Auckland love story – AWF17

I had a wild and wonderful time at Auckland Writers Festival 2017 last weekend. This is the fifth year in a row that I’ve headed to Auckland for the festival, my second time (AWF15 was my first) as part of the programme. The festival gets bigger and better each year, continues to break its own records. Huge congratulations and thanks to Festival Director Anne O’Brien and her magnificent team (especially Claire Mabey, Catherine Braoudakis, Roger Christensen, Susanna Andrew, Penny Hartill, Tessa Yeoman; volunteers, ushers, booksellers; everyone!).

I spent most of the three days I was at the festival doing one of my favourite things: sitting in the dark, listening to writers read and talk about writing. I took minimal notes; I didn’t live-tweet: I simply enjoyed the ride. I’ll jot a few thoughts about some of my highlight sessions below. But if you’re looking for in-depth coverage of the festival, I highly recommend David Larsen writing for Metro (read his Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 instalments online), Sarah Jane Barnett in The Pantograph Punch, and Briar Lawry and Felicity Murray for Booksellers New Zealand (I’m sure there’s other great coverage, but these three caught my eye). And check back on the AWF website over coming months, as the Festival will post podcasts and video of selected 2017 sessions (there’s already plenty of content from 2016 and prior festivals).

Sarah from Panto Punch demands and gets a goofy selfie
Sarah from Panto Punch demands and gets a goofy selfie

A Personal Take: Dudding & Laing

A really delightful kick-off to my first full day at the Festival, with Sarah Laing talking about her wonderful graphic memoir Mansfield and Me (which I love, and have been fan-grrrling over since before it was published), and Adam Dudding about his memoir My Father’s Island (which is still on my TBR list).

There were two strong strands running through this session: what to leave in, what to leave out; and the nature of memory, and truth.

One other note I took from the session was Sarah’s comment, in response to a question about laying herself bare in her memoir:

As a memoirist, you have to be hardest on yourself…

She talked about the tradition, with reference to Robert Crumb, of cartoonists depicting themselves in a way that is not just exaggerated, but is (or approaches) grotesque.

Anne Enright on mothers
Anne Enright on mothers

Gatherings: Anne Enright

I’m new to reading Enright – I was reading The Gathering over the weekend of the festival – and this fabulous session (chaired by Kate de Goldi, one of my favourite festival session chairs), which ranged across Enright’s novels, only made me want to read more. A couple of ideas I jotted down from Enright:

Mothers are just human beings that babies come out of…That’s a lie.

Enright talked about the novel as moonshot: it needs a thing that drops off it at a certain point, to let it soar higher, and get to where it needs to reach (I was very taken with this idea, and I know she phrased it more neatly than I have here).

Writing the Past: A museum collaboration

I loved this session, curated by Claire Mabey, in which five writers (Hera Lindsay Bird, Anne Kennedy, Kelly Ana Morey, Toby Morris and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku) responded to items in the collections of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. I particularly loved Anne Kennedy’s response:

I’ve always had a thing for fibre…[stitched household linens as] sacred objects…I fucking love textiles.

Anne spoke of weaving, of texts as warp thread, providing strength.

And I loved Hera Lindsay Bird’s “poem about two pigs fucking”, which was indeed about two pigs fucking, but was also so much more. She is a damn fine writer/poet/observer, that Bird woman. Kennedy and Bird, both of them, so sly and funny and clever.

The hands of George Saunders
The hands of George Saunders

In the Bardo: George Saunders

Confession: I have not read George Saunders. I’ll be starting with his short fiction when I do. His session on Saturday afternoon (chaired by the always-wonderful Paula Morris) was delightful. He talked about the thrill, in writing fiction, of making stuff up; of the communication of intimacy between writer and reader; and the importance of revision (and revision, and revision; of 100 revisions, of years of revisions). Just delightful.

Family Dynamics

Family Dynamics, the session I took part in at the Festival, featured four writers – memoirist Susan Faludi, flash fiction writer Leanne Radojkovich, poet Ian Wedde, and me – each reading from our latest books. The session was introduced, and each reading beautifully linked, by Anne Kennedy. Anne kindly sent me her introduction to the session:

The title of this session is ‘Family Dynamics’. I’m not going to start with the Tolstoy quote, you know the one about happy families being alike and unhappy families being unhappy in their own way, because I’ve never quite believed it. I think family happiness can arrive in many different forms.

What’s remarkable about families is how high the stakes are, and that’s because they don’t go away, no matter what you do – they’re like plastic bags, they will never break down; they are an eternal thread, te aho, which remains, whether you like it or not. And that is both sublime and agonizing, and therefore the stuff of stories worth telling.

Each reader on our panel today has chosen to write, in very different ways, about those high stakes, the loping kilohertz of family interaction.

What a thrill it was to share the session with these four wonderful writers.

2017 Honoured New Zealand Writer: Fiona Kidman

Jane Rawson's From the Wreck at AWF17
Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck at AWF17

I was thrilled to be at the last session of the Festival, on Sunday evening, to see Fiona Kidman celebrated as the 2017 Honoured New Zealand Writer at the Festival, in a session in conversation with Paula Morris about her life and work. Fiona has become a friend and mentor to me over the seventeen years since I first met her, when I walked into her Autumn Writing Workshop in March 2000. Fiona launched my first novel in Wellington, back in 2013, and now we share a British publisher in Aardvark Bureau. This session was a celebratory end to the Festival.

Catching up with folks

The other thrill of festivals is catching up and hanging out with writers and other book folks, and I had much fun at AWF17 doing that – catching up with Sarah Laing, Marianne Elliott, Charlotte Graham, Sarah Jane Barnett, Maggie Rainey-Smith, Kirsten McDougall, Ian Wedde, Anne Kennedy, Maria McMillan (new book The Ski Flier out soon!), Catherine Robertson, Morrin Rout and Rachael King, among many others; and meeting Emma Neale, Leanne Radojkovich, Rae Fenton, and the wonderful Susan Faludi. And it was so heartening, as always, to meet readers, who make the world go round.

It was an extra treat to catch up properly with Jane Rawson, over from Melbourne. I’m in the middle of reading her new novel, From the Wreck – and it’s as strange (in a good way) and wonderful as everyone has said it is.

Links and more reading

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