What a day! Starting with John Marsden at 10 am and ending with a waiata from Patricia Grace’s whanau at 6:30pm. Such was the final day of the Auckland Writers Festival 2014 for me.
John Marsden (right) writes for children and young adults. As an English teacher, he was aware that kids were not reading enough and when he tried to find books to recommend to year nine kids, all he could find was the Flowers In The Attic series, which he described as awful and the equivalent of Twilight in its time! Whoops, my teenage persona was addicted to that series penned by Virginia Andrews. John decided that it couldn’t be that hard to write books, he was after all an English teacher at an isolated boarding school and lived in close proximity to teenagers most of the year. His first book was So Much To Tell You, which he tried out on his students and they (of course) liked it − one girl was moved to tears. That connection between reader and writer inspired him to continue.
While writing Tomorrow When The War Began he knew it was going to be really big. He just had a gut feeling. His editor was similarly optimistic, but the first reviews were awful. Really awful. But his belief in the book has been repaid over and over again. He wrote the book to show that teenagers (at least the ones he knew) were compassionate with a heroic spirit, and not the hopeless, negative, uninterested, drug-addled losers that they were portrayed to be in the media.
John Marsden gave a few insights into the type of writer he is. For example, he is never comfortable reading his work aloud, as he always feel he could have done better, and he thinks all of the best books have a change in status for their characters.
Next up was The Politics of Prophets with Professor Reza Aslan. Describing his mother as a sometime Muslim and his father as an atheist, this emigrant Iranian grew up in the USA and became an evangelical Christian in his early life. He became a preacher, and eventually studied religion formally at University.
Aslan (left) reminded the audience that in fact neither Jesus nor Mohammed actually created religion, they were simply prophets that reformed existing religions. He describes religion as storytelling, more about identity than practices. It’s how you see yourself in the world. He described the human desire for puritanism as an attempt to purify a faith and return it to an imaginary past. All scripture is simply words on a page and requires interpretation to have meaning − scripture is infinitely malleable. He used the example of slaves and slave owners using the same bible and even the same verses to justify their opposing positions.
He reminded the audience that religion was once synonymous with citizenship, which is now more aligned on a geographical basis. Religion provided identity: a club membership, if you will. It’s the way we identify the differences and similarities between people we encounter. Shared religious sayings and metaphors deepen relationships and offer an immediacy of intimacy between people, and exclude those who don’t understand them.
Aslan dismissed questions about religious violence – in his mind the worst examples of violence are secular (eg fascism, Marxism, etc) and he concluded “The fact of the matter is that we will kill each other for any reason.” Sobering stuff.
Now for something so different, but with an equally exuberant presentation…Sarah-Kate Lynch in conversation with Petra Bagust about her latest book, Screw You, Dolores. It is a nonfiction book about her life and about happiness and, I guess, how to find it.
When Lynch (right) writes any book she aims to amuse and make people feel good: she prefers the happily-ever-after stories to the dark and gloomy novels.
The title comes from a lovely story that Lynch tells of a younger version of herself in Los Angles buying the staples of life – beer, cigarettes and Pringles – when a checkout operator, with a name badge that identified her as Dolores, in a rather shrill voice (well it was when relayed to the audience!) shrieked, “Don’t put your items on the conveyor belt until the customer before you has finished.” The young Lynch obediently scooped her selection up back into her arms. I am certain the Sarah-Kate Lynch in the room today would not have. But I digress − back in the grocery store, the whole scene was repeated a few seconds later − this time directed at the man behind Sarah-Kate. His response was to simply walk out of the store leaving his groceries on the belt, but before leaving he said three brief words, “Screw you, Dolores!” Lynch realised that was not only a great line, but a lesson for life happiness. Screw You, Dolores is an idea and method about how to feel better.
Sarah-Kate is witty and funny, but surprisingly shy. She is adamant about one thing though and that is that we need to buy NZ books, to support NZ writers. Petra Bagust referred to this book as a “A $30 investment in happiness”, and you know, she is probably right.
Events attended and reviewed by Gillian Whalley Torckler
Editors note: I have split this post in two, due to length. The second post will be up shortly!