Spinoff Review of Books literary editor Steve Braunias reports from the Christchurch WORD literary festival.
Everyone who is anyone in New Zealand literature was at the Christchurch WORD festival this weekend, apart from Eleanor Catton, CK Stead, Fiona Kidman, Witi Ihimaera, Kelly Ana Morey, Max Harris, Jess Berentson-Shaw, Damien Wilkins, Linda Burgess, Vincent O’Sullivan, Emily Perkins, Brian Turner, and Katherine Mansfield, but everyone else was there. Of course festival director Rachael King was there. She was regal and serene. Some authors kissed her hand, others curtsied. Tom Scott was there, snivelling with a cold. Jarrod Gilbert was there, clinging to a trolley of booze. Stacy Gregg was there. Is she the most popular and most loved writer in New Zealand, or what? The author of middle grade (8-12 years old) horse-riding novels gave a book signing for mums with their adorable daughters who queued down the hallway and around the corner to another hallway and around the corner and down the stairs to a basement where the last queuing mother and her adorable daughter stoically waited it out with sleeping bags and a primus stove.
I was there. I had a great time. I rate the WORD festival very highly. One, Rachael King knows how to create a fun, surprising, and wildly interesting programme. Two, the support staff are quick to help and always have a smile on their dial. Three, Christchurch. It’s like no other city in the world right now. “It’s like London in 1946,” said Philip Matthews, at a festival session where he nimbly chaired author Diana Wichtel. Christchurch, the city that was bombed from beneath the ground. But the rebuild is looking great. Christchurch gets newer every day. Its familiar Victorian sentiments – the dainty bridges with their languorous arches (gently flows the Avon), the view across the horse-and-carriage plains to the powdered Alps – are still present. The old, the new, the vanished, the remade; it’s a very good setting for an event dedicated to literature.
Most of the authors were put up at the downtown Crowne Plaza Hotel, and most of the events were held at the nearby Piano Centre for Music and Arts. Both venues had the most crucial facility at any writers festival – a bar – which meant that authors and people in the audience were able to mix and mingle, and come and go, to and fro, in a happy haze of Pinot Noir and Cointreau. By the Sunday morning, we were all one big happy family nursing a hangover.
“There’s Giovanni Tiso,” said an author. “He blocked me on Twitter,” said an audience member. “Me too,” said the author. “But then he unblocked me,” said the audience member. “Yeah,” said the author, “me too.”
I mistook publisher Kevin Chapman for crime writer Paul Cleave, who was elsewhere in the bar, telling anyone who came within earshot that he has thrown a frisbee in 32 countries and is desperate to throw one in India, where he’s appearing at a literary festival later this month. Paula Morris told funny stories about how she’s often mistaken for Charlotte Grimshaw; an audience member came over and said how much she enjoyed the time Paula spoke at a Canterbury University class as a guest of lecturer Patrick Evans, but it turned out she had mistaken Paula for Rachael King.
I overheard bitter talk about advances and royalties and sales. I overheard excited talk about the manuscript by Shayne Carter. He’s written a memoir of his life and rock star times, and it’s funny AF, harrowing, brilliant. I’ve read it – I serve as Shayne’s spiritual and literary advisor – and various publishers have read it. They were bidding for it in the past fortnight. He made up his mind on Saturday. I met one quite elated publisher and one quite deflated publisher.
There were international authors. Scottish writer Robin Robertson, longlisted for this year’s Man Booker award, had skin of deep mahogany. I said, “Is that a suntan, or the briny leather of an old seadog?” He gave an answer in fluent Scots. I’ve no fookin’ idea what he was saying. I met an American writer who wore black patent leather loafers and no socks. His handshake was a journey: he went in good and firm, then relaxed it, then came back with another, final surge. I said, “What kind of books do you write, mate?”
“My novel The Woman in the Window,” said Dan Mallory, who goes by the pen name of AJ Finn, “is the biggest-selling book in the world in 2018.”
Helen Clark was there, and said at her sold-out event: “It’s not a glass ceiling – it’s just a thick layer of men.” Lizzie Marvelly was there, Hera Lindsay Bird was there, Selina Tusitala Marsh was there. I had spies there, a reader up from Timaru and a reader down from Nelson, emailing reports until I arrived on Saturday. Timaru: “John Campbell went on and on and on at opening night like a droning wind tunnel and barely allowed the writers to speak.” Nelson: “I saw a small figure smoking in the grey sleety street on Friday – Kim Hill – she seemed a small waif or tiny thug – poignant and sort of a rebel with her fag, also possibly bad, like an elf.”
I ran into Sam Scott in an elevator. I ran into Tayi Tibble, who ran off, in a fragrant puff of Christian Dior. I ran into Ruth Dyson, and said, “Ruth Dyson! You used to be in the government when Helen Clark was Prime Minister.” She said, “I’m still in government.” Who knew?
I saw Irvine Welsh. He was on a screen. The author of Trainspotting and other books not as popular as Trainspotting was scheduled to appear at WORD, but cancelled due to a death in the family; instead, he sent in a film of himself telling a story to camera. He spoke in fluent Scots. I made out two words. One was “cunt” and the other was “underpants”.
This was at an event called Mortification, where I was among a line-up of five writers (Welsh, Paula Morris, Megan Dunn, Jarrod Gilbert) who told true stories of shame and humiliation. It was chaired by Robin Robertson, who wrote the book on shame and humiliation – to be precise, he edited Mortification, an anthology of very British writers telling stories of minor shames and tolerable humiliations. I wrote my story in my head when walking along the street one day about three or four months ago. It was an accurate account of something that I experienced in Wellington. It was a comedy masterpiece but I promptly forgot every word of it, suggesting it wasn’t funny in the slightest. I sat down at home and wrote about the Wellington experience on Friday night, this time composing something slow, detailed, wistful, loosely based on real events. Most writing is an opportunity to imagine, to make things up; the WORD Festival was an opportunity to take it from the page to the stage, and share it with writers and with readers in a bombed, gleaming city that constantly reimagines itself.
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