An Auckland Writers Festival 2015 preview, with selected highlights by our editors and contributors.
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Much as a Wellingtonian is loathe to acknowledge Auckland superiority, the Auckland Writers Festival is the country’s best. The attitude of too many that (good) journalism isn’t writing always amuses me; the fine critic Daniel Mendelsohn riposted sharply: “I dreamed of becoming a critic. I always grin when someone who’s interviewing me will ask if my criticism is some kind of day job (as opposed to my books, which, they imply, are “real” writing). To me, it’s the main event.” Mendelsohnian praises like Brokeback Mountain and pans like the overhyped Mad Men are as elegantly penned as they are learned.
John Freeman is a similarly excellent journalist. His perceptive profiles include Japanese novelist Harukui Murakami, who he interviews live on stage in an Australasian exclusive. A former president of the U.S. National Book Critics’ Circle—and cogent advocate for the importance of good (and fairly remunerated) book reviewers—Freeman has also written a muscular missive on how email gobbles about our time. Three further distinguished writers I hope to attend are The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, The Guardian’s Nick Davies (Flat Earth News), and Australian sports biographer/Gallipoli scribe Peter FitzSimons.
Four of my Lumière Reader colleagues covering this festival have each selected a pick, and I curate some highlights from our past coverage of authors in this festival below, particularly New Zealand writers.
Four years ago David Mitchell was here touring The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet—an outstandingly elaborate historical novel, so detailed I think I had to take time off work to give it the attention it deserved and actually finish it. Since then I’ve lent that book out over and over to the point of no return. Mitchell is on his way back to Auckland Writers Festival with another convoluted and unbelievably well-crafted work: The Bone Clocks.
Since then also, Mitchell’s critically acclaimed Cloud Atlas has been turned into a critically controversial film. As noble an attempt as it was, it really did feel like an effort to film the unfilmable given that so much of Mitchell’s craft is in his language: his genre-defying style, finely rolled sentences and masterful capturing of character voice. I’ve lost track of my copy of Cloud Atlas too.
Booker long-listed, The Bone Clocks is in some ways a bit of a deviation from Mitchell’s other works in that it focusses on one character for the full 595 pages. The novel follows Holly Sykes, who happens to be one of my new favourite fictional characters, from a teenager in the 1980s through to her life in the 2040s. Although there are definite and distinct Mitchellesque links to other characters, other points of view, other times, other realms, and indeed other Mitchell novels themselves, Holly is undeniably the heart and (immortal) soul of The Bone Clocks.
I’m so looking forward to seeing David Mitchell again this year. Not only is it awe-inspiring to be in the same room as a mind that can create time-bending worlds, universe-spanning stories, completely real characters, and utterly perfect sentences, but he’s also an incredibly generous and humble interviewee. For example, as promotion for The Bone Clocks, Random House released a series of videos of Mitchell engaging with fan questions, in which he openly discusses his craft; gives advice such as write letters to yourself from your characters to hone their voice, and addresses his (I imagine) enraptured readers by name.
I’m slowly working on turning the high school students I teach into David Mitchell fans, starting with Black Swan Green, and am recommending The Bone Clocks to everyone I talk to. My copy sits in the pile by my bed, but I’m not lending this one out until I’ve selfishly re-read it and found all the connections and complications Mitchell has woven in there. If indeed it’s possible to find them all.
When he was here for Auckland Writers Festival in 2011, Mitchell mentioned his eagerness to move on from promoting The Thousand Autumns and get working on the next two novels he had swimming around his head. The Bone Clocks was one of them of course, and with increasingly loudening whispers of “Slade House” (whose origins lie in Mitchell’s Twitter account), I’m holding out great hope that my David Mitchell collection will be replenished with another new novel to read, re-read, lend, and lose track of soon.
Emily St. John Mandel goes past the end of civilisation with her fourth novel, Station Eleven. With serious-minded post-apocalyptic writing an interest of mine, it’s been beckoning for months as the accolades have accrued. Her interviews acquit her as “witty and humane,” with her belief in finding compassion in the apocalypse echoing Elizabeth Knox’s excellent Wake. Writers festivals aren’t just places to see your old favourite authors talk, but to discover new favourites. Mandel’s not the most talked about author scheduled for the Auckland Writers Festival now, but I have a feeling that come mid-May that will change.
Helen MacDonald, this year’s winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, is a particular highlight. A self-described “writer-naturalist-historian-falconer,” MacDonald is an author of diverse expertise and profound skill. H is for Hawk deftly interweaves natural history and literary scholarship with a singular dedication to the fraught journey of personal memoir. It is this rich and complex layering of scientific journaling, lyrical prose, and emotional processing which makes Hawk such a distinct and moving piece of work, and leaves me eager to hear MacDonald speak to the nuances of her writing practice and the many histories from which she so judiciously draws.
Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a really formative introduction to contemporary literature for me. Aside from all the obvious reasons, what excites me about seeing Murakami is my interest in how cult figures behave in the flesh. I feel like much of his fandom projects a slightly vapid idea of ‘coolness’ onto his work and it will be really good to see beyond his icon status in what will hopefully be a disarming and candid discussion.
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Poetry for Chainsaws (David Levinson, review, 2006)
As if present only by holographic projection, Allen curtailed audience acknowledgment, speaking solely to a band of brothers who buzzed incantatory and bled oil all across the floor. READ MORE
Secret Heart (Laura Fergusson, review, 2006)
While straddling the distinctions between poetry and prose, Beautrais juggles a similar multiplicity of tones, moving from the lyrical to the harshly vernacular. There is a pervasive sense of dampness, a worldview shaped by weather and holey socks, shot through with an appreciation of life’s varied absurdity and the continual ability of people to surprise. READ MORE
Falling for Science: Asking the Big Questions (Andy Armitage, review, 2007)
Beckett argues that science can only provide the raw data and predictions, the attitudes and meaning we take from the data (or science) are provided by our stories… [science] offers no predictions about human behaviour that we can’t find in Shakespeare’s plays. READ MORE
The Braunias Interview (Tom Fitzsimons, interview, 2007)
“When I ask Steve Braunias towards the end of our interview if he likes what he does: ‘Fuck yeah, it’s great. I mean, it’s hard work, it’s real hard. I wouldn’t wish journalism on anyone really. It’s the last thing I want my daughter to do.’” READ MORE
Edwin + Matilda (Jennifer Van Beynen, review, 2007)
Through careful drawing of each character and their perceptions, of their world and of each other, the ensuing relationship between Edwin and Matilda seems to make perfect sense. READ MORE
‘Strongly connected to a place’: an interview with Laurence Fearnley (Lawrence Patchett, interview, 2008)
“I’ve always felt very strongly connected to a place, and I like that idea about the choices that people are forced to make when they have to choose between a person and a place that they love.” READ MORE
Making Lists for Frances Hodgkins (Amy Brown, review, 2007)
By weaving her own autobiography with snippets of Hodgkins’, Green finds (familiar, but still interesting) parallels between poetry and painting, and poets and artists. READ MORE
An Interview with Paula Green (Joan Fleming and Sarah Jane Barnett, interview, 2008)
“I think in the chaotic world that we live in, it’s so good to be able to just stand at the beach.” READ MORE
Opportunity (Laura Fergusson, review, 2007)
There are no easy resolutions here, no simplistic tying of loose ends. Life is not that tidy. READ MORE
An interview with Anna Jackson: I, Clodia and Other Portraits (Joan Fleming, interview, 2015)
“If I couldn’t read at all, that would be intolerable; it is one of my worst fears.” READ MORE
Anne Kennedy, Unravelled (Saiya Guo, interview, 2014)
“Hawaii sharpened my sense of how it is to be displaced and to make a new place with layers of perception and stories, old and new.” READ MORE
An Interview with David Mitchell (Sam Bradford, interview, 2008)
“No creative writing courses or anything. Just write a novel. Get rid of the TV. That’s always good. You’ve suddenly got all this time and none of the distraction.” READ MORE
Trendy but Casual (Amy Brown, review, 2007)
Because she’s now based in New Orleans, does it mean that Morris is no longer a New Zealand writer writing New Zealand novels? READ MORE
Ten Questions for Paula Morris (Amy Brown, interview, 2007)
“I wasn’t some lump of clay waiting to be moulded. I just needed some time and focus, and an encouraging voice like Bill’s telling me to keep going.” READ MORE
Interesting Tension: Observations from the Intellectual Brothel (Paula Morris, essay, 2007)
“Making art that inspires passionate and sometimes contradictory responses is essential, I believe, if our literary scene is to grow into a lush, inviting garden in which plants of many different varieties—poppies of all heights, perhaps—can flourish.” READ MORE
How to Speak New Zenglish: An Interview with Jesse Mulligan (Saradha Koirala, interview, 2013)
Other sources included the impassioned outpourings on twitter during the Olympics. “We’re a passionless people until it comes to sport.” / “I make excuses not to go to group dinners generally, what with the latecomers, the loudness, the split bills, no matter how much I try to relax, my shoulders keep absorbing all the awkwardness and tension in the room until I can barely grip my fork.” READ MORE
After Dark (Jennifer Wittig, review, 2007)
The characters are minimal and bare yet so concisely written that you do not need more information. The ending doesn’t answer anything but it still makes it clear cut and finished. The setting could be anywhere, which makes it universal and light. READ MORE
Heaphy (Andy Palmer, review, 2008)
Sharp suggests that the award, the first time it was given to a ‘New Zealander’, was more for political reasons than for an act of overwhelming valour—particularly when his act to save one man resulted in the death of two others. READ MORE
Her Life’s Work: Conversations with Five New Zealand Women (Julia Cooper, review, 2010)
While mother and wife are social constructs burdening woman, artist is an essential part of her identity according to Shepard, who is firm in her conclusion that it is a full body of work, compiled over a lifetime, that is the marker of a life well lived. READ MORE
Festival Ramblings on An Hour with C.K. Stead (Amy Brown, Catherine Bisley & Sam Bradford, review, 2007)
The most interesting aspect of Stead’s book, for me, is his humanist approach to describing Jesus. Stead’s Jesus is brilliant and beautiful, but also prone to violence and anger. READ MORE
Collected Poems 1951–2006 (Sarah Jane Barnett, review, 2009)
Known for his wordplay and focus on sound, Collected Poems showcases how, over time, he has experimented with these aspects of poetry through using a diverse range of forms. READ MORE
White Silence: Grahame Sydney’s Antarctica (Andy Palmer, review, 2009)
Oddly though, a couple of times, he rails against the ‘ease’ of digital photography—the very medium he used to capture these images—and digital manipulation. READ MORE
Inside Little Britain (Simon Sweetman, review, 2007)
It is not so much a case of digging in the dirt, rather providing details of the fertile soil from which the two comedy masters sprouted. READ MORE
Chinese Opera (Jolene Williams, review, 2009)
Westerners often feel surprised, curious and intensely confused after their first encounter with Chinese opera. And so, after reading only the back cover of Ian Wedde’s novel Chinese Opera, it was apt that my sensitivities were equally awry. READ MORE
Iridescence (Melody Nixon, review, 2006)
He’s certainly a reader. He spends most of his ‘meet the writer’ session reading a randy passage from Iridescence and a test passage from his current work-in-progress, a faux memoir. READ MORE
The Quiet Australian: An Interview with Tim Winton (Amy Brown and Catherine Bisley, interview, 2007)
“Maybe what stopped me from doing anything stupid was that, essentially, whatever unhappiness I was in I didn’t believe would claim me, or didn’t last long enough—I never reached that level of despair.” READ MORE
An Hour with Tim Winton (Catherine Bisley, review, 2007)
Somehow, Winton restored my faith in Aussie blokes. A job, considering Shane Warne and his ilk had systematically sullied the image I’d got on first reading Henry Lawson. READ MORE
Misconduct (Jennifer Van Beynen, review, 2008)
Bridget van der Zijpp does a great job of drip-feeding all the information and background to the reader slowly, but exactly when we need it. READ MORE