It’s a Kind of Magic

1 October, Spiegeltent
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2017

There’s a different audience in the Spiegeltent this afternoon.  Children sit, clutching books.  Groups of teenagers chat in hushed tones, laughing faces reflected in the tent’s many mirrors.  They have come to hear about magic.  The magic of stories, the magic of writing, and the magic of how books, and reading, can play a part in forming who you become.  Kate De Goldi and Gareth Ward, two authors who can undeniably conjure the most compelling and touching tales, are joined by Jess Soutar Barron as chair.  The trio sit, blue-tinged around the edges from the turquoise back lights, delving into their most recent, and award-winning, novels.

Gareth’s is ‘The Traitor and the Thief,’ a rip-roaring steampunk tale of heroes, heroines and mysterious mechanical creations. And one which I couldn’t put down; literally, I read it while stirring the dinner on the stove.  Kate’s ‘From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle’ has a different pace.  It is slower, ponderous, and contains stories within stories, and many mysteries of its own.  It looks closely at the vibrant lives of brother and sister, Barney and Ren, and the rich tapestry of the world which surrounds them in their home on ‘the High Street’ – inspired by Christchurch’s pre-earthquake High Street.

Both stories share a theme of children being parented by many, and both have vivid, tangible characters.  Where do these personas come from?  Kate reveals she has had the idea for ‘Barney’ for 7 or 8 years, she knew she wanted to write about children living on a retail street, above a shop, and being parented by everyone on that street.  Barney himself was inspired by her nephew, a budding zealot of a filmmaker whose younger brother would “put himself to bed during the holidays so he didn’t have to participate in the filming”.  Gareth’s characters take flight both from the people around him, and the many hats he has worn in his life to date as magician, hypnotist, policeman and Royal Marine Commando.  Zonda, the feisty, genius heroine of ‘The Traitor’ was inspired by his daughter.  “So many heroines in middle fiction at the moment are masculine, kick-arse Katniss types,” he says, “but I wanted a quirky, clever heroine who was still feminine.” The issue of Zonda’s weight, and the bullying she receives because of it, is raised by Kate as being a recognisable contemporary theme.  Commenting, Gareth muses: “I think that it’s an important message to convey, that you can be happy how you are, with who you are.  Zonda isn’t trying to be anything she’s not.”

The conversation weaves through many topics and the authors’ (very different) writing processes – Kate methodically edits as she goes whereas Gareth ‘spews’ words and comes back when the first draft is complete.  The starting point for all their books, they both agree, is the characters.  The writing starts “when you know what they want and what is stopping them,” says Kate.  Both also muse that writing is like dreaming, the subconscious part of the brain working unbeknownst to the writer, eventually spitting out seemingly ‘serendipitous’ ideas and plot twists.  When the questions come, someone asks what they loved to read as children.  “Anything and everything,” says Kate, “from novels to the back of the cornflake packet!  Reading formed me, I am a truly obsessive reader.”  Gareth loved military inspired stories, one of his favourites spurring him on to his first writing attempt where he clunked away at his parent’s typewriter, “writing about two pages of absolute nonsense” before giving up.

So, writing is hard work, but can it also be magic?  It’s a resounding ‘yes’ from Gareth: “All you’re using are words, and in the end, you’ve created this living, breathing human being who people either love or hate.  Writing is magic!”  I challenge anyone who’s read his or Kate’s latest novels to disagree.  Writing, and reading, are escape; they are adventure, hope, colour when everything else seems grey, other worlds to live in, other lives to live which make our own so much richer.  Books are nothing if not magic.


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