I am endlessly fascinated to hear writers speak about their process; how they put pen to paper and create populated worlds again and again. Highlights at this year’s Auckland Writers & Readers Festival were British novelist Kate Atkinson, Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatilaka, Spanish best-selling author Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and New Zealanders Ian Wedde, Lloyd Geering, and James McNeish.
It turns out there’s a shared misconception that novelists need to keep detailed notes, screeds of paper, piles of notebooks, or perhaps even a “wall of post-its” as Ramona Koval called it when questioning Kate Atkinson on her process. Paula Morris used a similar image when talking to Carlos Ruiz Zafon. But it’s a myth. Zafon—best known for his novels The Shadow of the Wind and The Prisoner of Heaven—spoke at length about his writing process as a “living thing,” not something he confines to notebooks. He even mocked the notion that there’s value in keeping drafts for posterity, imagining they will be sought after by the “university of such and such.” Instead he deletes all files once the final version of a book is complete and never indulges the desire to revisit early drafts in the hope they can be resuscitated or turned into something useful. “If I forgot it, it wasn’t important.” He claims.
Kate “The Jackson Brodie Series” Atkinson continued to destroy the myth of the post-it notes in conversation with Ramona Koval. She talked about the thrill of “de-cluttering,” purging the early versions and cleansing her palette between projects. “I feel personally responsible for keeping the entropy of the world at bay,” she joked. She is able to hold the duration of the novel in her head when she’s in the midst of writing it, often to the detriment of social conversation.
Our own Sir James McNeish had a more measured answer to the process question posed to him by Finlay MacDonald: “everyone should spend time living in a community and living in isolation.” Two things that have largely informed and inspired him as a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and his latest, Touchstones: A Memoir, which sits somewhere in between “yes, it’s almost true.”
This cross-over of fact and fiction was another theme that seemed to run through the discussions I attended. Shehan Karunatilaka was paired perfectly with witty sports journalist Gideon Haigh to talk about Chinaman, a novel that blends humour, history, invention, and thinly disguised real-life cricket players. Another interesting reflection on the writing process was revealed with Karunatilaka’s description of the research that went into his novel: “I watched every Sri Lankan cricket match from 1982-1999, read every cricket book I could find, and hung out with loads of drunk old men. It was a glorious way to spend three years.”
Kate Atkinson’s latest work, Life after Life, re-imagines history from the contented years before World War I, when no one knew “Armageddon was coming” through to vivid descriptions of The Blitz and beyond. As research, the author read many first hand accounts and propaganda of the time and immersed herself in the movies and music of the period. Just as Zafon had said about his blend of history and fiction that the research is necessary only so as to “learn enough to understand it” and make the reader feel like they’re there, Atkinson too said it’s not about the facts and statistics: “I’m writing from the imagination first.”
Quite different to the discussions about process and accuracy was Sir Lloyd Geering’s Michael King Lecture “How Humans Made God.” Geering is 95-years-old and has spent much of his life grappling with ideas about contemporary religion. His most recent book is From the Big Bang to God, and he deftly summarised in his lecture how the notion of God has evolved along with humans’ evolution of what he calls the “thought world.” Language created God, he says and enabled us to construct this thought world from which we create arts and culture. This was a fascinating lecture, so carefully structured and delivered that the standing ovation he received at the end was the only possible conclusion.
The final session I attended was Poet Laureate Ian Wedde in discussion with John Newton. Ideas in Wedde’s collection The Lifeguard: New Poems led to the session’s title “Changing the World a Word at a Time,” a reassuring and hopeful prospect that poets play an important role in society, and language—as Geering would agree—changes everything. Wedde read from his collection and explained how having grandchildren has made him think intensely about the state of the world and what kind of place full of what kind of messages we are leaving for future generations. A personal contemplation with universal implications. He spoke about originality and a kind of “historical modesty” in which writers must acknowledge that ideas have been visited before in literature and find new ways to express them.
Modesty aside, words can change lives. Although Carlos Ruiz Zafon proclaimed he’s not a preacher or a politician—“I don’t want to convince anybody of anything”—novelists are powerful people. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life plays with reader expectations as the character dies and comes back to life in the novel’s initial “false starts” or re-beginnings. A New York Times review stated that this technique “makes the reader acutely conscious of an author’s power: how much the novelist can do.” Ian Wedde made reference to Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish who in his time could fill a football stadium for a poetry reading—a reminder that no matter what the state of the world, art and literature are crucial aspects of our collective thought world. A world which, for me, has now been fully populated and I’m left with much to ponder.