Monday, March 30, 2009

The delights of Jekyll and Hyde

Here's my kitchen bench in the morning. A book, reading glasses, the Faber diary, a coffee in my favourite Fulmer cup and - just out of shot - a laptop for quick clearing of emails. I like to stand at the bench first thing as I do too much sitting the rest of the day. The sad thing is the rest of the day isn't going to hold the joys of novel-writing as I have too much paid work to do: poems and reviews to mark for the Massey Uni students I teach, an article for an Israeli newspaper about researching The Blue, and finishing off an essay for local lit mag JAAM which has its deadline tomorrow.

I love doing all these things but I love doing them on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or the weekend, but unfortunately deadlines - and a lack of focus on my part in the latter part of last week - mean it's got to be today, Monday.

At least I've had time for a little research for the novel today. It's the small book you can see in the photo - a clean 1963 Thomas Nelson edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - bought at a local book stall yesterday for a dollar. A dollar! I've never read it, and now I am writing a novel which explores the theme of the double, I keep falling over references to Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson's story is more about a divided self than a double, really, but in a strange way the double in literature is a divided self: two people who are the same and yet different, who aren't meant to be together by the laws of nature, and whose natures/personalities seep into and change each other.

Many fiction writers keep away from fiction that follows the same themes as their own, some even avoid fiction per se while they are writing. I personally find that whenever I hit a difficulty in my writing, reading a damned good novel gives me clues on how to deal with the problem and move on. Although I am still struggling with reading novels which use the same themes as mine - the seepage between one like thing and another can happen in fiction too often without the author realising - on the other hand, it can provide a richness in terms of reference and serve to push a writer off into other unexplored directions having seen the lie of the land. So I'm hoping for the latter with my one dollar book, but am still deciding if I can go the next step now and read Dostoevsky's The Double and Saramago's The Double.... Okay, so there is such a thing as too close...

Meanwhile, I am loving Stevenson. What fabulous story-telling, dense characterisation and atmosphere, carefully laid suspense. Here's what I've just read on the page over from the one shown in the photo:

[Background: An elderly man has just been murdered by Hyde in the street. A maid witnessed it. Mr. Utterson is a lawyer and the novel's point of view and a letter addressed to him was found on the body of the murder victim.]

This was brought to the lawyer the next morning before he was out of bed; and he had no sooner seen it, and been told the circumstances, than he shot out a solemn lip. "I shall say nothing till I have seen the body," said he; "this may be very serious. Have the kindness to wait while I dress." And with the same grave countenance he hurried through his breakfast and drove to the police station, whither the body had been carried. As soon as he came into the cell, he nodded.

"Yes," said he, "I recognize him. I am sorry to say that this is Sir Danvers Carew."

"Good God, sir," exclaimed the officer, "is it possible?" And the next moment his eye lighted up with professional ambition. "This will make a deal of noise, " he said. "And perhaps you can help us to the man." And he briefly narrated what the maid had seen, and showed the broken stick.

Mr Utterson had already quailed at the name of Hyde; but when the stick was laid before him, he could doubt no longer: broken and battered as it was, he recognized it for one that he had himself presented many years before to Henry Jekyll.

Excerpt from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R.L. Stevenson

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Feeding the Fish

Apart from feeding the fish - I just love this little widget - I have been feeding my novel. Scrawled words in the A4 moleskine notebook are starting to find their way into the laptop again. See the picometer on the right to see the way it's crept silently upwards after months of languishing.

Of course, the exodus from the moleskine isn't a direct thing. Words have a habit of changing as they move around, and they leave some of their number behind and gather in others I had no mind to include. But the wonderful thing is Precarious is swelling again, pinking under the skin, back to life. And I am deeply excited.

Yesterday, I had an epiphany about the motivation of the main character - I weary of novels and films where the character's motivation is always grounded in their life's experiences - bad and they act bad, good and they act good - you know the drill. In The Blue I let the reader decide whether the way the characters acted was entrenched in their natures or wrenched from them as a result of what befell them. I still don't know myself but I have my suspicions. For Precarious, I wanted something else to shape why my character is a precarious person in terms of her identity - and yesterday I got it.

The idea had been forming after a chance remark made by a customer in the bookshop the other day. One of those comments which spills with story and you long to know more. But the customer had to leave before I could get more out of her. Little did she know she left the story trailing behind her, and I caught the end of it, pinched it off and put it in my pocket.It is simply the most perfect reason for how my character - Nicola - acts. Now I can start laying out the clues. The first one was laid this morning ... a woman comes into the shop (a dress shop in the novel) and ...

I think I'll leave it there.

Oh, and if you haven't worked it out yet, click on your cursor to feed the fish.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

This ain't a song for the broken-hearted.

We were on the highway from Quebec City to Ottawa. We'd been driving for hours and for much of the way we'd been in the middle of a blizzard which had whited out everything except the power poles. Black ice had made the Cherokee rental car slide badly but Alastair with his Indiana Jones hat on had wrestled it back each time, and Caroline had kept things calm with that gentle Canadian way she talks about things, and every now and then handed out homemade cookies. Gaby and Issy screamed at the top of their lungs when the car aquaplaned and slept through the rest of it, Nicky snapped away with Caroline's camera (odd shots of dilated nostrils and the whites of eyes), and I just did a lot of talking, I guess, and filming snow-ploughs and glimpses of men fishing through the ice.

After four hours or so, we were nearly on the home stretch - tired, cramped, bored. I slid an unknown CD into the slot and pressed play.... and up it came: the rough-edged listen-to-me sound of Bon Jovi, and a song that is more than a song it's an anthem about being well and truly alive despite life's vicissitudes. And we all sang along, or rather shouted, despite the ice and the under-pressurised wheels of the car, despite the bitter cold, despite the distance travelled. And we played it over and over and over until our voices were hoarse, too, and - adapting a line from Elizabeth Bishop - victory filled up that rented car.

So often we look back and see things differently given what has happened in the meantime. But how can that be? Each one of us experienced the drive from Quebec City differently, there's no doubt, but we all felt - I think - that we were on a mission, brought together because some of us were family and the rest of us cared enough. When Bon Jovi played in the car that day, the last vestiges of whatever it was that separated us were forced out of the window and we became something overlapping and noisy: that open highway, Bon Jovi talks about. We can't ever go back to the trip in mid January 2009 with the blizzard and It's my Life blaring, but each time I play the song, I am inside the car again, feeling the marvellous thing we became; and it seems to me that the experience is independent of us all, and of all we've done since and will continue to do. Complete and unassailable. Alastair, Caroline, Gaby, Issy, Nicky, me and Bon Jovi.

I dedicate the song to Alastair and Caroline for all those reasons.

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's Monday - I must be writing...

...but the son studying music at uni has had his lecture cancelled so he's home all morning swotting for an exam on Monteverdi, and the rain means the son who is a builder's apprentice can't work at the building site so he comes home and flicks on the latest NZ rapper on Youtube and calls me over to have a look, and daughter is home sick from school with a cold and is on the couch nearby reading ... so instead of a quiet house and space to think, I have this:

Actually, the rapper video isn't half bad. And right now, everything is quiet again. The builder has driven the musician to his exam in town and the Jane Blonde fan is in the bath.

Oh but here's the dog, silently but eloquently asking for a walk.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The First Touch of Light

A bitter-sweet review to deliver on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon show this morning. In front of me was Ruth Pettis' highly accomplished novel The First Touch of Light [Penguin 2009]. Ruth Pettis is the pen-name for Dianne Pettis who died last year aged 53. Her first novel Like Small Bones was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Prize and readers who loved it have been waiting for her second novel, and now here it is - also, regrettably, her last.

I met Dianne twice in Wellington four years ago when she was studying fiction and poetry at the International Institute of Modern Letters. She impressed me with her sensitive and poetic approach to writing fiction, and her determination to learn as much as she could about it and to keep writing despite a diagnosis of cancer. I was wrestling with The Blue at the time and made sure I read the perfectly-formed Like Small Bones.

Dianne went back to live in Dunedin shortly after that and, like me, became a book reviewer for the Nine to Noon show. I was stoked when she was slated to review The Blue in 2007 because I knew by then she had a very fine understanding of what made a book tick. It was one of the best reviews I had, and certainly the one delivered with the most passion. The only thing was, Dianne was very sick even then and her voice was terribly strained - almost at a whisper. She'd worried she wouldn't be able to do the review, but she did it, over the phone propped up in bed, straining to get the lovely words out. I am forever grateful to her for that.

So here now: The First Touch of Light. The full review can be heard here.

In brief: It's 1940 and George enlists to go and fight in North Africa and Italy in WWII. First he marries Ellen and this is the small misstep on which a tragedy unfolds. George is traumatised by the war - written in superb detail by Pettis - and doesn't write home. Ellen suffers from this and the four years he's away devastates their relationship. Ten years on Ellen leaves George. Fifty years on, the daughter Beth goes to Italy to see where George spent the war and try to understand him better. The novel is about the terrible tensions in a marriage and inside an ordinary man, and the extraordinary circumstances that caused them. There are three voices: George, Ellen and Beth's, and the reader moves seamlessly between them and the three different times.

[It strikes me that the key themes in The First Touch of Light are shared with The Blue, except the stressor is a different, earlier war. And in fact, there is a growing body of NZ fiction that explores the business of war and its broader impact on people in this country. Patricia Grace's Tu is another one.]

Pettis' writing in the novel is sublime; from the first word you know you are in accomplished hands. Every word is purposeful, polished, translucent. Dianne loved a line in The Blue about words being let loose from their moorings. No wonder, as this is exactly what she does. She writes exquisitely about the quotidian detail of Ellen's and George's lives, and she also writes the big tragic themes of love, death, war, loss and grief with such freshness that you feel strangely consoled. But oh! it's a sad ending. How I wish there'd been a little light, just a little. On the other hand, I think often on the simple and exquisite nature of those final words.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Ninja in Nazareth

With my novel freshly translated into Hebrew and about to hit the bookshops in Israel, here are some photos of the original NZ-published version of The Blue taken in Israel by my Hebrew editor Hadas. Those who've been following this blog, will know The Blue has travelled far afield in the hands of friends and other readers and been photographed in Greece, England, India, Antarctica and other exotic locales. If you look down the side column of the blog you'll see the links.

Here is Hadas' email explaining to me where her photographs were taken. Note, Yahli is her five-year-old son.

Saturday we went on a trip to the Galilee (my parents live there) ... On our way we went to Nazareth. There is a Jewish holiday now, called Purim – a lot of candies and customs. Yahli was a Ninja fighter. We walked in Nazareth with our small Ninja and looked quite weird. I don't know how religious you are, but we thought you might like a photo of THE BLUE there – outside and inside the Basilica of the Annunciation – you can chose.
Thanks to Hadas and the small and patient Ninja.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Blue in Hebrew

The Blue is a Hebrew book from yesterday!

Here's what my lovely Hebrew editor Hadas Matas told me by email: 'I'm proud to tell you the book is ready. It is planned to be in the shops in two weeks – before Passover.'

Hadas and I have been emailing each other for two-and-a-half months now discussing phrases like 'touch of the tar brush' and exploring the words for whales in a culture which isn't familiar with whales. Her emails dropped in on me in the hot Wairarapa in January, in the middle of a Canadian winter, in the streets of NYC and Washington, and back again in Wellington. In the process we've become friends.

For those who can read Hebrew, here's the Aggas Press website. I can only look at it and marvel. The translator was Vered Tochterman. The publisher is Sharon Greenberg.

Thanks to everyone at Aggas for the way they've embraced The Blue. Especially Vered for her skills, Hadas for her keen eye and her personal warmth and encouragement, and Sharon for wanting the book and finding me (roll down the post on the student writers and read the comment underneath.).

I am thrilled.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Best Advice for a Writer

Go here....

Friday, March 6, 2009

Digging the Dirt

Okay - this is how it happens for writers. You're walking along beside the beach with your dog, and you see a digger and a dirt gap where your friend's house used to be and you're suddenly terribly sad, even though the day is exquisitely calm and the the sea is barely flopping onto the beach leaving drifts of lime green seaweed; even though as you walk you have in your head a scene in your book where the two women are talking about the properties of rose petals; even though you can hear a piano faintly; even though your dog is ebulliant with the smell of a dog called Moose.

You're sad because Paddy lived here not so long ago, and it was a cosy house filled with books and shells and paintings, and she had pot luck dinner parties for women friends, and grandchildren who made teepees from sticks, and parties with fairy lights in the garden. And you're sad because she had to leave it, and now it's gone completely, and the new owners will build something smart and shiny with lots of glass.

But then out of the corner of this sadness comes a single insistent thought. 'That's a digger,' it says. 'You need to know about diggers.'

There's a digger in the opening scene of my in-progress book Precarious - one that's left like this after a day's work. The problem is, the scoop of my digger is left at head height. I need it to be like that for very good reasons. So far I've only seen diggers and bulldozers with their scoops left on the ground ... like this one. It's starting to bother me. Is it possible to park a digger and have the scoop left in the air. A bulldozer? These are the sorts of things novelists wrestle with.

What pleases me is that I am wrestling again. There's been a house-sized gap in my writing over the end of year/summer holidays period, due to family things and travel things, and all sorts really. Now at last, I have time. I have given myself Monday and Tuesday to write. I am fencing them off (except for a bush walk with a friend on Tuesday morning.) I am telling everyone and making a note of it on the bottom of emails.

Anyway, I decide I need a photo to help me work out what to do with my fictional digger. So I take the dog back home and get the camera, and then walk along again and photograph the real digger so I can stare at it a while. I guess I'm going to have to call David who owns a business called Tite Site and a stack of small diggers. He likes to read novels and I'm sure he won't mind spending time talking me through the niceties of digger parking.

By the time I leave the building site I've almost forgotten what made me stop there in the first place. That's the writer for you - in any tragedy, there's always something useful to cull.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Water falling in the Golan Heights

Waterfall in the Golan Heights. Photo: Sharon Greenberg from Flickr: [some rights reserved]

Yesterday, it seemed everyone I heard from via email, facebook and blogs was talking about the weather. Hadas Matas who is the translation editor for The Blue in Israel is so relaxed after weeks of chasing me up over translation points, PR material etc for the book that she emailed to tell me there was snow on Mount Hermon. The family got up at the crack of dawn one day and drove for hours to see it. They live near Tel Aviv and Mount Hermon (Israel's tallest mountain) is in the Golan Heights in the north. The children were freezing but Hadas says the trip was worth it.

On the way, they saw the waterfall above. Hadas' husband, Sharon, is the photographer and my Israeli publisher. He's posted some beautiful photographs of the area if you press his name and follow the link.

My brother-in-law in Canada was also talking about snow - this time on Facebook. Mind you it's less of a thrill for Alastair because there's snow in his part of the world for five months of the year. He was heading up to Mont Tremblant in Quebec today to ski with his son Nicky, and it was expected to be minus 33 with the wind chill. I bet they have a wonderful time. Although, Alastair is definitely looking forward to spring and not just for the obvious reasons. He lost his car keys on Tremblant when I was visiting in February - they've told him they might turn up.... in spring.

And two friends in Melbourne reported on Facebook that there is rain over there at last. Andy lives outside the city in a rural area that, he says, hasn't seen rain since December 12. Jennifer - the poet - who is similarly rural in outlook, says poetically, 'it's raining like a bastard! Hooray!'

Long may it last.

In Wellington, today it's sunny and hot with a light breeze. Not a cloud in the sky. Just how we like it.


P.S. After I wrote this post, I went for a walk with the dog by the sea. The first person I saw was a woman with small twins in a buggy - I called over: 'Lovely day!' To which she replied, 'It's too hot.' I wonder if she'd rather be up Mount Hermon .... Anyway, this is the view from our house and the beach I walked on with Ruby. Pretty nice I think.