In this extract from her new memoir So Far For Now, Dame Fiona Kidman writes about literary festivals and the surprising things they can reveal.
Two black super-light suitcases stand in my bedroom. One is an overnight bag; the other, a little sturdier and larger, is for the long weekend. Going to literary festivals has become part of the professional life of writers and during the festival season. I am poised for flight. That season gets longer every year as more and more towns host their own events. I have lists of items for the quick pack.
For the most part, writers have solitary lives, sitting alone in front of a computer. When we go to festivals, we are performing and selling our work and ourselves. The two merge into each other. We want to be liked. (Sometimes it is easier to be famous than it is to be loved.) For a short time, we enjoy the hospitality of people who, for the most part, are strangers. We are the outsiders looking in, just as we are when we sit down to create characters, people we know and can never entirely know, and will abandon when we start the next book.
And yet we are changed by our experiences in the cities and towns we visit. We leave behind our books, our signatures, our dirty linen in hotel rooms. We take away with us fragments of shared lives, the enthusiasm of our readers, a renewed sense of belief in what we are doing. We are less alone when we leave.
Judging by the number of people who attend, audiences have an ongoing love affair with festivals. Writers usually speak as part of a panel or are “in conversation”, as the saying goes. A bookseller is on hand at the end and the audience, if they are sufficiently moved, rush to a signing table where the author or authors pen their names and a few thoughtful words on the title page. And so it goes.
Behind the scenes there is usually a group of volunteers – particularly if it’s a small-town event, though the “internationals” will have paid staff – who have been toiling for months to bring the event together: booking the writers, arranging their contracts, their travel and accommodation, preparing their biographical notes for publicity, contacting media, hiring venues, sound systems and so on.
I know all of this. I’ve organised a few events in my time; now I benefit from the generosity of others.
I go to lots of festivals. I love them. I love getting on aeroplanes and flying off to some other place where it will all be new all over again, a different hotel, fresh people to greet, old friends to reconnect with, and those who say, Remember me, we went to school together, and to marvel at each other, how the years have passed, and here we are and still alive.
Nothing can beat the Auckland Writers’ Festival on a bright day in May. And what author’s vanity can resist the lure of an event that draws audiences of 70,000. But, with one or two exceptions, I prefer small festivals to those featuring international writers. I’m not keen when occasional visiting writers see themselves as stars, aloof figures who don’t have time to greet readers, who turn up from afar, take one look at their hotel room and demand a penthouse suite.
I like places where you can sit down and eat your lunch with your readers, who sometimes know more about your books than you do yourself. Often they remember characters you have forgotten, and it’s good to have them brought to life again.
So many festivals. They become a way of life. If I have written at length about those excursions overseas, there have been dozens up and down New Zealand. I feel so grateful to all the people who care enough about the work to invite us and make these events happen.
One that will always stand out is an evening in the tiny library in the central North Island town of Taihape, near where my mother was born. There was a local ukulele band and we all sang along and I got to sit in the mayor’s chair. The two booksellers who were on hand had travelled for an hour or more on a dark winter’s night. I love library events, and those in pubs and bookshops, and theatres, and community centres.
There are bad beds and good beds, 1970s motels and luxury suites and even a penthouse or two, there are bottles of fine wine and Presbyterian abstention.
Then there was a festival in Blenheim when The Infinite Air came out. Wearing a helmet and a long white trailing scarf, like Jean, I was flown in a two-seater plane like hers; we did loops over the sea.
All these things and more.
Just sometimes, you can be blindsided by a festival and its outcome. It’s possible, as I did, to get tangled up in your own history.
A year or so ago, I was a guest at the Whanganui Literary Festival. My accommodation was at the Rutland Hotel, one of the town’s old establishments, which had been rescued from ruin and restored in fine detail. As I walked to my room on the first landing beside a small sitting room, something made me stand stock still.
I have written often about the time when I lived with my grandparents on their Waikato farm, about the breakfasts taken with my grandfather at a long table, a ceiling-high carved dresser beside us. After my parents and I left to go and live up north, my grandparents died. Everyone drifted away from that household until there was little left except reflections of the past, the dresser and my Uncle Robert, who took an English wife when he was in middle age. Her name was Augusta but he renamed her Jane and built her a new brick house. This was designed to accommodate the dresser so that, when I visited the farm, as I would for more than fifty years, there it was still and I coveted it. My daughter would love it one day, as I had, and with it the stories of my childhood.
I thought it would be mine but along the way I had a cousin, the child of another uncle, and this is who Robert decided was to receive the dresser. She was the only child of the eldest son; I was the only child of the youngest daughter. There was an order about how things were decided. I begrudge my cousin nothing, she is a generous-hearted woman and we are friends.
But she already owned two dressers from her mother’s side of the family. She offered her new acquisition back to Jane, who was happy that the space on her wall would still be filled.
Years passed. Jane continued to live on the farm. But loneliness eats you up. She met a retired school inspector, when she was seventy-five. The next thing there was a wedding; Augusta, who had become Jane and was about to reclaim her real name, as well as that of the inspector, was the blushing and ecstatic bride.
The inspector had a son who had also been recently married. Bear with me, this story is going somewhere; it is following the dresser. The time came for Jane and her husband to leave the farm; the dresser moved to a new home in another town.
And then there was a move to a rest home, and when the elderly couple dispensed with their belongings, the son’s new wife was given the dresser.
The son died.
I didn’t know where the dresser had gone. By this time, I had said goodbye to it anyway, the lost symbol of my childhood. I forgot about it, more or less.
But there in Whanganui, in the Rutland Hotel, stood my grandparents’ dresser. No mistaking it. It had been nicely French polished and it gleamed in the afternoon light. I walked over, my heart pounding, my head exploding with disbelief. I knelt and fitted my fingers into its crooks and crevices.
There was an attendant, a tiny woman, full of stories. I asked her where the furniture had come from, even then doubting what I had seen and touched. Was it by any chance in the hotel when the restoration was started? No, she said, no, all the furniture had come from secondhand places. She and I took the dresser apart, pulling out the drawers and turning them upside down. I’m not sure what I was looking for, perhaps a name or something that would indicate the provenance of the piece. There was nothing – the interior had been carefully cleaned, no traces of the past.
But I knew.
I went for a walk in the pretty town where hundreds of cherry trees were in wild and riotous bloom, past the Savage Club standing back from the street, a big red building where someone was playing tinkly old-time jazz, on down to the bank of the wide river. Then I walked back to the hotel and that night I slept in the Rutland Hotel in the room next door to my grandparents’ dresser, and I was a child again.
People have asked if I was tempted to make an offer for it. If I did, it was a fleeting temptation. It looks very nice where it is.
On small planes
It’s the same again this weekend, wild weather,
rain and delays, and a long way south, suspension
on a cloud, books take you everywhere.
My epitaph may be that she was a small woman
who spent her days in small airports flying
on very small aeroplanes to middle-sized towns.