Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Hour with Anthony McCarten (Auckland readers & Writers Festival 2012)

I've never read anything by Anthony MCarten, hardly even heard of him, but the sound of one of his books drew me in. He had a brilliant quote, one which could have gone down well in the session on the future of the novel: "Writing is about working out the music people dance to". Apparently he sells much better in Germany than in New Zealand: he has been compared there to Gunter Grass and he won a youth literature prize in nearby Austria. He's an interesting looking fellow, I could somehow see that he was once someone who desperately wanted to be a rockstar
The book that won him the Austrian prize, Death of a Superhero, is about a teenager facing death and who copes by drawing a comic featuring a superhero.
It was set in New Zealand, but when it came time for the movie, funding arrangements meant that the film was set in Ireland. The book was then re-published with the setting moved to England. There was simply no audience for him in New Zealand so, as he frankly admitted, he shifted the action to make some money. He finished his session with the wry comment that there are more people in the room than have ever bought his books: I for one was in the room and have now bought one. I'm not that fussed about reading this first one, to be honest, but I want to read the sequel so will take a look. McCarten was at the Festival because he has two books out this year, and they really couldn't be more different from each other.

The first of his two books, Brilliance, is a non-fiction work. It was originally over six hundred pages but he couldn't get anyone to publish it.McCarten says he loved it so much he screwed it up. Oddly enough, doing a stage version led to him finding a 150 page version which has been published:
It is the story of the relationship between Thomas Edison and JP Morgan.Edison was, of course a genius and a man of ideals - the book explores the fragility of ideals: McCarten describes him as a living saint who brought so much to the world, but also a very complicated man, as he brought us the electric chair along with the light bulb and gramophone. Apparently he was somehow complicit in the death of five men, through the electric chair, but showed no moral concern: McCarten's project is to "impose a sense of guilt on him".

At the same time, he points the finger at Morgan for subverting Edison's purity, by commercializing his impulse to create. Morgan is a "superstar of usury" but also someone who apparently genuinely believed in the redemptive powers of bankers, and thought they should rule the world! But then he did organise the banks to stop a run in 1907. Wikipedia has a good story:
In the early days of the American Civil War Morgan financed a scheme, known as the "Hall Carbine Affair", that purchased 5,000 dangerously defective carbines being liquidated by the U.S. Government at a cost of $3.50 each. The rifles were later resold to the government as new carbines lacking the safety flaw at a cost of $22. The audacity of the scheme included not only the $92,426 loss by the government and the selling of weapons known to maim their operators to an army in need of firearms, but the guns were also sold prior to ownership, thus the guns were paid for with money from their sale back to the government.
He's a complicated fellow: along with a desire to make it unnecessary for Americans to leave the country, he endowed museums and a hospital (although this was apparently so a girlfriend could get an abortion).

McCarten spent a fair amount of time talking about Morgan's nose, not for business but his actual nose, which was purple and deformed, "hugely ugly". He refused to have it repaired, as it served as a useful litmus test for people's opinions of him: he wore his nose with a "mad bravado". The nose apparently saved him millions. Instead of mirrors, he surrounded himself with very attractive young men to serve as a more appropriate reflection.
His other book out this year, In the Absence of Heroes, is the sequel to Death of a Superhero. The Listener says it is "damned fine",  "witty, humane and dazzlingly clever" with a strong plot and superb dialogue (reflecting McCarten's prior life as a screenwriter, no doubt). It is the father's response, a year on, to the death of one son and the disappearance of another into a virtual world. Dad despairs at a world in which its chief architect seems not to have a clue. The son has become an online entrepreneur and owns a virtual strategy game of some sort. To get close to his son, dad has to play the game, fight his way through the ranks. The irony is that McCarten is a virtual "loser" who always gets knocked out of contention in the first round. He didn't say much more about the book, but reviews reveal that the Mum also takes off on a virtual grief-spree, so Dad has to work out to bring her back as well. As other authors at the Festival have said, while this is an essentially sad story, there is humour and comedy, because that is realistic.

One inspiration was technology, how we have gone from books as friend replacements to computers, and particularly the consumerisation of technology, how we are told to want things we don't need. He called this a "gigachange" and explores what impact these new toys have on our lives. One suggestion is that teenagers have forsaken sex and flocked to facebook, which is "industrialised friendship". It is not all bad, however: the time kids spend in online gaming environments means they are gaining real skills, in problem solving and co-ordination. Another is that technology allows us to do what we always wanted to do. He also postulated an amusing reverse scenerio, in which Gutenberg invented the iPad in the 15th century and then Apple in the 21st century invented the hardcopy, paper based "iBook".

The session finished on an odd note, with a question from the audience as to why he is so popular in Germany. Rather than answer himself, McCarten passed the question to a group of German journalists - they said it was (a) because McCarten bothered to tour there and (b) they found the book "touching".

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Future of the Novel (Auckland Readers and Writers Festival 2012)

This was another session featuring Emily Perkins, in which she was joined by Jeffrey Eugenides to talk about how the novel is faring. Jolisa Gracewood was chair and kicked things off by describing The Marriage Plot as an "ultimately compassionate" novel, but recursive in that it is a novel about love for those who love novels. There is, of course, also a character (Madelaine) reading books about love ans writing a thesis about it: Eugenides said he had tried to put extracts in the novel but found it hard to write anything "that bad but smart" so gave up. Later in the session, he said that James Woods had described him as "hysterically realistic": apparently not intended as a slight, but not clear as to its meaning. I think it is just a reference to the heightened sense of reality you get in his novels: I still remember his descriptions of Detroit in Middlesex. As for Perkins, Jolisa said she is a sharp and experimental writer, "Katherine Mansfield on Ecstasy".

As is to be expected, there was a fair amount of talk about the place of marriage: Eugenides said that when Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, if a marriage came to an end, that would have enormous significance, and thus marriage could form the basis of a novel. Today, Anna would just move to Santa Barbara and become a therapist. That takes a lot of the sting out of marriage, but desire remains a central moving impulse, which sets up the sort of dramatic tension that gives life to a novel. He spoke of a student who had tried to write a piece involving an asexual person, but had to give up the project because it is impossible to create dramatic situations without desire (I have reason to think otherwise). Emily's take was that sadness and regret are important, as they turn into desires which will drive the novel along. Both spoke of how comedy will often come out of any great tragedy, there's a kind of seamless transition between the two in life, and a good novel will do the same. I was thinking of this in a later session, where Rhys Darby seemed to suggest that comedians had some sort of monopoly on funny writing.

In her earlier session, Emily had said that she like to be experimental but in this one, talking about how novels function, she said you can't take this too far, as you still need to hold out a hand to the reader, provide us with narrative: the experience will be best if readers enter into the life of the novel and find it better than real life. This resonated with something Charlotte Wood had said about her first novel, that it had lots of landscape and images and no plot, which made it unsellable. Emily teaches writing: she used a couple of phrases I can imagine her using in the classroom, saying that a novel involves "hot noticing", so that it conveys sensation and creates an environment for the reader.Eugenides chimed in to talk about the need for characters to have passions, so readers can identify them, which can make it tricky for the author as he or she might have quite a lot of learning to do to portray that passion (in his case, he had to bone up on cell biology).

Both revealed an interest in theory: despite his satire of the dominance of theory in the 1980's, Eugenides would love more academic readings of his work: he prefers investigation to "journalistic simplicity". He did take a crack at the theorists' views as to the death of the novel, saying that novels keep coming out, current students are not pre-occupied with its death, although the future of the novel does appear to be unpunctuated.

There was a fair amount of talk about technology, both their individual use of technology and how technology might be affecting the form of the novel.Eugenides said his dad was keen to help his career as a writer get started, so bought him a very early form of a word-processor, a Kaypro II:
He only used it to humour his dad, but it did mean he was an early adopter. He mentioned how he now works in an office with no internet: Emily said "they can see you working, sitting on the other side of the internet". Well, I thought it was funny. She had an odd tale to tell, she wasn't even sure if it had happened, but apparently her mum had been a secretary, and when she got married her first act was too throw her typewriter away, off a bridge. Emily herself actually still uses a typewriter - when she went to London, she was off to Camden market to get one. Now, she uses one to get started. She finds a sense of authenticity in using analogue writing tools, typewriters, sharp pencils, paper.

With computers, description is more dense, as they make rewriting so much less laborious. Asked what the future shape of the novel might be, they were a bit stumped, but jokingly suggested a sort of crowd-sourced wikinovel which would never be finished (and thus the novel would never die). An audience member wanted to know what the novel would be like for the Twitter generation: Eugenides "I'm getting depressed". Ultimately they both said that people are still engaging with the written word, although Eugenides mused over whether we now have the opportunity to get so bored that we get absorbed in a novel.

The session finished with a laugh. Eugenides said something about the hort story being the ultimate post-colonial form, allowing everyone to write as if prime minister of their domain. Perkins chipped in: "I am sure we are all looking forward to John Key's stories".

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An Hour With Roddy Doyle (Auckland Writers' Festival 2012)

Everyone knows who Roddy Doyle is: he has been in my life ever since The Commitments, and I have read several of his books as well as seen the movies. This didn't stop me frantically acquiring copies of several books after seeing him (Paula Spencer and Bull-Fighting are both new to me and it can't hurt to get reacquainted with the Barrytown Trilogy and The Woman Who Walked into Doors.
He opened his session with an answer to Brian Edward's question about his 10 rules for writing - this picked up on a piece in the Guardian where this question was asked of several authors (I see Geoff Dyer, who is in the Auckland Festival this year, was also asked). A couple of his rules relate to temptation: you don't want a photo of another author in sight, because (a) you don't want to romanticise writing which is a tough game and (b) they might be an inspiration to drunkeness or madness (in the Guardian, he specifically mentions suicidal authors) but you do need to allow limited temptations: a few websites, going out to hang out the washing (also important because these sorts of daily tasks will also be the daily life of any character). In a very quotable comment about a potential biography, he said he divides his time "between Dublin and confusion". I liked what he said about a thesaurus: while it is an obvious writerly tool, it ought not be too accessible, for two reasons. First, you need to back yourself and find your own words and second, often you don't need the variety offered by a thesaurus. There was quite a lot of discussion of the technical aspects of writing and of editing - possibly reflecting Edwards' own interests.Unlike Sebastian Barry, he has no problem with critics, they're part of the job, but he does draw the line at writing endorsements of books which have yet to be written.

But there was also plenty of book talk, going back to The Commitments, which he had wanted to call The Partitions but that would have had local resonances and meant nothing elsewhere.There had been an earlier novel, Your Granny is a Hunger Striker (a title he borrowed from a heckler) which is still in a drawer, never to be published, because it was "shite". On the other hand, he captured the voice of women in The Woman Who Walked into Doors so well that a woman from a domestic violence survivors group accused him of getting inside her fecking head. There was a question about Paddy Clark's violence: it is because he is a boy, so things like torturing animals and setting brothers on fire comes naturally: they're not boys if they're not kicking cats, sticking fireworks up the rear end of dogs, bullying or being bullied. He was not your normal boy, however, and survived boyhood by being the jester (something he shares with Rhys Darby, it seems).

The reading was one of the short stories in Bullfighting, all of which feature men of a certain age, going through mid-life angst. One stands out as being something of a departure for Doyle, "Blood", which led him to say he'd love to write a mad, big vampire book - inspired by the fact he walks past Bram Stoker's house every day.  

The story he read, "Animals", is a dark wee tale involving the family pets which ended with a bit of a snap, which all good short stories ought.On the way through, there was plenty to laugh at, particularly the various substitutions made for certain short-lived fish and birds.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Emily Perkins and Charlotte Wood (Auckland Writers' Festival 2012)

Although I am very aware of Emily Perkins (she is quite prominent in New Zealand's literary scene), I have never read any of her work. I had never heard of Charlotte Wood until the festival programme came out: her work sounded interesting enough for me to go to her session. I am putting them together because of evident similarities in their work. Both have picked out a single character and examined them against the background of their family.

Paula Morris interviewed Emily: they have known each other for years and are roughly contemporary, although Paula (I think) has remained overseas whereas Emily came back, to reintegrate herself in Auckland. Charlotte grew up in small town New South Wales and has relocated to Sydney. These biographical details are important, because both have firmly located their recent novels in their home towns.

The Forrests certainly seems to have created a stir: it has been published internationally (I have bought my copy from the UK because it was cheaper than in a local bookshop) and there are whispers that it might be a contender for the Man Booker Prize. I didn't get much of a feel for the language in the novel from her talk, but was left with a distinct sense of Aucklandness, at least the Auckland that Emily knows and celebrates. A couple of reviews I have read mention the "profound sensory experience"and her "attention to the sentence, the slow mesmeric pace". I do know that during her reading, I was arrested by a mention of a character's "harlequin teeth", which struck me as an odd description, one which I have trouble extracting any meaning from. The basic narrative of the novel follows Dorothy, an American expat who settled in Auckland (Grey Lynn I suspect) and stayed when her family went back. On the face of it, this doesn't sound very interesting but I am more interested in how this story is told.

Perkins said that she tries to be experimental with each of her works, so that she neither conforms to the normal bounds nor has each book being quite like the last. A significant influence was John Gardner, the American author, critic and writing teacher, although I got a wee bit confused; I think she saw him as setting bounds she wanted to escape. She said quite a lot about her writing process: two points struck me. The first is that she wrote small elements of the book as they struck her rather than in any chronological order. It actually started life as bits and pieces for a creative writing paper rather than as a planned novel. Many fragments didn't make it, and it sounds like lots of massaging was needed before she was happy with the finished product. Second, she needs to write in such a way that it "costs her to continue" because that's how she reveals emotion and grit in her writing.

She has a day job, teaching creative writing at Auckland University (after graduating from the Vic course): I felt envious of her description of the teaching experience - it is seductive, because she is dealing with truly creative people, to the point it satisfies her own urges to be creative (so most writing is out of semester). Asked why she started writing, Emily said it grew out of a childhood of reading, somewhat forced upon her by being unco-ordinated. As for what she is writing next, Emily says she went to Albania and has been writing an Albanian novel ever since, but fears that nothing of Albania will actually show up in whatever does appear.

As for Charlotte Wood, we didn't get to hear quite so much about her, although there was talk of her small NSW town, which has been represented in her earlier novel, The Children. The family returns to this town because their father is dying; this is the story of that last gathering. One of the major preoccupations is the way that we can leave home, go out into the world and do big things (the central character is a war correspondent) and yet when we return to the family, we are 10 again. This creates the question of how to be an adult in the familial context. I ended up with very little sense of this novel's qualities or any real desire to read it. One of the characters does sound a bit fun, a naturopathy entrepreneur with a tendency to express statements "as a mother", as if those who are not mothers will not care. I do think I'll look for a library copy, not so much because I think it is my sort of book but because it has a sequel, which does sound more interesting. Charlotte returned to talking about this book in another session dealing with men adrift.

Stephen stands apart from his family in The Children but he is the central character in Animal People. This is a single day in his life, about four years after the death of his dad.
 He has a dead end job, making sandwiches and chips in some sort of food kiosk at the zoo (Wood was interested in both the animals themselves and that we the people are animals as well). This is an urban novel, set in inner suburbs of Sydney, and has a colourful set of minor characters and is an attempt to straddle the class divide between the haves and the have nots. I'm interested in Stephen himself - there's a scene on a bus where he convinces himself that a package is a bomb and, while knowing the stricture to say something, tries to rationalise the package into all sorts of other possibilities before fleeing the bus and acknowledging he is a coward. Wood says that by making him male, she escapes the recognition that his qualities are her qualities.

He is supposedly a man adrift, although this particular aspect was not really pursued at length in the session devoted to it: he just sounds like he lacks ambition, is a bit of a loser, but still manages to have a girlfriend from the other side of the tracks. I did like Wood's answer to the question of men adrift in other novels: Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

An Hour With Greg McGee (Auckland Writers' Festival 2012)

Back in the day, I had a vague awareness of Greg McGee as having a rugby connection before he became prominent as a playwright, thanks to Foreskin's Lament. Then he basically dropped out of my consciousness, but I thought I should check him out at the Festival.
I am glad I did. He has recently published a novel, Love and Money: I already have a copy on the way.

It is set in the mid 1990's in New Zealand, more specifically Auckland (and even more specifically Ponsonby and Grey Lynn), mining the particularly rich pickings provided by the time: an election, Rugby World Cup, the stock market crash, communes (Centrepoint in particular), a strident form of feminism which had as its focal point the "treeping" of Mervyn Thompson. Although the urban dictionary says treeping is a form of peeping tomism from within a tree, here it has a more particular meaning: Mr Thompson was tied to a tree and assaulted, so there's an analogy with raping intended.

The interview was conducted by Finlay McDonald: he and McGee are old mates and it showed - this ran very much like a conversation, although structured to fit in with the strictures of the Festival. There was a running gag about McGee's being provisionally gendered, thanks to the news coming out recently that he is the author of two detective novels by the apparently female Alix Bosco. Apparently, there's another to come: McGee was very impressed that Val McDermid thought he actually was a woman writer but says that now everyone knows he's a man, he'll be extremely self-conscious writing as a woman (and hopes wearing a G-string might help). I've never read any of these novels, but intend to remedy that.

I didn't really plan on blogging the Festival, so didn't even have a notebook for this session but so many points were made and came to my mind I rushed out to the $3.50 Japanese shop and bought some notebooks between sessions. It does mean I can only write from my memory of this session. I do recall the reading: the text was funny, colourful, consciously New Zealand and involved a toilet falling through the floor when a fellow (a property developer I think) sat on it. Finance seems to be the major pre-occupation of the novel, which is not surprising given that it is set in the period immediately before the 1987 crash. This led to two anecdotes, the first being about McGee's financial acumen. I can remember that in those days, Alan Hawkin's Equiticorp was a high-flying market darling. McGee got in early, thanks to having a connection within the firm, and made quite a tidy paper profit. Then in around August 1987, his wife demanded a new kitchen, which she considered much better than paper money. So, McGee was forced to sell, then watch his shares soar further, but only for a month.

The other was about a prior version of the novel, which was a screenplay. He found his producers refused to take the story seriously: this was in about 1986, and he had the story end with a major stock-market crash. The producers thought that so unbelievable that the viewing public would not buy the story: history not only proved this prognosis wrong but wiped out the producers in the process. The essential story remained with McGee for years, but he couldn't get it sorted, not until he read Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap. This inspired his narrative device of having the various chapters told from the perspective of several people connected to the central character, Mike, generally either by being an ex or having a connection with an ex of Mike's. Writing the novel in 2011 presented a different problem: he had to locate it accurately in 1987, which is both quite some time ago and had particular things in the public consciousness. Of course, many things have happened since 1987 which might not have even been thought about then (such as rights to matrimonial property), and his proofreaders found that he had put things in the minds of his characters which didn't really come along until later: he described this as a problem of telescoping events.

I haven't retained much memory of the details of the novel, but Greg McGee can be heard being interviewed on Radio New Zealand by Kim Hill.  They get into a bit of a bust up over the nature of Mike's character: feckless loser or aspiring actor and good man?

Possibly because of his rugby connections, McGee is writing a biography of All Black captain Richie McCaw, which has led to some interesting encounters with the public: they obviously recognise McCaw in a way McGee has never had to experience.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

An Hour With Sebastian Barry (Auckland Writers' Festival 2012)

I first encountered Sebastian Barry a few years ago when I read his wonderful A Long Long Way and have subsequently read his equally wonderful The Secret Scripture.
After listening to him this morning, I have now ordered his On Canaan's Side. It features Lily, the sister of Willy in A Long Long Way, but it is set in the recent past, so she is now an elderly woman. The title refers to some sort of folk song: we had the pleasure of hearing him sing two versions of snatches of it this morning.

Unlike a previous session, the interviewer (Jan Cronin from Auckland University) didn't appear to have a personal connection with Barry, so it was a more formal question and answer session, except that once started, Barry tended to speak for considerable periods of time and undertake a fair few digressions on the way. At least once, he had to stop and ask what question he was supposed to be answering. It was a pleasure to listen to him go, although at first I thought he was a bit hesitant and quite thoughtful in the way he formulated his answers, but that was just in the preliminary rounds. He was a loquacious and very funny speaker. At one point he was talking about being in Switzerland with an awful girlfriend (because as a 22 year old, he thought that to write like Joyce, he just had to live where Joyce did) and said it is a terrible place to be a hypochondriac, because a doctor lives in every third house.

The opening question was about his own ancestors, whether they lurked in his DNA. This provoked a long account of how he hears voices from the past when he goes visiting places such as churches and morphed into a statement of his preference for chancers, those who are on the margins of society taking risks or those who cross over from one thing to another (such as from Catholicism to Protestantism) with a resulting anxiety. Later on, he sort of returned to this when talking of his own origins, answering a question about how he finds his voices. His own childhood didn't leave him with much by way of role models or guidance on how to live, but when he first married and then had children, he had to find out answers to this important question for himself. He had no templates from his family, so looked for cast outs because "all the good ones are cast out". It was this lack of a firm beginning which played a big part in his being a writer: since he needed a sense of a non-toxic origin and was "greedy" for ancestors, he made them up.

With all of this said, when he mentioned meeting Lily (the central character in his novel) just the once, as a very happy 60 year old woman, I was a bit confused as to whether there actually was a real life template for Lily or she was another made up ancestor. He said he saw her when he was a child and unable to understand her plight (life had become quite dangerous thanks to the political climate and so she was sent to America for her safety (not, as he was told, in search of better hats) which was a source of both sadness and solace for her father. He did a ten minute reading, more of a performance, from the novel and I have to say, I don't think he writes as Joyce does, so the living in Switzerland didn't work. Not that that's a bad thing, as Barry has his own style, and it was wonderful to just let the words pour over me: I'll have to read the book to get the sense of what he read, but it did occur to me that he would make a marvellous reader of his own audio-books.

Other questions were about what dictated whether he wrote a play or a novel (this is up to the ancestors themselves - Eneas McNulty refused to perform on stage, so had to be presented via a third person narrator); what he is working on (nothing - just reading bomb disposal books (he later reveals his grandfather was an expert) and 1920's engineering works while he waits for the "little tune" of the next book); and his attitude to critics. Here, he was quite different to Roddy Doyle, who saw them as part of the work. Barry gives them much power to harm, so he avoids any negative criticism for several months after publication, otherwise he won't be able to get on with his life and work.