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A place to stand – embarrassing encounters at the Word Christchurch festival




It’s weird getting to meet your heroes. I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that sometimes it’s better to not meet them. The relationship you have is imaginary – they talk to you, you imagine talking back to them. But the conversation is one-sided. This weekend I also met Kristen Hersh, who I love, and whose music was the soundtrack to the movie of my early-twenties life. She was very gracious, but again I felt as though I had constructed a relationship with someone that had nothing to do with the person sitting in front of me – the rather shy, awkward person who had way too many crazy fans offloading on her. I’m now reading her memoir and feeling as though she is revealing her truths to me only. But of course she’s not. 

Anyway, the Word Christchurch festival was fantastic. Hats off to Rachael King, who did inspired programming. 

(The chairs that I’m standing in front of in the final panel represent the people who died in the February 2011 earthquake.)

(And please excuse my awkward paraphrasing of Ellie Catton and Lawrence Fearnley – my memory is a bit dodgy and I know they put things differently)



37 Comments leave one →
  1. racheljfenton permalink
    03/09/2014 1:23 pm

    Maybe meeting literary heroes is like ruining cities; they’ll be rebuilt but they’ll exist differently to how they were constructed in our hearts.

    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      03/09/2014 9:38 pm

      What a lovely way of putting it!

  2. 03/09/2014 1:27 pm

    i like this very much, sarah.

  3. Linda Burgess permalink
    03/09/2014 1:31 pm

    Great stuff Sarah – just loved this.

  4. 03/09/2014 2:01 pm


    I realise it comes down to the same difference as far as the writer is concerned, but I wonder if this imputed resistance to read of foreign places is an issue within the agent community, or readers? As a reader I don’t believe that: yes, I love NZ novels and writing for their resonance as home, but I love rest-of-world literature for its difference. And I also reckon that’s a big part of the value of reading, to enter other cultures and experiences, which is held by a world readership.

    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      03/09/2014 9:40 pm

      Absolutely – I agree. And I’m sure there are many US readers looking for foreign experiences through reading.

      • Msconduct permalink
        04/09/2014 1:46 am

        I hope that’s true, although I’m discouraged by what I’ve read during the last 15 years on a primarily American-tenanted email list about mysteries. The gist is that novels set overseas were quite a big thing in the 1980s, but that since then Americans have become increasingly inward-looking and only want to read about their own country. I’m shocked by Meg’s comments nevertheless – but it’s her loss! Not that that helps your dazzling international career, of course – but in any case reflecting NZ on the page is a wonderful and valuable thing.

  5. 03/09/2014 3:01 pm

    Everything about this post is brilliant and true. The comic is a bonus and mighty like it. May you grow!

  6. 03/09/2014 3:20 pm

    OMG you stole all my private thoughts as I sat next to all those famous writers on panels where I was totally ignored by all but one or two readers (special love goes out to them – YOU know who you are!) My daughter was with me for The Stars Come Out and she told me that each time John Campbell said something like ‘she’s published NINE!! novels!!!” or and her SECOND novel!!!! has just been released’ she went ‘pfft, my mum’s had 26 books published, AND, been on the best seller, AND she’s won awards.’ When she told me this later, I reminded her that all those things in NZ, unfortunately, don’t count. I am even more determined to ‘stand up’ for OUR landscape, OUR language, OUR people. (And stay poor 😉 )

    • 03/09/2014 4:32 pm

      Bravo Tania, and Sarah. I too had a strange sense of alienation and left the party early. A little fish in an enormous pond.
      We must believe we are important for our own country’s sake, for our own sake, and keep on.
      Many don’t get to achieve what we have already and it’s getting harder and harder. So hats off to you girls. I for one am proud of you.

      • Sarah Laing permalink*
        03/09/2014 9:42 pm

        Very inspiring words! Kia kaha!

  7. exkaroriboy permalink
    03/09/2014 3:22 pm


    Great stuff. Very relevant to a part of the AUT MCW course that is coming up.

    Old adage: If you like an author’s work, never meet them. You’ll be disappointed.



  8. 03/09/2014 4:07 pm

    Hi, random stranger from the internet here! I just clicked through due to a tweet one of my online buddies sent me, and enjoyed reading a couple of cartoons. Then I recognized the cover of your novel- it is literally sitting in the “up next” spot in my to-read stack. My Mother in Law sent it to me because she knows I like to get books that I can’t find in the US. (I am an American married to a New Zealander, and we live in the US.)

    I used to go to bookstores on any overseas trip, to buy some books that I couldn’t get at home. Actually, I still do that when I can – kids in tow makes that harder. I even do this when I visit a US city with a bookstore known for having a good & diverse selection (e.g., City Lights in San Francisco). I love finding books that will broaden my horizons past what I know. The chance to learn and discover is one of the best things about reading.

    So I say, ignore the crap about not making your book too “foreign” for the US audience. People read books set on made up planets in outer space, they can read a book set in New Zealand. There are definitely a lot of people who don’t want to read about any place but the places they know, but there are also a lot of us who love to explore via books. Just maybe give us a pronunciation guide to help with the unfamiliar names!

    • 03/09/2014 6:20 pm


    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      03/09/2014 9:43 pm

      That is so great to hear – and I don’t mean to make generalisations about US readers – this was only an encounter with one reader. I hope you enjoy my novel! And it doesn’t really matter how you pronounce the words if you’re reading them in your head 🙂

  9. Rachael permalink
    03/09/2014 8:05 pm

    I can guarantee that every one of the writers in that room was feeling shy and awkward. It’s what we do best. Especially in a room of strangers.

  10. 03/09/2014 9:56 pm

    Great stuff Sarah, honest and gutsy. Bugger the world out there that doesn’t care, write for me next door and see what happens. I avoided the big parties. My best time was with two writer friends before bad after the Festival.

  11. 03/09/2014 10:19 pm

    My experience meeting authors has been a very, very mixed bag. (Sort of like my experience with people in general, come to think of it.)

    But my favorite came at a cartoonists convention last autumn, when I was talking to Eddie Campbell and his GF and, as the conversation went on, I was struck by how brilliant she was, and finally said, “So, what do you do?” at which point Eddie started laughing and said, “You don’t know who she is, do you? She’s somebody! She’s really somebody!”

    Well, I already knew she was somebody well worth talking to, and that’s the important thing. If I’d known she was Audrey Niffenegger (“The Time Traveler’s Wife” among other things), I’d have talked to her about that, and missed hearing what she thought about all the other things we discussed.

    I later read, and enjoyed the book, but I hadn’t come into the conversation with that in mind. I wish I could meet more people who turn out to really be somebody without knowing it ahead of time.

    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      06/09/2014 10:30 am

      That really does sound like the best way to meet someone you admire – by not knowing who they are. I would’ve been too tongue-tied to say anything in Audrey Niffenegger’s presence.

  12. 04/09/2014 11:00 am

    I like what Rachael said too, as we never know what others are thinking until they tell us. I always feel like I never quite belong in these venues, like I’m some kind of fake, feelings of inadequacy warring with vanity.

    Who knows if the person who strode past us in the Green Room, one that we knew, who “missed” us and joined another group they were going on with shortly, was ignoring us or just concentrating on what they were there for?

    I quite like people watching anyway. The book and the person are somehow different experiences, thank goodness – I can’t meet Max Sebald now, he’s dead, but I have his gifts, his wonderful novels.

    Festivals both are – and are not – about books. They’re about writers and readers, as the WORD sayeth, and I disagree with Joe Bennett’s recent column in the Press on that score.

  13. Emma Jean permalink
    04/09/2014 11:46 am

    What a great post, and beautiful discussion. I’m not an author but am an avid reader of both local and ‘foreign’ works. I agree with the comment that a pronunciation guide is actually nice. I’ve just been reading ‘The Round House’ (Louise Erdrich) which is a story set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota and I was trying to understand the unfamiliar words by sounding them out. I’m writing a thesis at present about local matters (including being indigenous and not being indigenous in NZ), and my supervisor says I may well have overseas examiners. So we’ve argued back and forth about how to explain Maaori words and settled on a glossary at the front rather than constantly translating them. Patricia Grace resisted that for ‘Potiki’ because she argued Maaori is an official language of the country and people should know these words or make the effort to learn them, but it’s harder if you’re not from here. And even if you can look them up, pronounciation is tough. Even explaining how the vowels are pronounced in Maaori would be really helpful to a foreign reader. Actually that’s a good idea – I’m going to add that to the glossary.

  14. 04/09/2014 5:46 pm

    I do wonder how you could complain about unfamiliar places in a book to a kiwi fan of your NY work though?

  15. 04/09/2014 8:18 pm

    I just wish to amend my statement about being totally ignored. I think my comment says a lot about me rather than the people I sat with. If they were anything like me, they’d be feeling shy and a little ‘fish out of water’ and probably feeling somewhat overwhelmed (as I know I have felt this way when on tour). No one knows writers – we are not like TV stars.

  16. 04/09/2014 8:49 pm

    Hi Sarah
    Really enjoyed reading your post & thought you might enjoy this from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary “never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers”
    I attended the Reading Favourites panel session at the WORD festival – you were fabulous -knowledgable, passionate & articulate. On the strength of your recommendation I bought a copy of Hicksville for my teenage son (of course I’ll be reading it first – I was one of those girls who read Tintin & Archie comics)

    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      06/09/2014 10:31 am

      Thanks – that’s great to hear!

  17. Victoria permalink
    05/09/2014 1:39 am

    I’m a brit and I really enjoy your blog, which has resonance for me even though I don’t get every single reference — who are these readers who can’t read something from beyond their known turf?!
    (And I love this post! I used to work for a literature festival and one of things I found most excruciating was meeting my idols, whose books I’d read and connected with, and saying, ‘Oh, I love your books…So…[casts about pathetically]…do you er, take milk in your tea?’ Gauche moments I never seem to have grown out of!)

    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      06/09/2014 10:33 am

      Funny – and the ‘I love your books’ comment never seems to have the desired impact – they usually smile politely, as if they hear it all the time. And I think heaps of people do like reading outside their experience – quite possibly even Meg. She was probably joking (and now I’ve indicted her in my comic)

  18. 05/09/2014 9:18 am

    Working as a bookseller in London years ago, I once made a cup of tea for the famous left wing politico, Tony Benn who published his best-selling diaries regularly. I had read that he liked strong sweet tea, so offered to make him one while he waited for the event to get set up. He looked deeply grateful at this human touch and enjoyed his tea. He wasn’t a hero of mine, just a tired looking writer.

    I did meet one of my heroes in Berkeley CA in November 2012, the poet Jack Gilbert. It went like this:

    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      06/09/2014 10:34 am

      What a beautiful blog piece – and how great that you managed to connect with him before he died. I wonder if he recognised the poem as being his own.

      • 06/09/2014 4:19 pm

        Thank you Sarah. I think for a moment he connected with whoever it was talking to him (he did not know me, of course)’, but there is no real way of knowing what was going on in there. His poetry is worth seeking out, a 20th century US giant who is known there by readers of poetry but not so much here, as are Ginberg, Creeley and Merwin (all contemporaries).

  19. 05/09/2014 9:22 am

    Another not so-meeting: Marilynne Robinson, Iowa 2012.

    • Sarah Laing permalink*
      06/09/2014 10:36 am

      A friend took the Iowa course and was taught by Marilynne Robison (I lover her writing so much). She said Marilynne was preternaturally smart and wise – and my friend was spectacularly clever herself. I think I would be too scared to meet her myself.

  20. 06/09/2014 4:27 pm

    Yes, if I had been on a course with her, it would have been different. The books are so spacious and ineffable in their source. She is a fine non-fiction writer too, of course, one of the best in America right now. She is a Christian intellectual (no, that is not an oxymoron) and her essays on faith in the modern world and through history are strong meat. She leaves shoddy thinking on the ropes and her work on the much maligned Calvin is a revelation. She read all of Karl Marx just to decide for herself what he amounted too, so there is nothing secondhand in her discussions. The Death of Adam is a great series of these essays.


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