AWF18: Aflame, with Megan Dunn and Gigi Fenster

AWF18: Aflame, with Megan Dunn and Gigi Fenster

Aflame was one of those lovely little sessions of chatter between three people who know, understand and appreciate one another. In many ways, it’s these sessions in the slightly smaller spaces, with purely local voices, that really feel like the heartbeat of the festival.

In ‘Aflame’, the focus was on creative non-fiction by two talented New Zealand-based women. Gigi Fenster and Megan Dunn were the writers, and Carole Beu of the Women’s Bookshop was the highly competent chair. Carole understands what festival audiences want from a panel session – she was, as she said at the intro, a long term Auckland Writers Festival board member – ‘though not anymore, I’d been there too long’. That legacy of experience does makes her a prized chair.

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Megan Dunn, Gigi Fenster and Carole Beu – used with the permission of Auckland Writers Festival

Carole highlighted the fact that she wanted to ensure that the discussion got across ‘how wonderfully quirky’ they both are. And as for the title of the session, it was obvious, with ‘fire and burning and fever’ winding their way through both books.

And then, both authors had the chance to expound upon the story behind their books – Dunn’s Tinderbox and Fenster’s Feverish.

Tinderbox was borne from Dunn’s desire to create a revamped version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451… and then evolved from there, shifting from novel to memoir in the process. She talked through her background as a roving bookseller, at Borders (RIP) in both Wellington and the UK – describing the dying days of the chain as engaging with customers who were ‘picking over the carcass for bargains’. Likely relatable for a few other booksellers out there!

Fenster touched on why fever was her focus for her memoir – describing how she ‘saw fever as a very kind of creative thing’, relating it to a sense of what went on in Victorian children’s books, with sickly but fascinating characters. ‘The initial idea was to induce a fever and then track that’, Fenster said, but thankfully for her own wellbeing, after a little research into both methods and ramifications, she thought better of it.

Both authors, after their initial contextualisations, read from their books. Dunn began hers by dedicating it to the Elam Fine Arts Library – eliciting a cheer from the crowd. The short passage started with light humour but brought in heavy elements as the temporal positioning became clear – it was set on the day of the London Underground bombings.

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Megan Dunn, Gigi Fenster, Carole Beu – used with the permission of Auckland Writers Festival

At the reading’s end, Beu commented that it was an interesting choice, something so weighty, when so much of the book is hilarious, to which Dunn deadpanned ‘I bring the humour, but I bring the pain too’.

Fenster’s piece spoke of the time when her brother was desperately ill with meningitis, and examined the former role of ‘the watcher’ in the medical profession – those who would sit and wait and watch the patient until the fever broke. The significance of progress was covered, with the vast achievement of ‘I can get it myself’ (in reference to a cup of water) repeated, mantra-like.

While not discounting the care given or the medicine administered, Fenster did come to the conclusion that ‘it was the watching’, her father’s sitting at his bedside and watching him through the night, that saw her brother through.

Both writers took a wander through other aspects of the lead-up to their creating these works. Fenster spoke about a family holiday to Swaziland, where she read Wuthering Heights through the night and had the adult joy of the shared literary experience with her father. She also explained the way that some of the conversations – in what is still a non-fiction book – were created, rather than collected verbatim, but still told complete truths of the experience of the time.

Dunn explained National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo to those up with acronyms – to an enquiring Carole, summing it up as ‘a writing community, with the aim to write a 50 thousand word novel in the month of November’.

She was of the ‘use it as a deadline’ school of NaNo, rather than the online forum-focused option. But in her solitude, she gave it a go, and in 2013, she succeeded, getting her 50K across the line in time. The timers that factored into the plot of Tinderbox arose from her time holding herself accountable for NaNo, with half an hour of writing before work each day.

It was a friendly, upbeat vibe, with plenty of laughter for guests and audience like. One particularly glorious – and interactive moment – was the encouraged discussion of ‘porn names’, according to the internet suggestion of ‘first pet name’ + ‘mother’s maiden name’. While I won’t repeat the specifics here, since that particular internet challenge is rather uncomfortably often a means of digging for password prompt answers – and I don’t want to jepoardise her cyber security – suffice it to say that Beu’s response was the perfect level of filthy to take the audience away in gales of laughter. The perfect way, indeed, to spend a Saturday festival afternoon.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Tinderbox
Published by Galley Beggar Press
ISBN 9781910296820

Feverish
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561803

 

A Love Letter to The Women’s Bookshop, from Deborah Shepard

Go into your local bookshop & write a love letter, and be in to win $500 in Book Tokens! 

Deborah_Dhepard_photo_by_John_McDermott

photo by John McDermott

My favourite bookshop is the Women’s Bookshop in Ponsonby Road. It opened, first, in Dominion Road in 1989 the year I moved, reluctantly, from Christchurch to Auckland, following the dictates of my husband’s career.

Only one year earlier I had been immersed in a new paper in Feminist Studies at Canterbury University, one that had turned my world on its head, providing a theory and an explanation for the vague feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction that had been surfacing since becoming a mother, or, ‘just a mother,’ that’s how you were viewed then, and not a human being with a brain and yearnings to write. The move to Auckland changed my academic pathway, although the seeds of my future had been planted in that one revolutionary paper. Through a course in film studies with Professor Roger Horrocks I embarked on PhD research and it was Carole Beu’s bookshop that provided the resources I needed to do that work and write my feminist revisionist history of New Zealand film, Reframing Women: a history of New Zealand film (Harper Collins 2000).

The day I found the new bookshop in Dominion Road I felt immediately at home and excited. The atmosphere was so welcoming. You could make a cup of herbal tea, settle into a sofa in the corner and take a leisurely browse through the revolutionary texts. Carole offered an amazing collection of fiery texts. These were the heady years of the feminist movement, where there was an explosion of writing by women that provided the theoretical underpinnings for a better understanding of the gendered nature of the society in which we live. This was where you could find the Virago ‘Modern Classics’ a series that reclaimed the earlier texts of hundreds of women writers. It’s where you could source the work of feminist historians who were critiquing the masculinist bias in the historical records whilst recuperating the contribution of brilliant women writers, artists, musicians, philosophers and scientists who had formerly been ‘hidden from history.’ It’s where you could find the texts by feminist economists, planners and geographers who were re-envisioning society and how it might be better structured to create fairer, more cooperative and supportive communities for us to live in.

Carole stocked the seminal texts by: Betty Friedan, Marilyn French, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett, Dale Spender, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Linda Nochlin, Phyllis Chesler, Erica Jong and the follow up books by Gloria Steinem Revolution from within, Germaine Greer The Whole Woman, Naomi Wolf The Beauty Myth and later The Backlash by Susan Faludi. She also, critically for us, supported the work of New Zealand women novelists and non-fiction writers and kept the fires burning through the 1990s and 2000s when feminism was under attack and almost went underground, until recently when we got Caitlin Moran and Clementine Ford, the younger spiky feminists who are taking us forward again.

These days when I visit the bookshop in Ponsonby Road, I value it even more. It is like a heart beating for women, in the centre of the city. I love that it is staffed by women, some of them published authors in their own right, and by Carole herself, a feminist legend, who over three decades has championed and supported women’s literature through the Listener Women’s Book festivals in the 1990s, through her radio and television book reviews, the Auckland Writers’ Festivals, the book launches at her store and her own annual Litera-Teas. While the work of male writers is included at the Women’s Bookshop it must be one of a very few public spaces that offers a kind of intellectual retreat where women can read to be empowered and inspired to be braver, bolder, wilder and more staunch. Experiences like these can’t be had through Amazon. The Women’s Bookshop is a precious institution, a taonga in our nation’s bookselling network, long may it thrive.

Deborah Shepard, 2017
Deborah Shepard is an Auckland biographer, life writing mentor and teacher of memoir with a PhD in Film Studies.

The Women’s Bookshop, Ponsonby
Stopping Passers-By! An artist will be stopping passers-by on the pavement, by painting colourful illustrations on the outside of our shop window from 11.30am to 1.30pm.
Spot Prizes! We have heaps of give-away books – enough to give a Spot Prize every 10 minutes from 10am to 5pn!! No matter what time customers come in, they will have a chance to WIN! They can select their own prize from the scintillating stack.
PLUS: Visit two of the best bookshops in Ponsonby – and win! 
On NZ Bookshop Day, buy any book at both The Women’s Bookshop AND the Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop down the road, get a stamp from both shops, and WIN a children’s picture book – choose from the delicious pile.

Love Letter to the Bookshops I have known, from Catherine Robertson

Dear Bookshops I Have Known,

How can I choose my favourite amongst you, when you’ve all meant so much to me?

Whitcoulls in Wellington’s James Smith’s department store gave me a job while I was at university, and access to bargains from the $1 bin (it was 1986), such as Cynthia Heimel’s Sex Tips for Girls, which I still have.

Parsons was the Bond Street jeweller of books to a struggling student – all those art books to covet on the way upstairs to an endless filter coffee, only fifty cents and with the added bonus of whipped cream and listening to Mike Bungay hold court at the next table.

The Women’s Bookshop in Courtenay Place, where I bought my collection of Viragos (Willa Cather, Vita Sackville-West) and flicked through Broadsheet.

Capital Books, my go-to for how-to books – no subject too obscure. All these particular shops gone now, but remembered whenever I look at my bookshelf.

My old favourites, who go from strength to strength:

Unity, I found you first in Willis Street, in a building that’s been replaced by something flash and glassy, and have followed you around faithfully.

Marsden Books, who make the trip to Karori always worthwhile.

The Children’s Bookshop, who opened the year after my first child was born, and have let me re-visit my own childhood (Frances the badger, Orlando the Marmalade cat!) and discover new joys with my sons. My boys are grown-up now, but I still shop there – you’re never too old for great children’s books. Ruth and John were some of the very first people I told when I finally sold a novel, and I’m so grateful for all their support.

The newer shops that, of course, have opened just for me: Ekor. Vic Books. And out of town, The Women’s Bookshop, Wardini’s, McLeods. The pleasure of shelves stocked with care and discernment. The whole vibe of delight in creation and language, and in the beautiful, magical objects that are books.

Thank you all

XXX
pp_catherine_Robertson
Catherine Robertson

Catherine Robertson is a number one New Zealand best-selling author. She lives beside the sea in Wellington, New Zealand, with her husband, the one son still at home, two rescue dogs and a Burmese cat.