Marlborough Book Festival #2: C.K.Stead owns his laurels

C.K. Stead is many things—poet, novelist, writer of short stories, New Zealand’s current poet laureate, academic and critic. Before the Marlborough Book Festival I knew him primarily as a critic, connected through his poetry to some of the iconic New Zealand writers—Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame especially, though he’s also the foremost expert on Katherine Mansfield. I know that I read Stead’s writing on Mansfield as an undergraduate studying New Zealand literature, but not having any interest in poetry, I didn’t exactly go looking for his work.

Until the opening session of the festival, An Evening with C.K. Stead, I had no idea that he’d written fiction. The fact that in his career he has spanned so many different kinds of writing just astonished me. When we got the chance to ask questions at the end, I asked him why he placed the most importance on his poetry. He said that poetry is the most difficult form of writing because there are so many limitations on it in terms of length and form. While short stories and novels allow you a lot of words to tell the story, in a poem, you’re trying to capture a vision you have. Only you will know if you’ve succeeded. It’s very difficult to get it right, but when you do the reward is even greater.

This literally made me view poetry in an entirely new light. I’ve always thought of myself as a story teller, and poetry as something totally removed from the type of writing I want to do. But imposing a limit on yourself, forcing yourself to really sharpen your writing, pay attention to vocabulary choice and make every word count… That’s what fiction writers do with drabbles.

One of my biggest writing bad habits is my verbosity. I’m pretty much a Victorian novelist about a century and a half too late to the party, producing 120,000 word drafts with lumbering plots and overly complicated plots. (Think I’m exaggerating? The book that is now Life After Humanity has been separated into three separate novel-length stories.)

C.K.Stead didn’t just make me interested in poetry, he made me want to try it. I came away from the festival inspired to try writing something each day—whether a drabble or a poem, something that would work on my craft. I’ve only done this once, but here it is:


Frost makes a watercolour countryside,

the field a washed-out green,

faded grass on smooth plains.

Deeper colour at the edges,

where the earth is crinkled.


The other thing that really impressed me about Stead was his confidence in his work. He’s eighty-five years old, and has been writing in one form or another most of his adult life. When he speaks about his work, he’s really frank. He says when he reads his old work, some of it is terrible, some of it didn’t work, but occasionally he finds something that he thinks is rather special.

I consider myself a beginner writer, and I think the majority of my writing friends are in the same boat. We suffer frequent self-doubt, second-guess ourselves and our writing, and find it really hard to judge the quality of what we write. C.K. Stead’s confidence was really refreshing to me—as inspiring as anything he shared about his writing.



Marlborough Book Festival #1: Navigating a Writer’s Life with Joy Cowley

Last week I hopped on the bus up to Blenheim for the Marlborough Book Festival, something I’ve wanted to do for years. Marlborough is known for its sunny climate which makes it ideal for vineyards. The area produces some of NZ’s best wine (and I’m not just saying that because my wine-maker uncle lives there!). What goes better with wine than a good book?

I’m not entirely sure how the Book Festival came about, but my librarian Aunt and cousins have been involved with the festival since the start. 2017 was the festival’s fourth year. While this year was the biggest so far, the festival has a really fun, friendly atmosphere. The interviews feel more like conversations and the format allows for lots of questions from the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and really recommend it for fellow kiwis!

Unfortunately, I arrived in Blenheim with a really vicious cold. I was planning to do some sight-seeing around the festival, but I only managed enough energy to go to four festival sessions. There were a lot of naps. It’s only now that I’m starting to feel better that I realise just how sick I was, and I’m impressed I made it to the festival at all! Huge thanks to my cousin and her partner for taking such good care of me.

All of the sessions I went to were highlights for me, but I’m starting with Joy Cowley because she’s the one that keeps coming up in conversation. She needs no introduction to New Zealanders, but for everyone else, she’s best-known as a children’s author, but has written short stories and novels.

Rather than focusing on any one book, the interview with Joy ranged over her entire life, because almost every part of her life has impacted her writing. She’s a firm believer that everyone has a path and says that while at times we may feel directionless and like we don’t know where we’re going, it’s possible to look back and see a direct line to where we needed to be. She’s in her seventies, and I really appreciated hearing from an author at the peak of career—although she’d argue its still an apprenticeship.

Another thing that really stood out for me is that Joy gets up at four AM every morning and writes until eight AM. It’s pretty standard advice for authors to get up early, but I imagined that once you’ve ‘made it’ like Joy has, you would get to sleep in! She works hard, but she obviously finds the work rewarding, and that in itself is inspiring.

I borrowed a copy of Navigation, Joy’s memoir, from my Aunt to read after the festival, and her voice is so strong in it, that it was honestly just like hearing her speak. Writing friends, check this out! Yes, she’s traditionally published and her journey is specific to New Zealand, but I think her practical approach and the fact she is looking back over a very varied writing career is a really good antidote to all the negativity, stress and high demands of today’s write to market mentality. Plus, there’s something intrinsically interesting about other writer’s journeys (I haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet, so I can’t compare them, but I imagine there’s a similar appeal).

Anyway, most of the author sessions at the Book Festival were an hour long, but Joy requested an hour and a half, because she had a feeling there would be a lot to talk about. She’s a natural story teller, and when the time for questions came, I was disappointed—I just wanted to hear more of her stories! She gave advice to current children’s authors and freely shared where her ideas came from. She’s generous with her advice and time, and I really regret that at the end of the session, I didn’t have the energy to go up and talk to her—though it’s probably best I kept my germs as contained as possible.

I Sat in Dame Ngaio Marsh’s chair!

Dame Ngaio Marsh was—along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers—one of the Queens of Crime, a group of women writing during the Golden Age of the Detective story. In addition, she was an artist and an enthusiast for the theatre, becoming recognised as much for her services to New Zealand theatre as she was for her detective novels. And yes-she was a New Zealander. In fact, she lived in Christchurch most of her life. And it never occurred to me that her house might still be here and that you can visit it.

Turns out her house is here in Christchurch and you can visit it. You simply need to arrange a time and date with one of the tour guides and off you go (! I e-mailed and have been binge-reading Ngaio Marsh any free moment I got since.

I was lucky enough to join an already booked group, and visit on a day when a guide was being trained, so there were five of us Ngaio Marsh enthusiasts in the same place. This never happens! It was hugely exciting–as exciting as her house.

By modern standards it’s small–but full of treasures. Ngaio was an only child, so she inherited a few family heirlooms from both sides of her family, as well as those she collected herself in her travels. Some of her dresses still hang in her wardrobe, and her the furnishing are just as they were when she lived in the house–with a few exceptions (there were some breakages because of the earthquake and a few repairs).

What I found most interesting is how the rooms were used. There was no spare room, no office. In this lovely dining room, Ngaio Marsh entertained visiting celebrities including Laurence Olivier. This room is the least altered from the house’s original appearance. Marsh’s parents built it, and originally the entire house was this dark wood.


Her kitchen was practical, small (despite being enlarged from its original size), and an amazing collection of seventies style. Our guide was not a fan. I thought it looked neat–but then, I didn’t have to try and cook in it!

Ngaio’s bedroom was fantastic. It blended her theatrical and artistic sides. Her passport is there, along with her travelling trunk and there were hatboxes stacked on top of the wardrobe. I was happy to spot some Japanese woodcuts in one corner, but my favourite discovery was the copy of Lord of the Rings on the shelf.

The long room. It was a combination living room and office. I gravitated to an impressive looking typewriter, but it turns out Ngaio wrote longhand sitting in her green armchair. Later her secretary typed things up for her.

Towards the end of her life, Ngaio had her basement converted into an office/bedroom/bathroom/studio so that she wouldn’t have to climb the stairs to her house.

The tour takes an hour, but after it finished, we must have spent a good thirty minutes just talking with our guide. The gentleman visiting with his wife seems to know a lot about New Zealand theatre, going to school with a few of the successful actors that Ngaio promoted, and he and our guide reminisced about people they knew connected with Ngaio. I felt really glad that I timed my visit to coincide with another group, as I feel I got more of an insight into that side of her life.


I took a lot of photos, but I feel hesitant about sharing all of them. Instead, here is my highlight—the moment I got to sit in the chair where Ngaio Marsh wrote her mystery novels. The bookcase directly in front of me had all of her first editions. Actually, she had bookcases in every room we visited. It was definitely my kind of house. Any Christchurch visitors (M. Caspian, what do you think?): Just so you know, I will totally return to this house and tour with you anytime.



Rangitoto: Auckland’s Youngest Volcano

There are fifty volcanoes in Auckland. Fifty! Fortunately most of them are dormant, but that was not always the case–as Rangitoto reminds us. This iconic island rising out of the Auckland harbour came into being in its current form 600 years ago. Today it is a pest-free reserve that you can visit. So I did.

Rangitoto is separated from the rest of Auckland by the Rangitoto channel, so to get there I headed to Auckland’s ferry terminal. Sadly, this charming old building is not in operation as the ferry terminal any longer, but the new terminal is pretty cool. I grabbed my ferry tickets and tour ticket, did some last minute shopping and hopped aboard the Rangitoto ferry.


The last minute shopping was necessary because Rangitoto doesn’t have any shops or restaurants. There are three boats to the island every day and that’s it. You have to take anything you need with you–and take it away with you afterwards. I haven’t hiked in … a decade, but I really enjoyed making my preparations for this trip.


Rangitoto has three types of scenery. This is the mangrove.

Upon arrival you can set off on your own to explore, but I decided to take the tour. I thought that it would be good to have Rangitoto’s features explained by a guide, and I’m really glad I did. For a start, I’ve never seen landscape like Rangitoto. The island is mostly made up of expanses of black, pumice-like rock. These are the remains of lava flows. The top of the lava cooled faster and became rock, even while the lava beneath it stayed molten and moving. The still molten lava carried the rocks with it, breaking them up into the smaller rocks they are now.


Lava rocks with pohutakawa ‘islands’ in the background.

When water falls on Rangitoto, the fresh rain water goes pretty much straight through the lava-rock, and sits on top of the saltwater, beneath the island. Pohutakawa, a native tree here, are able to penetrate deep within the lava rock to reach that fresh water. They grow, eventually spreading branches and forming a canopy, beneath which other plants can grow, surviving in the shade the pohutakawa provides and living on the dirt formed by the pohutakawa’s fallen leaves. Amidst the black oceans of rock, islands of greenery form around the pohutakawa trees. In places, the islands have joined together, and a bush is forming. Rangitoto is home to the largest remaining pohutakawa forest.


As you climb the summit of Rangitoto, the forest is more established. It’s hard work walking over the lava-rock, but the forest paths are cushioned by dirt and shaded by many trees. The pohutakawa give way to a variety of trees. This is where Rangitoto’s celebrated birdlife is. After the island was established as a pest-free reserve, a number of endangered species were reintroduced to the island, including the saddleback. I’d never seen one, but was really hopeful I would. The only problem was would I recognise it if I saw it? I know what most of New Zealand’s more outlandish native birds look like, but had never heard of a saddleback prior to visiting Auckland.


The tour dropped us off at a series of steps leading towards the summit. It was an easier climb, but I dawdled, letting most people pass me, hoping to see some birds in the forest. I was lucky! Three kakariki–a type of parakeet, green except for a splash of red above their beaks. I then heard something digging through leaves and spent a good ten minutes anxiously stalking my unseen quarry along the track, only to discover it was a common blackbird! I decided to complete the climb to the summit, and ate my lunch enjoying the view across Auckland harbour. On my way down, I saw a British tourist trying to spot a tui that was eluding him. I helped him identify the tui, and from his description, a fantail he’d spotted earlier. He was delighted. ‘I saw a saddleback too,’ he said. ‘I knew it was a saddleback, because it had the patch of brown on its back.’

Now I knew what the saddleback looked like–and that it was close by! I wasn’t lucky enough to spot it before those on the tour had to meet at the bottom of the summit track, to continue the tour, but I was coming back. After the tour, I’d decided to double back and head to the lava caves. After the birds, the lava caves were what attracted me to Rangitoto. All I knew about them was that you needed a torch, which had to promise fairly considerable caves!


Lava cave. Currently without lava! 

The caves were cool. Not as big as I’d imagined, but I really enjoyed following the tunnel through. The walk there was pretty tough going–40 minutes across the lava-rocks, which were hard to walk on. As there was no cover from surrounding trees, it was really hot–probably not helped by the rocks, which can sometimes have a temperature above 50 degrees celsius! Once I reached the forest it was a lot more pleasant. Shaded, and the path was much more comfortable. I took my photos of the cave, stopped for another snack, then started back to catch the boat.

On my way back, I saw a black bird over head. I couldn’t tell whether it was a blackbird or a tui, so I paused to watch it. I was looking for the white tuft of feathers that identify a tui, when another walker appeared. ‘Spotted something?’ he asked. I pointed at my bird. ‘Nice! A saddleback,’ he said. Saddleback! I looked again–yes, there were the brown feathers in a saddle shape on the bird’s back.

The walker pointed out the saddleback to his two friends, who just caught up with him, pointing out the shape and length of the bird’s beak as other identifying features. He then spotted a whitehead and its chick in the trees, watching us. The whitehead is common–but only in the North Island, so this was another good find for me! I not only visited a volcano and climbed through lava caves, but can add three more NZ birds to my ‘have seen for reals’ list–but I had to get back to catch the ferry.


The one bird I managed to get a decent photo of–the whitehead! Note you cannot actually see its white head, but trust me. It had one.

I would love to end my Auckland adventures with triumphant cannoli eating at the Italian restaurant on the Viaduct that M Caspian told me about. Unfortunately, that is not what happened! I would have been in time, except that when I got back to the pier, there were two boats waiting. I followed the crowd and climbed aboard the first boat to depart–which turned out to be the wrong boat. Whoops! I had a really enjoyable time on the harbour cruise, but I did not get to try my Italian pastry.

Obviously, I need to return to Auckland!

Chinese New Year-Kiwi Style

My Auckland adventures continue! After visiting Highwic and Ewelme, I was ready for lunch. My cousin and his wife who very, very kindly decided to come with me on my historical expeditions drove through Mission Bay to St Heliers for lunch. St Heliers is a beautiful sandy beach, with views across Auckland Harbour to Rangitoto (this will be important later).


See? Beautiful. Lunch was great–and then cousin suggested Devonport. One of my new Auckland friends had mentioned there was a really good boutique stationary store in Devonport, so I was all for this. Sadly, Fitzgerald Taylor was closed Sunday, but this may have been a good thing for me. As it was, cousin and wife introduced me to Devonport Chocolates which did not go well for me (or went extremely well–I’m going with extremely well).

Devonport was also extremely attractive, full of lots of character houses and period shops. I was really happy and not entirely disappointed that we headed home early–or so I thought.



Turns out that cousin and his wife also wanted to go to the Auckland Lantern Festival, held to celebrate Chinese New Year. We drove all the way back into Auckland, heading to Auckland domain, a park in the centre of the city.

Our first priority wasn’t the lanterns–it was the food! There were numerous stalls set up throughout the domain. We headed for the night market, which had a variety of food from different asian countries and gelato. Deciding what to get was really difficult–so I basically got two dinners (I regret nothing).

While we ate, we waited for it to get dark so that the lanterns would be more spectacular. My camera did not do a great job of capturing the colour and light of the lanterns, but they were pretty spectacular–and there was a wide variety! Some were traditional…


Others, less so.


Yeah, you’re seeing this right–sheep lanterns! Because New Zealand (seriously, does any other country have a prime minister who joins sheep shearing competitions?).

Happy Year of the Rooster, everyone!

Highwic: Historic House in Auckland

Last day in Auckland! I have had an amazing trip, though I am looking forward to getting back to Christchurch so I can really get to work on all the good stuff from the Joanna Penn seminar.

I got up to a lot in Auckland. I’m going to be sharing my adventures in later blog posts, but I’m starting with the first of two historic houses we visited in Auckland: Highwic.


Highwic is a Gothic mansion, that started as a Carpenter Gothic cottage from a mail-order catalogue, that was expanded to meet the needs of the growing Buckland family. Considering that the Buckland family grew to include 21 children, you can see why they’d need a mansion!

What’s really cool about Highwic is that the same family lived in it over three generations, and the last family members to occupy it moved out in the seventies. This means that a lot of the original furniture and decorations remained. It was really easy to look at the rooms and imagine how they would be used.

Alfred Buckland had two wives, and so his numerous children were spread out, with the eldest of his daughters marrying and moving out as the younger were born, so there were never twenty-one kids home at the same time. Nonetheless, housing so many kids was hard work. The solution: a boy’s dormitory in the attic.


At one time, seven of Buckland’s sons shared this room. It was the attic above the ballroom, and hot in summer, cold in winter–in short, character building.  The eldest son living at home got his own room with a door, bridge and a small window so that he could look in on his brothers and make sure they were behaving.


It reminds me of the one term I was at boarding school. The thing is, you could go home from boarding school. This was home.


Auckland Haul!

Did I mention I was in Auckland? I’m in Auckland! And having a great time, mostly thanks to the lovely M. Caspian and the amazing Joanna Penn.

True story: My sister asks me what I’m doing in Auckland and I mention M. Caspian is taking me to the Typo outlet store (Typo being a stationary chain here in NZ). My sister immediately frowns. “And you’re only taking one bag?” I am promptly loaned an extra bag with which to carry home my Typo haul.

Turns out … she knows me very, very well.


This is the result of one day in Auckland, one day with Joanna Penn! Writer friends, be jealous–she is even more fun in person than she is on the podcast! She made a lot of really complex material really easy to understand. My brain is fried, but I feel really positive about my plans for the year and enthused about writing.

Breakdown. Auckland adventures started with the aforementioned Typo outlet store, followed by Little and Friday–going to Little and Friday with M. Caspian is my new favourite Auckland tradition. To demonstrate why, here is an orange triceratops trying to steal my lemon and coconut cake.


M. Caspian’s bacon and egg pie did not survive long enough for a photo, but it was beautiful. The best bacon and egg pie I have ever been allowed to share (if it had been my pie, I wouldn’t have shared it–M. Caspian is a much better person than me).

From Little and Friday, we went on a stationary and bookstore tour, travelling to The Booklover, a charming independent bookstore, to hunt down a book I’d been asked to find, before continuing on to kikki-k, where we spent a really enjoyable time browsing more stationary. This is where I acquired my beautiful pens!

Saturday was the reason for me coming to Auckland–Joanna Penn’s Successful Self-Publishing Seminar. It was fantastic. 40 people, but it felt like a much smaller group. I saw old friends, made new ones, and left feeling the most enthusiastically exhausted I have been in ages. It was all go–I learned lots of things and am fired up to get to work, which was what I most needed.

And I got the chance to talk to Joanna and tell her just how much her books and podcasts have helped and inspired me over the years! I was not brave enough to ask for a photo together, but I did get this:


She signed it for me! (and yes, that is my real name)

I do not think I could have had a better time in Auckland–and I still have two days left! I’m planning to explore Auckland (weather permitting) and share my adventures here on the blog, so stay tuned for more–although I have been banned from entering any other stationary shops.