DWRF: Catherine Chidgey, with Emma Neale

Each time the Writers & Readers Festival comes to town, the Dunedin autumn becomes clear, still and nuanced. Catherine Chidgey sat on stage this Sunday afternoon and embodied the qualities of the season.

cv_the_wish_child_nzThe festival audience was treated to an articulate conversation between Chidgey and Emma Neale, herself a poised speaker and talented writer. The word and thought chemistry between the two speakers was significant, and it enabled a depth of response from Chidgey on such topics as the tug of Germany, the novelist’s craft and the thirteen-year gestation of her new novel, The Wish Child.

Neale began with an autobiography of Chidgey the writer, and a description of her particular talents. This was an excellent way to bring the audience into the circle of conversation. Chidgey then read a long passage from The Wish Child; this drew the listeners in closer still, and provided context for the ongoing discussion (as well as convincing anyone sensible that this was a book to buy and read in its entirety).

The scene that was read was laden with sensual, often visceral detail ‘…the glittering callipers above his skull…’ ‘…the bees huddled in their hives… and the geese hung by their necks…’ and foreshadowing ‘German boys should be brave… should know that some things had to die’; this combination of delicate detail and exaggerated description is deliberate on the part of Chidgey, and a feature of her best writing. There are echoes of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum here. The effect is a sense of constant unease for the reader, a feeling that death lives inside ripe matter. This style of writing, of perceiving is entirely appropriate to the subject of the novel: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, a time when bizarre, exaggerated things happened and became part of daily life.

berlin-1816944_960_720.jpgDuring the course of a very swift hour, with fingers fluttering in a Lynchian sort of way, Chidgey laid out the processes involved in writing The Wish Child: her connection to Germany based on time spent there as a shy high school student from Lower Hutt, then on a scholarship in Berlin not long after the fall of the wall, being affected by the visible history in a city still divided. She spoke of the balance to be found between writing and researching, so that the latter doesn’t dominate unduly yet is given the opportunity to shape the narrative. She spoke of the scope of this novel being larger than any she had written previously, of how life events intervene, of how writing Facebook posts about cats had distracted her at times… cue knowing laughter from the audience. Now she works two jobs and has a toddler, so 6am has become the time to write, which has not been a bad thing, ‘as the internal censor does not yet seem to be on!’

When Emma Neale closed the session with the question, ‘And what next?’ Chidgey was able to allude to two projects in progress, which was reassuring; from a selfish point of view, it is good to think that after The Wish Child there will be more from the still, clear, nuanced mind of a fine, fine writer.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Ed’s note: Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child (VUP) and Emma Neale’s Billy Bird (are both up for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards on Tuesday evening. You can see Chidgey at various events during the Auckland Writers Festival. You can similarly, see Neale at the Auckland Writers Festival next week.

The Wish Child
by Catherine Chidgey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560622

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

DWRF 2017: Flying Nun at The Cook

It was the best of pubs, it was the worst of pubs.

In his memoir In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records, Roger Shepherd says of the Cook: ‘It was a terrible dive. Some remember it fondly, but mostly what I remember is the incredibly sticky bar top.’

cap cook.jpg
Image copyright Fairfax NZ, by Hamish McNeilly 

Back at the refurbished Cook, more than three decades after the period being described, Shepherd last night sat down with music writer and aficionado Grant Smithies to chew the fat about his memories of founding and maintaining independent record label Flying Nun. It was a low fi affair: Shepherd and Smithies sat on black chairs under a naked bulb toward the back of the stage; the audience hung back, hands in pockets or clutching a beer like it was a gig, awaiting The Verlaines perhaps or maybe The Clean. It had been like that getting in too: a line down the street waiting for the doors to open, Graeme Downes prowling around with a cigarette, fans breathing steam and exchanging opinions disguised as facts. There was one major difference, clear in the light thrown by the beer fridges: the audience members were all of a certain age and they were all well dressed. The audience of 1987 was literally here again in 2017, nodding, sometimes guffawing, listening quietly as Shepherd and Smithies reminisced.

Then it really was a gig. Verlaines front man Downes was suddenly behind the microphone in his trademark suit and scarf and pointy shoes, untamed hair, a thin legged poet with a mighty voice. Then that was over too, curtailed by a broken guitar string, also a trademark ‘If I had a dollar for every string…’ Downes muttered, and lay his instrument down to join Shepherd, Smithies, Robert Scott, Francisca Griffin and Roy Colbert at the back of the stage for another casual conversation.

roger_shepherd_H_0217.771aacee3b08a3f7e168fb9d9f399eeeRoger Shepherd, photo from article with Steve Bell on themusic.com.au.

Aside from former owner of iconic Dunedin secondhand store Records Records, Roy Colbert (once named in the Otago Daily Times as the seventeenth most influential citizen in Dunedin), the speakers were all musicians in bands championed by Flying Nun through the eighties. They offered a range of anecdotes about this golden age of New Zealand music. Francisca Griffin, formerly known as Kathy Bull, lamented how every interviewer always wanted to know what it was like to be in her all female band Look Blue Go Purple; Shepherd dismissed the easy label ‘Dunedin sound’ that had been given to Flying Nun bands – ‘They all sounded completely different!’.

Bob Scott, bassist for The Clean and The Bats amongst other bands, remembered the casual violence outside and after gigs, involving the bodgees vs the scarfies or in one case police officers seemingly practising their baton techniques in preparation for the Springbok tour protestors; Downes spoke of the competition between bands, how someone or other was always raising the bar; Colbert recalled a shipment of The Clean album sleeves arriving devoid of actual records, ‘the kind of thing that happened sometimes with Flying Nun’.

As discussion again gave way to performance, as Griffin, Scott and Downes played solo sets, the festival audience settled into pub crowd mode, yakking and making their own connections. Snippets could be overheard: ‘Didn’t you used to flat next door to us in Cumberland Street?’ ‘You were the manager of Radio One for a time weren’t you?’ ‘Did you see them at The Oriental in ‘86?’

in love with these timesAnd as the crowd dispersed, propelled down the stairs, out into the starry night, it seemed that the value of the night lay in the rekindling of these conversations, in the warmth of a remembered and shared time. For this, there is good reason to thank Roger Shepherd and the flock of Flying Nun bands, good reason to thank the Readers and Writers Festival for bringing them back together, good reason to be in love with these times.

Attended and reviewed by Aaron Blaker on behalf of Booksellers NZ

In Love With these Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records
by Roger Shepherd
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775540892

Satirist With Good Sense Of Humour Seeks Kindness and Lies, at Dunedin Writers and Readers festival

ODWRF imagen stage there were three chairs, three tumblers and a glass jug that would be a weapon in the wrong hands. Up they came, a pair of satirists bisected by a crime writer. The wall behind them was bare and white. In the absence of background colour (which tone would readers match to satire?) they would be forced to rely on wit and anecdote. On personal charm and vitriol: on revelation.

Lisa Scott spoke first, of Feedback from Readers. At one end of the continuum: a box of chocolates. At the other: a drawing of an appendage. (Hard to know, she said, if that was positive or negative feedback.) And a copy in the mail of a column of hers, with errors marked in red pen, a score of three out of ten and in capitals SEE ME.

pp_steve_braunias‘Always in capital letters’, commented Steve Braunias (left), then he spoke too of feedback. There have been communications that have stood out, he said. An invitation to use a private house and pool in Fiji. He’s going in October. (Anyone who reads Braunias will not be surprised by such an offer. He’s quite explicit and unembarrassed in his solicitations.) But on the darker side, a letter writer in a prominent public position “crossed the line” by labelling him ugly and questioning if this trait will pass on to his daughter. Braunias went after the letter writer, strongly enough to be fired from his column- writing job by the national publication’s recently-arrived editor (“a weakling and a nincompoop”– the audience gasped) “Columnists come and go,” wrote the editor. “Editors come and go,” wrote Braunias. They were both correct. Five minutes in and we had already received our money’s worth.

Lisa-Scott-portrait-640pxVanda Symon, with an ongoing excellent sense of when to place questions and how to maintain momentum, asked the two writers what they regarded to be the role of satire. “A fire starter,” said Scott (right). “A mirror held up to naked emperors. If you’re going to bare your ankles at me, I’ll bite them.” Braunias: “Satire is good for evoking situations and people as they really are. If you want to depict John Key, satire might be more effective than the positive descriptions chorused by most political commentators.” Symon asked if satire might have an effect on the behaviour of politicians and other subjects, to perhaps keep them honest? “God no, terrible question, three out of ten.”

The session moved on, following a certain rhythm. A question would be asked. If it was a tough one, Braunias, his untucked shirt rumpling before our eyes, would say “Lisa…?” and Scott would answer first. She spoke of her terror of deadlines, of hate mail, of the regret at hurting people’s feelings, of the women who have helped her along the way. She said that it was a pleasure and a privilege to be a paid writer, to have a national and in particular, a local audience. Braunias agreed that this was a wonderful thing. That he, too, owed his breaks to “really nice people.”

He said that he crossed the wide line between satire and slander rather too easily; he has been sued successfully any number of times. “It’s just a path you stumble along and next thing you know you’re fucked.” He was weary and laconic about his lapses in taste and judgement, about his column that took as its subject the otherwise heroic Julian Assange, who tweeted hostilely in response. “Oh Julian,” sighed Steve and reached once more for his long-empty tumbler.

The satirists and the crime writer had drunk the jug dry, drawn deeply from the well of personal experience, hit us with humour, honesty and talent. And a fair amount of grace. Amazing. It had been a revelatory hour, yet another one in an autumn festival filled with excellent hours.

Satirist with GSOH seeks Kindness and Lies: Lisa Scott and Steve Braunias, with Vanda Symon
Saturday, 9 May

Reviewed by Aaron Blaker

Check out  WORD Christchurch Festival and Auckland Writer’s Festival for future events featuring Steve Braunias.

Dunedin Writer’s and Reader’s Festival: H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald  with Damien Barr

helen mcdonaldDamien Barr has the most delightful Scottish accent, and so it was rather pleasant listening to him ask questions of Helen Macdonald  (right) , who recently won the Costa Prize for her memoir on falconry and grief, H is for Hawk. Goshawks and grief – an unusual combination, perhaps, but one which, when explained by Macdonald, made perfect sense. Her belief is that, whilst turning to nature can be healing, it is also a reflection of ourselves – we project needs, wants, morals, and, in Macdonald’s case, grief, out into the wild. That’s a lot of pressure on nature. But not really, because that, in and of itself, insinuates that nature can be pressured.

h is for hawkMacdonald talked about the distance needed to write the book after her father’s death. She noted that some writers can write whilst immersed in grief, but for her, the distance was not only necessary but also essential and fundamental. It’s hard to imagine a wild-haired Macdonald hiding behind couches to avoid human contact, feeling as if she were as wild a thing as a goshawk. Hard because Macdonald appears so utterly human – warm, friendly and funny – but also because imagining a fellow human suffering such grief is a hard thing.

Toitu is a fitting venue for an event like this. The open spaces above and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows offer warmth and quiet that complement reflection – they are the perfect surroundings for contemplating the many ways in which we find our way back to humanity when it feels like we might be lost in the dark.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald with Damien Barr

Helen Macdonald will also appear in Christchurch, at the WORD Christchurch festival Autumn Season, and in Auckland, at the Auckland Writers’ Festival.

Knox @ Knox at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The final event of the DWRF was Knox @ Knox – or rather, pp_elizabeth knoxauthor Elizabeth Knox (right) at Knox Church. Ably chaired by Kate De Goldi, the discussion focused mainly on Knox’s two most recently released books, Mortal Fire and Wake. As it turns out, both books were very much informed by three events that occurred during what must have been a very hard period in Knox’s life − the diagnosis of her mother’s degenerative and fatal motor neuron disease, the psychotic break of her sister, and the murder of her brother-in-law. Consequently, both Mortal Fire and Wake both involve insanity, people who are trapped, a kind of spectrum of abnormality, from something being slightly off kilter to things being completely off the rails, and finally, being in the position of wanting to help, but being unable to.

Knox described her novel Wake as a horror story in which acv_wake character goes into a town where everyone is “murderously, and extravagantly, flamboyantly insane” and that this book had “frightened grown men” (which, I might add, she seemed pretty pleased about, and which the audience in turn found pretty funny). She described the progression of Wake as a case of the characters being in physical peril, to being in psychological peril, to finally being in moral peril − shifting from the imperative “don’t fail others” to say instead “don’t fail yourself”. Ultimately, both De Goldi and Knox agreed that it came down to moral questions of “what do we owe each other?” and “what would we do in that situation?”

Knox also later noted that horror fiction as a genre taps into very basic feelings of fear, and also “wanting to appease” − as in, praying to be saved − so taps into a sense of our own powerlessness. De Goldi also asked Knox to explain what Knox had meant when, in an earlier conversation, she had talked of a work of hers as “an Elizabeth Knox book”. Knox explained that by this she meant that she had always loved the speculative “what if?” fictions found in particularly fantasy and science fiction, but found herself irritated by certain practitioners in those genres not fully exploring those genres’ possibilities. Her approach was to take a genre and then “try to see what is in the story… [to ask] what is there deep inside this thing that is serious? And archetypical?”

Mortal Fire (which I reviewed last year) is the third in a projected quintet of books cv_mortal_fireset in Southland (the first two being Dreamhunter and Dreamquake). Knox talked about wanting to write a novel with a teenage character who has a problem (in this case, a teenage girl’s problems with her mother, and with no knowledge of her father) but who then comes to realise that she doesn’t understand her own life. Knox also wanted to write a story with a protagonist who drives the action, as opposed to a story with a “kick-arse girl” who is landed in a situation that she just has to deal with (Knox mentioned in passing The Hunger Games as an example of this). When De Goldi asked what makes a novel a ‘teenage’ novel, apart from having a teenage protagonist, Knox said that it was to do with a tonal intimacy, where the reader really feels that the story and characters are theirs. In this way the author had to be present everywhere, but always invisible (that is, not obviously interfering or intruding).

buffy_powterThe discussion was rounded off by several questions from the floor, including one from a mother asking about really great television to recommend to her teenage daughter. As a fan of TV myself, it was really cool to see Knox and De Goldi begin to list their best recommendations, since, as Knox pointed out, novels and television are the only two forms of long-form storytelling still extant. In case you’re wondering, both Knox and De Goldi both raved about the “classic tragedy” of Breaking Bad, and Knox also praised the evolution of storytelling seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the mention of which made me do a little fist pump of joy).

Knox @ Knox was a great event to end the DWRF, and it was extremely encouraging to hear that there is already talk of another Festival in 2015. Given the big crowds at every event I attended, I’d imagine that a 2015 Festival would be more than welcome. Here’s to next year!

Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

Elizabeth Knox will also appear at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Friday 16 May, at ‘Waking Elizabeth Knox’. 

Wild Dogs and Other Creatures: Tusiata Avia at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

Chaired by David Eggleton, pp_tusiata_aviaWild Dogs and Other Creatures was a chance to hear poet Tusiata Avia (right) in action. The event began with a lengthy appreciation by Eggleton of Avia’s work so far. He discussed her two previous collections, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and Blood Clot, and also noted her tendency to portray Samoa as a kind of paradise, but with something festering below. Avia also noted that she is quite an intuitive writer, and Eggleton suggested that in fact her poetry almost reads like a diary, though there was a strong dramatic presence to her poetry which lent itself to the performance of her work.

cv_wild_dogs_under_my_skirtDespite this rather in depth introductory talk from Eggleton, it was clear that the audience was hungry to hear Avia perform her poetry. She first performed four pieces from Wild Dogs, and right from the beginning her experience on stage came through. Three of the four poems were in different voices − two from the voice of a child − and Avia changed her voice, stance and accent to match the different voices, really acting the poems out in a tremendously engaging way. She then read two poems from Blood Clot.

However, for me, the most engaging performances were those of her new poems, which she hoped to have included in a future collection. One of these poems described a woman’s conflicting emotions regarding being raped twenty-five years earlier, and the poem, and Avia’s performance of it, was truly moving. This poem, and one of the earlier poems she read which discussed child abuse, showed Avia’s total lack of fear about confronting difficult issues − in fact, she later said that she felt she had a (self-imposed) role as an artist to bring things to the surface.

Her magnetic performances were cheered and applauded by the audience, and I can only hope that she can return for a future DWRF. It’s also worth noting that she was one of only a very few non-Pakeha/European writers invited to the Festival, and certainly she was the only one to headline her own event. The very warm appreciation of the crowd at Wild Dogs showed, however, that work about Maori and Pasifika people would be welcomed, and quite rightly celebrated.

Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus, on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

  • Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (VUP) 9780864734747
  • Bloodclot (VUP) 9780864735935

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: An Evening with Eleanor Catton

I think it’s safe to say evening_with_eleanor_cattonthat An Evening With Eleanor Catton was one of the most anticipated events on the DWRF programme. It’s not often that Dunedin hosts prize-winning novelists, let alone Booker Prize-winners, and it was brilliant to see that the DWRF organizers chose to make Catton’s even something special, with abundant canapés and a glass of champagne handed to you right at the door.

eleanor_catton_eventThe talk was held in the spacious foyer of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, with a camera sending live feed to two large screens set up to help the capacity audience see Catton and host Finlay Macdonald on the platform at one end of the foyer. Macdonald was a genial and funny presence, whose interviewing style made us all feel very comfortable and put us all in a mood to enjoy the event (or maybe that was the champagne).

Catton was a funny and warm presence herself, and I got the feeling that she’s someone who comes to clear, firm opinions but only after turning a thought over carefully and thoroughly in her head. This thoughtfulness was clear in the way she talked about how The Luminaries came about. She described the novel as “the Antipodean version of the Victorian novel” and noted that part of its structure came out of an earlier attempt to write a novel for young adults.In fact she seems to rate young adult and children’s literature very highly, because, in her words “the endeavour is very pure… a child will only read to the end because they love the story”, not because it’s won a prize or because the child wants to appear smart. In this way, children’s/YA literature is all about the reader.

This regard for the reader seemed to be very important for her. She talked about how shecv_the_luminaries_HB really wanted The Luminaries to be fun to read, and several times she mentioned doing something a certain way − for example, constructing the architecture of The Luminaries − because she thought it would be a fun thing to do. But that sense of just wanting to do fun things is clearly tempered by some serious thinking − she talked about having ‘control documents’ on her computer, including one which detailed every scene in the book and how she wanted each scene to feel, and how having these documents enabled her to look at the book from a telescopic or bird’s eye point of view.

It was also interesting to hear Catton’s point of view on modern fiction. The Luminaries apparently came out of frustration at a lot of modernist and experimental fiction, where she felt there was “a lot of withholding”, and she talked about how you can be influenced (and motivated) by something you feel could have been done better − in other words, a kind of ‘negative’ influence.

Catton also showed some real impatience with literary fiction; when asked by Finlay Macdonald about the oft-forecast ‘death of the novel’, Catton replied that the novel did something unique (and irreplaceable) in that it could “give the experience of externality and internality at the same time − like life”, where we live in the world but also have our own internal, thinking life as well. But she said she would be quite happy for consciously ‘literary’ fiction to die off, and described it as a dull genre where nothing seemed to happen.

She went as far as to say (in her quiet, firm way) that literary fiction “needs to open its doors and stop being so ridiculous about genre fiction”. Macdonald summed it up rather neatly when he suggested that perhaps “the boring novel is dead”! Certainly the amount of leleanor_catton_sign_lineove the audience showed for The Luminaries indicated that Catton had succeeded in writing a very un-boring novel. In fact, one audience member confessed he’d been so riveted by her book that one night he forgot to cook dinner − about as good a review as you can get. (signing line to the left).

 

Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

Eleanor Catton will give a talk at the Auckland Writers’ Festival in the event called ‘Our Booker Winner’, at 5.30pm on Saturday 17 May.