Linda Herrick surveys the wealth of names coming to Auckland’s Writers Festival in May.

A reclusive literary legend will make a rare appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival line-up in May: Keri Hulme, our very first Booker Prize winner. This is quite a score for the festival - Hulme rarely ventures beyond her south Westland home, for public appearances at least. The 67-year-old will take part in a debate on Sunday, May 18, called The Great Kiwi Classic, opening with a reading from her one and only novel The Bone People (1985), followed by a discussion with Irish novelist Eimear McBride, New Zealand editor Reina Whaitiri and the audience. The Bone People has been selected as the Great Kiwi Classic by a panel, a decision which has deservedly thrilled her.

Hulme's appearance follows that of her heir-to-the-throne, Eleanor Catton, who talks to John Campbell for an hour on Saturday. Since her Booker win last year, Catton has been on an international whirlwind of speaking engagements, and her lecture earlier this month at the NZ Festival in Wellington dazzled reviewer David Larsen, who said, "I can't remember when I last attempted to take in so much concise original argument in one sitting."

So, the festival can boast two New Zealand Booker Prize winners. How about two Pulitzer Prize super-stars? American writer and activist Alice Walker, who won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer for The Color Purple (1982), will head the Sunday line-up, in conversation with Selina Tusitala Marsh. Walker published two books last year, The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm's Way, and a collection of poems, The World Will Follow Joy Turning Madness into Flowers. Walker is somewhat of a target in the US, with The Cushion in the Road attacked by the Anti-Defamation League as "antisemitic".

Walker has long held strong views on the government of Israel, and was involved in the 2011 Gaza flotilla.


American writer Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer in 2013, for his satirical novel about North Korea, The Orphan Master's Son. Johnson researched the book through defectors' oral histories and visited the country himself, describing it to the Washington Post as "the cruellest psychological experiment ever cooked up". He'll talk to Metro editor Simon Wilson in the first session of Friday, May 16. The subject of North Korea is also addressed by poet Jang Jin-Sung (May 16), who defected to the south after serving as a counter-intelligence officer for former dictator Kim Jong-il. His memoir, Dear Leader, offers insights as gruelling as Johnson's - but as the real thing, not fiction.

Two sons of Edinburgh make a call at the festival, but they couldn't be from more opposite ends of the spectrum. Irvine Welsh, best known for Trainspotting and Filth, has actually written nine novels, with his latest, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, proving to be a tease, with the title totally misleading. He'll be in session with Noelle McCarthy (Friday, May 16).

The output of his compatriot, Alexander McCall Smith, is almost overwhelmingly prolific.

The 14th in his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, is just out (having read it, I can say there is exciting news for fans of Mma Makutsi), along with two new standalone books, The Forever Girl and What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, a personal perspective on how the English poet has affected McCall Smith's own life and attitudes. McCall Smith possesses an irresistible blend of impeccable manners, intelligence and benevolence - and an infectious giggle that should easily match that of his host, Jim Mora (May 16 and 17).

Writers' festivals are excellent ways of exploring new subjects, science being an area that can be made accessible and interesting via engaging writers. Physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili, president of the British Humanist Association, is one of the best. He will talk to former New Zealander of the Year and Science Communication Prize winner Shaun Hendy about Science and the Big Questions in a Saturday session that is likely to be a sell-out. Al-Khalili, who writes for the Guardian, is professor of physics at the University of Surrey. Look up his columns and you'll find a man who makes science rewarding and fun.

Al-Khalili will also take part in a panel discussion called A Question of Civilisations (Friday) with Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi and Iranian-born scholar Reza Aslan, exploring the West's long-held attitude of superiority over the Arab world.

Architecture in Auckland is the subject of great contention so former Guardian and Independent architecture critic Jonathan Glancey is a must if you want to hear about why large-scale retail design is destructive (take note: Auckland Council) and how city designs can be life-affirming. He will be chaired by University of Auckland lecturer Bill McKay (Friday, May 16).

If biography is your thing, there is plenty to sate the appetite, starting with Lucy Hughes-Hallett, whose account of early 20th century Italian poet and "serial seducer" Gabriele D'Annunzio won the Samuel Johnson, Costa and Duff Cooper non-fiction awards. Her highly acclaimed The Pike dissects a man who made his children call him "maestro" and whose admirers included Mussolini. Described by one observer as a "frightful little gnome", D'Annunzio sounds like a first-class creep, which will make Hughes-Hallett's hour on Friday all the more engaging.

American journalist Jeremy Scahill will discuss his book Dirty Wars with Toby Manhire on Saturday, followed by a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary based on the book the next day. To hear Scahill on the American use of drones and "collateral damage" is chilling indeed.

Lovers of fiction are also catered for with a line-up that includes Damien Wilkins (on his novel about Thomas Hardy, Max Gate), Elizabeth Knox (Wake), German YA writer Cornelia Funke (Mirrorworld), Scottish writer Janice Galloway (Clara, about young Clara Schumann), American A.M. Homes (May We Be Forgiven), Irish writer Eimear McBride (A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing), Swede crime sensation Camilla Lackberg and many more.

Entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery will deliver the Michael King Memorial Lecture (Sunday, May 18), while the festival ends that evening by saluting Patricia Grace as Honoured New Zealand Writer. The festival will also stage a range of special events, including a lecture by Paula Morris on the Politics of Book Prizes at the University of Auckland, workshops, and a programme for families and school kids.

Auckland Writers Festival: Aotea Centre, May 14-18; see for the full programme; tickets are on sale now.