Monday 19 September 2016

10 reasons I'm glad I went to the National Writers' Forum

1. Chris Cleave's wonderful keynote address, Hate is the .zip file of emotions, available for you to read right here.

2. Kate Pullinger on what it means to put text on a screen.

3. The bravery of all those who submitted opening paragraphs (and themselves!) for Live Live Editing.

4. Many great conversations over tea, coffee, lunch, drinks and dinner: tips, advice, encouragement, support.

5. Behind-the-scenes work by the organisers to make sure everything ran seamlessly - or when there were problems, we couldn't tell.

6. The Great Debate with a contentious topic and four very sharp debaters, ably (and wittily) chaired by Te Radar

7. Sarah Laing and Toby Morris persuading people who "can't draw" to draw.

8. Chris Cleave's masterclass on writing psychology, everything from Johnny Cash to how earphones are the trick to successful eavesdropping, and why we should pretend we're here visiting Earth on a 24-hour visit from the planet Mercury.

9. Basically, every word that Chris Cleave said for the whole weekend.

10.  Top tips from Kate Pullinger, Chris Cleave, Stephen Daisley and Patricia Grace on what they wish they'd known about writing, back when they didn't know it.

Thanks yet again to those who had the vision to make this weekend happen. It was truly inspirational.

Sunday 18 September 2016

National Writers' Forum

Just back from an amazing weekend at the first ever National Writers' Forum. Huge thanks to Jackie Dennis, Claire Hill, Claire Mabey and all the organising team and sponsors, and to the NZSA for supporting writers in this very practical way, and thanks to all the writers - old friends and new - with whom I shared conversations over the past two days. 

If you read one thing about writing this year, make it this keynote address by visiting speaker Chris Cleave  - "Hate is the .zip file of emotions"which he has generously shared on his website. In fact it has something to say to everyone, not just writers, so read it and pass it on, and then go and buy (or at least borrow from the library) one of his books, so he can continue writing and saying these wise and wonderful things.

Chris Cleave

Wednesday 31 August 2016

Boulcott School Book Week

Thanks to Boulcott School for a great visit during their Book Week. As well as a dress-up book parade, a library quiz and teachers sharing favourite books with different classes, they have a Book Bug who goes round tapping children on the shoulder - and if you get tapped,you have to stop everything and grab a book to read! I love the idea of a Book Bug and wish I had one at home. (Perhaps I could tap myself on the shoulder??)

Boulcott School students also had some great questions for me:

  • What is a typical day for you?
  • Do you write every day? 
  • Have you written any books about your childhood?
  • When you begin a story, do you know the ending?
  • Do you feel nervous when publishers tell you what they think about your story?

But I especially liked these questions, from the Year 1/2 students, because it showed that they were really thinking hard about the writing process and how you go about writing a story:

  • Why do you like writing?
  • Does it take a week to write a book?
  • Did your mum and dad like your writing?
  • Who taught you to write?
  • Do you always try your best when you write? 
  • Do you write fast or slow? 
  • Do you write in your house?

And some last words from the same group of students as they were going back to class after our session together:

"Writing is fun!"
"I hope you have fun writing!"
"Love you!"

Sunday 19 June 2016

Questions about Antarctica (3): "I think it would be life changing"

The third question I asked this group of Year 9 and 10 students was "would you like to go to Antarctica? why, or why not?
Their answers were: 
Yes: 51
No: 29
(with a few Maybes, or Both).

Interestingly, 24 of the 29 "No"s were because it was "too cold!" Some students worried that it was too isolated, lonely and/or dangerous, or they wanted to travel to other places first.
You have to take a boat there and I get sea sick.
Not really because that’s not my paradise place.
No because it’s cold and lonely, and it’s very big and you could get lost and die.
I don’t tolerate the cold very well. it would be a cool experience for others but I wouldn’t enjoy it personally.
Too cold I would rather go to Fiji.
Or, more bluntly:
No because why?

Snow mound on survival course. Photographer: R J Korsch.

But many of the students who answered Yes talked about what a great experience it would be, and they also wanted to see the animals:
I would love to study the birds there. I want to see the penguins and all the snow. I want to see a real penguin in its real environment. I like whales and penguins. I love the animals there.
Yes because I like to travel and explore and it’s not a usual place to go. I’d like to find out more about it. Because it would be an amazing experience and could inspire me to write about something. I would love to go there because you would learn a lot and it would be really enjoyable. 
I would love to go it would be such a great experience and the sights would be so amazing.

Orca whale. Photographer: Tim Higham.

Some students had specific goals in mind:
I would like to buy a snow cone there.
I want to see that colourful thing in the sky!

Even the students who said Yes were a bit worried about the weather:
I would like to go for adventure but not for the cold. Only for a little bit because I don’t like the cold. Yes, but it would be cold.
One summed up the dilemma perfectly:
It would be cool but it would be cold

And some were, admittedly, ready to go anywhere:
Yes because I haven’t been out of New Zealand.
I would go anywhere if I had the chance besides the North Island.
Only if it is free.

But there were also some fabulous enthusiastic replies:
I would love to go to Antarctica and explore and do research.
It will be a new experience and something I have never done before. It would also be cool to see all the different species of animals that live there.
I would love to see the aurora lights in person. I also want to see what animals are like in their natural habitat.
Yes I would like to go there because I like the cold and it would be cool to see penguins in their own habitats. It would be really cool to see ice and water all around. It would also be awesome to see killer whales.

Here are two of the best and I can agree with both of them:
Yes! I think it would be life changing. 
Because there are not many places like Antarctica.

Moonlight at Cape Evans. Photographer: Richard McBride. 

(Thanks to the ADAM website for these great photos, and thanks again to the students of Freyberg High School and St Peters College for their great responses.)

Questions about Antarctica (2): what don't you know?

The second question I asked the Year 9 and 10 students was what didn’t they know, or what did they want to find out about Antarctica?
Lots of things!

The students were fascinated about the climate
Why is it always so cold? Does it ever get warm?  How cold is it actually? How hot and how cold can it get? How windy can it get? Does it rain? What is the warmest part?
If you have a cold and a runny nose does your snot freeze over? 

… and the difference between summer and winter:
Is it just super dark and depressing for 6 months?
What are the hours of sunset and sunrise in summer and winter? How long are the days?
Are seasons the same as here? What is summer like?
How long can you stay [outside] before you freeze?

The aurora:
Can you see the lights? Where do the aurora lights come from?

Auroras over Scott Base. Photographer: Becky Goodsell. 

Snow and ice:
Is the snow everywhere? How thick can the ice get? How does the ice taste? How old is the ice? I also want to know how thick different pieces of ice are and how much weight they can hold. If you squirted water out of a bottle, would it freeze? Why does the sun not melt the snow/ice?

Nearly all of them wanted to know more about the animals that live there
How tall are penguins, what are they like, do they bite, can you pat them? Can you feed any sea animals? 
How much does an orca eat usually? Do killer whales swim under the ice? 
What kind of species are there that live under water? 
What is the most common animal?

Some wondered what it's like living there:
What’s the population? Do people live there permanently? 
How many layers of clothes do you have to wear? 
Could you snow board there? 
Is it hard to live there because of the cold? 
Do people live in igloos? Do you eat disgusting food? 

Antarctica NZ clothing store

Field rations, 2006-2007

Some were just puzzled:
Why do people want to live down there?

There were some very practical questions:
Do they have shops?
Do you get wi fi there?
I would like to know about phone service.

And some concerns about keeping safe:
What happens if a big snow storm comes, where would you go? 
How do you know where the ground is that will not collapse through? 
If you are walking on ice and there is a crevasse underneath and you fall, will you fall in water or more ice? 
What do you do with dangerous animals?

Just a few of them mentioned climate change:
What is the rate at which Antarctica is melting? How much is global warming actually affecting it?

Iceberg, Antarctic Peninsula, 1991-92.
Photographer: Lou Sanson

And there were some questions that don’t really fit into any category:
Is there a secret place there where people might be living, and how long might they have been there?
Is there anyone buried there under the ice and snow?

These are all great questions and I don't know all the answers - but I'm hoping to find people who do!

(Thanks to the ADAM website for these great photos.) 

Questions about Antarctica (1): what do you know?

Many thanks to students from Freyberg High School and St Peter's College, both in Palmerston North, for helping start me off on my Antarctic project. I was there last week for some (pre-arranged) school visits, but they had checked out my author Facebook page and already found out about my Antarctic adventure.

At the end of each session, I asked the students to get into groups and answer three questions for me:
What do you know about Antarctica?
What don't you know, or what would you like to find out?
Would you like to go there? Why or why not?

There was a huge buzz of conversation around the hall as they talked about their ideas. Of the 100 replies I collected, most came from Year 9 and 10 students, aged 13 and 14. There were many great responses and some very interesting results!
So what did I find out?

To start with, I think there must be an automatic reply button to questions about Antarctica. (Try it on people you know and see if I'm right.) The first three topics that come to mind  are overwhelmingly:

  • cold! (89 replies)
  • penguins (49 replies)
  • snow and ice (34 replies)

Degrading iceberg, Cape Hallett.
Photographer: Danielle O'Keefe. 

Adelie penguins on ice and water.
Photographer: Rebecca Roper-Gee

What also surprised me was what these students didn’t mention. Only two knew that Sir Ed Hillary had been to the Pole - in fact, only one mentioned the South Pole at all (calling it the southern pole) and not many said anything about where Antarctica is (below NZ at the bottom of the world) or how beautiful it is (amazing views / it looks majestic / shiny and bright)

Only a couple knew for certain that polar bears don't live in Antarctica, whereas as many thought they did as mentioned killer whales. Some thought that dogs lived there. Three or four students referred to the aurora (once misnamed the northern lights). None mentioned any of the early explorers like Scott or Shackleton. None mentioned the Erebus tragedy of 1979.  

Scott Base sign with aurora at night.
Photographer: Martin Meldrum

But I also got these great insights from students who knew a bit more:

  • There’s a place in Antarctica that is an ice free desert. The climate there is similar to Mars and only microorganisms live there. Scientists plan to research it to use in models for life on Mars.
  • The weather changes drastically and during half the year it’s in complete darkness and the other half it’s in complete light.
  • Antarctica is melting from climate change and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Northern Dry Valleys, 1995-1996

(Thanks to the ADAM website for these great photos.) 

Friday 17 June 2016

Going to the ice!

So after sitting on this news for the last few months, I can now finally announce where I'm off to later this year.

I'm very pleased and grateful to be one of the recipients of the Antarctica community engagement programme (formerly the Media Programme and Artists and Writers Programme) for the 2016-17 summer season on ice! This is either exciting or scary depending on which way you look at it, and at the moment I'm looking at it both ways. But mostly pretty excited! 

More details to follow about the project I'll be working on. Right now I'm just letting the news sink in. 

Thanks to the A.D.A.M. website for these photos!

Emperor penguins

Scott Base
Midnight sun

Wright Valley

Saturday 4 June 2016

"Libraries, Literacy and You"

ReaLM (Reading and Literacy in Manawatu) is running its annual seminar on Friday 17 June 2016, 8.30am-4.45pm at the Conference Room, Sports and Rugby Institute, Massey University.

Looking forward to being there with Bob Docherty, Paul Beavis, Pamela Jones and some other great speakers. 

And thanks to Paul Beavis and Mrs Mo's Monster for this great poster! 

Sunday 10 April 2016

Two bridges, two countries

What's the connection between Kaiparoro and Brooweena - two small communities in Wairarapa and Queensland? That's what I'm going to be working on for the next two weeks at NZ Pacific Studio for my Anzac Bridge project. (Getting used to working to the sound track of cows bellowing outside my window.) You can read more about the project here

Wednesday 6 April 2016

2016 Anzac Bridge Fellowship

Looking forward to being here at Kaiparoro next week as the 2016 Anzac Bridge Fellow - thanks to Trust House Community Enterprise, Masterton for sponsoring the Fellowship and to New Zealand Pacific Studio for their warm welcome!

And there's a great article here about the Friends of the Bridge and what they have achieved over the last ten years. 

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Storylines notable books for 2016

These posters produced by Storylines are great and I'm very pleased that my Waitangi Day book features on them.

Thursday 28 January 2016

NZ Writers Week

Great to see so many fascinating sessions on offer at this year's NZ Writers Week (8-13 March); in fact, there's a whole section titled For the young and youthful (and that's all of us, right??) Pick up a programme if you haven't seen it yet, or look online.

Here are some sessions that should be of special interest to anyone who follows children's and young adult writing:

Thursday 10 March
9.45am Anna Smaill talking to Kate de Goldi
11am Jamie Curry and Mallory Ortberg talking about Life Online
12.30pm (Don’t miss this one!) Anna McKenzie talking about the story behind Evie's War

Also on 10 March, the launch of Hooked on NZ Books, a new online review website for young adults.

Saturday 12 March
2pm (another don’t miss session) The Kids Are All Right: Mandy Hager chairing a session on YA books and the issues today's kids face, with Sally Gardner, Cornelia Funke and Ted Dawe
7pm (but at the Dowse in Lower Hutt) Robert Dessaix on Enid Blyton and "the lasting influences of a childhood reading"

Sunday 13 March
9.30am Live storytelling session with Paul Beavis (I've seen Paul in action and kids always love his sessions)
11am Sally Gardner in conversation with Anna McKenzie
12.30pm Mariko Tamaki, graphic novelist, in conversation with Kate de Goldi
2pm Cornelia Funke in conversation with Jo Randerson
3.30pm How Weta Digital translated James Dashner's YA series The maze runner to film
5pm Joy Cowley : A Joyful Life (a celebration of Joy's 80th year)

Plenty of other great sessions as well; it's going to be hard to choose. 

Thursday 14 January 2016

Ida Gaskin, 1919-2016

There will be many tributes paid to Ida Gaskin, and many people who knew her much better than I did and for longer, but this is mine.

I was only at New Plymouth Girls’ High School for two years, but I was lucky enough to have Mrs Gaskin (it took me a long time to stop calling her that) as my English teacher for both of those years. She was one of a remarkable group of teachers, including Harry Brown for music, Doc Allen for Latin and Doc and Mrs Kardos for French and German.

Despite being so shy that I didn’t utter a single word in her class for the whole of that time, except when parts were handed out for play readings or when we had to take part in the speech competition, their impact on my life has been so significant that I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have missed out on them.

There was no “dumbing down” in her classes, and high expectations. She could glower very effectively if people acted up. We studied lots of Shakespeare, of course (Richard III, Macbeth, Henry IV Part 1), read lots of novels - Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The tale of two cities, Vanity Fair - and also poets like John Donne, Wilfred Owen and T S Eliot. There were no detailed criteria or marking schedules for assignments; one (perhaps on Vanity Fair) simply required ten essays, on Plot, Theme, Setting, Characters and so on. She was a hard marker; at the start of 5th form, she told us that she’d only twice given a mark above 16/20 for an essay. Winning a 17/20 out of her was one of my most prized achievements ever. 

Mrs Gaskin had a collection of sayings that anyone taught by her would remember. “Bother the Bell” was one, uttered in exasperation when the bell went before she had finished the lesson. “It’s good for your immortal souls” was another, in response to any query about what “use” some piece of work or reading was. She was shocked that so few of us took Latin and would call on her “Latin scholars” for help with unfamiliar vocabulary or tricky grammatical points – “those of you who do Latin will know all about this” - but was appalled that none of us could define the word “soporific” (“don’t you know your Beatrix Potter??”) “Look it up!” was a frequent cry, if we didn’t know something, and “In your spare time!” was the answer to any complaints about being too busy.

She has also left me with an avoidable twinge of guilt whenever I catch myself using the word “quote” as a noun; she always insisted the proper term was “quotation”. No-one else seems to know this, and it often sounds a little pedantic, but the guilt remains. (Funnily enough, this came up at the funeral when I heard Maryan Street refer to the "quotation" used in the service, and she said she felt exactly the same.)

The school plays that Ida produced were amazing. In the two years that I was there, she did The Tempest (which I can’t remember so well) and The crucible, which was astonishingly powerful. Afterwards, when flowers were being presented, she said about her cast, "I asked them to do the impossible and they have done it".

I know that, because I kept a diary back then. One entry records how “Mrs Gaskin always asks people 'why?' 'Do you like it  - why?'  Beth didn’t like a poem but couldn't explain why, so finally she said, 'all right, I like it, then!'"

At the end of 6th form  (now Year 12), when I was leaving NPGHS, a friend and I asked Mrs Gaskin for a reading list. There was no Young Adult genre back then, and no clear path to follow in moving from childhood to adult reading; often it involved science fiction, or the classics. Mrs Gaskin came up with her list and I worked though her suggestions over the next few years: Jane Austen (whom she always called “Miss Austen”), Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and many more. It marked the start of my “proper” grown-up reading.

After a long time, I reconnected with Mrs Gaskin (“no really, you must call me Ida now!”) at the annual Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival national finals in Wellington, and again at her 90thbirthday party. It’s hard to sum up what she taught me but it was to do with the importance of words, of reading and of passion, and the value of learning, aiming for excellence and not settling for anything less.

So to her funeral, in New Plymouth on Thursday 14 January. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare and all things Welsh, including music, featured strongly. Ida’s casket was draped with a Welsh flag and topped with a touching miniature replica of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. A small troupe of children carried Welsh flags, one little girl wearing a Welsh costume made by Ida sixty years ago. Psalm 121 was read out with the first few verses in Welsh, “the language of heaven”. Hymns and readings were all as chosen by Ida, who set out instructions for her service in her usual clear and uncompromising manner. Most of these were followed, although the minister admitted they had to “gently adapt” her request to use the 1662 Anglican liturgy.

The eulogy by Ida’s son David was based on the autobiography she wrote while in the hospice. He talked about her childhood growing up in Wales, her schooling – when she excelled academically but wasn’t at all interested in physical education (“why would you bother running around when you could be reading a book?”), her winning one of only 30 university scholarships in Wales (and topping the exam in English), her degree at Kings College London and teaching for six years through the war (all female graduates had to go teaching because of the lack of male teachers in war time) and how she came to New Zealand and then to New Plymouth.

How much she loved teaching, but how hard she worked, diving into hours of marking each night after the children were in bed. Her Mastermind win of 1983: the organisers had to persuade her to scale back her original proposal (“The Complete Works of Shakespeare”) to “The Plays of Shakespeare”, at which she was still unbeatable, thanks also to her vast general knowledge (although she didn’t know the name of the All Blacks captain). Her many other roles such as PPTA President and WEA lecturer, her standing as a Labour Party candidate, her “undiluted socialism” and firm convictions that everyone should have access to free education and health care.

Andrew Little paid a tribute on behalf of the Labour Party, the Taranaki male choir sang, there was a poignant Robert Louis Stevenson poem, "To S R Crockett", and Maryan Street (NPGHS head girl 1972) read Ida’s chosen excerpt from "Cymbeline". Then the casket was carried out to the Welsh national anthem.

Afterwards a call went out for an Old Girls photo. We lined up for a series of photos on an assortment of phones and camera, and the photographer called “say Shakespeare”. Someone else murmured, "your immortal souls!” and there was a ripple of amused recognition.

Teachers often have no idea how much of an impact they had, or how much they mattered or made a difference. There are many wonderful teachers. But Ida was special and rare. She made a difference in so many ways. For me, she encouraged me to see myself as a writer, to enter writing competitions, to treasure words. She maintained her wit and fierce intelligence to the end. It's very hard to believe she is gone. 

Fear no more the heat o' th' sun
    Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
    Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' th' great;
    Thou art past the tyrant's stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
    To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning flash,
    Nor th' all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear no slander, censure rash;
    Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee,
Nor no witchcraft charm thee.
Ghost unlaid forbear thee;
Nothing ill come near thee.
Quiet consummation have,
And renowned be thy grave.
(Cymbeline, Act IV Scene II; written by Shakespeare in 1608 or 1609)

"I am interested in politics because I am interested in people." - Ida Gaskin.
Nic Gibson

Shakespeare Mastermind Ida Gaskin dies, aged 96 (Taranaki daily news, 8 January 2016)