Just some of the many writers in Auckland Writers Festival 2024. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Just some of the many writers in Auckland Writers Festival 2024. (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksMarch 15, 2024

The Auckland Writers Festival 2024 lineup is here, and it’s a belter

Just some of the many writers in Auckland Writers Festival 2024. (Image: Tina Tiller)
Just some of the many writers in Auckland Writers Festival 2024. (Image: Tina Tiller)

An armful of recommendations from the jam-packed programme that landed this week.

Of the (many) writers festivals in New Zealand, the Auckland Writers Festival is the mothership. Purely talking in terms of scale it outweighs the rest through sheer volume and market share of audience. The 2024 edition of the festival will see 200 events with over 40 international writers and 180 New Zealand authors between Tuesday 14 and Sunday 19 May.

A scan of social media reveals that reactions to the programme announcement verge on the ecstatic. The festival hasn’t been this star-studded since before Covid upended international travel and sparked a tidal wave of rising costs (travel, accommodation and production costs have burst pre-Covid budgets, while funding opportunities are on the decline). This year’s line-up has the bookish folk of Aotearoa nabbing flights and feverishly budgeting just how many events they can afford to go to and how many books they’ll be able to buy to get that author signature at the end of what I predict will be really long signing queues.

But why? What makes a writers festival announcement so giddying? As a long-time festival addict I’ve come to the simple conclusion that a festival is a natural trip. There is nothing like the high of being among strangers gathered en masse for the purpose of listening to conversation which is, unlike much of the rest of the performing arts, unscripted and unpredictable. Also, and bluntly, famous authors are celebrities in the same way that actors and musicians are. We love what they have to offer and we want to get close to that. The good-feelings hormones thrive in such environments: festivals are a giant petri dish of enthused connections. 

This is not to say that writers festivals are all great vibes. It is a truth not universally acknowledged that writers festivals can, at times, be uncomfortable places at best and traumatic at worst (as described here, and here, and here). Auckland Writers Festival as one of the biggest and longest-running is not immune and has received its fair share of fair criticisms. 

Lyndsey Fineran, the new director of The Auckland Writers Festival (Image: Archi Banal)

New Auckland Writers Festival director Lyndsey Fineran moved to Aotearoa at the end of last year from the UK, where she was the mastermind behind many of the (gargantuan) Cheltenham Literature Festival’s most ambitious and innovative programmes that shook up old models and connected literatures of the world in fresh ways. Every festival is a challenge (to state it mildly), but I suspect that moving countries to immerse in what is a very different environment must be a particularly relentless exercise in deep thinking, deep reading, self-education, networking and keeping one’s chin up amid one hell of a workload.

Fineran’s first AWF programme, created with frankly not a lot of time to even truly land here, affirms she was a brilliant choice of artistic director for our biggest lit fest and its big, international mandate. The events are thoughtful, beautifully crafted, and most importantly, they speak to much of the spectrum of the vast and twisty world that is the literary realm. International and local writers are woven together in fun and interesting panels and pairings that will no doubt ignite ongoing bookish friendships. In Fineran’s own words this year’s programme is: “Ambitious, interrogating, dynamic and fun and I can’t wait for it to all come to life in May. Whether it’s your 20th AWF, or your very first, there will be something for you and we can’t wait to have you part of it”.

Here are our top ten picks from the Auckland Writers Festival 2024 (an impossible task with such riches on offer so I’ve cheated and I’m not sorry):

Ann Patchett

The writer’s writer, the reader’s reader, the bookseller’s bookseller. Probably the author I’ve seen the most hype about on bookish socials. Patchett is the author of such prismatic, brilliant novels as Bel Canto, The Dutch House and the latest, Tom Lake. In Auckland she’ll be in conversation with the luminous Meg Mason (if you follow Patchett’s bookshop Parnasuss Books on Instagram, you’ll know that Patchet and Mason are fans of each other); and will be talking with The Spinoff’s own Anna Rawhiti-Connell alongside our own legendary Patricia Grace and little known author of a little-known book called Lessons in Chemistry (joking, obviously – see below). 

Bonnie Garmus

One of the books that did not leave the bestsellers charts for months and months and months was Lessons in Chemistry. It has sold over six million copies. And it’s Garmus’s first book. Already, what a story. Garmus will be talking with the always-excellent Michèle A’Court about her success; and see above for the ridiculously great panel.

Ann Patchett (left); and Bonnie Garmus (right). (Photos: Supplied)

Vient Thanh Nyugen

A powerhouse of literature, Nyugen is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of novels such as The Sympathiser, The Committed, and his latest, A Man of Two Faces, a memoir that describes his arrival to America as a refugee. This is Nyugen’s first appearance in Aotearoa and he’ll be talking with Rosabel Tan (the visionary behind Satellites) about writing stories that have an immense impact on people and politics. Nyugen is also in another top pick, Pulp Friction: The Rise of Book Bans which features Lauren Groff (more below), Shubigi Rao (whose work looks absolutely fascinating) and Adam Dudding as host. This panel may hit closer to home than we might like to think – the Act Party’s vendetta against poet Tusiata Avia (also in the programme in a prime spot on the Friday night) slides uncomfortably close to a desire to suppress essential voices. 

Lauren Groff

Fans of nun-lit unite! Groff’s novel Matrix, about a 12th Century Abbess, was a huge hit in Aotearoa. Her latest book, The Vaster Wilds, is just as immersive and thrilling and focussed on the (grueling yet spiked with the idea of the divine) life of a woman alone in the wilderness. Her earlier books include the novel Fates & Furies, and short story collection, Florida: both dazzling. Obama is a fan. She’s also opened a bookshop called The Lynx. Groff is in three events: one focussed on The Vaster Wilds (with me); the panel on book bans above; and another stunning looking session on the short story with the one and only Patricia Grace (whose latest book is reviewed here) and Emma Hislop, hosted by the one and only Airini Beautrais.

Irish writers and literary Ireland 

Booker Prize winner Paul Lynch is coming! This appearance continues a long tradition of Auckland Writers Festival scooping the winner each year. But the author of The Prophet Song isn’t the only Irish author long-hauling it over to us. We also get to hear from Sinéad Gleeson, whose novel Hagstone is one of the most anticipated of the year, and whose collection of essays Constellations is one I press on everyone I know. Gleeson came to Verb Readers & Writers Festival a few years ago and won an instant and ardent fanbase. She is a brilliant speaker, a font of bookish knowledge, and superb writer. Fineran is putting her to excellent use with four events: a piece a programming genius putting Gleeson with Becky Manawatu (where Manawatu will discuss her long-awaited sequel to Auē); a session on Irish literature at large with Paul Lynch, Noelle McCarthy and hosted by the excellent Kiran Dass; a masterclass on the personal essay; and another event on reading… see the next entry.

Booker Prize winner Paul Lynch (left); and one of Obama’s favourite writers, Lauren Groff (right). (Photos: Supplied)

Book club events

Hurray for sessions about reading! These are often my stealth favourites at writers festivals: when you get recommendations and can bliss out on the potential of the books in your future. Sinéad Gleeson is doing a book club session on Irish literature; and then there’s this one on recommendations from Latin American with all-round living library Daniel Hahn; and Toshikazu Kawaguchi (author of smash hit Before the Coffee Gets Cold) recommends books from Japan.

Reunited: Jerry Pinto and Pip Adam

It’s the connections made between writers at festivals that are at the heart of this business for me. I love that this session will illuminate this special sidebar of festival-making. In fact one of my biggest anxieties about the future of festivals is that the climate crisis will severely curb IRL international connections; particularly for us who are geographically far flung from the more populated markets. Anyway, that’s a story/session for another day. Jerry and Pip met in Mumbai for the Tata Literature Live! Festival and have been firm friends ever since. Pinto is a prolific writer of novels, poetry and translations and Adam is of course one of our most innovative novelists who is currently up for the fiction prize in the Ockhams (winners are announced in a flash ceremony at the festival, too). 

Kua tū ake te reange kōhanga reo: the kōhanga reo generation is here

Another inspired piece of programming bringing the hope and the fire of MP Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Porou, Te Atiawa, Ngāi Tahu) together with actor Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Ngāti Porou, Ngāi Tūhoe) and activist and redactor of Te Papa’s te reo Pākehā version of Te Tiriti, Te Wehi Ratana (Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao, Te Roro o Te Rangi), and host Moeawa Tamanui- Fransen (Te Aitanga a Māhaki, Ngā Ariki Kaipūtahi, Ngāti Manu) to talk about how the kōhanga reo is challenging Aotearoa to be better, more ambitious and caring for all of our people and our places. 

Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke (Photo: Supplied; additional design by Tina Tiller)

Dance like the Atua (and the other amazing events for young people)

The events for families, programmed by Gabrielle Vincent, are riotously good! They’re fun, they mix media, they bring together some of the best storytellers for kids around. I was particularly struck by Dance like the Atua where members of Atamira Dance Company will teach divine moves inspired by Gavin Bishop’s award-winning book, Atua. I love the staged reading of Bad Jelly the Witch (with Kiri and Lou’s Liv Tennet!); and the Pip and Pou and the Forgotten Stream walking adventure. 

Fantasy and Romantasy Unwrapped

We are, fortunately, living in a time when romantasy rules. We’ve got a very healthy scene here at home and one of our greatest romantasists, Nalini Singh, will be joining superstar Samantha Shannon (The Priory of the Orange Tree) to discuss the genre with Sonya Wilson (author of Spark Hunter). I predict the signing queue for this event will be long and loving.

Look, that’s barely scraping the surface. I haven’t even mentioned Gone by Lunchtime, Live! Or Alice Snedden hosting an event on the merits (or not) of the OE with poet laureate and The Spinoff poetry editor Chris Tse, with Jan Kemp and James Wenley; or the event called Beef: Writing Asian Female Rage with Nahyeon Lee, Celeste Ng (!!), Amanda Chong and recent Prime Minster’s Award for Achievement in Literature recipient, the brilliant Lee Murray. Or the waiata singalong with Troy Kingi! Phew. See you in May!

The full programme is online at the Auckland Writers Festival website here. Tickets are on sale from 9am, Friday 15 March.

Keep going!