Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Happy birthday, Willie Nelson

He was born on 29 April 1933, which makes him 82 today.

So here he is in 1997 with his song “Funny How Time Slips Away”:

Tim Parks on writing and publishing

English novelist and translator Tim Parks (60, lives in Milan: well, you would, wouldn’t you?) has a column on the New York Review of Books blog about books and the book world. These have now been collected into a book, called Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books. More details here.

Melville House’s Mark Krotov and Alex Shephard interview Parks about it here. He is bracingly rude about the Nobel Prize (“obviously stupid”), condones the American literary world’s “healthy blindness” and sings the praises of CK Stead (“He is an absolutely brilliant guy. […] he’s a much smarter critic than I am. But, you know, who reads him? Nobody.”). He has a lot to say about publishing today. Very funny about Knausgaard and Murakami et al. Quote unquote: 
It was very different in the 1970s when I began to hazard a few words on paper. One was drawn in to this idea that there would be something noble about this profession, and that one might achieve a certain dignity. The more that goes on, the more life goes on, the more you feel how sick that project was. The whole publishing industry doesn’t really work in that way, and that kind of aim—which is just at the end a thirst for celebrity—is pretty depressing as an aim to pursue.

He also has views on how to make it as an international author. Two words: be American. Quote unquote:
About 70% of novels in Italian are translated, and about 70% of those are translated from America. So half what people are reading is American. They’re not reading from Czechoslovakia or Albania or Russia. They’re just reading from America.
So an American author actually doesn’t have to think about anything. He can just write and think for years for Americans—and in fact, everybody’s becoming Americans. So it’s not a problem for him. But if you’re in Holland, Norway, Sweden, even Italy, to a degree, then apart from the fact that you’ve grown up with the idea that lots of books came from other places and so there’s no reason my book shouldn’t go to other places— and apart from the fact that the number of people buying books in your country is much smaller—your chances of surviving on a book that’s totally in Italy is very small. There’s just a tendency to look outward more.

A NZ-born novelist friend who is big in Europe and has a high-powered New York agent echoes this: at that level, she says, publishers – and hence agents – want only novels that can be readily translated. Which makes it hard for a New Zealand writer writing about New Zealandy things in a New Zealandy way to crack the world. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

What I’m reading #126

Vincent O’Sullivan’s greatest hits, chosen by him from 16 of his 18 collections so far, plus eight new poems. A hardback, it is a beautiful object – the cover painting is Whenua Tapu Hills (2014) by Karl Maughan and it wraps around to the back – and sells for only $40, making it the bargain of the year. I have no idea how VUP can do it at that price. The poems are, as ever, astonishing. The book was launched mid-April and went straight to #1 in the bestseller list for fiction this week.

In the same list, John Daniell’s debut novel The Fixer enters at #8. That wasn’t his number when he was a professional rugby player, but I don’t think he will complain. Nice for John to have a bestseller, nice for Upstart Press who published it – and also nice for me. It is the sixth (at least) fiction book in a row I have edited that has made the top ten. I am lucky to work with such good writers.

Canadian novelist and poet John Degen on 5 Seriously Dumb Myths About Copyright the Media Should Stop Repeating. Quote unquote:
Anti-copyright activists love to invoke the specter of “big content” in their relentless drive to weaken artists’ rights. They claim protections under copyright really only help the bottom lines of huge corporations who grab rights from working artists. As a working artist, I am concerned about my contract terms with large corporations, absolutely  but at least there is a contract. The existence of a contractual offer for my rights means my right of ownership is being acknowledged and respected. I sure don’t remember being offered a contract for the use of my work when it was pirated online.
Guess who profits the most from this ridiculously inaccurate and misleading line of anti-copyright reasoning  giant corporations who have built a business model on free content.

My favourite first sentence of any book is this from Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, published in 1768 (the last sentence is equally good but too saucy to quote here):

— They order, said I, this matter better in France —

Which is almost always true. But not when it comes to meetings. We all hate them – meetings, not the French – but oil-and-gasman Tim Newman says that meetings there are especially gruesome. Quote unquote:
An inability to answer a random, irrelevant, and often daft question in a French meeting will demonstrate that a speaker is “unprepared”, and thus possibly unsuitable for promotion.  Hence he or she must “prepare” by stuffing their presentation with dozens of slides containing table after table of raw data in Font 8 or smaller, which are preceded by five or more slides of “context” containing sentences such as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and “When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.”  Given French presentations normally consist of the speaker reading the contents of a slide line by line, one after another, it’s no surprise to learn that meetings can run on for hours.
Accidental, suicide, homicide, heart-related, cancer: musicians’ deaths by genre. There is no entry for classical musicians, which is probably just as well. (Via Mick Hartley.)

Irish novelist John Banville tweets:
I don’t really have any interest in Jurassic World. If I want to go and see a bunch of dinosaurs, I can always attend an Aosdana meeting.
Aosdana is an association of Irish artists limited to 250 members and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland: “Membership is now open to architects and choreographers.” God it sounds dismal.

Terence Blacker on the Seven Ages of Authorhood. Quote unquote:
He is teaching creative writing, and so is she. It is not perfect, but they have to earn a living somehow.
On one occasion, they meet on a panel at a synopsis-writing seminar. Later, as they gossip listlessly about the decline of publishing, he wonders whether he has the energy to make a pass at her, while she works on an excuse to get away from him.
Julian Assange writes for Newsweek about How the Guardian milked Edward Snowden’s story. Quote unquote:
The Guardian is a curiously inward-looking beast. If any other institution tried to market its own experience of its own work nearly as persistently as The Guardian, it would surely be called out for institutional narcissism.
Julian Assange making an accusation of narcissism is like… Nope. Words fail me. Pot-kettle doesn’t begin to cover it.

Elizabeth Heritage for Booksellers NZ on Radio New Zealand’s coverage of books through reviews, interviews and readings. Quote unquote:
Marcus Greville of University Bookshop Otago agrees about the power of weekend radio. “I’ll often come into work to discover that a book that has been sitting in on our shelves unmolested for two months has suddenly sold out, and the first thought (and usually most accurate) is that it must have been on the radio over the weekend. I think National Radio reviews have a greater reach, in general, than print reviews; there’s something about the articulation of complex thoughts on the part of the author or reviewer, being able to detect the enthusiasm or excitement in a voice, or the frisson between the interviewer and author that can trump written reviews.”
So here is Donna Summer in 1983 with her 1979 song “On the Radio”:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #58

This is from the 23 April edition.
Campbell the best
Which path are New Zealand TV programmes taking? Campbell Live is one of the good programmes people like to watch in their TV.
There are very good questions put to the political leaders and others. Campbell does lots of research, investigates and then produces the programme and he is quick to put the next question depending on the answer he gets.
A few years ago, when Helen Clark was standing for a second term, there was a very good debate and Campbell had some well researched questions, which became a big story at that time.
Even just before the last general election, Campbell put hard questions to John Key. Viewers are well aware of all those questions and the answers they heard on TV. Is there a political reason as to why they want to get rid of this highly popular Campbell Live programme?
What other good programmes do you get in TV, other than violence and murder?
In 1990s, we were able to watch all cricket matches on TV. Now that has disappeared. In all other cricket-playing countries, all the world cup matches were on TV and everyone had the opportunity to view them live, the same as Campbell Live.
Even Radio Sports failed to broadcast all the cricket matches played in Australia and New Zealand.
Let Campbell Live continue for the benefit of all New Zealanders.
Mano Manoharan

As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Google Maps and the paleo diet

Helen Razer, co-author of A Short History of Stupid: the decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream, is not a fan of the paleo diet, or of Pete Evans who wrote the book promoting it as suitable for infants. This is the least sweary bit of her blogpost about it and him:
Even if we agree, and I believe that sometimes we do, that late agricultural practice is wanting and medicalisation can create as much disease as it cures, we cannot agree that you could find your arse with two hands. With two hands, Google Maps and a year of intensive arse-finding workshops.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

I am reviewed by Jacinda Ardern

Labour MP Jacinda Ardern is reading my latest book New Zealand’s Gift to the World: the Youth Justice Family Group Conference and she really, really likes it. That is, if her comment “this brilliant book” is anything to go by. I’m taking it as a compliment:

Friday, April 17, 2015

In praise of: John Daniell

To Auckland yesterday for the launch of John Daniell’s novel The Fixer. Craig Sisterson previewed it here; Jennifer Curtin reviewed it positively in the Listener here. Quote unquote:
As a former professional player in French clubs for 10 years and author of a couple of autobiographical-style books, Daniell is well qualified to reflect on the mercenary-like nature of the modern player and the potential for corruption that we tend to associate more with cricket. Being Rugby World Cup year, it’s likely we’ll be inundated with non-fiction books dedicated to All Blacks history or reflections on rugby by players past. Daniell’s novel makes a refreshing change and contains no boosterism. Rather, the story is a sobering reminder that all is not perfect in the world of union, and that the men and women who play the game are entirely human.

The launch was great. John gave the best author’s speech I have ever heard at a book launch, because it was the shortest I have ever heard. He thanked his agent, the late Michael Gifkins, for making the book happen, and that was it. Excellent.

John Daniell is huge. Possibly contains multitudes. He must be 6ft 6in and has shoulders as wide as the Waikato river. He is a very nice man but is, frankly, a hulk. I have met a few All Blacks in my time – fun fact: I used to work with Graham Mourie and Stu Wilson – but John would tower over them. I was talking with him, Craig Sisterson (at least six feet and solid with it) and Greg McGee who – well, I have no idea how tall Greg is but he was up there in the gods with John. I was so glad no one was taking photos – I must have looked like Peter Dinklage beside them.

I made my excuses and sidled off to talk with Bill Ralston and Janet Wilson who confirmed some spectacularly good media gossip I’d had from our mutual friend Cathy Odgers, the best media gossip I have ever heard and I have heard a bit in my time. Michael Gifkins’s widow Anne. Greg’s wife Mary, whom I hadn’t seen for maybe 25 years. Our gracious hostess Sally, who in a former life was a brilliant PR operative at Penguin. A bunch of others. All people I like a lot. And all of them said, at some point, “What are you doing here?”

I said, “I edited it.”

Next morning I had coffee with my friend James Macky, the artist formerly known as James Allan, I told him the gossip story which, as a married gay man (as in, married to another gay man), he loved. As I was leaving, my former stepson, who was at same cafe with his partner, grabbed me. He – people overseas never believe this New Zealand zero degrees of separation stuff – was best friends at school with John Daniell. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

A modest proposal at Te Papa

Jill Trevelyan, author of Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer which won Book of the Year in the 2014 NZ Post Book Awards and Rita Angus: An Artist’s Life which won the Montana Medal for non-fiction in 2009, both published by Te Papa Press, writes:
Te Papa to axe its publishing arm
I wanted to let you know about a ‘change proposal’ that was announced to Te Papa staff on Thursday 9 April.
The proposal is to suspend all print publication within Te Papa Press for the next 4-5 years.
It includes disestablishing 4 positions at Te Papa Press: those of Claire Murdoch, Odessa Owens, Harriet Elworthy and Hannah Newport-Watson, ie every person who currently works primarily with print publications.
The reason for this ‘change proposal’ is that Te Papa is redirecting investment towards ‘core museum work’.
The proposal seems extraordinarily ill-conceived. If the objective is purely to save funds, the Te Papa Press budget is negligible in the wider context of the Te Papa budget.
And the dismantling of Te Papa Press would mean such a loss to the museum – in terms of outreach, nationally and internationally; credibility as a research institution; and brand excellence. Te Papa Press is widely perceived as one of the success stories of the Te Papa project, and its highly effective staff have an enviable reputation in the museum and publishing world. If they go, print publishing at the museum will never recover.
I can only surmise that Rick Ellis does not understand the work of Te Papa Press, and is receiving very poor advice from senior staff.
It alarms me that this proposal is being rushed through with great speed and secrecy: Te Papa is calling for internal submissions by 16 April. Staff have obviously been discouraged from discussing it with anyone outside the organisation.
Moreover, there is no evidence that the museum is seeking feedback from external stakeholders.
Given this tight time frame, I think the best option is to contact Rick Ellis directly ( to express dismay at the change proposal, and the secrecy with which it is being conducted.
Te Papa Press is one of our best publishers. (Disclosure: I have done some minor work on books for them in recent years.) The idea that you can redund the staff and suspend publishing for four years and then resume again is insane. Jill Trevelyan is right: Te Papa Press will never recover, which will be a huge loss to New Zealand publishing and New Zealand culture.

Onward, Christian soldiers

Quentin Letts writes in the Spectator about his distant relative Nicholas Monsarrat’s novel The Kappillan of Malta, whose central character is a priest, Father Salvatore:
One day he has lunch with the Governor of Malta, Lieut-General Sir William Dobbie. Monsarrat did not invent Dobbie. Dobbie was a keen member of the Plymouth Brethren. A veteran of the Boer War, he was once sent to quell some rioting in Palestine in the 1920s. ‘We will have to fight only four days a week,’ he said. ‘The Arabs won’t fight on Friday, the Jews on Saturday and I certainly won’t on Sunday.’
So here is Melina Mercouri singing “Never on Sunday” (“Ta Paidia Tou Piraia”) from the 1960 movie of that name: she won Best Actress at Cannes that year; the song won the Oscar. Ms Mercouri (b. October 1920, d. March 1994) was Greek’s Minister for Culture from 1981 to 1989.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

My life is good

For most of today there was a man outside my office trimming the neighbour’s hedge. It is a tall and long hedge, and his hedge-trimmer was very loud. He wore earmuffs: I didn’t.

So the only work I achieved was, just as I was sitting down to lunch, a phone call from a client who said, “I’ve only got a couple of minutes,” as if I were imposing on his time rather than him on mine, and who then talked at me for 25 minutes about his book.

Tomorrow morning I shall rise early and wrangle Miss 11 and Miss 13 so they will be ready to leave the house at 8am for the 40-minute drive to Kihikihi – which is very near Te Awamutu, Crowded House fans! – to be dressage runners at the Kihikihi International Horse Trial. These are the school holidays, which breed unproductive days.  

So here is Randy Newman, live in concert in 1983, with “My Life is Good”:

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Waikato Times letter of the week #57

This is from the 30 March edition.
Jobless fix
The Government is about to reduce uemployment to about half of one per cent. Information leaked to the blogger Dripping Tap advises that Government has decided to replace the lonely, single, slightly deaf Siberian who speaks English with a Scottish penguin speech defect. She is to be released from being the sole call centre person for the Trans Pacific Phone Answering network. Dribble & Puddle & Associates, consultants to Government, have advised John Key to make it compulsory for all phone conversations to be answered  by a real live person and this will bring back almost full employment. Blogger Dripping Tap is reliable, but like some in government, suffers memory loss and brain fade.
Barry Ashby

As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times. Regular readers may notice that the writer’s name and address format has changed but not – hurrah! – anything else.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Crime wave in Cambridge #4

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

Here is an entry in the police report from this week’s issue of the Cambridge Edition:
Tuesday, March 24
There was a call of disorder to a house in Stafford St where a male was heard screaming. On investigation he was found just to be excited watching the cricket.