Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?

I was really looking forward to this session, and I was not disappointed: authors Catherine Robertson, Witi Ihimaera, Paul Cleave and Paula Morris in conversation about the fiction of Aotearoa.

witi ihimaeraAlmost immediately, we ran up against the problem of nomenclature. Ihimaera talked a lot about ‘New Zealand literature’, by which he seemed to mean ‘New Zealand literary fiction’. He was obviously reveling in the role of provocateur, and delighted in lobbing conversational grenades such as “I write New Zealand literature, they [fellow panellists] don’t”; “New Zealand literature is dead (when you think about it statistically)”; “I can’t write crime fiction because it’s too far below me”. It was (mostly) received in good humour, though, and it was gratifying to see Bats Theatre packed out with people keen to join the conversation. The room was buzzing for the whole hour.

Cleave articulated a common problem when he said he was put off NZ fiction at school by being forced to study Owls Do Cry, which was not the kind of story he was after when he was a teenager. It gave him a long-lasting (but, he realises now, erroneous) impression that that’s what all NZ fiction is like. Cleave suggested that we need to get into schools and educate kids about the entire spectrum of our writing. Morris pointed out that the new initiative Hooked on NZ Books aims to help do that by providing a forum for young people to review NZ YA literature.

We heard a lot of ideas about what young people should or should not be doing and reading. Ihimaera suggested that literary festivals should have two-for-one tickets where adults have to bring a young person with them. He said “our young people like to see things, they don’t like to read things”, so we need to use visual media to reach them. He worries that the whakapapa of NZ literature isn’t being passed on. Morris bemoaned the fact that she sees tertiary students who still have Harry Potter notebooks, and says young people need, at some point, to put the things of childhood away and graduate to adult literature.

paula morrisI see her point, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with Morris there. During this session no one mentioned fan culture, and how it influences NZ readers’ behaviour. One of the reasons young adults continue to read Harry Potter despite no longer being children themselves is that they value being part of the fan community: it’s much wider than just the books. Perhaps some fruitful questions to consider in future literary festivals might be, which NZ authors are inspiring a fan community? How does that influence New Zealanders’ reading behaviour? Who is reading NZ fan fiction? How does NZ fan fiction fit into the wide and diverse landscape of NZ literature?

My fellow festival reviewers Charlotte Graham and Ellen Falconer – both in their 20s – have also made some interesting points about young people at literary festivals, which I think are pertinent to the question of who’s reading NZ fiction.

Graham says: “everyone wants to know both how we get more young people (a) along and (b) buying books, so that the industry will not die, but at the same time they don’t REALLY want young people there because they enjoy the whole Q and A at the end just being about how young people are crap and obsessed with their phones and Breaking Bad (which would be awkward in a room full of young people).

“Most of the young people I know read literary fiction (yes, on their phones) and also watch Breaking Bad. Yesterday, I finished a book of literary fiction and tonight I plan to binge-watch House of Cards. It’s just that a lot of us don’t feel like literary festivals are really for us. I don’t know how exactly this happened, but it is important when, as Witi pointed out, book awards and writers fests are the main ways that New Zealand writers get attention and promotion.”

Falconer said she really valued the Taking Form event at Writers Week (a panel discussion with writer Courtney Sina Meredith, graphic novelist Mariko Tamaki and artist and curator Kerry Ann Lee, chaired by Sarah Laing) because “the speakers are about 5-10 years older than me, and ask themselves a lot of the same questions about their work and life as I do my own.”

Catherine_Robertson_150There is also the problem of elitism. Robertson made the point that YA fiction is presented as all being on par, but when we become grown-ups, we’re expected to specialise and distinguish between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ qualities of writing. Ihimaera criticised literary festivals for being elitist, but at the same time insisted that we must have a literary canon to “write New Zealand into existence”. He said we’ve only a had a 30-year window (in the mid-to-late twentieth century) to say ‘this is New Zealand literature’. He finds it frightening to let that go. I was glad when Morris pointed out that there are lots of writers engaging with New Zealand-ness still, and producing all kinds of really interesting work.

It was fascinating to see the ways in which the panel members made value judgements about their own work. Morris, who has written both YA and literary fiction, frankly admitted that she considers her work for adults to be worth a lot more: people will forget her YA books but “Rangatira [a literary novel] is my contribution to the conversation about NZ literature”. She notes that authors have much more freedom in writing adult literary novels – but the penalty you pay is that publishers may not publish them and readers may not read them.

Cleave, PaulCleave, who writes crime fiction, said he would leave writing NZ culture to others. He has made a conscious decision not to market his books as NZ novels. Robertson, who writes romantic and contemporary fiction, pointed out that many commercially successful NZ authors are not well known here because we tend to celebrate the literary authors more.

Robertson made the excellent point that people read for many different reasons and should have all kinds of different books available to them to fulfil their varying needs. She said we need to scrutinise our own biases and our leftover colonial mentality that tells us that NZ writing isn’t as good as writing from overseas.

On the subject of internationality, I was intrigued to learn from Morris that in May she will be launching an Academy of New Zealand Literature. It will include genre-crossing work and Pasifika writing, and will help position and promote NZ writing overseas. Watch this space for more news on that.

Towards the end of the session, Ihimaera graciously told Cleave and Robertson that, contrary to what he had said earlier, “you do write New Zealand literature”. I agree with Morris that our books should and can contain everything about Aotearoa – and every Writers Week I discover a new aspect of that. Huge congratulations and grateful thanks to everyone involved in making it happen. See you next year!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?
2pm, Sunday 13 March, BATS Theatre
Part of NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Novel Ways of Thinking: Muriel Barbery, Paula Morris, Patrick Gale, Joe Bennett

Paula Morris launched us straight into the middle of conversation, which is always an excellent way to begin a panel event.

muriel_barberyThis grouping of writers was quite random-seeming, but actually it turned out to be genius, with a great tension leading to conversation. Muriel Barbery has published three novels, all of which are translated from French to English. Patrick Gale has published 14 novels, diverse but with a family focus in common. Joe Bennett is on his first, from a background as a journalist and non-fiction writer. They were quite different personalities, and sometimes I wasn’t sure whether Bennett helped or hindered the conversation, but their perspectives were unique, and the session satisfied the packed-in audience.

The first topic she set these three, authors was this: where do stories begin, and how do they develop. All four of them, including Morris seem to loosely agree that the concept that a novelist suddenly gets struck like a lightning bolt by inspiration is not true. “Inspiration is where you end up at after all the hard work.”

elegance_of_the_hedgehogThere was a rumour begun by a British newspaper article about Barbery, that she lost the desire to write after The Elegance of the Hedgehog was such a big hit. She says, “This was a misunderstanding of what I said. It illuminates my life to write. I never lost that desire, but I lost the sparkle.” The conversation turned to when you know your book ought to be abandoned, or not. Barbery said “It doesn’t need to be abandoned if you get lost, if you don’t know where you are going. It is a very good sign when you have a feeling that you don’t control what is happening.”

Joe Bennett calls the novel “the highest form of prose.” He has always wanted to write one before he dies, and claims he feels close to death every morning. “If you are unaware of the impending axe, then you’re not really alive.” The others didn’t agree with that, and Barbery finished the train of thought by saying “I am French, so I am immortal.”

joe-bennettBennett heard the beginning of his story in the pub, from a mate, who claimed there was somebody living in the Grand Chancellor Hotel still, a month after the earthquake. He immediately had this image of this hobo in three complimentary dressing gowns working his way through the mini bars, from bottom to top. He wrote a column about it, but somebody at an event spurred him on “Why don’t you write a novel?” and told him that the man who became King Rich was a great character.

Patrick Gale, as I noted during his solo event, has no scruples about stealing stories from his own family. “If they hadn’t wanted me to write about them, they shouldn’t have told me stuff.” He usually doesn’t change names either, unless he is making them an antagonist. On inspiration he says, “I think of the stories as flies that you try to get away from. It’s the ones that stick that get written.”

toffee brownIt was at this point in the session we carried on to a passionate conversation between Patrick Gale and Muriel Barbery about stationary. Both of them, as it happens, write their first drafts long-hand, with a fountain pen, on white, lined paper. Patrick Gale has a specific fetish for “Pelican Toffee Brown”, because it has been proven that it is the colour that lasts longest. Barbery likes black ink on white paper, inspired by her time in Japan, and their beautiful calligraphy. While Barbery writes a full draft before typing it up, with part of the process being making up the words he can’t read, Barbery writes a chapter then types it up.

Gale says, “I write on paper because then you can see what you have crossed out. Sometimes your first though turns out to be better than the second.” Barbery says, “There is something rhythmic in the mind about writing and reading from the page that helps me figure out if I am doing it right.”

The inspiration by deadline is something Bennett, as a columnist, often has to work with. He needs the deadline, he says. “I wait until it’s impossible to write the book by that date, then I consider starting, and finish with 30 seconds to go.” Publishers are often perplexed to receive the draft on time, and he has learned since that novels don’t work the same way.

Barbery can’t work under pressure, but she has a publisher who understands. She says, “Strangely, I don’t write first to be read – I write because I need to.” She has to write completely freely – first, second, third, fourth drafts are all for her.

Paula Morris asked about how The Land of Elves, her latest book, was triggered – she was living in Japan, The Netherlands at the time. “There is always more than one trigger” says Barbery, “The gardens of Kyoto – through this artificial creation, you reach a feeling of nature that you have never had before.” Her husband commented that though entirely constructed, it was as though elves had created them – and The Land of Elves was born. She first wrote it as a script, before later, years later, being visited by the characters of the two girls that ultimately the story became about.

p_patrick_galeOn obsession, Gale remarked, “My editor dreads any of his writers going into therapy, as it might cure them of the need to write.” Looking at his backlist, he has discovered an obsession with brothers and sisters that he had been unaware of. He is close to his sister. Though he bases his novels on family stories frequently, he wouldn’t consider writing a memoir because “my novels allow me to be much more emotionally honest.”

The writers had varying thoughts about research. Gale always does it, Bennett didn’t for his novel (though must have for his non-fiction!), Barbery has only recently discovered the joy of research in the form of Taoist Chinese poetry.

This was a fascinating session. Where writers meet and diverge in intent and technique is endlessly interesting to me, and this is in part why I am an avid attendee of writer’s festivals. You will have the chance to see Muriel Barbery in action at ‘So French‘ tomorrow, while Paula Morris will be a panelist in ‘Our Nation’s Fiction: Read or Dead?‘, which is sure to be fascinating. Both at BATS.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Novel Ways of Thinking: Muriel Barbery, Patrick Gale, Joe Bennett with Paula Morris
BATS Theatre, Saturday 12 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week, Wellington