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