Thursday, September 25, 2008

A reading to make the windows crack

Dear James George

I had to leave your reading tonight before you had finished answering questions and before the wine was served. If I could have stayed I would have told you both my daughter and I were spellbound by your story. You began with a paragraph from a story by Katherine Mansfield and opened it up into a complex and heartbreaking story of a trucker and his stepson, and the way love and morality are tested and sometimes come up wanting.

The voice of the trucker was so true and delivered with such skill we were fully transported for the 25 minutes you read. And how marvellous it was to be read to for that long - to feel a story build layer upon layer until it became something solid in the room, and then started to push at the walls and belly the windows. At one stage, the door slammed shut on its own.

When you stopped there was silence as the roomful of people tried to adjust. It was a sudden ending, but we'd been abandoned, too, the story gone along with Sonny and Rico and Ceal and Claire. It will remain with me for a long time especially the image of the woman running after the orange and the way that poignant image recurred later in Sonny's guilty imagination; then there was the detail of Sonny's truckdriving, and most of all Sonny's relationship with Rico, and the darker more complex one he had with Ceal.

Thom Conroy who was the frank and cheerful chair for the Massey University event talked of the way all your novels have a strong theme of 'reaching out' - emotionally, physically - and how this gives them depth and humanity. (The story you read was the same.) You replied to Thom - and I'm paraphrasing here - that in reaching out people can experience redemption or damnation and what interests you as a writer is when the act of reaching out means people lose a little of themselves.

Thom was surprised by the story, he said it was very 'intense' and different from your three novels (Wooden Horses, Hummingbird, and Ocean Roads). I confess, ashamedly, that I haven't read any of them to be able to compare - but my 20-year-old son owns and loves Hummingbird so I'll borrow it off him tomorrow.

Meanwhile, what was the name of the story you read? And where can I find a copy of it to show him? [Stop Press: At the Edge of the Road by James George is in the new Vintage anthology Second Violin - New stories inspired by Katherine Mansfield to be released 3 October.]

As we drove away down Taranaki Street from Massey's Wellington campus my daughter, Issy (12), said 'I didn't think it was going to be all that good tonight, but it was really good. James George could be an actor the way he told that story, and Thom was cute.' And we talked about Rico, then, like he was a boy we knew.



James George is reading at Palmerston North's fabulous City Library at 7pm tomorrow night (September 26) with drinks starting at 6pm. The event is free. For more information on him go here. His fourth novel Theme from an Imaginary Western is due out later this year with Huia.

And congratulations to Harvey Molloy for his poetry collection Moonshot launched last night. I missed another good reading there I am told.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Palin by any other name...

Okay, this is nothing to do with books but I couldn't resist it. A US blogger has created the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator. Here's the blurb: 'Sarah Palin has picked out an All-American set of names for her children. There's Track, Trig, Bristol, Willow, and Piper. Ever wonder, what would your name be if Sarah Palin was your mother? Well now you can find out!'

Here's what the name generator told me:

Mary, if you were born to Sarah Palin, your name would be: Tank Dent Palin. Who knows, Tank Dent Palin just might be president one day!

Hmmm - sounds strangely appropriate. My husband Ian comes up with the more exotic sounding Mole Valdez Palin. I also ran a couple of my other blog regulars through just to see ...

Graham, if you were born to Sarah Palin, your name would be: Steam Fangs Palin

Vanda, if you were born to Sarah Palin, your name would be: Strangle Thicket Palin

Rachael, if you were born to Sarah Palin, your name would be (wait for it): Strangle Thicket Palin

Now that's just spooky. Have a go.

And for more interesting insights into the Sarah Palin phenomenon try this blog by an Alaskan 'citizen who is paying attention.' Amongst other things there is this interesting post: Is Palin an Albatross?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Man Reading Women's Fiction

Author, blogger and self-confessed 'grumpy old woman', Rachael King has been musing on the number of people - especially men - who prefer to read fact to fiction, and how many men are turned off by women novelists.

Enter US writer and house-husband Rob Hardy whom I tripped over on the internet just now. He not only reads women novelists but has been reading a stack of Virago Classics (see author images above) and delighting in what he calls the 'out-of-body experience', of getting inside and empathising with lives different from his own and yet connected by the 'thread of dailiness and domesticity.'

This month, Rob Hardy delivered a paper on this very subject to a fascinating-sounding women's literary study group in Minnesota called the Margaret Evans Huntington Club. Begun in 1876, it has met on Monday afternoons ever since. The club spent four years in the 1890s studying Greek Tragedy! Before you hear more from Mr Hardy, here's a quick excerpt from one of the club's monthly reports (February 1897):
Mrs. Cooper's paper on Iphigenia as the typical Greek maiden was beautifully written and read. She represented Iphigenia as speaking, telling her own story as we learn it from the drama. Each paper was followed by informal discussion of the topics treated.
Rob Hardy begins his paper by talking about how Pippi Longstocking turned him onto reading.
My first clear memory of myself as a reader comes in the middle of that third grade year. The book was Pippi Longstocking. Of course. Pippi was red-headed, freckled, high-spirited, and mischievous. She was also several things that I was not. She was strong, self-confident, and independent. She had no principal, no parents or teachers to tell her what to do. She lived a life of adventure. She was a girl.
After finding his way into other books and lives 'both familiar and different', Hardy became a stay-at-home father and discovered The Way Things Are by E.M. Delafield - a Virago Modern Classic. This opened up a whole raft of woman writers he'd never heard of before. He quotes critic Elaine Showalter:
Showalter observed that the conservatism of the literary canon “reduced and condensed the extraordinary range and diversity of English women novelists to a tiny band of the ‘great’”— specifically, Austen, the Brontës, Eliot and Woolf.

Showalter noted that scholars and ordinary readers had “lost sight of the minor novelists, who were the links in the chain that bound one generation to the next.” Hundreds of women writers had gone out of print or were otherwise waiting to be rediscovered—novelists like Rose Macaulay, Elizabeth Taylor, Antonia White, Barbara Comyns, Sylvia Townsend Warner, E. Arnot Robertson, Elizabeth Jenkins, F.M. Mayor, Kate O’Brien, Rebecca West, and Winifred Holtby.
Hardy goes onto to say that Carmen Callil responded to this challenge by founding Virago Modern Classics in 1978, 'to make women’s voices heard.'

Rob Hardy's paper echoes Lloyd Jones' belief that novels aren't about escape from life but about learning to how to live in this world (this came out in his session at the Christchurch Writers Festival). Hardy would say this element is intensified in novels by women, and he's not the only one:

I am not alone, among male readers, in finding this heightened sense of sympathy and identification at the heart of the appeal of women’s novels. The novelist Jonathan Coe, writing in the Guardian about Dorothy Richardson, praised her novels for making “readers feel that they had actually lived [a] character’s life, in rich, imaginatively continuous detail.”

The novelist and Tory politician Ferdinand Mount put it this way: “[W]hat is indispensable [in a novel] is a certain quality of sympathy with the characters and their dilemmas. Even when raucously exposing his or her character’s absudities, the novelist must convey some fleeting sensation of what it would be like to be them.” Mount finds this quality, this ability to make us imagine another life as it is really lived, more consistently a feature of women’s writing.
And there's more:

For most of the history of the English novel, writing was one of the only occupations open to women, one of the only ways in which they could make their voices heard outside the nursery and the kitchen. That’s part of it—their writing can’t help but express the immense gulf between the expansiveness of their imaginations and the narrowness of the sphere to which they were confined.

But being confined to that sphere, the sphere of domesticity, they couldn’t help looking around and seeing some of its homely beauty. They couldn’t help seeing that this world of messy children and dirty floors, of broken cookers and tight household finances, was also the real world. More real, perhaps, than anything else.

It's another whole discussion as to why writing that is deeply domestic doesn't figure much on the literature geiger counter, but good on Rob Hardy for letting it figure on his, and encouraging others to do the same.

For now lets return to Rachael King whose husband, she says on her blog, is another male reader of novels by women. She says it might be why she married him. Interestingly, he's also doing a Rob Hardy and has spent much of this year as a 'stay-at-home' father while Rachael writes as Ursula Bethell Fellow at Canterbury University. It would be interesting to hear his views on the subject.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Blue on air

I was called by Jane Waddell tonight. She is directing The Blue for Radio NZ National and wanted to check out the pronunciation of some of the words for the first recording on Tuesday. She told me the adaptation is for three voices - a narrator, Lilian and The Friar. She also told me the names of the actors but I didn't write them down.

Someone is going to be Lilian, someone else will be The Friar.

For a moment this is exciting, terrifying, inexplicably moving.

Two characters I know better than many people will be given a human voice. How will that be? What if the voices are not what I imagined them to be? Will Lilian and the Friar develop unexpected characteristics? Will they act differently without my hands on the reins?

This must be how authors feel when their books are made into movies. Then again, I tell myself, surely every time someone opens a book and reads, another version of it is created in the reader's head that the author can't control anyway. No two readers will 'hear' Lilian's voice the same way. So a radio version of The Blue is simply another - more public - version which listeners will 'adapt' to suit themselves. (Or that's what I keep telling myself. The thing is I don't often see the other Lilians people have imagined, although sometimes they tell me about them: there is much that is familiar, but there are some surprises too.)

A new audience for the book is marvellous, of course, and should lead to more sales, but hearing Lilian speak outside of the voice in my head is something else altogether. It will be close to miraculous - terribly moving - an ultimate act of the imagination.

To finish, the very funny Anne Enright (a hero of mine whom incidentally I had a chat with outside our hotel at the Auckland Writers' Festival) has been talking about the vulnerability of the writer in the face of the reader. Not someone reading at home in bed, or listening at the kitchen table, but the live reader. The sort who goes to festivals like Going West in Auckland this weekend.
Any of the writers performing up there could usefully read Enright's article for some terrific tips on what to do in this sort of situation ....

Performance is always a gift from the weak to the strong, and it is a transformative gift. Everyone feels better, you think, as the last lift and drop of your voice ekes out a final trembling trochee, as your head drops that humble half inch, as you pause and step back from the clatter of applause, surprised, overwhelmed, murmuring "Thank you. Thank you so much."

And then they turn up the house lights.

"Why are you so bitter?" says the woman in the front row, before they can fumble a mike across to her. She is sitting very straight. She seems to be wearing a hat with flowers and a pheasant in it, but of course she is not - that is just your imagination.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Writing as a Collective Individual

'Fiction is where individual memory and experience and collective memory and experience come together, in greater or lesser proportions. The closer the fiction is to us readers, the more we recognise and claim it as individual rather than collective. Margaret Laurence used to say that her English readers thought The Stone Angel was about old age, the Americans thought it was about some old woman they knew, and the Canadians thought it was about their grandmothers.' Margaret Atwood talking about historical fiction in general, and in particular about writing Alias Grace.

UK writer Emma Darwin (The Mathmatics of Love, A Secret Alchemy to be released soon) uses this quote as a trigger for a brilliant discussion on her blog about the 'why' of historical fiction. Something I've wrestled with after writing The Blue (historical) and now writing Precarious (contemporary). I comment below her post.

If you have time, continue to read through Emma's blog. She really does wrestle with the stuff of writing in a gutsy no-holds-barred sort of way.

NB. She's related to Charles.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Red Wheelbarrow

I've just listened to it six times and I could listen to it another six: The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams read by him. He is one of the leading 20th century American poets who was added to the UK's Poetry Archive this week. There's The Widow's Lament in Springtime, too, in all its splendour (first line: 'Sorrow is my own yard'), and the escoriating To Elsie which I hadn't discovered before.

But hearing The Red Wheelbarrow and the way the poet says 'water' with an aspirated 'wh' sound and lands strongly on the 't', and how the 'wh' leans back to take in 'wheelbarrow' and forward to the 'white' of the chickens, and how those sounds are like posts in the poem around which WCW builds a small and miraculous house ... magic.

Treat yourself, go here to hear the William Carlos Williams' poems, and then there are all the other poets reading their work. (Thanks to Bookman Beattie for the tip-off).

p.s. (post-posting) Just read the explanation of WCW's poems that runs alongside the recordings and couldn't resist throwing it on here too.

'The recording also features one of the defining poems of the 20th century:the brevity of 'The Red Wheelbarrow' - just sixteen words in all - belies its iconic fame. However, it is the archetypal example of Williams' oft-quoted maxim "no ideas but in things", the extreme simplicity of the language and the precise placing of each visual element an argument for clear sight in poetry, stripped of conventional symbolism. Elsewhere Williams' social conscience is to the fore, in the act of imaginative empathy of 'The Widow's Lament in Springtime' and the more overtly political vision of 'The Yachts' and 'To Elsie'. ' And so on...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Test-tube writing or messy sex?

'I do believe that pure literature created in the laboratory is a
vital part of a writing culture, but at the same time it's not necessarily better than that made through messy sex between the writer and the marketplace.'

This was part of a comment I made on the NZ lit blog Leafsalon a few days ago in response to a thought-provoking post by guest-blogger Maggie Rainey-Smith (author of About Turns and Turbulence.) It's a discussion on the conundrum voiced so well by 10CC (pictured here I hope):

'Art for Art's sake or Money for God's sake?'
Maggie compares Greg O’Brien’s Janet Frame Memorial Lecture delivered this month and a talk given by Sophie Hamley, an Australian literary agent. (Note, if you missed it, Greg's speech can be downloaded at the link above. It's worth reading. As one of our few Renaissance men - he's an artist, poet, essayist, art-writer, editor, illustrator, curator, philosopher - his erudite and elastic thinking is always an adventure.)

Here's some of Maggie's post:

'Greg talked about the ‘laboratory’ versus the marketplace. His lecture was all about the idea that the art of writing and being a writer is separate from that of being a published author. He quoted Roland Barthes in saying ‘the author performs a function, the writer an activity’....

... In contrast, Sophie Hamley was the guest speaker at the NZSA/Book Council/NZ Bookmonth-sponsored event. It was an international exchange – a literary luncheon if you will. Sophie is young, professional, savvy and most definitely passionate about writers and their publishers. She explained the difference between writer and author – the idea that if you want your work published and read, you need to understand what it is to be an author.'

Interesting stuff. First up in the comments is 'Islander' aka Keri Hulme:

'Maggie, this is a wonderfully thought-provoking post.I've been wrestling with the writer/author dichotomy for a couple of decades.I am a writer (I've been one since I was 7 and pasted together my first written work.) I am an author (I have 7 published books)…but what an author is supposed to be & do is now determined by market-driven factors with which I am not at all comfortable ....'

Other comments come courtesy of 'Kingi' 'Chris H' 'Unthank' and Greg O'B himself. Here's some of my take on it:

'Greg's speech is inspiring I think because it is a call to remind us to aim for brilliance, to take risks, to be 'absurdly ambitious' and to pursue writing for its own sake. He says: 'far better that writers aim for largeness of vision, dynamism and risk, and then fall short…' He was talking about writing awards there, but the comment applies as much to the 'marketplace'...

... My novel (The Blue) is a novel written with publishing in mind. For a while there it was a crazy hybrid of poetry and prose with a nebulous plot. I believe thinking of it as something I wanted published placed demands on it which made it better.

I think anything benefits from having demands made on it (people included) therwise they can be come self-centred and ingrowing and often irrelevant. Literature is partly about having a readership (as someone else commented here) because then a relationship between writer and reader is established and the work becomes something else again.

I do believe that pure literature created in the laboratory is a vital part of a writing culture, but at the same time it's not necessarily better than that made through messy sex between the writer and the marketplace.'

Comments welcome here, or go to Leafsalon and add to the discussion over there. Or if you'd rather, go to Youtube and watch 10CC in 1975 in the tightest flares I've seen in a long time. The final quote on this post can come from them:
Gimme your body gimme your mind
Open your heart pull down the blind
Gimme your love gimme it all
Gimme in the kitchen gimme in the hall
Which ties it all up rather neatly, really.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Imagining it otherwise

This was the NASA Image of the Day yesterday - the one I see on my google page. Usually it's universes colliding, stars exploding, black holes hoovering, or rockets poised to launch against a sunrise. See the thin plume of smoke? The photograph was taken on Sept 11, 2001.

NASA said:

'This image is one of a series taken that day of metropolitan New York City by the International Space Station's Expedition 3 crew that shows a plume of smoke rising from the Manhattan skyline .... Commander Culbertson said, "It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic advantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are.'

Not sure about that 'improving life on earth' concept, but the simple plume of smoke couldn't be more eloquent and disturbing. On the literature front, I notice that Paul Auster's new novel Man in the Dark has stepped into the 'genre' of 9/11 fiction. It will hopefully be a better read than De Lillo's intriguing but ultimately opaque and heartless Falling Man. A review of Falling Man in the Quarterly Conversation says it is a post-modern novel struggling 'to present the unpresentable', enabling us 'to see only by making it impossible to see.' (my emphasis) So it's not opaque for the sake of it, then, but paradoxically to illuminate the, well, man in the dark. I certainly found the passages set in and around the twin towers stood out starkly and chaotically against the controlled and distant world De Lillo had created. It was hard to breathe there.

'It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.' FALLING MAN

Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close takes another step away from that. I enjoyed it for its playfulness and cleverness, even though, after some thought, I decided the conceit of the wise, knowing, other-worldly child was a cop out. The erudite QC reviewer regards it as 'facile'.

What else is there? I heard Patrick McGrath read - brilliantly - from Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now a story about a psychiatrist infatuated with a patient who began visiting a prostitute after the events of 9/11. He didn't finish the story, but the Wellington writers' festival crowd were rivetted by the telling. Was it offering us more on the darkened and collapsed interiors of Manhattan's inhabitants?

Of Man in the Dark the Guardian writes:

'Paul Auster's latest is replete with his trademark tricksiness, but is no less germane. In Man in the Dark, a widower fantasises an escape from the pain of his loss by imagining an America where 9/11 never happened. But the civil war he conjures up in its place teaches him to treasure the tender hope his equally bereaved granddaughter represents.'
So yet again fiction elects to glance away from the event itself. Which is not a bad thing for fiction to do. The mass media has laid it on with a trowel, and space is needed for the imagination to construct 'the unpresentable' in the appalled air around that nonchalant thread of smoke.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Retreating into writing

I don't know how I fell across this blogger but she's a voracious and thoughtful reader, and an English nurse, who is currently doing a memoir-writing course in France. For all those memoir writers out there it's worth a look at her current posts for a. some tips b. some inspiration and c. a course you might like to go to yourself. Look at where you get to stay!

And if a French cottage isn't to your liking, how about a castle? There are some interesting looking writing courses at West Dean College near Chichester (see photo). They are run by the effervescent Kate Mosse of Labrynth and Sepulchre fame - whom I met at the Christchurch Writers' Festival - and her husband Greg.

Despite her superstar status as a writer - something like a million copies of her books sold in 36 territories - she is hugely generous about sharing her skills through writing courses and her website, and supporting women writers through the Orange Prize (which she was involved in founding.)

So castle or cottage?

Or bach?

You'll find the NZ equivalents of West Dean College, here and here. One of my favourites is the Foxton Bach owned by Peter and Diane Beatson. Two hours out of Wellington, looking out over an estuary, and only something like $12 a night to a writer who belongs to the NZSA, it is a gem. There is no magic course to attend, you just get to write to your heart's content.

To inspire you, there's the expansive and peaceful setting (see photo of the beach below) and a bookshelf filled with books by the writers who've used it over the years, with Wellington writers featuring strongly. My English friend Julian Earwaker stayed there for a couple of months last Summer working on his novel and was completely delighted with it.

There is a fellowship attached to the bach whereby you can be PAID to write for a month, but outside of that you can book it to suit yourself. Here's the advertisement below.

Foxton Beach, near Palmerston North. Two-bedroom bach with view available for pleasant, peaceful writing. Nominal charge to cover power only. Ph (06) 356-8251
I'm writing this, I now realise, because I am yearning to retreat into writing again (blogs are good like that - you start out posting to get the brain going and then realise what you're really writing about.) I can't go off to a bach or a castle or anything like that, but I do need to make time and space to 'leave' my daily life each day and inhabit my book. It's been 18 months since I did that, really. The every day thing.

I needed the break (The Blue took four years of concentrated effort), it's been rather difficult to find the space to write properly with my family the way it is right now and there was the ongoing promotional work for The Blue. I also needed to wrestle with what Precarious (novel no. 2) is really all about.

And now Precarious has become precarious. If I piled everything up: scribbled-in notebooks, hand-written chapters, a few good typed chapters and all that un-catalogued research material, it would be a teetering thing barely able to keep itself upright. It really is time to get the tools out and shape it into something.

I've been building up to it since the Montanas, but reading Denis Welch's astonishing review of The Blue yesterday gave me another shove.

Eldest son is walking the dog and cooking today, middle son's driving test isn't until early afternoon, and daughter's back at school after a tummy bug. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The PM Awards or A Night at the Murder House

The Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement 2008 were announced tonight. The winners were:
Bill Oliver: Non-fiction
Elizabeth Smither: Poetry
Lloyd Jones: Fiction
I arrived at the gate of the place once known as the Murder House at the same time as Paula Morris. Premier House it is now, but once upon a time I travelled there by bus to have my teeth seen to by a bunch of savagely clean dental nurses (or savage and clean, however you remember it). Once the trip there and back from Karori West Normal was so long I wet my pants.

Tonight, there were teeth everywhere, but they were exposed through lipstick and over champagne flutes. Everyone was smiling - Paula Morris, the policeman at the gate, the women with the nametags, Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett, and a glittering display of writers and publishers, editors, journalists and politicians. Only the small children didn't smile.

The reception room, I was relieved to note, had been stripped of its squeaky linoleum and deeply carpeted. The heating was turned to tropical. Bunches of red flowers (rata?) lay on a table near the front to be given to the winners who were still - except to themselves and their whanaus (explaining the small and silent children) -a secret. Worth $60,000, the Prime Ministers Awards for Literary Achievement are quite something, and the air at the old house on the hill - once upon a time vinegary with tension - was honeyed with success.

Kate de Goldi was MC, the PM was PM and Fiona Kidman as the winner of the Michael King Writers Fellowship this year was first up. She talked about meeting Helen Clark at a book launch in Thorndon many years ago, and how nervous the young backbencher was to be included in the book Head and Shoulders which was about successful women. Fiona pointed out that she and the PM had moved onwards and upwards, and was thrilled with the MK Award which would allow her to write without worry.

Clark followed that up with a story of her own about how the media the day after Head and Shoulders came out reported that a female backbencher had declared male MPs sexist. 'Who is that brave woman?' she said to herself, before discovering the comment had been made by her in the newly released book. A visit to the then Prime Minister was required to explain herself.

And then for the big announcements.

Bill Oliver gave an eloquent and generous speech from a wheelchair, thanking a raft of other people for his being there tonight. He explained that in his 'very long life' he had usually worked collaboratively as an historian and especially on the Dictionary of NZ Biography.

A delighted Elizabeth Smither (declared an 'all-rounder' by the PM) was quirky and humorous about the win, talking about how NZ writers aren't used to such large sums of money and how they don't always know how to dress. She said Clark's support for the arts in this country had led to something that was no less than a revolution.

The Man in Black, Lloyd Jones, was typically modest. He said Kate de Goldi (MC) had once commented that she wanted him 'to stop winning things', and he was worried what she was thinking now (in fact she looked pretty chuffed about it.) He liked the way the awards were given for a writer's body of work - rather than a single book - and although (and I'm paraphrasing here) he felt his individual books had flaws, together they added up to something.

After another glass or two of wine and some sweet somethings (oh how those dental nurses would have frowned), the gathered glitterati tip-toed out of the murder house and down the steep drive. Penguin's Geoff Walker was last seen climbing over the fence to escape because the policeman who opened and closed the gate had disappeared. And there on the other side trying to get back in was his internationally-famous author, and the brand-new recipient of a PM Award, muttering about having left something behind.

I left them there, dear reader, clicked my teeth together and headed home.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Blue in Hebrew

An Israeli publisher has bought the rights to The Blue! My first international sale, and it all started right here.

Blooming Writers

There were daffodils in Hagley Park and the blossom was starting but not quite there yet. Malcolm the driver pointed to trees that in a matter of a week, he said, would be decked out like brides. What Christchurch was blooming with was writers.

Elegant imported varieties like Kate Atkinson, Kate Mosse, Robert Fisk, Xinran, Mark Sarvas, Arnold Zable. Established natives like Fiona Kidman, Elizabeth Knox, Brian Turner, Charlotte Randall and Lloyd Jones. Hardy native seedlings like Karlo Mila, Rachael King, Vanda Symon, Sara Knox and me. And a whole lot of colourful shrubs in between: Sam Mahon and Felicity Price and Steve Braunias spring to mind.

It was a smaller festival than Auckland and Wellington, and the intimacy, the writers agreed, was a good thing. The presentations generally felt more relaxed and chatty and it seemed easier, afterwards, for readers to talk to the writers they'd come to see, and writers to bang into other writers and start a stimulating conversation which could lead to coffee and/or a wine and more conversation.

An example of that was Satuday night when Vanda Symon and I found ourselves having a pre-dinner drink with Fiona Kidman and superstar UK writer (Labyrinth, Sepulchre), Kate Mosse. A polished performer on stage, Mosse proved to be one of those generous writers who wants to share her good fortune through her website and is madly curious about local writers and writing. She was excited about having visited the Ngaio Marsh House in Christchurch (she loves crime fiction and Marsh) and excited about having a drink with us (she liked the Spy Valley). She'd bought Vanda's book and promised to buy mine. She remembered accepting a Fiona Kidman book as a fledgling UK publisher...

There were, as with any festival, sessions that fired and those that didn't. Fisk certainly fired - packing people into the 500-seat Limes Room and persuaded to do an extra session for all those who missed out. Xinran seemed to have a similar effect (I was sad to miss her session) as did Steve Braunias. The Kate Mosse and Kate Atkinson sessions hummed, so did the Knox sisters' by all accounts.

Great things were said about the poetry sessions, with Karlo Mila, especially, establishing a new fan base (which includes me) with her warm style and beautiful visuals. There were panel discussions about such topics as first-time novelists, the Orange Prize and book bloggers with writers bouncing ideas off one another in an interesting way - some worked well, again, and some didn't, but they all had sparks somewhere in the hour.

I have to say that of the two events I was involved in, I believe one fired (new writers reading from the work) and one had some real sparks at times but never built to a flame (An Hour with Lloyd Jones.) The New Writers' session was: Felicity Price, Kon Kuiper, Sam Mahon, Karlo Mila and myself.

All the writers were a discovery to me - I'd seen their books but not got inside the covers, so to speak (except for Karlo Mila) - and I was fascinated by what they each had to say about their work and their readings. Karlo's (poetry) and Sam's (memoir about his father Justice Mahon) I found especially compelling. It was also nice to see the way each talk overlapped the others. A poem about a Japanese woman on a sleeping mat by Kon talked to a Tongan sleeping mat in Karlo's poem. Sam Mahon's hunting story talked to my whalers out on Cook Strait.

As for Lloyd, fresh back from Berlin via the Melbourne Writers Festival, he gave us some generous insights into his thinking and his writing (where the image of Pop-Eye pulling Mrs Watts came from, how he originally conceived of the novel as being set inside Mr Watts' spare room, how he 'stole' a cave from Kate de Goldi, his key preoccupations as a writer being 1. identity 2. imagination, and so on), read a terrific essay about his mother and a gave a seminal reading from Mr Pip, but I think my question line hampered him a little.

I thought he'd be sick of talking about the nuts and bolts of Matilda et al. in Mr Pip so I'd shaped the interview around a theme of sorts: Lloyd's use of different landscapes in his fiction (Bougainville, Albania, NZ etc) and moving on to the influence of Berlin. But in hindsight that was too broad a brush, and, as he said, he'd written some of the books I was referring to a long time ago ... He was also very reticent about discussing his two current 'projects' - one of which is a book of essays, and one of which might or might not be a novel. He likened that sort of talk to taking a cake out of the oven half-baked.

So the discussion was a bit stilted a times. But there were sparks. And sparks are good. One commentator on the Christchurch Library blog noted that she'd wished she could have heard more of Lloyd Jones reading from Mr Pip. Yes, more reading would have been good.

Speaking of the Christchurch library blog, a team of bloggers did an amazing job of keeping up with the myriad of sessions, and that's the place to go for fuller coverage than I can give, along with Bookman Beattie who was there in his trademark cap with a new Christchurch-made possum scarf against the southern chill.

p.s. Just spotted (five and a half hours after posting this) the Bookman's write-up on Lloyd's festival session, and it seems he found it very valuable. Just goes to show the power of stories, eh? And Lloyd is sure good at telling them. More festival write-ups here and here.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Be there or be square

Press on the picture to find the delights within .... If you can't make it there are bloggers everywhere to fill you in: the Christchurch library and Beatties Bookblog are two of them. And yes, I'll be there - on Sunday morning with The Blue and Sunday afternoon with Lloyd Jones.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan's latest book is exquisite and thought-provoking. It opens up other worlds, it extends our own. It places the extraordinary beside the ordinary and lets us see what happens. Suburbia, he says, is 'on the edge of consciousness (and not unlike ‘outer space’)', and these short stories show us what can happen in such a place....

The book itself, like his last masterpiece The Arrival, has been designed by him and his partner Inari Kiuru so the cover, endpapers, contents page, the stories themselves, create a satisfying work of art. People run their fingers over Shaun Tan's books and make small sounds of appreciation. Tales of Outer Suburbia is no exception.

As always a whole fantasy universe hovers off to one side of his real world, and ordinary people react to the glimpses they get - whether it is Eric the nut-sized exchange student (above) or the buffalo who points the way. They are puzzled by it, embrace it, ignore it. Buy the book for Eric alone. The final page of that particular tale I could stare at for hours.

Go here for more on Tales of Outer Suburbia and read how this author from Perth came to write these stories (make sure to press on 'more comment') and while you're there check out the rest of his books and his generous and stimulating website.

If you like you could also read my take on The Arrival written on my NZ Book Month blog, and here for an Australian blog report on a speech Tan gave which has some terrific insights into how he works.

Our Tuesday Afternoon Reading Group is the picture at the beginning of this post. It's on the final page of Tales of Outer Suburbia, and it's strange it should be there because I plan to give copies of this lovely book to my bookclub instead of the usual 250+ page novel. Oddly enough there are six of us, too. On his website. Shaun Tan gives his thoughts behind the picture:
Reading can bring us together as a shared passion, but also reveal how highly individual we are. I could think of no better way to represent this than painting an oddball reading group comprised of very different creatures, who likely have very different perspectives, tastes and opinions. Yet they are bound together by the kind of universal ideas and feelings that books can offer; here taking advantage of the last of the afternoon light in outer suburbia.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A stack of books

NZ Books Abroad has a fantastic competition underway to celebrate NZ Book Month with a prize over $1,000 of NZ Books (all 25 of this year's Montana finalists.) The webshop, which sells NZ titles to NZ and the world, has hidden five phoney titles among the genuine books it stocks.

You have to look for odd titles, silly blurbs, strange covers and unlikely authors and email your picks. It's a lot of fun. All correct entries go in a draw.

Without giving too much away, I enjoyed the 'fake' book set in parliament which included in its blurb: 'When Hide’s hatchet falls, bodies must be disposed of...' and had an 'endorsement' from a certain member of parliament which went like this:

After reading my advance copy I installed (at great personal expense) a mother of a shredder in my office — NZ Last MP.
NZ Books Abroad is owned by Louise Wrightson who is a bookseller of longstanding and a poet. I recommend it to people overseas who are (clears throat) clamouring for The Blue.