Getting to Know Verb's Claire & Andrew

Claire Mabey and Andrew Laking are the literary power couple behind Wellington's annual Verb Readers & Writers Festival including the famous LitCrawl that takes place 3-7 November of this year.

We chatted to Claire and Andrew shortly before the full Festival programme launch which Verb Community members previewed on Tuesday, and the general public will have full access to today!

The Capital Couple talked to us about working together, the state of the Arts in New Zealand and what they love best about their hometown.

Profile image of Claire & Andrew by Rebecca McMillan Photography


What is your day job?

Claire: I run Verb Wellington which is a lot of different things… currently planning our 2021 Readers & Writers Festival; working on our residency programme; publishing when we can (online); and trying to look into the distance to figure out the future!

Andrew: I spend my time working on Verb Festival, organising a mid-winter festival called Lōemis, playing music and creating events.


What is your connection to Vic Books?

Claire and Andrew: we’ve been working with Vic Books since we started Verb (just LitCrawl as it was back then in 2014). Vic Books was just so brilliant at jumping on board with us to start a new, untried and untested, venture. We’ve been partners in literary crime ever since.


What are you working on at the moment?

Claire: Finalising the digital and print programmes for the Verb Readers & Writers Programme 2021 which launches to the Verb Community on 21 September (eek!) and to the public on 23 September. I’m also working on the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ writers programme which is in Feb - March 2022 (Verb is the literary curator for the festival). I’m also developing some new ideas . . .

Andrew: some production work for LitCrawl and long-term planning for the next 24 months across a range of things, including an App, Lōemis festival and quite a few compositions and shows.


How did the idea of a literary arts event come about?

Claire: I was working on the New Zealand Festival Writers Week and was starting to get a feeling for the literary community in Wellington: I’d been away from Aotearoa for a while and what hit me was the vibrancy of the writers world here in Pōneke. Overseas I’d seen some Fringey lit events and LitCrawl drew inspiration from those and fused with what is uniquely Wellington. We didn’t think anyone would come! I’m so glad we tried it.


What was the first collaboration you did together?

LitCrawl was the first thing we did together. Andy had been dreaming about making a Festival and I had been craving something a little bit wild. We got stuck in and pulled a hell of a lot of favours to make it happen. Gosh, that feels like so long ago now!

Photos: Claire and Andrew at The Garden Party (Rebecca McMillan Photography); Sam Duckor-Jones LitCrawl event at Hunters & Collectors; Claire at Verb Festival 2020; and Andrew centre at a LitCrawl event (Vanessa Rushton Photography)

You work closely together in your work *and* home life - how do you manage to balance this? Are there activities you do by yourselves/to get creative inspiration?

Claire: we have a three-year-old who is deliciously himself and keeps our brains away from work when we’re all together. I go running for alone time to think, and I also love spending time with friends and my writing group to do my own thing.

Andrew: I played music for a living for most of my working life and still find time for that whenever I can. I try to get out and exercise when possible too, to break up the indoor lifestyles of music and event creation..


With the idea of ideal matches, like food and wine, books and coffee, and for you two: books and music:

Andrew - does a book, or narrative of some kind, spring to mind when you compose or listen to music?
I’ve always been interested in folklore and learnt a lot from listening to songs (much of which is woefully inaccurate!) Two books that had a particular influence back in the day were This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson, and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Claire - is there a book/story that is inspired by music you are listening to?
I love the story and life of St Hildegard of Bingen and have recently loved reading Lauren Groff’s genius novel, Matrix which is about a fierce nun. It joins Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ground-breaking novel The Corner That Held Them as two artistically energetic novels that reveal the inner life of nuns. Hildegard was a musician too so I guess her music brings those novels to mind.


Your son, Charlie, will be infused with literature in all its forms - do you have a book and piece of music that you absolutely want him to read/listen to?

Claire: I hope one day he’ll like Anne of Green Gables… I think she’s a real role model for being an authentically emotional human being. He already has brilliant taste in music! Long may that last.

Andrew: I wouldn’t know where to start with music, there’s just so much to choose from.


Art funding is notoriously difficult, how do you manage that?

Claire: It’s never easy. Every year it’s a gamble - we aren’t an investment client so we have to chance our arm every year to try to pull funding together to achieve what we set out to create. We started the Verb Community to try to stand on our own two feet a little more and that has been wonderful - mainly because we feel closer to the people who care about what we love too! I personally feel strongly that Creative New Zealand should have received a large increase in funding over this COVID time - I find it totally baffling that the arts sector relies on lotteries funding.

Andrew: be prepared to live leanly, which isn’t such a bad thing anyway.


Outside of book world, what are your favourite things about Wellington?

Claire: The South Coast, Queen Sally’s Diamond Deli, Ziggurat and Hunters & Collectors, the dealer art galleries.

Andrew: the rich array of artistic talent.


Some quick-fire book recommendations please!

Claire: Butcherbird by Cassie Hart, She’s a Killer by Kirsten McDougall (published 14 Oct), The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw, The Commercial Hotel by John Summers, Loop Tracks by Sue Orr, Rangikura by Tayi Tibble

Andrew: most of the books I’ve been reading lately are aimed at 3 year-olds. Some recommendations: The Stone Giant, Goodnight Moon, My Pictures After the Storm, This Is Not My Hat, Stories of the Night.


What are you reading at the moment?

Claire: Matrix by Lauren Groff. Genius.

Andrew: Frog and Toad are Friends


What do you like about it?

Claire: I am a sucker for any story about nuns. This one is exceptional - her writing is magic.

Andrew: an oldie but a goodie. Also lots to comprehend and tends to make 3 year olds sleepy.


Which literary character do you most identify with?

Claire: Anne of Green Gables. Red-haired, emotional, loves the wild bits of the world.

Andrew: Not sure, Captain Corelli? I can’t remember too much about him, aside from he played mandolin and was fairly free-spirited.


Hardback or paperback?

Claire: Oh… both?

Andrew: nothing against hardback, but for some reason I mainly end up with paperbacks. Unless we’re talking kids books.


Favourite coffee?

Claire: flat white from Milk Crate on Ghuznee St.

Andrew: whatever’s going, it’s all good!


You can view the full Verb Readers & Writers Festival Programme here and our dedicated webpage with all the Verb & LitCrawl titles here.