Monday, September 8, 2008

Blooming Writers

There were daffodils in Hagley Park and the blossom was starting but not quite there yet. Malcolm the driver pointed to trees that in a matter of a week, he said, would be decked out like brides. What Christchurch was blooming with was writers.

Elegant imported varieties like Kate Atkinson, Kate Mosse, Robert Fisk, Xinran, Mark Sarvas, Arnold Zable. Established natives like Fiona Kidman, Elizabeth Knox, Brian Turner, Charlotte Randall and Lloyd Jones. Hardy native seedlings like Karlo Mila, Rachael King, Vanda Symon, Sara Knox and me. And a whole lot of colourful shrubs in between: Sam Mahon and Felicity Price and Steve Braunias spring to mind.

It was a smaller festival than Auckland and Wellington, and the intimacy, the writers agreed, was a good thing. The presentations generally felt more relaxed and chatty and it seemed easier, afterwards, for readers to talk to the writers they'd come to see, and writers to bang into other writers and start a stimulating conversation which could lead to coffee and/or a wine and more conversation.

An example of that was Satuday night when Vanda Symon and I found ourselves having a pre-dinner drink with Fiona Kidman and superstar UK writer (Labyrinth, Sepulchre), Kate Mosse. A polished performer on stage, Mosse proved to be one of those generous writers who wants to share her good fortune through her website and is madly curious about local writers and writing. She was excited about having visited the Ngaio Marsh House in Christchurch (she loves crime fiction and Marsh) and excited about having a drink with us (she liked the Spy Valley). She'd bought Vanda's book and promised to buy mine. She remembered accepting a Fiona Kidman book as a fledgling UK publisher...

There were, as with any festival, sessions that fired and those that didn't. Fisk certainly fired - packing people into the 500-seat Limes Room and persuaded to do an extra session for all those who missed out. Xinran seemed to have a similar effect (I was sad to miss her session) as did Steve Braunias. The Kate Mosse and Kate Atkinson sessions hummed, so did the Knox sisters' by all accounts.

Great things were said about the poetry sessions, with Karlo Mila, especially, establishing a new fan base (which includes me) with her warm style and beautiful visuals. There were panel discussions about such topics as first-time novelists, the Orange Prize and book bloggers with writers bouncing ideas off one another in an interesting way - some worked well, again, and some didn't, but they all had sparks somewhere in the hour.

I have to say that of the two events I was involved in, I believe one fired (new writers reading from the work) and one had some real sparks at times but never built to a flame (An Hour with Lloyd Jones.) The New Writers' session was: Felicity Price, Kon Kuiper, Sam Mahon, Karlo Mila and myself.

All the writers were a discovery to me - I'd seen their books but not got inside the covers, so to speak (except for Karlo Mila) - and I was fascinated by what they each had to say about their work and their readings. Karlo's (poetry) and Sam's (memoir about his father Justice Mahon) I found especially compelling. It was also nice to see the way each talk overlapped the others. A poem about a Japanese woman on a sleeping mat by Kon talked to a Tongan sleeping mat in Karlo's poem. Sam Mahon's hunting story talked to my whalers out on Cook Strait.

As for Lloyd, fresh back from Berlin via the Melbourne Writers Festival, he gave us some generous insights into his thinking and his writing (where the image of Pop-Eye pulling Mrs Watts came from, how he originally conceived of the novel as being set inside Mr Watts' spare room, how he 'stole' a cave from Kate de Goldi, his key preoccupations as a writer being 1. identity 2. imagination, and so on), read a terrific essay about his mother and a gave a seminal reading from Mr Pip, but I think my question line hampered him a little.

I thought he'd be sick of talking about the nuts and bolts of Matilda et al. in Mr Pip so I'd shaped the interview around a theme of sorts: Lloyd's use of different landscapes in his fiction (Bougainville, Albania, NZ etc) and moving on to the influence of Berlin. But in hindsight that was too broad a brush, and, as he said, he'd written some of the books I was referring to a long time ago ... He was also very reticent about discussing his two current 'projects' - one of which is a book of essays, and one of which might or might not be a novel. He likened that sort of talk to taking a cake out of the oven half-baked.

So the discussion was a bit stilted a times. But there were sparks. And sparks are good. One commentator on the Christchurch Library blog noted that she'd wished she could have heard more of Lloyd Jones reading from Mr Pip. Yes, more reading would have been good.

Speaking of the Christchurch library blog, a team of bloggers did an amazing job of keeping up with the myriad of sessions, and that's the place to go for fuller coverage than I can give, along with Bookman Beattie who was there in his trademark cap with a new Christchurch-made possum scarf against the southern chill.

p.s. Just spotted (five and a half hours after posting this) the Bookman's write-up on Lloyd's festival session, and it seems he found it very valuable. Just goes to show the power of stories, eh? And Lloyd is sure good at telling them. More festival write-ups here and here.

1 comment:

Vanda Symon said...

Drinks with the girls was one of the highlights of the festival. How lovely to relax with a wine (or two) with a Dame, a Montana winner and an international superstar!