Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Man Melting: The Playlist >> Part III

This is the final installment of the playlist for my short story collection, A Man Melting. Read Part I and Part II.

13. Fat Camp

The story: Danny and Sophie open a weightloss camp for teenagers in the Scottish Borders, but it’s not exactly Danny’s dream job.
As he stood at the front gate the next morning to welcome the parents and their chubby spawn, he could pick the cars which were there to drop off kids before they even indicated.
4WD – Yes
Hatchback – No
Jaguar S-type – No
Toyota Minivan – Yes
Mr Whippy ice cream van – That poor kid.
The song: ‘Fat Children’ – Jarvis Cocker

No comment needed here:

Oh, the parents are the problem
Giving birth to maggots without the sense to become flies
So pander to your pampered little princess
of such enormous size
Fat children took my life

14. Facing Galapagos

The story: When David starts receiving emails from someone claiming to be Charles Darwin, he is forced to consider evolution from a new perspective.
‘Many people still believe the Galapagos are as untouched as when I arrive the first time. Despite there being no indigenous population, the islands are no home to over forty thousand inhabitants. Not bad for a few lumps of basalt in the middle of the Pacific. Not that I am trying to discourage you from paying a visit, far from it. But it would be remiss of me not to mention the Earth’s enforced evolution at the hands of human beings. Many would say devolution, but has this planet ever looked like this before? We’re still moving forwards, even if our destination is oblivion.’
The song: 'Revolution Rock' – Los Fabulosos Cadillacs

One of the unexpected joys of traveling in South America was hearing Spanish cover versions of English songs. Like hearing ‘Eclipse Total Del Corazon” in a taxi, and clicking that it was a cover of Bonnie Tyler. Technically I hadn’t heard Los Fabulosos Cadillacs’ cover of The Clash’s ‘Revolution Rock’ in 2008, but it was on my computer when I expanded the story in 2009 to include the section in Ecuador, so I’m going to excuse myself just this once.

Oye, revolution rock
revolution rock estoy en estado de shock
Revolution revolution ah ah
revolution revolution...
Todo el mundo a mover los pies
y a bailar hasta morir
esta musica causa sensacion
este ritmo golpea la nacion

15. Evolution, Eh?

The story: A minor hoodlum kills time with a friend in Midland Park.
I was thinking about all the tricks as I rode the escalator up, until I saw a dead leaf and a cigarette butt at the top of the escalator getting pushed up against the comb thing that the steps go into. People were just stepping over the leaf and the butt like they didn’t notice or like they didn’t want to notice, but I thought it was cool. The leaf and the butt looked like they were dancing as they bounced against the comb and the steps slid into the floor. Like they were happy or something. Even though it was a dead leaf and a cigarette butt.
The song: ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground’ – The White Stripes

The most poetic song Jack White has written. Sure, his dead leaves are things of sadness, and the leaf in ‘Evolution, Eh?’ is much more hopeful, but it’s close enough.

Dead leaves and the dirty ground
when I know you're not around
shiny tops and soda pops
when I hear your lips make a sound

16. The Spirit of Rainbow Gorge

The story: Noah ‘Rusty’ Kissick achieves his lifelong goal of being elected mayor, only to find he has something bigger to contend with: nature.
The rain kept falling during his interview. ‘I really am proud of this community,’ he told the reporter, a young man with short hair which had curled tightly in the rain. ‘This is the Rainbow Gorge spirit. We’re more than just a fishing spot, we’re a lifestyle.’ A gust of rain-heavy wind blew Kissick off balance and he stumbled backwards, but was saved by a pile of sandbags waiting to be arranged.
‘As you can see,’ the reporter said, the camera now back on him, ‘Rainbow Gorge is a town under siege. With water levels rising, and help slow to arrive, this may be the one that got away. Back to you, Russell and Jacqui, in the studio.’
The song: Blame it on the Rain – Milli Vanilli

No one ever seems to have voted for a suddenly unpopular politician. Same goes for an unpopular pop group. If you approach ‘Blame it on the Rain’ as a piece of fun, suddenly the miming ain’t such an issue. Is there anything redeeming about a ‘driven but limited man’ like Kissick?

You want her back again
But she just don't feel the same
Gotta blame it on something
Gotta blame it on something
Blame it on the rain that was falling, falling
Blame it on the stars that did shine at night
Whatever you do don't put the blame on you
Blame it on the rain yeah yeah

17. The Sceptic’s Kid

The story: Jamie, the son of the President of the NZ Sceptics Society, is understandably fascinated by claims that extinct animals are reappearing around the globe.
‘Then they caught the really big eagle,’ Melanie said, ‘ yanking his hand to make him pay attention. ‘I think it was the government.’ I nodded. ‘They tried shooting it was darts to put the eagle to sleep, but it was so big they had to shoot a lot of darts into it, and when it finally went to sleep it didn’t wake up again. The scientists did tests on it and said it was a Fast Eagle—’
‘She means Haast’s eagle.’
‘—which everyone thought was extinct!’
The song: ‘Birds’ – Paul Weller

Neil Young’s avian love song was well covered by Linda Rondstadt but my favorite version has to be Weller’s. Any story about New Zealand’s native fauna is its own avian love song.

When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It's over, it's over.

18. Unnatural Selection

The story: After six years in Boston, Rachael returns to New Plymouth to work in a bank, buy a house and spend weekends in the garden...
Over the next week I saw three more teachers from St Stephen’s, though like Mr Haines and Mrs Shipley, they all had other jobs.
Mrs Chapman, running a lawn-mowing franchise with her husband.
Ms Matai, though she may have married since those days, ruling over the customer service desk at Woolworths.
Mean old Mrs Yew, the parking warden.
New Plymouth was crawling with teachers, ex-teachers crawling with my distant, near forgotten past.
The two teachers I knew I would not be seeing on the streets of New Plymouth any time soon were Jim Lewis and Kerry Drewe.
The song: ‘It's Only Natural’ – Crowded House

I couldn’t very well go an entire playlist without a single Kiwi artist. And it’s fitting to pair this piece of Kiwiana (don’t be fooled because it’s not black and white, and two-thirds of the band were Aussies when this song was recorded, this song will be around a long time) with a story obsessed with the homecoming.

Ice will melt, water will boil
You and I can shake of this mortal coil
It's bigger than us
You don't have to worry about it
Ready or not, here comes the drop
You feel lucky when you know where you are
You know it's gonna come true
Here in your arms I remember

A Man Melting Playlist Part I
A Man Melting Playlist Part II

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Man Melting: The Playlist >> Part II

For the background and songs one to six, see yesterday’s post. But here’s a summary for those who missed it:

1. Seeds: 'If I could talk I'd tell you' - The Lemonheads
2. Manawatu: ‘Jump’ – Van Halen
3. Copies: ‘Diminishing Returns’ – Harvey Danger
4. Oh! So Careless: ‘Under African Skies’ – Paul Simon
5. Parisian Blue: ‘Home’ – Foo Fighters
6. The Tin Man: ‘The Hard Way’ – The Kinks

Now, here are songs seven to twelve...

7. Untitled (Crimson and Gold)

The story: Laura is trying to put the past behind her and move on with the help of her therapist and his handy techniques.
[Dr. Rothko] told me everything I was doing was okay. That I could feel guilty about the accident, but shouldn’t waste my guilt on secondary or tertiary things like how I sometimes pretend it was someone else’s accident, that the slippers were possessed, that it was Lennon’s fault.
The song: 'Untitled #1' - Spain

As a rule I dislike untitled things (my story actually has a title which just happens to include the word 'untitled'), but this song, from the compilation Piece of Cake: 20 Years of Ryko, ticks a lot of boxes…

Walked away released from all my crimes
Walked away released from all my crimes
But I could never hide what I kept inside

8. Another Language

The story: When James' grandfather tells him he moved to New Zealand because of his stutter, wee Jim sets out to see if you can really stutter in one language but not another.
After choir I said, ‘You don’t stutter when you sing!’
‘I wish I didn’t stutter at all.’
‘You should live in a musical,’ I said, and thought about my grandfather. Moving to New Zealand would have been like coming to live in a musical for him, except he was sad and quiet. I thought, what’s the point in moving somewhere you can talk without stuttering if you aren’t going to talk?
The song: ‘Singing in the Rain’ – Gene Kelly

My favourite musical and one of my favourite films, this is the sort of moment I’m sure James is thinking of when he imagines living in a musical.

I'm singing in the rain
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again
I'm laughing at clouds
So dark up above
The sun's in my heart
And I'm ready for love

9. Give Me Bread and Call Me Stupid

The story: Bembe and Rosa leave Madrid to revive their flagging English with a year in Edinburgh, but find the job hunt fraught with frustrations.
He had been in Edinburgh for six weeks by this time, but English still felt like wearing a stranger’s suit. His subconscious, however, seemed to be adapting more quickly. His dreams all seemed to revolve around Spanish-English puns.
A team of archers firing grains of rice (arroz)
A horse and cart, except the cart has been replaced with a giant letter (carta) from his grandmother.
A line of coy, blushing women, all clearly pregnant (embarazada).
And when he laid eyes on Lindsey that first time, the word octopus had popped into his head.
The song: ‘Bye Bye Pride’ - The Go-Betweens

I lived in Brisbane on and off for almost four years; discovering The Go-Betweens is one of the few things I can point to from my time in the sun that I still cherish. ‘Bye Bye Pride’ (or adios orgullo) is exactly what Bembe must say when confronted by the challenges of a different culture, a different language and a slightly unhinged recruitment agent. Bonus points for the song having a line in Español: In la brisa de la palma, which I used to think was a reference to Brisbane, but just means ‘In the breeze of the palms’.

He goes home again.
He dreams resistance,
They talk commitment,
Things change over long distance.
Took the shirt off his back
The eyes from his head
And left him for dead.

10. A Man Melting

The story: Hamish starts melting, and nothing can stop it, not even poetry.
He was quite a sight for the eight year olds: a skeletal man sitting in a paddling pool, sipping from his water bottle via string of straws Sellotaped together, softly talking about poetry. He didn’t have many poems to read the class because he didn’t collect them. He just left the napkins and the flyers and the newspapers where he found them. Disposable poetry. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re time is nearly up. But he read them the poem he had written on the back of his bus ticket:
Think too much do too little
Think too much say too little
Do little say little
Think think much much
Too too much
The class stared at him. To him they looked like meerkats.

The song: ‘Poets’ – The Tragically Hip

I could probably do an entire playlist using just Tragically Hip songs. According to, I listened to over 1000 hips songs in 2008 (the Kinks were second and Warren Zevon third, both around 600). And I've blogged about the band often (like my claim the album Day For Night is 'song noir'; or my top five Tragically Hip earworms). What better place to use my one Hip song, then, than as a match with the title story?

Don't tell me what the poets are doing
On the street and the epitome of vague
Don't tell me how the universe is altered
When you find out how he gets paid, all right

11. Touch

The story: The narrator uses all his wiles to try and hook-up with a friend of a friend at his significant other’s birthday party.
‘I’ll be on the balcony,’ I said and eased away, not letting her say a word — another secret of mine. How do you think I wound up with a catch like Alice if I didn’t have a few secrets? I’m savvy. I’m a hunter. Sure, I was a little out of practice when Delancey showed up — semi-retired might be another way to put it. But the greats, they never lose their touch.
The song: ‘All The Wine’ – The National

2008 was the year I discovered The National (I blogged about them first in August). When I set out to make this playlist I knew I’d have to include a National song: they are the perfect background music when writing. When I started looking around for songs for ‘Touch’, the National provided a number to choose from: ‘Secret Meeting,’ ‘Karen’, ‘Guest Room’, ‘Apartment Story’… But in the end I’ve gone with ‘All The Wine’, which reeks of booze and hubris, much like the narrator in ‘Touch’.

I'm put together beautifully, big wet bottle in my fists, big wet rose in my teeth
I'm a perfect piece of ass like every Californian
So tall I take over the street with high-beams shining on my back
A wingspan unbelievable, I'm a festival, I'm a parade
And all the wine is all for me

12. Orbital Resonance

The story: A story in five parts which are seem quite discrete, but orbit the same question of loneliness and connection.
At parties he used to talk about orbits. How they relate to more than just planets. He would ask his audience to imagine two people running around an athletics track: it didn’t matter what speed they ran, if they ran for long enough they would come level again. The runners behave differently, he would explain, just before they are level, while they are level and just after they are level…
‘The rules changes when two people come together,’ he would say, and lean in to kiss whoever he was talking to.
It didn’t work often, and certainly not in South Africa, where people couldn’t understand his accent when alcohol was involved.
The song: ‘Parklife’ – Blur

One of the many songs that make an appearance in ‘Orbital Resonance’ (though obliquely), ‘Parklife’ also captures that loneliness/connection vibe…

I feed the pigeons I sometimes feed the sparrows too
It gives me a sense of enormous well-being
And then I'm happy for the rest of the day safe in the knowledge
There will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it
All the people
So many people
And they all go hand in hand
Hand in hand through their parklife

A Man Melting Playlist Part I
A Man Melting Playlist Part III

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Man Melting: The Playlist >> Part I

Back in 2006, when I was trying to write a novel involving rock and roll and the quest to remain unfamous, I was introduced to the blog largeheartedboy. I especially liked the regular booknotes feature which asks a writer to give a playlist for their latest book - a feature for which I continue to visit to this day.

While music is less of a presence in my short story collection, A Man Melting, it was certainly there in the background while I wrote and revised each story. In the lead up to the release date of 2 July, I've decided to post a playlist in three parts, with one song for each of the eighteen stories in my collection.

A word about my selections.

While there are a number of references to musical artists in the collection, most of the time they are only in passing. A song on the radio (Nelly Furtado's 'Maneater') or a bored teen’s Wikipedia fix (Styx, Stones and Serj Tankian). Instead, I've tried to marry each story with a song that both speaks to the content of the story and it's mood. Some matches are more successful than others.

As the manuscript was pretty much completed in 2008 (save for the addition on one story and final edits), I've also tried to stick to songs I would have listened to during that period. Indeed, I wrote about many of these artists on my blog back in 2008, and I'll link to any such posts where applicable.

Part One: Stories One to Six

1. Seeds

The story: Aaron’s life story in 3.5 pages featuring imaginary friends, cockroaches and an intrusive narrator.
When Aaron was five and a half he had an imaginary friend called Groucho. They had a great time together, getting into mischief, making potions from cleaning products underneath the washhouse sink, pretending to be aeroplanes in the autumn winds.
But then Groucho had an identity crisis…
The song: 'If I could talk I'd tell you' - The Lemonheads

What better way to start a playlist than with a zippy, sub-three-minute pop song... which is the same reasoning behind ‘Seeds’ opening my collection.

If I could talk I'd tell you
If I could smile I'd let you know
You are far and away
My most imaginary friend

2. Manawatu

The story: Glen returns to Palmerston North for the holidays, gets depressed and considers jumping off his auntie’s balcony.
Leaning out from the balcony, he sized up the jump. It’s only one storey. It’s nothing. I’m going to jump. Young Heart, Easy Living, the slogan for the Manawatu region. Is there anything easy about living with a young heart, always thirsting for something else, something hidden like the river I want to be immersed in right now but I’m still on the balcony? Still sizing it up…
The song: ‘Jump’ – Van Halen

When I was younger my mum told me this story the morning after my father’s work Christmas party: When ‘Jump’ came on, my dad climbed on to the banister of the mezzanine level and started miming / performing his daredevil David Lee Roth. People either thought he was drunk or serious about jumping, though he was neither.

I think this story was there, somewhere deep in the back of my mind, when I wrote ‘Manawatu’.

Ah, might as well jump. Jump!
Might as well jump.
Go ahead, jump.

3. Copies

The story: A son reflects on the life of his father, an artist who liked to photocopy famous artworks over and over and over, and what his own future may hold.
My earliest memory of my father is probably like these copies: a string of memories, moving from the original moment — if it ever happened — to my current recollection like a Chinese whisper, changing slightly each time I trawl it up.
The song: ‘Diminishing Returns’ – Harvey Danger

Harvey Danger? You know, those one hit wonders responsible for 1998’s ‘Flagpole Sitta’. They released their 2005 album, Little by Little for free on the internet (well before that was the thing to be doing) and that’s how I came across ‘Diminishing Returns’ – a song that seems to speak to the movement away from the original (be it a moment, a parent or a piece of art).

Progress shall be defined
By your position on the bridge
As it burns
When populism, activism, urbanism fail
My cooler head, my cooler head will prevail
When there are no more gods left to anoint
No more noses to bend out of joint
I'm gonna meet you at the point of diminishing returns

Footnote: Photocopier by Fujiya and Miyagi deserves a mention here, but failed to make the list because I hadn’t heard the song in 2008.

4. Oh! So Careless

The story: Penny and Leo go on an overland tour of South-East Africa at a rocky point in their relationship.
And so Penny spent the seven hour drive north through the Drakensburg Ranges with an empty seat next to her. The others played cards, exchanged flight stories, and made iPod playlists which would last three songs on the stereo before being pulled in favour of a fresher mix.
The song: ‘Under African Skies’ – Paul Simon

It took me a while to warm to Graceland as an album – I think I felt Simon was riding the coattails of another culture and music, but eventually the songs won out. Like ‘Oh! So Careless’, Africa is merely a setting in ‘Under African Skies’ – both the song and the story are concerned with more than red dirt and giraffes.

This is the story of how we begin to remember
This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein
After the dream of falling and calling your name out
These are the roots of rhythm
And the roots of rhythm remain

5. Parisian Blue

The story: Megan set out to travel the world with Tessa, but after an almighty argument in Paris, she goes it alone.
In Kampong Som, Megan enjoyed a strange form of celebrity. She was not the only white person, but the others came in hand-holding pairs or giggling, uncountable packs. Perhaps, she wondered on her first day, the lack of females traveling alone was a fluke. A seasonal quirk. She had been to rougher places by herself, after all. But in Dar es Salaam or Khartoum people weren’t surprised — they were perhaps a little offended, but not surprised. Here she stood out.
The song: ‘Home’ – Foo Fighters

"Echoes and silence, patience and grace" is both the name of the album (minus an “and”) from which this song is taken, and a line within 'Home'. Echoes and silence are also a big part of the final scene in the story, as are the sense of homesickness (or homelessness) and regret that pervades this song.

Wish I were with you
I couldn't stay
Every direction
Leads me away
Pray for tomorrow
But for today
All I want is to be home

[And here's my accidental review of Echoes Silence Patience and Grace back in December 2007].

6. The Tin Man

The story: Jason, a “book-shaped kid in a ball-shaped school”, is the victim (or is it beneficiary?) of the school bullies’ latest scheme.
Jason Stride is being wrapped in tinfoil and no one really knows why, it just has to happen. This is often the way with high school: deep down no one really believes it is the real world, so no one insists that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Embarrasment can happen without reason, violations can go unpunished and minding your own business can get you wrapped in tinfoil.
The song: ‘The Hard Way’ – The Kinks

I listened to a lot of the Kinks in 2008, and I blogged about them four times in a two month span. This song, from School Boys in Disgrace, is from the perspective of a teacher, but it could equally be Jason’s thoughts at the opening of the story about his tormentors.

Boys like you were born to waste,
You never listen to a word I say
And if you think you're here to mess around,
You're making a big mistake,
'Cos you're gonna find out the hard way,
You gonna find out the hard way.

A Man Melting Playlist Part II
A Man Melting Playlist Part III

Monday, June 21, 2010

Now you see it, now you don't: the 2010 NZ Post Book Award finalists

I thought today was the day they were announcing the finalists for the NZ Post Book Awards (the revamped and renamed Montanas).  So I googled for news about "NZ Post Book Awards 2010" this afternoon at work (naughty, I know) and found a list of all the finalists on the NZ Herald's website.
As the Earth Turns Silver
But now that I'm home, when I google "new zealand post book awards herald", it still lists a page that promises: "2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards finalists: Fiction. - As the Earth Turns Silver by Alison Wong ..."

But when I click the link, I just get to the Herald's homepage.

According to, the finalists will be announced tomorrow (22 July).  So I suspect I stumbled across an inadvertent embargo breach on the part of the Herald, which was picked up at some stage between 1.30pm and 6.00pm today.

I suspect the Herald's full article has been cached somewhere, and it's only a matter of hours till the finalists are announced officially, so I'm going to discuss the list I read for fiction (though I guess there's no assurances the article was 100% accurate if the Herald can't follow instructions about when information can and can't be released).

*spoiler alert*
Living as a Moon

Fiction shortlist:
As the Earth Turns Silver - Alison Wong
Living as a Moon - Owen Marshall
Limestone - Fiona Farrell

ReliefInterestingly, Anna Taylor's short story collection, Relief, was listed as the winner of the best first book of fiction, despite As the Earth Turns Silver being Wong's fiction debut (though she's also a published poet).  Hearty congratulations to Anna Taylor, though -- extremely well deserved!

LimestoneI blogged about Wong's novel in March (I wasn't that taken with it), and reviewed Marshall's latest short story collection in October last year (I liked the collection but was suffering from a bit of Marshall fatigue and certainly didn't rate it as his best work).  I haven't read Limestone, so I can't comment on who should win.  I'm sure each is deserving in their own way -- which is one of the gripes about a three book short-list: how much suspense it there about who'll win, when they're all assured of at least a bronze medal?  I know some people liked to read all five short-listed fiction books for the old Montanas before the awards... with only three books, where's the fun in that? It seems less of a challenge.

So what works of fiction published in 2009 might have made it into the final two short listed slots?  Off the top of my head:
    Somebody Loves Us AllSingularity
  • Singularity by Charlotte Grimshaw (a sequel to Opportunity which won the Montana in 2008; both Opportunity and Singularity were short-listed for the Frank O'Connor Prize...)
  • Somebody Loves Us All by Damien Wilkins (well-reviewed, and tipped by Unity's Tilly Lloyd along with Singularity and As the Earth Turns Silver last week)
  • Access Road by Maurice Gee (Grimshaw's Listener review)
  • Magpie Hall by Rachael King
  • The Adventures of Vela by Albert Wendt (though a novel-in-verse seems destined to fall between the gaps of such awards)
  • Dead People's Music by Sarah Laing
  • Butterscotch by Lyn Loates
I'll stop there, knowing that I've probably made a glaring omission or two.  We'll see what the judges say tomorrow after the official announcement (and what the pundits say after this).

Interesting times.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Diary of a Good Day

1:21am Winston Reid heads home a goal in the final minute of extra time to secure New Zealand's first point ever in the football World Cup finals.

7.05am Wake up. Not too tired. Patches of blue sky visible.

8:20am Turn up at work and talk to colleagues about the football. Ease myself into another day of public service.

9.05am Take jersey off as it appears they have finally fixed the heating on my floor.

11.01am Random House publicist informs me Sunday Star Times are keen to run an excerpt from A Man Melting on 27 June.

11.08am Random House publicist asks if I'd like to be interviewed for National Radio's Arts on Sunday programme (interview to air 4 June).

11.51am Despite the distractions, finish updates to communications plan, project plan and Gantt chart that I've been meaning to do for several days.

12.35pm Get outside for some fresh air. Listen to Gilead as read by Tim Jerome while on my walk. Warm enough to unbutton my coat / get some colour in my cheeks.

4.46pm Take a moment to observe the beginnings of dramatic sunset from my desk.

5.16pm Manage to leave work at a reasonable hour.

5.49pm Arrive home to find a book-sized parcel in my letter box. Unwrap to reveal my advance copy of A Man Melting (the first time I’ve touched my book in “book” form / seen how the "aqua tint metallic foil" looks ion real life).

[Without flash: similar to on a computer monitor]

[With flash: foil-y]

6.10pm Settle down to watch football highlights / relive "the greatest draw in NZ sports history" on TVNZ 7.

7.13pm Devour dinner of kranskies and sauerkraut.

7.35pm Realise its Bloomsday. Fail to find a way to work this into my blog post.

7.57pm Finish uploading photos and ready to devote an hour to writing about a taxi driver...

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Shadows of Past World Cups

The FIFA World Cup is officially underway and here in little old New Zealand it's the only conversation to be had around the watercooler. It's great to have football (or soccer as we are wont to call it at any other time) supplant rugby from its roost every now and then.

Things like the World Cup and the Olympics always get me thinking about what I was doing at this time, 4, 8, 12 years ago.

Four years ago I was in Brisbane. 2006 was the year I did my MA in Creative Writing in Wellington, but the World Cup coincided with the break between the first and second semesters. Since we had no exams on the MA, I had about six weeks to go back and be with M. in Brisbane.

It was, of course, the first time Australia had made it to the World Cup finals for several years (similar to the All Whites this year, though with more close calls), and the Socceroos were all over the media. The TV coverage was great, with every game (if memory serves) free to air on SBS, and plenty of highlights and analysis in between. We were living with, amongst others, a guy from Auckland who was doing his best to be a full-time gambler. He and his father had owned horses back in New Zealand, so the races were his main focus in terms of making money, but he followed the form guide for most sports. It was great to have someone to talk to about teams other than Australia. But as Guus Hiddink guided the green and golds through to the knock-out stages, it was impossible to resist the lure of rooting for Oceania's best (at that time), to the point where I was severely gutted when Australia was eliminated by Italy in the 93rd minute (courtesy of a dodgy refereeing decision).

While all of this was going on, I was working on my MA manuscript, a novel I talk about too much for something which never made it into print. But I remember those ‘mid-winter’ Brisbane days, strolling around Robertson and MacGregor (suburbs you only go to if you live there) in t-shirt and jandels, thinking about football and having conversations with characters in my head. Wonderful days, those. At the time I thought this would be what it is like to be a fulltime writer. In the intervening four years I haven't been as close as that to being a full-time writer, and I suspect nothing will quite compare to that first time I was allowed to take the game of being a writer seriously while the world elevated the game of football to life and death.

Four years before this, my memories of the tournament as a whole are less vivid. Back in 2002, I was studying again, but subjects less sexy than Creative Writing (try 200 level accounting papers and Advanced Statistics for Business). The final must have fallen during the varsity holidays once again, because I remember watching the contest between Brazil and Germany in Palmerston North, in a mini-grandstand they had erected in Icons Bar on the Square. This was back before cheap flatscreen TVs, so the bar had a big pulldown screen and a projector. Everyone seemed to be supporting Brazil (South American flair over German efficiency - not a hard choice for the impartial observer), but my friends and I decided to root for the unterhunds (I mean unterlegenes). This was a few years before I made my first German friends, and a full five years before setting foot in the country, so the only Deutsche we could spreichen between the five of us was a sentence one of my friends recalled from third from German: Wie komme ich am besten zum bahnhof? (Can you tell me the best way to the train station?) Turns out this is a thoroughly chantable sentence — we even got some of the other neutrals to join in.

Germany didn't win, but I've never forgotten how to ask for directions to the train station since.

One other memory from the 2002 final — and again, it's nothing to do with the game itself, is it ever when you watch sports in drinking establishments? — is when a large woman walked in front of the projector and cast an even larger shadow across the screen. When she returned, her shadow blocked out the screen once more, just as Brazil moved into a scoring position, bringing groans from the rest of us on the mini-grandstand. Later on, this same girl and her equally large friend walked past, presumably for another bathroom visit, and one of us, it may even have been me, shouted, "Shadows." It was simply an attempt to alert these girls to the results of their movement — the negative impact they were having on our night — but it quickly evolved into its own pejorative term — an in-joke to be muttered when our coterie of twenty-nothings passed a group of larger people. "Shadows" stuck in our vernacular for at least another year, subtle enough in its cruelty as to delight us (we were, after all, former students of an all boys high school, so had the combined emotional age of a spoiled toddler), so malleable in its uses as to remain funny.

Nowadays, when I see this group of friends, I feel the temptation to pull out the old in-jokes, to revive the language we developed to fill the walks from tee box to fairway, fairway to green, without actually saying anything. When I see these friends — some of them earn twice my salary, others have fallen off the hamster wheel — they too sink back into familiar roles: the relentless mocking, the utter fear of emotion or femininity. They will mock my blog which no one reads, the piddling amount my book will sell, the fact I have (no doubt about it) gotten dumber since high school, and I will mock them for the workplace trysts they thought no one knew about, their beancounter jobs or the fact they still dress like their clothes were meant for their larger brother. It is just like it was four, eight, twelve years ago.

When I look back on the 2010 FIFA World Cup, I will not only be looking back upon the time the All Whites took to the world stage, but upon the lead up to the launch of my first short story collection.  Add to this a period spent looking in the Property Press and thinking about next steps, in day jobs and in life: of trying to piece everything together (but isn’t that every period of life?).

Looking back — seeing what can and cannot pass in four years, what can change and what can remain — I cannot predict what things will be like by the time the world cup hits Brazil. Will New Zealand qualify once again (will Oceania even exist as a federation)? Will I still have a day job unrelated to writing, a mortgage, a kid or two, or will I have written something worthy of changing all that? Does writing have any bearing on the mortgage and kids? Will everything come up Millhouse? I doubt it. If you asked me in 2006 what would happen with the novel I was writing, I would have told you it would get published. I believed it — one must to get that far — but it didn’t transpire. If you’d told me I’d have to wait another four years and write more than a million more words before having my first book published, would I have chosen to spend the next four years differently? I hope not. In a way I’m glad things did not all fall into my lap. I’m glad Australia got knocked out by Italy and I could go back to being a proper Kiwi. I’m glad I’ve had some downs in my writing career well out of the public eye. I’m prepared to have a few more downs (pretty soon if anyone deigns to print a review of A Man Melting) more in the public arena (but pretty obscure).

Whatever will happen, will happen, and I will stop at certain intervals, prompted by sporting events, elections or the purchase of a pair of jeans, and think back to the last time, hopefully with a smile on my face.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Roadtrip U.S.A or Who Needs Escapism When You've Escaped?

After yesterday's post about my long weekend in Weber, I realised I never said a lot about my trip to the States last month, and certainly didn't share any holiday snaps. The reason for this, on reflection, is that those two weeks didn't have a lot to do with reading or writing, which this blog seems focussed on.

San Francisco

I had no preconceived story ideas set in the States before I left (unlike my Weber trip). And nothing occurred over there that made me think to myself: "This'll pop up in a story one day" (which does happen, honest).

Pacific Highway south of Monterey

This is not to say the trip was not a blast - it was - and that memories of Yosemite and Las Vegas will not weasel their way into my writing - I'm sure they will. But when I sit down to right each day this bleak winter, I'll be writing about "small coastal communities" in the lower North Island, taxi drivers in Brisbane, and books my father read when he was a 'fresher' at university. Granted, these ideas and places predate my trip to the States, but I've been known to drop everything and write the first draft of a new story the week it presents itself. The fact is, if you told me to write a story inspired by my U.S. trip, I wouldn't know where to start.

Yosemite National Park

It's not unusual that two weeks travelling would yield zero story ideas. I probably only had three fully-formed story ideas while travelling through Central and South America (eight countries, five months) -- one of which has transmuted into the Brisbane taxi driver story (though it was based on something in Bolivia).

Black Bear, Sequoia National Park

I have no empirical evidence to back this up (though if I'm going to represent NZ at the Writer Geek Olympiad in 2012, I'd better get on it), but I suspect I have more ideas (big and small) during the passage of a boring-ass week spent volleying between home and the office, than I do on holiday. While some people (M. being one) might dream over lunch about their next trip and start planning, I'll sip my cup o' soup and think about what a good name for a taxi driver would be. I find reading Stuff about as fertile ground for fiction as you can get, though my aim is not to get all Charlotte Grimshaw, roman à clef-y (with a David Blain character and a John Key character and a John Campbell character). Rather, my heart will leap (um) at the confluence of two suicide stories in two days (this and this), I'll note it down and come back to it one day if it still gives me the story vibe.

Sandstorm, Death Valley

But travel? I just don't have my story antennae up as I do back home. Who needs escapism when you've escaped?

If I do use my travel experiences in writing, it is to provide a setting for story ideas that sprouted from the mundane. My story 'Facing Galapagos' in A Man Melting began with the idea of an office worker receiving emails from someone claiming to be Charles Darwin. The fact the story moves to Ecuador was not dictated by my travels, or any great desire to write about maracuya or the Malecon 2000, but by David Leon, the character I placed in front of that computer screen.

New York New York, Las Vegas

Another story, 'Give Me Bread and Call Me Stupid', sounds quite exotic when described from my spot on a hill in Wellington: a Spanish civil servant and his girlfriend move to Edinburgh for a year to resuscitate the English they learnt in high school. But it all began with my frustrations with Scottish recruitment firms while on a working holiday visa. Sometimes the setting can be shifted, as I hope my Bolivian Taxi Driver story can co-opt my knowledge of Brisbane. Other times the setting becomes part of the story, as Edinburgh became for ‘Give Me Bread’.

Hoover Dam

Very early on in my blogging life I wrote a treatise on how travel slows the passage of time by cramming a week with more memories than a week spent "at home". I throw around terms like "earnest" and "take myself too seriously" often on this blog, and this old essay epitomises such criticism. But still think I was on to something. I'd like to add the fact that looking back into the archives of my old blog, I seem to have squeezed a heck of a lot into 2008, and thanks to the internet, I'm free to "remember" these things for years to come. The problem, of course, is that all the daft things I say, all the undetected typos, and all the rambling, self-important waffle are there for us all to "remember" too.

The Grand Canyon

At least Memory, that sweet mistress, has the grace to smudge away the negatives over time.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Long Weekend

I like getting away and seeing new places, but I'm not one for organising. It's lucky, then, that M. seems to enjoy researching places to go, following through and making bookings.

In the lead up to Queen's Birthday weekend, she began looking for places to go based on one proviso: the place had to have a fire.

Independent of her quest, I had lifted a story idea from one of my notebooks and begun kicking it around in the sort of serious fashion one does to ideas before finally setting fingers to keyboard. The idea involved a small coastal community - not a golden sand getaway, more of a rough, windblown place - the sort you find in the lower North Island. I began looking at maps, and saw names like Herbertville, Weber and Akitio, which I recognised from the sign when you pass through Dannevirke, but knew nothing more. I realised I'd never been to that slice of the Eastern coast, and thought maybe I could set my story there. But of course I'd done nothing more about it.

Then M. announced last week she'd found a cottage in Weber (30kms east of Dannevirke, another 30 or so kms from the coast). Of all the tiny, nowheresville places, we'd somehow independently locked on to the same patch of island.

I'm not big on serendipity in stories, but when it occurs in real life, it must be embraced.

Our one bedroom cottage was more spacious than expected, and will probably be fictionalised in some way soon.

Our cottage

The weather wasn't great (was it anywhere?), but we had a fire(!), and we managed to get to the coast on Saturday. Turns out Akitio looks like the "small coastal community" I'd begun sketching in my head, down to the murky river mouth and driftwood strewn beach.


I also had my closest encounter with a korimako (bellbird), and now reckon I can distinguish the sound of it and a tui (famous last words -- though I'm not sure how getting it wrong could lead to my physical demise).

All I really have left to do is write the story. Ha!

Waihi Falls

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Man Melting: One Month To Go!

I last gave a proper update on the progress of my short story collection towards publication back in August. As of today, it's one month until the official release date.

Dun dun dun.

Since August the book cover has been finalised (with embossing and uv tinted foils it should look better in real life than online -- or at least different), my photographic genius of a brother took my author's photo, I wrote the Acknowledgements section and went through the final proofs of the manuscript.

Sometime around Jan/Feb, the release date got pushed back from May to July for promotional reasons. (What's another two months when you've been waiting two twenty-seven years?).

I also filled out a questionnaire for the Random House promotions team and am now playing a waiting game to see if they get me any interviews etc.

In terms of self-promotion, I've set up a website ( which doesn't really contain anything new if you've visited this blog, but well, it's called, which is kinda cool (or kinda conceited, *shrugs*).

I've also set up a page on facebook for A Man Melting (someone will "like" me any minute now), and have done most of the organising for my book launch, which will be on Thursday 1 July here in Wellington (details on, of course).

And as I've mentioned before, my book is starting to pop up in places online (but of course you can't buy it just yet). To all you early-adopting Kobo owners out there, you'll have to wait beyond July for the eBook version (not many NZ publishers seemed ready for Whitcoulls eBook store), but it may happen one day.

That's the grass on A Man Melting to date. Books are due from the printers the second week of June (egads!). Over the next few weeks I'm going to experiment with mini ice sculptures (kinda like this, but less awesome), to see if they'd work for my book launch. (I suspect it will just provide fodder for self-deprecating blog posts and photos of hilarious failed attempts, but we'll see).

Once the book comes out, the only firm public appearance I have slated is alongside fellow debut short story book-er Tina Makereti, chaired by David Geary, as part of the IIML's Writer's on Mondays. Our session will be 12.15pm, 16 August, Te Papa. Any book festivals, book groups, book reviewers, book bloggers, book-whatever that want a piece of me, leave a comment or email me at thecraigcliff(at)gmail(dot)com.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cosmetics and confusion: Introducing the BNZ Literary Awards

Big announcement:

The BNZ Katherine Mansfield Awards, one of New Zealand's big two short story competitions (the Sunday Star Times competition being the other), are now to be called the BNZ Literary Awards. The Premier Award (basically the winner of the open category) will now be known as the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award.

Big whoop.

I checked the BNZ's website last week to see when entries would open for this year's competition and who the judges might be, and was told about the "facelift" (their term), and that more details would be available on 1 June. The only other change I can see is that the deadline has been pushed back to 23 July 2010 (it was 30 June in previous years). Good news for recalcitrant short story writers like me, but hardly ground breaking.

Are there any other changes? The prize money looks the same as last year (wouldn't $10k be nice for less than 5000 words…). No judges are announced as yet… maybe changes are afoot there: a panel, or perhaps the entrants won't be told who'll be judging them, just as the judges don't know who's written each story? For some reason I doubt it.

It seems it's just a bit of rebranding. I don't want to rip what is a great competition and one which has helped me get two rungs up the literary ladder, but isn't "The BNZ Literary Awards" a little misleading. It is, after all, still a short story competition. "Competition", "Award", I'm willing to let that slide (especially if there are tax advantages). And I know the previous name didn't mention short stories, but Katherine Mansfield was a pretty big clue. Do BNZ intend on expanding the "Awards" to include other literary forms like poetry and essays/creative nonfiction? What about longer literary forms: novellas, novels, memoirs, biographies… Again, I doubt it.

This isn't meant to be a criticism of the competition, I mean awards, or the BNZ (who must be praised and praised again for fronting up with the case for over 50 years…), but what's wrong with telling it like it is? Isn't the NZ literary awards scene already muddled enough by the fact that NZ Post seems to sponsor everything else (again: cheers to NZ Post, boos most every other NZ corporation)? A visitor from overseas could be forgiven for not knowing which of the following were bigger deals: a Prime Minister's Literary Award (career achievement) and a Bank of New Zealand Literary Award (one short story)? I guess it's all in the footnoting.

For details on how to enter, click here.