WORD: Reading Favourites, with David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

I’ve seen Paula Morris chair a few sessions at various writers festivals, and was reminded again today why she’s one of my favourite chairs: funny, engaging, doesn’t talk over her panellists, keeps discussion ticking along in a lively manner.

Today she was chairing Reading Favourites, discussing with David Hill and Jolisa gracewood-and-andrew_cMarti-Friedlander their favourite NZ books and how more reading of NZ books can be generally encouraged. Unfortunately Chris Tse was unable to attend – Morris quipped this was either because he was sick or because Hill had offended him.

As today is National Poetry Day, each panelist started with a poem. Hill read Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Two Adorable Things about Mozart’, commenting that “there are certain lines I’d give an index finger to have written”.

Gracewood (right, on the right, photo by Marti Friedlander) read from a “very subversive poetry anthology” in which the names of the poets are not published on the same page as their poems. She read us ‘Telephone Wires’, which turned out to have been written by a 12yo girl in the 1950s. Morris read ‘Going Outside’ by Bill Manhire. The audience hummed in appreciation.

The panellists had been asked to bring along their two favourite New Zealand books. Gracewood showed us her copy of Wednesday’s Children by Robin Hyde, an ex-library book that had been stamped every week in 1951. She said it’s about a woman who wins Lotto and can live as she pleases – a “really magical book” that rewards rereading. She spoke about how Wednesday’s Children has “deep historical reminiscence … [and] continues to be fresh”.

wednesdays childrenIt’s also out of print – which, as Gracewood pointed out, is a problem we need to discuss. Her other favourite book – The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy – is also out of print, although Gracewood hopes that the upcoming film adaptation of Mahy’s The Changeover (one of my personal favourite YA books of all time) will incite publishers to reprint these works. About The Tricksters, Gracewood said “I love it when a book asks you to take on faith that there are worlds alongside ours”.

Hill’s two favourite books were Kate De Goldi’s The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle and Maurice Gee’s Going West. Of the former, he said “The writing is crystalline … I really wept, put the book down and wept … [and] I smiled with delight.” He said that children’s writing has to suggest a world order in which there is still hope, and noted the wonderful respect for adults shown in The Cutting Room of Barney Kettle.

Hill called Gee “the great chronicler of NZ adult life [and] the least show-off writer I know … [with] restrained craft but also a relentless evisceration of personal relationships.” He said that any book of Gee’s makes him think “Yes, that’s it … He’s so good I come away with no envy whatsoever.” I was thrilled to learn from Harriet Allen in the audience that Gee is publishing a new YA novel next year.

cv_Maori_boyMorris’s two favourite books were The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones and Māori Boy by Witi Ihimaera: “they’re both ‘our story’ books”. She said Lloyd writes in the communal voice and gives a great insight into colonialism: “it is really a great NZ novel”. Ihimaera writes as “someone resolutely from outside the centre” – his is a “very important book”.

Discussion then turned to the general problem of why Kiwis don’t tend to buy large quantities of NZ fiction. I liked Hill’s idea that we should have billboards with the opening sentences of NZ novels on them. (eds note: NZ Book Council did this in the early 00’s in bus stops.) Audience members suggested that NZ Book Month should be just about NZ books, and that our school curriculum should feature more work by Kiwi writers – although it was pointed out that this can have a downside, in that forced reading of books at school can put readers off, sometimes for life. (Although this tends only to be the case for NZ fiction: reading a book you dislike at school by a US author, for example, does not tend to put people off US fiction.)

Morris mentioned that she too had been in the Canadian Tales session earlier with Elizabeth Hay, who had spoken about the difficulties of persuading Canadian publishers to back specifically Canadian books – so this is not just a problem for us here. Morris said that our children aren’t making the transition from reading NZ children’s books and YA to NZ adult fiction.

Gracewood and Morris spoke about research they have done for the NZ Book Council into Kiwis’ attitudes to NZ literature. For some reason NZ literature has a distinctly negative aura. Whereas Kiwis support NZ sports teams because they’re ours, NZ literature runs up against the spinach effect: people reading it because they feel they should. Gracewood said “we get excited about supporting our cuddly native birds; what would it take to make NZ books that charismatic piece of literary fauna?”

Reading Favourites was a lively session with a full house and a very engaged audience – so maybe there’s hope for NZ literature yet!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Reading Favourites, by David Hill, Jolisa Gracewood and Paula Morris

Enemy Camp
by David Hill
Published by PuffinISBN  9780143309123

Tell You What 2
edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408442

On Coming Home
by Paula Morris
BWB Texts
ISBN 9780908321117

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Reading Favourites – another take – from WORD Christchurch Readers & Writers festival, Friday 29 August

My first session for the WORD Christchurch Writers Festival this year was Reading Favourites: Kate De Goldi, Sarah Laing and Carl Nixon in conversation with Guy Somerset about their favourite New Zealand books. It was an excellent way into WORD, which celebrates reading and writing in the context of Aotearoa.

Author and children’s book reviewer Kate De Goldi was first up, recommending to us Sydney Bridge Upside Down by David Ballantyne – a gothic mystery with an unreliable narrator, and hailed by many as the great unread Kiwi novel. De Goldi said it’s the kind of book you love so much that you give it to someone you fancy as a sort of compatibility test. She spoke very movingly about her love for this novel and introduced what would become a theme: the lack of recognition for the work within New Zealand (although a cult following is now developing), with it consequently going out of print and becoming difficult to find. Happily, Sydney Bridge Upside Down has now been republished by Text Publishing in Australia and is available in NZ bookshops – for example, at the excellent UBS Canterbury stall right here at the festival.
southseas
De Goldi’s second choice was Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People (Auckland University Press) by Gregory O’Brien. She said it entirely lacks that “instructive worthiness” so prevalent amongst children’s non-fiction, and is instead accessible, personal and engaging – for adults as well as kids. And after she read aloud from the book, I immediately wanted to sit down with it and read the rest. Welcome to the South Seas is due to be re-published by AUP, with two companion volumes soon.

cv_hicksvilleAuthor and cartoonist Sarah Laing’s first pick for her favourite NZ book was Hicksville (Victoria University Press, 2012; but ), a graphic novel by Dylan Horrocks, who was in the audience. Laing said she devoured comics as a child, but, as a young woman, found comic book shops to be “scary” and off-putting. But she is rediscovering comics now, and incorporates cartoons in her own novels (as well as publishing the webcomic and blog, Let Me Be Frank). Laing praised Hicksville for its multi-layered, intertextual nature, and the way it creates a utopian version of Aotearoa where comics thrive and are loved by all. There was also a very interesting discussion of the way graphic novels force to you read in a different way.

Laing commented that, due to their ephemeral nature (both in terms of magazine-like publishing and in the sense of not being part of the literary mainstream), comics can be hard to track down. Horrocks is now published in NZ, but for a long time was only published overseas.

fromearthsendLaing’s second choice was From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics by Adrian Kinnaird (Random House NZ), which she praised as a unique and extremely useful history of cartooning in New Zealand. Guy Somerset commented that he was interested to learn that NZ used to have a thriving comics publishing industry in the mid-twentieth century, until the moral panic about the effects of cartoons on children’s minds effectively shut it all down.

Novelist Carl Nixon’s first choice was The Day Hemingway Died and other stories by Owen Marshall, which he said was one of the first NZ books he read without being told to. He praised the way Marshall perfectly illustrates human foibles while also producing writing that is laugh-out-loud funny. Nixon then proved this last point by reading an excerpt, which did indeed make us all laugh.
gifted
Nixon also enthusiastically recommended to us Gifted by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press), a novel about the real-life working relationship between iconic Kiwi authors Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson. Nixon praised Evans for “capturing what you believe to be Sargeson’s voice”. Like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, Gifted has been adapted for the stage.

Finally, Guy Somerset, Books and Culture editor for The Listener, recommended Arena by John Cranna, a futuristic novel of a brutalised dystopia. Somerset said it’s the first NZ book he read, in order to impress his new Kiwi wife.

Reading Favourites was an excellent session, and I was pleased to see many people head straight to the book stall afterwards. I came away with some excellent additions to my (teetering, infinite) To Read Pile – always a good sign that a writers festival has done its job. Looking forward to more to come!

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher
www.elizabethheritage.co.nz