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

BooksNovember 15, 2023

‘Mary Beard Wikipedia’d the plot to Medea’: Lyndsey Fineran’s best author encounters

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

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: Lyndsey Fineran, artistic director of Auckland Writers Festival.

The book I wish I’d written

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. The strange, labyrinthine world she builds – at once otherworldly, and also very real – is something else. It was the last thing I read in the bizarre year of 2020, when I was feeling completely spent and not up for using my brain for anything beyond Netflix. It completely fired me back up and made me fall back in love with fiction, creativity… everything. I wish I had as big a brain as Susanna Clarke clearly does, but I’ll very happily settle for wandering the strange halls she creates.

Everyone should read

Whatever they want! The idea of people feeling guilty about their TBR piles, or bad about not having read X or Y yet makes me feel cross. Life has so many demands, structures and “shoulds”; reading is a space to delightfully ignore all that. Rebellious curiosity for the win.

Favourite encounter with an author

Festival life throws up many of these! Seeing Martin Amis and Richard Ford leave joke gifts for each other with the hotel concierge in what appeared to be a long-running bit between them. Watching Hilary Mantel walk into the Green Room and exclaim “My two Henrys are here!” upon seeing Damian Lewis and Nathaniel Parker in the same room. Seeing Mary Beard Wikipedia-ing the plot to Medea moments before going into an on-stage debate about it (if Mary Beard has to do it, it should make us all feel better). Hearing Toni Morrison speak live on the day Maya Angelou passed and offering the most beautiful tribute. Spending an afternoon with the late travel writer Jan Morris in her home in Wales packed with a life-worth of books and travel mementoes. I could be here for a while…

The book I want to be buried with

To be honest, I’m more likely to be buried by books, which anyone who has witnessed how I organise my desk or hard surfaces in my home can attest to … but when I think seriously of books I’d like to be with at the end, it would probably be a big anthology of travel and memoir writing by brave and creative minds I admire.

I know that’s somewhat of a cop-out of an answer but what I particularly loved about that afternoon with Jan Morris was seeing her content at home after a life rich with experiences, travels and words. I think returning to a nest and being happy in an armchair reading of others’ adventures while happily tired and content from your own would be a nice way to wrap things up.

From left to right: The book Lyndsey Fineran wishes she’d written; the book that made her laugh; and the book that made her cry.

The book that made me laugh

Percival Everett’s The Trees. At once a completely unflinching look at some of humanity’s darkest parts, and one of the funniest books I read in years. The New York Times review summed it up well when it said you: “cover a laughing mouth with one hand and stifle a gasp with the other”. I remember that very physical, visceral reading experience and the constant push / pull between two very different states and reactions. It all adds to the squirm Everett knows he’s putting his reader through. It’s such a skill.

The book that I pretend to have read

Pride and Prejudice, because people get mad when I mention I have never made it through it. I know there is more at play in it, I just can’t make myself care about books where one of the main plot drivers is whether people will get married. Don’t come at me.

The book that haunts me

I love dark reads. Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream, Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire, Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings, Markus Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, most things by Cormac McCarthy, some Stephen King all are favourites. But one line that particularly spooked me is actually from To Kill a Mockingbird, when the kids stumble in Boo Radley’s yard and you get the line “Someone in the house was laughing…” It’s not a scary read, but that one line genuinely still gives me a shiver whenever I think about it.

Best food memory from a book

I love reading about food in books – various moments in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife have stuck in my brain, and Bryan Washington and Caleb Azumah Nelson are both so brilliant at capturing food in fiction. But I think childhood reads have the edge here in terms of strength of memory. The BFG with its snozzcumbers and frobscottle springs to mind, and I don’t know many people, regardless of their age, who wouldn’t turn down a go at a Harry Potter Great Hall feast.

From left to right: the book Lyndsey Fineran pretends to have read; one of the books that haunts her; one of the books with a strong food memory.

The book that made me cry

I’m not a big crier at books, but I felt very emotionally invested in Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. The extreme ups and downs of Demon’s story, of course, but also Kingsolver’s controlled fury about the ravages of the opioid crisis on her Appalachian community, and the truly evil behaviour of Big Pharma in the name of profits. Demon’s story could have felt exploitative in the hands of someone else but Kingsolver’s deep knowledge and empathy with her community, paired with her sadness and fury at the utter waste of life at the hands of these big corporations is all there in among the affecting twists of turns of the bildungsroman.

The best thing about reading

So many: being able to indulge your curiosity, getting to live endless lives in one, getting moments of stillness in a busy life. And as a woman, getting to do something solo and that’s completely for you – that still feels somewhat radical to me.

But the thing I always come back to is discovery. You genuinely never know where that next read might take you, what thought or memory it might trigger, new perspective it prompts you to consider, what it might lead you to read or talk to someone about next, or where it might physically take you. I’m quite the extreme example of that (books brought me literally to the other side of the world), but regardless of the scale, giving yourself over to the journey / the ride of it all holds real magic. (Please know how much it pained me to write ‘journey’ there, but it is one).

It also why I love the book festival world so much: you can see much of these discoveries, these ripples happening in real time. That’s magical.

The best place to read

I moved into my own place for the first time in my late 20s after many years of group and joint living, and getting uninterrupted hours in a big armchair or reading in the bath until the water ran cold was total bliss. Regardless of life’s next chapters, I’ll always hold that period of fierce independence and happy solitude very fondly in my mind.

I spent a weekend on Great Barrier Island recently, and got to read in a hammock under the stars. That was pretty great too.

What are you reading right now?

So many great things. Bird Life by Anna Smaill, The Bone Tree by Airana Ngarewa, Better the Blood by Michael Bennett, an excellent memoir Do You Still Have Time for Chaos by Lynn Davidson, Tusiata Avia’s new poetry collection Big Fat Brown Bitch and Lauren Groff’s The Vaster Wilds. And like many women of my generation, I’m listening to the audiobook of Britney Spears’ memoir The Woman in Me. We knew the 90s weren’t a great time for women but ooof…

The next Auckland Writers Festival | Waituhi o Tāmaki will take place over 14 – 19 May, 2024.

Keep going!