Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

I love pohutukawa. The city is foaming with them. Such a lovely start to Christmas.
We go over the hill tomorrow for Christmas Day at our olive grove. I think we will have twenty-two family and friends there this year eating, drinking, singing, swimming, lying around and playing petanque. There aren't any pohutukawa up that way so I might take a few with me.

I once drove up to a friend's wedding in Turangi - the chilly bin packed with red blossoms. They looked great on the tables in the marae, although one of the kuia took me aside to explain that there were no pohutukawa thereabouts except for one on an island in Lake Taupo, and there was a good reason (backed up by myth) why that was so. She said she found the sight of the pohutukawa in Turangi lovely but perplexing.

They might look a bit odd among the olive trees, too, but they will be festive. And they'll blend in with the other imported blossoms like this little one below.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all visitors to O Audacious Book especially the bloggers I visit in turn through the year. I really appreciate people coming here, commenting, coming back ... I will try to post over the holiday period, although I'll be terribly busy reading all the books I never got to in 2008 but wanted to. I can get through one a day over the hill in summer.

Hammock here I come.

Friday, December 19, 2008

This Year

Weird video but I saw the Mountain Goats sing This Year live on Thursday night as the last song in their Wellington set at San Francisco Bath House, and it was one of those perfect moments in a string of perfect moments at the gig.

Singer John Darnielle [called by The New Yorker 'America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist']announced it was the last outing of the year for his US indie band, and punched out This Year like it was his last song forever.

It's been an intense year for me - using the Henry James quote regarding what people want in literature - it's been a year of 'bliss' (centring around my book) and 'bale' (centring around my family), and a bit of bliss in the bale, and bale in the bliss, if you know what I mean. So This Year is aways turned up loud in my car with the line 'I'm going to make it through this year if it kills me' a great one to sing-along to. Talk about cathartic.

But Darnielle is like that - he rinses words out and wrings them so hard they're not only fresh and shiny again, they're a different shape.

Celebratory. Berating. Questioning. Sweet and gentle, too. At the Wellington gig, Darnielle stepped away from the mike sometimes and sang some of the sweetest lines into the crowd without amplification. Lines like the one about being 'desperate' in someone's arms.

Darnielle is funny and enigmatic on stage and the total professional, as you'd expect. He was also wearing a lovely jacket until he got too hot. After a solo turn, he was joined by his excellent bassist and drummer.

Darnielle has his own blog here which shows an unhealthy fascination with metal music and horror movies and Jamie Lee Curtis. And another blogger has a look at some of the MG songs and great lines here.

And we didn't get to hear Woke up New performed but it's one of those sweet ones with sudden knife-sharp insight, and is a better video than most of the MG ones on youtube. Lovely, really.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Blue in Japan

His Excellency Ian Kennedy, NZ Ambassador to Japan, with his signed copy of The Blue. A nice irony here as The Blue is about NZ whaling and NZ was pivotal in the International Whaling Commission establishing itself as an anti-whaling organisation against the wishes of the Japanese.

I know this because my father-in-law, Ian Stewart, was New Zealand's Whaling Commissioner and Chair of the IWC in the 1980s. I visited him at the annual conference in the UK in 1985 and remember the Japanese fury at the NZ position.

It was then I started to become interested in whales and whale conservation and the history of whaling. I reported what was happening at the IWC conference that year for Radio NZ, and went on to report on the work of the Commission when I returned to NZ and worked for TVNZ's Eyewitness current affairs programme.

I remember the IWC met in Auckland in 1988 and I went up to cover it. I also remember looking for whaling footage for the story and being fascinated by the astonishing shots of whales cavorting in the ocean and looking after their young.

I had fallen upon the name Perano while I was at university in the early 80s and tucked it away (without realising) for future use. This was the family of Italian descent that began modern Tory Channel whaling which is the stuff of The Blue. Put that together with what I discovered about whales via my father-in-law, not least the passion people feel about them, and you have the curling tendrils of thought that led to my novel.

Thanks to Anna, Martin and Humphrey who sent me the photo of Ian Kennedy taken earlier this year after giving him a copy of The Blue. Anna's a second cousin to my father-in-law and her son Humphrey is living in Japan for a while.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

short stories rock

Do you ever think of the time, Olivia, when we were stuck in the stairwell? Of the way I dived through the fire-stop door and down the stairs and you followed me all tap-tap and clatter in those pointy boots of yours, and one floor down, my floor, the exit door was locked? I huffed a little, tried it twice, did a U-turn, led the way back up the stairs, back to the floor where the lecture was, but that door, the one we’d just come through, had locked behind us.

Okay this is very very cool. This is the beginning of my first ever published short story The Stairwell and the whole thing is published here on the new Turbine on-line journal (which is also very very cool and edited by the wonderful crew at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University.) You can see I am at a loss for words on this one. Do go and check out the whole of Turbine 2008 with its -okay - cool array of poets, fiction and memoir writers.

And another very cool thing and first for me is this blog award from a cat of impossible colour who is a bit of a rocker herself in blog terms (thanks Andrea). So it feels like an early Christmas for me. And a cool one at that. Might even need to get myself some snow boots.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

the art of breathing or the best books 08

My penny's worth is in The Listener feature on the 100 Best Books 08 along with a bunch of other writers. I love perusing the list - while thinking how odd it is that The Blue is regarded as a 2007 book, which it is of course, and it doesn't get a peek in - but what is fascinating is reading what the other writers have to say.

It's a great insight into the way Montana Medal winner Charlotte Grimshaw thinks to see she's read Tim Winton's Breath three times for enjoyment and 'out of what you might call technical interest.' Also interesting to see Menton fellow Damien Wilkins putting Marilynne Robinson's Home as his favourite novel. I remember discussing the book she wrote as its precursor - Gilead - with Damien when he was my tutor in creative writing at Victoria University. I am trying to remember if I got onto Robinson's writing in the first place because Damien recommended her first novel Housekeeping which is a modern classic. Come to think of it, I think he did. I loved Gilead very much but when I saw Home I wasn't sure I wanted to go back to that careful, quiet, constructed world again. Maybe I should (Elizabeth Knox loved it too I see).

And both Damien Wilkins and KM Award winner Julian Novitz seem to have loved Ellie Catton's spiky debut The Rehearsal which is another book I've been holding off reading because I know it's terribly clever with wonderful words. I usually want more than that from a novel you see. Then again, I think maybe I should stop thinking about it and just buy the book. When I heard Catton read from the manuscript a couple of years ago I was transfixed.

Lastly, good to see Vanda Symon's The Ringmaster, Sue Orr's Etiquette for a Dinner Party and My Father's Shadow: A Portrait of Justice Peter Mahon by Sam Mahon on the list. From my bookshop dips into each, and Mahon's reading at the Christchurch writers' festival, this is well-deserved and I intend to read all three forthwith.

Actually, my favourite 'best of' list didn't make it into The Listener.

Here's mine:

MY BEST BOOKS 2008 (The NZ Listener)

My top books for the first time ever are all non-fiction. First up: Rita Angus, An Artist’s Life by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press). It is the whole package: exquisitely produced with a tantalising subject, stunning art plates, and prose that levers open the woman, her art and her time. Then there’s The Love School, Personal Essays by Elizabeth Knox (VUP) which I confess I have skimmed and am now reading, and find a thrilling insight into the mind of one of this country’s most imaginative and audacious writers.

Third on the list is Corvus, A Life with Birds by Esther Woolfson (Granta) - a memoir about this writer’s unusual family in Aberdeen which has at different times included a rook, a crow and a magpie. This book offers up intelligent personal observations and facts that challenged my understanding of birds and the rest of the natural world.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

UK uber-reader discovers Frame

Devonshire-based book blogger extraordinaire Dovegreyreader has discovered Janet Frame. Her post was a nice surprise when I popped there today to see what she's been reading. I saw the NZ flag first and then the title Calling NZ - I've been Framed Again, and it begins like this:

Calling New Zealand...are you there New Zealand?Do you receive me?I'm just semaphoring across the oceans to let you know that I think you are a very fortunate country indeed to be able to lay claim to an author like Janet Frame. I hope there are trusts and monuments and preserved houses, a Janet Frame national holiday and the rest because what a legacy. Look, I'm even flying your flag for the day in recognition. I've read through the rules and I think it's allowed.

More here from this thoughtful and generous reviewer.

Needless to say Frame's literary executor and niece Pamela Gordon has already been in contact with dovegreyreader. For yes, there's a trust and a house and an award (won this year by Emma Neale) but there is no Janet Frame National Holiday. Not yet anyway.

Pictured above is a first edition of Owls Do Cry which I am proud to say is the copy I own (along with a very tatty paperback). Owls Do Cry is one of my favourite novels of all time, first read when I was 16, and to me a revelation in terms of the gorgeous possibilities of prose, and NZ prose at that.

Squealing at satire

Here's the link to the Radio NZ book review of Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Frankly, I blithered on rather than expounded in a succinct and thoughtful fashion, but you can tell I loved it to bits. I even squealed at one point.
Readers and writers surely love this book for its insights into story and the role of books and the flimsiness of genre (Clarke's novel is a faux-memoir and 'how to' guide which skewers these genres and makes use of them.). And if that doesn't grab readers, surely they're interested in Clarke's anti-hero's take on what he refers to as the Human Condition?

But when I raved to a very nice keen-reading customer along these lines in the bookshop today he listened politely and went off with the Booker winner instead. Maybe he doesn't like satirical novels.

I love them you see. Gulliver's Travels is one of my favourite books of all times. It's that way of looking at the Human Condition with a sharp and comic eye that makes the reader step back amused/provoked/thoughtful, and at the same time provides sudden brief and glowing epiphanies like - well - a match firing. In fact, Clarke's novel has fuller character development than most satires with bumbler arsonist Sam Pulsifer still an insistent voice in my head.

There's a little more on the book in the previous post. I wish, Gondal Girl (who asked), I could write a fuller written review but I simply haven't got the time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

An Arsonist's Guide

I'm reviewing this wonderful satirical darkly comic heart-warming book on Radio NZ National tomorrow (Thursday Dec 4) at 10.30 am. The frenetic, searching voice of bumbler arsonist Sam Pulsifer is unforgettable - a sort of Richard Ford on speed crossed with The World According to Garp.
An Arsonist’s Guide is, among other things, about how we want books to do so many things—like make our life better, or make us better people—that they’re often unwilling, or unable, or ill-suited, to do. [Brock Clarke]

And there's more - lots more - on his website.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Persecuted by ideas - the inner life of Elizabeth Knox

I have skimmed and am now reading page by page Elizabeth Knox's wonderful collection of essays The Love School: Personal Essays. I am a terrible skimmer of non-fiction, especially exciting non-fiction. But I really must settle and read it properly because everything I've caught sight of so far has been the stuff that David Larsen describes as making 'the world tilt'. It is truly a fascinating insight into the mind of one of this country's most imaginative and successful writers and Larsen's review does it justice.

Rather than try and replicate that, here are some of the bits and pieces I've collected on Elizabeth Knox over the past few months, planning at some stage to post something on her on O Audacious Book. As happens, I still have the notes scrawled in red ink in one of my moleskine notebooks, and a tatty old review or two and nothing more substantial. So rather than dally any longer, here they are ...
Most of the notes were scrawled down when I heard Elizabeth Knox speak at the NZ Post National Schools Writing Festival at Victoria University in August. She was her usual frank self - talking deeply and absorbingly about why she writes and what she writes. One student asked her where she got all her ideas from and she said: 'I'm persecuted by ideas, I know what I'm going to write for the next ten years.'
On what to write about: 'I wait for something that is so exciting it's driving me crazy. I have a lot of ideas but I don't always know which end to start it from.'
To other writers: 'Take what really blows up your skirt and take an angle on it - something you haven't thought about before.' And 'every idea is a whole lot of ideas bundled up together.'
On the physicality of finishing the Dreamhunter books: 'The matrix of the whole story was falling out of my head and my brain was unravelling. It was physical. A very strange feeling.'
On her new novel The Angel's Cut - the 'sequel to The Vintner's Luck' due out soon: 'Xas is so pleased with himself and so powerful and so ruined at the end (of TVL). And you start with the ruined Xas in The Angel's Cut.'
Knox says she was preoccupied with flight in The Angel's Cut. 'Xas lost his wings in Vintner's Luck. He's very small and thinks he's an insignificant (? or maybe she said 'significant'?) angel. He's been wandering the earth since he lost his love Sobran.... He's been back in the air including on a zeppelin in WWI in an airshow in France...'
On the the negative reaction to Black Oxen: 'I was walking down the street and I thought 'I don't want anyone to look at me.''
I have kept a Listener review of The Vintner's Luck when it came out ten years ago (it has been stunningly re-issued to celebrate its tenth anniversary). The review is by writer Peter Wells and reminds me of the excitement so many people felt on reading Vintner's Luck all those years ago and continue to feel, and the excitement many of us have felt ever since when we see Knox's name on another new novel.

The truth is, you never know what to expect when you open that fresh shiny cover, but you do know it'll be a ride to remember. Appositely, at the school writing festival this year, Knox read a scene from The Angel's Cut which described Xas on a rollercoaster in the US. It was sensational. Literally. I barely wrote a word I was so taken up with experiencing the physical sensation of that ride. I did record a single quote that has no context but clearly stunned me at the time: 'left that person's hungry skin.'

Here's Peter Wells (The Listener 1998):

Reading The Vintner's Luck, I was reminded of why we read. We read to evade the weight of time ('Despair is gravity' - Elizabeth Knox.) We read also to experience the pleasure, almost unseen, of a beautiful construction, an airy theorem that exists only in words on the page and inside our heads. We read also to forget who or where we are. As Elizabeth Knox says, 'Books can be the people we never get to meet, ancestors or neighbours.'

Thursday, November 27, 2008

how to be above reproach

Talented essayist Anna Sanderson has just won one of the Arts Foundation’s ‘New Generation’ Awards donated by the Freemasons and worth a gob-smacking $25,000.

Here she is speaking as one of the writers shortlisted for the Modern Letters Prize this year. Next to her is Bill Manhire and, beside him, the ear of the winner, David Beach.

I am thrilled for Anna who was in my MA class at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2005. A quietly-spoken classmate with a background in photography and art writing, everything she said was astute and worth listening to. I think all nine of the rest of us made note of Anna's comments on our work and vowed to be better next time.

The essays she was working on, which became her MA thesis and eventually her book, Brainpark, astonished all of us with their insight, singularity and power. The other thing we had to grasp in a hurry was that Anna wasn't out to impress anyone, she just wrote as she wrote, and that meant she provoked and unsettled people and left them feeling plain uncomfortable sometimes.
The other astonishing thing was Anna found herself unexpectedly pregnant near the start of the year and still managed to have her baby, get back to class, complete her thesis and win one of the IIML prizes.

Anna's publisher Victoria University Press says 'Brainpark is a wholly convincing experiment in the essay form. A core theme of disassociation of feeling and aesthetic effect is explored in a number of contexts – family, faith, art history, sanctuary.'

Anna does all this with intellectual playfulness, literary surefootedness and self-effacing honesty. Writer Ian Wedde picked Anna's book as one of his finds of the year and said it is 'an engrossing read, a critically astute piece of writing and a mature accomplishment. Brainpark sets a new standard for the personal essay in New Zealand.' Anna went on to win the prestigious Landfall Essay Competition in 2006.

Looking through my MA reading journal (titled 'The Incredible Shrinking Novel') I realise how often Anna gave me small gifts about the art of writing that I stored away and have fallen back on many times since. The one I remember most clearly was an epiphany about the use of precise description to reveal a sudden startling insight into character. What someone once referred to as describing the coffin not the grief. Here's what I wrote back then:
I've just read Anna's description of her father cutting her nails. She has an ambivalent relationship with him but Anna doesn’t say that, she talks about how he cut the nails – pure and simple.

She’s 19, he holds the nails tightly but still there’s a 'doddery imprecision', he has high quality Swedish nail scissors. He seems controlling, perfectionist, cold, detached. She never uses those words. It is a triumph this paragraph.

I have learnt a lot from Anna’s strange, prickly, clever essays especially her character studies. I enjoyed too an apposite quote she included from Ingmar Bergman regarding how art lost its way when it became separate from worship.
Early on in class, Anna made clear her approach to writing and she never veered from it. Even if at times we felt uncomfortable in its glare. Here's the reading journal again - this time we'd just finished a poetry exercise.
Approaching the poem, I was determined to be more honest in my writing – this came fresh off the back of Anna’s startling honesty last week in her False Starts assignment. The statement that resonated for all of us was: I want to be above reproach. This referred to how her work was viewed by the class.

It struck me then how engaging honesty is in writing, just as it is in people we meet. It has a nice way of making the reader complicit with the author: ‘look here’s a secret.’ I realise I was far more open when I was first writing years ago, but have learnt over the years to make more use of, what Bill Manhire calls, a ‘foliage of words.’ Maybe there’s more to protect as one gets older.
Later on in the year, Anna returned to this theme.
Regarding poetry being ‘complicated’, Anna pointed out sometimes we are sated with indirectness and implication and need something more concrete, and to explore bigger issues head on. [Later note: there is some irony in this as in a matter of days Anna will have her baby.]
On the day of the Brainpark book launch, Anna arrived with her partner and her baby and said she had been shaking all day with the thought of what she had written going out into the world. She stood up to speak without an apparent tremor, and was grinning from ear to ear signing books afterwards.
I have deep respect for Anna and her courage and skill as a writer and I am immensely grateful for what she taught me the year of my MA which is when I whittled a flabby manuscript of The Blue down to size, and made it into a novel.

There were a lot of wonderful people saying 'drink me' that year, but Anna's voice was one of the most compelling. The $25,000 prize couldn't have fallen on more fertile or deserving ground. At last, this supremely talented writer can afford to give herself a small break from her babies (there are two now) and get back to prodding those dark corners again to give us all a little more light.

Dad would stand on my right-hand side with his quality Swedish nail scissors, and hold each finger quite tightly as he cut it. He had a slightly doddery imprecision. He would purse his lips in concentration, and then run his thumb over the newly cut edge as if to feel for burrs or rough spots after each nail had been cut. The nails would drop down two storeys to the concrete below.

Anna Sanderson, Brainpark [VUP 2006]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

to make us less afraid

"Kundera argues that the novel's purpose is not to uplift us, or to provide moral guidance, but to make us less afraid." Susan Salter Reynolds • Los Angeles Times

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Laughter and Forgetting

Opposable Thumb - a blog by writer, reviewer, philosopher Denis Welch - quotes Milan Kundera. It stopped me in my tracks because the quote he uses expresses so aptly the thoughts that have been tapping inside my head. It describes the precariosity I want to capture one way or another in my new novel.

It takes so little, so infinitely little for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith,history. Human life—and herein lies its secret—takes place in the immediate proximity of that border, even in direct contact with it; it is not miles away, but a fraction of an inch. [Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.]

I was one of many readers captured by Czech author Kundera in 1984 with the publication of his novel The Incredible Lightness of Being. We were living in London at the time and I remember sitting in one of those humid basement laundries waiting for the clothes to dry, and reading a persuasive review of TILB in The Guardian. I went the next day to Charing Cross Road to buy it. Such a title and such a book.

It's about a group of intellectuals living in the wake of the Prague Spring and develops the idea that existence is light because the ordinary life is lived only once in a straight line, and without repetition there is no weight to existence, and therefore no happiness. Or I think that's it. Kundera's not a straightforward read. And like John Banville who reviewed it 20 years later in The Guardian, there is much I've forgotten [more than usual!]:

As I began re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera's novel of love and politics in communist-run Czechoslovakia between 1968 and the early 1980s, I realised that, true to its title, the book had floated out of my mind like a hot-air balloon come adrift from its tethers. I managed to retrieve a few fragments - the naked woman in the bowler hat whom we all remember, the death of a pet dog, a lavatory seat compared to a white water lily rising out of the bathroom floor, and the fact that Nietzsche's name appears in the first line on the first page - but of the characters I retained nothing at all, not even their names. [John Banville]

And you know, try as I might, I don't remember the naked woman in the bowler hat! I remember the womanising Tomas and the painful relationship he has with Tereza. The death of the dog. The deep, depressing drumroll of fate. How sad it all was and how provocative its thinking. Those who know the work of Nietzsche say Kundera appears to both accept and reject the philosopher's position on what the lack of repetition in life means.

It's the author's deep-tissue thinking that elevates The Incredible Lightness of Being into a modern classic. He's considered a modernist and post-modernist, a man of his times and a man who isn't tied to time at all, a moralist and a writer of ideas who gives insights into the 'felt life' [Banville], a writer of significance who writes brilliantly of our insignificance. You don't have to believe what he says to be dazzled by him.

Or at least his writing. The reclusive Kundera - who lives in France in his late 70s - was just last month accused of having betrayed a Czech who spied for the west 58 years ago. Kundera has denied the charge, declaring it 'the assassination of the author.' The Economist titled its article on the subject: 'The Unbearable Weight of History.'

I don't have a copy of The Incredible Lightness of Being anymore. I lent it to a Greek communist, my aunt's former lover, and it was never returned. I have The Book of Laughter and Forgetting somewhere and will never forget the opening image as a searing insight into power and the communist regime. Or perhaps simply power and the closeness of the border posts.

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald's head.

It is 1971, and Mirek says: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Friday, November 21, 2008


This is my daughter Issy. Isabel. It was taken five years ago when I took the family to Arapawa Island for research for The Blue. That's the mouth of Tory Channel behind her. She and her brothers loved the rope swing, the way it flung them out towards the steep drop to the water and brought them safely back.

Issy's been very unwell lately - stopped unexpectedly over the steep drop and struggling to get back - so I haven't thought of blogging this past week. There was nothing in me to write about. I needed energy and optimism. And then my computer started doing strange things and I couldn't use the internet, so there was no blog-watching either.

Nothing for it but to spend the spare moments, when Issy didn't need me, on marking the last of those creative writing papers, polishing up that manuscript assessment and sorting out the boxes of writing notebooks I've collected. I forgot I had so many (all those fragments of thoughts and observations - what to do with them?)

I also started reading to Issy again: Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book which I blogged on here. It's terrific so far. The sort of thrill I got from the beginning of Great Expectations, and the Leon Garfield books I read as a teenager.

The Blue has provided some entertainment on National Radio every morning. An odd experience, but I'm warming to it. I found the way the finished, crafted work (the novel) had been cut to create a new work difficult at first. Things are juxtaposed differently, events left out, the fine balance I tried to achieve between action and thought in a character, changed. But of course it had to be done, and some of the changes are felicitous.

The actors' voices take the text away now, and it's as if I'm looking at the story from the outside and can appreciate it anew. I even cried at one point! It's actually a fine adaptation by Frances Edmond, directed by Jane Waddell, and it moves me to think of people sitting at home and in their cars, and listening to it.

And Issy's getting better, although she is a little fragile.

I wish we had a swing in our garden like we used to - it was nothing like the Arapawa Island rope swing - but it did the job.

Late News: I have just realised this is my 101st post on O Audacious Book. Goodness, so many. Thank you to all my regular visitors and those who just fall here out of the sky - the man from Portugal who commented on this post for one.

Monday, November 17, 2008


The Blue is on Radio NZ National today at 10.45 am! Press the headphones on the top left of the Radio NZ web page to hear it live - it doesn't appear to have podcasts for some reason. The photo was taken when I visited Arapawa Island with my family on a research trip for the novel. It approximates the view Lilian Prideaux has from her house in The Blue, only she lives closer to the water and is tucked back a little inside the neighbouring bay. The finger of land you see is where the whale lookout was, between the island and the Lookout is Tory Channel which opens into Cook Strait and behind that is a tantalising peek of the Pacific Ocean which takes you to South America and Antarctica where the whales come from ...

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Golden Delicious

She is sunny
she is sunny side up, my girl
running to meet me.
The other girls look lumpy
with their slumping shoulders
dyed hair and regrowth.
But my one is a beautiful apple
rolling down the drive
out past the school gates.

These are some lines from one of my favourite poems Daughter by Michele Amas. Daughters - or one particular daughter - are on my mind at the moment. The poem was in Michele's collection After the Dance (VUP 2005) which was shortlisted for a Montana, and selected for Best NZ Poems 2005.

Michele says her poems are inspired by what she hears; and like all good actors, she's an eavesdropper. I love that about her work. It resonates with the busyness of people: the things they say and do to fend off and cope with and love the world and each other.

In Best NZ Poems, it says Michele's shift from acting to writing poetry 'came out of a desire to speak from her own script rather than someone else’s.' She says:
‘Acting is a great way to escape yourself, to ignore yourself, and when I stopped for a while there was this chattering going on in my head that I’d never heard before, so I just started taking notes.’

“Daughter” was written out of a desperation to contain a myriad of emotions that living with a teenager forces you to experience daily. In this poem I have attempted to describe the shifting emotional landscape that a mother and child stumble into, quite out of the blue, both unprepared and bewildered – full of blame and guilt, need and love.’'
Read the whole poem online here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Listen this Monday 10.45

The Blue is on radio starting this Monday. Go here to hear it as it goes to air and you can download it for your ipod, too, I'm sure. Just press the little headphones on the left of the Radio NZ web page.

It's on Radio NZ's National Programme every morning at 10.45 am from Monday 17 November until Friday 5 December which sounds epic to me. And one of those days I'm doing a book review in the usual 10.30 slot, so I can sit in the studio afterwards and hear it in glorious surround sound. How cool is that?
The Blue runs for 15 episodes and has been adapted by Frances Edmond into a play for three voices with Jane Waddell producing, and featuring Judith Gibson, Tim Gordon and Denise O'Connell. Which is terribly exciting and nerve-wracking all at once.

Here's the write-up:

Book Readings for week commencing Monday 17 November 2008
The Blue by Mary McCallum
The Blue is the wild windswept story of a small community of whaling families. It’s set on a remote Island in Tory Channel in 1938. It’s a tale of family disharmony, infidelity, teenage rage, death - loss – all blowing through the cracks of domesticity, the sewing, the chooks, the home schooling – like a bitter but barely mentioned southerly.
Published by Penguin
ISBN: 978 1 877361 99 9
Episode 1 of 15

The photo on this post is off the Radio NZ website showing a keen listener out in his kayak. It could be in Tory Channel even. It could even be The Friar madly updated, complete with his dog Smiler. Anything is possible.

And I read a short story today at the Massey Writers Read series mentioned in my last post. This is astonishing to me because I have never read a short story to an audience before, and because this particular story is, for me, an extravagant experiment with voice.

The main character is an older sexually-repressed male university lecturer and he's stuck in a stairwell with a female student.... I was very worried about how it would come across with a female reading but actor Michele Amas, who was also reading today, told me it was fine. She says a couple of sentences in - if you tell it right - people go with you. That's the confidence of an actor, I reckon. Some nice comments from a chap in the audience who believed in my male narrator, and from playwright Ken Duncum.

I did have Novel no. 2 with me to read from if I chickened out, but I told myself I was being ridiculous. The Stairwell (as it's called) was absolutely right for today as I wrote it between the two tutorials I taught at, it was triggered by an event at the university, fed by class discussions on 'voice', and is set at Massey!

It was a treat to be there, too, because I got to hear work in progress from Michele Amas, Ingrid Horrocks, Thom Conroy and Angie Farrow. The latter presented as a short play. All of it, terrific.

Monday, November 10, 2008


With the election result leaving many of the country's writers, artists and musicians - and those that support them - feeling like one big flat tyre, why not get along to BLOW at Massey University this week? Y'know... inflate those sensitive little inner tubes again?

It's the second festival put on by the College of Creative Arts of Massey University and it includes Foya: the fabulous Massey graduate catwalk show, Music Materialised: an astonishing collaboration between textile students and musicians, Toi Whakaari's The Pillowman, the School of Dance's graduation season, the NZ School of Music jazz recital and a raft of other exhibitions, performances, screenings and workshops in and around the Massey Campuses and other arts venues.

There are BOOK EVENTS too. As a tutor at Massey here in Wellington, I'm involved in the session where the university's creative writing staff gets to show off a bit. The line-up is: Michele Amas, Anna Horsley, Thomas Gough, Ingrid Horrocks, Angie Farrow and me. I'll be reading from a short story that I wrote between tutorials! The session will end with a performance of Angie Farrow's 15-minute play, Falling. This event completes Massey's marvellous Writers Read sessions which started a few months back.

Date: Wed 12 Nov, 12 pm – 1:15 pm
Location: Massey University Wellington, Museum Building (main entrance), Boardroom (10A108) Enquiries: I.horrocks at (04) 801 5799 ext 62176

The other cool book event is Songs with Words: a concert which takes poems by e e cummings and Bill Manhire and sets them to music in the chamber jazz idiom. The works will be performed by singer Hannah Griffin, accompanied by composer and pianist Norman Meehan with guest soloists. This is on Tuesday Nov 18, 6-7pm, NZ School of Music Concert Hall.

More details of everything here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Nobility of Spirit or Know-Nothingness

[Updated at the end of the post, Sunday] With the New Zealand election upon us and the US election still reverberating, I've been attracted to the idea of an - ironically enough - slim volume called Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal by Rob Reimen. Super book-blogger Mark Sarvas - 10,000 hits a day! - has recommended it highly (look in the right sidebar of his blog - or scroll down here where I quote it in full).

From my internet perch here at the ends of the earth, Barack Obama seems to be someone who remembers what 'Nobility of Spirit' is all about. Of course it's hard to tell, being a pane of bullet-proof glass and a satellite dish away from it all, but the United States seems to have lifted its head up higher and prouder now, seeing itself as - overnight - a nobler beast.

In the depths of a New Zealand election, on the other hand, our parties are still nosing around in the gutter. Labour's nasty little advertisements about John Key have lacked all nobility. As a steady Labour/Green voter, I have been disgusted by them, enough so I started to wonder if the Labour part of my vote (candidate) shouldn't go elsewhere. It won't. There are other things at stake.

But I will try and get hold of Rob Reimen's book. The author is the president and founder of the Nexus Institute, a European-based humanist think-tank and Mark Sarvas says:

'Nobility of Spirit ... stands as the most stirring redoubt against the ascendant forces of know-nothingness that we've come across in a long time.

A full-throated, unapologetic defense of the virtues of Western Civ – in which "elite" is not and never should be a dirty word – this inspiring exploration of high art and high ideals is divided into three sections: The first looks at the life of Riemen's great hero Thomas Mann as a model for the examined life. The second imagines a series of conversations from turning points in European intellectual history, populated with the likes of Socrates, Nietzsche and others. The final section, "Be Brave," is nothing less than an exhortation to dig deep, especially in times of risk.

The notion of nobility of the spirit might strike some modern ears as quaint but it seems more desperately necessary than ever before, and there are worse ways to read the accessible Nobility of Spirit than as a crash refresher in the Great Thinkers,
free of academic jargon and cant.

As a meditation on what is at stake when the pursuit of high ideals is elbowed aside by the pursuit of fleeting material gain, however, Nobility of Spirit might well be the most prescient book we've yet read on what's at stake in the current election cycle and in the developing global situation. Agree or disagree with Riemen's profound, ambitious and high-minded plea, you will be thinking about his words for a long time. It's been ages since a work of non-fiction moved us this way. Read it. Discuss it. Argue about it. '

Late Breaking News: I voted and have my sticker to prove it. So has my 20-year-old son - it was his first time. I was deeply moved to be in the booth next to him and to think of him looking down the names and the parties making his decision. His decision.

Lovely piece from one of my favourite bloggers Denis Welch about the transformation of the ordinary person into a citizen for a day.

Later Breaking News: Some Thoughts on the Election

A National Government. One of the least-experienced Prime Ministers this country has had replacing one of the most committed and able.

'The pursuit of high ideals is elbowed aside...'

We had a good election night at David and Pam's with a small but select range of voters hunched over the TV and a delicious vegetarian lasagne: National/National, Labour/Act, Labour/Labour, Labour/Green ... so I don't want to condemn the decision the country made.

It was made by my friends and family and other people I know.

I wish, though, there had been more Green voters, more Labour voters, fewer National voters...I wish people hadn't thought, like the Mad Hatter, it was 'time for a change'.

Of all times.

When it would surely have been better to keep the able at the helm. When we need 'Nobility of Spirit' to counter all that's yet to come.

What does John Key know about being a Minister let alone about being PM? Ah, remember them:

'...the ascendant forces of know-nothingness...'

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tonight is your answer

It's hard to concentrate on literary things while history is being made. It felt like watching the end of a war seeing all those people, all those weeping, laughing people in Chicago's Grant Park today. Here's an eloquent article on about Obama's win calling it a political and generational transformation, and pointing out that 'Tuesday was the night that the 1960s - the divisive decade that defined American politics for 40 years - finally died.'

McCain in his gracious concession speech referred to the same thing: how far the US had come from those times but how they could still cause hurt, and - I think I understood him correctly - that America electing Obama was a way of assuaging that hurt.

And here's the whole of Obama's presidential victory speech - I recommend watching it if you missed it. His story of 106 year old Anne Nixon Cooper is close to genius. It was one of those incredible moments seeing him speak today (live on CNN) - knowing the words would echo down the corridors of years, and I would always remember sitting in my living room with my daughter and her friend watching Barack Obama deliver them.

Later: Sorry, here's Part 2 of the speech. The 106 year old's story is about 5 minutes in.

Limber Tongue

Few of the stories one has it in one’s self to speak get spoken, because the heart rarely confesses to intelligence its deeper needs; and few of the stories one has at the top of one’s head get told, because the mind does not always possess the voice for them; and even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor — loud, lilting and Irish, or soothing and French, liquid and Italian, sweet as the Spanish lisp — where is that second ear? No court commands our entertainments, requires our flattery, needs our loyal enlargements or memorialising lies.

Literature once held families together better than quarrelling. It carved a common ancestry from mere air, peopling an often empty and forgotten past with gods, demons, worthy enemies and proper heroes, until it became largely responsible for that pride we sometimes feel in being Athenian or Basque, a follower or a fan. It’s no small gift, this sense of worth which reaches us ahead of any action of our own, like hair at birth, and makes brilliant enterprises possible.

William Gass

Couldn't resist this - it has been sent out just now in the regular newsletter from the International Institute of Modern Letters here in Wellington which is where I did my Creative Writing MA. Nice to be told literature is 'no small gift' when you're slogging away at home to get down two hundred words you're happy with by close of day.

William Gass's words are also apposite now with the United States waiting on the results of the polls with history ringing in its ears. Also ringing will be the stumbling words, the stories, the slippery language, the pleas, the assertions, and the oratory of politicians. One especially, Barack Obama: he of the 'limber' tongue.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

US Election

All eyes and all that. As the US prepares to vote for its 44th President, we hear that Obama's grandmother has died - the woman who raised him for eight years. Sad that she won't get to know the results of this election. Meanwhile NBR commentator David Cohen makes a prediction of an Obama win but not of Reagan proportions, wonders about the white Radio NZ line-up to cover the US Election, and suggests the amount of fainting in the Obama crowds might not be entirely accidental. I dunno, David, someone nearly fainted at my book launch - I think it happens in crowds (especially hot or excitable ones -mine was hot), and Obama has been at the centre of a lot of crowds lately. There were apparently 100,000 at his last speech.

Doing a quick trawl on You Tube I found this video made - it says - by a young black film-maker which seems to capture some of the feeling of the black population in the US about this man, Obama. Having said that, I'm always a little sceptical of You Tube stuff like this - it's hard to know where the truth ends and fantasy begins most of the time. Although this offering seems to speak for itself.

For the faint-hearted election watcher, Gordan Campbell on Scoop has produced a useful guide: How to Watch A US Election . Campbell will be reporting live tomorrow as the results come in. Go here for how a NZ writer [Paula Morris] will spend Election Day in the US. And here's a depressing video of average parking-lot Americans discussing Obama's 'terrorist bloodlines' [is it his father's middle name that gets them riled?]

For a good, healthy laugh, spot Sarah Palin and her running mate on a quick trip through NZ. I'll finish with the real thing (well, there's an element of fakery in this too - the two gents are a Quebec comedy duo notorious for prank calls to celebrities). And I'll continue to cross my fingers that, after tomorrow, this dreadful woman gives up and goes back where she came from, and Barack Obama has the win he deserves.

Late Breaking News: Just before midnight Tuesday night our time, a quick google of the US election revealed some polls were already open, and in the small New Hampshire town of Dixville Notch, it has opened and shut and the votes have been counted! The remote town traditionally opens its polls at midnight on election day. For the record, it was 15 ballots for Barack Obama and six for John McCain

Monday, November 3, 2008

Good in Black - Neil Gaiman on The Graveyard Book

I mentioned Neil Gaiman in my last post - having fallen on his high-energy blog in pursuit of interesting facts about Mary Poppins - and now, unexpectedly, I've read more about him on Beatties Bookblog and discovered this video of him talking about his latest sensation: The Graveyard Book.

The novel was written for Young Adults but apparently it has adults weeping at the end. As he says, it's like The Jungle Book in the way it can appeal to people of every age. Do have a peek - he's the next J.K. Rowling, says The Times, and he looks good in a leather jacket. The only downside is the interview's on the Borders website (with a different book cover for the UK.)

Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is - still according to The Times - 'an interlinked collection of tales about Nobody, a baby boy who escapes from the serial killer who murders his entire family, and is brought up in a graveyard by ghosts, vampires and werewolves. Like his bestselling children's novel Coraline (being filmed for release next year like his Stardust and Beowulf), it takes you into some scary places but, as he points out, what adults read as the most uncomfortable thing they can imagine, children take as a huge and thrilling adventure. '

If you go here you can see him reading the whole book chapter by chapter.

Friday, October 31, 2008

practically perfect in every way

'In January 1907 Travers Goff [father of Lyndon known later as P.L. Travers] feared he was about to be demoted [at the bank where he worked] yet again; he became ill with a high fever, and died several days later. His daughter Lyndon was seven, the oldest of three little girls. Some time afterwards her mother, still grieving, ran out of the house during a thunderstorm, crying that she was going to drown herself in a nearby river.

'Lyndon wrapped a quilt around herself and her two younger sisters, and told them the story of a magical white horse that could fly even though it had no wings. Retelling this tale in adulthood, Travers identified it as the origin of her authorial identity; as Lawson observes, 'Lyndon believed the magic horse ran underground, and came up eventually as Mary Poppins.' ' The Daily Telegraph

Go here for more of this fascinating article on Mary Poppins and author P.L Travers. It's written by UK author Justine Picardie who also talks about it on her blog here. Picardie reminds us that the book was written in the 1930's and so is freshly relevant in the recession of today; it's also a darker work than the Disney film. Little known fact: Mary Poppins was published by Peter Davies who was the adopted son of J.M Barrie and the inspiration for Peter Pan.

The article also notes that Peter Pan influenced Travers who in turn influenced a certain J.K. Rowling. Think magic, flight, childhood...

If you're a really keen Poppins follower, go here to read Neil Gaiman's blog which among other things (roll the post down) talks about a book called Myth Symbol and Meaning in Mary Poppins - the Governess as Provocateur, by Georgia Grilli, introduction by Gaiman. I'm sure Mary Poppins would have had something to say about that.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Corvus : a review

I didn't do it justice on National Radio this morning. Not one bit. But listen if you must. Checking in just prior to the review, I was told I had ten minutes (a long time on radio) so I lined up the facts in my head, ringed important notes, firmly marked a place to read from ... but as I was waiting, the NASA astronaut being interviewed before me slipped over the 10.30 a.m mark (talking about being smelly in space!) and then the 10.35 mark, and suddenly ten minutes was just over four. Such a shame, but that's radio for you.

It doesn't always matter - a lesser book can cope with four minutes - but Corvus is one of those books that almost overwhelms a radio reviewer because there's so much to talk about, and that discussion can go in all directions. The book itself is a forest of ripped slips of paper marking extracts that have to be remembered or read out loud (my poor family has patiently listened to most of them). Frankly, it looks like a rook has got to it.

And now I have no time to write up a proper review for my blog because I have to mark short stories and poems by my extramural Massey students. So here are some notes on this glorious book which can be characterised as a memoir about a family that lives with birds not unlike Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals. It is also a paean to birds and in fact to all wild creatures, to wilderness, to nature, to the whole of the earth.

Birds, says Woolfson, are indivisible from their environment, unlike humans who have lost that connection over time. Birds are the marker of the health of our environment, too. We may curse them and the way they live cheek by jowl with us in ways that don't always suit our need for control. But, as she says, imagine a world without them, without bird song. What that silence would mean.

Corvus: latin for raven or crow.
Corvids: an order of birds that includes rooks, magpies and crows.
  • among the most intelligent, if not the most intelligent, birds - brains the same size and capacity of apes and known by some as 'feathered apes'
  • complex social organisation, gregarious
  • live cheek-by-jowl with man
  • surrounded by superstition (the 'devil's bird'), treated with suspicion and active dislike due to black colouring, being 'hoarse-voiced', cleaned up after battles (carrion) and disaster (Great Fire of London for example) but can't pierce skin with their beaks - need others to do that
  • live in rookeries with large, untidy nests
  • eat insects, birds eggs, very young birds
  • live around the planet - some in NZ

Esther Woolfson lives in Aberdeen. She's a writer and fell in accidentally with birds. Her adoptions included:

  • Doves in a doo'cot
  • Bardie a cockatiel (her daughter's bird)
  • A Rook called Chicken
  • Spike the Magpie
  • Ziki the Crow

She says living with birds was like marrying into another family, being introduced to a new society. Her book is full of her observations, but it is also full of the knowledge she amasses about these fascinating birds. There is a large bibliography and she wrestles with the things she learns - the intelligence of the birds, their capacity for feeling, whether or not they are happy or unhappy living with her. There are some wonderful stories - moving, heart-warming, stimulating - and some simply fascinating information for all those bird lovers out there. For example, the details of how birds fly and the historical envy humans have for this singular skill.

Signs of corvid intelligence:

  • vocalising - Spike and Chicken can say words - especially Spike who can say his name and say 'hello' - one of his favourite curious sounds was 'eh?'
  • caching (hiding) food in case of future need - or just to keep it - shows an ability to think ahead and to lie - Woolfson's birds hid things all over the house in holes in the wall, cushions, books.... and took great care over this
  • reaction to the environment - the birds show fear of some things (men with ladders) but not others, they don't think their reflections are other birds but assume they are simply themselves (Woolfson refers to scientific research to confirm this), they consistently like some music (Schubert, Bach) but not other music (Benjamin Britten), they think black things such as rubbish bags are dead Corvids and react angrily or upset ... and so on
  • feelings - woolfson is convinced corvids show empathy, joy, grief, mischievousness, anger - it's a controversial view and it is hard to measure this or to be sure but Woolfson can have no other explanation for what she has seen living with these birds - some literature says that without words there are no feelings but she asks why this should be so - this discussion in her book takes the reader (as much of the book does) away from birds and into a philosophical discussion on what makes us human

Woolfson writes simply and movingly about the business of living with birds. The formality of the rook who bows on greeting, caws 'good morning' every morning, preens carefully every night, who offers gifts with precision and care. There is wonderful humour e.g. the family never mentions James I to Chicken the rook because he decreed that all rooks should be killed. Spike is simply hilarious with his 'human' voice calling 'Spiky!' or yelling 'Hello!' down the phone to Woolfson's daughter.

She tells us other famous people - writers like her - have kept corvids. Charles Dickens had a pet raven and Truman Capote had a pet rook called Lola. The latter friendship is especially fascinating and wonderfully rendered in The Truman Capote Reader. Lola cached things inside The Complete Works of Jane Austen. Capote found all sorts of things in there including someone's car keys and the first page of one of his short stories - one he had abandoned because he couldn't find the first page. His grief on losing her is intense.

Oh, there is so much more from the history of birds (the discovery of the feathered archaeopteryx, the hummingbirds that are 30 million years old) to the beauty of flight and feathers. There is some exquisite writing about birds in the wild, and corvids in particular, and about Aberdeen and about the wider world of nature.

And were Woolfson's birds happy? She says they seemed to be happy in the way they acted, their health etc, and, as she points out, they were members of the family whom she believed she could read as well as her own children. As she also says, there were no other options for them as abandoned birds - in the wild they'd probably have died. In the end, Spike the Magpie becomes more aggressive and territorial and suddenly and inexplicably (and terribly sadly) dies. Why? Woolfson doesn't know, but suggests he needed more than she could give. Chicken, on the other hand, seems content with domestic life.

Of course any family living with birds or animals must be a bit mad - there are bird droppings, food cached everywhere, birds homes to clean, windows that must be kept shut - but by the end of the book I felt that we could all do with more of this sort of madness. People like Esther Woolfson are surely closer to where humans used to be - 'indivisible from the environment' - and remind us what we have lost.

This is a humbling book. A wonderful book. Highly recommended. And it's going off now to my friend Helen who has a blackbird nesting outside her kitchen window. She says I can go and see it. Any day now they expect the eggs to hatch.

Emily Dickinson's Hummingbird

The Humming-bird
by Emily Dickinson

A route of evanescence
With a revolving wheel;
A resonance of emerald,
A rush of cochineal;
And every blossom on the bush
Adjusts its tumbled head, --
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy morning's ride.

Thanks to emilydlover who commented on my previous hummingbird post. I realise I don't know enough about Dickinson's poetry and resolve to rectify that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I discovered on passionate book blogger Bookman Beattie today the terrible news that due to the recession The Listener plans to stop publishing its weekly poem. Bookman flew into action and within hours had a reaction from Books and Arts Editor Guy Somerset who gave a considered explanation of why the 'agonising' decision had been made and promising, given the uproar (for uproar it has been) to try and revisit it. To see the full story, including comments from upset poets and others, go here.

Fingers crossed -and a plea to The Listener to do all it can to reverse the decision. The weekly poem is a tradition which has nurtured our greatest poets and continues to be one place up-and-coming poets know they can send their work.

Meanwhile Bookman has put his readers onto the weekly Guardian poem, and this week's is an exquisite poem about a hummingbird by Mark Roper. Apposite for me, given that I am currently deep inside Esther Woolfson's Corvus A Life with Birds [to be reviewed Thursday and I'll pop my notes up here.]

The poem begins:


Not just how
it hung so still
in the quick of its wings,
all gem and temper
anchored in air;

not just the way
it moved from shelf
to shelf of air ...

And ends with the hummingbird 'quiet as moss', almost glowing, in repose. Which is where I'm at with Corvus is now - Woolfson is wondering about avian thought and emotions, and whether, without the language to name them, birds can think and feel the same way we do [more on that later.]

Reading Roper's Hummingbird, I go instantly back to my school days when I discovered D.H. Lawrence's hummingbird poem which evokes the opposite of the airy delicacy Mark Roper describes but goes, again, where Corvus goes too - recalling where birds came from, once.

Humming Bird
by D.H. Lawrence

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

Lovely, lovely poems eh? Where they take us...
Late Addition
After I wrote this post, I read this in Esther Woolfson's Corvus: 'The oldest passerine [largest order of birds often known as 'perching' birds] found in Europe, a hummingbird, dates from Oligocene, 30 million years ago. Named, originally enough, Eurotrochilus inexpectus, 'Unexpected hummingbird' ...'
Photo: Getty images

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lucy and The Blue

Meet Lucy. She is just over a year old, the same age as The Blue. Just after she was born, her mother, Nicola Smith, received the novel to review for The Press in Christchurch. It turned out to be the first published review of The Blue - appearing on July 28 2007, just days after the book was released. It was a good one too (roll down the post to see it.)

Ever since, Lucy can't put it down.

Thanks to Nicola for this terrific shot of her daughter. I love those huge round blue-grey eyes and the grip of that tiny right hand. She also seems to be pointing at the little penguin on the cover which is rather sweet.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Show of Hands

I went to a pre-premier screening in Petone this evening of Show of Hands which is set in Taranaki and stars Melanie Lynsky and Craig Hall. It's magic. Terrific script and unfaltering direction by Anthony McCarten of Ladies Night and Death of a Superhero fame, and an assembly of believable kiwi characters whose story is delicately spun and full of surprises, humour and unexpected emotion. Lynsky and Hall are particularly marvellous. Music by Don McGlashan. Don't miss it. The world premier was at the Montreal Film Festival. It premiers here on Nov 4.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Meet my Picometer

Meet my latest gadget: a Picometer. It's over there, in the column on the right. Isn't it stylish?

You go here to get one.
I nicked the idea from an ex-pat Zimbabwe writer living in NZ who blogs as a cat of impossible colour. The photo is a cameo (heh heh) from her quirky blog which among other things shows Andrea, the writer, in an astounding variety of thrifted clothing. Yellow, incidentally, is a favourite colour of hers. Anyway, she has two picometers: one for her completed novel and one for a novel in progress. Since I was born just north of her (Zambia), I thought I should have one too.

No, that wasn't the reason at all. I like gadgets, especially gadgets on my blog, and leapt at the chance to have a picometer.

No, that wasn't really it either. The main reason is motivational. I wanted a picometer so that everytime I open O Audacious Book I'll be reminded how much progress I've made and haven't made on Precarious, and all my blog visitors will see the same. Little or no progress will be simply embarrassing, and hopefully this -plus loyal blog friends putting the pressure on - will drive me forwards.

It's especially important for me to get on with it now Penguin and I have shaken hands on Precarious, agreed on an advance and a completion date (end of 2009 to publish in 2010.) This is of course simply fabulous news and highly motivational in its own right, but there's nothing like a daily reminder to spur a highly distractible writer onwards.

It may seem madness to think of finishing the novel in 15 months time with Precarious clocking in at only 8,900 words, but you see I've already spend 20 months (on and off) on it: shaping the thing in my head and in a stack of notebooks. I have sorted out the voice, structure, point-of-view, themes, the main characters, the plot, the climax etc and have written the first four chapters and the final one. All of these things are critical to my being able to move forward with confidence. There is still much I don't know yet, but I'm definitely on my way.

It's interesting how I write the beginning and the end first. I did the same with The Blue - although I had more of the first part of that book written before falling upon that all-important final chapter. I just like to know where I'm headed, and the rest of the novel plays out from there. I think I read Marilynne Robinson does the same.

Anyway, back to the picometer. As you can see, I am aiming for 85,000 words which is not a long novel but which is, I think, long enough. And hey, I'm 10% done. So if I work at a rate of (gulp, just worked it out) 5,000 words a month I'll be done and dusted by the end of 2009. Note, I polish as I go so when I'm finished, I'm finished, until editing begins. And right now writing Precarious makes me feel exhilarated. I am on a roll. Long may it last.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tangled up in

beautiful writing here and here. The first one, from Marilynne Robinson's award-winning Housekeeping, is awash with light and dark, windows and reflections and water, what is glimpsed but not known. The second one by NZ writer, Martin Edmond, is delicious, edible, sensual.

Both pieces haunt you in the way straight narratives don't because these words have a longer life than words that simply work to take a character from home to the dairy. They are like long hairs that fall on pillows and in food, thicken a brush, tangle in a wool blanket. You keep finding them, picking them out, untangling them. Not sure that metaphor works that well as there is an element of irritation - the 'yuck' factor - with discarded hairs! But the endless discovery and untangling is just right, I think, and the work required.

It's interesting, too, that both writers have long sentences with a number of sub-clauses (long, curly hairs?) that are both purposeful and open-ended with room left for the reader to wonder (wander?) long after s/he has finished reading. Have a look and see.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Blogging, a beacon

Dove grey reader is a book blogger worth reading for her thoughtful reviews, and insights into life in Devon. One recent review was of Susan Hill's new book The Beacon which she recommends highly:

What plays out before your eyes is a very very clever economical sleight of pen, no over-egging of this pudding, good solid story-telling, beautifully written and yet what lies beneath is left to the reader to fathom so I wonder what conclusions others will reach when they turn that final page?

Interestingly, a comment on this post notes the sudden disappearance of Susan Hill's blog which included a creative writing forum (she continues to have a website.) This is followed immediately by another comment, from a Janis Goodman:

I had also been missing her [Susan Hill's] blog and emailed her today - she replied saying that she has given up blogging entirely. It made me think about the strange relationship the reader (and occasional contributor) has with the blogger. I felt a bit as if door had been unexpectedly slammed in my face. Perhaps it would have felt better if she had felt able to blog her decision and leave the blog up in cyberspace as an archive, for a while. I suspect that a lot of us have been revisiting her blog, wondering if all was well and if there was a technical problem with the blog - as seemed at first. Obviously she has every right to give it up - it's simply that her readership has been instantly disenfranchised.
Posted by: Janis Goodman Wednesday, October 15, 2008 at 01:02 PM

Other comments follow expressing the same feeling of regret and loss.

Writers blog for all sorts of reasons, but most of us who do it seem to agree blogging is a stimulating and useful precursor to writing fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Rachael King and Vanda Symon are two NZ writers who have declared this to be so. In some cases, it becomes an end in itself as another form of essay or creative non-fiction or book review. Ex-pat kiwi essayist Martin Edmond apparently talked of the benefits of blogging at his recent Writers Read presentation at Massey University, and he mentions in one post how he feels when he doesn't blog:

It is perhaps not useful to think of a weblog as a site of publication but that's how it always seems to me. Not a notebook or a diary because those forms do not assume an immediate readership of more than one. On the other hand, I also feel a kind of pressure to post regularly here even when there is nothing urgent to say. When a week goes by, as it has, and I post nothing, I start to feel as if some essential activity has lapsed even though that's probably not so.

It's salutary what he manages to pack in when he doesn't blog! Dovegrey reader seems to have started her blog as an ordinary common-and-garden reader and is now on UK publishers' lists as someone to send a book for review. Bookman Beattie seems to have carved a similar space for himself in the NZ review lists.

It is also increasingly recognised that blogging gives a writer a much-needed web presence in this day and age. I began O Audacious Book to put The Blue out into cyberspace when the bookshop sales started to falter a little (pre the Montana Awards) and it's certainly been useful for that, the highlight being when an Israeli publisher wanted to buy the rights for translation and asked me to email him via the blog. But however it started, my blog immediately became more than a publicity tool.

Like the reading journal I wrote while working on The Blue as part of my MA, I find blogging helps my free-floating ideas to settle and my thoughts cohere so I can apply them to my fiction. And like Edmond, I also enjoy this new non-fiction writing form - the journalist in me still looking for a place to settle, I suppose - especially the chance to rant about my passions and pet hates. A writer like Denis Welch enjoys this freedom to the full.

Finally, the blog actively introduces me to interesting writing about writing and books, through visitors to my blog commenting or linking or just visiting. In fact it opens up all sorts of interesting blogs.

I am kept company, entertained and encouraged by my regular blog-visits. I am constantly reminded, for example, that all writers go through moments of exhilaration and serious self-doubt, and that almost all of us work from home alone and need - and don't need - distracting company. As someone said, once, it is like the all-important 'water cooler' chat other people get at work.

So, another reason to write a blog: a sense that I am adding to this cyber-conversation, especially for my 'regulars' (I say that with as much hope as confidence). On the other hand, I know I can spend too much time on it when I should be writing a novel, and sometimes I do wonder if my peregrinations are merely a chat with a water cooler, no human ears in sight.

I mull over what keeps me visiting particular blogs and try and convince myself O Audacious Book might fulfil some of those criteria for some blog readers. Here they are: the quality of the thoughts and the writing I find there, the information offered and the character of the blog itself. The best writer blogs for me have a wide-ranging intelligence, passion, quirkiness, commitment, a sense of fun and aren't afraid of controversy.

Like a good novel, in the end it all comes down to 'voice', surely. Regular posting is important too. The conversation has to be alive. And like any friend, there has to be a similar world view, things in common, and even - if you're lucky - a willingness to step out and be counted as a friend (See the comments on Shroedinger's Tabby's post on the anniversary of her father's death, or comments on Gondal-girl's blog when she threatened to stop blogging - couldn't find the latter but they're in there somewhere).

Which makes me feel for the followers of Susan Hill's blog. To go looking and find an unexplained absence would be very upsetting. Like losing a - well - a friend. This surprises me a little to say it as I wouldn't have thought it was so before I started this lark.

So shame on Susan Hill for deleting her blog without so much as a warning. And a plea to all the bloggers I visit - see the blog roll on the right - not to do the same. If you're even so much as thinking about it, let me know, I can counsel you.