Friday, October 31, 2008

The bedside table... groaning under the weight of books I want or need to read in November.

Currently reading:

Two little boys by Duncan Sarkies

The blurb goes thus: When Nige runs over a Norwegian backpacker while attempting to save petrol, his life really turns to shit. he chucks the body in a nearby road works and runs to his best mate of fifteen yers, Deano. Trouble is, Deano's not really the guy you should turn to in a crisis. This off-kilter tale of male camaraderie is a bizarre debarcle from start to thrilling finish.

The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh

A Career in Crime: Inside information from leading Women Writers.

On the pile to read:

Ngaio Marsh: Her life in Crime by Joanne Drayton

High Country Lark by Neville Peat

Edge: A cut of unreal by Martha Morseth

Poor Man's Gold: The diary of Reuben Radcliffe, Northland, 1899-1900 by Kath Beattie

The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan

And somehow, I'm sure there will be more...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

There were rotting corpses everywhere...

...and man, they could dance. So could the vampires, myriad of wizards and witches and the odd black cat. There's something quite heart warming about seeing a Storm Trooper and Luke Skywalker boogieing on down together in peaceful harmony. The universe is safe.

As you have probably guessed we have survived the school Halloween disco, although a lot of over-excited boys and girls with swords, axes, light-sabres and tridents left me wondering how I'd fill in the "Risk Management Evaluation" form in the case of an accidental beheading or evisceration.

Mr Six year-old wanted to go as a wizard, which was easy as he trotted out in the costume I'd made him for a friend's birthday party. Mr Nine-year old had slightly higher aspirations and wanted to go as Harry Potter, but not any old Harry Potter, no, he wanted to be Harry Potter in his Quidditch Uniform. Right.

So, being the indulgent mother I am, I've spent the last week drafting and sewing a Quidditch Gown, in Gryffindor red and gold and complete with house crest. Must say I'm pretty chuffed with my efforts and he looked very Harry with the appropriate pair of glasses, lightning bolt scar on his forehead and a broomstick.

Actually, I have to admit getting the ole sewing machine out and making it sing was quite therapeutic, even if it was a bit of a distraction from the writing thing. But hey, you're only nine once, and I bet you in 50 years time when someone asks him what he remembers most about primary school, it wont be the maths or the grammar he'll recall. No, he'll say he remembers the night he flew around a hall-full of the living dead, chasing the Golden Snitch to the beat of the Macarena.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Found, by a book

Isn't it funny how books find you. When a book you would normally never pick up or even take a second glance at finds its way to the top of your reading pile and afterwards you are left thinking, thank god!

I've just experienced this with Who is Sylvia? The diary of a biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner by Lynley Hood.

A diary of a biography you ask? Yes. After four years of intense work Lynley had published Sylvia! A biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner, in 1988. As part of the process of writing this biography, Lynley kept a diary, which was first published in 1990. With the recent 100 years anniversary of the birth of Sylvia, both books have recently been re-issued.

When I first picked up the book I thought, do I really need to be reading this, by the time I got to the first paragraph of the Authors note, my curiosity was piqued...

"For four years I was obsessed, or possibly possessed,by Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Her powerful presence was too great to be contained within the long hours I spent researching and writing her biography. I thought about her all day and dreamt about her at night. She invaded my life."

By the time I got to the first paragraph of the prologue, I was hooked...

"When this story began early in 1983 I was a forty-year-olf full-time wife and mother. My youngest child had been at school for over a year and I was thinking of rejoining the workforce."

My god, Lynley Hood, a woman I hugely admire and have to admit to finding a little intimidating, was at exactly the same stage in her life as I am now. I had to read on, I had no choice. Fate had thrown this book into my lap.

I was entranced, and roared through the book. It proved valuable in so many ways.

Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Someone whose name I had often heard, but knew little about. I learned a lot about this perplexing and larger than life woman.

The all absorbing process of writing a biography. If any one out there is even contemplating writing a biography of someone, you must read this book. Consider it a standard text, but a hell of an entertaining and personal one.

The journey of a writer. Lynley's personal insights into the changes and mental shifts she experienced during the course of this consuming project are wonderful. She is very honest in her feelings towards family as held separate from her writing. It made me feel a hell of a lot better about some of the thoughts that go through my head.

So here I am today, with an appointment later that may lead to one such consuming project, which I may or may not share with you all - such is the secretive nature of the writer, but I feel so much better armed having read this book. The timing could not have been more perfect.

So thank you Lynley, for sharing your journey and thank you to the universe, for the gift of this book.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Put that idea on ice

I've always had a thing for Antarctica, how could I not? The continent and I have are intimately connected - Lake Vanda, how kind of them to name a lake after me.

My artist and writer friend Claire Beynon has just returned for her second stint in Antarctica with the research team of Dr Sam Bowser. Claire's first trip to Antarctica came about due to an amazing set of chance meetings and an invitation she was brave enough to accept.

Claire has a wonderful website, which includes a section on the works inspired by her last Antarctic experience, and photos.

This being the age of the blogosphere she's set up a blog for this visit called Ice Lines, so we can keep an eye on her and make sure shes not getting up to too much mischief down there. Sam Bowser also has a blog Ice Labyrinth which tells of life in the day of a scientist, including battling with coffee pots and diving in Antarctic waters...brrrrr.

Claire and Sam participated in an Art and Science collaboration and had a lot of fun producing InterfaCE which is featured on Claire's website. As well as being a gopher for the science team, Claire is wanting to explore the Antarctic sound-scape during this visit.

Sam Bowser's area of expertise is studying foraminifera, minute but very clever and complex single celled organisms. After listening to them talking and seeing photos of these little beasties, I quite fell in love with the little critters. So much so, in fact, that a foram even makes an appearance in The Ringmaster, when Sam Shephard (not Bowser) is made to feel very small by her boss and compares herself to a foram. I had to fight for that foram. My editor said, no one knows what a foram is, use an amoeba. I said no way, it has to be a foram, they're clever and amazing and can fight dirty! I won.

I've often wondered if you could write a murder mystery in Antarctica. I recall writer Laurence Fearnley saying she had been considering it when she went to Antarctica as part of the Artists on Ice programme, but decided against it upon seeing the physical constraints of the buildings and lack of privacy. But then in 2000 Rodney Marks was in fact murdered in Antarctica, the continents first homicide, so the possibilities are there.

Of course the big question for me is, would I apply for the Artists on Ice programme to write a story set there, or would I be to big a wuss to go somewhere so extreme and out of my sphere of experience? But then if I did and was successful there would be the chance to see Lake Vanda - Vanda at Vanda. And if Claire can do it, and Laurence can do it. Hmmmm.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

So that's where I've been going wrong...

I was having a flick through The Crime and Mystery Book by Ian Ousby and came across these guidelines for crime writers according to Ronald Knox, writer of books such as The Viaduct Murder (1925).

These are his 1929 Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.

8. The detective is bound to declare any clues upon which he may happen to light.

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Damn, there goes my twin Chinese brothers murderous ghosts detective story.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Nourishing the roots - Burns online

I know I've prattled on a lot about the recent Burns Festival, and as you have gathered, I got a lot out of it.

But wait - there's more...

I finally got to the University of Otago Special Collections exhibition Nourishing the Roots, held in Brasch Court at the University Central Library, and it's a gem. Special Collections Librarian Donald Kerr asked the former Robert Burns Fellows for something to go in the exhibition, something preferably previously unseen or unpublished, and most of the fellows came to the party. The result is a fascinating exhibition with some gems, some nostalgia and lots of laughs.

I was going to do a posting about this exhibition and comment on the personal notebooks some of the writers put in, and in particular Laurence Fearnley's and Sue Wootton's, which are so tidy, and neat, and when I enquired I was assured, that yes, they are always that neat and tidy. Mine are a scrawly mess. Now the wonderful thing is - you can see for yourself - the entire exhibition is available online.

You must look at it.

Follow the link here and see the gems from the exhibition. It is beautifully set out so you can click on each Burns Fellow and see their contribution. Give yourself plenty of time - there's a lot to enjoy and ponder over.

In the meantime, I have ordered myself some large size Moleskine notebooks and have made a vow to get a whole lot tidier, because if by some miracle someday I'm rich and famous and they want to exhibit my memorabilia I'd like to have something people can decipher and that I won't be hideously embarrassed about. One can dream...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

All talked out.

Wednesday turned out to be a helluva busy day, with the usual motherly things and then Channel 9 Television's Dunedin Diary book reviews at 5.00pm and then giving a talk at the Dunedin Public Library at 7.30pm. Toss a migraine into the mix and I was rather knackered by the end of it.

So for those who watched the telly, and or came to the library talk (bless you) I apologise if I was a bit vague and gabbley. I did get to trot out my new frock for the library talk, because I thought at least if I feel like death, I can at least try and look like death warmed up.

My Mum was sitting in the front row - she's holidaying with us, down from Napier - so she finally got to hear me speak and give away all our family secrets. She didn't heckle me too much.

The purpose of the talk was to mark the centenary of the Dunedin Public Library, and I got to share the billing with the wonderful Jackie Ballantyne. We've tag teamed before, and really enjoy doing a double act. We were both delighted to receive, as a thank you gift, the newly minted Freedom to Read: A Centennial History of Dunedin Public Library by Mary Ronnie.

Here are my notes for the books I reviewed on Dunedin Diary. This is what I would have said if not distracted by Dougal Stevenson, migraine headaches, nerves and a dodgy memory.

A Year to learn a Woman, by Paddy Richardson

Claire Wright is a freelance writer and is commissioned to write a biography of notorious serial sex offender Travis Crill, which she accepts, despite heavy reservations because of the nice pay check, thinking that it will help set herself and her daughter up financially. Crill is incarcerated for his crimes and seems, on the surface a perfectly normal man from a happy upbringing. As Claire digs into his past she becomes completely absorbed by Travis Crill, trying to understand how this man became such a chilling criminal, to the point it starts to impact severely upon her own life.

Claire’s teenage daughter Annie is facing issues of her own with an all-absorbing friendship with the new girl at school, Savannah, whose manipulations start to pull apart her relationships with friends and her completely obsessed mother.

This comparison of what’s happening in the lives of Mother and Daughter, the differences and the similarities are what make this book a terrific read. It’s about isolation, physical and emotional and manipulation, and it’s one of those wonderful creepy books that make you squirm and feel uncomfortable on so many levels.

Presenting New Zealand: An illustrated history. By Philip Temple

This is a fact filled and fascinating history of New Zealand and is a new edition of Presenting New Zealand, which has been re-illustrated with historic photographs and paintings.

What I really liked about this book is that it gives the geological and social history of New Zealand region by region, and by doing so shows how very differently each area developed depending on the resources they had, harshness of climate and accessibility.
It gives a great overview of the Maori history of each region and then the effects of colonisation, farming, the gold rushes, the many things that shaped our nation.

The new illustrations and photographs are terrific and I felt, in particular the paintings of early settlers, and the view of New Zealand through their eyes was interesting.

This is a great book for anyone wanting to get an informative overview of our rich history, in a compact and very readable book.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Does a triple book launch = a flotilla?!

That was one of the questions posed by MC Jackie Ballantyne at tonight's launch of three books by three Dunedin writers.

The Dunedin City Library played host to a lively celebration of three lovely Dunedin ladies and the very different books they have had published.

Paddy Richardson has just had A Year to Learn a Woman, a psychological thriller, published by Penguin. I loved this book and will post my TV review of it tomorrow. The hilarious thing about this book is that while Paddy was feverishly working away on it and I was battling away with The Ringmaster, we lived, literally, three doors away from each other, and didn't even know it! So what does it say about our quiet little street that the two crime fiction books from Dunedin writers this year came from it's quaint old villas?

Kath Beattie has added to the Scholastic My Story series of books with Poor Man's Gold: The diary of Reuben Radcliffe, Northland, 1899-1900. Kath's family history is intimately associated with the Kauri Gum diggers and Northland and she related some of the little details which came straight from her family stories. Mr Nine-Year Old is lined up to read it - he's loved others in the series.

Martha Morseth has gone the way of science fiction and ghosts with Edge: A cut of unreal, which is a collection of short stories for teenagers. This book tackles right up to the minute technology and also future technologies - time travel anyone?

So three very different books, three lovely ladies, loads of supportive friends and relatives, and one great evening. It's all happening in Dunedin!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Island of the Lost

by Joan Druett.

Mr Nine-year old is obsessed by shipwrecks on Disappointment and Auckland Island, and because he's obsessed, I've become interested by association.

This book had piqued my curiousity when it first came out, and finally made to the surface of my reading pile. Well, what a book!

Instead of trying to describe it all, this is filched from the dust jacket:

"Auckland Island is a godforsaken place in the middle of the Southern Ocean, 285 miles south of New Zealand. With year-round freezing rain and howling winds, it is one of the most forbidding places in the world. To be shipwrecked there means almost certain death. In 1864 Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew of four aboard the schooner Grafton wreck on the southern end of the island. Utterly alone in a dense coastal forest, plagued by stinging blowflies and relentless rain, Captain Musgrave - rather than succumb to this dismal fate - inspires his men to take action. With barely more than their bare hands, they build a cabin and, remarkably, a forge, where they manufacture their tools. Under Musgrave's leadership, they band together and remain civilized through even the darkest and most terrifying days." Incredibly, at the same time on the opposite end of the island - twenty miles of impassable cliffs and chasms away - the Invercauld wrecks during a horrible storm. Nineteen men stagger ashore. Unlike Captain Musgrave, the captain of the Invercauld falls apart given the same dismal circumstances. His men fight and split up; some die of starvation, others turn to cannibalism. Only three survive. Musgrave and all of his men not only endure for nearly two years, they also plan their own astonishing escape, setting off on one of the most courageous sea voyages in history."

This was a riveting book - I devoured it pretty damn quick as not only was it a fascinating true tale, but Joan Druett's story telling ability is fabulous.

It was particularly pertinent for me as shortly after reading it the family went off on holiday to Haast, and did a lot of bush walks and stood on some pretty extreme and remote beaches. It gave me a sense of what these shipwrecked men were up against and the realisation that if it were me in their place, or any of us namby pamby, spoiled by technology and modern conveniences folk, we'd have been dead in a week, if that!

It was astonishing to think of the fortitude of these people, and those of that era who were hardened and skilled and ingenious. Musgrave and his crew built their own hut out of the remains of the Grafton, they even built a forge, for heaven's sake, to forge their own metal and screws in order to build a boat to get themselves off the island.

We in the modern day think we're pretty clever, but when it comes down to it we're completely reliant on electricity and our favourite fossil fuels and supermarkets to keep us fed.

It's an interesting exercise to take time and think, okay, how would I survive in this situation. In fact, the boys and I had some lovely games on holiday of what would we do? How would we build a shelter, what would we eat? How would we make sure we survived to tell the tale. The kids had some pretty good ideas actually.

Island of the Lost was a great read and thought provoking, and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

We don't know how lucky we are... in Godzone, where writers can do what they do without fear of persecution, imprisonment and even death. The worst thing I have to fear in my writing career is being trashed by a reviewer, but for many writers fear is a way of life.

Dunedin writer Penelope Todd wrote a very thoughtful opinion piece for the Otago Daily Times on the plight of dissident writers in Myanmar :

Where writers work under fear of arrest.

Penelope met Hnin Se when they were both attending the Iowa International Writers Residency in 1997. The photograph, kindly supplied by Penelope, is of the two of them during their time there.

I recall Penelope talking of the friendships forged during her writers residencies when she was a guest speaker for our Otago Southland New Zealand Society of Authors Meeting. The realisation of the risk some of these writers faced every day made a big impression on her. You can look at the blog post I did from the meeting here.

This is all a good lead in to the recognition of Courage Day on the 15th of November which recognises and honours imprisoned and persecuted writers.

The New Zealand Society of Authors has organised the screening of a controversial new documentary An Independent Mind which features writers who are lauded for their expression of freedom of speech, as well as those seen as villains.

The Dunedin Screening, marking Courage Day is on Saturday November the 15th at 7.00pm in the Dunedin City Library. There will be more about that in future posts.

For now, I encourage you to read Penelope's article, and feel thankful for the liberties we take for granted.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Enter a Murderer

The second book in my Ngaio Marsh Challenge is set in the theatre and had me wondering if I was going to cope with all the actors!

My copy is a 1983 Fontana edition with an eye catching, but unimaginative cover.

The back cover blurb goes thus:

Enter a Murderer, by Ngaio Marsh.

was committed on stage at the Unicorn Theatre, when an unloaded gun fired a very real bullet.

was Arthur Surbonadier, an actor clawing his way back to stardom using blackmail instead of talent.

included two unwilling girlfriends and several relieved blackmail victims.

The stage was set for one of Roderick Alleyn's most baffling cases...

I suppose I should have known that if I can't stand looking at the lives of actors and actresses played out all over the media in the real world, I'd struggle with their goings on and dramatics in a fictional one, so although overall I enjoyed the book, it did irritate me. Call it my inbuilt anti-histrionics-o-meter, but I did have an overwhelming urge to slap a few of them. Apologies to all the actors and actresses I may have just offended.

I think it will take me a few Ngaio Marsh books to settle in to the language of the day and learn to read them through my nostalgia tinted glasses, but I failed to warm to Roderick Alleyn in this one, and much preferred him in the first book, A Man Lay Dead.

Never mind, I shall push on, roll on the next book... The Nursing Home Murder...Hopefully no actors in that one.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In the letterbox today...

It's always a good day when you go out to the letterbox and there, plonked on top of the bills and junk mail is a parcel, a parcel containing a book.

This one came courtesy of Detectives Beyond Borders, Peter Rozovsky's blog for international crime fiction, based out of Philadelphia. I won it in a competition for suggestions of perfect commercial marriages of books or authors and Public utilities. I made a couple of suggestions, including suggesting Kathy Reich's could sponsor the Ferry service with her novel Fatal Voyage. I also suggested the Dunedin bus services could be sponsored by Random.

So what did I win for being cheeky?

The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan.

The publisher's website blurb states:

A sophisticated crime story of contemporary Ireland, The Midnight Choir teems with moral dilemmas and Dublin emerges as a city of ambiguity: a newly-scrubbed face hiding a criminal culture of terrible variety. Small-time criminals have become millionaire businessmen, the poor are still struggling to survive, and the police face a world where the old rules no longer apply. “Believe me, you want The Midnight Choir with you on holiday,” says The Sunday Business Post. “This is the kind of book you pass on to someone you like, and say ‘read this.’”

Excellent! Thanks Peter.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Here at the end of the world

The last session of the fabulous Burns Festival in Dunedin was a session on New Zealand Literature. It asked the questions What is distinctive about our literature? Who is reading it anywhere else? What responsibility does a writer have to the notion of a new Zealand Literature.

Phew, what a list of questions to pose, and what a fabulous panel of writers to pose it to: Laurence Fearnley, Catherine Chidgey, Elspeth Sandys and James Norcliffe who was interlocutor - a word we heard used with great hilarity and the occasional Canadian rounded vowels over the weekend.

Laurence Fearnley (2007) got first shot at addressing the crowd and the questions and indicated from the outset she would take a personal approach to them.

She talked of some of the moments that had shaped her literary life and captured her attention. The first she talked of was when living in Bravaria - she cited the well known image of of a stack of books burning in front of the old palace. As she didn't speak or read German she relied on the English language section of the library and where there were only four New Zealand books (Katherine Mansfield short stories, The Bone People, Once were Warriors and a screen play for the Piano, for those who were curious).

The first two lines of the Mansfield short story The Woman at the Store particularly touched her:

"All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground; it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so the white pumice dust swirled in our faces, settled and sifted over us and was like a dry skin itching for growth on our bodies."

Laurence said there was something about tussocks, actually, I believe she said "I love tussock," with the fervour of the smitten.

Likewise words from Dan Davin's story First Flight gave her the chills.

These writers captured something, they captured the silence in words, which is very hard to do and what Laurence tried to achieve in her own writing, to capture the little flickering light of candles. She felt that good New Zealand fiction looked back at us from a distance and did so with a lack of sentimentality. That those writers had that skill of seeking out the bruised core, emotionally and descriptively.

Laurence found reading Australian writing a good counterpoint to New Zealand writing, and vica versa, quoting Australian poet Laurie Duggan and The Ash Range.

When talking about writing about New Zealand she quoted Rawiri Paratene; "We are all story tellers," and believed we bear witness to New Zealand and if we didn't observe it, and record it, who would. No one would do it as well as ourselves. In fact in recent months she had been thinking being a New Zealand writer was too broad, she wanted to be a South Island Writer. She felt it was important to become more focussed and concentrated and look at our home turf and a writer needed to attach themselves to a piece of land and try to fathom it.

Laurence was, as always, witty and charming and passionate.

Catherine Chidgey (2005) opened by talking about her latest NZ book purchase, a book with the dubious title Nudism, is it desirable? (1937) by Trevor Bain and used it as an illustration of how chance discoveries lead to more and the serendipity of research.

Although we had some distinctive writers, she found it difficult to answer the question waht makes New Zealand writing distinctive. The land looms large and New Zealand writing seemed to be shaped by open spaces, empty stretches, solitude and a proximity to the sea. In many ways she felt it resembled us as a young country, a spotty, stroppy, slightly ill at ease adolescent railing against authority.

But the themes we explored were shared by writers all over the world, in fact we shared far more than we liked to admit.

When talking on the question of who read us, she quoted Kate Mosse in that prizes bring us to international attention, and she was delighted when in Cork, Ireland to see a window display devoted to Lloyd Jones' Mr Pip, but when inside the only other New Zealand book she could find was The Bone People.

National awards and prizes did make a difference within New Zealand, but she feared that apart from well informed groups such as the audience here, only a handful of writers were known within our own country, which was in stark contrast to Ireland where all Irish writers were known. She longed for the day when writers here would become so embraced they would appear on Weet-Bix cards and children in play grounds would huddle around them, swapping them, I'll give you two Crumps for a Farrell, or a Baxter for a Tuwhare.

As for the question of writers having a responsibility to write about New Zealand, Catherine said no way, and that the Aussie's when asked a similar question had thought it an absurd notion. She felt it was a hallmark of an adolescent literature to expect this. She also questioned the way New Zealand writing was ghettoised in our book shops, with a section of its own when it should be mixed in to foot it with the rest of the world.

Writers needed to be able to write what they wanted, not feel obliged to write for New Zealanders or about New Zealanders. Place to heavy an obligation on writers and creativity withers.

It was a warm, humourous and compelling address.

Elspeth Sandys (1995) chose to talk off the cuff rather than have a prepared talk like the others. She felt these questions about New Zealand writing really needed to be asked of readers, not writers and that the readers would bring with them a response to the New Zealandness in your writing that you weren't even thinking about at the time.

She made observations on the writing received when she was a judge for the Katherine Mansfield short story competition about the cleanness of our writing and that we did poetry very well.

One of the greatest benefits to New Zealand writing in the last ten years, being political here, was having a Minister of the Arts who cared, and attended events, and this attention from the top filtered down to more in the way of grants. She said ten years ago within the writing community there was a jockeying for position and now there was generosity and a celebration of where we've got to.

She talked of the label of the New Zealand writer and suggested it was more regional than that. She suggested Laurence could be the great Opoho writer, and Catherine the great Hamilton writer. Countries were too vast and too varied to try and identify one type within them. Who would dare to try and identify the great British writer, for example.

Elspeth felt you couldn't talk about New Zealand Writers without talking about the market place, especially in this economic climate. The writer, persona, was now part of the business of writing as far as publishers were concerned and she felt it would be very difficult nowadays for a white middle class young male to get published, and likewise a grumpy, unkempt pensioner in a graffiti lined council flat, even if they'd written the greatest masterpiece. She quoted Gregory O'Brien on the "Art as business brigade."

James Norcliffe (2000) rounded off the session by talking of Bill Manhire's poem Zoetrope, and his encounter with a plaigerised version submitted to Takahe by a Canadian writer. He wondered what on earth the poem meant to this Canadian, when only a New Zealander, particularly an away from home one, as Bill was when he wrote this, could respond in that alarming the heart way we do when we encounter any word starting with Z.

He also talked of having work accepted for the Canadian Journal The Dalhousie Review including a poem called Hororata and getting a phone call from the editors who had conferred with all sorts of people about a possible meaning of this word with its obvious latin Horo root, but they were baffled. He took great delight in informing them it was something as prosaic as a place name.

He summed it all up nicely with the statement:

"You can take the work out of New Zealand, but you can't take the New Zealand out of the work."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Te Torino:

At the same time the spiral is going out it is returning.

This session at the Burns Festival, with a line up of Keri Hulme, Rawiri Paratene, Renee and Witi Ihimaera was always going to be eventful, and it didn't disappoint! Billed as a session where these writers discussed their times as Burns Fellows, the place of Maori writing in New Zealand literature, and read from recent work, Witi Ihimaera managed to achieve all this as well as dealing with early exits, late entrances and joining in the beautiful waiata provided by two lovely maori women in the front row.

The stage was set with the ominously empty chair of Keri Hulme, Booker prize winner for The Bone People, who normally shying away from literary festivals these days, everyone had come to see.

Rawiri Paratene (1983) was first up to speak as he had to make an early exit to catch a 5.30 flight to Amsterdam to shuffle down the red carpet for his latest movie premiere where he stars with Rutger Hauer, such is the life of a movie star. He could also easily fill the role of stand up comedian, as his performance was warm and very funny.

Rawiri talked of the image of spirals in life, art and writing, and said that whether your stage in life was coming into our out of the spiral, the thing that bound us all together was that we were all the same, we were all story tellers, from the accomplished author, to the little baby.

In talking of the effect of the Burns Fellowship in his life, he said when he was selected for the fellowship, the greatest work of fiction he had written up to that point was his Burns application form. He embellished it somewhat, saying he was working on a play that would be performed at some later date. When advised he was on a short list for the fellowship and they would like to see a draft of the play he had to scramble to write it in five days!

The point he made was that he may not have been a real writer when he went in, but he was a real writer when he came out. When he'd applied for drama school and they asked him why he wanted to be an actor, he had said it was so he could come to write the dramas. The Burns fellowship game him that opportunity.

He made plenty of good hearted jibes about Keri Hulme not turning up, and kept saying "don't you fellas tell her I said that." Oops, sorry Rawiri.

He finished with a poem poking the borax at the USA, saying we live in an era where blame is really important, its convenient, and so performed the hilarious and active poem.

He was farewelled from the stage, in dramatic style with a waiata and wished well in his journey.

That left two on the stage, set for four, and the turn of Renee.

Renee (1989) captivated and entertained with a story talking of her youth, her rather overbearing mother, discovering the real cause of death of her father in Gore and the finding of George the fourth, a cat in a line of childhood cats named George, this one from the Tuki tuki river.

George the cat featured greatly in the story which spanned to when Renee was nineteen and looking after her sister who was being wooed by a young man, also named George. You can imagine the confusion for George the man thinking he was the George being yelled at to get off the bloody sofa! The story was so warmly and beautifully told and in other hands could easily have been like an Irish misery memoir.

Renee said she applied for the Burns Fellowship to be in Dunedin and be able to make peace with her father's shade, to visit Gore, look up family ties and to bury ghosts.

She was charming and warm hearted and made an amazing impression on this blogger.

Just when we thought all was lost on seeing Keri Hulme in the flesh, she was welcomed into the room with song, and a clearly flustered and mortified Keri apologised for being late. She'd had it fixed in her mind that the session was at 4.30pm, instead of the 3.30 kick off, and was hugely apologetic to the audience.

Witi Ihimaera (1975) took the centre stage next, to allow Keri to relax and compose herself.

Witi said that in 1975, when he was the fellow, the Maori sovereignty movement was gearing up and he felt a dilemma as to where he stood in identity and politically. He felt quite lost in terms of whakapapa or tradition.

He said Dunedin and "Scottytanga" embraced him and his wife, and his daughter was born here, so his time as the burns fellow was important personally, aesthetically and politically. He used the Burns Fellowship tenure as a crucial time to remove himself from early conservation work, such as Pounamu, Pounamu and to secure his political identity here.

Here he worked on the book Net Goes Fishing, and on editing a collection of Maori work Into the World of Light, which then went on to be a series of eight anthologies of Maori Writing.

During the Burns Fellowship he developed a determination to stay different in a country where blending was imperative. He talked of his grandmother questioning him when he came home from school when he was a child, what did you learn today? Jack and Jill. She questioned, who were Jack and Jill? Why did jack have a crown? If he was silly enough to wear one he deserved to break it, and importantly, why did they go up a hill to get water? The same treatment for Little Miss Muffet. Who was Miss Muffet? What was a tuffet? Curds and Whey? Why didn't she just say Kia ora to the spider and put it gently out of harms way?

From this a little Witi learned to question and not believing everything everyone told him. To champion and get to know the Man Friday, the indigenous.

He finished with a reading from a story Meeting Elizabeth Costello, which illustrated, complete with nursery rhyme reference his point.

For Witi Ihimaera the Burns Fellowship allowed time to explore and confirm his identity and politics.

Finally we got to hear from Keri Hulme (1977) and what she called her 6 month Mini-Burns.

Again she apologised for being late and was clearly still mortified by her misunderstanding. But she was gracious in her talking and shared of how for her the Burns Fellowship was her first opportunity of being paid to write, which was a huge thing for her. Her application had included a chapter of what was to become The Bone People.

The Burns Fellowship, as well as giving welcome financial support gave her three important things. Firstly, access to an amazing library and resources. Secondly, access to people with amazing critical thought and intellect with which to talk and discuss issues, and thirdly, the first version of The Bone People was rejected while here.

She also enjoyed the Otago Museum, as she was always fascinated by archeology and welcomed the opportunity to talk with archaeologists and befriend them.

She closed by reading excerpts from the story Midden Mine, a story of archeology and ownership, which highlighted some of these loves.

Te Torino was a session with grand exits and entrances, song, laughter, warmth and discovery. Again, I left feeling I had been a part of something very special, and felt blessed by it. This is proving to be an amazing festival.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Nurse to the imagination

I have just enjoyed a wonderful hour at the Burns Festival listening to former Robert Burns Fellows Maurice Gee, Owen Marshall, Bernadette Hall and current fellow Sue Wootton talk about what the Burns Fellowship brought to their writing lives. The presence of Maurice Gee was a delightful surprise as the programme listed Ian Cross, the inaugural Burns Fellow, but he was unable to make it, so Maurice Gee stepped into the breech.

The session was chaired by Lawrence Jones, who is not a Burns Fellow, but has been in the English Department at the University of Otago since 1964, the year of Maurice Gee's tenure.
Lawrence read from Ian Cross' memoir Such Absolute Beginners, which gave Ian's voice and experiences to the session in absentia. I will now have to acquire the memoir, as it sounds a wonderful read.

Maurice Gee (1964) was astonishing with his candour and honesty in what was a difficult year in his personal life. He talked of the novel he worked on during his tenure and the highlights of being a Burns Fellow, but it was his admission of what would now be diagnosed as clinical depression and his personal situation which surprised the audience and made us realise what a special hour this was.

Owen Marshall (1992) was very animated and clearly enjoyed his year in Dunedin, including the more social aspects of life as part of the university and writing community. He proved he could be most persuasive by convincing the Robbie Burns Pub that they should sponsor the Robert Burns Fellows with some wine! It also confronted him with technology, with a computer supplied by the university after Lynley Hood's persuasion, which he determined to master, however basically. The tenure gave him the opportunity as a short story writer to get his teeth into a novel. As a father of a young family, it also gave welcome financial support and an opportunity to write full time rather than at the dregs of the day.

Bernadette Hall (1996) was charming and noted how supportive the fellowship had been of poets. She talked of the steel beams and strengthening supports put into place by the likes of Charles Brasch; brave people who supported the literature and the arts with founding Landfall Magazine in 1947 in a time that had been dominated by the second world war and again strengthened and girdered up this by establishing the Robert Burns Fellowship. We take for granted, today the infrastructure provided by literary magazines and fellowships, but it was founded by these risk takers and visionaries.

Sue Wootton (2008) talked of the connections the Burns Fellowship offered, with the past, with other arts sectors and fellowships. She also talked of the value of feeling selected for this, of a panel of unknown people choosing you as the recipient and of the effect of this on self-confidence. She talked of the value of a working space, especially in the life of a mother with a young family, where you could stare out the window for hours on end thinking, without having to justify it, or feeling the need to stick a sign on your forehead saying yes, I'm working.

All of the fellows talked of the honour of being selected, of the huge relief financially to be able to take a year paid to write, the value of providing that dedicated writing space and, for the majority, how it provided the platform to be able to become full-time writers.

Fabulous session.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Off again...

...this time on an impromptu trip with the kids to Queenstown to catch up with rellies. Although it's supposedly spring here, I had to drive through a bit of sleet and they had snow on the ground here two days ago.

After last week's West Coast isolation, at least here in Queenstown they have the modern coveniences of internet connections and espresso coffee!

I've brought along the next Ngaio Marsh book to read and have cracked into that this morning. So I'll think of everyone working hard while I while away the hours with good company, coffee, a novel and gorgeous snow-topped mountains to admire...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Write On Radio

It's Write On Radio Show day today, noon, on Toroa Radio 1575kHz AM.

This week marks the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago. Dunedin has been invaded by a host of past Fellows who are involved in talks during the week, and the Burns festival this weekend. The full programme for the festival, Nurse to the Imagination, can be found here.

Get along to as many events as possible. Almost every living Burns Fellow is in the city for the festival, so it is a unique opportunity to listen to the cream of New Zealand's literary community.

For Write On I'll be interviewing two former Robert Burns Fellows who have had works published in recent weeks.

Dr Philip Temple is a highly accomplished and versatile writer, whose list of achievements includes over 40 books published, receiving a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, being made an ONZM for services to literature and has been the recipient of numerous writing fellowships, including the Robert Burns Fellowship.

We will be talking about the recent new editions of two of his books, Beak of the Moon which was a bestselling novel in 1981 and Presenting New Zealand: an Illustrated History. Both of these books contained considerable re-writes in light of new research, and in Presenting New Zealand, new illustrations.

We'll also talk about the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Robert Burns Fellowship which Philip has been involved in organising.

Paddy Richardson is also a past Robert Burns Fellow, and has had recently released her second novel, a psychological crime thriller A Year to Learn a Woman. This is a departure from her previous novel and collections of short stories. We talk about the book, and why crime?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Back to civilisation, as we know it.

I have to say, after initial reservations and panic attacks about abandoning the computer for so long, a week away with no TV, internet, cell phone reception, newspapers or other trappings of modern life was bliss.

I will regale you with tales of my holiday in a day or two when Hubby flicks through some photos to decorate the post with. (My computer doesn't deign to talk to such underlings as cameras and won't allow itself to be sullied by CDs or DVDs)

Naturally I came back to a mountain of email, including a number of kind invitations to spend my money on all manner of sexual gadgetry.

I also came back to this from good ole' Peter Rozovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders. He has valiantly responded to my SOS for recommendations of crime fiction that never seems to grace our antipodean shores. Good on you, Peter!

Books to read on an island: The campaign for Vanda