Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Monday 10 March

Session: Unravelling the National Grid
Poet, novelist and screenwriter Anne Kennedy on illicit love, passion and embroidery

Anne Kennedy writes across many forms which illustrates her creative philosophy of making every project depart from the known.  Usually an idea for a piece of work suggests a form but on occasion, such as her poetry collection Sing Song, Kennedy changes her mind.  Initially she thought Sing Song would be an article that she could publish in the Women’s Weekly so that she could reach a large audience but when she started writing the article her aims for the project didn’t fit within the confines of an article, so she changed to poetry.  Poetry allowed her space for experimentation which a poetry audience is receptive to, and to a certain extent, expects.  Alongside her philosophy of ‘departing from the known’ determining the form of her project, the expectations of the audience are also a factor.

Kennedy believes that we are all intrinsically artistic but the rigours of life and schooling drum it out of us.  Also, the notion of having to produce something, to be published, or displayed, in order to justify your artistic endeavours also puts people off creating.  A creative act actively fights this shut down, and through writing Kennedy tests artistic boundaries.  She believes that it is beneficial for artists to be immersed in other art forms, aside from the one they’re working in, when they are working on a project.

Kennedy studied music at university and receive a liberal and creative education based in theory, science and essay writing skills which have served her well over her creative career.  This is such an important point to make at a time when the Government continues to cut funding for the Humanities.  Professor Grant Guilford from Victoria University reiterates Kennedy’s point in an opinion piece in today’s Dominion in reaction to the recently released Government’s Tertiary Education Strategy:
“The humanities and social sciences are not just about the joy of living – reason enough to treasure these subjects. They are also pivotal in the development of a progressive, inclusive and internationally connected society. The arts, languages and literature, and other humanities subjects, play a central role in the celebration and critical reinterpretation of our national identity and our place in the world.” 
The magic that happens on the page keeps Kennedy enthusiastic about writing and even when the magic isn’t so apparent, she keeps chugging away until it does.  Writing certainly has a work aspect in that some days she doesn’t feel like it, but she usually writes through any road blocks she’s experiencing.  When she begins a project she isn’t sure how it will end but she plans as she goes, makes notes and usually sticks to a three act structure in most of her work.  Character development is the hardest thing, and she gets to know her characters as she writes, and even more after publication. 
Gogo, the main character in Kennedy’s novel The Last Days of National Costume (2013) is “on the westward slope of middle class status.”  Gogo is from a settler family who has struggled to create a comfortable level of middle class existence but once achieved she has started to slide into the “agony of plenty” as Kennedy defines it.  This is in contrast to Shane, a recent immigrant from Belfast who takes a ripped Irish dancing costume to Gogo to mend, who is struggling to make ends meet.  The novel is concerned with what happens to people once the struggle is over – what keeps us going.

So why an Irish national costume?  Kennedy believes that there aren’t enough Irish settler stories in New Zealand literature and points out the important difference between English and Irish settlers.  While the English could, and often did go back ‘home’, the Irish couldn’t because of the continuation of the Troubles.  The Irish immigration was complete; it was a new beginning in a new country because there was no going back.  Kennedy also wants to show the perspective of a diaspora, the rugged variety rather than the green of St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Auckland is prominent in the novel and this is because Kennedy enjoys writing about place and wants to put Auckland on the literary landscape as much as Fifth Avenue in New York is; we all know what Fifth Avenue is like through literature even though we haven’t physically travelled there.  The story takes place over the five weeks of the Auckland blackout in 1998.  The period of the blackout worked as a plot device so the action could take place over five weeks, and also the blackout delays Gogo mending the dress because she needs the light.  1998 was also a period of innocence; it was prior to 9/11 and what Kennedy considers a more hopeful time.  It was also before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in May 1998.  Before that agreement was signed there was still a sense that anything could happen in Northern Ireland.

The novel is also about the power of storytelling.  Shane’s story takes Gogo out of her middle class malaise, her interior world, and transforms her as well as Shane.  It is also about the contestation of land.

The session was thoroughly engaging and made more special when Anne was awarded the Nigel Cox Unity Books Prize by Fergus Barrowman at the end.

Session: 2014 New Zealand Book Council Lecture
Man Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton will discuss the role of change in fiction.

While waiting to get into the theatre we were told by the Festival staff to bunch up, to stand three abreast, and move closer to the wall.  People waited patiently, tickets in hands, we blocked access to the men’s loos (sheepish looking men widened their eyes and said excuse me to get through), and people were eating vanilla chocolate topped ice-creams or drinking red wine while checking their phones.  Then the doors opened and everyone poured in.  I had heard someone say that they were expecting 500 people, I’m not sure whether that number is accurate but the theatre was packed to hear Catton’s lecture entitled “Paradox and Change in Fiction.”

Catton used the analogy of physics to show the time and space elements in narrative.  We can only move in one direction – forward - in life, and when reading a book (we start at page one and move towards the end), and we occupy the present time in which we’re reading it.  However, time and space are elastic, there are times in life when time seems to drag and at other moments it seems to speed up, and while we occupy a space, we only see what we notice in that space, not the entirety of things in that space.  These aspects of time and space can be exaggerated in narrative.

In the fundamentals of physics no change is instantaneous.  No one goes from being bad to being inherently good in an instant, with no effort expended; we can’t get something for nothing.  In a narrative, a character that changes instantly with no effort is an example of bad writing because change without time passing is meaningless.  As readers, and people, we want to see how a person has changed and why, we want to be able to defend that change and to say why it happened.  Change in narrative needs to be meaningful and rewarding, and is a fundamental property of fiction alongside plot.

Catton noted that a lot of literary fiction lacks plot, indeed, that there seems to be a contemporary bias against it.  Catton cited Harold Bloom’s analysis of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies and his belief that the character is more important than the plot.  Catton entirely disagrees.  In a Shakespeare comedy an impossible situation becomes possible.  Catton broke the plot progression into five points: an impossible situation is presented, an impartial aid arrives which usually involves some mischief, there is miscommunication, a revision of the impossible situation, and then a marriage.  Throughout this progression, spells and potions may be used in order for characters to gain insight and self-awareness, and it is only through this self-awareness that the impossible, in the case of a lot of Shakespeare’s comedies the impossible is love, is made possible.

In Shakespeare’s tragedies the five point plot progression is reversed.  In a tragedy, the situation that is first presented, the desire for permanent change, does seem achievable but it is thwarted.  Ambitions are never realised and everyone dies at the end.  In a tragedy what the characters feel to be true, and what is true, is never reconciled.  And how we define our truth depends on our lived experiences which form the basis of our definitions e.g. how we define love is based on our experiences of being loved and loving.  In a tragedy there is also a lack of self-awareness in the characters, which is the complete opposite to the comedies.  Catton referred to the differences in the plots of the comedies and tragedies as a plotted paradox.

While literary fiction has a contemporary bias against plot, it also holds ingenuity and action in low esteem, and there are no heroes.  Catton noted that some writers lay claim to insight possessively, and perhaps are reluctant to acknowledge things that they couldn’t have done themselves.  Genre fiction and children’s literature are not easier forms, and Catton notes that we should all be suspicions of a genre that names itself ‘literary fiction’ and to generally be suspicious of all genre labels.  She noted that if Jane Austen’s works were categorised along modern genre forms she would be a romance writer because of her happy endings.

What I take from this, as a writer, is to pay a great deal more attention to plot, to analyse the plots in the narratives I read to see how they are working – or whether or not they actually exist - and to read more widely across genres.  Everyone was captivated by Catton’s talk.  Afterwards, I heard someone mention that they thought Catton’s talk was academic but I’m not so sure.  In many ways I think she was encouraging people to read widely and not just read literary fiction that is studied in tertiary education, and I think in relating her ideas about plot to Shakespeare she was referring to a body of literature that while we may not know intimately, most people in the audience would know something about.  In many ways I think Catton was trying to expand our notions of what literature is, and what texts we define as literature, and who is defining them as such, and I think that is a task that the New Zealand writing community should take on board and is an entirely appropriate message for the New Zealand Book Council’s lecture.

There was time for a few questions at the end of the session.  In response to one, Catton said that literature should enlarge our lives, that it is spiritual and feeds us, and doesn’t repeat what we already live and know. 

Session: 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Lecture
Celebrated author and illustrator Gavin Bishop delivers a literary “state of the nation.”

Bishop remembers going to see a Disney production of Pinocchio at the Picture Palace when he was four years old.  In particular, he vividly remembers seeing the open mouth of a whale that swallowed Pinocchio in the film.  It is a touchstone image for Bishop, an image that had a powerful impact on his psyche.

Going to the picture palace was a ritual.  He would take the bus into town, and walk to the theatre and queue outside and then push on the brass door into the lobby and make his way to the ticket box to buy a nine penny seat in the front row.  As a kid he bounced up and down on the seat, and some kids ran up and down the rows.  The pictures in the films were simple but unforgettable; they enabled him to enter into a magical world.  In that world he learnt the language of cinema, the shadows and the visuals of storytelling.  Opening a picture book is a lot like going to the pictures.  The cover suggests the coming attraction, there is the smell of the book, the feelings of expectations, the opening credits on the title page, and then the story takes-off.
The visuals of storytelling were also apparent when he first saw a play.  The sets were the same size and there were no long shots or cropped images, and the perspective of the audience member depended on where they sat at a consistent distance.  A lot of the elements of theatre are apparent in Bishop’s early images.
Creating a picture book is a lot like story boarding for a film.  Text is included alongside images but the words and images don’t say the same things.  The images may carry sub-plots which are not included in the text.  A perfect writer/illustrator relationship, according to Bishop, is when both elements are done separately so that the illustrator can show their way of seeing the story rather than have the writer impose their visual perspective.

Bishop reflected on the commercial pressures of publishers.  There are seldom hardback covers for picture books, instead the books produced are lean and mean, and the stories have been reduced and simplified for busy parents.  Quality books that are challenging seem to be in short supply.  Bishop reflected that very few New Zealand picture books were published during the 1940s-60s and while there were more in the 1970s, it wasn’t until Eve Sutton’s My Cat Lives in Boxes in the 1980s that publishing in New Zealand became more confident.

Recently there has been a trend towards nationalistic icons in picture books such as black singlets and rugby balls which Bishop finds boring.  Instead, he attempts to reflect his own world but when he does it is problematic for publication in America.  However, when he writes for the American market, the New Zealand readers found his stories lacking in depth.

The other challenges that writers and illustrators face in New Zealand are the conditions surrounding the Public Lending Rights which excludes work under 48 pages (picture books are typically around 32 pages), and having to compete with writers of other forms for Creative New Zealand funding is extremely difficult.  Writers of picture books are not often included in big awards or residencies.  However, there are also supporters of Children’s Literature such as LIANZA, tertiary institutes that offer training in illustration, Storylines, Te Tai Tamariki, the New Zealand Book Council, and the New Zealand Society of Authors which offers mentorship and professional services which Bishop has used on several occasions.  Bishop did suggest that there should be a Children’s Literature Laureate to help promote children’s literature and literacy in New Zealand, as Australia has successfully done, which seemed popular with the audience.

The session was entertaining and highlighted the positive and negative aspects for those writing and illustrating children’s literature.

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