Remembrance of Things Past

If there was a theme to the 2012 Wellington’s Writers’ and Readers’ Week, part of the biennual International Arts Festival, then it is encapsulated in the title of Proust’s magnum opus, which I have cheekily used as the heading of this blog entry.

Kate Grenville, I discover, wrote 23 drafts of Sarah Thornhill, which I have yet to read, though I have read the earlier, A River Runs Deep. “Books about the present,” she says, “sit in the past” and she has been engaged with writing novels drawing on her family’s Australian history. “Sorry business,” she tells us, “when spoken by Aborigines, refers to what you do when some-one dies, to mourning.” So, saying “sorry” has a particular meaning in that context, one not obvious to a New Zealander. She talks, too, about her words being precious to her, taking them seriously, wanting to get her writing, “more than right enough.” Her first draft is random, drawing on sources, without necessarily an actual story line and it’s subsequent drafts that meld it into shape.

Alan Hollinghurst, however, writes his first draft slowly and doesn’t do much rewriting. “The Stranger’s Child”, he says, “is about time and its workings and memory and its failings.” He also says, “Books creep up on me in little pieces.” Later, we look up Tennyson’s poem, “In Memoriam,” because he talks about it.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s East German beginnings seem relevant to her concerns about “who is the ‘me’ in me, how am I built up?’ and how ‘our stories of ourselves can be broken,’ for example, if we grow up in a family and later discover our birth origins lie elsewhere.

(Jenny E may be my new-author-discovery for this W & R) She spoke of writing about characters who “turn in on themselves” and how part of everyone is kept internal, for their own self. Her book Visitation, which I am yet to read, focuses on a particular house, drawing on one that was important to her as a child, but not about her.

Jean Gabriel Vásquez left his homeland, Colombia, for Paris, because, “books happen there.” He talks about how the USA’s “war on drugs” created the mafia in Colombia, and how history and politics “invade a private life” and shape an individual morally. He sees a role for novelists in working to make it hard for the forces of forgetfulness at large in the world, referring to Colombia as an “amnesiac country” where people try to forget difficult times in its history. (He and Kate Grenville would have made a good panel pairing.)

There were others, of course: Patrick Evans regretting the lack of “consequential writing” in New Zealand. (Writing, I think he said, about those things which must not be spoken of.); Germaine Greer, making the case for Shakespeare’s Wife as a tour de force in Stratford; Michael Hulse writing poetry from a place of asking questions; Kim Scott, searching on the inside to illuminate what is happening outside; Denise Mina, charming everyone and offering her set of bullet points about how to write comics (which she does, along with an impressive range of crime fiction). And more, always more.

The to-be-read pile has grown, but not by as much as some years, and I figure I’ll be back in 2014.

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