Aliens and fantastic naturalism, with Elizabeth Knox

Letting the Ghosts In, with Elizabeth Knox, chaired by Steven Gale
Wednesday 12 March, 4.45pm

This is my last missive from the Writers Week that was, andpp_elizabeth knox Letting the Ghosts In was the final session in the main part of the festival. I have read most of Knox’s work over the years, and I never miss an opportunity to hear her speak. Chair Steven Gale focussed the talk mainly on Mortal Fire and Wake, the two books released by Knox in 2013, for young adults and adults respectively.

cv_wakeKnox says she started Wake first as an exercise in writing something frightening, then her life got quite dark quite quickly, with her sister being committed, her brother-in-law being killed, and her mother requiring full-time care due to motor neurone disease. This led to her writing a book from this initial story, pouring all her distress and darkness into it. Meanwhile, she had begun Mortal Fire simultaneously because her 80-year-old editor Frances Foster in the USA asked her to do something more for them. Here, Knox quipped, ‘You’d be amazed what you will do for a generous publisher’.

One thing you will know about Knox if you have seen her speak, or if you have read her book of essays The Love School, is that she still plays an imaginary game with her sister Sara that they began when they were young children. This game is just for fun, but Steven Gale identified the discussions as a place where she is essentially workshopping her work – I felt like Knox didn’t particularly agree with this, but went with it cautiously. They now record these sessions that they do via Skype, and Sara (also a writer) is using them directly to write her next novel.

Gale identified that Knox’s talent is creating worlds that have a wafer-thin gap between real cv_mortal_fire& not real – Knox agreed and said her term for this is “fantastic naturalism”. Mortal Fire is written in Southland, the same world as Dreamhunter and Dreamquake, but is more naturally ‘New Zealand’. Knox said that she was uncomfortable trying to set the magical world of turn-of-the-century Southland directly within New Zealand, because of the very particular history that existed in New Zealand at that time, which would need rewritten. The later Southland doesn’t have as much magic, except at the hands of the Zarenes, and its ‘sense of self has taken a blow’, much as the young New Zealand’s had by the 1950s, when Mortal Fire is set.

Knox had some fascinating comments on how to present a young person’s POV: ‘When writing YA, there is no psychic distance between the reader and the character: the invisible author is even more invisible than usual.’ I agree, the closer that young adults / teens can feel to the story’s characters, the more enjoyment they will get from the book.

When speaking about how she constructed the group of 13 survivors in Wake, Knox had particularities about how she came up with each. The police officer was a given, and it needed to be a women for her to be fighting to retain responsibility so stringently. The character Jacob (the nurse) surprised her with how much of a hero he became. The essential element is that each of the characters has specific virtues that the monster can use to try and destroy them. The scene that plays out speaks to Knox’s pain over how much harder it is to look after each other than it should be, within three stages: physical peril, psychological peril and emotional peril.

When queried by Gale over how she made time during her family dramas to write, Knox said she writes because she has to do so to feel like herself. Elizabeth Knox is a consummate author whose work I believe will remain as a watershed in New Zealand literature for generations to come.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

Elizabeth Knox will appear at Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival this May. Head along to see her.

The Portrait Writer, with Jill Trevelyan

The Portrait Writer – Jill Trevelyan, chaired by Megan Dunn
Wednesday 12 March, 3.15pm

Jill Trevelyan (right) is an art writer on the rise, having written twopp_jill_trevelyan biographies, of artist Rita Angus, and art dealer Peter McLeavey, and curated/edited a book of letters by Toss Woolaston. While I haven’t read her, I was still entertained by this session, which focussed mainly on the popular Peter McLeavey: The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer.

Trevelyan’s work on McLeavey’s biography could very easily have been complicated – he fell out with a lot of artists, he is still alive and so is his family – so it was with a little trepidation that she began.  When Trevelyan presented McLeavey himself with the finished book, he said ‘so, have you found the real Peter McLeavey’? She later admitted that he sent her a note saying ‘thank you for finding Peter’ – so clearly she wasn’t too far off the mark with her portrait. The family were directly involved in the process, as she read each chapter to them as it was finished. This seems an incredibly generous way to work, and something I’d imagine not every biographer would be comfortable with.

cv_peter_mcleavey_life_and_timesMcLeavey sounds like an incredible person, dedicated fully to his vocation, and driven to constantly seek out new artists. But he didn’t ‘jump into bed with them’ straight away, Trevelyan said, but instead flirted for many years before offering to sell their work. The most impressive thing that Trevelyan found when researching was the volume and intensity of letters that McLeavey exchanged with the artists in his stable. He cultured their deep friendships by giving a lot of himself. This was also a way of keeping them close to him, while most art dealers were in Auckland, often closer to the artists geographically.

The biography of Rita Angus was much simplercv_rita_angus_an_artists_life in some ways, as the holder of her estate is her nephew. The fascination with the Angus book was how much her letters informed her art – showed the area in which she was thinking as she painted. Angus was a pure artist, painting her passions, rather than for money, such as Toss Woollaston. Amusingly, she would often borrow the paintings she had sold to somebody back, and sometimes even add to them, as she was never ready to let go.

Trevelyan loves how artists think and work in their world, and her job as an art writer is the most fun thing she can think of doing. While she doesn’t enjoy the production side as much, she acknowledged her brilliant team at Te Papa Press for leading her through it so expertly, as well as  being able to see what needs to be done from a very early stage of her work.

Jill Trevelyan is certainly somebody to watch if you are interested in the world of art in New Zealand. A perfectly pitched and wonderfully chaired session.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ.

Truth in theatre, with four playwrights

Based On A True Story: Dave Armstrong in conversation with Michelanne Forster, Stuart Hoar and Briar Grace-Smith (Wednesday,12 March)

It is a common enough arts festival practice to set up a panel discussion with a question (“are ebooks destroying publishing?”* etc) – it is less common to emerge from that session with a definite answer. This morning’s NZ Festival Writers Week session, Based On A True Story, featured four playwrights – Dave Armstrong, Michelanne Forster, Stuart Hoar and Briar Grace-Smith (right) –pp_briar_grace_smith addressing the question “do playwrights dealing with historical people and events have an obligation to stick to the facts?”. The answer, basically, is no. What if people connected to these events are still alive? No. What if you run the risk of offending someone? God no. What if you need to get iwi clearance? Tricky, but still no. You have to have an “inner staunchness”, according to Grace-Smith and Armstrong. Interesting.

This was a particularly intriguing end to my Writers Week 2014 experience, given that I have spent so much time in sessions where the pull between facts and story, narrative and biography, has been painstakingly pored over. It was refreshing to hear such definitive declarations of the right of artists to adhere only to their own moral compasses and inner sense of story.

They went further: Hoar declared that “history is just somebody’s opinion, it’s made up”; Armstrong said “no truth is the truth”. Forster’s repeated declaration that “each generation makes history in its own image” reminded me of historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch in the Silence: A Christian History session yesterday (Tuesday), when he spoke about societies telling themselves ‘good’ stories and ‘bad’ stories. (It is historians’ job, he implies, to make the ‘good’ stories available, in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.)

pp_stuart_hoarHoar (left) made the excellent point that playwrights can do as they will because audiences know it’s drama. He’s right: no one goes to the theatre expecting documentary, journalism or encyclopaedic fact-telling. The physicality of theatre as an art-form – the way we know we are watching actors play roles, our active suspension of disbelief – gives playwrights licence to tell moral or dramatic truths without being bound by the constraints of historical facts or literal truths. This also means, as Hoar says, that “all historical plays are set in the present” – that is; plays, unlike books, are bound by performances, which necessarily happen at a particular time.

Hoar also made the point that, after leaving the theatre, and if they’re interested in learning the facts of the matter, audiences are free to do their own research (“I believe in Wikipedia”). And this is exactly what I have been doing over the course of Writers Week: leaving the Embassy Theatre or Hannah Playhouse and looking up people’s websites, reading their comics, columns and books, bringing my own interpretation to bear.

Writers Week 2014 has been stimulating, fruitful and hugely entertaining. I am thrilled to have discovered so many wonderful new writers – my ‘to read’ list is looking ever more enticing. Congratulations and grateful thanks to the organisers. Can’t wait for next year!

*Hint: no.

by Elizabeth Heritage, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Thank you Elizabeth for the wonderful work you have done over this period for us! We highly recommend Elizabeth as a writer to anybody who needs her.

Genius and Mimicry: the Art of Translation, with Dr Marco Sonzogni

I marvel at the ability of translators. Many timespp_marco_sozogni I have read a book by Haruki Murakami, or Umberto Eco, and been surprised to find that it was originally in another language. This goes double for good translations of children’s books, particularly those in verse – it is like magic, when it is well done.

Steven Gale was the chair of this event, and he did this admirably – Marco Sonzogni can really talk, and Gale gave him the space he needed to do so. Sonzogni is the Director of NZ Translation Studies, and is the second people in two days I have seen with more letters after his name than a DNA string.

The popularity of translated works is on the rise, a fact which Sonzogni applauds – a British prize for translation recently received 126 applications in 30 languages. The most powerful language in the world is receiving other languages into it and embracing them – while we only have a few major languages, this needn’t mean the death of the smaller languages. A translation is a way of celebrating other cultures. And if you gain readers in different languages, you touch as many lives as possible – this is a very important process.

Sonzogni remarked on the tendency, outside of Europe, to stay within a monolinguistic culture too comfortably. If you read only work from within your own culture, how will you expand your mind? For Sonzogni, ‘the purpose of translation is to have access to other cultures’. Communication is important to promote the arts and share the richness of culture.

When asked to define ‘literary translation’, Sonzogni said ‘It is a craft, an art, an encounter with luck good and bad, like crossing the street blindfolded…but most of all it is a service, you are serving somebody else’s work, and it is a great privilege.’ While you don’t need to be a writer yourself to translate, you do need to be more than adept with the use of your lingua franca, he says. It helps to be able to involve the writer directly with the translation – on this topic, he mentioned being in Umberto Eco’s home once and seeing his two phones. Eco has one phone line entirely dedicated to communication with his translator. Sonzogni tries in his own translation to retain the important features of the work; whether the metre (with poetry), or the placement in the culture of the original country.

Sonzogni had a remarkably fertile place of origin for a future translator, with a mother who taught Greek and Latin (including to him), a scientist father who taught him chemistry language, and his grandparents who spoke local dialects in Italy. He is married to a German woman, which he says keeps the arguments to a minimum as they can claim not to understand one another!

The final portion of the discussion focussed on Sonzogni’s relationship with Seamus Heaney. He still speaks to his portrait every day on his desk, every time he needs help to take his ego out of translation, and though I am not familiar with Heaney’s work, I teared up near the end when he described the suddenness with which Heaney departed the world. It is clear that he had a massive impact on him as a translator, as well as personally. Heaney himself was a polyglot, something he would never have admitted to, as he was so humble.

In answer to a question from the audience, Sonzogni stated “Learning languages is like building windows on windows” – you get addicted to seeing out, so you keep on finding other ways to see.

Several times this week I have thought that certain writers would have a lot in common. I think Diarmaid MacCulloch and Sonzogni would get along well. MacCulloch’s emphasis on story, and Sonzogni’s emphasis on breaking down the barriers to telling each others stories dovetail nicely.

By Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

Writing a Life Less Ordinary – Monica Dux in conversation with Rayya Elias and Ursula Martinez

Writing a Life Less Ordinary – Monica Dux in conversation with Rayya Elias and Ursula Martinez

Another day of Writers Week, another gorgeous combination of interesting people and fascinating ideas.

The second session I attended todalife_less_ordinaryy was Writing a Life Less Ordinary, featuring three women whose work is based in autobiography: Monica Dux (who chaired the event, right), Rayya Elias and Ursula Martinez. Dux is an Australian columnist, Elias is a Syrian-American musician (and former hairdresser to fellow Writers Week guest Elizabeth Gilbert), and Martinez is a British “cult cabaret diva”.

Although initially appearing to have little in common, the three women soon relaxed in each other’s company and conversation flowed freely. They spoke candidly about using difficult and painful aspects of their lives to fuel their work: Dux has written an explicit book about her pregnancy, Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting); Elias has penned her autobiography, Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair and Post-Punk from the Middle East to the Lower East Side, which tells of her battle with drug addiction; and Martinez has created a one-woman show My Stories Your Emails based on the frightening attention she received after unauthorised recordings of her strip-tease/magic show Hanky Panky went viral online.

App_rayya_eliass with other women in Writers Week sessions I have attended, Dux, Elias (left) and Martinez were very concerned with the nature of autobiography, the act of turning one’s own personal history into art, and balancing the urge towards truth with the urge towards story. Dux said that, to be interesting, autobiography has to be about something bigger than just the self; which reminded me of Terry Castle, in Reviewing the Reviewer, calling biography a “lifeline”, a guide for how to be human.

As a publisher, it’s always gratifying to hear authors speak about how helpful the process of being edited can be. I loved hearing Elias – whose autobiography is her first book – saying that “working with an editor is like getting a PhD in writing”. Speaking about publishing online, Elias’s remarks reminded me of Robyn Kenealy’s in Comicsville; how digital feedback can give you a rush, like performance, and how you have to be careful not to become addicted to it. What a contrast to Martinez’s negative experience of having her work uploaded to the internet and then being hounded.pp_ursula-martinez

Overall, another excellent and stimulating session. I particularly liked Martinez’s parting advice: “keep everything that inspires you”. More words to live by.

Ursula Martinez is performing My Stories Your Emails nightly at the Hannah Playhouse until Saturday 15 March

by Elizabeth Heritage, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

The changing face of Children’s books

Things that go BANG! featuring Leo Timmers

I did a personal best down Courtenay PlaceSONY DSC to see Leo Timmers this morning in his event Things that go BANG! And boy, am I pleased I did. Anybody who loves good children’s books should have been there – I was disappointed to see the Hannah Playhouse only at about half its capacity. I am certain in his home in Belgium he would have filled a venue twice the size of The Embassy, as it is clear he is becoming a household name there, with two TV series’ in the works.

What an extraordinary man. He writes what he says are ‘pure picture books’, likening the concept to Hitchcock’s ‘pure cinema’. He is an illustrator first and foremost – he starts an illustration before he comes up with anything to put it in, and he makes himself conceive a new idea every day. Sometimes they become small books, often they are discarded, never to see the light of day. Other times they will resurface in his mind and he will flesh them out to show a publisher.

Timmers started out as an illustrator-for-hire, cv_crowdoing editorial work for newspapers and children’s magazines, before he found his own voice. He tried illustrating others work, but he didn’t enjoy it, as he didn’t have enough freedom, so he began writing his own books out of frustration, at first with little confidence (though this was resolved when his first complete book, Crow, won a major book award in Belgium). The book The Magical Life of Mr Renny I think shows how far his writing has come. His lack of confidence was partially as he is himself dyslexic – even more extraordinary.

cv_the_magical_life_of_mr_rennyTimmers uses animals in his work extensively, and when queried about this, he said that it is simply to help children find a point of understanding with potentially difficult themes without making these confronting. Also, he finds animals are more fun to draw than humans, and much more exciting to colour! The point at which I just wanted to hug him was when he explained BANG! to us as a pictorial metaphor for the fact that it is more fun to be together than alone.

His work, by his own admission, is driven towards a particular theme – to encourage children to find out who they are as they grow up, and be true to themselves: do difficult things that you believe in. A very admirable aim in life.

I managed to make it to the front of the signing queue, that carried on for an hour due to the care he took in illustrating each book – my lucky sons got a wonderful Mr Renny saying their names. He is a genuinely wonderful author, who cares deeply about his readers – if you have children (especially young ones), please make sure they see Timmers’ work.

Idea + Design + Text = ?, featuring Aleksandra Mizeilinska and Daniel Mizieilinski in discussion with Lynn Freeman


I was not as familiar with the work of Aleksandra Mikeilinska and Daniel Mikieilinski, a pair of Polish artists who were here to talk about their work. I had seen H.O.U.S.E and D.E.S.I.G.N previously, as Gecko Press publications, but their other (translated) works – Maps and Mamoko were unfamiliar, and so wonderful!

Intriguingly they are not only picture book creators, but also game developers, and website creators. They straddle, easily it seems, the physical and digital worlds.

mapsThe two met at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, despite Daniel at least never wanting to be a painter – fortunately they discovered book design at the academy, and as well as doing their own work, they have also been responsible for designing books more generally. They work incredibly collaboratively, with Aleksandra being responsible for telling Daniel when he has gone off the wrong way with things…

Daniel had a lot of interesting things to say about the world of digital publishing. Namely, that paper books just don’t have much in common with e-books. Publishers simply don’t understand this, which is why we get e-book apps, he says ‘that are like the early days of computer games in the library, where you would click on an animal and it would squawk.’ Daniel is much more interested in a new format that hasn’t yet been developed yet for e-books, something between an app and a book, while being something new altogether. They are working on this themselves, and believe more game developers should also work on this – as it has the potential to be a big area of growth. The start of this can be found at

Other thoughts from Daniel:
Self-publishing: ‘Self-publishing is great but selling 1000 copies is not enough to influence the children of your country.’ (Poland is much larger in population than NZ)
Intellectual property: ‘Patents are destroying all that is good in the world and they should be abolished.’ (You’d be unsurprised that he is also not a fan of copyright)
Storytelling: ‘If you are a good storyteller you can influence things as you want to.’ This was the inspiration with Maumoko – which was commissioned by their publisher to be a book that the child could tell the story from, rather than the parent.

Something that the Mizieilienska/is and Timmers had in common was the fact they don’t see illustration as secondary – using the word illustration, Daniel said, implies that the story is in the text. The story is as much in the text in all of their books as it is in the words.

And this is why the joy that can be found in good children’s books is so pure.

by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ

Thank you to the festival organisers for providing a wee festival within a festival for those of us that are admirers of children’s literature. With Leo Timmers, the Mizieilienskas and Gavin Bishop doing the Janet Frame Memorial Lecture that evening, it was a great day for the great many kiwi children’s authors who I saw milling around.

Free events, with Writers Week guests popping up all over Wellington

Book fans will be spoilt for choice withNZF_WritersWeek_front free events this Writers Week, including the 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture.

Celebrated author and illustrator Gavin Bishop will deliver a literary “state of the nation” at the New Zealand Society of Authors 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture (6.15pm, 10 March, City Gallery) as part of 2014 Writers Week. This annual lecture is free, and will discuss the current state of literature and writing in New Zealand. For over 30 years, the lives of children and grown-up children have been shaped by the books of Gavin Bishop. Introduced by Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, Bishop’s lecture will focus on the value, standing and role of illustration in children’s literature.

As a picture book author and artist, Gavin Bishop has published more than 40 books and won numerous awards, including the Margaret Mahy Medal for Services to Children’s Literature in 2000. He has also written for television and the libretti for two children’s ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Another free event, First Published (6.15pm, 11 March, Meow Café), will feature four exciting new voices on the local literary scene in a session chaired by New Zealand Post Book Award winner Steve Braunias. Fall in love together with the protagonist of Sebastian Hampson’s novel The Train to Paris; marvel at the influence of that extraordinary instrument, the theremin, in Tracy Farr’s fictional biography The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt; and relish the poetry and insights of Irish-born Caoilinn Hughes and recent Michael King Writers’ Centre resident Alice Miller

Local visual art fans and aficionados can enjoy a special screening of The Man in the Hat (7.30pm, 11 March, Film Archive, koha), the documentary portrait of influential Wellington art dealer Peter McLeavey, directed by Luit Beiringa. The film explores McLeavey’s early life and the more than 500 exhibitions he went on to curate from his history-making Cuba Street gallery. Beiringa will introduce the screening and be available afterwards to talk about this extraordinarily influential character.

Other free events during Writers Week, 7-12 March 2014, include:

  • The launch of Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti (Random House), 6pm, 6 March, Unity Books
  • Big Ideas for Breakfast: half an hour of lively discussion between Writers Week guests, from 7.45am, 10-12 March, Westpac Festival Club, St James Theatre
  • Many events for Collected Stories of the Odd and Marvellous edited by Adrienne Jansen (Te Papa Press) with stories and workshops for children inspired by weird and wonderful museum objects, 8-9 March, Te Papa
  • A Victoria University Press party and book launch for Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes and Incomplete Works by Dylan Horrocks, 7.30pm, 8 March, Exchange Atrium
  • A Gecko Press party for visiting authors and book launch for Dappled Annie and the Tigrish by Mary McCallum, 6pm, 9 March, Westpac Festival Hub, St James Theatre
  • The book launch for The Train to Paris by Sebastian Hampson (Text Publishing), 6.15pm, 10 March,The Library Bar

For more details about these events and more visit the New Zealand Festival website:\

Writers Week is supported by Asia New Zealand, Australia Council for the Arts, Canada Council for the Arts, Creative New Zealand, Flemish Literature Fund, Goethe-Institut, Institut Ramon Llull, Lion Foundation, Museum Art Hotel, National Library of New Zealand, New Zealand Book Council, New Zealand Listener, Royal Society of New Zealand, Swedish Arts Council, Unity Books and Victoria University of Wellington.