Steve Braunias reports on a sort-of massively successful festival

UPDATE: The original version of this story reported that Stephanie Johnson said in her address that New Zealand literature had already achieved diversity “with bells on”. She has approached Newsroom to point out her remark was in fact made as a prediction that this desired state of affairs would one day come to pass “with bells on”. We apologise for the error.

It was packed, it was fun, there were fights, there were tears,  and right this very second poor old Neil Gaiman probably remains trapped in the Aotea Centre signing books for a queue that will never, ever diminish – the Auckland Writers Festival, staged in warm autumn sunshine these past five days, wrapped up on Sunday night and must be considered a resounding flat-out success sort of.

It was a festival without writers arriving from outside fortress New Zealand. Apart from those video linked, it was all our own work. Attendance figures were about 60,000 – down on the previous festival, in 2019, which filled 82,000 seats. But there was no sign or feeling of absence at the busy, happy, thronging Aotea Centre; in the rooms, crowds of men and women came and went, wanting to see Charlotte Grimshaw, Alan Duff, and Albert Wendt.

It was a festival which looked after its writers. It paid a handsome fee of $365. Authors from out of town were put up at the Sky casino hotel, where even the adult channel had a literary twist: the synopsis for Intimate Strangers read, “Susan Grayle has just penned her newest romance novel. It should be a big hit. After all, her characters always seem so real. Especially when one of her characters comes through her door, and f***s her brains out.” Good plot!

The festival began on Wednesday night with the Ockham New Zealand national book awards. Jack Tame was MC and his various addresses added up to around oh say 40,000 words. One more speech and he’ll have a manuscript. “Human behaviour…What is most important in our lives…Story telling…The world around us”, etc. A rubber plant on the stage wilted, and lolled out its tongue; the awards took an hour longer than anticipated. At least Jacinda Ardern was brief. “The critical role that literature plays…The limitless joy of words…I don’t find a lot of time to read.”

I sat behind a row of the four writers – Airini Beautrais, Catherine Chidgey, Pip Adam and Brannavan Gnanalingam – competing for the $57,000 fiction prize. How they sagged, wilting like rubber plants, forced to wait to the end of the night to find out which of them would win. Still, there were some good distractions from their torture. Tusiata Avia put on a tremendously mocking performance when she read her tremendously mocking poem about James Cook (“Hey James, you in the white wig…BITCH”) and Vincent O’Sullivan gave a masterful reading from his biography of Ralph Hotere. Both writers won their category and Monique Fiso won the prize for best book of illustrated non-fiction. (Which reminds me, the winner of last week’s ReadingRoom giveaway book contest, billed as the greatest of all times, was Marina Lathouraki  of Petone. She wins all 16 books shortlisted for the Ockhams.)

Airini Beautrais won the fiction prize for her collection of short stories, Bug Week. Hardly anyone expected her to win it, least of all the author, who took the stage in a daze and conceded she hadn’t prepared a speech, but in fact showed wonderful poise and shared a beautiful story about her nine-year-old son saying to her earlier that day, “Mama, if I was there with you tonight, I’d give you a basket of all the things you love.” Aw! Good kid!

There were drinks afterwards but unfortunately there were also speeches, many speeches. The least coherent was given by arts administrator Peter Biggsy. “Words,” claimed Biggsy, “make us apex predators.”

And then a fight broke out, and a memoirist informed a fiction judge: “You’re a cock.”

There was a party afterwards, and the gold medal for smoking and drinking and having a good time till all hours went to Penguin publisher Claire Murdoch. Certainly she had cause to celebrate. Penguin published two of the Ockham award-winning books – the biography of Hotere, and Fiso’s Hiakai: Modern Māori Cuisine – and both were works of art.

The festival proper began the following day. I went to see Stephanie Johnson give an address on the state of New Zealand literature. She said it was in a very fine state. She also made several predictions: more books in te reo, another New Zealand writer would win the Booker, and “the urge for diversity will fade because we will have arrived there, with bells on.”

There was a party afterwards, and the gold medal for having a good time till all hours went to Penguin publishing executive Rachel Eadie, confirming that Penguin is the most fun publisher in New Zealand.

For the next three days, Aotea Centre was transformed into a literary colony. Everybody who was anybody in New Zealand writing was there. Good old Becky Manawatu was there, also Tayi Tibble, Fergus Barrowman, Witi Ihimaera, Brian Turner, Patricia Grace, Bill Manhire, Hinemoa Elder, Amy McDaid, Nikki Crutchley, Alison Wong, Selina Marsh, David Eggleton, and many others. Brian Easton’s session was sold out a day early, and that was also the case with events featuring Jared Savage, Ghazaleh Golbakhsh, and an event I shared with medical examiner Judy Malinek. I liked Judy at once. We both talked about matters of life and sudden, violent, pitiless death in our session, ably chaired by Mark Sainsbury, and afterwards we sat next to each other at a signing table in front of two long lines of really nice ghouls.

A fight broke out at a bookstall, when readers argued bitterly about the rights and wrongs of Charlotte Grimshaw’s decision to write her version of her family upbringing in The Mirror Book.

I caught three sessions. Talking to chair Toby Manhire, Rebecca Macfie spoke about her outstanding biography of union leader Helen Kelly. The date of their session was apposite as all get-out: the 30th anniversary of the Employment Contracts Act. “It smashed unions as a collective force,” Macfie said. It also set Kelly a near-impossible challenge and turned union leaders into total nobodies – until the Lord of the Rings stoush, and Kelly’s high-profile stand in the media. “It took this gigantic bust-up for the leader of a union movement to be known.” But the session was barely interested in knowing anything about Kelly herself. It focused almost entirely on her work, and employment issues, rightly so of course; but where was Kelly, the person? We were told that she liked watching Sex and the City. Fascinating detail! But there was nothing much else to be learned.

The character of Alan Duff was set out for all to see in his session with chair Paula Morris. I don’t think anyone matches Paula as a literary chair; she has a quietness about her, and remains so fully engaged with whoever she speaks to that she never takes her eyes off them. It encouraged Duff to go for it, to talk and talk and talk: “I’m not f**king interested in getting a knighthood… Māori have to fix themselves…I’m sick of posturing, speechifying, tokotoko-waving wankers…Let our Māori women take charge…I had no self-esteem when I went to prison…I’m an action man…I’m extraordinarily empathetic…I’m telling it like it is… My writing comes directly from my Pākehā side…Māori need to take responsibility. How about saying to them if they have diabetes, ‘Eat less.’ But we’re not allowed to say that, are we?…I just came here to survive this.” In his head, he seemed to imagine himself as an outsider at the festival, a brave teller of unacceptable truths, a renegade who would frighten his audience; but there was vast applause, hoots of laughter, and massive support for his cant.

On the Sunday, I went to see memoirists Charlotte Grimshaw, Kyle Mewburn and Lil O’Brien in conversation with chair Claire Mabey. Strange that Grimshaw wasn’t given her own session. Her memoir is the most talked-about book of 2021. The event was moved from a small theatre to a big theatre at the last moment and there was terrible confusion with ushers sending myself and Bill Manhire up two flights of stairs to the balcony entrance but the balcony doors were locked. There was a lot of walking up and down stairs to sort it out until the ushers who sent us away decided we could come in after all. Oh well! These things happen; it must be said at once that the festival’s staff of volunteers deserve huge credit for their helpful advice and infinite patience; but at my age I hate needlessly walking up and down the stairs, arrived in a foul mood, and a fight broke out as soon as I took my seat but afterwards I begged forgiveness from the innocent party (a novelist and old friend with a heart of gold) and there were glad tears.

Anyway, it was a bit of a flat event. Lil and Kyle have written good books, and had interesting things to say. But the decision to shift the event to a bigger theatre was almost certainly due to the interest in The Mirror Book, and I doubt I was the only person basically sitting there waiting for Charlotte’s turn to be questioned. Mabey’s style was not to challenge or push her and as such not a lot new was said – until talk turned to her sister Margaret’s recent story in the Listener, which gave a somewhat different version of events about their family upbringing. Charlotte said, “Margaret felt she had to polish the façade.” She also said that she rather thought the story cast her as “an ungrateful wretch”. And then this: “If they keep going on at me, I’ll write volume two.” Good grief! There’s more?! She said it with a laugh; she may not have been serious; but who knows how a writer’s mind works?

Actually, thanks to the Auckland Writers Festival, we know a little bit more how a writer’s mind works, because of the fascinating and complicated glimpses that were made available throughout the festival. Writers, exposed; writers, gabbling; writers, drawn into a smoothly and very successfully administered commercial enterprise. When I left, there was a queue of people so long it went out the door to Aotea Square. They were holding books by Neil Gaiman to sign. Their average age was 17 and three-quarters. Gaiman’s event had finished at midday. I looked at my watch. It was five to three. He had already sat there for three hours and would continue to sign for quite some time, possibly until the 2022 festival.

Steve Braunias is the literary editor of Newsroom's books section ReadingRoom, a noted writer at the NZ Herald, and the author of 10 books.

Leave a comment