Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The NZ Post book awards

After the awards were presented in Auckland on Friday night, my wife observed that the winning authors and books represented four of New Zealand’s major ethnic groups: Maori, Pacific Island, Chinese and Southern Man.

It was a good night, the best and by far the most glamorous book awards I have been to. Four hundred people, half in black tie and the other half in posh frocks, and the Great Room of the Langham Hotel looked spectacular

The evening was slightly hijacked by Tuhoe, who had been allocated two minutes but took about 20. There was singing, a long speech in Maori then a brief version in English; when Judith Binney’s Encircled Lands won its category, there was a haka. It must have been a nightmare for the organisers and for Jennifer Ward-Lealand, the unflappable MC – the final award had to be made by 10.30 p.m. to make the late-night news – but I thought it was great. There was a lovely tone to it all. Often at occasions like this the Maori component feels tacked-on for appearances’ sake, but this was the real deal, a totally Maori moment, totally on their terms. You’d have to be obstinately monocultural to object.

The same goes for Pip Desmond’s acceptance of her Best First Book award for Trust, which is about women in gangs. She too had been allocated two minutes but took a lot longer. When she came up on stage she had a support group of five of the women in the book. Talk about staunch – and one of them had a guitar so we knew what was coming. After Pip finished thanking everyone, they sang beautifully – in Maori, of course, and in three-part harmony, with Nicola Legat of Random House (on stage as the publisher) gamely singing along with them. It was a wonderful moment, and again only a curmudgeon would object. It must have been a huge challenge for the five women to be there in such an alien environment – they were a long way from home in every way. 

These interruptions were unscheduled and unpredictable so it is a tribute to the organisers, and to Jennifer, that they were absorbed so smoothly into the evening’s programme. I feel quite privileged to have been there to witness them.

UPDATE: There is a more official account of the evening from Booksellers NZ here, with some great photos. As you can see, Brian Turner scrubbed up well, and MC Jennifer Ward-Lealand scrubbed up spectacularly. Lovely photos of the Best First Book winners too.

Monday, August 30, 2010

English men are useless

The case for the prosecution: it is a staple of English comedy that assembling kitset furniture from Ikea is impossible, that the assembly instructions are incomprehensible, there are always too few pieces, there is always at least one screw or similar left over, and it involves a lot of swearing.

Now, we need to make a couple of things clear about IKEA furniture:
  • Some critical parts will always be missing. If you need 40 screws, we will give you 20. Life is hard in northern Europe and you need to learn that.
  • We hide the pre-drilled holes so that you have to feel your way along a panel like a blind person reading Braille, looking for slight bumps in the surface.
  • We drill the holes in the wrong place and at different heights so that your furniture ends up looking like something on a stage in a middle school play.
  • The tacky veneer finish will chip so much during assembly that it will look like the target of a drive-by shooting by the time you've finished.
  • You will put it together wrong. Twice. Now you really feel like you are on the northern plains of existence.
Just as you start to make some headway with the assembly, IKEA Kramp sets in from the strain of forcing hundreds of screws into undersized holes and your hand is rendered useless for a couple of days. You have more calluses than a pervert in a peepshow. Finally, with wooden dowels glued to your fingers, you try to take your own life but you can't even do that right. Our work is done.

 Yesterday I assembled two Ikea storage units. (No, they aren’t available in New Zealand so I have no idea how my wife got hold of them. Probably www.tortureyourhusband.com.) I am nobody’s idea of a home handyman but I do know how to operate a Phillips screwdriver, an Allen key and a hammer. I assembled two Ikea storage units by following the perfectly comprehensible assembly instructions, had all the pieces I needed and none left over afterwards, and there was no swearing. 

So: if English men find this stuff difficult, they are useless.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sentence of the day

Or should that be mad metaphor of the month? Richard Boock writes in today’s Sunday Star-Times, in a piece about how ructions in top athletes’ private lives can affect their performance:
When you live in a goldfish bowl, everyone can see your laundry.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A quiet spell

To Auckland today for lunch with Karyn Hay, and dinner tomorrow with Chris Finlayson, Michael Cullen and Jennifer Ward-Lealand. I will get to kiss Pamela Stirling, and I will be interviewed by TV3 and TV1 about the winner of the NZ Post Book Awards. 

Yes, it is a glamorous life, but it means no blogging till Sunday. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Michael Moorcock on Sauron

Lewis Jones in the Spectator reviews a selection of Michael Moorcock’s short non-fiction, Into the Media Web, and notes his loathing of Star Wars, CS Lewis and especially Tolkein:
in “Epic Pooh” he writes that he is unconvinced of Sauron’s evil since “anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad”. 

Pink Floyd on stage in July 2010

OK it isn’t Pink Floyd but it is David Gilmour and Roger Waters playing live on stage together on 10 July 2010 for the first time since Live 8 in 2005, which was the first time they had played together for nearly 25 years. The clip has zero production values – marginally above a mobile phone – but is essential viewing for any Floyd fan. The embedding above is uncertain: the best viewing is at the home page here.

Waters’ voice is shot – as always, he barks rather than sings, only more so – and even Gilmour strains for the high notes occasionally, but still, it’s them. For 27 minutes. Last month. And the guitar playing is fabulous – horribly recorded but you can tell that Gilmour got an amazing sound out of small equipment in a small room. And he uses more pinched harmonics than usual, the show-off.

This is back at Jemima Khan’s place, Kiddington Hall, in front of 200 people (Kate Moss, yada yada). Nick Cave also performed as did Tom Jones and others.

The performance starts about a minute in. They play “To Know Him is to Love Him”, a delightful choice given the long animosity between Gilmour and Waters (who is gracious throughout), then “Wish You Were Here”, “Comfortably Numb” and “Another Brick in the Wall”. 

The show was a charity gig for the Hoping Foundation and raised some £430,000 for Palestinian refugee children in Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the West Bank. Details here and here.

Today is my birthday

And everybody here knows it. I wonder if Ally goes around saying, “Quote unquote” and making ironic air quote-marks with her fingers. No, I suppose not.

Every day Home Paddock tells us about historic events that happened on the same day in history. I knew that I shared a birthday with Martin Amis, Elvis Costello and Claudia Schiffer – well, obviously (though I’m not sure whose literary talent, musical ability and looks I may also share: probably Schiffer’s music and Amis’s old teeth)  – but not that I shared a birthday with, OMG, Sean Connery. I don’t know why this should be cheering, but it is.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Silver-tongued devil

This afternoon I have a long phone conversation with someone involved in organising the book trade’s Big Day Out on Friday, aka the NZ Post Book Awards. She is understandably a little tense.

She says something. I say something in reply. There is a long pause. Uh-oh, I think.

And then she sighs and says, “God, this is great. I’ve spent all day with these serious intense women, and you just swear all the time.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dear diary

On Saturday at netball Dean the truck-driving man loaned me the DVD It Might Get Loud, with Jack White, the Hedge and Jimmy Page. Good. Then I had to sit through two hours of small girls dancing. Less good. Much, much less good. It is one thing to watch one’s own child performing, quite another to watch countless others. I couldn’t even tell which one was mine as she was with eight or nine others all dressed as crocodiles. And the thing with crocodiles is, they all look the same.

On Sunday, we celebrated our wedding anniversary by visiting friends who have an orphan lamb, so the children could feed it. Then it was time for milking, so off to the cowshed we all went. There is a cowshed directly over the road from their school but this was the first time the children had got up close and personal with the business end of the dairy industry so it was all good, especially as we didn’t get shat on. Jerseys are politer than some I could mention. And then it was back to our friends’ for dinner. Lamb. It was beautiful, especially with mint sauce, but I couldn’t help thinking with every mouthful, “Have we met before? Like, earlier this afternoon?” Country people have a quirky sense of humour sometimes. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sentence of the day

I sent a copy of the Heather Roy 82-page PDF to an expat journalist friend now living in England, the poor sod. He has worked in print and TV internationally – I used to get postcards from Pyongyang and Kosovo – so has a robust view of life, and takes a keen interest in the politics of his home country. He read the document and commented:
It reads like a manic PowerPoint version of squabbling by Fourth Form boarding girls at St. Trinians!

What I’m reading

For once, Whale Oil. Boy, is he cross about the possibly not-so-honourable Heather Roy and her “adviser”.

Trouble with infinity at New Scientist. Warning: may contain Gödel.

However did we manage without these journalism warning labels?

Set the controls for the heart of the galaxy.

I am not an Elvis fan but if anyone could persuade me, it would be Chris Bourke.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Waikato Times letter of the day

TG Brown of Te Kauwhata writes in today’s edition:
[. . .] One doesn’t have to be fundamental to read in the Christian Bible Jeremiah 5 v22 that God has “fixed ocean levels and they cannot be changed” which implies the same devil behind Hitler and Stalin is now behind the United Nations, only too sophisticated perhaps to be discerned other than by fundamental Christian knowledge, and that climate change is a globalists’ political tool or real conspiracy. The UN is based upon a “supreme being” to accommodate all religions, giving us a pagan bill of rights, a negative document compared with the Bible’s 10 commandments and the cross of Jesus Christ – the same 10 commandments that helped Western civilisation prosper under Magna Carta until we foolishly abdicated from it some 50 years or more ago. [. . . ]
The Waikato Times advises that this letter was abridged. Aren’t you curious about the bits that were cut out because they were even more Anglocentric, even more a-historical, even crazier? I am.

But this letter isn’t as crazy as the one in yesterday’s edition from Glywn McInnes of Hamilton. I cannot understand why a good newspaper would have published it. Although it isn’t long I can’t bring myself to quote it in full because it is the most unpleasant piece of racism I have ever seen in the New Zealand mainstream media, so this is just part of it: 
Recently there have been reports the Jewish people are returning in droves to the country of Germany. It seems Berlin now has the dubious honour of being host to the largest number of young Jews in any city in Europe. [. . . ]
Obviously the lesson learnt through the World War II Holocaust does not come through fully to their understanding.
Looking on the bright side, as one tries to do, at least this idiot doesn’t deny the Holocaust. She or he just regrets that the Jews didn’t learn their lesson from it.

Having typed that out, I shall go and wash my hands.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Julia Gillard vs Tony Abbott

As mentioned previously, I love Australian elections. They are big, they are clever, and they matter. Australia has roughly 22 million people; we have roughly 4.5 million. In their terms, our government is basically a city council: our population of 4,374,749 (when I checked here just now) makes us a bit bigger than Melbourne (3.9 million) and slightly smaller than Sydney (over 4.5 million).  

The election on Saturday is between the new incumbent Labor PM, Julia Gillard, and new Coalition leader, Tony Abbott. Both attract visceral opposition from voters and commentators: Gillard because she is a childless unmarried sheila (though she does have a male partner, phew, but on the other hand he is a hairdresser and you can imagine how well that goes down at the RSL), a ginga and a lefty; Abbott because he is Catholic former seminarian, father of three, and a conservative.

My wife and I do not have a horse in this race but are, for the first time, divided politically. She doesn’t like Abbott: no reason given, just doesn’t like him. Maybe it’s his ears? I’m trending towards him: not because he is an economics graduate, a rare thing in a politician, and a former Rhodes scholar but because he is funny. What, you think it should be about policies?

But this is not a two-horse race. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph has its own candidate, Peter Best:

AN UNSTOPPABLE new force has entered the federal election campaign, challenging both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott for the nation’s top job.
The perfect PM is a man who speaks one language, drinks moderately, is university-educated, interested in sport and can cook and change a nappy.
And today The Daily Telegraph can reveal that man.
New prime ministerial candidate Peter Best has vowed to represent the will of the people at all times and do whatever it is voters want him to throughout the campaign.
Do you want to join Peter Best’s campaign team? From speechwriters and poster designers to videographers and pollsters, we need you. Click here to find out more.
All people need to do is go to The Daily Telegraph website and take part in our online poll, giving their views on everything from climate change to asylum seekers. Whatever the results, that’s what Mr Best’s policy will be.
The 45-year-old go-getter will also be touring marginal seats listening to the concerns of voters and getting policy ideas direct from punters.
Almost 10,000 people have had their say on what they want Peter to be – and he is being it.
Over 60 per cent said he should like sport and he does. More than half said he shouldn’t smoke (he doesn’t) and should look good (he does). Most people said it didn’t matter what gender he was but, of the rest, five times as many thought he should be a man. He believes asylum seekers should be processed overseas, but only in countries that have signed the UN convention on refugees. Mining companies should be taxed at 30 per cent, not 40, and companies should pay for the pollution they produce.
Mr Best said yesterday he was humbled by people’s response.
“Can I just say first of all a big thank you to the people who have given me something to believe in – literally.
“Now that I know what people want in a prime minister I will not stop working until I deliver it for them.
“And if they change their minds, well, by God, I will too. In particular I am very relieved that voters preferred a male PM, as that was one change I was not looking forward to making.”
As befits a modern politician, Best is on Twitter. Joe Hildebrand re-tweets a selection. Two examples: 
I am very big on making NZ an Australian state. Or at least a territory.
I wasn’t that impressed by Tony Abbott visiting five marginal seats in one day, until I found out he’d jogged to all of them.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nigel Cox on creative writing courses

The 20th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the May 1994 issue.

The intro read:
Creative writing courses are springing up all over the country. Can they really teach you to write? And how qualified are those who set themselves up to teach you? Nigel Cox investigates a new growth industry.

“I don’t think you can teach people to write, you can only teach them to read,” the writer Anne Kennedy asserted recently at Writers and Readers Week in Wellington. But creative writing courses are described by Claudia Bell, who organises them for Continuing Education in Auckland as a “a massive growth area”. So, you pays your money – and thousands are – but what do you get?
In fact, on the best courses, money alone isn’t enough. Bill Manhire’s acclaimed course at Victoria University accepts only 12 applicants from a list of something like 100 hopefuls each year. You have to submit some of your work, and pray. The same is true of Albert Wendt and Witi Ihimaera’s course at Auckland University, and Owen Marshall’s 20-week fulltime course at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru. So, some may ask, do you have to be able to write already?
Well, no. But the tutors agree: you can’t teach everyone to write, only the talented. Owen Marshall seems to speak for them all when he says, “I think writers are born, in a sense, rather than made. But their development can be accelerated.”
Bill Manhire says, “The main thing that I persuade them of is that it’s possible to think of yourself as a writer, that that can be the thing that guarantees your life to you, you know: ‘I am a writer.’ It may be that you’ll earn your living doing something quite different, but the thing that galvanises you and gives some point to your existence is the writing you do.”
Manhire is worth listening to on this subject because, of all the courses in the country, his has been particularly effective, having encouraged writers as successful and as various as Elizabeth Knox, Anthony McCarten, Jenny Bornholdt, Dinah Hawken, David Geary, Barbara Anderson and Forbes Williams, as well as, more recently, a less widely known but soon to be celebrated group which includes Emily Perkins, Lauren Holder, Paola Bilbrough, James Brown and Chris Orsman – a list which suggests that if writing really can’t be taught then Manhire is astonishingly astute at picking writers in embryo.
So what are the hopefuls looking for when they apply for a creative writing course? “Well, aside from the obvious hopes and ambitions,” Manhire says, “I think one thing they’re after is the experience of an audience. If you publish a poem in Sport or Landfall, there’s far less experience of a readership than if you go to a workshop group, give everyone copies of what you’ve written, read it aloud, listen to what they’ve got to say for five or 10 minutes – you probably get much more feedback, much more sense of people there, paying attention, than you do if you publish a novel with Penguin.”
The technique of having everyone discuss everyone else’s work is an idea that all the tutors seem to use, but it’s one that’s not available to those who take the course run by the New Zealand Institute of Business Studies, since their instructions come to you by mail. The Institute runs advertisements on the books pages of the nation’s newspapers headed, “Short stories, novels”, saying that for $885 you can “learn how at home by correspondence”.
Its prospectus promises that, “Once you become an accomplished writer, it’s comforting to know that any time when you need extra cash you can rattle off another story then wait for the cheque to come back in the post.” Hmmm. But when principal Brian Morris is asked who we might have heard of that has completed the course, he says, somewhat defensively, “Well, it depends on who you’ve heard of, doesn’t it.” Try me, Brian. At which he offers the pleasing story of Gordon Wood, of Edendale in Southland (pop 562), father of four, unem­ployed for two years, who, after completing the course, was able within six months to pay his church back the money he’d borrowed to cover his course fees, and “is now writing regularly for eight North Island publications about rural affairs in the South Island – sustaining his family on it”.
The Institute has provided instruction for students as widely separated as the lighthouse keeper at Cape Reinga and a man on Stewart Island. The students are set assign­ments, which are returned to tutor Graham Adams, where they are graded and annotated with instructional comments. Morris looks over the work too, adding his own remarks. After 16 “tutorials” designed to give “you a steady diet of reading, consideration, pondering, focused thinking, personal evaluation and writing”, successful graduates are awarded a diploma and turned loose on the world.
“But we follow their progress,” says Morris. “I run a graduates club, which keeps them topped up with little success stories, information about competitions, and job opportunities.”

Overseas, the teaching of creative writing has a noble pedigree. Students at Cambridge could submit a manuscript of original composition towards the tripos – Sylvia Plath, for example, submitted a book of poems. In the 1970s Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro emerged from a course that Malcolm Bradbury was running at the University of East Anglia to be included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists; both went on to make the shortlist of the Booker Prize, which Ishiguro won.
To an earlier generation of writers, in­struction of this sort produced in the likes of William Golding a rarefied despair – especially when it took place in America. In an essay on lit-biz “over there” collected in The Hot Gates, Golding describes a class he attended as visiting lecturer. “A choleric crewcut is reading his story in a harsh monotone. As the story goes on the lecturer finds his ears not so much burning as singing, with a high nightmare note. He does not know where to look. He broods to himself. I am not tough enough for this game.”
Golding argues that “we live, not by the work of ten thousand adequate writers, but by the work of a few dozen at most,” and suggests that creative writing classes pro­duce “talented professional writers” – clearly, in his view, a body we could live without.
Despite his Olympian disdain, the teaching of creative writing in America has survived and flourished. In recent years, writers as well-known as Richard Ford, Jayne Anne Phillips and Raymond Carver (himself a graduate of a class run by John Gardner) have, in return for large salaries and lots of time to write, lent their names and cachet to courses apparently highly successful in producing interesting writers. Which would seem a win-win-win situ­ation: the writers get a stable income, the university gets famous tutors, and the students get inspired.
Nevertheless, some of the courses sound in their own way as alarming as the one Golding reported on. Damien Wilkins, for example, was subjected to what sounded like confrontations with both God and the Devil in the classes he took with the American novelist Stanley Elkin at Washington University in St Louis. Elkin taught by telling stories (“great stories,” says Wilkins) which you were to grasp instruction from, made psychoanalytic comments about students, and was merciless in exposing what he saw as inadequate work. But if Wilkins’ outstanding first novel, The Miserables, largely written on the course, can be taken as evidence, yes, Elkin’s methods work too.
In this country the teaching of creative writing seems to have begun in 1975 at Victoria University, but has only developed to any significant degree in the last 10 years. Michael Morrissey thinks that his original Summer Writing School on Waiheke island, established in 1983, was the first course of this type in the country. Those who enrolled got an island holiday, the company of kindred spirits, and encouragement from a published and enthusiastic writer.
“I started teaching writing because I thought I might earn more per hour than by cleaning toilets,” says Morrissey. At its height, attracting up to 35 students, the Summer School ran until 1992, when its founder moved on to other pursuits. Morrissey still teaches writing, however, at half ­a dozen schools, under the Continuing Education umbrella.
Also working as CE tutors are writers like John Cranna, Alan Loney and Margaret Blay; Mike Johnson has just completed a stint that extended over a number of years. Fiona Kidman, Michael King and Francis Cherry have at various times offered courses through Wellington Polytechnic or University Extension, as has Kevin Ireland in Auckland.
So, is creative writing providing, as in America, a valuable new source of income for our writers? “It’s a modest cottage industry,” says Cranna wistfully, “not significant enough to live on,” though it is a welcome addition to “the rag-bag portfolio of incomes” the New Zealand writer must put together to survive.
Owen Marshall says he teaches for the money he earns, as well as “the contact with interesting people”. But Morrissey seems typical when he talks of “a side-line income”, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that these courses are at least in part yet another sign of writers’ barely-recompensed contribution to the art-form they are devoted to.

So how, when you attend one of their classes, do these devotees induce the magic to flow in you? Perhaps understandably, some of the tutors were a little reluctant to divulge their techniques. Most offered one example. Morrissey, among other methods, uses a story of Owen Marshall’s called “The Paper Parcel”. “A boy going to his first ball, needs a partner, so there’s the little drama of finding him one. Then his mother dresses him as a parcel, which becomes unravelled at the ball. I explore with them how this story works, then get them to tell a similarly embarrassing moment from their own lives.”
Morrissey, who uses complete stories as models, as examples of form, began with writers like Hemingway and VS Naipaul but these days finds that many students want to be taught from the work of local writers. Cranna has his beginners take something they’ve written and tell it from the point of view of another of its protagonists: “Many of them, used to writing autobiographically, find this very difficult.” Albert Wendt has them “write a poem of not more than 10 lines” which he xeroxes for them to take away, and “next week we discuss it”.
All the tutors stress the importance of discussion. Good talk, about what and how you’re reading, what films you’ve seen, how these books and films work, seems as important as any specific insights that are passed on. There are, apparently, no “secrets”, a point reinforced by Doris Lessing during Writers and Readers Week. “Very often” she said, “all writers get asked something which amounts to, ‘I believe you’ve got some kind of trick – please tell me what it is.’ But I have yet to meet any writer anywhere in the world who hasn’t worked extremely hard, and nearly every one of them has gone through a period of tearing their work up, before they got started.”
But perhaps there are some tricks in the teaching. Bill Manhire ran one of his workshop exercises past the listeners to Alison Parr’s Sunday morning show on National Radio recently, when established writers like Owen Marshall, Barbara Anderson and Cilla McQueen were invited to work on an exercise typical of those he offers his students. The writers were to create a story which was to include a child standing in water, a broken typewriter, a map of the world, a book of Janet Frame’s on top of a ladder, and someone claiming to be a friend of Rachel Hunter.
Talking about techniques of this sort in the book In The Same Room, Manhire says, “It’s surprising how, when people are faced with a set of constraints, they become astonishingly inventive and powerful in the way they use language, much more so than if they’re simply given a sheet of white paper and told to get creative and imaginative and deeply meaningful.”
Before the established writers had their turn, listeners were invited to write their own versions and send them in. As if determined to underline Claudia Bell’s assertion about the teaching of writing being a growth industry, over 400 did. The best stories, which were broadcast, were excel­lent. Which makes you wonder what might come through if Manhire were to set exercises for all – wannabe and otherwise – of the nation’s writers.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Science in the Herald

From the “Healthy Living” section:
People who sleep more or fewer than seven hours a day, including naps, are increasing their risk for cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, a study says.
“More or fewer than seven” hours of sleep a day – that just about covers us all, doesn’t it. The Stratford Theory of Numbers strikes again. Let’s look more closely.

The study was published in Vol 33 issue 8 of the journal Sleep and is based on research by Anoop Shankar, an associate professor in the West Virginia University’s department of community medicine. The abstract of the article “Sleep Duration And Cardiovascular Disease” says: 

Previous studies have shown that both short and long sleep durations are related to increased likelihood of diabetes and hypertension. However, the relation between sleep duration and cardiovascular disease (CVD) is not clear. We examined the hypothesis that compared with sleep duration of 7 hours, shorter and longer sleep durations are independently related to CVD. [. . . ]
Conclusion: Compared with sleep duration of 7 h, there was a positive association between both shorter and longer sleep durations and CVD in a representative sample of US adults. These results suggest that sleep duration may be an important marker of CVD.
But they are not talking about five or 10 minutes too short or too long. No, they are talking about a couple of hours. As WVU’s website puts it: 
If you’re sleeping less than five hours or more than nine hours, you could be putting yourself at an increased risk for heart disease . . .
The rest of the article – which was syndicated from AFP – is fine but that first paragraph is not just innumerate, it is downright misleading. I suppose they just whacked it in without reading it. Or perhaps one of the Herald’s sub-editors “improved” it. The headline is a doozy too: 
Seven hours the magic number in the sleep game
Nope. Could be six for older people, could be eight for younger. Seven is the median, the middle of what seems to be the normal healthy range. Nothing magic about it.

The Waikato Times, which ran the same story days later in its “Wellbeing” section, used this headline: 
Snoozing way to health
Nope. “Snoozing” is not mentioned in the story at all. And of course nowhere is the idea canvassed that maybe people sleep too little or too long because they are, you know, unwell. With something like, perhaps, cardiovascular disease or similar. That whole correlation-not-being-causation thing.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Paul Holmes paragraph of the month

I don’t mean to pick on the guy following this post but honestly, look at this from his column in today’s Skank:
I thought I would buy a nice warm jersey yesterday and went into Newmarket to find Hallensteins, only to be told it was gone. All of which makes the Reserve Bank Governor’s recent decision to hike the interest rates highly questionable.
There is much more for connoisseurs of Holmes-flavoured-idiocy in the complete column here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Nigel Cox on Ian Cross and Damien Wilkins

The 19th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1993 issue.

The intro read:
Wellington writers Ian Cross and Damien Wilkins both found early success in the US, three decades apart. They talk to Nigel Cox about the twin effects of dollars and distance upon their work.
“I’m working on my best sustained piece of writing now [but] I can’t make a living from this kind of writing. . . so the novel I’m working on now is likely to be my last... I’m married and have three children. . . like eating and drinking, and a reasonable degree of comfort, and must provide these and other satisfactions for five people. . . Nobody asked me to be a writer and I enjoy being a father much more.” Ian Cross, Landfall, 1960.
So many New Zealand novelists have abandoned literature after a promising early book or two – but are the reasons purely economic, as Cross suggests, or is “life in New Zealand” insufficient as raw material? Is it just that the fiction market here is so small?
Cross solved the small-market problem by finding an American publisher for his first novel, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich – who by coincidence will also publish Damien Wilkins’ first novel in the US later this year. “Will being a New Zealander hurt me?” Wilkins asked his New York agent, Candida Donadio. “Whaddya talkin’ about?” she said. “It’s your strength.”
It wasn’t a strength Cross played on back in 1957. The God Boy is often described as a New Zealand classic but re-read now all the specifically local detail that Americans wouldn’t understand seem to have been written out – there are no names of real places, no Maoris, no rugby – and the novel might more accurately be said to be set in “Catholic-land”. Asked if he had an actual town in mind, Cross replies, “Castlecliff – but most people thought it was Patea. I must have given a rather dreary version of Castlecliff.”
He began writing The God Boy when he was at Harvard on a fellowship for journalists and has acknowledged that its “innocent teenager tells us adult readers things he doesn’t understand” narrative style was borrowed from American sources. Cross saw James Dean in a television adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s story “I Want To Know Why”. This was before Dean became famous as a film actor. “He was about 17, I think. He seemed to be oblivious of everything, as though he was standing in the dark at noon. He just stood and looked into the camera. And to some extent Jimmy Sullivan was born in that portrayal by James Dean.”
So the God boy had an American model – and perhaps Cross also picked up the American ability to suspend the everyday world which surrounds us in favour of a fiction-world made of words. Told with a teenager’s slanginess that isn’t afraid of Americanisms, The God Boy seems delightfully free of any trouble about how to write the New Zealandness in. His second novel, The Backward Sex, edges closer to detailing the New Zealand it says is its setting, but it wasn’t until After Anzac Day that Cross embarked upon a novel that insists that its readers accept they’re in “Adelaide Road, Wellington”, or that the waterfront confrontations of 1951 are the same ones as in the history books.
By this point Cross had scored a major international success with The God Boy, having signed for Penguin UK to follow the British hardback with a 40,000-copy reprint. French, Finnish and Italian editions were pending: “Jimmy Sullivan’s bike got all the way back to Rome,” he laughs. There was talk of a stage play. In England, the UK edition of The Backward Sex sold out in a month and was immediately reprinted. It was then that Cross announced he couldn’t make enough money to continue writing.
After Anzac Day is an uneven, often stiff book, and truncated. “I terminated it,” Cross says. “I had a grander plan, in which the characters and theme were more fully developed, but I had three children and a fourth on the way.”
If he says he wasn’t making what he considered a living, we must accept that. But when pressed, he acknowledges that being a writer here wasn’t easy. “There was a kind of underlying disbelief and resentment. People couldn’t believe that you were what some people were saying you were. There was that sense of the way male prisoners would view a woman walking through them. Of a possession denied.”
Cross, who at 67 has the air of having cast a benign gaze down on parochialisms of this sort (he’s six foot four) for a lifetime, rocks back in his armchair to laugh, answers questions with the relaxed skill of the bureaucrat he once was. In his wide-windowed, back-from-the-beach house, it seems churlish to probe. He’s agreed to be interviewed because after 31 years a new novel, The Family Man, is being published and we should really be talking about that. But I can’t help dragging him back to what seems a remarkable decision. There’s a sense, I suggest, of a writer finding he’d written himself back home to the seat he was sitting on. Finding the New Zealand out the window a restrictive subject.”
He studies the ceiling, remembering. “Yeah. I think that’s a fair observation. I would have continued as a writer if my circumstances had been different, and if I’d been out of New Zealand. If I could have got away.” To write about New Zealand? “To write about New Zealand.”
I’m to see Damien Wilkins next and so I ask him what he would say to a young writer with a good first novel under his belt and contemplating his future. There’s no hesitation. “Leave New Zealand as fast as you can.”

Damien Wilkins entered fiction, so to speak, in The God Boy, via the 1976 teleplay he had a part in. Wilkins was auditioned for the title role – “We were told Ian Cross was behind the one-way glass, watching” – but eventually played Jimmy Sullivan’s best friend Hector. “Who wasn’t actually in the book. I looked it up. There’s no Hector here? Oh, that’s nice, they made a part for me,” he wisecracks.
Now, at 29, Wilkins is approaching the point in his career where Cross, 33 years earlier, decided to abandon fiction. He’s been overseas, to London in the late 80s, where he was an editorial assistant at Roxby Press and, more recently, to Washington State University in St Louis on a two-year writing scholarship. There he attended the classes run by short-story writer and novelist Stanley Elkin. “I didn’t know the campus very well, I’d never seen Elkin before, didn’t know he was in a wheelchair. I was waiting around the room I thought the first class was going to be in and then this woman with white hair wheels this guy along and I think, that’s him. I said, ‘Oh. Professor Elkin?’ ‘Yeah,’ he sort of snarled, and I said, ‘Oh. I think I’m in the graduate writing programme – is this where it is?’ Elkin exploded. ‘I dunno! They tol’ me this was where, I dunno!’ He was in a bad mood because the toilets in this block were downstairs and he couldn’t get to them in his wheelchair, really angry. And I thought, how am I going to survive an hour with this man?”
Elkin turned out to be a wonderful teacher. The classes of five, all male, were held in a locker room – “Elkin was a real locker-room guy”– or at his home. “He taught fiction by indirect means, anecdotal. He’d read what you’d written and then tell stories, a very brilliant way of teaching which could only be done by him. He had the stories and he had that Jewish facility for narrative and funny stuff.”
It was on that course Wilkins began what became The Miserables, his first novel, whose central character is a New Zealander. “In his past he’s had a trip to America to do a thesis, which he doesn’t complete, comes back for his grandfather’s funeral and becomes a book review editor in Wellington.”
In 1957 Ian Cross simply posted his first novel direct to Harcourt Brace and had it accepted. These days you need an agent. Getting a good agent is as hard as getting a publisher, but Wilkins managed to get a very good one. The fiction editor of GQ liked one of Wilkins’ stories, and wrote him a letter of introduction to Candida Donadio.
“She was very intimidating to meet. I sat in her office, and you’re surrounded by the National Award plaques Thomas Pynchon didn’t pick up, and on her desk there’s a couple of copies of Mario Puzo’s new novel because she also represents him. I knew she was Gaddis’s agent, that she’d got Philip Roth his $250,000 back in 1969. She’s five-four or something, reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, this dark Italian hair, and a deep voice like a man, sits up in her chair and smokes with a dinner plate for her butts.”
Donadio must have liked his prospects to have bothered with him; it’s possible she also liked Wilkins himself. Elkin certainly did. Wilkins is a likeable man. With his faint pallor and the kind of ear for voices and stories that makes you want to keep him talking, he seems likely to make friends with interesting people wherever he goes.
Donadio and Elkin submitted The Miserables for one of the nine writers’ awards made annually by the Mrs Giles Whiting Foundation, and the novel was tried on various publishers.
American publishers were definitely interested, “but a couple of the rejection letters said there was a kind of weight of explanation that’d had to be put in for an American audience. Maybe I was over-explaining New Zealand and making it exotic in that strained way you sometimes feel writers do to their own country.”
And the story GQ was considering also ran into problems. “The fiction editor hit me with things like, ‘And what is this, the betting on the horses – the handicapping? We don’t have that in America, that’s gonna cause problems, I think.’”
But writing about New Zealand is what our writers want to do overseas. It’s a tradition that goes back through Shadbolt to Mansfield, and Wilkins is no exception,
saying he wouldn’t have written The Miserables if he’d stayed at home. “There’s a lot of thinking about New Zealand in the book; the sort of thinking that doesn’t get done while you’re here. It’s like Bill Manhire’s stories in The New Land – he said he couldn’t imagine writing them in New Zealand. That mixture of homesickness and distance, there’s a lot that you can only see clearly when you’re away.”
Back in New Zealand, the scholarship ended, Wilkins found it hard to wait while the novel was tried on other publishers. He forced himself to look for work. “I applied for a position writing ads for a real estate agency in Upper Hutt, didn’t even get an interview.” The QEII Arts Council turned down his application for a grant. Depressed and bored, “stale on prose”, he began writing parodies of local poets. The parodies turned to poems and in eight weeks he had a collection, which VUP snapped up. The Idles – 55 poems, 112 packed pages, in eight weeks!
“I remember, one night in a hotel, I was staying there alone, I wrote five poems,” he laughs. “I wrote them in the weirdest way, I had them all in my head. I was just lying there, it was about two in the morning, and I’d make them up: okay, that’s one – then I’d think of another one. Then I got up and wrote them down, on the little hotel pads, and that was five poems, in a sort of frenzy. They’re all in the book.”
The hotel was in New York, where unexpectedly Wilkins was making a flying visit. “What happened was, we were in bed at Waikanae, six in the morning, the phone rang. My wife answered, it was Dad: ‘They’re trying to reach Damien – good news from America.’ I thought maybe Candida found a publisher – but she’s got my home number. So I got up and washed my teeth. Then I saw myself in the bathroom mirror: What am I doing here? I thought it was all a dream, one of those silly moments, and I was on my way back to bed when Dad rang again: ‘Have they rung? Well, you’re to ring them then.’
“So I rang this New York number and immediately they said, ‘Did you make this collect? No, well the first thing you must do is send us the phone bill,’ and that’s when I knew it was good news.” He’d won one of the Whiting Awards, worth $US30,000.
The award produced an opening for Candida Donadio and quite shortly after Harcourt Brace offered a $US10,000 advance for The Miserables. It will be published in the US in November (and simultaneously here by VUP).
Gee, Frame, Mahy, Shadbolt and Stead, among others, have for a couple of decades published their books overseas before here, but in the last 12 months books by Lloyd Jones, Barbara Anderson and Peter Wells have sold later to British and US publishers: a new generation of writers is sending stories about us into the world.
It seems easier than it was in Cross’s time to write about this country, partly because television and film have dethroned the book as the primary carrier of national mythologies, and partly because the huge increase in the number of novels and stories published by New Zealand writers means that one book doesn’t have to strain to tell the whole story any more.
“I think that in a way our position with regard to, say, America or England gives us a leverage that Naipaul for example has used,” says Wilkins. “There’s a subject right there, and it’s perhaps not been exploited that much.”
Maybe we don’t always fully explore our condition. And if we aren’t always perfectly confident that the rest of the world will find us sufficiently interesting, then outgrowing these problems now seems only a matter of time, and not much of it.
But Cross’s other problem – money – still remains. With the exception of Mahy, our best writers – respected and widely read as they are – wouldn’t be able to live by their work without state funding.
State funding is a question which vexes both Wilkins and Cross. Cross has always opposed it, feeling that the arts is one area that should remain free from the influence of bureaucrats.
In his new novel, the family man of the title is a journalist who writes an article denouncing funding of this sort, only to toss it away when he realises that if he ever finishes the novel he’s also working on, a grant from this source will be just what he’s looking for.
Adapting Fairburn, he tells a poet, “But you don’t believe in artists taking handouts from the State. Only toadstools grow in the shade of a tree, remember?”
State influence doesn’t worry Wilkins – he thinks that no one in the bureaucracy reads carefully enough for it to matter. Both writers agree that until we have a bigger population, we have either funding or part-time writers only. Both would rather see such money as there is divided into a smaller number of bigger chunks, providing three to five years of support for a handful of the best.
When Cross was president of the writers’ organisation PEN he persuaded the Kirk government to create the Authors’ Fund, which compensates writers for sales lost as a result of their books being borrowed from libraries. Once a significant source of income, the huge increase in the number of writers and the way successive governments have shrunk the fund have since seen it reduced to something closer to a none-too-generous Christmas bonus.
Cross thinks the same principle as state funding should apply here too, with larger sums going to a smaller number of writers. But there are changes afoot in the library world: Wellington City Council, for example, is proposing that borrowers should pay an annual fee to borrow books. Will it pass any of this revenue back to the writers who earned it?
Earnings, mortgages, lifestyle, literature; it remains a delicate balance for our writers. Cross, who says that The God Boy still haunts him, seems nevertheless to have no regrets about having to postpone writing fiction until his retirement. When Wilkins is asked if it will it be possible for him to sustain an international career from here, this most clear-sighted of young men can only say, “I don’t know.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Eating media lunch

To luncheon at Ferrybank Reception Centre in Hamilton on, yes, the riverbank. Last time I was here was for Shirley Maddock’s memorial service nine years ago. Today is a happier occasion: Media Bites, part of this week’s exciting Spark International Festival of Media, Arts and Design. The late-winter sun is shining, the birds are singing, something is splashing in the river and I am only five minutes late despite Hamilton’s best endeavours to prevent me finding a carpark.

The organisers have hired Steve Braunias to greet people at the door. Excellent. Inside, I examine the seating plan for familiar names. I see Winston Peters, Garth George, Peter Bromhead, Nevil Gibson, Colin Hogg. This is beginning to look like a seminar for elderly retirees. Perhaps Winston is here under the impression that it is a Grey Power meeting. But no, I see some young people in the distance who must be Steve’s plucky journalism students from Wintec.

I find my table.

To my right is a nice young man called Richard Swainson, whose name and face I recognise from his weekly column in the Waikato Times. We chat away about the rigours of writing a weekly column in the best newspaper in the country. I know that he runs a DVD rental store of high repute, so I pretend I am still a journalist and grill him about the state of the DVD rental industry. He modestly does not tell me that he was the first person to be awarded a PhD in film studies from Waikuni.

To my left is a nice young woman called Lisa Lewis, whose name and face I recognise too. We chat away about our children and the rigours of choosing their names. I know that she is standing for the city council, so I pretend I am still a journalist and grill her about her policies. She modestly is reluctant to reveal much before campaigning proper begins in another 10 days or so, in case her opponents thereby obtain some advantage.

We eat media lunch.

Steve Braunias gets up and explains the curious mix of invitees: we are all people who make the news or are the news and it is foolish to suppose that one cannot be both. Hence the brilliant choice of guest speaker: Paul Holmes.

And then Holmes speaks for five hours. Now I understand what it must be like to live in Cuba. To save time and space I will give you the executive summary: “I did it my way.”

Later, those of us who are still alive mingle. I am delighted to see Joanna Wane and Virginia Larson of North & South with all their Auckland media gossip, and am glad to meet various local journalists. But OMG celebrity photographer Norrie Montgomery is useless. Like Holmes he doesn’t remember me so does not take a photo of me with Lisa, me with Richard, me with Winston, me with Paul, not even me with Steve. I would have settled for that.

Even sadder, there will be no photo of Lisa Lewis with Winston Peters. Talk about missed opportunities. Do these media people really understand their responsibility to posterity? Or to the election prospects of a rejuvenated NZ First?

UPDATE: For another view of this event, see Peter Bromhead’s column (not online) in the business section of today’s Herald. Yes, he was there too, along with Alan Crafar. Truly, a glittering occasion.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Look, I’m busy

As mentioned below I am writing a speech (paid) which has to be approved by a committee. Nearly done.

And I have to write an article (unpaid) on much the same subject due a day or so after I deliver the speech. Maybe I could just hand in the speech?

Lunch in Hamilton (unpaid) tomorrow with Steve Braunias and more than a hundred of his closest friends. Thrillingly, Paul Holmes is the speaker. My attendance depends upon neither of the children being sick tomorrow which was not the case today (the six-year-old is great company but I did have to watch a Barbie DVD and and Fantastic Mr Fox) and will almost certainly not be the case on Wednesday (the eight-year-old, so I will have to watch Mama Mia maybe twice but honestly there are worse things – the 13-year-old nephew plays guitar and skateboards so he listens to Green Day and watches Tony Hawk on YouTube so compared to his parents I have it easy).

Mentoring (paid) three writers via the NZ Society of Authors programme. Each of them is a good writer with a good project but you try keeping three manuscripts-in-progress in your head while working on other stuff. And watching Barbie DVDs.

Did I mention that the in-laws are coming to stay for the weekend (unpaid)?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Puppet show

More unbridled YouTube madness – yes, this is displacement activity. I am supposed to be writing a speech and then I have to write an 800-word magazine article. For free. On top of my day job of reading/editing manuscripts and wrangling small children. So, this:

Nina Conti is a ventriloquist of genius. No, really, she is fantastic and very funny. The grumpy monkey is a great character (“My heart’s not in this”, “It’s not my fault I sound like Sean Connery” etc) – and the last bit, three minutes in, with him singing is unbelievable. There is an interview with her here.

Werner Herzog reads Madeline

OK, it’s not really Werner Herzog. But this is how one imagines he would do it. For the frame above, he says in a sinister German accent:
Ze smallest girl vos Madeline. Looking every bit ze Napoleon, ze dictator, she is introduced in her underwear, as a nod to French sensibilities.
There are more videos along these lines at the usual place.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New Zealand fiction: the sequel

A while back I queried Listener book guy Guy Somerset’s statistics on sales of New Zealand fiction. It just looked odd to me that only 6.1% of NZ-published books that we bought were fiction, when overall 25% of the books we bought were fiction. Plus the book trade is insanely complicated, and what we see in bookshops is just a fraction of what is actually published. So, I asked the question. And I’m glad I did – I don’t mind asking a dumb question if the answer sheds light.

I know this defies all the rules about blogging, which essentially entails hysterical responses to stuff in the MSM, but I have talked with/emailed two publishers, a bookseller and a stats person from the industry. And Guy’s figures are right. So why the discrepancy between NZ fiction sales and total fiction sales?

Two words: Dan Brown.

Not Dan Brown alone, but he is emblematic. JK Rowling, Lee Child, Paullina Simons, Stephenie Meyer – that is the fiction that sells here in vast quantities. So of course overseas fiction has a bigger share of the total market than NZ fiction does of the local (i.e. locally published) market. D’oh.

But I mean, 6.1%? That is tragic. I suppose what surprises me is that no one has pointed this out before, at least that I know of. People in the book trade know it – and it makes me admire even more the independent booksellers such as Unity Books that devote a disproportionate amount of shelf-space to NZ fiction.

What I find depressing is that I have spent a lot of time in recent years on committees deliberating on fellowships, awards, grants and competitions, not to mention my professional work assessing and editing manuscripts – that is, general support of fiction writing. And now I honestly do not know if it hasn’t all been a waste of time. What is the point of funding New Zealand literature if New Zealanders have so little interest in it?

On the other hand, maybe this is precisely why we should be funding it.

I invent a new word

Neologising is good. I was hastily emailing someone whom I thought would have access to Waikato University’s library, specifically the journal Philosophy of the Social Sciences, volume 25, issue 1, March 1995. I wrote:
The article in it that I want, as recommended to me by All-Embracing But Underwhelming, is online but I have to pay $US25 to read it and fuck that, frankly.

I am not at all sure that Waikuni even has a philosophy department but you never know.
Waikuni. I cannot believe that no one thought of that before.

What I’m reading

Endless fun at What the Fuck is My Social Media “Strategy”?. Just keep clicking on “I’ve already fucking used that one”. Amusing links, too.

It was inspired by this unusual recipe-finder. Which does work.

Monitor: Kottke.org

Barbara Else on E. Annie Proulx

The 18th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the May 1996 issue.

The intro read:
Write only about what you know, aspiring writers are told. “Nonsense,” says E Annie Proulx. Barbara Else talks to the author of The Shipping News about fame, craft and accordions.
This interview was the last for E Annie Proulx in a long day of media events in Wellington before the beginning of Writers and Readers Week in March. She has a reputation for not suffering fools gladly; I was wary. In fact, she couldn’t have been more agreeable.
Proulx certainly runs the show as far as her writing is concerned. Her novels are carefully planned beforehand, and nothing is allowed to interfere.
Writers of fiction range from the purely intuitive to the utterly logical. The difference between the two showed at a Writers and Readers Week session on “Real Characters”. Of the panel of four writers, Keri Hulme said she had a character she’d been trying to kill off for two years but he refused to go. Proulx leaned across the table. “Give him to me for the weekend,” she said.
The audience had no doubts. Were you one of her characters, you’d do exactly as you were told.
She became a full-time writer of fiction after 19 years as a journalist. Her fascination with research, her meticulous organisation, must come from that background, as must her interest in the wide-ranging material she uses in her fiction.
Proulx is one of those rarities, a writer of literary fiction who also appears on bestseller lists. The short stories in her first book, Heart Songs, were written during the journalist years. Its successor, Postcards, was the first novel written by a woman to win the PEN/Faulkner Award. The Shipping News, published in the UK in 1993, has won an extraordinary string of prizes, including the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Knowing she has been interviewed for four years about The Shipping News, I said she must be sick to death of it. She smiled in grim agreement. However, in order to uncover how Proulx operates as a writer, the book had to be mentioned.
When did she realise The Shipping News was going to be the phenomenal publishing event it’s proved to be and how has success affected her?
“It took me by surprise, but I tried to ignore it,” she said in her low strong voice. “I’m not here to be a celebrity. I’m here to work on my books. Every book is bound to be different, so you can’t let the success of one affect you.”
She has seen too many other writers badly affected by fame. Some freeze up, too frightened to write anything else. Others become unbearably full of themselves. Proulx just wants to get on with the next book, then the next.
Her third novel, Accordion Crimes, is due out mid-year. It begins in Sicily in 1890 and follows a large cast of characters, through many different locales, up to the present day. The accordion of the title is passed from owner to owner, moving from New Orleans to Texas, Montana, Maine, among descendants of Mexicans, Poles, Germans, Irish-Scots and Franco-Canadians.
She has no personal favourites among the characters or settings, she says – they are all there to serve the story, which is always her main interest.
Proulx is confident that Accordion Crimes will stand on its own; she doesn’t feel The Shipping News is a hard act to follow.
The Shipping News was all finished for me when it went to publication. Each new book should be a development from the previous work.”
Elements of The Shipping News that continue to capture readers are the strong sense of place and the central character of Quoyle. In Accordion Crimes, particular features that the publishers think will capture the reader are the wide variety of characters and settings.
The main character is the accordion itself. This, for Proulx, was the trigger for the entire story. It becomes a symbol of lower-class immigration to America; it carries the music and folk songs of many different cultures and is appreciated or despised depending on an individual’s attitude to their ethnic roots.
I commented that it was brave to use an inanimate object as a main character. With a mischievous, knowing smile, Proulx said, “Accordions breathe.”
Accordion Crimes uses several techniques different from her earlier work. One is the flash forwards. Proulx said she couldn’t think of any other writer who had used it as she has done. I asked if the device was to keep the reader interested in a long involved story. She laughed. “More to keep me interested!”
She also uses a very different style in Accordion Crimes from the clipped sentences of The Shipping News. The language is ornate, with a more complicated sentence structure. When Proulx, at the opening of Writers and Readers Week, read a description of the accordion and its first Sicilian owner, the audience reacted well to the more elaborate style, the details, the quiet humour in the passage.
Many writers during a first or even second draft feel the writing process is a journey with no clear end in sight. Not for Proulx, who is confident about her work from the moment she starts writing. In fact, she writes the endings first to make sure the story keeps direction and focus.
The end may change in detail as she works towards it, but those initial, often sketchy, paragraphs keep everything on track. The thought of characters misbehaving as Hulme’s recalcitrant described above makes Proulx’s eyebrows knit in astonished disapproval: “My characters are firmly harnessed to the story from the start.”
In crafting the story, rather than thinking of it as going through different drafts, Proulx concentrates on searching for the exact details that will bring it to life. She loves to cut, to trim down. She will spend an hour searching for the one significant word, one loaded sentence, that will do the work of many. “I feel the weight of words,” she says. She also likens the writing process to darning or needlepoint, crafting the smallest details.
She has written more often about men than women, though when her stories need strong women characters she provides them, as in the aunt and Beety in The Shipping News.
Coming from a family of five daughters, she sees men as mysterious people: that may be one reason she writes about them. The main reason, though, is that much of the world, even these days, is still inhabited largely by men. Various trades and occupations remain as male preserves. It’s in these so far that Proulx has seen the most intriguing stories to be told.
She constantly collects material for future books and has shelves at home set aside for this. Showing for once an overtly intuitive side to her writing nature, she is reluctant to talk about those next books. “You can’t talk about a novel too soon or it will disappear. You have to approach a novel sideways, sneak up on it.” Having lived off the land for a period in her youth, she knows what she’s talking about. As she showed in Postcards, Proulx can set a trap-line.
Writing is a solitary, sedentary business and Proulx welcomes the daily isolation. “Why would you want to talk about your work with anyone else?” However, she enjoys seeing friends in the evenings and at weekends.
She appreciates meeting other writers at events like arts festivals, but her close friends tend not to be writers. After all, she knows how to write. “Farmers, fishermen, teachers, ski-bums, they’re more interesting. Give me a plumber any day.”
She enjoys gardening, but the climate dictates against it for most of the year in the Medicine Bow Mountains, Wyoming, where she lives. For relaxation and exercise, she skis, canoes, hikes or goes mountain biking.
What of the other common occupation among writers, reading reviews? She doesn’t read her own. “The book is finished, so a review cannot be useful to you,” she says - though she does admit she wanted to read the first review of The Shipping News published in a Newfoundland paper. The locals can be tough on outsiders who write about them. “Proulx got it right,” said the review, and she was satisfied.
She has made it her business to find out all she can about the publishing process and is amazed how many writers seem to feel that knowing anything about the practical side of publishing somehow detracts from pure art. Though she could clearly manage her own negotiations, she is equally astonished at writers who say they don’t need an agent. “An agent has special talents, they know the traps. Of course I use an agent.”
According to Proulx, the worst advice anyone can give a writer is to write only about what you know. “Nonsense,” she says. “If a writer doesn’t know something, that is the best reason to write about it, to discover it. No door should be closed to a writer.”
None could long stay closed to her, I think.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I’ll sue you

Followers of Australian politics will know that Alexander Downer has been quoted as alleging (which he has since denied) that when in Opposition, former PM Kevin Rudd would be given ammunition with which to destabilise his own party’s Foreign Affairs spokesman Laurie Brereton because he wanted the job. Downer is further quoted as saying (which he doesn’t deny):
I don't use the c-word, but I do use the f-word pretty freely, and I can tell you that Kevin Rudd is a f***ing awful person.
Rudd’s response has been to “refute” the allegation, i.e. to deny it, and to threaten to “take legal action for defamation”.

Ah, this takes me back. When I was at Metro – this was the late 80s, early 90s – in the days when there was a lot of writ-wrangling, we got a lot of calls from people threatening to take legal action for defamation. They were always put through to me, because then editor Warwick Roger wouldn’t take calls. I was deputy editor, and I would take calls. It was most instructive.

Basically, people rang because they were unhappy with something we had published, perhaps in the Ferret. I would talk calmly and politely to them and explain the law. They would demand an apology and a retraction in the next issue. I would say no, that there had been no libel, and would suggest that they talk to their solicitor who would give them exactly the same legal advice but would charge heaps for what I had just told them for free. We would never hear from them again.

The thing is, when we did get sued – and we did (you have no idea how much a libel writ for $1 million concentrates the mind, but I have because I received one) – we never got a threatening phone call in advance. We just got a writ.

In June 1993 I published the first issue of the magazine this blog is based on. A couple of days after publication date I received a phone call from someone mentioned on pages 14-16 in a story by Keith Stewart. She was unhappy and threatened to take legal action for defamation. I talked calmly and politely to her and explained the law. She demanded an apology and a retraction in the next issue. I said no, that there had been no libel, and suggested that she talk to her solicitor who would give her exactly the same legal advice but would charge heaps for what I had just told her for free. I never heard from her again.

So I will be very interested to see if Kevin Rudd follows through on his threat to sue. Doubt it. Sounds like bluster, buster.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Induced calving on dairy farms

Home Paddock, as always, talks sense. She is both a farmer and a proper journalist, so her post on TV One’s lead news story on Sunday night is informed and informative, and there is a vigorous discussion in the comments.

Highly recommended.

UPDATE: more substance from Home Paddock on this non-issue here.

Australian politics

I love Australian elections, especially when I can be there on the night. And Australian politics in general is so much more entertaining than ours, with the all-too-rare exception of a Chris Carter. It is so much nastier, so much more personal, bigger in every way. And the factions! So I was interested to read Caroline Overington’s review in the Spectator of Betrayal: the Underbelly of Australian Labor by Simon Benson. It is a corker. Money quote:
It’s all very bleak and grubby, but the true value of the book is the exploration of how power in NSW is a function of deals done in the backrooms; of men and women of limited talent and less honour swapping seats between each other, and giving others away to friends; putting other mates on boards, at the taxpayer’s expense; rooting each other for a while, and then rooting somebody else. There is a great deal in the book about personal relationships between the main players — where they all met, when and where they’d drink together, and who went out with who, and so forth — and it’s therefore clear that Benson has had to spend a great deal of time with the people who currently are in power in Australia’s most populous state, which makes you think: you poor bastard.
For more up-to-date background on the election, here is a Sydney Morning Herald story about NSW Labor senator Mark Arbib. Money quote:
Here is how one insider ticks off the record: “He has engineered Beazley’s demise, Rudd’s ascension, Rudd’s victory, Rudd’s demise, Gillard’s ascension. He’s always going to be the bloke who is bringing down a leader or making a leader.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What I’m reading

1. The new Lloyd Jones novel, Hand Me Down World, which will be published in November. It is brilliant.

2. The Sunday Star-Times story on happiness and how to get there. It is good, and so is this interview at the excellent Five Books with Jonathan Haidt on the same subject.

3. On the other hand, the SST’s foreign coverage – the equivalent of one full page, must have been done on Friday. The lead story is about Chelsea Clinton’s wedding – does anyone in New Zealand really care? – and there is a much smaller story about the Australian election campaign saying that Labor and the Coalition are level-pegging. Wrong. The latest Herald/Nielsen poll came out on Saturday with the Coalition on 52% on two-party-preferred basis and Labor on 48%:
This represents a 6 percentage point two-party swing against the government since the last Herald poll a week ago, and a 4.7 point two-party swing against the government since the last election.
The weird thing is that the SST is published by Fairfax, which publishes the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, but the SST story was from the Guardian. Yes, the one in England. You’d think Fairfax’s New Zealand staff would occasionally glance at Fairfax’s Australian papers.

4. BK Drinkwater is back blogging. Good.

5. And so is Chris Bourke. At least, that’s what he promises.

6. The Fundy Post is in fine form here.

7. Home Paddock has a crack at Andrew Little and his hat collection.

8. The Periodic Table of Swearing. Click on the image to enlarge to a readable size.

9. Some words I didn’t know (everything apart from philtrum, to be honest), some of them useful. I am glad to make the acquaintance of glabella.

10. Christina Lau at Princeton University Press describes the development of the book cover for Australian economist John Quiggin’s new book Zombie Economics: how dead ideas still walk among us. (Via Crooked Timber.)

11. Finally, Chad Taylor has a fascinating post about Brian Clemens, the writer behind The Avengers – you know, Steed, Mrs Peel, Honor Blackman. I haven’t seen his Hammer Horror movie Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde (Chad calls it “pleasantly disquieting”) but now I really want to.

Sentence of the day

From Dim-Post on the glory that is Chris Carter:
Also, if Carter’s partner steps down as Te Atatu electorate chairman the headline should be ‘Kaiser abdicates’.