“The music of being human”

Auckland Writers Festival guests David Mitchell, Morris Gleitzman, Tim Winton, and Carol Ann Duffy offer a salient reminder of how writing gives us hope.

What’s the purpose of writing? Do writers have an obligation to tell the truth? Make a point? Entertain us or themselves? Should writers be making the world a better place? Or, as Tim Winton believes, should there just be a place for “useless beauty” and writing that exists for its own sake? Four international authors got me thinking at the Auckland Writers Festival: novelists David Mitchell, Morris Gleitzman, and Tim Winton; and poet Carol Ann Duffy.

David Mitchell, in conversation with New Zealand novelist Catherine Robertson, talked about the power of the writer to create worlds and characters that seem completely real. In interviews Mitchell is often asked about his signature style of linking his novels together, creating his own “Middle-earth” as characters from one book migrate into others. This started as something that amused and pleased him as a writer, but he soon realised the power in doing this for his characters’ sake, who become much more real when they arrive in the next book with a “suitcase of credibility” that helps the reader believe in them beyond the “cool throb of recognition” that might exist with a mere passing reference.

For Mitchell “everything is a potential book” and his head is filled with the next five or six novels he wants to write. It would be perverse to ask such a writer what the point of it all is—he is clearly compelled to create worlds from imagination and words and to map out his creations using all the tools a writer has. Speaking in a panel on ‘The Art of the Novel’ Mitchell said he doesn’t write novels so much as novellas that he bridges together. The works are linked with tunnels and wormholes, but the works should be able to stand up on their own.

The latest addition to the Mitchell world is The Bone Clocks. He describes this as a kind of “mid-life crisis” book that explores the themes of aging, death, and the cost of immortality. Holly Sykes is the common thread through the six parts of the novel, but the style and even the genre of each section changes markedly. This ambitious shifting of genre that Mitchell is so well known for—particularly with award-winning Cloud Atlas—he says is just one of the many tools a writer can use. But of course, not all writers can do this. Not everyone is David Mitchell. He mentioned more than once that he likes to challenge himself and that novelists should always be pushing themselves outside their comfort zones into scary and ambitious territories and seeing if they can, in fact, chew what it is they’ve bitten off. For Mitchell, the purpose of writing is perhaps exactly that sense of challenge—to both writer and reader.

Australian young adult writer Morris Gleitzman seemed to feel more of an obligation and responsibility with his writing. Talking solo on stage, pacing and joking about the lack of interviewer, Gleitzman discussed the nature of history and the past. His young adult series that includes the novels Once, Then, Now and After (Soon and Always to come) play with tense and point of view, reimagining the events of the Second World War. Gleitzman stresses that history is how we look back on the past. The past existed with real people living real lives, but history is story. It’s important to him to show this to young people and he feels strongly that stories have a responsibility to represent all that humans are capable of. Stories are how we connect. When asked if he feels optimistic or fearful for future generations, Gleitzman said “every generation has its challenges but what young people want never changes.” Stories will always be powerful and necessary. Stories are everywhere. He feels “duty bound” as a writer for young people “to equip characters with optimism”—a tool for survival when a young person is in a situation beyond their control—to show the hope that exists in the world.

Hope also became a theme during Tim Winton’s discussion with broadcaster Jim Mora. Winton is an Australian icon and treasure, having won national literary awards since he was 19 years old and continuing to give voice to the “baffled souls”—those who can’t necessarily articulate their own feelings—of his rural Western Australia home. Winton is also an ambassador for the environment with strong political views, so his optimism in the innate good of human kind was quite moving.

Having published over 25 novels—possibly the most loved of which is Cloudstreet from 1991—Winton discussed his constant lack of self-confidence and the nerve-wracking process of putting his work into the world. He’s a truly humble man, evident in his t-shirt and jeans approach to one of the biggest draw card events of the festival. He also comes across as a deeply spiritual person, saying that “existence is holy. To live without recognising it [life] is a gift, is to live in poverty.” Sentences to live by, for sure. He believes as humans we’re “hard-wired for hope” and he has much to feel thankful for and hopeful about. The Cloudstreet backstory, for example, included an absolute heart-in-mouth moment where the unpublished manuscript (carbon paper copied, stashed in a sports bag) was lost for a few harrowing moments on a bus. This was the breakthrough novel for Winton and its success couldn’t have come at a better time for him and his young mortgage-burdened family. He’s grateful to it as if it’s something beyond his control and surprised at the endless recognition it’s received.

Despite his apparent lack of confidence, Winton says he always felt compelled to write. As a ten year old, he even started calling himself a writer, having never even met a real one nor knowing what it really meant to be one. As Mitchell might agree, the writer’s purpose comes first from the writer themselves. A compulsion and need within. “Writing doesn’t change things,” says Tim Winton, “but a novelist shouldn’t have to feel they should.”

So what about the poets then? David Mitchell mentioned in passing that “poets are higher life forms” perhaps suggesting that the writing poets do is somehow more worthy or difficult than that of novelists? However, Mitchell and Winton are both incredibly poetic writers themselves. There’s “useless beauty” in language, sure, but so too is there power in beautiful words.

Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy happily avoided the question ‘why?’ and spoke instead about process and some specific works. For this session, Duffy read several poems from different collections and then discussed the ideas and language she’d used with our (somewhat gushy) John Campbell and a glass of wine. Hearing Duffy read was wonderful—she puts so much of herself and expression into performing it feels like a kind of re-enactment of the writing process itself. Reading from The World’s Wife, Rapture, and her latest The Bees, Duffy was entertaining and deeply honest. However, she feels that the poet is most in the poem when they’re writing it. After that it moves away and becomes the reader’s to interpret or even claim as their own take on love and death or—sometimes—revenge for being wronged. Certain subjects, she said, require authenticity and real experience to be done well, but the poet has no obligation to disclose anything. She mentioned too that although she likes her poems to be read, she doesn’t like to “be read” herself. In terms of her process, Duffy spoke of a “kind of music” or “silent voice” in her head that dictates the sound and rhythm of the poem as she writes it.

Perhaps ‘What’s the point?’ is a pessimistic rhetorical question and one that shouldn’t be asked. Writers are optimists and like writing; “optimism” Tim Winton told us, “is a form of discipline.” Novels can give voice to the silent, the imagined, the people of the past. Writing gives us hope. It’s a compulsion and a necessity and what Duffy referred to as “the music of being human.”

The 2015 Auckland Writers Festival ran from May 13-17 at the Aotea Centre.

Main Image: Cover artwork from The Bone Clocks.