Thursday, November 20, 2014

Sentence of the day #5

From “How to Talk to Famous Authors” by Francis Plug at Booknotes today:
That’s why you’ll often see a famous author immediately reach for a glass of wine when a member of the public approaches.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Paragraph of the week

From Keith Gessen’s December Vanity Fair article “The War of the Words”, about the battle between online retailer Amazon and print publisher Hachette, and the battle’s ramifications for authors, publishers, self-publishers, booksellers and readers:
He took me over to his window, which looked out over Seattle’s downtown. Due largely to Amazon’s expansion, Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in America. The size of the self-publishing program alone within Amazon is already so large that, because the company does not reveal any sales figures about self-publishing, some believe that statistics about book publishing in general can no longer be trusted. Some huge and growing part of the market is simply unaccounted for. Berman pointed at the dozens of yellow and red construction cranes that rose in spikes above Seattle all the way to the water. He made sure I was looking and said, “That’s all Amazon.”

So here are the Band with “It Makes No Difference”. That’s Rick Danko singing the lines “Cause just like the gambler says, read ’em and weep.” Also, “Stampeding cattle, they rattle the walls.” I hope these are not metaphors for our industry.

Friday, November 14, 2014

James Allan on being a first-time author

The 75th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the September 1996 issue and is by James Macky, the artist formerly known as James Allan. It is about his experience as a first-time author with Growing Up Gay. James was the first out gay journalist in New Zealand, and is one of the bravest people I know. He is also one of the wittiest. Cover portrait by John McDermott.

The intro read:
Sensitive new-author guy James Allan tells how the response to his first book has made him a nicer, more caring person – but a more competitive one.

Having spent the past 13 years churning out a wide variety of feature stories, travel pieces, gossip columns, restaurant, book and movie reviews for Metro, the Listener, Fashion Quarterly and other magazines too numerous to mention – including the fine literary organ you’re holding in your hands – I was taken completely by surprise at the professional and emotional upheaval that accompanied the publication by Godwit Press of my first book, Growing Up Gay, in January.

As anyone in the print media will tell you, it’s rare for a writer to get any feedback from the public. Appear on television for five seconds and you’ll be recognised in coffee bars for the rest of your life. Write a newspaper column every day for a decade and, at the end of it, you’ll be able to drop into your local Cheers and discover that nobody knows your name.

True story: a joumalist sweats blood writing a searing, insightful, outrageous feature story. “When this is published,” he or she boasts, “there’ll be either a tumultuous furore or a frenzied imbroglio. Preferably both!”

Sadly, when the piece appears, it fails to elicit the slightest response. The awful truth is that people who stuff letters into bottles and then cast them onto the high seas are more likely to have their words acknowledged than are print journalists.

But, as I happily discovered, book authors are treated entirely differently. No longer just one of many names on a crowded masthead, a book author stands alone and recognisable. People who read your book are eager to share their censure and praise, however faint and damning, with you, The Author.

But authors don’t just depend upon the kindness of strangers for feedback. I was absolutely astonished, when my book was published, to receive congratulatory cards, letters and phone calls from old friends and relations who’d never been moved to compliment me on anything I’d written previously.

For a writer more used to the completion of his work being rewarded by an editor’s grudging, “I guess it’ll have to do,” all this attention can be overwhelming. I became practically unhinged at the launch party Godwit threw to celebrate my book. It was a marvellous egotistical occasion when I, the writer, held centre stage. At all the magazine parties I’ve been to, it’s always the publisher, the editor, the advertisers and the marketing manager who get all the attention. Writers are way down at the bottom of the pecking order, alongside the layout artists, the receptionist and the cleaners.

Having launched the book, the next big hurdle for every author is reading the reviews. Having complained for years about never getting professional or private feedback, one realises the sharp truth behind Truman Capote’s prickly comment, which he erroneously attributed to St Therese, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” I can imagine no more demoralising a moment than one spent reading or listening to a critic skilfully sketch your lack of talent, skill and intelligence. Is it helpful, I wonder, to have someone go on national radio and point out your many errors of grammar, spelling, fact and taste?

Fortunately for me, I was not slowly turned until crisp on a literary rotisserie. My book received wonderful reviews in the New Zealand Herald, Evening Post, Metro, North & South, Listener, Sunday Star-Times and Daily Telegraph. Only the Waikato Times, in what was still a very decent review, was less than gushing.

The Times’ slightly negative response brought home to me another hitherto unnoticed authorial trait: the great protective love we feel for our work and the unhappiness that strikes every fibre of our very being when our book is less than adored. In general I’ve found journalists to be less proprietorial about their writing.

Becoming aware of the relationship between authors and their books not only made me, a fellow author, a more sensitive and caring person, but it also brought about another “first” in my freelance career – I actually turned down a paying job! A glamorous and pleasurable one to boot.

I was thrilled when Heather Church, Kim Hill’s producer, asked me to review Peter Hawes’ latest book, Leaping With Unicorns. Then I read it. I returned the book, explaining that I didn’t think I should review it because I didn’t enjoy Hawes’ work. Its humour didn’t tickle my funnybone, and I was irritated rather than charmed by his constant word play.

“I don’t want to upset Mr Hawes,” I said. “I know how upset I’d be to hear someone slag off my book to Kim, and can’t inflict similar pain on another.”

“I’m not sure what to do,” said Ms Church. “No one’s ever sent a book back before.”

She encouraged me to review the book anyway, despite my great reluctance to do so. “An honest reviewer must tell the truth,” she said, adding, “Don’t back out on me now. I’ve got June all planned, and if you drop out it’ll throw my schedule out totally.”

In the end, integrity and sympathy intact, I told Kim and her listeners that, although I wasn’t too keen on Leapfrog, I was sure there were certain readers who would simply love it.

Being a sensitive new-age new-author type of guy, however, hasn’t lessened the competitive streak that comes with publication. Suddenly, it’s not enough to be published. You also want to sell more copies than Barbara Taylor Bradford and Jeffrey Archer combined. My biggest thrill was going into the Auckland Public Library, looking my file up on their computer, and discovering that the Auckland libraries bought 16 copies of Growing Up Gay. I now constantly check up on other local authors to see if the library buys as many copies of their latest. If I’ve outsold them (a rare event) I’m ecstatic for the next few days.

The only sad note in this whole happy affair is that Growing Up Gay has yet to appear on any bestseller list. The question everyone asks you, once your book is out, is “How well are you selling?” You have no idea. The publishers send you a statement every six or 12 months telling you the number of copies sold. I’d been told that trying to get any information about sales between statements is pretty difficult.

Peta Mathias, the ravishing Titian-haired author of Fete Accompli, told me she’d go into her publishers and try strangling them to see if she could squeeze out any information, to no avail.

My only consolation on the bestseller front was the recent publication of Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s The Rich, a book which seemed to be largely made up of quotes from other writers. Ollie Newland, the former high-flying property magnate, strongly upbraided Eldred-Grigg in his Herald review for having taken everyone else’s words – and not their best ones, either – and tossing them together for his own purposes.

In The Rich, Eldred-Grigg quotes extensively from several Metro writers, including me. He never asked permission, or even told us in advance, that he was using our work to flesh out his book. “Pretty shabby behaviour, not to ask us first,” said one Metro colleague.

Initially I thought little of the fact that Eldred-Grigg hadn’t contacted me before using my words in his book. However, after receiving a very polite letter from Bronwen Nicholson, publisher at Addison Wesley Longman, asking for permission for use an extract of my work in a new textbook and offering to pay for it, brought home to me how impolite Eldred-Grigg had been.

Still, looking on the bright side, “All’s well that end’s well.” I have the consolation that The Rich leapt straight into the bestseller list, so I feel that I at least made it, if only by proxy. There is a small corner of the bestseller list that is forever mine.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

In praise of: Stacy Gregg

Yesterday afternoon I took Miss Ten and Miss Twelve to Te Awamutu to see Stacy Gregg who was doing a book signing. They are big fans of her pony novels.

Miss Ten was mortified when she and her sister got to the front of queue and Stacy smiled at them, said, “Hello,” then noticed me standing to the side, squealed “Stephen!”, leaped to her feet and smothered me in hugs and kisses. I didn’t mind – this sort of thing doesn't happen often enough, if you ask me, especially in bookshops – but Miss Ten did. (In front of everybody! How gross! etc)

Stacy inscribed her latest novel, The Island of Lost Horses, “To [Miss Ten], whose dad gave me my start as a professional writer!” Which is true – it was in 1988 or 89, when I was deputy editor at Metro and commissioned pieces from her most months. (She talks briefly about those early days in this very good Viva interview last month, with kind words about me and James Allan, 
and very good advice for aspiring journalists/writers.) Stacy would have become successful anyway – it was blindingly obvious she would, because talent and work ethic – but it is very satisfying to have my children discover for themselves and become admirers of a writer I like a lot and helped a bit early on.

Just before we left, Stacy explained to the daughters that the way to persuade me to buy them a pony each is for them to ask me several times a day, every day. The drive back from Te Awamutu takes 20 minutes. Guess what we talked about. Thanks, Stacy.

So here is Te Awamutu’s Neil Finn with Crowded House, live in 1987, with “Mean to Me” from their debut album. All together now: 
She came all the way from America
She had a blind date with destiny
And the sound of Te Awamutu
Had a truly sacred ring

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Waikato Times letter of the week #53

Another bumper crop, two letters from the 11 November issue. As always, spelling, grammar, punctuation and logic are exactly as published. I particularly like “flotsam and jettison”, and as always wonder what the unabridged letters were like. 
Time to be ashamed
Gregor Ashby’s letter of November 8 has appeared appropriately in the edition that could also give an idea as to why Hamilton is now a ‘ghost town’!

Do many Hamilton city dwellers really appreciate living, and doing business under the dominant logo depicting ‘scum’, filth, and defilement, as does the title and image of ‘Riff-Raff' – as imposed upon them by those of twisted, rebellious hearts and minds?

These people, who like impudent, spoilt brats, appear to be given their heart’s desire in savouring whatever abased area of human depravity can be legally accepted and allowed under the freedom of newly enacted legislation that stands proudly, in perversion, against the righteous ways of many generations past!

Are we ashamed and offended under this banner of darkness, that is fluttering over our community? – We should be!

The ‘Time Warp’ mass dance ensuing will leave a nasty ‘taste in participant’s mouth, and the true location of the ‘Warp’ will be obvious to all. Be warned. (Abridged) 
Price of Utopia
So it came to pass that an era of progressive leadership took control of the city and embarked on a plan of development and enhancement designed to encourage business growth, appease landlords and leave behind a memorable legacy of fame guaranteed to deliver civic acclaim, streets and parks named in their memory, even the possibilities of knighthoods and such like symbols of national gratitude.

As these new brooms, all flying on noticeably enlarged right wings contemporaneously made plans and enacted activities to ban the great unwashed from the city’s new enhancements, and garner further revenue by retiring any possibility of liability for the city’s ageing population.

And so a new utopian era is born. Gone forever are those of low economic value, whether unemployed or too aged or infirm to contribute to the new order of full employment, suddenly gone! zapped into non-existence!

Other cities and towns will hopefully pick up the unwanted dregs, the flotsam and jettison, meanwhile Hamilton. . . a young city, a clean city, a city without real heart or social conscious forges ahead, cold, clinical, in credit.

Don’t dare age, for if you are without wealth, employment or a home, flee, for there is no place for the likes of you here. (Abridged)

Te Awamutu

Monday, November 10, 2014

Crime wave in Cambridge #3

As mentioned here previously, people often ask me, “How do you find living in Cambridge, population 18,400, after living for so long in Auckland, population 1.5 million?”

Here is the police report from the 5 November issue of the Cambridge Edition:
Friday, October 31
A car travelling along Watkins Rd had an egg thrown at it, damaging the paint work.
Saturday, November 1
At about 10pm, there was an assault near the intersection of Duke and Victoria Streets. Police would like to hear from the victim who was assaulted in the incident. As yet, they have not come forward.
A young boy was reported to have been bitten by a dog while at Cambridge skate park. Anyone with any information is urged to contact Waipa District Council’s dog control officer.
Saturday, November 1-Sunday, November 2
Overnight, four letterboxes on Moore St and one on Christy Brown Pl were stolen. Police are asking anyone who hears any letterboxes being stolen to contact them through the 111 system so the offenders can be held responsible.
Sunday, November 2
A car struck a power pole on Kaipaki Rd. The driver, who was disqualified from driving at the time of the accident, was intoxicated and a blood test was taken.
A home at Lauriston Park retirement village was burgled. A heat-pump unit and a microwave were taken.

At least this week no compost was stolen.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Good news for modern guitarists

The Daily Mail (so it must be true) reports
Meanwhile 45 per cent of the ladies in Cambridge think guitar players are irresistible as they’re ‘good with their hands’.

Such good news because I live in Cambridge and can play the guitar. I am so heading out to the pub tonight, if my wife will let me.
Britons voted All Along the Watchtower as Hendrix’s most popular hit. The tune was also listed as number 3 of all time to serenade a loved one, while Oasis’ Wonderwall came first and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven came second.

Odd that Neil Young’s “Down by the River”, the  first song I ever played in public (with Brent Parlane at the Tauranga Folk Club), never rates in these polls of how to serenade a loved one. All together now: “Down by the river, I shot my baby… Shot her dead.”. This was on Young’s 1969 album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, so quite a while before Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads.

Best performance I have seen of the song is this by CSNY real live on a TV show in 1970. The underrated Stills is great; Young is incandescent. Imagine what they were like on a real stage:

Monitor: Co Tipping

I didn’t head out to the pub.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Crime wave in Cambridge #2

As mentioned here previously, people often ask me, “How do you find living in Cambridge, population 18,400, after living for so long in Auckland, population 1.5 million?”

Here is the police report from the 29 October issue of the Cambridge Edition:
Theft of compost
Police are investigating reports of a burglary at St Kilda Cambridge subdivision over the weekend. As the Cambridge Edition went to print, early indications were that nothing had been stolen.
Monday, October 20
A car was found after a crash on SH1.
A car was broken into in Discombe Rd. A laptop was stolen.
An incident was reported to police where teenagers had removed shopping trolleys from The Warehouse and filled them with bags of compost. They dumped the trolleys in a garden and left.
Police attended a domestic incident in Wordsworth St.
Tuesday, October 21
Three men were found walking through Cambridge Park subdivision and taken home by police.
Police attended two domestic incidents in Cambridge.
A theft was reported by staff at Lochiel Golf Club. A laser distance measurer was stolen from the Pro Shop.
Police attended a car crash on King St.
Four saddle blankets were reported stolen from the Equidays event held at Mystery Creek.
Wednesday, October 22
Police attended a domestic incident in Luck at Last Road.
Thursday, October 23
There was a disorder incident outside Freshchoice in Leamington. A man was reported to have thrown and smashed a bottle, but he left the scene before police arrived and was not found.
Police attended a domestic incident.
Friday, October 23
An 18-year-old Cambridge teenager was caught drink driving with a reading of 52lmcg.
A Cambridge teenager was caught drink driving with a reading of 554mcg.
A 50-year-old Cambridge man was caught drink driving. He chose to have a blood test. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

The 2015 New Zealand Book Awards: the sequel

Paula Morris writes in the latest issue of Booknotes about the pros and cons of what has happened to New Zealand’s book awards, detailed here previously. In short, there won’t be any awards in 2015 and in 2016 they will be part of the Auckland Writers Festival: this means that instead of one year’s books being judged, it will be 18 months’ worth. Paula canvassed opinion from an impressive range of people in the book trade: authors, publishers, booksellers and assorted media types. And me.

Comments include “ridiculous”, “lamentable”, “Readers don’t seem to care about New Zealand books” and more.

Those of us who have been involved with the awards over the years are more positive. Publishers’ Association president Sam Elworthy says the new structure offers “an opportunity to establish a more relevant, more high-impact awards”.

Author Vanda Symon says:
When I was a judge the year before last, they changed the timing of the award, so we were judging 18 months’ worth. It didn’t create a ripple […] I love the idea of the awards being incorporated into a festival, part of a week-long celebration for the readers as well as the writers, rather than one special and rather extravagant night for the writers.

Paula’s article is really good, of interest to everyone in the NZ book world. Best bit for me was this, quote unquote:
[…] there’s much off-the-record muttering among the literary community, particularly outside Auckland.

I think we all know that what means. So here is Sam Cooke in 1958 with Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Accentuate the Positive”:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Of book reviews and catfish

Some of us write book reviews; some of us receive them. Some of us think that it is better to have been reviewed and lost than never to have been reviewed at all. 

Paul Litterick recently unearthed this 2011 Financial Times article by Francis Wheen, “The Hunting of the Snark”, about malicious book reviews, which are obviously the best sort. For readers, at least. The article is full of great lines, for example Cyril Connolly on the reviewer’s “thankless task of drowning other people’s kittens”. Quote unquote: 
Sam Leith recalls filing a vicious review of a David Lodge novel for the Spectator one morning and then being introduced to Lodge at a party that evening. “He was very pleasant,” Leith sighs. “I crawled away feeling I’d stabbed this nice old gent in the back.” Literary etiquette demands that you don’t review books by friends, but as Leith points out “you’re not meant to review enemies either”. The only solution is never to meet any authors at all.

I think this is sound advice not just for reviewers but for everyone.

More recently, in last Saturday’s Guardian to be precise, Kathleen Hale wrote about being catfished. Someone reviewed her first novel online, pretending to be another person, Blythe Harris. So Hale unwisely – we all know that authors should never engage with negative reviewers – engaged with her negative reviewer, tracked her down and physically confronted her. She also catfished her back. It’s a long, mad and funny story. Quote unquote: 
Anxious and inexperienced, I began checking, a social reviewing site owned by Amazon. My publisher HarperTeen had sent advance copies of my book to bloggers and I wanted to see what they thought. Other authors warned me not to do this, but I didn’t listen. Soon, my daily visits tallied somewhere between “slightly-more-than-is-attractive-to-admit-here” and “infinity”.

For the most part, I found Goodreaders were awarding my novel one star or five stars, with nothing in between. “Well, it’s a weird book,” I reminded myself. “It’s about a girl with PTSD teaming up with a veteran to fight crime.” Mostly I was relieved they weren’t all one-star reviews.

One day, while deleting and rewriting the same tweet over and over (my editors had urged me to build a “web presence”), a tiny avatar popped up on my screen. She was young, tanned and attractive, with dark hair and a bright smile. Her Twitter profile said she was a book blogger who tweeted nonstop between 6pm and midnight, usually about the TV show Gossip Girl. According to her blogger profile, she was a 10th-grade teacher, wife and mother of two. Her name was Blythe Harris. She had tweeted me saying she had some ideas for my next book.

So here is Joe Cocker with Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy’s “Catfish” from his 1976 album Stingray. The backing band is Stuff: Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale on guitar (Gale does the solo), Richard Tee on keyboards, Gordon Edwards on bass and Steve Gadd on drums: