Monday, July 26, 2010

A really good place to start: a conversation with Tina Makereti

Tina Makereti’s short story collection, Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa, was published by Huia in June this year. In his review for the NZ Herald, David Hill described Tina as a writer, “whose inventiveness and empathy mark her as one to watch”, while North & South’s review went one further: “Tina Makereti is not just one to watch, she is one to read and enjoy now."

In a shameless piece of self promotion, Tina and I will be appearing in conversation with David Geary as part of the IIML’s Writers on Mondays at Te Papa. Our session, ‘First Fictions’, is 12.15-1.15pm, Monday 16 August.

As part of my goal of promoting Kiwi short fiction, and to get to know Tina a bit better, I asked her a few questions via email. 


CC: ‘Skin and Bones’ is a fantastic story — I can't imagine the collection starting any other way. Was it always your first choice to open the collection? And what led you to write this story in the first place?

TM: Thanks so much!  The only reason it's first is because I couldn't imagine it being anywhere else either.  Somehow I ended up with creation at the beginning and death at the end (well, death as well as birth), but that symmetry wasn't apparent until quite late in the development of things.  To tell the truth, I think I would have hidden ‘Skin and Bones’ in the middle somewhere because of the 'adult' themes, but it didn't make sense anywhere else.

An MA classmate, Charis Boos, was looking at mythology in her poetry, and for a workshop she asked us to think about mythological traditions we were familiar with.  This triggered a bit of a chain reaction for me - an old obsession with mythologies combined with some sort of idea that it would be an interesting exercise to make mythological characters more human.  There's not always an explanation given for the actions of godly beings.  In the versions I read, it would always say: Tane went in search of the female element or something similar (they were Maori stories in translation).  There was never anything about Hine ahu one, the woman he eventually created - it was like she was a blank slate.  So I thought about what kind of woman she would have been, and of course, his motivations in creating her.  The funny thing was in some of the stories, Tane didn't know how to procreate with Hine once she was made, so his fumbling and experimenting is part of the story. That's a pretty human characteristic - I guess I used it as my starting point.   

CC: ‘Blink’ is an interesting story.  I enjoyed the way it veers into almost pulp sci-fi territory, but manages to walk that fine line and keep its credibility. It is, in the end I think, a great character study which uses some sci-fi tropes, rather than a sci-fi story which uses characters.

TM: Yes, I think it started with thoughts around relationships and paranoia.  Rosie is a pretty neurotic character, and I started playing with her sense of reality.  I was also having a go at deliberate humour, which I found a massive challenge, but the feedback I got was to amp up the strange and humorous aspects.  So I decided to take it as far as I could.  It is probably the most re-written story in the collection, whereas ‘Skin and Bones’ has changed very little from the first draft.

CC: I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to see science (both pure science and sci-fi) pop up since you won the Non-Fiction category in last year's Manhire Science Writing Prize for ‘Twitch’, which looks at the similarities between Maori and scientific views of creation. Which came first: ‘Blink’ or ‘Twitch’? Were you conscious of any link between sci-fi and Maori mythology when you were working on ‘Blink’?

TM: Like most of the stories in the collection, 'Blink' was a bit of an exploration of where I could go with a story, and in the beginning it wasn't very conscious!  I tried not to categorise what I was doing, so I didn't think 'this is sci-fi'.  A few of the stories were structured around particular myths, but for the most part I was just figuring out what I could do with fiction.  I was pretty unsure with ‘Blink’, because I didn't think sci-fi or humour were things I would be able to pull off. 

'Twitch' came much later, in response to the RSNZ call for entries for the Manhire prize, but the thoughts behind it began at the same time as I first encountered all the mythology as a teenager.  I remember the first time I read the Maori version of the creation of the Universe (in English translation), I thought it could be a description of the Big Bang as I understood it.  I decided to check out if there was any scientific basis to my thoughts, and it turned out there was more than I had hoped for.  Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything was a great source for the scientific side of things.  I found it to be almost spiritual, because although it is completely about science, it continuously bumps into the mystery of things - the idea that it is completely miraculous we even exist.

CC: Were you under the sway of any particular writers when you were writing the stories in Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa?

TM: Hmmm, under the sway!  I can't say if my writing was particularly influenced by certain writers.  I know I was interested in reading short fiction that was innovative, quirky, or played with the limits of what a story can do.  I enjoyed Dave Eggers, Miranda July, Keri Hulme, Duncan Sarkies, Hari Kunzru - there were some great collections of stories I read where I encountered twenty weird and wonderful writers I couldn't name!  I feel bad naming some writers and not others... actually, I'm pretty guilty of not being a very disciplined reader - you seem much more dedicated (judging from your blog...) I didn't read much from Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson or Alice Walker while I was writing, but I think their approach to story, particularly where they look at history, mythology or the future, has played a part in how I try to approach fiction.

It just occurred to me that if I was under the sway of anything it was continuously watching episodes of The Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords.  It was a bit of a guilty obsession at the time, but if it helped the writing...

CC: Oh absolutely. I think the process of writing makes you more susceptible to guilty pleasures. Not that The Mighty Boosh or the Conchords should be thought of as guilty pleasures.

I remember when I first tried to write a novel, I went on the dole for a month and watched the new series of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles they were running on TV every morning before I started writing. It began as a way to get me up by 8am, but it was a total guilty pleasure.

TM: That totally makes sense.  It’s like you have to get yourself into a really cosy childlike place where it’s okay to be imaginative. Perhaps those things help us bypass that adult voice saying go out and get a proper job.  I mean, writing fiction is just playing make believe.  There’s also a weird thing where not-writing and not-thinking appear to have some value in the process.  I don’t know what the ratio is, you definitely can’t do it too much, but the conscious mind needs some downtime.
That’s my excuse anyway...

CC: I want to talk a little now about your experience as a first time author, and what it's been like going through that process of writing something without knowing, ultimately, if it's going to get published, but then the stars align and you find yourself handing a book over to the world. What have been the surprises for you along the road to publication and following it?

TM: This is a nice surprise, having this conversation with you.  Every time someone says they like the book it's a nice surprise.  That probably sounds trite, but it hasn't gotten old yet!  It'd be pretty sad if it did, because every time someone engages with the book they've taken time out of their own lives to look at my little literary contribution. One of the coolest things is that people ask really interesting questions about the work, and sometimes I get to talk about things that are more important than writing.  I didn't see that coming.

Getting into the MA at Vic was the purest thrill for me really, partly because I assumed it meant at some stage I would be able to publish a book.  I now know that is a very wrong assumption to make - publishing is a whole different deal.  But I did do okay after that, so I wonder if there was a little bit of self-fulfilling prophecy or whatever you call it when something happens because you believed it would. 

Publishing has been quite fraught for me, personally.  I find the business side of things oddly non-transparent, and the whole idea of being a more public person frankly frightening.  It is brilliant to be published and it’s something I hoped for, no question.  But it is not easy.  I have a weird relationship with the whole thing, cos I want the work to be successful, and I do things to publicise it, but I also come to the edge of my comfort zone quite frequently.  What's it like for you?  Do you struggle with it at all?  I imagine there are people who love that side of things.

CC: I’ve actually found the process of handing a whole collection of stories over to the world a lot less stressful than just having one story at a time published — which is a total surprise. I thought it would be 18 times worse. Stressful perhaps isn’t the right word. I remember when I first started having stories appear in places like JAAM or Sport, the only people who ever commented on them were friends and family, and it felt like they were always focusing on the autobiographical aspects (which the stories no doubt contained, but weren’t the point of the stories). So from then on, there was this little voice in my head when I wrote something, or when I submitting something, saying, ‘What will your mum/gran/auntie/friend think of this?’ But now that I’ve put this book out, people from work or complete strangers are talking about these stories like they’re just stories, pure imagination – which is how I’d hope every reader approached them. I think it helps having the heft of a book in their hands and just your name on the cover.

And the other thing with a collection is, even if there’s autobiographical stuff in there, there’s 13 or 18 different versions of ‘you’. Like in your collection, there’s a number of mother/child relationships, but I never really thought: ‘Oh, this must be what Tina really thinks.’ 

TM: That’s a relief.  Sometimes I think of writing those stories as learning to exercise the fiction muscle – every time I wrote a character that was too much me, it wasn’t very successful.  Of course whole stories say something about what you think, but not single characters. 

Fiction is so liberating, I mean your title story ‘A Man Melting’, I just read it.  I heard you say on RNZ it started with your hand being damp with sweat while you were working.  But look what it turned into.  And no one could assume it’s about a real person.  I loved the weirdness of it, that it’s almost believable simply because the writing creates a universe where a man melting makes some kind of sense.

CC: You’re currently working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Victoria.  On the IIML’s website you describe the creative component of your PhD as consisting of two strands: “a sort of biographical travel memoir”, and an account of the life of an ancestor describing, “how a Moriori woman came to marry an Irishman and live in the South Island”. This not only sounds like a fascinating read, but I imagine the research and composition process would be equally absorbing: has it been? How have you found the shift to longer narrative forms?    

TM: I was thinking today that I'm really glad I'm doing this book via the PhD process because it means there's a standard I have to strive for that requires rigorous research, and I'm going to need to be really sure about what I say.  Even that description is no longer accurate in terms of the research I have done. The whole project is quite daunting in the bigger picture because what happened on Rekohu (Chatham Islands) has not been addressed extensively in written fiction.  That means I feel a huge responsibility to get it right, but in the end I can only tell a story, and that story will be about certain characters in a certain context.  One of the problems is that so much fallacy and national myth has been touted in the past that the story can't avoid being contentious. But that problem is also part of the impetus for writing this.

It's a pretty fine line: how much is research and how much is imagination.  Because it's fictional writing, intuition and imagination come first, but I need to continuously back that up with research.  It's a messy process.  I'm going to get things wrong, a lot, before I get things right.  That's really uncomfortable, for me, because in short fiction I could always have a full draft before I showed anyone.  This definitely requires more thought and planning, but I don't want to deaden the process by finding too many answers before I simply put pen to paper (fingertips to keyboard in my case).   I'm really interested in different writers' processes, how did you approach the novels you wrote?

CC: Incorrectly is probably the answer, since they never quite worked. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything from those experiences. These days, I’m better at seeing the options available to me, the many ways a story can be told.  But there’s only so much weighing up of pros and cons you can do before you start writing, and once you start, all that gets thrown out the window anyway.  So I still make mistakes, take wrong turns, but hopefully it’s only two days work that I’ve wasted instead of two months.

Hmm, that’s hardly the sort of thing an aspiring writer would write on a post-it and stick above their writing space. Do you have any cheesy inspirational posters (hang in there, baby) or lucky charms in your writing space?

TM: I have a nice piece of fabric I stuck above my desk to hang such things on.  I can’t say it’s been a very successful project cos there’s still heaps of space on it, but it has a map of Rekohu and an Albatross feather and family pictures on it.  Actually, that sounds like a really good place to start.

A touch of poesie to start the week

If I have one complaint about the IIML's Writers on Mondays it's a small one. And completely self-centred. But it sure is difficult to get from Thorndon to the Marae on level four of Te Papa (20 mins brisk walking), catch a session, then return to work without having consumed your share of lunch minutes for the week. Despite what people say about public servants, I'm normally lucky to get ten minutes to eat my lunch at my desk while reading less urgent emails.

So while I would love to catch every Writers on Mondays session, it's not always practicable.

But there was no way I was going to miss today's session, featuring eight poets from Best NZ Poems 2009.   I blogged about the launch of BNZP09 back in March.

The poets that read today were: Geoff Cochrane, Lynn Davidson, Lynn Jenner, Tim Upperton, Chris Price (who doubled as chair), Greg O'Brien, Marty Smith, Louise Wallace and Ashleigh Young.

Each read their poem which was selected for BNZP09 by Scottish-domiciled, expat Kiwi Robyn Marsack, and also read another work by a New Zealand poet of their choosing, such as Alastair Te Ariki Campbell, Cilla McQueen, and James Brown (who was chosen twice: I was sitting next to James and he seemed quietly chuffed).

You can read all 25 poems selected for BNZP09 here.

It was a great way to kick off what promises to be a great week for poetry, with National Poetry Day on Friday. There are several events on in the capital, so I'm still weighing up my options, but I think I'm leaning towards the Ballroom Cafe Poets event at the Museum of City and Sea.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Misery, music and eBooks: an interview with Pip Adam

Pip Adam’s debut collection of short stories, Everything We Hoped For, was released in May this year. It kicked off a run of debut collections from local authors (Tina Makereti’s Once Upon A Time In Aotearoa in June; A Man Melting by, uh, me, in July). In the interest of promoting Kiwi short fiction and satisfying my own curiosity, I’ll be interviewing both Pip and Tina via email and sharing our convos.

Today, it’s Pip’s turn.


CC: Pip, I'd like to start by asking you about the subject matter of the book. The recent review in the Otago Daily Times ran with the headline 'Depressing Themes Mar Pleasing Style' — it struck me as a rather shallow reading of the book, particularly as the style and the themes are inextricably linked. Characters in your collection are often trapped, be it in a crappy job and an intractable friendship/romance ('This Is Better'), in rehab or prison ('Like a Good Idea', 'A Noisy Place'), or by illness or their own moral codes. To match this sense of being trapped, these stories are mostly brief and told in a muted tone. It would seem that you have deliberately chosen to focus on bleaker aspects of human behaviour, and I wondered what the attraction for you is with these sorts of stories? Do you think 'depressing themes' are especially suited to short fiction?

PA: I was laughing with a friend the other day about how I always get a surprise when people point out that the stories are 'depressing'. I forget. Terrible things happen in real life, horrible things, and I guess I'm interested in what we do with those things because suffering seems so universal, to all living things. There's a community in suffering, we come together there, well and badly. What I've seen, what I see, is that people work really hard to do the best they can with what they've got and there's something completely compelling to me about that, and well, I seem to be able to express it best when I write about people in trouble. Do you know that Tom Waits' song 'Misery's the River of the World'?

CC: Yep. And for those who might not, here’s the youtube clip:

PA: I love that song, especially that line, that command I suppose, 'Everybody row!' I love that. Speaking of Waits, I also think those dark places make for great humour. I always think the short story is like a joke, the form is very unforgiving like a joke, the timing has to be perfect, the tone and well, I just think humour works well when it's dark. I love 'Nighty Night' and Ronald Hugh Morrieson and David Foster Wallace ('Infinite Jest' is one of the funniest books I've ever read). There's that great hilarity that comes in the dark, that doesn't come from the light. Maybe I am just a miserable bitch baha. I guess there's also that Frank O'Connor thing, The Lonely Voice, I'm not so sure about that.

What do you think? Like your story 'Manawatu', would you describe that as dark? There is something really heroic in it that comes out of somewhere dark. Like that would be a totally different story if it was all, 'I love coming home, everything is so great when I come home.' I love that story.

CC: Thanks. I invited everyone from my work to my book launch, and for the last fortnight I’ve had people say, ‘Some of it’s a bit dark’. Which is true, especially for the first handful of stories, which is usually all people have read before they see me next. It’s funny that you mention ‘Manawatu’. I was talking to a bunch of Whitireia writing students last weekend, and I was asked about the story behind that story: it’s the most autobiographical story in my collection by far. I changed a few details (like the brother’s name from Darren to Warren; and Brisbane for Melbourne), but I did everything that’s in the story up to the point where I’m/he’s standing on the edge of my/his auntie’s balcony, which is when I thought: this could make a good story.

Have you ever had a moment when you went: this is great fodder for a story? Did any of these make it into your collection?

PA: I do remember this one time, it was right in the middle of the MA and, well, you know what it’s like, huffing out stories, words, writing, writing, or looking for something to write about. There was this lunar eclipse and Brent and I were in our back yard looking at this lunar eclipse and I thought, Oh, this is a story, and immediately this weird thing happened where I started talking like I was a character out of a story, and he sort of replied in kind, and it was the strangest thing, everything took on this story-hue, it was like the story was unfolding around me and I was like, Sweet, and I went inside and I wrote it down and it was shit. Like really, really bad.

I love Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads, that stuff about writing ordinary things in simple language but throwing over them a ‘colouring imagination’, that necessity for getting at how we associate ordinary things in a ‘state of excitement’. I love that I find it really hard to say what I did to an autobiographical story to make it a work of fiction but I can really ‘hear’ when I’ve done it or not. I love that murky land between real and fiction, especially at the moment. And that thing you’re saying about ‘Manawatu’, that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. I heard this great quote the other day, ‘Art is the lie that tells the truth.’ Pablo Picasso said it and yeah, I am just hooked on it at the moment, I’m kind of constantly writing toward it at the moment.

CC: The order of your collection feels crucial to the effect of the stories. A number of stories in the first half of the collection are mirrored in the second half, like the first story 'A Bad Start', which is a rather disturbing vision of childbirth and the first days of motherhood, and the last story in the collection ('Daisy') which takes place after the worst of the sleepless nights are over for the parents; or 'The Kiss' and 'A Village' which both feature soldiers and the partners they leave behind.

The placement of 'Shopping' near the end of the collection seems particularly important. It ends rather abruptly after a mother and daughter avoid an argument in the supermarket. Earlier in the collection this may have fallen flat, but sandwiched by two of the lighter stories in the book, and when contrasted with stories like 'Over Again', the ending feels filled with hope. This must have taken some time and thought to get the placement right. How long did it take you to order this collection?

PA: Yeah, I loved having enough stories to order them baha. I spent hours listening to my favourite albums, listening to how they sounded, you know what I mean? Like that Bright Eyes' album Cassadaga came out the year I did the MA and I listened to it over and over to see how they put the songs together, because that album had that feeling that its whole was bigger than the parts of it. You know it was, what's that word they use - cumulative. So yeah, I listened to that, and (Smog) Supper and Palace Brother Viva Last Blues and then I wrote the titles of all the stories on little bits of paper and laid them on the floor of our flat and shuffled the order of them around until it sounded like one of those albums. And there were heaps of pragmatic things like, Oh no, there's a string of soldier stories, or All the baby stories can't be together, or Polly and Poppy are together. I had written all these personal 'in-jokes' into the stories which made ordering them tricky, but fun. Yeah, it was the most fun thing.

CC: Well, the ordering of my collection was much less rock’n’roll. I listed all the stories I had in an Excel spreadsheet and moved things around, playing with the links between them, while I was working as a temp in Edinburgh and I could get away with that sort of thing. But yes, it was still quite fun. I’m a total Excel geek.

PA: Never underestimate the rock’n’roll quotient of an Excel spreadsheet.

CC: Still on the subject of ordering: do you tend to read short story collections in the order they are presented in the book? Has ordering your own collection influenced the way you read short story collections now?

PA: I do, well I have since I started reading Hempel and Lutz and those Gish-y writers. After I learnt about that whole spark-trajectory thing. But I never used to, I used to read the shortest stories first. It was a hairdressing thing, I was always reading on buses or in between work, so yeah, I never used to. A teacher at high school told us that a short story has to be read in one reading, that's what defined it as a short story, and I wasn't a great reader, and like I say, I was reading them having a cigarette while my client's perms were processing so yeah, I used to look at the index and count the pages and read the short ones first.

CC: While we're talking about reading, 'Everything We Hoped For' is also available as an eBook through VUP and Have you seen your book in digital form? What are your thoughts about digital reading devices and the future of the physical book?

PA: I have seen the eBook, it's nice, they've made it look great. I'm really excited about the whole eBook thing. A lot of the conversations I've heard are about how the devices don't measure up to 'real' books, but, man, have you seen those things? They sit flat! With some of them you can be reading and then think, Oh, I need to make dinner, and switch it to talking and it will read the book to you while you make your cup of soup.

CC: Really? That’s cool. I actually listen to a lot of audiobooks. It started when the bus I took to work was always packed when it got to my stop, so I wasn’t able to read but I could listen to my iPod.

PA: Audio books are great eh? Have you seen the Wellington Public Library’s new digital audio book collection? You can download them from their site, so like the library is open 24/7 now. I love libraries so much.

I've always been interested in electronic publishing. I wrote all these poems in HTML when I was at library school, they were hyperlinked which meant I had a whole other dimension to tell a story in. Everyone's talking about eBooks at the moment but there are some amazing websites out there as well, like Joyce, HTML has been good to Joyce.

I'm excited about the repurposing and remixing of literature that can take place once a work is electronic. One of the best things about publishing a book for me was how it became less and less mine, it started to belong to more and more people and I got to hear their ideas about what it was, and the idea that people can personlise a book even more really excites me. There's so many possibilities once it's electronic in an open format like e-pub. It all sounds quite modern but it kind of gives us a chance to get back to that whole communal story telling thing, where a community owns a story, not an individual.

It's exciting but like all exciting things it's a bit scary too, like I was a bit um, in the beginning I asked myself lots of questions about control, like would I still 'own' the book, what would happen if someone wanted to make an electronic version that linked to all the tourist spots in Christchurch that I mention, would that still be my book? Would I still be able to have some control over that book? I talked to some friends about it and thought about it and well, yeah, I came to the conclusion that really I didn't own the book, once it was read by someone, they owned it, and yeah, that is good, that's all I really ever want.

CC: I understand that you wrote a number of the stories in Everything We Hoped For while doing the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in Wellington, and now you're studying towards a PhD. According to the IIML's website, as part of your PhD project you're hoping to "represent large built forms [such as bridges, tunnels, towers and dams] in new and engaging ways less dependant on the projection of human experience and offering new perspectives to the built, the natural and the animate." This sounds rather different to the stories in Everything We Hoped For. Is it? How has the shift from a workshop-based environment to the more solitary world of the PhD affected your writing?

PA: Yeah, hopefully it's different. It feels different. I've had to learn a lot about a whole new discipline. I knew nothing about engineering at the start and that's been good, that collision of the language I know and the language I'm trying to know. That stuttering baby talk that makes for mistakes which trips my writing in directions I couldn't have anticipated.

The PhD is great for me, I have a fantastic office-mate, and all the PhD students' offices are on the same floor so in some ways it's less solitary than the MA was for me. We have workshops every six or so weeks, which works for me too. The biggest effect of the PhD on my writing is that I feel really committed to this idea, which is good for me. There have been lots of times over the last year that I've wanted to quit, like I just don't feel like I'm a good enough writer to do what I want to do, but there is this great pragmatic thing with the PhD that I said I would do something and every six months someone asks, Are you doing what you said you would do? So I keep going ‘cause I know they'll ask again. I like when writing is like work, do you like that? Like it isn't mysterious and about inspiration or muses or anything like that, it's about hard work, about craft, about finding a way to finish something I've started. My friend always jokes about writer's block, like he says, Imagine if someone said, Oh not today I have surgeons' block.

CC: I’m nodding here. I reckon the unsexy things like discipline, commitment, and perseverance, are probably more important than ideas and inspiration in the final wash up.

PA: Yeah, I feel bloody lucky to be doing the PhD, for the work and the people, the students and Bill and Damien and Andrew (that's my secondary supervisor, he's an engineer who works at the school of architecture). It took me a long time to get into the MA, I applied three times and for years I was working these jobs I hated and trying to fit writing around them and yeah, I never really lose sight of that, like even on the bad days, when I write for hours and get one bad sentence, I always think about how friggin' lucky I am to be doing what I'm doing.

CC: That’s cool to hear. I have plenty more questions, but it’s probably best to leave some of them unanswered. Thanks for talking/typing to me.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A week and a bit of being out there

During one of my lunch hours this week I had occasion to go to the city end of Lambton Quay (M. needed her ring resized; turns out the ring finger on her right hand is a few sizes bigger than the one on her left), and went on to Unity Books on Willis Street where I saw a pile of my books in the window.  Sweet!  There were also a stack on the NZ New Release table (general props to Unity for reserving the most prominent retail spot for NZ writing) and another eight or so copies on the alphabetical NZ Fiction shelves round the corner.  Apparently, there's plenty of copies at Unity in Auckland, too.  And a workmate tells me Parsons on Lambton Quay are already on their second order.  Go the independents, I say.


They've announced the short-list of the 2010 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award.  A Man Melting was on the 58-strong long list, but it was always a long shot that I'd make the top six and earn a trip to Ireland (now that would have been sweet).

Congratulations to the six short-listed authors:

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Picador UK, 2010) by Robin Black
Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press, 2010) by Belle Boggs
Wild Child (Bloomsbury, 2010) by TC Boyle
The Shieling (Comma Press, 2009) by David Constantine
Burning Bright (HarperCollins, 2010) by Ron Rash
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) by Laura van den Berg


I spoke to two classes-worth of creative writing students from Whitireia this afternoon.  It was special because it was the first time I've spoken to a group since my book came out, and I got to do a reading from the actual book (I read from 'Manawatu').

It was doubly special as one of the class was a subscriber to The Listener, so had already received this coming week's issue, which includes a review of A Man Melting.  She'd kindly bought the review along, so I got to have a quick read (they were kinda waiting on me for the Q&A) of my first ever review.  The review was by Siobhan Harvey, which is a lovely coincidence as she was the guest editor of JAAM 25 back in 2007, the very issue that featured my first ever published story ('Cristo Redentor', not in A Man Melting).  I can't recall many specifics of the review, but it was pretty darn positive and included the phrase 'astounding feat' or 'astonishing feat'.  Can't wait to grab my own copy of The Listener: that review's going straight to the pool room.


I was kind of expecting an article about me to appear in today's Dom Post, but didn't see one. Maybe next Saturday.  Can't say I'm not relieved: I'm convinced I'll look like a wally the photo they took (me in my work clothes, standing by a construction hoarding trying not to look too serious, amid the taxis and pedestrians on Pipitea Street).

It also appears I've been bumped from tomorrow's Arts on Sunday programme on National Radio. (I recorded my interview the afternoon of my book launch, 1 July). Guess there's always next Sunday. The good news is fellow short-fictioneer Tina Makereti will appear on tomorrow's show.  Represent!


Still haven't decided whether I'm rooting for the Dutch or the Spanish in the football on Monday morning.  Before the World Cup began, Spain was my bet to win it all, but I feel like the Netherlands deserve to win, if only because they've come second twice before...

At least I know who to root for tonight in the rugby. Hopefully the All Blacks show some of the All White's grit mixed with some Spanish flair... We shall see.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

June's Reading in Review

A few days late, but here's what I was reading amid other distractions in June...

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (novel)

Love in the Time of Cholera (Popular Penguins)
The first book by Marquez I've read. I bought it at the same time as One Hundred Years of Solitude (gotta love those $12.99 penguin classics), so you'll see that title discussed here at some stage later in the year. So I haven't been turned off Marquez, exactly, but I'm not sure about Love in the Time of Cholera. There's plenty to admire: it's ballsy, an epic on a very personal scale. But I never really felt anything for Florentino Ariza or Fermina Daza. They're unlikeable in many ways (he's a perpetually constipated despoiler of fourteen years olds and impregnator of unsuspecting house maids who thinks he's saving himself for Fermina Daza; she's a iron-hearted, strong-headed woman who smells the laundry and is funny about eggplant). The only time I felt close to a character was in the opening section where we follow Dr Juvenal Urbino. On reflection, this was probably the only "scene" in the novel, the rest was all rapid fire narration. I like a bit of both (showing and telling, if you will), but for me the mix was off in Love in the Time of Cholera.

Gilead by Marilyn Robinson (novel, audiobook)

GileadListening to Tim Jerome read Robinson's novel was a fantastic experience. The story is told in epistolary form and one of the strengths of the book is the voice of the narrator, Reverand John Ames, who is writing a long letter to his young son whom he will not see grow up. Ames stumbles into debates of doctrine and reflections upon decades-old sermons - you wouldn't call the novel a page-turner in the usual sense. Stumbly, reflective, non-plot driven novels are often hard to get into as audiobooks, but this was not the case here. There was plenty of time to marvel at the craft and intellect of Robinson, and the voice-acting of Jerome, while still feeling pulled along by the story.

Everything We Hoped For by Pip Adam and Once Upon A Time in Aotearoa by Tina Makereti (short stories, NZ)

Once Upon a Time in AotearoaEverything We Hoped forI attended the launches of both these books (Pip's in May and Tina's in June), and I completed the trifecta with the launch on Thursday. I enjoyed both collections, which are rather different (as is mine from theirs) -- rather than say anything else, I hope to interview each author individually in the coming weeks/months and post it on my blog. T'will make a welcome change from the A Man Melting spruik-fest, I'm sure.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

More than just a launch

I wasn't just planning my own book launch and tooting my own horn these past few weeks.  I was also engagement ring shopping and being all around the most romantic guy to ever walk Lambton Quay (*cough cough*).

So Wednesday night I proposed to M. and she said yes, which made Thursday night a double celebration.

The venue for the launch of A Man Melting was The Library.  The only headache with the venue was the possible confusion with the actual lending library -- this Library is a bar on Courtenay Place decked out with op-shop furniture, old hardcover books and basically radiating bookish charm:

Contrary to what the above photo might suggest, the launch was very well attended.  We packed out the function room and most of the couched area outside.

Harriet Allan, the fiction editor at Random House, gave a lovely speech, the gist of which was you'd have to be crazy to publish a short story collection in this book-buying environment, but then a manuscript will come along that makes you say, "Bugger it, this needs to be published."

Harriet was followed by Bill Manhire, who was my M.A. supervisor back in 2006.  When Bill started to speak I noticed he had a speech typed out in small font taking up an entire A4 page. I'd only given him a copy of the book a week ago, but he proceeded to give such a kind and generous critique, it felt like a mini M.A. examiners report.  Then he turned over the A4 page and the other side was also filled with text.

Amongst other things, Bill suggested that there may be something like a Manawatu School of writers (he mentioned me, James Brown and David Geary), which equates to something like southern Taranaki Gothic with music references.

Then it was time for my thank yous (with a special thank you reserved for my new fiancé), more drinks and plenty of signing.

Sometimes when you organise your own party, you never get the chance to enjoy it.  On Thursday night however, I had a blast.  It was great to see the support from so many different quarters, and when you add in a great venue, better-than-decent weather, and our other celebration -- it was truly a special night.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

It's been a long time coming...

The day has finally come. My celebratory soirée is at 6pm this evening.  Tomorrow A Man Melting will be officially "out there".

It's been a big week (more on this when I write up the launch), so it's nice that I was able to finish work early this afternoon and have a few quiet hours to chill out and reflect.

It's nearly two years since I submitted the manuscript for A Man Melting to a publisher.  Random House NZ was my first choice, and I was terribly lucky to be welcomed into a stable of authors which includes short story supremos like Owen Marshall, Charlotte Grimshaw and Carl Nixon.  At the time, I knew it'd be a long wait before the book came out (early 2010), which became May 2010, which became July 2010.  But we're here now and who could put it any better than the Tragically Hip:
we don't go anywhere
just on trips
we haven't seen a thing
we still don't know where it is
it's a safe mistake
it's been a long time running
it's been a long time coming...
it's well worth the wait