Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2020

Auckland Writers Festival Writers Winter Series, featuring Maggie O’Farrell, Colin Thubron, Rose Lu, Ann Patchett, hosted by Paula Morris

This afternoon I listened to the final episode of the Auckland Writers Festival Writers Winter Series, hosted by Paula Morris and featuring Ann Patchett talking about The Dutch House; NZ author Rose Lu, discussing All Who Live on Islands, British travel writer Colin Thubron talking about Shadow of the Silk Road, and British author Maggie O’Farrell talking about her Women’s Prize nominated novel Hamnet. 

From the website:

MAGGIE O’FARRELL (Ireland / Scotland) Acclaimed Irish-British novelist Maggie O’Farrell has won numerous awards for her books including the Betty Trask, the Somerset Maugham and the Costa Book Awards. Her latest novel Hamnet, a recreation of the story of the death of Shakespeare’s eleven-year-old son, has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her memoir I am, I am, I am reached number one in the Sunday Times bestseller list.

COLIN THUBRON (England) Travel writer Colin Thubron is considered one of Britain’s finest wordsmiths and was ranked by The Times as one of the 50 greatest post-war British writers. Colin has written 15 travel books, largely focussed on Russia, Central Asia and China, including Mirror to DamascusShadow of the Silk Road, and To A Mountain in Tibet’ He is also an accomplished novelist.

ROSE LU (Aotearoa New Zealand) Rose Lu has a master’s in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington, winning her year’s creative non-fiction prize. Her work has been published in SportPantograph PunchTurbine Kapohau, and Mimicry and she has recently published the essay collection All Who Live on Islands.

ANN PATCHETT (United States) Beloved American author Ann Patchett has written three non-fiction titles and seven novels, including the Orange-Prize winning Bel Canto and her latest The Dutch House. She is the co-founder of indie bookstore Parnassus Books and in 2012 was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.

HOST: PAULA MORRIS (Aotearoa New Zealand) Paula Morris (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Whātua) is an award-winning fiction writer and essayist. The 2019 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, she teaches creative writing at The University of Auckland, sits on the Māori Literature Trust and is the founder of the Academy of NZ Literature.


Maggie O’Farrell was up first.  Everyone knows about Hamnet (on my TBR) and how it’s been nominated for the Women’s Prize, it needs no introduction.  And yet, as Paula noted, few novelists have dared to conjure fiction about Shakespeare and his family. Maggie was fascinated by the possibility and took years to do it, confessing to a superstition that she couldn’t do it until her own son was past the age that Hamnet the boy dies.  She was also astonished by how much, in the research that she did, Anne Hathaway has been vilified by scholars and authors… (But not in Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife, which I recommend everyone to read, see my review here).  In Maggie’s novel the Shakespeare marriage is a partnership, and she notes that at the end of his life when he was a very rich man, he went back from London to Stratford which implies that, contrary to the idea that he hated her, he wanted to be with his wife. She also mentioned Greer’s point that scholars who ask why 18-year-old Shakespeare married a 26-year-old (probably) illiterate woman, when they should be asking why did she marry him?  Despite the plethora of books about Shakespeare, there is actually very little known about him, and this leaves the novelist free to create a plausible story.

Colin Thubron is celebrated as a travel writer and a novelist, a man who says that to travel is his profession, even though it brought him into danger sometimes.  Paula asked, will travel writing still be possible in the COVID_19 world?  Thubron says it might seem as if the pandemic is going on forever, but it will end.

Shadow of the Silk Road (2007) isn’t his most recent book, that is (as far as I can tell) To A Mountain in Tibet. But he read from Shadow of the Silk Road, and most of the discussion and the reading was about that. He pointed out that the Silk Road is a recent name and it isn’t just one road, it is many, and it traverses countries in Asia from the heart of China into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran and into Kurdish Turkey.  There was discussion about the Uyghurs  in China, an ethnic group that is very different within China, which is anathema to the Chinese authorities who don’t like difference.  What he found overall in his travels that the people he met just don’t conform to the lines drawn on the map and which have changed over time for geopolitical reasons.

I was very interested to hear that Thubron believes that it is essential to speak the languages of the places he goes to.  He speaks Russian and Mandarin, which must be the two hardest languages for an English speaker to learn! He was also interesting on the topic of why he travels: it seemed like an obligation, in a way.  He was brought up in an era of fearing Russian and China, and it seemed important to go and see them for himself. Paula says that it’s this that makes his books so interesting: going across borders and walls.

Paula asked Rose about the political issue of Mandarin versus other languages in China, which are considered dialects.  She didn’t realise it was until she went to China herself, and she compared it to English which is usually written one way but spoken in many ways.  Rose’s writing is often about ‘home’ and she has said she was surprised at how quickly she felt at home in China… it might be because now ‘home’ is where you want it to be and where you feel comfortable.  But it was also because (although the Chinese in China soon knew she wasn’t from there), she didn’t ‘look different’, which is not the case in NZ.  In her essays she explores cultural differences such as the preparation of food, and the notion of being fat, which can be affectionate in China, but isn’t in NZ. She read an excerpt about taking her grandmother to a supermarket for the first time.

Paula introduced Ann Patchett by saying that she couldn’t put The Dutch House down… The house which figures so much in the story seemed like an enchanted place, Paula said, so what came first, the house or the characters?  The characters, Ann said. In her first draft, the story was all about the mother, and then she rewrote it because the story turned out to be more about the children… what happens is that as you write, things change.  (You could hear the sense of wonder in her voice, that this happens!) There are fairy tale elements:  the children are thrown out of the home by the stepmother and she is a terrible mother — but It’s not a ‘bad mother’ book. The narration is limited to Danny’s voice so we only hear about the stepmother from one PoV, so this is something the reader has to work out for herself.

The discussion about the cover of the book was interesting, Ann wanted the cover not to include any architectural elements because she wanted people to imagine the house without any preconceived idea… the painting on the cover was commissioned for the book because it’s referenced in the novel, and she insisted that it be on every edition.

I enjoyed this session, but I think I prefer it when there are fewer guests.  Four of them meant that there was less time for discussion.  (As an occasional chair of literary panels, I much prefer having one writer in conversation or two at the most… it’s actually very hard to juggle equal time and shared purpose with a panel of three or four.)

My thanks to the organisers and the tech support for this entire series, and congratulations to Paula Morris for chairing each session so well. It was lovely to hear her thank her husband for his support, so a big shout out to him, and to Norman Mailer, whose big thick books propped up her laptop!

PS All the sessions are available at the festival website, so do check them out.



  1. Many thanks for the link Lisa, I will have a listen.

    I enjoyed Bel Canto, but was so disappointed with Commonwealth that I haven’t read Patchett’s The Dutch House. I’ve just put a reserve on a copy at the library. My “to read” list is getting very, very long! Have you read The Dutch House, and if so, any thoughts on it?


    • Not yet, Sue.
      (If I’ve read it, any time since the blog started in July 2008, it’s reviewed here on the blog).
      I loved Bel Canto, but I think I skipped Commonwealth…


  2. That’s a heck of a panel (and thanks for your panel reports), though I think like you I’d prefer the focus to just be on one or two authors. For example, having read and enjoyed Thurbron’s writing, I would be happy just to hear him talk for a session. The online festivals I’ve seen this year have consisted of mostly two speakers and that’s been perfect for the online format – maybe in person it would work ok to have more, but more than two zooming is a bit frazzling!


    • Well, the simple maths of it is easy. If you have an hour (which you don’t really, because the session is bookended by intros and thanks), you have to allow ten minutes for questions, four speakers means each one gets just 10 minutes. I’ve had three opportunities to have the whole hour with the author, and it’s great because you can have a real conversation, you can follow up on what’s been said, and you can ask meatier questions without the anxiety that the author will take up more than their fair share of the time!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought I already commented on this… anyway, I wish I had heard O’Farrell. Her book was amazing and I hope it wins LOTS of prizes!


    • Have you tried listening via the link in my post? It’s supposed to be available to view… please let me know if it’s not and I’ll check to see if I’ve got a broken link…

      Liked by 1 person

      • The link is fine. I just don’t have lots of patience to watch these things online, I’m afraid.


        • LOL me too. I don’t watch ’em, I listen to them while I do online jigsaws!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, I prefer one-on-ones or small panels, though some larger panels can work, particularly if they focus on a defined theme.

    Travel is such an interesting issue, that needs teasing out in various directions in terms of cultural value and economic value versus contemporary concerns re over-tourism and its impacts. Still, I like to travel!


    • Me too. I have such itchy feet!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Even just within Australia – that would be fine for me, particularly right now, but even that feels fraught (even for Canberrans. We don’t want to bring the virus back and we feel so vulnerable. Not like Tasmania which can feel a degree of safety.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve been watching that lovely series on French gardens that’s replaced Gardening Australia on Friday nights, so I have a real hankering to visit France at the moment — LOL not helped by Emma’s series of Literary Escapades on the Book Around the Corner blog. Every one she’s done has been a real temptation and I have added so many places to my bucket list I may have to move to France for twelve months to see them all.
          (BTW we are plotting a bloggers’ get-together in France for some indeterminate time in the future!)


          • Yes, I have too – and the Japanese one before that. Last night’s was really lovely wasn’t it? I have a friend whose son, DIL and two grandchildren returned to Paris this week after being here for four months. They are musicians and she came here for a musical tour in March. At the last minute, with COVID developing, he grabbed his and the children’s bags and they all came. What to do, what to do, has been their conundrum, but finally it was to return, where they now have resident status!


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