Friday, February 27, 2009

Naming Ned

One Sunday in February I went for a walk with my lovely friend, Alexandra, and her son Ned aged five (pictured). It was a sunny day and we walked down from their house into a small and leafy valley. Every now and then, Sandra would pause and point out something she wanted to show me: a kowhai seedling beside a painted stake; a hillside dense with native shrubs; a young rimu with its narrow sloping branches.

From looking at the path, listening to Ned's chatter, talking about something or other, I had to pause. What Sandra was pointing at came into focus and was framed. I saw it when before I hadn't, and what's more I saw it with her eyes. It grew as I watched it. An ordinary section of bush or a shrub or a seedling took shape, beckoned, became meaningful. Was named.

It struck me all of a sudden that this is what a writer does when she writes a story.

Another revelation came when Ned said, 'I'm going the quickest way' and rushed off to take a short-cut just like the six-year-old Billy in The Blue. I stole the phrase from a six-year-old boy who walked with me on Arapawa Island when I was researching the novel five years ago, but haven't heard it since. Ned's spitting out the exact same words in the same circumstances as a child of my invention was one of those meta-fictional moments which disoriented me briefly.

Of course, the truth is small boys the world over (and whatever era) are black and white, and absolute. So macho and yet so deliciously children. It has to be the quickest way and not merely the quicker way. And I am thrilled to think that Billy - after 18 months or so inside the pages of my book - is still acting the way a real boy should.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Come and hear French novelist Olivier Bleys

On Thursday 12 March 5.50-7 pm
Alliance Française
level 3, 78 Victoria Street, Wellington

Author of more than a dozen historical novels on subjects as diverse as the construction of the Eiffel Tower, a tulip merchant in the Netherlands and the introduction of the piano to Brazil, prizewinning writer Olivier Bleys will discuss his work in English and read extracts from published and unpublished work (in French with English translation by Jean Anderson).

Olivier is French writer-in-residence at Thorndon’s Randell Cottage here in Wellington which I'm involved with - there is a French writer for six months funded by the French Government and a NZ writer for six months funded by Creative NZ. The next writer up is kiwi ex-pat Kirsty Gunn (Rain, Featherstone).
Olivier's currently working on a contemporary novel set in New Zealand about an astronomer, a meteorite and an art exhibition…

All welcome, refreshments provided.
RSVP to 04 472 1272 by 10 March appreciated.
See you there!

Monday, February 23, 2009

famous blue amphibrachs

Note problems with blogging last night meant this post ended abruptly without the famous blue amphibrachs - this has been rectified... scroll on down....

While I was in Canada, Leonard Cohen was here in Wellington. My friend Heather texted me while he was playing to say it was the gig of the year if not the decade. When he was singing Famous Blue Raincoat, she had tears in her eyes. I had tears in my eyes knowing I was missing it. The clip above is from the Bucharest concert last year because it's a pretty clean close-up version.

Did you know that much of FBR is written in amphibrachs? These are metrical feet used in Latin and Greek prosody. An amphibrach consists of a long syllable between two short ones e.g.

It's four in/ the morning,/ the end of/ December
I'm writing/ you now just/ to see if/ you're better
New York/ is cold, but/I like where/ I'm living
There's music/ on Clinton/ Street all through/ the evening

Friday, February 20, 2009

Red Mole on the Front Lawn

One of my favourite non-fiction writers – Martin Edmond – wrote this stunning piece on the way thoughts spin when you return to spinning on the lawn as a child, and this wherein the author goes on a long car ride - listens to a lot of old music and reveals Ezra Pound's reaction to Eleanor Rigby. Keep scrolling down the blog to the next post 'sparked' by driving past an Australian bushfire.

Where this man’s mind goes …. There are times when it’s some of the closest writing to the way I think I’ve ever read.

It’s addictive – I start, mean to skim one piece, and end up reading post after post on this wonderful blog. His collection of essays Waimarino County & other excursions (Auckland University Press, 2007) was short-listed in the Montanas last year. You can read more about this talented former Red Mole, poet, playwright and essayist here.

I had a great night in Hope, by the way. More on that later.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Appearing in Hope

The Blue and I are appearing at the Greenhough Vineyard in Hope tonight as guests of the Friends of Tasman District Libraries. I am very excited as this is my first event in the top of the South Island where The Blue is based. I am looking forward to talking about the book and reading from it (I never tire of reading TB out loud...) but I also want to hear from readers in this part of the world what they thought of it.

And I'll be able to catch up with an old and dear friend who lives close by. So with a bit of sun, it looks a perfect couple of days coming up in Hope.

If you're in the area, come along to: Greenhough Vineyard, Paton Rd, Hope on Thursday 19 February 2009 at 7.30pm. Tickets $20 available from Tasman Libraries. This fundraising event is generously sponsored by Greenhough Vineyard and the wonderful NZ Book Council!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Blue in Washington

Here's The Blue by the Washington Memorial, held in position by my friend Laura who lives in Washington DC, and who is connected to the writing of the novel because she was my Italian expert. My lovely character Gunner is of Italian descent and utters the odd phrase learnt from his father - alla fine del mondo being one - and Laura was happy to check them for me.

She, her husband Leo and family left Italy thirteen years ago to live in NZ before shooting through to jobs in DC. In the four years they were here, our two families became great friends. Our children were similar ages, Laura and I had our third babies close together, we all loved good espresso coffee and Laura's pasta. And while we finished off bottles of red wine, the children played dress-ups, ran wild in the garden and cooked pancakes wearing roller blades (the children not the pancakes!)

We had Christmasses and birthdays together, my family learnt some Italian, the Italians learnt Kiwi, I learnt to cook a risotto - Laura an apple crumble, the men tramped the Tararuas (sounds all very 1950s really...maybe it was), we buried two placentas and planted a pohutukawa together (nope, that's definitely 1990s, given our whakapapa.)

Salad days.

It was hard when the Italians left NZ. Although they have visited us, we haven't - until now - managed to get over there to visit them. It was so good to see their home in Georgetown and get a feel for life beside the Potomac.

Every now and then people send me a photograph of The Blue in some exotic spot around the world and I put it up here. It started with a friend visiting Greece and blossomed to include Antarctica, India, and Qatar. The links to these photos and their accompanying stories are down the right hand side of my blog.

Anyway, there I was visiting exotic spots in Canada and the US last month with not one but three copies of The Blue in my suitcase (for gifts, random publishers I might meet on the train, exotic photos), and somehow I managed to forget to take any one of them plus camera to all of the key landmarks on route - the frozen St Lawrence, the world's biggest skating rink in Ottawa, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the White House ...

Finally, in DC on our way to the airport I grabbed a minute in front of the Washington Monument. I wanted the White House but there was a road block and lots of traffic, so I had to plump for the Monument instead. Only a day before, the grass around this giant needle had been covered with ice and the hill had looked like something on another planet, in fact it was icy all the way down the Mall to the Capitol; but on the day of the photo the weather was milder, the grass bare and brown.

My daughter and I had walked the Mall two days before when it was crisp and icy, Issy crunching in her chucks while I strode beside her on the asphalt and tried to imagine the two million people who'd stood on its 1.8 kilometre length that month to watch Obama's inauguration.

As we approached the Capitol, bells at a church somewhere started to ring out America the Beautiful and behind us the sunset glowed rosy pink and that pure stretch of ice shone pink too. A few people walked by on their way home from jobs as government officials or staff at museums but mostly there was no-one - just us - the bells tolling, the ice shining, famous monuments standing at ease as if they were any old monuments in any old town. It was surreal.

Speaking of monuments, I was not as taken with the triumphal Neo-Roman monuments as I thought I'd be, and even the Greek-style doric columns of the Lincoln Memorial seemed too much to my eye - too huge for a start, and housing a massive 19-foot figure of Lincoln who is rendered godlike by his size and weight. See the man, it says, triumphant Man.

I prefered the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial nearby. A wedge of polished black granite below the level of the earth, it struck me as eloquent and authentic, and a living monument where people still go to trace their relatives' names, where names are added and changed, where history is still working its way out, and more than anything where Man is not triumphant nor is he the centre of things.

Rather, he is one of many thousands of names, the depth of half a thumb, one beside the other. Small, easily lost, forgotten, found again if lucky. A cross (missing in action) to a diamond (dead). Ordered to march the march by the same country that adores the giant marble statue and the doric column, the super-sized burger, the multi-millionaire child celebrity, the President as super-star.

But perhaps there's a new order now.

Scott from Long Island was watching Issy and me take photos of each other in front of the White House on our first day in DC. Scott is a black man with a gentle, considered way of talking, and he was there to pay tribute to the newest President of the United States. 'For the first time there is someone in the White House who thinks like I do and acts like I do,' he said. 'He looks at home on the basketball court and in the Supreme Court.'

Scott seemed very happy about having an ordinary-sized man in that big white house. We looked through that fence together hoping to catch sight of him jogging or something, but all we saw were squirrels. When Issy and I left, Scott was still standing there looking thoughtful.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dream Days in the Hotel Existence

I want to talk about happiness and well being, about those rare, unexpected moments when the voice in your head goes silent and you feel at one with the world.

I want to talk about the early June weather, about harmony and blissful repose, about robins and yellow finches and bluebirds darting past the green leaves of trees.

I want to talk about the benefits of sleep, about the pleasures of food and alcohol, about what happens to your mind when you step into the light of the two o'clock sun and feel the warm embrace of air around your body.

I want to talk about Tom and Lucy, about Stanley Chowder and the four days we spent at the Chowder Inn, about the thoughts we thought and the dreams we dreamed on that hilltop in southern Vermont.

I want to remember the cerulean dusks, the langurous, rosy dawns, the bears yelping in the woods at night.

I want to remember it all. If all is too much to ask, then some of it. No, more than some of it. Almost all. Almost all, with blanks reserved for the missing parts.

The beginning of the chapter Dream Days in the Hotel Existence from The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster [Faber, p. 166]

It's not often happiness jumps out of the pages of a novel like this. As poet Bill Manhire says - and he's quoting others I believe - 'happiness writes white'. It is simply not interesting enough to jump from the page; it struggles to its feet and then falls back again helplessly blending with the white of the paper. All too often we skim over hapless happiness to get to the more colourful and various stuff of misery. I like the way Paul Auster unselfconsciously rounds up joy and makes it vivid.

Today, after a very rough start, I had unexpected moments of happiness. There were no robins or bluebirds or mild June weather, but there were yelps of excitement with friends over a wonderful discovery, high-fives with a daughter who's been offered something she's dreamed of for years, a son home for pizza who might have a job at last.

And there was a cerulean dusk. The sky blending with the sea, and people swimming and a ferry docking, and a languorous, liquid light.

It's a perplexing, strange and beautiful place Hotel Existence.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Like Twenty-one Elephants

When I was in New York last month - a wide-eyed first timer - I was told the story of P.T. Barnum walking 21 elephants over the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884. It was a stunt to prove the safety of the audacious new suspension bridge built to link Lower Manhattan to the then City of Brooklyn. Unlike the elephants, I didn't get to cross the bridge - too much to do in Manhattan and too little time with a daughter with stars in her eyes - but I have put it top of my list for next time.

The main reason for crossing the bridge is one of my favourite writers: Paul Auster, whose The Brooklyn Follies I read while away. Park Slope, Brooklyn, is one of those places I think I know well because Auster has served it up to me so brilliantly in novels and screenplays (remember the joys of Smoke?) But a place is never quite as you imagine it to be is it? I thought I knew Manhattan thanks to Woody Allen, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Aniston, De Lillo, Wharton, James, Auster etc, but having been there now I know I know it better, or rather differently. I can see the geography more clearly for sure (see the casual way I can drop in a phrase like 'Lower Manhattan') and between the lines of a book set in NYC I can now take in with little effort the concentrated-jostling-multi-lingual-cheek-by-jowl-living-in-the-canyons-skyward-thrusting-angst-energy-hubris thing that defines it.

And Park Slope is part of that, right? Well it is and it isn't. The 'isn't' is what I know and don't know. And what I don't know doesn't materially matter, this is fiction after all. When I open the pages of a book set in Brooklyn it will always be in my Brooklyn - as sketchy or as detailed as I want. It would just be nice to underline the writing of an Auster book like Brooklyn Follies with glimpses of the real Brooklyn. The 'oh yes' moments I got reading McGrath's Ghost Town while in Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Follies is a terrific novel. One of those stories which rolls forward with only brief glances backwards - a tale told by the protagonist as if he's reading from the book he's writing (in this case a collection of stories of human folly). It begins 'I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn....' Nathan is 59 and suffering from lung cancer and a life he'd rather forget. In Brooklyn, random events and chance meetings with people that include a slippery bookshop owner, a depressed nephew and a runaway nine-year-old help Nathan forget. And he writes it all down ...

So there it is: the usual Auster meta-fictional story-telling where the character is the author ... to a point... and the reader doesn't always know what is story story and what is real story, and the author directs and sums up what's happening like one of the Brothers Grimm, or - as he puts it - the Ancient Mariner. Nathan is also one of those dudes Auster likes to write about that has had setbacks and for whom random stuff and strange coincidences are a transformation of sorts, there is the democratic cast of characters Auster readers have come to love - each person with a story that's given space and is worth hearing, there are those long conversations which can become speeches and range from banal to philosophical, there's the author's constant playfulness with identity and the stuff of family, and the sudden breakouts from the momentum of the story to lay out out clearly on the page what is good in this corner of the planet. Finally there is his love of place: Brooklyn.

Some of the reviews I've read (spoiler alert on the linked review - last para gives the end away) think Auster is taking the easy route with this his tenth novel and simply ticking the boxes. Well, you see, I read Auster because I like the boxes he ticks. Very much indeed.

Which is why I want to cross the bridge. It's not just about real glimpses of a place I haven't been, it's a fandom thing - seeing where these excellent books have come from, what inspired them. Breathing the same air. My friend, David, tells me there's a bookshop in Park Slope Auster hangs out in, and I might just spot him there. Better start saving.