The Writers’ Festival by Stephanie Johnson – 2015

writersfestivalThe Writers’ Festival is a rollicking good read about the six months leading up to an Auckland Writers’ Festival, the Festival itself and then the aftermath.  It is a stand-alone novel but does include some characters from the author’s previous The Writing Class.  The story is told from the point of view of the Festival Director, Rae, and that of various writers – some invited to the Festival, some not.  There is an ‘Opus Prize’ too, which is judged during the novel as it is to be awarded at the opening of the festival.   Festival Director Rae’s life is a crazy whirl of negotiating across time zones: when she tells her Mum she is going crazy with the endless communicating – saying she is constantly on the phone and can send a hundred emails in one day – ‘That’s daft’ says her Mum.  Of the characters from The Writing Class we have the pathetic Gareth Heap – an Opus judge – the flibberti Jacinta, and Merle the ex-creative writing tutor with her depressive husband Brendan.  One of the Opus nominees is Adarsh Z. Kar, a gay Fijian Indian New Zealand author living in Delhi, and a previous student of both Merle and Gareth.  So there is plenty of material for politics and intrigue, and discussions of originality and nepotism within a relatively small community.  Also plenty of opportunity for Johnson to have at it at various real life authors and styles – cheekily putting extreme views in the mouths of her characters: Gareth – “he could never read those pulp writers who make millions, the droning Dan Browns and Bryce Courtenays and Di Morrisseys.”  And having the Opus Prize allows her free reign to pass comment on the existence and judging of literary prizes.  She puts together a great festival – including Frans de Waal talking about primate altruism, George R.R. Martin ‘beaming in’ to Thronies, Richard Dawkins providing nostalgia with his ‘endearing and old-fashioned’ atheism, a whole new genre of ‘rap novel’ and even a medium channelling authors long dead.  It is a self-referential and celebratory novel – and bounded by the plight of a dissident Chinese writer, a device which nicely puts the chaotic hotbed of free literary emotions into perspective.  A great read.

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