Never Trust a “Sold Out” Sign – Two Nights at the Auckland Writers Festival

Yesterday and today, I attended the 15th annual Auckland Writers Festival. Sadly, of the hundreds of lectures, signings, workshops and other events the Festival has going on, I could only attend two of the lectures, thanks in no small part to my student budget and crammed student schedule. But tonight, as I sit here thinking about the events I went to in retrospect, there was a pretty amazing lesson to be learned from both of them – comedy.

I am a professional procrastinator, and despite several gargantuan banners spread across the width of Queen Street, the busiest street in the Auckland CBD that I live one block away from, I still somehow managed to totally forget that it was going on. So the Monday before the Festival began, I hopped online to check out the events. To my delight, I found some awesome events that appealed to me!

…and were all sold out.

Begrudgingly, I moved along, digging further into the programming. BINGO. I came across the name “Paula Hawkins,” author of the massive bestselling murder-mystery thriller The Girl on the Train. A book like this was on my radar for several main reasons:

1) Psychological thrillers are my favorite genre. Give me a good Hitchcockian suspense, a “they were dead the whole time” twist ending, Johnny Depp in Secret Window, WHATEVER. I’ll take it all!

2) Written by woman, featuring three female protagonists. #feminism.

3) And the biggest reason of all, the fact that later this year, the film adaptation will be coming out, starring Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, and my main girl, Rebecca Ferguson.

I bought the book earlier this year back in the States, but it was hardcover and a bit bulky for my suitcase, so I sadly had to leave it behind when I made the trek over to Auckland. So I was a little hesitant when I realized that I was going to a book talk…about a book I hadn’t even cracked the cover of.

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A photo (albeit blurry) of Paula Hawkins at her talk at the Auckland Writers Festival. Photo by author.

However, all my apprehensions went out the window upon entering the beautiful ASB Theatre in the Aotea Centre (right off of Queen Street, where all those helpful banners that I ignore hang). For a very reasonable price, I got an amazing seat and got to listen to Hawkins detail the process of writing The Girl on the Train. Hawkins began her career as a journalist, and through her agent, was commissioned to write, “chick lit,” or romantic comedy novels. This was much to her own confusion. “I don’t find myself partiularly romantic or particularly funny,” Hawkins stated dryly. As she continued to write chick lit under the pseudonym Amy Silver, she noticed that the plot elements in these carefree stories began to get darker and darker. That’s when she took a turn in her writing, began using her own name to pen her novels, and ultimately landed at what would become The Girl on the Train, the story of a divorced alcoholic who has frequent blackouts and envisions lives of strangers she passes on her train commute every day. One day, she witnesses something on her commute that turns her into an amateur detective, but uncovers many more convuluted secrets the deeper into the mystery she gets.

To my disappointment, Hawkins had little to nothing to do with the film, and hasn’t even been able to see the finished product in its entirety. Rights to the film had already been sold by the time she had released the novel. Hawkins also was a bit surprised at the casting of Blunt as the main protagonist, Rachel, saying that Blunt’s sharp features were not what she had envisioned Rachel to be like at all.

After the lecture I bought another copy of The Girl on the Train, this time in paperback with some killer red pages (no pun intended)! I’ll have you know that I am already about a quarter of the way through, and it is absolutely living up to my expecatations. Let’s hope the movie can follow suit!

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My new copy of The Girl on the Train. …I really like red pages! Photo by author.

The second lecture I attended was Gloria Steinem, famous political and feminist activist and author of the book My Life on the Road. I am a bit ashamed to admit it, but the only reason why I had ever heard of Steinem was thanks to Emma Watson’s He For She movement and subsequent book club, “Our Shared Shelf.” Watson kicked off the monthly virtual book club in January with My Life on the Road. Once again…I…I got busy, okay?! To my credit, I read a great deal of the novel, but simply got away from it. But once I did begin to delve into the material, I was a bit shocked at our educational system that someone whose influence was so far-reaching and impactful seemed to be excluded from history, or at the very least, the history I was taught. Especially as a woman myself, I would have liked to have learned about a female entrepreneur, media leader and social rights activist. There was a bit of controversy earlier in the year regarding Steinem and former Secretary of the State Madeleine Albright that did rub me the wrong way when they spoke about feminism and how it should relate to voting for Hillary Clinton as President of the United States, although Steinem later retracted her statements. Despite this, I still retained interest in hearing from this influential and successful woman, particularly because of her resurgence with people even younger than me par Emma Watson’s suggestion.

This is where the title of my post comes into play: originally, there was large, bolded text across the webpage for Steinem’s talk that rather hostilly said, “THIS EVENT IS SOLD OUT.

BLAST! Foiled again! …unless…

I clicked on the Ticketmaster link to buy tickets, just as I had successfully done with Paula Hawkins not moments before. It let me through. …hmm… From then on out, I felt like I was carefully tinkering with a ticking bomb. Any move I made, I expected some angry red flashing text to yell at me:

“HEY DUMMY. ‘SOLD OUT’ MEANS ‘SOLD OUT.’ WE FIND IT HILARIOUS THAT YOU WANT TO ATTEND A WRITERS FESTIVAL, GIVEN THAT YOU OBVIOUSLY CAN’T READ!” 

But, as most hesitations I have in my life, my fears never came to fruition. Before I knew it, I had one balcony ticket all to myself! Even today, as I approached the theatre, I walked with mild trepidation. In moments of uncertainty in social situations, I always think of comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ stand up bit where he talks about his crippling “fear of getting yelled at.” 

“I am a grown man. I have a mustache! But any time I’m in any sort of a municipal building, a post office situation…I’ll be standing in line, a line I’ve stood in countless times. The whole time I’m in the line, my lizard brain is whispering to me, ‘You might be in the wrong line. And when you get up to the glass, the lady is going to yell at you.‘ Like, what I imagine is going to happen is I will get up there and state my needs, and the lady will go, ‘YOU’RE IN THE WRONG LINE. YOU RUINED IT FOR THE WHOLE POST OFFICE. GET TO THE BACK OF THE OTHER LINE! …OH. AND YOU’RE A BAD PERSON, JUST LIKE YOU KNEW YOU WERE.'”

– Paul F. Tompkins, “Laboring Under Delusions”

I have empathized with this bit for years, because it is basically the track which underscores my daily social interactions. So would there be someone tonight at the theatre waiting to yell at me? I held my breath as the usher scanned my ticket…

…no problem. Because of course there wouldn’t be a problem. Not ever when I expect it, that is.

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Gloria Steinem at her talk about My Life on the Road. Photo by author.

The theatre was absolutely packed for Gloria Steinem, and actually created a very interesting social discourse. During the Q&A session following her talk, deep, underlying issues in New Zealand politics came to the forefront. In a way, Steinem’s prescence alone created an open forum in the theatre about abortions, equal pay between the sexes, transgender rights, “feminism” vs. “equalism,” objectification of women, sex workers, prostitution, and (everyone’s favorite topic) American politics. It was so impressive to see how one memoir and one woman behind that memoir could inspire a room full of hundreds of very opinionated people to rise up and bring forward their thoughts, with Steinem serving as the moderator. There were tense moments, joyful moments, and ultimately it left me with a lot to think about regarding my own opinions on these controversial issues.

So if there’s one thing I’m taking out of my experience at the Auckland Writers Festival with these two awesome ladies who could not be more different at face value (be it in lifestyle or genre), that despite generally writing on topics that aren’t comedic in the slightest, they both are funny people and are capable of seeing and creating comedy in their lives and work. Something that I will forever hold in my heart was something Steinem said about laughter. She studied for a time in India, and recalled a lesson she learned while there about how “laughter is the only free emotion.” While humans can be made to feel fear that we are loved, no one can force you to laugh. Laughter arises organically, as it is a result of two ideas coming together and causing a physical response unique to only that individual.

That’s why I hold Charlie Chaplin’s “a day without laughter is a day wasted,” quote so dear. That’s why all of my creative material, and even this very blog, is branded with the name “Infinita Risus,” – limitless laughter. 

In final thought, we all need to read more books, be it fiction or non-fiction, never trust an angry, “SOLD OUT” icon, I will forever fear getting yelled at…

…and remember to laugh often and laugh always!

 

 

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