WORD: How to be a Writer, with Steve Hely

Event_How-to-be-a-Writer-Steve-HelySteve Hely is a comedic writer from the USA. He has written for many great TV shows, and his TV writing and how he got into this was the focus of the first part of this talk. First up, Hely apologises to all those in the audience who thought this was about how to be a writer, and takes the blame for the odd title (it was meant to be named after his novel How I Became a Famous Novelist.’

I’ll admit I was struggling by this point of the day. I really ought to have had a coffee before going into this session, but due to a quick turn-around, that was too hard. My miasma of tiredness wasn’t helped by the in-crowd angle Toby Manhire took during part of this interview. I have been enjoying each of the USA writers’ views on Trump and American politics however, and I’d recommend going along to The State Of America at 12.30pm here at The Piano.

Hely’s writing credits include the David Letterman Show, American Dad, 30 Rock, and Veep. He has also published the title named earlier, plus travel book The Wonder Trail. He wanted to be a TV writer from very young, and deliberately went to Harvard (after some of his favourite writers) so he could work at the Harvard Lampoon magazine. After college, he pitched his writing to Letterman, didn’t hear anything for months, moved to LA in the meantime, then to New York when he got the job.

The writing process for Letterman: “You got there and were told what the pitch was for that day. You’d pick a topic then you’d write jokes for it, then write some skits for the opening set piece.  You were in a box writing on your typewriter.” When he moved to comedy writing though, it became more collaborative – TV writers are aware that 1 + 1 = more than 2.The style of the writing room depends on the personality of the show-runner. “Sometimes they touch everything themselves, sometimes they delegate and let others deal with it.”

Hely was dubious about the idea of a US version of The Office, but by the time he came in as a writer it was through to its 7th season: there ended up being around 250 episodes of US The Office, compared to about 12 in the UK. In this writing group, writers were often transitioned to become actors, quite deliberately – to give them a sense of what they are doing.

They moved on then to talk about his books. Hely says, “It is helpful as a writer to be able to split your personality into different characters.” One of the reasons he wanted to be a novelist was to be invited to literary festivals. The theme of How I became a famous novelist was how much you could get away with, when pretending to be a writer. “I wanted to explore the line between being genuine and being a poser.” Hely also wanted to explore the difference between mass-market and literary fiction – he is interested in who we give literary awards to, and why.

While on hiatus from TV writing, he took a trip around Central and South America. He had pitched this to publishers before leaving, and when he was part-way through his agent sold the book: so then he had to write it. “I like to break my routine by travelling, and talking to strangers, and working out a new country. New Zealand has a culture of this, but I have encountered a lot of Americans who have never considered travelling. “

Trump

Hely attended the Republican Convention: “It was so tin pot, cheap, dictatorial, fascist and I hated to see it in the United States. Donald Trump is barf – US got so disgusted with the political system that they threw Trump up. Those who weren’t part of the the machine threw this up.” The only funny part of it was when Ted Cruz – “another despicable individual” – refused to endorse Trump. But as soon as Trump started talking he thought “No. We need to shut this down.”

One of the audience members asked whether it was getting harder to write political satire, given Trump is doing this himself? “The fact satire is being outpaced by reality is a problem.” It is, he says, hard to make fun of this guy who changes his mind at every turn. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that comedy’s job is to change people’s minds. The real value of it is making you feel less insane. It’s helpful to make people understand they aren’t alone.”

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

How to be a Writer, with Steve Hely

Steve Hely is also at:

The State of America, Sun 28 Aug, 12.30pm

 

WORD: The Spinoff After Dark: Toby Manhire, Alex Casey and Duncan Greive

Event_The-Spinoff-after-DarkI arrived at this session in a bit of daze, having had my head exploded by Hear My Voice, two hours of incendiary poetry and storytelling from a group of WORD Christchurch’s most outspoken writers. One of my favourite things about literary festivals is discovering new writers to love, both from Aotearoa and overseas, and at Hear My Voice I found three: Sophie Rea, Daisy Speaks, and Ivan E. Coyote. As well as being wonderful writers they were also exceptional performers. Catch them if you can.

The Spinoff After Dark was a very relaxed session – and a good thing too, because by this point in the day after Busted, Speaking Out and Hear My Voice, I was in danger of Feelings Overload. Toby Manhire, Alex Casey, and Duncan Greive from The Spinoff sat with some mics in a cafe and nattered to us. They did mini-interviews, which were quite fun, starting with comedy writer Steve Hely: “Everything I know about Max Key, I learned from Alex Casey”. I’m not sure why they were talking about Max Key, or why Casey had been emailing Hely so much information about him: one of the downsides of this session is that it assumed a lot of shared knowledge on the part of the audience (which I didn’t always have), and relied often on in-jokes. But the participants were quick-witted and the mood good-humoured, so it was generally entertaining.

The second guest hauled out of the audience was WORD Literary Director Rachael King. Casey was asking everyone who their Fight for Life opponent would be: it had to be someone equivalent in your field. King chose Auckland Writers Festival Director Anne O’Brien: “I lift weights, so she’d be down in the first round.” (Hely had chosen Max Key.)

The third guest was Joe Bennett, but I’m afraid I can’t report on what he said because all it says in my notes is “wow, Joe Bennett is really goddam annoying”. I think he said he would fight Steve Braunias.

Next up was author Paula Morris. She reported on her travels in Latvia, where you have to go everywhere by bus and it’s really hot on the buses, but people get annoyed with you if you take off your coat. “That’s just one of the many interesting things I know and it’s why travel is important.” She would fight Selina Tusitala Marsh, because she’s weak from where Morris pulled Marsh’s neck muscle while brushing her hair.

The fifth interviewee was illustrator Toby Morris (no relation to Paula); the other half (with Manhire) of ‘The Pencilsword‘. They spoke about the trials of being called Toby. Morris said his father-in-law referred to him as Tony in his speech at his (Toby’s) (I mean Morris) (Toby Morris not Paula) (god, sorry) wedding. He would fight Sam Scott from the Phoenix Foundation.

Then RNZ producer Mark Cubey was called to the stage. He said he was amazed there aren’t more Spinoffs: fantastic, fun, crazy, good websites. In fact, he said, “I think there’s room for a spinoff of The Spinoff, you could call it The Spunoff.” Greive looked horrified. “No one do that!”

Manhire then invited celebrated journalist Rebecca Macfie to come up and be mini-interviewed. This was a complete surprise to her and it took Manhire a while to persuade her. “I’m totally unfunny, I’m the wrong person to be doing this,” Macfie warned. Manhire asked her whether Pike River was over. “Shit no. How can it be finished when there’s no accountability, no bodies, no justice.” Hear, hear.

The final guest was blogger Giovanni Tiso. He was asked how come he’s so good at blogging when English is his second language, after Italian. He said “writing is a second language anyway. You are taught rhetoric if you’re taught well at school.” (I think Italian schools must be better than ours because I don’t remember being taught that?). Casey was asking everyone what they snacked on while writing. He said he writes his blogs on Monday nights so there are no snacks (cue much consternation). He would fight Karl du Fresne.

The panel then answered questions people had tweeted in, and from the audience. Greive on sports journalism: “Everyone got into bad habits a hundred years ago and that’s why a lot of things are bad.” Casey on The Bachelor: “When you apply an international franchise here you see the weirdness of New Zealand, and that’s why I like it”. She ghostwrote the text of Jamie Curry’s (heavily illustrated) book in a couple of days.

Eventually the panellists resorted to interviewing each other. Manhire would fight Duncan Garner. Greive would fight Marcus Stickley because The Wireless won best website at the Canon media awards, and “I will probably carry that resentment to my grave”. Casey does not recommend K Bar chocolate.

I wanted to tell Casey how much I admired her outspokenly feminist work at The Spinoff but such earnestness seemed out of place in amongst light-hearted discussion of snacks. I confined myself to live-tweeting and wine. Bring on WORD Sunday!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

The Spinoff After Dark
with Toby Manhire, Alex Casey and Duncan Greive

Alex Casey appears today in:
The Great Divide?, Sun 28 Aug, 3.30pm

Toby Manhire appears today in:
Giving Them Hell: Political Cartoons
, (Chair) Sun 28 Aug, 2pm

Duncan Greive appears today in:
Reimagining Journalism, Sun 28 Aug, 5pm

 

WORD: The Stars Are On Fire, with Tipene O’Regan, Caitlin Doughty, Stephen Daisley, Tusiata Avia, Steve Hely, Ivan E. Coyote and Hollie Fullbrook

Festival Director Rachael King opened this fsampler event to rapturous applause, speaking about the theme of the festival – how can we look after the planet and its people. This was followed by Kim Hill, who was suffering from the condition (not uncommon) of not being John Campbell (who was meant to do the introductions). She managed to find a quirky fact about each performer to announce them, and in no way was inferior to the great Campbell – and I prefer her voice, anyway.

The first performer was Sir Tipene O’Regan. It was an honour to hear one of the first Polynesian creation myths from such a legendary Ngai Tahu figure. His telling included humour, and felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience to savour. “First there was nothing, and then there were darks. All sorts of darks.”

The second performer was Caitlin Doughty, who took us through the routine of cremation. Caitlin is an undertaker, and runs a crematorium. She first got a sense of how many in the audience were intending to be cremated – about 50%, which she says is about average for New Zealand. I now know that it takes about 2 hours to burn a body (at around 815 degrees celcius) to the stage that it is ready to be placed in the Cremulator to be turned to ashes.

Next up was Stephen Daisley, who talked a little about emotions and family. He then, slightly bafflingly, treated us to a sample of an excellent review that Owen Marshall did of Coming Rain on The Spinoff. Daisley seems to me like somebody who can’t quite believe his talent is finally being acknowledged, so I’m happy to see him finding his space in the literary community.

Tusiata Avia performed two poems next: first, one from her new collection Fale Aitu | Spirit House, then one called ‘My body’. I have seen Avia perform many times, and each time I am newly grateful that she shares her talent with us. She is a dynamic reader, who knows how to play her audiences, and how to lose them in the beauty of her language.

Steve Hely was up next: he is an award-winning comic writer for TV shows in the US, including The Office. He talked about a bus trip he took through the Atacama in Chile. Most of the men on the bus were Coal Miners, heading home after long periods away: the attendant on the bus though chose Austenland, as the DVD to help take away some of the boredom. It does seem an odd choice, and I think Hely may have hit the nail on the head when he decided the attendant chose it solely to annoy the miners, who wouldn’t have had a hope of understanding it.

The absolute stand-out for everybody in the audience tonight, I think, was Ivan E. Coyote. They were such a stunning storyteller, that in telling about the females that they were influenced by while growing up made everybody in the audience feel they wanted to have known these great women of the Yukon. Elizabeth Heritage will be reviewing their solo event on Sunday.

The final performer was the talented Hollie Fullbrook aka Tiny Ruins. She also sang about a bus journey, and the space between individual experience.

I now want to see each and every one of these people in action again. Judging from Twitter, the near to sold-out audience was all with me. Get ready for another ticket sales spike, WORD!

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Caitlin Doughty is appearing in:
Embracing Death, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Ask a Mortician: Caitlin Doughty, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm
The Nerd Degree, Sun 28 Aug, 5pm

Stephen Daisley is appearing in:
Writing War Stories, Sat 27 Aug, 3.15pm
Coming Rain, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Tusiata Avia is appearing in:
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
Spirit House/ Unity, Sun 28 Aug, 2pm

Steve Hely is appearing in:
How to be a Writer: Steve Hely, Sat 27 Aug, 3.30pm
The Great NZ Crime Debate, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm
The State of America, Sun 28 Aug, 12.30pm

Ivan E. Coyote is appearing in:
Taku Kupu Ki Te Ao: My Word to the World, Sat 27 Aug, 1-4pm
Hear My Voice, Sat 27 Aug, 5.30pm
The Storyteller: Ivan E. Coyote, Sun 28 Aug, 11am

Hollie Fullbrook is appearing in:
Workshop: Songwriting with Hollie Fullbrook, Sat 27 Aug, 9.30am
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, Sat 27 Aug, 12.30pm
In Love With These Times, Sat 27 Aug, 7.30pm