May 31, 2015

Haruki Murakami on the uneven parallel bars at AWF15


It was full superstar mode for Haruki Murakami: a stern no-photos-no-tweeting message to set the tone, followed by catcalls and yelps as he emerged from the wings with John Freeman and settled into his chair, the stage itself seeming suddenly vast and, well, stagy, as all molecular activity rushed to concentrate itself in the immediate space around that one compact body in pink pants, sneakers, jacket and t-shirt reading "Keep Calm and Read Murakami", those bright eyes alert and attuned.

It was much talked about how Murakami flew in the day of his session, was brought straight to the conference, and flew out again immediately afterwards. No book signing! No signing! Dieharders could purchase pre-signed copies; it hardly seemed the same. An architect friend of mine told me that Japanese superstar architects do exactly the same at their conferences. I put it down to an amusing cultural quirk.  But last night, following a trail about smiles through the internet, as you do, I came across a video clip of Rumanian gymnast Nadia Comeneci getting her perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. "The little unsmiling girl" was the title, which is how my search had brought it up. I watched it; she wasn't smiling, it's true, in the sense that she didn't have one of those forced smiles a la synchronised swimmers. But she wasn't grim or unsmiling either. She was simply at a higher level of focus than most of us will ever attain. She came out, did her extraordinary routine, and went off. Haruki Murakami was like that.

A word here for John Freeman's interviewing skills. Had someone warned him about how Murakami answers questions in bursts of concentrated thought, with the pauses between them up to two or three times longer than the spoken parts? Each burst is accompanied by a gesture, and during the long pauses, his hands remain in the position of the last gesture, moving only to match the new thought when it arrives. It's breath-taking, or perhaps breath-holding is more accurate. His jacket being black, like the black backdrop of the stage, his hands stand out like the white-gloved hands of mimes, accompanying his thoughts like a musical score.

Every time, Freeman manages to wait out every pause without the slightest sign of nerves. Lesser interviewers would be biting their tongues to keep from suggesting a word, or treading on the thought process with a new question. Freeman doesn't even fiddle with his pen. He waits. Murakami, to his credit, seems to be aware of his idiosyncratic style. Often, when he's finished, he says cheerfully "That's all!".

How did he become a writer? was the first question, which fit well with a phenomenon I particularly noticed this year -- it seems to be positively snowballing: Festival attendees who, while doubtlessly enjoying the personal encounter aspect, appear particularly, let's say drivingly, avid to learn from the authors the secret of how to tip themselves over into the "Writers" camp, from "Readers" that they are. (Did the Festival's decision last year to rename itself Writers Festival, from the Writers and Readers which it had been, subliminally encourage this, I wondered?)

It was at a baseball game, we learn. An almost empty ballpark, a team of winners, rich and famous, playing a team of underdogs, Murakami's team. "My team are the losers. I like losers." And then Dave Hilton hit a high one, and everyone's looking up into the hazy sky, searching for the ball against the sun.

"Something fell from the sky and I caught it."

Did it really happen or was it a metaphor? Was the something the ball? I didn't quite understand. I could check -- apparently he tells the story in his memoir What I talk about when I talk about running -- but it isn't important. What's important is the epiphany.  "I was so happy. I can still feel the feeling." He decided then and there to become a writer. "I went to the stationery shop and bought paper and pen."

Surely he had some writing equipment at home? But again, the important thing was that it was the beginning. A beginning which recurs with each new book:

"When I write fiction, I can be anyone. Every time I start to write fiction I think, so who am I going to be? That is great."

All his answers are so wonderful, so idiosyncratic, that I am going to give them to you as I heard them. They most often come in three bursts. You need to remember to include a long pause after each full stop. A very long pause. And then when you think you're there, give it a second more.

On his idealism:

"It was a good time to be young, in the 1960s.  We believed the world is getting better. The world didn't get better, unfortunately."

"Not many people in Japan think the world is getting better. I am still holding my idealism. It is warmth. Is that okay?"

Did that mean was it okay as an answer, or was it okay as a way to feel? In the spirit of the hour, it didn't need to be pinned down. It was okay.

On his literary inspirations:

"My parents were teachers of Japanese literature. So naturally I hated Japanese literature. I read Brautigan, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Raymond Chandler."

On growing up:

"I had my books. I had my music. I had my cat. I was an only child. Cat was my only friend."

For a while, he was a cult author. But all of a sudden:

"Norwegian Wood sold 2,000,000 copies. I was hated by so many people in Japan in those days. Japanese people feel intelligent people don't read bestsellers. So I left."

On going home a decade or more later:

"After the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway gas attack, this was the time for me to go back to my country. I had to do something for my people.”

The something was a book, Underground, a compilation of hundreds of interviews with victims of the gas attack, but also with members of the cults responsible for the attack, in the hope they could explain their reasons.

Writing about evil:

"I go into the darkness of my mind. Everyone has a basement beneath the ground. Some people have a basement in their basement. It’s easy to go into the darkness, sometimes it isn’t easy to come back."

His writing style:

"My long novels are complicated. My mid-size novels are more authentic, realistic. My short stories are very experimental."

His favourite music, what he would save if his house caught on fire?

"I have 11,000 records. How can I choose. I don't know. I let them burn!"

On outlook:

"The strange things that have happened in my life are happy things -- to me. So it seems someone's helping me -- I don't know who it is. I am optimistic."

On endings:

"I am always looking for the bright side of things. But most of my fiction are not happy endings. I don't know why. He is looking for something, finds it, but it's not what he expected."

The Q and A with the public brought, as I was saying, a request for tips for beginning writers ("Hang on!"); followed by a two-parter wanting, first, to know about Murakami's own sad experiences, and secondly, about his favourite foods. Murakami happily named his favourite foods (donuts and tofu) and readied himself for the next question, necessitating a reminder from John Freeman ("Sadness!") which was appropriately surreal coming as it did on the tail of donuts. And finally, we had everyone's favourite:

"Do cats have a spirituality for you?"

"No, just a cat!"

I give him a perfect 10.

-- Karen

Alan Cumming at AWF 15: "Not my father's son"

            Auckland Writers Festival

"His Twitter profile is Scottish elf trapped in a middle-aged man’s body", Michael Hurst tells us in his introduction. We laugh appreciatively. The windows to the soul of the figure on the stage with Michael laugh with us.

And yet, and yet. The thought which began to grow on me, from the first exchange, was whether it wasn't perhaps the other way around. Outside, the lightness of the elf -- nimble on the feet, slight of build, pointy chin, pointy shoes; inside, the weightiness of the mortal, the years lived, all of them.

"How would you describe your childhood?"
"Pretty bleak. Pretty awful."

Alan Cumming's book Not my father's son is not, as I had thought when I first heard about it, about liberating oneself from the conventions of a middle-class childhood as represented by, say, doilies on furniture, tea cozies, assumptions about a future in business, or who knows, the military; about coming out as bisexual, marrying a man. It's about coming to terms with a childhood passed under the thumb of a violent, sadistic father, going to school with a bleeding head from his father having sheared him as if he were a sheep, coming home from school every day hoping Dad wasn't home.

It still is about liberation; from guilt, and above all from shame.

"From an early age I knew my father was wrong," but, "Anyone who is abused becomes protective of the abuser. If it goes on you become complicit in it".

"It was not something we told the world. And now obviously I've changed that."

And it still is about gaining self-knowledge, or more colloquially, growing up.

"I realised I was the sum of my parts. Then you realise that some of the parts, you're not that happy with them."

In the book, which I've just finished reading (the first-ever book I've read in ebook format, having been inspired to take the plunge after seeing the hundreds of requests for the library's print version, vs the opportunity to be second in line for the ebook version; you might want to keep this in mind, fans), he calls the nervous breakdown he had in his late twenties his "Nervy B". This is a term I'm definitely going to be adopting. I love the way it puts the nerves at the centre, as compared to a nervous breakdown, where the emphasis is on the breakdown, and the 'nervous' seems merely to echo a certain nervousness about even talking about it. A Nervy B is something you can own, and Cumming does.

There was a "box in the attic", he explains, full of "denial and years of unresolved pain and hurt". And, "the thing about boxes like that, is that eventually they explode".

As happens in life, the Nervy B was not a nice clean turning point in the plot. There was more to come. In 2010, he accepted an invitation to take part in a BBC programme called "Who Do You Think You Are?", in which celebrities are teamed up with family historians and genealogists who expertly delve into their family mysteries. He was curious about the circumstances in which his maternal grandfather had died in a "shooting incident" in Malaysia, where he had joined the police force after serving in the Second World War. What he discovered was that his grandfather had died playing Russian Roulette, not for the first time, and offhandedly.

And meanwhile his father, from whom he was emotionally estranged but not completely out of contact, transmitted the news that he wasn't his child. A DNA test later revealed that he was, but not before Cumming had created a whole story-line for himself, where his father's abuse was due to resentment over raising another man's child, and not his own mental disorders. Just as when, upon being given the official police report of his grandfather's death, which recorded only a gunshot wound to the head at close range, he had imagined a scenario of execution by a criminal gang, his grandfather kneeling, regretting he'd never seen his family in Scotland again, but resolute and stalwart as he awaited the shot.

But no. This is real life. This is not a play.

Cumming knows a lot about the place plays and acting have in his life, or he in theirs. From his earliest years, he tells us, learning to act was necessary to his survival.

"Acting students ask me 'Alan, what is your process?'. I say, 'I'm not a cheese - I don't have  a process'."

"All that mythologising of acting. You just have to pretend to be someone else -- and mean it."

He reads us a passage from the book, one of the most powerful, on rejecting shame.

"I reject shame," he says. "I think shame is a terrible thing. It's so crippling. In America I felt this wall of shame -- if you like anything too much it becomes an addiction and you need to get rid of it".

"Shame is a horrible horrible thing and I won't do it."

It was one of the moments which moved me most during the entire Festival. Maybe the most.

Alan Cumming's portrait now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, having replaced one of the queen. He is wearing a kilt; I haven't seen an image of it, but apparently the kilt is around his shoulders like a cloak, and the rest of him is naked. And unashamed.

-- Karen

May 29, 2015

Xinran at AWF15: "Buy me the sky"

Auckland Writers Festival

Parnell Library’s Laura Caygill was impressed by Xinran’s storytelling prowess and contributed this guest post about the session.

I have been a fan of Xinran since my mother gave me a copy of the much lauded Good Women of China. When I was reading it she kept asking, “Have you got to the bit about periods yet?” This was a reasonably alarming question – but not as alarming as the actual revelations about how women in a particular rural Chinese community were managing that time of the month.

Needless to say I was hooked – here was a woman who was sharing eye-opening stories from the world’s most populous country, and doing so with intelligence and compassion. Having read more of her books over the years I had built up the feeling that Xinran could not be anything but wonderful in person.

I was not disappointed when she took to the stage at this month’s Auckland Writers’ Festival. From the moment she charmed the crowd into greeting her with a tentative “Ni hao”, to her graceful and warm-hearted responses to the audience’s questions, this was a lady well-practiced in the art of storytelling.

Her latest book, Buy me the sky, focuses on the impact of China’s one-child policy on the country’s parents and children, who are now having children themselves. The title comes from an interaction she witnessed between a small child, her mother, and her grandparents.

“Buy me the sky!” the girl begged.

The child’s mother said she would not, and was admonished for it by her elders.

“Don’t say no,” they said. “Say we’ll buy it for her when she’s grown up.”

China’s only children are, to Western ears and to Xinran’s own, doted on to the extreme. To the point where some, she says, are so protected growing up that by the time they leave home (often to study in Western countries like New Zealand) they might never have used a kitchen knife. They come to loathe their parents for what they feel is this betrayal of over-protection.

“In a material way they [have] everything, but in a family way… they have nothing.”

For anyone who thought the stories might have been far-fetched, the closing questions from the floor put paid to that.

One young Chinese man approached the microphone and declared, “It’s very interesting to hear you talk about me.” He had been living in New Zealand for five years and had recently graduated from AUT.

“Can you see our [generation’s] strengths and talents?” he wanted to know. “How do you imagine we can change our generation?”

In response she spoke of the expanded view of the world that younger generations have in comparison to that of their parents and grandparents. But, she said, they were still Chinese, and were still raised with a sense of their country’s deep culture and history.

“Because of these roots you will bring China to the world,” she said. As she stood proud on the stage in her brightly coloured silk jacket, combining old Chinese traditions with modern styling, she told the young man to be proud of his background for its cultural strength, not for its social policies.

“Go to see the world,” she said, “but bring your Chinese views and beliefs [with you].”

-- Laura

May 28, 2015

"Hack Attack" with Nick Davies at AWF15

Zoe Colling from Heritage & Research went to hear Nick Davies in "Hack Attack", and tells us about it in this guest post.

I felt poorly prepared for Nick Davies’s session. I haven’t read Hack Attack: how the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch or Davies’s earlier book Flat Earth News: an award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media. Happily, I was not at a disadvantage, as Davies provided a compelling and polished summary of Hack Attack. Each humorous, shocking or depressing anecdote in the saga spilled forth without much need for the guidance of Toby Manhire’s informed interjections.

Hack Attack is about the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, which Davies was able to investigate through a series of stories which The Guardian published. Davies began by recounting what might have remained a small story: the royal editor of the News of the World was caught listening in to the voicemail messages of staff at Buckingham Palace. The royal editor and a private investigator ended up being sentenced to prison and the case was closed. One reason it was possible for the case to be taken to court was because, as Davies put it, “The royal family are one of the few groups more powerful than Rupert Murdoch”.

Despite the case having been closed, Davies was sure there was more to the story. He began a painstaking investigation into unethical practices at the News of the World which led to the exposure of crime and corruption on a very wide scale involving people in media, the police and politics. It was a courageous act and Davies’s commitment to revealing the truth, especially since the unethical behaviour occurred in his own professional circle, is admirable and inspiring.

Davies’s talk was focused and there was a clear narrative flow. Early on, when Manhire asked a question which Davies deflected by shifting his attention to the topic of fictions the media tell – an exaggerated ‘media frenzy’ headline connected with a recent Prince Harry spotting in the South Island – Manhire expressed frustration that he had asked a question and, instead of answering, Davies “went to fucking Queenstown”. Davies claimed the tangent he went on was “more interesting than the question you asked” -- jokey banter with a slight edge.

Davies’s take on the different approaches of the Rupert Murdoch owned-newspapers in the United Kingdom was insightful. He claims the Murdoch tabloids are to some degree used to invoke fear in those who are in positions of power. He used the playground bully as an analogy: the bully beats up one or two children as an example to the rest. In the same way, tabloid newspapers expose the private lives of those in power as a way of gaining compliance from onlookers in the elite. The more respected conservative papers in the Murdoch stable are able to promote his political agenda in a direct way. Davies’s stories on unethical practices at News of the World ran in The Guardian for two years before other media outlets picked up the story.

In his talk, Davies was self-deprecating, mentioning how the public can view the job of an investigative journalist as a very tough one; yet, in the phone-hacking scandal, a source contacted him directly, which he described as being like a gift falling from the sky.

At the end of his session, Davies touched on the topic of the future of journalism and the issue of the internet busting up journalism’s business model. He spoke about the public’s desire to read unique stories. Accessing daily news reports about things like car crashes or weather events is already very easy to do online, he said, and news agencies may move away from focusing resources on these sorts of stories. Instead, Davies suggests, more attention may be given to “explanation by brilliant people”, for example, columnists who write interesting, well-researched stories. Long reads and investigative pieces may be invested in, rather than the rewriting of agency copy. It was a good thing the session ended on a not-so-gloomy note regarding the outlook for the changing profession of journalism.


Auckland Writers Festival

Tim Winton at AWF15

Auckland Writers Festival

New Zealanders may not always excel at loving their Aussie neighbours but there was a full house and warm appreciation for Tim Winton on his return to the Auckland Writers Festival. Claire G of Grey Lynn Library heard him interviewed by Jim Mora and contributed this guest post. 

In person the guest from Western Australia looks a handy bloke: solid, a carpenter type whose ponytail nobody would tweak.  But Tim Winton tells us that writing is “the only thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know how to do anything else.”

He won an award with his first novel in 1981. The life-changing success however came with Cloudstreet, his fourth. “It came at a time when we were broke and we had three little kids and I didn’t know where the next mortgage payment was coming from.” After that Winton didn’t have to worry about money for a long time.

The books kept coming and so did the awards (which he doesn’t really discuss at this session; nor does his interviewer ask). Many of us across the ditch finally discovered him when Dirt Music was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002.

He’s not especially confident, he admits. “The older I’ve got the harder it gets. Just because I wrote a book last year doesn’t mean I can write one this week.” To outwit writer’s block, he applies his ‘three desks’ strategy. If progress at one desk becomes difficult, he moves to another, to focus on another project. So far the trick hasn’t failed him.

As a boy Tim Winton told tall tales. He regales his Auckland audience with what might be another one:  that when walking home from school he regularly stopped the neighbourhood bully from beating him up by telling stories all the way. His long-honed skills in eavesdropping – “I didn’t sleep so I listened in” – have probably also sharpened the observational abilities needed to write.

“I thought of myself as a writer from the age of ten,” he says. “But I didn’t know what good writing was. I grew up with Archie comics.... I thought Alistair MacLean was every bit as good as Mark Twain.” He credits luck and good teachers with bringing him to his present position as a writer of literary fiction or, as he also describes himself, someone who’s “in the the business of producing useless beauty”.

The Times of London has called him “a poet of baffled souls”, his interviewer reminds him. Winton’s a bit iffy about the poet moniker – he’s too humble, probably – but acknowledges his interest in people for whom “their lives are hard and their feelings are strong and they just don’t have the words to express them.”

His readers have strong feelings too, and apparently little difficulty expressing them. He receives “cranky, passionate letters” about why his endings are so open. His answer? He gets bored with books where all the ends are neatly tied. People expect there to be closure in life, he says, and there isn’t. “Most people die mid-sentence.”

-- Claire

"Translation Gymnastics" at AWF15, with Anna Jackson and Daniel Mendelsohn

Thanks to Simon Comber from Readers Services for this guest post.

Tom Bishop facilitated an engaging discussion between American writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn and New Zealand poet Anna Jackson. Together the speakers explored the different ways a writer could interact with a bygone poetic voice.

As it turned out, only Mendelsohn was an actual translator of poetry, having spent twelve years working on his acclaimed translations of the poems of C.P Cavafy (Collected poems). The first section of Jackson’s recent volume of poetry, I, Clodia and other portraits, had been named after (and written in the imagined voice of), the love interest of the famous Roman poet of antiquity Catullus. Whilst Mendelsohn was deeply familiar with Cavafy in the original Greek, Jackson was only familiar with Catullus in translation. She spoke of her initial exposure through Ben Jonson’s Renaissance era translations, and C.K Stead’s resetting of Catullus poems to Auckland’s West Coast beaches.

As the discussion made clear, there were still many similarities to be found between the two guests and their respective relationships to poetry of the past. Mendelsohn noted that when in the midst of working on translations, you were both responding to and engaging with the poetic voice. There was an aspect of being “reactive” to both the original text and previous translations. Aspects of this, and of the wonderful word Mendelsohn liked to use to describe his role, “adaptrix”, could just as easily have been applied to Jackson’s relationship to Catullus.

In the midst of their research, both writers couldn’t help but be laying a palimpsest over what other translators were gesturing towards, although, inevitably, only Mendelsohn would ever find himself making alterations between the release of the hard and softcover versions of his translations. Jackson on the other hand liked to joke that, as more of an imaginative adaptor than a translator, her “translation” would always be the most perfect. I, Clodia simultaneously spoke back to and used the voice of Catullus.

Perhaps the Homeric image Mendelsohn fondly recalled from the tales of Odysseus sums up the activity that both writers were trying to articulate during this discussion. When Odysseus ventures to the Underworld he recognises his mother and repeatedly tries to hug her, but as she is only a shade, his arms find no solid body to wrap around. Mendelsohn was implying that both his and Jackson’s work was mirrored in this scene. Both Catullus and Cavafy are gone from the world, but through the work of the “adaptrix”, their spirits, and their voices, remain.


Auckland Writers Festival

May 25, 2015

Carol Ann Duffy at AWF15

           Auckland Writers Festival

“You don’t get to be Britain’s poet laureate by having a tin ear," notes Claire G of Grey Lynn Library, who relished the chance to hear and see the multiple-award-winning Carol Ann Duffy, and tells us about it in this guest post.

Here she is in Auckland at last, netting elusive truths as a skilled gillie might a slippery fish. Without fuss.

Carol Ann Duffy stands at the mike and reads – from The World’s Wife (Mrs Midas, Mrs Tiresias, Mrs Darwin), from Rapture (Text, Tea, Row, Syntax, Art) and from The Bees (Mrs Schofield’s GCSE, Premonitions, The Counties). Some of us have previously read these poems ourselves but we’re spellbound.

She talks a little, sitting across from broadcaster John Campbell, who leans forward as she just perceptibly leans back. She somehow – invisibly – holds that eager puppy at bay, tolerating his fond effusions without letting him lick her face.

“God I can’t recall when I was so nervous,” he tells us, and her. “Holy ****!” He indicates the bottle by his chair and the glasses of some dark liquid that he’s requested for himself and our guest. He claims, a little later, to have discovered a twinkle in the eyes of the black-clad, pale-faced poet. And “God damn it, Carol Ann,” he implores at one stage.

We knew she’d be wonderful with words and she is: you don’t get to be Britain’s poet laureate by having a tin ear. What we don’t expect are her silences. They are magisterial, magnificent – all the more so for occurring at a weekend that is essentially a talkfest, in which even the breaks between sessions are abuzz with conversations. The people who’ve filled the Aotea Centre’s ASB Theatre to hear her are hanging on her every word, but on her pauses too.

“Do you ever think, ‘God, Carol Ann, that’s good’?” asks John Campbell. (He’s just echoed, in a way that indicates he finds it marvellous, one of the lines from her reading of Mrs Midas.) For quite the longest time, she says nothing in reply. Then,

“No.” Another pause. “I was never quite sure about that one, actually,” she adds, in her northern-not-quite-Scottish accent. The repeated line has Mr Midas – the man with that golden touch – spitting out corn kernels like rich people’s teeth.

The whole ‘Mrs Midas’ poem might have taken two or three weeks to write, its creator says. “A lot of things come together before you put pen to paper.... There’s a lot of silence beforehand.”

In a way, that short work and its companions in The World’s Wife (1999) were forty years in the making. At school Carol Ann Duffy was taught about the figures from classical myth and legend, on the basis that they might be useful. They never were, so eventually she set them to work in poetry.

She reads next from Rapture (2005). This collection records a love affair from beginning to end by way of sonnets, which she describes as “kind of the little black dress of poetry”. Barely perceptibly – some might say sexily – she moves as she speaks.

“How true is it?” John Campbell asks. “Does it need to be true? Does it matter?”

For those who are desperate to see the personal in the poems, she agrees it’s there, but it’s like “the sand in the oyster that produces the pearl” – a simile she also uses in her (ever so slightly) more candid interview with Kim Hill on National Radio the previous day.

Carol Ann Duffy doesn’t discuss the affair. She is famous for being as mean with autobiographical detail, or gossip, as she is generous in the promotion of poetry, poets and other good causes such as public libraries, books in prisons.

J.C. is leaning forward again, his hand extended like (but less languorously than) that of a figure in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Finally, the creator of Rapture reaches out and touches his hand with her own. “I’m fine now,” she deadpans, looking him in the eye.

At question time people, including the playwright Roger Hall whom John Campbell enthusiastically introduces, leap to the proffered mikes. The laureate puts down – does she? – someone who asks a question to which he should perhaps already know the answer.

And the last questioner wants to know about The Dolphins, republished in New Selected Poems 1984–2004. Carol Ann Duffy explains that she once saw captive dolphins giving a public performance and as a result “felt very screwed up... about these poor creatures being forced to do tricks.”

How could she not?

--Claire G

Greg O'Brien and "Whale Years" at AWF15

          Auckland Writers Festival

“Mariners read the ocean much as you would a book. Each wave a page.”

Thanks to Ella from Readers Services for this guest post.

At the Auckland Writers Festival last week I descended into the belly of the great whale that is the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki to hear Greg O'Brien speak about Whale Years, his latest book of poetry, and the journeys and experiences in the seas of the South Pacific that have informed the collection and left an indelible mark on his prolific artistic output.

Greg O'Brien is a man of many talents. Well known as a poet and writer, as well as a visual artist, he's also known to be a bit of a “cultural odd job man”. Some of the odd jobs he's been involved in over the years include curating and writing about art; and importantly, advocating for the environment, our special place in the Pacific and the people and creatures that live within it.

Lately he has been preoccupied, or self admittedly obsessed by whales, even though he has never been lucky enough to see one in reality, and wonders if maybe he prefers it that way. He likes to explore ideas of fantasy and the subconscious in his work, and it would seem to be the intangibility and elusiveness of these ocean dwellers that appeal to his active imagination.

The hour was a meandering exploration of our oceans, our environment and the life that exists within them, including enthusiastic readings from Whale Years, beautiful images, videos and tall tales from Greg's travels.

Greg O'Brien has been writing and musing on whales ever since his 2011 voyage with a rag tag group of artists on the ship HMNZS Otago,  which followed the migratory routes of whales to the most remote part of New Zealand, the Kermadec islands, and on to Tonga.

These experiences inspired something in Greg and the eight other artists on board, something that O'Brien admits he found hard to shake. The artists -- image makers, writers and poets, designers, a film maker and a sound artist -- took on their roles as ambassadors for the ocean with enthusiasm, producing fascinating imaginative responses to this experience.

The spirit of exploration, and collaboration that developed from this journey was present throughout the hour as Greg O'Brien introduced the audience to some of the work that came out of the trip. John Pule's etchings of imagined flora and fauna, Robin White's beautiful collaborative tapa works and Fiona Hall's sculptures, chosen to represent Australia in this year's Venice Biennale, were just a few of the many intriguing works that illustrated his poems.

We were brought back to reality when Greg started talking cold hard facts and the environmental purpose of this trip really hit home. In October 2011, a few months after the artists returned from their journey, this region was affected by the horrifying Rena disaster and the fate of the area became even more precarious.

This was a memorable talk which left me with much to mull over as I emerged, rather dazed, out into busy Wellesley St, images of whales still swimming through my mind.

-- Ella

John Pule, Kermadec Exhibition (

Whale Years
Whale Years 

May 24, 2015

Dave Veart's New Zealand Toy Story at AWF15

Tim Kidd tells us about the seriously fun session he attended, as our AWF15 coverage continues. 


Perfect names for toy companies. Names I remember from the tag on a cloth cat, whose stomach unzipped to accommodate a hot water bottle, and from the underside of the pocket-sized yellow bulldozers that I seem to have found in every sandpit I ever came across, as kid or adult.


In the heyday of New Zealand toy manufacturing, these companies and others made fun things for boys and girls to play with. Dave Veart’s book Hello Girls and Boys! A New Zealand Toy Story is a history of toys in New Zealand and it tells the story of these manufacturers and much more besides.

I went to Veart’s session, one of the Writers Festival's Weekend Gallery Series, and was impressed with what a smart and entertaining speaker he was. Of course toys are a fun subject, and there were so many great images to look at -- beautiful paper dolls, amazing Meccano sets, two boys driving their homemade go-kart down the road at rush hour!-- but Veart, with his archaeologist background, knew how to extract the full story every time. His book is one of those social histories told through the prism of a given subject, and it seems like the feeling of a particular time and place really is funneled, unfiltered, into the things that children play with-- and way ahead of what adults might be seeing.

Veart went back to the early days of New Zealand and the wonderful toys Maori children would play with – kites, knucklebones, spinning tops that raced over complicated tracks –did I hear him say they had tops that could climb trees? Not sure; I hope so.

In the 19th century, New Zealand children were apparently notorious for being particularly wild -- "lots of kids, lots of wild space, not much adult control". The neighbourhood I live in would have been like that a hundred or so years ago, but now I think it is the exact opposite. A great photo of these wild children shows them dressed up as pirates and soldiers and other things fun and jaunty, but then there’s one kid who is swathed in what looks like matted sheep wool. Is he some kind of castaway figure ? A wild man? I don’t know. It looks fun though. The toy of choice for these kids: the Pampas pocket knife (I’m pretty sure my Dad has one). Sharpen pencils, cut fruit and, crucially, make your own shanghai. Again, pretty sure none of the kids at our local primary school are knife-wielders.

Fifty years later and kids were more civilised and played with trains and Meccano and dolls houses. They became the town planners of the future. There was a picture of a modernist doll’s house that I really loved. Some hep dolls in the fifties got themselves a swinging pad one Christmas. I am pretty jealous of anyone who got one of those.

After the Second World War, import restrictions meant that the local toy industry flourished, but by the eighties that had all changed and toy companies folded one by one. I remember when I was in primary school in the early eighties, how suddenly there were these amazing futuristic toys – Zoids, Transformers, and all the other robo-hydrid toys. At the time, as a kid, it seemed like the greatest time for toys. But now I’m sad about those small, singular things that disappeared.

Like the story of Johnny Prowse who ran North Shore Toys. His factory was located opposite a primary school. A lot of employees were parents of students and worked school hours. I like that there is a particular group of adults who still remember what it felt like to finish school every day and walk across the road to the toy factory where Mum or Dad worked. Even better, there was a space at the factory for employees' preschool children - the kapok room!

As an adult, looking back, I think I’d surely trade my Optimus Prime, much as I loved it, for a memory of playing in that room.

-- Tim

Auckland Writers Festival

May 20, 2015

Jim Allen, New Zealand's first contemporary artist: AWF15

Auckland Writers Festival

"Good morning everyone, I'm Diane. I'm a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland. Welcome and I'll hand over to Ron."

I felt as if I'd fallen down the rabbit hole rather than just descended into the Auckland Art Gallery basement for this session in the Weekend Gallery Series. Who is Diane, (except of course a MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland)? She has no lanyard, she's not wearing a Festival t-shirt, nor an Art Gallery t-shirt, but rather a loose white cotton shirt which I later look for and find on google images described as a "New Sexy Classic Womens Boyfriend Wind White Shirt Loose Long Sleeve".

Behind Diane, on the stage, the unintroduced Senior Curator, New Zealand and Pacific Art Ron Brownson is sitting chatting genially with someone who must be the artist Jim Allen, previously unknown to me, and the subject/author of a new book called Jim Allen: The Skin of Years

Diane gets back down and Ron raises his mike, looks at us, smiles, pauses, and premises, "Looking through The skin of years, I realised it's impossible to cover it in 40 minutes."

I'll just insert my own premise here. Ron Brownson is always a pleasure to listen to, for his vast knowledge, his thoughtful intelligence, and, not least, his sly humour.

The book was born out of a series of recorded interviews with art historian Tony Green and artist Phil Dadson.

Ron asks, "Was there a lot more talking that didn't make it into the book?"


"Wystan Curnow, in his foreword to the book, said 'Jim Allen is, we should now be saying, our first contemporary artist.' Do you agree with this?"


And then, "Is it okay if I tell everyone your age?"


There's just the slightest hint of a communal chuckle, but no worries, they are about to hit their stride. That last query was a lead-in to the story of how it all began: how Allen, after serving in World War II (making him now over 90) found himself in Italy, where the British Army, bless their hearts, ran courses for their soldiers, including art courses. Allen did a one-month course in clay sculpture which was held in the 16th century Medici Stables, just outside of Florence. "They were all marble," he says. "We had a stable for two."

In 1948 he received a government scholarship to attend the Royal College of Art in England. He was given 1200 pounds, which it was intended he would live on for three years. "How long did that last?", asks Ron. "Oh, about a year."

Ron shows us Polynesia, Allen's 1951 diploma work for the Royal College of Art, carved of Ancaster limestone, one of Henry Moore's favourite stones, as hard as marble but "warmer and fleshier", as Ron has so ably described it. In 2007 Allen gifted this sculpture to the people of Auckland, as part of the permanent collection of the Auckland Art Gallery.

[Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 2007]

Back again in New Zealand, Allen taught at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts and continued to create astonishing works, such as his Sculpture 1, from 1955, which Ron calls "the most radical piece of sculpture produced in New Zealand that year", now destroyed, and Light modulator from 1960, now in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery.

Sculpture 1  (photo courtesy Ron Brownson)
Light modulator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

The most amazing discovery for me was the Futuna Chapel in Wellington, "one of the most spiritual interiors in all New Zealand", as Ron describes it. It was designed by John Scott, with windows by Jim Allen that cast shimmering patterns of coloured light on the walls, which in the course of the day move across a large scale, magnificent mahogany Christ figure, also Allen's work. This "very emotional, very passionate work", to use Ron's words, was missing for 12 years, stolen, but happily it was recovered and reinstated in the chapel. Allen remembers, though, not being happy with the fact that "a local person" had thought it would be a good idea to oil it until it was almost black. Looking at the mahogany, you can understand why.

Futuna Windows by Jim Allen
Photo by Simon Burt 

The Futuna Christ

The year 1968 was a turning point for Jim Allen, as for many around the world. He took a sabbatical from his teaching and visited Mexico, the U.S. and Europe, and it was on this trip that he first encountered, and heard the siren song of, performance and conceptual art, a song which this wanderer not only did not resist, but absorbed and brought home with him, becoming one of the leaders of post-object art, as it was known in New Zealand.

The next image is Allen reclining on the floor among 4 chainsaws. 

"What is the name of this performance piece?" asks Ron.


"And what was the poem that accompanied it?"

"Howl. The chainsaws sat on the floor humming and I read the poem which no one could hear of course. But the chainsaws didn't have enough power so they cut out before the end of the poem."

Photos of another piece, called Contact, presented at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1974, show us people in their underwear with buckets of paint, then the same people applying the paint to their "points of articulation", and finally all the people covered in paint, entangling with each other in a sort of orgy of smear and colour. It was about human contact, but, says Ron, "I have to confess I was there and I didn't understand it. What was the reaction?"

"Oh, it was picked up at a high level. I was warned they were going to try to join in."

"In 1974, this was really outside New Zealand contemporary art, wasn't it?" asks Ron.

"Yes," says Jim, "I think so."

He pauses and goes on, "I think that at the time very few people understood what I was doing. They didn't have a clue. Recognising that gulf between the audience and the work, I persisted in the work."

I persisted in the work.

Acknowledgement and admiration from me and everyone in the room, for that. Ron Brownson, in closing, says it for us. "Jim, thank you so much for your generous art and your wonderful book."

-- Karen

Nalini Singh at AWF15

Auckland Writers Festival

Guild hunting with Nalini Singh

Thanks to Joanne Graves from our Central Auckland Research Centre for this guest post.

Nalini Singh is quite likely this country's most successful author that no one has heard of, Graham Beattie remarked as he introduced her to the audience. As a reader of her work from way back -- I remember reading her first Psy Changeling novel in one sitting, and I'm not even a paranormal reader  -- I think he's spot on. Nalini mentioned it took six books doing very well in the North American market before New Zealand publishers cottoned on to her, and she now has a local fanbase that is steadily growing.

At the book signing afterwards, fans waited with piles of books for her to sign, and watching the slow-moving queue, it stood out that she's living a life most writers can only ever dream of. Writing full time, hitting the lists -- USA Today and the Holy Grail that is the New York Times -- awards and nominations, a Kirkus best book, book tours around the world, and an international fan base so eager for her work that her publisher puts her books out in the notoriously-priced hardcover first.

Nalini began writing contemporary novels for one of the Mills and Boon lines, but it's the paranormal books where she's made her name. Add to that, she is indie publishing a series revolving around a Kiwi rock band and it shows just how enterprising she is. She attributes it to discipline, and loving what she does. I remember a Metro article back in 2007 where she described herself as the typical girl at school with her head stuck in a book; a daydreamer who read everything from fantasy to sci fi to romance to literary fiction.

Someone in the audience asked what she puts her appeal down to and she thinks it's because she's got an international voice -- born in Fiji, moving to NZ when she was ten, then living in Japan after she finished her BA/LLB. She also believes that when you're starting out you should "write in isolation" to develop voice - it's the most critical thing. She never showed her work to anyone for a long time, and believes you risk writing your book by committee if you do.

It seems to have worked. In a time when publishers are cutting back on expenses like book tours, Nalini does them. She talked about arriving at airports to find a driver waiting for her, being driven to the hotel, then to the event, then back to the hotel. On New Zealand tours, she has a publicist with her all the time but in the US, she’s on her own. On her second book tour to North America, she took her sister for company.

She likes to get the admin side of writing out of the way in the morning (she jokes how she once tweeted she had zero in her inbox but it lasted about a minute) and as long as she finishes a day reaching her word count – even if that day is 3am – that’s okay. She writes on a computer that has no internet access but she loves social media. Her break times are spent on Facebook and Twitter and she finds them rejuvenating. On the question of illegal downloads of her work, she isn’t precious about it. “They would probably have never bought the book anyway.”

She’s had ‘bites’ from production companies and her agent in LA handles the movie arm of the agency but she says she won't get excited about any TV or movie deal until "its signed in blood, in triplicate, and I’ve been given a cheque.”

When asked how someone so young could write about the depths she goes into of the male/female relationship (she was first published in the romance genre in her early 20s), she noted that emotion is emotion, feelings can be translated, and she’s a very good listener. Although, she quipped, she doubts crime writers get asked how many people they’d killed to write about murder.

Towards the end, someone asked her how she found writing about rockstars compared to writing about the paranormal. Not missing a beat, she joked, “Its not all that different from paranormal romance because - you know - rock stars..."


May 16, 2015

Emily St John Mandel at AWF15

        Auckland Writers Festival

A “very nice, polite apocalypse"

Parnell Library’s Laura Caygill sits in on Emily St John Mandel and Jolisa Gracewood, and provides us with a report and a recommendation:

 Canadian author Emily St John Mandel can’t understand why everyone thinks her books are so nice. “I did kill off 99% of the population with a super-flu”, she muses, wondering how much more brutal she could have been towards her characters in her award-winning novel Station Eleven.

 I was looking forward to hearing Mandel, having read the post-apocalyptic novel in three sittings. I could have happily read it in one, had sleep not got in the way.

 In conversation with Jolisa Gracewood, Mandel was typically (she is Canadian, after all) delightful. Trained as a dancer, she grew up on a small island in British Columbia and now lives and writes in New York. One of the reasons I loved Station Eleven, and it’s something Gracewood alluded to, was the gentleness of the telling of the tale. Mandel focuses on the normalcy of the pandemic and its aftermath, rather than the action of it.

As Gracewood noted, her characters are all stranded in different ways – from their previous lives, from their friends, geographically (petrol has gone stale in the years following the Georgia Flu), and culturally. The Travelling Symphony, the Shakespeare troupe at the centre of the novel, attempts to bridge these gaps, roaming the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in a horse-drawn pickup truck that bears the motto “survival is insufficient”. According to Mandel it’s a line taken from a 1999 episode of "Star Trek Voyager"; the pieces of life to survive this superbug are beautifully random.

 To say that Station Eleven’s is a “very nice, polite apocalypse” (as Mandel self-deprecatingly quipped) is missing the point a bit. This isn’t an action novel. Indeed it’s not even intended to be science fiction. Her previous books have been variously labelled as crime and literary noir, which she puts down to their “crime elements”. Wanting to avoid being pigeonholed as a crime writer she intended her next work to look at the “extraordinary things” in the world we live in. She decided that “the best way to write about the spectacular apparatus of technology that surrounds us was to write about its absence”, and thus Station Eleven was born.

 Like her characters one gets the sense Mandel feels stranded by genre allocations. She is, I believe, much closer to fellow Arthur C. Clarke award winner Margaret Atwood in bridging the gap between literary and genre fiction than any labels (as well as her recent endorsement from George R. R. Martin) might suggest. Mayhem, murder and – yes – a flu pandemic that travels across the globe in mere days, are, she says, “best rendered with the lightest possible touch”.

syndetics-lcIf you haven’t already, do read Station Eleven. Mandel’s light touch means the book’s 333 pages are ones to curl up with and enjoy. Just maybe listen to the author’s advice first: “It should come with a warning sticker – don’t read this on an aeroplane”.

-- Laura

"Everyone has the absolute right to offend": University of Auckland debate at AWF15

Auckland Writers Festival
Clockwise from upper left:
Auletta, Davies, Singh, Haynes

Ana from Readers Services attended the University of Auckland Festival Debate. She reports:

This session was facilitated by Linda Clark. It featured two debaters from the University of Auckland Debating Society, and a panel composed of  Ken Auletta, The New Yorker media correspondent; Nick Davies, investigative journalist from the U.K.; Natalie Haynes, English comedian and classicist; and Jaspreet Singh, Indian/Canadian novelist and scientist.

As we entered the ASB Theatre, we were asked to vote for or against the motion "Everyone has the absolute right to offend". We were told the results would be revealed at the end of the debate.

I already knew that the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Rupert Murdoch scandal would be mentioned (obvious in a debate on freedom of speech). Nick Davies, one of the panel, is in fact the author of Hack Attack, the definitive record of the investigation into Rupert Murdoch's activities and the phone hacking scandal. And so it was.

Paul, the first debater, spoke for “yes”. He outlined what happens when you “offend” someone. He mentioned how Socrates offended Athenian society and had to pay with his life. He also talked about homosexuality, something which was forbidden in the past (remember Oscar Wilde), but now is accepted. It is for things such as this that we must commit to personal and political freedom of expression. If someone is hurt by someone else's speech, the hurt is subjective, and the best response is to just isolate yourself from it (turn the TV off or stop reading or listening). Freedom of expression is one of the most cherished and unalienable rights we have.

Jessica spoke for "no". Her argument was that the right to offend is not absolute; that life is not black and white and that we must take into account the social context. She said that many things said to offend do not have any merit and are said just to provoke. The people who deny the holocaust ever happened are an example of this.

Next the panel had their turn. Ken Auletta started by saying “Yes”. He prefers that everybody have the absolute right to offend. Talking about Chalie Hebdo, he said we don’t have to approve of every cartoon, but we have to accept their right to say what someone wants against the lunatics who carried out the shooting. He knows there are moral codes; there are libels, law, standards for advertising etc., but we have an absolute right to speak.

Natalie Haynes followed by saying she has a particular hatred of perfume and aftershave and is offended when someone wears them, but it stops there, as "I am not a fascist". She wonders whether there is a need to be offended. Is it a need? And no one can predict what people are going to be offended about. 

Jaspreet Singh talked about Galileo and his troubles with the Roman Catholic Church; he talked about the Bangladeshi blogger who was hacked to death by Al Qaeda for blasphemy; about India, where books get pulped and vigilantes (or the Government) can take away people’s right to free speech.

He is very worried that the government of Canada has recently heavily censured scientists and killed many of their projects. If someone protests, he’ll be offending the Government of Canada, and can be put in prison. One other thing that worries him is France’s giant leap towards totalitarianism. He was for ‘yes’.

Nick Davies had the most to say. He said that his response was "Yes, but..." He is all for freedom of speech but says there is a “small area” that we should cordon off. One example is if what you are saying is not only offensive, but designed to hurt someone who is vulnerable. Another is when whatever is said is not just causing pain: inciting violence or hatred against a minority is not okay.

He said religion shouldn’t be protected, that it shouldn’t be a criminal offence to be rude about God (as it is in Britain). It’s ludicrous. He added that there are many ways to counter this, e.g. fight cartoons with other cartoons.  Minimum constraints are best.

The debaters came back out and summed up, and the panel had their own summation - almost without a contribution from Natalie Haynes as Linda Clark forgot about her, but she put her hand up and said her piece which was all in favour of yes.

At that point the audience was asked to vote again, to see if our opinions had been changed. The vote on entering the room was 51% to 49% in favour of the absolute right to offend; after the debate the numbers had shifted to 55% to 45% for “yes but”.


May 14, 2015

New Zealand Listener Gala Night opens AWF15!


It was a bittersweet welcome to the Festival this year, with Anne O'Brien up at the podium citing Oliver Sacks. As we might know, she said, but I didn't, Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months ago. Then she read us some heartbreaking excerpts from a piece he wrote for the New York Times after his diagnosis, called "My own life".

I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

The news hit me close to home. Oliver Sacks, I mused as Anne read, had always felt like an old family friend. Like the women of our family, he suffered from migraines, or as he put it, he was a "migraineur", in that exhilirating way he had of not treating anything that happens within our brains as merely negative. Such a liberating concept! Everything that happened was interesting and had something to tell him, which he would then tell us. I caught Anne saying something about the importance of personal encounter, and that was when I had the epiphany.

Why, above all, did Oliver Sacks seem like an old friend? Because he told such good stories! The special intercourse of writers and readers! What does a Writers Festival add to the already heady experience of this special intercourse? I'll tell you. The extra-special intercourse of the stories that didn't make it into the book. Told in person! Seeing the choice of footwear of your favourite authors is cool, but it is just the icing on the cake.

Tonight's preamble to three days and 100 opportunities to hear the stories which didn't make it into the book saw us treated to eight "true stories told live" by eight writers featuring at the Festival. The theme, with a nod to Oliver Sacks, was "plain speaking".

L to R, top: Michele A'Court, Amy Bloom, Alan Cumming, Peter FitzSimons.
L to R, below: Helen Garner, Aroha Harris, Nic Low, Ben Okri

The American writer Amy Bloom told of picking out a plain navy blue enamel urn for her mother's ashes, in deference to her parents' attitude (she had found her grandfather's ashes in the garage in a coffee can), which had seemed peculiar to them, and how that attitude did or did not turn out to have been preserved -- although not on a shelf like the ashes, whose plain urn Bloom's daughter soon decorated with a "Florida Bohemian" style necklace.

Peter FitzSimons, ex-Wallaby, current pirate and author of a book on Gallipoli, had a story about a rugby game and the worst - something - pass ever (sorry, strong Aussie accent) (Did someone say "hospital" pass?) (what?), which included some hard-won words of rugby wisdom which I think could possibly be universalised:  "They will chisel something on your rugby tombstone and that will be the thing you'll be remembered for."

Aroha Harris, co-author of Tangata Whenua: An illustrated history, told about her ta moko experience. The applause was already breaking out before she got to the last word in her last sentence: "I love my ta moko".

The Australian author and journalist Helen Garner had wry stories about getting old, and a wonderful quote: "It's good to live long enough to get over the grievance".

Nic Low, kiwi short story writer, had a story about "fraudulessence"... his own, in allowing himself to be passed off as a celebrated writer when he was not, but consequently realising that it was, in fact, a kind of truth, in the sense of a revelation to himself about what he really wanted.

Alan Cumming, actor and now memoir writer, Scottish and lively in wind-around scarf, bright shirt, grey mocs, told about the long road to an appearance in a Kubrick film, not to mention into the moody Kubrick's heart.

Michele A'Court, comedian, author of Stuff I forgot to tell my daughter and, she revealed to our surprise,  grandmother.  Her story in fact was about the birth of her granddaughter. "I'll tell my granddaughter it's still okay for Nana to say fuck".

Ben Okri, whose new book is The age of magic, glanced back tenderly at his mother, their relationship, and her death. "The substantial things in life are insubstantial during grief." "The worst day of my life was also the most transcendent."

Congratulations to Anne and her team on a great start to this year's Festival. It was wonderful walking over tonight and seeing, already from afar, Aotea Square full of Festival goers kissing cheeks, comparing schedules, wondering where the partner had gotten to, fitting in a wine.
I must come up with a collective noun for Writers Festival attendees -- any suggestions?

In the meantime, keep visiting Books in the City for more AWF15 stories, including guest posts, and more footwear details!

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