Monday, August 31, 2009

Taking a mouthful of teeth - the charm of Boock and Lowry

It's one of those treats you get when you help out at the Secondary School Writers Festival up at Victoria University: authors for teens, Paula Boock and Brigid Lowry, discussing writing characters in fiction. Both women were generous, frank and funny, and their panel discussion led by Linda Burgess was more like something you'd eavesdrop on in a cafe [if you could ignore the icream-sized mikes].

These two writers told the gathered-talented-young that they wrote everyday, both good stuff and bad stuff, and that's what being a writer was about: doing it. Lowry talked about how she entered her study in a 'dreamy' state and sat down without knowing where a story was going and 'just made it up.' She used that phrase a lot - 'making it up' - which had a delicious slightly naughty child feel to it. Which was how she was, really, despite her declared age of 54 or 56 or something like that.

Boock agreed that she was an instinctive writer, too, and went with where the story took her. Like Lowry, she often started with a character and worked from there, although sometimes she had in mind something she wanted to explore e.g. two young women falling in love ['Truth Dare or Promise'], and then looked around for characters to do that. Both women said they blend real people they know into their characters, including elements of themselves. And Boock - a screenwriter as well as a novelist - will go somewhere where she can 'act out' her characters to try on dialogue and see if it works.

The women talked about the embarrassing fall-out when a friend or family member recognises one of their traits in a character and assumes the whole character is them. This happened to Boock once when she took a mouthful of teeth from a friend - small white teeth that made for a charming smile - and planted them in a book. As Boock tells the story, she smiles in that way writers do which is a mix of charming, acquisitive and don't-mess-with-me. The subtext being: she needed the teeth and she took them, end of story. Both women said care needed to be taken, for sure, but at the same time the gathered-talented-young needed to understand that characters in fiction are fictional. Or, put more simply, they're made up.

And that, you understood from the conversation between two of our best writers for teenagers, is much more fun.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Whero's New Net

I am still reeling from Whero's New Net - a Massive Theatre Company production touring the country at the moment. It's a bitter sweet tale written by Albert Belz in collaboration with the cast and crew of Massive, and integrating stories from The New Net Goes Fishing by Witi Ihimaera. Here's more on Massive and the show that took three years and multiple drafts to create - and view the trailer above.

The dialogue in Whero's New Net crackles and when you're not cracking up, your heart lurches with the fortunes of these tough, vulnerable, gorgeous young people. The haka scene is one of the funniest I've seen on stage, and at the end I had tears down my face, but not from laughing. The play is on at Downstage in Wellington until Saturday, and then at Upper Hutt's Expressions Theatre Sept 4-6, and elsewhere after that. Go and be amazed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Harbinger of Spring

Two words surfaced today out of a day of words that rose and fell in the usual way - breath in breath out, that sort of thing. These two stood up, and held their nine-lettered selves straight as posts, so I could see their puffed-up chests and their vibrating throats.

Asparagus. The girl came over to us as we drank the coffee she'd made, leaned into our conversation and said it quickly, losing the 'a' so it sounded like sparrer grass. 'I just can't think how to spell it today.' She was opaque with embarrassment. We stopped and were helpful, although I always prefer to write words down to be sure. A-s-p-a-r-a- ... and Hilary took over, g-u-s. And we nodded and sipped, and the girl smiled, trusting us, and turned to walk back to the blackboard where she was writing the specials for the cafe. A sparrow for gus, I said, to give her a way of remembering next time [it works best with a cockney accent], but she was intent on her chalk. I always did that when I was learning to spell: took apart the sounds a word made, or made the word into a sentence of its own like bee - ay - you - ti - full. Which sounded like I was talking to a bee full of tea.

Harbinger. The nine-letter word in Target today. Paul already had it by the time I arrived home girded with the story about Asparagus. He does Target every day in study break and sometimes I lean over his shoulder to help. I stare at the nine letters - with the letter in the middle highlighted because it has to be part of every word - and I kind of clear the space around each letter and let them hover there uncluttered, and sometimes the nine-letter word clears the page and hovers in the air, and I pinch the edge and lick it and stamp it down. The other day I got handbrake but harbinger is better. We always make a bit of a song and dance of getting the long word, or I do. Paul is more businesslike. He didn't say a word today until I picked up the paper and put it on the kitchen bench. Harbinger, he said through the wall, I don't know what it means, I just know it's a word.

Only later I think of them as going together somehow: one growing spear-straight, the other standing upright to do that trumpeting thing. About doom and such like. No, spring.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fiddling while the computer burns

I've fiddled with my blog colours this morning despite clear evidence that the family computer is about to die. It did a bit of a meltdown last week and Becky the Techy fixed it up, backed-up everything onto a very expensive portable hard drive [which is why I am so sanguine now about the death throes of my aged darling], told me I should 'heed the signs' and gave me blood-freezing quotes on a new computer. And here I am today with that 'blue screen' thing popping up and a response time to my clicks and taps that could only be described as glacial.

So the time has come.

There's always the laptop - currently being 'backed-up' by Becky who tells me laptops only last 2-3 years now and mine is three years old - but we need a family computer, too.

Oh well. Nothing like a blog make-over to perk you up when things are malfunctioning. And it's not only the computer. Second son delivered my car home on Sunday morning with a broken seat belt and a rattling exhaust. Says it was 'bad luck'. It was 'bad luck' that other time too when the car transmission gave out while he was driving it, and 'bad luck' when the brake pads gave out over night - after it had been in his care. With its scratches and peeling paint, I've been driving a 'hoon' car for a while now, but the rattling exhaust garners me strangely hooded looks when I pull up outside the butcher's between an SUV and a Beemer.

On the writing front, I thought this was a useful post about believing in yourself as a writer ... but to a point ... on the very useful blog How Publishing Really Works. It's a practical and clever post by writer Dan Holloway. Thought I might apply his logic to a few other things in my life....

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Free Pinky Bar and badge

It's not often I eat a Pinky Bar, but tomorrow I will, and it's free. Author Fifi Colston is launching her new novel for junior fiction readers 'Glory' at the Storylines Family Day in Wellington this Sunday. And everybody who buys a copy gets a free Pinky and a cool Fifi-made badge. As I'm launching the book I reckon I get a Pinky Bar too. And a badge. With my name on it.

I've just finished reading 'Glory' and it's Fifi at her best - funny, sharp, subversive, with some terrific scenes that leave you rolling around laughing or turning the pages as fast as possible to see what happens next. The main character Florence Bright is - well - she's like Fifi: funny, sharp, and subversive. I liked spending time inside her convoluted 13-year-old mind, and I liked spending time in her home town of Oamaru [beautifully realised] and in her school of Rawhiti Normal [it's exactly like every 'Normal' school I attended.] I liked the mad little story that unfolds as Florrie takes it on herself to right the wrongs done to children at the unforgiving hands of school prizegivings. Her plan involves an overweight cat, a native bird and a pyromaniac brother. Oh, and there's a Pinky Bar. And a mystery blog.

'Nuf said. If you want to get to know Florrie, the launch is at the Storylines Free Family Day, 12.30 pm, Sunday August 23, at Te Whaea, Hutchison Road, Newtown. And you can do craft with Fifi afterwards before heading off to see the Weta Workshop guys and a whole host of other writers and illustrators. Storylines goes from 10-3.30 pm. It's always a great day.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Keepsake or Library Book?

Just thinking how I have an overdue library book that needs returning to the Wellington City Library. As usual, I think my overdueness comes down to the fact that I like to keep the books I read. The reason is simple, just glancing at the spine of a loved, stimulating, challenging etc book retrieves the feeling I had reading it. A whole wall of them is better than any other pick-me-up I know [I'm looking at them now as I tap upon the laptop].

The overdue book is Kirsty Gunn's The Keepsake which she says she wrote to scare herself . It resonates with The Bluebeard fairytale and is pretty creepy, but the lovely language and oblique story-telling make it feel like a long poem. An astonishing work that I would really really like as a keepsake of my own. But back it has to go.

I was fascinated to read on Beattie's Bookblog about the first Wellington City Library which was also the first library in the country. The pic above is detail from lithograph of Wellington in 1841. The library is to the left of Barrett's Hotel – the double-storeyed building in the centre of the image.

Here's more from the website Graham Beattie linked to:

New Zealand's first public library, the Port Nicholson Exchange and Public Library, opened in Wellington in 1841. Established by a group of the city's first settlers, it operated for one year in a building on the corner of Charlotte Street (now Molesworth Street) and Lambton Quay, an area now occupied by the Wellington cenotaph.

In 1842, due to a combination of defaulting subscribers and competitors, it closed and offered its contents to the Mechanics' Institute that was about to be established. The Institute and other groups continued to provide library services to the city until 1893, when Wellington City Council established a council-owned public library on the corner of Mercer and Wakefield Streets, not far from what is now the central branch of Wellington City Libraries.

The foundations for the Port Nicholson Exchange and Public Library were laid long before settlers even began arriving in the New Zealand Company settlement in 1840. Prior to the departure of the first ships, a committee had been established to ‘make provision for the Literary, Scientific and Philanthropic Institutions of the new Colony'. This ensured that the first settlers arrived laden with donations of books. more

Now that's a lovely image.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hue & Cry

Love this cover. Love the editorial by Chloe Lane which starts 'Monet flung himself into the Seine...', love the crazy piece What Depressions Look Like by Amy Howden-Chapman which ends '... We may have to build ourselves back up and out with green jobs, toothpicks and gum. I can see a new skyline of saliva bubbles, ladders, and clean smiles.' Love that Amy - one of the most creative thinkers but worst spellers and grammarians I know - has an Oxford comma inserted between 'ladders' and 'and'.

Love that Anna Taylor with her fresh first collection of stories out has The Beekeeper in here which starts 'When she was seventeen, my mother saved her own life just by walking across the lawn to the washing line...'

Love that there's a lot of 'Adams' in there [got a son with that name so it jumps out at me] - Pip Adam [the writer] with a piece called Pushing, Pulling and a series of Charlotte Simmonds' poems one of which begins: 'Before 6.30, Adam eats a pie, cracks a bourbon, smokes pot and a couple of cigarettes and/listens to punk rock...' Love that when I read it aloud to my boy, he nods 'yeah, that sounds about right...except for the punk rock...' Love that there's a poem by funky Johanna Aitchison called what seagull wants and a series of poems by my Montana-winning friend Airini Beautrais all about tricks of various sorts with her lovely off-centred view of the world: ' While you are stopped on a street corner/your future lover cycles past you/and does not notice you there...'

Love that Lawrence Patchett talks about 'Hawera and the Morrieson question' - which includes how Ronald Hugh's cousins Shirley and Heather threw away his papers without thinking 'because he wasn't as famous then' and how his writing attic is now stored in a paddock. Love that Hue and Cry calls itself a 'literary slash art journal'.

Love that it has cheered me up.

Because my friend Kirsty Gunn, who has cut a swathe through literary Wellington with her cry of 'death to the narrative arc' and 'I am not a writer, I am an artist' , and who has been so wonderfully stimulating and opinionated and generous as Randell Cottage fellow, and made life such fun for the winter she's lived here, is soon to head home to the UK and Scotland.

I just want to hue and cry.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Always smelling of blood

The McKays came in most weekends, or that's how it seemed anyhow, and always smelling of blood. Everyone knew they killed their animals. Uncle Neil, but the
boys too, he taught them how to do it, then they'd all walk in through Gran's kitchen door Saturday morning, smiling the big white smiles like they had knives in them and carrying in their arms their parcels of meat.

"A beast...." That's what Uncle Neil called it, the thing that they were bringing in. Not cow, or sheep, or deer, only, "I've got a beast for you here..." like it had never been alive on the farm, a creature with eyelashes and breath, but was altogether different and now it was dead.


That was Davey. He was the eldest, and kind of like a man. He never used to say "Hello". just "Hey" like that, while he chewed gum. "Pull in, will you, so I can get past..."

Extract from 44 THINGS by Kirsty Gunn [Atlantic] 25. Now I can see how it was, I think.

Come and hear Kirsty Gunn read from this astonishing story and other work including her work-in-progress which has Katherine Mansfield as its subject. She is speaking as part of the Writers Read series, THURSDAY AUGUST 6, 6 PM, Massey University Wellington campus, Buckle Street Entrance [follow the signs to the Theatrette] or FRIDAY AUGUST 7, 7 PM, Palmerston North City Library.

I'm chairing both events and looking forward to discussing Kirsty's work and her search for a new form that eshews the 'narrative arc'. She spoke on Monday at Te Papa and captivated the audience with the insights into her writing life.
Kirsty is pictured above at Randell Cottage Thorndon where she is the writer in residence.

Photo Credit: Mary McCallum