Monday, August 31, 2009

My Tender Jaw & Other Stories by William Dewey

At the launch of this book on Thursday evening, I asked William Dewey why the first edition was limited to one hundred copies. Apparently the printer, Rebel Press, struggled to execute the paperback-with-a-dusk-jacket format; future runs will feature a more traditional paperback cover. A more practical answer than I had suspected, and one I was reminded of as I read my numbered copy (95/100): most odd numbered pages feature smudges in the top right hand corner, and I suspect everyone’s pages 103 and 104 are upside down.

Small, forgivable glitches which might, if they stood alone, add to the charm of a book which contains only eleven stories, one of which is four lines long. It’s 216 pages, but each page is only 11cm x 13cm. My Tender Jaw looks like a book but it doesn’t look like a novel. Perhaps this is the future of the short story collection, I thought as I ran to the bus with the book comfortably inside my coat pocket. (Unfortunately the small print and the windy route of the Number 23 bus made actually reading in transit difficult.)

The collection opens with ‘The Reader’s Story’ and five pages in, the main character realises he’s in a story by William Dewey. The story name-check’s Camus’ The Literary Man, but still has a lot of work to do to convince the reader that there is both originality of thought and content within this metafiction. For this particular reader there was enough humour (“Cliff,” Reed said, and he smiled back. “You almost didn’t make it in this draft.”) and restraint for the story to receive a pass mark, but I was left uneasy about the course the rest of the collection would take.

Fortunately, the course is never predictable. ‘The Imperceptible Man’, sees the narrator discover he is, uh, imperceptible. ‘Two Gallants In A Small Town’ features the reunion of two high school friends after one is released after eight years in prison. We get a tale from childhood (‘The Science Fair’), a Western (‘Forever Drift’), and a story of sexual initiation (‘Later Winter’). While William Dewey never steps forward as author so profoundly as in the opening story, the occasional bout of over-writing (“I remember not disabusing her of the notion,” p.148) means he is never far from the reader’s attention.

Also distracting were the typos and editing oversights, which had a way of aligning with writerly ticks. (Whenever a male’s hair colour is described, it’s some form of blond, though most of the time it’s spelt as ‘blonde’).

Most of the stories are set in the United States, particularly Colorado, from whence Dewey hails. The story which held the most interest for me, however, ‘The Indolence of Disposition’ (worst title in the book, hands down), was the only one set in New Zealand. Featuring an American working in a book store in Wellington and his dealings with two more Americans sent to New Zealand to keep out of trouble, it is an interesting inversion of the typical New Zealand reference in American story-telling (character X is sent to NZ, never to be heard from again, while the story moves on in the U.S.). In a collection that searches for new modes to plunder, this is one of the few times we are presented with a truly fresh perspective.

This is Dewey’s second book to be released by publishing collective Lawrence & Gibson (see also the novel Without A Soul To Move, 2008), and his swan song as a heavily asterisked New Zealand writer as the expiration of his visa meant he departed the country a few days ago.

It is encouraging to see that, despite mainstream New Zealand publishers’ unwillingness to publish work that isn’t Kiwi enough (some combination of author’s birth and abode, book’s setting and subject matter), a book like My Tender Jaw & Other Stories can be published in this country. As I argued last year, an apprenticeship in the public eye can be a great advantage for a writer. Hopefully William Dewey finds similar opportunities wherever he winds up next and these books find their way back to New Zealand.

You know if he makes it big we’ll all claim him as our own, eh?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Man Melting & Other Stories: The Low Down

I've been meaning to do this post for some time, but life intrudes. Damn all that needing a day job and a place to sleep stuff. Anyway, that's sorted now.

As I mentioned in the inaugural This Fluid Thrill post (fancy title for something three people read, eh?), I have a short story collection coming out next year and this will no doubt be mentioned again as the date approaches.

The progress so far: blurb and author bio provisionally complete; designer is off designing potential covers; copy editor is off editing the manuscript; I'm waiting for my photographer brother to receive his shiny new camera before the much anticipated author's photo shoot...

Here's the blurb:
A son worries he is becoming too perfect a copy of his father. The co-owner of a weight-loss camp for teens finds himself running the black market in chocolate bars. A man starts melting and nothing can stop it, not even poetry.

This terrific [not my words] collection of stories moves from the serious and realistic to the humorous and outlandish, each story copying an element from the previous piece in a kind of evolutionary chain. Amid pigeons with a taste for cigarette ash, a rash of moa sightings, and the identity crisis of an imaginary friend, the characters in these eighteen entertaining stories look for ways to reconnect with people and the world around them, even if that means befriending a robber wielding an iguana.
Of the eighteen stories, three have been previously published, and two placed in national competitions (one first and one top ten). Lot's of stories didn't make the cut, including six which were previously published.

Don't let the title scare you ladies off: 23% of the stories feature a female protagonist and/or narrator.

The following music artists are mentioned: Dire Straits, Nelly Furtado, Neil Sedaka, Van Morrison, U2, Styx, Queen, cast members of 'The Sound of Music' (I obviously went for realism over musical credibility).

Stories are set in the following locales: on the banks of the Manawatu River, Edinburgh, Zanzibar, Nelson, Sausalito, Sydney, Stellenbosch, the Scottish Borders, Lambton Quay, somewhere out passed Papakura, a boys high school in a fictional North Island town, a fictional North Island fly fishing destination, at least three offices and Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Death toll: 3 (2 main characters and 1 hitchhiker).

Provisional release date: May 2010.

More news as it comes to hand.

An Impostor's Guide To Happiness

I was the guest speaker last night at class entitled, "Short Stories That Work." The course is one of many run by the Community Education Centre at Wellington High School. Like "night schools" around the country, it's under threat due to recent funding decisions by the National Government.

Far be it from me to veer into politics on this blog, but suffice to say I think adult and community eduction is hugely important. It's the sort of thing that's really hard to re-establish once you've lost it...

I mean, without the CEC, I wouldn't have learnt basic Italian in 2003 (only to forget it in the four years before actually getting to Italy), and wouldn't have got my first guest speaker gig. Not that I feel much different today. But it was cool to pretend I knew what I was talking about for an hour, and I may just have said some helpful things.

I did harp on (and on) about revision being the key to writing 'short stories that work'. I truly believe that, but right now, I don't have any stories left to revise and I have to stare down the great white page and write.

That's the hard part. Little things like last night, and getting a poem accepted for the next issue of Brief, do help. To write a first draft you need some mixture of inspiration, confidence, a deadline and amnesia (coz it's no way is it gonna be as good as your other polish stories on a first draft).

If the mixture's not right over the next few days, I might also adopt a routine as suggested by Fred last night: looking into the mirror before I start writing and saying to myself: "You're a choice writer, eh? And all the girls love you."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This is where it WILL all happen

At first it was just an empty office...

Then I scored an office chair...

(What you can't see too well in the photos above is the view of Lyall Bay...)

Now I have a desk and boxes of stuff...

(and from this angle the view is more like Evan's Bay + Kilbirnie + Lyall Bay + Airport...)

...and despite the fact it looks like I was tapping away at a blank screen in all these photos, I have been writing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Jigsaw Falling Into Place

So it seems this blog is taking a while to get going. But things are slowly getting sorted...

I'm down in Wellington. House-sitting this week, but moving into our new flat in Houghton Bay next week. Coolest of cool: there's a room set aside as my study!! First time ever. Makes a change from last year. The view is so stunning it may be distracting. Photos next week.

I've also bought a car. Not cool enough to warrant photos.

Money is evaporating from my bank account at a scary rate. A day-job or two on the horizon, but nothing is sealed. That's a bit concerning.

Total number of fiction pages written since 1 July: two.


Bring on the study!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Drive-by Shakespeare

On the way home from New Plymouth yesterday, M. and I passed through Stratford. Originally named Stratford-upon-Patea, sometimes called Stratford-in-Taranaki, the town still plays up the fact it’s named after the birthplace of William Shakespeare…

There’s a bust of the bard outside the information centre and New Zealand’s only glockenspiel clock tower plays a scene from Romeo and Juliet four times daily.

But the thing that really interests me in Stratford are the street names.

[If you don’t have 4 minutes and 10 secoonds to watch the video (or are somewhere you really shouldn’t watch a 4 minute and 10 second video) there’s a collage further down the page...]

According to Stratford’s Wikipedia page, there are 67 streets named after characters from 27 of Shakespeare’s plays. M. and I drove around without the benefit of a map (that would be cheating) and managed to photograph 41 Shakespearean signs, though some are a bit dubious.

Curtis is indeed the name of Petruchio’s servant in The Taming of the Shrew, but it was also the last name of the first two town chairmen of Stratford (1882-90).

Surrey, Essex, Warwick and Exeter are all titles held by characters in Shakepeare’s histories, but they are also common street names in non-themed New Zealand towns.

And, Mr Wikipedia, may I point out that the names don’t all belong to characters. There’s Elsinore Street and Verona Place, as well as Shakespeare, Hathaway and Avon Streets.

With the help of a map, I can count 52 streets with Shakespearean names. 53 if you count “Sylvia Street” despite the fact Valentine’s love interest in The Two Gentlemen of Verona is spelt Silvia. If Sylvia Street is indeed an homage to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where’s Valentine and Proteus?

I have nothing against Stratford’s themed streets – it helps make the town far more memorable than, say, Inglewood or Eltham – but there seem to be some glaring omissions.

No Othello, Iago or Desdemona. No one from Othello at all.

We get Hamlet and Claudius, but what about Ophelia and Gertrude?

We get Portia and Antonio from The Merchant of Venice, but not Shylock, the play’s most memorable character (who just so happens to be a Jew).

Before launching into possible sexist/racist conspiracy theories, it should be noted that the only character from MacBeth is Seyton. Who? Macbeth's servant and attendant. Oh, right. I’m sure residents of Seyton Street, Stratford, rue this choice whenever asked for their address over the phone (“You live on Satan Street?”).

Different aspects of Shakespeare are emphasized at different points in time, just as different plays rise or fade in the popularity stakes. One can see hints of this in the selection of Stratford’s street names. A whopping five characters from Troilus and Cressida (though there’s no Troilus Street) suggest town planners were appealing to the Greek mythology English immigrants would have learnt at school in the Nineteenth century. I wonder how many university graduates today could identify Troilus and Cressida as a Shakepearean play in a line up of imposters?

But even taking Shakespearean fashions of the 1880s (or whenever these names came into being) into account, there were some whacky selection criteria.

The nature of the characters doesn’t seem to have had much bearing on their selection. One of the main streets bisecting the State Highway is Regan Street, named after one of Lear’s horrid daughters (though Goneril was passed over, thankfully).

Residents of Cloten Road live under the shadow of Imogen’s attempted rape in Cymbeline.

A surprising number of characters featuring on Stratford’s signs are dead by the end of the play they appear in, which does not seem the most auspicious way to label a street (though most of the tragic figures are not associated with “No Exit” streets -- that would be too funny).

Comedies -- those plays where despite the mess everything wraps up with the promise of procreation and prosperity -- would seem to be the perfect stuff for suburban street names. But where are Benedict and Beatrice? In fact, there’s no one from Much Ado About Nothing, or Alls Well That Ends Well, or Measure for Measure, or The Winter’s Tale...

The fact is, there’s some highly marginal characters immortalized in white on green while the eponymous characters from Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Pericles, Titus Andronicus, Cymbeline and Antony and Cleopatra are snubbed.

If there was a Henry Crescent, it would knock off no less than seven of the History plays.

You could name the streets of a decent sized town with Stratford’s glaring omissions. Inglewood, are you listening?

So while I commend whatever generation of Stratfordians it was that themed their street names, it does feel like half of a good job.

And it leaves me to wonder what other writers might one day have their characters (and the odd setting / biographical detail) turn up on street signs.

Humbert Road, Lolita Street, Pnin Place, Krug Crescent, Shade Street, Kinbote Way, Ada Avenue, Van Alley, Fyodor Drive, Luzhin Lane, Cincinnatus Court…

Pilgrim Place, Trout Terrace, Rosewater Boulevard, Karabekian Close, Kazak Trail, Hoenikker Highway, Bokonon Bypass, Monzano Mall, Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain Street…

Yossarian Way, Dunbar Road, Aarfy Ave, Cathcart Court, Daneeka Drive, Orr Terrace, Minderbiner Parkway, Nately Place, —— de Coverley Square, Major Road, Dreedle Crescent, Hungry Joe Lane…

Even when crowbarred into real life, literature still manages to delight (me at least).

Monday, August 3, 2009

Two Seats And The Sea

I've been in New Plymouth the last few days. Back now. Working on a more substantial post for tomorrow. It will be called "Drive-by Shakespeare".

What I'm Reading: 'The Savage Detectives' by Roberto Bolaño. In addtion to travel and job hunting, I blame this book for my lack of posts the last week or so. Not sure if I'm struggling through it or savouring it. I would like to have a version in the original Spanish to compare and contrast (though I doubt my Spanish is good enough to detect things like tone).

I've been to three pet stores (two in Palmy, one in New Plymouth). Research for a short story. Until the story is written I will feel compelled to visit every pet store I see.