Pantograph Picks: Auckland Writers Festival 2015
Exceeding all expectations, the Auckland Writers Festival delivered a winning 2015 programme this week that showcases the best of contemporary literature, from children's books to science writing to poetry to the novel. We're excited, and here are our picks of the lot:
Gawande's bio tends to read as a little clinical, unsurprisingly. He's a surgeon, writer, public health researcher and Harvard professor, evidently highly skilled and extraordinarily accomplished. But reading his fourth and latest book, Being Mortal, is like being slapped in the face with your own impending death, page by page. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his work is meticulous and demanding; all-feeling and grounded in his wealth of deeply felt, deeply human experience as a surgeon. The finitude of gums, for instance, no matter how much one cares for one's teeth, is just one of many incredible images in this navigation of the end of life. His incredible knowledge and empathy will be something to behold in conversation, with Middlemore ICU specialist David Galler.
Anyone wanting to break the internet need only announce a visit from Japanese novelist Murakami. Post programme-launch, Auckland's Twittersphere went wild, and with good reason. Notoriously publicity-shy, this prolific and popular writer is coming exclusively to Auckland. His work is charming, surreal and highly readable, but I suspect it's the man that draws the most intrigue -- he recently announced an 'agony uncle' section on his website, in which he will answer questions of any ilk in a gesture that seems both sweet and fitting from an author so adept at examining the minutiae of the human experience, through a lens of the dreamlike and subtly strange. According to the Festival's director, there are people flying over the Tasman just to attend this event, and I'm not surprised. Prepare to be charmed.
Having built his career on award-winning performances in Hamlet, Cabaret and The Good Wife, Alan Cumming comes to the Festival to discuss his recent memoir, Not My Father's Son. Like the twin masks of theatre, the book intertwines a pair of recently excavated narratives: his time spent discovering the truth about his maternal grandfather on BBC's genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? and a more difficult, much more off-screen search in which he remembers his childhood, and the violence and fear and secrecy that defined it. "Do you know that game Two Truths and a Lie?" he asked in a recent interview with the New York Times. His are 'My grandfather died in Malaysia playing Russian roulette' and 'My father recently told me I wasn't his son'. He'll be speaking to Michael Hurst about these truths at the Festival, and without doubt it'll be a remarkable and revealing insight into the man.
Helen MacDonald is a startlingly brilliant writer of non-fiction. H is for Hawk is her latest work, and the winner of both the Costa Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It stars Mabel, a fierce flurry of a hawk she's trying to tame in the light of her father's sudden death. "The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent," she writes. "It was about to begin.”
There's always a slight fear that authors who sing on the page may fail to captivate in person, or that works as complete and profound as H is for Hawk will leave the author with nothing more to say on the subject, but this book is simply so good that the chance to hear the author say anything at all is too good to miss.
Carol Ann Duffy needs little by way of introduction. She's the kind of poet you would study at school because her work is accessible, funny, illuminating, challenging and easy to grasp. Her accolades are endless, but include being the first female poet laureate in the UK, in 2009. She says "I like to use simple words in a complicated way," which hopefully also speaks to her presence in person. She will be in conversation with John Campbell, whose interview style blends brilliantly with the Writers Festival atmosphere.
Duffy is a champion of language and literature. She's hugely influential in the world of letters, and simply not to be missed.
It started two years ago with a review of Janet Malcolm's Forty-One False Starts. In it, Metro editor Simon Wilson asked where our Janet Malcolms were. "Stop Tweeting," he urged our writers. "Do some work." People were outraged. They tweeted. They wrote blog posts, and editors Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew - in partial response to the provocation - produced a book celebrating the best of New Zealand's longform fiction. In a free session at the Festival, Simon Wilson, Jolisa Gracewood and Russell Brown will be discussing the place, the value, and the need for longform journalism. It's an exceptional line-up that promises a spirited conversation and - who knows - they may even tweet.
Best known for uncovering the News of the World hacking scandal, investigate journalist Nick Davies will be discussing his recent book Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch, which outlines the affair in meticulous, damning, depressing detail. He'll be discussing journalism, ethics, and malpractice with Toby Manhire, and it's sure to be one of the Festival's must-sees.
Lilting and graceful, Hollie Fullbrook's songs are steeped in adult yearning with a formal timelessness that recalls a yellowing 19th century novel. Hearing her speak is no exception: she's soft-spoken, thoughtful, and intelligent, and having recently returned from her world tour, she'll be discussing the craft of songwriting in a free session with Julie Hill.
There's a lot of joy in taking bookish kids to see their literary idols and the rather famous and totally bizarre David Walliams will be no exception. Walliams is the author of seven books for children, which have sold millions of copies and been translated into 40 languages. He's also the co-creator and star of Little Britain and a judge on Britain's Got Talent, which implies, if nothing else, that his stage presence is bound to be hilarious and commanding. This one's for the kids, but I imagine there will be a hefty adult contingent at the event, clutching Awful Auntie in the book signing queue and asking for the signature to be made out to a 'cousin.'
Critics have always occupied a contentious space in the cultural landscape. On a bad day (and on some good days), they're seen as a bunch of talentless bullies, fawning idiots, and disrespectful hacks. So what value do they have? Pantograph Punch editor Rosabel Tan (yes, hi) will be talking to International Shakespeare critic Peter Holland and NZ art critic Wystan Curnow about the role of the critic in the digital age, and what it means to write good criticism.