New Zealand Listener Gala Night is the official name of the event which launched a thousand AWRF sessions — well, maybe not a thousand exactly but lots, plenty for everyone, I’d say, even with two superstar events, the lunch with Sir Max Hastings and the concert by Leonard Cohen biographer, journalist and rock chick Sylvie Simmons plus New Zealand’s own Don McGlashan, sold out. At the Opening Night Party a number of tales were being told of the machinations and subterfuges being used by frustrated Cohen-Simmons-McGlashan fans attempting to procure a place at the latter. I’m not sure if Max Hastings fans were doing the same; they might be thinking of just walking on in, as Sir Max famously walked on in to Argentine-occupied Port Stanley ahead of the British troops during the Falklands war.
The Book Council’s True Stories Told Live format was reprised for this year’s Gala Night, an infinitely superior choice to those serial 10 minute readings which were always so unsatisfying. The storytelling is… I was about to start hunting for a suitably enthusiastic word when I remembered that tonight they had actually all been used by Carol Hirschfeld. Wild, wooly, serious, frivolous, entertaining, provoking … and that was just during her introduction — her wrap up had again as many. The adjective which at least for me was the most significant of all, she practically threw away. “Eight writers are here to share a personal story — ” pause, reload — “personal and true, inspired by the theme An Open Book.”
And they were all true, you could tell, while at the same time being such stories, which has to be different than being true, although not exclusively so, of course.
Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s story was about meeting her Nigerian, bible-toting (in a plastic bag!) biological father for the first time and realising that the only thing they had in common was their toes.
Peter Bland told of living for years with a father who existed only in a photo, taken in Africa, showing a strapping young man with his foot on an elephant, presumably dead, and then one day coming home to find “an old, fat, bald man sitting there — my Dad”.
Shehan Karunatilaka was an unknown to me, a Sri Lankan novelist who landed in Whanganui with his family as a boy. It wasn’t easy being a Sri Lankan in Whanganui twenty years ago. His story took place in 1990, when he was 15, depressed and despondent, spending his time alternately crying and masturbating. Send me a sign, he asked God, who dropped a copy of Mayfair magazine in his path in reply. In the magazine, as well as the girlie photo stuff there was an article about the Police, his favourite rock group, which sent him off to Whanganui Library for a biography of Sting mentioned in the article. And what followed that was Lolita, The Sheltering Sky and the rest is history, as they say. “The book that changes your life doesn’t have to be Moby Dick“, he said. “It can be an old Mayfair magazine, stuck-together pages and all.”
Demonstrating a flair for the obsessive, Carlos Ruiz Zafón had hunted down a bookstore called “Acres of Books” in his adopted city of Los Angeles, because it had been recommended by Ray Bradbury. It contained a place called The Fiction Annex where you needed a flashlight just to find your way. Was it the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Who knows…
And that fantastic Fast talking PI poet, Selina Tusitala Marsh, was as always sharp, funny and loving: “I didn’t grow up in a house with books”, she began. “The Bible, the phone book… but the first open book in my parent’s house was my PhD thesis — being used as a doorstop”.
Everyone will have had their favourite line, of course, and mine was Stephanie Johnson’s almost Raymond Chandleresque opener (her hair style very Lauren Bacall to boot), “You reach an age when you are to yourself an open book”.
An auspicious start to a long weekend full of good stories about books. Festival Director Anne O’Brien calculates that there are 150 “writers and thinkers” appearing, and not all at a cost. The Festival has way more free events than ever before, including readings sessions every afternoon. The full programme is here. Auckland Libraries staff will be out in force at the Festival of course, and giving you the lowdown here on Books in the City.
However you decide to do it, if you’re a reader you owe it to yourself to sample the wares. As Anne O’Brien promised the faithful tonight, “Seduction is waiting for you around every corner”. Or was that what Sylvie Simmons said when she was talking about her days as a rock journalist in the ’70s, adding, “Not going to happen, you knew where it’d been”.
by Karen Craig for Books in the City