Saturday, May 24, 2008

Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 08 – Day One

This was a five day event, held last week. It would have been wonderful to get to the whole thing but, well, work intervened. I did manage to have a three day weekend in Auckland, and get to see most I would have wanted to see plus a have few nice surprises, attending about a dozen sessions in all.

Innocence and Experience

I didn’t really know anything about the three authors running this session, which was playing with the twinned notions of innocence and love, how love can generate a form of innocence. I had seen Peter Ho Davies’ novel The Welsh Girl in various shops, but Peter Wells and Laurence Fearnley are pretty much completely unknown, surprising given that both have written several novels and both are New Zealanders. Fearnley not only lives up the road, but she had a writing fellowship at my university! I listened to Peter Wells read from his book, Lucky Bastard, and talk generally about it and went and had a look at it in the bookshop, but have no sense that this book will be of any interest to me or, indeed, what it is about. The Festival blurb says it is “an exploration of family relationships and a little known aspect of the Second World War”: I have already forgotten what that might be.

The Welsh Girl sounds much more interesting, again a bit of family exploration happens, which is not necessarily confined to humans: Ho told of his discover of the territoriality and maternal instincts of sheep. I have no idea how he works this into his novel, but apparently he does. The story is of this young barmaid who has some sort of dealings with a German prisoner of war incarcerated in Wales, with a side dish of Anglo-Welsh tensions. Ho’s inspiration was the fact that his grandmother had a collection of small hand-made bronze sculptures made by the local POW’s during the war. The local landscape seems to be an important aspect of the novel.

I liked his story of one of his short stories: he spent a year on it, only to find that there was only one element he really liked, one he was able to salvage as an 8 page story. I also really liked what he was saying about his characters: by the time he had finished, he felt like it was really their story, and he was more in the nature of a reader, one who was sad to see them go when he was done. Very Flann O’Brien. Of course, the writer must be much closer to the characters than any reader, since they have lived together for the duration of the writing process (seven years, in his case).

This talk of missing the characters was inspired by Laurence Fearnley talking about her relationships, both with the physical world and fictional characters. She confessed to not really being into people, and finding lots to entertain her in the random things that she sees around her (such as some rubbish blowing across the street in Invercargill). This leads to her providing a very detailed and real sense of the physical landscape in her novels. She also confessed that she gets enough company from the characters inhabiting her head and finds them much more accessible than real people: I have to applaud her for her bravery in making such statements, because society has a dim view of loners. Curiously, I immediately wanted to meet her (but when I had my chance later on, chickened out). Her novel, Edwin + Matlida, features the title characters finding their way into a relationship, despite a 40 year gap between them (he is 62).

Addicted to the Dark

I went because I wanted to hear Duncan Sarkies; thanks to being fog-bound, he could not make it, so I only had Luke Davies and Heather O’Neill. She looked so much like one of our students that it came as a shock that she has a teenaged daughter. Her novel, Lullabies for Little Children, is pretty brave in the topic it takes on: a twelve year old girl (Baby) whose life is so shit and who is so damaged she takes to the streets and is selling herself. Her dad is a big time drug user, but going straight, so part of the novel explores her getting re-acquainted with this new father. The chair-person, Stephanie Johnson, raved about the freshness of the voice and the lovability and strength of this incredibly resilient kid. She’s possibly paid to say such things but Luke Davies, the other guest, rated it a highly important book and extremely good – at a world-beating level. There was talk of filming it, but of difficulties in getting the right sort of team on the project (if we could ever get Ellen Paige to look 12, I get the sense she’d be fantastic). O’Neill herself seems to have gone through the kind of life I can’t comprehend: at some stage, her mum said to her and her sisters “Your dad is out of jail now, you go live with him”; he was a bad man, but one with enough clout that he could pretty much do what he would want, such as wander down the street in his underpants smoking a cigar to do his shopping and no-one would interfere.

Luke Davies was there for his new book, God of Speed, a fictional biography of Howard Hughes – forgetting about his love of flying, but looking at him as a fellow suffering from OCD (apparently he had a team of Mormons to keep his house clean) and his addictions to drugs and sex. Davies was saying that he pretty much detested his character, which must be an odd place for an author to be in, although felt for him – the fact he went 15 years without ever having a real conversation, that he could neither love nor be loved. Still, I don’t think I’ll be rushing to read this one, but it re-ignited my interest in going back to his earlier work, Candy, where the central character is caught between his twinned needs – for heroin and a girl called Candy.

An Hour With Sarah Hall

It was when I saw Hall’s name on the list that I decided I’d go up to Auckland for this festival. Sure, I might well have done it anyway, but this set my decision in concrete. I loved The Electric Michelangelo, largely on the basis of her talent for description and language. Now I love it even more: the conversation gave it a context that I hadn’t really grasped – Cy ends up at a crossroads, in that he could continue the nasty habits of Riley into the next generation, or he could end that cycle, give his acolyte a better role model than he himself had. I hadn’t fully got what was going on with Grace – of course it is an extremely evocative name, but I get now that despite the truly awful things that happened to her (there was quite an audible gasp in the audience when that was revealed), her spirit remained intact.

It was nice to be told more about Haweswater and how there are various features of Hall’s growing up in the next valley over contained in the text. It is a book I have always intended to read but never quite managed. One thing that really connects these two novels is the sense of strong women – Cy’s mum and Grace (and potentially the newbie) in The Electric Michelangelo and the central character in Haweswater. This focus on the power of women comes to the fore in her latest novel, The Carhullan Army. This is her first contemporary novel (set in a present vaguely parallel to our own) – the army of the title, as far as I could work out, is a secret force of armed women, who are either terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective. I’m pretty sure that Hall is taking the latter perspective: the world has gone wrong, there’s no food or freedom, women are made to wear contraceptive devices and the Carhullan army is going to do something about it.

It is funny – I have spent quite a bit of time this week with an extremely well known public intellectual (Professor Stanley Fish) and a very short time with Sarah Hall, but she’s the one who seems to be the more relevant and with more of importance to say.

Perhaps I should have told her that. I’m sure that it is not that long ago that I would not have even dared approach someone with such stature in my eyes, let alone engaged her in conversation but that is what I did. I was wanting to have my book signed and since I couldn’t ask a question during the talk (my voice was all but gone), I asked her about the authors she had been talking about, the ones she loves for their descriptive power – she named Michael Ondaatje, Alex Miller and Hilary Mantell. I told her that it seemed a shame that her latest novel is a departure from her own descriptive voice and was reassured that the next one will be a return to it: it suited the characters and story to pare the current one back. I then left her with the suggestion that she might like Catherine Chidgey’s The Transformation.

An Hour With Junot Diaz

This was an unusual session, in that Diaz would not read from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, indeed, barely even talked about it. I’m not really sure what he did talk about – his family got mentioned quite a bit, often in the context of fame or money. On being chosen as an Oprah book, his sister has pointed out “There is lots of cursing, you curse a lot, there are perverse sexual acts. This is not for Oprah” or words to that effect. On the Pulitzer, a prize which gave him $10,000, his mum pointed out he lost some to his agent, more to tax, and took him 11 eleven years to write. “As a source of income, you do the math.” So, there was some self-deprecating humour, a few hints about the novel, his hopes for reception in the Dominican Republic once the novel is translated into Spanish and, unlike authors I heard from earlier in the day, he seems to be thoroughly over his characters.

I had hoped that I could go to Poetry Idol, but was greeted at the door with “Sorry, we’re full – there’s a poetry gig on”, given in such a tone as would suggest I should have known better than to get into a poetry gig, because they always sell out. Yeah, right! So, instead, I went back to where I was staying, got into a row with a German fellow and ordered some of the Festival books.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this write-up. I still remember a gaggle of Merivale Ladies at the writers' festival here a few years ago, descending on C.K. Stead while shouting "Professor Stead! Will you sign this first edition?" Yikes!

Will you reveal how you came to be hanging out with Stanley Fish?

10:15 PM  
Blogger Barry said...

We were fortunate enough to actually host Professor Fish in our Faculty for a couple of weeks: he delivered a public lecture on the work of academics, a lecture to the English department on the search for truth and a couple of lectures to my Faculty. I also got to go and have dinner with him one evening.

12:17 AM  

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