Monday, November 21, 2011

Barnes v Trapido / Conductor / Offshore whore / Lockout poetry

Recent reading

I recently finished listening to Barbara Trapido’s novel Sex and Stravinsky on my iPod and quickly followed this up with Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the Booker Prize this year.

The Sense of an EndingTrapido’s novel clocked in at a normal 11 hours and change, while Barnes’ was over half the time. It was a nice feeling to finish two books in quick succession after two and a bit months of listening to Nicholas Nickleby (however much I enjoyed that book).

The Sense of an Ending worked magnificently as an audiobook. There’s a single narrator, Tony Webster, who recalls specific moments in his life relating to a particular strand of memory: those relating to his friend, Adrian, who committed suicide in his early twenties. Tony weaves in and out of memory, digressing often on just what memory is and how it changes with time, but also finds the time to muse about the modern world, retirement, divorce and self-delusion. This is the kind of novel some agents might describe as quiet or slow, if you were to query them as a no-name writer, but I found it a thrilling and engaging story – thrilling, I guess, because it felt so intimate and real.

Sex and StravinskySex and Stravinsky on the other hand, was not as well suited to the audiobook format. Trapido’s third person narrator inhabits at least eight different character’s perspective during the novel, and while the third person is kept up throughout, the voice of the narrator often transmutes into the perspective character’s voice (especially when we’re following the two adolescent girl characters). I found this mix of third and first person techniques confusing in an audiobook, as the narrator adopted the voice of the difficult teenage girl while still referring to the girl as Kat/her/she. Also, the reader, Jan Francis, had the difficult task of managing English, Australian, South African (three sorts: English settler, Afrikaner and Zulu), French and Italian accents.

The most engaging part of the novel for me were the parts about Caroline’s mother, who ranks up there with Mrs Nickleby in the pantheon of aggravating mothers in fiction. Unfortunately, after Caroline’s mother dies (to the delight of the reader), Francis's voice for Caroline alters and becomes a bit too similar to her shrewish mother. This is no fault of Trapido, of course, but it is difficult to think about the text objectively without thinking about the slips and tangles in the audiobook version.

Having said this, I’m still a big advocate of audiobooks. In my experience there are far more successes (like Barnes’ and Dickens’ novels) that problem children.

Still a paperboy

The ConductorThe paper book I’m reading at the moment is The Conductor by Sarah Quigley. I’m about halfway and have to say I haven’t really been sucked in just yet. Perhaps it’s the musical chairs the narrative plays with it’s three perspective characters (of which only Shostakovich was known to be beforehand). Perhaps it’s the fact I’m saving the CD recording of The Leningrad Symphony until the point it appears in the story. Perhaps it’s that I’m not really in the reading headspace all that often at the moment with all the wedding guff that crowds out my leisure time?

For completists

Last month I blogged about the bad review I received (belatedly). I also wrote a column about it for the Dom Post but it wasn’t posted online (there’s no real logic I can see to what is and what isn’t posted on I include a scan of it here for posterity's sake.

Common ground

You’ve got just over a week left to submit your short story for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition, for which I am one of the judges.

For those who’ve submitted or are still thinking about it, I wrote something about my experience with prizes for the Commonwealth Writers website: basically, don’t just enter competitions, revise your stories, submit to journals, get better, get published. Simple, eh?

I also wrote about my favourite bricks and mortar bookshop, Unity Books on Willis Street, for which I expect at least a high five next time I come a'browsing!

Offshore whore

I spoke to Julie Green of the Griffith REVIEW about my story, ‘Offshore service’, and my time spent in Queensland. You can read the interview here.

Side-effects of the NBA lockout

It looks like the chances of an NBA season this year are slim to none. This is terrible news for arena staff in the states and some lower level employees of the teams who rely on basketball games for a paycheck. Spare a thought also for the basketball journalists, who have had to stake out bargaining sessions between the players and the owners which have stretched into the wee small hours (and inevitablty end with both sides unwilling to make detailed comments at the ensuing press conference as negotiation is still ongoing).

Some writers are turning their attentions to other basketball leagues around the world (where a small number of NBA players are also looking to supplement their incomes). They appear heavily reliant on Google Translate to file their updates – today Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Houston Rocket’s Marcin Gortat had signed with a Turkish team, then hastily tweeted a retraction that the two parties were in fact still negotiating and the confusion stemmed from Google Translate.

Much more exciting to me was the news from SB Nation blogger Tom Ziller (@teamziller) that when you throw a Chinese box score into Google Translate it tells you there is a statistical category “was invaded” ('turnovers' to you and me). Ziller also points to a headline which translates as "Yi Jianlian floating in the sky watching JR violence of his four years of a button changes."

I’m feeling a James Brown- (NZ poet not US soul singer) style poem coming on.

Novel update

I heard back from my editor last week after she read the first c.50,000 words of THE NOVEL. She referred to it as the embryo of my novel, which might be another way of putting it. Anyway, she liked it (it would be unfair to quote embryonic praise as there’s a lot that can go wrong between now and the final manuscript) and I am to push on and finish the beasty but it looks like it won’t come out till February 2013. This means I’ll only get to publish one book in my twenties. Oh well. It does give me a few extra months next year to really make it the best book I can. And to write some short stories and find them homes before the birth of THE NOVEL. And find a friggin' title.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Looking for the next best thing

Blue Friday

I got up early this morning to go blue penguin spotting at Tarakena Bay. Turns out it's light already at 5.30am.  I'm still not sure about the local blue penguins nesting cycle, but I think I'll have to be there by 5am if I'm to spot one ambling down the beach to go fishing.

It was a beaut morning anyway and I went up the Poito Track, passed Poito Pa and Rangitatau Pa, though both were destroyed by raiding Northern iwi in 1819-20 and no obvious traces remain.

I suspect one of the pa sites is now this flat area covered with wild fennel and the woody stalks and umbels of last year's flowers.

Looking south from Palmer Head to the Cook Strait
Looking east.
Ataturk memorial (left) and Baring Head (right)

Low Self Estima*

M. and I bought a '92 Toyota Estima van on the weekend. A bit early in life for a people mover, granted, but we intend to sell it again after the summer. Will be great to tour the North Island in while on our double honeymoon with our German friends. Even better when we're joined by two more friends for the Northland leg.


I just wish this wedding thing was over with...

*I stole this joke from a Facebook friend.

Some fennel facts gleaned from Wikipedia

The town of Marathon, which gave its name to the long distance run, means 'The place of fennel.'

Prometheus used a fennel stalk to steal fire from the gods.

The type of bulb-like fennel you buy from Moore Wilsons and slice up for salads is the inflated leaf base of Florence Fennel or finocchio. (Something Wikipedia won't tell you: Finocchio is also Northern Italian slang for a homosexual - not sure about the link between the two).

Fennel was once one of the three main herbs used in the production of absinthe (the others being grande wormwood and green anise).

Antlered antics

Tomorrow is my stag do. I don't know what we're doing because my brother/flat mate/best man (same person) won't tell me. We need to be at the Porirua Train Station at 10am and a change of clothes would be a good idea.


Hopefully it's more fun that the other pre-wedding activities that have been keeping me from writing this past week: making a slideshow, doing the music, finding a reading for my step-sister to read at the ceremony, writing the vows (or thinking about it deeply, or thinking about thinking about it), sorting out where people will sit, re-arranging the table settings, picking up my wedding ring, filling out forms for the wedding licence, re-re-arranging the tables.

Wild South

Though progress on THE NOVEL's wordcount has been non-existent since I sent what I had to my editor to have a read (still no word back), I have had two great research moments in recent weeks.

The first was finally getting around to reading Phillip McCutchan's Tall Ships, which I bought at the Downtown City Mission's annual second hand book sale over two years ago. Since then, I've read over a dozen books about sailing ships and left McCutchan's languishing on the shelf. Sigh. I could have saved myself so much time leafing through books that weren't quite right.

Tall Ships has lots of pictures and includes chapters on tea clippers, the 'Australian route', and the Roaring Forties.

Better late than never I guess.

The second hallelujah moment came on Volume One of the Wild South series on DVD. The very first episode, first broadcast in 1980, is called 'The Island of Strange Noises' and focuses on Antipodes Island (one of NZ's subantarctic islands). Half an hour of squawking and close-ups of light-mantled sooty albatross: not as good as being there but the next best thing.


Addendum at the eleventh hour

My gran always used to ring me up on days like today and ask me what the date was. I remember a lot of calls in 1991, the year of the palindromes...

After I posted the above I was reading through a friend's poetry manuscript and I looked down, noticed the time and date, then noticed the page I was reading.  Had to screenshot it.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

A place I have been and know well: an interview with Breton Dukes

Bird North and Other StoriesBreton Dukes’ first book, Bird North (Victoria University Press), is a collection of seventeen short stories. The blurb on the back cover isn't shy about promoting the maleness of the collection: “Breton Dukes stands in the great tradition of New Zealand writers—Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall—who have looked at men’s lives.” There are several other interesting things going on in these stories, so I thought it was about time to add to my series of published email conversations with Kiwi short story writers (click these links for interviews with Pip Adam, Tina Makereti, Sue Orr and Anna Taylor).

But now, time to talk to Breton...

CC: There are a few common strands I see running through your collection, one of them being a preponderance of male leads, but there’s also a starkness to the stories, one that is perfectly matched by their stripped down style. All but three stories are narrated in the third person, readers are granted little access to the thoughts of characters and small things like the repeated use of a character’s names instead of a pronoun create a distancing effect. Was this a style that came naturally to you, or did it evolve out of the stories you were trying to tell?

BD: I've always written in a stripped down style. I started reading Hemingway and Carver pretty early on, so I guess that's where it comes from. I try and make my descriptions as clear as possible. Same with dialogue. And as you say I think that style fits with the tone of my stories, and with the way my characters would think and speak. There are a lot of action scenes in the book and I think they benefit from being stripped down. The stories I wrote a bit later on (and what I am writing now) contain a little more poetic stuff, but it doesn't come easily to me.

During my MA I experimented with a few different points of view and always seemed to find that my stories worked best in the third person. I like having that distance from character and events and then being able to dip in and out of a character's mind. I never feel comfortable writing in the first person. I get squeamish and claustrophobic - I always doubt what it is I am saying.

CC: In his Listener review, Sam Finnemore described Bird North as, “Confident, nuanced and unselfconsciously local”. Was it a conscious decision to set stories in recognizable New Zealand places like Te Anau, the Coromandel, the East Coast, Dunedin and Johnsonville, or was this more a case of writing what you know? How important is place in your writing?

BD: When I write a story I have a very clear picture of where the events are taking place. I can't write without that picture. I have to have a house or a beach, or a street in my head. A place I have been and know well. The characters can be pliable and the events too, but not place. So yeah, it's definitely a case of writing what I know. 

I figure if I am using a place like Tunnel Beach or Johnsonville as the setting, why not name it? It would seem strange to me not too. And I've always got a real kick out of seeing 'New Zealand' in movies and on telly. Maybe that has something to do with all the local stuff too.

CC: I know what you’re saying about seeing ‘New Zealand’ in movies and TV. Even if it’s just an episode of America’s Next Top Model or The Amazing Race, it’s hard to resist seeing what these unreal reality TV people think of our country. But it’s nice afterwards to watch something made locally, or dive into a book by a Kiwi author, and get something that breaks through the surface.

I’m interested in your endings. A story will often have a concluding chunk that jumps ahead in time, switches perspective or voice. Characters suddenly have children, cows fall from clifftop paddocks, pods of dolphins strand on beaches.  ‘Maniatoto’, a story set in the present day, concludes with a paragraph about the miners in that region one hundred and forty years earlier. The reviewer in North and South said something to the effect that there’s a fine line between illumination and non-sequitur, but even if some endings are more inscrutable than others, I think they all succeed in prompting the reader to reconsider what has come before it. Was this type of ending inspired by a particular writer or story you’ve read, or was it something you arrived at organically?

All Aunt Hagar's ChildrenBD: I can't be exactly sure where those endings come from. I read a book of stories by Edward P Jones (All Aunt Hagar's Children) when I was doing the MA. It had a big effect on me. There were often great shifts in time and in place. Alice Munro goes for that sort of thing too and I have read a fair bit of her stuff. Sometimes, like with the falling cow, I started writing the story having that as something that would happen, and in the writing of it, it seemed to fit best at the end. Regards the dolphin thing: I was thinking about working in the big city and the big city being so close to the harbour and the dolphins I had once seen in Wellington harbour... I don't know really. I like endings that really open things up. It's that freedom about writing that keeps me going though. 

Also what I think I was aiming to do with some of those endings, 'Maniatoto' especially, was suggest the vastness of the world. Sounds grand eh?! But I remember a Denis Johnson story, it had three guys in a car, one dying in the back seat, and they were driving this road and then there is this line which refers to their geographic location and how thousands of years earlier the valley they are driving was formed by glaciers receding. Or something like that. It lifts you out of the tightness of the short story world and makes a great sweep. In a few short pages you feel like you are really seeing something. 

CC: Have you always been drawn to short stories? Were there any writers in the early days that, when you look back now, got you hooked into fiction?

Always. Hemingway got me going I think. I liked the content of his stories. When I was very young I used to like Wilbur Smith books and the Willard Price series – South Seas Adventure, Antarctic Adventure. Roger and Hal I think the chaps names were. Ray Carver was very important too. I liked the suburban aspect of his writing.

CC: One of my favourite stories in Bird North, ‘Racquet’, starts off discussing the alterations a couple has made to their backyard. I’ll admit when I started the story I thought, I hope this gets more interesting. I only really appreciated the relevance of the opening when I reached the final scene, where the drunk husband is hiding from his wife in the backyard. I finished the story and went right back to the beginning and read it again. Do you think readers need to take a second pass with these stories to get their full effect?

BD: I guess some of the vagueness in my writing does often necessitate a second reading. I frequently have no idea where a story is going when I start. ‘Racquet’ was a good example. It initially ended with the prostitute going down on Leighton, but people told me that didn't quite cut it, so I kept writing. 

I often read a story twice. I think that is okay, even desirable. A good one should have plenty going on, plenty for the reader to think through.

CC: Yeah, I agree. As a reader, I like that sense that the writer is trusting you to work some things out. As a writer, it’s about finding that balance between giving the reader work to do and shirking work you should be doing, eh?

BD: Yeah, and I have been guilty of shirking in the past. That criticism in North and South got to me a little – because I agreed with some of what the reviewer said. I do worry my work is too bleak and that the stories have no purpose. But then, even if I don’t always get it right, I feel I am on the right track, that my method of storytelling is valid and interesting.

CC: You’ve spoken about your desire to avoid clichés and male stereotypes in these stories (like in this Radio NZ interview). When the reviewer, Nicholas Reid, wrote about your collection on his blog, Reid’s Reader, you posted a comment listing the nine inaccuracies in his review.  In subsequent comments it seems you and Nicholas agree to disagree on the importance of these smaller details. Why is it important that you to steer clear of ‘grotty student flats’ and ‘cheap motels’ in your stories?

BD: Ha! My first ever review. I couldn't stop myself from replying to that one. I actually really liked the review - he was complimentary about my writing, but hated the content. I didn't mind that at all. It's my first book and what I feared most was people pointing and laughing and saying, "You write like a child!" Anyway, I think in the mistakes he made and in his language, 'grotty flats' etc I felt my writing was being pigeon holed as a certain kind of fiction: bleak crap that trades in shock and testosterone. I don't like stories where characters fit into the stereotype of drug user or whatever. What I like most about my stories is the humour, unpredictability and their openness. What he wrote seemed to be squashing that stuff, so I had to speak out!

CC: Good on you. I know of a few writers who got a vicarious thrill from that wee exchange (me included). How’ve you found the rest of the post-publication world?

BD: Very strange. A friend sent me this by AL Kennedy: it sums it up for me. 

CC: What next for Breton Dukes the writer?

BD: At the moment, thanks to Creative NZ, I am working on a second collection of stories. Fairly similar to Bird North, but I am hoping to write some stories that are longer and have stronger plot lines.

CC: I look forward to reading them.  Thanks for the chat, Breton.

You can read Breton's story, 'Johnsonville', here.

For more info on Bird North, check out VUP's website.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wellington and Perth Festivals / Chairs / Nautical Superstitions

Get with the programme

I went to the launch of the 2012 New Zealand Arts Festival's programme last night at the Opera House here in Wellington. You can now view the programme online here.

There's a bunch I'm looking forward to, including Britain's all-male theatre company Propellor performing The Winter's Tale (my novel-in-progress features a Vaudville vignette of Act Five Scene Three, so will be interesting to see it performed live again).

The music portion of the programme looks particularly strong, with banjo and piano accordion maestros, indie darlings Bon Iver and the 'desert blues' of Tinariwen.

That Deadman DanceAnd of course there's Writers and Readers Week 9-14 March. I'm stoked to be appearing in sessions at The Embassy and in Masterton, in part because it means I'll get to go and see Tim Flannery, Germaine Greer, Thomas Friedman, Jo Nesbo, Alan Hollinghurst, Kelly Link, Ron Rash and others... for free. Hopefully I'll bump into Kim Scott again too, after hanging out with him a bit at the Sydney Writers Fest (and now that I've read and loved That Deadman Dance).

The full programme for Writers and Readers Week doesn't come out till January, but there's plenty in the main programme to salivate over until then!

Out West

A couple of hours later, the Perth Festival launched it's program(me), which is also exciting for me as I'll be flying over there to take part in the writers festival. Again, the full programme won't be released until Jan, but there is info about the event I'm most looking forward to, The Feast of Words on 25 Feb:
Indulge in a gourmet three-course feast of food and Watershed wines as literary stars complement each dish with specially chosen readings. Set by the Reflection Pond at UWA's beautiful Whitfeld Court, Feast of Words has all the ingredients for a perfect summer night: good friends, great food and some of the world's most intriguing authors.
Join UK novelist Barbara Trapido (Sex and Stravinsky), Irish poet Dennis O'Driscoll (Weather Permitting), NZ's 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize winner Craig Cliff (A Man Melting) and Norwegian sensation Johan Harstad (Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?)
Now that's something to salivate over!

Some nautical superstitions (via

Never start a voyage on the first Monday in April. This is the day that Cain slew Able.

Don’t start a voyage on the second Monday in August.  This is the day Sodom and Gommrrah was destroyed.

Starting a cruise on Dec. 31 is bad. This is the day Judas Iscariat hanged himself.

Avoid people with red hair when going to the ship to begin a journey. Red heads bring bad luck to a ship, which can be averted if you speak to the red-head before they speak to you.

Never say good luck or allow someone to say good luck to you unanswered. If someone says “good luck” to you, the only to counter the bad luck is by drawing blood. A swift punch in the nose is usually sufficient to reverse this curse.

Behind the scenes

Now, for those of you who think the life is a writer is all trips to Perth and Masterton, think again. It involves a lot of sitting at your desk. A lot. The back of my desk chair broke last week and I had to run out an buy a new one the next day after an eight hour writing session killed my back.

M. encouraged me not to skimp on the cost of a replacement, considering the amount of time I'll spend sitting on it, and I gravitated to those leather 'executive' chairs with the high backs. I ended up finding a comfy one that didn't cost the earth, got it home and found it was too wide to fit under my desk. It would fit if I took the handles off, but the handles held the back on. Disaster.

I've since taken it back and purchased a bog standard office chair. No arm rests. No leather. I think it's for the best. The closer my set up at home is to the set up at my day job, the easier it will be to slip into 'business mode' when writing. That's the theory anyway.

Who wants to read something someone wrote in an executive chair? Next think I'd have a Newton's cradle on my desk.

Bullet dodged, I reckon.

Just because I can...
Tuatara that I spotted today at Zelandia
Female papango (scaup) just after a dive (notice the droplets of water on her feathers).

Plumb (Popular Penguins)I also spotted the above plaque at Zealandia. Harvey McQueen was a New Zealand poet and anthologist who passed away last year. He kept an entertaining blog in his final years, which often reminded me of Maurice Gee's Plumb, if George Plumb had a blog (and was less irascible). This is a compliment, in case it doesn't read like one.

Nameless purgatory

I mentioned last week that I'd be sending a chunk of THE NOVEL off to my editor on the first... well I did (at 11:31pm). I gave it a working title. It sucked. Back to the drawing board. And back to the grind... plenty more to write before I hear back whether I'm wasting my time or not.

But enough of me

Tomorrow I'll be posting my interview with Breton Duke's, author of the story collection Bird North.  Check back after 2:30pm...