"Once upon a time, you could just rock up on the day and get tickets to whatever you wanted," says a colleague, surveying the crowds and queues at the Aotea Centre on Day One of the Auckland Writers Festival.

No chance of that now. Last year, 60,000 tickets were snapped up by 20,000 attendees and this year - given every nook and cranny of the usually spacious Aotea Centre heaves with people - it looks like 20,000 have come on a Friday, supposedly a work day.

We hear Chilean writer and actor Carmen Aguirre talk about her life as the daughter of members of the Chilean Resistance, how she came to join and survive not only that but a childhood rape committed by Canada's most notorious serial rapist.

The woman has experienced so much stress and trauma, you'd expect her to be institutionalised and spend her days curled in a foetal position rocking away in a dark corner. Instead, she's warm and funny and totally engaging. Discussion centres on her life rather than her writing and that's just fine because what a life it's been.

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On joining the Chilean resistance, she explains she wanted to live and work as an informer in a shanty town but there were too many people already doing that so, aged 18, she had to learn to fly a plane and do border runs smuggling people and goods. The average time those engaged in that work lived? Two years. Aguirre survived and reckons she's still in good health because of therapy and talking about her experiences rather than carrying the baggage around.

My colleague heads upstairs to Crime Stories to hear crime writers Breakthrough crime writers Ian Austin, Paula Hawkins, and our own Ben Sanders and Elsbeth Hardie "share tales of crossing the legal line".

Such is the variety of the festival's line-up; I go to listen to British philosopher Julian Baggini discuss whether there's any such thing as free will. He makes the complex less so, although I'll admit I'm not sure I understand why his position is regarded (by some) as so contentious. It all seems good common-sense to me.

Later in the afternoon, Hanya Yanagihara tells the crowd at the ASB Theatre about how she wrote A Little Life and her first novel, People of the Trees: "It's a writer's job to imagine a life different to their own" and ponders, among other things, how success and accomplishment is defined in the United States. Many of those in the audience clutch copies of her book; they are clearly pleased with what they hear.

The State of America is the subject of a discussion featuring US astrophysicist Janna Levin, novelist Thomas Mallon and contemporary icon, feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem. Donald Trump is mentioned a lot - Mallon calls him "dangerous and grotesque" - and US politics, race relations, class and immigration get the once over. It's only an hour long so it is the once over lightly but the trio manage also to talk about the importance of hope and standing up for what you believe in. Always good to hear.

The day ends for me with A Cappella with Australian slam poet/writer Omar Musa and NZ's King Kapisi. The audience here is younger, louder and more multicultural; Musa and Kapisi are as innovative and resourceful and talented as any of the others supposedly more "mainstream" writers heard from. Musa tells the appreciative crowd: "people think what we do is modern, but it's ancient."

Which, I suppose, is the appeal of a writers' festival and the chance to hear from so many who keep story-telling alive. Oh, and anyone who predicted the death of the book has obviously never stood in a queue at a festival bookstore. Ours has three such stores; all are busy.