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’.
hera
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

AWF17: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

This session was on Saturday, 20 May, at 3.00pm at the Auckland Writers Festival

The first time I heard of Chris Kraus – and of her book, I Love Dick – was around 2011, when I was working in an academic bookshop and one of the postgraduate English courses had it as a set text. We unprofessionally giggled at the title, this book we weren’t at all familiar with.

In the last few years, it seems to have blossomed in popularity – it’s suddenly on the shelves of other indie bookshops, not just where required by one lecturer. And this year, news of a television adaptation broke – only adding fuel to the fire of people buying, reading, talking about I Love Dick. So it was that Chris Kraus’s session was scheduled for the main stage, the ASB Theatre.

chris kraus

Chris Kraus is, or has been, a writer, a journalist, an artist, a filmmaker. She has, as Kevin described it ‘juggled many careers’. She has authored several books of non-fiction, and several novels ­­– including the trilogy that starts with I Love Dick then leads into Aliens and Anorexia and concludes with Torpor.

Prior to really engaging with conversation, Chris took to the lecture for her first reading – from the recently reissued Torpor. The main characters relationship was succinctly summed up in one passage: ‘Faithful to their distrust of each other, they are celibate’.

The setting of these novels was described as ‘post-MTV but pre-AOL’ – a little US-centric but still managing to appropriately convey their place in time. ‘History becomes a character’, Kevin said.

Chris described Torpor as ‘a much more personal book [than I Love Dick]’, with a more in-depth approach to the lives and the histories of those characters. ‘In I Love Dick, the characters could almost be anyone. They’re almost like commedia dell’arte stock characters.’

‘High intellectual sex comedy’ was one description of I Love Dick, while the format of the book was described as having ‘the letters as evidence, the whole book as a case study’. But, despite the overlap in the names of the characters and of Chris and her then husband, and certain aspects of the story being lifted from true experiences, it’s certainly not a memoir – and Chris would never have wanted it to be. ‘I’ve always found memoir kind of… icky. It’s not something I would ever want to write myself.’

A more recent project of Chris’s has been a biography of Kathy Acker. She described the book as a career biography, rather than ‘cradle to grave’ – taking the chance to really get inside her work, rather than take a more psychological assessment of the entire life of the subject.

Kevin asked Chris about ways in which her filmmaking background prepared her ‘for a life in fiction writing.’

‘I don’t know how much it prepared me – but when I was working, I would always pull the blinds down, so it was dark – like I was transcribing a movie.’

They also briefly discussed Gravity & Grace, a film Chris created in New Zealand in the early nineties. While she is American, Chris spent several years in her teenage years and early twenties living, studying and working here, before returning to New York. For Gravity & Grace, she returned to New Zealand – and though the film wasn’t successful on release, it has seen a resurgence in interest in the years since. This is something that Chris is quite content with – ‘If the film had been successful on release, people wouldn’t be so interested now.’

i-love-dick-tv-series

On the audiovisual side of things, the topic of the I Love Dick adaptation was brought up – specifically the all-female writers’ room. While Chris is not involved in the project directly, she expressed her ‘total trust’ in the writers. ‘And most of the episodes in the first season are directed by women who had previously directed independent films.’

Virtually all authors self-identify as passionate readers, and Chris is no exception. She referenced Nicky Hager’s 2009 title Secret Power when discussing her memories and missings about New Zealand. And she talked about having saved up Dostoevsky for the proper occasion – and that this trip was it. ‘All these plane rides, instead of playing video games, I’m reading these books.’ She described the book club, of sorts, that has been woven between flights and different places on the globe – all these people she’s encountered who have also been reading Dostoevsky.

There was more, of course – you can never capture everything. She talked about her experience as part of the St Mark’s Poetry Project, and of her work at publisher Semiotext(e). It was an illuminating session, with plenty of live reading from the author – leaving the audience ready to jump into a Chris Kraus title or perhaps leaving the more widely read among the crowd even more excited for the forthcoming television show. 

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Wellington people: Go and see Chris Kraus on Monday 22 May at City Gallery!

I Love Dick
by Chris Kraus
Published by Serpent’s Tail
ISBN 9781781256480

Torpor
by Chris Kraus
Published by Tuskar Rock
ISBN 9781781258989

AWF 17: In the Bardo: George Saunders

George Saunders appeared on Saturday, 20 May at 12 noon at AWF 2017

George Saunders was a geophysicist in a previous life. He’s been a short story writer for quite some time. And his latest turn has been as a novelist, with the release of Lincoln in the Bardo.

He was in conversation with Paula Morris, who broke the ice by pointing out that for quite some time now, George’s books have been dedicated to his wife – who is also called Paula. ‘So for years, I’ve been pretending they were dedicated to me.’

Paula went on, however, to expand on what George has been achieving in his work, noting that Lincoln in the Bardo serves as a reminder that the novel is still a very experimental format – after all, at it’s crux it is ‘a story told by ghosts that explore what it is to be alive.’

george saunders

George Saunders, photo by Chloe Aftel

They discussed the original genesis of the book as a series of drafts for a play, and the shift to the long-form prose format of the novel. George extolled the  virtues of rewriting – which is eventually led him through the marshes of his play drafts (‘the idea of monologues intrigued me’) through a foray into a fiction piece in the third person (‘Gore Vidal-esque’)before arriving at the final cut. ‘Your first draft doesn’t need to be good … in a certain way, the writer’s job is just to not suck.’

So he settled on the ghost-based narration. ‘But ghosts are a bit like dream sequences – a teacher once told me that you have three dream sequences in your career, so don’t use them up all at once.’ It’s safe to say that this particular instance of ghosts/dreams has been put to good use, with Lincoln in the Bardo receiving plenty of praise and securing a spot in the New York Times Bestseller List.

I went into the session with a relatively unusual relationship (or lack thereof) with George Saunders. I hadn’t read any of his books, but I knew of his work – Tenth of December was read by many a Unity Books colleague in my time working there – and I had heard him speak very on a podcast very recently. So I had a sense of knowing what I was in for, while still gleefully knowing that I had yet to read and unpack his work.

He speaks candidly, with a chirpy tone – he described himself as sounding like ‘a Valley Girl on quaaludes at one point’ – but he at the same time be brings forth these cutting truisms and opinions about writing, about reading. As someone who fancies themselves quite dedicated to both, my notes were scribbled as much for personal reference as supplies for this piece. Here are just a few:

‘There’s that thrill as a young writer when, for the first time, you write something truer than reality.’BookSaunders-kuI--621x414@LiveMint

‘I talk about writing in the language of sales. It’s a contract, where my job is to anticipate your resistance … my best self comes out through revisions – your best self is led out through the intimacy of the conversation.’

‘A writer takes a chance, pushes you away – and then on the next page they bring you back with an uplifting, luminous scene.’

‘I know writers who plan everything out – and then they write it, and it gets subverted. I like to see where a story goes.’

That final point can apply to writer and reader alike – and George reinforced this as he pointed out ‘part of the job of the story is to not know where it’s going’. He even pulled out an Einstein quote to really drive this home, as applicable to the story as to a physics equation: ‘No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.’

Paula brought up the contradictory elements of the narrative – an entirely intentional move by the author to reflect the nature of individual experience. ‘Historical accounts are often contradictory … there’s the complication of understanding something, the limits of our own perception.’ With the multiple perspectives telling the story, multiple versions of the truth become inevitable.

The discusison also covered the idea of the bardo – a Tibetan term for a transitional space between life and death. ‘It’s not purgatory,’ George explained. ‘It’s a lot more workable.’ He referred to one school of thought in Tibet that suggested that any deeply affecting emotions and experience become amplified many times over in the bardo – regrets, unrequited love, that sort of thing.

Discussing the spiritual aspect of the book let into conversation around George’s own religious upbringing – in a Catholic family in the south side of Chicago in the 60s. That particular kind of religious exposure wove its way into the discussion several times – discussion of the devotional scapular, to Lincoln’s saintly attributes, to one particular nun that paved the way for George’s future as a reader and writer through trust in his capabilities.

But as a flip side to heavier religious influences, there was frivolity – inherent in his view of the world, it seems. He described coming across two ‘working-class girls’ on the street who caught his attention with their particular cadence of speech – so he went home and tried to emulate it on the page, unraveling things about these two characters that had leapt from life to his page, from reality into fiction. He summed it up, saying: ‘I like when a story comes out of genuine verbal joy.’

As a member of the audience, the whole conversation was genuine verbal joy – and this reviewer will certainly be shuffling George Saunders titles to the top of her to-read pile.

Attended and reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408871744

Civilwarland in Bad Decline
by George Saunders
Published by Vintage Classics
ISBN 9781784871291

AWF 17: Women and Power

Some years, I have entered into the spirit of a literary festival gently – an off-site poetry launch bearing the festival’s branding, a small session in a side room in the middle of the day. Others, it’s a hiss and roar – and the Auckland Writers Festival of 2017 has been one of those occasions.

So, here is the first of several reviews to come – starting on a high note that will hopefully be maintained over the weekend. Because an event with any of Roxane Gay, Mpho Tutu van Furth or Michele A’Court would be a stellar one – and to have all three women on stage together, chaired by the indomitable Susie Ferguson, and talking about the various complex intersections of power and women was something very special indeed.

roxane gay

As is tradition, things kicked off with introductions. Roxane Gay (photo above by Jay Grabiec): academic, competitive Scrabble player and unabashed fan of The Bachelor. Mpho Tutu van Furth: priest, charitable foundation director and daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Michele A’Court: stand-up comedian, self-identified ‘strident feminist’ and Aunty-with-a-capital-A.

And it goes without saying that ‘writer’ can be added to that list for all three.

But if introductions are easy enough, that was where the straight-forward part of the session ended, with Susie diving right on into it, asking for the panel’s Trump-related feelings.

The nature of the material in combination with the style and temperament of the women on the stage meant that there were great shifts between laughter and more somber nodding of agreement. Roxane’s opening point focused on the wide-reaching harm that the Trump administration is having and will continue to have on all but the middle-aged, middle-class white men of the world.

download

On the other hand, Michele (above, photo by Kate Little) had the crowd cackling with her theory about why people have found themselves paying so much attention to him in the political arena – comparing his appearance in Washington to the unexpected appearance of a stripper in the middle of a classical ballet performance. It’s at odds with the surroundings, but you’re not going to be able to look away.

mpho tutuThe question of the line of succession came up, more than once. Roxane, as a resident of Indiana, where Vice President Pence was once Governor, described it as ‘a sh*tshow from the start’, while the somewhat more gently spoken Mpho (left) referred to ‘Trump, Pence, Ryan… or whatever swamp creature comes next’.

It was Mpho who spun the longer responses, by and large, likely owing to a family aptitute for delivering heart-felt messages to a crowd. When discussing her own experience as a voice for change and empowerment as both a woman married to another woman and as a woman with a platform provided (in part) by virtue of her birth, Mpho was clear about her position’s responsibilities:

‘Having a platform doesn’t make me a hero. It just means that the ocean of people who have been screaming for years have a chance to be heard.’

Roxane went in guns blazing when it came to keeping a stash of one-liners in her back pocket. From bringing out ‘God, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man’, to responding to a question regarding the oft maligned reputation of outspoken feminists with ‘who cares if people call us bra-burning whatever-the-f*cks’ to setting off a chain of nodding around the crowd by pointing out ‘if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention’, she spoke with the practised ease of someone well-acquainted with the festival circuit.

The discussion continued into the broader discussion of feminism as identity and ethos, and the sense of either needing to earn the right to be called a feminist through actions and simultaneously struggling with the label due to the misconceptions by others. Michele described a brief period of her life when she stopepd overtly referring to herself as a feminist, while still maintaining the same politics and attitudes. ‘I think I was trying to Trojan horse feminism in – sharing those ideas without calling them that.’

With Roxane’s best known work probably her essay collection Bad Feminist, the issue is one of being feminist ‘enough’, or doing it ‘properly’. ‘I was uncomfortable reclaiming the word – because I was so bad at it.’Meanwhile Mpho brought up the issue of the “global” feminism all too often being very white and western, focusing on a very specific image of what it is to be a powerful woman.

The passion about the topic was palpable from all four women – Susie included – and it made for an engaging exploration of the shared experiences of being a woman in the world today. Roxane, Mpho and Michele are all women worth listening to, worth reading, worth continuing to raise up to ensure that their voices are heard widely and strongly – and the packed out stalls of the ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre would suggest that a great many AWF attendees will be spreading their messages far and wide.  

Attended and Reviewed by Briar Lawry on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Further events with Roxane Gay
Further events with Mpho Tutu van Furth
Further Events with Michele A’Court