Monday, August 29, 2011

Farewell Peka / Names #2 / Joe Cocker

Farewell Peka

I still can't bring myself to call him that ridiculous name starting with H.F.  The penguin I caught up with on Pekapeka Beach on June 22, has set sail this evening for the sub-Antarctic on board the Tangaroa. I took this photo of the vessel leaving Shelley Bay from my deck just after 6pm this evening.

In the foreground is the new ASB Sports Centre in Kilbirnie. I was one of the 15,000 people who visited on its open day on Saturday. What a fantastic facility and a great community asset! Lose a penguin, gain a stadium... Yeah, we'll be fine.

Naming Characters #2

On the subject of crap names and fantastic names, here's another article from Papers Past
ODD NAMES [Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XLII, 13 September 1907, Page 1] 
We publish hereunder a [slightly slimmed down -- CC] selection of Odd Names. All the names are genuine, and not invented for the purpose of publication. The majority of them are taken from the records which are to be found at Doctors' Commons, Somerset House, the Probate Court, etc. England.

Temperance Dry.
Thomas Jolly Death.
Friendly Churches.
Dover Beetles.
Jonas Whalebelly.
Young Fry.
Frederick Smallbones.
Leicester Midland Railway Cope.
John Richard Pine Coffin.
Sabbath Church.
Robert Rainy Best Best.
Pickup Pickup.
Nelson Monument.
Winter Frost.
Butter Sugar.
Morning Dew.
Wilde Field Flowers.
John the Baptist Arrighi.
Christmas Day Jones.
Daft Coggins.
River Jordan.
Urbane Cheese.
Carolina Gotobed.
Petronella Frederika Mess.
Brown Fox.
Time o' Day.
Lesser Lesser.
Bride Best
Parsonage Pope.
Urbane Cook.
Christmas Day.
Honour Bright.
Jolly Death.
Henry Hot Coddlings.
Queen Victoria Burr.
Peternal Hole.
Randalina Seedlum.
Moderina Belmontina Kimberina Robertson.
Ivynest Cowmeadows.
Choice Tippling.
Ambulance Bunn.
Only Fanny Thomas Jones.
Maher-shalal-hash-bas Sturgeon.
Lily Margarine Sturgeon.
Agathos Everley Alexander Eager.
Mabel Helmingham Ethel Huntingtower Beatrice Blazonberrie, Evangeline Vise-de-lon de Oreliana, Plantagenet Plantagenet Todemag Saxon Tollemache Tollemache.
William Rains Kneebone.
Emma Sheepwash.
B. L. C. Bubb (Beelzebub)
J. L. Bird (Jail-bird)
Through Great Tribulation We Enter Into the Kingdom of Heaven Slappe.
Hurry Riches.
Diehappy Harper.
Merelthalfcar Lamb.
Kerenhappuch Death.
Jacob Choke Lambshead.
Styleman Percy Bell le Strange Herring.
Hephyibar Hibberdine.
Philbrick Frank Colechin Elliott.
Naaman Napper.
Waples Canwarden.
Tamar Anna Manship-Ewart.
John Hadnot Kiss.
Rose Shamrock Anthistle.
Baron de Roths Child.
Ann Bertha Cecilia Diana Emily Fanny Gertrude Hypatia Inez Jane Kate Louisa Maud Nora Teresa Ulysis Venus Winifred Xenophon Yetty Zeus Pepper.

Peka Post Script

I felt conflicted about going up to Pekapeka in June for a number of reasons, a big one being that it was a 'writing day'.  In the last two months, however, I've discovered that THE NOVEL will have a portion set on one of New Zealand's sub-Antarctic Islands. Probably not Campbell Island, which is where Peka will be dropped off (or nearby), but close enough. So there'll be penguins in THE NOVEL (probably not emperors, that risk 'The Shangai Knights effect' -- or whatever the animal equivalent is?), meaning it was totally research.


Palmy's Pushkin

I have nearly finished listening to all of the New Yorker Fiction Podcasts. Get excited because I'm going to do a meaningless, subject-to-personal-taste top ten stories from these podcasts when I've finished (and probably once I'm back from Melbourne).

Anyway, today on the way home from work I listened to 'My Russian Education' by Vladimir Nabokov, read by Orhan Pamuk. In the story (which is actually from Nabokov's memoir... is there such a thing as a non-fiction short story? I reckon) Nabokov mentions his father's passions: butterflies, chess problems and quoting Pushkin -- three passions Vladimir Vladimirovic inherited.

As I walked down Houghton Bay Road I thought about what passions I might have inherited from my father. He wasn't a prominent politician like Nabokov's father (nor did he get assassinated), he was a polytech lecturer in New Zealand's sixth or seventh biggest city (depending on when we're talking about and who you ask). He didn't quote Pushkin, or any poetry, but he did 'quote' Joe Cocker (and Brian Wilson and Lennon/McCartney and Captain Beefheart...).

He took me (and my mum and his mum) along to see Joe Cocker at the Rainbow Stadium. My first ever concert.

In honour of the fifth week of disruption at my flat as the landlords put in a new bathroom, and my musical inheritance, here's Joe Cocker 'quoting' The Beatles...

A Close Reading

The CatastropheI went to the Wellington launch of Ian Wedde's new novel, The Catastrophe, at Meow on Friday. The next day, my column appeared in the Dom Post about Wedde's poetry, specifically 'CO Products Ltd'. You can now read my column online here, but you'll just have to ferret out a copy of Good Business to read Wedde's poem (although you can read Metalworx Engineering in Best NZ Poems 2009).

The book launch on Friday was immediately followed by a concert featuring Lawnmaster, the last ever gig by The Tenderisers (featuring poet John Newton and music reviewer Simon Sweetman), and The Close Readers (lead by writer Damien Wilkins) who claimed to have only had two rehearsals but sounded pretty tight. I'm not sure if I've ever been to as literary a gig (or as musical a book launch).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Naming Characters / Breaking News/ Run TMC / Going West

Naming Characters (the first instalment of many)

I’ve been on the hunt recently for names for secondary characters as THE NOVEL moves into a new frontier. Naming characters in semi-realistic fiction is tricky because you can’t be too outlandish or too overtly symbolic, as this diminishes the sense of (semi-)reality you’re labouring to create.

In the course of other fact-sourcing and fact-checking adventures, I came across this article on Papers Past:
ODD NAMES Evening Post, Volume CXXIII, Issue 70, 24 March 1937, Page 18

Even the name "Appendicitis," which Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, of Oklahoma, have bestowed on a newly-arrived daughter, is no more eccentric than some to be found among English gipsies [sic] seventy years ago, says the "Manchester Guardian." Talking to a gipsy woman on Stanmore Common in 1864, Mrs. Brightwen, the naturalist, learned that her name was Trinity Smith and that her family of daughters included Levise, Centina, Cinnaminti, Cinderella, Sibernia, and Leviathan. Asked why the youngest child had been given so weighty a name, she was informed, "Well, ye see, it were the name of the big ship (the Great Eastern was at first named Leviathan), and we thought it such a pretty name that we'd give it to the next boy we got: happened it come a girl, but we thought it didn't matter much, so gave it to her."

Breaking news #1

Victoria University of Wellington study reveals psychopaths prefer commerce degrees.

Hmm. I wonder how VUW feel about its psychology department taking a dump on the university’s cash-cow?

Excuse me while I control+F and delete all occurrences of “Bachelor of Commerce and Administration from Victoria University of Wellington” from my CV…

Breaking news #2

Apparently lots of people don’t know about ctrl+f . I struggle to believe the figure is as high as 90%, and I can say for sure that kids in NZ schools are being taught this skill and a bazillion other techie things in the inquiry-based curriculum... but still. Everyone should know ctrl+f! Otherwise you might as well just write everything by hand and read, like, paper!

Paid Work

The full text of my review of the anthology Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories About Work, edited by Richard Ford is now online at The Listener’s website.

Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work

Dream Teams

Geeky-sports moment: If I could choose any two NBA teams from the past to control in a video game they would be:

1. 1990-91 Golden State Warriors, aka Run TMC (Run Tim (Hardaway) Mitch (Richmond) and Chris (Mullin). It’s telling the entire team is summarised by a 3-man moniker, because Tim, Mitch and Chris basically were the Golden State Warrior’s offense for three seasons (they accounted for 70+ points a game, still a record for three team mates) and, like all GSW teams, they played no defense. Mitch Richmond is my favourite NBA player of all-time and I recently brought a vintage 90-91 Richmond #23 jersey to hang on my wall (to go with my Richmond #2 Kings jersey from circa 1995).

This adorns my bedroom wall.
2. 2001-02 Sacramento Kings. I actually had a copy of NBA Live 2002 and played a full season with this squad, but 10 years hindsight and the advances in graphics and gameplay mean this team is still a tantalising proposition. And the chance to right the wrongs of history and trounce the 01-02 Lakers? Priceless. From this approximate era, I have Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic jerseys.
My office, featuring Peja 'Antique pistol for a head' Stojakovic

So, it was with much gasping and desk-slapping that I read about NBA 2K12, which is due for release later this year. It includes 30 classic teams from the past (lots of Celtics and Lakers…) but also, if you preorder, you will get codes to unlock two additional teams: the 1990-91 Warriors and the 2001-02 Kings.

Run TMC baby!

Meta Moment

Anyone ever noticed how I tend to rush up hodge-podge posts shortly after bearing my soul as a writer in order to push said soul-bearing further down the front page? Me neither.

Breaking news #3

Boys don’t read as much as girls.

Okay, that’s not so breaking (except heart-breaking, perhaps?). Actually, I found the article above
from Robert Lipsyte (Sam’s father!) interesting.

Inspired by my outreach events in Sydney, my Next Year’s Resolution (patent pending) is to get out to more schools and juvies and prisons and talk to young people, especially male, and show them that books aren’t all written by old people (or women).

First order of business, donate some copies of A Man Melting and Jesus' Son to Mt Crawford’s library!

Wicky Wicky Wild Wild West
La Rochelle's RoadThe programme for Going West Books and Writers Festival 2011 is now online. I’m appearing in the session ‘Early Days Yet’ with Tanya Moir, author of La Rochelle’s Road (you can read an extract of it here) on the morning of Sunday 11 September.

Not long to go now...

Monday, August 22, 2011

This Fluid Thrill (a.k.a. the self-titled post)

This will all make sense in time,
via EVRD
From the moment I committed myself to building a literary CV from the ground up* sometime in early 2007 life has been one long (at times glorious) waiting game. I would send off a few poems or a short story and wait for a yay or a nay from the publication. As the yays started to accumulate, I was lucky enough to have a few requests come out of the blue: Do you have a story for me? Can we print this story in our anthology? My consistent response: yay!

In this post-A Man Melting world, I’m still submitting poems and stories (most recently I have 6 poetic things in Pasture no.1 and a short story forthcoming in JAAM). But I’ve also had a lot of OOTB** requests: Do you wanna write a column for us? Do you wanna come and speak to my creative writing students? Do you wanna come to our writers festival? Do you wanna review a book for us? And then there are the people reviewing/talking about me, which are always kind of OOTB (you hope to get reviews, but aren’t sure which places they’ll show up in; you also have no idea what they’ll say). And then there’s the prize aspect. I’ve only been short-listed for one prize***(and just so happened to win), but that was Yaysville to the max (and also largely OOTB).

When taking stock of all the acceptances and OOTB bonuses, it seems like a steady stream of good news has been rolling in. But day-to-day, there’s a lot of silence: stagnant inboxes, fruitless self-googles (sounds like the worst confectionary ever), voicemail messages that turn out to be wrong numbers.

Which is fine. What can one expect? But the thrill of acceptance is so great, as is the thought that someone you’ve never met might think enough of you to track you down and send you an OOTB email, that I have become a good news junkie.

On Friday morning I was blessed with a freshet of new emails in my inbox from interesting-looking senders. One of these emails contained an invite to a writers festival early next year (I’ll be a bit cagey about where because sometimes they don’t like these things being announced until details are finalised). It was a true W00T moment. An OOTB fix.

Once I had sent back my speedy acceptance, however, it was difficult to return to THE NOVEL, which right now feels like THE SLOG (or THE LOG or THE SOG or THE SLUG). One set of good news got me thinking about the unthinkables: the submitted poems and short stories for which replies had not been received, the other festivals that might OOTB me…

There’s only so much picturing Grizz Wyllie (‘Get your head in the game, you muppet’) you can do before you push back from the keyboard and watch a mindless movie (in this case, MacGruber, ugh).

'Get your head in the game' (Not a scene from MacGruber)
Good news is bad news for productivity. I’m sure long term all of these OOTB gems will help sustain whatever faith I have in myself and whatever drive I have as a writer and distortionist, but short term I think I’m better off feeling like an underdog when I sit down to write.

Worked example:

I had a chip on my shoulder in late 2006 when I sat down to write a story about my father’s two wedding rings. I’d been through the IIML’s MA blender (the delirium of the first few months slowly dying down to allow small doses of reality, culminating in 2 out of 3 lukewarm examiner’s reports [with a bonus lukewarm response added for good measure]) and I wanted to prove I could write a straight-laced, hit 'em where it hurts, literary short story like some of my workshop colleagues.

That story turned out to be (or turned into) my story ‘Copies’. What started as an imitative/I’ll-show-you gesture managed to degrade into something similar to what I’d been writing before (high concept symbolism holding the story together rather than character or plot)… but it was better than the failed novels or any short story I’d attempted previously because:

        a) I was determined it would be better (I even edited it in Tracked Changes because I thought, arrogantly, that in time people would want to see how the story evolved) and

        b) I started from a point outside my general field of play (trying to write all literary-like instead of being arch or hip from the get-go).

I was not interrupted with any positive OOTBs during the composition and editing of ‘Copies’****. There was nothing to break the flow of inspiration and motivation. I got it done and sent it off to a competition… and it didn’t get anywhere. But then I got asked for a story OOTB and sent ‘Copies’ and baddabing baddabang, a monster was born!

Of course, writing a short story is different to writing a novel. Don’t remind me. THE SLUG takes a lot longer, and it's harder to keep on top of it (alternative blog name: Riding The Slug; aja!) through good news, bad news and no news because, well, there’ll be more news.

That’s the way things work. There will be distractions and depression, elation and invasion. The novelist’s credo must be: Get it done. I’m just not a very good novelist. I get distracted by seabirds and stories of people cutting their toes off with limpet shells and want to write about them now!

Picture Veruca Salt trying to write a novel (minus the orangey-red dress and long, lifeless hair) and that’s me.

'Daddy, I want to write short story now!'
But I will persist. I'm a big boy now and can control my impulses. I will ride THE SLUG, will stick to my time period, my patch of turf and my narrators. I will survive without another OOTB fix; if one comes along I won't let it disrupt me. I will finish the novel. Soonish. I promise.*****



* Until this point, I expected to knock one out of the park on my first (and second) at bat. One = novel.

** Pronounced Oh-Oh-Tee-Bee. Not to be confused with ‘Oh-o, T.B.’ which is number four on the list of Ten Phrases You Don’t Want To Hear From a Doctor (especially if it’s Out Of The Blue).

***Trivia time: I was long-listed for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Prize, but so were the other 56 writers whose books were nominated by their publishers…

****I’d actually started the story before receiving the MA examiner reports which counted as bad news and fuel for the fire.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Polar Blast / Dear Diary / Naked Lunch / Melons

Mini-playlist for a Polar Blast

1. 'Hail, Hail' - Pearl Jam
2. 'Sleet' - The Futureheads
3. 'The Ice Covered Everything' - Shearwater (no clip on You Tube, but here's their almost-as-apropos 'Snow Leopard')
4. 'The Snow Fall' - Band of Horses (no clip on YouTube but you can listen to pretty much all their songs and imagine snowflakes falling...)
5. 'Similar to Rain' - Warren Zevon (argh, I had to pick the most obscure one... oh well, there are plenty more Zevon tracks I can link to that fit the theme: 'Steady Rain', 'Fistful of Rain, 'Frozen Notes'...)

Dear Diary

Roger Hall had an interesting piece on diarists (or the lack thereof) in the Sunday Star Times over the weekend. One thing it failed to address was where blogging features in the mix. The big difference between a blog and a diary is that one is immediately public (though may not be widely read...) while the other is only ever published after the writer is famous and prepared to publish, or more likely, famous and dead. (I guess there’s a third category of diarists who weren’t famous for much but, like Samuel Pepys, their diaries serve as important historical documents and gain personal fame posthumously).

While a blog and a diary do slightly different things, I’m sure no one does both. There's only so much time to reflect and rehash!

I’m sure there’ll come a time when I’m talking to the younger generation about weather events and might find it useful to retrieve some evidence at the recent one-in-fifty year snow-dump (okay, snow-sprinkling), so here’s some photographic evidence (which is pretty blah compared to some of the stuff people have posted on Facebook; my excuse: it took me over an hour to get home on the bus on Monday – the #23 only just made it up the hill past the zoo and I think all buses thereafter just dropped passengers off at the bottom and expected them to walk the rest of the way – and by this time it was dark and the southerly was ripping up the road which meant I couldn’t hold still enough to take a video that wouldn’t induce motion sickness)…

Snow falling in Thordon, Monday morning.
Monday night, Melrose
Then on Tuesday my bus didn't make it up Manchester Street, but it wasn't due to snow but a sudden heavy pelting of hail which froze as a layer of ice. About a dozen cars were stranded ahead of the bus. I know because I had to walk up the hill and the rest of the way home.

Cars stuck heading up Manchester St, Melrose, Tuesday 16 August 2011
Snow-laden clouds rolling in from Antarctica
I also saw snowflakes land on the sea and melt at lunchtime on Monday as I walked along the waterfront (on my way to Writers on Mondays at Te Papa).

Those white dots? Snowflakes! (photo taken on my phone)
Okay, so nothing to compare to snowier climes, or even the South Island. According to the internet, this is what it looked like in Christchurch:

Not quite a namesake, but

I have a thing for Jimmy Cliff. I have a thing for covers. So it was cool to hear Jimmy's version of The Clash's 'Guns of Brixton' here. (It was also uncanny timing, what with the rioty carry-on in Londres last week.)

No Troubles With Fire

The Trouble With FireOn Saturday I spoke to Fiona Kidman's class of budding memoirists, auto- and bio- graphers (and I'm sure some closet fictioneers). It was an interesting situation for me as guest speaker, having made my name as a distortionist and liar (a.k.a. short story writer*). So I spoke a lot about selective truths, careful omissions, mashups and wilful distortions, as well as answering questions about the general stuff like routine, my route to publication, and writing a fortnightly column (which should be more truthful than fiction, but in some ways is not).

The day before I had just finished reading Kidman's new book, the short story collection, The Trouble With Fire. Here I was, trying to field questions about being a writer and Dame Fiona, she of the decades of writing and catalogue of accolades who has no doubt tried everything I've tried on the page and then some, is sitting there, quietly interested. I managed to bring the conversation around to linked stories and Part Two of TTWF and it was interesting to hear Kidman's thoughts on the value of linked stories (turns out we're both big fans of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge).

From Under the Overcoat
I really enjoyed The Trouble With Fire. In a strange way, it reminded me of Sue Orr's From Under The Overcoat, which came out earlier this year. I say 'strange' because if influence flows one way, it should be from the more senior Kidman to the newer kid on the block in Orr; but I'm not sure the link is one of influence, but rather sensibility. Both writers seem to steer stories in quite deliberate directions. In Orr's book, each story is inspired by a famous short story from the golden age (to lapse into comic book lingo). In TTWF, it's more to do with genre: there's a travel story, there are the linked stories, there are two historical stories (quite different to each other). All of them twist a little in their generic suit without being overtly experimental or loudly subversive. But just when you think you're in for a nice polite tale, she'll drop the c-bomb!

(The) Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch: The Restored TextI also recently finished listening to the audiobook of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.  Now there's a book you hope people can't overhear while on the bus. Taken en masse it's not obscene, it's actually quite moral in a strange way, but try explain that to the Sister of Mercy sitting next to you.

I have now read the three most heralded works of the beat generation (On The Road and 'Howl' complete the triumvirate). I find each invigorating in small doses, but I don't find the prospect of reading any more Beat prose particularly enticing. Conclusions: 1. I can deal with more confusion in poetry than prose. 2. I'm not crazy about pharmacologically-centred fictions. 3. While there's a lot in each of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg that was ahead of its time, there's also something dated in their transgressions (though some of where we've got to in gender politics might be traceable back to these same transgressions...).

"The Next Generation of Melons"

From paper book to audiobook to film adaptations: critic David Larsen has posted parts one and two of a promised four-part digested take of the Harry Potter films, having watched all seven again with his children in the week before the final film hit cinemas.

So far, so interesting.  Actually, I'm getting antsy for part three (it's been over a day!), but I'm not sure if I'll read part four... not having seen HP7 part II.

I had never watched any of the films until earlier this year, when reading/listening to The Prestige got me thinking about magic in fiction. I have not read any of J.K. Rowlings' books. Maybe once I have kids... But for now, watching the films in quick succession was enough to fill me in on the basics. I now know about muggles, mudbloods and port keys, and for that I feel slightly less of a social outcast.

It's interesting to read Larsen's take on the various directors of the HP films and their relationships with the texts. It doesn't make me a) want to watch the films again in a hurry, or b) read the books, but I feel wiser for having read his thoughts, which is a kind of criticism that isn't all that abundant at the moment.  (Yeah, yeah, I'm just looking in the wrong places.)

Anyway, this has all been a long and serious way of letting me post this gif of hilariously inept subtitles from the HP films (HT: ):

Click on the picture and you'll get a series of gaffs and head-scratchers.


*Footnote: It has been bugging me for sometime that someone who writes novels is a novelist, someone who writes poems is a poet, but someone who writes short stories is a short story writer. Short storyist? Short storet? Of course, there's always plain old 'writer'. But I might try 'distortionist' on for size when the opportunity presents next.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Other Craigs / Daily Positive / Cigar Store Indians


Out of the blue yesterday I received this email, sent via my Google Profile:
I am a 62 y.o. Grandmother. I am sending you a note to tell you my Son's name is Craig Cliff. That doesn't seem like a common name. I will tell you that my son is an artist. He is older than you but I do notice similarities. We all agree that Craig [Redacted] Cliff can do anything. He is a musician and everyone says he can do everything. I'm a proud Mom and I bet your parents are very very proud of you. My Craig was born Sept. 5, 1973. Just had to communicate with you. Cheerio! [Redacted]

Not all Craigs are created equal

Okay something actually about me, or Status downgrade

I tempted fate, didn’t I? Almost as soon as I posted my wee status report on THE NOVEL last week, things slowed down. I take some solace in that it was not all self-inflicted. My landlords are having a new bathroom put in our flat, which means a lot of sawing gib board and banging pipes outside my office door during my writing days at home. I have headphones and I should be disciplined enough to work through such a distraction. But the biggest problem was they turned the water off to do their plumbing business so I couldn’t make a cup of tea or use the toilet, two crucial activities in my writing routine.

After battling through one unproductive day at home with the workmen, I decided to work the next day in a library. I chose to start the morning at Karori Library as it had free parking spaces nearby and opened half an hour earlier (9.30am) than the other libraries that day. I left the house before the bathroom men arrived (otherwise they’d block my car in with their vans) and this left me an hour and a half to explore before the library opened. What’d I do? Took photos of birds of course!

Pipit on Red Rocks Walkway
Dunnock (not a sparrow, note the narrower beak)
Oystercatchers, post coitus
(I have other pics, but I hope to keep this blog's G rating)
I got quite a bit of work done in the morning upstairs at Karori Library (no internet access for my old laptop is a blessing). After meeting Marisa in town for lunch, I tried Newtown library in the afternoon, but a lack of free parking or anywhere decent to set up my computer put the kibosh on writing there. Over the hill in Kilbirnie, however, I had more luck. Not quite as good a set up as Karori, but I did discover a great stash of NZ Memories magazines (great for research).

On Friday I tried Island Bay, but there was nowhere to set up, so I went back to Karori (with a birdy detour en route).

NZ Robin at the end of Holloway Road, Aro Valley
I spoke with the bathroom man today and it's going to be another week and half (3 weeks all up) before they're done.  Karori here I come!

Something for Craig's Mom

I came across New Zealand's page on Daily Positive the other day, and was surprised to find I rate a mention:
May 21:
Craig Cliff, short story and poetry writer from New Zealand, won the prestigious Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2011 in Overall Best First Book category for his book "A Man Melting". The winners of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize were announced on 21 May 2011 at The Sydney Writers' Festival in Sydney.[5]
I'm the only entry for May 21. In fact, there are only 18 entries total for New Zealand. And what a weird collection of trivia I'm a part of. The rediscovery of part of the pink and white terraces (Feb 2) (but not their initial destruction). Helen Clark recieves a Champion of the Earth award from UNEP (April 22). First sheep introduced to New Zealand (May 20). NZ launches first commercially viable biofuel (Aug 1).

Of course, there are some (some) of NZ's big moments on the list: NZ women getting the vote (Nov 28), Ed Hilliary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Everest (May 29), Alan McDiarmid winning the Nobel Prize (Oct 10), the All Blacks winning the 1987 Rugby World Cup (June 20).

I'm not one to meddle with wikis, but those who are of such persuasion shouldn't have to look far to find other significant dates that have been overlooked.

(My birthday is 10 January!)

Got a spare $150 bucks?

The trouble with doing a lot of research for THE NOVEL is you're never done. There's always some other source you should have consulted, some other aspect you never got and had to fudge, some book you wanted badly but couldn't justify the costs (even if tax-deductible).

The Shipcarvers' Art: Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century AmericaToday's book: The Shipcarvers' Art: Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America by Ralph Sessions. I can safely say this is the only book-length exploration of the link between ship carving and cigar store figures and it would yield very little in the way of my current novel, but I love books like this!

The Ministry of Magic

I’ve been sitting in a different building recently during my two days of paid work and a few people have come up to me in the kitchen to say, “I enjoy your column in the paper.” It’s nice to hear, but I wonder how much of this is down to the Ministry of Education connection? It must be interesting to have someone talking about the place you work (generally; remember this is a whole different building) in the midst of gardening tips, restaurant and book reviews and features about the dangers of sitting down (damn you Tom Fitzsimons, you’ve ruined my favourite pastime).

There are those at work who go beyond the “Love your work” comments and tell me what I should write about next. Most of it won’t fly for a wider audience, though I'm sure it would thrill the Ministry-heads about town (and probably lead to my swift exit from the workforce). However, I am gathering enough Things People Say I Should Write A Column About to write a column about the things people tell me to write about. Phew, I need a breather after that sentence.

Real writing is rewriting, or Recent brainfarts detect while revising 
  • 'Right on queue'
  • 'Moving sheik' (instead of 'moving chic')
  • 'Phased' for 'fazed'
Of course, some brainfarts can be useful. Last week I misread the headline of a magazine article as 'Eeling for Daylight' when it actually said, 'Feeling for Daylight'... The image of trying to capture an elusive strand of daylight may just be something I can use one day.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Settlers Creek and The Larnachs

Preamble: My first book review for money is published in the New Zealand Listener this week so I feel compelled to spell out that what follows in not a freebie review. This is a freebie blog post. Just me, as a writer and blogger, keen to capture my response to certain books and aspects of those books as I go about my own fiction.

Settlers Creek by Carl Nixon
The Larnachs by Owen Marshall

Settlers' CreekThe Larnachs
Settlers Creek, the blurb: Box Saxton just wants to bury his teenage stepson's body in the churchyard near the farm where Box grew up. What happens, though, when the boy's biological father, a Maori leader, unexpectedly turns up in the days before the funeral and forcibly takes the boy's body? According to Maori custom the boy must be buried in the tribe's ancestral cemetery at the small coastal town of Kaipuna. According to the law there is very little Box can do. With no plan and little hope, Box gets in his old truck and drives north, desperate and heartbroken. Settler's Creek explores the claims of both indigenous people and more recent settlers to have a spiritual link to the land.

This is brave territory for any writer to wade into, and I think Nixon is able to present his personal-versus-cultural conflict in a powerful way. The protagonist, Box Saxton (*name cringe*), is presented in such a way that it's hard to view any of his actions as racially motivated. He is powered by a very personal sense of what is right (and it should not be forgotten he is acting under the duress of sudden grief and hardship).

In the later stages of the novel, however, there are walk-ons for a couple of characters who are allowed to air their dodgy views. Again, these views are rebutted by Box, both overtly (he denies his effort to retrieve his son has anything to do with 'sticking it to the Maoris') and by the general positioning of the narrative itself.

However, I think this book fails to be truly enlightening because it remains wedded to one perspective. It's clear that, in the rare glimpses into the world of Tipene and his whanau, Nixon knows more about Maori taonga than his protagonist, and yet it is quite something else to ask a pakeha novelist to present both pakeha and Maori perspectives with equal weight in the novel. But if I am to applaud Nixon's bravery for tackling a tricky issue, I must also point out that he could and should have gone further.

FoePolitics in fiction is not about National versus Labour (even in a roman a clef like Charlotte Grimshaw's The Night Book). So often it comes down to narrative structure and perspective: who is given a voice and who is shut out. There are a number of novels that deal with this kind of narrative politics directly -- J.M. Coetzee's Foe, for example, which give voice to the woman excluded from Daniel DeFoe's Robinson Crusoe story, while keeping the silence of the black Man Friday (his tongue is cut out) -- though these books tend to be good for little more than dissection in undergraduate EngLit courses.

Settlers Creek hammers home the point that European settlers can have strong and valid connections with the land and that one culture should not overrule another simply by default. The book's blurb might invite debate, but the book itself does not provide a forum for this debate. It feels instead like the Wizard of Christchurch holding forth in Cathedral Square: a one-sided diatribe that is superficially entertaining but hardly convincing, a spectacle that is somehow detached from reality. Settlers Creek feels quaint and nostalgic (speaking to a world where men in bush shirts communed with nature and didn't know two words of te reo); though it is set in the present and rife with personal turmoil, it's impact remains limited to one person when it might have been about two people (pun intended, somewhat uncomfortably).

The Larnachs by Owen Marshall is, in this respect, the inverse of Settlers Creek. It is set in the past and yet, by virtue of its narrative politics, it feels the more immediate and comprehensive book.
The blurb: In 1891, after the death of his first two wives, William Larnach married the much younger Constance de Bathe Brandon. But the marriage that began with such happiness was to end in tragedy. The story of the growing relationship between Conny and William's younger son, Dougie, lies at the heart of Owen Marshall's subtle and compelling new novel. The socially restrictive world of late nineteenth-century Dunedin and Wellington springs vividly to life as Marshall traces the deepening love between stepmother and stepson, and the slow disintegration of the domineering yet vulnerable figure of Larnach himself. Can love ever really be its own world, free of morality and judgement and scandal?
Marshall takes two verifiable facts as his start and end points: the marriage of Larnarch and Conny in 1891 and Larnach's dramatic suicide in 1898. There were rumours about an affair between Connie and Dougie at the time, but with rather less fact to go on Marshall is given the freedom to explore this relationship imaginatively.

The narration is handled in turn-about fashion, with Conny taking chapter 1, Dougie chapter 2, Conny chapter 3 and so on. Dougie's chapters follow Conny's but deal with the same time period as described in the previous chapter: in this way the reader is often given two perspectives on certain events, and always two perspectives on the relationship that is developing.

This is a marvellously written book. Marshall’s fiction has often employed a formal register, though this is his first attempt at an historical novel. The delight he has taken in the polished grammar of this bygone era is evident. I often read a sentence and paused to imagine Owen Marshall leaning back on his office chair, grinning, having just crafted it.

Similarly, there is mastery at work with the depiction of time and place through the deployment of historic details: Conny's respect for the writer Margaret Oliphant and sadness when she dies; the buggy rides from Dunedin to The Camp; the evenings spent with Seddon and Ward in Wellington which inevitably end with all gathered around the piano.

The Hut BuilderDespite the appearance of many figures and event which are still notable in our 2011 sense of NZ history, this book does not succumb to the “Shanghai Knights effect” (see here for an explanation of this common failing of historical novels). Larnach was a big player in colonial politics and banking and it seems only right that he (and Conny and Dougie) rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of their time. It also works when the Larnachs see Mark Twain’s lecture as he toured New Zealand in 1896, because it is believable people of their standing in Dunedin would have attended, and nothing pivotal hangs on this outing. Compare this to the fear that Boden Black’s mother has died in the Tangiwai disaster in The Hut Builder or his chance meeting with Sir Edmund Hillary later on in the novel. The presence of well-known people is part of the texture of Marshall’s novel, rather than the nodes around which the narrative is constructed.

However, while the choice of the two-handed, turn-about narration gives us a nuanced, multi-faceted view of the Conny-Dougie relationship (and also does a good job of painting the apex of the love triangle, Daddy Lanarch), there are down-sides.

While each chapter roams around the narrator's recent past, the narrative only moves forward in time every two chapters. As such, much of the novel feels static. There are very few scenes, in the traditional sense, and hardly any direct speech. In place of dramatic action, pages are given over to musings of the narrator, which, however well written, tend to drag after a while.

And, despite the laudable narrative politics displayed by the structure of the novel -- giving voice to the two members of the rumoured love triangle for whom we have only had rumour -- there is something disingenuous about how Conny and Dougie tell their tale. What exactly are these chapters? There is a distinct epistemological feel, but each character lays bare their innermost secrets -- discussing their love for the other before making their first moves; describing their sexual encouters -- that they'd never write in a letter to another person, not even to each other. Nor would they risk writing it down in a journal. Besides, what would prompt each to set down the events of the last few months or years at the same point in time?

So who is the audience?

Hold that thought.

Each chapter bears the outward appearance of a discrete, individual narration. That is, Dougie is not aware of the thoughts Conny has expressed in the previous chapter. However, on closer inspection, there is clearly another force mediating what each narrator tells us and how. For example, Conny explains in detail William Larnach's installation of a telephone exchange at The Camp and how he makes Dougie man the exchange when he'd rather be out inspecting the Alderney herd. Then, in the following chapter, Dougie mentions the exchange in passing without glossing it for his interlocutor, whomever they may be. Of course the reader knows about the exchange already, but how does Dougie know we know? Same goes with the buggy incident at Anderson's Bay, and a dozen other events or details.

So who is the audience of these chapters? It’s all for you, dear reader. It is the novelist’s hand you see again, intruding here and there to ensure the chapters serve the greater narrative rather than being hermetically-sealed monologues delivered to the ether.

Marshall is conducting the séance. His talent with pulleys and magnets is often, but not always, enough to overlook the fact he’s moving the Ouija board to his own ends.

Two more quibbles (and lets keep things in perspective here, this is a fantastic book, and quibbles < qualms < objections):

One: Conny dominates Dougie if we are to truly examine the equality of the narrative politics. Her chapters come first and are longer (often by virtue of Dougie not having to explain so much about what has been happening).

Neither character is that likeable (when are starcrossed lovers ever likeable?) but Conny is the more intriguing: an intelligent, strong-willed suffragette who discovers love with Dougie after marrying William for other reasons. Dougie is simpler, earthier and more insufferable. Whether it’s due to Marshall’s innate preference or design, it’s a good thing we readers spend less time with Dougie. But is it fair to him? Not really.

Two: Their voices are often indistinguishable. There are brief moments when Dougie resorts to earthier vernacular, but both narrators generally speak the same mannered 1890s dialect and both are prone to Marshallian aphorisms. Don't get me wrong, one of the reasons I read Marshall's work is for these aphorisms (it's one of the things that separates his books from the likes of Settlers Creek).

I noted down a number of these pronouncements as I read...
'How multifarious life is, and yet we assume our own activities and feelings to be the sum of it.'
'The best and worst of human behaviour can be so close together.' 
'All that's long gone, but memory is beyond conscious control. We can't choose our past, or ever quite bury it.' 
'Strange in a way, for otherwise I would not wish to spend much time in Brisbane. It is a thrusting, practical place that still bears much evidence of its origins...' 
'Every day marks some cataclysm for people somewhere in the world, yet presents a benign countenance to all the others.'
'Life often means a strange, almost comic, loss of dignity, but what the hell.'

The problem is I cannot instantly identify which of the two narrators said the above (apart from the last one).

Again, the writer's hand is showing, if only slightly.

But what do I want, really? How could Marshall have repeated the telling of the Anderson's Bay buggy incident in full from Dougie's perspective without boring the reader? How could he resist the urge to say something as neat and poignant as 'Like you young princes, we accepted it all as our entitlement,' just because Dougie was talking at the time? To fix one problem would surely have created another.

I said Nixon was brave to wade into the subject matter of Settlers Creek, and I must be even handed and point out the bravery at work in Marshall tackling historical fiction based on the lives of real figures. He comes close to the rocks of romantic (historic) fiction at times, but manages to avoid catastrophe because of the very structure I have nitpicked. The Larnachs is not so much the story of an affair as the anatomy of one. Spending time with these narrators is less about vicarious thrills and more about dissecting motives and actions in order to understand the human animal.

No narrative choice is perfect and there is no such thing as perfect narrative politics. There must be winners and losers, gaps and deficiencies, in every novel. The fact remains, however, that some novels are fairer-handed, fuller and closer to perfection than others.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pasture / Bruce Cockburn / Status Report / Melbourne

Out to pasture

I have quite a few poems and micro-stories appearing in the brand spanking new, hardback literary journal, Pasture, which is out this month. Pasture is the sister journal to Starch which started earlier in the year. All of Kilmog Press’s books are gorgeous specimens and I’m looking forward to my copy of Pasture no.1 arriving in the mailbox (and reading the work by the other contributors, such as Elizabeth Smither, Karen Zelas and Helen Rickerby, naturally).

Monday Earworm

Not quite the year of a million words

I gave my editor a status report on THE NOVEL today. In the interests of sticking to the intent of this blog to open the door every now and then on the creative process AND not wasting too much time blogging when I should be working on THE NOVEL, I hereby cut and paste portions of my status update for the world to see (and hold against me when I miss my deadlines):

Things are going reasonably well.

Early on I had a bit of trouble finding a way to incorporate a modern voice / perspective into what is, on the face of it, an historical account. But I've found a way to do this now by having a framing story which is set in the present day.

I'm now 20,000 words in (revising as I go, so it's a pretty polished 20k) and building up steam every week.

Working two days a week is going really well and the next three months are relatively clear of commitments (aside from Melbourne and Going West writers fests in Sept; but that's just 2 weekends out of action).

So, unforeseen roadblocks notwithstanding, I should have between 70 and 80,000 words by the start of November. The question is whether 70-80k will represent a finished draft, or if the novel will be a bit longer (it won't be War and Peace or anything). As I get further into the next section, I should have a clearer idea of the shape.

It might seem a bit optimistic to go from writing 20k in the last two & a bit months to 60k in the next three months, but the first 20k are always the hardest.
Bonus content for blog readers: In July I wrote 12,000 words on the novel. In addition to this I wrote a 6,000 story (from scratch to submission) set in the present day (my helicopter story); three columns for the Dominion Post; a fifteen minute speech about basketball and fiction for Brooklyn School’s appetites evening; and wrote and/or revised several poems.

I don’t intend to write any more short stories in the next three months, so there are 6,000 more words that can be transferred to novel-writing per month. Keeping up a pace of 18,000 words a month for three months would seem achievable.

Excuse me while I knock on every piece of wood in my flat…

Speaking of Melbourne

The programme/program is now online for the Melbourne Writers Festival. I'm doing a reading with a bunch of other writers at 10am on Sunday 4 September (the last day of the festival; hopefully festival fatigue has come and gone and everyone's on their second winds!). After a quick break, I'm appearing in the session New NZ Fiction with Eleanor Catton, chaired by Sue Green (Lower North Islandians may have seen her profile of Stephen Daisley -- another MWF2011 guest -- in Your Weekend on Saturday...).

FreedomThere are some big names slated to appear in Melbourne, the biggest perhaps being Jonathan Franzen. I read Freedom over Easter and described it as a good-to-great novel. Sadly he's appearing in the festival's first weekend, while I'm only there for the second weekend.

There's also a syndicate of big name crime writers - Lynda La Plante, Michael Robotham, Tess Gerritsen, Peter Temple. Other highlights include Shaun Tan, Craig Sherborne and Don Watson (to pick three odd amigos), while there are a few 'big names' in the programme that are a bit misleading. There's a Katie Holmes, but it's not one half of TomKat. And there's a Dennis Glover, who is not, unsurprisingly, the deceased NZ poet (yes, I know our Denis had only one 'n').