The first post-Omicron literary festival of 2022 is set to stage a fascinating encounter between Linda Clark, a former razor-sharp interviewer now even more forensic in her new life as a lawyer, and National’s crazy woman in the attic, Judith Collins.

Clark will chair the former National leader alongside two other guests who threw themselves into the cauldrons of parliament, Marilyn Waring and Norman Kirk’s private secretary Margaret Hayward.

It’s an ingenious piece of programming. The 2022 Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival, held from June 8-12,  also features Noelle McCarthy chairing Dame Fiona Kidman, and Patricia Grace will appear alongside Briar-Grace Smith, the director of Cousins, the film based on Grace’s novel. But the stand-out event is the Clark session with Collins and Hayward, who are both eligible as guests at the literary festival on account of the fact both are authors, albeit of wildly different standards – Hayward’s 1981 Diary of the Kirk Years is a bit of a modern political classic, and Pull No Punches by Judith Collins is basically junk.

I emailed Clark, and asked, “Have you read Pull No Punches?”

She replied, “Not yet.”

“What are some thoughts you may have on Judith Collins’ leadership at National?”

She said, “Not her finest hour.”

“Your work in the Press Gallery before you chucked in the media would likely have included interviewing Judith Collins – am I right in thinking that?”

She remembered, “Judith Collins was elected in 2002, which was the year my twins were born. I was out of the Gallery by then, although I must have interviewed her when I was the host of Nine to Noon from 2002 to 2006. No disrespect to Judith, I have no recollection of interviewing her but only because that job involves 45 interviews at least a week. The ones that stayed with me were the longer form interviews with authors, inventors, activists and the like – certainly not the politicians.”

“Chairing is very much like an interview – preparation, questioning, listening. Is this a return in some ways to your former roles at Nine to Noon and Crossfire?”

She declared, “Once an interviewer, always an interviewer. However, the best chairs at literary festivals allow the authors to settle in and talk freely, preferably about wider themes. The trick is to let the authors be the stars – there ought never be a ‘gotcha’ moment, although a good session should have a few ‘a-ha’ moments for the audience to dwell on later.”

The session with Collins and Hayward also includes Marilyn Waring. I asked Clark, “What’s your intent, do you think, with the event featuring Judith, Marilyn, and Margaret? To draw them out, or is there like a deeper narrative of women in politics you’d like to maybe explore?”

She stated, “This is such an interesting combination of personalities and philosophies and together they cover NZ politics from the 1970s to the present day, which is quite a sweep. I want them to talk to each other as well as to the audience. My role will be simply to identify a couple of themes on which they might take different standpoints or on which they might surprisingly agree.”

“Literary chairing is very often an agreeable and even anodyne kind of thing. Are you prepared to go in hard, and create an argument?”

She answered, “I absolutely squirm with boredom when the chair is simply a cheerleader for the author. As an audience member (and I go to a lot of literary festivals) there is nothing more disappointing. And it doesn’t bring out the best in any author either. So especially with non-fiction authors I think there is a place for a challenging question and a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. But if you’re going to do this, you owe it to the audience to have read the book carefully and to conduct the debate to draw out more from the author for the audience’s benefit. No one wants a smarty pants chair.”

“How would you describe your style as an interviewer, during your journalism career?”

She reckoned, “Adversarial, well-briefed, and if you watched them now they’d look dated. Time has moved on and so have I. I’m not really interested in that style of grilling these days.”

“What was your most combative interview, do you think?”

She responded, “I have absolutely no idea. I never dwelt on the scuffles, although I often meet people who still tell me I was pretty rough on them. It was a rolling maul kind of job. You did the business and you moved on because there was always another story to distract you. Loved it.”

“What do you make of Marilyn Waring, and Margaret Hayward?”

She remarked, “I am in awe of Marilyn Waring. She is one of New Zealand’s great original thinkers. Her honesty about life as an MP and the limitations of Parliamentary life is, and always has been, completely admirable and uncompromising. I have interviewed Marilyn many times and it’s always a treat. Margaret Hayward had a ring side seat at an incredible time in NZ history as Norman Kirk’s private secretary. Her book Diary of the Kirk Years has one of the most intriguing publisher’s notes ever: It reads, This book is as explicit as the law allows it to be. The reader will sometimes have to be alert to the heavy silences which hang between lines. First question then – what did you leave out?”

The 2022 Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival also includes national treasures Joy Cowley, Witi Ihimaera, and Renée (93 in July!), Greta and Valdin novelist Rebecca K Reilly, Meat Lovers poet Rebecca Hawkes, The New Zealand Wars | Ngā Pakanga o Aotearoa historian Vincent O’Malley, and other authors.

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.

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