This is a story about local businesses, cultural superstars… and Twitter.
Recently, there was something that I wished would happen. That I felt had to happen. Heaps of others in the New Zealand arts whānau would have loved to see this moment take place, too. We joked, dreamed, hoped about it, on Twitter, where we sometimes joke, dream and hope about stuff.
Then I found myself in a position to make it happen.
This was that thing:
This photograph, taken by Sonja Yelich, shows Billboard No.1 artist Lorde (aka Ella Yelich-O’Connor, Sonja’s daughter) and Man Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton posing in a hotel bed together, on a Wednesday in New York City. Half an hour later, over a late afternoon snack of flaky hot Dub Pies in the West Village, Sonja tweeted the photo to her protected Twitter account, and showed me how to screen-grab it so that I could tweet it out more publicly, along with my “behind the scenes” photo (this is my Instagram version):
Our Twitter feeds went bonkers, our online family squeeing with thrilled delight about this high-level cultural hook-up.
Then the media got in on the game, because Twitter is broadcasting as much as it is gossiping. Toby Manhire was first, reporting directly from Twitter to the NZ Listener’s Internaut pages. Then the New Zealand Herald, then Stuff.co.nz, and then the ship had left port. Those first three media were great. They politely and diligently checked in on whether it was okay to share the photos. And yet…
Reporters wanted to know: how, why, where?
The answers I felt qualified to give were that these cultural superstars were both in New York City at the same time, and wasn’t it just something that had to happen?
I was hyper-aware of not wanting to insert myself into the story. It’s not my story! I just happen to be like a Jack Russell with an old towel when there’s something cool that needs to happen; two people who need to meet. I will not let go. I will Make Awesome Happen. But the fact of their success, and the fact that their being together in a photo is news, is not my story.
But reporters want details! Context! Quotes!
Why not let a picture speak a thousand words?
After the pictures were tweeted, Sonja and Ella went to watch Justin Timberlake, while Eleanor was doing Man Booker duties with Salman Rushdie, making it impossible to check with any of them whether it was okay to give more context. I was back at my desk getting my reviews finished for Metro (who could see well enough from Twitter that I was likely to be behind on my deadline), so I didn't have a lot of time to explain things, nor did I think I should.
Well, my Mum was pretty surprised to pick up her newspaper the next morning and discover that my humble Brooklyn apartment had suddenly become a swanky Manhattan hotel, thanks to people deciding to fill in the gaps.
So, okay, maybe I should tell my little part of the story, because when I go back over it, it’s the story of a community bookstore, a local coffee shop, an online group of lovely people, the collective power of social media, and a small country that needed some good news to latch onto in a bleak week.
1. It starts with my sister Jolisa. She hooked me up via DM with Sonja, who is traveling a lot and from time to time needs to know where she can find this or that. I know what it’s like to be in a big, foreign city, in need of a decent cup of coffee, or an emergency makeup mission, so we stay in touch.
Sonja and I eventually met in real life at one of her daughter’s New York shows – I’d taken one of my best friends, Marianne, to see what all the fuss was about – and we came bearing hugs delivered via Twitter DM from various Twitter Aunties from home. (Twitter Aunties is a term coined by Goodeye McWoowoo for an unofficial assortment of cool, literary-minded, caring, kind New Zealand women – and some men – who chatter away in 140-character moments.)
2. My boyfriend discovers that Eleanor Catton is coming to town to do a reading of The Luminaries at Community Bookstore, the longest-standing independent bookstore in Brooklyn. They’ve recently taken over another wee bookstore up on Prospect Park West in Windsor Terrace, metres away from the Brooklyn branch of his New Zealand pie-and-coffee mini-empire, Dub Pies, so they’re regulars. Some tweeting goes on between these local, independent businesses, and next thing I know, because he’s a Good Man, boyfriend is offering to cater Eleanor’s book reading (and refuses to be paid). I, of course, go along to celebrate Eleanor.
3. Sonja DMs me. She is back in New York with Ella. She would love to come to Eleanor’s reading but can’t – duty calls as they have meetings ahead of a massive public appearance for Ella, performing at the Tilda Swinton benefit event at MOMA, at which David Bowie will be present. OMG, swoon, good excuse etc.
4. Eleanor’s book reading is a hit! The room is crammed, the pies go down well, and she is a star. She’s done so much research into astrology, the gold rush, and everything else embedded in The Luminaries – more than she could ever fit into the book – and it’s all still fresh, and it tumbles out of her brain in entertainingly generous fashion.
She talks about the frustration of constantly being called a “young” author (the youngest to win the Man Booker) “because it’s the one thing about me that I can’t do anything about!… This present moment is the present moment for everybody.”
She elaborates on a Guardian interview, given the morning after her prize win, in which “I did do a maybe slightly unwise thing where I got really annoyed at two reviewers” who saw The Luminaries as a bodice-ripper, failing – or refusing – to countenance the book’s intellectual scope, its bold structural experiment. In their reviews, “they both called attention to my gender and my age so [in the Guardian interview] I called attention to their gender and their ages, just to even the scales.” Awesome.
She reveals hilarious plans to launch a new literary movement called Astrological Criticism – AstroCrit for short – which involves critiques of books based on their authors’ star signs. I think.
And when asked “What’s next?” she reveals the advice given to her by Yann Martel: “Just enjoy it, because you won’t be able to do anything for two years.”
5. Later that same night – or, very early the next morning – Eleanor and I are on a sidewalk outside a bar in Park Slope and I mention that Lorde is also in New York and wouldn’t it be great… “if we got together and had a photo where she’s reading The Luminaries and I’m listening to Pure Heroine!” – Eleanor finishes my sentence. That’s all the encouragement I need. We high five and my mission begins.
6.Two days later, a window appears. One hour between gigs, for both women. DMs and texting furiously ensue. I wrap up a meeting in Soho, Eleanor pays for some purchases at McNally Jackson (I had such a wild urge to tweet them that the Man Booker winner was in their store, and probably should have…), Sonja and Ella and Amber D (the wonderful NZ makeup artist) make their way downtown, and we all pile into Sonja’s room at a hotel in Tribeca.
7. What goes on tour stays on tour; that’s rock’n’roll speak for “a quintet of ladies sit around drinking coffee and gossiping”. Needless to say, the whole thing would have passed the Bechdel Test if it weren’t for Bowie.
8. We wish Ella a happy birthday and prepare to head off, but realise simultaneously that a photograph of this auspicious occasion must be taken. The room is small, the canvas limited, a boring old side-by-side pic rejected. The bed just seems obvious. If we’d all thought about it for long enough, we would have thought of John and Yoko, of reading in bed, of a desire to fill New Zealand’s newspaper column inches not with men behaving badly between the sheets, but of women, conspiratorial, intellectual, chilled-out and fully-clothed. Those things became clearer later.
9. Half an hour later, over a late afternoon snack of flaky hot Dub Pies in the West Village, Sonja and I tweet the photographs and our Twitter feeds go bonkers.
10. None of us explicitly discuss the impact that a photograph of Ella and Ellie together might have, but we all implicitly know. There was no media strategy, just love and excitement.
Flashback to last month: two New Zealanders have recently risen to the top of their relative creative fields. Just one of those things is a lot to celebrate in our tiny country. Two at the same time? Christmas come early! A triumphant moment for good news – and good news about accomplished women – to lead the news bulletins! Not a chance. Sure, they got prominent coverage. Unfortunately, the sad and sordid tale of a (male) mayor’s marital indiscretion and its accompanying political scandal broke around the same time and takes pole position in the news, so to speak.
Last week, when we took the photos, New Zealand’s headlines were again awash with a sex scandal, this time involving some young men, the male police who were investigating them, two mouthy male talk radio hosts and a whole bunch of depressing – yet crucial – national hand-wringing about rape culture.
As the Ella/Ellie photo was shared and shared again, I watched happiness and delight spread across Twitter and beyond. We forgot for a few minutes about what else was leading the news. We celebrated Ella and Eleanor’s successes. We delighted in the fact that they found each other in a massive foreign city, in the midst of their career whirlwind, and shared the moment with us.
I was just the conduit for this meeting, but I did it for my sister and the Twitter Aunties and Good Men and anyone else who needed a smile last week.
The timing was good. For everyone.
P.S. My sister is so cool. She did this: