I love the Auckland Writers Festival. Every year I attend a few events, miss lots of good ones, and I always say that next year I will be better organised and see more. This year I took a day off work on the Friday so I could pack everything in to one day. I still didn’t get to everything I wanted to, but Joanne and I had a good day anyway. Here’s what we saw.
David Eagleman gave a fast-paced and fascinating talk about the uses for creativity. With all the successes of his own research and the seemingly unstoppable flow of technological advances, I can understand why his tone is so optimistic. Some of his answers to audience questions like “What can we do about X?” amounted to little more than, “don’t worry, I’m sure everything will be fine.” I suppose there’s not much more he could say in a one-hour talk. I did make a note to myself to get his book The Runaway Species afterwards.
A survey of some of Samuel Beckett’s work by Lisa Dwan, a noted Beckett performer from Ireland. Most of this was about the short but challenging monologue Not I, and Dwan performed a few snippets of it during her talk. She was quite amazing. It seems that performing the full piece is extremely demanding — she has to be strapped into a harness to get her mouth in the right position. Apparently she performs the play more quickly than anyone else, getting through it in under 10 minutes when most actors take closer to 15. It’s dizzying, virtuosic to see, but maybe she’s just trying to finish so she can escape from her harness. Anyway, for historical interest, incisive analysis and breathtaking verbal dexterity, she received a well-deserved standing ovation.
This discussion with Australian broadcaster Lorin Clarke, observing the changes (well, decline) in neighbourhood relationships in the past decades, sounded like an interesting talk on an important topic. Unfortunately it clashed with the Beckett talk, so I couldn’t go. Joanne went though and said that it was great. Clarke is writing and producing The Fitzroy Diaries a fiction podcast based on life in her Melbourne neighbourhood, and it’s shot through with wry comments and understated observational humour. She is the daughter of the late John Clarke, the revered NZ/Australian humorist, and talent appears to run in the family.
At this point Joanne and I had planned to meet up and see Reframing, a “Four for Fifty” session where four writers read for ten minutes each, loosely based on a particular topic. (The event lasts 50 minutes including introductions, hence the name.) This one was about new ways of seeing the past and promised interest and variety, as the four featured speakers were a historian, an art writer, a journalist and a novelist. In the end, Joanne and I decided that we really needed to have lunch instead, so we headed for Yang’s Hand-Pulled Noodle shop in the Elliot Street mall. The beef noodle soup was enormous and so was the mapo tofu, and both were really good. It was a shame to miss Reframing, but Mr Yang set us up nicely for the rest of the day.
This was another one of the “Four for Fifty” sessions. They are interesting and varied and they’re free! (And therefore often quite crowded.) This one featured four writers reading autobiographical work for 10 minutes each.
Karl Ove Knausgård was the big international star, and after reading a lot about him and his work it was reassuring to find that he was really good. He read from his latest book, Spring — the writing was intimate, spare and infused with feeling. His delivery was fantastic too — he speaks with a sort of understated gravitas.
Catherine Chidgey read from her “found novel” The Beat of the Pendulum. I had already bought this a few weeks earlier but hadn’t got around to starting it yet. It’s a cut-up: each fragment makes sense in itself, but the overall piece takes a while to cohere. (It reminds me of This Is Not a Novel.) I can lose myself in listening to it. She admitted that she did edit some of the fragments somewhat, but the overall vibe is unchanged.
Durga Chew-Bose read a fairly intense, thoughtful piece: she seemed very serious.
Anna Livesey read us some expressive poems. Their domestic focus made me think of Emma Neale, who I saw at the Going West festival a year or two back.
The four writers were introduced by Anne Kennedy, which was nice because the last time I saw her speak was at a Four For Fifty session two years ago. Then, she read a snippet of her own novel The Last Days of the National Costume. which induced me to buy it. She is a very warm, engaging and thoughtful speaker.
This panel, including three writers of YA (young adult) fiction, wasn’t quite what I was expecting, being more focused on writers than readers. I had thought it would be about how writers navigate the line between what’s appropriate for YA fiction and adult fiction. While there was discussion of that, the panellists (prompted by the moderator) also talked a lot about their own backgrounds and various issues that fed into their writing. Still, interesting stuff, and Alex Wheatle was particularly impressive with his positive attitude and easygoing manner.
In this monologue, Emma Mary Hall simply recites hundreds of opinions, with minimal stagecraft. The one-liners were amusing, thought-provoking or just random, or sometimes all three at once. One of the first things she said was that her friend thought you needed two beers to watch her show — and shortly afterwards she gave two beers to audience members. Sadly I missed out, being in the middle of the cramped Herald Theatre.
Hall says that the performance changes each time — one topic was was the treatment of refugees by the Australian authorities (she is Australian). In the writer’s notes she says, “I often think I’m talking about hate, but my teenage niece thinks I’m talking about sex. Both of these things are true, and yet they work against each other. Maybe?”
That was our last event. We had a great dinner at the always-reliable Depot to finish the day off. In the end I didn’t see any other events in this Festival — we had too much else on, and our kids are too old for the various family events. So I didn’t get to see Alex Ross (who wrote The Rest Is Noise, one of my favourite books) or A. C. Grayling who is a welcome voice of reason in a mixed-up world. Instead I’ll just have to read their books. But I was so busy on the Friday that I didn’t even have time to browse in the Festival bookstall!
Next year I might have to take a whole week off.