Thursday, April 28, 2011

In Quotation Nation

I've been reading a lot of interviews with writers over the last couple of days. No real reason why, just something that's happened.

I've also been tasked with thinking about what the Commonwealth means (it's hard not to say this phrase without the Double Rainbow guy's voice in my head) for my sesh at the Auckland Writers Festival, but I find my thoughts are far from quotation-worthy.

Mostly just jokes about bronze medals and corgis.

Nothing like these excerpts from my Quotations Catalogue (incomplete)

#25 The tongue-in-cheek quotation

“The number of rooms in a fictional house should be inversely proportional to the years during which the couple living in that house enjoyed true happiness"  -- George Saunders (in an interview at Bomblog).

#51 The surely I read that wrong quotation

“I’m a perfectionist. I go to great lengths to get it all right. It’s the biggest challenge I face when I’m writing. If you’re confused about something in one of my books, you’ve just got to realize, Ellroy’s a master, and if I’m not following it, it’s my problem.” -- James Ellroy (Paris Review interview)

#67 The hells yeah quotation (depending on what mood you're in)

"A lot of writing nowadays is very intellectual. Very wussy. Correct, wussy, and too much rationalization. That was my experience at Iowa when I was teaching. Stories had simply become too small, they took such low altitude. Take a couple, and then someone would acknowledge something in a Kroger parking lot about their relationship and he’d get back in his car and drive on. People were not going for much. They were going for very limited American realism, which is a bore to me. I really want stories that are rippers in the old sense. Tales of high danger, high adventure, and high exploration. Tales that are as wonderful as frontier tales. I want more adventure." -- Barry Hannah (Paris Review interview)


While I'm kind of pointing people in directions, I'll say that I'm loving Joan Fleming's new(ish) photo-poetry blog and hope it's a stayer.


Playlist for a cold but-not-as-cold-as-the-last-two-days evening

2. 'Hurdy Gurdy Man' by Donovan
3. 'Halluncination Bomb' by Monster Magnet
4. 'Give Up and Go Away' by Strippers Union
5. 'Off He Goes' by Pearl Jam (earworming big time lately, dunno why)
6. 'Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood' by The Animals
7. 'Quarantined' by At The Drive In
8. 'It's Easier' by John Grant
9. 'Solitude is Bliss' by Tame Impala


Craig's fortnightly photo diary (first and last)

My brother (the real photographer), Raumati Beach

Shipwreck, Tora

Obligatory seagull


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Keep it simple

I’m off to Pukemuri Beach (which is by Tora, which is by… nowhere, really) for Easter with a bunch of friends. We have a bach, we have firewood, we have wine and board games. What better way to celebrate the incomplete crucifixion of a quasi-historical figure who may or may not have resembled Russell Brand.

I jest, I jest.


Speaking of jesters, I recently devoured Katrina Best’s short story collection, Bird Eat Bird. Katrina won best first book for the Canada and Caribbean region of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and we’ll be hanging out in Sydney (and the Blue Mountains and Parramatta and and and…) in May.

Good thing I liked her book, eh?

I’ve previously declared my affection for slim short story volumes (despite the fact my own collection has been described as ‘thick’ and ‘the sort of book you might pick up at an airport bookstore’) and Bird Eat Bird exemplifies this type of book — closer in many ways to a collection of poetry than a novel.

There are only six stories and by the end of the book you feel you still have a handle on each story, can give a wee précis of the plot and recall its shining moments.

The stories are united by the wry tone and set-ups where the reader becomes more and more aware of the gap between a character’s perceptions of the world and the reality. In ‘Tall Food’, we slowly see how deluded Ellie’s hopes for a third date are. By the end of ‘Red’ we’ve figured out the narrator is off her meds (after much hilarity), though this has yet to dawn on her. In ‘At Sea’, Carol's struggles with the rip are foreshadowed such that her near-death experience seems inevitable and avoidable and wonderfully bathetic.

Next on the CWP reading list is Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, which I just bought online (not so easy to get in NZ at the mo).


Speaking of online purchasing, when I did finally find a copy of That Deadman Dance that I could get delivered in New Zealand for a decent price, there was a nice wee surprise. On the front page of, A Man Melting is number 3 in their "Top 5".

Geek that I am I took a screenshot (who knows how long it'd stay on the list):

I’m not sure what the Top 5 represents (it can’t be linked to sales) but number 1 is Jean M Auel’s latest (minor co-inky-dink: there’s a reference to Auel's Clan of the Cavebear in ‘Facing Galapagos’ in AMM).


I believe most writers are as geeky about this sort of thing as I am, but they are cool enough to keep it to themselves.

And if they don’t get jazzed by seeing their name where they don’t expect it, then I question if they spent enough time as a reader, fan and worshipper of writers before being published.

One of my favourite things to do is look at the “Customers who bought this product also purchased” part on my book’s page on fishpond.

Right now, I’m regretting my Jesus reference above as someone who bought A Man Melting also bought Theology for Community of God.

Someone else (or perhaps the same person), bought Van Morrison’s CD, Keep It Simple (minor co-inky-dink II: the sleaze-ball in my story ‘Touch’ sings ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’).


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Davids

I took two books with me to Vietnam, both by authors who’ll be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival next month, both are authors of previous books I’ve enjoyed, both are authors with the first name David. The similarities end there I reckon…

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetMitchell's Cloud Atlas is a flawed, uneven and at times frustrating novel but I love it. It was part of the inspiration behind me trying to write a linked HTML novella, which degraded with time to become the story 'Orbital Resonance' in A Man Melting.

I've also read Mitchell's follow-up, the more straight-forward and presumably semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green, which was less breath taking, but in some ways a more ambitious (for Mitchell at least) divergence from his previous novels than Cloud Atlas was from its predecessors.

Black Swan GreenThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is both a leap back to the ambitious, imaginative feats of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas days, and a continuation of the use of more linear and focussed plots exhibited in Black Swan Green.

The novel is set around the turn of the Nineteenth Century in Dejima, the man-made island which was the base of Dutch trade with Japan and one of the shogunate's few windows to the world beyond its borders. Aside from rushing through the later years of de Zoet's life in the final chapters, Mitchell focuses the action over a period of only a few years, and all within a few districts of Japan.

The ambition and imaginative feats are evidenced by the reconstruction of this cloistered world of 200 years ago. In the essay on historical fiction included at the end of the book, Mitchell makes it clear the amount of time and research required to pull such a historical fiction off convincingly. And the high points of the novel are those scenes where the reader feels privy to a little known but still historically convincing world, such as the childbirth scene that opens the novel and the goings on in the Nagasaki Magistrate's Room of Sixty Mats.

There is still some unevenness in this novel, due to the shift in perspectives through the various sections. The first section focuses on the Dutch trading efforts, particularly the new clerk Jacob de Zoet who is tasked with documenting the corruption under the previous Chief Resident and falls in love with a Japanese medical student. The second section shifts to the Japanese perspective, and it takes a while to re-engage with the story, but eventually we are gripped by the quest of a Dejima translator's quest to rescue de Zoet's love interest (who the translator also had/has feelings for). The third section introduces the perspective of the British on board the Phoebus under the command of Captain Penhaligon, who is charged with kicking some Dutch butt on Dejima and flying a Union Jack from the flagpole. Sadly, the Phoebus incident is a bit of an anti-climax and doesn't compare with the intrigue of the previous two sections, but it's still interesting on the level of historical insight. The novel rounds out by returning to the Dutch and Japanese perspectives. Plot elements are resolved. Time moves on. The novel closes.

Cloud AtlasThe biggest sore thumb to me was the single chapter to open section three told in the first person (only chapter to do so) from the perspective of the slave, Weh, who may have been mentioned twice earlier in the novel and does not feature in any further part of the story. I can see how this chapter links with all the 'my hard life and how I came to be here' stories which which 1000 Autumns teems. These stories are as much the meat of the novel as the ostensible plot (the intrigues of the Dutch traders, the love story, the quest for rescue, the British attach, the Magistrate's action against the evil Abbott Enomoto), but Weh's felt like a loose end that survived successive drafts…

But one can overlook a couple of odd pages out when the novel is as entertaining and transporting as 1000 Autumns.

I look forward to meeting David Mitchell at the Auckland Writers Festival (we're both appearing in a panel on the Sunday) and asking him about Weh's chapter and whether he has any goss on the Wochowski's efforts to turn Cloud Atlas into a movie.

Caribou Island by David Vann

Caribou IslandLast year I read and loved Vann’s Legend of a Suicide. Of the books I read last year I only rated works by Janet Frame and Herman Melville higher, and with greater hindsight I might now nudge Legend slightly above Owl’s Do Cry.

And so to Vann’s follow-up book, the novel Caribou Island. Did I love it? No. Did I hate it? No. Why the lukewarm response? To answer this requires a…

Spoiler Alert: I will discuss the twist/end of both ‘Sukkwan Island’ and Caribou Island, so leave now if you wish.

Legend of a SuicideLegend of a Suicide is a short story collection with a very long short story in the middle called ‘Sukkwan Island’ – it’s the best story in the book, but (counter to the French version which omitted all the other stories) it relies on its preceding stories for its true impact.

The preceding stories in Legend all feature a narrator, Roy, whose father committed suicide in Alaska when he was a teenager. ‘Sukkwan Island’ is a third person narrative that sees a teenaged Roy go on a camping trip with his father, and at the point at which we expect the father to commit suicide, it is the son who blows his brains out. Wham. Twist-o-rama. But the story is only half done and we now switch to the father’s perspective and must bear witness to the terrible minutiae that follows a son’s suicide in the Alaskan wilderness.

The great power exerted by ‘Sukkwan Island’ comes from the way this fiction deviates from the previous lighter fictions (in that they appear to stick closer to the autobiographical truth). The story become a kind of fantasy, both a revenge from the son David Vann on his suicide father, an act of empathy, an attempt to inhabit his father, and perhaps even self-sacrifice, if only within this fiction.

Caribou Island is like 'Sukkwan Island' in more than just name. It is set in Alaska and features suicides of parents/children. They both feature adult males who set out to live though the winter with little planning or knowledge and bring someone else along for the ride/misery. They are both told in the same flattened male register and are unrelentingly bleak.

Caribou Island also has ties to the shorter stories in Legend as there’s a womanising dentist similar to the father in Legend and the murder suicide of the dentist's partner's parents. But these are not the same characters as the stories in Legend were set in the past to correspond with the author’s own age at the time of the events, while Caribou Island is set in the present world of email, cellphones and iPods, though these don’t feature a lot, as one might expect in an Alaskan frontier story.

Caribou Island, like 'Sukkwan Island', is told in the third person, but covers a number of character’s perspectives. In addition to Irene and Gary, the fifty-something married couple being rent apart by forces neither can do much about, we also sit on the shoulder of their daughter, Rhoda, her partner Jim (the dentist), and Monique and Carl, two visitors from Washington DC who get caught up in Rhoda and Jim’s lives briefly.

Monique and Carl fade away from the story by about the two-thirds mark, when Gary and Irene finally start constructing the cabin on Caribou Island which Gary has dreamed about for 30 years (but never got around to considering the practicalities of constructing this dream). Similarly, Rhoda and Jim’s intrigues are discarded as the tension builds…

As with Legend, we know something terrible this way comes from the first page. Irene describes finding her mother after she hanged herself and the tone of dread remains until…

Spoiler Alert reminder: The ending of Caribou Island will be described in three… two… one…

Irene shoots Gary twice with a hunter’s bow and arrow and then hangs herself.

As with the precise descriptions of Roy’s decomposing body and the efforts to move him in ‘Sukkwan Island’, readers are treated to the nitty gritty of how to hang yourself in a poorly constructed log cabin (including measuring the drop height, selecting the knots and securing your own hands so that you can't reach up at the wrong moment).

This finale is much less affecting than the events in ‘Sukkwan Island’ because there is no twist. This tragedy was inevitable, and dwelling on the practicalities of the murder/suicide – though it dovetails well with the practicalities of constructing a cabin together (which is the overwrought symbol for the degradation of their relationship) – feels tawdry. It is less an act of empathy than a mechanical need to culminate the tension, pain and suffering brewed up by the preceding 250 pages.

That said, Caribou Island does plunder the depths of its characters (less so Monique and Carl) and provide a compelling anatomy of one failed marriage (potentially two if Jim and Rhoda ever tie the knot).

This is not a light summer read by any stretch, and it pales in comparison to Legend of a Suicide, but it’s still an accomplished work and I’m sure the ascension of Vann up the ranks of American writers will continue apace.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On Readings

Before my book came out I set myself the challenge of reading from each story in my collection in public. As there are eighteen stories and there's no such thing as a book tour for a New Zealand author, this was quite ambitious and meant I couldn't afford to double up on any stories.

Here's what I’ve read from so far:

So that's 7/18 or a slightly over a third of the way there in 10 months. Thank goodness for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, as I'll have tons of reading opportunities in Sydney next month.

Question: What can female residents of a Juvenile Justice Centre relate to? Answer: Please don't let it be one of the seven stories I've already read from!

I've already had to let the CWP people know what passage I'll be reading from at the event on 21 May when the winners are announced. I've gone with the opening of 'Parisian Blue', so that's one more to check off the list.

It always surprises me how long it takes to choose a reading, even when it is to be 1-2 minutes long. In fact, the shorter the reading the harder it is. The endings of my stories tend to be compacted into a readable 1.5 minute chunk, but much of their power relies on the repetition of early elements in the story and when divorced from that context, they seem (to me at least) a little weak. Also, there's the fact you're acting as your own spoiler in the case of stories with twists (though that didn’t stop me reading the end of ‘The Sceptic’s Kid’; perhaps that’s more of an dummy-twist-and-go?).

With short readings I prefer to be funny over deep (though both humour and profundity tends to be the product of several pages build up). With longer readings I try to pick something that doesn't have a sentence that makes me cringe and that may link to something I can talk about as a kind of spur for questions and answers.

I also shy away from dialogue that will force me to put on voices (though I have broken this rule already). Thankfully, most scenes in my short stories tend to boil down to double-handers and I can resort to the 'turn this way for him', 'turn that way for her' form of delivery.

With Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne festivals this year, I should get down to two or three stories left to be read. At that point I may just stand on a street corner and yell at people: "It began with a puddle…"

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Wulf vs The Sea-Wolf

Wulf by Hamish Clayton
The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

The Sea-wolf (Oxford World's Classics)Wulf
I read/listened to these two books over the same period and it is entirely arbitrary of me to compare and contrast them. The wolfiness of their titles was just a coincidence (no actual wolves were harmed during the making of these books). The reason I read each book were: I'll be appearing with Clayton in a session on debut authors at the Auckland Writers Fest next month and besides this found the reviews of his novel intriguing; I really wanted to read Call of the Wild, but London's The Sea-Wolf was the only audiobook available to download/borrow from the Wellington City Library's online service.

Wulf's title refers both to the Old English poem, 'Wulf' or 'Wulf and Eadwacer' and the Maori chief/historical cipher Te Rauparaha who is referred to in lupine terms throughout the novel.

The wolf in The Sea-Wolf is Wolf Larsen, the captain of the seal-hunting schooner, The Ghost.

Aside from the wolves, both novels take place mostly on board a ship. Wulf came out in 2011 but is set in 1830. The Sea-Wolf was published in 1906 and the action is contemporary.  I felt more familiar with the layout of the ship and the elements of 'ship business' in London's book, but Clayton's manages to touch on the experience of being a sailor far from home and experiencing a new land in a way that is hard to shake.

Clayton's novel is told in highly poetic, dreamy, fragmented prose. It is at the level of language, of individual words and clauses, that the novel excels. London's novel is more focussed on ideas and the traditional, linear A happens, B happens, C happens plot.  Most of Wulf's A-B-C (the British merchant ship arrives in Kapiti and ends up ferrying Te Rauparaha and his warriors to the Banks Peninsula to chiefnap an enemy) is submerged, quite deliberately, in the act of storytelling. 

They are both good books, but entirely different. To illustrate this point: The Sea-Wolf has been made into a film thirteen times. I can't imagine what a film version of Wulf would look like and would call anyone who attempted to adapt it to the screen bonkers.  A book that cannot be translated into something else is often a glorious thing. Equally, there has to be something elementally right in a novel if it continues to be adapted and updated.

Moby-DickIt is hard to take comparison between the two books any further.  Instead, the comparison that screamed out to me while reading The Sea-Wolf was Moby Dick.  I have professed my love of Melville's masterpiece here before, and it is no surprise London's book comes up short. It is as if London has combined the discursive, quirky Ishmael with the mad, driven Ahab in the character of Wolf Larsen. Larsen is both an autodidact who quotes philosophers and poets and a sociopath who revels in the death of numerous members of his crew and kidnaps multiple characters forcing them to work on The Ghost.

While this is an interesting idea and the character of Wolf Larsen is certainly the most memorable part of the novel, The Sea-Wolf falls short of Moby Dick by giving us too much of a good thing.  We are in Wolf Larsen's company often so that we may hear his jaundiced survival-of-the-fittest, dog-eat-dog view of the world, whereas Ahab is withheld from the reader both by Ishmael’s lack of access to the captain and his own keenness to fill the silence with talk about whales and democracy.

It seems to me that Clayton has produced the more Melvillian book by withholding his Ahab -- the revenge-driven, blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry Te Rauparaha -- and producing a shadow play of myth and rumour upon the surface. Before things start to sound too hyperbolic, neither of the British mouth-pieces for the novel, the unnamed narrator and the storytelling sailor Cowell, are as good company as Ishmael, and I felt the plot aspects may have been submerged slightly too far beneath the dreamy language… Let's be clear: it is a difficult read and will not appeal to everyone, though for the right reader, it is a rewarding experience.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Worksheet #80, or A Lawn to Mow

Three and a bit days back in NZ and I miss being outside. It looks so beautiful out the window both at home and at work and yet I feel chained to computers. I walked up ten flights of stairs today and nearly died. I'm supposed to climb some hills over Easter, hopefully the rugged Eastern Wairarapa landscape can distract me from my fritzing heart and lungs.


Real names I encountered while travelling last fortnight which I reserve the right to call characters (or children)

Fritzie (according to her name badge, Changi Airport)
Kiko (not sure how it's spelt, but it belonged to a female from Brazil)
Dung (Vietnamese tour guide, probably not suitable for Kiwi children, even if it is pronounced more like 'Jung')


Whiner alert: This is where I complain about my good fortune not being good enough.

I have received some more details about the outreach elements of the Commonwealth Writers Prize programme in Sydney in May (coincides with Sydney Writers Fest). We are going to the Juniperina Juvenile Justice Centre, Blacktown Girls High School, Penrith High School and Gawura (place in central Sydney that focuses on raising education achievement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people). We'll also appear on Radio Koori's Blackchat programme and there's a reception at the Admiralty House hosted by the Governor General…

My gripe? The Juvenile Justice Centre is female only, so is Blacktown Girls High School (funnily enough). Literacy is a big issue across the board, but it's widely agreed that girls read more than boys and are doing better in the current educational environment. Is this a case of picking the low hanging fruit? Well, not that low hanging: it's not like we're going to rich private schools and universities. And maybe taking a bunch of green writers to a male juvie centre may be asking for trouble, but it seems a shame not to try. My mild frustration is akin to the uproar yesterday when the Australian scientist suggested letting the Kakapo die off and using the money to save 'easier' species from extinction.

Boys don't read. Short story collections don't sell. Australians don't read New Zealand books and vice versa. The book world is full of these mythical absolutes that encourage the continued narrowing of the field.



Mini-milestone: today my friends take possession of their first house, the first of my Wellington friends to do so. Okay, so one of them is a doctor and the dream of home ownerships is a lot further off from a policy analyst/writer and a scientist, but hey, maybe one day I'll have a lawn to mow.


Potentially (but hopefully not) mega life-defining milestone: The Sacramento Kings played their last home game today*, which is also their last game of this season as they’ve missed the playoffs like a Reggie Evans free throw misses the rim. This is also potentially the last ever game for the Sacramento Kings as the owners seem bent on moving them to Anaheim, where they will become known as the Anaheim Royals (or something similar).

I have supported the Kings since 1994. I have been to Sacramento (once, when I was 11) but they only time I’ve seen them play was actually in Toronto in 2009 (they lost). It’s probably more likely I’ll go to Anaheim than Sacramento in the next 20 years (kiddies wanting to go to Disneyland, perhaps), but still, I’ll be gutted if they move.

It will not only turn my Mitch Richmond, Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic jerseys into oddball paraphernalia rather than retro strips, like those Shawn Kemp Sonics or Alonzo Morning Charlotte Hornets jerseys, but Richmond, Webber and Vlade Divac will no longer have an arena in which to hang their retired jersey numbers.

I will become the supporter of the third NBA team in the LA area. Excuse me while I take a shower…

What will happen to Sactown Royalty, one of my favourite websites? What will happen to Jerry Reynolds, my favourite colour commentator and all around nice guy (I don’t really care what happens to play-by-play man and all around douche Grant ‘Peaches’ Napear)?

I’ve supported this team through thin (Richmond era) and thick (Webber era) and thin again (post-Webber’s knee blowing out). While the current roster will be transplanted down to Anaheim, and while I’ll continue to root for DeMarcus and Marcus and Tyreke (amazing to think that he’s the third most important player after this season) and Beno and Sammy and Jason and Pooh and tonight’s small forward of choice… it won’t be the same.

My life will be divided into Sacramento Kings Era (SKE) and Post Sacramento Kings Era (PSKE).

That is unless the move falls through. If Jerry Buss convinces the other NBA franchise owners to vote against the move. Or some dues ex machine swoops in and secures a new arena in Sacramento in the next, oh, 18 hours. Or the Maloofs lose their nerve and decide to wait and see for another year…


* I haven't watched the game yet... about to load it up on NBA Broadband. C'mon Good, triumph over Evil one more time!

Monday, April 11, 2011

I should probably type 'Viet Nam' from now on to prove I've been there but...

As I suspected, there was two weeks' worth of dead air here while I was in Vietnam. It was hard enough to check gmail, Facebook was fickle and it was almost impossible to Tweet (though I could read other people's feeds okay) on any public computer. Add in the extra time it takes to blog, and well, you get this make-up post.

Come with me...

We went to Vietnam with the primary objective of getting Marisa's wedding dress made -- and we achieved this relatively smoothly, but after visiting the War Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels in recent days it doesn't seem right to reflect on this trip as a type of military mission. Better to focus on life-affirming things like the kindness of the people (there were a couple half-hearted scammers but they'd always acquiesce if you put your foot down, pat you on the shoulder and bid you a pleasant journey).

Beyond the dress, we were there for the food, the culture and a break from work, probably in that order, though it all comes back to food in the end. If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, the way into Vietnam is through it's street food. Marisa and I ate in a variety of settings, from carts and off the back of scooters, at pavement stalls, in back alley restaurants and in tourist-trappy eateries. Everything was good, but as a general rule: the smaller the seats and the closer you sat to the ground, the better the food.

Of course, we did more than eat (that last photo is from a class we did in Hoi An, so we cooked as well).

There was some wildlife...

And historic places...

And charming-scary building practices that took me back to Bolivia...

And mysterious doors...

And dogs with mohawks...

Seriously. A dog with a mohawk...

You can't top that.

I read some books too, so my reading update debt continues to grow...

And in the back of my mind I did consider that going to a developing country for two weeks may help with my weight-loss regimen (regimen = weigh myself every now and then and hope the number is smaller than last time). I did lose 0.6 kgs, but I'm not sure that beats the margin of error. And I'm still heavier than this kid.


And finally, because I had such a great time, he's a suggestion for the next tourist campaign for Vietnam from a prize winning writer which the government there can have gratis.

Vietnam: a great place to visit, especially if you're writing a novel about mannequins.