Comics and Roses – a review of two events, Monday 10 March

Comicsville, featuring Adrian Kinnaird, Dylan Horrocks, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy

My first Writers Week event today (Monday) was Comicsville, a panel discussion at the Hannah Playhouse on New Zealand comics. It was chaired by Dylan Horrocks and featured Adrian Kinnaird, Jonathan King and Robyn Kenealy; cartoonists all. I also spotted Alison Bechdel in the audience, and later saw that she had tweeted a drawing she’d done of Horrocks.

As with Sunday’s session with Bechdel, it was slightly pp_robyn_kenealystrange to have a discussion about comics without having any of them on display, but conversation was lively nonetheless. I was particularly glad to be continuing my trend of discovering interesting female authors: today’s ‘find’ is Kenealy (right). Deeply involved in the fan community, she spoke intelligently and with academic insight about the place of fan-fiction and the nature of self-publishing, very hot topics in the publishing world today. Normally, being drawn to an intriguing new author, I would immediately go and buy the book, but she said very openly that she is not trying to make money from comics and only self-publishes, mostly online. You can find her work here and here.
The book that was available for sale, though, is the new and very colourful From Earth’s End by Kinnaird (left). It’s a history of New Zealand comics and a snapshot of Kiwi cartoonists today. Flicking through my copy, I was immediately struck by the dearth of women: apart from Kenealy, apparently we pretty much just have Sarah Laing, and that’s about it. Surely that can’t be right? What about Li Chen, for example? (Closer study reveals that Chen is mentioned on page 88, but is not one of the thirty cartoonists with their own dedicated chapter.)

Being a word geek, I was particularly interested to learn from Horrocks that ‘graphic’ comes from a word meaning both to draw and to write; and that comics in te reo Maori are pakiwaituhi, which similarly indicates a story both drawn and written. This came up after a very lively discussion of the term ‘graphic novel’, which apparently has become a posh, literary term for comics generally – a rather back-handed compliment, as it implies comics need euphemising.

Overall, I left feeling that New Zealand comics are in an interesting and fruitful state, with digital publishing reaching new audiences unbounded by geography or paper distribution. Lots to look forward to.

A Rosie Glow, featuring Graeme Simsion (with a little bit of Catton comparison)

My third Writers Weekpp_graeme_simsion event today (Monday) was A Rosie Glow; Lynn Freeman in conversation with Graeme Simsion, author of the New York Times bestselling novel, The Rosie Project. Unlike previous sessions, this felt very much like a standard author talk pitched explicitly towards increasing book sales.

And indeed Simsion admitted that, since publication, his life has become one long publicity tour – full credit to him for still seeming engaged and genuinely pleased to talk to fans. The fact that this was the second time that Freeman had interviewed him on this topic, though, unfortunately intensified the feeling of stale, recycled material.

It was perhaps a rather cruel and unusual act of scheduling to put Simsion’s talk on the Embassy Theatre stage immediately before Eleanor Catton’s extraordinary New Zealand Book Council lecture (entitled “Paradox and change in fiction”). In many ways, Simsion’s and Catton’s lives could be seen as parallel: they are both relatively new Australasian authors who have rapidly become life-changingly famous and, based on the success of one novel, are both now able to be full-time professional writers. But of course they are very different people.

Simsion spoke a lot about his protagonist, Don Tillman, and how he has a Twitter account in which he tweets in Tillman’s voice, and how there is a Tillman sequel planned. Catton didn’t mention The Luminaries or any of her characters at all, and instead spoke with calm but ferocious intelligence about huge ideas, ranging from the way fiction requires both ingenuity and insight in order to succeed, to the nature of space and time in narrative.

Simsion appeared happy to basically keep writing the same book until its popularity ran out – and, indeed, since it obviously ain’t broke, this is a perfectly cromulent strategy. Catton displayed a dizzying intellectual ravenousness that seemed to eat up subjects ranging widely within her chosen field of literature and beyond. When a member of the audience asked when she plans to publish a book of essays, she responded simply “soon”.

Once again I have ended a day of Writers Week events inspired and buzzing. Bring on tomorrow!

by Elizabeth Heritage, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Reviewing the Reviewer and Drawing from Life, Sunday 9 March

Reviewing the Reviewer, featuring Terry Castle in conversation with Harry Ricketts

My Writers Week 2014 got off to an excellent start terry_castlewith Reviewing the Reviewer, Terry Castle in conversation with Harry Ricketts. They are both celebrated authors, academics and reviewers; Terry Castle based at Stanford, and Harry Ricketts at VUW. Ricketts also edits the review journal NZ Books, of which there were complimentary copies waiting for us on the seats.

I had gone along to this event purely based on the title: I am a publisher and book reviewer myself, and enjoy hearing others’ thoughts on books, literary criticism, and the place of book reviewing in today’s culture. In the event, neither Castle nor Ricketts spent much time talking about reviewing, but it didn’t matter: just spending time with two such interesting, intelligent, thoughtful, funny people was an immense pleasure. They were both losing their voices – Ricketts apologised for sounding like “a cross between a late Bob Dylan and a third-rate movie gangster” – but had an excellent rapport, so no one minded the odd croak.

the_professorAfter some conversation, Castle read from her latest book, The Professor: A Sentimental Education; a memoir and collection of essays. The excerpt she read was well written, engaging, perceptive and very, very funny – spurred by the opportunity to get her to sign it, I purchased it afterwards at the excellent Unity Books stall upstairs at the Embassy Theatre. To my delight, reading it is like still being in the theatre and listening to Castle tell stories. What a joy to have made a new literary friend.

Drawing from Life, featuring Alison Bechdel in conversation with Moira Clunie

Before today, the only thing I knew about alison_bechdelAlison Bechdel was that she had invented the Bechdel Test (a test to which one subjects a movie: does it have two named female characters? do they have an onscreen conversation about something other than a man? It is horrifying how many films fail). Now, as with many things, it turns out I didn’t ‘know’ this at all: Bechdel says that it comes from a friend of hers who took it from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

It turns out that my small process of unknowing was peculiarly appropriate: interviewed by Alphabet City director Moira Clunie, Bechdel spent a lot of time talking about her desire to pursue truth and facts; and how, in the context of memoir, these become troubled and multi-faceted. Bechdel is a celebrated cartoonist, author of the long-running comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For and the autobiographical graphic novels about her parents, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? (also available from the Unity Books stall), the latter of which has been made into an off-Broadway musical.

As I listened to Bechdel talk, I was struck by intriguing contradictions: she said she felt naked and vulnerable being onstage without any of her artwork there “to hide behind”, yet her published work is intimately autobiographical. She spoke repeatedly of her need to tell the truth, and fear of lying, yet said she wanted to move away from using digital cameras and image research in her work because they make it too realistic and detailed. She described herself as shy and also as an exhibitionist. She spoke about how language and appearances can be deceiving, yet one can arrive at the truth by “‘triangulating” them. Overall I found her a fascinating presence.

I came away from the Embassy Theatre today with my head in that pleasurable buzz that only comes from new ideas. Bring on more Writers Week events tomorrow!

by Elizabeth Heritage, blogging on behalf of Booksellers NZ.


While Terry Castle is doing another event tomorrow afternoon at 3pm – High Tea with Terry Castle, unfortunately this is all sold out. As Elizabeth suggests – perhaps try the book!