Monday, October 21, 2013

Images of America: Antiquing Edition

Finally, an antique store owned (or menaced) by someone who finds antique stores as painfully sad as I do. 




Thursday, October 17, 2013

Worksheet 9.3: Catton / Vonnegut / Faits accompli

Playlist I made a couple of days ago but now seems self-referential but who cares? [IWP #3]


Yesterday I found a livestream of BBC World so I could watch the announcement of the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I also had Twitter open. There was a strange sense of community pumping out of my laptop and then Eleanor Catton went and knocked the bastard off!

One of the most impressive things has been her poise over the weeks since being short-listed and that was on display again yesterday and today. What a smart, sensible soul.

(I know some noses are out of joint about her biting back at some of the bad reviews from NZ males over the age of 45... One is normally better served holding one's tongue [eg "what review in The Press?"] but YOU JUST WON THE BOOKER, ELLIE. SAY WHATEVER THE FUNK YOU WANT.)

Anyway, last night we had our weekly salon here in the hotel (Anglophone Indian Poetry and What Literary Fiction can Learn from Commercial Fiction) and I brought along a bottle of NZ wine to toast Ellie's success. Tis a long time between drinks for NZ writers re: Booker success. Though maybe Ellie can go all Mantel/Carey and double down in quick succession.

No pressure.
Whiti Hereaka and me (and a bunch of non-NZers out of frame)
toasting Eleanor Catton's Booker triumph

From the Potato

Re: my ever-so-helpful suggestions for the Iowa City Book Festival earlier in the week, you can find my panel paper on Kurt Vonnegut, and a bunch of other IWP smartness, online here.

Clayton's choice

The judges for the 2014 NZ Post Book Awards were announced today.

It's a very distinguished and savvy panel, only fitting to judge what many (including me, but I'm biased) reckon is a bumper year for Kiwi Books.

Of course, a certain Booker winner is eligible in the Fiction Category, and it'll be a major upset if it doesn't win that and the overall award. Stranger things have happened. But it seems like it'll be a scrap between the Adamses, Wilkinses, Nixons, Kidmans, Kennedys et al for the remaining spots on the short-list.

We shall see.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Room for improvement: Iowa City Book Festival 2013

The 2013 Iowa City Book Festival finished yesterday. This was the fifth year it has run, though things were a bit different from previous years (eg including writers from the International Writing Program on panel discussions with American writers) and it felt very much a work in progress.
To be blunt, it was the most poorly organised literature festival I’ve ever attended, either as an audience member or a participant. Granted, it’s the first such event I’ve been to in the U.S., but British, Australian and New Zealand festivals far outstrip Iowa City’s, at least organisationally. This is cause for concern when Iowa City endlessly trumpets itself as a UNESCO City of Literature and, I'm told, the four-day event receives a lot of money from said organisation and other corporate sponsors.

I’ve already given verbal feedback to some of the people involved so that improvements can be made next year, but thought I might as well lay it all down here. Maybe others involved in the festival biz will find it useful. Or perhaps it will fill them with a sense of smugness that causes them to rest on their laurels: ‘Oh, fuck it, we’re still gonna be better than Iowa City’s festival.’ Hopefully not. You laurel-resters should go read Dolores Montenegro’s piece on ‘The Problem with[UK] Literary Festivals’ at The NewStatesman.

Some observations/suggestions

Panel discussions need moderators/chair-people. It seems someone realised this midway through Saturday, but the interim solution of asking one of the American writers on the panel to be the moderator is not acceptable. It’s a tricky position to be in, and sadly some writer-moderators took the opportunity to dominate the conversation/plug their own books, or completely exempted themselves from giving their own view and only asked questions. Of course, some juggled both rolls well, but still.
And the world before writer-moderators? A total shambles. Again, it wasn’t the writer’s fault and every panel had its good moments. But some panels went fifteen minutes over time because no-one was there to tell them when to stop (sadly, they seemed to run out of things to say right around when they should have ended). Not good. Not good.

Having volunteers read out the panel topic, the participant bios and sponsor names is not having a moderator. Most of the volunteers read their scripts poorly/inaudibly, were not able to help with microphones or other technical issues and left as soon as the panel started. For a festival with deepish pockets, it’s shocking to place volunteers, writers and audiences in this position.

All rooms should be equipped with sound systems and mics, given more than half of any audience will be retirement age. The Old Capitol Mall room was without any audio equipment. At the three sessions I saw at the Library there were three different forms of microphone (lapel mics, table-mics, hand-held mic). Neither space had a dedicated technical person. My 4pm session at the library was the last of the day – initially it appeared there were NO MICS left. Eventually we found the hand-held. One pass-around mic is not conducive to a flowing panel discussion or Q&A with the audience. (The session itself was pretty good, I think, despite these challenges.)

Sort out the timetabling. All the panels took place on one day: Saturday 12 October. Usually there were four things to choose from (2 panels and 2 readings). That's too much, I reckon. The venues weren’t that close together and most panels ran over-time so people who wanted to go from something at the Old Capitol Mall to the Iowa City Public Library either missed the first 5 minutes or just skipped the next session altogether.

It's only three blocks distance, but writers should not be booked to give a reading at the Old Capitol at 3pm, then appear on a panel at 4pm at the library.
Make the venues easy to find and negotiate. The Old Capital Mall room was particularly hard to find, and looked a mess by mid-day with chairs all clumped together in the centre of the room like the great Pacific garbage patch. Someone needs to be responsible for each room/venue throughout the day.

The festival program and website should list international writers on equal footing with American writers. IWP writers were not given a bio in the printed program. American writers were. Photos of participating American writers featured on the festival's website, photos of international writers did not. A typical panel intro (okay, mine) read:
In conjunction with a visit by a traveling exhibit from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Andrew Sean Greer and Charles Blackstone will discuss the ongoing impact of one-time University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop instructor Vonnegut on the world of letters. They will be joined by International Writing Program participant Craig Cliff (New Zealand).
It’s as if I was only allowed on the panel by some grand diplomatic gesture or some heavy arm-twisting by the IWP. Even if this is true, try and hide it better. After sitting in the audience for four panels and talking to other audience members, the international writers more than held their own. (More on this shortly.) It's really a great point of difference for your festival. But you need to start treating non-American writers like they're valued, even if you aren't paying them...
The Vonnegut Effect panel... which was generally well received.
Make sure IWP writers know about the opening night reception for writers. Apparently we got told about this in an email from the IWP, but it was only one bullet point among many and was easily missed. The reception wasn’t included in our weekly timetables (with 1-4 things on every day for 10 weeks, these become our bibles) and we never received any correspondence directly from the festival. As a result, only 4 IWP writers went to the reception, despite there being name-tags for 34 of us waiting at the entrance to the event. I’m embarrassed by this and I shouldn't be the only one. I wish I’d been there. One of the things the IWP struggles with is connecting its international writers with American writers (even those still in the writer's workshop).

I’ve just been complaining about feeling like a second class festival participant, but going to this reception and meeting the American writers and having a glass of wine would ameliorate any programming slight. One of the IWP writers who did stumble into the reception managed to meet his fellow panellists and they got to discuss their topic in advance. This panel, I’m told, was one of the smoother events. Surprise, surprise.

Figure out what to do about IWP writers being heavily prepared and American writers winging it. Given English isn’t the first-language of most of the IWP writers, all of us (even those who only speak English) had to write a paper on the panel topic in advance. It makes sense that the non-English speakers have the safety net of a pre-written, copy-edited piece that they can deliver if they wish. It also makes sense that these writers can choose to simply participate in a panel discussion with their American peers like normal human beings. Where things got awkward on Saturday was when IWP writers felt pressured into not reading their panel papers, and thus struggled to keep up with the panel discussion (which inevitably got bogged down without a moderator to direct the conversation and ensure everyone got to contribute).

The bigger problem, though, was the contribution of the American writers. They rolled into town knowing they’d do a reading and sit on a panel, but few had given the panel topics any forethought. The topics generally weren’t suited to the kind of self-promotional faff you can get away with at most festivals (I've done the 'emerging writer' panel enough to know faff when I see it), and the Americans fell back on platitudes or tried to come up with a position aloud (there’s a reason most writers don’t compose their work ‘live’). The poor showing of the Americans was brought into greater relief due to the fact the IWP writers were over-prepared thanks to their panel papers. Many of IWPers killed it, in my view, but I'm biased.

The solution? Well, making sure all writers are at the opening night reception and get introduced to their fellow panellists would be a start. Even a brief chat about the next day's topic would get the Americans thinking a bit more in advance. Having canny moderators would also help. A lot. And those panel papers the IWP participants had to write? Why not give them to the moderator and the American writers a couple of days in advance. Doesn’t that sound sensible? And if someone wants to read their paper like its a literature conference rather than a festival - let them, because it's bound to be insightful, brief and on-topic.
Remember you're a book festival. I find it very strange that the marquee event on Thursday night “An Evening with the Lacks Family: The Story Behind The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” took place without the author of the book, Rebecca Skloot (apparently she pulled out months in advance but the session went ahead). Very odd. Couldn't this event waited till next year when Skloot was available?
Also, a couple of American writers asked me about the book sales table. I noticed Prairie Lights' table in the Ped Mall had most of the American participants' books, but there was never any mention that, hey, you can buy these people's books if you want. Nor was there a signing table. This wasn't such a big issue for writers like me who don't have US publishers for physical books (NB: all my stuff is available worldwide if eBooks floats your boat), but I know it put a few American noses outta joint.
So yes, there are many things that could have been done better, and I’ve already heard encouraging sounds from people who can make these mostly simple improvements. Cool. It was still a fun festival in many ways. I even bought the t-shirt, so it was far from a complete disaster. May it build on its strengths for next year and beyond.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Images of America, part 2 (Iowa with a literary bent)

To be viewed with musical accompaniment... IWP #2 [Spotify playlist]

The Mercy Hospital - this sign supposedly inspired Denis Johnson's short story 'Emergency'

The house (at the end of Van Buren) where Kurt Vonnegut found an outlet (despite the sign)
for his Dresden experiences (Slaughter House Five)

Safety-first selfie in front of Kurt's one-time abode.

Riverside, Iowa, future birthplace of Captain James T Kirk

Kind of odd that the marker for his future birth site looks like a tombstone...
I'm sure they'll still appreciate selfies in 2228.

Don't blame me, I didn't vote for anyone
My reading at Shambaugh House
(I read 'Manawatu' and bits of '30 Ways of Looking at Marumaru South')