Our house is occupied by books. They stand to attention on shelves and bookcases while reinforcements tower and list in piles on floor and side tables. Once while learning to walk, our middle son was trapped for some minutes under a motherlode of books he tipped from a nightstand. Books come to us as presents, via recommendation, in travelling, by inheritance, from the library, under cover of darkness, by gift, by loan and in error.
Although my husband and I both adore books, they are almost never the same books. A Venn diagram showing the overlap between our collections, would form the smallest conceivable wedge, graced only by Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita and a copy of A Suitable Boy I gave him before I came to know better.
Further investigation reveals that while his side is almost entirely history and non-fiction, mine is exclusively fiction with a little domestic how-to thrown in, around garden and craft. Once I might have felt a little apologetic about the sheer gender based cliché of this. Should I not be more interested in the bigger issues? I could argue for the finding of truth in fiction and that the smaller issues are, in reality, the big ones. But in truth, for me one of the advantages of growing up is the ability to drop the ‘ought to’ from your precious free time and focus on what you really love.
And as it happened, our Jack Spratt style literary taste division worked a treat for us at our favourite event of the year, the thoughtfully curated Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.
Highly synchronised tag-team parenting allowed me a wonderfully childfree chance to hear the irrepressible Glaswegian poet and novelist, Jackie Kay. The opportunity to sit and bask in poetry and emotion for a few quiet moments is a very rare kind of bliss. Thankfully there were also others in the audience simultaneously laughing and wiping their eyes. Jackie is remarkable for her humour, her humanity and her beautiful and deceptively simple use of language. As I sat there a poem sprang unbidden, almost fully formed to mind, for the first time in years. What a gift.
At the end of the session, I raced whippet-like up the stairs to take the children so my history buff could grill historian Max Hastings on whether he felt the Japanese withdrawal from World War Two was due primarily to the bombing of Hiroshima or the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, (the latter apparently).
Rather thrillingly, when asked about UK spin doctor Alistair Campbell and their famous Youtube disagreement Max Hastings replied robustly “I don’t pretend to hate Alistair Campbell, I do hate him.”
Kate Atkinson, author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum and lately, Life After Life is so beloved she filled the entire main Auditorium of the Aotea Centre. So some 2000 of us leaned forward in our seats, to hear the pearls of wisdom drop from the tongue of the woman who invented policeman turned private investigator Jackson Brodie. Often witty, and somehow steely, she embodied the cool articulate Englishwoman. Much of the discussion was given to subtle indications of class, in a way which felt quite obscure, even alienating to this New Zealander. I was left feeling that I had heard from somebody of a fierce and focused intelligence, with charm but also something of an edge and perhaps someone I wouldn’t care to fall out with.
Cricket obsessive Gideon Haigh came to tout his massive doorstop history of The office with enormous humour and intelligence but he was at his most compelling during his seven minute slot during the gala evening where he was one of eight writers chosen to tell a true personal story on the theme of ‘an open book’. He told the story of the last of the backstreet abortionists in Melbourne in the fifties, a man so chilling and controlling that his daughter did not want her story told, even forty years after the last time she had seen him.
General slackness (failing to book a ticket) meant I missed Rosemary McLeod’s session on domestic embroidery. However such is the joy of the festival that I was able to buy a ticket to another session on the spot and feel as if I may have ended up in the right place after all. Scarlett Thomas, author of ‘The End of Mr Y’, offered much practical advice, advising writers to begin their character development by identifying their overwhelming need and central motivation in life.
If any clear theme emerged from this happy conversation cloud, for me it was the elusive concept of ‘voice’, that unique and distinctive character in an individual’s writing. Kate Atkinson initially rubbished the idea of voice as ‘just something people say’ until she suddenly found herself writing in a certain way and realized she had found it. Certainly writers such as Jackie Kay have a clear and unmistakeable authenticity which comes through in their writing. They don’t sound like they are trying to be anything or anybody else. Now that’s inspiring.
Last year I attended the festival for the first time and attended three sessions. I came away buzzing with new thoughts and inspiration. This year I attended six sessions and came home with an unexpected poem which passed the overnight test, and a creative spurring-on. Next year, I may just have to take my sleeping bag.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world.