Joy Cowley: A Joyful Life, with John Allen

Joy Cowley is truly a living legend, and it was a privilege to be at this final event of NZ
Festival Writer’s Week. John Allen is himself a great speaker, and it was wonderful to hear the obvious admiration in his voice as he spoke with Cowley about her life and career to date.

Allen had a chat with one of Joy Cowley’s friends before coming to interview her, and she described her friend thus: “When I think of Joy, I think of Yoda: he is old, he is wise, he is strong, he is serene, he has seen it all, done everything, and loves it all.” Is this how Joy Cowley sees herself, asked Allen.


Cowley says, “I’m a very big container filled with stuff that’s come from other people, other places. There’s something within me that wants to process what people have given me. I relate to the world most strongly as a mother. But as far as looking in the mirror; as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing there.”

Cowley’s early life was covered briefly in her autobiography from 2010, Navigation: A Memoir. She has long been a risk-taker, she rode motorbikes, and was one of the first female Tiger Moth pilot in the country. There were frequent references throughout the chat to Cowley’s enjoyment of life on the wild side. She bungy-jumped to celebrate her 65th birthday, and got a tattoo to celebrate her 70th.

pingAllen wondered about her early reading life. “I was slow to come to reading,” Joy said, “My parents moved around a lot when I was young, I had been to 5 different schools by the age of 7.” At that stage in school, kids were taught reading by phonetics, which made no sense to her. The first book she remembers reading by herself was a picture book called Ping – a marvellous adventure of a duck. “And I finished it and started it again, and the story was the same. This was the first time I’d encountered the constancy of print.”

Her family were great storytellers, but of course stories changed as they grew. “The stability of story is very important, especially if you are from a muddly home, as I am.” When she was about 9, she started telling stories to her sisters, using universal stories but changing the details. These stories were always about powerful children, who could do anything. “I made these into our stories.” Cowley later noted that she wasn’t young as a child – she was the eldest, the responsible one, while her parents were often ill and unpredictable.

pp_joy_cowleyPowerless kids empower themselves through stories, says Cowley. “It’s very important that kids are made powerful. In their stories children may solve adults’ problems, but adults can’t solve children’s problems.” To give a child a positive, empowering world in a story is very important.

Cowley uses her lived experience in her fiction. “Fiction writers are dealing with reality, but taking it to another level. They are deconstructing and reconstructing the ingredients of their stories, and pouring them out, making something new.”

After a brief discussion of Cowley’s adult novels, the discussion moved on to young writers using writing as therapy – as Cowley herself did. “You go deep when you are writing. If it is bleak, good – write it, but not for children.” She is concerned by the bleakness in many YA novels. You can empathise, but not sympathise.

Dreams are a recurring theme in Cowley’s writing. “They are important to me, mainly because I remember my dreams. Sometimes they are just the muddle of the day, but then there are messages that take you home to yourself.” There was also a longer discussion about spirituality, and the place of religion in Cowley’s life.

If fascinates Allen that her books have travelled so well around the world, despite their clear kiwi character. Cowley says, “I like to see a strong sense of place in any book. It is important to see where the character is and what the child is doing there. “

As a child, Cowley read so many stories giving children serious messages about being good and responsible. “I used to wish I could be twins so one could be good and one could be bad. There are stories by adults that place adult expectation on children. But my first duty to a reader is to entertain.

“I work with children who are reluctant readers. No one can be tense when they are laughing.”

Her road to publication wasn’t exactly straight-forward. She says, “My writing was always invisible to me. I had no idea of how to evaluate my writing. I didn’t know until I got some feedback, how to begin.” The person who she owes her breakthrough to was Monty Holcroft, who edited The Listener when her first story was accepted – he asked her how many times she had reworked her stories. “Being a writer is one thing, but learning to be an editor is another. I still need a good editor to work on my manuscripts. I very easily go into self-doubt.”

cv_snake_and_lizardAllen wondered about her eponymous characters snake and lizard – are they Cowley and her husband Terry Coles? “Yes” she says, “I firmly believe that friendship is not made of sameness, but the accommodation of differences.” They married in mid-life, which was the right time for them – and now they are a unit. In Snake and Lizard, Terry is represented by snake and Joy is represented by Lizard. Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop are currently working on a third in the series, to be called Helper and Helper, which she then read an excerpt from.

In contrast to Sally Gardner about the UK education system, Joy Cowley loves the kiwi education system. New Zealanders are in the top 10 in the world in many different areas, because our education system encourages individual potential. There issomething in the New Zealand character that will give anything a go, and that will persist.

cv_road_to_ratenburgTake heed, Elizabeth Heritage – Joy Cowley loves rats! The Road to Ratenburg is her next Gecko Press publication, about some rats that are made homeless. A bit like Pilgrim’s Progress, apparently – but for rats.

This was a fantastic look into the mind of a legend. I was second in the signing queue, with my well-loved copy of Just One More. It will be Cowley’s 80th birthday this year, and to celebrate this, everybody who attended received a greeting card from Gecko Press, featuring a print of one of Gavin Bishop’s illustrations for the next Snake & Lizard book.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster
NB: I have just gone to Nielsen to find something by Joy Cowley, and come up with 1480 hits for her author name. Now that is a publishing backlist!

Booksellers NZ has been privileged to attend and report on twenty-five world-class events over the last four days. I’d like to give a huge shout-out to Elizabeth Heritage, who bore a full load beginning last Tuesday with Henry Marsh; to Sarah McMullan, whose account of the Robert Dessaix event was fantastic, and to Emma Shi, who attended the more poetry-focused events on the programme. Thank-you also to Kathryn Carmody and Claire Mabey, for being amazing organisers; and to the Radio NZ bloggers, Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer, who did an incredible blow-by-blow account of all the activities of the weekend.

Now we have the Auckland Writer’s Festival to look forward to!


Jasper Fforde: Lost in a good book, with Dave Armstrong

pp_jasper_ffordeJasper Fforde first worked with stories as a focus puller for films. He didn’t realise for many years that that the hook – why he loved the film industry – was his love of story. He began writing in earnest aged 27, after one attempt at a script of which he says, “It is important to be able to recognise when your work is terrible.”

Playwright Dave Armstrong was a fantastic choice of chair for the warm and entertaining Jasper Fforde. He drew Fforde out effortlessly, and they clearly clicked, which is important in an individual event. The crowd was large and appreciative, and I don’t think there was a single person there that didn’t want to go to a Fforde Fiesta in Swindon by the end of it. (more on that shortly!)

While Fforde began writing novels at 27, it took 12 years for him to finally have something accepted by a publisher, aged 39. By this time, he had written 20-odd short stories, 6 and a half novels; and had 76 rejections over 10 years. To Armstrong’s suggestion that he was tenacious, he noted that the rate was only one every 7 weeks, not really that determined at all! Fforde said rather than tenacity, it was the joy of writing that kept him going. “I came from no education in writing, discovering it as I went and educating myself that way.” The worst advice he had during this time was to “write what he could see on the bestseller shelves” – he worked out that his weirdness was his thing. “The best thing about you is that you have a unique view of the world.”

The first book he had accepted by an agent was The Eyre Affair, the beginning of the cult classic series of books about literary detective Thursday Next. By chance he had connected with a new agent Tif, who had nobody on her books, and was just setting up a satellite office for an agency in New York. She liked it and managed to place it within two weeks, in 2000.

cv_the_eyre_affairWhen I read his books in my early 20’s, I hadn’t read anything quite like them. The way he pulled characters from classic literature and subverted the forms completely, and took the mickey out of established literary tropes was exciting to me. Fforde himself calls it the ‘narrative dare’ category of books – “I gave myself more and more outrageous narrative dares and there’s no idea so stupid you can’t write it.” He was inspired to write in this vein by the Monty Python sketch about semaphore-signalled Wuthering Heights from a flagpole. And his writing was his attempt to regain the classics for the people for whom they were written: his way of being “irreverently reverent.”

They moved on to discuss inspiration for writing. Fforde says, “The best lines come to you on the bus,” saying that though he is the most stringent enforcer of the ‘quiet carriage’ in London trains, he nonetheless loves eavesdropping on phone calls and conversations. As this is a fairly organic way of getting inspiration, Armstrong asked whether people who want to be writers should do a degree – does this blunt your individuality as a writer? Fforde thinks that perhaps the person who comes out of university and writes a brilliant novel was always a great writer – the best way to meet odd characters is to work with customers in a shop.

While Fforde’s fans are legion, they are extremely broad in demographic, and their common ground is a shared love of allusion. He has been known to sign the odd dodo – the dodo having been brought back from extinction in the Thursday Next novels. Fforde doesn’t mind weirdos – “what’s weird, anyway?” He likes to dream of a world where everybody has strong opinions about literature – where there are Hamlet hooligans, Capulet & Montague fans. At this point I was thinking Mallory Ortberg and he would get along very well, something an audience member noted during the Q & A.

Fforde_fiesta_logoAs I mentioned earlier, Fforde has his own literary festival, called the Fforde Fiesta – it was started by fans in 2005, though he did have input into the naming, and he is an essential part of proceedings. He says, “The fancy dress gala is like walking into my own head.” People dress up, and play all sorts of games, such as a Hamlet speed-soliloquy, Name that Fruit, Avoid the Question-time (based on what politicians do to avoid the question in parliament.” He is working on the eighth Thursday Next book at the moment, called Dark Reading Matter.

“Genre is the measles of the book world,” says Fforde. He thinks the world would be a better place if bookshops organised their books by colour or size. His favourite part of the library has always been the ‘Oversized’ category – it is where all genres meet. Fforde reads extremely broadly, and the only genre he is interested in is that of “good stories, well-written.”

cv_shades_of_greyFforde published a book called Shades of Grey in 2010, and the phenomenon of the other Shades of Grey we know about has proven to him just how important booksellers are. “I was hoping for a good percentage of “accidental sales.” He has had stories told him by booksellers of people asking them for ‘Shades of Grey’ and walked out with his book, despite the clerk knowing very well that wasn’t what they meant. They reasoned, “It was what they asked for, and it was better!”

The worlds that Fforde builds in his books are richly detailed and fascinating, so it was unsurprising to hear that the minutae of world-building is one of the reasons he enjoys writing so much.

This session reminded me why it was I loved Jasper Fforde’s work so much: I am greatly looking forward to catching up once again with Thursday Next and Pickwick, her dodo. I highly recommend you do too.

Attended and Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Jasper Fforde: Lost in a Good Book
5pm, Friday 11 March at The Embassy
Part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week

The Eyre Affair
Published by Hodder Paperback
ISBN 9780340733561

Shades of Grey
Published by Hodder Paperback
ISBN 9780340963050

Simon Winchester: Pacific Future, with Greg O’Brien

pp_simon_winchesterSimon Winchester still remembers the phone number that ultimately led to his success. He had written twelve books, and was well into planning on his thirteenth (having already bought a tramp steamer with his publishers’ money to staff for a book on trade routes around the world) when by chance, he saw a book called Chasing the Sun, by Jonathon Green – about dictionaries. In it, while relaxing in the bath, he read about Dr W.C. Minor, who was a major contributor to the Oxford Dictionary, and was fascinated by this murderous lunatic. He called a lexicographer friend – she of the number – and what she told him led him to write what was titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne in the UK, and The Madman and the Professor in the USA.

pp_gregory_obrienGreg O’Brien chaired this event, and his questions were perfectly pitched between levity and a clear admiration for what Winchester has achieved. Winchester was told by a Korean fortune teller that he would write 38 books exactly: so far, he is at 30, so eight more to come then. He is a non-conformist scholar, and the most general you can get when speaking of his books is that he studies the human record of things, though his degree was in geology.

One of the great things about Winchester’s books, says O’Brien, is that he has stood in the places he is speaking about – he doesn’t just read it, he lives it. Asked whether he serves Literature or Journalism as a master, Winchester said, “To write something in 12,000 words is easy; to write something in 100,000 words is easy, it just takes longer. But once you pare it down, it becomes more difficult.” He hasn’t done journalism, except long-form journalism, for some time now; his books are not what he would call journalism.

He started his life as a geologist until he read a book by James Morris, and wondered if perhaps he could write books instead. At Morris’ suggestion, he dropped geology and became a journalist, ultimately becoming a war correspondent. His first book was about Northern Island, where he had been stationed during the uprisings. His second, American Heartbeat, has still only sold 13 copies. I couldn’t help thinking then that if he had been publishing in today’s environment, that would have been his final opportunity! As it was, he got to 12 books before The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which he wrote in his early 50’s, just as he was worried he was being ‘put out to grass’ as a war correspondent.

cv_the_surgeon_of_crowthorneHis US publisher didn’t like the idea of this new book (as opposed to that of the ‘tramp steamer’ above) so they cancelled his contract, as books about a single person at that time were just not as popular in the trade. Ultimately, once the book was published, his agent found a USA publisher for it, and the rest was history. At the time it exploded, he was researching another book in Canada, tramping across the icy wastelands of the north when he received a radio transmission to make it to the nearest phone. This phone call ended in his being flown out of Canada, to New York, then back again to rejoin his expedition, for an interview with Mel Gusso, which ended (three months later) in a 4,000-word feature about Winchester and The Professor and the Madman in the Arts pages of the New York Times.

While the success of The Surgeon of Crowthorne gave him security as an author, Winchester thought that now his publishers had decided he can only write sure-fire bestsellers. This is a feeling echoed by Cornelia Funke in The Kids are All Right – there is a level of obscurity that can be helpful to creative freedom, it seems!

Winchester always writes on big topics, says O’Brien, often beginning with one person but ultimately enclosing a much broader topic. More recently, of course, he has begun writing books about oceans. “I had written a previous book about the Pacific,” said Winchester, “But it was bad. I wanted to right the wrongs.”

As Winchester works across so many topics and writes in such broad strokes, O’Brien asked him whether he gets in trouble with scholars when he publishes his books. While it doesn’t often happen, said Winchester, when he wrote The Map that Changed the World, he did get in trouble with a biographer of William Smith who had given him help with his research while he was writing the book. The expert’s book deal was cancelled thanks to Winchester’s book, so he accused Winchester publicly of plagiarism – luckily, this accusation never saw the light of day as it didn’t check out.

This was a fascinating session, which took in many dog-legs, including a long story about a well-known surveyor who successfully led a double life, simultaneously as a white man and a black man. This only became known upon his deathbed.

Simon Winchester is now working on a book about precision, and how it took over the world. This book will be a homage to his father, who was a precision engineer.

If you weren’t in the 700-odd-strong audience at The Embassy on Thursday, I suggest your have a listen to the Radio NZ recording of this session here. In the meantime, check some of Winchester’s books out – I certainly intend to.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Simon Winchester: Pacific Future
4.30pm, Thursday 10 March, Embassy Theatre
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

NB: This was actually the first event I attended at the Writer’s Festival, but the notes were trapped on my work computer until today. Apologies for the delay in reportage!


So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston

I had heard of Nicolas Fargues, though I’d only read one of his books. Well, one and a half. You see his latest book, I Was Behind You, has finally been translated into English. Fingers crossed they’ll follow suit with the other 9. In particular One Man Show. I’ve heard so much about it, I even read a third of it with a friend when I was in Paris about a decade ago. The problem was he read so slowly it drove me batty! I wanted to sit and have him read it to me all at once; he wanted to do other things. Like leave the house. How rude. Alas Fargues’ writing is far above my rudimentary schoolgirl French.

elegance_of_the_hedgehogMuriel Barbery also writes beyond my level of comprehension, but at least she’s frequently translated. Her novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been translated into many languages, it’s a New York Times best seller and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Her latest novel, The Life of Elves has also been translated and just as Hedgehog made a delightful film, I believe Elves will, too.

Apart from the fact they’re both French, it would be hard to find two more different writers. Barbery writes in a delicate, pleasantly bubbling style of warm interactions and discoveries of human nature. Of secrets uncovered to unite and build. Fargues on the other hand, writes with a pen dripping in scorn and insolence. His characters are mean; taunting karma and enraging the fates. They’re opposing factions – darkness and light. Perhaps that’s why they were a good match for this session.

Chair Andrew Johnson started the sold-out discussion by asking about French stereotypes. What is with that bored, disaffected, malaise that the French seem to have perfected?
Barbery went first. “It’s because we believe we could all be kings. We are the best. We are never satisfied. We have an eternal desire to make others look and feel ridiculous.”

Fargues agreed meanness was at the centre of the French way. “It’s bitterness really. We are bitter. As a French man you cannot merely admire. We can admire, but there MUST be a but… Being completely full of joy is impossible.” Speaking of his time traveling, and of the number of young French people who would rather work in places like New Zealand, Australia or Canada making coffee than go home to France and the troubled culture there, he summed it up succinctly. “We are a rich country but we’re not happy.”

muriel_barberyMuriel Barbery also spoke of France in terms of its abundance of assets. “We have everything we need but we still want more. We are spoiled. We are like spoiled children. The rest of the world knows this more than we do I think.”

Barbery also spoke about Romanian writer Emil Cioran, who was as successful writing in French as he was in his native language. Citing the way he mastered the language and wrote with a fluid beauty that only non-native speakers can find, his subject matter was often of the nature of France and her people, their spiritual and cultural unrest and dissatisfaction. Harsh realities wrapped in exquisite words.

nicolas farguesAgain Fargues took a more direct approach.”I love my country but I don’t want to live there anymore. It’s like loving a member of your family who isn’t taking care of themselves anymore. It’s too hard. You are better to love them from afar.

“You (in New Zealand) believe in your commonwealth. All of the countries in the French Republic, all the overseas collectivités and territories believe in the republic. Except one. France! We mock how they speak French. We laugh at how they claim to be French. It is wrong. We are wrong.

“We are ready for a change.”

chanel allure homme adsWhen it comes to change, we all know that the polished creatures we meet at Writers Festivals didn’t start out that way. Not all, but most, had other professions when they began their writing careers.

Muriel Barbery taught philosophy at a university, then at a teachers college before dedicating herself to writing full time. Nicolas Fargues has worked as a journalist and ran Alliance Française in Madagascar for a period of time. He also – and this is the first time I’ve ever found an author with this on their resume – modelled for Chanel as the face of their Allure: pour homme fragrance back in 2002. (left)

Currently the writer in residence at Randell Cottage, in Thorndon, Wellington; Fargues is here until the end of June. From there he’s unsure where he will go, though Quebec sounds like a distinct possibility.  The one place he’s sure it won’t be is Paris.

“Paris Syndrome is a real thing.” says Muriel Barbery. “People arrive and they’re disappointed. It’s not like the books. Or the movies.”

Right on cue, as if an author had written it, a lady in the front row spoke up “You’re right. It’s just not as French anymore.”

And with a wry smile and a cocked eyebrow from the guests of honour, SO FRENCH came to an end, and so did my Writers Week for 2016. Bring on 2018!


So French: Muriel Barbery & Nicolas Fargues in conversation with Andrew Johnston
2pm, Sunday 13 March, The Bats, Dome Theatre

The Elegance of the Hedgehog 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781933372600

The Life of Elves 
by Muriel Barbery
ISBN: 9781609453152

One Man Show
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9782070428861 (French edition)

I Was Behind You 
by Nicolas Fargues
ISBN: 9781906548056

A Short History of Decay
by Emil Cioran
ISBN: 9781559704649

Fits and Starts
by Andrew Johnston
ISBN: 9781776560615

Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?

I was really looking forward to this session, and I was not disappointed: authors Catherine Robertson, Witi Ihimaera, Paul Cleave and Paula Morris in conversation about the fiction of Aotearoa.

witi ihimaeraAlmost immediately, we ran up against the problem of nomenclature. Ihimaera talked a lot about ‘New Zealand literature’, by which he seemed to mean ‘New Zealand literary fiction’. He was obviously reveling in the role of provocateur, and delighted in lobbing conversational grenades such as “I write New Zealand literature, they [fellow panellists] don’t”; “New Zealand literature is dead (when you think about it statistically)”; “I can’t write crime fiction because it’s too far below me”. It was (mostly) received in good humour, though, and it was gratifying to see Bats Theatre packed out with people keen to join the conversation. The room was buzzing for the whole hour.

Cleave articulated a common problem when he said he was put off NZ fiction at school by being forced to study Owls Do Cry, which was not the kind of story he was after when he was a teenager. It gave him a long-lasting (but, he realises now, erroneous) impression that that’s what all NZ fiction is like. Cleave suggested that we need to get into schools and educate kids about the entire spectrum of our writing. Morris pointed out that the new initiative Hooked on NZ Books aims to help do that by providing a forum for young people to review NZ YA literature.

We heard a lot of ideas about what young people should or should not be doing and reading. Ihimaera suggested that literary festivals should have two-for-one tickets where adults have to bring a young person with them. He said “our young people like to see things, they don’t like to read things”, so we need to use visual media to reach them. He worries that the whakapapa of NZ literature isn’t being passed on. Morris bemoaned the fact that she sees tertiary students who still have Harry Potter notebooks, and says young people need, at some point, to put the things of childhood away and graduate to adult literature.

paula morrisI see her point, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with Morris there. During this session no one mentioned fan culture, and how it influences NZ readers’ behaviour. One of the reasons young adults continue to read Harry Potter despite no longer being children themselves is that they value being part of the fan community: it’s much wider than just the books. Perhaps some fruitful questions to consider in future literary festivals might be, which NZ authors are inspiring a fan community? How does that influence New Zealanders’ reading behaviour? Who is reading NZ fan fiction? How does NZ fan fiction fit into the wide and diverse landscape of NZ literature?

My fellow festival reviewers Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer – both in their 20s – have also made some interesting points about young people at literary festivals, which I think are pertinent to the question of who’s reading NZ fiction.

Graham says: “everyone wants to know both how we get more young people (a) along and (b) buying books, so that the industry will not die, but at the same time they don’t REALLY want young people there because they enjoy the whole Q and A at the end just being about how young people are crap and obsessed with their phones and Breaking Bad (which would be awkward in a room full of young people).

“Most of the young people I know read literary fiction (yes, on their phones) and also watch Breaking Bad. Yesterday, I finished a book of literary fiction and tonight I plan to binge-watch House of Cards. It’s just that a lot of us don’t feel like literary festivals are really for us. I don’t know how exactly this happened, but it is important when, as Witi pointed out, book awards and writers fests are the main ways that New Zealand writers get attention and promotion.”

Falconer said she really valued the Taking Form event at Writers Week (a panel discussion with writer Courtney Sina Meredith, graphic novelist Mariko Tamaki and artist and curator Kerry Ann Lee, chaired by Sarah Laing) because “the speakers are about 5-10 years older than me, and ask themselves a lot of the same questions about their work and life as I do my own.”

Catherine_Robertson_150There is also the problem of elitism. Robertson made the point that YA fiction is presented as all being on par, but when we become grown-ups, we’re expected to specialise and distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ qualities of writing. Ihimaera criticised literary festivals for being elitist, but at the same time insisted that we must have a literary canon to “write New Zealand into existence”. He said we’ve only a had a 30-year window (in the mid-to-late twentieth century) to say ‘this is New Zealand literature’. He finds it frightening to let that go. I was glad when Morris pointed out that there are lots of writers engaging with New Zealand-ness still, and producing all kinds of really interesting work.

It was fascinating to see the ways in which the panel members made value judgements about their own work. Morris, who has written both YA and literary fiction, frankly admitted that she considers her work for adults to be worth a lot more: people will forget her YA books but “Rangatira [a literary novel] is my contribution to the conversation about NZ literature”. She notes that authors have much more freedom in writing adult literary novels – but the penalty you pay is that publishers may not publish them and readers may not read them.

Cleave, PaulCleave, who writes crime fiction, said he would leave writing NZ culture to others. He has made a conscious decision not to market his books as NZ novels. Robertson, who writes romantic and contemporary fiction, pointed out that many commercially successful NZ authors are not well known here because we tend to celebrate the literary authors more.

Robertson made the excellent point that people read for many different reasons and should have all kinds of different books available to them to fulfil their varying needs. She said we need to scrutinise our own biases and our leftover colonial mentality that tells us that NZ writing isn’t as good as writing from overseas.

On the subject of internationality, I was intrigued to learn from Morris that in May she will be launching an Academy of New Zealand Literature. It will include genre-crossing work and Pasifika writing, and will help position and promote NZ writing overseas. Watch this space for more news on that.

Towards the end of the session, Ihimaera graciously told Cleave and Robertson that, contrary to what he had said earlier, “you do write New Zealand literature”. I agree with Morris that our books should and can contain everything about Aotearoa – and every Writers Week I discover a new aspect of that. Huge congratulations and grateful thanks to everyone involved in making it happen. See you next year!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?
2pm, Sunday 13 March, BATS Theatre
Part of NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Five Poets And A Prize

Five Poets And A Prize involved the reading of five poets’ work plus the presentation of the 2016 winner of the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award. Funded by Victoria University Press and the New Zealand Poetry Society, this award is given to a poet who has contributed greatly to New Zealand poetry.

Frances Edmond, Lauris’ daughter, starts the readings with one of Lauris’ own pieces: a poem titled In Position. She then introduces Dinah Hawken, a past recipient of the prize, as the first reader. Her poems are exact yet grand, and she explains that many of the poems she’s reading are about women and children, since they remind her of Lauris.

It is this threading of Lauris’ memory with each writer that makes the event feel whole. Bob Orr, the next poet, knew Lauris personally and reads samples of his latest book, Odysseus in Woolloomooloo. I loved the way he introduced his poems, sometimes giving an insight into the story and inspiration behind his pieces.

I especially loved listening to Claire Orchard read, since I enjoyed her debut poetry collection, Cold Water Cure, which was inspired by the life of Charles Darwin. Orchard reads snippets from this collection while also expanding the reason for this focus on Darwin: an interest in comparing the similarities between Victorian life and her own.It is this imaginary correspondence between Orchard and Darwin that fuels her pieces.

The fourth poet, Chris Tse, recently had his poetry collection How to be dead in a year of snakes shortlisted for the New Zealand Book Awards. Before the event, I’d never read his work, but such a striking title promises good poetry. Tse definitely delivers; his voice is strong and steady, detailing the metaphor of the snake found in man and humanity.

Next up is Harry Ricketts, and his first poem is a fitting piece that’s both about Lauris and BATS,the theme and venue of the event. In between his readings are small interludes where he talks about his own interactions with Lauris, including a little story about how someone in a café declared that Lauris definitely looked like someone famous… before deciding that she had to be Janet Frame.

The variation between these five poets covered a stunning breadth of place and time from both well-seasoned and newer writers. And when Frances Edmond announces that the 2016 winner of the award is Bob Orr, the audience bursts into applause. Shocked and humbled, Orr gives his thank yous. Like all great writers, he simply loves to write, stating, “I thought I’d just come here to read some poetry”. Overall, the event was a lovely selection of five poets who I will definitely be reading more of, including the worthy winner of a brilliant prize.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Shi

Five Poets and a Prize: Dinah Hawken, Bob Orr, Claire Orchard, Chris Tse and Harry Ricketts
BATS, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Cornelia Funke: Reckless, Fearless, Heartless, with Jo Randerson

corneliaBefore I delve into another session, I just want to say how lucky I feel to know so many children’s authors and brilliant people involved in working on behalf of children. These people are my people. They care deeply about children, and they work tirelessly – writing, teaching or providing gateways to books for children. They deserve a standing ovation for what they do, and it was a real privilege to be in the audience to see Cornelia Funke speaking about her life as a writer.

Funke started out as a social worker for disadvantaged children, as a way of rebelling from her parents (who wanted her to study art) to do something that she saw as much more necessary than art. She realised you can’t betray your talent, when she noticed herself drawing a lot with these children who she was helping. Ultimately, she became an illustrator, then started writing her own books when she didn’t like those the publishers supplied. Her books are now so popular she is able to fund organisations for the socially disadvantaged.

“Your mistakes will teach you – don’t ever let people tell you to take the straight road. Take the crooked road.”

Funke firmly believes that there is a story for everybody. She loves to find stories that she can write both for book-eaters like herself, as well as for those who “hate to read.” She was told a story by a teacher about a boy who stole his copy of Ghosthunters, then hid behind a bush at lunchtime to keep reading it. She says, “It is much more difficult to condense a book.” You need to do this to engage reluctant readers.

ghosthuntersChair Jo Randerson started a conversation about the inner child by quoting Maurice Sendak: “The child that I was didn’t grow into the adult that I am, but the child is still alive.”

“Until they are 10-11 , a child is still a shape-shifter,” says Cornelia. “I like to say I write for children, but I let grown-ups read it as well.” We are too restricted as adults. Children still ask the big questions. The older we get, the more we hide from these questions. She herself never has trouble with keeping her inner child. Her kids say she has the mental age of five.

Funke has an incredible awareness of children’s psyche when contemplating darkness – many are fascinated by skeletons, for instance. “It’s much scarier for the child when they notice the lie. It is when you hide things that children get scared by what you are not saying.” You have to be sensitive of when your child is ready for their awareness of the world – don’t put them in front of a war report at 5 years old. A book is a way to introduce things gently – children close the book when it gets too bad. “A book is a place where we can practice the dark side of life.”

Funke receives very touching letters from soldiers, dying children. She says “As writers and artists, we create shelter, because we all need it – but from this shelter, you need to hear the storm. You should always know that it is there. Every person has to face the storm at some point. Cruelty, darkness, grief, is all part of the human experience.”

pans labyrinthFunke’s favourite movie is Pan’s Labyrinth, because it explains fascism so brilliantly. “Fantasy is just a mirror – it is a very powerful way of talking about our world.” Her favourite fantasy book is The Once and Future King, by T. H. White. She added later, “If you can’t create your own fantasy, it makes it very difficult to change your reality.”

Funke is now writing the book of Pan’s Labyrinth. She is unpacking this compressed format into a bigger format – and this is the first time she has done this in English. She will need to translate it herself into German afterwards. She is keeping all of the dialogue because it is so brilliant, and simply adding the monologue.

Funke has had nine books made into movies: “You give them a flying carpet, and they hand you back an envelope.” She wanted more from this experience, so she went to Mirada, and asked them to help her allow kids to go to Mirrorworld. What they came out with was something called ‘a breathing book.’ She has also now created a breathing book out of Dragon Rider, and fell so much in love with the process that she wrote a whole novel during the process. “I am simply changing up the form – it is a new type of collaboration, with a new dialogue. I see it as a type of travel guide into a new world.”

While Funke loves technology, she is concerned that children no longer get to experience nature. Children need nature to be familiar to them. But Funke sees the development of technology as the only way to save the planet. The technologies scientists are still discovering are teaching us more about the world, which gives her hope.

The way Funke spoke about Inkworld being the same place as Mirrorworld, but 500 years earlier, made me think of Elizabeth Knox and her imaginary games and how they influence her diverse writing. Here is my review about Knox’s session last Writer’s Week.


There was a great amount of time for questions with this session, one that begun the questions was about how countries she has featured in books have coped with the tourism brought by these. Funke says that Venice, Salzburg Cathedral have both embraced it – but these are just small places. She is not sure how the whole country of New Zealand should live up to Middle Earth, but she hopes that in the future, our tourism industry will start paying attention to our unique taonga (my word), and displaying this on the walls in the airport instead of making us Disneyland.

Funke was asked how she has written through sadness in her life. She said: “We all lose so many things in our life. Sadness doesn’t contradict creativity, in fact it helps it. We all have to learn to embrace these times – I never feel unfocused when I am in pain or upset. We never learn better or faster. I am only vibrant and happy because I have been through darkness. The only thing is if you start hiding from the pain, that’s when it becomes very dangerous.” It makes it much harder when it finds you. She says “the most dangerous thing is comfort and security.”

This session made everybody in the audience think, about fantasy and its connection with reality, and about how darkness leads to lightness.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Cornelia Funke: Reckless, Fearless, Heartless, with Jo Randerson
2pm, The Embassy, 13 March 2016

Cool quotes I couldn’t fit into my review:
“Neil Gaiman is as exciting as you think he is. I think he’s not human, by the way. I think he is an elf.”

Her advice for those who have never written before: “Start with a one-page short story and make it better.”

And good news for Inkworld fans: Funke is writing a book called The Colour of Revenge, which is a sequel to the ‘Ink’ series. There was an audible gasp at this.