Monday 29 December 2014

Last book for 2014

The last book I've read for 2014 is Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung. The Guardian calls it "a telling account of the madness of North Korea", the country from which the author fled in 2004. It's a book I wouldn't have picked for myself and hadn't heard about, but it was given to us by someone with a deep interest in history. Last year he gave us Iron curtain which expanded my knowledge of the Cold War era by about 1000%, so I was confident this would be another intriguing read. And it certainly was, especially having read Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son as well.
Within the opening pages, I was struck by Jang Jin-Sung's description of how the writing process worked then (and presumably still does). He explains that every single writer in North Korea produces writing according to a bureaucratic chain of command, and "anyone who composes a work that has not been assigned to the writer through this chain of command is by definition guilty of treason". All written works are "initiated in response to a specific request" and have to be "legally approved" once handed in. "It is not the job of a writer to articulate new ideas or to experiment with aesthetics on his or her own whim."
It's true that it's difficult to make a living as a writer in New Zealand and we all worry about shrinking markets, disappearing bookshops and the future of the book. But at least we can write about whatever we want. We take freedom of expression so much for granted - thank goodness we have it.

If you're interested, you can read a short extract from the book by clicking on Free sample on the Random House website. 

Thursday 13 November 2014

Courage Day 2014

November 15 is marked around the world as The International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. This was started in 1981 by PEN, the international writers’ organisation, to acknowledge those writers around the world who are subject to political, economic or other forms of repression.
Here in New Zealand we call it Courage Day, but many people don’t know why, or assume it is called Courage Day across the world, because the name seems so appropriate.
New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) members are encouraged every year to mark this day in some way. In the past, we have had some compelling speakers who have helped us to explore the idea of courage in writing. 
This year, a small but committed group of NZSA Wellington branch members met on Thursday 13 November to explore the meaning behind Courage Day and to remember, acknowledge and support those writers who are imprisoned or in danger because of what they write.  An empty chair stood as a silent representative of those who cannot come to this or any other meeting because they are in prison or under restraint, due to their writing.

  • The story behind Courage Day
Courage Day is named after two writers, Sarah and James Courage (grandmother and grandson). You can read about them on the Christchurch City libraries website.
Sarah Amelia Courage (1845? – 1901) wrote a memoir in about 1896 called Lights and shadows of colonial life: twenty six years in Canterbury, New Zealand (by “A settler’s wife”). Many copies were burned by angry neighbours who didn’t like what she had written about them. James Courage’s 1959 novel, A way of love, was banned as indecent because he dared to write about homosexual love.
Heather Hapeta reminded us of other NZ writers and artists whose work has been banned over the years, including Eddie Rout (Safe marriage, 1926), Jean Devanny (The butcher shop, 1926) and Ans Westra (Washday at the Pa, 1964). 

Maggie Rainey-Smith spoke about the jailed Australian al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, imprisoned in Egypt with two colleagues since June 2014 on charges of “aiding terrorists, smearing Egypt, and doctoring footage. A newly issued decree allowing the deportation of foreigners accused of crimes on Egyptian soil is news that may hopefully lead to his release. Maggie spoke of hearing his mother interviewed on Radio NZ about how heart-wrenching it was to see her son appear in a Cairo court, shackled and without a translator. Elsewhere, Lois Greste has described visiting her son in an Egyptian prison for the first time as one of the most difficult days of her life.
Cairo court jails Al Jazeera journalists
Jailed al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, who was among three men jailed in Cairo in June on terror charges. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

Lesley Marshall is the NZSA Writers in Prison committee co-ordinator and sends out numerous postcards to imprisoned writers. Recently she received a reply from Aron Atabek, a Kazakhstan poet imprisoned for writing a book critical of his government - and not just a reply but a poem, which Frances Cherry read out for us. 

There is an empty chair in New Zealand –
Kept for me on writers’ congress,
That is the God to turn me –
Back to an ‘environment’, to a writer’s place!
empty chair
The National Poetry Day event at the Butter Factory in Whangarei collected about 20 signatures and messages from the audience on a card for Aron Atabek, The event featured an empty chair displaying his photos and poetry, and Piet Nieuwland took a photo of it to include in the card.

Every year, PEN international highlights the situation of a number of particular writers. This year they included poet and writer Enoh Meyomesse, currently held in prison in the Cameroon, and I read out a brief bio of his work and an excerpt from his prison journal:
"... what's hardest for me is my eyesight. After those 30 days in total darkness in Bertoua, it's starting to go. My greatest worry these days is that before long I'm going to find myself totally blind..." 
Enoh Meyomesse
Dieudonn√© Enoh Meyomesse is currently serving a 7 year prison sentence for supposed complicity in the theft and illegal sale of gold. 

  • For more info about Courage Day or the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer, see:
'I hope that you find comfort in the fact that your words echo far and wide, reaching hearts and minds beyond the bars of your cell, beyond the walls of your prison, reminding us that the freedom of speech is worth fighting for.' (Elif Shafak writes to imprisoned Chinese writer Gao Yu.)

Friday 7 November 2014

World War One centenary events

It's hard to open a paper today (or look at a news website) and avoid reading about some WW1 centenary-related news item, artwork, installation or other commemorative event.

The poppies spilling out of the Tower of London poppies look breathtaking, and have attracted millions of visitors and lots of media attention. This dramatic installation by by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, titled Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red, is due to be dismantled on 12 November (the day after Armistice Day), but it has proved so popular that the hours of floodlighting have been increased and there have been calls for it to be extended. Volunteers have helped to plant the poppies in the moat and more volunteers will help to remove them. All of the 888,246 hand-made poppies have already been presold online, raising more than 15 million pounds for charity.  

The installation is visually stunning, but there have been some thought-provoking responses to it. The Quakers have created a map to show how much of London would be covered if the poppies represented all the of the 19.5 million people from every country - soldiers and civilians, allies and enemies - and not just the British dead. And a challenging article by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian claimed that "an adequate work of art about the war has to show its horror, not sweep the grisly facts under a red carpet of artificial flowers."

An ad campaign that has also attracted some controversy is Sainburys' Christmas ad, based on accounts of German and Allied troops celebrating Christmas together in the trenches. Is it disrespectful for a supermarket to use WW1 to sell groceries? Or is is a reasonable and fitting way of letting people know what happened?

Here in Wellington, a number of buildings were illuminated over several nights with scenes of soldiers, war and New Zealand during the war years.   

It's fascinating to see how people are choosing to remember the events of 100 years ago, but I think we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over what it is that we are remembering, and how we do that in the best and most meaningful way. 

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War

When Bob Kerr and I were sending our picture book Best mates out into the world, Kirstie Ross (Curator Modern New Zealand at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) was kind enough to come along to the Children's Bookshop (thanks to them for this photo) and officially launch it for us. 

Now Kirstie and Kate Hunter (Associate Professor and Head of the History Programme at Victoria University of Wellington) have just published their own splendid title: Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War.

Kirstie and Kate were both speaking this week at Te Papa as part of the Writers on Mondays series. It was a wonderful talk, chaired by Paul Diamond, and looks like a fabulous book

Holding on to Home

Paul asked about the process  of working collaboratively on a book like this, and it apparently involved weekends away with masses of photocopies, to spend a couple of days literally walking through the piles of papers spread all over the floor. It was very moving to hear the authors read extracts from the book; Kate talked about wrist watches, often given to the soldiers as farewell gifts, and Kirstie about the "housewives" (pronounced "hussiffs") issued to the troops as sewing kits - this is an example from the Imperial War Museum's collection.

One thing I was especially interested in was when Kate talked about the difference between working with words and working with images. The images need to be "visually compelling", and some images that might still be fascinating to a historian just don't pass that on-the-page test. Kate said that you could tell when an image had "a voice of its own" and would work on the page. I could relate to all of that because it's exactly what I found when looking for images for my Anzac Day book. 

I also liked the way they talked about the need to expand our idea of who were the New Zealanders at war - that it wasn't just the soldiers overseas, but also those back home, worried sick about their son/husband/father/brother/cousin at the front, or working hard to replace the male workers who had left, or putting their energies into opposing the war (like the conscientious objectors) - it was such a small country that almost everyone was involved or affected in some way.

The official launch of the book is next week, so look out for it in your local bookshop (or at Te Papa).  

Thursday 3 July 2014

It's not every morning that you have breakfast at Parliament ...

And this morning's was a very special event, to mark the 20th anniversary of Duffy's Books in Homes. As well as being served a delicious breakfast, we got to watch videos about the Books in Homes programme and listen to some great speakers, including Ben Carson, a black American paediatric neurosurgeon who was raised in a solo parent household with very little money. He tells the story of how his mother made him and his brother read two books a week, and write her a report on them for her, instead of watching so much television, and he credits reading with helping him out of poverty and setting him on the path to becoming a doctor.

The person I was sitting beside told me about a movie made about his life, called Gifted hands. Something else to put on the list of movies to watch. And now I've just checked, and the movie is based on a book - another book to read!


Christine Fernyhough and Alan Duff, who started the Books in Homes programme, also spoke, and pupils from Camberley School in Hastings - which saw the first ever Books in Schools visit - made a special trip down to Wellington to be present and sang three songs for us, including the Duffy song. I hope they enjoyed themselves, because they had to sit for a long time listening to grown-ups' speeches! But it was very nice to find this newspaper article about their visit.

Tequila Smith (left), Sativa Hooper, Sebastian Kohiti, Messines Roanaki, Kaiba Thompson of Camberley School, Hastings, are going to Wellington to celebrate Duffy Books in Homes' 20th anniversary. Photo/Warren Buckland
Tequila Smith (left), Sativa Hooper, Sebastian Kohiti, Messines Roanaki, Kaiba Thompson of Camberley School, Hastings, are going to Wellington to celebrate Duffy Books in Homes' 20th anniversary. Photo/Warren Buckland

You can read about the history of the books in homes programme here. Twenty years of operation and ten million books distributed to children from low-income families are two great milestones to have achieved. 

Tuesday 24 June 2014

NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

I have loved being shortlisted for this year's NZ Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults - a very special year to be shortlisted: the last of NZ Post's long and faithful sponsorship - and it was a fabulous evening on Monday night. It felt very special to be there in the company of amazing writers and illustrators like Joy Cowley, Elizabeth Knox, Fleur Beale, Fifi Colston, Melinda Szymanik, Donovan Bixley and many others - of course not forgetting Vasanti Unka, the winner of the picture book section and overall winner of Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, whose astonishment and delight was a joy to behold. If you don't know Vasanti's work, or haven't yet seen The Boring Book, you can see some pictures from it on her blog here. I'm very proud that Vasanti once illustrated one of my plays for the School Journal.

I felt even luckier to be there, given the judges' comments about the very high standard of non fiction entries this year, and I loved what Joy Cowley said on accepting the Junior Fiction award for her novel Dunger. In her usual warm and generous manner, Joy said that all the books that had made the shortlist were winners - and that was how I felt!

I had spent Monday morning at Devonport Primary School talking to three different groups of students who were all wonderful listeners and came up with some great questions, some of which had me stumped for an answer. Then I came home to this equal wonderful feedback - getting thank you's like this is one of the best things about being a writer:

  • I am here at Devonport school.And why am I at Devonport school you ask? well Philippa werry is coming! I know what your thinking,`I can't believe she's coming! “Here she comes!” “act cool” “we’re on the air”
  • thank you for coming to our school.I loved the information about your book,s. my favorite book was the one about the the zoo and the chimps tea party.i hope you come again . 
  •  Thank you so much for coming and showing all your books and telling us other stuff. I really appreciate it. P.S. Come back SOON!!
  •  Thank you for coming to Devonport primary school. I really like your non fiction story's they really fascinate me.
  •  Thank you so much for coming to our school/Devonport primary school. I Wonder if you could maybe write a new book. And send it to our class you are sooo awesome.
  •  Thank you so much for coming to Devonport primary school.It was awesome having you here. I'm definitely going to read one of your books
  •  Hi. I Really appreciate you coming to our school. I come from Devonport school. I love your books.
  • thank you for coming to devonport primary school. I really appreciated it. I have been wirting a few stories that I was hoping to show you. Here is one called the final ninja
  •  thank you for comeing to Devonport i liked the Harbour bridge story please come back again

And my favourite:

  •  Hi.thank you for coming to Devonport primary school. When we came to see you in room 3 you talked like an angel.
So I am very happy to be home, and I may not have won an award, but I have a halo! What more could you ask??

Pupils and teachers at Devonport Primary School head for the shelters during an air raid drill, 1941-42. Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: War Effort Collection, PA-Coll-0783-2-0057
(This is one of the images I chose for the back of my Lighthouse family book.) 

The statue of the "untidy soldier", also in Devonport - a photo of this memorial appears in my Anzac Day book.  

Thursday 27 March 2014

Going to Gallipoli

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be posting on a separate blog about Going to Gallipoli.

I'll be at Anzac Cove on Anzac Day with the Gallipoli Volunteer Program. This picture shows some of last year's group - but we'll be wearing the same gear!

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Thursday 13 March 2014

Gavin Bishop: The mouth of the whale (the power of pictures)

Janet Frame Memorial Lecture 2014
Gavin Bishop
The mouth of the whale (the power of pictures)

Gavin Bishop is the 2013-2014 President of Honour of the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA). On Monday 10 March, he delivered the annual Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, a literary “state of the nation” address. 

This year, for the first time, the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture was included as part of the Writers Week programme, which also featured some wonderful talks and workshops with children’s and young adult writers, illustrators and designers such as Jack Lasenby, Ulf Stark, Leo Timmers, Elizabeth Knox and Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinsky. 

Gavin’s talk was entertaining, evocative and provocative, right from the beginning when he commented that his appointment as NZSA President of Honour was  “daringly different” because writers for children aren’t always taken as seriously as others in the literary world. He spoke in praise of picture books, but was clear about the challenges faced by those who write and illustrate them.

Many people think they know what a picture book is, but opinions vary widely. To Gavin, a picture book is like a little movie with a storyboard structure that moves through time (as a movie does) and uses text as a movie uses dialogue. He traces his lifelong love of movies back to the time when his parents took him, aged four, to see Pinocchio at the Picture Palace in Invercargill. One image from that movie - the gigantic open mouth of the whale - lodged in his mind and he has never forgotten it. The whale’s open mouth became a touchstone in his life, a reminder of the power of a picture to stay with children forever.

Gavin holds firm views about picture books, in terms of both content and publication. His own pictures have to “work hard”; they should provide “fresh new ways of seeing the ordinary” and the finished book should be “a delight to the senses.” He believes that the best picture books are produced by one person, and decries poor production values that leave many books looking like “shadows of their potential selves”. Even if children are amused by bodily functions and catchy tunes, he queries the need to preserve such topics in print.

Picture book illustrators face particular challenges. Their work is often viewed as being of lesser importance. Illustrators are commonly given second billing and are not mentioned at all in the weekly best seller lists. The royalty split between author and illustrator is usually 50:50, which Gavin feels doesn’t reflect the hard work put in by the illustrator. Up until 2004, books of fewer than 48 pages (ie most picture books) didn’t meet the criteria for the Public Lending Right. Picture book writers are seldom successful in obtaining Creative NZ funding, applying for residencies or winning major literary awards.

But there are signs of a more hopeful future. Today’s picture book illustrators are producing some amazing work, and there is more support available in the form of tuition and awards, including the LIANZA Russell Clark Illustration Award, the Mallinson Rendel Illustration Award and the Storylines Joy Cowley Award and Gavin Bishop Award. Gavin’s ending was hopeful and optimistic: “I can see the sky above picture book land full of fireworks and sky rockets… The Mouth of the Whale forever open to astonishment and delight.”

Question time afterwards gave the audience some sense of Gavin’s generosity in mentoring and sharing his experience, as he offered advice and explained some of his working methods.

There was more discussion about the idea of a Children’s Laureate, who could who not only raise the profile of children’s writing and illustrating but also focus on literacy issues and the importance of reading. Gavin said that there was a lot of support for the idea here and all that was needed was money. The Australian Children’s Laureate scheme only began a few years ago but already much has been achieved there, and other countries such as England and Ireland also have a high-profile Children’s Laureate.  

You can see Gavin Bishop’s wonderful website here, or listen to several interviews with him on Radio New Zealand, including You Call This Art? - Part 6.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Writers Week on Tuesday: questions of history

The real make-believe world

The original panel for this session had to be changed when Rachel Kushner became unavailable for the Festival, but the choice of Jamaican-born Kei Miller was a smart one. His writing fitted the topic perfectly and made a good match with that of Jaspreet Singh.

Anne Kennedy introduced the two of them as authors of "award winning stories that are very much grounded in the real world" and posed a series of thought-provoking questions. Why write historical events into fiction, rather than non fiction? and What can fiction do that non fiction can't?  was an excellent place to start. Kei Miller described his view of history ("history never ends") and how fiction  seems "an important strand, a way to account for the past and to help unpick its multiplicities and complexity." Jaspreet Singh talked about the November 1984 genocide against the Sikhs in India and wondered "how do you write about burned books and burned bodies of burned people?" For him, it was important to tell the story in a way that allowed people who didn't know about it to engage with that time, and also allowed for mourning and healing.

Anne asked them both about the technique of using the lens of the present to look back at the past, whether their experience of living in a different country from the land of their birth (Canada for Jaspreet, Scotland for Kei) has affected their view of events, the place of humour in their work and how they carry out research. Kei Miller said, "A lot of my writing is the process of hiding that research - I want you to think I just speak like that, that the poem just rolls off the tongue when I get up."

It was great to hear them both give a short reading as well. The piece Kei Miller chose (about a house fire, that wasn't what it seemed) was especially powerful, but he was also funny and witty and very engaging to listen to - and he must have already won over a large number of listener at his earlier session, because some of this books had sold out at the Unity stand.

Silence: a Christian history

In the afternoon, more reflections on history from Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of History of the Church at the University of Oxford, talking about "the sheer utter strangeness of the past".

MacCulloch has presented three BBC television series and talked about his theory of "popularising" (or as he prefers to call it, "opening up") history, on the basis that academic historians are paid by taxes and ought to give something back. History is everyone's property. We all tell each other historical stories and the danger lies in the bad stories (like those told in Nazi Germany or Rwanda), so historians need to tell the right stories, "or as near as we will ever get."

He calls himself a "candid friend to Christianity" (in fact he is still a Church of England deacon) and describes Christianity as a very young and still developing religion, with change being forced by social change. His book Silence looks at " silence throughout Christianity", with both positive and negative connotations - the "good, holy" types of silence such as monasticism and meditation, but also the "bad" types such as sexual abuse cover-ups.

"People without stories are lost," he said. I'm sure I've heard similar words from other writers throughout the Festival. 

Sunday 9 March 2014

Ideas that go bang!

Lovely session this morning with Belgian picture book illustrator, Leo Timmers, another of the Writers Week speakers who are published by Gecko Press. His titles with them include Bang and Who's driving?  I've seen both of these books, but will have to read them again in light of some of his comments.

Ideas that Go Bang!

Leo talked about his way of gathering ideas (not using a notebook, but only in the quiet of his studio), why he prefers painting to illustrating on the computer, why he uses animal characters and what makes a good picture book - something he thinks that reviewers often miss. "When reviewers review books, I can often tell they haven't looked." A picture book should be "visual story telling", not an illustrated story. 

He further explained this by describing some of the spreads in Bang, which on the surface is a simple tale about a series of car accidents - but when you look closer, there is so much more going on, in the colours, and the stories behind the surface story (the hungry rabbits, the lovestruck cats, the chickens rescued from a terrible fate.)

One of the questions asked was about whether Leo sees some underlying theme to all his stories, and he thinks perhaps it's identity: wanting to fit in, to find out who you are.

If you haven't come across any of his books, you should hunt them out - find a child to read them to - and look below the surface story. The child may well spot what's going on before you do! 

Saturday 8 March 2014

Sunday at Writers Week

Sunday morning, an early start for the 9.15am Creating Readers session. This involved Kids' Lit Quiz creator Wayne Mills and early childhood specialist Celeste Harrington, talking about the results of a survey carried out amongst last year's Kids' Lit Quiz contestants. 

Quizmaster Wayne Mills at a New Zealand quiz
These children are in Years 6-8 and aged from 10-12, and are already keen and confident readers. Between March-June 2013, nearly 1600 of them from around New Zealand filled out a survey asking them to list the book they were currently reading and also their favourite authors and titles. Wayne and Celeste spent hours entering and analysing the data and have come up with some fascinating preliminary results. They hope to produce a paper on their findings, and perhaps carry out a repeat survey at some stage in the future.

Some of the findings that were immediately obvious were the predominance of series books (only 2 of the top 20 titles were not part of a series) and the effects of globalisation. Wayne commented that wherever he goes around the world, he can walk into a bookshop and find the same popular children's books on sale. He also remarked on the very wide range of books that these children read - from picture books to adult titles, but pointed out that the range is much wider for girls than for boys.

The audience had a go at picking the top 10 titles, top 10 stand alone titles (ie not series books), top 10 male and female authors and top 10 New Zealand authors and titles. Some were unsurprising, others were unexpected. (And if you are wondering: top NZ author listed - Margaret Mahy. Top NZ title - Hairy Maclary!)

The session with Swedish children's writer Ulf Stark was a total delight. It also introduced us to his lovely wife Janina, who teaches children's literature at Stockholm University, and revealed another side of his Gecko publisher Julia Marshall, who is fluent in Swedish and acted as his translator. (Ulf said he was going to speak in Swedish "because you all have to learn this beautiful language.")


Julia said that Ulf had written over 30 books, but later he revised that to over 60 - "but maybe only 30 good ones!" She promised to introduce us to the "warm, funny, sometimes sad and very humane world" of his writing, and asked if he would ever have expected books to bring him out to New Zealand. "I didn't even know in the beginning that there was a country called New Zealand," Ulf declared, "and I almost still can't understand that I'm here, although I had 40 hours to understand this on the way here. But I've always loved the feeling of coming somewhere else. When I was little, the idea of 'coming somewhere else' was what you did when you read, looking and travelling into another place, another country, another time, other people's minds."

Ulf told some lovely anecdotes from his childhood, about his "nasty brother" ("not so nasty",) and his mother reading to him while his father stood in the doorway making suggestions about books filled with facts to read instead. He started as a poet, and sees poetry as similar to picture book writing in that it requires "a small amount of space to say what you want to say."

Julia asked why he tackles subjects like death in his writing, for example in Can you whistle, Johanna? Ulf said, "Death is a part of life and every child and adult will meet it, one way or another... and I don't think you win so much by trying to bury it. I think it's a good thing to meet some of these sad things as a child - often it's the parents who are more afraid that the child is." He describes Can you whistle, Johanna? as being "about the importance of living" and "how you can taste the small fruits of life."

Ulf also gave us a lovely description of his latest book, The shadow children and we also heard why he never wants to write detective stories (because "it's important to get down to the deep, and that's hard if there's too much tension on the top.")

It was unfortunate (sad both for him and for the audiences looking forward to hearing him) that Francis Spufford had to cancel his NZ appearances, but the end of the day was marked by a very successful book launch for Mary McCallum's new children's novel Dappled Annie and the Tigrish, published by Gecko Press. It was made an extra special occasion by the presence of the four Gecko authors and illustrators visiting for the festival (Ulf Stark, Leo Timmers and Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinksy.)  

Eleanor Catton and Max Porter: Midwives or Meddlers?

Saturday's talks and events at Writers Week included the launch of The Curioseum at Te Papa, with readings from six of the authors involved, and the Weta Digital session on visual effects in the Lord of the rings and The hobbit movies. It's impressive but oddly disconcerting to see how scenes are built up using various  clever techniques so that by the end, what you think you are seeing isn't what you are seeing at all. (Legolas shooting off that arrow and leaping onto the back of Gimli's horse? - actually it was the digital Legolas who made that amazing leap. Dwarves barreling down the river? - same thing - digital dwarves -sometimes digital river.)

But the session at 4.45pm was definitely one of the most popular: Midwives or Meddlers - Eleanor Catton in conversation with one of her Granta editors, Max Porter. 

Eleanor Catton commented that they weren't sure which one of them was supposed to be chairing the session, but their informal conversational style worked perfectly and Eleanor seemed to be finding some of Max's answers as interesting and revealing as the audience did.

Eleanor recalled sitting next to Germaine Greer at a previous Writers and Readers Week. When one of the authors on stage made a comment about having a good editor, Germaine Greer leant across to Eleanor and whispered loudly, "there' s no such thing!"

Is there such a thing? and what is the role of the editor? - a profession that Max defined as "baffling", "irritable" and endangered by the rise of self-publishing on Amazon.

I've never thought much about the role of the editor in general, or from the editor's point of view. I've worked with some wonderful editors and I know the difference they can make to a piece of text: the glaring errors they pick up, and the many more subtle techniques they use to make a manuscript better. But I hadn't really understood the different ways that different authors might need editing, from some who need a deep "in the trenches" line edit to others who need more help in other areas, like sales and marketing. Max said that "editor-author has to be a bespoke relationship."

From a general discussion about editing, Eleanor and Max moved to a more particular discussion of editing The luminaries, a process which Max took over halfway through from another editor. He praised Eleanor as "a self-editing writer, combining competency with self-critique" in a way that was very unusual - but he did also talk (very tactfully) about the stresses involved with editing such a complex manuscript that wasn't always meeting all the deadlines. Hearing Eleanor talk about the worth of creative writing courses to her, and how she sees them now as a creative writing teacher, was also fascinating. 

Friday 7 March 2014

An hour with Jack Lasenby

Saturday 12-1pm: first session at Writers Week for me - Jack Lasenby in conversation with Kate de Goldi for an hour; what could be a better way to start?

Jack Lasenby

Kate was obviously fighting Jack's natural modesty to know how to describe him, but she managed to fit in "much garlanded, much loved , distinguished New Zealand writer" and placed him firmly in the company of Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Maurice Gee as one of a quartet of NZ's best children's writers. That led on to an interesting discussion as to whether Jack sees writing for children as an act any different from writing for anyone else. "No" was the short answer. He went on to explain how there weren't many books in Waharoa, growing up in the 1930s, and they just read "whatever was there". There was no sense of any difference between what was written for adults and children, and that  has formed his attitude ever since.

Kate and Jack talked through his writing career, from the first short stories he started writing in the 1950s, to the very first (still unpublished) children's novel he sent to the publisher Janet Paul. When he asked her about it, Janet said, "I'd love to talk about your book, Jack, but mostly I'm interested in what's happened to your brother Alwyn!" He recalled some lovely anecdotes from his long-standing friendship with Margaret Mahy, which began memorably in Stage 2 English in the Old Arts Building at Auckland University.

Kate talked about Jack's body of work as being divided into three main strands: realist stories such as Mangrove summer, fantasy/dystopian works such as Calling the Gods and the tall tales like the Uncle Trev stories. These last, Jack said, had their origin in his Waharoa childhood where "people told stories" and he had an Uncle Chris, the forerunner of Uncle Trev, who  "came and scared the wits out of us children - marvellously!" They also owed a debt to his years spent in the bush, deer culling;  story telling was a vital part of that life as well. To prove the point, he retold a wonderful anecdote about a deer hunter up in the seaward Kaikouras (with a great punchline) and then read one of his own stories, about Uncle Trev and Tip the dog. 

Kate noted how these stories also provide a great picture of New Zealand in the 1930s, a decade steeped in the Depression and overshadowed by the war past and the war still to come, and a way of life that has now largely disappeared. "I've seen so much disappear," Jack said. He remembered the saddler at Waharoa who had a wooden leg and always breathed through his mouth because he had been affected by gas in the trenches; men like him were mostly all dead by the 1950s.
Kate asked him about his "daily round", a question that often fascinates people. Jack, in his 80s, still works as hard as ever, except that he starts by 8 or 9am now instead of 5am, and tries to do a bit more exercise.  And he reads - "immensely" - or more often re-reads, books and authors like Tolstoy, Chekhov and Trollope, George Eliot's Middlemarch, Kipling's Kim. He says he's not giving up writing , "out of sheer cussedness", and he has books underway and more plans for more books: "It's as if there's no end to it!"

Jack has firm, quotable and enjoyable opinions about all sorts of things, such as television ("TV occupies but doesn't satisfy the inner mind with sustenance"). His Advice to Young Writers is typically humble, amusing and insightful.  "I've got nothing more than anyone else can say, except to read... But if you want to write, you have my total sympathy and support. Because there is a continuum in humanity of the storyteller and you can feel it - I can feel  it, every time I pick up a copy of the Iliad."

Lastly, a very happy birthday to Jack, turning 83 tomorrow.

Thursday 30 January 2014

New Zealand Festival Writers Week

Great launch last night for the New Zealand Festival Writers Week (7 to12 March). Kathryn Carmody's speech was full of thanks to others, but she has done an amazing job of putting together a wonderful programme. She said that two words embody the thinking behind this year's programme: "identity" and "community",  but it's also the best programme for years for anyone interested in writing for children and young adults.

You can choose from sessions with Swedish writer Ulf Stark, Belgian illustrator Leo Timmers or Polish designers Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinksy, who produced the brilliant H.O.U.S.E. and D.E.S.I.G.N. books. Kids' Lit Quiz creator Wayne Mills will talk about the results of a survey of NZ children's reading habits, and there are two sessions with Francis Spufford, author of The child that books built. There are two workshops for illustrators (lucky them), a session on how to read a classic picture book in te reo Maori  and a free event featuring favourite NZ writers such as Joy Cowley and Kyle Mewburn  reading stories from Te Papa's new anthology The Curioseum.

Collected Stories of the Odd and Marvelous

That's still not all! On Monday 10 March, Gavin Bishop will deliver the 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture, an annual literary "state of the nation" speech sponsored by the NZ Society of Authors, in which he promises to focus on "the value and standing of children's literature and of illustration".

But of all of those events (with Gavin Bishop's' speech a close second), the one I am most looking forward to is an hour with much-beloved NZ writer Jack Lasenby, talking to Kate de Goldi about his books for children. Saturday 8 March at 12.15pm.

Jack Lasenby

And I haven't even mentioned Eleanor Catton, a session by Weta on special effects in the Hobbit movies and an intriguing sounding reading experience at the National Library.

Get a copy of the programme and book a ticket as soon as soon as you can! Book several tickets - I know it will be hard to choose!

Sunday 19 January 2014

Summer reading - and listening.

We usually spend a week or so at the beach over New Year, and there are always piles of books lying around, in various stages of being read by various people. (You have to keep a close eye on your own book if you don't want it to disappear into someone else's hands - although several people this year had their own Kindles or e-readers, which lessened competition a bit.)

I didn't read many books, because I was ploughing though one that was over 600 pgs long (no, not The luminaries): Iron curtain - the crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum. It was a Christmas present and the blurb on the back cover claimed it was chosen 16 times as a Book of the Year - actually, that could mean anything, but I dipped into it and then got hooked by realising how little I knew about the subject, and how much made sense afterwards. 

It's scary really how much we skate over the surface of current or historical events with only a vague idea of what happened or is happening. I didn't even have a clear idea of how or when the area we call "Eastern Europe" developed into that eastern bloc, or what it meant for the people who lived there. We often think of the end of World War Two as a time of "liberation" for countries that were occupied, but for millions of people in Eastern Europe, the end of the war signalled the start of something almost as bad, or even worse. Anne Appelbaum tackles the subject both historically but also thematically, so there are chapters on, for example, "Reluctant collaborators" and "Passive opponents" -  about the situations that ordinary people found themselves in, and the moral decisions they had to make about how they would behave.     

We also covered a lot of kilometres this summer, so before we set off I borrowed five audio books from the Central Library. It cost $15, but was well worth it. We got through all 12 disks of Kate Atkinson's One good turn : a jolly murder mystery

I'd already read One good turn once, if not twice, but it was a joy to listen to, and I was surprised to remember what a different experience it was from reading in private. Kate Atkinson is so clever and witty that some of her sentences just make you laugh out loud. Listening to the story being read also makes more obvious the way that words, phrases and themes keep repeating and echoing each other - just like the sets of Russian dolls that keep appearing. And when you are taking out and replacing disks, you get a sense of the passage of time in the book, because it's fascinating how little actually happens in the beginning disks, compared to how much you think is happening (because Kate Atkinson is constantly dipping in and out of different characters' heads, which gives you a richer sense of their lives.)

Monica Ali's Untold story was also very entertaining,  and we got through about 4 disks but will have to finish it on paper. Interestingly, the collection of stories by Neil Gaiman wasn't nearly as successful, just because it was harder to make out his words. The other books are narrated by professional actors and they were perfectly clear and easy to follow. We'll certainly trawl through the library shelves again next time we are setting off on a long drive.

Summer listening also includes catching odd bits of interviews on National Radio, and coming home to replay them on the Radio NZ website. Wonderful interview here with Marcus Zusak, author of The book thief, who has some great things to say about writing, even if he sounds disconcertingly Australian

I liked how he talked about the way that readers respond to a story that means everything to the writer. I liked this: "It took 14 years or even longer of writing, and previous books as well, for me to get to the point where I could write The book thief." I loved the way he talked about his childhood and how his first research for the book had been listening to his parents, who were teaching him how to write by telling him their stories (like "a little piece of Europe that came into our house".) 

He also had a great description of writing a book, comparing it to building a brick wall: "you don't want to put in too many bricks, you don't want too many gaps but you want every brick to be necessary."