Strangely Human: Michel Faber at #AWF16

For me, literary festivals are a massive intellectual high. I like to pour myself into them and demand stimulation. They fizz me up; I start bouncing around, talking very quickly, and gesticulating as energetically as I can (given that I am usually holding a bag, a laptop, a coffee and several books). I arrived at the Strangely Human session in a state of high excitement, keen to hear Paula Morris interview Michel Faber. And then something happened.

pp_michel_faberFaber is a very serious man. Born in the Netherlands, raised in Australia, and currently living in Scotland, he is a writer of novels (lately The Book of Strange New Things), novellas, short stories, poems and non-fiction. His previous novels The Crimson Petal and the White and Under the Skin have been made into a very successful TV series and film respectively. He takes his writing seriously, and accords it respect and consideration when he speaks of it. He is grieving the death of his wife Eva, and he takes pain seriously too. He said there will be some people in this room who’ve come along to this session to take an hour out of their nightmarish lives. We sort of tittered uneasily, but he was, of course, serious.

What Faber did to me was force me to slow down. I stopped bouncing. At first I was bewildered, then slightly resentful (how dare he not be seeking to entertain me), then, eventually, grateful.

He read us three poems from his upcoming collection Undying: ‘His Hands Were Shaking’, ‘You Were Ugly’, and ‘Come To Bed’, about the illness and death of Eva. He had her red boots with him on the stage; he’s taking them to parts of the world she’s never been to. Those boots, the absence they represented, were painful. Across from him, Morris was crying. (She wasn’t the only one.) Faber himself seemed calm, measured. He said, “When an author comes to a literary festival I think they should be really there”, and he was.

Faber wrote The Book of Strange New Things while Eva was dying: “I wanted it to be the saddest thing I’d ever written”. It’s about a Christian minister who’s sent to a new planet to bring the word of God to aliens, leaving his wife behind on an increasingly disastrous planet Earth. It will be, Faber says, his final novel: “It’s clearly such a valedictory book”. (He’s considering writing for children in the future.)

cv_The_book_of_strange_new_thingsThere was the inevitable discussion of genre. In my review last year, I described The Book of Strange New Things as a novel at the literary end of speculative fiction (spec fic being science fiction, fantasy and horror). One of my pet peeves is when authors who write these kinds of books try to distance themselves from the ‘taint’ of sci-fi. I thought for a while this is what Faber was doing too. He said the sci-fi “furniture” is there to provide entertainment and thrills and magic, but it’s not at the heart of the book. But then he also went on to say how much comics – especially the work of Jack Kirby – have influenced him. “I wanted to bring that sense of wonder to my own books … that sense of stumbling into an exotic world.” He still reads comics for pleasure, without having “that post-modern analytical relationship” with them. “There’s nothing worse than a really dull work of literary fiction.”

One of the threads running through this year’s Auckland Writers Festival has been artists questioning what change art can effect. Faber says he doesn’t think books make changes in the world per se, but that there’s value in feeling not alone, and “if that’s all that literature can achieve, maybe that’s enough”. I think that’s plenty.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Book of Strange New Things, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782114086
Under the Skin, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782112112
The Crimson Petal and the White, published by Canongate, ISBN 9781782114413

NZ Writer’s Week: Miranda July: Lost Child!

This, this right here, this is why we have literary festivals: so we can meet people like
Miranda July.

pp_miranda_julyI’m not sure how to describe her session. Based on the blurb in the Writers Week programme, I had mistakenly thought it was a screening of a film called Lost Child! followed by a q&a. It wasn’t at all: instead it was a talk, a multi-media presentation, a performance, an audience participation, a collaborative artwork.

Lost Child! is a book July wrote when she was a child, and she says it set up a theme running through her work, of leaving home, going into darkness, and surviving discomfort. “Origins are always the most interesting part”, she said, and told us about her life and her art, sharing recordings of past performances. She was warm and funny, wise and direct. I fell in love with her immediately – we all did. The atmosphere in the Opera House was convivial and intimate.

July told us about the plays she had written, and how she started her performing life in punk clubs, eventually moving to more mainstream theatre spaces when she started using film in her performances and was concerned for the safety of her projector. She set up a project called Joanie and Jackie – “I thought of myself as an organisation” – collecting films made by women, eventually moving into making films herself.

She was careful not to make it sound like it was easy, and throughout her session kept telling us which day jobs she had at which point. She found the interruptions of paid work annoying and jarring: “I lost my train of thought every time I had to go to work”.
cv_me_and_you_and_everyone_we_knowEventually she quit her jobs to make art full-time, thinking that if she stayed “in perpetual motion” she could try and live without working. One of the results was the feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which I watched this afternoon as prep for this session, and which she starred in and directed, as well as wrote. As her session progressed, my understanding of her film deepened. For example, I learned more about her artistic investigation of “the very real, sacred world of child sexuality”, and about the film’s title: “the audience for my first movie is everyone in the world. My second movie is for me and five women I know.”

As well as being a filmmaker (and author, hence her inclusion in Writers Week), July is also a fine artist. She told us about the art she created for the Venice Biennale: “Making art is less laborious [than performing onstage] because you don’t need to be there. I wanted to figure out how to make something that would automatically be shared. People like to pose with things, and the photos people take [of themselves with the art] are the pieces.”

She has also created an app called Somebody, whereby strangers deliver messages between friends. “I wanted to instigate performance without ever calling it that. Because there’s a smartphone involved, it looks like you’re doing something normal. I want to make audience participation feel necessary rather than arty.”

July seems to always return to performing: “the reason to keep performing is to be with people in the present moment”. We performed a sort of little play with her in the Opera House. At one point she told us to hold a stranger’s arm, and then she set out various scenarios for how the relationship between us could develop. It could have been weird and awkward; instead July created, for that brief time, a strangely genuine bond.

July spoke a lot about creating her own space as a woman and as an artist. After she moved to LA, she said that all the other directors she knew were men: “My way of doing things no longer seemed that magical … I continue to forget and to remember that I am free.”

Then we got to the Q&A section, which July said was her favourite part. There was the inevitable awkward pause when the house lights went up and people started shuffling towards the mics. July, though, thrives on awkward pauses: “This is my favourite moment, where there’s just total ambiguity and yet here we are … I feel like I’m swimming.”

The Opera House was packed with fans and the questions were of a generally high calibre (thank god no ‘where do you get your ideas’ or pleas for advice). She chatted to us further on various topics: “In marriage, the ups and downs of your mental state aren’t as fascinating as they were during courtship, you need to parcel out that burden.” And on making art: “You don’t need to have done well, you just need to have tried … you have to deposit terrible ideas into the bank in order to build the brain.” On performance: “Willingness to be vulnerable is a superpower. I can survive that.”

I came away from my Miranda July experience with the overwhelming sensation that art is possible and that I can make it. I’m thrilled to see what else Writers Week can throw at me. Bring it on!

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

cv_the_first_bad_manMiranda July: Lost Child!
Opera House, Wednesday 9 March
Part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week 

Latest Book: The First Bad Man
Published by Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN  9781782115076



Book Review: Russell Brand’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is not your average picture book.cv_russell_brands_pied_piper

Russell Brand is noted for his subversive behaviour and tendency to push the limits and this disgusting-but-delightful book is the result.

It takes the people of Hamelin, twisting them into a caricature of society: they are self-centred, money-hungry and overall generally as unpleasant as can be, and their children even more so. There is one child that is not unpleasant though − and that is Sam. Sam was born with a “gammy” leg. Children with such imperfections are generally sent to live in a depository outside of the town, but Sam’s mother will not permit that and raises him instead with tenderness and love. Sam must, however, suffer the mockery of his peers, who are a vile lot with inventive and somewhat disturbing ways of bullying − I particularly liked the bit with the roadkill.

Every year, the supposed “beauty” of their slobbish children is celebrated with a beauty pageant. This year, it is also the day the rats come.

The rats are even more vile and disgusting than the children. They are anarchists, they follow No Rules! And thus engage in all manner of terrible behaviour, which Brand takes great delight to describe in highly humourous and slightly-less-vile euphemisms, with a pun or two thrown in for good measure.

The piper turns up, and the story proceeds much as expected, with a few extra tongue-in-cheek, slightly over-the-top garnishes for good measure.

But the illustrations, oh the illustrations! These are what turns this from a rather darkly-humoured tale, liberally sprayed with toilet humour and a smattering of social commentary, into a colourful, riotous read.

Chris Riddell’s characters have real personalities, and his style is a whimsically-twisted delight. From the sweet innocence of his illustrations of Sam with his mother, to the vile rats with their bulging eyes. It is they that bring the story to truly vivid and memorable life.

Overall, this is not a story I would read to a small child. Aside from the rather long words which are frequently used (and defined either in little bubbles or an appendix at the back), there is also a decidedly more mature content − mainly in the form of Sexist Dave and the polygamist rat leader, Casper, with his two wives (one of which is male). It is also rates quite high on the gross-out factor index − there are elements of Roald Dahl. I would probably recommend it more for the  8+ age group. Also, of course, as an appropriate read for those of us whose inner child has refused to grow up.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Russell Brand’s Trickster Tales: The Pied Piper of Hamelin
by Russell Brand, illustrated by Chris Riddell
Published by Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN 9781782114567