Thursday, January 16, 2014

Between books

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

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

Monday, January 13, 2014

My favourite albums of 2013

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

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


Album of the Year

Local Natives - Hummingbird

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

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

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

The sorta-magnificent numbers 2 through 8

Grouplove - Spreading Rumours

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

Cloud Control - Dream Cave

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

Hungry Kids of Hungary - You're a Shadow

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

Born Ruffians - Birthmarks

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

Queens of the Stone Age - ...Like Clockwork

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

The National - Trouble with Find Me

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

Rogue Wave - Nightingale Floors

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

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

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The best books I read in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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