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Monday, May 14, 2012

Auckland Writers Festival Roundup


I arrived home late last night too exhausted to speak -- which says volumes about how intense and stimulating was my time at this, the biggest literary festival in New Zealand.

First, a huge bouquet to the organizers.  Anne O'Brien and Melanie Weeks were amazing.  I was kept up to date with arrangements right from the moment I agreed to participate, and nothing could be faulted from then on.  Electronic air tickets arrived early, along with notification of my accommodation (the particularly posh Langham Hotel), along with constantly updated schedules.  I was met at the airport, helped with luggage, carried to my hotel, checked in, and presented with all the paperwork.  Everything went as smoothly as magnificent organization could make it.  Personal thanks to Claire, Simon, and Maureen, plus quite a few nameless assistants, tech staff, and volunteers.

The Aotea Centre is a warren.  Behind the scattered theatres is an underground network of stairs, corridors, dressing rooms and offices.  Without a guide, it is impossible to find one's way around.  So double thanks to those volunteers.  And a brickbat to the architect.

So here is my personal round-up.


Paul is the author of New Zealand in the Twentieth Century, an anecdotal history of 100 years in this very young country's story.  I was the person who was interviewing him: the Chair. 

Luckily, Paul is kind, pleasant, urbane, has a great sense of humour -- and is unflappable.  First, I forgot to ask the audience to turn off their cellphones.  The session was punctuated with so many chimes I expected the audience to play musical chairs. 

Second, the stage was so low that when we sat in the armchairs provided, only those in the front row could see us.  Paul compensated by standing at the one and only lectern, which meant that I drifted around, occasionally settling on the arm of a chair. 

Throughout, Paul talked humorously and knowledgeably about his book, with some very moving anecdotes, while I asked questions from various places behind his back.  The audience found it immensely entertaining, judging by the good-humoured laughter.

Indeed, the audience (and the theatre was packed) was so amiable that I opened question time early, which meant that we had a full half-hour of very lively discussion.  Many of those there had read the book, and had related to it so intensely that they wanted to share this.  It was inspirational, and also a lot of fun.  I was most impressed by the way Paul Moon gave his full attention to each question, and answered each one fully and thoughtfully. 

To sum up, I made a mess of my job (and promise to do better next time), but somehow it succeeded - very well indeed.  The audience was disappointed when I firmly called a close, as they would have loved to keep up questions for at least another hour. 


This was held in the Upper NZI room, which has a higher stage, so the Chair and I were able to sit in armchairs and converse. (There were also big screens on either side of the stage, which showed us in close-up -- and a wonderful gadget on the floor that counted off the time, showed us how many minutes were left, and then a warning of time-up.)

The Chair was Rodney Wilson, once the director of the National Maritime Museum in Auckland, and an informed and extremely eloquent speaker.  He was the ideal Chair, introducing me in a quiet but clear, well modulated voice, and then asking the perfect questions.  It was hard not to stray onto esoteric topics like lunars, but the audience lapped up descriptions of Polynesian voyaging traditions, and my journeys of adventure in the search for Tupaia.

The session went like clockwork, and question time was interesting and thought-provoking.  A treat was a girl (a woman now) who told everyone that she had once been in my class, and that the classroom had always been full of books, and how I had encouraged them all to read -- she is now, she said, a librarian, and makes sure that the library has all my books, Wiki Coffin in particular.



The Orator is a New Zealand film that was made in Samoa -- the first full-length movie made in the Samoan language.  When it gets to your country be sure to see it.  One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, and a window into the Samoan way of life (fa'a Samoa) it is also a riot of laughs.  There is not terribly much dialogue, the camera doing much of the work, and the subtitles are excellent.

Well, I was keen to hear the writer/director of this lovely film, Tusi Tamasese -- and found that Tusi is not fond of speaking.  He is modest in the extreme.  The Chair, fellow film director, Sima Urale, compensated abundantly -- she was ebullient, vivacious, very candid about what it is like to be a young Samoan in a traditional society, and very, very funny.  She even got Tusi Tamasese to open up and tell us a few funny stories about filming in Samoa.  Can you imagine bringing a camera crew into a village where it is customary to pay to be allowed to film there -- and find that the camera crew that just left was filming Survivor?  Fast talk was necessary, as expectations had been raised too high, by far.

The star of the film is a dwarf.  Or maybe a midget.  A very short person.  Nowadays, if you are politically correct, you call him a Small Person.  Well, when Tusi wrote the script, he had a particular Small Person in mind, but when it came to filming, he wasn't available. So Tusi had to find another one.  He put an advertisement asking for Small Persons in the local paper. "Well," he said, "in Samoa, a six-foot man is considered small!"


Because I had to get to the green room, I could only stay for three-quarters of this terrific event, where Crime Watch blogger Craig Sisterson (link to his blog on the right) was the Chair.  His panel was Greg McGee (I've blogged a few times about McGee -- aka Alix Bosco -- as some may remember), Paul Thomas, and English crime writer Peter James.

I don't know who had more fun, the audience or the panel.  Craig is a terrific Chair, very relaxed, and yet in control.  Jokes were bandied about, and Rude Things said about literary writers who look down on mystery and thriller writing as "easy."  Nowadays, I learned, mortuaries and laboratories are requirements for mysteries (which puts Wiki Coffin in a bit of a fix), and the cult of the serial killer has turned into a big problem, because of the lack of character connect between criminal and detective -- or murderer and victim, for that matter.

Peter James, who works closely with police to get his procedurals right, was particularly funny.  He told one story about one of "his" policemen that I can't resist repeating.

Apparently a couple of coppers responded to a robbery, to find a fleeing trio, one of whom was armed with a machine pistol.  The trio split into three different directions, and the hero of the yarn found himself running after the armed man.  The pistol was fired wildly; the bullet hit the road and riccocheted into the poor policeman's leg.  He rolled around yelling in agony while the local citizens looked on, until rescued by an ambulance -- and eventually arrived back at the police station to find that a woman had registered a complaint. 

"I thought policemen should be an example, both in deportment and speech," she said. "But there is a policeman rolling around in our street, and his language is extremely foul."

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