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!

Please type a description

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.