Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2019

Auckland Writers Festival: An Inside Peek

An Inside Peek was what it said it was: a brief insight into the lives of five New Zealand authors.  Each of the five had five minutes to talk about their working day and then there was a kind of round-up by the chair, Owen Harris.

I am a bit embarrassed that I was too slow off the mark to get a screenshot of Tessa Duder’s writing place. I have the four others, but it seems all wrong that Tessa, who is an essayist, a novelist, and writer for children and young people, seems a bit sidelined in my slideshow.  Because children’s authors are the lifeblood of literacy: it is their books that bring people to love reading, and even if they don’t grow up to love books, they love the experience of being read to, and of talking about the issues raised in the books.  I used to be a children’s librarian.  I know this is true, and I know that the authors of children’s books are a vital part of the publishing industry.

Tessa talked about how other aspects of her life impact on the time for writing. Domesticity is the big one, but so is the business of being a writer. I interpret her talk as a reality check for any aspiring authors in the audience: if a successful writer like her still has to do a lot of unpaid work both in the home and outside of it, then aspirants should know this before they set out on the path.   Amongst other interesting things she talked about, she said that she doesn’t do drafts: she rewrites sentence by sentence, line by line, as she goes.  I found myself thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have video of how she does this, wired up with electrodes, so the way her brain is working is recorded at the same time.  (This could never happen, it would be a shocking intrusion, but oh! it would be fascinating to see, eh?)

Albert Wendt was next: he said that writing is important but family is more important.  He has a huge family, I think he said he had 23 siblings and part of each day is about keeping in touch with them via Facebook because they live all over the world.  He said that writing centres him when things go awry (and I can relate to that, all the horrible times in my life are recorded in diaries, and anyone finding them if I don’t burn them all before I die, will get completely the wrong impression about my life!)  Albert also likes to paint, and he used to organise his day with writing in the morning and painting in the afternoon.  Now he just writes till he runs out of energy, and then he paints until he runs out of energy. And he loves revising his work, that’s why it takes him so long to finish a book.  And (raising a laugh) he also likes, as he ages,  to take long lunches followed by a nap, so the urge to write is diminishing…

Vincent O’Sullivan’s writing career has also always been part-time.  Like most NZ authors he has had to earn a living in other ways and the writing has had to fit into the time that’s left over.  But he sees that as a plus: he doesn’t feel constrained to meet a certain word target or percentage of writing each day, he just does it when it fits into his life.  Sloth, he claims, is the writer’s best friend, but he also warned us that writers make a career of telling lies, so maybe that was a lie too. He likes research, it’s part of the fun, and he likes it when it makes the reader think you’ve done a lot more than you really have, as, for instance, if you’ve portrayed really convincingly a place you’ve never been to.

Fiona Kidman told us that she’d always wanted to be a writer.  She was an only child and had a somewhat isolated childhood, so for her, writing was a means of communicating with the world.  The catalyst for the real start to her writing career was when, as a school librarian, she was told to go home and knit when she became pregnant.  (This was a long time ago, of course). She raised a laugh when she said she found she wasn’t very good at knitting, but instead, sitting at the kitchen table,  wrote a radio play for a competition.  She was thrilled by the judge’s praise, and went on to have a career as a screenwriter for radio and TV, and as a journalist.  She said she learned a lot from these different aspects of her career.  There are four elements to a radio play (sound effects, music, words and silence) and from this she learned how to write dialogue.  From writing for TV she learned to see visual details, and from journalism she learned to ask questions.

She lives high on the hill in Wellington (and now I’ve been there, I know where she means) where she can write overlooking the view without people walking past, seeing her there at the table, and ‘popping in’.  She had a routine which she shared with her husband: they breakfasted together and had lunch together, working during the morning and having a life outside of writing in the afternoon.  She thinks this is very important for a writer, to be out in the world doing other things too.  But now she’s a widow she is having to reinvent herself, and though she said that her longstanding habits are helping, the audience could tell from a slight catch in her voice that she is finding it very hard.

Witi Ihimaera began with the revelation that as a child he had to do his homework quickly before the oil in the lamp was used up, and then he wrote on the walls.  He used a lot of Maori words in his talk so I didn’t understand it all, but it was something about having an awareness of the void and only being able to write when the dawn comes.  He talked about being guided by Maori principles, but I didn’t catch much of this, except that it’s important to write their mythology for a new generation because it’s their inheritance, and how in New Zealand the Maori are writing their way into existence.  I think he also said that he identifies with an international Indigenous audience, more than with the readers here.  Could he have said that there were only 12 Maori writers in contemporary NZ, or did I mishear him?  I hope that’s not true, it’s shocking if it is.

As readers of my travel blog know, I have always tried to learn some of the language of the places I visit.  I am reasonably confident in French and Indonesian, and can get by quite well in Spanish, Italian and Russian.  I can also do German and Vietnamese with a phrase book at hand.  But it never occurred to me that I should learn some Maori before coming here, and I didn’t know that NZ is officially a bilingual country.  it’s a bit disconcerting.  I can’t see myself spending six months learning a language that is spoken only in one place in the world, and besides that, I have a yearning to learn the language of the Bunerong people on whose land I live.  (I have put my name down to do a course in it whenever it becomes available).  Yet it feels a bit like a failure when I don’t understand what’s being said at all…

Now, here are these author’s writing places.  Can you guess whose is which?

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In the afternoon I went to hear Sisonke Msimang talk of Exile and Home, and once again it was in the big theatre and they did the thing with turning the lights off, but I have read both her books and can confidently say that she held the audience in the palm of her hand, talking about the ideas in those books.  If you haven’t read them, do it.  She is a must-read author. See my reviews here.


  1. I love the sound of that Sneak Peak session. But, only 12 Maori writers? Maybe he said 112? Or maybe he meant writers of a certain sort eg novelists (still low) and there are others who are poets, short story writers, playwrights, screenwriters etc?


    • I don’t know, Sue. It didn’t seem possible, that there could be so few, and it’s taken me a while to try to find out. If you look at the NZ Book Council website, ( there isn’t anything immediately obvious in the menu to help you find out. However if you click ‘writers files’, there’s a spread of tags on the RHS, one of which is Maori and that brings up a lot more than 12 writers. if you add the tag novelist, you get 15 names, so (given that these numbers could change at any time (newly published, or through death), perhaps his 12 wasn’t so far off. (I’ve read six of these authors BTW, and I had been berating myself for that number being so low, but now I don’t feel quite so bad about it).
      PS Alan Duff’s name isn’t in that list, and Wikipedia certainly gives his heritage as Maori: of Ngāti Rangitihi and Ngāti Tūwharetoa descent. So that 15 might well be 16?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanking you for bringing us this insight Lisa. And the slide show is lovely. Oh, and do keep us posted on the Bunerong language course.


    • Will do, Karenlee. Bunerong is a language that was in serious decline and there are now active steps to rescue it, but I gather from what I read on the site where I registered my expression of interest, that they think it’s important to offer what courses there are to Indigenous people first, and then open it up to others. So I just have to wait patiently.
      But I do know how to say ‘thank you’ in Wurundjeri: Anita Heiss taught us how to say it at the Non Fiction Festival last year… it’s mandaangguwu. I also know the word for ‘welcome’ which is Wominjeka. There is no context for me to say it since I couldn’t ever welcome people onto Wurundjeri lands, but I will understand what it means if I hear it said.


  3. It is so fascinating to hear how writers live and work. What a good idea for a presentation. (I’m writing in my jrnl this am as the clubs just let out here in Barcelona and loud drunks on the street yelling and singing in Spanish.) Haha


    • LOL I can relate to the noise! Spain is famous of course for its late nights: when we were there we soon found that after a hard day’s tourism we couldn’t stay up late enough to have dinner at 9 or 9.30 so we switched to two meals a day, breakfast and lunch.
      But here in Auckland, our hotel is right opposite the venue for the comedy festival which is on at the same time. The hotel is the perfect venue for the writers’ festival, it’s only a minute’s walk across the road, and I wouldn’t stay anywhere else, but I hope that the upgrade that they’re currently doing includes double-glazing the windows because there have been some very raucous people out on the street until early in the morning!


  4. Reblogged this on Travels with Tim and Lisa.


  5. I enjoyed reading this. Wish there was more of what the Maori writer said but overall a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing.


    • Hello Joanne, thanks for your comment.
      Yes, I’m sorry, I had difficulty whenever Maori vocabulary and place names were used. Hopefully someone else will have blogged the event and made better sense of it than I could.


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