DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

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DWRF 2017: Hannah Kent with Majella Cullinane

DWRF17: Mothers Day Brunch with Emily Writes

When I say Emily Writes’ name, I feel like I am making a statement. I know it’s a nom de plume, but nevertheless, saying it aloud makes me smile. Emily Writes. Noun and verb. Yes, she does, I think to myself. And, boy, the stuff she writes is such valuable stuff! If we want a truly functioning society for our kids and families, people everywhere should be reading what she is putting down.

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Emily Writes, Photograph © Chris Tse

When I first read Emily I was impressed by her guts and sense of humour. It was the now-infamous Skarsgård piece; my actual best friend shared it with me. Years of True Blood had us already in the zone, but Emily actually put it on the page. Upon reading more of her work, I loved what she was saying about parenting and motherhood; she was the real deal.

This Mothers Day brunch was a different format for the Festival: the venue was the lovely Scenic Circle Southern Cross, and the brunch itself was a seated, semi-formal event. The food was divine – bircher muesli, white raspberry brownies and platters of melon – but the real highlight was Emily. I don’t think Emily knows how fabulous Emily is. She is the woman you meet and instantly wish was your best friend: she’s down to earth, swears like a trouper but in the most appropriate places, and battles fiercely on your behalf. Please be my best friend, Emily! I thought to myself after she opened her mouth and the gold flowed.

cv_Rants-in_the_darkHearing her speak today was just like reading her writing. Humour, honesty and absolute compassion for women and their families is what seems to drive Emily. Her opening story was an off-the-cuff description of going out the night before and drinking quite a bit of wine at dinner with Jesse Mulligan. Her self-deprecating style when sharing the shenanigans of the previous evening, and her, ahem, ‘womanly’ admiration of Mulligan had the audience pretty much crippled with laughter.

Later, and on a more serious note, Emily talked about the unreal pressures women (and women as mothers, in particular) are under, and how she hoped her writing helps address these things. She pointed out that the normalisation of taboo topics like prenatal and postnatal depression would be a really positive thing, and would mean fewer mothers were lost to families.

I think what is so attractive about Emily Writes is that she doesn’t know how amazing she is. She sees herself as a regular mum – a self-declared bogan – who is parenting children and who happens to also write. It’s this ‘normal’ vision of self that has perhaps made her so attractive to the general population in New Zealand; she’s one of us, but she’s also giving voice to us from the inside out, and it’s a voice that is usually silent. If you haven’t read her book Rants in the Dark, go out right now and get it. You’ll be so happy you did.

Attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Rants in the Dark
by Emily Writes
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143770183

DWRF 2017: Flying Nun at The Cook

It was the best of pubs, it was the worst of pubs.

In his memoir In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, Roger Shepherd says of the Cook: ‘It was a terrible dive. Some remember it fondly, but mostly what I remember is the incredibly sticky bar top.’

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Image copyright Fairfax NZ, by Hamish McNeilly 

Back at the refurbished Cook, more than three decades after the period being described, Shepherd last night sat down with music writer and aficionado Grant Smithies to chew the fat about his memories of founding and maintaining independent record label Flying Nun. It was a low fi affair: Shepherd and Smithies sat on black chairs under a naked bulb toward the back of the stage; the audience hung back, hands in pockets or clutching a beer like it was a gig, awaiting The Verlaines perhaps or maybe The Clean. It had been like that getting in too: a line down the street waiting for the doors to open, Graeme Downes prowling around with a cigarette, fans breathing steam and exchanging opinions disguised as facts. There was one major difference, clear in the light thrown by the beer fridges: the audience members were all of a certain age and they were all well dressed. The audience of 1987 was literally here again in 2017, nodding, sometimes guffawing, listening quietly as Shepherd and Smithies reminisced.

Then it really was a gig. Verlaines front man Downes was suddenly behind the microphone in his trademark suit and scarf and pointy shoes, untamed hair, a thin legged poet with a mighty voice. Then that was over too, curtailed by a broken guitar string, also a trademark ‘If I had a dollar for every string…’ Downes muttered, and lay his instrument down to join Shepherd, Smithies, Robert Scott, Francisca Griffin and Roy Colbert at the back of the stage for another casual conversation.

roger_shepherd_H_0217.771aacee3b08a3f7e168fb9d9f399eeeRoger Shepherd, photo from article with Steve Bell on themusic.com.au.

Aside from former owner of iconic Dunedin secondhand store Records Records, Roy Colbert (once named in the Otago Daily Times as the seventeenth most influential citizen in Dunedin), the speakers were all musicians in bands championed by Flying Nun through the eighties. They offered a range of anecdotes about this golden age of New Zealand music. Francisca Griffin, formerly known as Kathy Bull, lamented how every interviewer always wanted to know what it was like to be in her all female band Look Blue Go Purple; Shepherd dismissed the easy label ‘Dunedin sound’ that had been given to Flying Nun bands – ‘They all sounded completely different!’.

Bob Scott, bassist for The Clean and The Bats amongst other bands, remembered the casual violence outside and after gigs, involving the bodgees vs the scarfies or in one case police officers seemingly practising their baton techniques in preparation for the Springbok tour protestors; Downes spoke of the competition between bands, how someone or other was always raising the bar; Colbert recalled a shipment of The Clean album sleeves arriving devoid of actual records, ‘the kind of thing that happened sometimes with Flying Nun’.

As discussion again gave way to performance, as Griffin, Scott and Downes played solo sets, the festival audience settled into pub crowd mode, yakking and making their own connections. Snippets could be overheard: ‘Didn’t you used to flat next door to us in Cumberland Street?’ ‘You were the manager of Radio One for a time weren’t you?’ ‘Did you see them at The Oriental in ‘86?’

in love with these timesAnd as the crowd dispersed, propelled down the stairs, out into the starry night, it seemed that the value of the night lay in the rekindling of these conversations, in the warmth of a remembered and shared time. For this, there is good reason to thank Roger Shepherd and the flock of Flying Nun bands, good reason to thank the Readers and Writers Festival for bringing them back together, good reason to be in love with these times.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records
by Roger Shepherd
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775540892

DWRF 2017 Showcase Gala: Metamorphosis

Although I arrived 20 minutes into the ‘drink and nibbles’ introduction to this event, it was clear upon entering the beautiful Toitu Settlers Museum building that things were pumping. Gala Showcase: Metamorphosis was a sold out event, and the room was packed. When the call was made for the audience to take their seats, the attendees had to make their way from one end of the museum to the other – a canny move as this meant the best of the museum was showcased before the event had even started.

Kate De Goldi emceed this meditation on ‘metamorphosis’ and introduced each author before they responded to a selected book (or books) that embraced this concept. Whilst it was a treat to hear each author give mostly prepared talks on this topic, it was also an excellent ‘taster’ as all authors have further events this weekend.

ian-rankin_5Ian Rankin (left) was the first to speak, and his thoughts centred around metamorphic considerations in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. He talked of how his books were influenced by this one, and shared anecdotes of macabre body snatchers and dichotomous laboratories in the times before bodies could be legally left to science.

Stella Duffy gave an impassioned speech about the power of words and the way they can change readers. She used the touchstones of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Janet Frame’s fiction to explore this concept in her own life. She particularly marveled at the way these texts created music for the reader through words alone – no mean feat.

John Lanchester was softly spoken but exceptionally articulate in explaining the effect the poetry collection Ariel by Sylvia Plath had on him as an 18 year old school leaver. He talked of the way Plath took seemingly nebulous emotions and feelings and nailed them to the page in astonishing ways. His explanation of the literal metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly was beautiful and a fitting metaphorical end to his talk.

hannahkent-2016-credit-lauren-bamford_origThe story Hannah Kent (right, photo Lauren Banford) wove about her school exchange from South Australia to Iceland was atmospheric and gripping. She explained how she felt literature saved her life in the early days of that time, in the dark winter days next to an Icelandic fjord. She talked of how To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf opened up her understanding of what it means to be human, and how, ultimately, this is what people are searching for.

When Bill Manhire stepped up to the microphone few would have expected his choice – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – but his exceptional discussion of Blyton’s dreamlike sequences in this selection convinced many of the extraordinary value of transformation in children’s texts.

The night ended with Victor Rodger speaking to his experiences in mid-1980’s Christchurch as a closeted gay, half-Samoan teenager and the moment of reckoning and solace found in Another Country by James Baldwin, the gay, African-American author with anger in his veins. It was great to have Rodgers back in Dunedin, as he almost feels like ‘ours’, having been the Burns Fellow in 2016.

All of these showcased authors have events on this weekend, and, after seeing what was on show tonight, I highly recommend attending. I’m sure you will be in the hands of experts.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Events with Ian Rankin (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Stella Duffy  (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festivals)
Events with John Lanchester (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Hannah Kent
Events with Bill Manhire (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Victor Rodger

 

DWRF 2017: Jane Eyre: An Autobiography

This show will also appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival

Dunedin is incredibly lucky to have secured the latest Dyad Productions play Jane Eyre: An Autobiography for the Readers and Writers festival this year. The company first visited our southern shores during the last festival in 2015 with Dalloway, and this latest production is as stunning as the last. Rebecca Vaughan shows again that she has an alchemist’s touch on the stage. She inhabits a handful of characters from Jane Eyre and gives them life far beyond the original page. This show was an hour and a half long and not once did Vaughan drop a line or character.

Whilst there were many occasions to admire the ways characters were embodied by Vaughan, one of the most touching scenes was between Jane and Mr Rochester – Vaughan of course was playing a love scene, with all its nuances, essentially with herself, but it was so believable that members of the audience were in tears.  Let’s just pause for a moment and really think about that  – Vaughan created a climactic scene between two characters, playing both back and forth, and it was as if we were watching realist theatre. Outstanding stuff.

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Other highlights included the exquisite costuming and lighting design.  It’s a hard ask getting these things right when travelling a show – designs need to be roadworthy and easy to set up.  Vaughan’s grey Victorian costume looked deceptively plan from a distance, as was fitting for Jane Eyre’s time and place in society. But up close, the immaculate pleated details and tailored shapes were remarkable. In complement to the acting and costuming, lighting design utilised colour and silhouette to astonishing effect, with reds and oranges throwing puppeteering-like shadows on a plain white backdrop.

Bravo, Dyad Productions – you really deserved that standing ovation.  If you are in Dunedin this weekend, I plead with you to go and support this international theatre, not only for the sheer delight of experiencing something so good, but also to ensure their return once more to our fair city in the years to come.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

You can catch Jane Eyre: An Autobiography on Sunday 14 May at 1pm, at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin. And as stated above, Dyad will be talking Jane Eyre to the Auckland Writers Festival from Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 May. 

DWRF 2017: Word Balm, with Glenn Colquhoun, David Galler and Sue Wootton

Available in bookshops nationwide.
pp_glenn_colquhounDWRFIt was a mild autumnal night as a nearly sold-out crowd of 100 or so ventured out to listen to three expert witnesses talk about ‘what literature can do for Medicine’. Glenn Colquhoun (right), David Galler and Sue Wootton all have experience in the worlds of medicine and words, and they were a thoughtful expert panel in consideration of this topic.

The three authors read from their work, with Colquhoun and Wootton sharing exquisite poetry that bridges what seems to be the divide between medicine and the arts, perhaps specifically the art of being human.  The final line of Colquhoun’s shared poem, written for a teenage client of his medical clinic, expressed with tenderness the remodeling or deconstruction that is perhaps needed when we think about illness and ill-health: ‘learn to love the broken bits’.

pp_sue_woottonSue Wootton’s poem ‘Wild’ was a reminder of what is at the heart of our human being: Measure my wild. /Down to my last leaf,/my furled, my desiccated. This deciduousness,/this bloom …’ The sharing of this poem followed a discussion of the clinical nature (sometimes thankfully, sometimes awfully) of medicine and the medical tests and interventions that come from living in a bio-technological era.

pp_david-galler_3_origA lot of the discussion was centred around how to gain/regain human connection in the medical world.  At one stage this dialogue considered the role of touch in the professions, and how touch can be more than just the corporeal laying on of hands, although that, too, was discussed as sometimes fitting. Galler (left) shared his experience of having a serious accident, and the recognition from the staff upon being admitted to hospital. They wanted to talk; he needed the morphine.  To Galler, the sharing of this anecdote expressed the subtle and artistic evaluations medical practitioners need to make in the moments, and how crucial and important these are to a patient’s sense of humanity. The ‘touch’ here could be in assessing with compassion what is most needed in the moment.

Glenn Colquhoun’s metaphor further exploring this, in which he compared his role as doctor with that of a surfer catching waves, was perfect; if you wait too long or take off too soon, you miss the wave.  This, he said, is like the art of listening that occurs in the relationship with a patient; you need to feel out when it is time to talk and time to listen; when it’s time to move forward and to move back.  Here, the ‘touch’ is in the words, or their absence.

I left the discussion wishing, as Colquhoun also mentioned, that the medical world was not so separate from the human, everyday one we exist in. If, as he says, the ‘white walls and white sheets’ could be or become more integrated with our lived experience, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a scary and sometimes isolating place to inhabit, as we all inevitably do, either as patient or family member.

Event attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Word Balm – An event at Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017
Featuring Glenn Colquhoun, Sue Wootton and David Gellar 

Programme for the DWRF, running from 9 – 14 May