It was 9am on Monday and I was exhausted. But the weekend hadn’t been a dehydrating haze of booze, bass, and whatever buzz I could get my hands on (which was pretty much my life pre-children), but one filled with long words, brainy people and old ladies drenched in musk with sharp elbows and no fucks given.
It was the first time I’d been to the Auckland Writers Festival, although by all accounts it had been running perfectly well without me for years. But I was glad I was a latecomer because all the kinks had been ironed to a mirror-like finish, and the events and speakers were managed so smoothly it was like being in some futuristic society with all imperfections genetically bred out and any difficulties dealt with by laser-toting robots.
I had managed to get a ticket to ‘Master of Mystery: Paul Cleave’ the title of which was heaps better than ‘Master of Mystery: Paul Daniels’, or ‘Master of Misery: Paula Bennett’, or ‘Mistress of Misanthropy: Pauline Hanson’, or… shit, I could do this all day mate, all day.
Anyway. Paul Cleave is an award-winning crime writer from Christchurch and his eight or so novels have been translated into a billion languages and sell obscenely well. He’s also pretty hot and his audience was mostly older women clutching the sides of their chairs so as to prevent themselves from slipping off in a moist swoon.
Apparently women make up the biggest market for crime fiction and Paul asked the audience their thoughts on this. The polite Parnell ladies all lied and said it was because they wanted to be immersed in a different world. They didn’t give the real reason which was that all women are frustrated with everything and really, really want to fucking kill someone dead.
I had tweeted about Paul previously once or twice (ie, LOTS AND LOTS) and last week out of the blue he tweeted me and asked if I’d like an advance copy of his new book. Would I?! Cue moist swoon.
I introduced myself after the talk and the book bouncer lady ushered me out through a flap in the tent to what I assumed would be backstage. I’ve been backstage before. It’s not as glamorous as you might think. It’s usually an afterthought of a space with wobbly canvas walls, tired roadies, pumped up musos, empty bottles and lots of weed.
But this wasn’t backstage at all. The tent flap just led outside into the cold windy Square. Paul gave me his book and signed it. I babbled something incoherent and asked for a photo and he kindly obliged. However, I was all trembly and weird and ended up looking like a moronic chipmunk which is fucking typical. Also, green tent. What IS that.
Moronic Chipmunk and Paul Cleave
I slunk off to see ‘Pacific Tales’ with Brit Bennett, Gina Cole, Courtney Sina Meredith and Scott Hamilton. They read bits out of their books and I don’t remember any of it, except for Scott Hamilton who loves Tonga so much he wants to marry it.
Amie Kaufman was next on my list. I’d never heard of her but the blurb in the Festival Guide said she wrote YA. I have a special place in my heart for teens taking on despotic rulers in dystopian societies and often wish they would just get off their phones and take care of Trump once and for all. The other event option was called ‘Women and Power’ but flint-eyed feminists made up a queue about five miles long and it was sold out so Amie won by default.
Amie was extremely chatty and friendly and funny. I’ve always had an image of writers as being introverted, hunch-backed, mumbling little weirdos but everyone I’d seen so far was fluent, confident and super-smart. It seemed all wrong somehow. Writers are supposed to be tortured and drunk and filled with self-loathing, not erudite and fabulous. I’m obviously not doing it right.
Amie had co-written an award-winning scifi book with Jay Kristoff called ‘Illuminae’. Their method of collaboration was as fascinating to me as the book itself. She would write a bit, send it off to Jay, he would write a bit more and send it back. She took the female protagonist’s side and he took the male. They talked a lot in bars and improvised conversations between their characters. It sounded like fun. Of course I bought the book and Amie signed it like a boss.
I had a full programme the next day and started off with the ‘Art of the Essay’ with three amazing writers, Teju Cole, Roxane Gay and Ashleigh Young, chatting about long-form essays. Panel discussions all depend on the quality of the interviewer and the dude hosting this drove me fucking mad. The writers would get into an intelligent, amicable debate and then the host, obviously feeling left out, would break in with some irrelevant question written on his little notepad, the subtext of which was, “Look at me! Look at me!” The writers would gaze at him in myopic befuddlement, as you do to a waiter who has just interrupted to ask if he should read the specials, and the audience would release a collective hiss of annoyance, silently willing Teju to shut him up with a swift karate chop to the face.
At the end of the panel, the floor was open to audience questions. Most of these questions were well thought out and intelligent. All I wanted to know was where Ashleigh got her shoes, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask. (They were black and shiny with a light brown sole and looked a bit like Docs, but I was sitting near the back so I couldn’t be sure.)
After lunch, I toddled off to see Kate de Goldi, writer, reviewer, editor and all-round amazing, brilliant woman. She talked about middle grade writing, that lonely, lost place for bookworms aged 7 to 12.
Her point was that parents buy picture books to read to their children and adults buy YA because they enjoy it. 7 to 12 year-olds read independently and adults aren’t particularly interested in reading with them or buying that level of book for themselves. So because no one’s buying, publishers tend not to sell. They churn out picture books and YA books and leave the middle grade to fend for themselves at the library. Kate thought this sucked and now that I know about it, I do too.
I introduced myself afterwards. I had written a little bit for Kate before but we’d only ever communicated by email. She gave me a big hug and I hoped some of her brilliance would rub off on me. She asked if I’d written anything for middle grade which I had and I promised myself I would blow the dust off that little manuscript and do something with it. I owed it to those bookless 7 to 12 year olds; I owed it to the pre-teen me.
‘I Love Dick’ was the name of the next seminar. I only picked it because of the title (so mature), and I’d never heard of the author Chris Kraus or anything she’d written. She turned out to be American with a peculiar accent which I had to strain to comprehend. Her book was very literary and I didn’t understand it any more than I understood her. But it turned out that she was very deaf and I felt like a complete bitch for not realising earlier and gave myself a vehement telling off for being judgemental. I clapped her extra hard at the end to make up but I doubt she noticed.
Paula Morris hosted a performance of ‘1001 Nights’, a mishmash of a story based on ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’. It was re-written during the actual session by students from three Auckland colleges and it was wonderful. Pairs of students recited the story and they were exuberant and alive and young and passionate. The students’ pictures and artworks flashed up on screens behind them, musicians played through the breaks, and I was completely blown away by it all. After the literary ramblings of Chris Kraus, it was the perfect antidote.
I was getting pretty tired by then, but next up was James Gleick, a science and maths genius type. He talked about time travel from a philosophical, scientific and literary viewpoint and basically all I got out of it was that time travel was impossible. No shit, Sherlock. Naturally the questions from the audience were also brainy and unintelligible except for a darling girl right at the end who asked, “Do you like Doctor Who?” Apparently he did, and I wanted to applaud because the question I’d been wanting to ask the entire time was, “Do you like Back to the Future?”. Great minds, lol.
‘The Best of the Best, Spoken Word Showcase’ was the final event of the night. It was on at the Town Hall and I had no idea what to expect. I’d seen shows online of course, with dramatic performance poetry recited by funky urban wordsmiths who were paid in finger snaps. It looked amazing.
The woman next to me had been drinking and wanted to know all about me, where I was from, which events I’d seen, what I wanted to see, what I did for a living. I told her I was tired and didn’t want to talk.
She told me that was probably because I wasn’t used to big crowds and how nice it was that people from the provinces were able to experience the festival because cultural things never happened in the regions. She told me that when I wrote it was like an itch in my mind, a burning that would only go away when I wrote it down. She told me things about myself that I had never known before. I told her I was tired and didn’t want to talk.
She asked me about my children, about my writing, about my hotel, about what I ate for lunch. I told her I was tired and didn’t want to talk. She huffed and said, “Well, I’ll shut up then.” I thanked her.
The lights went down and she nudged me and said loudly, “You can go to sleep now!” I gritted my teeth as people turned around to stare, showing my shoulder every time the woman tried to get my attention by talking, nudging, and once, memorably, rubbing my thigh.
At halftime I left and sent a haiku to the Auckland Writers Festival hashtag:
If a woman slurs
“Sit here, there’s a spare seat,” DON’T.
She will stroke your leg.
They did not retweet it.
I returned to my hotel, had a bath and put on a face mask. I was exhausted and my bum was sore from sitting. I wondered about a bum mask and how that would work. I slept.
The next day I attended the panel discussion on ‘The Art of Crime Fiction’, with darling Paul, Miranda Carter, and Ian Rankin. Ian Rankin was like a character out of one of his books. He was gaunt with hooded eyes and a shuffling gait and looked as if he had the bloody stump of a chewed finger tucked deep inside his pocket. He was also very funny, very dry and very quick.
Miranda Carter had hair like fire and banged on a fair bit which was nice because it’s usually the men who bang on while the woman patiently waits until they’ve finished. Not Miranda. She was always the first to speak and frequently interrupted everyone else. She was neat.
They talked about limits in their writing and where they wouldn’t go. They agreed violence doesn’t have to be graphic because the reader has a bigger imagination than what an author can write. This was illuminating to me. You don’t have to write everything. It got me wondering if I could produce a book with nothing in it at all and leave it up to the reader’s imagination. Sort of like the literary version of the Pet Rock. Mental note: must pursue.
I think Apirana Taylor is a living treasure. He’s a poet, performer, musician and novelist and he was amazing on stage. He read from his new book ‘Five Strings’ which was about two people on the streets, their love story and their struggle. He said he never planned out his stories because if he knew where they were going it would be boring. His writing was very lyrical with a rhythm to the sentences, a rise and fall of tone and shade, a poetic music that lulled and stirred all at the same time.
I can’t write like that. I use words to get the story from A to B. I am the Toyota Corolla of writing. I admired Apirana greatly and immediately bought his book. He signed it and said, “Have we met?” I said no, but I was absurdly pleased at the idea of Apirana Taylor thinking he might have met little old me from the provinces where culture never happens.
The last event I went to was optimistically called ‘Those were the Days’ and showcased four writers: Miranda Carter (the chatty redhead who don’t give way to no man, no where, no how), Brannavan Gnanalingam, Karyn Hay and Simone Kaho.
Miranda wrote historical crime thrillers, and the one she read from was set in India when English twats were swanning about in pith helmets drinking gin and shooting elephants. Brannavan raced through his reading as if he was late for his flight, Simone had bronchitis but managed to get through some beautiful poems about growing up, and Karyn Hay read a racy excerpt from her book about risqué photography. Karyn was a surprise. She looked like she was about seventeen until she opened her mouth and when her sexy, gravelly voice rolled out, I realised she must have been about eighty.
The Auckland Writers Festival was bigger, better, brighter and more fabulous than I had ever expected. I came away feeling inspired and at the same time crushed by literary genius, and I now have a mountain of books to get through.
Thanks so much to Huia Publishers and the Maori Literature Trust for helping to get me there. I had the best time ever.