Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not Quite Leipzig: 'Another Language' goes to Germany

NZ authors Allan Duff, Jenny Pattrick, Damien Wilkins and Kyle Mewburn get their foosball on at the Leipzig Book Fair
(via NZ at Frankfurt’s Facebook page)
 Last week, while better known NZ writers than I were playing foosball in Leipzig, I had my own brush with Germany.

How it came about

An English class in Germany has been studying short stories.

Their teacher stumbled across a video of me being interviewed at the 2011 Sydney Writers Festival on YouTube.

She tracked down my email address and asked if it was okay if I was the subject of a 100 minute examination that her students would sit.

I said, okay.

I’ve now received a copy of the test…

The first part was a listening comprehension test based on my interview. There were a mix of multi-choice and fill-in-the-blanksy questions:

For example:

Complete the text: (5)

According to Cliff, there are _________________________ through there, each of the stories is sort of ________________ to the ____________________ one and sort of forms a bit of _____________. [...] There is a little bit of ________________________, a little bit of ________________. It’s a little bit of a _______________________________.

(Makes me sound like Lou Bega but oh well).

Ein weiteres Beispiel:

Fill in the missing words: (3)

“I don’t ___________________ that process at all and I don’t think any of that was _________________ ________________. I learned a lot. […] I wrote my first book when I was an_______________________ and naïve 21-year old, it’s a terrible combination. I was hopefully _______________________ ________________________ from that experience.”
Oh, the things I could have/should have said.

After the test the students told their teacher “the Kiwi accent is damn hard to understand.” It probably didn’t help that I was rambling!

For the second half of the exam students were given my story, ‘Another Language’, to read (they hadn’t seen it before), then had to answer questions about it. Such as: “In which way is Another Language a typical short story? Identify at least 2 typical elements of the genre and explain their function in the text.”*

Hard out, eh?

I didn’t get a trip to Germany, and foosball was not involved, but I still thought this was kinda cool.


*  According to the Erwartungshorizont, which I think means Answer Key (though Google Translate tells me it’s ‘Expecting the Horizon’), some typical features include the limited number of characters, limited background info, limited span of time**, no precise setting, abrupt beginning with no exposition, a climax/crisis/turning point and an ending that is abrupt and open.

** As a limited writer, no wonder I feel at home in short fiction.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Short poems / Liars & Snowmen / Odes of March / Intentions Book

Short poems

Back in January I declared 2012 the year of the short poem (on this blog at least). Since them I’ve only posted three short poems. Not good enough.

Here’s a short poem I wrote in 2006 which I was reminded of with the recent death of the Tongan King.

For Prince Tu’ipelehake & Princess Kaimana

When the Tongan prince and bride
Were driven through the Tongan streets
I learnt the word cortege

Recent reading

The Man Who Loved ChildrenI’ve finally got my head above water with respect to my judging responsibilities for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. That means I’m back to reading paper books again when I’m stationary. A couple shipwreck-type books to knock off this week before I read something from my bookshelf… Michael Faber perhaps? Or Halldor Laxness? Or maybe I should finally get around to reading Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children?

In the realm of audiobooks, I finished Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints some time ago. I remember hearing her talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year about how she came to write this book, her first novel, after having some success with short stories. She approached the novel as if it were another collection of short stories, although all focussed on the same set of characters… The result is certainly a novel rather than a story collection (or even a novel-in-stories, a term and a distinction I loathe), but some of the short story’s necessary reticence (necessary because due to space constraints, you can’t say everything that might be important) remains in each chapter. The result is a novel that covers a lot of territory without ever feeling capacious.

The Snowman
Now I’m listening to Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman for my annual toe-dip into Crime Fiction. I feel a “Things you must/must not include in a crime novel” post coming on…

Another wee one

On television the wannabe models receive advice:
Don’t let them think you’re thinking.

Out and about

I'm off to the Odes of March tonight at Meow. According to the poster it'll be "Bold poetry and brazen fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the International Institute of Modern Letters", featuring Eleanor Catton, Steven Toussaint, David Fleming, Lee Posnor and Therese Lloyd. Should be fun.

The other event on my all too empty dance card is the launch of Gigi Fenster's novel 'The Intentions Book' (great title - it's about tramping amongst other things) at Unity Books in Wellington 6pm next Thursday. I think it's an open invite, since it's all over Unity's website. Come along!

And one more poem
A joke about real estate
The tender process.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

To Do List


Write a novel in which all of the characters’ names sound vaguely like soups (Tom Young, Angus Pacio, Clem Crowther, Minny Strong, Cullen Skink…)

“Do” a photographic essay called ‘Kingston: the grubby jewel at the end of the #7 line’ (Aside: what’s the appropriate verb for photo essays??).

In conversation, describe someone’s hair as ‘tonsured’.


Invent some way of indicating which cubicle in the men’s room was used most recently… so you can avoid it. (This is less related to personal hygiene than it is that awkward moment when you enter the men’s room, find a colleague washing his hands and have a 1 in 3 chance of choosing the same cubicle he has just vacated -- because you know that to him it will seem as if you chose his cubicle when in fact you tried in vain to avoid it). (Perhaps a display on each door showing 1 [most recently used] to 3 [least recently used] or a timer “minutes since use”? Or perhaps a pressure sensitive floor that turns red when stepped on, then goes orange, then green after a period of time?)

Conduct an experiment to see if fingernail growth is affected by the amount of typing done in a given week.

Stop clenching my teeth. Jeez.
Find jicama seeds (or seedlings, even better) to plant in my garden.

Wait for jicama-planting season.

Become impervious to physical pain like those dudes in the kung fu movies I watched when I was a kid.

On the bus: ask the person next to me what the fastest fish is (without Googling it beforehand).

Keep a secret.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Some rules for historical fiction

Things you can't put in an historical novel

Out-of-office replies
White people with dreadlocks
The Tragically Hip
Characters that make Star Wars references
Post-it notes
Arts funding bodies
More than one fat person

Things you shouldn’t put in an historical novel (or any novel for that matter)

Any description of a piece of clothing that runs to more than twenty-five words
A lighthouse
Reference to physiognomy
A romance between an upper class woman and a lower class man
A romance between an upper class man and a lower class woman
The construction, ‘like so many…’ (as in: ‘all of those politicians that you carry around in your pocket, like so many nickels and dimes’)
A character that turns out to be a famous historical figure at the end of the book

Things that should be in every historical novel

A coracle
(entirely too well-made for the purposes
of my kind of historical fiction)

Someone with an eyepatch
An elaborately carved walking stick
Cruelty to children
More than one dark-skinned character
A disgusting meal
A simile involving wolves
The construction of a coracle

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Writers and Readers Week 2012

The NZ Festival’s Writers and Readers Week isn’t done yet. There’re still some session on tomorrow (Wednesday) and I’m heading off to the “Writer’s Dinner” (whatever that may be) tonight.

In the time I have spare between now and the dinner I thought I’d record some of my memories and impressions from my first festival as a performer in front of a home audience.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was moving house over the weekend, which meant I was frequently exhausted. I plan to mine the house-hunting/moving thing for a Dom Post column (or four) in the future, so I won’t say much more about that. Suffice to say it’s been a busy few days.

My first act was as an audience member (albeit on a comped ticket), listening to Tim Flannery’s bitsy opening address at the Town Hall. Flannery is clearly a smart guy and I’m glad he’s out there fighting the good fight against climate change and all that, but I felt uncomfortable several times during his address. I think it has something to do with the cavalier way he discussed New Zealand history, particularly the arrival of Polynesians and the extinction of the moa. New Zealanders would have spent three times as long to say what he said, pussyfooting around the cultural and historical uncertainties, but as an Australian he just ploughed through. Not that I advocate pussyfooting, but sensitivity can be a virtue, as can acknowledging when something is beyond your ken.

Afterwards, I headed up to the council chambers for the opening party. The usual speeches from politicos and festivalites punctuated the relaxed and cheerful night of mingling. I caught up with Kim Scott, who I hadn’t been able to chat with in Perth, and we relived memories of Sydney and the Commonwealth Writers Prize junket.
I also got to chat with some of NZ’s crime writing fraternity, including Vanda Symon, Paul Cleave and Craig Sisterson. You can read Craig’s festival account on his blog. When I heard that these guys had been playing Frisbee in the sun and had missed the opening address I was jealous. In the hopes of one day being invited to play Frisbee I told them of my secret desire to write a crime novel and was roundly encouraged (damn them… why can’t they be more snooty and exclusive like the writers of “literary fiction”).

My session at the Embassy in Wellington was on Saturday afternoon: ‘Emerging Writers’ with Eleanor Catton and Hamish Clayton, chaired by Harry Ricketts. I’d appeared in a session with Hamish in Auckland in May last year (my first ever festival sesh; it seems so long ago) and with Ellie in Melbourne in September, so there was an element of familiarity. (I also had Harry Ricketts as a lecturer for a few English papers at university, but I don’t remember ever talking to him back then, just him talking to me and the 250 other students in the lecture).

Our Embassy Session on Saturday
Photo courtesy of NZ Festival's facebook page (C) Robert Catto
I thought the session went well. There was a bit of a microphone malfunction for Hamish initially, and Harry referred to my book as A Melting Man more than once (I thought the first time might have been an aberration and let the chance to correct him sail by). I read part five of ‘Orbital Resonance’, which is all about house-hunting, as it felt rather appropriate given events in my real life. I got a few chuckles as I read, which is always encouraging.

You can read an… interesting account of the session on the Scoop book’s website. There has been a bit of talk on Twitter about this piece today (most of it negative) and it’s interesting to note that Scoop also has a sanitised version online.

Some gems from the unsanitised version:

When talking about contemporary New Zealand writers ‘emerging’ tends to mean “emerging from the vagina of Bill Manhire’s creative writing course soft, wet, and perfectly formed, but still umbilically attached via VUP”...

I didn’t hear what the conversation was about, as Catton had a beautiful, gentle timbre that I was instantly lost in and it left me forgetting to actually listen to her…

She was also incredibly well-kept – all three writers were, as a matter of fact. They looked like they’d stepped out of a photo shoot backstage. Their hair was tidy, their complexions flawless, their clothes fit them well. They epitomised beautiful youth…

Cliff had a dry humour that the audience warmed to instantly. Casually referring to masturbation in your opening statement is a great way to break the ice with an audience of 200 odd strangers, it seems.
After the session, the three of us were all visited by several audience members at the signing table and signed a number of books. Those that I spoke to seemed to have enjoyed the session. Some had even read my book, but I was most chuffed when two separate people said they enjoy my columns in the paper (I’m constantly wracked with fear that my columns suck / I’m about to be sacked and guilt that I’m squandering a golden opportunity to talk about important things etc etc, but that’s a self-indulgence for another blog post).

To the kind person who said, ‘I even read your blog!’, all I can say is you must be crazier than I am.

The signing table
Photo courtesy of NZ Festival's facebook page (C) Robert Catto
On Saturday night I went along to the VUP party, which doubled as the launch of Harry Ricketts’ poetry collection ‘Then Just’ (strike that, reverse it). Good food and nibbles, good poetry, good company, good times.

Sunday I managed to get along to Alan Hollinghurst’s session with Finlay MacDonald, who surely must be one of the best chairs/interviewers for these sorts of events in the country: personable, funny, well-prepared, unafraid to probe. Part of me hopes to one day sit down one-on-one with him in front of an audience, but part of me dreads the things he’ll trawl up from the internet (!) and the admissions he’ll coax out of me.

Then it was on to the “Industry Drinks” put on by Creative NZ, which were held at the Library Bar (the venue for my book launch back in July 2010). I got to speak to several international authors, but the highlight (if that’s the word) was talking to some of the Creative NZ people. I worked two days a week in the CNZ accounting office for almost two years while I was a student at Vic. This was eight or nine years ago now, but a surprising number of CNZ staff from that time are still around and were there on Sunday. None remembered me.
‘But I used to come around every month and drop off the photocopy of your phone bill so you could identify your personal calls and refund the money?’ I said, plaintively.

(I wanted to be a writer back then. I even did the short fiction workshop up at Vic while working there. And the thing about playing with a datestamp to make impossible dates that features in my story ‘Oh! So Careless’ comes from working at CNZ.)

So was finally being published, appearing at the festival and getting invited to a CNZ boozer as rewarding as I thought it might be back in 2003?

Not really. Nine years is a long time and they seem like nice people.

I did manage to corral a newer CNZ staff member who coordinates a lot of the writer’s residency applications and deploy (in the most cynical, self-serving fashion) a few juicy sound-bites about the need for more literary connections with Australia and the South Pacific…

The sell-out crowd for Jo Nesbo's session
Photo courtesy of NZ Festival's facebook page (C) Robert Catto
On Monday, Hamish, Ellie and I were driven to Masterton for a repeat of our ‘Emerging Writers’ session, though this time we were chaired by David Hedley (owner of the best independent book store in town and a man with more rock’n’roll connections than a mere mortal can fathom – “Every time I run into Eric Clapton these days I just think, ‘You are so straight! What happened to you, man!” etc etc).

Again, the session went well (aside from a few audience members complaining about the sound system – it didn’t help only having two mics for four people, and a few coughing fits from the audience). I read the second half of ‘Manawatu’, which seemed to play alright (I suspect it would have done better if it was called ‘Wairarapa’, but thems the breaks).

Click here for an account of our Masterton session on the Booksellers NZ blog.

[Edit: You can also read my Dominion Post column from 24 March, which is mostly about the festival, here.]
I saw a couple of sessions when I got back to Wellington and then today (Tuesday) I had to go back to work at the Ministry. Bugger eh?

Oh well, I’m off to eat and drink on someone else’s dime again tonight. If only it was Writers and Readers Week every week!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Kapi-Mana Review / The Questionable Finkler / Literary CVs

Peer Review by James Yang
Last gasps

Oddly enough, there was a new review of A Man Melting published a week ago in Kapi-Mana News (about 20 months since the book came out). I can only guess that the timing has something to do with my upcoming appearance at Wellington Writers and Readers Week this weekend.
And unlike the last review I stumbled across in a regional Fairfax paper, this one is mostly complimentary. (It’s hard to avoid the qualifier when a review uses the 5-star system: a fully complimentary review would not leave 1.5 stars on the table…)

The review plays up the zaniness (‘Frivolity rules in the Cliff Universe’), and glosses over the more realistic and sombre stories in the first half of the collection. But with 400 words, a reviewer is often forced to choose their pigeon-hole and stick to it (this isn’t the snarky comment of a reviewee, but the early disenchantment of a reviewer showing through).

One comment, however, baffles me.

Towards the end of the review, Kylie Klein-Nixon says, “It's hard to lose yourself as a reader in first person narrative, and so many of Cliff's stories here are in that voice. But Cliff's deft use of language and clever thematic threads - elements from earlier stories pop up in those that follow - will pull you into the stories, and his oddly charming characters will keep you there.”

It's hard to lose yourself as a reader in first person narrative?

Is it? Really? The use of the second person (‘lose yourself’ rather that ‘lose myself’) suggests this is a common phenomenon. Having read one hundred short stories and counting as a judge for the 2012 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Prize, one observation I have made is that a well deployed first person narrator is more likely to pull me in as a reader than a third person narrator. It’s something to do with the limited time a short story has with the reader and the way a voice can covey multiple pieces of information simultaneously (what’s happening, the narrator’s opinion about what’s happening, the education/background of the narrator etc etc). This is not to say one narrative perspective is better than the other, or more likely to win you short story competitions or fame and fortune (the perspective choice must fit the story being told), but a story in the first person comes closest to those most tantalising forms: the confessional, the personal reminiscence and good old office gossip.

Perhaps the question is: do we read short stories to lose ourselves? Or, to revise my use of pronouns, do I read short stories to lose myself? I don’t think I do.

This is perhaps where the form diverges from the novel. Rather than being immersive, the short story holds up a facet of a life or a set of lives, and asks the reader to fill out the tetrahedron their own experience (guided in subtle ways by the author's carefully deployed hints). In most short stories, the reader is not meant to lose themselves because there’s too much work expected of them. Time’s too short to become immersed, to soak, to be passive. This explains why some readers don’t take to short stories, and why writing them is always a tightrope walk between entertainment and enlightenment.

So it seemed a strange comment to make with reference to short fiction: that it’s hard to lose yourself as a reader (does one expect to?) in first person narratives (aren’t they the easiest to believe and buy in to if skilfully enacted?).

The Finkler Question

The Finkler QuestionMy most recent audiobook has been Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. If my listening of late seems to have been Booker-centric (Finkler won in 2010) it’s more to do with the smaller range of audiobooks on offer from my local library than paper books, and the fact that doing well in the Booker means a) an audiobook version is likely and b) Wellington City Libraries will probably stock it.

I remember reading about Jacobson and Finkler after his Booker win, and came away with the impression that the book was supposed to be humourous. Sadly, I did not find it so. It had that fraught, hyper-analytical, myopic feel of a lot of quote-unquote Jewish TV comedies from the US, but the book was missing that crucial note of levity. It felt like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in which I was asked to take Larry David seriously (and do the same with his conversations about Israel and Palestine with the cast of comers and goers that frequent his house). Jacobsen feels more like a neutered Philip Roth than a bookish Jerry Seinfield (lest we forget that Roth is frequently funny himself).

Liars and Saints
So I have moved on to Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints, which I was delighted to find as an audiobook, having enjoyed her short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It last year.

Bullet Points

Midway through 2011 I stopped applying for residencies because, even if I got accepted for one (a big if) I wasn’t in a position to take it up, what with the wedding, the honeymoon, the house-hunting and the timeline for the completion of THE NOVEL.

But now that I’m nearer to finishing THE NOVEL, I’ve started to look at where to next. A two or three month residency somewhere new and stimulating sounds like a good way to write a swathe of short stories to complete what would be my second collection (or, depending on the timing, to dive into a new novel).

So last week I went through and updated my literary CV for the first time in twelve months and spruiked myself in a cover letter. Such activities are always carried out with a mixture of discomfort and pride (‘Gee, look at all those things I did when I thought I wasn’t doing anything except posting photos of birds on my blog’).

The steady growth in bullet points beneath the headings “published work” and “other writing credentials” is thanks to a lot of good fortune, some very nice people, and me never saying no to anything. Occasionally, over the past twelve months I’ve felt like being a Yes Man has slowed my progress on THE NOVEL. Amd it almost certainly did. But in the great wash-up, I’m glad I took every detour. The time for saying ‘No’ will come. Until then, I’m open for business distraction.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Perth: a day to my own devices

The Perth Writers Festival wrapped on Sunday and I didn’t fly out till 9am on Tuesday, meaning I had all of Monday to explore. So I picked up a rental car from Thrifty bright and early and headed for Fremantle.

It was my first time driving in Australia in five years and I was quickly reminded how infuriating an experience it is. I had no map (not only did Thrifty not supply one, they did not stock any for sale), but I figured it couldn’t be too hard to get to Fremantle – just head to the coast for 25kms – then buy a map there. But Australia must have a road sign rationing programme (most of my WA disappointments come when it behaves/looks/feels just like the rest of Australia): I only saw one sign indicating the direction to Fremantle the whole journey, meaning most of the time I was in that uneasy ‘I feel like I’m still heading west’ mode. And when there is a sign to mark a turnoff, it is often on the far corner of the intersection, meaning you can often the sign as you drive past the turnoff.

And don’t get me started on the rigmarole of turning right (made worse because NZ follows suit at the end of the month - grrr).

At least I didn’t have to do any hook turns.

Later on, when I was well north of the city, I was also reminded of the great difference between New Zealand and Australian roads. In New Zealand, the landscape is inescapable. In Australia, it is so often hidden – either deliberately, behind those 3m high slabs that preserve the serenity of the houses over the fence, or the place is just so flat that you can only see the same row of scrubby eucalypts as you drive for miles.

Man, I really seem down on Australia today. Must be all that mid-twenties-spent-in-Queensland misery welling up.

Samuel Plimsoll figurehead
Anyway, I went to Fremantle to check out the port, the shipwreck museum and the maritime museum, as there may be a brief stopover in ‘Freo’ in THE NOVEL. The shipwreck museum was mostly devoted to wrecks of the Dutch East Indies Company, particularly the Batavia, all of which happened well before THE NOVEL’s late Nineteenth Century timeframe. The real highlight was the figurehead from the Samuel Plimsoll, one that I’d seen in books and online, so it was great to stand beneath old Sam and see his unsanded, unvarnished, unpainted underside.

The WA Maritime Museum was a waste of time (and $10). Hardly anything about the age of sail. All flash and no substance.

I then drove north to Yanchep National Park. Cue another grumpy generalisation about Australia (and how NZ kicks its arse): Upon entry into the park, I was reminded how manmade Australian national parks feel. I’d suspected that it was just the ones I went to in SE Queensland, and I’m sure Kakadu and the Bungle Bungles and all those really isolated places are raw and wild and fantastic, but a visitor to Yanchep’s first encounter is with several hectares of landscaped lawns, a restaurant, a gift shop, coin operated BBQs and a lake where (water levels permitting – and they weren’t when I was there) you can take a boat tour. And as in Springbrook and Lamington National Parks, even when got away from the mown grass and Streets Ice Cream flags, I was never far away from the roar of a hidden highway.

Yanchep National Park (seriously)

So it took me a while to get over this flood of animus against Australian National Parks for me to really enjoy Yanchep, but I did in the end and it was all thanks to the animals.

After observing the Western Greys take over the lawns at dusk, I headed to the beach to catch the sunset. As I stood atop the cliffs at Quinn’s Rocks it was difficult to get my head around the fact that you could never see the sun rise over the sea in WA (except at the very bottom and very top), only the sun set. Narrow is often used in a pejorative sense (as in limited, penurious, cramped, ‘narrow-minded’… the Tacoma Narrows Bridge) but one of the great joys of New Zealand is its narrowness: the ability to hold an endurance race from one coast to the other (passing through some amazingly varied country in the process). Of course, it means the weather’s changeable (read: shit), due in part to the narrowness and our mountainous spine. But to never see the sun rise over the sea? Inconceivable.

I then drove down through the Swan Valley (I often have to stop myself from saying/writing Swann’s Way, which a very wanky Freudian slip), a wine producing region to the north of Perth, found a quiet spot and slept in the back of my Hyundai i20. I was awoken after a couple of hours by the sound of galloping hooves. In the faint comingled light of the moon and the nearby conurbation I could make out a white horse running back and forth in its paddock across the road from me. I wondered if maybe it was displaying for my benefit (most likely it was telling me to eff off), but it soon settled down. When I rose after sunrise its head was leaning over the fencepost, eyeing down my car.

I dropped the rental car off at the domestic terminal just after 7am and proceeded to fly home to Wellington via Sydney.
Movies I watched:

Crazy Stupid Love – It has its moments. The last twenty minutes is unbearably Hollywood: everything must collide and then get smoothed out (there’s even a scene where Steve Carrill gives an impromptu address about love and soulmates at his son’s middle school graduation).

Midnight in Paris – Sheesh. Watching a Woody Allen movie these days is like sitting at the table next to a bunch of rich, entitled American Tourists. In the flesh these people are often annoying, but if you get the chance to talk with them, there’s usually a warmth and generosity below the surface that is some small redemption. But in Midnight in Paris, as in Vicky Christina Barcelona (the last Allen movie I saw) and Match Point (the one before that), Americans are irredeemable. I nearly gave up watching after 20 minutes, but then Owen Wilson (who’s sounding more and more like Jack Nicholson these days, don’t you think) met up with Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The actor who played Hemingway did a good job, but in the end all these writer and artist cameos were just as shallow as Woody’s contemporary characters.

While waiting for my baggage at Wellington Airport, I turned my phone back on and found I had two voicemail messages, both from Thrifty Car Rentals. The first asked if I was going to return my car today. The second was, like, uh, so you never returned your car today, do you want it for a third day?
I’d parked it in a Thrifty parking spot at the airport (my agreed drop-off destination) and handed the keys to a dude in a Thrifty-emblazoned safety vest. ‘That’s fine,’ he’d told me, ‘there’s no need to go into the office. I’ll sort it out.’

These words took on a sinister tone as I replayed them back in NZ. Had a thief come across a Thrifty safety vest and waited for a gullible Kiwi to give him the keys to a car he’d then nick? What’s my liability in such a case? Or had Thrifty’s returns system just had a hiccup? It was 11.30pm NZT and 6.30pm Perth time, so I couldn’t get a hold of anyone to give me some answers. I couldn’t even leave a phone message for anyone from Thrifty anywhere in Australia (the NZ call centre was open and were lovely but their system is quite separate from Australia’s). So I got home, composed a mildly distressed email to Thrifty stating the minutiae of my return (the number of the parking space, the time of my return, a detailed description of the dude I gave the keys that would please any police sketch artist) and went to bed to enjoy a poor night’s sleep.

When I finally got hold of Thrifty in Perth the next day, they said that their system had expected the car to be returned back to Perth CBD, despite the fact I’d laboured this point I’d be returning it to the domestic airport with the person who’d served me (she knew what time my flight was and everything). So in the end the car was found, the charge for the extra day was reversed (though I lost a little money on the exchange rate, as well as the exchange margin my bank charged and the numerous international calls I had to make on my phone to sort it out). Not good enough Thrifty. Not good enough.

Man, I’ve been a total Grinch in this post.

Let me reiterate what I said in previous Perth posts: I had a great time at the writers festival. It would be hard to top my time in Sydney Writers Festival (8 sessions around greater Sydney and the Blue Mountains, all the outreach activities, the awesome writers I met, the free breakfasts and wifi at the hotel, the great weather, and the general buzz around the festival precinct), but Perth would probably come second if I ever made a list (which I won’t).

In one week it’s Wellington’s turn to wow me. I already know I like the city, the roads, the national parks… I even like the festival (I’ve been an audience member at three writers and readers weeks). There’s no way I can be stranded at the airport and I’ve no need to deal with rental car companies. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh yeah, I’m moving house!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Perth Writers Festival – part two

(You can read part one here.)

Ah, yes, the Feast of Words. An open air dinner for hundreds of Perthians (is that what they’re called? I spent six days there and it never came up) with four writers giving food-related readings for 8-10 minutes between the courses. But before Barbara Trapido could start, it started to drizzle. Everyone stuck it out for a minute or two, but the precipitation did not appear to be easing so people made for the eaves of Winthrop Hall.

After about five minutes the drizzle relented, waiters mopped down seats and drained the water from dinner plates and everyone returned to their seats. Danielle Benda, the Writer’s Festivals’ programme director and MC for the night, introduced Barbara Trapido, who read from Temples of Delight. The rain started up just as she was finishing and became actual rain a few moments later causing everyone to make for the eaves once more.

Winthrop Hall, during the day... when it's not raining
But this shower past in another five minutes and the caterers were finally able to bring out the breads and dips.

Next up to the podium was Johan Harstad, who has written for TV and theatre as well as several books, but only his novel, Buzz Aldrin, what happened to you in all the confusion has been released in English at this moment (other translations are in the works). Without a lot of food in Buzz Aldrin, Harstad decided to write something specifically for the night while sitting beside the Swan River. The result, a meditation on the torture of Tuesday leftovers and how it fostered his escapism as a child, was riotously funny and put everyone back in a good mood after the two weather blips.

The main course was then served, with large dishes of chicken, potatoes, beans, cauliflower, pumpkin and salad being handed down the table from the far end. When a dish reached the writer’s end of the table (also featuring the directors of the writers fest and the overall arts festival) we were lucky if there was a crouton in the salad bowl. With the rain delays, everyone was quite hungry by this time and we writers were forced to look down the table at those fortunate souls who were tucking in to the meal.

It was a bit of a dilemma for the organisers, as on the one hand here were four international writers, the stars of the show, (and one publicist and one publisher and two festival directors) getting to short shrift. On the other hand, we hadn’t paid $120 for a ticket, so maybe we did deserve to be served last.  Eventually some more plates of food were delivered to our end of the table and their contents quickly consumed.

Then it was time for Dennis O’Driscoull to read. He read three poems but other Irish poets and finished with one of his own. Judging by the audience reaction he came a close second to Johan in the ‘delightful’ stakes.

Then dessert. No hitches there. Then it was my turn to read.

I’d been watching my wine intake all night, knowing my turn on the lectern would come, but I didn’t factor in the somatostatins my meal would release. I read the passage from ‘Facing Galapagos’ where the narrator is robbed by a man wielding an iguana, then befriends the man and eats a lot of tropical fruit (the foodie-connection; apt for the final stages of a meal, but honestly I didn’t have many other foodie sections that worked for an 8 minute reading) and read okay, but I lacked a bit of zing and wasn’t able to overcome the general post-meal malaise of the audience. It was also pretty fricken cold for your average Perthian, and the event had run long due to the rain.

I stepped down from the stage knowing I could have done better, could have found or manufactured a better passage to read, could have read what I did better, but thems the breaks. It was still a huge honour to have appeared at such an event -- rain drops and food delays just made it all the more memorable.

Sunday was the last day of the festival. It was also Family Day, so the UWA campus was crawling with families and face-painters. It’s always good to see young people having fun with a bookish slant.

My final session was ‘Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary’ with Barbara Trapido and Arnold Zable. It was another great session. Not quite as fun as the short story one (there was a bit where we all were asked about how we note down and organise our ideas; I don’t find talking about notebooks vs post-its vs Evernote very thrilling, but maybe that’s just me) – but it might be in my top three. For the record, I read 'Evolution Eh?' - the whole (2 page) shebang.

Again, the time flew by and I sold and signed a few more books afterwards.

Then it was back to the hotel bar to unwind and chat with the other writers. I spoke to Barabara Trapido and Kathy, her minder from Bloomsbury, about talking parrots, Ryan Gosling and mondegreens. I discussed Isaac Babel, Herman Melville and school design with Dominic Hohn (author of Moby-Duck). I flitted between other conversations as well, and when I had enough material (and the bar closed) I went upstairs and wrote my Dominion Post column. (I submitted it at 2am, meaning I just managed to get it to my editor before they started work on Monday morning.)

And that, my friends, is a brief précis of my Perth Writers Festival.  There’re a lot of great writers that I met and enjoyed hanging out with that I haven’t mentioned here. I always worry that my efforts to be informative sound too much like name-dropping. I don’t want to sound like a douche, because I honestly don’t approach the social side of festivals in a douchy ‘what’s in it for me?’ way. 

Before I was published I would practice being interviewed while in the shower, steeled myself for receiving reviews (and boldly hoped that one or two might include praise), knew sales figures and financial rewards would be modest, but I never really considered what it would be like to hang out with other writers, or expected to enjoy meeting them and having a chat, that it would be so rewarding and re-invigorating on a personal/creative level.

This does not conclude my Perthly posts, however, as I had a day to my own devises before I flew back to New Zealand. Come back tomorrow to hear about cockatoos, kangaroos and rental car confusion. Oh, and which movies I watched on the plane!