Naomi McCleary, co-founder and chairwoman of Going West Writers Festival, reflects on 25 years. She talks to Eleanor Black.
What were you reading 25 years ago?
Well, Going West by Maurice Gee had been out four years and when the idea of the festival was first mooted, that was the motif in my mind. When I look at that first festival's programme, I see there were new novels out by Stephanie Johnson, Emily Perkins and Debra Daley - and I'm sure I read all of them as well.
How did the first festival come together?
Bob Harvey was the mayor and I was arts manager for Waitākere City. I walked into a bookshop in Parnell called Under Silkwood to buy a book and there was this guy behind the counter, Murray Gray [co-founder of Going West]. We were both Westies and he said, "I have always wanted to run a steam train from Auckland to Helensville and replicate the trip Maurice Gee described in Going West and to celebrate New Zealand writing." I said, "Are you serious, because I can help you make that happen." It was about bringing forth the voices of New Zealanders through its writers and orators. That first year, Gil Hanly came along and said she would be our photographer and Marti Friedlander would also leap up and take photographs.
Going West doesn't feel like other literary festivals. What do you think makes it unique?
The programming by Murray Gray and Peter Simpson, then associate professor of English at the University of Auckland, was so rich. The 1996 programme opened with "Breathing Works", which was Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Robert Sullivan and Bernard Makoare discussing and reciting Māori oral and written literature. Bernard Makoare also played taonga puoro. Everyone who was invited to the festival was invited for the whole weekend. If they were from out of town we gave them beautiful accommodation, we looked after them and it was a very convivial atmosphere. I can remember when we first flew in a writer from the South Island and she came and did her session on stage and then buggered off to spend time with her friends in Auckland and I felt outraged. It just wasn't how we did things.
This year the festival is taking the form of podcasts. How did you manage that?
We have this incredible archive. In 1996 someone introduced us to a sound tech, a guy called Davyd Hodge. He offered to record it and he stayed with us for 24 years and has recorded every word that was said on broadcast-quality format. For quite a few years he would give me the tapes or CDs and I would put them in a box under my desk at work. I didn't quite know what to do with them, which I am embarrassed to say. It has got some of the most precious stuff on it because the way the festival was programmed we had the most unlikely people together that would give the most amazing, heartbreaking and moving moments. It is a very quirky collection.