Ruby Porter was the inaugural winner of the Michael Gifkins Prize for her debut novel Attraction, which launched in May this year. Check out some of the reviews it’s received, like this excellent one in Landfall: https://landfallreview.com/the-biggest-raupatu/
Ruby, along with Rosetta Allan (author of The Unreliable People) was invited to speak at several writers’ festivals in Canada, and Verb in Wellington. When asked how she was mentally preparing to go from the isolated life of a writer to this highly public tour, Ruby was said she was concerned.
‘I won’t have anything to say.’
Here is Ruby’s account of her recent travels.
Calgary, Vancouver, Wellington
I’ve always been quite a socially-anxious person. I’m bad at small talk. I get so nervous I forget to ask people questions about themselves.
‘First time to Calgary? First time to Vancouver?’ everyone asked.
‘Yes,’ I would say, ‘first time to Canada.’
They always seemed surprised, which surprised me. I don’t know that many people who have been to Canada.
But now I was one of those few. Rosetta Allan and I were invited to the Calgary Wordfest and the Vancouver Writers’ Fest in October. The festivals paid their international writers in cash. The thick white envelope felt illicit to hold. We were put up in hotels with thermostats and baths and mint body lotion. Most writers aren’t rich, but we can act it, for a few days.
In each hotel there was the one room, always on the ground floor, which at night would turn into a bar for the writers. In Calgary, they called it the artists’ lounge. In Vancouver, it was the hospitality suite. On the first couple nights in Calgary I stayed away, a bit intimidated, a bit nervous of what I might talk about. I felt like a fraud around the people touring their third or fourth or seventh book. But by the time we were in Vancouver, I never missed a night.
I was lucky to have Rosetta with me. Rosetta is a talent with words in all situations – not just on the page. At first, all I had to do was follow her from circle to circle. And thinking of what to say wasn’t that hard either – there was an election on. In Canada, they’re still lumped with an antiquated first-past-the-post system. On the TV, huge swathes of a Canadian map were dissected into red, and orange, and blue.
One of those nights, I was sitting with two writers, when one asked the other what it felt like to win the Giller. The Scotiabank Giller Prize is given to the best book of fiction to be published in English in the previous year by a Canadian author. It was the stuff of my daydreams – hanging out, drinking wine with successful and even award-winning writers, and actually liking them, and having them like me. No one who I met was arrogant or elitist and exclusionary. In fact, a lot of them were pretty anxious as well.
Of course, no one invites you to a festival just to drink their free wine and eat their free food and overshare. I had two events in each city. In Calgary, I spoke on a panel called Bionic Woman Writers, and gave the audience a peek inside my wardrobe (and my teenage years) in a speech for The Way We Wear. In Vancouver, my panel was called Buzzworthy Books, and I read at The Sunday Brunch: complete with servings of croissants and coffee and mimosas. At every session, I was talking to and reading alongside writers who literary CVs would dwarf mine. And yet, they all held space for me. They listened to me, and acknowledged me, and made me feel comfortable up on stage.
The weekend after I got home, I was at the Women’s Bookstore Litera-Tea. Up on stage, I decided I would change the passages I was reading. I wanted to do something new. My sense of calm was unnerving. I waited for the panic to hit, but it never came. I knew I could perform them well.
The following weekend, I flew down to Wellington for Verb. Half way through a session with Becky Manawatu and Jessie Bray Sharpin, with the lights on us and a mic bumping my chin, I realised something: I was enjoying myself. I was actually having fun.
My mum Mary had arrived back from Singapore at the same time that I was due to fly out of Wellington. My plane was delayed, so she bought us two smoothies from Wishbone.
I asked her about her conference, and she asked me about Canada.
I told her what I’d learnt about the state of Canadian politics; how Alberta is threatening to cut off oil to British Columbia, and British Columbia is threatening to cut off Alberta’s wine and weed; how you can make more money in a day writing for reality TV (and yes, I learnt, it is scripted); and how, in Canada, if you’re not on Twitter, your publisher will force you to sign up.
More surprising, though, was what had happened to me. There have been few times in my life where I’ve experienced noticeable growth in a matter of weeks. In Canada, I grew in confidence, not only as a writer, but as someone who might have something to say, even in conversations.
Perhaps, one day, I’ll get Twitter