Monday, October 23, 2017

Fortnight 19 of the Burns

Fortnight 19 summary

Total wordcount: 14,660 (65% on the novel, 29% essays, 3% on the blog and 3% on poetry)
1st week: 9,251
2nd week: 5,409

That Thursday (19 October)


I woke to news that Gord Downie had passed away.

I wrote about Gord's brain cancer and The Hip most recently in my April Consumption Diary. It's the tip of the iceberg, really. The Tragically Hip have been an obsession of mine for the last 15 years; their music has underwritten so much of my creativity over that time.

One nice thing: Gord managed one last album (a double LP called Introduce Yerself) which comes out on the 27th of October. I'm working on something to accompany the album dropping, and hopefully it'll find a home somewhere online...


The fates (or the editors of the Otago Daily Times) chose that same day for the publication of my profile in the local paper, a full two months after the interview and (very brief) photo shoot.

(I'm so over thinking about my writing (and being written about) in terms of juggling paid employment, family and writing. One of the great things about this year is writing and money have been pretty well merged. But IT IS temporary. So I guess I'll just have to run the risk of looking like a part-timer until I have another book to speak on my behalf.)


In the afternoon, the Sacramento Kings played their first game of the new NBA season. There are zero expectations in terms of winning or the playoffs for the squad this year, but half the roster have one or fewer years experience in the NBA, and it's going to be fascinating how the young guys develop.

Against Houston, they delivered the expected 'L', but the game was great to watch and the young guys who made it onto the court played well. I noted in Fortnight 11 that I was sceptical about D'Aaron Fox, but so far he's proving me wrong.


I went to a talk at 5:15pm on 'Fake Religions, Fake News and the Allure of Fiction', by Carole M Cusack from the Universtiy of Sydney. As I'm writing a book that features a fictional cult (which touches on but is not the sole representation of a kind of alternative spirituality), this was very timely.

After a bit of academic calisthenics, Cusack provided an interesting survey of new religions that have appeared since the 1960s, predominantly those inspired by works of fiction (the Church of All Worlds, Jediism, Matrixism, Dudeism, Bronies, etc).

It was fascinating, if a little superficial (such is the nature of surveying such a proliferation of movements in an hour).

During the Q&A, Cusack mentioned the 4 million Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens, and how she was looking into ufology: was there something in it, or was it a case of cascading mindsets?

I probably asked questions in about 2% of Q&As I attend - I just don't think of questions, and if I do, they're so niche I feel no one else would benefit from hearing the answer. But in this case, surrounded by a lot of Religious Studies academics and students, the whole talk was probably too niche, so I thought what the hey.

I asked what is it about new age, syncretic religions, like Damanhur in Turin (and now elsewhere), that do a really good job of selecting good aspects from the religious pick'n'mix that's available to them, but then they go and overreach by believing in something like UFOs or, in the case of Damanhur, time travel? Is it that they feel that to be a religion they need something beyond human comprehension? Or is it, more cynically, a marketing thing: to cut through the noise of the other movements, they need something to hang their hat on?

Both were likely, according to Cusack, who also noted that in many countries, in order to be acknowledged as a religion (and thus receive favourable treatment in terms of tax etc) the legal process definitely privileges those with out-there beliefs.


When I got home and switched on the news, Winston had finally made up his mind and went with Labour (and, implicitly, The Greens).

My Twitter bubble was going bananas.

It'll certainly be what 19 October 2017 will be most remembered for around these parts... But my wife told me Downie's passing was on the list of most read articles on earlier in the day, and I'll cling to that.

Tales of Chip Pnini

The week previous, The Spinoff published my piece called: 'Everything wrong with NBA 2K18’s MyCareer mode and one possible solution'. It doesn't cover everything, but it gives you a good idea of my take.

And reader, I'm still playing.

Taieri Gorge Railway

On Saturday, we (wife, two kids and in-laws) went on the Taieri Gorge Railway to Pukerangi, then got a shuttle to Middlemarch, biked the first 5kms of the Central Otago Rail Trail (enough to know it was not enough; but more than enough for the two pre-schoolers).

On Sunday the train ran from Middlemarch, so we caught it back to Dunedin. Another great wee trip. Bless you Otago.

Debris from the flood a couple months back

Last for a reason

How's the novel going? Let's just say I read a takedown of Dan Brown's latest book this morning (as if he hadn't been taken down in all the ways you might approach literature a hundred times over; like, the only reason I read it was to see why anyone would go through that effort in 2017, but I'm still none the wiser) and found myself thinking: shit, a reviewer could say these things about MY NOVEL!! 

I tell myself that, even if that was true about what on the page (or some of the pages) at the moment, the manuscript exists as an incomplete first draft. I can get rid of the Brownisms and make scenes that aren't working work with a bit of elbow grease on the next go round.

But far out. Can I get to the end of this thing already so I can spend my days making it better rather than making it feel worse?!?!?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Aloe Veritas: Fortnight 18 of the Burns

LBNC - Long Beach, not California

18 is a scarily high number. I mean, there are only 26 fortnights in a year (or as I’ve begun to visualise it, carriages on a gravy train). With late December and most of January’s writing time severely compromised by family time / the dreaded return to Wellington, the last few carriages are about to leave the station!

(We’re going on the Taieri Gorge Railway trip on Labour Weekend, which might explain the trainish bent to my metaphors).


Fortnight 18 total words: 11,429 
(novel: 72%, blog, 14%, non-fiction: 10%, short stories %4)
1st week: 7,051
2nd week: 4,378


I went up to Wellington last Tuesday to meet with my boss (and my boss’s boss, quite by chance) to talk about what I do, and how many days/hours I work next year. 

I put forward my first and best offer, which should provide an okay balance on income and output (both for my employer and my own writing).

It has yet to be shot down (or accepted). 

We shall see.


The publication date for the US version of THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS has been pushed back to 12/12/17, which is trickily close to Christmas (not that I’m expecting it to go Danielle Steele) but avoids any confusion between NZ and US readings of the date.

On the positive side, the old battler received a starred review in Publishers Weekly last week. Abridged version:

New Zealander Cliff makes a stunning American debut with a story about obsession gone horribly wrong… [plot description] This is a spellbinding and original tale, rife with perilous journeys, fascinating historical detail, and memorable characters.

As I am in the midst of another novel, it’s hard not to read in some ambiguity in that first sentence (it’s the novelists obsessions that go horribly wrong).

Together with a similarly positive Kirkus review (“A grim and glorious meditation on the cruelty of fate”), I’ve at least got decent US pull-quotes for my website (when I get around to updating her).

I was approached by an agent in the US who’d read the PW review and wondered if I was working on anything else. So nice to be a cold contactee for once (!) but very early days on that front. Like, maybe I should finish this new fricken novel, eh?

I also carved out time to write an essay about writing THE MANNEQUIN MAKERS (as if I wasn’t self-concerned enough) for my US publishers to pitch to various online outlets. 

We shall see what becomes of it.

We. Shall. See.


Tourism in Brief

In the middle weekend of Fortnight 18 I took the family (including in-laws) to the Port Chalmers Seafood Festival (worth it) and Long Beach (crib me!).


In addition to keeping the novel moving, I’m working on a piece ('essay' seems too hifalutin) about NBA 2k18 (as mentioned in my September consumption diary); I entered the Sunday Times short story comp in the UK with one of the stories I wrote in February; and I’m giving a reading tonight (Monday – technically Fortnight 19’s achievement) at the University Book Store as part of the NZSA’s regular salon.

Monday, October 2, 2017

September Consumption Diary



4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (novel, audiobook)

After getting a sixth of the way in (and writing about it in my August consumption diary) I didn’t listen to Auster’s forking doorstop for a week thanks to time in Invercargill and Stewart Island. 

And it really is the kind of novel you need to read in a sustained burst, as you’re trying to keep four different versions of Fergusson straight in your head. 

Auster is pretty good at differentiating Fergusson 1 from Fergussons 2, 3 and 4, not labouring the differences and not being too repetitive, but it’s still a massive undertaking for a reader to keep everything straight in their head.

Especially when Auster’s two key weapons in sustaining interest and momentum over such a long book are prolepsis (telling us what will happen ahead of time) and ellipsis (leaving things out). I’m particularly fascinated by prolepsis – it’s a move a lot of writers don’t pull. And Auster isn’t a virtuoso like Muriel Spark in the way he uses it – he’s more plodding, more deliberate, less playful. But it’s still fascinating, especially as you need to keep straight which version of Fergusson's future we've been told.

After a few solid hours, I got back in the swing of things and fair devoured the last 20 hours of the audiobook. 

I was about an hour from the end when the Booker short-list was announced. I was surprised by the amount of shade thrown in the direction of 4 3 2 1, which made the cut.

Like this from The Irish Times:

Anyone possessed of a sense of humour will smile at the inclusion of US heavyweight veteran Paul Auster with 4321, a bulky work best described as worthy and a lifetime’s personal statement. Repetitive and unconvincing, it is laboured in the extreme and while it was a surprise to see it on the longlist, its inclusion on the shortlist is a shock. So unlikely a contender as this must be the one to wager your house on; the odds will enable you to purchase several more.

“Worthy”? “Repetitive and unconvincing”? “Laboured in the extreme”? Had the writer read the same book? I suspected Ms Battersby did not make it far, if indeed she ever really tried.

But then, in the novel’s final movements, Auster attempts to tie things up in a way that befits the Master Metafictioneer he showed himself to be with books like City of Glass. But here it only served to unravel what had come before and leave me reluctant to defend his book in online comments sections. Maybe it was laboured and worthy? I mean, I wasn't listening to the same book as Auster was reading.

Still, would I rate this over the only other book on the shortlist I've read (Saunder's Lincoln in the Bardo)? Yup (much as I love Saunders short stories).

Anything is possible by Elizabeth Stout (connected short stories, audiobook)

Last month I read My Name is Lucy Barton, and wrote:

Cool control, that’s how I’d describe Strout’s style. This doesn’t pack the punch of Olive Kitteridge (or even attempt that book’s scope), but it still has teeth. I’ve got Anything is Possible, Strout’s latest queued up as my next read, so I might write more about this one with reference to that.

Anything is possible is certainly closer to Olive Kitteridge in scope, and the fact it picks up where Lucy Barton left off might make it even more ambitious. I got the sense, mid-way into the second book, that both MNiLB and AiP had been originally conceived as a single book of connected stories, but the Lucy Barton section grew too big / had sufficient exit velocity to become its own thing, while the gravity of it still influences the stories/chapters in AiP.

But unlike Olive Kitteridge, which is most memorable for me because of the complex and often nasty eponymous character and the smudges and shadows of her in some of the other stories in that book, Lucy Barton is without malevolence. She’s the poor girl from the troubled family who got out, made a life in New York City and is now a successful author. So hardly Randle Flagg.

Which is why, for all the concise mini-dramas and the elegant interlocking that goes on in Anything is Possible, it’s missing that hook to really hang around in the reader’s memory.

Gone with the mind by Mark Leyner (novel/memoir, audiobook)

Described on the back cover as a “blazingly inventive, fictional autobiography”, Gone with the Mind begins with Leyner’s mother introducing him for a reading series within a mall’s foodcourt. The only people in the audience are workers on their breaks from Panda Express and Sbarro. The mother’s intro (read in the audiobook my his actual mother) runs for over an hour and covers all many of private and embarrassing things. Then Mark Leyner gets up and gives a few prefatory words before reading excerpts from his autobiography, Gone with the Mind, only these remarks take six or so hours and he never gets to the excerpts. There’s a final section in which Mark and his mother discuss the reading in a bathroom stall.

The book has blurbs from Gary Shteyngart (don’t they all) and Sam Lipsyte, and these two writers give a pretty good indication of what Leyner’s doing. He loves long medical names and short but impenetrable lapses into theory. His main interlocutor is an imaginary friend (The Imaginary Intern). But amid these deliberately high-grown weeds, there’s a lot of exposure, or apparent exposure. It’s an eloquent, truthy book for an ineloquent, truthy time.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood (memoir, audiobook)

Following closely on the heels of Leyner’s fictional autobiography we have Patricia Lockwood’s poetic memoir. Leyner wrote his book as a 58 year old prostate cancer survivor. Lockwood writes from her early thirties, having limped back to her family home with her husband in tow, for financial reasons. Her father, the improbable Republican, boxer shorts and nothing else, misogynist, guitar hero Catholic priest, is held up as star and hook for the book, but her mother is equally complex and interesting (and gets more time at the mic).

Lockwood writes of her poetry, including publishing the viral hit ‘Rape Joke’ and her first collection, but always with a remove that doesn’t exist when laying bare the working of her family. But her poetic vision and poetic muscle is laid clear enough in the prose of every page, and is given free(ish) rein in the final pages in order to wrap up a memoir as someone in their thirties must (not with knots but frills and flourishes).


I played quite a bit of NBA2k18 to see what gaming in 2017 is like. This is part of what might become a project, or an event, or something I abandon. Who knows?


I didn’t watch much of anything in September. I think because I was away a lot and playing NBA2k18 and have been listening to audiobooks while cooking/doing dishes rather than watching something on the iPad. But I’m trying to watch old movies on Kanopy, two of which I watched with my daughter (4). She wasn’t that into Nanook of the North (it held my interest) but we both loved Buster Keaton’s The General. My October project is getting through all the Kurosawas I can with my wife (she hasn’t seen any).