“Sometimes we are greater than ourselves when we write”

ARTS, Books
img_ageofmagicAt this year’s Auckland Writers Festival, the glass was not just half-full, but brimming, overflowing.

Reality seems to conform to our perception of it.” Ben Okri said that, late on Sunday during the 2015 installment of the Auckland Writers Festival, and yes. In virtually every session, the New Zealand literature scene was prescribed as being in a critical condition due to the lack of prizes and the disappearance of major corporate sponsors. Yet, this seemed no impediment to the new or continued productivity of authors as richly varied as Thom Conroy, Airini Beautrais, Stephanie Johnson, and Anna Smaill, all there reading from and/or discussing books published within the last year. (The first two of which I’ve read, and can assure you are superlative efforts.) Metro editor Simon Wilson informed us that nobody’s writing because they’re tweeting, and soon there will be no readers for paid publications. What would he have made of the huge line of hundreds of young readers extending across Aotea Square on Saturday morning, desperate to meet David Walliams and get autographs of their very tangible books? Perhaps the same observation he made regarding the heaving crowds at Aotea Centre (60,000, up 20% from last year): an anomaly as a passionate minority takes up the slack from an indifferent majority. And there’s a fair point to be made there, as the only bookstore on Queen Street was in the process of closing its doors during the festival.

So: for some the festival may have seemed a remarkably well-attended wake, for others an inspiring celebration of a devoted passion, and for others still, no doubt, it was merely a dim shadow surrounding their single trip to see a favorite author. (In my highly informal polling, the wonderfully gnomic Haruki Murakami, covered in detail by Thomas Phillips, drew an especially large number of this latter type of attendee.) For me, the glass was not just half-full, but brimming, overflowing. A few highlights:

Amy Bloom. The first session on a Friday morning is thankless; to be moved from a larger venue to smaller at the last minute must be disheartening. You wouldn’t have known it from Amy Bloom’s winning presentation, however. It always helps to have a passionate fan as a facilitator (Carole Beu of the Women’s Bookshop), but Bloom oozes well-earned confidence, having experience both as a psychotherapist and as a barmaid. “I don’t think it’s so different, you stand there and listen attentively because people in some degree of distress are paying you.” Hysterical anecdotes about interviewing “family values crossdressers,” working in television, and serving carafes of vodka to the Yiddish opera followed; so, too, did tangible writing tips, such as writing letters from a character to get into the character’s voice. With a reading of a ’40s era Hollywood lesbian orgy scene from her latest novel, Lucky Us, the event climaxed (sorry) on a high note.

Atul Gawande. Whilst surgeon-cum-writer Gawande may be known principally for the content of his books—his first, Complications, focused on why errors happen in the operating room, whilst the latest, Being Mortal, examines how we care for people at the end of their life—fellow surgeon and interlocutor David Galler wisely came out of the gate focusing on Gawande’s facility as a writer of clean and readable prose. It’s nearly transparent in its simplicity, but such lucidity is hard earned; Gawande was not a natural writer, honing his craft first on Slate and then at The New Yorker with a demanding editorial process, and even his latest book went through multiple major rewrites. The balance of the session, a summary of key points of Being Mortal, escaped feeling redundant thanks in part to his calm, engaged, cheerful manner and in part because of the powerfully resonant ideas. “Safety is what we want for those we love; autonomy is what we want for ourselves.” The overwhelming message is that, with technology so far advanced, the simple human methods have been neglected in patient care; one of the most potent tools in geriatric care is simply asking patients what they want. Gawande’s talent in finding the simple was further underlined when he revealed that the results of his prior book, The Checklist Manifesto, had meant his life-saving innovation of applying a humble checklist to surgical procedures is now used in roughly 50 million of the 300 million surgical procedures performed worldwide each year. In most cases, it’s trite to say a writer changes people’s lives; in the case of Atul Gawande, it’s an undeniable fact.

The Role of the Critic. Pantograph Punch editor Rosabel Tan has already written wisely on the challenges of the role of the critic this year, as part of her Horoeka reading grant; for this event, she guided New Zealand art critic Wystan Curnow and British Shakespearean scholar Peter Holland through their seasoned views, and while I would have loved to hear more from Tan, it’s hard to quibble when the result was a lovely discussion between two wise, large-hearted men who favored intellectual engagement over sneering wordsmanship. “Sometimes it’s not the work’s fault, it’s your fault,” noted Holland while discussing his reluctance to translate his failure to connect with a theatrical performance into a scathing critique, showing a humility a world away from the popular depiction of the critic. Both men championed the critic’s ability to illuminate their understanding of the work for other readers as their key role, over making statements about quality. Curnow closed with a stirring endorsement of the power of art: “I wouldn’t be doing this now if I wasn’t a believer and passionately positive about the role and object of my writing … I consider art knowledge as equivalent to other forms of knowledge, and call it knowledge so I’m upgrading art to assume the importance I think it must have, to be the culture we want it to be.”

Lacunae? Countless. Many will be discussed by other Lumière writers. One who many, including myself, missed: Vietnamese emigre Kim Thuy’s session supposedly brought tears, smiles, and a standing ovation. Conversely, there are moments best forgotten, mostly involving poorly considered questions. Julie Hill’s admonition at the beginning of her excellent session with Hollie Fullbrook of Tiny Ruins, that audience members “make their questions question-y … a question-like quality is quite useful” was woefully neglected by far too many. And a certain orneriness crept into the audience over the three days, as impatience with meandering facilitators turned into heckling and late arrivals were met with boiling anger. (I was horrified by the lady behind me at Gawande who loudly castigated one particularly late arrival as being “a horrible person.” Madame, know thyself.)

But these are merely the fine detail imperfections that fade over time. For me, as a writer, it’s the tips I’ll take away: Emily St. John Mandel (poised, confident, and entertaining in a well-moderated panel conducted by Jolisa Gracewood) revealing that she proofreads her pages in random order to combat reading fatigue; David Mitchell reminding writers that in the first six months of writing a novel you’re not building the edifice but the scaffolding; Thom Conroy and Graeme Lay explaining how they maximised drama in their historical works by spinning plausible inventions from known facts; and Laurence Fearnley expressing the maxim of hard work in the most memorable manner: “Always choose writing over tidying your desk.” And if all the writing advice ultimately boils down to “what it takes is a crapload of hard work, and a crapload of talent,” as Charlotte Graham noted on the excellent live blog at The Wireless, then it might not hurt to leave on a note of inspiration, once again from Ben Okri: “Sometimes we are greater than ourselves when we write.”

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

Main Image: Cover artwork from The Age of Magic.