Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ian Wishart sentence of the day

From this report on Stuff about his book telling Macsyna King’s side of the Kahui twins case:
She did not trust journalists but wanted to tell her story, he said.
So that settles the question whether Wishart considers himself a journalist.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Fancy a shag?

Photo by Glen Webber

I bet Albert the Albatross does. Amid all the fuss about Happy Feet, the Emperor Penguin who “who took a wrong turn and ended up on a New Zealand beach”, the Spectator (25 June issue) reminds us of the plight of Albert “who arrived in the Firth of Forth in 1967 and has spent 40 years trying to mate with gannets. The nearest female albatross is in the South Atlantic.” The Firth of Forth is in Scotland. The South Atlantic isn’t.

Happily, Happy Feet has survived his or her (Stuff is coy about the bird’s gender and, frankly, who among us would be confident about sexing a penguin? It’s hard enough with young people these days) operations to remove sand from his or her innards.

Possibly the best bit of the story is that Happy Feet needs a permit to return home. Yes, even an emperor penguin needs paperwork. He or she is just like a penguin in bondage. So here is Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in Stockholm on 21 August 1973 performing “Penguin in Bondage”:

The band was George Duke on keyboards, Ralph Humphrey on drums, Ruth Underwood on percussion (tragically we can only glimpse her), Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, Tom Fowler on bass, Bruce Fowler on trombone and Ian Underwood (beardy guy on the left: there would have been no Hots Rats without him) on sax. 

Once, when I was a small boy, in 1960 or so, I escaped my parents, big sister and cousins and ran down the beach at Papamoa and found a dead penguin. I buried it in the sand. I suppose it was a harbinger of global warming or something. Or of Happy Feet.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Denis Edwards on Jeffrey Archer


The 33rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the August 1996 issue. I have a guilty feeling that it might have been me who prompted Denis to ask the £10 million question. That’s one good thing about being an editor: getting people braver than oneself to ask the hard ones. I still think that Archer told L├╝genspiele.

The intro read:
In the blue corner: Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, better known as Jeffrey Archer, squillionaire author of bestsellers like Kane And Abel and now The Fourth Estate. Facing him, Denis Edwards, bracing himself to ask the £10 million question, “Who writes your books, Jeff?”
PEER PRESSURE
Interviewing overseas authors and hoping the interview will produce real insights tends to be a waste of time. Any writer successful enough to have publishers – who are notori­ously stingy – paying to fly them around the world will have many hours of
meeting the press behind them. This means they arrive equipped with a stock of “good for all seasons” quotes. Should those fail to fend off probes, they can always switch back to the book, and the safety of talking about the agony of the creative process and world-wide trends in their particular genre.
It’s usually enough to keep awkward issues safely distant until the publicist eases into the interview, murmuring and looking at her watch. “Her” because they are inevitably female and usually extraordinarily attractive. They are signalling that it’s time the journalist gathered up the tape recorder and notebook, shook hands all round and cleared off so the next interview can begin.
The reporter is left to trudge away with just the press-kit material and a few well-washed quotes with which to fill the space between the ads, under the headline and around the photo. All too often that means glumly rewriting the press kit, with its party line of this being a wonderful book and the author a fine and talented human being. What’s missing is the interesting material, the unexplored dimensions of the writer – as in, what are they really like?
This time was different. Jeffrey Archer put it all on display, but not straight away. It all began with the standard author-tour patter, carefully controlled and cheerful.
Archer was effusive and exuded an air of mischievous roguery, full of the “how far can we push things and still get away with it?” panache which once let the Oxford-Cambridge crowd colonise half the world. This was in the suites at Auckland’s Sheraton Towers hotel, where he was getting his shoulder in behind his latest, The Fourth Estate, which he describes as a “novelography” of Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell’s political and financial brawls.
The odds are the book won’t need much pushing. Archer is a success. His 10 books have sold 100 million copies. HarperCollins is confident of his ability to score again, to the point of printing a massive 300,000 copies just for the UK, New Zealand and Australian markets alone.
Archer’s sales have left him with the sort of wealth to make stories like this one credible: “Do you earn £10,000?” he was asked, when applying for a small credit facility – and he is reputed to have replied, “Some days I do, and some days I don’t.”
Behind life as a bestseller is his career in public life, one he holds near and dear and which saw him rise to the inner circles of the Conservative Party, and which led directly to his well-publicised courtroom fights: libel cases, suing newspapers after allegations about his sex life and his investment strategy.
He learned when and how to dodge the bullets, and when to fight back. All this has earned him a seat in the House of Lords as Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, “the only seaside peer on which Danny La Rue has not yet performed”, according to Ned Sherrin. There is also a thoroughly deserved reputation for being tough, even knifingly vicious, with interviewers – his Kim Hill interview is a local broadcasting legend (see Kim Hill, Bookseller, December 1994, and accompanying letter).
With all that lurking in his character, it was just a question of tine before the range of Archer personalities was revealed – the Writer of integrity, the faux bonhomie of the Politician, and the Killer with a fine sense for the jugular.
The moment is a quarter of an hour into the interview and is triggered by a mild query about the often-aired allegation that Archer is given to contracting out the hard graft of the book writing to hired hands.
“Who said that?” The cheery amiability has gone, replaced with the fast hard tones of the man who fought with Hill.
“I heard it first on the BBC World Service, and they were quoting someone else, so it isn’t exactly fresh, but the story is in play. Is there anything in it?”
“No there isn’t!” he snaps. Then the sides of his personality spin past. The Writer is pointing out, reasonably enough, that the contracting-out idea is plain stupid. “Why would you take £250,000 to write my book, which might make me £10 million? If you could do it, surely you’d do it for yourself? Isn’t that the answer to that question?”
It is. At the same time his voice deepens and strengthens. The Politician has taken over. He has moved physically close, taking over the space between us. Even though he is shorter and less physically strong, he has become the dominant force in the interaction.
He has approached from the side. Front-on is too aggressive and too primal, guaranteed to spark anger and defensiveness. Archer the Politician would not want either of those in the game. They are too difficult to control.
He is snapping his fingers and saying he has kept all 19 drafts of The Fourth Estate. If anyone goes public with an allegation that he hired a writer, he would “sue the same day, and I got half a million from the Daily Star in a libel action, and I would take those drafts as evidence into court with me”.
By now he is right alongside me, urgent and tense, commanding and dangerous. In a perfect world, journalistic training would click in and it would become a battle as I dug in, to fight and persist. Alas, I didn’t. Archer’s mix of personas – Writer, Politician and then Threatening Litigant – struck so quickly and so skilfully that it was impossible to resist giving him what he wanted, shifting the conversation onto less controversial ground.
When he has what he wants, he completes the rout with a reward, instantly re-warming the atmosphere with a purring bonhomie that flows out to every corner of the room.

Archer writes by hand. “Don’t like word proces­sors. Hate them. Wouldn’t have one. You can keep them.” When it’s time to begin a book – he writes one every two years, in a ratio of two novels to a collection of short stories – he sticks to a regime of rising at five and scratching away with a felt-tipped pen from six until eight, from 10 to noon, from two to four and from six to eight. Start and finish times at each session are controlled by an egg-timer.
He credits his early years in track and field with giving him the resources to accept and maintain that disciplined regime: “When I stopped as a runner I never thought the discipline and the competitive sense, the internal one, would be of any use again. But it has turned out to be one of the things which has made me a successful writer.”
He isn’t one to lock himself away in any old rat-ridden garret. When the Muse summons him Archer takes her, himself, his wife Mary, a typist and a cook to a villa overlooking the Mediterranean on an island off Spain. He also takes 60 or so felt-tipped pens, paper and the egg-timer.
Six weeks later he has a first draft, which will be worked over and over again, until he has been through those 19 drafts and can hand the final version over to the publisher.
He has never had a publisher ringing up asking if the book will be on time or whether he needs any help. “I don’t need it. They know I am driven and that I will keep going until the book is finished. They also know I am fanatical about quality, because there are authors out there who have had hits and whose work fell off, and they can’t get published now. If there is a fear that is it, that I won’t be able to deliver the goods, that the readers will sense I am losing my touch and they’ll stop buying. When that happens you’re finished, and it doesn’t matter how many successes you have had.”
That writing career, with its books, money, film deals and power – and driving sense of insecurity – began in a strange way. It was a form of exorcism and therapy, one he used to distract himself from impending ruin. “I was in the House of Commons, after being on the Greater London Council. I love public life and I was determined to stay in it. Money has never been an issue with me. I always knew I could make money, so that wasn’t the driving force. Public life is.”
He had invested heavily in a Canadian company which folded and saw three of its principals jailed for fraud. Archer was left with debts of over $NZ1 million, and came within hours of being bankrupted, which would have ended any question of staying in politics. “There is this great myth,” he says, “that I started writing to make money and pay off my creditors. That’s ridiculous. No one can do that. No one. God knows I couldn’t. The manuscript was turned down by 17 publishers! I have met a lot of people who are writing their books. All of them are doing it to get published, certainly not in anticipation of making millions.
“I started writing as a way of keeping myself working. That’s the truth of it. I did have an advantage in my being a raconteur and a storyteller, which made up for my not having, and still not having, the slightest idea of dramatic structure. I work one line at a tine, without knowing what is going to be in the next paragraph, and reach the end of the page without knowing what is going to be in the next chapter. That way I can keep the reader guessing too, because if I had worked it out beforehand I would instinctively have put something in at the start, perhaps even one sentence, which would let a reader say ‘Ha, I knew what was going to happen!’ You can’t have that if you want to keep people coming back.”
When Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less finally connected it was a hit, selling all over the world, and being aired on both BBC radio and television. The third book, Kane And Abel, was the one which set him up for life. The Coronet edition alone sold 3.2 million copies, with the film rights going for $US2.3 million. “That was the end of the debts,” he says. “It made me a millionaire overnight, all from writing.”
Archer is famed for being an assiduous promoter of his books, down to stopping cars on country roads so he can dash into a shop and browbeat the bookseller into moving the Archer stock into the window display. “Nothing wrong with that at all. I love it. I want to be read. It’s what I do. I would get thoroughly bored sitting in the Bahamas all year drinking pina coladas. I would get bored after one week!”
His selling extends to his being a legendary hand at a book signing. When he gets a following wind behind him, he can do 500 in an hour. At that rate, a valuable Jeffrey Archer first edition will be one without his signature in it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Persuasively written

Academic quote of the week, from Alexander Vasudevan, a lecturer in “cultural and historical geography” in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. He blogs:
[. . . ] we are left in a general state of obstructed agency (see Sianne Ngai’s  fantastic Ugly Feelings) and have become increasingly tethered to a form  of sociality shaped by a congerie of negative affects (fear, paranoia,  anxiety, envy).  As Lauren Berlant has persuasively written, it is the  supine affective charge of aspirational normativity with its  increasingly  “recessive” and “underperformative” modes of being that have come to  characterize our current age of austerity.  
I hope to have more to say about the assembling and composition of alternative subjectivites in a future post.
Can’t wait for that one.


Feeding children

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the more effort one puts into preparing dinner for one’s children, the more likely they are to say “Yuck.” And because I make every dinner for them from scratch, five nights a week, I am almost used to it.

Last night I txtd my wife who was in Oz, “Making elaborate dinner for [Seven] and [Nine]. Already cross at their rejection, due in 15 min.”
 
She thought I was joking. Like hell I was. And guess what. . .

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What I’m reading

Honest, there will be more original Quote Unquote material soon, possibly Maurice Gee-related –  I’m just waiting on a friend. Specifically, a photographer who says she will send a high-quality usable image rather than me scanning as usual from the magazine. In the meantime:

As ever the best stuff about Christchurch is on Stuff, for example this, but Philip Mathews is essential viewing. Here is his latest.

Question: How many hours a day should a musician practice?
Answer: Heaps, but only if you’re doing it right.

Possibly the funniest Allypost ever. Seriously. Her mini-playlet about the New Zealand Battle Tractor is super-mega-uber-brilliant.

Danyl at Dim-Post is back to being satirical. Yay. I don’t have a kuri in this race (apart from siding with Ngaiterangi vs Ngapuhi because I am from Tauranga and let’s not pretend we don’t all have long memories) but Danyl nails what needs to be nailed.

David Lynch’s hair in art, the Hokusai especially.

A nice brief piece from Mick Hartley about the late great James Carr with a YouTube clip of “You Got My Mind Messed Up” – if you are at all interested in soul music, click on through. This is the real deal.

Paul Litterick is excited about some recent writing by buildings. I am not so sure. Beware what you wish for, etc. Here is Ry Cooder in 1974 with “If Walls Could Talk”. Thank god they can’t. The band is Jim Keltner on drums; Milt Holland on percussion; Russ Titelman on bass; Bobby King, Cliff Givens and Gene Mumford on vocals. Rhythm section heaven. Black-guy vocal section heaven. And, because this is Ry Cooder, guitar heaven  

Friday, June 17, 2011

Something for the weekend

Stuff quotes from Cameron Slater aka WhaleOil:
“I have decided to withld the vast bulk of matel that I found, because I absolutely agree that as the law stands, everyy New Zealanr should be free to conibute to politl pares witht fear of their name being made public,” he said.
Possibly Fairfax’s Australian subs are being ironic or subversive or something, but this is not what Mr Oil actually said. His blog text was this:
I have decided to withhold the vast bulk of material that I found, because I absolutely agree that as the law stands,  everyday New Zealanders should be free to contribute to political parties without fear of their name being made public.
Can’t the Stuff people even do a simple cut and paste? Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V – it’s not hard. I did it for free just now, so why can’t they do it when they’re paid to? (UPDATE: They have fixed it now.)

The admirably acerbic David Thomson rips into a Guardian piece claiming that all pop music is cowed and moribund because there aren’t enough grants to go around. This is from England so it is all to do with class. Thompson rather sticks it to Jarvis Cocker. Billy Bragg gets his in the comments which, as always, are worth reading.

It’s official: my brother-in-law is insane.

A book I’d like to read: Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland by David Rose is a collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books. One example: 
The finest mind in the academic world conceived this ad, but it was his secretary who took two and a half hours out of her day to collate his angst-ridden ramblings, phone the LRB and pay for it with her own money.  He’s basically looking for an affair with a twenty-something idiot tart who needs good grades.  I’m looking for a better job, a decent pension package, and a man to 50 who’s great in bed and doesn’t make condescending comments about every damn book I read.  Man, 57.  Or his secretary, 43.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Christchurch sentence of the day

Doesn’t say it all, but says a lot. From Marc Greenhill’s report on Stuff:
In Burwood, one Brooker Ave resident, who was too upset to speak, was trying to clean silt out of his lounge from the 1pm quake when the second one struck.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What I’m reading

Paul Litterick at the Fundy Post on taniwhas, Queer the Night and “heterosexual and cissexist norms”. I have no idea what the latter are and can’t be bothered googling them but Paul’s account is very entertaining. Money par:
Anyway, as things turned out, everyone but the trolls had a good time at Queer the Night, while the iwi rushed in to assure everyone that the taniwha was a metaphor, thus saving the trolls the discomfort and contortions of attacking pakeha media for mocking indigenous beliefs which the trolls themselves could not possibly hold, whilst at the same time trying to remember where the macrons go. But tomorrow is another day, with new opportunities to be offended on Internet.
Ally Mullord has some more wieners of the week. Sad US congressman Anthony Weiner was a gift, wasn’t he, but she has found some more. Money par:
Escalator Huffers. This is my name for people who charge up escalators as though they’re climbing Mt Everest and, because it is often difficult to overtake on an escalator, reach the step behind you and stand there huffing angrily because you’re not plowing up the escalator like you’re a bison in heat and there is an attractive lady bison standing at the top fluttering her bison eyelashes at you.
A really nice story about Bob Dylan being really nice in 1969. I know, we are all Bobbed out with him turning 70 and all, but this is – how can I say? – really nice. Plus, if you click on the link you are stealing from Rupert Murdoch. So you will.

Laughy Kate transcribes a brief conversation overheard in her office. NSFW. Money line is #4 but I couldn’t possibly quote it here.

Tim Worstall on the bollocks that is talked about the economic damage caused by internet piracy. The post is brief but the comments are substantial. Money par:
Do not, ever, believe the numbers you are given for the costs of copyright breaches. They’re all, sadly, lies.

Even deeper embarrassment

Stuff reports on Whale Oil’s threatened release of material identifying donors to the Labour Party:
There was deep embarrassment within Labour Party circles this morning over the breach, which could prove compromising to some of its donors, particularly any public servants or others in sensitive positions who have supported Labour’s “stop asset sales” and other campaigns.
However there was even deeper embarrassment within the VRWC, when Mr Oil outed Cactus Kate as one of the donors. She admits to her shame  here and, believe it or not, proposes donating even more.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Five books good, three books bad


Or not. It’s the NZ Post Book awards shortlist great debate again. To recap: two categories, general non-fiction and illustrated non-fiction, have five titles on their shortlists. Fiction and poetry have only three on theirs.

In today’s Sunday Star-Times books editor Mark Broatch writes that media coverage of the shortlists has seen:
General quiet clapping, which is quite appropriate, though understandable grumbles about having only three fiction finalists . . .
Understandable? Why?

At O Audacious Book, novelist Mary McCallum writes that:
there’s a groundswell of dissatisfaction about the list of only three books for both the fiction and poetry awards. Five, why can’t there be five? That way more books would get their time in the sun . . .
Mary’s evidence of a groundswell of dissatisfaction is a link former publisher Graham Beattie’s blog, where he writes:
I do however feel especially sorry for this panel having had their fiction and poetry short-lists confined to three titles [ . . . ] Let me say again – two non-fiction categories with five short-listed titles in each category, fiction and poetry short-lists confined to three titles each. Where is the fairness or logic in that?
I think that all three are completely wrong about this, for three reasons: proportionality, sales and ageism.

1. Proportionality
I don’t know about this year’s entries but they won’t be too different from last year’s, when I was a judge. In 2010 there was a total of 178 entries: 25 poetry, 26 fiction, 46 illustrative non-fiction and 71 general non-fiction.

For each category, here is the (rounded) percentage of eligible titles that were shortlisted:
Poetry: 12%
Fiction: 12%
General non-fiction: 11%
Illustrated non-fiction: 7%
So you can see that fiction is not disadvantaged at all by the new system. If anything, illustrated non-fiction is the loser here. If anyone wants to argue that fiction should be over-represented with 19% of its entries shortlisted, they should make the case. 

2. Sales
The numbers of entries in each category for the 2010 awards reflect what is published in New Zealand and what is stocked in bookshops. Because, like it or not, this is what people read. Publishers publish what readers read. Last year there were 117 non-fiction titles entered and 26 fiction: we buy and read massively more non-fiction than we do fiction. (I can’t explain the high number of poetry books published, other than insane optimism on the part of publishers and, let’s face it, subsidies. I am the only person I know who doesn’t write poetry but buys it.)

Booksellers know about this – they see it every day. I have talked to several, both chain and independent, over the last few years and all agree that  the shortlist has no effect on sales. Zero, zip, nada. Winning the award can make a huge difference but being shortlisted doesn’t – and more titles there are on the shortlist, the less being shortlisted means. Our local independent bookseller says that this year’s shortlist has made no difference in any category. He’s really good with his customers, knows most of them, and says that not one has come in to ask about any shortlisted book. Of the fiction shortlist, he bought two copies of one last year and still has both.

3. Ageism
No author or publisher would admit this, but the shortlist is old. These books are all from 2010, so some would have been published in February or March, so well over a year ago. Each one has had what Mary McCallum calls its “time in the sun” and if we didn’t buy it then, we are not likely to now. If it wins, maybe. But we are halfway through 2011 so we have all been bombarded with information about this year’s new books and no doubt bought some. Last year’s books are, somehow, so last year.

I really can’t see that a longer shortlist would change any of this.


UPDATE
There’s a thoughtful response to the above at Vicbooks, the excellent blog of the Victoria University Bookshop. 

When two tribes go to war

Michael Field in the Sunday Star-Times today:
Fiji and Tonga warships have confronted each other in an escalating quarrel over two lonely reefs 1500km north of Auckland.
Jorge Luis Borges in Time, 1982:
The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Picture editor of the year

It’s only June, but the award has to go to whoever does this at the Economist. Like the Atlantic, its only rival I know of in this underrated area of magazine publishing, the Economist doesn’t use a lot of photos but the ones it does use are excellent.

Last week’s issue had an editorial on the corruption within FIFA and Sepp Blatter’s somewhat inadequate response to outsiders’ expressions of disquiet. The first paragraph is:
Whether he possesses a bottomless capacity for self-delusion or simply breathtaking cynicism, Sepp Blatter’s performance at a press conference earlier this week was beyond parody. Asked whether recent corruption allegations meant that the governing body of the world’s most popular game was in crisis, the Swiss 75-year-old president of FIFA, replied: “What is a crisis? Football is not in a crisis. We have just seen a beautiful Champions League final with Barcelona, with fair play. We are only in some difficulties. And they will be solved inside our family.” Mr Blatter’s attempt to link the sublime skills of the European champions with the moral squalor of the outfit he has run for the past 13 years was true to form. His uncontested re-election (after the removal of his only rival, Qatar’s Mohamed Bin Hammam, amid bribery charges) a couple of days later for a fourth four-year term was depressing for anyone who cares about the “beautiful game”.
The rest is here. The point is, as Cactus Kate might say, troughing.

And this is the picture that illustrated the editorial:
 

Mark Amery on Elizabeth Knox

The 32nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine – I hope to resume normal service soon –  is from the September 1996 issue.  (Can’t credit the photographer as I don’t know who it was – will do if anyone can enlighten me.)
UPDATE 1: The photographer was Emily Benefield.  

The intro read:
A hurricane, an earthquake, and the fabric of daily life in 1940s Wellington: Elizabeth Knox’s new novel is also a multi-layered detective story. “You’d get bored if you didn’t set yourself things you had to solve,” she tells Mark Amery.

FAMILY AFFAIRS
“I think people do like challenges but they don’t know that they do,” says Elizabeth Knox of readers. “I think people feel incredibly refreshed when they get them. The things that kind of pick you up and shake you around, they’re not the things people think they want, but they want them and need them.
“It’s the same reason people go looking for love. I mean, who in their right mind, who had a peaceful life, would want to do that? Like when I’m exhausted and think, ‘Oh, I’ll go and watch some mindless TV,’ but I’ll actually feel better if I read something decent.”
Knox’s fifth novel, Glamour And The Sea, has things that do “pick you up and shake you around”. For starters, there’s a hurricane and an earthquake. But there’s also challenging fiction within what the blurb calls “a swift windjammer of a novel”. In other words, Glamour And The Sea is one hell of good read.
“You have to live with these things,” says Knox of the complexities in her new book. “You’d get bored if you didn’t set yourself things you had to solve. This one’s a mystery as well, and I wanted it to have a level of plot complexity so you wouldn’t know quite how it would turn out, or quite what was happening. I wanted things to be a surprise, but I also wanted people to realise, even if they hadn’t thought of it, that they’d been given clues.”
Glamour and the Sea is based substantially on the merchant seaman years of her father Ray Knox. But as she notes in the acknowledgements, “This is a novel.” A combination of fact and fiction, it is set in Wellington during the roaring 40s, as Ray searches with ex-US serviceman Sam Thrift for the woman who became pregnant to Thrift’s brother.
“I couldn’t write his biography,” says Knox of her father. “I couldn’t make a whole world out of what he remembered. Also, I wanted to write a novel, and I wanted to write a novel about identity. The only way, it seemed, to truly explore the business of identity was to use myself as the person telling the story, as the most-stable possible identity, and to use a voice like an essayist – that conversational, confiding voice – to tell a story that was partly true and partly not.”
Knox became interested in how identity itself is something made from things that are partly true and partly not after thinking about a friend who had changed her name.
“The things that were said of that person weren’t true of the person I knew. Then I realised, when I was talking about my grandmother, that she was someone who wanted to change her identity by changing her name. She thought that the person she started off as wasn’t appropriate. She wanted to commemorate her Irishness and to have humble roots because she had become a poor person, even though she started off as privileged.”
Glamour and the Sea looks at how identity is shaped by how and what we choose to remember, and how history is shaped by the way it is recorded. In the novel Ray Knox has to play detective with a notebook for Thrift, who has memory problems. Knox herself had to play detective with her father’s life, trying to thread together the fragments of his memory with that of other Wellingtonians.
“I was hanging some of it off real events in my father’s life, but while I was interviewing him he told me several versions of some things, and they got progressively more hard on himself. He’d say, ‘No, this is what I actually remember,’ and I didn’t know whether it was all true. Because his memory wasn’t good about some things, he tended to have these crumbling subsidences around things that were traumatic.
“He’s always done this thing of saying, ‘I couldn’t do the things I used to do,’ because he always had that sense of sin. The book became that question of whether you can disavow who you are. There was a quote that I always wanted to use in the book – some European intellectual said it, and right now I can’t remember his name of course – ‘One has to be for amnesty and against amnesia.’
“Over and above everything there’s that sense of how precious living memory is, as opposed to history. And yet memory goes away like all those drowning and submersion metaphors. I take my father’s word, but I’m also appropriating it, turning his memory into testimony.”
So how does Knox’s father feel about being fictionalised? “Nervous. He went along with me willingly, and he doesn’t think I haven’t done him justice, but he feels very strange about it because he can’t read about it as himself and he can’t read it as if it’s not. Because it isn’t himself. I think Ray in the book is quite an affectionate portrait. I might like to wash his dirty laundry, or air it, or whatever the phrase is, but he’s that sort of sweet, naive, volatile person I’ve known all my life.”
It’s also clear from the book that Knox loves Wellington, mapping the city as she imagines her father knew it 50 years ago. She’s particularly proud of the social history in the book. “I was having a ball! It’s funny, you ask anyone you think will know about something, and they go into large amounts of detail but can only remember half of it, so you ask someone else. You just ask questions. So I’m always going, ‘What used to be on this site?’, and you learn a great deal.
“My mother-in-law, for example, had an amazing memory for streets, the order of shops and interiors. I got the decor for about five of the cinemas in Wellington, and then you’d find what trams you took to get where. I didn’t use most of that stuff, but God, I thought it was wonderful!
“There are people who say the novel like that is old hat, but as long as you’re doing interesting things with fiction you don’t have to be like ‘fiction in your face’, in that everything becomes ghostly. I don’t like ghosts in books.”
Knox also uses what she describes as sensory details – image-making, using colourful metaphoric language – which can take the reader by surprise and has helped earn her that “difficult” tag.
“I just love writing like that. I make associations. I constantly go around thinking, ‘What is this thing like? What am I reminded of?’ Sometimes I think I am being fanciful, but most of the time, if I say something is like something, it is. You can see it.
“I just let my brain work the way that the human brain can work, that’s all. How can I explain it, apart from the fact that it’s a talent? But I can’t say that – that ‘I’ve got a talent’.”
Talent, however, she clearly has. Her first novel After Z-Hour won the PEN Best First Book of Prose Award in 1987 and her third, Treasure, was shortlisted for the 1993 New Zealand Book Awards.
Treasure received mixed reviews, and Knox still appears a little sore about those reviewers’ responses. “I think Glamour and the Sea is my best book,” says Knox. “I do! But by a narrow margin. Next to, I think, the neglected, despised and misunderstood Treasure, which has fans who’re completely fanatical about it and say to me, ‘How do you feel about what happened to Treasure?’ –  in these earnest tones – and then go, ‘I was very disturbed by what happened to Treasure.’ And I go, You were disturbed!’ I love that one dearly.
“Everyone treated it like it was a very difficult book, and that of course killed it for the public. I mean, who’s going to go home and read a difficult book? People who did read it were totally taken in. I get people saying they dream about one of the main characters, that they fall in love with him and they dream about him, men and women! That feels like a great achievement.
“I worry about reviewers, because I think they get paralysed sometimes. They’re reading it like they know they have to say something, so they start trying to second-guess it, which gets in the way of the reading.
“They also seem to have this tendency of thinking often that people are quite stupid. It’s like they have to give a product warning, they’re saying readers are going to find this difficult. But those people aren’t stupider than them, and they’re also less anxious, because they don’t have to write a review. They can just read it.”
Just as Knox’s new novel originates from her family, writing is also something of a family affair for her. Her husband Fergus Barrowman is also her publisher and editor, at Victoria University Press.
“I’m so used to it now,” she says. “It is hard being married to your publisher, because you get the disappointments doubly. But he believes in me, he loves my writing, and that’s not just an obliging solidarity.
“He tries to get me to read things that I’m doing and ask me questions – I might get grumpy with him when I don’t want to talk about it, but I’m used to it.
“I’m married to the VUP, basically. I married Fergus and I married the Press.”

UPDATE 2: in the comments Elizabeth Knox clarifies: “It was my father-in-law who gave me the walk-through of old Wellington, and I said, ‘I don't like ghosts of books,’ meaning ghostly books.”  

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What I’m reading

Ally Mullord is not the first person to write in praise of Pippa Middleton’s derriere, but she comes at it, as it were, from a unique angle, that of the potato chip.

Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker prize, weighs in on the great Callil-Roth debate:
No one can make you laugh, and if you are a woman born in Melbourne in the late 1930s no one should be so sadistic as to try.
My favourite living composer Harrison Birtwistle has a new album of big orchestral pieces out, Night’s Black Bird: it’s fantastic. So of course the Daily Telegraph asks him about pop music.

Frederic Raphael on David Pryce-Jones’s Treason of the Heart: From Thomas Paine to Kim Philby in the Literary Review:
With the anecdotal sparkle and accurate animus of a moralist who never flinches from naming names, Pryce-Jones arraigns scores of men and women – Beatrice Webb the cleverest, Doris Lessing the most smug – who have, for a variety of motives, embraced barbaric causes at the expense of common decency. [. . . .]
Celebrities jostle each other in order to show deference to shits and charlatans in alien costume. [. . . .] Sir Charles Trevelyan was living on a 13,000 acre estate, its gates decorated with the hammer and sickle, when in January 1939 he told Stalin that he “owed his ascendancy to the confidence of a free and democratic people”; Joseph Needham, Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, fawned on Mao; Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, said that Stalin’s Terror was “non-violent” and to the end of his distinguished, duplicitous life queried whether the Gulag ever existed.

Nominative paragraph of the day

From Stuff:
The victim asked, “Why are you carrying a weasel?” Police said the attacker answered, “It’s not a weasel, it’s a marten,” then punched him in the nose and fled.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Australian sentence of the day

Reviewing Philip Hensher’s new novel King of the Badgers in the March issue of the Literary Review, Keith Miller writes:
But if this really is the condition of England, then, as my mother overheard an Australian airman say as he looked up at a barrage balloon during the war, “They should cut the ropes and let the bloody place sink.”

Monday, June 6, 2011

In praise of: natural ingredients

Harold McGee writes on page 389 of the revised edition (2004) of his magisterial McGee on Food and Cooking: An encyclopedia of kitchen science, history and culture (1984):
When eaten as is, most spices and herbs are acrid, irritating, numbing. And the chemicals responsible for these sensations are actually toxic. The purified essence of oregano and of thyme can be bought from chemical supply companies, and come with bright warning labels : these chemicals damage skin and lungs, so don’t touch or inhale. This is precisely the primary function of these chemicals: to make the plants that produce them obnoxious and therefore resistant to attack by animals or microbes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ian Wedde and planking


Regular readers will be familiar with Ian Wedde’s 1993 poetry collection The Drummer, which includes my favourite of all his poems, “A Ballad for Worser Heberley”.  I was reading the book again today, as one does, and was struck by the cover image. We have all seen the photos of John Key with his planking son, and Peter Dunne making more of a fool of himself than usual.
  
But who would have thought that a Wellington poet had invented this whole world-wide planking craze 18 years ago? Truly, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

More book news

Guy Somerset weighs in with his opinions on the 2011 NZ Post Book Awards here at the Listener. I am not going to comment on any of this, as it’s unseemly for previous judges to do so, but Guy certainly has a view. And, as always, what’s of interest is which books didn’t make the cut.

The judges explain themselves here. Whatever one thinks of their decisions, they have actually read every book entered, so they are in a better position than the rest of us to make a judgement.

The good book news recently was that Whitcoulls has a new owner that understands retail. But the best news was this: it has lured back Joan Mackenzie, its former chief book buyer, who defected to PaperPlus when Whitcoulls got silly. This tells us that the new owner is serious about quality.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

2011 NZ Post Book Awards

The shortlist of the NZ Post Book Awards is out – this is the big set of national awards that used to be the Montanas and before that the Watties and somewhere in between the Goodman Fielder Watties – and also the winners of the Best First Book awards.

FICTION
The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin)
The Night Book by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage)
Their Faces Were Shining by Tim Wilson (VUP)

POETRY
The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls by Kate Camp (VUP)
The Radio Room by Cilla McQueen (OUP)
Mauri Ola: Contemporary Polynesian Poems in English, ed.  Albert Wendt, Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan (AUP)

GENERAL NON-FICTION
99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts (Vintage)
Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of NZ Popular Music 1918-1964 by Chris Bourke (AUP)
Mune: An Autobiography by Ian Mune (Craig Potton Publishing)
No Fretful Sleeper: A Life of Bill Pearson by Paul Millar (AUP)
The Tasman: Biography of an Ocean by Neville Peat (Penguin)

ILLUSTRATED NON-FICTION
Brian Brake: Lens on the World by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press)
Pounamu by Russell Beck, Maika Mason and Andris Apse (Viking)
Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton by Nigel Watson and Jane Ussher (Murdoch Books)
The Dress Circle by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Claire Regnault and Lucy Hammonds (Godwit)
The Passing World: The Passage of Life: John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai by Dr. Damian Skinner (Rim Books)

As for the Best First Book awards, worth $2500 each, they are:
Fiction: the NZSA Hubert Church award goes to Pip Adam for her short-story collection Everything We Hoped for (VUP).
Poetry: the NZSA Jessie Mackay award goes to Lynn Jenner for Dear Sweet Harry (AUP).
Non-fiction: the NZSA E.H. McCormick award goes to Poia Rewi for Whaikorero: the world of Maori oratory (AUP).

It looks odd that first-time novelist Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining is in the top three for fiction but isn’t the best first book for fiction. However, a glance at his shining new website reveals that “He ghostwrote the autobiography of New Zealand's leading art forger, Karl Sim”. He kept quiet about that, didn’t he.  

The winners of the four main categories, who each receive $10,000, will be announced on 27 July.