In praise of useless beauty

I’m not sure whether the 2000-odd-seat ASB Theatre was sold out for Tim Winton’s Auckland Writers Festival 2015 (AWF15) session last Sunday morning, but it was certainly close to packed, and there was a lot of love in the room for Winton. I was seated wa-a-aay up in the gods, which felt like an appropriate place from which to watch the sometimes godly Winton (session chair Jim Mora commented that “the hand of God is in your work” — and it is, that Christian mysticism, and it’s always been an element in Winton’s writing that’s unsettling for me as a screamingly godless reader).

At one early point in the session Winton said, of his fiction and its impact on the world:

I’m just in the business of producing useless beauty.

Me, I’m all for the useless beauty of fiction. AWF15 was full of such beauty, and so much more, and huge congratulations are due to the outstanding Auckland Writers Festival team for putting together and carrying out such an outstanding programme. Anne O’Brien! Eleanor Congreve! Penny Hartill! Volunteers, ushers! You and all your colleagues: legends! It was such a thrill for me to be invited to be part of the programme.

Now, generally at writers festivals I like to sit with notebook in hand to capture the literary aperçus and bons mots, scribbling them down in the dark so I don’t forget them. Over the past year or so I’ve done the odd write-up of various festival thoughts and impressions after the fact (see AWF2014 here and here; and WORD Chch 2014; and PWF2014; and Wellington Writers Week 2014). But, for some reason, I let myself off the hook this time. I took almost no notes for the whole four days, just let it wash and roll over me. My memory’s hopeless, so now — a week later — the festival’s all a blur. A glorious blur. I had such fun. (I feel compelled to clarify: not an alcoholic nor otherwise brain-addled blur; not that kind of fun. Call me Sally Sobersides.)

Luckily there were mobs of keen and perceptive people taking it in, tweeting and typing, posting it online, so I didn’t need to. I’ll list a bunch of links at the bottom of the page to blog posts and articles I’ve noticed and enjoyed, or have bookmarked to go back to, whether for reference or just for pure pleasure. With luck, Auckland Writers Festival will release video and/or audio of some sessions online (they have videos from 2014 online, and a podcasts page under development).

So here, I’d like to just tip my hat to some of the writers and sessions I enjoyed.

Amy Bloom

You know those discoveries you make at a writers festival? Writers you’ve not heard of, or have heard of but never read, then you hear them speak and read from their work and you MUST BUY THEIR BOOKS and read them? Amy Bloom was one of those discoveries for me at ‎AWF15, in a session deftly and enthusiastically chaired by Carole Beu from The Women’s Bookshop. Bloom described her most recent novel, Lucky Us, as being on one level about family, as defined by blood and by other connections (the families we make, the families we’re born into), and that’s something that’s at the heart of the novel I’m working on at the moment.

Emily St John Mandel

I wrote one note after this very fine session: “ESJM writes amorphous messy 1st draft —> years of editing, redrafts. Starts out with no sense of ending; doesn’t plot”. A woman after my own heart.

Helen Garner

Garner was in conversation with High Court Judge Mary Peters, who was an informed and relaxed chair for the session focusing on Garner’s most recent book, This House of Grief (the only Garner book I’ve not yet read). It was a fantastic session, fascinating, compelling. Garner is much, much funnier in real life than I would have imagined, and animated — she has a sort of relaxed intensity, if that makes sense. It occurred to me, listening to this session, and hearing people talk at the festival about Garner, that she is best known here in New Zealand as a writer of non-fiction. I’m a Garner tragic (by which I mean ENORMOUS FAN) from way back and, while I love her non-fiction, I will always think of her first and most warmly as a writer of fiction. And I love that fiction (as I’ve said before, here and here). So if you haven’t, do yourself a favour and read Helen Garner’s fiction. It’s beaut.

Helen Macdonald

Lots of people have been raving about H is for Hawk, and convinced me I’d love it even though I DON’T LIKE BIRDS. I harbour a magpie phobia (milder now, calmed since its peak in my troubled twenties); and don’t even get me started on birds inside the house (traumatised by a childhood friend’s budgies).

I started reading H is for Hawk a few hours before Helen Macdonald’s Saturday afternoon session, and at one point, just a few pages in, I caught myself groaning out loud with delight at a phrase I read. (I was alone in my hotel room at the time. Not dodgy at all.) I finished it this weekend. It’s a wonderful, rich book; I did love it. Not sure I’ll be taking up goshawk training, but I have found myself eyeing the cats and wondering if they could be trained to leap to my gloved wrist.

Helen Macdonald’s AWF15 session, chaired with elegance and intelligence by Noelle McCarthy, was just delightful. There’s so much sadness in the book, but so much to interest and fascinate, too, and that was evident in the session. Macdonald is warm and funny in real life — while there’s humour in the book, it’s overridden by the sadness. She is a beautiful reader of her work.

Haruki Murakami

I really enjoyed this, but found it difficult to unpick the hype from the reality. I’m only part way through reading my first Murakami novel (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), so I’m not starting from a position of fandom, or even familiarity (but I was really pleased I was a decent way intoBird so that I had a sense of Murakami’s voice and style before the session). Murakami was thoughtful, at times straightforward, at times quite playful, in his responses to John Freeman (former Granta editor, etc etc, who did a great job chairing, perfectly judging and leaving space for the many and lengthy pauses, reflecting Murakami’s humour, bringing a light touch to what could have been a session heavy with gasping hero worship). One of my favourite lines was Murakami’s response to an audience question.

“Do cats have a spiritual element for you?”

“No. They’re just cats.”

Tim Winton

This was just a lovely session, and the only one in which I took some (rather random) notes. Winton talked a little about Western Australian-ness, in particular growing up where and when he did (the same time and place as I did), and what it was like becoming/being a writer in the early 80s. He talked about the effect on Perth of the recent mining boom, a notion that forms and informs the backdrop and mood and character of his most recent novel, Eyrie.

We grew up in the wrong state on the wrong side of the wrong country…then suddenly we got rich…we went from being ignored to being smug; it was instantaneous…[it’s like we’re] living some moral fable about smugness…not drowning, swiping.

He told a gut-wrenching anecdote about losing the completed manuscript (the typescript and its sole carbon copy — aaah, the olden days!) of his 1991 novel Cloudstreet on a bus in Rome. He got off the bus with bags in one hand, carrying his three-year-old kid (travel-tired, weighed down, etc), and found himself the object of attention from a “whiskery fella” (“Everywhere I went in Europe people tried to sell me drugs. They had no idea what a clean-living bloke I was.”). It turned out that the whiskery fella was trying to let him know that he’d left his bag — complete withCloudstreet manuscript — on the bus. Reunited with his manuscript, Winton was so pleased with the whiskery fella that:

I coulda tongue-kissed him. [Beat] If he’d asked.

Asked about his often open-ended novels (The Riders, Tim, THE RIDERS!!), Winton talked about life’s lack of symmetry, closure, order:

Most people die mid-sentence.

Resolving stories (novels) is boring, he said.

Carol Ann Duffy

I was so glad I had the chance to see and hear poet (indeed, capital P-Poet Laureate) Carol Ann Duffy in session, reading her poems. It was my last session before heading to the airport to fly home to Wellington, and it left me feeling elated, uplifted; a great note to end the festival on. She read sets of poems from several of her books — The World’s Wife, Rapture, The Bees — and talked a little about her work with session chair (and huge fan) John Campbell. She is unsurprisingly expert at the pause, the eyebrow lift, the mouth held just so, the glance at the audience. Magic.

So much beauty, so useless and so far from useless, and every point in between.

I saw some other wonderful sessions: Anna Smaill and Bernard Beckett’s “Memory Loss” session chaired by Paula Morris; David Mitchell, chaired by Catherine Robertson. I hugely enjoyed sharing the stage with Tim Winton, Laurence Fearnley and Bridget Van der Zijpp, in our “Loss and Love” reading session introduced by Graham Beattie. I missed several sessions I would’ve loved to attend: Greg O’Brien; Stephanie Alexander;Hollie Fulbrook (Tiny Ruins) on songwriting; a whole bunch of others.

Biggest regret? Not getting a chance to talk with Helen Garner (other than to fangrrrl briefly in the signing queue, offering up my precious old copy ofPostcards from Surfers for signing). Oh well. Another time.

In the warm afterglow of AWF15, it’s good to think that it’s not long until my next writers festival: Mildura Writers Festival (MWF15) runs from 16 to 19 July, and tickets went on sale this week. I’ll write more soon about my upcoming residency at MWF15 — I’ll be in Mildura for the whole of July.


Links to blogs and posts about Auckland Writers Festival 2015

Fantastic coverage on the BooksellersNZ blog, with posts by Sarah Forster, Elizabeth Heritage and others.

More fantastic coverage on the Christchurch City Libraries blog, from an info-packed AWF15 homepage.

The Wireless live-blogged the festival.

The Pantograph Punch has a handful of AWF15 write-ups.

The Lumière Reader has three articles on AWF15.

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