Back-to-back greatness at the Auckland Writers Festival – Herman Koch and Jane Smiley

Were you to go by the publicity mugshot of Herman Koch, you could be forgiven for thinking that he looks like a cool, severe, Nordic man - sad and distant.

But nothing could be further from the truth. He is in fact warm, self-deprecating, humorous and oh so patient with his presenter (who was having one of those days where she just couldn't stop talking, or even finish her sentences) and he, bless him, is not an interrupter.

I felt an instant bond with him: he can't memorise lines easily, he never re-reads books and he uses the things he knows very well from his private life in his story-telling and writing. Tick, tick, tick.

The DinnerWhat he does do very well in his writing is to create characters in his books (such as The Dinner) who play around with issues that are often treated in a black and white way - like Autism, homosexuality, politics and prejudice against foreigners.

Even when I have created characters who are unsympathetic, I still try to love them.

I am going to stick my neck out here and say that his next book, from which he read an excerpt, Dear Mister M (yet to be released), is going to be very popular and may end up on my 2016 Best Reads list.

Straight after Koch's event, came Jane Smiley. She is every bit as lovely and open-faced in person as she is in her promotional photo. There are so many reasons why I would feel a bond with this author: I love her books, we share a period of time in history as we are exactly the same age, and she is a slow but competent knitter (She was wearing a top that she had knitted out of soya bean wool). She was gifted an excellent presenter, and the whole event rocketed along in a very pleasing manner. Oh, and Smiley can interrupt.

Here are a couple of Smiley gems:

  • "The first step for a writer is reading"
  • "What drives me is curiosity"
  • "A writer is a gossip at heart"

In contrast with Koch, Smiley is a re-reader and does not draw from her personal life in her writing, nor does she try to love all the characters she creates. The final words however go to Koch - and although he was describing a character here, the quote could just as easily apply to writers:

Everyone can learn the steps, but not everyone can dance.

Here we have two authors who can do both - just not necessarily with one another!

Kōrerorero mai - Join the conversation.