Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Frequent visitors: a conversation with Anna Taylor

Today is the fourth instalment of my series of email conversations with New Zealand short fiction writers.

After chatting with Pip Adam, Tina Makereti and Sue Orr, now it’s Anna Taylor’s turn. Anna did the MA with Sue Orr and I in 2006 and recently won the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for her fantastic collection, Relief (VUP). The judges of the award called Relief, “a powerful collection that has at least one memorable image or sentence on every page”…


CC: Anna, you won the Adam Prize in 2006 for the best manuscript on the IIML's MA in Creative Writing that year. The manuscript was a collection of short stories which morphed into Relief which came out in 2009. Aside from revising the older stories after finishing the MA, you wrote two new stories, 'Relief' and 'In The Wind', which appear in your book. Did you write these stories to fill a specific space, or play a certain role, in the collection? And was your experience of writing these stories different from the ones you wrote while in the workshop environment?

AT: After I finished the MA, everything went quiet for me writing wise. I knew the collection needed more, but I had no idea what. It was my first taste of really grinding to a halt - and I was quite bewildered by that for a while. But I worked on getting the other stories right, and then I wrote ‘Relief’ quite quickly, in the final months before sending the book off to VUP.
‘In the Wind’ was a bit more of a stop-start kind of process - I was slow to find my way with it, but like ‘Relief’ it finally fell into place very close to hand-in time. I needed a partner for the Christmas story, which I guess has got a kind of sardonic, humorous tone, and so ‘In the Wind’ was originally written to provide balance for that one. Both of the newer stories have also got darker undercurrents – ‘In the Wind’ is about death, ‘Relief’ about denial and abuse – and for me that was what was needed for the collection to really drop.

But, yes. It was very slow - two years. The productivity that I experienced during the MA year has never revisited me. Those were certainly the glory days...

CC: It was great to see you recently appear on TVNZ's Good Morning to talk about your book [you can watch Anna here]. I'm not sure how many short story writers have ever sat on that couch — a select few I'll bet. For all the local writers who never make it on TV, there are still events like readings, book festivals and radio interviews, which means there's a definitely performance aspect to being a writer these days. What do you think about this side of being a published author?

AT: Funnily enough, I was talking to someone about this recently – about whether or not authors could get away with completely rejecting the whole public eye thing these days. Maybe if you're Cormac McCarthy you can. But, I don't know, really – of course in so many ways I think we can only feel gratitude for it. I have found the whole media thing quite bemusing at times, though. I’ve been misquoted and misunderstood quite a few times, and this has made me realise that even quotes in a newspaper may not necessarily be true. It has also struck me that often the journalistic angle means that there’s no actual interest in the book itself – there’s been so much focus on my name change, and who my sister is, and sometimes it feels like the book is an almost irrelevant little bit of luggage, bobbing along for the ride.

I get pretty nervous before any kind of public reading, but once I’m up there – and the sensation of my body turning into a balloon, and floating away, has eased off – I do actually love the feeling of reading work aloud. When I write I’m very preoccupied with the music of words and sentences, and I guess the opportunity to read aloud gives me a chance to read the way I imagine things to sound when I write – if that makes sense.

CC: Backtracking a bit, everyone has the ability to tell stories, and it seems every second person is on the verge of sitting down and writing them. But there's a jump you have to make, first of all to sit down and write that first story, and second to commit the time (oh, the time!) to becoming a better writer. When did you first decide to take being a writer seriously? Were there any hallelujah moments along the way when you thought, 'Gee, maybe this isn't complete folly?'

AT: As a kid I was very taken with the thought of being a writer, but when I hit young adulthood, it suddenly felt like a very indulgent thing to want to be – as if admitting it then meant you had to give it a try, and what if it didn’t work at all? I did the Short Fiction paper at the IIML with William Brandt in the last year of my degree, and he was incredibly encouraging – and then I guess getting into the MA was a hallelujah moment, as was winning the Adam Prize. For the latter, the hallelujah was much quieter, and more anxious feeling – the wonder of writing suddenly feeling like it wasn’t complete folly was matched by a deep, lurking sense that it actually WAS, and that pages would disintegrate, turn to ash in my hands, any moment. I think that’s still my feeling now, to an extent. I feel so blessed, but writer’s block and the struggles that accompany it are frequent visitors to me, and so despite the incredible luck I’ve had so far, that crumbling feeling never feels far from the edge.

Do you feel that too? Not that you – Mr 800,000 words in a year – have ever probably suffered from such blockages. It does seem like a cliché – the old writer’s block excuse – but I don’t know how else to describe it. Maybe pencil paralysis? I liked what Pip Adam said about it. Surgeon’s block. It’s lucky I don’t carry a scalpel around with me.

CC: Writers block can mean so many things, can’t it? A lack of ideas, a lack of inspiration, or simply a lack of time to turn ideas and inspiration into successful work. I think every writer suffers from some kind of blockage from time to time, and probably different sorts of blockages as they move through their career. Knock on wood, but I haven’t ever felt short of stories I’d like to write – the challenges for me have been to find the time to write them, and to be able to do the ideas justice. The latter is a matter of practice, so it really boils down to writing as often as I can. Hence setting silly targets like writing a million words in a year.

Now, this is a question that popped up in my recent conversation with Sue Orr, and it is a bit of a mean one. If you could only hold up one short story by another author as the exemplar of what you might hope to achieve in your writing, what would it be?

AT: This IS a bit mean – but what a great thing to be forced to think about it. What’s yours? I’m afraid I can’t get this down to the one flag-waving, first prize winning story, though. You’re lucky there isn’t a list of twenty here…

Elizabeth Strout’s linked collection (or novel in stories, as I think it’s marketed. Funny that – get the word novel in there somewhere, and then it can become a bestseller) Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year, is exquisitely written. The characters are beautifully complex, and there’s lovely humour in there too – so it can be both heartbreakingly poignant, and funny. One of the stories – ‘Incoming Tide’ – has stayed with me particularly, and I go back to it often, just to check if it’s as good as I first thought (it is). It’s bleak but also hopeful – filled with humanity. It feels like it is pure heart.

The other story that springs to mind is Alice Munro’s ‘Dimension’ (which is the opening story from her latest collection.) It is shocking and raw and unwavering in its examination of trauma. There are a couple of scenes in that story that return to me, over and over. In fact, that’s the case for both of these stories, and that’s what we aspire to, I guess, isn’t it – to write something that sets up camp in the back of a reader’s head, and just like an impolite visitor, then refuses to leave.

Can I ask who your overstayers are?

CC: Well, I must say I read ‘Dimension’ online at the New Yorker’s site a while ago, and it stuck with me too. I think the New Yorker isn’t the source of reliably great short stories that it once was (especially now that it insists on parading excerpts of forthcoming novels as short fiction), but every now and then you get a ‘Dimension’. And ‘The Dinner Party’ by Joshua Ferris from 2008 would definitely be one of my overstayers.

I also have a soft spot for stories that aren’t really stories in the traditional sense. Ones where there’s no beginning, middle or end – just one idea. One that keeps popping up in my thoughts at present is ‘Joining The Ishmaelites’ by Owen Marshall, which begins, "True literary achievement depends upon extremes in life; the gathering of emotional and social copy." I sit at my desk at work and wonder if I should be spending my twenties as a sardine fisherman rather than a policy analyst, but then I remember Marshall was a school teacher when he wrote the story and his tongue would have been firmly in his cheek.

But still, I wonder if starting to write in my twenties has short-circuited something. That in a strange way, I might have all the stories I’m liable to tell hidden within me already. Have you ever felt like that?

AT: It’s an interesting one, isn’t it – being a ‘young’ writer. I’ve never thought about the short circuiting thing, but that’s definitely something I can now add to my list of writing worries! I do admire writers who came to it later in life – it feels like you must be bringing so much lived life to the page, when you start writing in your 50s or 60s, like Annie Proulx. But I don’t know – I do feel like I have more stories hidden away, waiting to be told, and I just haven’t got to a place where I’m able (or even know how) to write them yet. Maybe I’m saving those ones for my middle age.

CC: What are you working on at the moment?

AT: I am trying (with the emphasis being on the trying in trying) to write a collection of three linked novellas. I find myself using words like dawdling and stumbling when describing this process – which, I guess, says it all. Perhaps it’s a leap – moving from the safety net of the short story, into something which is longer, needs more of a sense of plot and shape. I have a feeling, though, that this might be just what happens to me: that I run aground, and then have to wait for the tide to come in again. So – I’m waiting. And dawdling. And trying (there’s that word again) not to worry too much about the deadline for the (wonderful) CNZ grant I’ve been given to write this next book.

CC: Three linked novellas – that sounds interesting. I read Carl Shuker’s Three Novellas for a Novel back in 2008, which was a wild ride, but I don’t think I’ve read any other books consisting only of novellas. I’ve read plenty of books that start with a novella and then feature more short stories (like The Turn of the Screw and other stories), and some short story collections that end with a really long one (would you call ‘The Dead’ at the end of Dubliners a novella?). Are there any novella-only books you’re modeling your approach on? Or are you happily blazing your own trail?

AT: There’s a bit of both happening for me, I think. The idea initially came from reading Richard Ford’s collection of novellas – Women with Men. I quite liked the triptych effect of the three long stories sitting alongside each other to form a book. More than anything, though, I think I was just wanting to find a way to move forward with my writing – to try out something new, move out of my comfort zone – and because I had a story that was leaking out of its borders (I’d written it to go in Relief, and then realised that it wasn’t working; maybe needed to be much longer) and wanted to find a way to keep fiddling with that, I decided to try to expand it into a novella and write two more, with a thread running through them, holding them all together.

I read a wonderful quote of Peter Carey’s recently, in which he said (and I’m paraphrasing horribly here, I’m afraid) that the act of writing fiction is the inelegance of doing something that you don’t know how to do. I really liked that. Even if we’re following the blazing trail of some wonderful trail-blazer, we’re still fumbling around in the dark, trying to find our own way. I guess that’s where the anxiety comes from for me – as well as the joy.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Second Helping: a conversation with Sue Orr

Today is the third instalment of my series of email conversations with New Zealand short fiction writers.  This time, Sue Orr steps into the spotlight…

Full disclosure: Sue Orr and I did our MA in Creative Writing together at the IIML in 2006. The manuscript she worked on that year was a book of short stories, which, with a few additions, was published in 2008 as Etiquette For A Dinner Party (Vintage, Random House). 

Caren Wilton, in the NZ Listener, wrote of Sue’s first book, ‘These stories are intriguing, sharp-eyed explorations of gaps and misunderstandings between people, and gaps between hopes or expectations and reality, with some nicely black twists and turns thrown in.’ And Nicky Pellegrino had this to say in the Herald on Sunday: ‘If you only have time for one new local writer in your life then make sure it is Sue Orr.’  Interested readers can find out more at Sue’s page on the NZ Book Council’s website.


CC: Sue, it's been about two years since Etiquette For A Dinner Party came out. Has the time flown, or does it feel like an age? When you think of your collection now, what pops into your head?

SO: It does feel as though a long time has passed since Etiquette, probably because I’d already started research for my next book by the time that one was published.

Now, when I think about Etiquette, the words “earnest” and “download” come to mind. It was very much a first book – a product of a very intensive period of novice writing and full of a life-time of observations about people and places. It’s a bit of a pot pourri of style, I was still discovering and experimenting with different voices and techniques.

CC: I think you’re being too modest. To me, a collection which is a pot pourri of styles is far better than umpteen exquisite rehashes of the same thing. But I totally understand the process of divorcing yourself from one book in order to launch into another.

I've seen a few stories that will no doubt slot into your next book and think they're fantastic. Maybe you could describe for readers the project you've been working on?

SO: Thanks. The current project is another book of stories; these ones are themed. I’ve taken a look at the emergence of the modern short story across different countries and cultures, identifying ten stories that hold their own today. Most of them are from the 19th or very early 20th century, although a couple go further back than that.

In response to those stories, I’ve written ten new stories. Each of them tips its hat in some way to one of the originals. They’re not re-writes, more homages to the unique qualities that made the original stories special, perennial.

My criteria for the new stories was that they had to work on two levels – as well as saluting a masterpiece, each had to be self-contained, stand on its own. Knowledge of the originals is not necessary to read them – however, one of the purposes of the collection is to encourage readers to seek out the masterpieces at the heart of the book.

CC: Did your publisher take some convincing to let you stick to short stories for your second book rather than 'do' a novel — the conventional wisdom being that novels sell better than story collections? Is it too cheeky to ask what sort of arguments you used to support your case for short fiction? 

SO: Haha! I was very lucky – and incredibly grateful – to have support from Random House for this book. I met with my editor and discussed the concept – by that time I had a clear idea about the scope of the project. You’d have to ask them why they said yes but possibly it helped that two stories in Etiquette – ‘The Stories of Frank Sargeson’ and ‘The Death of Mrs Harrison’ ­­- were examples of what I wanted to achieve in the second book. ‘The Stories of Frank Sargeson’ was an homage to a Sargeson story, ‘An Affair of the Heart’ and ‘The Death of Mrs Harrison ‘was, in part, a response to Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’.

CC: Speaking of second books of short stories, there've been a few Kiwi writers who've released two story collections in a row in recent years. Charlotte Grimshaw and Alice Tawhai come to mind. The second collection always seems to do pretty well.  I'm curious about what's different this time around for you. Obviously this second collection has a kind of governing principle, but have you changed how you approach an individual story as a discrete piece of writing?

SO: This time round, the writing is a lot more considered, if that’s the right word. It took me a week, on average, to write a first draft of a story for Etiquette but the new stories have each taken at least a month, usually two.

One of the challenges of writing these new stories has been making sure they develop organically – that they earn their existence, that they’re not contrived or manipulated to meet the criteria of connection to the originals. In the end, the best way of achieving this was reading enormous numbers of old short stories constantly, and then doing nothing. This is a really frightening, stress-inducing method of writing a book. But eventually, the really special classics found their echoes in the stories I wanted to write.

CC: This may be an impossible question to answer, but you’ve led me there with this talk of classics and masterpieces: If you could only hold up one short story by another author as the exemplar of what you might hope to achieve in your writing, what would it be?

SO: You’re right, it is an impossible question to answer. You love different stories for different reasons. But it’s hard to go past Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant [CC: interested readers can find an English version online here] for the depth of emotion it provokes in the reader. Well, this reader anyway. The perils of self-deceit and the potential for cruelty in all of us are exposed in a brutal, devastating way.

CC: You know what, I hadn’t read that story until you mentioned it. So thanks. It’s definitely one of the best long short stories (10,000+ words) I’ve read. Writers thinking about entering the new ‘The Long and the Short of it’ competition run by Unity Books (specifically the ‘Long’ section) would do well to study the way Maupassant paces and layers a story.

Continuing with the French theme, I know that you spent several years living in France and you've used this experience at least once in your fiction ('The Hangi' in Etiquette describes the experience of a Kiwi couple who attempt to put on a hangi for their French friends). But I wonder in what other ways your time in France — not only away from New Zealand but surrounded by another language — has influenced your writing?

SO: We lived in France for four years in the mid-90s and had two of our three children there. The actual detail of living there – the anecdotes that can grow into short stories – is fading now, I can’t imagine writing another ‘The Hangi’ for example.

But any significant period in another country sharpens your perception of difference and your self-awareness, as well as awareness of the idiosyncrasies of your own culture. I don’t think writers lose that edge – I’ve noticed it in your own book Craig, the terrific cultural friction that you’ve mined from your recent travels.

Certainly, the gaps in understanding between people are ripe territory for writing. The other aspect is actual language – the importance of words chosen, the importance of silence between words. Living in another country, speaking another language for long enough for it to become the language you dream in, these experiences all help you empathise with, rather than judge, your characters.

CC: You’ve been through the process of writing a book, having it published, promoting it and receiving reviews, and now you’re in the first part of your next revolution.  What do you find the scariest part about being a writer?

SO: I’d have to say the review process. It’s one thing to write a book. It’s another thing to suddenly realise that people might read it. The next step – a publicly-aired review – is truly terrifying. You get to the end of the review period relatively undamaged emotionally, and vow you will never walk that tightrope again. Then you start thinking about an idea…

CC: Well, I hope you continue to walk that tightrope (and remain ‘relatively undamaged’) for years to come.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Transmission restored

It's been a bit quiet here lately. Sorry. Hasn't been the best of times. M's brother passed away last Friday, so we swiftly caught a plane south to Christchurch. I had to come back for work on Thursday and M got back to Wellington yesterday, but talk about draining.

I had another day off work today to perform promotional duties. First up it was my session wit Tina Makereti and David Geary as part of the IIML's Writers on Mondays at Te Papa. I read from the end of 'The Sceptics Kid', and Tina read from 'Mokomoko' and 'In The End'. Topics discussed included: Twitter, Maui, moa, Palmerston North, editors, book covers, inspiration versus ideas,  and short stories versus novels.

Afterwards I headed home (I had the day off work) to meet a camera crew from TVNZ7's The Good Word. I was interviewed about my writing process and specifically how my writing space factors into things. I really am spoiled now that I have my own office (though it doubles as our guest room), especially considering some of my previous writing spaces (here's two from 2008: one, two).  And for those who can't wait for the new season of The Good Word to start in November, I took some snaps of my office this time last year when we first moved in.

Oh, and I'm sure you're all hanging out to hear what the writing opportunity was that I alluded to a couple of posts back. Well, I received the contract today, so I can probably spill the beans... I've been asked to write a bi-weekly column for the Dominion Post. Apparently they're launching a new (or relaunching an old, I'm a bit sketchy on the details) supplement in the weekend edition, and I'll appear in that.  My brief is:
A fortnightly column of light-hearted reflections on the literary world, arts scene and life in the Government sector in Wellington, as the writer works to make it as a published author and civil servant.
Five hundred words a fortnight shouldn't impinge too much upon my fiction output (though blogging may take a backseat if there's a squeeze). I still need to run this past work, but I won't discuss anything Ministry related.  What I'm doing is diversifying my writing portfolio. Getting my name out there. Getting paid to write. It all sounds like upside at the moment. I'm even looking forward to the challenge of experimenting with and perfecting a form with which I have little experience (the five hundred word light-hearted reflection).

But it does mean I need to get an accountant, pronto!

So, yeah. Ups and downs. The world keeps turning and life goes on for the living. But, I can't help asking, what more does 2010 have in store?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A legend in my own lunchtime

It was a bit weird at work today as they ran a story about me on the Ministry of Education’s intranet. Weird because everyone got to see this photo of me (with this caption) when they opened internet explorer (always for work related queries, I’m sure).

Craig – taking the reader ‘somewhere different with every sandwich’
I’ve worked in the public service in Australia and New Zealand and can safely say that drawing attention to yourself is normally not a good idea. Hopefully this time it will lead to book sales, but still… weird.

The article itself was another Q&A, but comes at things from a slightly different angle to the other coverage to date. I thought I’d repost it here for all the non-Ministry people out there wondering how my day job and my night-and-weekends job overlap.


A Man Melting – in our midst
4 August 2010

Craig Cliff, in our Schools Property Infrastructure Group, tells us about his recently released short story collection – A Man Melting – and reflects on being a published author and a policy analyst at the Ministry.

How did you come to be a published author and a policy analyst at the Ministry?

When I went to university I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study so I had a bob each way, studying both commerce and English literature. With my commerce degree I went across the ditch to work for the State Treasury in Queensland and really enjoyed working in the public sector. At the same time, I still enjoyed reading and writing, so that soaked up a lot of my spare time.

In 2006 I came back to Wellington for eight months to do my MA in Creative Writing with Bill Manhire at Victoria University, which helped set me on the path to getting published.
Being able to string a sentence together definitely helps when writing reports and Ministerials at work. Apart from that there aren’t many similarities between creative writing and working here. I enjoy both for different reasons and I guess I’m still having a bob each way. Writing is a very solitary act, so I enjoy coming to work at the Ministry and being forced to use another part of my brain.

When did you find the time to write these stories?

By the time I started with the Ministry in September 2009, I’d already finished writing A Man Melting and had it accepted for publication. All of the stories in the collection were written and revised in evenings and weekends while I worked full time in Brisbane, and later Edinburgh.

There are a few office workers that pop up in the book, but I can safely say they’re not inspired by any experiences at the Ministry.

What are the stories about?

The eighteen stories cover a real range. The blurb on the back of the book mentions three: “A son worries he is becoming too perfect a copy of his father. The co-owner of a weight-loss camp for teens finds himself running the black market in chocolate bars. A man starts melting and nothing can stop it, not even poetry.”

Characters pop up in places like Cambodia, Ecuador and Zanzibar, but equally there are lots of local settings like New Plymouth, Motueka and Midland Park.

One of the great things about reading short stories is you can often knock one off in your lunch break. I guess I wanted to make sure I took the reader somewhere different with every sandwich.

Are you still writing?

When I find the time: yes. This past year has been full on, what with moving back to New Zealand, full time work at the Ministry, and all the extras – editing proofs, selecting a cover, giving interviews – that come with getting a book published.

My goal is to have a novel published next, but I still find myself writing the odd short story – it’s great to get that feeling of finishing something, especially when your energy and enthusiasm starts to wane near the end of the working week.

Find out more
You can find out more about the book A Man Melting and Craig at his own website.
A Man Melting has just been published by Random House.



Credit where credit's due: the taking the reader ‘somewhere different with every sandwich’ line is a semi-conscious echo of Warren Zevon’s reply when asked by David Letterman what a terminal mesothelioma diagnosis had taught him: ‘Enjoy every sandwich’ (youtube clip here). This is also the title of a great tribute album to Zevon featuring Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Wallflowers, Steve Earle, Billy Bob Thornton and Adam Sandler (yes, the actors), among others.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Consider the Youngster?

So, my book has been out for one month and one day. How do I feel?

Hurt feelings? Not even, aw. But I do have feelings... Feelings that are best expressed in list form:

1. I feel a bit muddled with all of the social media stuff I’m kinda-sorta expected to do these days. Did I add the link to my website or just my facebook page? Should I tweet about it, or should I just retweet something someone already posted?*  Where does my blog fit in to all of this?**

2. I feel pleased with the quantity of coverage I have received to date. Four reviews (one I only discovered today, despite it being published on 24 July), two articles in newspapers, two interviews on Radio, one story reprinted in full in a national newspaper. You can find links to all of these things here.

3. I feel pleased with the vibe of the coverage to date. Everything has been positive. Positive might not even be strong enough in some cases. Some reviews mentioned stories they didn’t like, which is fine. There’s a lot of stories (18) covering a lot of styles, moods and methods; mentioning the bum notes is any easy way for a reviewer to provide balance within a limited word count. But no two reviews have ‘not liked’ the same story.*** Everything has in some way mentioned my age, which is a bit weird. It’s not like I’m a 20 year old with a two book deal, or anything. If I was an All Black, people would be questioning how much I had left in the tank.

4. I feel excited about the few things that I know are still to come. Later this month a camera crew is coming to my flat to film a segment on my writing space for TVNZ7's fantastic 'The Good Word'. I'll also be appearing in a Writers on Mondays session at Te Papa on the 16th of August, and at the Christchurch Writers Festival in September.

5. I feel super excited about an opportunity which has not been sealed yet, and I don’t want to jinx it, but I would not be painting a full picture of my headspace at present if I neglected to even hint at it.****

6. I feel that any other coverage / opportunities will be a bonus.

7. I feel there may be some self-deception at work with number 6.

8. I feel a lot better about my website ( now that I've kicked Weebly to the curb and resorted to using Blogger. Honestly, with Weebly it was a nightmare to edit text, which should be the simplest part. I also couldn’t resize pictures and had to jigger with the html to modify the colour scheme. And to be honest, it looked like a free website designed by a writer in his spare time. Blogger feels much more homely, and with the ability to add pages, it’s close enough to a real website for me (for now (for free)).

9. I feel as if I wrote a good story in the midst of the above (the taxi story I mentioned a couple of times here in July), and should finish two more stories by the end of August.

10. I feel that on 1 September 2010 I may just return to one of my abandoned novels and finish that sucker quick smart***** (that’s 5 asterisks, just skip to the last footnote).


* In the last three months or so twitter has come into its own. Either that or I finally understand what it's for.  Either way, now that a number of Kiwi authors, publishers and other literary types are tweeting, there's a daily wealth of booky links to be had.

** I keep coming back to that 'opening the door on the creative process' thing I said yesterday. I still feel a bit dirty with all this thinly veiled self-promotion, but hopefully there’s enough honesty in these sorts of posts to be, I dunno, redemptive?^

^Factoid: I re-read David Foster Wallace’s ‘Consider The Lobster’ today, via Cool Tool’s Best Magazine Articles Ever (a link brought to my attention on Twitter, of course; hat tip: @GuySomerset); hence my footnotey ways today.

*** In a strange way this is more encouraging than all the stories they did ‘like’.

**** Rest assured I will spill the beans when it’s confirmed or falls through. Let’s just say it was something I didn’t ask for – I didn’t even think was on the cards at the moment but had considered doing one day. Even if it falls through, it was nice to know people had a conversation, names were thrown around, and mine was one that stuck. I’ve said too much.

***** (yep, that’s 5 asterisks, I counted) Define quick smart? Um, by March? Depends on when my wedding date is!

Monday, August 2, 2010

July Reading in Review

Now that A Man Melting is out there, and the readership of this blog is slowly expanding, I feel it is worth restating the purpose of these monthly reading updates. These are not meant to be mini-reviews. Rather, I'm just trying to record the books I've read over the year and my responses to them. If nothing more, it should provide an aide memoire when I come to summarise the best books I've read this year, much as I did back in 2008. It may also prove interesting to look back and align what I was reading at a certain point in time with what I was writing. Sometimes the writing drives the reading (or re-reading as in the case of the first two books mentioned below). Other times the reading will influence the writing in a variety of ways. It's all part of the aim of this blog to leave the window on the creative process ever so slightly ajar.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville 

Moby-DickThis is one of my two favourite books I read at university (the other being The Great Gatsby). Both remain in my top ten, if not five, books of all time list (pretending that I ever bothered to compile one). The last time I re-read Moby Dick was 2005. I was revising my first attempt at a novel, which on one level attempted to conflate the myth of Maui pulling up the North Island with Ahab's mad pursuit of the white whale. The novel also borrowed the structure of Moby Dick: it began with Etymology and Extracts sections, followed by episodic (and titled) chapters told in the first person. I bit off more than I could chew back then, and my reason for re-reading this year was far more modest: a short story. My big takeaway this time: I'm sure I'll return to it again within the next five years, but hopefully I don't feel the need to ravage it for material and can just enjoy the book on its own merits.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (audiobook)

The Three MusketeersI was also writing about Dumas in July, so I started listening to The Three Musketeers audiobook I have on my iPod. All up, it would take over 24 hours solid listening to get through, and I admit I scrolled forward on a couple of tracks (budding writers: it's never a good thing when listeners can skip forward 3 minutes and the conversation is still going, and still be confident of its outcome). I first read the book when I was in primary school -- I struggle to recall the names of some of my teachers, so I most of the text was fresh to me. I enjoyed the beginning: how D'Artagnan offends Athos, Porthos and Aramis and sets up duels with each, then manages to befriend them. But as soon as the intrigue (MacGuffin) at the centre of the novel (the Cardinal trying to entrap the Queen and the Duke of Buckingham) emerged, it all became a bit tedious. Very similar to my reaction reading The Count of Monte Cristo last year.

A Man and His Wife by Frank Sargeson (short stories, NZ)

I feel a bit dopey admitting this, but I picked up Sargeson's 1940 collection from the library this month after Siobhan Harvey mention it in her review of my collection. Now, I had read some Sargeson before, including his ‘greatest hits’ (The Stories of Frank Sargeson), so not all the stories in A Man and His Wife were new to me. But I hadn't read it as a collection. I thought I'd better, especially after my argument for reading Owen Marshall's collections over his greatest hits last year. Sargeson is great at first person narratives (the few where he employs the third person in this collection struck me as the weakest). The stories I enjoyed the most tended to be longer ones, like ‘An Affair of the Heart’, where we got more than the skilled display of a master ventriloquist and actually covered some narrative ground.

Just This by Brian Turner (poetry, NZ)

Just ThisNominated for the Poetry award at this year's NZ Post Book Awards (The Posties), I'm just not sure about this collection. There's a lot of repetition, particularly of places in Central Otago. Was it the strength of the collection or did it just grate: I continually flip-flopped. Where the individual poems strong? Well, there were some great lines (“as if they’re / as special as sun-dried tomatoes / in a town without a deli”). But there's a preachy streak running through many of these poems and I didn't think the sentiments or the style were unique enough to pull it off. I'm sure I'd respond differently to a reading in the Maniototo.

Voodoo Shop by Ruth Padel (poetry)

Padel was in the news in 2009 with her 9 day stint as Professor of Poetry at Oxford; this is the first collection of hers that I have read (chosen from the four or so on the library shelves). I've stated before my preference for shorter poems, but I think Padel has converted me as a reader to the two and a half pager. ‘Rattlesnakes and Rubies’ and ‘Voodoo Shop’ were my highlights.