12 Apr 2015

Catastrophes lay bare many truths

From Writers and Readers Festivals, 4:00 pm on 12 April 2015

Macfie RebeccaWhat links a history of a mine disaster, a family memoir, and a television drama about the Canterbury earthquakes is a shared belief by their creators about the effect of catastrophic events on those who endure them.

According to Rebecca Macfie, author of an award-winning factual book Tragedy at Pike River Mine, a catastrophe like the one she researched provided an opportunity to look inside an organisation in a way that you never otherwise have the opportunity to do.

“What stories like Pike show you is that for many people, even if you ‘re a senior manager in the organisation, you can’t see the whole thing,” she says. Upending it enabled her to uncover the self-deception of the mine owners and managers, and their lack of expertise in establishing and operating the mine. Considering the compounding nature of the lies and deceit revealed about the enterprise, Macfie considers that the Pike operation was a bit like a financial bubble. “It was not,” she declares, “remotely what it said it was.”

Jones LloydWhile Macfie’s focus was on the public story, the writing of an extremely personal family memoir was the result of several visits by Lloyd Jones to Christchurch after the February 2011 quake.

“When there’s a traumatic event like the earthquakes, there is a natural tendency for people to want to bear testimony,” he comments. Everybody had a story to tell. “When I came down to Christchurch to research my book, I never tired of asking people ‘Tell me what happened. Where were you at 12.58 that day, in the February earthquake?’,” and those he spoke to replied in kind.

Although Jones’s book A History of Silence aimed to tease out the specific history of his family, Gaylene Preston turned to fictional film-making as a way of getting at her truth.

Preston GayleneAlthough she had made very successful documentaries such as War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us exploring distant events, confronted by the much more recent Christchurch earthquakes, she decided that fictionalising the stories she had heard would present her with fewer ethical and creative dilemmas.

“Making things personal” she says, “becomes a problem for the person who becomes the poster child for the idea.” And she wanted the freedom which fiction allowed to take account of all the things people were telling her down at the pub, and the anecdotes which were preceded by the comment “Don’t tell anyone but this is what’s really going on.” The result was Hope and Wire which aired on TV3.

Freed of the journalistic burden to prove that each such story had actually happened, she was still able, she contends, to get closer to the truth of what the earthquakes were like for those who had experienced them:

“It felt to me like you get a big disruptive event and it somehow lays bare everything that’s going on in our whole country.”

Listen to a discussion about dealing creatively with tough stuff between Rebecca Macfie, Lloyd Jones and Gaylene Preston, with Finlay Macdonald in the chair, recorded at the 2014 Christchurch Word Writers’ Festival:

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