A follow-on from the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Sunday 18 May, by Gillian Whalley Torckler
Next on the agenda was an event described as the largest book club discussion
ever. It was a celebration of “The Great Kiwi Classic” − The Bone People by Keri Hulme. There was some discussion at the start about the definition of a classic. What defines a classic? Does everyone have to like it? Can it be a classic if some people are offended by it?
Peter Biggs chaired the session, which included a reading by Keri Hulme and commentary from Eimear McBride (a novelist from Ireland) and Reina Whaitiri (a NZ academic). The hour started with a ten-minute reading by Hulme herself. She read from a copy she had presented to her uncle who upon hearing she was writing a book, advised her to write in the style of Wilbur Smith. Thankfully she ignored him. The Bone People is a very kiwi book, set on the rugged west coast of New Zealand. It is interesting to note that both of our Booker prize-winning books were set in this wild landscape, that some might even describe as a savage landscape.
But this book had an inauspicious start – Hulme says that every publisher in Australia and New Zealand turned it down. That’s music to every author’s ears. From the envelopes of rejection come the … well, let’s be realistic, it won’t be the Booker every time.
The audience participation in this session was a more significant component than many. There were accolades – some glowing, some not so. There were tears from the audience when more than once victims of abuse thanked Keri for writing the book, for lifting the lid. Despite it being a violent, savage book, it was deemed positive because it has reached so many people. One person admitted it took him three reads to finally “get” this book – the first time he hated it but now it’s his favourite book.
In writing the book, Hulme loved the characters but made them do some heinous things in order to show how much damage we do to each other and how much damage we do to the earth.
And if you were wondering, there will never be a film made of The Bone People because Keri doesn’t want one. And after all these years, one is left feeling very much like Keri is still calling the shots. And it seems, from the sign on her gate, which reads “Unknown cats and dogs will be shot on sight. Unless I know you or you have contacted me first, do not come in,” she always will.
The end of the day was here. The last session – Patricia Grace in conversation with her long-time publisher Geoff Walker (formerly of Penguin Books). Patricia Grace (right) grew up reading books about other places, other places that were not New Zealand, well not her New Zealand anyway. She wanted to write about the people she knew, and the communities she grew up in, and in so doing she pioneered Maori writing.
Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson were early role models, but although she appreciated Mansfield’s way with words, the settings and stories were far removed from her own world. She didn’t recognise Mansfield’s voice, whereas she did hear an authentic kiwi voice in Sargeson’s writing. She realised this was important and started to seek out kiwi voices. Soon realising she had her own voice, she began to write. At first, on the kitchen table, after she had got her seven children into bed at 8 o’clock each night.
Although many of Grace’s books have political undertones (and maybe even overtones) she says the characters always come first. Once they are invented, then their behaviour comes from who they are. Grace showed in a quiet and confident way that she more than deserved to be the 2014 Honored New Zealand Writer.
The final curtain has been closed and the Festival was declared over for another year. But it was the biggest yet – over 50,000 tickets and a whopping 45% increase from 2013. The Aotea Centre was buzzing all day. And from what I saw, Sarah-Kate Lynch would have been happy to see lots and lots of readers buying books.
Events attended and reviewed by Gillian Whalley Torckler, on behalf of Booksellers NZ.