AWF18: Aflame, with Megan Dunn and Gigi Fenster
Aflame was one of those lovely little sessions of chatter between three people who know, understand and appreciate one another. In many ways, it’s these sessions in the slightly smaller spaces, with purely local voices, that really feel like the heartbeat of the festival.
In ‘Aflame’, the focus was on creative non-fiction by two talented New Zealand-based women. Gigi Fenster and Megan Dunn were the writers, and Carole Beu of the Women’s Bookshop was the highly competent chair. Carole understands what festival audiences want from a panel session – she was, as she said at the intro, a long term Auckland Writers Festival board member – ‘though not anymore, I’d been there too long’. That legacy of experience does makes her a prized chair.
Carole highlighted the fact that she wanted to ensure that the discussion got across ‘how wonderfully quirky’ they both are. And as for the title of the session, it was obvious, with ‘fire and burning and fever’ winding their way through both books.
And then, both authors had the chance to expound upon the story behind their books – Dunn’s Tinderbox and Fenster’s Feverish.
Tinderbox was borne from Dunn’s desire to create a revamped version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451… and then evolved from there, shifting from novel to memoir in the process. She talked through her background as a roving bookseller, at Borders (RIP) in both Wellington and the UK – describing the dying days of the chain as engaging with customers who were ‘picking over the carcass for bargains’. Likely relatable for a few other booksellers out there!
Fenster touched on why fever was her focus for her memoir – describing how she ‘saw fever as a very kind of creative thing’, relating it to a sense of what went on in Victorian children’s books, with sickly but fascinating characters. ‘The initial idea was to induce a fever and then track that’, Fenster said, but thankfully for her own wellbeing, after a little research into both methods and ramifications, she thought better of it.
Both authors, after their initial contextualisations, read from their books. Dunn began hers by dedicating it to the Elam Fine Arts Library – eliciting a cheer from the crowd. The short passage started with light humour but brought in heavy elements as the temporal positioning became clear – it was set on the day of the London Underground bombings.
At the reading’s end, Beu commented that it was an interesting choice, something so weighty, when so much of the book is hilarious, to which Dunn deadpanned ‘I bring the humour, but I bring the pain too’.
Fenster’s piece spoke of the time when her brother was desperately ill with meningitis, and examined the former role of ‘the watcher’ in the medical profession – those who would sit and wait and watch the patient until the fever broke. The significance of progress was covered, with the vast achievement of ‘I can get it myself’ (in reference to a cup of water) repeated, mantra-like.
While not discounting the care given or the medicine administered, Fenster did come to the conclusion that ‘it was the watching’, her father’s sitting at his bedside and watching him through the night, that saw her brother through.
Both writers took a wander through other aspects of the lead-up to their creating these works. Fenster spoke about a family holiday to Swaziland, where she read Wuthering Heights through the night and had the adult joy of the shared literary experience with her father. She also explained the way that some of the conversations – in what is still a non-fiction book – were created, rather than collected verbatim, but still told complete truths of the experience of the time.
Dunn explained National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo to those up with acronyms – to an enquiring Carole, summing it up as ‘a writing community, with the aim to write a 50 thousand word novel in the month of November’.
She was of the ‘use it as a deadline’ school of NaNo, rather than the online forum-focused option. But in her solitude, she gave it a go, and in 2013, she succeeded, getting her 50K across the line in time. The timers that factored into the plot of Tinderbox arose from her time holding herself accountable for NaNo, with half an hour of writing before work each day.
It was a friendly, upbeat vibe, with plenty of laughter for guests and audience like. One particularly glorious – and interactive moment – was the encouraged discussion of ‘porn names’, according to the internet suggestion of ‘first pet name’ + ‘mother’s maiden name’. While I won’t repeat the specifics here, since that particular internet challenge is rather uncomfortably often a means of digging for password prompt answers – and I don’t want to jepoardise her cyber security – suffice it to say that Beu’s response was the perfect level of filthy to take the audience away in gales of laughter. The perfect way, indeed, to spend a Saturday festival afternoon.
Reviewed by Briar Lawry
Published by Galley Beggar Press
Published by VUP