AWF18: Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

AWF18: Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

‘Fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and short story writer Karen Joy Fowler is the author of New York Times bestseller The Jane Austen Book Club and the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award Winner / Booker shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.’

Tara Black attended her session with Kate De Goldi at Auckland Writers Festival.

Karen Joy Fowler by Tara Black

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black


Karen Joy Fowler will also appear in:

Ode to Ursula
Sun, 20 May 2018, 1:30pm – 2:30pm
Heartland Festival Room, Aotea Square

AWF18: The Creative Brain, with David Eagleman

Superstar neuroscientist David Eagleman’s latest book, co-authored with composer Anthony Brandt, is The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes The World.

Tara Black attended a session called The Creative Brain, on behalf of Booksellers NZ, and created this illustration of notes.

David Eagleman’s other event is:

Brain Waves: David Eagleman in conversation with Toby Manhire
Sunday, 20 May 2018, 10:30am – 11:30am
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre

Book Review: Ponti, by Sharlene Teo

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Sharlene Teo is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend, interviewed by Acorn Foundation winner Pip Adam. 

cv_pontiUK-based Singapore novelist Sharlene Teo’s absorbing debut examines the complexities of teenage friendship, the realities of mother-daughter relationships and the affecting power of memory.

Spanning from the late 1960s up until the not-so-distant future of 2020, Ponti is narrated by three Singaporean women. Szu Min (2003), a solitary sixteen-year-old who is haunted by her mother’s early stardom and her own comparatively lacklustre life; Amisa (1960s–2000s), a one-time starlet of a trilogy of seventies horror cult films; and Circe (2020), Szu’s privileged friend who is now a disenchanted thirty-two-year-old social media consultant. Having lost contact with Szu over a decade ago, in 2020 Circe is tasked with promoting a remake of the Ponti! film trilogy in which Amisa starred – a task that brings back haunting memories of her teenage years. Switching chapter-by-chapter between the central protagonists, Teo effortlessly interlaces past, present and future into a deceptively simple but subversively complex narrative.

Teo’s visceral and vibrant writing is captivating in its originality. Drawing beauty from gritty reality and never shying away from the blunt realities of life and death, Teo writes with an accessible and emotionally evocative prose. The metaphysical become physical: time is a ‘pit’ nested in a chest, pain is a heaviness to be dragged around, and sadness ‘drips’ over furniture and sucks ‘the light out of the room’. The protagonists’ mental health struggles are frankly portrayed, from Szu’s eating disorder and devastating loneliness, to the ‘exquisitely etched stencil’ of Amisa and her ‘bloated and foggy’ postpartum depression.

As a ‘teen’ story, Ponti is unique: it centres on the experience of two ‘citizens of nowhere’ teenage girls who are proudly and unapologetically themselves. While Szu and Circe ‘never felt a belonging’, they revel in their outcast status and feel ‘secretly enlivened by our discontentment’. Their complicated relationship is described as a ‘tenuous, milk-toothed kind of love’ that evolves into ‘the toil and torpor of a difficult marriage’. Teo expertly captures the fraught nature of teenage life and the difficulties of learning how to express thoughts and emotions in a world that so often doesn’t want to listen. A novel awash with pop culture references, readers are sure to find the familiar mingled with the unfamiliar, creating a reading sensation that is simultaneously nostalgic and enlightening.

Ultimately, Ponti is a tale of a city. Singapore is depicted in unabashed reality: not as a stereotyped exotic paradise, but as a bustling metropolis bursting at its seams; a poverty ridden city-state, humid and polluted, liberal and advanced. Through the protagonists’ personal narratives, Teo records the rapidly changing nature of south-east Asia over the last three decades, where new ideals and technologies are juxtaposed against entrenched social mores. Flavours of Singapore life pervade the pages, not only through vivid descriptions of food (‘candied orange peel, fried cuttlefish, chilli kangdong’), but also through colours (‘lines emerge like litmus blooming through filter paper: neon pink, acid green, boudoir red’; ‘the aquarium light shifted from purple into teal . . . turned the green of cartoon slime, nuclear waste’). The sticky heat and haze of pollution oppresses Singapore as much as the past oppresses the protagonists.

Based around the Malayan myth of the pontianak – a cannibalistic female ghoul who hunts and kills men – supernatural influences insidiously seep through the social realism of the novel. Like its mythological phantom namesake, Ponti will quickly ensnare readers with its muscular prose and radiant beauty, but its haunting emotional resonance will leave some gasping for air. It is a visceral, lush debut.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

by Sharlene Teo
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509855322


AWF18: A. S. King at Schools Fest

A. S. King’s books are available from the festival book stalls run by The Women’s Bookshop and Unity Books Auckland, and all good booksellers.

This review is written from the Wednesday morning session at AWF Schools Fest.

amy-sairg-king.jpgI don’t think that there were many people who left the theatre after this powerful presentation, who didn’t feel in awe of Amy Sarig King. She spoke more truth than I’ve heard spoken to teens in a long time, which I ought to have expected after reading most of her books!

Amy began by saying a can of succotash began her as a writer. The thread of this didn’t become clear until later in the presentation, something that frequently happens with the threads of plot in her books.

She self-identifies as a nerd. In fourth grade, she got the components to build an Apple Plus computer – this was in 1979, when computers weren’t common, but she and her dad shared this passion. She also loved mathematics. In seventh grade, age 13, she was told by an old teacher in the final year of his teaching career that girls shouldn’t bother putting their hand up in maths because they don’t need it. Of course she put her hand up every class for the rest of the year, but her grades tanked because of the lack of confidence this attitude gave her. And the bullying.

This was not a traditional ‘author get up and talk about their books’ talk. While her books have a lot in common with her talk, she was talking ‘real talk’ to teens.

She was bullied at school – she was different – she was tall, dressed in man’s clothes because those made for girls didn’t fit her, played basketball. She says ‘Rumours don’t stop. But you are in control of them. They can come in your ear but not out of your mouth.’

The first author who inspired her to wish to be a writer was Paul Zindel, whom she read in 8th grade. ‘I wanted to make books that helped adults understand teens better, and that helped teens understand adults better.’ She has achieved this – this is something that is particularly clear in Still Life with Tornadoes, which is about domestic violence. It was the first time, possibly ever, that I had seen a parents’ perspective (a Mother’s perspective) put forward in a YA title.

She began writing in earnest aged 24, and had written eight novels by the time she was 40, which was when she finally began being published. She speaks of receiving rejections – she had 500 by the time she was published – and said she had flipped it around by the end. She saw them as invitations to submit to other places, rather than as rejections. Her first book was ultimately published when a publisher rang her agent and said ‘Have you got anything weird?’

Age 15, she was given a review assignment, which she chose to write from the first-person point of view of a can of succotash – the last one left on a shelf during a blizzard. Her teacher didn’t ask her to re-write it more normally. She also did a journaling assignment about that time, and continued this practice until she was 23, just writing about her life.

‘The idea that you should be happy all the time is unreasonable.’ She is a parent of teens now, and is confronted with this daily. It’s hard as a parent, she says, not to say ‘it will be better tomorrow.’ It might not, too! When in Ireland she worked in adult literacy, with a lot of people who had been scarred by their experiences in the education system of the 1960’s and 70’s – when corporal punishment was the norm. She learned in this time that anything that you are hiding from yourself – about yourself – will trip you up later in life. ‘If we can’t talk about the tough things, it is hard to set the world to rights.’

Amy then talked about the importance of packing your own luggage for your life, and choosing carefully the things that stay in it. Then repack it, with the good things not the bad. You will fail in life at times – you will make mistakes, and she likes to say ‘If I’m not making 10 mistakes a day, I’m not living.’ She has learned to enjoy rejections – even submitting at least a couple of short stories a year to The New Yorker, to ensure she is never short of at least one a year.

can of succotash.jpgBack to the succotash. She hates succotash. Writing from the point of view of a lonely can of succotash was just a way of stating ‘I am lonely. I hate myself.’ And here’s the thing – and something I’ve never heard said or seen written by any counsellor anywhere – that is Normal.

While the teenagers in the audience were slow to start asking questions in this session – understandably so, they were probably still processing the truth bombs – the questions were very high quality. Amy answered each of them considerately and with compassion.

During this session, the whole time she was on stage, Chris Riddell drew as Amy spoke, and as she answered her questions he showed some of his sketches. She had talked about wanting one day to do a graphic memoir, and Chris was interested – watch this space.

While I think that those who go to A. S. King’s adult session may hear quite different things, I’d absolutely recommend it for both adults and teens. She has a unique perspective on the world, and her books show it. Buy them, get them out from the library, recommend them to the young people in your life.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Still Life with Tornado
Text Publishing

Please Ignore Vera Dietz
Text Publishing

Please go to her public session:
Still Lives: A.S. King
in conversation with Kate De Goldi
2.30 – 3.30pm in Heartland Festival Room, Aotea Centre, Saturday 19 May

postscript: I met her and she was lovely and signed my book and it was awesome! Thanks, Amy!

AWF18: Rewa Worley, at SchoolsFest

Written from notes taken at the Intermediate session of SchoolsFest 2018, at the Auckland Writers Festival.

rewa worleyWhoever decided a few years ago to start including slam poetry as part of the SchoolsFest is an absolute genius. I came across Maxine Beneba Clarke in this way, and she went on to become one of my favourite poets and writers.

Rewa Worley has been part of the spoken word poetry scene for years, traveling around schools in New Zealand and the world. He is a founder of the Waxed Poetic Revival and a member of the South Auckland Poets Collective, and the Black Friars Theatre Company. He is a high school Science teacher, as well as being a poet.

Rewa was mind-blowing. His poetry was fantastic, weaving elements of Te Ao Maori and his own personal life into wordscapes that took you on a journey. He had the kids eating out of his hand, and when chaos reigned, he got them back by getting them to repeat a pattern – finger snap, clap, foot stomp, wee-hoo. (I’m not sure how that is written…)

Rewa said he started writing as a way to find a place that he could find home, to find his whanau, to find himself. He said ‘I discovered who I was on the page.’ This was where he found he could express things he couldn’t – yet – in person. He was working on a biology degree (his initial intention was to become a doctor), but fell in love in the meantime with performing and writing poetry, doing a 12 week course with Grace Taylor through Rising Voices. And decided that was what he wanted to do forever.

During this session he wasn’t just reading – he was telling parts of his journey – but he was also telling the students the basics of creating poetry. He got everybody to stand up and tell somebody they’d never met before who they were, where they were from, and what they enjoyed about the Festival so far. I met a parent who was helping with Remuera Intermediate’s class visit, and her Year 13 taught slam poetry at the school.

Rewa said ‘The trick to poetry is to make it sound really cool’. No matter what you are writing about/ He showed this later, explaining a hidden piece of nerdery (a kenomatic equation) within a love poem he had read to us. Another key is to be courageous. With that in mind, he pulled five kids up and asked them each to tell him their name, school, what they liked about AWF so far, and then give him an emotion (they were: excited, happy, sadness, anger, anxiety). Getting up there showed courage.

He then led the audience through the construction of a five senses poem, asking them to think about ‘Happiness’ and asking them to think of happiness in terms of the five senses – sight, taste, scent, touch, and sound. The audience then supplied words, which he brought into a poem effortlessly. I wrote my own, which I won’t disclose unless somebody reads this and is curious and asks…

This exercise was about writing a wordbank for your poems.

His final poem was about teaching as a gift. He loves being a teacher, being able to make that real impact on student’s lives, no matter where they are from, what poverty they have known.

I think all the adults (at least) left the session wanting to be as passionate about their calling as Rewa was about his own dual calling. I certainly did.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Rewa Worley will be at SchoolsFest tomorrow, and also appears at:

Walk on High at ‘Say it to my face’
When: 6.30pm – 8pm, Friday 19 May

Go and see him!




AWF18: Chris Riddell, at SchoolsFest

Written from notes taken at the Intermediate schools session at AWF18 SchoolsFest.

chris riddell insta sketch
Every time Chris made a mark on his paper it was bound for the centre of his story. I have never seen anybody tell stories and draw simultaneously with quite as much success as Chris. While there were dog-legs galore, at no point did he lose track of what he was saying, on words or in illustration. I guess that’s what comes of doing what he does for 30-odd years.

All of the students at this session seemed to know who they had come for, which speaks volumes in terms of how successful the teachers were in preparing them for this session.

Chris told the story of how he began his illustration career, with an image of him as a 3-year-old, drawing on his father’s Study walls with crayons. After that, his mother knew to keep plenty of paper in stock at all times. She used his love of drawing to her advantage, too – his father was a Vicar and he liked to cause mischief in church (he drew his mischief as he went). Loud mischief. So she bribed him – if he was quiet up until the sermon, she would give him a pencil and paper and let him draw: and there was a counter-bribe in the person of Mrs Stock, who would give him wine gums in return for his drawings. (I suspect these will turn up on Antiques Roadshow in about 50 years, when somebody realises their significance).

The result of this formative experience was that he realised early on that he wanted to draw, and be given wine gums for his drawings. Which, as he noted later, is exactly what he does – he is regularly met by fans with wine gums after his sessions (HOT TIP FOR THOSE ATTENDING TOMORROW NIGHT: WINE GUMS).

Chris was taught to draw – well, to illustrate – by Raymond Briggs. He particularly enjoyed drawing Alsatian from the Narnia books. He was an adult before he realised it was Aslan all along, and later put Alsatian the Lion Cub into his Goth Girl books. This story segued into how he had to live decorate a Snowdog (from Snowman and Snowdog) for charity, and decided on fur all over, realising too late that this would mean a bare bottom. A problem he solved with undies on the dog, with a sign ‘nothing to see here.’

If you have read Tara Black’s interview with Chris Riddell, you will know that when he shopped his books to publishers one eventually said ‘but where are your stories’. He promised to come back the next day with one, and spun out his first picture book Mr Underbed as a result. Thank you, Klaus with the mobile eyebrows, for appreciating his talent! (If you haven’t read Tara’s interview, do click through above. You’re welcome.)

An Editor at The Economist read The Trouble with Elephants to his child one night, then called Chris up and asked him if he’d like to do some political cartoons. Chris asked how much it paid ($$$!) and said YES PLEASE. So this stream of his work was born. He stayed there 9 years, and continues to work for The Guardian as a political cartoonist, an aspect of his work which he will engage more with tomorrow evening.

I can’t urge you enough if you haven’t got a ticket, to go and get one. Chris is a true raconteur, one of those rare beasts you meet often enough at Writers Festivals, but only occasionally in the real world – or at least here in New Zealand. He even managed to weave a story around how he became a social media afficianado, beseeching the audience to keep his endorphin spikes coming by giving his posts ‘Lots of Blue Thumbs.’

The kids at the session were respectful and thoughtful with their questions, asking the usual standards – what his favourite book he’d illustrated was (Coraline, by Neil Gaiman), whether he could draw Trump (he has actually drawn him into Goth Girl & The Sinister Symphony, which comes out here in October) and what his favourite type of book to illustrate is (Goth Girl / junior fiction because it has a lot of pages).

He gave long interesting answers to what were simple questions, and I think everybody walked out of there feeling emotionally attached to this regular-joe-looking illustrator with the brilliant mind.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Ottoline and the Purple Fox
Published by Macmillan
Released 17 May 2018

Chris Riddell will be at the school sessions tomorrow, and doing a public session, about which you can find out more below.

The Sketcher: Chris Riddell
5.30pm, Wednesday 16 May, ASB Theatre
Auckland Writers Festival 2018







AWF17: 2017 Honoured New Zealand Writer, Dame Fiona Kidman

This was the session I had been waiting all weekend for. What a national treasure this woman is. A true heroine of New Zealand publishing, but more importantly of telling the stories of women’s lives in this country. I have read three of her books in the last six months, I love what she writes, I love what she represents, I love what she has done for women’s issues, for working tirelessly for writers in this country, for being happy to spread her knowledge, her experience and love of writing.

This was the last session of the festival. I would love to have seen more people attending – it was free – but those who did attend were treated to a most special and moving session, celebrating the life and achievements of Dame Fiona. She is in esteemed company, previous winners are CK Stead, Vincent O’Sullivan, Patricia Grace, Albert Wendt, and Maurice Gee.

The equally divine Paula Morris chaired this session, and what a wonderful job she did. Her admiration for Dame Fiona shone through, she was welcoming, gracious and gently probing in equal measure, her own awe more than apparent. She conducted the session more as gentle prompt to Dame Fiona, leaving Dame Fiona to hold the floor with her own story. Before the session got properly underway, we were entertained with a group of colonial dressed women singing a traditional Gaelic song. They were from the town of Waipu, originally settled by Scottish immigrants in the 1850s, and where Dame Fiona lived for much of her childhood.

Dame Fiona seems somewhat bemused at the pathway her life has taken. She said she is just a small-town girl who dared to dream. She also made the comment that decisions we make when young have massive impact on our futures – the ‘power of early made decisions’ as she called it. She also said she was a ‘difficult’ child, and maybe for the times – the 1940s – she was. She was an only child so no comparisons with siblings possible, plus her parents were very Presbyterian in their mind set, where conformity was key. She says she was a lonely child, and when the small family moved to Rotorua she found a refuge in the local library.

pp_fiona_kidman_smlI was thinking while Dame Fiona was talking about this time in her life, the importance of having a significant adult in your life who is not a parent. For Dame Fiona it was the local librarian, whose name now escapes me. She introduced Dame Fiona to the classics, languages, other ideas. On leaving school, university was not an option as her parents could not afford it, she didn’t want to be a school teacher or dental nurse or secretary like so many of her peers. So she went to work in the library with this amazing woman.

She recounted her courtship with husband Ian, a school teacher, and as she said ‘married outside expectations’, Ian being of Maori descent. Settling into a life of domesticity and babies in 1960s suburban Rotorua did not come easily, with all its expectations of normality, and writing being a most unconventional thing to do. The family moved to Wellington, where Dame Fiona and Ian still live. She started writing poetry, along with other women, including Lauris Edmonds, with whom she had the most wonderful friendship, lasting until Lauris’ death in 2000. She read out a poem, ‘Grass Street’, the street where Lauris and her family had lived. A very beautiful and poignant poem.

These women belonged to what the likes of Denis Glover and Kendrick Smithyman called the ‘Menstrual School of Poetry’. Not all men were so unsupportive: Bruce Mason was a great mentor, which lead to her writing radio drama with Julian Dicken, both these men contributing a huge amount to her development and career, and to whom she said she owes a great deal. So she was writing for a living long before she was first published.

The strange thing listening to her recount her early days as a professional writer, her difficulties in getting work, being recognised and respected for her writings, her views and herself, is that I didn’t feel I was listening to a fire brand, an activist, a fighter, a difficult child. She almost sounded surprised that life for her had turned out this way.

cv_a-breed_of_womenHer poetry was first published in 1975, serendipitously in the same year as International Women’s Year. Her activist spark had been ignited, and now there was not stopping her. She really caught everyone’s attention with her 1978 novel A Breed of Women, which thrust her into the limelight. It sounds like there was quite a lot of controversy with this novel, a young woman daring to be different, to follow her heart, even if it goes against the conventions of the times. In her words, she became an ‘accidental feminist’, with her subconscious belief system suddenly there for all to see, and at times not all that easy to deal with.

Paula Morris then got Dame Fiona to talk a bit more about how she writes, and where her stimulation for stories and characters comes from. Character seems to be the most important component for her. She goes for strong, brave women, such as Jean Batten, Betty Guard from The Captive Wife, Irene in All Day at the Movies, Harriet in A Breed of Women. She likes to get inside her characters, she chats with them, saves her best dialogue for them. She loves the research too – flying as many of Jean Batten’s routes as possible, wearing a white flying suit and flowing scarf, even doing aerobatics!

cv_all_day_at_the_moviesHer latest book is All Day at the Movies, which Lauris Edmonds’ daughter Frances read an excerpt from. Marvellous. I remember when reading this book that Dame Fiona covered almost the entire length of the country, even as far away as offshore islands. She made mention that this book is a testament to small towns, a lament for their loss.

Always, always, always Dame Fiona’s focus has been on making things happen, and not being afraid to do so. Way back in her Rotorua days she began a literary event. She saw how it lit up the town, and resolved to keep doing it. She was the first person to run the NZ Book Council, PEN, and started the ‘Words on Wheels’ tours targeting small towns and rural areas in New Zealand, which grew out of a similar programme in Australia where it is done on trains. And she is still an activist, her and Ian recently joining the Pike River protest. Quite a dame!

Finally, she shared with us all a second poem, a tribute to her husband Ian about the Hokianga. Again, very beautiful, heart felt and emotional. I think we all had a tear in the eye by the time the reading was finished.

But wait, there was more! Festival Director, Anne O’Brien, presented Dame Fiona with a pounamu, thanking her for her life-long contribution to the literature and stories of New Zealand. The Waipu bonnets sang for us again, and it was over. A wonderful end.

Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Dame Fiona Kidman was honoured on 21 May, 6.00 – 7.00pm in the ASB Theatre

All Day at the Movies
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9781775538905

AWF17: Must Not Reads

This was another free session, and well attended with as many men as women, plus a wide age range. It had all the indicators of being a lively and humorous session with the panel consisting of the wonderful Stephanie Johnson; scriptwriter and film director Roseanne Liang; lawyer, reviewer and author Brannavan Gnanalingam; and Bill Manhire. The session was chaired by writer and editor Rosabel Tan, although I did feel that she was overshadowed by some of her panelists.

fourWe are regularly inundated with lists of books to read before you die, lists to read on a longhaul flight, lists to read to your grandchildren, top 10 Dickens, top 10 authors you have never heard of, Reader’s Digest 14 books you really should have read by now. I feel the vast majority of these pretentious lists are generally designed to put us all on some sort of guilt trip as to how inadequate we are as intelligent readers. So, I was looking for a bit of light relief in the book lists department, especially in the closing hours of a Sunday afternoon at the end of a very stimulating and busy weekend.

And we got off to a great start with Stephanie’s blast from the past – Harold Robbins. Ooooh yes, this was something most attendees could relate to. Her father was a great HR fan, and Stephanie being the voracious reader she was, first picked up HR at the tender age of ten. I trust her father didn’t know. She then proceeded to read out a seduction scene from one of the novels, which had us all falling about ourselves with laughter, in all its illustrative glory. He was a master with words that Harold Robbins, and in less sophisticated times it made him millions.

Roseanne continued the theme with 50 Shades of Grey – oh dear. Truly awful. She asked how many in the audience had read this, a brave few put up their hands. I can say, hand on heart, I haven’t read any or seen the movies. The subject matter put me off, as well as having teenage daughters at the time it was up to me to set the good example. I felt vindicated when I later found out how truly badly written they were. These were Roseanne’s points too, stressing how atrocious the writing is, the awful story, and her disbelief that is this what woman really want to be reading about. She made some great points, and then asked Bill to read aloud a seduction scene in his best seduction voice. Awful in every possible way, but made the point.

cv_a_bend_in_the-RiverBrannavan, bless him, had never heard of Harold Robbins. But then I would say most of us had never heard of his choice of book – A Bend in the River by VS Naipul. I am not entirely sure why he chose this book, other than his comment that a white writer would never have got away with writing a book such as this. Naipul won a Nobel Prize for this book, which in Brannavan’s opinion treats Africa as a pathological place where violence is always present. He made a comparison later in the session to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Bill wanted to ‘dredge up old grievances’ as stated in the Festival programme, with specific mention of old high school teachers and their dubious expertise in adequately teaching poetry. A recently received newsletter from his local garden centre really got up his nose. Time to plant spring bulbs and ‘Daffodils’ by Wordsworth the perfect device. But shock horror, oh no, someone had centered all the lines, rather than printing it in its original format. Bill hates line centred text. And to add insult to the already injured, the whole poem was in italic font. In Bill’s opinion, graphic designers and italic typographers are the true enemies of poetry, more so than high school teachers.

cv_zealotStephanie introduced her second offering – Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, a previous Writers’ Festival guest. This sounded a bit heavy, all about Jesus the man, rather than the pivotal religious figure he became after his death. Stephanie explained that this book, although extremely well written, researched, very powerful and heartfelt, did negatively impact on her own Christian faith.

Bill also had a book in the Jesus theme, and this sounded very bizarre. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti: A Psychological Study by Milton Rokeach. Bill read this when he was a young man, and I am not at all surprised it has stayed with him over the years. Rokeach was a social psychologist, and took three paranoid schizophrenics who each believed he was Jesus Christ. He put them in a room together and observed what happened. Bill said that something like this would not get past an ethics committee today – it was 1959 – but it did leave a great impression.

cv_not_that_kind_of_girlRoseanne stayed with the young women theme in her choice of Lena Dunham’s memoir Not That Kind of Girl. Many in the audience would not have known who Lena Dunham is, so that took a bit of explaining. Roseanne had been a great fan of Dunham, seeing her as an excellent role model for young women with her TV show Girls, but the book fell completely flat because she simply had absolutely nothing to say. Dining out on the fact that she is Lena Dunham and that is it.

There was some discussion on how it is to read books enjoyed as a young person, and reread them some years later. Brannavan mentioned Jack Kerouac’s On the Road which he enjoyed immensely when he was a younger man, and now not so much. Which led Bill to mention Enid Blyton. If there was ever an author that grown-ups found all sorts of things wrong with, and conversely, whose books children absolutely adored – talk about polarising – then Enid Blyton is it. Yes, there was so much wrong with what this woman wanted to say, but oh did she write some great stories! Bill mentioned The Magic Faraway Tree, chock full of imagery and the tree climbing to heaven. But children don’t see the heavy messaging, they simply see a fantasy magical story, and isn’t that what reading for pleasure is all about – taking us someplace else.

This was an interesting session, and always good to get others’ views on books they have read, especially such a well-read and articulate group of writers as this one. The dominant themes were sex and religion, and some politics would have completed the trifecta. For me, I would have liked perhaps that the chosen books were a little more well known, which would have made the audience feel more involved in the discussion taking place, rather than as observers watching an impromptu show.

Attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray

AWF17: Must Not Reads featured Brannavan Gnanalingam, Stephanie Johnson, Roseanne Liang and Bill Manhire. The session was chaired by Rosabel Tan
Sunday, 21 MAY 2017, 4:30pm – 5:30pm


AWF17: Old Guard, New Guard – Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird

This session was on Saturday 20 May, 4.30 – 5.30pm, at the Auckland Writers Festival

I love a session chaired by a peer or colleague – in a broad sense – of the panelists. So ‘Old Guard, New Guard’, which featured Bill Manhire and Hera Lindsay Bird and was chaired by Andrew Johnston, was always going to be an exceptional line-up for this poetry-loving, Unity-old-girl, wistfully-dreaming-of-IIML reviewer. Bill the old guard, Hera the new – leaving Andrew to ponder ‘I don’t know where that leaves me, but I think I’ll be the lifeguard’.
Both Bill and Hera had sweeping introductions from Andrew. There was a certain sense of both of them needing no introduction, but on the topic of Bill, at least, Andrew pointed out ‘there are quite a few things that Bill does – most people know some of them, but few people know all of them. His wider contribution to New Zealand culture is huge’. Poet laureate, CNZM. Honorary DLitt from Otago. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, Hera’s introduction contained the phrase – not the first time I’ve heard the sentiment in reference to her work – ‘it’s rare to hear the words “poetry” and “viral” together in the same sentence’. And yet, there’s really no other way to put it. Andrew let Hera explain the genesis of her ascendance to the stratospheric heights of household name poet.

For those who haven’t actively followed Hera’s goings on – or perhaps if you’ve only just plugged back into the literary landscape after a year in the desert – things blew up when two of the poems from her eponymous debut collection were published on The Spinoff. Then the wider internet came knocking.

‘I woke up one day and someone told me I was in The Guardian. There were 300-long furious comment threads. The one that people were angriest about was “Keats Is Dead So F*ck Me From Behind”. I kind of flippantly name-checked the deaths of a whole lot of American and British poets.’

Hera meant no disrespect, though, she assured us. ‘I was careful to only write about poets that I liked.’

At this point, Bill pointed out the similarities between ‘Keats Is Dead…’ and R.A.K Mason’s ‘Song of Allegiance’. Mason’s poem begins:
‘Shakespeare Milton Keats are dead / Donne lies in a lowly bed’…

And ends:
‘Though my song have none to hear / boldly bring I up the rear’.

It’s a glorious comparison – and yet, Hera claims that it’s purely coincidental. At least, as far as she can remember. Whether intentional or not, it still makes for a beautiful bookending of New Zealand poetry to date.

Further elaborating on the ‘furious comments’, Hera pointed out that she often prefers a negative review to a positive one ‘from someone liking you for the wrong reasons.

‘I had lots of considered and thoughtful and intelligent reviews, but there were also a lot of people who it felt like they didn’t understand what I was trying to do.’

Hera noted that she doesn’t mind when people (incorrectly) assume that everything in the first person in her book is actually coming from her own perspective. ‘There’s always a performative aspect.’

That line of questioning let into a conversation with Bill about the dichotomy of being a relatively private person who has had some very public poems – whether through major commissions or through winning major plaudits that pull the spotlight in his direction. Bill agreed with Andrew’s suggestion that his poetry acts ‘as a kind of defense as well as projection.’

They also discussed the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) – which Bill set up and Hera attended. While he fell into the role of workshop convener somewhat by chance, his work in that space means that every reader of New Zealand literature owes him a debt of gratitude. So many writers at all ages and stages have gone through the halls of that building on Waiteata Road – and part of the success of so many of them could in part be chalked up to the drive, right from the start, to get people out of their comfort zone. And importantly, to get them towards being the best writer that they can be within their selves, rather than trying to match to some kind of official framework.
bill manhire house.jpg
‘One of the things I’ve always done in the writing workshop world is give people the equivalent of a commission – make them jump the tracks and go sideways from their own sensible selves.’

At Andrew’s request, Bill went into a potted history of the Victoria creative writing programme – both pre- and post-IIML name being added. It was a fascinating wander through time – from implementing a Cambridge-esque optional original manuscript component for English majors through to the IIML of today – in the building now officially called the Bill Manhire Centre (above).

Hera gave a little insight into her experience at the IIML – and her perception of Bill while an MA student there. ‘Bill was the big boss – I think that the only time I saw him in the classroom was at the beginning of year part. He came up to me with a plate of samosas and silently offered me one.’

She went into some detail regarding her own feelings about creative writing programmes – deemed crucial by some, derivative by others. ‘I don’t think it’s essential to do creative writing courses – but they do speed up the process.’ At what other point in one’s young adult life, she pointed out, do we get the luxury of taking a year out from the world just to write?

Bill talked about students coming in intending to focus on one style – and leaving converted to something else. Hinemoana Baker was an example given as someone who came in wanting to be a short story writer, and came out with her first collection of poetry. That particularly close quarters creative environment seems to have a transformative effect on those who study there.

Both poets read examples of their work – Bill lightheartedly requesting to leave before Hera launched into ‘Keats Is Dead…’, but later drawing an incredible stillness from the crowd as we listened to him read ‘Known Unto God’, a poem commissioned as a response to the Battle of the Somme .

There was much more, so much more. Both poets agreed that they do not exist at nearly such extreme poles as the name of the event would suggest. ‘I’ve always thought of Bill’s poetry being quite modern and mine as being much more old-fashioned than people realise,’ Hera said.

‘I think your work is quite traditional,’ Bill replied, describing it as a familiar house with different furnishing.

Old guard or new – or life guard, an essential role for a panel chair to play, after all – when Bill and Hera and Andrew are three of the face of New Zealand poetry today (and yesterday, and tomorrow), it does make you bloody excited to be a reader in this country, doesn’t it?

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Hera Lindsay Bird
by Hera Lindsay Bird
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560714

Tell Me My Name
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561070

Some Things to Place in a Coffin
by Bill Manhire
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561056

AWF17: Time Travel – James Gleick

Time Travel with James Gleick, chaired by Graeme Hill was at 6pm, Saturday 20 May at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Graeme Hill got the audience on side before James Gleick even managed to get on stage. The early arrival of the chair – or more correctly, the slightly delayed arrival of the writer – gave him the chance to pull out a few decent time travel cracks before things really got started. One wonders how carefully he had to practice his brief backwards sentence.

But then the man of the hour, James Gleick, stepped on stage, and both chaps took their seats. There was no mucking around, with Graeme going straight in with a statement-turned-question about Newton and the seeming impossibility of his intellect and ability.

james gleick.jpg

James Gleick

‘I feel the same way – that’s the central mystery of Isaac Newton,’ James replied. ‘And this may be a cheesy segue, but I wish I had a time machine.’

Cheesy it may have been, it served its purpose. And who doesn’t love a little morsel of a pun to kick off an evening session after a long day of being overwhelmed by wave after wave of literary talent and intrigue

James Gleick’s book Time Travel: A History weaves together literary history with physics and philosophy to present a thoroughly researched piece of work exploring this concept that has fed into so many different tales over the past century. But for many, the fact that the idea of time travel has only been around since HG Wells’  The Time Machine is bewildering – at least, according to the explanation made in James’ book. It’s so central to our understanding of science fiction and adventure. As James described it: ‘I know six-year-olds who talk about time travel paradoxes over breakfast’.

time travelBut it seems to hold true. James explained that upon looking into the first instance of “time travel” in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was a back-formation derived from Wells’ hero – the Time Traveller. So many of our pop culture references – Doctor Who, A Wrinkle In Time, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, heck, The Time-Traveller’s Wife, if we want to be really on the nose about it – all of these owe a debt to Well and his decision to have a nameless man travel through time on what amounts to – in James’ words – ‘a fancy bicycle’.

The pair discussed the relationship between science fiction and science fact – and the curious coincidence of Wells writing The Time Machine only about a decade before Albert Einstein put forward his idea of relativity.

Graeme was a very enthusiastic – if not always in a useful manner – interviewer, full of gestures and exclamations that certain concepts were blowing his mind. There was a discussion about the idea of time travel as it currently plausibly ‘exists’ – the idea that someone moving away from Earth very quickly, near the speed of light, will experience time more slowly than someone back home. But this is on such an tiny, tiny scale that the time gained would be in the realm of a fraction of a second. After Graeme went into great detail about this idea, James begrudgingly acknowledged the truth of it.

‘You can call that time travel… but it’s pretty disappointing.’

Graeme used his powers of gesture and outrage at the limits of physics to question, why time, when compared to the three spacial dimensions, could only go in one direction. James explained that in this situation, ‘the idiot’s answer’ is the one he tends to side with. ‘Before we got into time as a dimension, it didn’t matter – we just knew that the past is gone and the future is yet to come. All that is knowable is the present.’

They talked through Newton’s Laws of Motion, and how the work just as well backwards as forward – until they don’t. The example of snooker balls bouncing around on a table was put forward – play any one fragment of a video of them bouncing back or forward, and they are basically the same. But play that opening moment backwards, and the balls suddenly all join together in a perfect triangle – and that just doesn’t happen.

They talked multiverse theory, briefly, and brought in a few more pop culture references, and then wrapped up with questions. James may have been better served by a slightly less animated chair – maybe we ought to arrange a spot of time travel to make that happen ­– but the conversation still packed a whole lot of big thinking in to an hour.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry for Booksellers NZ

Time Travel
by James Gleick
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN 9780008207670