I’ve come back from the Auckland Readers’ and Writers’ Festival knowing a little bit more about the Taliban; about Pakistan and its refugee camps; the African Masai and drinking cow’s blood (which AA Gill says tastes, logically, of steak). I know a little more about the middle-aged mind and its own newborn brain cells; how to fake a college transcript in the US; and the apparently small, yet Tardis-sized kindnesses people show each other in a crisis like the Christchurch earthquake. (Fiona Farrell, who talked about this, was a brilliant speaker. She tells a story as if it’s a spontaneous, unstoppable force, something seizing her in the moment – yet what she says has shapeliness and echoing refrains, so artistry sews it all together.) I’ve bought books and books and books, after swearing I’d already spent enough on the bedside tower for one year. I’ve had an hour or two to replenish energy while reading quietly in a hotel room; or to swim alone out under the stars and moon, feeling as free and elated as the young Beethoven in the one good scene from Immortal Beloved.
Like many writers, I’ve had a behind-the-festival festival, of coffees with writer friends; taxi-rides with poets and publishers; lobby conversations with novelists; walks through central Auckland with genial, clever film critics; of wines that marry silk and cheekiness (not to mention citrus and cynicism) with writers, publishers, festival organisers and volunteers. I’ve sat in green rooms backstage with other panelists, in that heightened, shimmering, surreal, anxious space of the minutes before a public performance. In these moments I’ve longed for a costume, grease-paint, wig, props: all the ceremonial trappings of a stage show that help an actor get into character. I’ve longed for a script, with lines. (Hence poetry readings can feel less stressful than discussions.) Waiting backstage at a writers’ festival is something more like waiting for a job interview: where you know you are going to have to perform a version of yourself, but the lines haven’t been written yet, because readers’ curiosity can come spinning round all sorts of unexpected corners.
Before the panel talk with Carol Beu, Charlotte Randall and Laurence Fearnley, I’d crammed in a bit of breathless ‘I’m going to fail the exam!’ revision of a lot of my non-fiction research so that I could answer questions about everything from the Forbidden Experiment, feral children, hypertrichosis, gigantism, acromegaly and selective or traumatic mutism. I should have written it all up on my trouser cuffs, and done what they tell you to do in exams: which is to twist what you have learned to suit the question. Because when I was asked about where Bu’s character came from, instead of talking about the way he grew from a number of influences, rumours, sources, known phenomena, fantastic possibilities, I found myself calling on personal anecdotes. They told the truth: but they told it slant, and it was a different slant from the one I’d meant to take. Sometimes writers even hide from themselves. There is something in this, perhaps, of Bu’s own elusiveness – and the fact that the contact he makes with people is fleeting, restless; that he yearns for, yet can’t achieve genuine intimacy. He’s like a paper boat constantly pushed off course, slowed and entangled by the sticks and stones and water-weed it nudges into.
I’ve felt very unsettled back home after the stimulus and freedom of the festival. A wise woman I know – also a writer, and a mother – mine actually – says this odd little inner whirlpool isn’t surprising – that “one of the jobs of a festival is to remind writers about writing and creativity”. Feeling at odds with all one’s other commitments and duties after a festival is a good sign, she counsels: it means the artistic impulses are there, waiting for the moment.
Of course, it could be nothing to do with the psychology of creativity. It might just be that I was swapped at birth and really I’m the daughter of a hotel magnate. I loved all the classy, decadent silliness of staying at the Langham. A chandelier larger than my living room! Newspapers delivered in gold monogrammed bags in the morning! Rooms marked Nirvana and Serenity! A turn-down service at night! I told Bill Manhire that I thought he’d like that phrasing: but that maybe it was the sort of service publishers would like more than writers. He laughed, dutifully. Still, I’m keeping my eye out for it in one of his poems. Of course, it could also be a very useful service for anyone pursued by just too, too many suitors or fans. Though if the turn-down service involved Langham-style chocolates on the pillow, sheets laid open, and a fresh pair of slippers by the bed, the pursuers could be forgiven for saying, “Mixed messages. Can I call you?”
Ah, the Auckland Readers’ and Writers’ Festival. Ah, the Langham. Tonight, as I was cleaning up toddler sick, a flood of hot soapy water, and the shattered pieces of the broken green bucket that re-spewed all the toddler spew all over the laundry walls, window, floor, my jeans, my face, and my hair, it was all too easy to see why some writers become festival junkies, and grow afraid of their desks at home. But there is some comfort in the thought that if we got too used to someone else dealing with the abject, someone else cleaning up after all our real, small and large agonies, soon we’d be hiring not just room service, but keyboard service too. We’d have to hang one of two little signs on the door: Please Do Disturb Me (Need Material) or Please Ghost Write my Next Book.