Tuesday, May 19, 2015

If only I could eat their brains...

Last weekend I attended a number of excellent sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival. They pulled out all the stops and had an incredible selection of international speakers this year including Haruki Murakami (who just does not attend festivals), Carol Ann Duffy, Tim Winton, Dav Pilkey, Helen MacDonald, David Walliams, David Mitchell, Alan Cumming, Anthony Horowitz, Morris Gleitzman, Ben Okri, Atul Gawande and many, many more. Local writers included Philippa Werry, Donovan Bixley, Paula Green, Rachael Craw, Nalini Singh and Helena Wisniewski-Brow. It is hard to imagine how they might top this collection of awesome in future. But I wouldn't put it past them to somehow manage it (Sonya Hartnett, Maggie Steifvater, hint hint).

The crowds (and boy were there some crowds) were full of familiar faces, both of good friends and local writing (and other) luminaries. I caught up with pals from Queenstown, Dunedin, Taupo and Wellington as well as a bunch of Aucklanders. We raved about who we had just seen or were about to see, shared writerly gossip and generally had an all round good time. I went to the opening night gala, attended a scriptwriting workshop and saw and heard Alan Cumming (who urged everyone to be authentic), David Walliams (apparently when you meet the queen you aren't allowed to ask any questions which is very tricky, you just have to wait for her to ask you some), Anthony Horowitz (sought the original author's voice when writing Sherlock and Bond stories), and Helen MacDonald (who found solace in the relationship she forged with the brutal and noble goshawk Mabel) in action. I queued up to have a book signed by Anthony Horowitz (such a lovely guy) but did not even attempt to join the 3 hour line for David Walliams. You have to pick your battles folks. And all the time, this buzz of excitement, an energetic frisson of anticipation.

I enjoyed everything I went to. I laughed at times, had a lump in my throat at others, and felt that twinge of jealousy when they read from their work. Once or twice I felt grumpy with things the speaker said. But in the end I couldn't avoid feeling mostly a professional curiosity, rather than a fan's love. I nodded in recognition at their writerly advice. Sympathised with their struggles. I scrutinised their presentations for tricks and tips and ideas that I might be able to use myself in future. Sometimes I just wanted to be them, other times I thought, I could do that too. In the end none of them really spoke about how they write, which is fine because everyone's process is personal and non-transferable (except in a zombie-ate-my-brain kind of situation and even then there are no guarantees). They were all just interesting people with stories to tell, which I guess is kind of the point.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Are we in danger of becoming disconnected from our own literature...

It was too sad/frustrating/maddening/insert your emotional response here, to find out that NZ Book Month will not be going ahead this year. It seems so few outside of our own community want to invest in New Zealand literature, or celebrate it. Maybe books are bad for people, and reading is a waste of time and should be discouraged. Maybe having a literature that shines a light on our own experience, that celebrates our own unique culture, and values, and concerns is not worthwhile. Maybe we just can't write 'good' books here in New Zealand like people from other countries do. Or are books just a frivolous indulgence, a luxury that can be set aside when times are tight? 

No, of course not! Reading can be the best escapist fun /entertainment /enlightenment /thought provoking experience, and you get heaps of added bonuses. Literacy is the cornerstone of education. Reading improves our cognitive abilities, and enhances our emotional and academic intelligence. And reading can just make you feel good. We make some incredible books here in New Zealand but we constantly face an uphill battle to tell the public about them.

Are we in danger of being disconnected from our own literature? Because the longer you expect the cord between the public and local creatives to stretch, the less elastic, and more brittle it will become.

Perhaps it is assumed the book industry, and more particularly the creative folk providing content, will survive and persist regardless. That we do not need to be promoted or feted. Money can be cribbed from this, the logic might go, because books will still be made and be available to readers (and if our local literature diminishes, hey there are just so many books coming in from overseas). And lets face it, so many writers continue to write despite poor returns.

When NZ Music month began it was about giving NZ music more radio airtime. Radio plays are not sales to the public (there is income to the artist but not to the radio station) but NZ music received way more exposure.  Radio stations didn't want to play more local songs but the government of the day (go Helen Clark!!) made them and in the end it has been a win/win. The current government does not seem keen to encourage promotion/exposure of NZ books in the same way but I think we need this kind of help. The industry and authors themselves do what they can but there is limited nationwide exposure. Perhaps the media, especially tv, are our 'radio' equivalents. We struggle to get the same kind of coverage that NZ Music month and the NZ music awards get (the most recent music awards had daily tv coverage of finalists leading up to the awards night). If media were encouraged to provide a quota of coverage daily during NZ book month the connection between the industry and the public might be strengthened. First you have to showcase the books. And encourage people to take pride in reading and owning NZ literature. Sales will come down the track. Long game people, long game.

So why do we need a NZ Book Month? Because no one else does NZ literature! Because New Zealand should be proud of the literature that is created by us and for us. Because too few opportunities currently exist for the wider public to learn about and be exposed to our books. Because reading is good for everyone and here is a chance to encourage everyone to pick up more books than they usually would. How amazing it would be to have some cheerleaders for NZ literature, just because they are New Zealand books. How cool would it be if these cheerleaders came from outside the book industry, because like, you know, the rest of us are already converted to the benefits. How about we grow some new fans!

The fantastic Rachael King (author of great NZ books you should read - The Sound of ButterfliesMagpie Hall, and Red Rocks) has started a brilliant twitter campaign this month to promote New Zealand books with the hashtag #NZBookMonthMay. We are doing what we can. But really, we need your help. Let's not go another year without a NZ Book Month.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Week Away in Wanaka...

Well, that was way cool. Wanaka in autumn is stunning and the name of their biennial arts festival - The Festival of Colour - is apt. The trees had traded in their summer green for a broader palette of reds, yellows and oranges. The descending sun left haunted shadows stepping down the hills toward the town. It was beautiful. The weather was fine and mild.And I had fantastic company - history professor/author Kate Hunter and author/illustrator Bob Kerr - with whom I shared a house, great conversations, dinner making duties and events. Meeting other writers has to be one of the key highlights of tours like this.

After three days of school visiting, we met up with Wellington playwright Dave Armstrong and local writer/poet Liz Breslin for a Speed Date the Author event (always one of my favourite gigs) on the thursday, talking to school students from Queenstown, Alexandra and Arrowtown, and then True Stories Told Live at the temporary 'Crystal Palace' venue in Wanaka to a mostly adult audience on the Friday. The True Stories event involved all five of us speaking for ten minutes each, unscripted on the topic 'Don't Talk About the War'. Of course we all did. We hadn't shared our talks with each other beforehand but they seemed nicely complementary. I spoke about my Mum's childhood during World War 2. After all I'd told my Dad's story in my book A Winter's Day in 1939. I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to share my Mum's story, although it was hard to avoid the talk being taken over by my great grandmother. I believe she was a little like that in real life. The crowd was sizeable - more than 210 folk. And they'd paid to hear us talk. I think they liked it. After some nerves, especially about the unscripted aspect, I felt pretty comfortable talking. And now? I would jump at the chance to do this type of event again.

 It was a good note to end our Words on Wheels Tour on. What a week!