Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The how of literature

The Paris Review interviews with 300 writers over fifty years are an incredible resource and inspiration. The Paris Review website says: 'Taken together, these conversations with novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists, biographers, journalists, and critics constitute what Salman Rushdie calls “the finest available inquiry into the ‘how’ of literature.”

Here's Graham Greene on writing character: 'No, one never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels. One gets started and then, suddenly, one cannot remember what toothpaste they use, what are their views on interior decoration, and one is stuck utterly. No, major characters emerge: minor ones may be photographed. '

And Rushdie on starting a novel: 'When I’m in my room with the door shut, nothing signifies except what I’m trying to wrestle with. Writing’s too hard, it just requires so much of you, and most of the time you feel dumb. I always think you start at the stupid end of the book, and if you’re lucky you finish at the smart end. When you start out, you feel inadequate to the task. You don’t even understand the task.'

Here is the archive of interviews with writers as diverse as Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker and T.S. Eliot. Make sure to tell a friend or family member before you click the mouse, however, as there is every likelihood you will never return.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Eating my words

This gorgeous thing is a word cloud of my novel The Blue. The sound you can hear is my words being eaten. Only yesterday I suggested Rachael King's new hobby was a little bizarre, but a brief squizz at Wordle and I was smitten. Within seconds it had eaten the whole manuscript of The Blue and burped up this (click on it for a fuller picture.)

It's like one of those Michele Leggott poems which you make your own way around - anything goes and, strangely, any variation works. In this case, whatever combination and shapes the words make expresses appositely what's in The Blue.

I love
Ed and Friar with said in between butting into a vertical Lilian,
air mother see men water,
whale moment,
boy looking need another still sea.

I could spend hours analysing it (surely it's the shape of an island, or perhaps a whale?) I'm surprised about three things at this early stage: why none of the whaling terms or equipment etc are mentioned e.g. 'harpoon', why 'chicken' isn't there and neither is 'Arapawa Island'. Or maybe they are, I just can't see them yet.

Sorry, Rachael (pardon me while I swallow). I'd love to see the word cloud of The Sound of Butterflies.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A love story

Okay so I stole this from my friend Fifi's blog, but that's what happens in blogland. Anyway, writer Libba Bray has written a love story with the love object being the novel she's writing. It is laugh-out-loud funny and every writer in the midst of that particular love story should read it forthwith.

I'm thinking of people like Rachael King whose relationship with her second novel is very hot and cold at the moment. And after you've read Libba Bray you'll realise why. Rachael's on the rebound. She dumped another work-in-progress for this one. No wonder it's messing with her head. Her latest post is all about word clouds and some bizarre idea of feeding the whole of her first novel into this word-cloud maker ...

And when you've finished with Libba, read Fifi's struggle to write anything at all one especially cold bleak day. It was the evil bus stop that dampened her ardour, the poor darling.

And all of this while I am finally flirting again with my second novel in a haze of post-Montana adrenalin and approval. As Libba puts it: 'My book is so, so clever! Seriously. It was only our third date and it brought me fresh metaphor. '

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A book you have to read

I reviewed it on National Radio yesterday morning and on my bookshop's blog last week. Neither review really does it justice as there are so many wonderful threads in this book.

You'll just have to buy it to see for yourself.

What's especially wonderful about a radio review is the way a reviewer can read some of the book and hope people will be pulled in by the narrative or the quality of the prose or poetry.

I read a marvellous scene yesterday where Kapka's mother breaks down in the pristine toilets at a Dutch university, realising suddenly what the West has that Bulgaria -- labouring then under Socialism with a Human Face and with toilets that reflected the ugliness at the core of Bulgarian lives -- did not.

Kapka writes exquisitely in English and this travel memoir is a real treat -- as a revelation of her life as a Bulgarian, and of the history of her identity-challenged homeland to the north of Greece.

Here's the link again for the radio review (the book reviews are on at 10.30 ). Published by Penguin, the book costs $28.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Montana Winners and Judges ...

...sans Charlotte Grimshaw who's in France. I'm just behind Judy Siers with the red scarf in the front. We're quite a crowd this year. Perhaps more books with 3+ authors in the mix?

This was one of the riches of the evening for me -- the teams of writers working co-operatively on a range of incredible books from Maori culture to history to NZ artists, and on the other end of the scale, solitary authors who worked for years to bring a person or moment in history or other preoccupation into book form. These are all true labours of love and I felt privileged to be there to see them. My four years on a novel paled beside some of the herculean projects.

It's simply magic to me that one day Janet Hunt goes for a walk in a wetlands area and a little while later (euphemism) produces an exquisite book called Wetlands.

Another one of the evening's riches was the free and fluent use of Te Reo Maori in the proceedings from the evening's opening through the many of the greetings and speeches (of course I was so excited by the Best First Book award my Tena koutou katoa sounded rather mangled.)

I also loved the general air of excitement and a sense of approval and appreciation of all the writers there. Everybody was so nice.

I didn't say it in my speech but I should have: thanks to the Booksellers for everything they do to sell books, and for organising the awards -- especially Laura Kroesch, and Anna Hutchison, her able and friendly side-kick.


Still reeling after a wonderful night at the Montana Awards. What a fantastic night. All bells and whistles, glitter and glamour, authors and booksellers, publishers and journalists.

Since posting earlier I've found a piccy of the glittery plunging thing I wore (it was on the Booksellers website with all the other photos) but you can't really see the glitter here, which is a shame. I am standing with the NZSA's Paul Smith after collecting the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book of Fiction which Rachael King won last year for The Sound of Butterflies.

An exciting moment. I felt outrageously happy and proud. And then, while I was admiring my gift bottle of Montana wine and about to open the envelope to look at the lovely cheque, they announced the Readers Choice Award.... and, dear readers, it was The Blue. I gaped, my husband gulped his wine, my publisher swallowed his fork.

As-ton-ish-ing. A-maz-ing. W-on-der-ful.

Thank you to all the people who voted. Thank you to all my readers especially the ones who took a punt on The Blue in the early days when it was an unknown quantity.
Thank you to the readers who grab my arm outside the greengrocers and say 'I'm half way through and I love the bit where you desribe the gulls like washing', the ones who buy book after book for presents for their friends, the ones at the libraries who ask me if I think Micky's okay now, the ones who say they know the place I've written about that's how it is.

In the end this novel-writing thing is all about the book and the reader and the solitary act of reading.

Thank you to Montana and Booksellers for the Readers Choice Award and for the most wonderful evening. And to NZSA and Hubert Church for the Best First Book Award.

Congratulations to Charlotte Grimshaw for winning the Fiction and Poetry gong for Opportunity which is a startling collection of stories that verges on the genius, and to Laurence Fearnley who was a deserved fiction runnerup. Congrats too to Janet Hunt for Wetlands which won the Non-Fiction medal. And to all the rest.

More on the awards at Beattie's bookblog. And elsewhere no doubt.

Monday, July 21, 2008

It's Montana Day Today

The winners of the Montana NZ Book Awards are announced tonight at a dinner at the Wellington Town Hall. I am a-twitch with nerves but trying to enjoy the moment. It is simply thrilling to be there in the final four with Laurence Fearnley, Alice Tawhai and Charlotte Grimshaw. So all power to us! And watch this spot.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Writers on Monday

The International Institute of Modern Letters has been running a wonderful Writers on Monday winter series over the past few years. This year it's at the National Library Auditorium at 1 pm.

The opening gig last Monday was a line-up of poets who have appeared in the latest Best NZ Poems. This Monday July 21 it's time for fiction and here's how the IIML describes it:

First Fictions - Mary McCallum & Susan Pearce
Two of last year’s most highly praised début novels were Susan Pearce’s Acts of Love and Mary McCallum’s The Blue, a finalist in the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. They track the lives of women isolated by religion (Acts of Love) and remoteness (The Blue).The two writers discuss the long hard process of producing a first novel with fellow novelist Kate Duignan.

I reviewed Susan's novel for National Radio when it came out. It's a terrific read -- polished and powerful with a delicacy of touch on domestic issues and the stuff of family love. If there had been a shortlist for the Montana Best First Book of Fiction Award this year, she would have been on it.

Susan is also one of those clear and clever thinkers who has a thorough understanding of what makes fiction work. She is a tutor in short fiction at the IIML -- she was my son's tutor, in fact, this year -- and I find her insights always stimulating and useful (okay, so I read his notes ...).

The Writers on Monday series is free. Why not come?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Big Read

1 The three chasers are Chance,
Balaena and …………. (8)
7 Whalers either carved bone or
8 Ed's nickname (5)
11 What names were tattooed on
Friar? (4,3,5)
13 What is Speckle? (1,5)
14 How long was 'the blue"? (2,6)
15 Lilian's least favoured bird (4)
16 Leader of the chooks (5,5,5)

Okay now this is very cool -- a crossword about The Blue. I wanted to post the whole thing but couldn't make blogspot take the pdf file so you have only a tantalising glimpse of half the clues! You can find it here. The crosswords on four different NZ books were created as one of the fun things to do as part of Palmerston North City Library's brilliant Community Reads programme.

I was invited to open the programme on Wednesday night at the funky PN library which has welcoming corners for all and sundry from places for the youth to 'chill' to a reading room to a recording studio and even (I was assured) a shower for tired and dirty visitors!
Oh yes, there are books, too. Including an astonishing 28 copies of The Blue now it's been adopted by the city as one of its Community Reads.

Billed as The Ultimate Book Group, the programme encourages Palmerston Northians to read four NZ titles (The Blue, Duncan Sarkies' Two Little Boys, Shonagh Koea's The Kindness of Strangers and Jill Trevelyan's Rita Angus) and then join in a raft of activities and events around the books such as crosswords, a bus trip to the Rita Angus exhibition, watching the movie Scarfies, and attending author talks and book discussions.

The organiser is Genny Vella and she's as colourful and stimulating as the programme she's put together. I was also pleased to meet charismatic City Librarian Anthony Lewis who has a vision for his library that doesn't stop at showers and community reads.

The opening event was a blast with a keen crowd of readers and writers, a local MC (Mervyn Dykes) with a passion for stories, books for sale courtesy of Bruce McKenzie's bookshop which is part of the library complex, and a welcoming cuppa and fruit cake.

Wait. Books for sale! At a library event! Astounding stuff. And what's more both Genny and Anthony bought one for themselves. I think Palmerston North is very lucky indeed to have them. Join in the fun here.

A warning: the crosswords are not easy. I have to say I had a little trouble answering a couple of The Blue's down clues.

As part of my library 'tour' - as my friend Kim calls it - I popped in to do a reading at Waikanae Library the next day. Waikanae is a much smaller library without the bells and whistles but (thanks to Mandy the librarian) the crowd, the warmth and welcome were much the same -- helped by the presence of some loyal friends (including one I hadn't seen for almost 30 years!)and my favourite Waikane residents: my parents, my brother and my nieces.

It was the perfect place to read the one passage from The Blue which mentions Kapiti. Unfortunately land-bound whale-less Palmerston North doesn't feature at all in the book, but in one of those odd twists of fate, The Blue currently features in Palmerston North. I'll be back.

Oh, and I've just realised it's Montana Poetry Day today! There are events everywhere including one at my Rona Gallery bookshop (poetry for kids at 11 am). A quick flick to Beattie's bookblog and I see: Janet Charman has won the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards poetry category and $5000 for her collection Cold Snack, (AUP). Congratulations to her.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Aviatrix

The Aviatrix was painted by Rita Angus in 1933. It is in the breathtaking book Rita Angus An Artist's Life by Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press) which I got for my birthday today from my parents'-in-law.

The plates of Angus' work reveal her considerable talent for portraiture. I picked this one because an earlier post here about Jean Batten attracted some interest from Australian writer Gondal-Girl who likes aviatrices so I hope she sees this.

The painting is of Angus' sister Edna who was one of the first women in NZ to own a pilot's licence.

And serendipitously, I was invited to visit Angus' former home in Thorndon Wellington this evening. I am involved with the Randell Cottage in Thorndon which is a residency for NZ and French writers, and we are in the early stages of building a relationship with the other artists' residencies in the area: the Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn, as well as the Katherine Mansfield birthplace.

So in the still of the evening, a small group of writers (including the current Randell Cottage writer-in-residence Jen Compton) and other devoted Friends of the Randell Cottage walked around the small but perfectly formed Rita Angus cottage with its pocket-handkerchief balcony and huge magnolia tree.

We stood in the art room with its paint-spattered floor boards, admired the duck-egg blue kitchen cupboards and looked down from the lush garden bank at the way the magnolia tree grew like the thorns around Sleeping Beauty's castle.

Rita Angus lived here from 1955 and loved its tranquillity and closeness to the city. Her painting above is called Garden with Magnolia Tree.

And here's the book with one of Rita's stunning self-portraits on the cover. I love the way her people take full possession of the canvas and resolutely hold the eye. Even the Aviatrix is bolder and more audacious than Angus' sister in her aviatrix garb.

The paintings can be seen in their full glory in an exhibition at Te Papa now, and if you can't get there the book is the next best thing.

The text is fascinating too. I've learnt, for example, that Angus was a minimalist who kept her cottage very tidy, and always had a self-portrait above the fireplace in the living room. The room she painted in was also the room in which she ironed.

Which links to a previous post here about writing in the midst of things.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Blue and the Tropic of Capricorn

This just in: The Blue at another exotic spot. The photo is courtesy of my brother Andy who lives on the Tropic of Capricorn with his wife Penny, their three children and two dogs. Actually, they live in Rockhampton, Australia, which is one of those places like Itaquaquecetuba, Brazil, which straddles the Southern Tropic. Here's Andy casually reading The Blue.
According to Wikipedia: the Tropic of Capricorn, is one of the five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the Earth. It is the most southerly latitude at which the sun can appear directly overhead at noon. This occurs at the December solstice.

The Tropic of Capricorn is so named because about 2,000 years ago the sun was entering the constellation Capricornus on that date.

What to tell you about Andy? He's my youngest brother, not the one who went fishing but the gregarious one with red hair who had his first birthday the day before the Wahine storm. He and his family are having a ball living latitudinally but oh how we'd love to have them back.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

And how to write in the midst of things

Nicola Barker's writing desk, according to The Guardian's Writers' Rooms series, isn't in a study at all but in the corner of the living room. It's a beautiful wooden piece surrounded by an idiosyncratic collection of things.

She says: 'I got the carpenter who made it to cut a small indentation into the table part, so I could slot right into it. It's made from some old stairs. And it has loads of little cupboards in front full of interesting stuff - letters and rosary beads, faulty discs, stickers and whatnot. As I work, my dog, Watson, insists on positioning himself under my chair. '

And Barker wears industrial ear muffs!

I'm interested in Barker's work space because a) I haven't read but am drawn to her 800-plus page novel Darkmans which is a subversive take on what language is and does (I gather) and debates amongst other things the "absurd idea that language has these gaps in it and that lives can somehow just tumble through", and b) I wrote The Blue in the midst of things on an old kitchen table in the corner of the family room accompanied by a piano, 2 guitars, a stack of old board games, a wooden castle, a noticeboard, a filing cabinet and the dog's bed. All pretty tidy but all very much there.

I partly did that to ensure I wrote only in school hours (and in the middle of the night) and fled back to daily life when the children came in the door. Now they're older there's a little less pressure to do that, so I've turned the upstairs spare room into a 'study' for this second novel, but it's not as appealing (less cosy I suppose, and the office chair is rubbish.)

It becomes more appealing when the kids are all home, the electric guitar is getting a work out, Youtube is bleating hip hop, the Sims are doing their thing on the PS2 and the dog needs a walk.... Then I might just trot up those stairs, pull on my 'Colin' cardigan (it belonged to a late friend and helps me write) and close the door.

Or I might take the dog for a walk.

It would be interesting to hear about other NZ writers' rooms. Rachael King admits to working best when things are higgledy-piggledy.

And see the previous post about Virginia Woolf's solitary writing splendour in the 'writing lodge'. Still sounds like she could have done with those ear muffs.

Virginia Woolf's Writing Room

'This was where Leonard came out in July 1931 to tell her that The Waves, which he had just finished reading, was a masterpiece.' Hermione Lee.

A former toolshed in the garden of their Sussex home, Woolf's 'writing lodge' meant she was constantly distracted by Leonard sorting the apples or the church bells at the bottom of the garden or the dog who left paw marks on her manuscript pages. Read more in the Guardian's marvellous feature Writers' Rooms.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Give us Back our Shortlists

The shock here on the shortening of the Montana Fiction shortlist to four instead of five is nothing it seems to the shock reaction to the Irish-based Frank O'Connor Award dispensing with a shortlist altogether this year (see previous post). Including this blogger on The Guardian website whose post is headed Give Us Back Our Shortlists.

His reasons are much the same as the reaction on this side of the world to the Montana Award pruning. He says, 'prizes like this exist not simply to reward individual writers but to raise consciousness, and therefore sales.'

NZ writer Tim Jones whose collection of stories Transported was long-listed has the same point to make, although he accepts that it's the judges' call in the end.

A fantastic review of Lahiri's collection Unaccustomed Earth in the New York Times. Here's a taste: 'Lahiri handles her characters without leaving any fingerprints. She allows them to grow as if unguided, as if she were accompanying them rather than training them through the espalier of her narration.'

Give that reviewer a prize forthwith! No shortlist, just a prize. And I must get my hands on Lahiri's collection.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Frank O'Connor Prize shortens its shortlist too

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri is the outright winner of the prestigious Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2008 (Prize: €35,000) The jury has without precedent dispensed with a shortlist to announce Lahiri the winner.

Director of the Award, Patrick Cotter, speaking yesterday said: “With a unanimous winner at this early stage we decided it would be a sham to compose a shortlist and put five other writers through unnecessary stress and suspense.

Not only were the jury unanimous in their choice of Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth as the winner, they were unanimous in their belief that so outstanding was Lahiri’s achievement in this book that no other title was a serious contender.” More about Lahiri and the prize here.

Thrilling to read of such brilliance.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

2b or not 2b? Texting might be good for us after all.

Texting has not been the disaster for language many feared, argues linguistics professor David Crystal in the Guardian. On the contrary, he believes it improves children's writing and spelling.

Interestingly, I asked my creative writing students this year at Massey to write text poems on their first day. One job of poetry, after all, is to do away with dross and another is to focus on a clear and tangible expression of the intangible. Texting in a nutshell, really.

They had to write a poem on their phones about a thing they were like and why and then text it to me. The results were revelatory.

There was the young woman who said she was like a rubbish bin because she hoarded unwanted things and was constantly hungry, another who said she was a second hand dress 'Beautifl in al my imperfctins', and another who was a window 'open minded wen I wnt 2 b/Closed minded wen I wnt 2b'.

And this included people who had never written a poem before, dreaded it even. For weeks I thought of them like that: the bin, the dress, the window, the hula hoop, the lightbulb, the radio. Then all the other work intervened along with course requirements and assessments. Life got more complicated.

Going back over the text poems now I think how surprising and beautiful they were.

How true.

They have a wonderful tossed-off, caught-in-the-act energy. They kick aside consonants, elide vowels, and try to do away with the very things they are reliant on to get the message across. They are down to, what Anne Enright calls, their 'clean white bones.'

Whatever else my students wrote over the semester the text poems still shine as some of their best work. They did what texting does best: spoke directly from the mind to the hand to the eye of another, and in embracing metaphor (grudgingly, furiously, curiously) also made a good fist of that thing poetry does best -- expressing the inexpressible.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Blue is a bestseller

My friend Maggie emailed to tell me the news. The Blue is officially a best seller which is simply the best thing I've heard all week (apart from my daughter's school report from her nearly new school.)

It comes in at third on the fiction list with Jenny Pattrick's Landings at first place, Is She Still Alive? by Tessa Duder next, 4th is Two Little Boys by Duncan Sarkies, and A Sandwich Short of a Picnic by Felicity Price, 5th.

For more information follow the link.

Jenny Pattrick's received some sort of gong from the folks of Wanganui City for her book Landings which is set at a time when the Wanganui River was known as the Rhine of Maoriland. People flocked to travel down river on the steamers, over 200 rapids, and stay at the luxury Pipiriki Hotel.

I said in my Listener review, 'Landings is a powerful yarn set in an extraordinary time and place.' Whatever I said it wouldn't have mattered, the NZ public loves a Jenny Pattrick novel and it will stay at no. 1 for sometime yet I'm guessing.

I heard Duncan Sarkies read from Two Little Boys at the Auckland Writers Festival and have since been forcing it on people who want a good laugh. He picked an especially funny piece to read which introduced me to the phrase 'sloppy seconds'.

The book is essentially a road trip which turns to disaster when the two lads run over a Norwegian backpacker and decide to dispose of the body. Flight of the Conchords' Jemaine Clement: “Twisted, surprising and very very very funny.”

I haven't yet read the Duder which sees the children's/YA author writing stories about 'ordinary older' women, or the Price which looks like a sharp piece of chick lit about a dumped woman exacting revenge. The author appears to be a writing dynamo turning out bios and novels like other people turn out blog posts.

It's great to see Emily Perkins' Novel about my Wife entering the international fiction list. Published by Faber in the UK, it doesn't qualify for the NZ list. It has received rave reviews in the UK and elsewhere with words like 'accomplished' and 'brilliant' flashed around. The only trouble is they're calling her one of Britain's most exciting young authors.

My students have been studying Perkins' short story Not Her Real Name in the Massey University creative writing course and they never cease to be amazed by its... audacity. The way it plays with point-of-view using poems, shopping lists etc planted randomly amongst the prose to give rare glimpses into the characters' feelings.

I see my friend Kerre is still selling well in the bestsellers' non-fiction category with her Short Fat Chick to Marathon Runner which is a terrifically honest, funny and inspiring book. God knows if I could ever run a marathon but at least I'd know not to wear a g-string while doing it (a little tip from Kerre).

I used to play doubles tennis with Kerre when we both worked for TVNZ in Wellington, and it was in the middle of one of the games that I flung myself after the ball, landed face first on the concrete and knocked my front teeth out. One of the side-effects of doing the fitness thing I suppose.

So The Blue's in good company - long may it last.