Saturday, August 30, 2008
Go here to readatwork.com for the weirdest thing I've seen in a long time: short stories, poems and parts of novels made into power point presentations complete with bullet points, flow charts, graphs, and other graphic displays. In other words, it would take a very nosy workmate to work out you're hunched over Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince or Tim Jones' Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev or a poem by Brian Turner or Emily Dickinson.
For some of the work, the literary language suffers in the new construction, but for some of it the bar graphs and bullet points isolate words and phrases rather felicitously.
I'm still reeling. [Warning when you go to readat work.com you appear to be in Windows but it reads 'Widows' instead. This is intentional. Click on the word BOOK and go from there.]
Another way to connect with literature while you're at work is to go to the Writers on Monday series at the National Library Auditorium in Wellington from 1-2 pm. This week Jennifer Compton is the writer on the spot.
New Zealand-born Compton has lived in Australia for most of the past 30 years so she finds herself in the odd position of being called an Australian across the ditch and a Kiwi writer here. Jennifer has been living in NZ this year as writer-in-residence at the Randell Cottage in Thorndon, writing her first novel All the Time in the World set in the Wairarapa and finishing a book of essays, but she is more widely known as a poet and playwright.
She has published two collections of poetry and a chapbook, written half a dozen stage plays and a number of radio plays, been poet-in-residence at the Whiting Library Studio in Rome, seen her poetry collection Blue shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2001, and in 1995 was awarded the NSW Ministry of Arts Fellowship (poetry).
Jennifer will discuss this and other aspects of her trans-Tasman writing career in conversation with the chair of the Randell Cottage Friends - which would be me. Actor Michele Amas will also add a touch of the dramatic with a reading from Jennifer Compton's play The Big Picture (which Michele starred in at Circa nine years ago.) Go here for more about the series.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Until this week and Mr Pip.
And re-reading has other advantages. I see more clearly now what Lloyd is doing - the fable he's created on this distant island, the stories he lays one on the other and the emphasis on the importance of telling them, the theme of the reliability of story over the unreliability of real life. Especially life on Bougainville, then.
Monday, August 25, 2008
If you could see all the words in all those heads ...
Sunday, August 24, 2008
There are 160 students enrolled for the weekend, and a dozen established writers of poetry, fiction and plays working with them.
Apart from the workshops, there are also sessions for them to watch and learn from. Yesterday, amongst other delights, two script-writing Davids - Geary and Armstrong - and chair Ken Duncum had everyone enthralled when they talked about how to transform stories into material for the stage and screen.
What amazes me is how sure these young writers are about being young writers. I mean, a whole weekend doing nothing but writing and reading and hearing from writers - and each day is underway by 9 am! You have to be pretty certain writing is your thing. I did have one student who shot off after sharing his poem, which referenced - rather fantastically - the Pope and Batman, because he was playing sport; but he was back in the afternoon laughing along with the rest of them at the antics of the two Davids.
James Brown (another workshop tutor) said yesterday, we forget how new the students are, and how they are all still trying out different genres and styles. He's right. At that age I identified as a poet and look at me now. But what they do believe they are is writers - well, most of them including my eight (one or two I suspect have been hijacked by the Head of English at their school and made to attend.)
There is enormous confidence in the way these young people throw out a page to the class and say this is a poem or a short story; the way they discuss the shape of the Batman/Pope poem, whether there should be speech marks inside another poem, the consistency of the Irish theme in one story, the need for shorter sentences in another.
One reads Guy de Maupassant, another reads Stephen King.
All in all a stimulating weekend for students and tutors alike. And speaking of nuances, I heard one student declare she had a crush on the semi-colon at the moment. So this is for her: quotes from a Salon.com article called Is the Semicolon Girlie?
Page Rockwell: I love the semicolon. But then, I also love the eyelash curler.For more go here. Must dash - the workshops call.
Catherine Price: I'd never really thought of punctuation as gendered, though I suppose the wink of the semicolon could be considered more girlish and
coy than the straightforward, masculine em dash.
Tracy Clark-Flory: Clearly, men find the em dash a reassuring phallic symbol, while the semicolon reawakens their Freudian castration anxiety. What better way to cope with penis envy than to make frequent use of the semicolon?
Thursday, August 21, 2008
For the rest of this quote by Walter Mosely go here. It is wonderfully argued and resonates with me today especially because last night I watched one of my favourite films (again): Smoke by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster (author of NY Trilogy, The Brooklyn Follies).
It is a little movie set in and around a tobacco store in New York. Harvey Keitel is the shop owner Auggie Wren and William Hurt is the author Paul Benjamin who has writer's block. There are, as you'd expect with an Auster creation, stories within stories within stories. Truth and lies and 'bullshitting'. Lots of lingering moments of telling and listening and waiting.
One of the first stories, told by Benjamin in the tobacco shop, is about how Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to weigh smoke. He says Raleigh weighed a cigar, then smoked it - keeping the ash and the butt - and then weighed those. The difference between the two weights was the weight of the smoke.
Interesting to know how that would apply with a novel ... I suppose you'd need to reverse that experiment, after all you start with the smoke and end with the cigar.
Keitel's character Auggie is full of stories too. His approach is simple:
'People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open you're going to see just about all that you can handle.'
Here is one of Auggie's stories. We see it acted out like this only after he's told it to Benjamin - a stunning piece of cinema with the camera staying on Keitel's face for almost all of the ten minutes it takes. The music is by the inimitable Tom Waits. Sublime.
To end, here's a quote from Paul Auster who's interviewed in the collected scripts of Smoke and, the follow-up movie, Blue in the Face (Faber).
'Writing a novel is an organic process, and most of it happens unconsciously. It's long and slow and very gruelling. A screenplay is more like a jigsaw puzzle.'
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Monday, August 18, 2008
Later she sent me a link to brainyquote.com which has quotes by Munro including this one:
I can't play bridge. I don't play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn't seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.
In twenty years I've never had a day when I didn't have to think about someone else's needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it.
I remember reading one of Munro's stories in Runaway while I was writing The Blue and it showing me suddenly and simply how to write about love in a way that was unsentimental, visceral, raw, astonishing. Munro says,
I want the reader to feel something is astonishing. Not the 'what happens,' but the way everything happens.And here's a review in the International Herald Tribune which tries to come to grips with why Munro is so good - and, I suppose, why looking out the window works. It starts by saying she is a writer of 'unsurpassable distinctions.'
The distinctions that Munro has been elaborating on for years along the prairies, small towns, and modest lives of Canada operate upon the heart. They are particle metaphysics, and their collisions release an energy that all but mutates the reader's mental and emotional genes.
Afterward, we glow faintly in the dark.
Heart is a word dangerously subject to sentimental abuse; even worse is heartstrings. Useful, though, in attempting to suggest the nature of Munro's art. She moves on a fine workaday surface; then, unsignaled, reaches deep with delicate and knowing fingers to tug the filament of a brainily targeted emotion. Her unremarkable landscapes are dotted with rabbit holes; falling in, we grow, we shrink, we are at a loss, and then unexpectedly found.
Friday, August 15, 2008
Dear mother, dear father dear husband dear child,
there is no answer,
this microphone like a beehive celled with honey
is blocked forever with the sweetness of death.
In February 45 years ago, Janet Frame started to write Towards Another Summer which was published postumously last year. Three days before she appears to have begun work on it, Sylvia Plath had committed suicide. Frame's literary executor and niece Pamela Gordon says the events were not unrelated.
One example she gives is the poem above which is in Towards Another Summer and, as Pamela says, 'is redolent with Plath-like poetic symbolism and does seem to contain a reference to the BBC radio recording (of Plath re-played the week of her death) which Frame would have been familiar with.'
Pamela says Frame, who was living in London at the time, grieved for Plath. Read more in a fascinating post on Pamela's blog Slightly Framous. Interestingly, the post seems to have been triggered by an earlier post here on literary crushes.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
So here I am, posting here (quickly) at Techdomain, and Becky who is putting the bits of my computer back together is giving me hard looks. I said I'd be quick and I think over an hour has passed since I started trudging through my emails.
Anyway, here's a quick tip: try Rachael King's blog on.... blogging. She's taking part in a panel on the topic at the Christchurch Writers' Festival which includes ace literary blogger Mark Sarvas. I'll be down there to read from The Blue at the New Writers' gig on Sunday morning (Sept 7) and to chair a session with Lloyd Jones at 4.15 that afternoon straight after Rachael's panel on blogs - in the same room too.
I'm looking forward to meeting some of my South Island readers while I'm down there, and it would be nice to catch up with Rachael, too, and South Island writers like audacious crime writer Vanda Symon (when she writes a post entitled 'Dying for a Salad' you know it's not about a hungry vegetarian..... )
Sunday, August 10, 2008
magpie, a cockatoo? and a kangaroo, who all seem up on dinner party etiquette (see previous post). Although this painting, in contrast to Sue Orr's book cover, has a distinctly 'Last Supper' feel to it, with Lawrence the Christ-figure.
In fact, I took the image from Australian writer Gondal-girl's blog where she talks about a crush she had on Lawrence - exacerbated by the fact of his having visited Australia once. She asks about other people's literary crushes.
So I had a think about mine and came up with: Byron (his desire to fight on behalf of the Greeks - my father's people - vs. the Turks and his feverish death in Messolonghi added to his mystique), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (that feverish imagination of his captivated me and my friend Sandra, we poured over his poetry in my dark flat in Aro Valley) and Yeats (his political activism, his poetry, his connection with the Theosophists were a compelling mixture - I remember discussing gyres for hours). These were my romantic teenage crushes, and I quoted them, read them, tried to write like them.
Sylvia Plath was more serious than that. I really thought poetry had to be dark and confessional to be worth anything, and I used her poems as models for the dark, confessional stuff I wanted to write with lines like 'I am in the bird-tree and my throat aches'. Her struggle as a writer who was a woman and mother meshed well with my uncompromising 70s/early 80s feminism . I didn't like Ted much then (this changed with The Birthday Letters and his Collected Letters). I read everything I could about Sylvia and by her, especially her letters. When I went to London I wandered around Primrose Hill where she lived and died ... wrote anguished poems about it ...
I recently saw a one-woman show about Plath at Circa in Wellington. Spookily the Olympia typewriter the actress used as Plath was identical to one I had used in London to type up those anguished Plathian poems. None, thankfully, published. I still 'notice' Plath but I don't feel moved to read everything about her anymore, let alone write like her. Although I still envy her enormous talent and detest the way she died.
Interestingly, in the recently published Letters of Ted Hughes selected by Christopher Reid (Faber), Hughes suggests she wanted to be saved, and blames himself for not getting to her in time. Or that's my recollection - must go back and read those particular letters again.
Saturday, August 9, 2008
Auckland writer Sue Orr's debut collection of short stories was launched this week at Unity Books in Wellington and is discussed on Arts on Sunday on Radio NZ National at 2.30 pm tomorrow along with the latest collection of poems from Modern Letters Prize Winner David Beach called End of Atlantic City.
Friday, August 8, 2008
This year's Montana Awards were deemed 'controversial' by the literary media and book bloggers and Lynn and Tim joked that they wouldn't be asked back. But hearing them speak you'd wonder why. Their commitment to the job was clearly exemplary.
Lynn (broadcaster) and Tim (writer), and third judge and publisher David Elworthy, were avid readers of the 220 or so books entered across the many categories, their knowledge of the books was detailed and impressive, they balanced out each other's areas of expertise, and there were no fights or nasty things said in making the decisions (with one small exception in 'poetry' see below.)
The controversy of the awards this year was around having four fiction finalists instead of the usual five, no first book shortlists, and a few winners from fringe publishers that had been 'under the radar' e.g. Judy Siers book on Chapman Taylor.
The two judges justified the 'four not five' by saying what they'd said before: in their view it wasn't a strong year for NZ fiction which is not to say there weren't some good books out there, it's just they were looking for excellence as per their brief. Lynn pointed out that fiction adviser Diane Brown also fed into the decisions, although she recommended strongly they choose a fifth finalist.
Both Tim and Lynn were happy with the four books in the fiction finals and seemed especially delighted with Charlotte Grimshaw's win, which they felt pushed the boundaries of short fiction in an exceptional way.
As a separate comment later in the evening, Tim Corballis said he felt there wasn't enough experimentation going on in last year's fiction list - which is something that interests him personally. On the other hand, both he and Lyn applauded the experimentation going on in poetry and the risks taken by poets and their publishers.
The judges were obviously excited by the poetry entries and confessed that was one area they got 'aggressive' choosing the finalists. They said Johanna's book A Girl Long Ago was definitely one that took risks (and her readings last night confirmed that -- she and her work are deliciously quirky.)
On dispensing with shortlists for the best first books this year, Lynn explained that as the only newcomer in the general fiction category The Blue had to be the Best First Book winner. The Booksellers felt they couldn't have shortlists for some first books and not others, so they did without them for the poetry and non-fiction too (I think I've got that right). When I asked if there still couldn't have been a newcomers' fiction shortlist to give the others their day in the sun, Lynn said booksellers preferred some who-will-win tension around a shortlist and felt without that it was not worth having.
Something else that interested Tim and Lynn was the way books were increasingly difficult to categorise. In fact, they seemed to embrace it as an exciting development rather than something that frustrated them. They talked about the way poetry could also be biography (Chris Price's Brief Lives in last year's Montanas) or essays could be biography (Martin Edmond's collection this year) or art/illustrative books could also be history books (Aberhart - which Greg contributed to.)
Tim felt The Blue used 'poetic' language and while it was certainly a novel, he wondered where a book-length poem would fit (he plumped in the end for 'novel'), he pointed out Greg's book A Nest of Singing Birds (winner of Reference and Anthology category)could have fitted into Illustration where his book Aberhart resided. (In fact, Greg himself is a long-time straddler of book categories as poet, illustrator, art historian etc etc) Lynn also said Mau Moko which won the Lifestyle category could have slipped easily into History or Illustration.
Publisher Mary Varnham, who was in the audience, asked a number of questions around this. She and the judges riffed about the huge numbers of books in the Lifestyle category including a vast number of Sports and Cook books, and how War books almost needed their own category away from History.
She also said she was constantly trying to encourage non-fiction writers to write better stuff, but increasingly the Montanas seemed to reward books with stunning illustrations over those without, and not rewarding excellent non-fiction prose. Her book The Transit of Venus was, she thought, possibly a case in point. She also said books on NZ subjects won out over non-NZ subjects any day, which cut out a large number of excellent books that needed support here if they were to sell elsewhere.
The judges agreed that while both these things were true to an extent it wasn't a conscious decision. Tim did confess, though, to thinking NZ-based books fitted more easily into the Montana format, but Lynn said if she'd read an excellent book on a non-NZ subject she would have happily short-listed it.
On increasing the number of categories, the judges thought this was a sticky slope. The booksellers already feel the ceremony is too long, apparently. On the other hand, both Tim and Lynn thought there was room for extending the categories to include crime fiction, for example, and possibly 'popular fiction.' Although Tim felt the latter was a very difficult one to judge, as its judges (the public) are diffuse, and the criteria would be different.
In answer to the other suggestions floating around the media and blogosphere about returning to two award systems - one for popular fiction, one for 'excellence' - Tim said art and commerce have always had a difficult relationship and he felt it was something book awards like the Montanas couldn't resolve and shouldn't try to. He seemed to suggest that the judges and the booksellers and the reading public had to accept the difficulty was there and wrestle with it.
Both judges did say booksellers and the reading public could make more use of what the Montana Awards offer them. Lynn said she always hassled booksellers about getting those Montana stickers onto the finalists and winners because it was a lost opportunity to sell some excellent books if they didn't. And she and Tim said they'd love to see more made of the judges' report of the winners which can be downloaded on the Booksellers' website.
Their confidential report to the Montana organisers is not available for discussion, and obviously contains some recommendations that couldn't be shared last night.
Tim and Lynn were exceptionally frank with the audience at the Wellington Museum which was small but keen - indicating perhaps that the wider public isn't as interested in the Montanas as the book world thinks it is. It was certainly interesting for Greg, Johanna and me and, no doubt, other writers in the audience to hear the 'behind the scenes' view of the Montanas, and the views of people like Mary Varnham and local bookseller, Murray Pillar.
It was also very nice to hear Johanna read and to hear Greg talk about how he came to write A Nest of Singing Birds, and for me to read again from The Blue. Thanks to the Wellington Museum of the City and the Sea for the initiative.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
From left, Elizabeth Smither Michele Leggott (the current laureate), Jenny Bornholdt, Brian Turner and Bill Manhire with their exquisite tokotoko, or ceremonial sticks. The one belonging to the late Hone Tuwhare was also included on the night.
Monday, August 4, 2008
Precarious is not set long ago and across the Strait like The Blue; it's contemporary and set in Eastbourne, NZ, where I live. So doubly precarious, I believe. This was the theme of a talk I gave yesterday as part of an Eastbourne writers' series hosted by a local church and here are some notes from it.
L. Precarius obtained by begging or prayer, depending on request or on the will of another, fr. Precari to pray, beg.
Oxford: held at the pleasure of another/uncertain; unstable
Adapted from Webster: it first signified "granted to entreaty," and, hence, "wholly dependent on the will of another." Thus it came to express the highest species of uncertainty.
The novel beginning ... in a nutshell
A dissatisfied woman, an Irish boyfriend, a builder father whose head was messed with by a fall, a concrete bridge where people fish, envy.
Writing The Blue - what I loved
THE THREE E’s: EPIC, ELEMENTAL AND ESCAPIST. Need to find this in the other E ‘EASTBOURNE’. Escapist is the hardest one to find as I work inside a novel set on my doorstep. Also worrying: will local people (it's a small community) think they see themselves and others? It even happened with The Blue, a local woman rang me convinced I'd written about her husband. Strangely many of the details of the two - the real man and the wholly invented character - were the same.
Stealing from real life
Of course I do it, every writer does. But I don't 'photograph' people and pop them in. I always transform their characteristics into fiction. For example, I listened to former whalers spotting whales on Arapawa Island for DOC. I took notes, but I didn't use their words, I used their joshing and competitiveness and knowledge, and transformed it. Some phrases eg. 'thar she blows' are used verbatim for obvious reasons. It is what Mark Doty calls getting to the 'emotional truth' of the thing.
One of my characters Owen, known as The Friar, has my grandfather's name and tattoos like he does, but he's not my grandad. Molly the old hen got her name from my mate Penny's old dog, but she's not a dog.
Graham Green 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. ' (from an earlier post)
So I suppose local people should feel safe. Or at least, safer.
Writers have their preoccupations
Peter Carey said something about how he thought he'd written a number of different novels but he's recently discovered he's been writing the same thing all the time. The Precariousness of Life is one of my preoccupations. I didn’t know it when I started The Blue but I did by the end: Lilian falls (walking), Micky falls (harpoon), Gunner falls (sick). There are steep hills and cliffs, eggs are thrown and threaten to break, people fall from grace. Whaling is dangerous. The wider world is precarious: it's 1938, out of a depression, on the cusp of war. It's also a time of flight.
Wherever you look, things can change in the blink of an eye, what's solid can crumble, what's upright can fall. 'It all hangs by thread' says Lloyd Jones. But even as I say this I want to challenge it. To replace an image which stays with me (the 9/11 photograph of the Falling Man) with the image of Pickles above - not falling but flying. About to be caught. All tragedy, surely, redeemable.
Precarious, the novel, also deals with the slipperiness of identity, the precarious nature of who we are. Those who've read The Blue will know this is another (unexpected) preoccupation of mine.
Oh I had more to say: about a bridge that gives me a sense of the epic in the book, sculptures 'that make the fallen upright', a pohutukawa that clings to a rock face with convoluted roots, the importance of the sea. I finished the talk reading from an essay I wrote about Eastbourne two years ago called One Spring Day. Real people living real (brave) lives not fictional constructs. It ends with Isabel who is 100 and still upright, and who has some tips about how to achieve that: ' Eat three good meals a day, be kind, make the most of each day.'
Only a beginning
Precarious still has so many more pages to be written. Talking about it helped tidy up some of my convoluted thoughts and point me forward. I finished with the Salman Rushdie quote I had on an earlier post. '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.’
All that uncertainty. Better get on.
The Writers' Series
The other two writers who have spoken so far are Jill Harris and Les Molloy, both fascinating. To come are Ann Packer and Maggie Rainey-Smith. The talks are at 2.30pm at St Ronan's, Eastbourne, every Sunday. Thanks to St R's and Anne and Sandy.
Super Pickles photograph credit: Life in the Pumpkin Shell (Flickr).
Friday, August 1, 2008
Two-hundred people came - friends and family from near and far - my publisher Geoff Walker said lovely things and Damien Wilkins, who was my tutor at Victoria University, did a kind of Best Man's speech and got the audience rolling about delightedly.
I don't recall he said much about the book, although he did talk about the cover (the way the whale seems to be about to eat the Penguin and how this somehow represents the world of publishing and my little book ....or something like that.... ) and about how I was the Mother Hen of the MA class where I wrote much of The Blue.
We drank Marlborough wine, ate miniature fish pies and little egg sandwiches and finished up with fruit cake - just like Lilian in The Blue would have made. Close on two-hundred books were sold, which doesn't mean everyone bought one, although many did. My best friend Alexandra bought 20!
It was an unforgettable evening.
NB. The photos are of The Blue at Gleebooks in Glebe, Sydney. Gondal-Girl sent them to me recently - she is one those writers whose blogs I enjoy and who is a regular visitor to mine. She was excited to find The Blue on a shelf beside Canadian author Alistair MacLeod's book.
Interestingly, I see on her blog that it was Emily Bronte's birthday two days ago. And my daughter, Isabel, was 12 yesterday. So The Blue's in good company.