This morning I ran along the beach into the hit of the west-coast wind, and it felt like a hinge between four glorious days at the Auckland Writers Festival and getting back to work. As I ran, I pictured myself asking Murakami running questions. Where does he like to run? Is it in a wild space where you hardly see another soul as I do and your mind empties as the rhythm of the run takes over. You might see a puffed up dotterel out of the corner of an eye or a pied stilt wading. The rhythm of the run sends me into a pre-writing state but mostly it is is just me and breathtaking beauty.
This morning as I ran it took awhile to get into that equilibrium of silence as the festival keep drifting through. What I loved. What I loved a little less.
My bouquets in no particular order
1. To Anne O’Brien and her team for creating a dazzling programme that pulled me out of hermithood into the city for four full-to-the-brim, glorious days, that filled an auditorium over and over, that offered free sessions. This was one of the best festivals I have attended yet in terms of the range and quality of voices on offer. The audiences.
2. The new dedicated focus on children’s writing with the School Days, Family Day and sessions featuring a children’s author. I was coming out of a session and saw David Walliams at his signing table and was incredibly moved. He was looking with careful attention at a picture a young child had drawn for him, taken the time to pause and wonder, when his signing queue had stretched out into the square at the start of my session. It seems to me the festival has also become a gift for our emerging readers and writers, our thinkers and our scientists, our comics and our leaders. Thank you!
3. The amount of poetry this year. Sure I still love a line up of ten poets like a tapas tasting lunch that shows you the terrific width of our poetry communities. But I love the way poets now read along side international authors and local fiction writers in panels. This exposes our poets to a much wider audience. One stand out for me (sadly I missed some poets I had wanted to see due to clashes) was John Dennison. I have just reviewed his stunning debut collection on the blog but his poems lifted and became even more exquisite as I listened and shut my eyes. Two poets came to mind: Gregory O’Brien and Bill Manhire. I could hear a faint, appealing somethingness of them in John’s intonations, the pauses, the repetitions, the stresses — the downright joyous musicality. If you don’t have John’s book, I highly recommend it. Maybe you can find him reading a poem or two on YouTube.
4. More poetry. The session with Anna Jackson and Daniel Mendelsohn on translation gymnastics was fascinating. I had Anna’s new book, I, Clodia, and a bilingual edition of Catallus in my bag all weekend as I am working on a review. I think I will save some of the gems from Anna until I do the review. But hearing the poems read aloud, we all leaned forward into the beauty of them. Gorgeous!
5. The Gala Night story tellers hit the mark. Sometimes I have been at previous ones counting how many to go. Not this time. The last one spoke, the time was up and I had stayed glued to every word.
6. Mrs Dalloway: I was in awe of Rebecca Vaughan maintaining those weaving voices for ninety minutes, pulling us into the shifting detail, moods, revelations.
7. Amy Bloom in conversation with Carole Beu. I had just read Lucky Us. Sparkling, scintillating, sent me straight to the book stall to buy the short stories.
8. Kim Thúy, a Vietnamese-Canadian novelist, in the panel session on Asian Histories. I didn’t know her at all but loved the little stories that ballooned out from a single word. Loved it when she said Vietnamese don’t show the feelings so much, and that her parents never asked her how she felt, but would ask her if she was hungry, then feed her mood. Dashed to the bookstall and bought Man. This writing is astonishing and I want to read everything she has written. I bumped into her when she was talking to her friend Anne Kennedy and so she inscribed my book. Ah the joy of lucky moments at festivals.
9. More poetry. Hearing Chris Tse reading a breathtaking selection from his debut collection How to Be Dead in the Year of Snakes.
10. Some favourite chairs: John Freeman, Carole Beu, Noelle McCarthy, Catherine Robertson, Christine O’Brien, Ruth Harley (many I missed sadly).
11. The privilege of sitting on stage with Edwin Thumboo to talk about poetry and Singapore was an utter highlight. He is, as I said in the session, like Margaret Mahy was, and Michele Leggott and Bill Manhire are: writers whose work fills you with endless admiration but who also occupy the world as writers in a way that is extraordinary. He is a Singaporean national taonga, so how good he read and spoke to a packed house. We barely scratched the surface of what we could have traversed, but to hear his poems hit the air/ear was such a treat. Preparing for the session sent me on new paths of thinking. I am so grateful to the festival for this opportunity.
12. David Mitchell in two sessions. In the first he was jet lagged and in the second, in a panel. Here are some of the gems I loved: He used to make his own Middle Earths with card and paper. He was a low maintenance kid! He stalled on a sip of tea then talked on the über novel, then cautioned new writers to be careful naming things as the name sticks. On character: A character moving into a new book brings a suitcase of credibility from previous ones. On discussing how to pronounce ‘archipelago’ with Catherine Robertson, they both slide into an hilarious word jam. On links between books: there are doors wormholes tunnels from one book to next but not many. Ponders on how to make many different things coexist in one book: one way is to compartmentalise. He apologises for bringing his wife into the discussion (she was back stage!) on entering the female mind as a writer of his protagonist. He has five friends on earth, three of whom don’t read him! Question: Do you have an attic mind? Mitchell: a junk shop mind. On names: high scrabble scores generally make useful names. They stick to the eyeball. On the intensity of writing: You get through the intense immersion of the current novel underway ‘with little kisses of thinking about the next one.’ On fear: you should go outside your comfort zone. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? is important. He offered to read a Stephanie-Johnson draft when she said showing unfinished novels to others was an imposition. He said he wasn’t a novelist; he writes novellas with bridges and tunnels between. [I love this idea the connection can go through air or underground!].
13. Emily St. John Mandel on editing: Retype your entire draft, read the whole thing aloud to yourself, edit pages in random order.
14. Helen MacDonald. Now I have to read her book, H is for Hawk. Things I loved she said: We use nature to prove our concepts to us. On the joy of festivals: They let thoughts and words be said that aren’t normally available in everyday life. There’s no past or present when you are flying a hawk. When you have a big loss: After a year of grief, I started to grow around the holes. It was all about love.
15. Carol Ann Duffy. Carol Ann Duffy. Carol Ann Duffy. Carol Ann Duffy. Hearing her read. And loved this bit from John Campbell on the joy of reading her poems: (can’t quite remember exact words) but ‘drilling down into your particular way of knowing.’
16. The fabulous Tim Winton: I think perhaps people are wired to hope.
17. Hearing Ashleigh Young read her remarkable new poems, especially the casino one and the road one. They felt like a glorious step up from her debut. Fresh, elastic, lyrical, effervescent, surprising. I am going to post one on the blog as soon as possible so I can talk about it. I do hope a new book is on the horizon line.
18. Anne Kennedy talking about Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry, the Great Kiwi Classic this year. She was so lucid, so on the button, with what she said. Reading the book for her was like a sock between the eyes. She loved the way the vernacular had been transformed into the poetic, but that it was above all a triumph of kiwiness. Anne said Janet rescued kiwiana and polished it like a gem. For Courtney Sina Meredith reading it was like a rite of passage. She said she was terrified of it at university (if you can’t get into this, you can’t get into New Zealand literature) but then she became deeply connected. Wonderful! Damien Barr cried after he read it (hearing his autobiographical anecdote I am not surprised). Great session steered by Kate De Goldi, but more audience involvement would have been good. I think that is the intent of the NZ Book Council that it becomes a very interactive session.
19. The Honoured NZ Writer: CK Stead. Wonderful movement through his life and career. Loved the poems breaking into the conversation. Like the way he said Catallus gave him a persona where he could go to the edge of things that had sometimes happened to him, or that were an invention. It became an area of freedom when he was not mentally a confessional poet. He had returned to NZ because he wanted to be a NZ writer and turned down the option of a very different academic career in Britain. He doesn’t regret it but sometimes ponders the possibilities of that different track.
I have been especially drawn to Karl’s recent poetry collections, their reflectiveness, musicality, ability to matter and move. You saw that a bit in the conversation. On being a critic: I was too dogmatic, too excited, things could have been said more subtly. I discovered what it was like to be characterised by what was a small part of me. On rereading Death of the Body for this ‘ordeal’ decided it was so much cleverer than I am now. A terrific way to end the festival.
20. Hearing fabulous Irish poet, Vona Groarke read her own poems and talk so beautifully about the finalists in the Sarah Broom Poetry Awards. I am so tempted to get to Wellington to hear her talk and read for a whole hour!
21. Stepping into the shoes of Alice Miller to read her finalist poems at The Sarah Broom Poetry Awards. I was amazed at how reading the poems of another poet out loud in front of an audience drew me so much closer into the very heart of them. The poems were breathtakingly good. I should do this more often. Find a special place to stand and read aloud the poems of another.
22. Ah! Murakami. Ah what a tremendous session. Ah! Ah! My daughter gave me some of his novels to read over summer and I was hooked. How had I not read him before? The outright surprise, wonder and delight of where he leads you. So to find out he was coming to the festival was the absolute highlight. I loved the fact he wrote his first novel and cast it into the bin as dreadful. He then wrote it in English as he had a limited vocabulary and stock of phrases. He translated it back into Japanese and achieved the simplicity, the economy and clarity of writing that is now his trademark. He likes his writing to be unpredictable to himself, which it is why it is so gloriously unpredictable to the reader. He feels he can be anybody when he writes (not all writers feel this!). He enjoys reading his books that have been translated into English (a few years after the original) as it is like reading it afresh and he can’t remember what happens. He likes Japanese tofu and donuts! Maybe a tofu donut! The chair, John Freeman, was exceptional. What made this session so utterly special were the silences, the long pauses that became little pivots of contemplation for both speaker and audience. One writer said Murakami says more in his silences than some writers say with truckloads of words. The t shirt he was wearing:
23. The volunteers, the lovely stage crew, the festival team and of course all the readers and writers who filled the Aotea Centre with a buzz of ideas and response. Astonishing!
Thank you thank you thank you
The brickbats that aren’t really brickbats at all
I. I wish Anne O’Brien could get to see more than the odd session. To sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labour.
2. Missing out on a ticket to The World’s Wife. My fault. From all accounts it was fabulous.
3. I was a chair, so feel free to criticise me (like all chairs I walked away wondering how I could have done a better job!), but sometimes the research and commitment as chair takes over whereas it should take the back seat along with your own ego. It seems we now live in an age where audiences have no problems in letting a chair know when they are dominating the conversation. Fair enough maybe, as it keeps us on our toes. The other tricky thing is that the audience will be a clashing mix of expectation, and equally varied mix of experience of the subject and writing under the spotlight. We are all different kinds of readers searching for different things. The sessions where the writers opened out into a warm and and sparking conversation were gold.
4. Why didn’t I run to the free sessions to make sure I got a seat?! Missed out on a few gems.
Thank you so much for this. I’ve copied it down just to read again when I have more leisure. And your first paragraph was a gem – quite obviously written by a poet 🙂
You raised the issue of chairing in your blog and I’d like to reply. At the weekend I chaired a session ‘Art of the Novel’. Despite having been a writer on upwards of 50 panels, it was my first time as a chair for a group of novelists and the combination of my inexperience, nerves, and over-enthusiasm (and probably over-thinking) proved to be a a disaster. Twenty minutes into the session an audience member started heckling me. I couldn’t hear what he was saying but it was soon communicated that I was talking too much and interrupting.
As the Auckland festival becomes larger I can see problems concerning chairing increasing. Audience members clearly have little tolerance for poor chairs so dissatisfaction will increase.
There are some fantastic, skilled chairs out there (Fiona Farrell, Paula Green, Kate de Goldi, Jolisa Gracewood, Emily Perkins to name a few I have had the pleasure of meeting) and I was wondering if there might be value in including a back-stage, 40 minute chairing session at the start or end of each festival day for people like me who have not chaired a panel, or for people who feel a little rusty. I know we are sent notes on chairing (which I re-read, believe me) but it would have been fantastic for my nerves if I had been able to ask an experienced chair a couple of questions concerning problems I had. For example: reading the panelists works raised some complex ideas that I wished to discuss. How could I have communicated those questions, maintaining the complexity of the idea without the question becoming confused, and needing additional clarification or follow-up questions that interrupted the writer? I am sure, that with your experience, you would have ideas on how to tackle those problems.
So, would any of you be prepared to offer help in this way?
I don’t think heckling is the answer to shaking up a poor session. I think it creates a flee or fight response in the chair, makes the audience apprehensive (is it a one-off heckle, is the audience member nuts and will continue heckling, what impression is this making on the panelists), and the panelists uncomfortable (because they are usually nice, sympathetic people).
After my panel – when I had already got the message – a woman came up to me, grabbed my arm and snapped, “learn to button your lips.” It was a shit remark, coming at the end of a bad session, and surplus to requirements. Thank God for the kindness of Stephanie Johnson, Jill Rawnsley and Charlotte Henry.
Thank you so much for this generous, honest, heartfelt and utterly wonderful response to an issue raised. A significant issue. I find the interruption of a heckler very uncomfortable. While I haven’t experienced rudeness as a result of my chairing, I have experienced unbelievable rudeness from people when I was a book-award judge and through my involvement with the Sarah Broom Poetry Award at the festival last year. It is like you become less than human and it is absolutely okay for people to spew vitriol at you.
I always feel nervous before I chair a session but I have a few strategies. The first is to be prepared. That you were so well prepared is testimony to your dedication as a writer Laurence. Then the trick is to let go of a lot of it. Not everything will be covered. Every chair is different but I want to get the panelist talking. I assemble a field of possible topics/questions in my head first and then on paper and then leap frog about the field as the conversation dictates to some degree where we might go next. I also feel that once you move into the public arena, sadly, we end up getting both bouquets and brickbats. Some people can be unbelievable thoughtless, even friends, in what they say to you. I think criticism is good but it is how that criticism is delivered. Check out a blog I just posted here this morning.
I was at your session and found the heckling disruptive. I was full of admiration for your engagement with the writers work. The ideas you raised. Many people in the audience would have felt that. For a first time and in a state of nervousness it was a challenge thinking on your feet. I love that fact that you (without vitriol) so thoughtfully, sensitively and openly want to move on from this and to explore how to chair. The questions you raise are important. How do you present a complex question simply? To what degree do you enter the conversation and offer an opinion. I think this shifts a little when it is a panel father than an individual.
Perhaps festivals could have a list of experienced chairs prepared to be brief mentors to offer to fledgling chairs.
Would yo be happy for me to post this as a main post on the blog so more people see it and respond to it? Including me>
Don’t let the crap affect you Laurence. I find ways to hold it arm’s length.
Thanks Paula. I’m happy for you to post it. I spent the rest of the day feeling like everyone was looking at me and sneering but now I’m home and have just walked the dogs I see the session for what it was…something I did as well as I could, but with room for improvement (if I ever chair again). I don’t have a problem with criticism – I’m used to reviews, after all. I think mentoring is a good idea. Or just someone for particular/specific problems…is the panel a ‘conversation’ or a multi-interview? Are you talking with the writer or with the audience? Just basic stuff. I’d rather raise the issue and ask for help than stew over it.
Anyway…the festival was fantastic.
Really, I hope you write your anthology…and contribute to mine!
Paula, I feel I must enter the dock here as I was also a chair who was brought up short by a member of the public calling out. I have thought about the situation a lot – to be in front of a large crowd, lit up and incapable of seeing the faces of an audience is slightly nightmarish – but I do question myself on whether I was trying to appropriate the ‘storytelling’ to myself.
I guess in my own defence I would say this. The interruption occurred in the first five minutes of the panel so perhaps the elderly man calling out was simply impatient. In other words, only five minutes had passed, most of it taken up with an introduction of two complex, emotion-ridden books. But I was also taken aback when one of the panelists seemed to freeze. She answered in the briefest way to questions, so I felt duty bound to set the stage for her book – which ,after all, you have to assume not everyone in the audience has read.
On the other hand, with books that deal with deeply tragic experiences, the audience is there as much to bear witness, to tell their own tales, as they are there to listen. For this reason, we had decided (the panelists and I) to leave a relatively long period at the end for people to tell their own stories. In the end the two panelists settled down to chat about their books so I shelved most of the real questions I would have liked to ask. At the conclusion both authors simply vanished to sign and sell books which after all is the crude nub of any festival – the real politik of the situation. (Later I got a very nice note from Daniel Mendelsohn thanking me for the care I had taken to prepare for the panel.)
Laurence Fearnley suggests ways of preparing NZ chairs for the inferno of being on stage, live, moulding a session. I would like to add a further suggestion. NZ writers are essentially entering the stage of what is now an international writers festival. They have to ‘compete’ with international authors whose ‘acts’ are honed by constant performance before vast audiences so many know how to charm, spin a yarn and of course sell books. I felt some NZ ‘performers’ (as one has to call a writer in a festival format) were characteristically faltering, modest, unpractised and shy. These are all virtues in the Pakeha world but they recede once one walks on the stage into awkwardness and amateurism. I have mused whether CNZ needs to provide some coaching here.
Anyway..I must get back to my writing…so now I will leave the dock…
I am just about to post Laurence’s letter as a blog post.
Very interesting and thought-provoking response, Peter.