December 21, 2011

On Reading David Foster Wallace (&Terry Pratchett)

I don’t remember where I read references to DFW that made me want to read him. Two volumes—A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider The Lobster—of his essay-type pieces later, I was glad I found him. He portrays his disgust (lobsters) and despair at what people do (that supposedly fun thing, going on a cruise) through accumulating detail and a particular way of writing from inside his consciousness. I like both, and imagine a lot of people don’t.

He uses some odd sentence constructions, like starting a sentence with “And but so…” which, until I got used to it, had me re-reading several times. He also uses some very long sentences.

In the short story collection, Oblivion, the consciousness he writes from inside of is his characters’, not overtly his own. This has a strangely bleak effect (affect?). In “Another Pioneer” the narrator is reporting a conversation he partially overheard on a United Airlines flight in patches of great detail. DFW does this a lot, gives great detail and then not much information—it’s hard to explain.

He seems to have a yen to convey boredom, presumably without being boring. He certainly doesn’t bore me. I’m sure my own interest in conveying everyday boredom arises from my experience of it as a child and young person. (I have seldom been bored in the last few decades.) The story “Mister Squishy” is wonderfully evocative of at least two sorts of boredom, one of being in a group being talked at, the other of presenting too-familiar material.

In “Good Old Neon” (which begins, “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.”) the narrator describes thinking about himself thinking about thinking. (I’m avoiding the phrase “stream of consciousness” because it seems to me what DFW is doing is different from that, but I can’t say how.) And this—thinking about himself thinking about thinking—reminds me, oddly, of Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men, which I have just finished. In The Wee Free Men the protagonist, Tiffany, refers to her own ability to have first, second and third thoughts. The context and circumstances are where she is trying to hold on to her own, real, self in the face of a Queen who wants to put her in various dream spaces (yes, The Wee Free Men is one of 30+ books set in Pratchett’s fanstasy land, Discworld). Whereas DRW is concerned with solispsism, Tiffany is looking outwards by looking inwards. Or something. Anyway, one reminded me of the other.

Another thing DFW does with sentences is now and then make an ungrammatical statement, like, “The next time or next thing I wanted.” These sentences are placed, carefully, I suspect, as a kind of summary—or extension—of what precedes them.

The phrase “the loneliness of solipsism” comes into my mind as I write and I am not sure whether is it my phrase or one I came across reading about DFW before I started to read him. This in itself was unusual for me, I generally prefer to read an author before I look at others’ opinions, but I had accidentally come across descriptions of his writing as “difficult,” “challenging,” and so on, so decided some preparation was in order.

When I finish the short stories, it’s on to his novel, Infinite Jest. A novel with 388 footnotes. Did I mention DFW excels at asides?

November 20, 2011

Recent Reading

In my last post, I promised another one soon about some of what I have been reading. Here it is.

I’ve had a Henry James jag, reading four of his twenty or so novels. Portrait of A Lady was my first read and my favourite. Isabel, its protagonist, wants to be an independent, free-thinking woman and to be good, by her own lights, which means authentic and real. Of course this is doomed in the long term. But how interesting for a protagonist of that time (pre WWI) in a book by a man to be so concerned with her own identity. This carries into The Wings of the Dove, about another independent, rich woman, this one ill.

The protagonist in The Ambassadors is male, though concerns with authentic identity, and an authorial focus on introspection rather than plot, remain. There is plenty of plot in all these books, but it is almost secondary to the characters’ thoughts about themselves, their motivations and their relationships. The same applies to The Spoils of Poynton, the fourth book of my James-jag. Of course, he is much studied and discussed in sophisticated ways I don’t even touch on here, and he writes beautiful sentences.

I think Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a worthy winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.
It’s a novel that deals with the complexities of memory, and how we reinvent and reinterpret our past actions. It’s beautifully written. I hadn’t read any Julian Barnes before and now I will.

Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie was also short-listed for the Man Booker. It’s a good read, but harrowing in the gruesome details of harpoon-whaling and a long lost-at-sea stretch . Jaffy, in whose voice the story is told, is on the whaling ship as one of a small group of men seeking exotic animals for wealthy collectors in England at the time.

Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table is set largely at sea, and is written from the point of view of a young person, but those are the only similarities with Jamrach.
Three unaccompanied boys meet by being sat on a passenger ship’s most lowly dining table on a voyage from (then) Ceylon to England. The story is told by Michael, looking back. There are flashes forward to his later life, but the action of the story takes place on the ship. Great writing, great characterisations, great insights from the point of view of the young Michael.

My son lent me The Watchmen, a (mostly) graphic novel (is that the right word?) written by Alan Moorhead, with visuals by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, first published by DC comics in 1986. This is satire at its best.
I had to concentrate hard to follow what was going on, but it was worth the effort. Graphic novels require a different kind of reading from straight text. I’m not sure what exactly that difference is, and have never read anything about it, but suspect it’s got something to do with paying as much attention to the images, and how they are arranged, as to the words.

I picked up Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind because I so admire her novels. Absence of Mind consists of four essays in which she argues, more elegantly than I can say it, that “mind” (introspection, belief, self-consciousness and so on) is more than “brain”. It’s a dense and fascinating read. She argues for “…the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception and though.”
There is, she says, a human mind and consciousness that is more than can be described by closer and closer descriptions of the human brain. This is a fascinating book that I will read again.

Over the summer, I plan to read David Foster Wallace.

November 12, 2011

A writing fragment that grew, and the work of self-publishing

The writing ideas that come to me lately are fragments, bits that don’t seem to go anywhere. Most of them get written down somewhere, so maybe one day some of them will come to life and grow. A fragment that grew into something, I think, is at the end of this blog entry. It’s called Sentences, and might well end up in the collection I am making, that might be called, Stones Gathered Together.

With the help of my friend Jill, I have devised something that might do as a cover for the ebook version of my finished novel, Where the HeArt is.

I’m still gathering permissions for using the quotes in that book. And the copyholders of A A Milne’s material said, “No.” I can’t use three lines from his poem “Disobedience” because, as they say in their letter, “The Trustees for the Estate of Milne feel strongly that quotes for the poems should be restricted to matters directly relating to children or in children’s literature.” This is the first time I have been turned down. Other copyright holders (most notably for Emily Dickinson) wanted to be paid rather a lot for quoting two lines, in an earlier book, so I changed the quote. In Where the HeArt Is I refer to ED’s poems, but don’t quote any directly.

Because there are a number of references to works of visual art in Where the HeArt Is, and because I don’t have the resources to either get permission to reproduce them or print them, I have put a list of where each one can be found on the internet at the back of the book. In the ebook version, this is hyperlinked to the text.

I am about halfway through the formatting needed to upload the book to Smashwords, which is a vehicle to get books distributed to all the major ebook retailers except Amazon. There is a way to get onto Amazon’s Kindle listing, but I haven’t sorted that out yet. And then there is the business of accepting that one third of anything I earn from online sales will go to the US tax department, or going through a daunting process to get an exemption, as someone who does not live in the US. There’s a great deal of work in self-publishing! Then there are blurbs to write, and online "marketing" to figure.... I have dome some work on how to let people know my book is there online. More of that in a later post.

There is also a whole lot of reading going on in my life. I’ll put some of that in a separate post. Soon.

Here's the fragment that grew:

This is a sentence. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.
Full stop. (Fool, stop!) The noun, the name, is the anchor, the key. The article tells us it’s one. Solitary. A verb is existence or action.
(‘Is’ is bang in the middle of prison.)
‘This’ is a word. Not naming but definite. This, not that. This only. This ‘this’ only. Contains ‘is’. Existence contains ‘is,’ appropriately. ‘Lives’ contains ‘is,’ only with some rearrangement. Gone, dead, death, no ‘is’ in there. Gone has ‘no’, or strictly speaking ‘on’. ‘No’ is ‘on’ backwards but can you go backwards from gone? But finished has ‘is.’ You can take any idea too far.
‘I am’, said Descartes and McCahon and no doubt many others. Well, me too. I write this, therefore I am. If I don’t write this it doesn’t prove anything.
Gertrude Stein wrote ‘Rose is a rose is a rose’ in a poem. In this line, the first ‘Rose’ is purported to be a person. Later, she wrote, ‘A rose is a rose is a rose,’ which, according to Wikipedia, ‘is often interpreted as meaning “things are what they are,” a statement of the law of identity.’ Later again, in Four In America, she said, ‘Now listen! I’m no fool. I know that in daily life we don’t go around saying “is a … is a … is a …” Yes, I’m no fool; but I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.’
With Gertrude it’s hard to tell exactly what she meant, you have to ride along with her sentences, waiting for the occasional sense of something to float into your mind. She wrote: ‘I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,’ (And had a passion for the full-stop.) Gertrude wrote about paragraphs as well as sentences, which is getting way too complicated.
‘To be or not to be [a mother] that is the question.’ And a sentence. Either way, in the end, you have to live with it. And, either way, it’s a life sentence.

October 3, 2011

On my way to an ebook

I’m getting to grips with Goodreads, really, I am. Other people seem to find their way around these sites with ease and aplomb, while I stumble along trying to figure out what a “friends” are in this context, and do I want them.

Puddling around on the net looking at ways to promote an ebook leaves me with a feeling that thousands of us, looking to find readers for our book—preferably paying readers—are circulating the same information over and over again, with varying levels of gee-whiz type hype. As each of us is probably a reader we are our own audience. Why do I get a picture of snakes swallowing their owntails?

What about readers who don’t write? (I know there are some.) They don’t have the same motivation to make their presence known. What’s the point of setting oneself a “challenge” to read x books by the end of the year? Or having books you might like selected by an algorithm, based on what you’ve read before? I guess it’s a variation on browsing in the bookshop or library.

I have finally made the decision that I will publish Where the HeArt Is as an ebook as soon as I get it ready and do a print version next year. I’ll use Smashwords — known as an aggregator site, because it distributes ebooks to a whole lot of different outlets — because I know how to do that, and how to format a book to their requirements. Am gathering permissions to quote from various poets.

And it’s a fiction book, a novel, not a [name your genre] novel; my impatience with the genre-focus of a lot of internet material on publishing continues.

I’m going to mention only one book I’ve read recently,and that's Sorry by Gail Jones. It sat on my to-be-read pile for ages. It’s a terrific Australian novel about some well-drawn characters. Their lives, in northern West Australia mainly, are hard and tragic, but it’s a compelling read. One of the aspects I really liked about this book is that the social context is there, hovering in the background, unmistakable, but the story concerns the characters and their lives. It does not preach.

August 29, 2011

To sell or not to sell, is that the question?

I’m gathering information about marketing using online resources as preparation for self-publishing my novel, Where The HeArt Is early next year. This has me thinking about the whole business of marketing and promotion, which I made such a bad job of with my earlier novel, Take It Easy. Now that I have a better idea of what I hate about marketing and what I will never get around to doing, I’m working towards a plan.

As I will publish a very small print run and an ebook simulaneously, a lot of the publicity will be on line, and that means using the dreaded social media. Facebook, aaarrggh! I hate facebook. I’m certainly not going to dump daily book promotion on my facebook ‘friends,’ nor am I going to send a barrage of emails to everyone on my contacts list.

There are all kinds of alternatives, such as using readers’ sites like Goodreads and Librarything and I’m teaching myself about them. And there’s something called a ‘blog tour’ which involves getting other blog writers, who write for readers, to ‘interview’ me on their blog about my book. Or write a review on their blog.

There’s a wealth of ‘how to market your book’ information out there on the web, a lot of it obvious, some objectionable and none delivering magic bullets. Some of it is free, but a number of the people offering it are writers wanting to expand their income stream. Fair enough, but I haven’t found any online course or publication on book promotion that I wanted to buy yet. I’m after some good evidence that the advice on sale has something to offer that I haven’t worked out for myself or read in three other places, before I spend any money.

There’s a big focus in a lot of the material on marketing on identifying a genre and then the audience for that genre. I write fiction. I suppose you could say adult fiction, though there’s nothing “adult” about it. Fantasy, romance, young adult, crime, horror, the categories of genre abound. My book is a novel. I don’t want to be a genre. "Literary fiction" seems pretentious, other qualifiers of fiction just don’t fit.

On the reading front, I am pleased to have finished The Brothers Karamazov.

I’m not sorry to have read it, but I did find it a bit of a slog. Three brothers, not to mention a bunch of other characters, anguishing about themselves, their humiliations, whether or not they love or hate this or that person, and their place in society and rushing in and out of rooms, wrathfully, or in some kind of despair, on urgent business they may or may not get to in the next few chapters ……. There are some fascinating themes; for example, whether people can be "good" without belief in a God and an afterlife. Many times as I read I thought of another writer, or a contemporary situation that Dostoevsky could be referencing. “I think it’s better to get acquainted before parting,” made me think of Gertrude Stein. And, “If everything on earth were sensible, nothing would happen,” reminded me of every television series or soap I ever watched.

Kathleen Jones’s Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller

is a tour de force of a biography. It’s a full and fascinating tale of KM’s life and writing. Her writing of course lives on after her, and Kathleen Jones spends some later chapters examining what happened to her writings after her death. John Middleton Murry was unbelievably mean about money while KM was alive and self-serving in his productions from her unpublished writings. There’s a different portrayal of KM’s relationship with Ida Baker from any I have read previously. Ida was the one who most reliably cared for KM in her illness, even if she often did it ineptly. Steadfast is the word that comes to mind. I liked the way Kathleen Jones ended this book; a lot of it is necessarily concerned with KM’s ill-health, but at the very end KM exits her story as a writer.

I may have to give up reading David Vann, his books are so bleak. The harshness of the Alaskan landscape he sets his novels in is one thing, the terrible, gut-wrenching awfulness of the relationships among his characters is too much. Caribou Island is beautifully written, and the characters are totally convincing and so, so hopeless. One character muses, “…in the end you feel what you feel. You don’t get a choice. You don’t get to remake yourself from the beginning. You can’t put a life back together in a different way.” I agree with this, but in the context of Caribou Island it becomes just too fatalistic.

I don’t know what I’m going to read next, which is unusual. Not that I’m panicked about this, I have several piles to choose from.

August 5, 2011

With a knee operation and subsequent bad reaction to medications behind me, I am now back to reading and at least thinking about writing and publishing.

I'm stumbling along with The Brothers Karamazov, finding it, well, overwrought. Am also noticing how contemporary some of its concerns are and actually improving my understanding of what christianity/religion can mean to people, mainly through the character of Alyosha, the youngest brother. So I’m far from giving up on it, but reading other things alongside.

Re-reading Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live: A Life of Montaigne, is a delight. Bakewell is most impressive in the way she brings together historical context, what is known of Montaingne’s life, his reading and influences, and of course the ideas in his Essays. His ideas about how to live are worth thinking about, though at times I get annoyed with them.

J.M.Coetzee’s Diary of A Bad Year runs three versions of itself across the pages. Along the bottom of each page, separated by a thin line, is the story of a (not overtly sexual) relationship between an aging author and a woman in the same apartment block who types up the manuscript of a collection of thoughts he is writing. Starting a little way into the book is another stream, from the woman’s point of view. Across the top half - and more - of each page are the ‘thoughts’ of the author. I decided to read one strand at a time, starting from the one at the bottom of the pages, and this worked for me. As did the whole book. I admired it and enjoyed reading it and found the ideas of the short essays interesting, particularly the early ones about the state and the succession of power.

I’m finding it hard to think about the publishing of the new novel. There’s still a little editing to do, but that’s no reason to not at least settle on the beginnings of a plan. (Made a phone call to a friend, got more energised, watch this space.)

It seems a long time since I wrote anything new. There are a couple of ideas in there somewhere, I need to shake them out and see if they go anywhere, which means settling down at the computer and getting some words down.

I have written up the China travels, with photos, and put the file up on the web. You can access it at
without having to sign up for anything or identify yourself.

Tian'an Men Square, Beijing.
There’s no way to comment, if you want to make a comment come back to this blog or email me.

July 10, 2011

Not a travel blog

While traveling in China I did little reading and no writing. It takes a lot of energy to travel, especially when you don't speak, read or write the language and it is very very hot

There were sights to delight and amaze, beauty to revel in , history to wonder at, and experiences to cherish, along with a few times when it was overwhelming, and that not in a good way.

And there is nothing like walking on the Great Wall with a crowd of Chinese tourists, thinking about the history and the lives lost in its building, and the invasions from the north that it was built over time to counter. It looks like the pictures, but being there is something else. Thirty-five degrees-plus temperatures put shade at a premium and I wasn't the only one using my umbrella to create some.

At the other end of our trip in more ways than one was how they hang out their washing in the lanes that run along the canals of Suzhou. Pagodas, gardens, temples, street scenes, food - there is so much more I would say if this were a travel blog.

Once the further impediment of a knee operation is behind me I have resolved to get moving on the project of publishing, one way or another, my latest novel. And new writing to do. And reading. I'm well into The Brothers Karamazov, with a pile-in-waiting, so my next post will be back on topic.

June 2, 2011

Books, again

The reading goes on. Always.

Diana Athill’s Life Class is four of her memoirs in one book. The last one, Somewhere Towards the End, written when she was 89, is a riff on aging. How about this for a sentence: “What dies is not a life’s value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self’s awareness of the itself: away that goes into nothing, with everyone else’s.” (page 667)

She makes many references to her “secret sin,” which she calls laziness and which I thought more of a disinclination to do things she didn’t like doing. Is that laziness? I suppose, as so often, it depends.

How about this —

"…when men form ideas about God, creation, eternity, they are making no more sense in relation to what lies beyond the range of their comprehension than the cheeping of sparrows. And given that the universe continues to be what it is, reagardless of what we believe, and what it is will always continue to be the condition of our existence, why should the thought of our smallness in it be boring … or, for that matter, frightening?" (page 579)

She manages to be very self-revealing without telling anything much about anyone else—not her tales to tell, she says somewhere—except the subjects of some chapters about her life in publishing as an editor. The Jean Rhys chapter made put Smile Please in my pile of books to take away with me.

Along with nearly everyone else, I think Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad is fabulous. (Steve Braunias, on a television book show thought it a failure of a book.)

After the Wall by Jana Hensel is a book I read only because a friend from our school days here in New Zealand in the 1950s, who has lived in Berlin for many years, sent it to me. It’s a story - a memoir, I guess, by a woman who was 13 in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. She spent her childhood in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) of East Germany, in a Young Pioneer group, among what she calls, “cheerful propaganda.” Then her generation was expected to forget all that and be assimilated into the western world of Germany at large. Her and her friends’ parents stay put and become unemployed and disappointed. “They hadn’t marched through the streets [in 1989] for the way things were now.” And Jana Hensel’s generation have lost a sense of their origins because, “we soon forgot what everyday life in the GDR was like with all its unheroic moments and ordinary days.” It’s a poignant and moving story.

I chose Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness for our book group. After reading the first story, “Dimensions” I was again in awe of her writing. Yet the story was so bleak I could barely bring myself to read on. Others in the book group found the view of humanity too bleak for their taste, and one loved the writing and the insights into people who live through what life throws at them as best they can.

Munro can pack a lot into a sentence. Here’s just one example: “The two women were not particular friends, but they were cordial about clothesline arrangements.”

May 31, 2011

When is a poem …

I tend to write poems when they happen, in a way distinct from my prose writing which I make a fair effort to keep up, even when I’m struggling for ideas. This one I am not even sure is a poem, it’s more like prose in short lines. When I tried arranging it in standard prose paragraphs though, it died on the page. It’s certainly not a prose poem because they have a blocky shape, which this doesn’t.

It’s enough to get one thinking about what’s the difference between poetry and prose and after looking this up in a few places I conclude, for now anyway, that the difference is largely one of intent. So do I intend this as a poem or a prose piece? I don’t actually mind. It’s a piece of writing that has this shape on the page and call it what you like.

The conversation in the first part is “real.” I made notes as I eavesdropped on the train; I could never have invented what these two people say.

I’m very interested to hear what anyone thinks about this piece of writing. It’s easy to leave a comment, just click on the word “comments” preceded by a number at the bottom of the blog, write in the box that appears and click “post comment.”

I'll do a separate blog about what I've been reading.

Going Somewhere

The girl on the train
tells the boy sitting opposite
she’s only got three months to go
to pushing this thing

She’d rather push it out, she says
than be cut open.
Yeah, says the boy.
Terry’s partner has had hers
says the girl, she had to have
a caesarian, her baby was
eight pounds eleven ounces.
How old is she? asks the boy.
Fifteen, says the girl.

How old are you? asks the boy.
Sixteen, says the girl.
Well, that’s the end of your life,
says the boy.
Yeah, says the girl.

He’s got his student allowance
and he’s going to Porirua
to buy a game, says the boy.
The girl is going to Wainuiomata,
she doesn’t say why. She hopes
the train isn’t late or she’ll miss
her connection.

He smokes a packet of rolly
in two and a half days, he says,
rolling one for when he gets off the train.
You smoke more, says the girl, when you
roll them in advance. She takes
a sip from a bottle of orange liquid.

Have you thought of a name yet?
he asks.
Nah, it’s real hard, man.
Porirua. His stop.
Seeya. He flips a hand. She puts
in earphones.

She is beautiful, with a long smooth neck
shown to advantage by silver ear-rings that dangle
low and hair pulled back in what we called
a pony-tail. Big blue eyes. Perfect skin.
A profile that could be on an Egyptian vase.
There’s a silver stud in the middle
of the dip just under her lower lip.

Her hands are delicate and too small to lift
a crying baby in the middle of the night.

Later that day,
there are two young women on a bus,
sitting on the sideways seat at the front
with a boy child — you can tell by the clothes —
with four front teeth
and an empty chewing-gum packet to play with.
He sits between them, contented, while they talk.

The young woman who is not his mother
looks at the boy. ‘What did you do at the weekend?’
She asks him. ‘Did you get drunk? Party?
Have you got a girlfriend?’ She looks at his mother
and they both laugh, and the boy laughs
and offers her the gum wrapper.

She goes on doing that thing people do, where an adult has
a conversation with another adult over the head of a child,
now and then directing a look, a wagging finger, a sound, a smile
towards the child, and looking away before the child responds.

The child seems happy. At their stop his mother picks him up
easily, and slings him on her hip while she talks to her friend
about whether that shop over there is Dan Carter’s
new fashion underwear store
and they step
off the bus

April 26, 2011

Learning from the Best

Three of the seven publishers I sent queries about Where The HeArt Is have said no, the other four are yet to respond. I am not entering the slough of despond about this, have decided to not think about it until we get back from a June trip that edges in to July. So, in mid-July I'll think about what next with it.

Which then reminds me of re-reading Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red because I have been reading a series of lectures he gave recently about writing. He's one of my favourite authors, and I also like what he writes about writing. I had forgotten things about My Name is Red, like the awful

way the apprentices are treated, including being sodomised by their “masters.” I was, however, fascinated all over again by the miniaturists of late fifteenth century Istanbul and how they ply their trade and deal (or not) with influences coming in from Europe. It’s a fascinating book on a number of levels.

The online reading group has finished Dostoevsky's The Idiot and started on Demons (also known as The Possessed) next week. If you want to join in, go to The writing in The Idiot was somewhat overwrought for my taste, but I did get into it. D's issues are big ones that remain relevant, like what does it mean to be "good" and how society and the individual influence each other, and so on. Here are

some choice phrases to illustrate my designation "overwrought: "exclaimed with spiteful vexation," "said impatiently and wrathfully," "grinned bitterly and sarcastically." The word "wrath" (and its derivatives) is used over and over; I'll be looking out for it in Demons. And I noticed that Pamuk uses "wrath" several times in My Name is Red. Mind you, the latter is set in 1491 Istanbul, it would be harder to use in a contemporary setting but what are the odds against me giving it a go sometime soon?

I’ve started Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad, which is causing a stir on bookish bits of the internet, and just won the Pulitzer.

The best commentary I have seen on it is at the New Yorker Book Bench, which you can access without being a subscriber at

I am playing around with other kinds of writing. I did an exercise involving analysing a short story and writing one to reflect it in several aspects. I chose a Lydia Davis story, and as she doesn't do plot in a conventional way, I had to selectively follow the instructions. The story I wrote myself is inconsequential, but it feels as though it was a worthwhile thing to do. Nowhere near as good, of course, as Lydia Davis. I am reminded of the way artists used to — maybe they still do — learn by making copies of works by famous painters.

Here’s the story I wrote after examining the Lydia Davis one. I am encouraged to show it by the fact that the other members of my writing group liked it. I have incorporated their excellent suggestions. I’ve been thinking about the writing group and how it works a lot lately and will write something about it and take it to our next session and see how other members feel about me publishing in here about it.

The Visit
Dad asks how my studies are going and I say "Good," which is partly true. There's no way I could explain to my father the ways in which they are not going well. It would take forever, and he wouldn't understand anyway. So, good is the right word and doesn't tell the half of it; I could never explain how having my mother's piano would make a difference to addressing what my teacher called "the emotional void" in my "technically excellent" violin playing.

Wanting something from an elderly parent is difficult, especially when the something you want is emotional for you both. Joe has come to support me but he doesn't understand why it's so difficult to ask. In his family they just ask, and people just say yes or no and that's an end to it. Also, I we have different ideas about all kinds of things, like sometimes I think he's shouting and tell him to stop and he is surprised and bewildered. Shouting makes me curl up like a quivering ball inside.

Joe told Dad a funny story that happened at his work and that made us all laugh. Everything felt less tense and that meant it was a good time for me say what I wanted, but I was enjoying feeling more relaxed and didn't want to spoil it. Then Dad started one of his stories from the old days and he kept referring to me and saying that's how it was, wasn't it girlie, and I would say yes. When Dad opened the photograph album on the coffee table, I felt Joe looking at me intently and I knew he was sending me a message to get on with it. I was getting on with it. Joe like sthere to be a straight line between things, the shortest route you might say.

It wasn't long before Dad had to pee and he said he'd put the jug on for a cuppa while he was up. I said I would help (I didn't want him carrying hot cups) and went into the kitchen. Joe followed. Of course he wanted to know why I hadn't asked yet, and I said I had to do it the way we did things in my family. He shrugged and noticed how dirty the kitchen was and got down some cups and washed them thoroughly.

Dad came into the kitchen and said he'd make some cheese and crackers. We said no need and Dad got the sulks and went on about how he could still make sure we didn't do the drive home without eating something and he knew it was no good inviting us to supper so the least we could do was have a snack before dealing with the motorway. He had some gingernuts somewhere too. Joe said all right then. I knew he was trying to do things my way. I got down a plate and washed and dried it. They both looked at me as though I was being a fusspot then looked at each other and smiled.

Getting us something to eat had cheered Dad up; he positively bounced back into the sitting room and let us carry everything, forgetting about the photographs and the old stories. He and Joe started a conversation about the cricket and Joe said he thought South Africa would take the World Cup and Dad said, no, India, and they chatted away about spin bowling and slow wickets and short outfields and I didn't say anything. Neither of them gave the Black Caps a chance. While they talked about the failures of New Zealand Cricket to bring through young players, I watched the dust particles dancing around in the sunlight, and thought about getting a cleaner for Dad and how to get him to agree to that. But not today, there was something else today.

For an hour or so the two of them talked sport and I practiced what I would say in my head. And wondered whether the itches around my ankles meant there were fleas. The conversation between the two men drifted to a close about when I was thinking that probably half the people in the world liked talking about sport and half didn't.

Then I asked. And Dad said yes right away. He hadn't played a note on that piano for years, of course we could have it moved to our place. Dad and Joe got to talking about carriers and arrangements.

I thought about how the afternoon had started off with me and Joe on a mission to get something from Dad, then shifted to me and Dad and the past, with Joe on the outside, and again to Joe and Dad and the plate then the cricket, and when I asked it was easy, and Dad never said a word about how much that piano had meant to my mother and that straight lines weren't always the best way to go.

March 29, 2011

Gathering writing, and what I'm reading

A new story I started isn't going along so well—seems lifeless—so I'll leave it for a bit. Certainly I'm lagging on the new writing front, though I am revising and reworking the existing pieces I am gathering together.
Last year I took part in StoryADayMay, which produced some of those short pieces, but I don't think I'll do that again this year. I have signed up, at the same website ( for their warmup. Plenty of resources regarding keeping track of ideas and websites, most of which I won't use, though I'll check out some (more!) websites. The thing I am finding with websites is that it takes a fair amount of trawling to come up with a few that really offer something I want. Stands to reason, of course, how many books are exactly the book you want? The first actual exercise was to write a twitter story (a story in 140 characters or less, including punctuation and spaces). Here's mine:
When I met my husband he was married to my sister. Family gatherings at Christmas are so twentieth century. (108 characters)
On a recent visit one of the Spinifex publishers, ( Susan Hawthorne, left us a pile of books including My Sister Chaos by Lara Fergus, which I have just read. It's a strangely compelling tale, about twin sisters from a nameless country that they left as it was breaking up in turmoil. Only minor characters have names. One sister is a cartographer and is obsessively mapping the house she rents. The arrival of her sister disrupts this process. An original and disturbing novel about obsession and trauma. I recommend it.
I'm still collecting phrases from Dostoevsky's The Idiot with the idea of trying to write a story "in the style of". Phrases like, "said impatiently and wrathfully," and, "with a strange ardor." Hmmm. One of D's preoccupations is that we appreciate life only when we know we are close to losing it—only when we have some kind of death sentence do we appreciate that we have life. I don't agree with this myself. It goes along with another concern of his that if one doesn't believe in an afterlife, a crime such as murder, especially when one is close to death, has no consequences. I can’t wear this; it may have little consequence for the perpetrator but does for others, and our humanity demands a regards for others, even when we are about to die. (If we have no regard for others we cannot expect them to have regard for us and our well-being, which would make for a very sorry world.) For an online  group reading Dostoevsky see
I often have a non-fiction book going at the same time as I am reading novels and at the moment it is Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Belos, with the subtitle, "Dispatches from the wonderful world of mathematics." The jolly tone of the title is largely absent from the text, thank heavens. At about halfway through I am enjoying his explorations of areas like tesselations, equilateral triangles, the history of number systems, pi and so on. I'm enjoying it. I imagine it is too basic for anyone who has a real mathematics background, which I do not.
Re-reading The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan (aka as Carol by Patricia HIghsmith) after about thirty years is proving more of a treat than I expected. I'll say more about this in a later post. 

March 7, 2011

Truth, writing, reading, rejection

"The paradox of the arts is that they are all made up and yet they allow us to get a truth about who and what we are or might be." Seamus Heaney in Finders Keepers, Selected Prose 1971—2001
A conversation with my son has me thinking about truth-telling and how a poem, a song, a story, can carry truth that has not much to do with relating a string of events. I think maybe it's more than a paradox, it's a glory of the arts that they "allow us to get a truth." Like a truth of the tragedy of my sister. The week in which this conversation took place had been a medically dramatic one, culminating in my having a pacemaker inserted; hence, in part, the gap between this blog entry and the previous one. All, as they say, is now well.
Writing, however, has flown out the window and left behind a dearth of ideas and inclination. Fortunately, I believe both will return, and to help them along I have gone back into my journals of the last couple of years to see what I have recorded from what I have read and what notes and observations I have made. That's where I found the Seamus Heaney quote. I've pulled out Heaney's book of prose writings to re-read.
As I read Dostoevsky— currently near the end of Part One ofThe Idiot—along with an internet-based reading group led by Dennis Abrahms ( I wonder about Dostoevsky's overblown prose and characters who seem to stand for ideas or aspects of Russian society and life. He is such a contrast to my own pared-down writing about characters in their everyday lives that, in my mind, stand only for themselves; examples of the human condition, if you like, rather than exemplars. I'll have a go at writing a few Dostoevskyian paragraphs, paragraphs that are unlikely to ever see the light of day, but I might learn something from at least trying to write in such a different way.
Here's how my reading goes sometimes, in a process I really really like. I'm reading Dostoevsky, along with DA and co, and in a London Review of Books see a review of a book called The Possessed: Adventures with Russian books and the people who read them By Elif Batuman, of whom I have not previously heard. So now I am reading that and enjoying it a lot and wondering about having a go at reading one of her subjects, Isaac Babel, who I have never read before. I'll try a library copy first.
I've had three rejections from publishers I have submitted my novel to. The last one was a clearly non-standard letter. It stated clearly they wouldn't publish my book, said they don't give feedback and suggested three other publishers (I've already been rejected by one of those.) It was a good letter; straight-forward, with a tone that was neither patronising nor dismissive. I appreciate that.

February 15, 2011

99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry - the book

This book is written by Paula Green & Harry Ricketts and Published by Vintage, 2010. I've been trying to figure out why I like it so much. It's got range and depth of knowledge of the field (NZ poetry), it's well written, it looks beyond the canon for examples, it's sensibly and interestingly organised … I could go on, but there is something less tangible here, something that really gets to the "ways into" poetry aspect of it.
The combination of thematic and chronological works well. Here are the sections: Poetic Forms, Poetic Contexts, Poetic Features and Effects, Poetic Identities, Rites of Passage, Ways Into Writing (New Zealand) poetry. (This last in ten excellent pages, including a splendid two-page Tool Kit.) Within these sections, chapters (up to fourteen) toss out ideas, examples, opinions and so on in an entertaining and informative fashion.
The first section, Poetic Forms, is my favourite, maybe because I grapple with writing poems, (though I wouldn't call myself "a poet"). If I was looking for a form to carry a poem idea, a ballad, say, or a sestina or sonnet, I could come to this section—via the excellent index—and find out about it without being turned away by demonstrations of superior knowledge. Paula Green and Harry Ricketts certainly know much more of these subjects than I do, that's what makes them interesting. They present their knowledge in a friendly, "come and join in" sort of way, emphasising the usefulness of knowing a form and the freedom in contemporary poetry to adopt it, adapt it, or experiment with it.
The whole book is nicely laid out, with break-out paragraphs defining some of the key ideas — modernism for example — plenty of boxed poems to demonstrates points made, and a number of statements by poets about how a particular poem that is included in the book came to be.
My quibbles are physical; the book is a hefty three kilos, on shiny paper that is hard to read in some lights, especially the boxed poems, which are in faint print. And the cross-referencing parentheses are so conscientious as to becoming annoying at times.
If you like the following two sentences—the first is from Paula Green, the second from Harry Ricketts', you'll enjoy, as I did, the way this book is written.
Wedde has neither abandoned nor cauterised the motivation of the odes that preceded him, but daringly challenges the reader to accept the ode as a vessel for what might, upon first glance, appear oxymoronic, 'the sublime commonplace.' (page 55)
… many … recent New Zealand poets are 'tough,' difficult, but not impenetrable, provided the reader remains unafraid and is prepared to work away, following the poem's arc of thought. (page 420)
There's a history of poetry in New Zealand in here, and an exploration of canon-building in ten pages. The writers have done a pretty good job, as far as I can tell, of including the "left-outs" (Maori, women ……) and acknowledging the canonical (Baxter, Stead et al) throughout the text, in special chapters and in the full poems they have included.
I think what makes me delight in this book is the pleasure the writers take in their subject, the scope of their considerable knowledge and that, having read it, I am even more inclined—and better equipped—to read poetry. Read it, buy it, make sure your local library gets a copy, recommend it to your friends.
Here's a poem of mine that was published a few years ago in a Poetry Society anthology.

My mother’s name was Margaret.
She disapproved of Lauris Edmond.
I gave her a copy of Hot October
because they had both lived in Ohakune.
"Oh," said Margaret with her special, disapproving
sigh, "What a run-around she gave that poor
husband of hers. And all those children!
He was well-liked, you know, a good headmaster".

Margaret was, however, loved and respected
by all four of her grandchildren.
She treated them like real people, they said,
listened to them, and sent money
instead of judgements when they were students
or unemployed and it was a cold winter.

We became a thin family, cousins,
and aunts driven off by that disapproving sigh.
Death, sudden, did the rest, punched holes
in the threadbare family fabric.
Margaret, widow, 78, herself died alone,
probably painfully, likely from choice,
before the daughter who chose her own end
and the grandchild who succumbed to
smoking and bronchial pneumonia.

Lauris Edmond, 75, died the other day.
In an obituary she is described as, ‘the great
New Zealand poet of parents and children.’

February 3, 2011

Books, books and a new project

On the subject of querying publishers, things are proceeding slowly. Various life events have intervened, including a dead internet connection for three days. Four queries have been sent off, there are three to go. Each one takes about three hours, by the time the synposis, letter, bio and so on are adapted to each publisher's requirements. It's a shade less aversive than marketing/promoting an actual book, so I am doing it, and will continue to the end of my list.

I'm still reading 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry, by Paula Green and Harry Ricketts and still enjoying it and continuing to be most admiring of how much they know and how they put it together.

The great birthday pile (see photo above) is as exciting as ever and promises much excitement and many treats. An early one is The Torchlight List: Around the world in 200 books by Jim Flynn. This is a small attractive book that takes a thematic look at how to get an education about the world, through reading great literature. Some extracts from his opening:
"I want [people] to be able to understand the world, rather than just be swept along … with no real comprehension of what is happening to them. … you need to know something about science, and nations other than your own and their histories, and the human condition."
The 200 listed books are supplemented by sublists. Counting from just the 200, I find I have read 39. Is that good? Or bad? I don't know, and it doesn't matter. It is illuminating to see where my gaps are - I have read few books about Spain, Portugal, South America, for example. Jim Flynn gives pithy descriptions of the books he lists and his own candid opinions of them. It was fun to read.
Now I'm onto my next writing project, which is gathering together short pieces I have accumulated over the years that I may be able to shape into some kind of collection. I fancy having 60 in total, which means writing some new ones, but I'll do the gathering first and see what I've got. Here's an early draft of what could possibly be the first piece in the collection:
An Opening
He was twenty-two when he died, a soldier in another country’s army fighting a different country’s war in yet another country, felled by support fire from a friendly gun. A full military funeral was called for, and held in the country of his origin, though that country was none of the earlier ones mentioned.
Family members flew around the world to bring his body home and his coffin sat in his parents’ living room for two days.
“I thought they usually had the coffin open,” said someone.
The funeral was a stage-managed affair on all fronts, at all levels. His sister bought some expensive high-heeled shoes in bright yellow, especially to wear with her short black skirt and tight black top. The family is well-connected. The army is well-connected.The funeral was in the cathedral. Joint ops. Lies were told about the man who died. Well, not outright lies, but that combination of exaggeration and omission that make someone look better than they were.
A woman was there who had no business being there, except she cared about an extended family member who would be there and perhaps sidelined. As one who did not believe in any god, she had not been to the cathedral before and admired the colours in the stained glass windows. Between the karanga calling in the coffin and the trumpet playing of the last post as it was carried out on the shoulders of slow-marching soldiers there was no tangible emotion, except for a stranger sitting beside her, who sobbed quietly throughout and appeared to know none of the family.
During a reading of verses from Ecclesiastes, widely known through a Seekers’ song, a gentle pop in the mind of the woman who had small business there turned into an idea for making a whole bunch of her short writings into something real and formed; “stones gathered together.”

January 21, 2011

A query is not a pitch

Oh dear. I gave my last blog post the wrong name. I should have said “query,” not “pitch” in the title and in the plog post itself. In my rambles around the internet I stumbled upon the blog of Janet Reid, literary agent ( and discovered the following:

"A pitch is short (VERY) and verbal.
A query is short (250 words, but not 25) and written.
A pitch is face to face.
A query is not.
A pitch requires some set up: my novel is finished; it's a historical romance; it's 78,000 words.  That helps your listener get ready to hear your pitch.
A query starts with the name of the main character and what problem or choice he faces.
A pitch is about 25 words.
A query is 250."

So now I know. And so do you. I am querying publishers in New Zealand re my novel. Seven of them. Each wants something different: a different length synopsis, more or less sample chapters, and so on. Have posted two, and have two more nearly ready. Response times vary between two and four months, and by all accounts (the extremely low percentage of unsolicited mss that get accepted) are most likely to be negative. Why am I doing this, then? I guess I want to try out the system before I grapple with knotty problems like confronting my own inabilities in the marketing area, the pros and cons of print on demand, ebooks and so on.

I am reading 99 Ways Into New Zealand Poetry, by Paula Green and Harry Rickets. It’s a fabulous book, a “how to read poetry” with oodles of examples and a mass of cross-referencing. It’s also an overview of New Zealand poets and poetry and the various ways they have clumped, or been clumped, together over the years. And the writers give poets who are women their due place and comment on ways they have been denied this place in the past. And there are useful short breakouts which are definitions of things like modernism and romanticism and some lovely covers from poetry books and photos of poets and pieces about their poetry by some of the poets and all in all it is a stunning cornucopia. I wish it wasn’t so heavy and the paper was less shiny, it’s hard to read in bed and/or some lights. Otherwise, it’s an education in a book.

A  novel that’s been on my to-read pile for a while that has just made it to the top, is The Housekeeper + The Professor, by Yoko Ogawa. She’s written a lot of novels in Japanese, some have been translated into English, some into French. A charming story involving a single mother and her son and the professor with a memory problem she housekeeps for and maths. It’s built around the excitement of numbers. I loved it. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the bits about baseball — which incidentally involves pitching, which we all know I am not doing.

January 13, 2011


I've made a decision about the-novel-known-as-Ann. Actually, I've made two decisions. One is that, for now anyway, the title will be Where The HeArt Is. (The capital A in the middle of HeArt is deliberate.) I need a title because I'm going to offer it to some publishers. Not with any great expectation of success, but because it seems closer to what I want to do than self-publishing, or publishing it as a ebook only, which are the other options I have been thinking about.

So, I've been reading the internet about "making pitches" as it seems to be called and have written a "hook" and a synposis and am working on a "query letter." Most publishers' submission guidelines ask for these plus the 2 or 3 opening chapters. I have identified seven publishers in New Zealand that I will send to, carefully following the (different) guidelines for each. Most want printed, not emailed, submissions: for their "slush pile," which is publisher-speak for unsolicited manuscripts. Here's the "hook":

In Where The HeArt Is (52,000 words), forty-two-year-old New Zealander, Ann Williams, has intimate encounters with art treasures as she travels in New York, Washington DC, London and Paris, after losing her partner to another woman and her university job to redundancy. In the first three cities she is visiting relatives, at the instigation of her mother.
During an extended stay in London to help the family of her cousin, whose twins are two years old and whose wife is pregnant and afflicted with day-long 'morning sickness', she has an intimate encounter of a different kind with a librarian. The librarian, Suzanna, is a black citizen of the UK and insists on a 'present tense' affair — no sharing of past histories, no future planning. All the while, Ann seeks answers to her own questions about who she is and how she will determine her future when she returns home to New Zealand.

I am also going to send a "pitch" to an agency firm in the UK. I think my novel is more suited to the UK than to the US, and I liked the website of this outfit. I've never had an agent, but I gather to get a book published overseas you need one, so I'll give it a try.

Why aren't I including the names of the publishers and the agent? Because I found them in relation to my particular novel, and I think that is a useful thing for everyone to do, seek out publishers etc specifically for their own project. The website at has a list of members with plenty of information about each one.

So, that's the next couple of days' to do list. Here's where I'll be doing it:

January 4, 2011

Writing Dilemmas & Reading Pleasures

At the beginning of a year I tend to go back and read the notes I made the previous year on what I had read. One of my reasons for doing this is a very bad memory for names. Another is that I like to record quotes from the book that struck me when I was reading it. These are not necessarily  what I would note if I was doing a critique of the book, more things that remind me of something, or relate to an idea I’m thinking about, or even something I am writing.

This was brought home to me as I re-read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which I first read a year ago and which is our reading group choice for January. The things I noted a year ago, and the things that struck me second time round are distinctly different from each other. The Lacuna stood up well to re-reading and I recommend it.

I have completed another revision of the-novel-known-as-Ann and made a list of all the poems, writing and art works that are quoted from or referred to in it. Now I will give it to a new reader, someone who hasn’t read any of the earlier versions and who has a perspective on an aspect of the story that I am keen to get input on. And nervous about.

So, deciding how to go about getting it out there, so to speak, is looming. I’ve been published by regular publishers, and self-published, so I know my way around. I’ve also kept reasonably up-to-date with what is happening in the epublishing world. So I know about the options. All have their pluses and minuses. I don't expect to sell a lot of books/ make money; I write about the lives of people to whom big, dramatic events don’t happen, although personal trials and tragedies do, and my protagonists are lesbian.

The biggest downside of any form of self-publishing, for me, is marketing and publicising, because I hate it and so don’t do it. It’s not that I can’t do it, more that I am overcome with resistance and fatigue whenever I set out to.

Watch this space as I figure out what I will do.

I don’t have another novel idea in mind, but I do have a lot of short pieces, some short stories, others shorter than that, which I will do some work on and gather together and see if they make something. If an idea for a short story or poem or novel comes along, I’ll go with that, too.

Whatever else. I’ll keep reading. Here are some of my favourite books from last year’s reading:

Burnt Shadows  by Kamila Shamsi. (She was at Writers & Readers)
Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Re-born Early diaries of Susan Sontag, edited by her son David Rieff
The Graveyard Book & American Gods by Neil Gaiman (he came to Writers & Readers too)
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Room by Emma Donohue
Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins
How To Live: A Life of Montaigne By Sarah Bakewell.

The Montaigne book is a real treat, and I strongly recommend it — one of those biographies that looks at the man and his work as a whole. I gather it will be out in paperback this month (I read a library copy). Two fairly random quotes from it:

“Montaigne … Saw himself as a thoroughly ordinary man in every respect, except for his habit of writing things down.”

Montaigne thought “that the solution to a world out of joint was for each person to get themselves back in joint: to learn ‘how to live,’ beginning with the art of keeping your feet on the ground.”