Wednesday, October 31, 2012

It's in the eyes - a conversation with Ashleigh Young (tomorrow)

I haven't interviewed any short story writers for this blog for a while, but I have branched out. I've interviewed a poet (cum-essayist-blogger-editor). And to further my branching, the interview is going to be posted on the fledgling online litmag, Three Islands Magazine.

Apart from that, my interview with Ashleigh Young conforms to my usual 'email conversation' format.

I'll post a link to the full conversation when it's online tomorrow, but until then, here's a taster:


Me: You mentioned your blog (, which you maintain in addition to being a crack essayist and poetHow distinct are these forms for you? When you have an idea, do you instantly file it away under ‘Essay’ or ‘Poetry’ or ‘Blog post’? Do these forms ever invite each other round for nachos?

Ashleigh: They're not really on speaking terms. I have what feels like a different brain – or set of eyes – when I'm writing a poem as opposed to an essay or a blog post. 

If there's a subject I want to explore fairly rigorously, a subject that needs a wide landscape, it becomes an essay. But poems often have very uncertain beginnings. They start as fragments - usually single images or scenes, and can go through lots of different translations. 

Blog posts almost always start with me thinking, "Bloody hell, I haven't done a post for a while" and then trying to cobble something together. A few posts come from wanting to voice something that's been nagging at me for a while. A blog has a useful immediacy about it. But it does feel like an indulgence, sometimes, like something that Jonathan Franzen would hate, and I worry a bit about wearing out my welcome. I will try to cut it short before that happens.

[Update: You can now read the whole shebang here.]
If you're in Wellington tomorrow (Wednesday 1 Nov), Ashleigh's debut collection, Magnificent Moon, is launched at Unity Books on Willis Street at 6pm.

While we're treading these waters, it's worth mentioning the other great online arrival with an NZ/literary bent in 2012: The Pantograph Punch. They're producing consistently interesting stuff and managed to scoop me by a full 24 hours by posting Hera Lindsay Bird's interview with Ashleigh Young this morning. It's equally worth a look.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another land, another land

I come from Palmerston North

So Thursday night at Te Manawa for the launch of Palmerston North City Council's Creative Giants website was interesting. Actually, it was pretty boring and felt like I had wasted my time driving up there to sit and listen to speeches and music for 90 minutes before the free wine started flowing... Which is interesting, but for the wrong reasons.

Better to just have stayed home, read James Brown and let the internet do the talking.

All foreigners ashore

It took a while, but my contributor's copy of Ein anderes Land: Short Storys aus Neuseeland arrived on Friday. (The original copy got sent to my old address and the new tenants are useless and lost/ate that package.)

My story, 'Copies', has transformed into 'Kopien'. This is the second of my stories to be translated after 'Offshore Service' got the Spanish treatment back in April.

Turns out my traveller's German is even shakier than my traveller's Spanish, so I can't make any pronouncements about the quality of the translation, but there is something distinctly unwelcoming to the uninitiated about all those big words...

The first sentence: "Das Leben ist eine Aneinanderreihung unvollkommener Wiederholungen." ("Life is a series of imperfect repetitions.")

There are, of course, some glorious words in the language.

Sammelband - omnibus
dunkles - dark
Ursprungsmoment - original moment
Papier geschnitten - papercut

As they say, you've got to take the Wiederholungens with the geschnittens.

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (novel, audiobook)

True History of the Kelly GangYeah, this was a good book. A top ten read of 2012 most likely. The audiobook took a bit of getting used to as the narrator didn't go for much in the way of differentiating characters' voices in dialogue (and decided part way through to make Mary Hearn sound more Irish). I also spent too much time wondering how Australian Ned Kelly would actually sound.

But there are advantages of receiving a text like THotKG aurally. Carey's Ned Kelly writes in a comma-less tidal wave, and with the audiobook you have no choice but to keep up with him.

Carey's way of breaking up the narrative by describing the various packages that Kelly's account comes in (the conceit is that this true history is archived somewhere in Melbourne) is pretty canny. In fact, the whole thing is canny.

At the conclusion of the novel, there's an interview with Carey. The interviewer is a bit useless (at one point she asks Carey if he would like to talk about any of his other books and you can hear Carey think what an effing terrible question; she also mentions his busy schedule about 900 times: dude's a writer, he's got a spare half an hour to talk about himself) but Carey has plenty of interesting stuff to say.

In particular, I was struck by his description of the life of Ned Kelly, in the popular (Australian) consciousness as being a collection of well-known moments (the killings at Stringybark Creek, the robberies at Euroa and Jerilderie, the shootout at Glenrowan), but the rest of his life was a dark, or at least dimly-lit, field. Carey saw the task of his novel as illuminating these darker parts of Kelly's life while still bringing the story into the spotlight at the expected moments.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Everyone's got their breaking point / with me it's spiders, with you it's me

Are we judged here by the words we say / or is it just by the noises we make?

The truth is not kind / and you said neither am I

Since I submitted the manuscript of THE NOVEL (a.k.a. The Mannequin Makers, for now) on 31 August, I've fallen to bits.

I'm taking steps but it all feels a bit of a rear-guard action.

I've gotten glasses for my myopia. I've had malevolent skin cells (Bowen's disease, actinic keratosis) liquid nitrogened to oblivion. I got a root canal to hopefully put pay to the toothaches I've been having. And last week I was told my cholesterol was shockingly high for a 29 year old (especially shocking as my diet ain't that bad and I'm not that overweight), so I'm exercising more, buying expensive margarine and trying a shot of apple cider vinegar in the mornings (my step-father's prescription).

We shall see.

Next time I'm encouraged to write a novel, I'm going to ask for danger pay.

I do the rolling / you do the detail

Re: The Mannequin Makers, I met up with my editor and Random House last week while she was down in Wellington. Over coffee (actually, over green tea and a chai latte) we discussed the comments she'd sent me the week before.

The email read: "I have now finished reading this and really enjoyed it. It’s definitely different, quirky and memorable... [some specifics]... There are, though, a few things I think need a bit more thought... [10 substantive comments and 1,500 words later]... I hope these don't depress you..."

One the one hand: Ugh, more work. But I agreed with 80-90% of the comments, and they've provided the impetus to improve the novel. Being given the direction and time to make the darn thing better sure beats being told, 'It'll do,' and it being rushed to market and met with a round of shrugs (a Meh-ixan wave, perhaps? no, forget I said that).

I have until 1 December to snip the sutures and massage the organs of the novel so that it's more vexing aspects (the confusing ones at least, it'll still be vexing in several spots, but deliberately so). Then the manuscript with be given to an external editor with a fresh set of eyes and a fine-tooth comb. 

I'm excited to have the ball back in my court for the next six weeks. The path to publication seems a little clearer now, a little less fraught.

By the end of it, I'll have no idea how the real world (or at least those in the bookish segment of the real world) will respond, but I should be happy to stand up and take the rotten fruit, the shrugs and the backslaps, knowing the book is the best approximation of the book I set out to write that I can manage at this point in my career.

I remember running through the wet grass / falling a step behind

I'm heading up to Palmerston North on Thursday for the launch of the city council's Creative Giants website. I have a page. So do Janet Frame, John Clarke and Shane Cotton. Pretty cool company to keep.

In between imbibing free Cab Sav and trying to catch the eye of the canape waiter on Thursday, I'll have a word with the people behind the website about the omission of David Geary and Sarah Laing. Let me know if there are other Palmerstonians (permanent or fleeting) who are sufficiently creative and gigantic and I'll spruik them too!

We came through / like gothic monsters perched on Notre Dame

Of course all of this - the body's revolt, the editing process - is a lot of background noise compared to the biggest thing happening to me this year. I'm set to become a father some time in the next two months. 

It's funny, because I've used this point in character's lives before (once in a published short story ['Copies'], once in an abandoned novel) and now I'm here. The loss of my father in my teens means I will always be interested in the way fatherhood works, as a child and a parent. Now I'm about to step through that shimmering waterfall, that glitchy Stargate, and enter the world of parenthood.

How fucking exciting. How fucking scary.

(Best I get all the swearing out of my system before there's a minor on the premises.)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Street of Crocs / Obscure Jude / De Pairs

The Street of Crocodiles and other stories by Bruno Shulz (short stories)
Carried on their shoulders, a silent immobile lady had entered the room, a lady of oakum and canvas, with a black wooden knob instead of a head. But when stood in the corner, between the door and the stove, that silent woman became the mistress of the situation. 
–  Bruno Shulz, 'Tailor's Dummies'
"Am I to conceal from you," he said in a low tone, "that my own brother, as a result of a long and incurable illness, has been gradually transformed into a bundle of rubber tubing, and that my poor cousin had to carry him day and night on his cushion, singing to the luckless creature endless lullabies on winter nights? Can there be anything sadder than a human being changed into the rubber tube of an enema? What disappointment for his parents, what confusion for their feelings, what frustration of the hopes centered around the promising youth! And yet, the faithful love of my poor cousin was not denied him, even during that transformation."
–  Bruno Shulz, 'Treatise on Tailor's Dummies, Conclusion'

The Street of Crocodiles and Other StoriesSometimes there are books that inspire you to look at the world differently. Sometimes there are books that speak to you, or your past (or your past writing).

Sometimes a book will do both of these things and yet the book won’t become an instant favourite. Indeed, you’ll struggle to finish it.

The Street of Crocodiles is such a book.

Interesting, inventive, sometimes brilliant when examined in small chunks, but unwieldy and tedious when read at length. It doesn’t help that the edition I read is actually two story collections and a few uncollected stories slammed between to covers.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (novel, audiobook)
Jude the Obscure
Sometimes it’s worth reading a book you didn’t enjoy to bring out in clearer relief the qualities of a recent book you did enjoy.

Such was my experience with Jude, which trudged through its opening chapters like a farmer’s wife crossing a muddy field in her husband’s gumboots and got a bit silly toward the end, but it did make me appreciate Far from the Madding Crowd the more.

Despair by Vladimir Nabokov (novel, audiobook)

DespairSometimes you’ll read an author’s earlier work and be reminded often of their later, more heralded books.

Sometimes, like the case of Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle your reading of the earlier work will be completely occupied by this game of spot the difference (differences being rarer than similarities).

Sometimes, the similarities will be striking but the book will manage its own foothold on your attention and inveigle its way into your consciousness. Such was the case with Despair, which serves as a protean from of many later novels: the eloquent deviant writing in a form of incarceration, the rival for the narrator’s woman, the doubling of characters, themes and symbols. While Despair’s Hermann is similar to Lolita’s Humbert – his arrogance, his love of wordplay, his myopia – the fact Despair gives itself over so fully to the idea of doubles (and false doubles) means it retains its own interest.

(Perhaps also the fact it was the first time I’d read Nabokov in at least four years — after being under VladNab’s spell in my early twenties — made me more amenable...)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Time expands to fill a vacuum

Time flies when you're doing nothing stag parties, weddings, working full time for the first time in over a year, cutting down trees, watching television...

Looking ahead to next month, when the NBA season is in full swing and my hapless Kings are already floundering but still somehow compelling, I wonder how I'll find any 'free' time to write.

That list of short stories to write when I got to the end of THE NOVEL remains untouched.

The list of strange-but-not-that-interesting things that happened to me at work keeps getting longer.


Music. I didn't listen to much in September. My music consumption and writing time are directly correlated.

Here's my Spotify playlist for August:

I am listening to the new Tragically Hip album, Now for Plan A, right now (stream it free here for a limited time). Verdict after two listens: So it wasn't all Bob Rock's fault on World Container and We Are the Same. I'm sure there will be some songs that start to stand out in time, but it's all rather straight ahead rock to these ears.

But then I thought the same about Fully Completely the first five or six times.

I've been wrong before.


The day the tea tasted amazing. Like, really amazing.

The day the lifts went slow.

The day a dove landed on the ledge outside my window.

The day I wore prescription glasses for the first time.

The day they announced the Christchurch Education Renewal Plan.

The day I mentioned the day the tea tasted amazing and no one knew what I was talking about.


Far from the madding crowd by Thomas Hardy

Far from the Madding CrowdAnother audiobook. Perhaps it's because I listened to Jeffery Eugenides' The Marriage Plot earlier this year, or perhaps it's because I'd just gotten to the end of my own novel which does not feature the marriage plot, but I felt conditioned to enjoy Far from the madding crowd.

And I did enjoy it.

I like the way it starts with a very static description of 'Farmer Oak'. I like the way he's had his shot at Bathsheba Everdene early on and the scene where young George drives his sheep off the cliff, reducing him to a shepherd once more.

At the time I liked Hardy's authorly theorising about men and women. The sort of things you could never really get away with in a book today. The sort of things quotation pages lap up, but has the habit of jolting the reader from the story:
"We colour and mould according to the wants within us whatever our eyes bring in."
“Indifference to fate which, though it often makes a villain of a man, is the basis of his sublimity when it does not.”

“A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.”

“We learn that it is not the rays which bodies absorb, but those which they reject, that give them the colours they are known by; and in the same way people are specialised by their dislikes and antagonisms, whilst their goodwill is looked upon as no attribute at all.”
I think I liked these readymade pull quotes because they were so barefaced. Oh no you didn't. Oh yes he did.