Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A head in seven places

Band of my moment: I'm loving the New Pornographers right now. I bought their newest album, Together, last year coz I had tickets to see them in concert here in Wellington (thanks to a friend who knows what he's talking about).  I got another album, Electric Version (2003) from a different friend a few weeks ago and almost instantly went out and got the rest of their back catalogue. I think what was holding me back is the fact I had two Neko Case albums and never really gotten into them. But yeah, loving the New Pornographers entire ouevre!

(They're Canadian.)



For those unfamiliar with my musical tastes, I'm a Dark Canuck (link, link).


I've been up in Auckland for work. Two solid days thinking about school design from first principles. Really cool stuff. Hopefully I get the chance to send my as-yet-nonexistent kids to a school like the ones that are getting built now and not something stuck in the "cells and bells" mode of teaching... Although there's a place for that I suppose.  I think they call that "parental choice".



I'm locked in for two sessions at the Auckland Writers Fest in May (one called 'Emerging Writers', another about the Commonwealth Writers Prize with me, David Mitchell and Aminatta Forna) and five sessions as part of the Sydney Writers Fest the following week!  Yeah, five. And that doesn't count the outreach events that CWP are planning (school visits, a trip to juvie etc), these are just ones that'll be printed in the SWF programme (though in Australia it'll be spelt 'program' -- can anyone think of any other words where Aus/NZ spelling differs??)

One event is in the Blue Mountains, one's in Parramatta and three are in Sydney proper.  Three are with other CWP regional winners but I'm on two panels, one about 'Bromance: the truth about male friendship' (or something) and another about whether Australia has lost it's sense of humour (me being the token Kiwi on the panel). I like the fact these last two give me the chance to promote myself as a writer with a sense of humour. That often gets lost in the mix with reviews and other media stuff. It's a book of short stories which means it's got a limited audience (why?) so it must mean it's literary (sorta) which means it can't ever be funny (????).

David Geary will always have a special place in my heart (/ego?) because the first thing he said about my book was, "'Fat Camp': seriously funny stuff."

Oh, and I just got asked to appear at the Melbourne Writers Festival in late Aug/early Sept.  How cool is that?  All thanks to my success in the Commonwealth Writers Prize.  I better remember all this good fortune when it's time for Thanksgiving in November...


Note: I've decided never to include an apostrophe in the name of any writers and/or readers festival because the festivals can't even decide between themselves where it should go or if there should be one at all.



This may be my last blog post for a while as we're off to Vietnam on Saturday for our buttermoon (this is an in-joke between me, M. and anyone who read my column in the Dom Post last week, so, like, 17 people).

Taking my new camera (of course). I'll refrain from the full holiday slideshow post when I get back (isn't that what Facebook's for? that, and stalking girls you fancied in intermediate) but may slip one or two in a post when I get back just to make y'all jealous.

Coz that's the kind of friend I am.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Two photos

With a little more than half my prize money from the Commonwealth Writers Prize , I purchased a Canon SLR camera (a 550D if that means anything to you).

It arrived yesterday and it's loooooove.

I don't know a lot about photography but my brother is a trained photographer (he took my author photo, don't ya know) and sells camera for a living, so I should pick a few things up.

Here's a photo of a seagull taken from my deck (reduced quality for internet posting):

And here's the pile of books I'm currently reading*:

* You can see a number of bookmarks** in these books to prove I'm mid-stream. I normally read 2-3 books at once (not pictured, The Sea Wolf by Jack London, because it's an audiobook I'm listening to on my iPod), but things have gotten a bit crazy lately. The slim volumes are all poetry (I picked up several at the launch of Siobhan Harvey's Lost Relatives, also pictured, last week) which I am reading, re-reading in fits and starts.

** I don't think any are actual bookmarks. There's a library check-out slip, a supermarket receipt, a half a post-it and a $2 scratchie that's won $4 but I can't cash it in until I finish the book.

Repost: A Man Melting, The Playlist

In June last year, in the lead up to the July 2 release date for my short story collection, A Man Melting, I posted a playlist for the book in three parts.

I'm reposting it in one grand pubah of a post now for those of you who missed it the first time around and to make it easier to link to in the future...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

[I started writing my long overdue February reading post and it blew up. So it'll come in dribs and drabs over the next few weeks, along with March's books.]


 Prestige The I watched the film version of The Prestige (directed by Christoper Nolan and starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) when it came out in cinemas in 2006. I also watched The Illusionist (starring Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti) when that came out a few months later on DVD. What can I say, I like stuff about magicians. At the time I greatly preferred The Presitge, but didn't put much thought into why.

Book vs Film vs Film

The PrestigeIn February I listened to the auidobook version of Christopher Guest's novel, The Prestige, upon which Christopher Nolan based his film. I haven't rewatched the film since, but I have rewatched The Illusionist (which was based on a short story by Stephen Millhauser) and my conclusion is the same: The Prestige is the superior story.

Now, the film and the book do differ signficantly in terms of both structure and plot. The novel has a framing story set in the modern day involving decendents of the two magicians (Angier and Borden), whereas the film frames the magicians fued by having Alfred Borden on trial for the murder of Rupert Angier (not in the novel). But the great thing about both versions is the fact the two protagonists give up so much to achieve success (in magic and in besting their rivals). It's almost like that formula in hard-boiled crime fiction where the detective can only come to knowledge through suffering, except here you can replace "knowledge" with "magic". (And what is magic but the individual's knowledge of the possiblle presented to the crowd as the impossible?).

This is symbolised in both the novel and the film by the magician Ching Ling Foo who walks around with gimpy his whole life to disguise the fact he keeps a fishbowl full of water clamped between his thighs (and beneath his flowing oriental robes) to produce 'from thin air' in the finale of his show.

Both Borden and Angier have their metaphorical fishbowls to bear in order to produce their big effects: the 'New Transported Man' and 'In A Flash' respectively.

The Illusionist This suffering to succeed idea is also present in the Illusionist, but the magic is secondary. In essence, The Illusionist is a love story. Eisenheim loves the prince's girlfriend, she loves him, but they can't be together. So they devise an intricate rouse using his skills as a magician so that they can be together. Yawn.

Where Priest's novel trumps Nolan's film is the degree to which magic is inextricable from the story. The diary of Alfred Borden is built upon the concept of "the pledge" - the idea that the magician shows you what is up his sleeve, and you are willing to believe there's nothing, and that when something is produced hence, it is magic. So too, the writing of the diary exists on two levels: there's the prima facie truth and the between-the-lines truth.

I also loved the excursion (both in the novel and the film) to the US to visit Nikoli Tesla (played by David Bowie in the film). Unlike my aversion to famous people popping up in historical tales for no effect other than to include famous people (aka The Shanghai Knights effect), the development of electrical technologies at the time of Borden and Angier is another kind of magic - it makes perfect sense for the worlds of stage magic and electrical science to come together. Angier's pilgrimmage to Colorado Springs and Tesla takes the novel off into science fiction, and even when it becomes a kind of ghost story, I still felt grounded by a sense of plausibility and the solidity of the characters.

Great stuff.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

For Futuna

There's a great piece in today's Dominion Post about Futuna Chapel in Karori. Click on the link for a slideshow of the fantastic building.

Back in 2006 I wrote a poem about the chapel which was exhibited at the Museum of City and Sea here in Wellington to coincide with an exhibition which picked out a significant event from each of the past 100 years. Futuna Chapel was it for 1961.

Here's my poem:

Futuna Chapel 
From Friend Street I see the
roof like a paper dart
nosediving to the carpet. 
The chapel is smaller than imagined:
you could walk around it in thirty seconds,
except someone’s fence is
eating the northern corner—
claiming their piece of Futuna
with ceramic lizards. 
This is now Futuna Close:
a chapel enclosed by stubborn
suburban bricks,
as deaf to earthquake warnings
as they are blind to beauty. 
But beside the boarded door
a broken pane of pearl glass
reveals a red-stained pane behind—
the sun from a child’s hand. 
This mothballed cobwebbed
moss-walled genuflection,
asking the right questions of our culture
and getting the wrong answers. 
I want to get inside
the red-throb of the chapel
but Art Potter won’t answer his phone.
I can only trample plants and peer in windows
catching a glimpse of mosaics
as the scent of sage rises.


There are celebrations for Futuna's 50th anniversary next weekend. Check out if you're interested.  I might see you there!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Living in the past: an update on my Sydney post

Reading Madame Bovary
1. It seems the most interesting thing about my last post was the fact I didn't write 'the barge story'. Today I received two separate emails explaining and apologising for the mix-up in the press release. (I was right, Amanda Lohrey wrote 'the barge story'.) Hey, I thought it was funny, and so long as Ms Lohrey is okay with her story's temporary migration (I almost said infidelity, but that's a tricky word to use in relation to stories), then no harm, no foul.

2. The prize money: you don't get novelty cheques these days (a shame when it comes times for photos; a bonus when it comes time to catch the flight home) -- the money just gets wired to you via the internet. Not that anything's arrived in my account yet, but that hasn't stopped me spending a wodge of it -- as I alluded to on Saturday -- on a Canon 550D camera. Hello Full HD movies and image stabilised twin lens kit. Look out   bird I've seen perching on my TV antennae twice now that may or may not be a shining cuckoo. It's time to meet the passerine paparazzi!

3. I now have photographic proof I was at the awards on Sunday.  So do you:

Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance), Dr Paul Sharrad (judge extraordinaire), Craig Cliff (A Man Melting)
There's also proof I gave a speech, but this also proves I can look like a slender-spined porcupine fish, some I'm not sharing.

4. Today I internet stalked researched the other regional winners of the first book awards. I'm pleased to see another short story collection made it through to the final: Bird Eat Bird by Katrina Best. So it's two novels vs two short story collections for the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games of Literature (welterweight category; Donaghue, Mitchell, Forma and Scott being the heavyweights). Question: Boxing, weightlifting, wrestling, judo, or taekwondo - which of these weight-graded sports is the best analog for a writing prize?

5. In non-CWP news (phew, they say), I bought a copy of Wulf by Hamish Clayton for Buy a NZ Book Day (Saturday). Looking forward to reading it, though my TBR pile is set to topple.  I wonder if readers of e-books have that gut-punch of guilt when they think about all the books they want to / have to read without the actual physical peril of the books in their lives?

6. Answers to questions in 4 and 5: Probably weightlifting (you're not competing against anyone but yourself, etc; it's made for epic failures) and probably yes.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An embargo, a flying visit and a mystery barge: my Commonwealth Writers Prize experience

Newsflash: A Man Melting has won the Best First Book award for the South East Asia and Pacific region of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Actually, this isn’t that much of a newsflash. It was announced in Sydney on Wednesday night (I was there, more on this later) and the results were published in Australian newspapers (like this from the Syndey Morning Herald) on Thursday morning. It took a bit longer to break the news here in NZ, but by Thursday afternoon it was doing the rounds on Twitter. I got a phone call from a Dom Post reporter yesterday (Friday) and today a tiny piece appeared in my local paper.

But the news is even older than that for me.

I found out (by reading Beatties Book Blog rather than any direct correspondence) that I was short-listed for best first book on Friday 11 February.

For the next few days I was over the moon with making that far. I circled March 3 in my moleskine as the day the regional winners would be announced and began tempering my expectations.

As I blogged here on 16 February, the press release from the Commonwealth Writers Prize on the short-list mentioned that the first book nominees included "a comic treatment of the Rapture in the US, a story of Aborigines, a detective thriller involving an historical right-wing militia culminating in the opening of Sydney Harbour Bridge, an obsessive cartographer and her twin sister living down trauma from the collapse of Yugoslavia, and the laconic lives of casual grape pickers in rural Australia."

No mention of anything from A Man Melting = no chance of winning. Or so I thought.

When I blogged on the 16th, I was actually being a bit disengenous. This was what I'd thought in those first few days of being short-listed, but by the time I posted it, I knew I’d won!


Musical interlude:


Don’t feel bad, general public to whom I lied. I also lied to my mum, my brother (who lives in the same house as me), my in-laws-to-be, my boss and workmates, my friends, the Wellington Branch of the NZ Society of Authors, Creative New Zealand (I applied for a residency, but could only put that I’d been short-listed), the Auckland Writers Festival and probably a couple more trusting souls. It’s called an embargo, and I certainly wasn’t going to break the first one that applied to me! It was a test, and I passed.

I think.

When I was invited to the announcement of this region’s winners on 3 March in Sydney, I asked the Sydney based administrator if I got any travel assistance, since, y’know, I’d won and all? It seems only the 3 SE Asia and Pacific judges and the UK based administrator who was organising the week of activities for all the regional winners in May knew the results... But if I hadn’t have spilt the beans, I may not have made it to Sydney for 23 fun-filled hours to collect my prize and take a whole heap of selfies.


Example of a selfie from Sydney:


Sidenote: Not telling someone you’ve won something when the information is strictly embargoed probably isn’t lie. Proper lies do damage to the receiver, whereas in this case, most of the time I was damaging my own chances of getting a residency or attracting people to my session at the Auckland Writers Festival or getting my friends to buy me beer.



I caught the 6am flight from Wellington (which entailed getting up before 4am), arrived in Sydney around 9am, but couldn’t check into my hotel room until later because there were no rooms ready yet.

I walked around town, basically doing a circuit down George Street (checking out camera shops: I plan to spend the prize money on a digital SLR camera) to Circular Quay and back up Pitt Street, then hanging out in Hyde Park.

It was 2pm when I finally got to check in and have a shower, shave, iron my shirt and compose myself for my first ever acceptance speech.

I didn’t write anything beforehand and just winged it. People said it was good but afterwards I realised I totally missed a trick. If I had the chance again, I would begin thusly:
Thank you Elizabeth [the person who handed me the award]. I’m not used to giving acceptance speeches. The only other time I’ve won anything to do with writing was the novice award at the BNZ Katherine Mansfield short story competition in 2007, which just so happened to coincide with the time I was in Europe. So I sent my mum along to receive my award. Unfortunately my mum couldn’t be here this evening, so I’ll just muddle through...

I actually have video of my mum’s speech (I wrote the speech at a friend’s place in Hamburg; she read it, with one small extemporaneous addition) on a DVD somewhere. I’m not sure where though.


Hand Me Down WorldGiftedAt the awards ceremony there were some of the other short-listed writers and their publishers, from both the first book and big boy categories – but not all of the short-listed writers. I was the only representative from New Zealand, so I guessed early on that Lloyd Jones and Patrick Evans hadn’t won the non-first book prize. No one from Random House NZ came over to cheer me on, which some of the people there thought was a bit off – me: I understand money’s tight at the mo with the whole RED Group thing, and I think they trusted me to equip myself well at such a shindig. I hope I don’t become one of those authors who expects to be coddled... I’m not sure publishers will have the luxury of coddling authors in the brave new world of books anyway.

Also in attendance were people involved with the Commonwealth Writers Prize, such as  current and past judges (most of whom were Australian academics), sponsors (the event was at Macquarie’s offices), publicists, literary agents, the odd reporter and other Aussie writers.

I had a surreal conversation with the two publicists who had worked on the regional prize. One clearly knew I’d won, and kind of asked if I knew I’d won, but I was still so used to demurring in such situations that I kind of shrugged and grabbed a mini Yorkshire pudding and beef canapé and shoved it in my mouth. I can;t remember the other publicist saying a single word.

The speeches started with the obligatory thanks to the backers, then Dr Paul Sharrad, the chair of the judging panel, said a bit about each of the six short-listed books in the two categories.

Speaking about A Man Melting, he mentioned three specific stories, though not by name: ‘Unnatural Selection’ (“the story of a woman returning home after living in the United States...”) ‘Manawatu’ (“a story that tackles suicide...”), and “my favourite, the trials of a woman cooking for a tribe of London school kids on a barge in bad weather.”

Thing is, that story is not in my book, nor is it one I’ve written. When he was giving his speech I thought maybe he’d mixed up the elements of ‘Fat Camp’ (a man moves to Scotland with his partner to run weight-loss camp for teens and ends up running the black market in chocolate bars), but it's also mentioned in a press release... he’s clearly talking about another story.

Reading Madame BovaryPerhaps it’s a story in Amanda Lohrey’s collection of short stories, Reading Madame Bovary, which was short-listed for the non-first book award. We were the only short fictioneers amongt the twelve short-listees, and I can see how books may blend into one another..

So I’m just writing that down as weird, and will not freak out that the chair of the judging panel’s favourite story in my book is not in my book.


Fact-checked excerpt from the press release post-announcement
“A Man Melting marks the appearance of a lively new voice in New Zealand writing, wry, punchy, filled with fresh images [this sounds like me], and providing an engaging mix of fantasy and gritty realism [uh-huh]. It handles both male and female characters convincingly [why thank you] and tackles serious social concerns such as suicide [tick] with a combination of delicacy and dramatic directness [if you say so]. The stories cover a range of situations [definitely] from the emotional process of returning home from overseas [see ‘Unnatural Selection’], to cooking for a tribe of London school kids on a barge in bad weather [um...]. These are extraordinary stories [I couldn’t possibly comment] about ordinary people [tick], and they are told with a great deal of affection [I am a big softy]. It is a consistently powerful and entertaining collection [*blushes*] and is awarded the prize accordingly.”


After the prizes were announced and the acceptance speeches had been delivered (Kim Scott said: “I’d just like to echo everything that Craig said,” which made me feel good, and means Kim Scott also thanked the New Zealand Ministry of Education for being a flexible and supportive employer), it was time for a few photos. They had a small number of all the short-listed books for sale and they all sold out. I signed about five. My Australian sales figures increased exponentially in one night. Then we finished the free booze and canapés and I went to dinner with some of the Commonwealth Writers Prize people, including Dr Paul Sharrad (I didn’t mention the barge story), the administrator for whom I spoiled the surprise of my victory (we discussed this at length), and a bunch of other good people to know in Australian letters. Much wine was consumed.


I flew back to Wellington on the 8.45am flight the next day.

I know the burning question you all have: What movies did I watch on the plane?

Going there: The Social Network. Verdict: A very good movie, well put together.

Coming home: 127 Hours (aka the one where James Franco is trapped in a canyon and has to cut his hand off). I was interested in how the movie would handle a story which is ultimately like Titanic (we know it’ll sink) but with less characters and less movement. I thought it did a good job. Only problem was I mistimed things and got served my breakfast right when he starts hacking off his arm. I can’t watch surgery shows on TV, so this wasn’t a good thing. Even averting my eyes from the screen, I still got the electric screech through my earphones every time he snipped a nerve or tendon. When I tried to open the little capsule of milk for my cup of tea, the ends of my fingers were all numb and the capsule when flying under the feet of the person seated next me.


So, that’s my Sydney story.

Work on Friday was a real struggle. Back to earth with a thud – even though there was carrot cake for morning tea and people congratulated me throughout the day, it was still work.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
Now that the other region’s winners have been announced, I’m even more excited about the week of activities in Sydney in May. Amongst the winners are Emma Donaghue (Canada) whose novel Room was my favourite to winner the Booker Prize last year (I was wrong), and one of my favourite writers, David Mitchell (UK). Eep. I’ll have to work on how not to sound like a fanboy now that I’ve got this whole embargo thing mastered.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

February Sucks

It's just too short. I haven't had the time to do my February reading post yet and it's messy-hectic times at the mo. Maybe this weekend...


Here's a link to me reading '10 Places I Could Be When the Big One Hits' on Radio NZ National last Saturday (after Joanna Aitchison's earthquake poem).


My talk/reading to the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors last night went well.  People kept apologising for the small turnout, but that made it nice and intimate (apart from the other patrons at the Thistle Inn paying at the till).  I was asked to read my earthquake poem, and also read section 2 of 'Orbital Resonance' (also known as the story with 7 pages of internet browser history) and all of 'Untitled (Crimson and Gold)' (the story behind which I blogged about back in the day). The Q&A afterwards was also good value. I managed to go off on tangents about the lack of 'cross-town buses' between NZ and Australian literature and the influence of writing Ministerial briefings on my writing style.


March is NZ Book Month. March 5 is Buy a New Zealand Book with Melting in the Title Day. Well, almost.


Right, I'm off to floss my teeth and watch the first episode of the new season of the fabulous The Good Word (TVNZ7, 9.05pm Tuesdays). I don't know in which episode the 2 minute piece about my writing space will feature. Probably for the best. Not sure I'd watch if I knew for sure I was going to be on.