Sunday, May 22, 2011

An hour of terror with Vincent O’Sullivan

As promised, a report on what I saw at this year’s Auckland Writers’ and Readers’ Festival 2011. Or, as I call it, the Auckland Writhers’ and Reelers’ Festival.

Where to start? With me, obviously. I arrived late Friday morning and barely had time for a four-hour lunch with Vincent O’Sullivan, Peter Bland, Graeme Lay, Bernard Brown (my old law professor), Mike Mitchell (a visitor from Rarotonga) and AUP poet Sonja Yelich before retiring to my hotel room (the Langham – totally excellent) to finish preparing for my hour-long session with Vincent the next day. I’d already spent most of the week on this, which entailed me interviewing the Greatest Living NZ Writer on stage for an hour, so there was a bit of pressure. He didn’t want to talk about his novels, short stories, plays, libretti, biographies, essays, editing Mansfield’s letters – just the poetry. Ri-ight. So there was a lot of pressure.

Finished prepping. Then at 9:30 after the big AA Gill event in the big room at the Aotea Centre there was a small party – hardly any writers but there were some friends, some acquaintances and the Mega-Rich Major Sponsor of the festival I like a lot because he swears even more than I do.

Saturday morning at 11:30 began the hour of terror with Vincent. He wasn’t nervous at all but Christ I was. Still, we got through it, with me asking random impertinent questions and him batting them away magisterially. A friend had suggested I should ask him why his poems don’t rhyme – but they do, surprisingly often. Apart from all the internal rhymes everywhere, one poem in the new poetry collection, The Movie May Be Slightly Different (VUP, highly recommended), has a strict abba rhyme scheme in every stanza. Well, you can’t go wrong with Abba, can you? So we got talking about his collaborations with the great Wellington composer Ross Harris who is, like me, an Abba fan.

The rest of it is a blur, apart from the bit where I revealed that Vincent is a goth icon because of a song he wrote in his student years called “Graveyard Rock”, which a female goth wants to re-record. I’d buy that.

Then lunch – when in Auckland, do as the Aucklanders do – with Vincent, Geoff Walker, who published Vincent’s novels Let the River Stand and Believers to the Bright Coast (I forgot to say this in the session, but for my money these are two of the greatest NZ novels ever), and festival board chair Sarah Sandley, who must be the only magazine publisher in the world to have a PhD in NZ literature.

That afternoon was a bloggers’ drinks with the old NZBC crew plus Paul Litterick from the Fundy Post, while my wife attended serious literary sessions, followed by dinner at Hanoi with my BFF (best foodie friend).

And then at a bar in Karangahape Road there was the real party for just the writers. It was great. Loads of people from Wellington and elsewhere I only get to see at the festival, more than I could manage to talk to. I also met a nice Dutch publisher who is interested in our crime writers with a view to translation and I was able to tell him that one of my favourite crime writers is Dutch. Janwillem van der Wetering, since you ask.

Sunday was coffee in Mt Albert with Dunedin crime writer Paddy Richardson, whose last three novels I edited (which means I got to read them before anyone else – I’m a huge fan so this was a real treat). Paddy currently has the residency at Monte Cecilia, the beautiful old former nunnery that houses much of James Wallace’s art collection. She showed us through the fellow’s flat which is spectacular, flasher even than the Sargeson flat, with fabulous views in all directions. Over the writing desk is a James Ross painting from his 1977 series of self-portraits. Spookily, I have another from that series (Hand to Mouth No 1) over my writing desk.

Then back into town lunch with Madhur Jaffrey, Lauraine Jacobs and a couple of hundred others. The English-born chap on my left turned out to be best friends with the vicar who ran our latest family funeral here in Cambridge. The Australian-born couple to my wife’s right live in Fiji when not in NZ and are best friends with her Fijian friend who lives in north Yorkshire. There are only ever two degrees of separation.

Later, IIML tweeted:
Great Vincent O’Sullivan session – full of fine & sometimes wicked aphorisms.
After the session there was a long queue of people who had bought Vincent’s new poetry collection, The Movie May Be Slightly Different (VUP, highly recommended), wanting him to sign it. Job done.

Graeme Lay adds:
A close friend of Vincent’s, poet and academic Ken Arvidson of Hamilton, attended the session. This was to be Ken’s last public appearance, as he died one week later. A respected poet and teacher at the Universities of Auckland and the Waikato, Ken was 72.
More on Ken Arvidson here. If the Waikato Times runs an obituary, I’ll link to it when it does.

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