Saturday, September 24, 2011

Away From The Desk (and I feel fine)

Soundtrack: Springtime in Vienna Wellington

I'm struggling with THE NOVEL at the moment. More to the point, I'm struggling with my attention span. To counter this I've been trying to get out of the house more so it doesn't feel like I'm permanently in front of a screen (over winter, I pretty much was).

Last Friday I went with my brother to the Karori Sanctuary to bush walk and take photos of birds.

Photographic Evidence:

Kaka eating some kind of nut

Hihi (stitchbird) - male
Korimako (bellbird)
Last weekend M. and I went for a walk with friends from the Brooklyn Windmill to Red Rocks. It took four and half hours or so and was pretty awesome.

The South Coast from the Radome Track
Makara Wind Farm, Cook Strait and the South Island
Our lunch spot
View of the South Coast from above Red Rocks

In terms of wildlife, we saw goats, seals and ostrich (though these weren't exactly wild...

Ostrich doing the Boredom Dance

Last night my mum was down from Palmy so we went out for dinner and checked out the RWC2011 Fan Zone on the waterfront (Aussie was playing USA in the Caketin at the time). It was also the first night, I think, of the festival of lights. Different designs were projected on buildings like the boat shed, St Johns and the Stock Exchange Building.

Jazzy St Johns
Burlesque Stock Exchange
Stained Glass Stock Exchange
Ivy League Stock Exchange

I've also been to the Otari-Wilton's Bush twice in two weeks. The first time was an unplanned stop and I didn't have my camera, so of course I saw two karearea (NZ falcon) which I've yet to photograph, and a keruru (I didn't spot any of them in the Karori sanctuary on my recent visit, though I've seen plenty before).

Today I had my camera, so of course all I saw were tui and grey warblers (too quick to photograph) and robins (too dark to photograph). Thems the breaks.

Tui at Otari-Wilton's Bush

Thursday, September 22, 2011

True Stories Told Live coming to Wellington, 6 October

How's this for a line up:

Elizabeth Knox - winner of Deutz Medal for Fiction at Montana Book Awards, American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults (twice), Arts Foundation Laureate and ONZM

Kate De Goldi - winner of the 2011 Corine International Book Prize Young Readers Award and a Montana Book award in 2009, and another Arts Foundation Laureate

Neil Cross - lead scriptwriter for BBC TV show'Spook' and the creator of 'Luther', as well as the writer of several best-selling crime novels and a memoir

Duncan Sarkies - winner of a number of playwriting awards, co-writer of the film 'Scarfies' and author of 'Two Little Boys' which is being (has been?) made into a movie (also wrote episodes for Flight of the Conchords)

Jenny Pattrick - author of two of New Zealand's best selling novels of all time

Chris Bourke - winner of everything he could (best book, best non-fiction, reader's choice) at this year's NZ Post Book Awards.

And if that embarrassment of riches isn't enough, it seems the NZ Book Council have managed to wrangle one more big name for their 'True Stories Told Live' event in Wellington on 6 October... a certain Craig Cliff.

Okay, so maybe I'm not as decorated or famous as the others...

Okay, not nearly as decorated or famous, which is partly why I'm so chuffed to be taking part.

The only problem is the 10 minutes I have to fill 'unscripted'... and telling the truth!

I have my annual mole check up that morning, so hopefully it's good news or else it'll be an uncomfortable ten minutes for everyone.

The details:

Where: St Andrew’s on The Terrace, 30 The Terrace, Wellington.
When: OCTOBER 6, 6.00pm.
Tickets: $20.00 or $15.00 for NZBC members, on the door or online at

Monday, September 19, 2011

Top Ten New Yorker Fiction Podcasts So Far

A preamble of lists

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast has been going since December 2006. There have been 52 so far, with a new one appearing online every month. Each podcast follows six clearly defined stages:

1. Theme tune [bum-bum-bu-bum, bum-bum-bu-bum, an earworm that has become a Pavlovian trigger for mental salivation].

2. Intro from The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, stating the name of the story from the New Yorker’s archives, the author of the story, the New Yorker contributor who has selected the story and a snippet of the contributor reading it.

3. Brief discussion between Deborah Treisman and the contributor about the story (Why did they select it? Where did they first come across this writer? etc).

4. Contributor (or, in a few cases, someone else) reads the story.

5. Longer discussion between Deborah Treisman and the contributor about the story, often covering any connections with the contributor’s own work.

6. Credits and another dose of bum-bum-bu-bum.


The top three reasons why I have compiled a list of the top ten New Yorker Fiction podcasts so far:

1. To promote the podcasts in general – they’re great, especially if you like to get out of a short story, kick the tires and look under the hood.

2. To promote the best podcasts in particular – if you're only willing to risk downloading one episode, make it one of the ten below and it should be worth your while.

3. To show, in a roundabout way, my tastes in short fiction at this point in time (I’ve listened to all the podcasts in the last 6 months or so) which might then illuminate other things I write about books and short fiction on this blog (or, heaven forbid, my own fiction).


I didn’t come up with any criteria before ranking the podcasts, but if I did, these are the four main criteria I might’ve used:

1. Quality of the story

2. Quality of the discussion (a close second, especially when it's a story I've read before)

3. X-factor factor (usually relates to hearing one writer I like/admire talking about another writer I like/admire, or the fact the podcasts brings to my attention a writer I wasn’t aware of or hadn’t got around to reading yet)

4. Quality of the reading (not all writers are born to read aloud).

Bonus criteria: No writer can have more than one story in the top ten. Just coz.


The Top Ten New Yorker Fiction Podcasts So Far (according to yours truly)

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings1. Paul Theroux reads Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Gospel According to Mark” (listen here)

A student stays with his uneducated cousins on the pampas. They have long since lapsed into illiteracy. When he starts reading to them from the family Bible, he is elevated to dangerous heights in their eyes...

I tried reading Labyrinths while I was an undergrad, but felt more muddled than inspired by stories like "Library of Babel". Perhaps it's time to return to Borges, because I found "The Gospel According to Mark" simple, sharp and memorable.

2. Julian Barnes reads Frank O’Connor’s “The Man of the World” (listen here)

A young boy who has trouble getting beyond the surface appearance of things, spends the night at a friend's place to catch a glimpse of the young couple next door...

I've read several of O'Connor's stories (he pops up a lot in anthologies with titles like 'Great Short Stories From Around the World'), but hadn't come across this story before. I wonder why, since it is perfect in almost every way.

3. Donald Antrim reads Donald Barthelme’s short story “I Bought a Little City” (listen here)

The narrator buys Galveston, Texas and sets about making some changes...

Classic Barthelme. Outlandish conceit with stylistic implications. No word seems out of place. A close second is Barthelme's "Concerning the Bodyguard", read by Salman Rushdie, which is told almost entirely in questions. Rushdie's reason for chosing the story is probably the best response in all the 52 podcasts (he's spent his far share of time with bodyguards), but it's Antrim's voice and the opening line, "So I bought a little city," that shades it.

4. Richard Ford reads John Cheever’s short story “Reunion” (listen here)

A son meets his father for lunch in Grand Central Station. In him, he sees "my future and my doom"...

I'm a sucker for father-son stories. This one is so concise, so patterned, so understated, so heartbreaking. It's one of the podcasts I have listened to multiple times and quote sometimes in bars to the bemused faces of everyone else ("Two Bibson Geefeaters").

Cheever’s “The Swimmer", read by Anne Enright, is another great story and podcast. Very different from "Reunion", much more to chew on, more metaphysical, but "Reunion" is a five minute wonder and gets my vote.

5. Cynthia Ozick reads Steven Millhauser’s “In the Reign of Harad IV” (listen here)

The King's miniature maker's pursuit of excellence takes him beyond the what the eye can see...

This is an interesting podcast. Ozick's reading is stitled and can be hard to get into, but her poetic advice to readers more than makes up for this. Millhauser's story is itself a perfect miniature of an antique, magical world. A kind of "The Emperor's New Clothes" from the tailor's perspective, except there's no shortage of skeptics here.

6. Joshua Ferris reads George Saunders’s “Adams” (listen here)

The narrator finds his neighbour, Adams, looking in the direction of his kid's room in his underwear...

I love me some Saunders. "Adams" isn't my all-time favourite of his stories, but it's good enough to make it onto this list. In fact, it works better aloud than on the page (all the talk about "wonking" Adams). Much credit to Josh Ferris' reading. Ferris' "The Dinner Party", read by Monica Ali, sadly suffered the reverse fate: a story I loved when I first read it in 2008, but it felt less fresh when hearing it on the podcast. Thems the breaks.

7. Tobias Wolff reads Stephanie Vaughn’s short story “Dog Heaven” (listen here)

Reflections on life growing up as a kid on military bases, featuring a talking dog...

This podcast brought Stephanie Vaughn to my attention. Such a rich, intricate story of childhood. As Wolff comments: it's a kind of childhood that I haven't read about before.

8. Tobias Wolff reads Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” (listen here)

The narrator and a hopsital orderly get mashed on mystery pills; meanwhile a man walks into the emergency ward staffed with a knife sticking out of his eye...
Jesus' Son
Wolff couldn't choose between Vaughn's story and Johnson's, so he twisted Deborah Treisman's arm and got to do two podcasts. Well, I don't blame anyone because I have trouble choosing which story/podcast I prefer. Unlike "Dog Heaven", I'd read "Emergency" before, first as a set reading in an undergrad writing workshop, then as part of Jesus' Son. It's a great story and stands up well in this new environment.

9. Sam Lipsyte reads Thomas McGuane’s “Cowboy” (listen here)

A ranch hand with a shady past finds a steady job where they ask no questions...

I read this as part of the anthology Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, which I reviewed for The Listener earlier this year. At the time, I'd started working my way through the podcasts, but hadn't made it to Lipsyte's reading. Hearing it again soon helped highlight the great tenderness at the story's heart and cemented its place in my top ten.

10. Louise Erdrich reads Lorrie Moore’s short story “Dance in America” (listen here)

A dance teacher stationed in the midwest goes to dinner with an old friend and his new family...

What am I thinking? This story needs to be higher. This is a story I'd tell people to read if they needed to be won over by the short story form. Same goes for the podcast. But what stories can it leapfrog? Ask me again in a couple of months and this might be number one... For now, it's number ten and only just edges out the honorable mentions: Jennifer Egan reads Lore Segal’s “The Reverse Bug” and Thomas McGuane reads James Salter’s “Last Night.”


So, that's my top ten. What's yours?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Going West / Reading / Killing Moon / Columnist Godfather

Going West

The view from my bed & breakfast in Titirangi

I was in Titirangi, West Auckland, on Saturday and Sunday for Going West Books and Writers Festival. It was a real contrast to Melbourne the previous weekend, with a lot of aspects being in Going West’s favour (see the view above).

I didn’t connect with any Canadian musicians this time, but I did meet a student who has recently moved to NZ from Nigeria who told me he’d heard of me before he came here (the Commonwealth Prize is a big deal over there, with Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche being a more recent overall winner) and even read a review of A Man Melting in a Nigerian newspaper. I’m not sure if this will ever be verified (the internet is silent in this instance), and it’s not likely anyone in Nigeria would by a copy… My Nigerian friend in Titirangi told me that he waited until he moved here, then borrowed a copy from his local library. Oh well.

My session, ‘Early Days Yet’, with Tanya Moir, author of the historical novel La Rochelle’s Road, went well. It was ably chaired by novelist Tina Shaw, who had clearly read and engaged with both books. Interestingly for me, Tina’s questions focussed on some stories I haven’t been asked to discuss often (if at all): ‘Oh! So Careless’, ‘Parisian Blue’ and ‘Fat Camp’. I had intended to read a section from ‘Oh! So Careless’ (which is one of the few stories I’ve yet to read from in public) but we kinda covered that passage in conversation, so I hastily chose a section toward the end of ‘Facing Galapagos’, which got a few laughs (hoorah!)

Recent Reading

I’m struggling to find the time to note down my reactions to the books I’ve been reading. I’m also conscious that a hastily dashed off and poorly thought through ‘response’ can and will be misinterpreted as a review by many. But here goes, hyper-speed styles:

Super Sad True Love StorySuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart – Similarities with Visit From the Goon Squad’s futuristic sections and Shteyngart’s previous novel, Absurdistan, which I really liked, but SSTLS isn’t as good as either of these. It never feels like much is at stake (despite the fact the US economy is imploding and martial law is breaking out). And I’ve never read a book where characters sweat so much (expect, perhaps, Absurdistan). Verdict: interesting but not engaging.

Classic Crimes of Passion (audiobook) – a short story anthology featuring Guy de Maupassant, Wilkie Collins, Louisa May Alcott and others. A strange wee collection. The approach to short fiction seems quite dated in these stories. One might call it pre-Chekovian. I think that was part of the charm… though I was glad to move on to something else when it finished.

TraitorTraitor by Stephen Daisley – A difficult novel to pin down because it floats through time in the fashion of memory. Another taciturn Kiwi male looking back, in the mould of The Hut Builder, but more poignant. Strangely felt more compelling during the NZ sections than those set in Turkey, despite my almost-meltdown when I visited the peninsula a couple of years ago.

New Yorker Fiction Podcasts – 52 stories in all (I think). Will be the subject of a separate post/arbitrary top 10 list.

ErewhonLots of books about NZ’s subantarctic islands (research for THE NOVEL). Seemed fitting to read during our cold snap. Might have to fill bathtub with ice during the summer months to finish the subantarctic section of my book.

Erewhon by Samuel Butler – I’ve tried starting this twice, but still haven’t made it past page 50. Back on the book shelf now.

The Call of the WildThe Call of the Wild by Jack London – I’m reading this on my iPad. First time reading an eBook in this way. Didn’t buy an iPad to be an e-reader and glad I didn’t coz the backlit screen can get a bit taxing. But it’s useful to have on hand for small bursts of reading. As for the book: the word ‘silly’ springs to mind. I prefer London’s The Sea Wolf, which I read earlier this year. Same themes, but with a human main character instead of a dog.

Nicholas NicklebyI’ve just started listening to Nicholas Nickleby on my iPod. The only other book by Dickens I have read is Great Expectations, which sort of put me off reading any more. But I’m loving Nickleby. Although I do tend to love the first 60 pages of older books – the hasty biographical sketches of the main character’s forebears, the dextrous narrator who can address the reader directly… but often find my enthusiasm wanes as the book proceeds, e.g. The Brothers Karamazov. Hopefully Dickens can keep it up for the next 28 hours of book-time.

Earworm of the month, or Getting ahead of myself

I’ve been listening to Pavement’s cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s ‘Killing Moon’ (a.k.a. that song from Donnie Darko) a lot these past few weeks. What a fantastic five minutes and change.

I have been wilfully mis-singing the line, “So take him to the end of his temper” (around 3:40) as “So take him to the end of this tableau” because it fits better with THE NOVEL, which has a way of bringing things into its orbit and bending them to its will.

Mark this down as a song for the book’s playlist once it’s finished and ready to enter the world.

Invitation to a beheading

If my brief Going West summary above isn’t enough, you’ll be pleased to know I compare and contrast Melbourne and Going West festivals in whatever detail 500 words can afford in next fortnight’s column in the Dominion Post.

Which reminds me: one of the best sessions I attended at Going West featured columnists Deborah Cone-Hill and Jane Bowron, chaired by fellow columnist Steve Braunias. It was fascinating to watch three seasoned practitioners of THE COLUMN (the regular deadline means it can be just as imposing and obstreperous as THE NOVEL and even more interminable) discuss the craft.

At the cocktail party that evening, held to celebrate the announcement of a new writers residency in Maurice Shadboldt’s old house Titirangi, I had a delicious Turkish Delight cocktail and a brief chat with Mr Braunias (who was stubbornly drinking beer). He clearly didn’t recall our one minute conversation at the Auckland Writers Festival, but seemed interested in the fact I also wrote a column. In fact, the next day he told me via Twitter he’d been reading this very blog (he liked the stuff about birds, so that makes two of us!) and asked for a link to my columns.

One hesitates at such moments. Steve Braunias is New Zealand’s most famous columnist but he’s also famously acerbic. Giving him a link to my columns could end in so many terrible ways: sudden silence and a claim to not remember me the next time our paths cross; featuring in one of his own columns as a no-talent upstart (‘The Secret Diary of Cliff Craig’… oh, how it stings); or a joke at my expense he shares with his literary chums that somehow finds its way back to my ears…

But I sent the link (luckily only a handful of my columns appear on, and not all of them are filed in the same place).

It’s not like the guy can’t Google.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Melbourne Writers Festival 2011

I flew to Melbourne on Friday afternoon, arriving in time to meet up for dinner with Eleanor Catton (with whom I was to appear in a session on Sunday), Ellie’s sister, and NZ writer Julian Novitz who’s been living in Melbourne for the last five or so years.

We went to a fantastic dumpling restaurant in China Town. I felt a bit like I was in a Sarah Laing comic, they were some good dumplings… My brother’s going to China in a few weeks and now I have another reason to be jealous.

Ann Patchett's session in BMW Edge
State of WonderMy two sessions at the festival were not until Sunday morning, so I had Saturday all to myself. I went along to ‘in conversation’ sessions with Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) and Maile Meloy (Both ways is the only way I want it). Both were great, though I was particularly interested in Meloy’s comments about writing a novel after starting out with short stories, and her latest book, The Apothecary, which is for younger readers but based on the reading she gave it sounds as great as the rest of her quote-unquote adult work.
The Apothecary

In the afternoon I explored downtown Melbourne and bought an iPad2 from JB HiFi (thanks to Australia’s Tax Refund for Traveller’s scheme it was a lot cheaper than in NZ, and duty-free prices are just a joke), before catching a session on surfing in fiction with Malcolm Knox, Gretchen Shirm and Favel Parrett.

At 10am on Sunday I appeared along with David Morley in the festival’s final (free) ‘Morning Read’ session. We each had 8 minutes each and I led off with most of ‘A Man Melting’ (that is, the title story of my book, rather than most of my 320 page book… I’m not the Micro Machines man!). This proved a good segue to David Morley’s poetry ("[Like the character in ‘A Man Melting’] drinking and poetry are the only things that keep me alive"). One of the poem’s he read was ‘Marriage Vows of a Rom to a Gadji’ which I read with interest when it was published in the Guardian in April along with a heap of other vows, not because I cared about Kate and Wills’ nuptials, but it falls on my head to write the vows for our wedding in November as the writer-in-residence-relationship.

Morley was followed by Hannah Jane Walker, who recited a poem from her show, The Oh F**k Moment. Next up was Chinese-Australian poet, novelist and translator Ouyang Yu, who read a number of poems. Whether by design or chance, the poetry was bookended by another prose writer, Felix J Palma, who launched into a detailed explanation of his novel, The Map of Time in his native Spanish. He then gave his eight-to-ten minute reading... in Spanish. It was lovely to hear him read and my traveller’s espanol was truly tested (I got that there was time travel between the year two thousand ten and Victorian England, and the main character’s name was Shackleton). Then Palma’s translator stepped to the podium and explained the novel and repeated the reading in English – which got a lot of laughs this time, so clearly I wasn’t the only one missing the nuances the first time around.

So in all, a lovely session. My only problem was it ran well over time, and I had another session starting at 11.30 and needed to meet the chair for the first time, get mic'ed up and all that. But it all worked out fine and there was no need for el tiempo de viaje.

This next session was ‘New NZ Fiction’ featuring me and Ellie Catton, chaired by Sue Green. We each gave readings of about 5 mins: Ellie from one of the Saxaphone Teacher’s speeches early on in The Rehearsal; me Part 3 (on rejections) from my love letter to Wikipedia, ‘Orbital Resonance’.

#mwf2011 Eleanor Catton and Craig Cliff talking New New Zealand
Ellie Catton, Sue Green and moi at 'New NZ Fiction'
(taken by Antonia, my assigned Random House Australia publicist... I think the dreamy, spectral look is in this Spring)

We were then asked to tackle the question of what it means to be an NZ writer (and who qualifies as an NZ writer)... which is quite a difficult topic for anyone to grapple with, let alone two twenty-something writers with one published book each to their name. One inescapable fact was that, despite the quality of books being published in NZ (something we both had to stick up for!), it’s hard to find many NZ books in Australian book stores, let alone countries further afield. (Heck, it's hard to find my book in New Zealand!).  My view (again, I’m not the best qualified person to comment on this), is that it boils down to distribution models as much as it does market appetite: you can't buy what you don't know about or can't get a hold of.

(After the session I met up with the guy who edits the NZ Society of Author’s magazine and I might be writing something longer and more considered about the opportunity new distribution models present NZ (and other small market) writers to break-out rather than waiting for a Booker nomination or a feature film based on one of your books.)

Anyway, it was an interesting discussion, but afterwards I wished we had had more of a chance to talk about our own work. Luckily, I got to talk to Ellie quite a bit outside of the session: it seems we’re both writing novels that are set in the past but aren’t entirely comfortable with them being called historical novels because of the connotations this carries. (Basically, I’m trying to write something that isn’t a romance in period costume; while the action in Ellie’s novel sounds like it has a lot to do with, of all things, astrology...).

In the afternoon Julian Novitz and I went to two panel discussions: Beyond White Guilt with Sarah Maddison and Tony Birch, and Things They See Coming (about dystopian fiction) with Steve Amsterdam, Meg Mundell and Max Barry. The latter reminded me of this post NZ reviewer Nicholas Reid made on his blog a few weeks back on utopian/dystopian fiction and might provide a good addendum to anyone else who attended the session.

After which it was time for happy hour in the green room, followed by the wrap party for festival volunteers (and thirsty writers who just don't know when to call it a day). At the party I got talking to a Canadian writer called Dave Bidini. Gradually I learnt that he was also a musician and was, in fact, a founding member of the band The Rheostatics (I have their album ‘Whale Music’, which has been voted in the top five Candadian Albums of All Time; but mostly knew of them as the band that opened for The Tragically Hip on their live album Live Between Us).

I told Dave about my Tragically Hip fanaticism (including my framed set list from a Paradiso gig in Amsterdam in 2008) and he offered to put me in touch with the Hip’s front man Gord Downie, who’s a voracious reader, so I could send him a copy of my book.

Pause for effect.

Now, I was several free drinks into the evening and I know I have a tendency to talk too much about pet topics in this state (later that evening I described my kiwi tracking expedition, complete with full-volume kiwi calls) and the morning after I was like, there’s no way Dave’s gonna follow through and hook me up with Gord f’n Downie. Not because Mr Bidini didn’t seem like a nice, genuine guy (we also talked about hockey and he convinced me that fighting in hockey is unnecessary and should be eliminated from the sport’s culture like drink driving… something I had previously thought was one of the best things about the sport [the fighting, not the drink driving])...

But today I received an email from Mr Bidini:
C: Gord's reply below, Holmes.
He will be sending u an email.
Don't shit yr pants. 
And then a bit later -- to the sound of Handel’s Messiah and in a flood of heavenly light -- an email from Mr Downie himself arrived in my inbox. I will be sending him a copy of A Man Melting tomorrow! This is a big deal because, among other things, I listened to over 1,000 Hip songs during 2008, when I wrote most of the book and there are at least two song titles (‘So hard done by’ and ‘Yawning or snarling’) embedded in the text.

Gord also said:
‘We - the hip - are about to reconvene for a record we've half-finished. It's gonna be a good one, I think. Perhaps, I can reciprocate by sending you an advanced copy in the new year?’
I managed to keep from shitting my pants, but my head totally asploded!

So yeah, that was my Melbourne Writers Festival. My third ever fest as a participant (after Auckland and Sydney in May). One should never forget about the readers/audience members, as that the reason any of it happens, but making connections with other writers and booky-peops is surprisingly fun...

I’m off to Going West Festival in Titirangi on Saturday. It promises to be a different, more intimate festival experience. M’s coming with me this time, we’re being put up in a lovely bed and breakfast and have a rental car for the weekend.

But first it’s time to bash out a few thousand more words on THE NOVEL…