My first session for the WORD Christchurch Writers Festival this year was Reading Favourites: Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing and Carl Nixon in conversation with Guy Somerset about their favourite New Zealand books. It was an excellent way into WORD, which celebrates reading and writing in the context of Aotearoa.
Author and children’s book reviewer Kate De Goldi was first up, recommending to us Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne – a gothic mystery with an unreliable narrator, and hailed by many as the great unread Kiwi novel. De Goldi said it’s the kind of book you love so much that you give it to someone you fancy as a sort of compatibility test. She spoke very movingly about her love for this novel and introduced what would become a theme: the lack of recognition for the work within New Zealand (although a cult following is now developing), with it consequently going out of print and becoming difficult to find. Happily, Sydney Bridge Upside Down has now been republished by Text Publishing in Australia and is available in NZ bookshops – for example, at the excellent UBS Canterbury stall right here at the festival.
De Goldi’s second choice was Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People (Auckland University Press) by Gregory O’Brien. She said it entirely lacks that “instructive worthiness” so prevalent amongst children’s non-fiction, and is instead accessible, personal and engaging – for adults as well as kids. And after she read aloud from the book, I immediately wanted to sit down with it and read the rest. Welcome to the South Seas is due to be re-published by AUP, with two companion volumes soon.
Author and cartoonist Sarah Laing’s first pick for her favourite NZ book was Hicksville (Victoria University Press, 2012; but ), a graphic novel by Dylan Horrocks, who was in the audience. Laing said she devoured comics as a child, but, as a young woman, found comic book shops to be “scary” and off-putting. But she is rediscovering comics now, and incorporates cartoons in her own novels (as well as publishing the webcomic and blog, Let Me Be Frank). Laing praised Hicksville for its multi-layered, intertextual nature, and the way it creates a utopian version of Aotearoa where comics thrive and are loved by all. There was also a very interesting discussion of the way graphic novels force to you read in a different way.
Laing commented that, due to their ephemeral nature (both in terms of magazine-like publishing and in the sense of not being part of the literary mainstream), comics can be hard to track down. Horrocks is now published in NZ, but for a long time was only published overseas.
Laing’s second choice was From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird (Random House NZ), which she praised as a unique and extremely useful history of cartooning in New Zealand. Guy Somerset commented that he was interested to learn that NZ used to have a thriving comics publishing industry in the mid-twentieth century, until the moral panic about the effects of cartoons on children’s minds effectively shut it all down.
Novelist Carl Nixon’s first choice was The Day Hemingway Died and other stories by Owen Marshall, which he said was one of the first NZ books he read without being told to. He praised the way Marshall perfectly illustrates human foibles while also producing writing that is laugh-out-loud funny. Nixon then proved this last point by reading an excerpt, which did indeed make us all laugh.
Nixon also enthusiastically recommended to us Gifted by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press), a novel about the real-life working relationship between iconic Kiwi authors Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. Nixon praised Evans for “capturing what you believe to be Sargeson’s voice”. Like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, Gifted has been adapted for the stage.
Finally, Guy Somerset, Books and Culture editor for The Listener, recommended Arena by John Cranna, a futuristic novel of a brutalised dystopia. Somerset said it’s the first NZ book he read, in order to impress his new Kiwi wife.
Reading Favourites was an excellent session, and I was pleased to see many people head straight to the book stall afterwards. I came away with some excellent additions to my (teetering, infinite) To Read Pile – always a good sign that a writers festival has done its job. Looking forward to more to come!