Writers in conversation - Maggie Rainey-Smith reports

The Wellington Branch of NZSA met at the Thistle Inn on Monday evening for their branch meeting.   We were sponsors for the regional prize for the National Flash Fiction competition and Janis Freegard came along to read her winning entry (runner up in the National competition and winner of the regional prize) – Elephant.   What a pity if you missed it!   I see that the winning stories are not yet in print as the organisers are considering an anthology.   So, if you didn’t join us on Monday, you will have to wait a while before you hear this delightful and very clever piece.   This was followed by two recently published local writers who came to talk to us, Gigi Fenster (left) and Catherine Robertson (right).   Catherine had stepped in at the last minute when Ellie Catton was unable to get to Wellington on time (flying back from the UK).

               What a terrific conversation we had.   Both writers were very generous, open and entertaining.   We started with Gigi who decided to interrogate the ‘Jewish Novel’ and to ask us, (and herself), is there really such a thing?   I haven’t read Gigi’s highly praised (The Herald describes it as a standout debut) novel ‘The Intentions Book’ but it seems that it has been touted as New Zealand’s first Jewish-themed novel.    Gigi evidently was taken by surprise to be asked this question in an interview with North and South.   She told us she had looked up the definition of a Jewish Novel and reeled off all the usual suspects – Roth, Potok, Kafka, Bellow, et al, - and she had quite a bit assistance on this  from our very well read audience.      Then very humorously, and in quite some detail, Gigi described a conversation with her sister on this very topic which might well have been a piece of dialogue from a Woody Allen movie and more or less proved her point to the audience, if not to herself – indeed her sister had no qualms at all – yes, it is a Jewish novel. 
               Catherine and Gigi are friends which is how we were able to ask Catherine with such short notice to step into the breach.    She is a very funny woman and her talk to us was a series of running jokes read with speed, humour and anecdotes about where the jokes came from.   Once again the audience joined in when she began reciting the Cockney Alphabet and couldn’t remember all of it.   She told us that she was raised on humour citing her grandfather as one strong influence and her father as the king of puns.    Catherine, like Gigi, has been genre-cast and so, like it or lump it, her novels are considered chick-lit; her latest replete with a pink girly cover.   But this is one very smart writer and you realised very quickly that we’re not talking fluff.    She told us that she wrote to 19 UK Agents before she found someone to represent her and she’s gone on to be the hot new girl at Random with her best-selling ‘The Sweet Second Life of Darrel Kincaid’, and a new novel due out soon ‘The Not So Perfect Life of Mo Lawrence’.

               Interestingly, in the audience was another friend of the two guest speakers, Bronwyn Evans, a writer for Regency Romance who was very modest and humble about her work, but we were all extremely interested and would love to hear more from her.   And hopefully, with some encouragement, we will.   What shone through in the conversations with these writers was their overall disregard for genre, and that they were writing to their strengths and respectful of each other’s writing and talent.  It was suggested (by Gigi I think) that books might perhaps be displayed in shops by colour rather than by genre.    
               The highlight of the evening for me and I think for others, was the honesty and humour of the two guest writers.   They were interrogating their own success in some way and you very quickly learned that success is not some magic formula or sudden luck.  We were not a large group and this afforded a quite intimate exchange, turning the presentations into a kind of conversation.    I can’t help thinking how fortunate we are to have so much talent on our doorstep, and now of course, I have at least two more novels on my list of ‘must reads’ and so should you.