Chloe Blades provides her take on this years Writers Festival.
There’s few things in Aotearoa’s literary calendar as exciting as the Auckland Writers Festival and the New Zealand Book Awards. We, the audience, get to sit amongst the literati and drink, applause and place pride-winning bets with our neighbour on who will win from the Fiction, General Non-Fiction, Illustrated Non-Fiction and Poetry categories.
As booksellers, we spend the year seeing what new titles enter the shop and then we watch what sells, what books are shortlisted and finally who gets to grace the stage in their finest garb and accept the life-changing $3,000 - $64,000 prize. We bump into publishers, journalists and publicists at the bar, authors in the toilets, and colleagues in the foyer where a light-hearted debate savoured for bibliophiles ensues on the judges choices. It’s a lot of fun.
Catherine Chidgey, author of the highly-imaginative, stunning novel Axeman’s Carnival, took home the $64,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction making her the only person to ever win it twice (she won in 2017 for The Wish Child). Alice Te Punga Somerville won the prize for Poetry with her collection Always Italicise, Nick Bollinger won the prize for Illustrated Non-Fiction for Jumping Sundays, and Ned Fletcher took home the prize for General Non-Fiction with his tome, The English Text of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Aside from the meditative joy in listening to these word wizards read passages from their books, there’s nothing more humanising than when they deliver their acceptance speech. They’re allowed a minute which results in an emotionally charged thank you. When Noelle McCarthy, author of Grand, accepted her prize for the E.H. McCormick Prize for Non-Fiction and thanked her daughter and told her to go to bed, we laughed. Then her voice wavered and she thanked her late-mum Caroline and I, amongst many in the audience, almost broke down with her. Ned Fletcher’s cracking sense of humour didn’t pair up with the weight of his work, and it was a hoot listening to him speak. The nephew of Alice Te Punga Somerville accepted the prize on her behalf and looked out into the sea of people and said how proud of her their family was. It was beautiful.
It brought home the significance of the evening. It throws petrol on the flame of interest surrounding New Zealand’s writers. The flame never ever fizzles out, however it makes you realise the importance of celebrating our unique and brilliant writers and their work over one spectacular evening. The CEO of Ockham Residential, Mark Todd, closed the evening and delivered an emotive speech on how, yes, engineers might be necessary to building things, but it’s the artists who put the soul into life. I’m paraphrasing because I was 3 wines deep, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he said… after sitting for two hours absorbing the palpable energy of our authors, hearing Todd say that was akin to watching a fireworks display at the end of an already beautiful evening and it reaffirmed just how lucky I am to work in this unique world of books.
So, with revitalised energy and a mild hangover, I’m here to give you my top five must-sees at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend.
1. Streetside Britomart: Friday 19th May, 18:15
This is a free event where you can get amongst a huge line-up of performers, poets and writers who will be riffing it off, reciting and recounting on notions of homecoming. Apparently, you should expect hilarity and who doesn’t need a laugh right now? It’s pretty exciting to think of all the talent that will be in Auckland tomorrow night!
2. Anthony Joseph: Saturday 20th May, 20:30-21:30
This is a prime example of when I find a writer that blows my mind and I can’t help but be super uncool about it, which I’m fine with, and I write about them everywhere - including Dispatch. Anthony is a Trinidadian-born London-based poet, musician and lecturer who’s collection Sonnets for Albert is an emotional ode to his mostly-absent late father. It’s a rare glimpse into a disappointing yet love-filled relationship between a son and his father, and you can hear him talk about it IRL on Saturday.
3. Catherine Chidgey: Friday 19th May, 11:30-12:30
This is your opportunity to hear the winner of the 2023 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction in conversation with author Rachael King. Let me tell you why she’s so brilliant: she’s released five exceptional books in seven years that are unimaginably different (one’s set in Hitler’s Germany and Axeman’s Carnival is about a talking magpie). Her latest novel Pet is due in just a few weeks time. She’s a senior lecturer at Waikato University and has a young daughter too, and her brilliance makes me think, how? HOW?
4. Eleanor Catton: Saturday 20th May, 19:00-20:00
This is a double win because author of Grand, Noelle McCarthy, who Steve Braunias hails as “far and away the most lucid prose writer of 2022” is chairing it. Imagine hearing Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton having a chat about her novel Birnam Wood with Noelle on “what compelled her to write this epic romp through our national parks, with rare-earth mining, deep surveillance, guerrilla gardening and so much more.” It’s what literary dreams are made of.
5.The Booker Ride: Sunday 21st May, 11:30-12:30
I can’t think of any other literary festivals around the world that invite you to sit for an hour amongst not one, not two, but three Booker Prize winners - Eleanor Catton, Bernardine Evaristo (author of Girl, Woman, Other) and Shehan Karunatilaka (author of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida) - and hear them speak about their experience of being awarded the world’s most esteemed literary prize. This one will be a real treat.