AWF15: Stop tweeting…commit! With Jolisa Gracewood, Russell Brown and Simon Wilson, chaired by Janet Wilson

This was my penultimate session at what has been a scintillating and immensely exciting Auckland Writers Festival. For the ideas discussed, the questions asked (though mainly by the chairs) and the people met.three_col_Russell_Brown

The moot for this discussion, which involved Russell Brown (aka the editor of Public Address, pictured left), Jolisa Gracewood (aka @nzdodo) and Simon Wilson (editor of Metro), was ‘is long-form writing dying in New Zealand because all of the writers have gone to the echo chamber that is twitter?’

Simon Wilson began the discussion by talking about his editorial in Metro in 2013 which raised some hackles and made some feathers fly, called ‘Stop Tweeting and Do some work.’ He made his argument, stating that twitter can be such a time-suck that it stops you doing a) what you ought to be doing and b) what you want to be doing, and cited the black hole of twitter debates. He made the point that print media is dying, because young people don’t have the attention span. Later on he noted a study of online behaviour which proves that people’s attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 5 seconds when deciding what to read.

It is, as Simon Wilson states, hard to get people to pay something to read something; no matter your interest, you can get good, and professional writing free, on your phone. Simon sees Twitter as good for spreading truths, but notes that not only is this not the only way to do so, we have to fight for writing, to keep it. He says, to encourage people back to media, “long form writing needs to become intensely entertaining, and by the best writers.” And it’s not that he doesn’t think writers should tweet – but he thinks that they should write. The challenge is this: twitter is easy, writing is hard. More writers need to choose hard.

Russell Brown runs Public Address, New Zealand’s most popular long form blog, which is helped by voluntary subscriptions, rather than web advertising. He believes writing on the internet has been a boon for the written word. Before 1995, nobody who wasn’t a professional was writing for an audience – the internet obliges you to write, and sharpens your communication skills. “Twitter suits people who can write well,” he said, “It is not easy to be cohesive and relevant in 140 characters.”

The heart of the dilemma for people who write is: if you want to make a living out of your writing, you must be in print. And to write for a publication is to stick to their word limits, and be paid what they pay. A lot of publications won’t publish long-form writing – a column is 6-800 words; while the internet is infinite. Russell says the best paying freelance long-form gig in town is writing for the NZ Drug foundation’s magazine – they pay 80c a word; but they aren’t trying to make money from it.

wilson_simonSimon (right) mainly uses freelancers, and says that long-form writing in particular has to be sharp. The hook has to be in the first paragraph, if it isn’t, he will push the piece aside for one that is. At the comment from Russell that we are all suffering now a degree of ADD, due to the plethora of digital options, Jolisa argues that this has all happened before – while the likes of Oscar Wilde didn’t have twitter, they had coffee shops, parties, pamphleting.

Russell finds that on his blog Public Address, it is possible to keep people on the page: just have long pages. While 350 words is said to be optimal for blogs, long form is certainly possible, and certainly desirable tackling topics like those that Public Address does.

Russell points out that just because something has appeared on the internet, it is not valueless. Likewise, if it has appeared in print, it is good to repeat it digitally, as Metro does with some of their columns. Russell believes that Metro does in the right way.

The panel agreed on the whole that the standard of columns at the moment in NZ is gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlanderpoor, and Jolisa (added that a lot of magazines and papers in New Zealand don’t sound like NZ. She asked, why are we not putting bloggers into magazines? There are great voices online, she says, and this is why around 50% of Tell You What was sourced online. At the chair’s question about whether twitter starts the creative process, Jolisa says maybe, but it depends on who you follow. Simon Wilson adds that being clever on twitter may give you the ability to do other things, the dopamine hit from a twitter success gives you enough joy of recognition to stop you wanting to write longer forms.

Simon says that good non-fiction writing has literary qualities, and that people haven’t giving up writing and reading, but it needs to remain commercially viable. Alongside this is public funding – Pantograph Punch, for instance, is funded by Creative NZ.

This session gave me a lot of food for thought. I run twitter and facebook accounts on behalf of Booksellers NZ, as well as our website and this blog. Twitter for me, is a way to connect with the wider world, and find long pieces that I may otherwise not be aware of. It acts as a catalyst to further reading. And this was a very good discussion to attend as my experience of the festival drew to a close.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

AWF15: Tim Winton, interviewed by Jim Mora

Tim_Winton_portrait__webIn the introduction, Mora noted that Winton ‘makes ordinary lives extraordinary’. He began the session by talking about Cloud Street.

Though Winton had written several books prior, Cloud Street was the first book of his that sold huge amounts. “It came”, said Winton, “at the perfect time. We were broke, and didn’t know where the mortgage payment was coming from.” While you don’t have favourite books like you don’t have favourite kids, some books pay their way, and this one certainly did. While Winton enjoyed writing it, he was surprised when everybody loved it so much – it was full on, and in the vernacular.

Winton is quoted as saying that you have to learn how to write each time you begin, it isn’t a “sure thing,” which he acknowledges, adding that the older he gets, the harder it gets. He says people don’t understand that writers, like sportspeople, have to hypnotise themselves into feeling confident: you have to think people want to read what you have to say.

eyrieWinton is the first writer I have seen this festival that acknowledges the struggle of writing. He thinks being a novelist has the purpose of creating “useless beautiful things.” While he was very idealistic as a youth, like Murakami, as he gets older, he has began to realise that he may not be able to change the world. But he is happy to write, to be read, and to make enough money to survive off his writing.

Winton said his latest work Eyrie is not about despair about the world’s fate, though it seems that way. He says, “art shouldn’t need to be a form of intelligent commentary”. Eyrie is set during the WA mining boom, and he notes that before the mining boom, WA was the wrong state, of the wrong country, of the wrong hemisphere. “The trajectory from being ignored to being smug was instantaneous. There are people in WA that are so smug and self-satisfied about their wealth that you would swear that they had planted and grown the iron ore themselves, rather than being humble about their great good fortune, and ours.” The smugness and ill-preparedness when it went into decline, was interesting to Winton, like a moral fable.

Does writing make him a better person, a happier person, or was he always compelled to do it, asked Jim Mora. Winton thinks that on a good day, writing well makes him a better person, but writing not well doesn’t have any effect on a person’s character. He can’t explain why he became a writer – he was possessed with the concept of being a writer as a young boy, and within minutes of having this idea, he assumed he was a writer – especially as a teenager. He had read good books, but never met a writer until he was an adult.

Winton says that he was lucky to come of age in during a time of cultural confidence in WA. While he doesn’t see his gift as steered by a divine hand, he thinks existence is holy, and that matter matters. To not feel that the world is sacred, and a gift, is to live in poverty. He adds, “People suffer and do monstrous things to one another, but we’re not monsters.” Nature gives him hope, and Winton thinks that people are wired to hope, no matter how bad things are.

Mora says that the term, “the poet of baffled souls” was attached to him in one review, and Winton acknowledges that he has always been interested in those who can’t explain themselves – their lives are hard, their feelings are strong. He feels like not enough respect is usually paid to the taciturn, to those who couldn’t express themselves. Those who can’t express themselves are often bullies, and he had one bully in his childhood who lived across the road from him and dogged him all the way home – “the way I stopped him beating me was by telling him stories. I bullshitted my way home so he would forget to use his fists.”

Winton thinks that we have an expectation that there will be some ‘symmetry’ to life – we expect this to carry through to literature. He says there isn’t in real life. Most people die mid-sentence. Part of acceptance is accepting the asymmetry. This is why his books’ endings are so open. He doesn’t enjoy reading books himself where everything gets tied up neatly at the end.

Winton often uses the paranormal in his books, and asked about this, he says, “The world is queerer than we think it is, and queerer than we imagine it is. The world is a strange and miraculous place.” He adds that the most miraculous thing about life is that people aren’t any worse than they are.

I enjoyed this session very much because Winton was such a regular guy, who just happens to write jaw-droppingly amazing novels. He thinks of writing as a job, and one he loves, and he hopes to be able to continue to do. With his body of work so far, I am sure he will continue enriching our literary world with his voice for many years to come. I began Eyrie today, and it is already haunting me.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

AWF15: Memory Loss, with Bernard Beckett and Anna Smaill, chaired by Paula Morris

pp_anna_smaillI enjoy the work of both Anna Smaill and of Bernard Beckett so this was an event I had been looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint. I hadn’t previously seen Smaill speak, and it was very worthwhile, the clarity of her purpose while writing The Chimes was evident. Beckett was as clever as always, and explored the philosophy of his books in a simple and clear way.

For Beckett’s upcoming book, Lullaby, he stole a thought experiment out of philosophy, as he had with both Genesis and August previously. This thought experiment was about cloning – are you the same person as you were before if you cloned yourself then destroyed the original? The way he explores this is through using a pair of twins. One has electrocuted himself, which fried his brain, and the other must choose whether he wants to imprint him with his brain, so he can have him back. Beckett is fascinated about how we see death, and the continuity of identity. Are you even the same person you were yesterday when you wake up – how does consciousness contribute to identity?

Smaill‘s intrigue with memory was what drove her to be a writer – she has that nostalgia of wanting to revisit things, and sees writing as a way of re-experiencing things that you may otherwise lose. She was interested in the constant pathos of memory loss, and how this reduces the cohesive line of experience. Smaill realised gradually, that memory was a construct – how you experience life is what informs it.

pp_bernard_beckettBeckett finds that it helps the narrative to have a short period of time for your novel to happen in: A ticking clock is a useful device. For him, in every novel, the turning of the page creates a ticking clock, and this focuses your thriller element.

Talking about sequels, and writing a series, Smaill says that she is only interested in writing a prequel to The Chimes, not a sequel. (I think this is a brilliant idea – and Kathryn Carmody said beside me, that she wants the mother’s story.) For Beckett, the term trilogy is too much of a marketing device for him: his three books are all philosophical books, but that is the only connection.

On the topic of dystopia, Beckett acknowledges that he successfully rode the crest of the dystopian wave, but the dystopia in Genesis was accidental. He just wanted to tell a story of a person in a prison cell with a robot. Dystopia was the device that explained this. Smaill also used dystopia as a device; in her case, to enable her to destroy the world, and build it up again. She was interested, she said in “a micro-apocalypse”. She created it through thinking about the way that one person’s experience of self can be mirrored into the outside world, having major repercussions.

For Smaill, she said placing her work in a dystopian world freed up the language, and using her own language gave her a costume to put on, to enter the world, and to give texture to the world. The implication of having no short-term memory happens at the level of language, because abstraction becomes impossible when you have no context. Her protagonist Simon had to describe his experience in a new language, and it made sense given the context of the apocalypse, that this language would have musical connections.

Both Lullaby, and The Chimes, have orphan men as the key protagonist. Smaill and Beckett agreed that the journey to freedom is foreshortened by using this trope. Once the mother (usually) dies, the young male no longer has a source of problem-solving, so they suddenly have to solve their own problems, forcing the protagonist to make their own way in the world.

Beckett writes mainly for young adults, and Smaill believed that The Chimes was for a young adult audience until she handed it to her agent. Beckett noted that an adult book doesn’t get to play with cliché was much as a teenage novel, and that being a young reader is great, because you are coming at most books with brand new eyes.

Both writers have written immensely thoughtful novels, and I look forward to reading Lullaby when it is released by Text Publishing later this year. I also hope that Anna Smaill does that sequel!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

AWF15: Morris Gleitzman, chaired by himself

Introducing himself, he says he loves surprises. He is happy to say his characters often catch him by surprise. He tries never to find himself trudging down a narrow path with them.

His first question to himself in this morris gleitzmanunchaired session, points out that his career has gotten seemingly more serious as he has gone along. His early novels are very comedic, and the themes are light. His later books have a comedic surface, but over the last 10 years ago have a more serious tinge. He wanted to explore, through stories, and for many reasons, children in wartime.

His series of four books, which will soon be five, probably as many as seven, grew around the concept of friendship being the way in which children can really express their own freedom. Sometimes, it is the only way. Friendship, Gleitzman thinks, allows children to learn who they are, and how they want to express this. He chose war as the delivery mechanism as he wanted to express the place of story in history. Because we can’t be there, there is no way of capturing the 100% objective truth. He made the point that history is happening now.

In the book releasing in August – Now – Gleitzman took the opportunity to investigate the power of Felix’s own history. The biggest problem, as a child after a war, was to understand that though the war is over, this doesn’t mean that everything is now okay. Across Europe, it was a civilisation in ruins, with a lot of people in severe emotional pain. Meanwhile, our hero Felix hopes that his early childhood would be re-discovered, and has to find a way in this book, to reconnect with his optimism.

Gleitzman noted that it is sometimes when people are surrounded by the worst people are capable of, that they do the best they are capable of. When Michael Morpurgo asked Gleitzman to write the play for War Horse, Gleitzman ‘s interest was piqued by the question: what happened to the horses soldiers took over there and experienced the war with, that couldn’t be brought home, and couldn’t be sold?

After Gleitzman initially struggled to identify with the character of a volunteering soldier, he realised that for people in that period of history, their circumstances were very different. A lot of people didn’t have any other opportunity to see the rest of the world – only the privileged and wealthy got out to explore. It just wasn’t the done thing. Gleitzman said that a whole generation took the opportunity as one to travel, and as a bonus, kick the “Bad Guys” butts, and this was a potent mix. Following this, if you had your horse with you at war, and you survived, but the army wouldn’t send it home, how would you feel? What would you try to do? That was where ‘Loyal Creatures’ (the resulting play and book) came from, for Gleitzman. His a few y

The first audience question was about the effect of technology on this generation of children, to which Gleitzman pointed out that every generation has challenges that cause anxiety: some kids have war, other kids have technological abilities that bring opportunities, and simultaneously narrow down their ideas. But he hasn’t seen any change in what people really want over all of this. All of our hopes, our fears, our capacity for love, are timeless. Stories have the responsibility to always have these things present and to make the reading, the viewing and the sharing of them a model.

Gleitzman says stories are as popular with young people as they always have been. Young people are still moved by them, thrilled by them and excited by them. There are always some that don’t have as much room as you would hope for stories. Stories are everywhere, they are not just a piece of literature. They are the stuff of how we connect, and the guts of how we think. It is important that young people understand that stories are not always told for the best of all possible reasons: Nazis understood the power of story all too well.

Gleitzman is a natural raconteur, and he had the audience eating from the palm of his hands. It was a wonderful session to have attended.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

http://www.morrisgleitzman.com/

AWF15: Bond and Beyond, with Anthony Horowitz

Michael Williams introduced Horowitz as “a master of life and death.” Horowitz’s backlist is huge, between his TV writing and his novel writing, for teenagers, and for adults. He is best known to me as the author of the best-selling Alex Rider series, familiar from when I worked at the airport bookstore and managed the children’s section. He was the lead writer of Foyle’s War, had previously written episodes of Midsomer Murder (of which he said “I wrote seven episodes of Midsomer, before I realised that everybody in the town was already dead.”

The session was a truly dynamic interaction between author and chair – Michael Williams runs the Wheeler Centre, and is clearly a long-term fan of Horowitz. Saying that, Horowitz himself was a frenetic presence, talking at a rate of knots about his writing, and never without an answer (except when it came to future Tintin movies. “Hollywood producers are horrible and scary,” and he is not sure if anything came of the other scripts he wrote for Tintin, but as it didn’t do well enough in the USA, they are unlikely to see the light of day.

Horowitz had a terrible time at boarding school, and reading, and making up stories for the other boys in his dorm, were his escape. Many a brilliant career has been borne of this trope. He acknowledged that in writing Alex Rider he was writing the story of the childhood he never had, and posed the question of himself whether he would have preferred a happy childhood, or 96 million books sold?!

In writing in other authors’ voices, Horowitz sees his job as to be invisible. He is more than happy to follow where his favourite authors – Ian Fleming, Arthur Conan Doyle – lead him, and to merge his style with theirs. Sometimes too successfully, according to his wife, who made him take some of the sexism out of House of Silk. This is the challenge, to bring these authors up to date with current opinions, without taking way from their style, or making it his own in any way.

Williams asked Horowitz why it is we love whodunits so much, to which he answered it was to do with our desires to twitch back the lace curtains of the house next door and watch the less pleasant parts of human nature play out. Sounds like  why others watch reality TV to me!

When speaking about Tintin, Horowitz said, it was very hard to get the motion of Tintin and the suspense onto a screenplay, because Herge was such a genius with his pacing. He was never credited for his script, though he didn’t explain this beyond creative differences with Speilberg, but he did enjoy meeting Peter Jackson very much, and visiting his secret room. Horowitz was the type of child who knocked on walls to see if they were false – I wanted to yell out ‘me, too!’

Horowitz struck me as an incredibly generous writer. To be able to write for yourself, and on behalf of others (which is in a way how he approached his Bond and Sherlock stories) shows a generosity of spirit rarely seen. He had a few pieces of advice for young writers: Read everything, do something naughty but don’t get caught, and believe in yourself. He pointed out that it takes hard work (and in his case, 15 books) to get to the big time, but it is worth it if you believe in yourself.

I will be seeking out Horowitz and reading as many as I can, and passing them to my boys as they grow older.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

AWF15: H is for Hawk, with Helen Macdonald

helen mcdonaldNoelle McCarthy introduced and interviewed Helen Madonald (left), beginning, ‘H is for Hawk and B is for Brilliant’. The book is a history of grief, a biography of T H White, a tale of the taming of a goshawk, and the result, I agree, is a ‘magical hybrid.’ I hadn’t read anything quite like it when I picked it up in January, it is truly a unique experience, and one I thank Macdonald for providing us all with. McCarthy was an excellent chair, and Macdonald a generous participant.

Goshawks have a reputation as psychopathic killers trained by burly bikie types, and Macdonald had never wanted to train one prior to the sudden death of her father. When he died, the logical part of her mind closed down. She realised you can’t tame grief; but you can tame a hawk, and the freedom from language was what she needed at that time. As she put it “I went absolutely nuts”, as she bought into the tradition of nature writing, seeing nature as a place of renewal and solace.When out with her hawk she identified so strongly with her that she thought she was viewing nature through the hawk’s eyes. It was “a radical dislocation of identity.”

Macdonald noted, ‘We use nature to mirror our own needs, and we use nature to prove our own concepts to us’. When asked a question regarding the tendency to anthropomorphise creatures, to try and understand them, she said, ‘reciprocity is what makes the relationships between people and their creatures so fascinating. You get a very good knowledge of how your animal is feeling.’ And you must also never lay the guilt of a human for killing, onto a goshawk – they are innocent.

Macdonald has always been drawn to birds and falconry – when she was about six, she used to try and sleep with her arms folded behind her back like a bird, and she also adopted Horus – the Egyptian god – as her god, praying the Lord’s Prayer to him in school. She began training falcons at the age of 11, apprenticing herself to a falconry club (where they offered her snuff) to learn the art of being an austringer.

h is for hawkMcCarthy asked Macdonald how she could have remembered all the details of the training of this hawk so accurately, to which she said that in the year after her father died, her memory sharpened. Her memory of detail was related to her grief. She deliberately made her book feel immediate because after you have had a hawk for training, you get more aware of the immediacy of life.

Macdonald finds it strange to talk about grief, as she doesn’t claim to be an expert. She “grew around the hole” in her life eventually, and after that year, she said she could identify it as sadness, making it easier to cope with. On reflection, Macdonald says that unmooring herself in the way she did, to train the goshawk, could only be done because she didn’t have a partner, or kids.

Macdonald says that being an austringer is not, as some have assumed, all about domination – it is about demonstrating wise governance. This is why it was so popular with royals back in the middle ages. It is a specialised skill, but one that is no longer confined to the royalty, and the rich.

Touching on the biography of T H White within H is for Hawk, she said that his attempt to train the goshawk was a battle with himself. This poses the question, is it possible to interact the natural world without projecting? Yes, says Macdonald, but not without a lot of effort to distance yourself, something that T H White couldn’t do. He was so involved with his goshawk that he used it to project his own sadistic tendencies. The joy of nature, as she sees it, is thinking of a world as full of things that are not like you. There is a battle of feeling with expertise.

The final part of the discussion before questions from the audience, was about the naming of hawks – the cuter the name, the more efficient they are meant to be as killers! – and about the place of women in the world of falconry. Macdonald said that around 10-12% of new falconers are women, and that there is no way to reduce experiences with nature as ‘female’ as opposed to ‘male.’

This was a wonderful session, and one well worth coming to. I urge anybody who hasn’t yet, to read H is for Hawk. I got my copy signed, and she was very gracious despite the staggeringly long queue!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

AWF15: Atul Gawande interviewed by David Galler

‘Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive…’

pp_atul_gawande

Arthur Hugh Clough had it poetically straight in the early 19th century, but with modern medicine we now sometimes expect miracles at the end of a scalpel or the syringe injection of a new drug.

But surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawande questions if we are asking patients the right questions to discover what outcomes they wish for; his own father when faced with problems said a good quality of life would be being able to sit around the dining table, eating and conversing with friends.

Gawande thinks it is important that the right questions are asked about end of life care, he told a packed three tier audience in the ASB Theatre in discussion with ICU specialist David Galler.

An important anecdote: when one group of prospective knee replacement candidates had discussion with their doctors only about the medical procedure, most chose to go ahead. But when a similar group were given the same information and were also asked about the outcomes they wanted from surgery, fewer opted to go ahead.

A highlight was the tale of a zoo let loose in the residential nursing home. Plants and pets are part of most homes, so it was argued why not in residential care? Great plan, but having a large number of parakeets delivered before cages were constructed caused temporary chaos. However long term results saw happier, more engaged residents taking dogs for walks, cuddling cats and feeding the birds… as well as becoming more active, more engaged and needing dramatically fewer medications.

Gawande writes incredibly well – as a medical columnist for the New Yorker his apprenticeship under a tough editor the many rewrites he was asked to make, see his literary skills matching medical ones.

A postscript discussion by the two doctors talked about the surgical theatre check list system initiated at the Boston hospital where Gawande works which is now used internationally in many hospitals,including Middlemore, where Galler is based.

Reviewed by Jillian Ewart

AWF15: Lucky Us with Amy Bloom and An Evening with Alan Cumming

Amy Bloom

 My Auckland Writers Festival 2015 began with a bang: Amy Bloom. One of the things I like best about writer’s festivals is discovering new writers with whom I feel an immediate connection. In this case, I mean “new” as in new to me – Carole Beu began the session with a stern admonishment to us all that Bloom is nowhere near famous enough in New Zealand. So this is my attempt to help try and change that.

Bloom writes fiction and non-fiction; short stories, essays and novels, and it was good to get a taste of each of those different kinds of writing in the session. Before becoming a writer, Bloom was variously a barmaid and a psychotherapist: “they’re not so different”. She now teaches creative writing as well as writing professionally.

Bloom says the things she finds compelling are people and language, time and memory. She’s interested in “the kerb”: the gap between how people look and who they are; between what they say and how they feel. Her writing is concise – “I want to leave out the wheat-threshing scenes” – and she considers the reader to be her partner in constructing the story. Bloom likes the “rigour and demand” of the short story form, saying “a bad sentence stands out like a missing tooth”. Titles are very important to her; she says she wants the titles of her stories to resonate differently with the reader after they’ve read her work.

There was a scrum at the book stall after her talk, and I managed to grab the last copy ofNormal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude; a collection of four of Bloom’s non-fiction essays. She spoke warmly and entertainingly about her research for this book, going – amongst other things – on cruises with the “family values crossdressing” crowd. Bloom is interested in the way we care so much about gender, and asked what it is that distresses us about the range of human variety?

 

We continued this theme with ‘An Evening’ with Alan Cumming, a Scottish actor whose breakthrough role was as Emcee in Cabaret and who, when he shaved all his body hair to play the role of a transvestite, said “I looked like a weird depressed exhausted plucked chicken”.

I wanted to attend this event because – if I’m honest – I have a bit of a crush on the character Cumming plays in The Good Wife, Eli Gold. I didn’t know he was a writer: he’s published a novel, Tommy’s Tale, and a memoir, Not My Father’s Son, which he’s here to promote. I didn’t know he was a singer. Because I’ve only ever seen him speak onscreen in an American accent, I didn’t even know he was Scottish.

Cumming had an awful childhood, with a physically abusive father. In his late twenties, facing potential fatherhood himself, repressed memories came flooding back and he suffered a nervous breakdown. Later on, he hit the big time on Broadway, and in films and television. When Michael Hurst introduced him, I was surprised how much of his filmography I recognised. He himself draws a distinction between “the kind of actor I am”, who becomes immersed in their character, and a movie star, who is just themselves in successive films. The reason I hadn’t recognised him is that he’s always different.

Listening to an actor talk about their memoir is very different to listening to an author do the same. There’s a kind of automatic modesty we expect writers on stage to have – we expect the spotlight to make them in some way uncomfortable. Cumming, though, was completely at ease with the fact that there was a sold-out theatre audience who had turned up for the explicit purpose of hearing him talk about himself. He accepted, totally without question, that we would want to be as absorbed in him as he is – and indeed, for an hour, we were.

This partly has something to do with his philosophy about shame. He read out the part of his memoir where, as a twelve-year-old child, he consciously decided to reject shame. “I say no to shame. I just won’t have it.” This includes sexual shame (he is out as bisexual and is a gay rights campaigner), the shame of mental illness, and the shame of being a victim of abuse. He said “I want to self-determine in everything I do”.

It’s also partly to do with being a performer. I felt like, in this Writers Festival session, he was performing his   book for us, in a way that most writers just don’t. Cumming has that actorly desire for attention, “to be understood”. He obviously revels in the spotlight, and delightedly told us that his portrait now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, replacing one of the Queen. “I want”, he said, “to be a provocateur.”


A splendid and very stimulating start to what feels like it’s going to be another superb writers festival. Onwards!


Reviews by Elizabeth Heritage 

Dunedin Writer’s Festival: Dalloway, Friday 8 May

DWRF image‘How can one person remember all those lines?’ asked the stranger sitting next to me after the show Dalloway, at the Dunedin Readers and Writers Festival. Rebecca Vaughan, moving from character to character in Virginia Woolf’s famous story of Clarissa Dalloway and post-WW1 London, has utterly mastered and embodied each distinct personality on the stage. She is so immersed in the storytelling that, in fact, the question becomes more: how would she not know what was to be said next? She is working with genius, though; both in Woolf and Elton Townend Jones, the writer and director who has built a physical world from the pages of one of the most beloved of Woolf’s works – Mrs Dalloway.

Trebecca vaughanhe show begins with a version of the famous opening line of the book – ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself’, but immediately moves to give breath and life to Vaughan’s characterisation of Clarissa with personal pronouns replacing that third person narrative style found in novels. It is satisfying that this fluctuates throughout and is as dynamic as the actor herself; the action moves from character to narrator to character to character – nearly all of Woolf’s imagined figures are given life on stage. Septimus Smith’s battle with post-traumatic stress syndrome, or ‘shell shock’ is just heartbreaking. Vaughan is so skilled in her craft that one forgets it is her giving life to each nuanced figure, both female and male. From Smith’s Italian wife to old suitor Peter Walsh; Vaughan quite simply gives each character the gift of life.

The ‘mermaid’s dress’ of green was immaculately cut and complemented the action. Ingenious pockets allowed Vaughan to become the masculine – Walsh in particular, as he paced the park and mused on Clarissa’s positive attributes.

If you are in Dunedin this weekend or Auckland at the upcoming 2015 Auckland Writers Festival, then this is a gem worth seeing. The words are gorgeous and the acting is incredible.

Dalloway
Fortune Theatre
8 May 2015

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth