Lynley Dodd, Adam Johnson, and more on Friday 16 May

I attended four great sessions today at the Auckland Writer’s Festival.

My favourite was Dame Lynley Dodd Dodd_Lynley_no_exceptions_MUST_credit_Tim Cuff(right, photo by Tim Cuff), in conversation with Michele A’Court. Hardly surprising that audience participation was par for the course with the first stanza from Hairy Maclary loudly and proudly repeated by all. How many other sessions would have had the whole book read by the author, with suitable sound effects from the very adult audience for Scarface Claw? All because Dame Lynley’s voice was compromised by a cold?

Dame Lynley talked about her early life, her early talent for drawing, her parents’ love of words and word play, and her fine arts training in sculpture; which all eventually came together in the magical combination of ordinary cats and dogs doing what ordinary cats and dogs do. Who needs talking animals, when as she said, so much language is exchanged in the eyes. And the stories that she finds to tell by simple daily observation are so good, no talking is needed. There was a wonderful anecdote of her meeting with Dr Seuss and she also shared how Hairy Maclary came to be. There should have been a much bigger plug for the recently published book by Finlay Macdonald, The life and art of Lynley Dodd, a beautifully presented hard back, packed full of illustrations from her many, many books on every page, as well as an entertaining read. This was the best money I spent all day.

Johnson_Adam_credit_Tamara_BeckwithI also really enjoyed Simon Wilson’s conversation with Adam Johnson (left), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature last year with The Orphan Master’s Son. I haven’t read the book, in fact I knew nothing about it other than a quick read of a plot summary on Google, which left me none the wiser!

Adam Johnson was a very entertaining and interesting man to listen to. He told us about a country and society − North Korea − that is the complete antithesis in every possible way from how we live and the freedoms we have. America was really the country/society held up for comparison. A handful of people manage to escape North Korea each year and it is the stories of these people that the author has told in this novel. He was able to go North Korea for only five days, where he was constantly monitored and minded, and he used this time to notice as much detail as he could. Things like the colour of houses and roofs.

The saddest thing I got out of his talk on North Korea was how the people have no history of storytelling and haven’t done ever since the Japanese invaded and forbade speaking in the Korean language. The author admits he has been obsessed with North Korea and its people, and his passion was very apparent as he talked about his writing of the book and the themes he explores. As well as reading two sections from this book, he also read a small excerpt from a story in his collection of short stories – about a 15 year old sniper working for the FBI. Unsettling.

Peter McLeavey has been well known cv_peter_mcleavey_life_and_timeson the Wellington art scene for many years,
operating out of his two rooms in Cuba St, with his distinctive white hair and black hat. The 2009 film , The Man in the Hat introduced him to the rest of New Zealand, and the 2013 biography by Jill Trevelyan gave us a much more in-depth study of this pioneer of the New Zealand art scene.

This session was chaired by Auckland Art Gallery director Rhana Devenport, with Jill Trevelyan and artists Yvonne Todd and John Reynolds on the panel. The overall tone of the session was one of reverence and wonder for all he had achieved for art and artists in New Zealand, but above all huge affection for this complicated and complex man, who called himself a travelling psychoanalyst. The session consisted mostly of anecdotes by the two artists of their dealings over the years with Peter McLeavey, both of whom were carefully nurtured and encouraged by Peter. Both would seem to have had at times prickly relationships with him, as he could be, as John put it, quite curmudgeonly! But somehow Peter seemed to manage the fine line between managing artists, encouraging and developing them, yet at the same time running a business, and marrying up potential buyers with works of art.

The author herself didn’t partake a great deal in the discussion, but her book was referred to throughout by the others, thumbed through, and read aloud from by Rhana. The highlight of the session was during the question and answer session, when Peter’s nephew who was in the audience, very succinctly narrated a conversation between his mother and Peter, about said nephew.

Hughes-Hallett, LucyThe last session was again for an author I didn’t know, and for a book I didn’t know anything about – Lucy Hughes-Hallett (left), a British cultural historian and biographer, and her biography of Gabriele D’Annunzio. This session was introduced by Geraint Martin, himself a great lover of history and literature.

D’Annunzio (below, right) is somebody you have probably never heard of. But how could one not be intrigued by this ‘poet, seducer and preacher of war’ who declared himself the greatest Italian poet since Dante. I think he is very well known in Italy for his exploits, but not so much in English speaking countries, although his writing was admired by James Joyce and Ernest Hemmingway. It would seem that his major occupation in life was the art of self-promotion and he did everything he possibly could to achieve this. Poet, novelist, seducer, airman and finally dictator of a small state in what is now Croatia for a period of time at gabriele_dannunziothe end of WWI.

Mussolini loved him and ‘borrowed’ much of his rhetoric, the black shirts and the straight arm salute from D’Annunzio. Ms Hughes-Hallett has written 600 pages about this incredibly interesting individual, and regaled us with an endless supply of stories about him. Are there still people like this in the world out there? Or was he simply the product of a time in Europe when enormous changes were taking place?

Events attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray, on behalf of Booksellers NZ. 

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.