Thursday, June 27, 2013

Graeme Lay’s Cookbook is #1

Taking a break from editing an art essay, reading a fiction manuscript for a client, finishing writing my 17th book and wrangling the children, I just now chanced upon – i.e. was checking Twitter and Facebook – the latest Nielsen bestseller list, for the week ending 22 June. On the NZ fiction top ten, the #1 bestseller is Graeme Lay’s The Secret Life of James Cook. That’s only the second novel I have worked on to have made #1. Wine o’clock!

So here are Procol Harum in 1971 with “Quite Rightly So”:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Cross Fingers by Paddy Richardson

New in your local bookshop today is a pile of copies of Cross Fingers, the new novel by Paddy Richardson. It is a murder mystery: the murder was committed during the 1981 Springbok Tour, and the investigator is TV journalist Rebecca Thorne, whom we met in Paddy’s previous novel, Traces of Red.

Cross Fingers brilliantly evokes what it was like in 1981 for the protesters while giving equal consideration to the police’s experiences; it is very sharp on contemporary media practice; and there is a nice line in humour throughout, especially in Rebecca’s relationship with her ex. 

Here is what the publisher, Hachette, says about it. And here is what Joan Mackenzie of Whitcoulls has to say in her review:

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Fake Blake

We start with this:
A school librarian has discovered that a poem widely attributed to William Blake, including in school reading lists, was not really written by him.
Rather than the work of an English poet in the 19th century, “Two Sunflowers Move into the Yellow Room” was written in the United States in the 1980s.
This mislabelling shows how the internet can replicate errors, warns Thomas Pitchford, a librarian in a Hertfordshire secondary school.
“We just accept too quickly,” he says.
True. Which leads us to the Library Spider:
A poem written by a contemporary American author is being taught in schools across the United States and England as the work of one of Britain’s most famous scribes. This innocent verse is escaping the detection of experienced educators because an error exists in a lesson plan circulating many web sites, from loosely monitored forums to highly reputed and authoritative resources including some run by government agencies.
Teachers searching the Internet for examples of poetry to use in their instruction are finding a poem entitled “Two Sunflowers Move into the Yellow Room”.  A great number of the suggested web sites claim the poem was written by William Blake.  Rather than being composed around 200 years ago, it was written by the poet Nancy Willard for her 1981 book A Visit to William Blake’s Inn which won America’s highest award for children’s literature, the Newbery Medal.  This book shows Ms Willard’s appreciation for the work of Blake and her poems make many allusions to his verse, in this case “Ah Sunflower, weary of time” from Songs of Innocence and Experience.  Ms Willard’s prowess as an author is easily proven from her large amount of published works, collection of awards and career as a teacher of writing, but attributing any work from the 20th century to one of the best known and most studied poets of two centuries previous is a sizeable blunder.  So, how did it happen?
Read on.

Next, Examples of Personification in Poetry with Analysis uses the poem as a suitable case for analysis:
Want to have something better to say than “I don’t know” next time your teacher calls on you in English class? Learn about personification in poetry with this expert analysis to make yourself look more intelligent.
Personification: “Ah, William, we’re weary of weather,” / said the sunflowers, shining with dew. / “Our traveling habits have tired us. / Can you give us a room with a view?”
Analysis: Sunflowers can’t speak...unless they’re part of a William Blake poem. These two jovial talking sunflowers contribute to the poem’s mood. They seem like jolly good sunflowers, don’t they? British Romantic poets, like William Blake, believed human fulfilment comes from being one with nature and that nature is a living thing. I’ll let you decide whether or not he’s poking fun at this notion in this poem.
I’ll let you decide whether teachers or not teaching this stuff know anything about poetry. Here is the full text of the fake Blake:
Two Sunflowers  Move in the Yellow Room
“Ah, William, we’re weary of weather,” 
said the sunflowers, shining with dew. 
“Our traveling habits have tired us.
 Can you give us a room with a view?”
They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.
That is so, like, awesomely like William Blake. Not. Especially the rooting in the carpet.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Musicians snarking on musicians

Noel Gallagher makes terrible music but gives good soundbite. He says of Jack White (above):
He looks like Zorro on doughnuts.
That’s from The 30 Harshest Musician-on-Musician Insults in History, which is doing the rounds. Ace guitarist Elliott Randall (the solo on Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The years” – that was him) has his own list of Musicians on Musicians, mostly from the classical world. All gems. Here is Sibelius explaining why he rarely invited musicians to his home:
[They] talk of nothing but money and jobs. Give me businessmen every time. They really are interested in music and art.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Lake Heron Station

It’s high country and this is the farmhouse at 1:55pm today – 70cm of snow and more to come. We stayed there (highly recommend it) over Christmas and on Christmas Eve we sat out on the veranda  in T-shirts and shorts drinking champagne with the owners. Don’t think they’ll be doing that tonight. 

Denis Edwards on Truth

This is the first Thursday since June 1905 that Truth hasn’t appeared. To mark the sad occasion, here is the 65th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine. Many people wrote for Truth over the years, among them Denis Edwards, who wrote this article for the October 1995 issue to mark Truth’s 90th birthday. 

The intro read:
Dinosaurs of print, the tabloids are passing because the rest of the print media – and, increasingly, television – have taken over both their territory and their tone. But Truth, which turns 90 this year, is a survivor. It has swung from left to right, and back again. It has championed the underdog and been a bigoted bully. It has bordered on the pornographic, and called for pornographers to be locked up. With Sunday News pushing slightly upmarket, Truth is now alone in the tabloid market. Denis Edwards takes a look at an unacknowledged side of our literary history
Hedley Mortlock is 53. From here he can see retirement in the distance, and was looking forward to a clear run through to the finish line. The last thing he needed was a jarring reminder of exactly how fragile the tabloid market is in this part of the world. Then he heard that his paper’s Australian equivalent, the Melbourne-based Truth, had closed after 104 years.
The similarities were worryingly close. Circulation in Australia was a comparable 40,000 a week. It too was laden with page after page of lucrative advertising and had a solid sports section. But there was one big difference. Inspired by London’s Sunday Sport, the Australians had begun making the stories up, with headlines like “London Bus Found On Dark Side Of Bronte Beach”, “Elvis Tattooed My Unborn Baby With Star Of David” and “Two-headed Woman – Non-smoking Head Declares War On ‘Filthy Smoker’ Head”.
The readers weren’t having it: even in Australia, there would appear to be a floor level to the media’s “dumbing down”. The end, advertising or not, came quickly.
This ended talk at Truth’s New North Road offices of following a similar line. If Mortlock is to keep Truth from joining the long list of defunct newspapers and magazines, it will be by turning to the basics of the newspaper industry: knowing your market and serving it with journalistic integrity by doing straight, accurate and interesting stories.
Truth’s previous editors must be thankful they are long gone and far from the work facing Mortlock. Tabloid legends Alan Hitchens and Judy McGregor are in the US and academia respectively, leaving Mortlock as probably the only person with the experience for the job. He worked at the English Sun “as a working staffer, not there on some sort of scholarship to see how tabloids operate” before coming back to New Zealand in 1968. He has been at Truth ever since.
His arrival was pure tabloid. He had been hired as Truth’s sports editor on a Friday. He was to start on Monday and had popped in to the Wellington newsroom to say hello and shake a few hands. “The editor came running out of his office, gesturing to me to clear off. He wanted me out of there, because he hadn’t sacked the bloke I was replacing. When I came in there was a new editor. He’d been sacked too!” Welcome to the world of the tabloid.
Truth’s struggles, which have seen its circulation slowly slide from 250,000 in the 1960s to its present level of just over 40,000, are the result of vastly increased competition. “For years there had been the Woman’s Weekly, the daily newspaper and Truth, and there wasn’t much else,” says Mortlock. There is now. The Auckland Sun pushed the Herald into putting out a brighter, livelier paper, including a sharp boost to its interest in spectacular court cases. The new magazines, including Metro and North and South, also thoroughly understood the circulation-boosting potential of solid investigative work and of a brisk scandal, preferably in combination. They certainly weren’t about to turn their backs on a spectacular rape, robbery or murder.
The women’s magazines, in a take-no-prisoners war, shoved and elbowed to be first with the female perspective on anything newsworthy, and chequebooks were ready to help smooth the way to the saddest and/or the most inspiring stories. In a word, the other print media have been tabloidified – as has television. Mortlock has come to dread watching Holmes in particular: “Every night they are doing our stuff, pure Truth stories.”
There is the memory of once-lavish and now-banned cigarette advertising, the defection of brewery advertising to television. And there’s talkback radio. Who needs a newspaper to be the voice of the downtrodden and oppressed or to an air a grievance when you can dial up and be heard, immediately and nationwide?
The response has been to brighten up the paper, filling it with colour and celebrities. The showbiz coverage is boosted by extensive and exclusive clipping rights with UK tabloids. Sex scandals are still prized, although these days they need to be exclusive (nearly impossible, with the women’s magazines and their chequebooks aggressively competing for stories) and make only modest demands on journalistic resources. This is because Truth’s staff is at skeletal levels: Mortlock, three sub-editors and two journalists. These are usually in their late teens or early 20s and from unfashionable polytechs. Turnover is high: people learn and move on.
They are joined by a sports editor, a photographer and several freelancers. They have made Truth a motherlode for those tapping New Zealand’s popular culture, roaming into our social byways: dog shows, brass bands, Freemasonry, trucking and anything likely to be of interest or to affect those at the bottom of the heap.
Truth has, for instance, become the fast-food industry police. “KFC Fries Workers” claimed one story, while another declared New Lynn to be the world’s fast-food capital. More serious is the Captain Cash column, a weekly look at life below the bottom rung. Readers write in with often heart-wrenching requests for money. A 62-year-old widow, supporting a 40-year-old handicapped child, is on a benefit and washes the laundry by hand in the bath. She gets $150 towards a new washing machine. It’s humbling, says Mortlock. “You see the letters coming in, and believe me, you stop complaining about your lot.”
Truth’s coverage of local television is an index of that medium’s departure into the maw of the public relations industry. Truth used to have a free run with the likes of Gloss interviews and profiles. Now, in the Shortland Street era, Truth is B-List. The big stories and big names are given to the A-List: TV Guide, the Herald, the big three women’s weeklies and, further back, the Listener.
Being pushed back from the table has turned into a journalistic plus for Mortlock. It has freed him. If a star is foolish in public, has a spot of bother with a breathalyser or credit card, or tells a fan to “f— off”, others might have to look the other way to ensure an uninterrupted flow of good stories. Mortlock enjoys the prospect of going back to journalism’s roots, the ability to publish and, libel laws notwithstanding, be damned. The official stance from the PR people has been to ignore Truth.
Mortlock isn’t worried: “We’ll just keep going as the stories come along. We have to be doing the best we can for our readers, turning over stones and coming up with good interesting stories. Now and again we trip over the rich and powerful.” For example, when Julie Christie, then sweeping ageing and terrified hacks from the screen as part of her brief to rev up TVNZ’s sports coverage, had some difficulty with officialdom over a hotel she has a financial interest in, Truth ran the story. His competitors wouldn’t have dared.
As editor of Truth, Mortlock is custodian of the most raucous history in the New Zealand media. The paper has swung from left to right wings, and back again. It has championed the underdog, and then been an overbearing bigoted bully. At times ‘it has bordered on the pornographic, and at other times it has called for pornographers to be hurled into jail. It has also been caught in the middle. During the bitterness of the 1951 waterfront lock-out, Truth editors were startled to find themselves the moderates, against an Auckland Star editorial advocating the shooting of the watersiders.
There have been times when it sided with the bigots. “Stop The Yellow Swarm” and “Drive Out The Communist Irish”, it called. When Ian Milner a New Zealand-born academic then working in Czechoslovakia returned home briefly, Truth said he was a “known Communist and must be destroyed or stopped”. Later it pitched enthusiastically into Tim Bickerstaff’s “Punch-a-Pom” campaign. There have been attacks on “state house bludgers”, “reds under the bed” and “idle students”.
That Truth did well with stories like those was a glimpse into the darker side of the gruff, friendly, she’ll be right New Zealand character. For Ronald Hugh Morrieson, who blended knockabout comedy and appalling violence in novels like Came A Hot Friday, Truth was a prime influence – he never missed a copy.
Now and again Truth paid a price for its stands. From 1974 to 1982, under the legendary Russell Gault, a redbaiter and sloganeer extraordinaire, Truth waged campaigns against every group finding itself in the news: students, workers, unions, the lot. Each time the circulation dropped, as those attacked ceased to buy the paper. The biggest drop was when Gault waded into the then white-hot abortion debate. Readership plummeted.
Mervyn Thompson caught the flavour of the old Truth style, using it as a guide through our social history in The Great New Zealand Truth Show. The 1982 play includes, among other gems, a stress-demented Truth editor, short of material and reaching into the past to produce a Truth stand-by, an investigation into the appalling state of housing in areas of rural poverty. Whew, another week saved!

IT ALL STARTED in 1905. The Australian Truth had been founded by John Norton, a colourful figure who had served in the New South Wales parliament, sprinkling his public service with several appearances in the Sydney Criminal Court, charged will drunkenness, assault, criminal libel and sedition. His Truth was described by another, more respectable, paper as “the typical gutter sheet, distilling a crude potstill of pornography from a ferment of sex crimes and divorce suits”. Not surprisingly it was an instant hit and soon turned up on this side of the Tasman. The Wellington agent was quickly whisked into court, charged with “selling an offensive newspaper”. He was found guilty and fined.
This brought Norton to Wellington, blustering, furious and all righteous indignation. The case was re-opened, with the same result. Guilty and a fine. Norton announced his solution: New Zealand would have its own Truth.
The first issue appeared in June 1905. The New Zealand Truth took the Australian paper’s lead. Sex scandals were number one, with divorce cases a close second. Passionate campaigning was all. Its list of campaign causes has a distinctly modern look: higher salaries for teachers, better conditions for nurses, improvement in the lot of the policeman on the beat, and vigorous attacks on “filthy food” served in restaurants.
One early contributor was Bernard Freyberg, later to be a member of Massey’s vigilantes, recruited to break the 1913 waterfront strike, then general and Governor-General. He did the swimming stories, with much grumbling over the sub-editor’s hand on his copy.
The relationship with the police catches Truth’s editorial flips. Things began with a love affair. In 1931 the police were “agents of the oppressive government”, getting a special lambasting for the handling of the riot by Wellington’s unemployed. In 1953 it took on Police Commissioner Eric Compton, accusing him of corruption: though Compton was officially cleared, he took early retirement. The police would henceforth be run by a civilian, Sam Barnett, who did a thorough house-cleaning. Transfers away from any suggestion of temptation were frequent, and links with bookmakers were cut after later evidence showed they were organising themselves to divide territory and to co-ordinate bookmaking and other crime. Thus Truth can make a reasonable claim to having hamstrung the arrival of organised crime in New Zealand.
Though Truth has lowered its sights, it can still sting. It ended Brian Edwards’ chances of being an MP when he stood for Miramar in 1972, by revealing that the woman he lived with was not his wife. Later, it outed maverick National backbencher Marilyn Waring. This revelation eventually became a plus for Waring, hoisting her profile, bringing her support from the women’s movement and the left. The then-PM Robert Muldoon used her enhanced profile as a threat and an excuse to call a snap election in 1984. He lost to Labour’s David Lange.
Then there was the 1981 move from Wellington to Auckland. The colourful Alan Hitchens had taken over as editor. Out went the Wellington-centric stories: government, education, social welfare, employment and so on. In came an Auckland look: faster, lighter and frothier. The plan was for Truth to ride the new freedom in supermarket opening hours, becoming the New Zealand version of the National Enquirer, sold in all US supermarkets. It didn’t work. The women’s magazines breezed past through that fight, although Truth has gone on to pick up useful sales from service stations.
Another convulsion was in 1987. Mortlock had taken over from Hitchens. Things weren’t going well. Circulation was dropping; advertising was soggy. Closure was being discussed. This threat was real. INL, owner of Truth, has a long record of taking strugglers off life-support. One of Truth’s mainstays, its legendary court coverage, had had to go. Court coverage is expensive. A journalist sits in court all week, to produce one or two stories: too meagre a return for a paper with a tightening budget. That court coverage had been both comprehensive and riveting, especially in its enthusiasm for sex and murder cases, and preferably in combination. I know. I had been under orders to study it.
In the mid-60s I was a mint-fresh police cadet. Our instructor, a veteran sergeant, sternly informed us that Truth was essential reading for its police cases and for its details of the judgments in sex trials. This was all a class of teenage cadets needed to hear. Sales of Truth at outlets in the vicinity of the Police Training School at Trentham continued at high levels.
Nowadays, while the horizon is still scanned for those sorts of stories, day-to-day practicalities force attention to the light, the fast and the humorous. Typical is the headline when Hinemoa Elder left television’s Bugs Bunny Show to enter medical school. Truth caught it all in three words: “What’s Up, Doc?”
Truth’s circulation trails the other papers coming out of INL’s New North Road building. ABC (Audited Bureau of Circulation) figures have the Sunday Star-Times at 187,227 copies a week, Sunday News at 135,229 and TV Guide, Truth’s offspring, at a whopping 257,986 a week. Truth is off the pace at 41,825, down from its peak in the early 60s, when it had virtually sole coverage of the finer details of the John Profumo-Christine Keeler sex and spy scandal.
Truth’s readers are solidly at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Mortlock has a solid Maori readership, “and we are very strong in places like the East Coast and West Coast, where they see Auckland as a sort of distant ‘sin city’.” Even with that relatively small group of readers (although pass-on figures are said to be high – one person in a large family buys and hands it on to everyone else) Truth makes money. It has 11 often-electrifying pages of vigorous pitches for sex equipment, massage parlours, adult video and meet-a-mate-for-a-romp advertising.
This is the place to check for information on the very latest from the far frontiers of sexual preference. There are massage parlours catering for the pensioner market. There are exchange programmes – “Cassandra, early 40s English aristocratic blonde, elegant, private apartment”, though exactly what is to be exchanged is not specified. There are long lists of specialised lonely-person products able to vibrate, penetrate and lubricate and sometimes do all or most of them at once. The videos on offer cover a startlingly wide range of sexual options. If it’s been so long since you had sex that you can’t remember who gets tied up, then fear not, the Truth ads will clarify things for you, or give you the phone number of someone who can help. (Truth and its sex ads give an oblique insight into life on Auckland’s northern slopes. Each August sales in the eastern suburbs rise sharply. The theory is that the family has been packed off to Fiji or the snowfields for the school holidays, leaving father at home to graze the sex ads in peace.)
Though the sex ads are lucrative, and ensure the paper’s survival, they are a mixed blessing. They can crimp sales because parents may fear that taking the paper home will corrupt their teenagers. Putting the ads in a throwaway insert didn’t work – understandably, the advertisers didn’t like it. Mortlock’s problem is how to keep the journalism going, and to persuade people to buy it for its stories as much as for its ads. So far his mix of celebrity stories and sharp bites at the rich and famous is keeping heads above water. Or better – an extra eight pages has just been added.
But if ever he needs a reminder that tabloid journalism is a day-to-day struggle, he need only look in the direction of Melbourne, where they have crated up Truth’s files for the archives and sold off the desks and chairs.

Denis Edwards later worked for Truth and in the course of his duties attended a lunchtime event in Auckland’s Fort Street when an American “porn star” was performing. A few minutes into her act she fell writhing to the floor. The audience cheered. But in wasn’t part of the act – she was having some kind of seizure, an ambulance was called and she was rushed to hospital. Denis wrote the story for Truth and the billboard that Thursday was:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Keith Stewart on Pat Hanly

The 64th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1996 issue.

The intro read:
The veteran protester is as stroppy as ever, but Pat Hanly has retired from painting. “Once Were Warriors came along and did what I was trying to do in the paintings. I thought, oh, I’ll take a rest,” he tells Keith Stewart.
The large Mount Eden villa is hunkered into a mas­sive garden which threatens to become spectacular with summer, and there is a slogan on the front door protesting against floodlights at nearby Eden Park. Pat Hanly may be a retired painter, but he has not stopped sticking up for his ideas, and in many ways his fighting career has been as illustrious, and as successful, as his painting career. As one of the stars of New Zealand painting in the second half of the 20th century, his reputation rides in a cohort which includes McCahon and Hotere, and will always be associated with the revolution in painting which surged into national promi­nence during the 1960s.
Hanly springs open the door with a flourish, bright in an orange robe, and as enthusiastic as you would expect from his paintings. The house is packed, wall to wall, room after room, with a collection of paintings by the painting stars of the last 40 years: McCahon, Hotere, Ellis, Clairmont, Fomison, Maddox, Harris, Reynolds... “I am in an interesting position now, not trying to win any awards or anything, and I don’t have to any more,” he says, obviously relishing retirement’s freedoms. But retirement was not just a matter of feeling tired.
Years ago I thought about people who had gone on far too long. Picasso! The last 10 years for him were a waste of time, a jerk-off on the same old stuff he’d been doing for years. He should have had the sense to give it up, but being almost totally animalistic, he just kept on. I don’t think he got anywhere in that time, and he lost me as a supporter. Then it started to happen to me, when I felt I didn’t need to do anything, there was no urgency. I knew it was time.
I don’t have to get up and do the old ego trip out in the studio any more, because I’ve seriously been in the retirement mode for two years now. You can imagine going around the shows now and not having to respond. If I see a Maddox show, or a Reynolds, I don’t have to rush off and use up all that energy to respond to it.
Strangely enough, the 65-year-old’s responses are very selective, because I don’t have to take on board rubbish. All those also-rans now I just ignore, because I can’t waste any time with unimportant work. Whether it goes on or dies, or whatever happens, is not my concern any more. All I’m concerned with now is the weather.”
It was if his unique contribution, his exuberant vision of this corner of the world, was running out of steam with him. Or perhaps that the sophistication he and his compatriots fought to arouse, which provides a broader awareness of art than New Zealand had in the 1950s, brings with it a darker side.
At about 55 I began selecting out the stuff that I was doing, which was mainly in the social commentary area, the poor, or whatever. And I sort of started to get fed up with it, because it’s all a bit negative. And then Once Were Warriors came along and did what I was trying to do in the paintings, and I thought, oh, I’ll take a rest. Then I found that all the urgency, and the gift I had had all my life, it just went away. It was amazing.”
It was a confrontation with the gloom which weighed so much on McCahon’s work and infiltrated it with self-effacing pessimism, a gloom which Hanly more than any of his contemporaries banished from a glowing South Pacific fresh with life and light, and the thrill of individual flair expressed with ease. “I didn’t want to do, if you like, the blues stuff. I didn’t want to have to talk about beat-up families, beaten women, pissed and drugged people, and a lot of other people who aren’t making it. It was too negative for what I felt my spirit was about, which was preserving things.
And even back then I didn’t want to carry that blues thing around with me all the time. The war was over, and there was going to be no more war for me, and I was never going to be another van Gogh. His work is so passionate, but I never wanted to go that way. I thought, there’s got to be a smarter way of doing this. If we think this art is so terrific and great, then people need to be part of it, and we want to make the whole thing as approachable as possible.
The other night at a party I was boasting to some woman that here I was at 65, almost twice as old as van Gogh, and she said, ‘And you’ve still got both ears.’ How about that? It’s very good. There are a whole lot of people out there not involved in the arts at all, but they know their stuff; their experiences and their professional lives are extended and extending. It’s terrific to be involved with these sorts of people. They can speak with genuine authority in a way not many people could back when we started.”
This expansion of the art world beyond artists to a wider audience is part of a revolution in thinking that the old protester and his contemporaries fomented with considerable success, building on a foundation laid by equally revolutionary educational ideas taking shape in 1950s New Zealand. “All those art specialists that went around in the 50s, remember them? Ralph [Hotere] was part of that early on, and Peter Smith, and all those dudes, they went right around the country and shook it up. They made the art thing part of what you could do now, and not just a wet days or difficult kids class.
That was part of the widening out process, and we haven’t paid enough tribute to those people, a lot of them who didn’t make it as artists, but they made sure that the kids all became aware and took notice of what we were doing. Those guys, Beeby and Parker, who set it all up, who said that ordinary New Zealand kids in ordinary schools would be doing art, that was a key ingredient to opening the whole thing up.
And we were screaming out for the freedom to express ourselves because we were these unique, egocentric individuals. That battle was fought and won, which is interesting now, because now anybody can have ago, at whatever level, which is terrific. Just after the war there were a lot of disgruntled writers, poets, who were pissed off, alcoholic, who had a terrible time here. That was before the international connections we have now. Carrying that weight of undeveloped mentality that was around then, that was a responsibility, then we overcame that, so it’s a battle nobody has to fight again.”

THEY WERE HEADY TIMES, focused on a new breed of art gallery, their activities communicated by critics who knew the artists and popularised them as never before. “Fortunately there was a small group of people here in Auckland: Colin McCahon, Bob Ellis, Don Binney — you know, the First XV of the time. None of us knew each other, except for Colin, who had been in Christchurch, and Hamish [Keith] who had come up from Christchurch, and it was him who got onto the fact that we were dealing with something quite special at the time. That sort of club, or whatever it was, just grew, everybody bouncing off each other and it was very good, with a sort of certainty that went on for along time. Too long, possibly.
It wore itself out, because we got too old for it, won too many prizes, all that sort of thing. It had to change, because us old dudes weren’t doing anything really spectacular any more, and nothing happened for a long time, and that was when the international, head stuff, performance stuff, started to grow. Well, it had to, because the painting that we had all been trained to in the European tradition had become old hat. All the new, gifted people took on this stuff, and thank God we didn’t get in the road.”
The sense remains that there is a responsibility on the part of established artists to support the next generation of emerging talent, and the next. “I can still clearly recall the discouragement of this place that drove some people to suicide in the end, or to alcoholism. It’s only latterly that artists are being acknowledged before they fall into that romantic artist’s death thing that they can’t pull out of
Those good artists are special. You don’t get a lot of them in a country this size, so you can’t afford to waste them. Dudes like John Reynolds, you only have about four and a half of them at any one time here.”
Four and a half. Who is the half at the moment? “I’m not telling you. You should be able to work it out for yourself.”
For all the intended support, the competitive edge survived long after success was acknowledged, and the Auckland art mafia worked in many ways to limit development outside its bounds. The next generation was very light on artists able to match the careers of Hanly and his contemporaries.
“Rick Killeen made it because, very sensibly, he didn’t get into the same game as we were in. He was one of the few who decided he was going to keep doing it after 30, and he did it. Now its good to see these current guys doing it, that the chances are being taken. There’s a real freedom in going to a show now and seeing Rick’s stuff, or John Reynolds’, or Bill Hammond’s, and I look at it and really enjoy it.”
Recently he had the chance to work again on what at the time he called his “opus”, Prelude to a Journey, the giant 44-metre mural from Auckland Airport’s departure lounge — to confront a work which may really be his masterpiece, 20 years after he completed it, and to make of it a series of major pieces for galleries around the country.
It’s surprising when the other day I was there doing the unwrapping, and these icebergs were popping up in the darkness. It was a surprisingly good event. Yeah, opus stuff. It’s good to get the chance to look at these old things, and sometimes it’s better to just say, chuck them. But this was a good feeling.”
And that other career, challenging the community not for art’s sake, but for more fundamental causes? Riding small boats against American nuclear submarines, yachts against French nuclear testing, marching along streets to stop Springboks.
I was so angry that nations we regarded as friendly were bringing their way of doing things down here whether we liked it or not. The European experience taught me very quickly about political disasters like the last war and that stuff, and that got to me more than anything else while we were over there.
For my art, that experience widened out my scale, my realisation of how far I had to go in my own commitment. I’ve never been back since. I don’t have to.
I remember when we were going to see a Chagall show in the south of France, seeing a woman pulling a plough, and I couldn’t believe it. There we were, off to see Chagall — I couldn’t believe it. On one hand we were into the sophistication and joy and all that stuff that Chagall was about, which I was a big fan of, and on the way there was this great tearing thing, this harrowing, basic, primitive animalism of Europe. Those sort of contrasts upset me a lot, and I didn’t want to wear that.
In 1961 when the Berlin blockade was happening and I was in Amsterdam on my own, and all these Dutch people were terrified, absolutely terrified that just up the road all this bad shit was about to happen. We were doing all right in Europe then. Gil was being successful in the theatre, making sets and things, I had made a lot of connections in London, and we could make it there bigger, probably, than we could back here. All those gifted, creative people like Hockney and so on, and Ralph and Bill [Culbert], let you test yourself with them, over issues and so on. That development, the excitement of developing those responses, was one thing, but against old, withered-tit Europe, I just couldn’t stay. Remember that the Pacific back then was so innocent.”
So he came back, to another, softer revolution, where he stayed and played a role that has made him less famous than he could have been. But happier?
Yeah. Definitely. It’s been great. Still is, man.”

NZ Poet Laureate for 2013-5

The National Library is calling for nominations for the post of Poet Laureate for the two-year term July 2013 to June 2015.

The criteria:
Nominees must have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand poetry, and be an accomplished and highly regarded poet. They must also be a strong advocate for poetry, and be able to fulfil the public role required of a Poet Laureate, which includes engaging with a wide range of people and inspiring New Zealanders to read and write poetry.
The award comes with $80,000 and a tokotoko (carved walking stick): the laurate is expected to be “an advocate and a public presence for poetry, and involved in events which promote the reading and writing of poetry by children and adults alike”, and also to produce a book of poetry. It is what is known in other areas of the arts as a “good gig”.

Previous laureates are Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Elizabeth Smither, Brian Turner, Jenny Bornholdt, Michele Leggott, Cilla McQueen and Ian Wedde. That leaves quite a few to choose from.

Download the nomination form here: closing date is Monday 15 July.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bloomsday 2013

James Joyce’s Ulysses is the only novel whose opening sentence I can recite from memory – “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan” (which sounds like a few of my friends) – and of course I can’t recite the last sentence because it is so long, though we all know that after the rude bits the closing words are “he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Nicholas Wilson (via Bill Manhire) has brilliantly arranged that last bit:  
he coUld
  breaSts all perfume
     yeS and his
       hEart was going like mad and
     yeS i said yes i will yes
So to mark Bloomsday, 16 June 1904, here are Yes in 1973:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Tweet of the week

Danyl McLauchlan yesterday:
Shouldn't we respect Rupert Murdoch's right to privacy during this difficult time?
Runner-up is Judith Collins this afternoon:
Wondering how many Labour MPs joining Sky City at the rugby tonight  to express their concern. Bets anyone?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A week is a long time in publishing #2

Updating last month’s post A week is a long time in publishing which mentioned possible changes at Pearson NZ and definite changes at HarperCollins NZ, we have announcements today. First, Stuff on HarperCollins:
Publishing company HarperCollins has announced the closure of its New Zealand distribution network.
The company could not say how many jobs would be lost in the move as some of the people affected would be offered new positions.
HarperCollins chief executive James Kellow said supply would switch to the company’s warehouse in Australia.
Support services would also be run from Australia.
He said the company “remained committed to publishing New Zealand books for New Zealand readers and looked forward to maintaining a local publishing programme in the future”.
“We will now start the search for new premises for HarperCollins NZ on Auckland’s North Shore for our ongoing publishing, sales and marketing communications team.”
He signalled the departure of general manager Graham Mitchell, however, saying he had “kindly agreed to stay on until the transition of the business has been successfully completed”.
Communications director Simon Milne said he did not even have a “ball park figure” of how many people were affected.
He said the decision was related to “economies of scale” and all publishing houses apart from Random House had now moved their warehousing back to Australia.
Next, from Booksellers NZ:
Following the announcement on May 28, Pearson today confirmed that its education business in New Zealand will close at the end of August 2013. Pearson will continue to offer its products in New Zealand and customers and authors will be informed of the alternative arrangements soon.
Pearson Australia & New Zealand CEO, David Barnett, said, “We will continue to support our customers in New Zealand via a local distributor, who will sell our products in the marketplace. However, over the last few years it has become clear that our current business model is no longer appropriate."
“This was not an easy decision to make and comes after many months of discussion as well as a two week consultation process with our people. Our focus right now continues to be on their welfare at this difficult time.”
This announcement relates to Pearson Education and does not affect Penguin.
Bugger, frankly. Everyone in the book trade will know people affected by this. 

The one bright spot is that Pearson is withdrawing from New Zealand for reasons to do with head office refocusing on other markets, not because of poor performance in this market. My impression is that Pearson NZ has been stellar. The market is still here – we still need school textbooks, obviously – and Pearson’s staff and authors are all good to exceptional. So the business is viable, just not under the present distracted owner.

Which means this is an opportunity for someone entrepreneurial to snap up the business as a going concern – or, if not all of it, the bits of it they can manage.

But still, oy vey. And who’s next in this international reshuffle?

So here is Jackson Browne in 1977-ish performing “Stay (just a little bit longer)”, with Rosemary Butler on vocals and David Lindley on lap-steel guitar, falsetto and hand-gestures:

Don’t believe everything you read on Twitter

More evidence for the Stratford theory of numbers. Stuff reports:
Auckland’s Writers and Readers Festival has taken a 60 per cent funding cut for next year’s event.
Festival director Anne O’Brien said Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development (ATEED) cut its support by $30,000 because there were “too many groups applying”.
ATEED, a council-controlled group, has given $50,000 each year for the last two events, O’Brien said.
Next year organisers will get $20,000.
The Auckland Writers and Readers Festival is a five-day conference mainly held at the central city’s Aotea Centre and The Edge, with 150 writers and thinkers attending from New Zealand and around the world.
This year saw a record-breaking crowd of more than 34,000 attend and box office sales of $350,000, she said.
The charitable trust which organises the festival relies on council and sponsorship, O’Brien said.
But $500,000 of ATEED funding had to be pre-allocated to big Auckland events with the writers and readers festival suffering, O’Brien says.
“We’re never going to be able to compete with those events.”
Hiking ticket prices would hurt patronage, she said.
Councillor Alf Filipaina, who heads Auckland Council’s culture, arts and events forum, said there is nothing they can do but will ask ATEED to reconsider.
Future funding avenues may become available but there are no immediate options, he said.
This story has been tweeted and retweeted, quoting the opening line that the festival has had its funding cut by 60%. It’s not true. 

What has happened is that one funder has cut its contribution by 60%: this year it gave $50,000 and next year it will give $20,000. So yes, that’s a funding cut of 60% but from Twitter, and a speed-read of the Stuff article, you’d think the festival’s entire funding has been cut by that much. 

ATEED is only one of many sources of funding. I can’t remember what Creative NZ kicks in but when I was on the CNZ panel that decides these things it was $150,000 or so. There are many other sponsors: some in cash, like CNZ; some in kind, like APN/the Listener. I have no idea what the budget is these days, as it is some years since I was on the AWRF board, but it must be a long way over half a million: box office sales alone are $350,000.

The loss of $30,000 will be a blow, but it is nowhere near 10%, let alone 60%, of the total budget.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Farmers of the year: Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi

Fieldays opens tomorrow, so that’s the last I shall see of my wife until some time on Saturday.  Speaking of agribusiness, the Economist reports:
Bruce Springsteen once sang about “going on the town now looking for easy money”. As easy money goes, it is hard to beat farm subsidies. Handouts for American farmers were a tasty $256 billion between 1995 and 2012. The fattest subsidies went to the richest farmers. According to a study by Tom Coburn, a fiscally conservative senator, these have included Mr Springsteen himself, who leases land to an organic farmer. And Jon Bon Jovi, another rocker, paid property taxes of only $100 on an estate where he raises bees. Taxpayers will be glad to know he is no longer “livin’ on a prayer”.
So there above are Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi singing something really sincere about working guys – note Bruce’s rolled-up sleeves, denoting his really sincere multi-millionaire working-guy cred. And there below is Ry Cooder with “Taxes on the Farmer Feed Us All” from his 1972 album  Into the Purple Valley. Also contains Van Dyke Parks on piano, piano-spotters.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Copyright Licensing and the NZ Society of Authors

I’ve had a few queries from NZSA members about why they have never received a payment from Copyright Licensing NZ, the entity formerly known as CLL, which exists to compensate authors and publishers for the copying of their work. CLNZ has an annual income of more than $5 million, they say, so why don’t we get any of it?

They ask me because I have been on the board of CLNZ for the last four years, so I know a bit about it. I sent one member a long explanation recently and am posting a version of it here so that others can read it. Also I am far too lazy to email everyone individually. So here goes:

What CLNZ does is sell licences to institutions so they may legally copy, scan and share printed material such as books, periodicals and journals. Terms and conditions most certainly apply. What has been copied by each institution is identified by sampling and the money due is paid out to the publishers who then pass on to the authors their share. (Yes they do. Anyone who thinks their multinational publisher is bilking them is, frankly, an idiot. Multinationals are squeaky clean – they have to be. The only publisher who has ever ripped me off was a much-loved small indie. Most of them are clean but, you know, count the spoons.)

CLNZ’s income is almost entirely from universities, polytechs and schools, in that order: the licence fee is based on the number of students. There are other sources – corporates, law firms, government departments, “private training establishments” such as language schools – but the main source by far is universities. So most of the work copied is from textbooks. Maths, biology, engineering, architecture, medicine, anthropology, history, philosophy, political studies, music, chemistry, law and stuff like that.

Very few members of NZSA would have books on these course lists. NZ fiction and poetry is taught at tertiary level, but it’s a tiny component of all the copying that is done. And (whisper it) NZSA does not represent all NZ authors. It does in principle – it argues for all authors’ rights – but it doesn’t in practice. One very successful publisher who always cleans up at the book awards tells me that of the 347 authors on the firm’s list, only seven are NZSA members. So it’s no great surprise that most NZSA members never see a CLNZ payment: they don’t write text books or general books that are used in university courses.

I received $15 one year but I don't know what for – possibly one of my joke books, possibly the more serious The Dirty Decade or An Affair of the Heart, very improbably my cookbook. And the reason I got a cheque that year but not the year before or the year after is that a different set of schools and universities are sampled each year – so if your work is used one year in just one school or university, that copying might never be recorded.

The sampling process is fiendishly complicated – the key point is the trade-off between accuracy and income. If the RRO (generic term for an organisation like CLNZ) aimed for 100% accuracy, the process would be so expensive that there would be no money left to distribute to authors and publishers. So we have to accept a degree of inaccuracy. The sampling process used is regarded internationally as best practice. I have attended the annual conference of IFRRO, the international organisation of RROs, and the intellectual firepower there is very impressive: the whole structure is as author-friendly as could be. What the current regime at NZSA doesn’t get is that the copyright holders – authors and publishers – are partners, not combatants. Over individual contracts, certainly, we can be combatants but not on big industry-wide issues like copyright.

Members of IFRRO have reciprocal arrangements, so much of the revenue generated here goes overseas to pay authors and publishers in the UK, US, Australia etc. Similarly, we receive payments from them, about $1 million a year. Again, most of these will be for textbooks. The share for literary works will be tiny. I don’t know, none of my business, can only guess, but I imagine that authors whose works are taught in courses on post-colonial literature – maybe Keri Hulme, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, Alan Duff – will do well, but the rest of us, not so much.

What remains available for distribution in NZ is, depending on the contract, split 50/50 between publisher and author, so while it looks as though CLL has a huge pile of money that should be going to NZSA members, it just isn’t true. Never was, never will be, never could be.

Another issue is that it can be hard, if not impossible, for some payments from overseas (looking at you, ALCS) to be identified as to which author’s work has been copied – anthologies and the like are difficult. Some NZ authors are happy to deal with ALCS direct; others will let CLNZ do it for a fee.

Final point: CLNZ is a non-profit organisation. NZSA is a 50/50 shareholder in it with PANZ, the publishers’ organisation, but the term “shareholder” is very misleading. It implies that the shareholder should get a return – but for a non-profit that would be illegal.

Sadly, for the members of NZSA there is no pot of gold.

A new president for the NZ Society of Authors

At the AGM in Dunedin yesterday, a new president was announced – Kyle Mewburn. Background to the issues at NZSA here and here; background on Kyle here, and a PDF of his winning campaign pitch is here.

I don’t know him but my children met him at their school last year and say he is “very nice”. Authors who do know him say he is energetic, enthusiastic and gets things done. Good.

He could make a start with the NZSA’s use of social media. The last tweet on its Twitter account was on 12 November and the one before that was on 17 September – that’s right, nothing in the last six months. And there was no way on either its website or Facebook page, as far as I could see, that members could engage with the three candidates for the presidency. Isn’t that what social media is for?

I’m not sure, but Kyle may be the youngest president ever. All members will wish him well. Others in the sector will watch developments with great interest and more than a little hope. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

In praise of: the Listener

The new issue has an excellent, rational and well-informed – editorial on the state of NZ book publishing in light of the Penguin-Random house merger and the recent announcements by HarperCollins (closing local distribution, moving editorial to Australia) and Pearson (possibly closing NZ office). Of the merger, the Listener says that:
the simple truth is that authors will have one fewer place to send their popular fiction, gardening guide and cookbook manuscripts. More decisions will be made across the ditch, which will be of particular concern to local mass-market authors, as Australian publishers are widely perceived in the industry to not have a clue about our likes and dislikes.
They don’t know, and don’t know that they don’t know.
The Commerce Commission notes that the number of books being published was falling before the merger announcement. E-books, print on demand and self-publishing are all growing. But publishing moguls such as Annabel Langbein are few and far between. E-books make up about 3% of the market, but thanks to the shrinkage of serious media, the number of publicity and reviewing opportunities for digital and self-published titles is vanishingly small. Self-published authors are all but invisible.
True, which is why publishers are so important.

Bravely, the editorial suggests that we might have been publishing too many books. Privately many publishers and some authors agree – but they say it’s the other people who publish too much, not them.

You can read the full text here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It was twenty years ago today

Maybe not today precisely, it could be twenty years ago tomorrow, but the first issue of Quote Unquote the magazine was published in early June 1993. In order of appearance the contributors were: me, Peter Allison, Kevin Ireland, Denis Dutton, Elizabeth Smither, Bill Manhire, Louise Callan, Michael King, Nigel Cox, Keith Stewart, Denis Edwards, Tim Wilson, Barbara Anderson, Lesley Max, David McLoughlin, Brian Turner, Owen Marshall, Sue Miles, Sheridan Keith, Peter Bland, Hamish Keith, Stephanie Johnson, Steve Bohling, James Allan, Jo Harris and Chris Slane.

Of that starry, starry list, Peter Allison is the only one of us to have appeared on YouTube as a rock star, though Bill Manhire is all over it as a poet and lyricist and Peter Bland must be there somewhere, if only as the voice of the BBC on ’Allo ’Allo (not a lot of people know that).

The books reviewed were Maori: The Crisis and the Challenge by Alan Duff; Rolling Back the State by Jane Kelsey; Last Summer by Gaelyn Gordon; Land of Memories by Mark Adams and Harry Evison; The Family Man by Ian Cross; Confessions of a Wicked Stepmother by Leigh Bramwell; All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy; Becoming a Powerful Lover by Yvonne and Michael Edwards; Deep River Talk: Collected Poems by Hone Tuwhare; How to Talk by Andrew Johnston; The Idles by Damien Wilkins; and Chris Booth Sculpture by Alexa Johnston and Chris Booth.

The first subscriber was Dick Scott.

The first threat of legal action was from an art dealer unhappy with Keith Stewart’s story in that issue about the Moët et Chandon art awards. I explained the law of libel to her at some length, suggested that she talk to her lawyer who would give her exactly the same information but charge her $200 – and I heard no more, as invariably happens when people threaten legal action. I’d had seven years’ experience of this at Metro, and was mightily chuffed to get threatened with a libel writ on the first issue. Sadly, it never happened again. I guess we didn’t try hard enough.

Still, it was fun while it lasted. It was wonderful to be there, and certainly a thrill. So here is Jimi Hendrix performing “Sergeant Pepper‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in December 1967:

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Denis Edwards on Lindsey Dawson

The 63rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the October 1995 issue.

The intro read:
There is Lindsey Dawson, Corporate Woman, who spends her days working with budgets and circulation figures, hiring and firing setting deadlines. And then there is Lindsey Dawson, Sensitive New Age Gal and author of Angel Baby. “I have times when I have spiritual bursts, when I am full of wonder at what life is all about,” she tells Denis Edwards.
Lindsey Dawson has been in journalism since the early 60s, when she started work at the Auckland Star. Later, in the 80s and 90s she made a name working at Metro and as founding editor of first More and then Next, the bulletin board for the cocooning generation.
It’s a career built on interviewing people. She long ago learned the rules. One, let the interviewee do the talking, which isn’t as oft-practised a bit of wisdom as it sounds – check out Holmes almost any night. Two, save the ugly stuff till the end. Thus, if an offended interviewee boots you out or walks, you still have a bit of material to work with.
Now Dawson has become an author. Her first novel, Angel Baby, has just been published by England’s Hodder and Stoughton (and is reviewed in this issue): the next step is the marketing. That means fronting up to being interviewed. “You have to do them,” she says. “It’s a part of promoting the book. That’s the process, and there is no point in saying you are going to stay out of sight and not do them.”
It is also an opportunity for her to see how others practise journalism. This has been revealing. There was, for instance, the jolt she got when a bright-eyed young hack flicked open a mint-fresh notebook, looked her right in the eye and fired off a “And exactly how old are you?” Boom, straight down the barrel, just like that. Welcome to the New Zild media. “I’m not sure that’s the sort of thing you ask someone of a certain age, at least not as the very first question,” she says.
This is the latest rung on her literary climb. The previous rung was in July, when she first held a copy of her book, straight from the publishers – bound, dust-jacketed and, above all, ready to go out there into world. Her imagination, her vision, her words.
And the rung before that was January 28, 1995, the day Auckland’s biggest iwi, Te Middle Class, assembled in the Auckland Domain to hear the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in Opera in The Park accompanied by a bottle or two of champers – this was in the days when wetting the whistle with the French stuff was a point of prestige, rather than cause for being spat on by the righteous.
Earlier that day Dawson had heard from Hodder and Stoughton that Angel Baby would be published. This was big news, especially as Hodder is not famed for taking first-time authors, particularly ones from beyond the sceptered isle. It was good reason to add an extra bottle of bubbly for the evening in the Domain. I hasten to point out that Dawson bears no resemblance to that other magazine editor, Edina – although, after news like that, a certain loosening of otherwise commendable and mature restraint would have been acceptable. “It was a nice night, but no, there wasn’t anything like that.”
Dawson is a journalist. Journalism is literature’s hit-and-run driver: do the research, write the story and move on. It’s for observers, watching and waiting for the tell-tale act, the revealing moment, the choice quote. It’s about coaxing others to reveal all while keeping one’s own options open. It is, in fact, a job for spies with well-defended personalities.
Unlike fiction. That is revealing. There is nowhere to hide. Psychologists get people to write long journals, to force them away from their defences.
This happened with Dawson. She began in earnest in October 1990, when she had a five-month break between leaving More, which she had marched to a massive 80,000 copies a month circulation (probably impossible again in today’s fragmented magazine market), and launching Next.
The first 30,000 words were a breeze. “I wrote in the morning and stripped wallpaper in the afternoon. It was pure joy. That 30,000 words was a really good base on which to build the rest.”
Then it was back to full-time work. By the end of the first draft, Dawson had discovered a thing or two about writing fiction. “I wanted to write a good story, something of my own – a ripping good yarn, I suppose you could call it. I began it with huge arrogance. I’d been an editor for 10 years. ‘I can knock words around. I know all about writing. This is going to be good’ – and as I very quickly found out, it is completely different.”
The book moved along at a rate of three to four hours’ work a night, on top of getting Next out and working on the Broadcasting Standards Authority, a time-consuming role. It effectively added up to three jobs. Dawson hit the wall. She got sick, ending up on the surgeon’s table, farewelling her gall bladder.
An amazed surgeon asked, “Didn’t you even realise you were sick?” She hadn’t. She had been pushing herself too hard. That was a fright for Dawson, and a boost for her book. She handed over the editorship of Next and settled into a 1992 of writing and relaxing. “The next time I might have had a heart attack or something and that would have been it. I didn’t see the point of working myself into an early grave.”
Most of the time Dawson is Corporate Woman, working with budgets, circulation figures, hiring and firing, giving assignments and setting deadlines. But there is another side. “I have had times when I have had spiritual bursts, I suppose you could call them. It’s not religion. It’s more of a time for reflection and a time when I am full of wonder at what life is all about.”
A friend’s death in a plane crash lies behind the central image on which Angel Baby is based. “That was a very close friend of mine, and during a period of grieving I did a lot of praying, which was something I had never done before. I had a dream one night, of the world as this great glistening, blue globe hanging in the dark in space, surrounded by this glittering web, like a measure of energy.”
She recalls it as a wonderful, clear vision which triggered her to wonder, “What if there were little beings charged with the responsibility of maintaining this mythical thing? That was the seed, I suppose.
“Every so often, when I was away on holiday or something, I would think I should write, that story, and I would buy an exercise book and start writing. Then I’d go back to work and it would get thrown away.”
Eventually the first draft, a whopping 220,000 words, was finished, and a proud author lugged her manuscript off to Glenys Bean, literary agent. This is often the moment of truth for the tyro author, because someone independent gets a look at their creation. That moment of truth can be painful. Dawson’s experience matched thousands of authors before her. It was “get real” time. The book had real possibilities, but was way, way too long. Repetitions and long conversations would have to go. So would the Maori references – English publishers couldn’t relate to them. “That all hurt a bit, because I had had such confidence and then realised I had a lot to learn about writing, even after all those years in journalism.”
Even so, she had no idea six more drafts would lie ahead. By the sixth she had had enough. “If I didn’t sell it after the sixth draft, that was going to be it. The book would go in the bottom drawer and I would have had a learning curve and that was it.”
It helped that she has a strong support group back at the ranch in Epsom – husband Peter and their two daughters. “They were all great. All of them reckoned I was producing a bestseller.”
They might be right. Hodder and Stoughton have produced a first run of 7000 copies in hardback, and there will be a paperback next year. Translation rights have been sold to Holland and Spain. An agent specialising in filmable properties has picked it up; negotiations proceed for other rights and other deals.
Her second book, The Next Book Of Home Decorating, is due from Penguin in November – and another novel is already in the works. It has similar themes with different circumstances, she says, but beyond that she’s reluctant to talk too much about it at this stage.
What she will say is that, as a frequent book reviewer for Next, she has become a much more sympathetic critic, “now that I’ve seen what it’s like to get a book written and into print”.