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Monday, 22 May 2017

Ian Rankin at Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017


Ian Rankin has an enviable reputation as a bestselling writer.  Few can or have matched his game in the crime fiction scene, with his most famous character Rebus having become like some sort of tetchy Scottish uncle to many readers.  I have to admit to never having read any books with Rebus in them, and so I sloped into the Toitu Museum tonight hoping nobody would spot me as a traitorous (but nonetheless enthusiastic) attendee.

Rankin and partner-in-conversation Liam McIlvanney were a perfect match for this evening, with lilting Scottish accents and matching senses of humour.  Call me shallow, but I could happily have sat and listened to the two men chatting away as if natives in an Edinburgh pub, regardless of content.  But, of course, the content itself was also first-class.

The evening’s discussions centred around Detective Sergeant John Rebus as a character, and Edinburgh itself as exceptionally present in the books.  Even without a reader’s knowledge of these things, the insights Rankin offered on the writing of character, and the form of the crime novel itself, were engrossing.  He shared how his books started out quite large - nearly 600 pages - at the start of his career and how he is now trying to whittle them down to under 200 pages.  One could surmise that Rankin has the room to work more succinctly when a character such as Rebus is already so well-known to the reader.

Rankin divulged how difficult writing was at the start of his career, and how he was 10-15 books in before he experienced fame (and, one would assume, the subsequent fortune to be found by only a few) in the writing world.  He shared a particularly poignant story of the stress he felt as the main breadwinner of the family whilst living in France in the earlier days of his career.  The image of Rankin driving down a rural French road screaming and shouting to try and rid his body of the tension and adrenaline he was experiencing at the time is not one that sits naturally with such a self-assured and confident writer and speaker, but it is a good reminder of the humanity that is to be found in even the most famous of folk.

It seemed that there were many fans in the audience, as this was another sold out event for the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. Bravo!

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Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017: Word Balm, with Glenn Colquhoun, David Galler and Sue Wootton


It was a mild autumnal night as a nearly sold-out crowd of 100 or so ventured out to listen to three expert witnesses talk about ‘what literature can do for Medicine’. Glenn Colquhoun (above), David Galler and Sue Wootton all have experience in the worlds of medicine and words, and they were a thoughtful expert panel in consideration of this topic.

The three authors read from their work, with Colquhoun and Wootton sharing exquisite poetry that bridges what seems to be the divide between medicine and the arts, perhaps specifically the art of being human.  The final line of Colquhoun’s shared poem, written for a teenage client of his medical clinic, expressed with tenderness the remodeling or deconstruction that is perhaps needed when we think about illness and ill-health: ‘learn to love the broken bits’.

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Sue Wootton’s poem ‘Wild’ was a reminder of what is at the heart of our human being: Measure my wild. /Down to my last leaf,/my furled, my desiccated. This deciduousness,/this bloom …’ The sharing of this poem followed a discussion of the clinical nature (sometimes thankfully, sometimes awfully) of medicine and the medical tests and interventions that come from living in a bio-technological era.

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A lot of the discussion was centred around how to gain/regain human connection in the medical world.  At one stage this dialogue considered the role of touch in the professions, and how touch can be more than just the corporeal laying on of hands, although that, too, was discussed as sometimes fitting. Galler (above) shared his experience of having a serious accident, and the recognition from the staff upon being admitted to hospital. They wanted to talk; he needed the morphine.  To Galler, the sharing of this anecdote expressed the subtle and artistic evaluations medical practitioners need to make in the moments, and how crucial and important these are to a patient’s sense of humanity. The ‘touch’ here could be in assessing with compassion what is most needed in the moment.

Glenn Colquhoun’s metaphor further exploring this, in which he compared his role as doctor with that of a surfer catching waves, was perfect; if you wait too long or take off too soon, you miss the wave.  This, he said, is like the art of listening that occurs in the relationship with a patient; you need to feel out when it is time to talk and time to listen; when it’s time to move forward and to move back.  Here, the ‘touch’ is in the words, or their absence.

I left the discussion wishing, as Colquhoun also mentioned, that the medical world was not so separate from the human, everyday one we exist in. If, as he says, the ‘white walls and white sheets’ could be or become more integrated with our lived experience, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a scary and sometimes isolating place to inhabit, as we all inevitably do, either as patient or family member.

Event attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth on behalf of Booksellers NZ


Word Balm – An event at Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017
Featuring Glenn Colquhoun, Sue Wootton and David Gellar 

Programme for the DWRF, running from 9 – 14 May

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017: Jane Eyre: An Autobiography

This show will also appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival

Dunedin is incredibly lucky to have secured the latest Dyad Productions play Jane Eyre: An Autobiography for the Readers and Writers festival this year. The company first visited our southern shores during the last festival in 2015 with Dalloway, and this latest production is as stunning as the last. Rebecca Vaughan shows again that she has an alchemist’s touch on the stage. She inhabits a handful of characters from Jane Eyre and gives them life far beyond the original page. This show was an hour and a half long and not once did Vaughan drop a line or character.
 
Whilst there were many occasions to admire the ways characters were embodied by Vaughan, one of the most touching scenes was between Jane and Mr Rochester – Vaughan of course was playing a love scene, with all its nuances, essentially with herself, but it was so believable that members of the audience were in tears.  Let’s just pause for a moment and really think about that  – Vaughan created a climactic scene between two characters, playing both back and forth, and it was as if we were watching realist theatre. Outstanding stuff.

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Other highlights included the exquisite costuming and lighting design.  It’s a hard ask getting these things right when travelling a show – designs need to be roadworthy and easy to set up.  Vaughan’s grey Victorian costume looked deceptively plan from a distance, as was fitting for Jane Eyre’s time and place in society. But up close, the immaculate pleated details and tailored shapes were remarkable. In complement to the acting and costuming, lighting design utilised colour and silhouette to astonishing effect, with reds and oranges throwing puppeteering-like shadows on a plain white backdrop.

Bravo, Dyad Productions – you really deserved that standing ovation.  If you are in Dunedin this weekend, I plead with you to go and support this international theatre, not only for the sheer delight of experiencing something so good, but also to ensure their return once more to our fair city in the years to come.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth


You can catch Jane Eyre: An Autobiography on Sunday 14 May at 1pm, at the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin. And as stated above, Dyad will be talking Jane Eyre to the Auckland Writers Festival from Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 May. 

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017 Showcase Gala: Metamorphosis

Although I arrived 20 minutes into the ‘drink and nibbles’ introduction to this event, it was clear upon entering the beautiful Toitu Settlers Museum building that things were pumping. Gala Showcase: Metamorphosis was a sold out event, and the room was packed. When the call was made for the audience to take their seats, the attendees had to make their way from one end of the museum to the other – a canny move as this meant the best of the museum was showcased before the event had even started.

Kate De Goldi emceed this meditation on ‘metamorphosis’ and introduced each author before they responded to a selected book (or books) that embraced this concept. Whilst it was a treat to hear each author give mostly prepared talks on this topic, it was also an excellent ‘taster’ as all authors have further events this weekend.

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Ian Rankin (above) was the first to speak, and his thoughts centred around metamorphic considerations in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. He talked of how his books were influenced by this one, and shared anecdotes of macabre body snatchers and dichotomous laboratories in the times before bodies could be legally left to science.

Stella Duffy gave an impassioned speech about the power of words and the way they can change readers. She used the touchstones of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban and Janet Frame’s fiction to explore this concept in her own life. She particularly marveled at the way these texts created music for the reader through words alone – no mean feat.

John Lanchester was softly spoken but exceptionally articulate in explaining the effect the poetry collection Ariel by Sylvia Plath had on him as an 18 year old school leaver. He talked of the way Plath took seemingly nebulous emotions and feelings and nailed them to the page in astonishing ways. His explanation of the literal metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly was beautiful and a fitting metaphorical end to his talk.

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The story Hannah Kent (above, photo Lauren Banford) wove about her school exchange from South Australia to Iceland was atmospheric and gripping. She explained how she felt literature saved her life in the early days of that time, in the dark winter days next to an Icelandic fjord. She talked of how To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf opened up her understanding of what it means to be human, and how, ultimately, this is what people are searching for.

When Bill Manhire stepped up to the microphone few would have expected his choice – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – but his exceptional discussion of Blyton’s dreamlike sequences in this selection convinced many of the extraordinary value of transformation in children’s texts.

The night ended with Victor Rodger speaking to his experiences in mid-1980’s Christchurch as a closeted gay, half-Samoan teenager and the moment of reckoning and solace found in Another Country by James Baldwin, the gay, African-American author with anger in his veins. It was great to have Rodgers back in Dunedin, as he almost feels like ‘ours’, having been the Burns Fellow in 2016.
All of these showcased authors have events on this weekend, and, after seeing what was on show tonight, I highly recommend attending. I’m sure you will be in the hands of experts.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Events with Ian Rankin (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Stella Duffy  (also at WORD Christchurch and Auckland Writers Festivals)
Events with John Lanchester (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Hannah Kent
Events with Bill Manhire (also at Auckland Writers Festival)
Events with Victor Rodger
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Emily Writes, Photograph © Chris Tse


Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017: Mothers Day Brunch with Emily Writes

When I say Emily Writes’ name, I feel like I am making a statement. I know it’s a nom de plume, but nevertheless, saying it aloud makes me smile. Emily Writes. Noun and verb. Yes, she does, I think to myself. And, boy, the stuff she writes is such valuable stuff! If we want a truly functioning society for our kids and families, people everywhere should be reading what she is putting down.


When I first read Emily I was impressed by her guts and sense of humour. It was the now-infamous SkarsgÄrd piece; my actual best friend shared it with me. Years of True Blood had us already in the zone, but Emily actually put it on the page. Upon reading more of her work, I loved what she was saying about parenting and motherhood; she was the real deal.

This Mothers Day brunch was a different format for the Festival: the venue was the lovely Scenic Circle Southern Cross, and the brunch itself was a seated, semi-formal event. The food was divine – bircher muesli, white raspberry brownies and platters of melon – but the real highlight was Emily. I don’t think Emily knows how fabulous Emily is. She is the woman you meet and instantly wish was your best friend: she’s down to earth, swears like a trouper but in the most appropriate places, and battles fiercely on your behalf. Please be my best friend, Emily! I thought to myself after she opened her mouth and the gold flowed.

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Hearing her speak today was just like reading her writing. Humour, honesty and absolute compassion for women and their families is what seems to drive Emily. Her opening story was an off-the-cuff description of going out the night before and drinking quite a bit of wine at dinner with Jesse Mulligan. Her self-deprecating style when sharing the shenanigans of the previous evening, and her, ahem, ‘womanly’ admiration of Mulligan had the audience pretty much crippled with laughter.
Later, and on a more serious note, Emily talked about the unreal pressures women (and women as mothers, in particular) are under, and how she hoped her writing helps address these things. She pointed out that the normalisation of taboo topics like prenatal and postnatal depression would be a really positive thing, and would mean fewer mothers were lost to families.

I think what is so attractive about Emily Writes is that she doesn’t know how amazing she is. She sees herself as a regular mum – a self-declared bogan – who is parenting children and who happens to also write. It’s this ‘normal’ vision of self that has perhaps made her so attractive to the general population in New Zealand; she’s one of us, but she’s also giving voice to us from the inside out, and it’s a voice that is usually silent. If you haven’t read her book Rants in the Dark, go out right now and get it. You’ll be so happy you did.

Attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth
Rants in the Dark
by Emily Writes
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143770183

Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017: Hannah Kent with Majella Cullinane

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

 Book Review: The March of the Foxgloves, by Karyn Hay
 
The March of the Foxgloves is a carefully crafted work set in the late 1800’s, mostly in New Zealand but also with some key scenes ‘back home’ in England, following protagonist Frances Woodward. We follow Frances’ footsteps as she escapes a restrictive and troubled existence for the chance to start afresh in the antipodes. Frances is a keen and technically savvy photographer – an enjoyable aspect of this text – and Hay has satisfyingly researched and written an authentic artistic voice with the internal dialogue and third person understandings of Frances’ art.

Karyn Hay has an excellent ear for dialogue. Her characters’ interactions are clear, crisp and believable. When main character Frances talks to the children of her hosts at Dunleary in Tauranga, Hay creates convincing and sometimes madly humorous conversations. She obviously has children of her own and one can assume that she has partaken in many such maddening back-and-forths. After taking a photograph, agreed on by both adult and child, one interaction goes like this:

cv_the_march_of_the_foxgloves“What shall we call it?”
“What shall we call what?”
“The photograph.”
“What photograph?”
“The photograph I’ve just taken.”
“Can I see it?” Tussie asked eagerly, running towards her.
This Monty Python-esque exchange between the Frances and Tussie suggests that maddening conversations with the young are not, at least in Hay’s mind, restricted to the 21st Century. In fact, the dialogue presented around the children is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Hay’s novel.

A lot of the book moves at slow pace. The plot seems incidental to the finely crafted characterisations and moments – almost vignettes – which are accurately and deliberately described. Minor character Wolf’s descent into the opium den (‘ … behind their eyelids all vision was purely chimerical.’) and Marshall Harding’s feelings for love-sick hostess Hope and his fiancee Callista (‘Her aperture was more compelling than a plate of mutton stew to a sailor.’) are well-crafted moments, but the rhythm of these anecdotes moves the story with unusual rhythm. By the end of the book, though, I hardly cared: the final sections make up in pace and structure for the slow build, as Frances becomes a true heroine and seemingly random moments are shown to be anything but trivial.

There is no doubt that Karyn Hay can write very well. I’m looking forward to seeing what she puts her finely-honed ear to next.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth
The March of the Foxgloves
by Karyn Hay
Published by Esom House Press
ISBN 9780473365820