Saturday, August 30, 2008

Reading at Work

It doesn't always go down well when you're working in an office to be seen reading something by Mark Twain or Charlotte Grimshaw. So the NZ Book Council has, rather sneakily, come up with a concept that allows keen readers to escape the workaday world while staying in full view of nosy workmates.

Go here to for the weirdest thing I've seen in a long time: short stories, poems and parts of novels made into power point presentations complete with bullet points, flow charts, graphs, and other graphic displays. In other words, it would take a very nosy workmate to work out you're hunched over Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince or Tim Jones' Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev or a poem by Brian Turner or Emily Dickinson.

For some of the work, the literary language suffers in the new construction, but for some of it the bar graphs and bullet points isolate words and phrases rather felicitously.

I'm still reeling. [Warning when you go to readat you appear to be in Windows but it reads 'Widows' instead. This is intentional. Click on the word BOOK and go from there.]

Another way to connect with literature while you're at work is to go to the Writers on Monday series at the National Library Auditorium in Wellington from 1-2 pm. This week Jennifer Compton is the writer on the spot.

New Zealand-born Compton has lived in Australia for most of the past 30 years so she finds herself in the odd position of being called an Australian across the ditch and a Kiwi writer here. Jennifer has been living in NZ this year as writer-in-residence at the Randell Cottage in Thorndon, writing her first novel All the Time in the World set in the Wairarapa and finishing a book of essays, but she is more widely known as a poet and playwright.

She has published two collections of poetry and a chapbook, written half a dozen stage plays and a number of radio plays, been poet-in-residence at the Whiting Library Studio in Rome, seen her poetry collection Blue shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2001, and in 1995 was awarded the NSW Ministry of Arts Fellowship (poetry).

Jennifer will discuss this and other aspects of her trans-Tasman writing career in conversation with the chair of the Randell Cottage Friends - which would be me. Actor Michele Amas will also add a touch of the dramatic with a reading from Jennifer Compton's play The Big Picture (which Michele starred in at Circa nine years ago.) Go here for more about the series.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Phone home Mr Pip

I've never done it before as an adult - or at least not that I remember - and not with an adult novel. I'm re-reading a novel. Mr Pip.

I'm chairing a session with Lloyd Jones down at the Christchurch Writers Festival so I thought re-reading Mr Pip would be useful. I didn't count on the feeling I'd get opening a book knowing what was to come. Knowing about Matilda and Pop-eye and Great Expectations and Dolores. Knowing about the disembowled dog and the story about the colour blue.

I got that rush I remember as a child opening a favourite book, or later, as a mother, opening The Secret Garden to read to one child or The Hobbit to another. No doubt it's the same rush my re-reading friends feel when they gather themselves for the annual assault on Persuasion or Master and Commander.

I haven't really understood it til now. I've always thought there are so many books and so little time I should not dare to look back.

Until this week and Mr Pip.

And re-reading has other advantages. I see more clearly now what Lloyd is doing - the fable he's created on this distant island, the stories he lays one on the other and the emphasis on the importance of telling them, the theme of the reliability of story over the unreliability of real life. Especially life on Bougainville, then.

It's interesting that Lloyd always seems to choose to read out loud the part in Mr Pip when the mothers come to the classroom and tell their stories to the children. Stories about fish and faith and remedies and luck. These stories sound like the threads in the fabric the people of Bougainville live by, but a white writer from Wellington says he totally made them up. Audacious or what?

Remember the way Mr Pip starts with a name - like Great Expectations, like Moby Dick? The magic of that: summoning the person by chanting his name. Waiting for him to arrive. Pop-Eye. And so the story begins.

Then I had to buy Nigel Cox's Phone Home Berlin: Collected Non-Fiction. Lloyd has been living in Berlin after all and I figured Nigel's essays could be useful. What a book. I've only skimmed it at this point. But it is a wondrous thing. A man thinking his way through a life stuffed with family and literature. The way he felt 'invisible' in Berlin as a NZer and so felt freed (in a way) to write. He talks of the importance of that thing he has no better name for than 'the solace of art'.

Damien Wilkins' interview of Nigel Cox at the end of the book is a tour de force and a must-read for every NZ writer. They discuss this strange 'handicap' of being a writer so far from the hub. Here's a quote from Nigel: 'I think it is a curse but I have also always thought that New Zealanders are very romantic and there is a romance about writing here because there is no money in it. And that I like.'

And speaking of the romance of writing. I went to the White Album winter poetry readings tonight at Wellington's City Gallery. These events are deliciously unpretentious and always fun. Poets are given space to read, organisers Mark Pirie and Michael O'Leary dress up (cricketing whites this year ) and smile alot, there's theme music (the Beatles White Album this year) and lashings of wine (asking what the wine was I was told 'white and red').

This week, Helen Rickerby and Harvey Molloy each launched a new book and read half a dozen poems. They were joined by Will Leadbeater and Niel Wright. The latter recently completed his 36,000 line epic poem The Alexandrians after 47 years of continuous composition.

Who knows how many books these poets will sell? To be a poet in this country - or anywhere, really - you have to not care. The main thing is to publish and to celebrate. Which a bunch of us did tonight.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How writers spend their weekends

Here they are - 160 of New Zealand's future writers and their tutors at Victoria University for the NZ Post Secondary School Writers Festival 2008 this weekend. More in the last post.

If you could see all the words in all those heads ...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Is the semi-colon girlie?

I am spending this weekend as a tutor at the NZ Post National Schools Writing Festival at Victoria University. I have eight seventeen and eighteen year olds for six hours over two days discussing their work, doing exercises (the sort where your fingers do the walking), and debating the nuances of the semi-colon.

There are 160 students enrolled for the weekend, and a dozen established writers of poetry, fiction and plays working with them.

Apart from the workshops, there are also sessions for them to watch and learn from. Yesterday, amongst other delights, two script-writing Davids - Geary and Armstrong - and chair Ken Duncum had everyone enthralled when they talked about how to transform stories into material for the stage and screen.

What amazes me is how sure these young writers are about being young writers. I mean, a whole weekend doing nothing but writing and reading and hearing from writers - and each day is underway by 9 am! You have to be pretty certain writing is your thing. I did have one student who shot off after sharing his poem, which referenced - rather fantastically - the Pope and Batman, because he was playing sport; but he was back in the afternoon laughing along with the rest of them at the antics of the two Davids.

James Brown (another workshop tutor) said yesterday, we forget how new the students are, and how they are all still trying out different genres and styles. He's right. At that age I identified as a poet and look at me now. But what they do believe they are is writers - well, most of them including my eight (one or two I suspect have been hijacked by the Head of English at their school and made to attend.)

There is enormous confidence in the way these young people throw out a page to the class and say this is a poem or a short story; the way they discuss the shape of the Batman/Pope poem, whether there should be speech marks inside another poem, the consistency of the Irish theme in one story, the need for shorter sentences in another.

One reads Guy de Maupassant, another reads Stephen King.

All in all a stimulating weekend for students and tutors alike. And speaking of nuances, I heard one student declare she had a crush on the semi-colon at the moment. So this is for her: quotes from a article called Is the Semicolon Girlie?

Page Rockwell: I love the semicolon. But then, I also love the eyelash curler.

Catherine Price: I'd never really thought of punctuation as gendered, though I suppose the wink of the semicolon could be considered more girlish and
coy than the straightforward, masculine em dash.

Tracy Clark-Flory: Clearly, men find the em dash a reassuring phallic symbol, while the semicolon reawakens their Freudian castration anxiety. What better way to cope with penis envy than to make frequent use of the semicolon?

For more go here. Must dash - the workshops call.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Gathering Smoke

'This is the first important lesson that the writer must learn. Writing a novel is gathering smoke.'

For the rest of this quote by Walter Mosely go here. It is wonderfully argued and resonates with me today especially because last night I watched one of my favourite films (again): Smoke by Wayne Wang and Paul Auster (author of NY Trilogy, The Brooklyn Follies).

It is a little movie set in and around a tobacco store in New York. Harvey Keitel is the shop owner Auggie Wren and William Hurt is the author Paul Benjamin who has writer's block. There are, as you'd expect with an Auster creation, stories within stories within stories. Truth and lies and 'bullshitting'. Lots of lingering moments of telling and listening and waiting.

One of the first stories, told by Benjamin in the tobacco shop, is about how Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to weigh smoke. He says Raleigh weighed a cigar, then smoked it - keeping the ash and the butt - and then weighed those. The difference between the two weights was the weight of the smoke.

Interesting to know how that would apply with a novel ... I suppose you'd need to reverse that experiment, after all you start with the smoke and end with the cigar.

Keitel's character Auggie is full of stories too. His approach is simple:

'People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open you're going to see just about all that you can handle.'

Here is one of Auggie's stories. We see it acted out like this only after he's told it to Benjamin - a stunning piece of cinema with the camera staying on Keitel's face for almost all of the ten minutes it takes. The music is by the inimitable Tom Waits. Sublime.

To end, here's a quote from Paul Auster who's interviewed in the collected scripts of Smoke and, the follow-up movie, Blue in the Face (Faber).

'Writing a novel is an organic process, and most of it happens unconsciously. It's long and slow and very gruelling. A screenplay is more like a jigsaw puzzle.'

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Collecting firewood

Leafsalon has a nice follow-up to the concept of writers spending time looking out of windows. Go here to see and check out the comments too.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The importance of looking out of the window

Canadian Alice Munro is one of the best short story writers in the world. That is an indisputable fact. My friend Anna Horsley has already won a major writing award (the Adam Prize) for the manuscript of her short story collection but has yet to publish a book. Both writers share a common activity: staring out of windows.

Anna calls it 'work'. She says it is as much work as the act of sitting typing stories onto her laptop. She says writing requires thinking time and staring out of windows is part of that. Windows are good for observing people too.

One day recently - free of the usual obligations she has as a creative writing tutor - Anna said she stared out of the window all day. She explained to me that Alice Munro recommends it.

Later she sent me a link to which has quotes by Munro including this one:
I can't play bridge. I don't play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn't seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.
As a writer with a family to bring up and tutor responsibilities, too, I sometimes feel guilty about the amount of time I spend apparently doing nothing. I realise now, though, that the brain needs uncommitted time to sift and order things if it's going to serve up stories. More importantly it needs to free-fall sometimes.
It also needs unfettered time to observe the world going by.

So I try now to look out of windows without feeling guilty (and to stop justifying the lack of bridge and tennis...) Here's Alice again:
In twenty years I've never had a day when I didn't have to think about someone else's needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it.
Which is one reason, apparently, why she wrote short stories rather than novels. With three children to bring up, Munro wrote when she could and spent 20 years putting together her first collection of stories. Dance of the Happy Shades was published when she was 37 in 1968.

Since then she's published another dozen books including her memoir-based novel The View from Castle Rock and now, in her late 70s, has quit writing. Which is terrible news for all those fans like me and Anna who thirst for her work.

I remember reading one of Munro's stories in Runaway while I was writing The Blue and it showing me suddenly and simply how to write about love in a way that was unsentimental, visceral, raw, astonishing. Munro says,
I want the reader to feel something is astonishing. Not the 'what happens,' but the way everything happens.

And here's a review in the International Herald Tribune which tries to come to grips with why Munro is so good - and, I suppose, why looking out the window works. It starts by saying she is a writer of 'unsurpassable distinctions.'

The distinctions that Munro has been elaborating on for years along the prairies, small towns, and modest lives of Canada operate upon the heart. They are particle metaphysics, and their collisions release an energy that all but mutates the reader's mental and emotional genes.
Afterward, we glow faintly in the dark.
Heart is a word dangerously subject to sentimental abuse; even worse is heartstrings. Useful, though, in attempting to suggest the nature of Munro's art. She moves on a fine workaday surface; then, unsignaled, reaches deep with delicate and knowing fingers to tug the filament of a brainily targeted emotion. Her unremarkable landscapes are dotted with rabbit holes; falling in, we grow, we shrink, we are at a loss, and then unexpectedly found.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Frame and Plath

Dear mother, dear father dear husband dear child,
there is no answer,
this microphone like a beehive celled with honey
is blocked forever with the sweetness of death.

In February 45 years ago, Janet Frame started to write Towards Another Summer which was published postumously last year. Three days before she appears to have begun work on it, Sylvia Plath had committed suicide. Frame's literary executor and niece Pamela Gordon says the events were not unrelated.

One example she gives is the poem above which is in Towards Another Summer and, as Pamela says, 'is redolent with Plath-like poetic symbolism and does seem to contain a reference to the BBC radio recording (of Plath re-played the week of her death) which Frame would have been familiar with.'

Pamela says Frame, who was living in London at the time, grieved for Plath. Read more in a fascinating post on Pamela's blog Slightly Framous. Interestingly, the post seems to have been triggered by an earlier post here on literary crushes.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

that old blog thing

The computer's been out of action this week getting more 'grunt' and a faster modem. Trouble is I'm having to do my emails at Techdomain (the ones fixing the computer) and haven't been able to post as well. It's been an odd week - the family has talked more, I've read more books and made a real dent in the uni marking, the middle son even baked an apple pie last night to give himself something to do. It was delicious, by the way.

So here I am, posting here (quickly) at Techdomain, and Becky who is putting the bits of my computer back together is giving me hard looks. I said I'd be quick and I think over an hour has passed since I started trudging through my emails.

Anyway, here's a quick tip: try Rachael King's blog on.... blogging. She's taking part in a panel on the topic at the Christchurch Writers' Festival which includes ace literary blogger Mark Sarvas. I'll be down there to read from The Blue at the New Writers' gig on Sunday morning (Sept 7) and to chair a session with Lloyd Jones at 4.15 that afternoon straight after Rachael's panel on blogs - in the same room too.

I'm looking forward to meeting some of my South Island readers while I'm down there, and it would be nice to catch up with Rachael, too, and South Island writers like audacious crime writer Vanda Symon (when she writes a post entitled 'Dying for a Salad' you know it's not about a hungry vegetarian..... )

Sunday, August 10, 2008

literary crushes

This is one of a series of paintings by Australian painter Gary Shead about D.H. Lawrence's time in Australia. He's communing here with a
magpie, a cockatoo? and a kangaroo, who all seem up on dinner party etiquette (see previous post). Although this painting, in contrast to Sue Orr's book cover, has a distinctly 'Last Supper' feel to it, with Lawrence the Christ-figure.

In fact, I took the image from Australian writer Gondal-girl's blog where she talks about a crush she had on Lawrence - exacerbated by the fact of his having visited Australia once. She asks about other people's literary crushes.

So I had a think about mine and came up with: Byron (his desire to fight on behalf of the Greeks - my father's people - vs. the Turks and his feverish death in Messolonghi added to his mystique), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (that feverish imagination of his captivated me and my friend Sandra, we poured over his poetry in my dark flat in Aro Valley) and Yeats (his political activism, his poetry, his connection with the Theosophists were a compelling mixture - I remember discussing gyres for hours). These were my romantic teenage crushes, and I quoted them, read them, tried to write like them.

Sylvia Plath was more serious than that. I really thought poetry had to be dark and confessional to be worth anything, and I used her poems as models for the dark, confessional stuff I wanted to write with lines like 'I am in the bird-tree and my throat aches'. Her struggle as a writer who was a woman and mother meshed well with my uncompromising 70s/early 80s feminism . I didn't like Ted much then (this changed with The Birthday Letters and his Collected Letters). I read everything I could about Sylvia and by her, especially her letters. When I went to London I wandered around Primrose Hill where she lived and died ... wrote anguished poems about it ...

I recently saw a one-woman show about Plath at Circa in Wellington. Spookily the Olympia typewriter the actress used as Plath was identical to one I had used in London to type up those anguished Plathian poems. None, thankfully, published. I still 'notice' Plath but I don't feel moved to read everything about her anymore, let alone write like her. Although I still envy her enormous talent and detest the way she died.

Interestingly, in the recently published Letters of Ted Hughes selected by Christopher Reid (Faber), Hughes suggests she wanted to be saved, and blames himself for not getting to her in time. Or that's my recollection - must go back and read those particular letters again.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

etiquette for a dinner party

Look at this for a cover! That's a snake between the man on the left and the man in the middle, by the way.

Auckland writer Sue Orr's debut collection of short stories was launched this week at Unity Books in Wellington and is discussed on Arts on Sunday on Radio NZ National at 2.30 pm tomorrow along with the latest collection of poems from Modern Letters Prize Winner David Beach called End of Atlantic City.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Judging the Montanas

The Wellington Museum of City and Sea hosted an interesting discussion on the Montana Awards last night including the two Wellington judges Lynn Freeman and Tim Corballis, and the three Wellington finalists who read from their work and talked about what the Montanas meant to them: Greg O'Brien (reference and anthology; illustration), Johanna Aitchison (poetry), and myself (fiction.)

This year's Montana Awards were deemed 'controversial' by the literary media and book bloggers and Lynn and Tim joked that they wouldn't be asked back. But hearing them speak you'd wonder why. Their commitment to the job was clearly exemplary.

Lynn (broadcaster) and Tim (writer), and third judge and publisher David Elworthy, were avid readers of the 220 or so books entered across the many categories, their knowledge of the books was detailed and impressive, they balanced out each other's areas of expertise, and there were no fights or nasty things said in making the decisions (with one small exception in 'poetry' see below.)

The controversy of the awards this year was around having four fiction finalists instead of the usual five, no first book shortlists, and a few winners from fringe publishers that had been 'under the radar' e.g. Judy Siers book on Chapman Taylor.

The two judges justified the 'four not five' by saying what they'd said before: in their view it wasn't a strong year for NZ fiction which is not to say there weren't some good books out there, it's just they were looking for excellence as per their brief. Lynn pointed out that fiction adviser Diane Brown also fed into the decisions, although she recommended strongly they choose a fifth finalist.

Both Tim and Lynn were happy with the four books in the fiction finals and seemed especially delighted with Charlotte Grimshaw's win, which they felt pushed the boundaries of short fiction in an exceptional way.

As a separate comment later in the evening, Tim Corballis said he felt there wasn't enough experimentation going on in last year's fiction list - which is something that interests him personally. On the other hand, both he and Lyn applauded the experimentation going on in poetry and the risks taken by poets and their publishers.

The judges were obviously excited by the poetry entries and confessed that was one area they got 'aggressive' choosing the finalists. They said Johanna's book A Girl Long Ago was definitely one that took risks (and her readings last night confirmed that -- she and her work are deliciously quirky.)

On dispensing with shortlists for the best first books this year, Lynn explained that as the only newcomer in the general fiction category The Blue had to be the Best First Book winner. The Booksellers felt they couldn't have shortlists for some first books and not others, so they did without them for the poetry and non-fiction too (I think I've got that right). When I asked if there still couldn't have been a newcomers' fiction shortlist to give the others their day in the sun, Lynn said booksellers preferred some who-will-win tension around a shortlist and felt without that it was not worth having.

Something else that interested Tim and Lynn was the way books were increasingly difficult to categorise. In fact, they seemed to embrace it as an exciting development rather than something that frustrated them. They talked about the way poetry could also be biography (Chris Price's Brief Lives in last year's Montanas) or essays could be biography (Martin Edmond's collection this year) or art/illustrative books could also be history books (Aberhart - which Greg contributed to.)

Tim felt The Blue used 'poetic' language and while it was certainly a novel, he wondered where a book-length poem would fit (he plumped in the end for 'novel'), he pointed out Greg's book A Nest of Singing Birds (winner of Reference and Anthology category)could have fitted into Illustration where his book Aberhart resided. (In fact, Greg himself is a long-time straddler of book categories as poet, illustrator, art historian etc etc) Lynn also said Mau Moko which won the Lifestyle category could have slipped easily into History or Illustration.

Publisher Mary Varnham, who was in the audience, asked a number of questions around this. She and the judges riffed about the huge numbers of books in the Lifestyle category including a vast number of Sports and Cook books, and how War books almost needed their own category away from History.

She also said she was constantly trying to encourage non-fiction writers to write better stuff, but increasingly the Montanas seemed to reward books with stunning illustrations over those without, and not rewarding excellent non-fiction prose. Her book The Transit of Venus was, she thought, possibly a case in point. She also said books on NZ subjects won out over non-NZ subjects any day, which cut out a large number of excellent books that needed support here if they were to sell elsewhere.

The judges agreed that while both these things were true to an extent it wasn't a conscious decision. Tim did confess, though, to thinking NZ-based books fitted more easily into the Montana format, but Lynn said if she'd read an excellent book on a non-NZ subject she would have happily short-listed it.

On increasing the number of categories, the judges thought this was a sticky slope. The booksellers already feel the ceremony is too long, apparently. On the other hand, both Tim and Lynn thought there was room for extending the categories to include crime fiction, for example, and possibly 'popular fiction.' Although Tim felt the latter was a very difficult one to judge, as its judges (the public) are diffuse, and the criteria would be different.

In answer to the other suggestions floating around the media and blogosphere about returning to two award systems - one for popular fiction, one for 'excellence' - Tim said art and commerce have always had a difficult relationship and he felt it was something book awards like the Montanas couldn't resolve and shouldn't try to. He seemed to suggest that the judges and the booksellers and the reading public had to accept the difficulty was there and wrestle with it.

Both judges did say booksellers and the reading public could make more use of what the Montana Awards offer them. Lynn said she always hassled booksellers about getting those Montana stickers onto the finalists and winners because it was a lost opportunity to sell some excellent books if they didn't. And she and Tim said they'd love to see more made of the judges' report of the winners which can be downloaded on the Booksellers' website.

Their confidential report to the Montana organisers is not available for discussion, and obviously contains some recommendations that couldn't be shared last night.

Tim and Lynn were exceptionally frank with the audience at the Wellington Museum which was small but keen - indicating perhaps that the wider public isn't as interested in the Montanas as the book world thinks it is. It was certainly interesting for Greg, Johanna and me and, no doubt, other writers in the audience to hear the 'behind the scenes' view of the Montanas, and the views of people like Mary Varnham and local bookseller, Murray Pillar.

It was also very nice to hear Johanna read and to hear Greg talk about how he came to write A Nest of Singing Birds, and for me to read again from The Blue. Thanks to the Wellington Museum of the City and the Sea for the initiative.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A poem of laureates

Look at this wonderful photograph by the Dominion Post's Maarten Holl of the first ever public reading by our five living poets laureate.

From left, Elizabeth Smither Michele Leggott (the current laureate), Jenny Bornholdt, Brian Turner and Bill Manhire with their exquisite tokotoko, or ceremonial sticks. The one belonging to the late Hone Tuwhare was also included on the night.

Up to 200 people watched the poets read at the National Library in Wellington on Monday night but I wasn't one of them. It was a cold, wet night and I was too tired to light the fire let alone drag myself the 30 mins back to town. I hope they'll get together again next year as Michele Leggott suggested and I'll go even if I have to crawl in the door.

This photograph makes me feel very proud of our country - to have five such poets (all so different) and to elevate them like this and recognise their brilliance is a wonderful thing. They look so ordinary and so kiwi, really: Liz, Michele, Jen, Brian and Bill. Who would think they'd write words that put together stop your breathing sometimes?

Meanwhile, any better suggestions on a title for this post? I am referring to a poem with five very different stanzas, of course. Not a well-known form, but could be interesting...
Terrific post on the event at the blog Opposable Thumb which refers to a 'palpitation of poets.'

Monday, August 4, 2008

The highest species of uncertainty

This is Pickles. I don't know her at all. I found her on Flickr, her mother is an amazing photographer. I used this image as part of a power-point presentation on my novel, Precarious. (You'll find out why soon.)

Precarious is not set long ago and across the Strait like The Blue; it's contemporary and set in Eastbourne, NZ, where I live. So doubly precarious, I believe. This was the theme of a talk I gave yesterday as part of an Eastbourne writers' series hosted by a local church and here are some notes from it.

L. Precarius obtained by begging or prayer, depending on request or on the will of another, fr. Precari to pray, beg.
Oxford: held at the pleasure of another/uncertain; unstable
Adapted from Webster: it first signified "granted to entreaty," and, hence, "wholly dependent on the will of another." Thus it came to express the highest species of uncertainty.

The novel beginning ... in a nutshell
A dissatisfied woman, an Irish boyfriend, a builder father whose head was messed with by a fall, a concrete bridge where people fish, envy.

Writing The Blue - what I loved
THE THREE E’s: EPIC, ELEMENTAL AND ESCAPIST. Need to find this in the other E ‘EASTBOURNE’. Escapist is the hardest one to find as I work inside a novel set on my doorstep. Also worrying: will local people (it's a small community) think they see themselves and others? It even happened with The Blue, a local woman rang me convinced I'd written about her husband. Strangely many of the details of the two - the real man and the wholly invented character - were the same.

Stealing from real life
Of course I do it, every writer does. But I don't 'photograph' people and pop them in. I always transform their characteristics into fiction. For example, I listened to former whalers spotting whales on Arapawa Island for DOC. I took notes, but I didn't use their words, I used their joshing and competitiveness and knowledge, and transformed it. Some phrases eg. 'thar she blows' are used verbatim for obvious reasons. It is what Mark Doty calls getting to the 'emotional truth' of the thing.

One of my characters Owen, known as The Friar, has my grandfather's name and tattoos like he does, but he's not my grandad. Molly the old hen got her name from my mate Penny's old dog, but she's not a dog.

Graham Green on writing character
'No, one never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels. One gets started and then, suddenly, one cannot remember what toothpaste they use, what are their views on interior decoration, and one is stuck utterly. No, major characters emerge: minor ones may be photographed. ' (from an earlier post)

So I suppose local people should feel safe. Or at least, safer.

Writers have their preoccupations
Peter Carey said something about how he thought he'd written a number of different novels but he's recently discovered he's been writing the same thing all the time. The Precariousness of Life is one of my preoccupations. I didn’t know it when I started The Blue but I did by the end: Lilian falls (walking), Micky falls (harpoon), Gunner falls (sick). There are steep hills and cliffs, eggs are thrown and threaten to break, people fall from grace. Whaling is dangerous. The wider world is precarious: it's 1938, out of a depression, on the cusp of war. It's also a time of flight.

Wherever you look, things can change in the blink of an eye, what's solid can crumble, what's upright can fall. 'It all hangs by thread' says Lloyd Jones. But even as I say this I want to challenge it. To replace an image which stays with me (the 9/11 photograph of the Falling Man) with the image of Pickles above - not falling but flying. About to be caught. All tragedy, surely, redeemable.

Precarious, the novel, also deals with the slipperiness of identity, the precarious nature of who we are. Those who've read The Blue will know this is another (unexpected) preoccupation of mine.

Standing upright
Oh I had more to say: about a bridge that gives me a sense of the epic in the book, sculptures 'that make the fallen upright', a pohutukawa that clings to a rock face with convoluted roots, the importance of the sea. I finished the talk reading from an essay I wrote about Eastbourne two years ago called One Spring Day. Real people living real (brave) lives not fictional constructs. It ends with Isabel who is 100 and still upright, and who has some tips about how to achieve that: ' Eat three good meals a day, be kind, make the most of each day.'

Only a beginning
Precarious still has so many more pages to be written. Talking about it helped tidy up some of my convoluted thoughts and point me forward. I finished with the Salman Rushdie quote I had on an earlier post. 'Writing’s too hard, it just requires so much of you, and most of the time you feel dumb. I always think you start at the stupid end of the book, and if you’re lucky you finish at the smart end. When you start out, you feel inadequate to the task. You don’t even understand the task.’

All that uncertainty. Better get on.

The Writers' Series
The other two writers who have spoken so far are Jill Harris and Les Molloy, both fascinating. To come are Ann Packer and Maggie Rainey-Smith. The talks are at 2.30pm at St Ronan's, Eastbourne, every Sunday. Thanks to St R's and Anne and Sandy.

Super Pickles photograph credit: Life in the Pumpkin Shell (Flickr).

Friday, August 1, 2008

Birthday Blue

The Blue was launched a year ago today to great fanfare at my bookshop: Rona Gallery. It had been in the shops for about a week beforehand and had already had a wonderful review in The Press.

Two-hundred people came - friends and family from near and far - my publisher Geoff Walker said lovely things and Damien Wilkins, who was my tutor at Victoria University, did a kind of Best Man's speech and got the audience rolling about delightedly.

I don't recall he said much about the book, although he did talk about the cover (the way the whale seems to be about to eat the Penguin and how this somehow represents the world of publishing and my little book ....or something like that.... ) and about how I was the Mother Hen of the MA class where I wrote much of The Blue.

We drank Marlborough wine, ate miniature fish pies and little egg sandwiches and finished up with fruit cake - just like Lilian in The Blue would have made. Close on two-hundred books were sold, which doesn't mean everyone bought one, although many did. My best friend Alexandra bought 20!
It was an unforgettable evening.

NB. The photos are of The Blue at Gleebooks in Glebe, Sydney. Gondal-Girl sent them to me recently - she is one those writers whose blogs I enjoy and who is a regular visitor to mine. She was excited to find The Blue on a shelf beside Canadian author Alistair MacLeod's book.

Interestingly, I see on her blog that it was Emily Bronte's birthday two days ago. And my daughter, Isabel, was 12 yesterday. So The Blue's in good company.