Tuesday, April 1, 2014

March [like a shark]

March in Music

March in Books

Thanks to a decent, relatively dry March I've been up a ladder clearing gutters and pruning trees, which has afforded some excellent audiobook-listening opportunities...

Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell (non-fiction, audiobook)

Prospero's Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu (Faber Library)I often wonder about travel writing. I wonder about the privilege inherent in the pursuit and eurocentricity and whether there’s any point writing non-fiction travel stuff these days coz if people really were that interested, why don’t they just save up and travel there themselves? (This question, in itself, relies on a level of privilege). Durrell’s book suffers from privilege and a sense of 'otherness', but being set before the second world war, it avoids my ‘what’s the point?’ complaint. It was occasionally interesting and sometimes poetic, but the diary-like structure limited its appeal.

David Copperfield: The Personal History of David Copperfield: Personal History of David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens (novel, audiobook)

Gosh. I loved Nicholas Nickleby a few years ago, but I found DC a drag. Perhaps it was the first person narrator versus the third? Perhaps I'm an early-Dickens man? Or was it my own un-Victorian mood this month? Oh well.

LamplighterLamplighter by Kerry Donovan Brown (novel, NZ)

I’m reviewing this for NZ Books, which means a) I’ll end up reading this a couple more times and b) I won’t give anything away here!

In progress:

Doomsday BookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis (novel, audiobook)

Apparently this is number 75 in some list of the best science fiction books of all time. But being about time travel, I wonder if it’s possible to have a list of the best books of all time that doesn’t include any from the future. *rimshot* So far, I’m really enjoying Willis’s take on the paradox-averting, research-only form of time travel presented in this novel. I’ve already got the sequel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, queued up on my iPod. All I need is for the fine weather to continue...

Griffith Review – Pacific Highways (NZ-themed issue)

I’m slowly working my way through the book and its free e-companion. There’s some good stuff and some great stuff. An Australian lit journal turning its attention so completely to “us” is almost unprecidented, though it’s also worth lauding Islands’ recent efforts to get more Kiwis between their covers. When will a NZ journal reciprocate? How can we keep the conversation going? Hard work and Tim Tams, I say!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Objects in a book review may appear smaller than they really are

Some notes I made myself before writing another book review
  • Do re-read John Updike's rules for reviewing books before starting the process afresh.
  • Don’t veil your put-downs. A young author, a first book, an ambitious premise, a long book, a short book – none of these things in themselves is a negative. If attitudes appear naive, the book is poorly structured, confusing or long-winded – just say so.
  • Do think deeply about the book and the author’s possible intentions, before setting fingers to keyboard.
  • Don’t mention aspects of book design unless there’s evidence that the author drove these decisions and discussion of them further illuminates the text.
  • Don't talk about "writing", talk about "language" - the means by which reader receives the story- and provide examples. If you must talk about "voice", again, back it up with quotation.
  • Do provide a plot summary that corresponds to the length of the review.
  • Don’t jump around. Keeps things ordered and orderly. Don't talk about the book’s opening after discussing the middle.
  • Don't use the first person if it can be avoided. It's the best way to dodge the pitfalls of space-wasting and humblebragging, and it forces you to consider other readers/readings.
  • Do refer to other books, other writers, literary theory or popular culture if it serves to illuminate the reading of the text at hand (and the reference will be comprehensible to the readers of the review).


Maybe it’s because I egged the universe on with my digression on the art of reviewing in my last post. Or maybe it really is that the book world hibernates between November and late Feb. Whatever the reason, I opened the door and more reviews of The Mannequin Makers came marching in.

First, some oldies I missed from the Oamaru Mail and Gisborne Herald in August and M2Woman in October (basically an abbreviation of the blurb and a rating of 3.5 stars - informative, huh?).

(I once flicked through M2Woman's brother publication, M2Man (naturally),  in my dentist’s waiting room, specifically looking to see if they do book reviews (they did that particular edition, but they were both non-fiction; they also reviewed DVDs and video games). It’d be nice to one day be reviewed in M2Man, even if it's a glorified thumbnail ad... but I can see why a book that revolves around two department stores -- despite it’s long, briny excursion into sailing and shipwrecks -- doesn't scream out manliness.)

Then two new-new reviews happened.

The first was in New Zealand Books new issue (Autumn 2014). It’s a triple-billed review, with my novel sandwiched between Duncan Sarkies’ The Demolition of the Century and Summer Wigmore's The Wind City. It’s a good review, I think. Both favourable to the book and well-written.

One complaint: "Cliff suffers perhaps from first-time novelist's compulsion to cram every possible image, experience and idea into a too-small space."

I’d rather a reviewer said, ‘The book crams a lot in and I found it too much at points A B C, because X Y Z’. 

Or, dream scenario, when an author has another book (even if it’s not a novel) the reviewer investigates to see if this maximalist impulse is present elsewhere and comes to a conclusion about what this means for the novel’s shape, themes and overall effect.

But like I said, it’s a good review all told. Especially when held against the other new review, which appears in Landfall Review Online

The review is long. Nearly 2,000 words. And while it’s nice that the reviewer spends so long on my novel, the bigger compliment would have been to spend longer and write a shorter review.

Again, it's largely favourable, but, well... I'm probably the most interested reader this review could hope for and, despite multiple attempts, I've never managed to read it the entire way through.

Try and read this sentence while retaining the will to live: "Occasionally, despite genuine mastery overall, the prose packs in over-much explaining, but not often."

And the reviewer mentions the cover and the engravings of birds at the start of each of the four parts of the novel and internal design. (I’ve blogged about how little say I had over my cover.) Wasting breath on this stuff represents a totally superficial way of appraising fiction, as if they really are reviewing a book – a physical object, a commodity to be bought and shelved – rather than effect the words create. Perhaps if the reviewer asked the question, ‘What do these different birds at the start of each part signify?’ the thought process might result in a worthwhile and enlightening paragraph.

Anywho. Enough shit talking. Any coverage is good coverage. I'm off to drink free wine... 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

February influx / Young Turks etc / February flatline

Last week the book world came back from their summer break. At least, it seemed that way after things had been awful quiet (for me) since November. But then, BLAM: a translation deal for The Mannequin Makers, an invitation to an Aussie writers festival in August and a request to review a novel all arrived in my inbox in the space of 48 hours.

The translation thing is the coolest (being my first book-length translation deal) and the oddest, since the language is Romanian. Not to be sniffed at (24 million speakers), but not the first language you think of when someone says, ‘Hey, a foreign publisher asked for a copy of your book...’

Romanian mannequins, via Reddit

According to Google Translate (!) the novel's title could be rendered: ‘Factorii de decizie manechin’ and (because I can’t help myself on Google Translate) my name becomes Craig Stâncă in Romanian. Stâncă! Makes me think of a bi-polar (sad-mouth “a”, happy-mouth “a”) narcoleptic.

Last week I also came across a new review of The Mannequin Makers, though it was published earlier (8 February) in The Southland Times. It’s only 228 words, and there’s not a lot anyone can do in that space without resorting to sweeping comments / sounding dangerously like a press release.

But I found the final paragraph odd:

I guess we see the age-old themes of love, loss and redemption. The cover and blurb of this novel did not appeal to me but I was hooked in the first chapter and found it extremely difficult to put down. Cliff lives in Wellington but is in Iowa on a writing residency working on a second short-story collection. His writing reminded me of the likes of Jack Lazenby or Doris Lessing. May he be as prolific.

“I guess”? I can’t read further without picturing the reviewer’s elbow on the table, her head weighing heavily on her hand. 

Question: have Jack Lazenby and Doris Lessing ever been mentioned in the same sentence before? Not on the internet they haven’t.

And this talk about covers and blurbs in limited space is a disturbing trend. This review a couple of days ago on the Booksellers NZ website, for example, devotes 23% of its space (63 of 276 words) to the cover.

I know writers are supposed to be grateful for every outlet talking about books, but when a review (I feel tempted to put that word in scare quotes for anything with a wordcount under 500) piffles about things almost entirely out of the author’s control... well, it seems a lost opportunity.

One reason I agreed to review this other book is that I get 1,250 words to do it.

I know reviewing is poorly remunerated and largely thankless. If you get the space to demonstrate critical and/or original thought, you’re doing so for pennies in the dollar. The only people the system currently works for seems to be academics, who’re expected to publish (*another temptation to use scare quotes narrowly defeated*) and have a salary to fall back on.

I’m going to talk more about reviewing in a few days, so I'll stop. Take it away Rod!



There is no February reading summary because The Recognitions is really long and I’m still listening it. The Luminaries is really long and I finished re-reading it but it deserves a separate post. The Flamethrowers isn’t that long, but it defeated my enthusiasm for it after a while and Rachel Kushner isn’t coming to Wellington next month anymore so it all seemed less urgent.

Conclusion: I was a slack reader in February 2014, but an obsessive cricket fan, a present and willing father, an amazing chief policy analyst / shaky acting policy manager, an inexperienced IHC volunteer, a threadbare columnist, a deliberate cyclist and a ready sleeper.

Monday, February 3, 2014

January reading / playlist

I dropped the ball with these monthly reading summaries early last year, but it was never intentional. So here I am, picking the ball back up..

(As a bonus: some songs I liked this month:


Case Histories – Kate Atkinson (audiobook)
Case HistoriesFar be it from me to criticise a book that blurs genre boundaries, but Case Histories never really got going for me, I think because it used aspects of Crime Fiction (crimes!, a private detective) and Literary Fiction (multiple perspectives, lot’s of non-detective characters, lots of time spent on characterisation) that don’t gel. Rather than letting the crimes drive the plot, they seemed to pull it apart, making for a slow read.
When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery)
When you reach me – Rebecca Stead (audiobook)
My wife and I listened to this on two separate car trips up to the Kapiti Coast over the summer. Haven’t done much in-car listening before., but found it an enjoyable experience. Probably helps that this YA novel about time travel is simply told…

Somewhere in time – Richard Matheson (audiobook)
Somewhere in TimeContinuing the time travel theme, this novel opens with a note from the narrator’s brother, disclaiming some of the zany stuff that’ll follow, and apologising for the slow start to the tale. An apologia – just the sort of thing to put you in a good frame of mind… In all, it felt like a padded out short story. This is true of many of the early greats of this sort of spec-fic, like HG Wells and Verne. So much padding and plodding in order to veil the premise a little longer. Such coyness wears on me (right now).
At the Mountains of Madness
At the Mountains of Madness – HP Lovecraft (audiobook)
My first ever Lovecraft. May be my last. Early on it has some nice resonance with Shackleton’s South, which I read in 2011, but it moves slowly to the reveal (Cthulu mythos stuff) and wasn’t very horrifying to me. Oh well.

And books in progress (in case I forget something this time next month)...

The Recognitions – William Gaddis (audiobook)
The RecognitionsThis'll take a while. I listened to the first two hours while driving, and you can't get much further from the straight-forwardness of When You Reach Me. But The Recognitions is amazing, once you get your ears tuned in to Gaddis's flow. It's like listening to Shakespeare. In more ways than one. But it is 38+ hours long, or Hamlet + Othello + Lear + MacBeth + As You Like It + Much Ado + Midsummer Night's Dream + Henry V + Winter's Tale. Okay, that's totally unfair. I wish I never did that. As you were.
The Flamethrowers
The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
I'm reading this ahead of Kushner's appearance at Wellington Writers and Readers Week next month. Digging it so far... (reading it makes me use terms like 'digging it').

Aside: the UK cover (right), which is the paperback cover we get here in NZ is one of the ugliest, least appealing covers I've encountered in a long time, down to the embossed silver foil flame in the upper left. Ugh. Wonder what RK thinks of it?

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton
The LuminariesI didn't explain in my Best of 2013 list, but I read The Luminaries the first time on fast forward. I'd left my copy in NZ when I went to the States (luggage space was at a premium) and instead borrowed a friend's US edition for three days in late October, always intending to go back and give it a more considered read. Which is what's happening now. I'm 300 pages in and those 3/4 page chunks of character exposition I skipped over on my first reading have been dutifully scrutinised (though I still feel like skipping as soon as I realise it'll be one of those paragraphs).

My first-time impressions remain the strongest: (1) There are some cracking scenes (like Jo Pritchard w/ Anna Wetherall in the Gridiron - the first time we see Anna up close - then Gascoigne arrives...) that help you hoover up the pages. (2) Every page has one or two moments where I go: 'Gee, that must have taken multiple days/drafts to get right. Respect.' (3) 'This is so Deadwood set in Hokitika' (a compliment).

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Between books

"Pick me!"
"No, pick me!"

I’m in a strange place right now. The Mannequin Makers has been and gone. I’m happy with the book I produced. It hasn't sold a lot of copies, but I've had some nice reactions from people who have read it. If I was to write the book again now, I’d do a few things differently and the result would be -- surprise, surprise -- a different book. 
But I’m keen to strike off in different directions. 
In fact, I’m moving in at least three directions at once while standing still (not writing anything).
The projects:
  1. Another collection of short stories – this is what I was working towards in Iowa, and it'll include some stories pre-dating The Mannequin Makers. I’m mulling whether one story deserves two companion stories (and how that might be structured within a collection) or whether it becomes a novella (and how that works with shorter stories). And, as always, there are some stories I’d like to write when I have time (ha!). But I’m not in a huge rush to ‘finish’ my collection. I know that not every story will sit comfortably within the final collection, and the longer I wait, the more stories I’ll have, the better the whole coheres and the better the quality of the individual stories. That’s the idea anyway. Then there’s the fact I’m not champing at the bit to have the conversation with my publisher (or any publisher) about the merits and demerits of bringing out another book of stories. A story collection might be leverage in negotiations for my next novel, though it's probably not my leverage (the publisher treat bringing out a story collection as a favour to me).
  2. A novel that takes circa 4,000 words of an abandoned novel (referred to as Novel B around these parts) and takes it in a different direction. The “different direction” is actually the natural direction the novel should have always gone. But I couldn’t recognise that at the time as I’d started with the direction and then wrote the first chapter. The chapter works, just not as the first step towards “that” destination. Later I tried to turn that chapter into a standalone short story, but that didn't work either. I tried revising it while in Iowa and realised, "Hey, there is a novel here!" It'll be contemporary and employ multiple perspectives, rather than sticking to the one narrator. It’s concerned with the idea of “narrative politics” that I talked about in this interview with Joan Fleming but I’m not yet in the space where I can write from any of the other character’s perspectives. My research for this involves meeting people, forming relationships, forgetting about the novel for a while, and then coming back to try and tell this story in the boldest, fairest, clearest way.
  3. A novel about a family, belief (God, time travel), infidelity, porn and true love (Lets call this Dysfunctional Family Novel)This is the novel I’ve mentioned, obliquely in some interviews and articles re: ‘what’s next?’ While I was in the States the nucleus of the novel (one character, one arc) started to attract other stories (a short story I was going to write about a mysterious school closure in the 1970s - the setting of which I blogged about in 2010; the cloud seeder story!). It’s still growing. I think about it when I’m plucking laterals off my tomato plants and sitting up with my sick daughter (ear infection, she’ll survive). The other day while mowing the lawn I realised that something I thought might be a big part of my next novel but dismissed almost the next day could actually be useful. All this thinking time is necessary and I can feel the momentum building. But I’m not at the point where I can start writing yet.
There’s a fourth project (another novel), which I have clear ideas about but don’t feel like pursuing at the moment (let’s call it Genre Novel).
It’s funny to have so much work ahead of me. It’s somehow calming. I know that one or all of these books mightn’t make a dent on the big wide world (or ever get written). But maybe something clicks.
One of the things I’m most pleased with about The Mannequin Makers is the fact I actually went through the process of researching and writing a historical novel (with all the angst that entails). Even though I don’t fancy going back to the past in any of the books above (except maybe a bit in c) I’m a better writer for having tackled history. The same concerns (veracity, telling detail, a sense of responsibility for your characters) are carrying over to my next projects. I’m hopefully more awake to language than I was before, though each novel (and each perspective) is a process of finding a new language, the right language.
My plan for this year is to keep thinking the novels into shape, while sitting down to write for two hours every morning before heading to work. To begin with I’ll be working on short stories (my extended Christmas break is well and truly over), but at some point this year I’ll probably start working on Dysfunctional Family Novel...

Monday, January 13, 2014

My favourite albums of 2013

Yes, I said in my last post that I was over year end lists. And yes, I insist every year that it doesn’t really matter when something (a book, an album, a new hybridised stonefruit) is released, just when you first encounter it. But I’m gonna go ahead and post about my favourite albums that were released in 2013 anyway.

Why? Because, as I’ve mentioned before, Spotify has helped reawaken my interest in new music. And you can’t get newer than the last 12 months. (I guess I could post a best albums of 2014 post… but let’s keep our heads, shall we.) So listen along on Spotify while I wax fanatic about eight records I liked...


Album of the Year

Local Natives - Hummingbird

 Sometimes it takes seeing a band live to elevate their music, in particular their latest album, from good to great. Maybe it’s verging on homerism to suddenly love a band that you paid $$ to see. I don’t care. The Local Natives gig I caught in New Orleans was a top five lifetime gig. It was incredible how the band were able to replicate the vocal harmonies on their two records live, while also engaging with the crowd and building to crescendo after crescendo while circumventing the law of diminishing marginal returns. 

Hummingbird is similar in many ways to their 2010 debut Gorilla Manor. At times it’s as if their lyrics are an exercise in writing with a restricted vocabulary (Q: How many times can you reference the sun on two albums? A: 15 times across 6 songs). 

But the more time you spend with Hummingbird the deeper and sadder it gets. Kelcey Ayer lost his mother between albums and this is the emotional bassline for the album. Lyrics like ‘Every night I ask myself, am I loving enough?’ might bring me out in hives if read in isolation, but in the context of Hummingbird, they kill me. In a good way.

The sorta-magnificent numbers 2 through 8

Grouplove - Spreading Rumours

While many of the albums on this list take themselves seriously, perhaps too seriously at times, Grouplove’s second album is fun. You can hear a) that they had fun making it and b) they’d be fun to see live.

Cloud Control - Dream Cave

First thing: I love this band’s name. I came across them while toliing away at a story about a cloud seeder (yes, that story – still a work in progress) so I was predisposed to like these New South Welshmen. And it’s great writing music. And great put-an-album-on-while-you-play-duplo-with-your-daughter music.

Hungry Kids of Hungary - You're a Shadow

First thing: I hate this band’s name. And on first listen they sound A LOT like Vampire Weekend. And while lots of people lauded VW’s Modern Vampires of the City in 2013, I left me cold. You’re a Shadow is zanier, happier and (that word again) more fun.

Born Ruffians - Birthmarks

Similarities again: When I first started listening to Birthmarks, I couldn’t get past the Fleet Foxes similarities. A funky Fleet Foxes, which is a bit of an oxymoron (a foxymoron?), but still. As the album progressed, and the number of listened increased, these aural similarities faded.

Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork

So, this surprised the heck out of me. I avoided listening to this album for months. QOTSA’s previous two albums were beyond disappointing to this former fan (I’m a bit of an oddity in that I reckon the high point of Josh Homme’s career and the desert rock genre are Kyuss’s …And the circus leaves town and QOTSA’s self-titled debut). They were unpleasant and unpleasurable to listen to. But when I kept seeing …Like Clockwork appear in best of 2013 lists, I decided one listen couldn’t hurt. And gosh, if Josh Homme didn’t get his swag back / pull his head out of his bass amp. It’s still dark and sleazy and slow (excuse me while I go boogie to ‘If Only’), but suddenly this shtick of the last five-to-eight years doesn’t wear on me. It actually sounds good!

The National - Trouble with Find Me

Unlike Queens of the Stone Age, The National haven’t declined in my estimation since their high point (2008, the year I discovered them). Some people thought High Violet was disappointing (not me) and some think the same about Trouble (again, clearly, not me). While it mightn’t have the knockout tracks that Boxer did, and it seems they’ve put to bed the kind of manic, Black Franciscan breakout/breakdown choruses of Alligator and it predecessors, The National still make great music to sit alone in your room to. That’s a huge market these days and I’m old enough to know that a band getting bigger doesn’t have to mean you have to disown them.

Rogue Wave - Nightingale Floors

Rounding out my top eight (there were a bunch of other albums I liked / listened to a lot, but these eight were clearcut) is Rogue Wave’s fifth album. I saw these guys open for Nada Surf in Glasgow in 2008 and was nonplussed. I’ve listened to their previous albums and always felt they were a bit meh. But Nightingale Floors is a compulsive listen. It’s got a great opener (‘No Magnatone’) and something approaching a hooky single (‘College’). Maybe something’s clicked for Rogue Wave, or for me. Maybe it’ll unclick for their next album. Oh well, Nightingale Floors is enough to be thankful for.

Okay, so that's a lot of (mostly) men making beard-stroking music in bands. What were your faves last year? Or from the first two weeks of 2014 even?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The best books I read in 2013

If you’ve read the Listener’s ‘What New Zealand Reads’ articles, you probably have a fair idea about the top ten books I read in 2013. I’m a bit sick of ‘best of’ lists myself (as I’m sure you are too), as they seem to start appearing earlier last year than ever before. But here’s my idiosyncratic list, may it be lost in the hubbub (until I need to refer back to it)...

26662666 – Roberto Bolano (novel, audiobook)
Did I enjoy every second of it? No way. That’s partly the point. I endured the ‘Part about the killings’ and felt better and worse for doing so. But I loved all the Archimbaldi stuff, the boldness of dealing with something real and ongoing (the murders in Ciudad Juarez, only slightly fictionalised), the outsized ambition and the loose, asymmetrical but finely balanced structure. Finishing 2666 unlocked an appreciation for the three other Bolano books I’d read (all of which I wasn’t that enthused by at the time).
Three Contemporary German Novellas:
Runaway Horse – Martin Walser (novella)
This is a weird book. Like the script of a psychological thriller starring Kim Basinger written by Nicholson Baker. Or not. It’s intoxicating in a way that things that might otherwise occur in a bad book (chance meetings, poorly explained returns from the dead) are lapped up. It's both kooky and serious and I'm still not sure if it's only meant to be one, but then, that's a kind of triumph in itself.
Tenth of December: Stories
Tenth of December – George Saunders (short stories)
I’d already read seven of the ten stories as they appeared in the New Yorker between 2009 and 2012, so it was a bit hard to judge this as a collection. But it’s Saunders and he’s in fine form. The best time to judge it will be in about five years when all the stories have a bit of dust on their shoulders. Until then, Tenth is good enough for my top 10

We Others: New and Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries)We Others: new and Selected Stories – Steven Millhauser (short stories)
Some great stories in here. Mightn't hang together as well as a proper one-off collection, and some of the stories (like the Sinbad one) go on too long, but the good stories worked their way into my brain and refuse to budge.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (novel)
The LuminariesWhat can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said? Plenty. Such is the richness of it, and its incompatibility with the rushed culture of reviews. I received my copy shortly before it (and my own historical second novel) came out in early August. I read the first sentence and had to put it down for the bout of envy it caused. It was physically painful. But that kind of envy is short-lived. It has been strange and thrilling to see a New Zealand book (and such a NZ-y book at that) become a phenomenon – all built sentence by sentence…

Train Dreams – Denis Johnson (novella, audiobook)
Train Dreams: A NovellaThe 2012 Pulitzer Prize jury is a bunch of drongos. Yes, Swamplandia was overrated. And I haven’t read The Pale King, but I can see how DFW + unfinished manuscript might not meet some people’s expectations of a Pulitzer-worthy book. But the only thing against Train Dreams is it’s length (a novella) and perhaps the fact it was originally published as a story in the Paris Review in 2002. And if these things bother you, then you’re a drongo too.

SomeoneSomeone – Alice McDermott (novel, US)
I heard Alice read a long section (it felt like an hour, but I can’t be sure; when she stopped, people murmured pleas that she continue) from Someone in Washington DC in November. Wow. At the time I tweeted that the reading was “amazeballs”. And the whole book – slender, disjointed, profound – managed to sustain the power evident in the reading.

Portrait With Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked – Ivan Vladislavic (non-fiction)
Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg UnlockedThis book was given to me by a publisher in NYC who claimed it was the best book he’d ever been associated with as a publisher. I can see why. One of those books that seems easy to imitate, but is much harder to pull off that it first appears.

Two Girls in a Boat – Emma Martin (short stories)
Two Girls in a BoatHaving read and loved the title story as an anonymous entry in a short story comp, I was looking forward to reading a heap more from Emma Martin. VUP obliged with a full collection in 2013 and made me very happy.

Selected Poems – Mary Ruefle (poetry)
Selected Poems(The only book I didn't mention in The Listerner thingy.) I hadn’t read any Ruefle before she came to Wellington in April. Even after her Writers on Monday’s appearance it was a few months before I got hold of one of her books. Funny, nimble, full of non-sequiturs and a kind of lonely/friendly dynamic that rare poets can roll with.

Some observations
  • This time last year I set myself the target of reading books by writers from 12 different countries, including three countries I'd never read books from. Well, I read books from US (heaps), NZ (lots but not as much as previous years), UK (some), Germany (3), South Africa (2), Ireland, Nigeria, Russia, France and India. That's only 10, and no new countries. I kinda forgot about this challenge during the year (and may have forgotten one or two foreign books), so it's certainly no excuse not to have read any Australian books in 12 months! Minimum six Aussies in 2014 -- you heard it hear folks.
  • One reason my usual reading flow (and target-seeking) got derailed was my time in Iowa. It exposed me to some great writers and writing from other countries (many would have made the 'never read anything from this country before' column), but most didn't have an entire book in English translation yet. In the end, I gorged on US books, including a lot of personal essays, which was something a bit new for me, even if their origin was not.
  • I lost my iPod when I left for Iowa and found it when I got back to NZ (it actually came with me to Iowa, but it's a long story), so I listened to a third-less audiobooks than I would normally in a year. If I'd used my iPod in Iowa, I probably would have plowed through more than I would in an average three month span, given how much free time/wandering I had. But then I think walking around unencumbered was probably useful. I did listen to a lot of podcasts on my iPad while away, especially BBC Radio's In Our Time, which is kinda sorta like reading, but not.
  • There's a backlog of NZ books that came out while I was in the US that I need to read. It's funny how a few months away from Unity Books means I'm suddenly out of the loop. Gimme a few months to catch up, k?

Monday, December 23, 2013

What the brochures don't tell you: my time at the International Writing Program

Writers reflected, 'Cloud Gate', Chicago

I spent nearly four months in the U.S., most of it in Iowa City participating in the International Writing Program (IWP). I managed to write a couple of short stories, one of which will appear in the Griffith Review next year (it was originally going to be the upcoming NZ-themed issue, but they reckon it fits better thematically with their ‘Cultural Solutions’ issue…), so that aspect of my writing residency was worthwhile and successful.

(I also continued to write my fortnightly column for the Dom Post while I was away, covering Iowa fashions, what to say (and what not) when asked what you think of Iowa, the Tri-State rodeo, New Orleans, Halloween, being a working parent (even if “work” = being a writer in residence) and Washington DC. I also co-wrote an article on New Orleans for a website dedicated to, uh, New Orleans.)

But the IWP is unlike other residencies in its focus and scale, its history and ulterior motives. Writing – the act of getting new work down on paper or as pixels – was rarely mentioned as there was so much else going on.

I didn’t blog about the IWP at the time because:
a) I was writing short stories and columns like a good boy
b) there were heaps of other events to eat up my time
c) I was squeezing familymanhood into the slivers of residency downtime, and
d) it was a confusing time that I figured would be easier to dissect once I was out of the frying pan.

So, here’s my take on the IWP and Iowa City.

Writers arriving at Shambaugh House, home of the IWP, for the first time.

Busy busy

The IWP is a pick-a-path residency. If you don’t have fun, you only have yourself (and your decisions) to blame.

From August to November there were 35 writers from 31 countries in Iowa City. The 10-week program (I’m going to stick to US spelling for the p-word, since that’s how they roll) organised two 1-hour readings per week featuring IWP writers, as well as a bunch of other panels and one-off events.

My reading at Shambaugh House

The IWP also offered participants trips to a rodeo, an organic farm with remnant patch of prairie, Burial Mounds National Park, a pot luck barn dance, the Kalona fall festival and a big community dinner at another farm. We also got to go to either New Orleans or San Francisco for five-days midway through the residency and almost all of us went to Chicago, Washington DC and New York City at the end of the program.

In addition to this, the writers also organised their own weekly salon and fiction writers held weekly meetings to talk about their craft, as did poets. Then there were the impromptu chats in the Iowa House common room (the hotel where most of us stayed) and the dinners for various cultures and ethnic groups (the Chinese contingent was in particularly high demand for these).

Apart from giving one public reading, appearing on one panel discussion and talking to one undergrad class (and all the tedious administration stuff that occupies most of the first week of the program), all other activities were optional. If you wanted to lock yourself away and break the back of your novel in 10 weeks, you could. If you wanted to experience everything outside your hotel room that was on offer, you could.

Writers wade through the prairie

Early on I made the decision to err on the side of doing too much away from my desk. I figured there’ll be plenty of time to write over the next 45 years (retirement age of 75 for a writer sounds about right, I reckon) but being in Iowa for the Fall semester and being with those 34 other writers was likely to be a once in a lifetime deal.

And I don’t regret that decision. Was every reading great? No. Were all the trips worth the effort? Probably not (but they all had redeeming features). Was every night I spent drinking with other writers critical to my development as a writer and a human being? Of course it was!

So, if you’re reading this and think you might one day end up as an IWP participant, focus on these things above. For all the qualms I may have had, if you don’t make your time in Iowa worthwhile, you only have yourself to blame.

International Riding Program contingent at the Tri-State Rodeo

Uncle Sam wants you!

I was an outlier on the program, in that Creative NZ (our arts funding body) paid for my participation, rather than the US Department of State or an embassy.

The logic of the State Department shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring farflung writers to the wholesome midwest runs something like this: Writers play an important role in shaping public discourse. If a writer gets to experience US culture firsthand, they may be more predisposed to favourable opinions about the US and its actions that may be disseminated in their home country.

(Also, if they really like the US, they’ll stay and enrich the US stock of creative talent.)

The wizards behind the curtain know that this scheming will only pay dividends in a handful of cases. But one or two US advocates out of 35 writers a year must seem like money well spent (the program has run since the 1967).

Of course, some of those 35 writers come from unproblematic countries like New Zealand and Finland. At times it felt like we were there as camouflage. Pawns in the pursuit of plausible deniability.

Hiking up the bluff, Burial Mounds National Park

I should add that several of the writers on the program suffered from mental illness (a number openly spoke about their struggles with depression, paranoia and panic attacks, and the various drugs they did and didn’t take in order to function), making the IWP a hotbed for conspiracy theories and persecution complexes. But out of the frying pan and back in New Zealand, the cynical underpinning of the program remains apparent.

Of course, the program sells itself in a rather different light, as “a unique conduit for the world’s literatures, connecting well-established writers from around the globe, bringing international literature into classrooms…” (IWP website). It also talks up the way it gives Americans (mostly Iowa City residents) a taste of other cultures and literatures. This side of the program also privileges the exotic (in an often icky, post-colonial / imperial way). Writers who speak and write in languages other than English are prized above garden variety anglophones.

The myth-making of the IWP was most painfully clear whenever the director, Christopher Merrill spoke. He’d introduce people by their country over their art, and became especially animated whenever a writer was the first from their country to take part in the program (ie Burundi, Kuwait, Bahrain). The only exception was when he learnt some snippet about a writer that tickled him (the fact one writer was a bank manager back home; one writer had 49 published books). Never did he penetrate into the question of whether producing 49 books was a good thing in terms of quality (let alone the messages contained within those books).

The art of inequality in the arts

Now, as a white, middle class, male anglophone writer from a country with a decent relationship with the US, being paid for by my own country's arts funding body, I was always going to be on the periphery of such a program. I was offered the bare minimum in terms of opportunities to present my work: one 20-minute reading (mandatory), one session at the Iowa City Book Festival (mandatory), one appearance at the International Literature Today class for Iowa undergrads (mandatory), talking to a class of high school kids in New Orleans (5 writers per class, featuring all writers who went to New Orleans) and a 45 minute talk I gave to a bunch of retirees at the Senior College.

Kurt Vonnegut session at Iowa City Book Festival

Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad, but remember we’re talking 10 weeks, and the fact there were readings at parties, dinners, receptions, schools, and other reading series around Iowa City…

I wasn’t the only writer who felt like they were being overlooked and under-utilised on the program (I’d say 50-60% of the writers complained about it at some point; 10% complained often and at length). It wasn’t just about exoticism. Some of those writers who were well-utilised were three or more of the following: white, male, middle class and wrote in English.

Some people inside the IWP even commented, toward the end of the 10 weeks, about the inequitable opportunities being offered. “X is always reading. Y hasn't even read yet,” etc etc. The observation is completely true, but I don’t agree that every writer should be given equal airtime. I don’t.

Even though the bar is set high-ish by the fact you have to be selected to attend the IWP’s fall residency, there will always be a huge variation in the talent within any collection of 35 writers. Some were only one or two books into their careers (a couple not even that far). Others were five or six or 49 books in. Many had won prizes and been on residencies in foreign countries before. Some were invited by universities on either coast to give talks while they were in the US.

There were no out and out rock stars, but some were well on that path.

Poets reading at Poet's House, NYC

My objection is that the inequitable distribution of opportunities didn’t always align with talent. There was favouritism for poets over prosers and the exotic over the anglophone. The people who got to pick and choose who read when didn’t sufficiently engage with all the writers’ work (I’m talking not reading our 10 page writing samples… I don’t expect them to have read all our books) and were happy to base their selections on hunches and dehumanising factors.

In saying all this, I'm thinking mostly about New Zealand writers who might apply for this residency in the future. Forewarned is forearmed and all that. And of course I'm a bit biased. I was miffed because I wanted more of the spotlight than I got. And, really, it means very little in the scheme of things. There were never any book sales tables at events (most, like me, didn’t have US publishers, so there was little impetus to move stock). And most of the time writers were being paraded as anthropological specimens rather than writers. My career is in no worse shape for having done 5 things instead of 15. My ego was hurt and that’s all.

I believed (and still do) that I was one of the better writers on the program. That given 5 or 50 minutes to read from my work, I’d entertain a crowd. This may read as arrogance, but it’s an important part of what gets me up at 5am every morning. The voice that says: I’m good at this. I have things to say and I’m going to work my butt off until this page sings.

Being on the periphery of the IWP reminded me of this. It hurt to feel like a neglected manque rock star. The only way to avoid this again is to fucking write a rock star book.

Sometimes a bruise or two to your ego is just what the doctor ordered.

Octagonal barn, decked out for a barn dance and pot-luck dinner

The Iowa City Vortex

Since returning to NZ and my day-job (from which I took leave without pay to bugger off to Iowa), I’ve been asked dozens of times: “Was it worthwhile?”

I start by saying what I said at the beginning of this post: I got to write, I got to meet interesting people and talk about interesting things, and a got to travel around.

Then I say: But 10 weeks was long enough on the program, and four months was long enough to be in the States.

As a group, the IWP writers got on really well. There were simmering tensions, of course. Some of which, if I summarised here, might sound reductive and dehumanising (national/cultural/religious stuff). Other tensions were much more human (‘Are they…*cough*?’ ‘Are they?’ ‘I don’t know, I was just asking…’). Nothing boiled over until the final week, though another week or two and all bets would be off.

Then there’s the fact that Iowa City is not the real world. There are writers’ bars (George’s, The Foxhead) where everyone is a writing student or a writer. The attractive undergrads in their skimpy clothes smoking outside are talking about the way John Berryman breaks a line. Suddenly, a knowledge of poetry is a help not a hindrance if you’re wanting to ‘make friends’. That kind of sudden reversal can do a writer’s head in.

University of Iowa President's Block Party, first week of the fall semester.

After two weeks, we’d walk around town and it’d be impossible to avoid seeing people we knew, either writers, student, academics, people who ran a speaking agency for writers or hosted writers for dinner or liked to attend every reading on offer (for some it seemed a useful sleeping aid).

At the end of the residency, a handful of writers elected to stay in Iowa City for the 30 days their J-1 visas allowed them to linger in the States. From their Facebook posts (“What am I still doing here?”) it seems they spent much of that time chasing their own tails – living the life of a writer without the extended network of the IWP, and hemmed in by the onset of winter.

Staying in Iowa City long term, you’d inevitably become an insular, important-to-a-select-few-Iowa-City-residents-who’ve-secretly-lost-the-joy-of-reading writer, still chasing your own tail.

Hell is getting too much of what you want. Time to write, a community of writers, bars exclusively for writers… Sounds great, right.

I’m not joking when I say that it was nice to come back to Wellington, get up at 5am and cram in 1.5 hours writing (my daughter wakes at 6.30am these days, and I’ve yet to convince myself 4:30am starts are necessary) then go to work as an (Acting) Chief Policy Analyst. To have friends who couldn’t give a fuck about Anthony Marras. To edge into another summer in time for Christmas parties and fishing trips, and know that I’m going to keep carving out time to write, and that the internal combustion engine that powers “the work” (a phrase popular in Iowa City and among IWP-ers that I promise not to use again) isn’t dependent on external validation or the encouragement of the person in the hotel room next door.

Declining comment

There’s more I could write about my time away. Life in the Midwest. Travel during the residency. My roadtrip down the Mississippi. But I fear a lot of it will be tinged with the same jaundiced tint.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Or even as if I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it. I’ll come back to this experience again and again, in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve filled the tank, as Joss Whedon would say.

America is so much about image and myth, that of course the most interesting parts are where the reality diverges most violently from message.

Killing time at New Orleans airport

When I got home the lemon tree I planted last spring looked as if it hadn’t enjoyed the winter frosts or spring winds. It had two leaves left, but on closer inspection its spindly branches all terminated in buds. Within two days, the tree was in full blossom, giving its all for one last stab at life and procreation.

Being in the US during the government shutdown and the bankruptcy of Detroit, and driving through innumerable boarded-up towns and finding the only commerce in chain stores and restaurants on the arterial routes leading out of the withered heart, it’s hard not to think of it as an ailing country, a terminal culture. And perhaps those places of activity and light, like Iowa City, are attempts to stave off this decline. Perhaps it’s all in vain. Perhaps not. But it is interesting.