How Claire Mabey ignited Wellington’s passion for books

Literary festival director Claire Mabey thought she might want to be an environmental lawyer when she grew up.

Girl with long red hair and blue jumper in concrete gallery with blue lamp
But her Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English Literature and Art History from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, along with a Diploma in Publishing at Whitireia Polytechnic opened the door to something completely different.

“My Honours year was one of the best years of my life. The papers I did still inspire me, and the focussed study was such a joy. Being in Wellington was also just so brilliant. I worked at City Gallery Wellington part-time—I was lucky to be able to work at a place that housed the art I wanted to be around, and think about,” says Claire, who did her initial Bachelor of Arts degree at Otago University.

“The Art History department at Victoria University of Wellington in the mid-00s was this serene, lovely place where I always felt welcome. In the English department I remember the tea break with gingernuts in class—truly the way to a student’s heart.”

After completing her publishing diploma, Claire worked for an academic publisher in Belgium—a role she got in part due to the papers on medieval art in her degree—before returning to work in programme roles for many different arts and literary festivals in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is co-founder and director of event company Pirate & Queen, and is perhaps best known, at least in Wellington, for starting the literary festival LitCrawl.

“For a long time I was terrified that I had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted. And between those moments of panic I just did what felt right to me, which was to stick with books.

“I have always been a very passionate reader and there is really nothing I enjoy more than being completely immersed in a book. We started LitCrawl nearly 10 years ago now, because it felt like the right time and the right place. I was young and hungry and could see Wellington had this astonishing literary community that wasn’t seen through the usual festival model,” says Claire.

Wellington as a city is at the heart of LitCrawl, which involves keen readers walking between central city venues as varied as bookshops, museums, bike stores, cafes, pubs, art galleries, and more. She reflects that living in Wellington taught her that a walkable city is a liveable one. “To be able to schlepp from University down to town and out to the water is such a gift, I think.”

LitCrawl grew so big that the Verb Festival grew out of it. “The name came from Lauris Edmond’s poem The Active Voice, and the line in it that reads, ‘this is the headquarters of the verb,’ which is etched in stone on the waterfront. It is so right.”

But while the festivals are beloved by those who are engaged with the arts, a lot of the time people don’t consider the struggle such events undergo to receive funding.

“People talk about how hard it is to fathom life without art—but we have to find a way of making arts careers better paid. To have a career in the book world, you must have passion. Passion gets noticed because it’s infectious and people in this world need to reignite it in themselves from time to time,” says Claire.

While she is still a director of Pirate & Queen, Claire has recently stepped back from some of her programming roles to focus on her writing and her family. She has completed several papers with the International Institute of Modern Letters, including World-building with Elizabeth Knox, Short Stories with William Brandt, and Creative Non-fiction with Harry Ricketts.

“I can say with absolute honesty that these three courses have been the best things I have done in the last three years (apart from having my child!). Elizabeth Knox is my biggest hero. I am now writing what I think is a middle grade trilogy and it’s thanks to the imaginative door that got opened in that course.”

The pitch for the first book in this trilogy saw her become the 2022 recipient of the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnston New Writers Bursary, providing her with a stipend to live on while working on her writing.

“My novel is the kind of book that I loved reading when I was about 10 years old—a middle grade adventure story. It’s a fantasy, set in a world in which there is a deeply suppressed magic. I am having so much fun writing this story, and am learning just so much.”

Claire says a career in books is not for everyone, but if you are passionate and “you like the unpredictable, love people and stories, and don’t mind hiffing boxes and having a home full of teetering ‘to be read’ piles—then welcome!”