ReadingAuckland Writers and Readers Festival 2005

The feast of literary fare on offer (with up to three sessions running concurrently) at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2005 meant that no festival goer could see everything, but with a good mix of overseas names and New Zealand perennials most sessions were rewarding and feelings of missing out were kept to a minimum.

Alan Hollinghurst won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 for The line of beauty, and the award for most beautiful voice at the Festival. In fact it was so beautiful Augusten Burroughs wanted Hollinghurst to record his answering machine message. Hollinghurst gave thoughtful, considered answers to all questions, serious about his work but not without a sense of humour. His painstaking approach means he is less prolific than other writers, producing four novels in twenty years. These novels (The swimming pool library, The folding star and The spell) are creations of situations and atmosphere, with the characters living the private romance people tell themselves in their own minds in worlds of their own creation..

Hollinghurst's thesis at Oxford looked at Forster, Hartley and Firbank and the way their sexuality had to be encrypted in their work because it was unable to be expressed openly. After Oxford he moved to London and began writing on gay sexuality, a subject that was 'up for grabs' in the early '80s, attempting to mix erotic with literate writing.

His first two novels were about engagement with the past, the third about the irresolvable quest for the ideal of love, and for The line of beauty he wanted to write about the '80s, about AIDS as part of the arc of the period, and about class in action. From the historical distance of the late '90s he began with the image of a house he walked past when he first went to London, wondering about the life that went on in such grand houses.

English crime writer (Lifeless, The burning girl, Lazybones, Scaredy cat and Sleepyhead) Mark Billingham was the stand-out entertainer of the festival, but as he had a previous career as a stand-up comic he did have something of an unfair advantage. His sessions ended up as more of a comedy routine than the usual author staidly talking about his books and he is currently writing a diary for Bookseller magazine about his experiences on tour in New Zealand.

Billingham treats his writing "like going to work and it is hard work, it's not mystical or special". He feels that crime fiction has moved from being plot based to being character based; when working on his own crime novels he doesn't plan his stories out, knowing where he is going, not how he will get there.

Questioned about violence he said that there is already so much in modern life his fiction is not adding to it, and that we get very het up about some images and not others — accepting endless pictures of dead black children but reacting with outrage to one picture of a dead white child.

In the discussion around violence in crime fiction the book The death of Satan was referred to — in this book the author theorises that the absence of the devil as a real presence in our lives means we need to be presented with ever more disturbing images of evil. The classic detective novel, where everything was worked out in the end, was intensely reassuring in a way crime fiction is not now.

Although Billingham's own performance was very funny — even featuring some audience participation - he could only name three funny crime writers; Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiassen and Christopher Brookmyer

Stella Duffy was also a polished and amusing performer, with a background in drama and improvisation that she put to good use in her readings. Born in England, she spent the formative years between four and 23 in Tokoroa and could even pronounce it correctly. Her take on fiction was that all books are about truth and lies. Duffy read from State of happiness, referred to as her 'breast cancer book' but actually begun before she got breast cancer.

After having read the amazingly honest memoirs of two of the American names of the festival, Alice Sebold and Augusten Burroughs, it was interesting to see them in the flesh. Audiences may well have felt that they knew more about these strangers than they did about their best friends, and in a way they did, because of the intimate details they have shared via their books.

Sebold (Lucky, The lovely bones) was the sell-out star of the festival and a surprisingly humorous speaker considering the subject matter of her books, although she was serious enough to cancel publicity engagements because she was sick of being asked about Peter Jackson and the film of The lovely bones. Her observations on modern life ranged from the post-9/11 obsession with safety in the United States ("Americans feel that we're all going to die but in my case they'll make an exception") to the cult of victimhood ("knowing a victim is like knowing a celebrity").

Burroughs (Running with scissors, Dry, Magical thinking) was happier to be asked about the movie of Running with scissors, in fact he played himself over the credits. "Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it was his advice, he has no rules about what he will write about (or read out loud if his choice of readings was any indication) and his flat, nasal delivery made the most outrageous occurrences seem almost commonplace.

The New Zealanders were far more down to earth - Jenny Pattrick (The Denniston Rose, Heart of Coal) was very matter-of-fact about her writing, describing herself as a shallow person who came from a drama background and has always loved storytelling.

She drew parallels with her other career as a jeweller - making a ring is not so different from writing a novel; starting with the idea, assembling the materials and tools, deciding what order the working should be done - a plot something to hold the characters the way a setting holds a stone.

On the technical side, Pattrick said her novels were plot rich, with the plot coming last after atmosphere, research and characters, all written in the third person as she felt it important to have lots of voices, but that the overall impression she was looking for was the 'yarning voice'.

The Denniston Rose was rejected twice, Pattrick put it away for six months then looked at the notes accompanying the rejection and spent 18 months re-writing it. She then sent it to a script assessor who told her to do the exact opposite of what she had done.

Catching the current, her new novel, has a character from The Denniston Rose and an intricate plot with lots of stories told by various people.

Peter Wells (On going to the movies), Lydia Wevers (On reading) and Kevin Ireland (On getting old) discussed the essays they had written in the Four Winds series, bemoaning the bad press essays have from the experiences readers have of them at school. Essays enjoyed a big new burst as a form in the '90s and the panelists thought them one of the freest of the literary forms if difficult to write well.

The panel on Young Adult fiction, Are you old enough, was chaired by Tessa Duder and featured old hands Graeme Lay and William Taylor, along with Elizabeth Knox who has just published her first Young Adult novel, Dreamhunter.

Garth Nix says that a Young Adult book should be an adult book reaching downwards, and the panellists all agreed with this. The genre is a hard one to write well; plot, character, setting and theme have to have instant appeal, the dialogue has to be exactly right and books have to compete with all the other attractions teenagers can access in the 21 st century. Not only are the teenagers themselves a hyper-critical audience but there is another extremely picky one waiting to pounce — the parents.

This was a topical subject as Bernard Beckett's Malcolm and Juliet had been a controversial winner of the Young Adult category in the New Zealand Post Book Awards and William Taylor and Graeme Lay had both battled with censorship. Lay's Agnes the sheep had made the American Library Association list of challenged books for its use of God, hell and damn and Taylor's The blue lawn had faced a significant battle to get published.

When asked if there were any subjects they would not write about for Young Adults William Taylor answered "necrophilia". Graeme Lay wondered where the demand for books about sexual abuse was coming from, with six out of the 10 books on the bestseller list at the London Book Fair being on that subject.

As for the future of the genre, Knox believed that the male audience was lost and that all Young Adult novelists could hope to do was keep up with the girls, Taylor considered that all genres continue to develop and change, and Lay was going back to writing for very young children.

The festival saw the launch of Margaret Mahy: a writer's life : a literary portrait of New Zealand's best-loved children's author by Tessa Duder. As always Mahy proved to be an entertaining and thought-provoking speaker.

She obviously felt slightly conflicted about all the attention she had been getting, contrasting the brief paragraph of author information in early Penguin paperbacks with the cover photographs, blurbs, further information and news about the film rights provided now.

Mahy did concede that authors hope to make a living from their writing so they can go on and make something more, and that marketing and publicity let them do that. Readers are attracted to books (and festivals) by 'names', but in the encounter between the reader and the writer the writer fades away and only the story is left.

In folk tales, which Mahy said informed her work, the story establishes itself in such a direct way with the opening "once upon a time" that there seems to be no author.

Although the festival was called the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival '05 attendance at such festivals can seem very passive for the readers as they sit and watch the writers perform.

In her usual original style Mahy, who considers reading to be a creative process, said that literary festivals should not concentrate solely on writers, but should get readers to sit on panels to tell how they have created themselves by selecting various stories. A productive idea for the organisers of future festivals perhaps.