritism here though, as the reading order was determined by alphabetical order of first names (very utilitarian), so it was Aminatta first, then me, then David.

For my 10 minutes I read from the opening of ‘Unnatural Selection’, and with a bit of selective reading, got to include the section about it being a joy “to live in a world without Paul Holmes”, which got plenty of laughs. So much so, that when David came to the podium he asked, “So who’s Paul Holmes?”

The Q&A section felt a bit stilted (we all found it hard, I think, to talk about what the Commonwealth means, because it seems a very long way away from our books and the process of writing them) but the audience seemed pleased with the session overall.

And that, pretty much, was my first Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, my first ever festival as a participant. It’s a great thing to have a “swing pass” and be able to bowl on in to any session you like, and it’s great to see people buying your book and to get to have a chat with the few who ventured to see me at the signing table. The festival as a whole was very well run and very well patronised. My one takeaway as an audience member was the quality of the questions “we” came up with, which tops any festival I’ve been to anywhere in the world (including Edinburgh, the grand pubah book fest).

And now, it’s on to Sydney for a full on week. Here’s hoping there’s a ready stream of free Wi-Fi (I seem to remember reading something about it costing $20AUD a day at my hotel; fingers crossed I can blag something more reasonable).


I have arrived in Sydney and am ensconced in my massive hotel room in the Sebel Pier One, which is pretty much under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Probably not a posh as The Langham, but definitely has the X-factor due to the location!

I've been promised free internet ("Don't worry when it says you're being charged $64 dollars...") so I'm even in a position to post some pictures! (I'm not sleepy and I kinda watching/listening to Eurovision).

Wee giftbag from my wonderful publishers that was waiting for me when I arrived at the Langham on Friday night.

Big stack of A Man Meltings early on Saturday morning which was somewhat diminished when I left on Sunday avo.

And I was like, 'Where's my fricken banner?'

And she was like, 'When you have a signing queue like David Mitchell's...  you might get a banner!'

Me at the Commonwealth Writers Prize session on Sunday

Marisa got David to sign my copy of 1000 Autumns that she's now reading... DM took the whole signing thing to another level. (I would have spelt it 'Bonza', but what do I know?)    

My humongous room at the Sebel Pier One, home for the next 7 days.

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