Sunday, May 31, 2009

How to get a Gatsby

The editing process of a novel is a shady area not usually opened up to the gaze of the publishing unwashed: the reader or aspiring writer. As a first-timer, I stumbled into it with hope, excitement and anxiety.

Luckily, I had Jane Parkin as my editor for The Blue. Highly respected in NZ publishing circles, editor of a range of marvellous award-winning fiction writers, her style can be characterised as insightful, inclusive, gentle and persistent. She also never made me feel she'd edited enough first novels to know without looking what to do with mine. In other words, Jane approached The Blue with respect, excitement and curiosity. Or that's how it felt to me. And when I received the marked-up drafts -all red dashes and post-it notes - it was like seeing finger marks in a clay sculpture, as if she'd gently pressed the novel's skin to find the pulse.

All the changes Jane suggested were good ones that I applied forthwith; many were essential to the flow of the story. Often, she would present me with a problem in the book - we would discuss it - then I would go away and think what to do. I liked that she didn't always know the answer and trusted me to find it. One structural problem we tossed around for a bit, tried one thing and then another, and then at the last minute I flicked the difficult chapter into a slightly different position and suddenly the novel relaxed into place. Jane agreed. It was the many hours of dicussion that got us there. Frankly, it was exciting to have one other person in the world as fascinated by my novel as Jane Parkin was, and as willing to obsess about its every detail.

The elegant writing partnership between The Great Gatsby's F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor Max Perkins is explored in a new book on writing The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House. Uber UK blogger Mark Sarvas has serialised the essay and it makes fascinating reading. Here's Part 1 - scroll up through his blog for the other three parts.

Here's the link to The Writer's Notebook on the Tin House website.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alice Munro wins in every way

Amazing news about Alice Munro just out. Thanks to the alert Bookman Beattie for finding it. Beattie's Book Blog has more. And so does The Guardian - including comments from Jane Smiley who declares her, like Mary Poppins, 'practically perfect': 'Her thoughtfulness about every subject is so concentrated.'

It also appears the Canadian short story writer - a favourite of mine - hasn't hung up her skates after all. Look what's out in October this year. I can't wait.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Crack your cheeks!

Been feeling rather wind whipped lately? I found this fantastic video by David Frampton on The Wellingtonista blog which shows what we've been treated to here in Wellington.

Storm in slow motion from David Frampton on Vimeo.

And below is the quote from Shakespeare's King Lear that my blog title comes from. I love this scene on a stormy heath! The language itself drenches and rages and cracks. Saw a wonderful production of Lear at Te Whaea in Wellington a couple of years back. The simple staging and raw acting were utterly compelling and embraced the real storm raging outside. Sitting near the front, we felt seriously weather blasted.

Lear: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!

P.S. Funny I should write about storms on the day my most stormy child turns 18. You always know when he's in the house, this boy of mine, it shakes on its piles and creaks at the seams. Most buildings are too small to hold him, really. He drove teachers mad, and us....well, we're managing on the medication. He always got top marks for 'leadership' at school, and 'You're not the boss of my shoes' was a fave phrase which premiered when he was five years old. He was always looking at the moon, even in the daytime. He's social to a fault. He's as strong as Atlas, and so gentle when he sees someone or something that's hurt. And oh, he's fun - he makes us laugh a lot. And scream. Yes I screamed when he drove blithely through a red light in town today [he swore it was amber]. He still gives me the biggest cuddles and lifts me up in the air. Happy Birthday, Adam.

Monday, May 25, 2009


That Picometer is starting to get to me. No, it's worse than that. It's one of those bullies that pokes you in the ribs hard and makes nasty little comments in your ear - you've written how much? - what percentage of the book? - it hasn't gone up since when? w-h-e-n? That pointed mouth jabbing like a beak - forward, back, forward, back. It's picking on me, everytime I open up my blog [see right hand column.] Which was the whole point, and the reason I shouldn't complain. The thing is I have been a little - shall we say - 'distracted' lately and not focused on getting novel stuff down on the computer, but I have written pages and pages of Precarious in my moleskine cahier (A4) - word stats unknown. I really have. So yah-yah to you, Picometer. You don't know everything.

Speaking of the wonderful moleskines [used by Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and others], I realised last week that my moleskine notebooks [as opposed to the cahier] had filled up again with those scrawled notes writers are compelled to make - things seen, heard, thought about: all useful when you sit down to write. To fill the gap, I had taken to scrawling notes for the novel inside my diary and on odd scraps of paper, an approach which hinders my writing because these things get scrunched up and lost and forgotten about. Inside a moleskine, not only are my scrawls easy to find when I need them but they are elevated somehow on that heavy, creamy paper into the useful/fabulous/felicitous/prescient etc etc and therefore worthwhile additions to a fermenting novel. Without my moleskines I am thinner-skinned when the Picometer begins its bullying, because I am not sure I have all that much to be going on with. Here they are - I like the plain cardboard covers [second from the back] the best.

So last week, I went to one of my favourite stockists of Moleskines in Wellington - Vessel in Victoria Street which sells pottery mostly, including my favourite Steve Fulmer and Paul Melzer cups - and asked for my usual pack of three slim cardboard moleskine notebooks. No, they didn't have them, but they did have these bright shiny new plastic-covered, super-bright Moleskines called Volant. The blue ones shown here, and a pack in LIME GREEN.It took me a while to digest, the future of the whole novel seemed to hinge on getting the usual three-pack; I stared and poked, and tried to think straight. I told the lovely woman at Vessel that the Volant books are clearly a sop to the popular market - for people who think their notebooks need to be SHINYand LIME GREEN instead of USEFUL and LEGENDARY. I said I was taking a big risk switching to them. Who knows what would happen. I sighed a lot and asked to see if the back of the new bright moleskines held the signature envelope to put things in. No, it didn't.

So I jiggled around for a bit, thinking of the time - I had somewhere to get to - and the whiny Picometer, and the novel languidly waiting to be written. Then I made a decision and bought a pack of two Volants - notebook size - and a two-pack of the mini Volants [just to see].
So far, I've filled up half a dozen pages, no trouble, in each. The paper's the same, thank goodness, and I suppose the Lime Green is kinda cheery on these bleak winter days. So now I am armed next time the Picometer starts its reedy rant.

I feel better already.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I reviewed this book on Radio NZ National today in just over six minutes. It could have done with an hour. 'Next time!' said host Kathryn Ryan. Oh , if only. In fact, Kathryn was cursing the time taken up by the musical link between the 10 am interview and the book review because Singularity is one of those books that takes you in so many directions it is worth spending time on.

At this point, if it didn't give away too much information, I'd show you my 'map' of the relationships between the characters in the Singularity stories, and between that and Grimshaw's masterly collection Opportunity that won the Montana gold medal last year and sold by the truckload. Instead, I'll just have to talk you through it. There are essentially five key characters in Singularity and Emily is the nexus, perhaps even a kind of protagonist, because she is the link between the two families that pop up in various guises through the book. The other main characters are her brother Larry, Simon [the doctor in Opportunity who watched an ant climb up a speculum and into a woman's vagina], Simon's brother Ford, and Reid who was the undercover cop in Opportunity [the collection and the title story of the same name.]

The Singularity stories are knitted together far more than they are in Opportunity. So much so that I spent an hour last night flicking through the book, and then going back to Opportunity, to draw up my 'character map'. Discovering the links is hugely satisfying.

In Opportunity, for example, we saw Reid from the point of view of a young woman flatmate with a crush who - when she is violently spurned - wreaks revenge in a way that is both subtle and dangerous. In Singularity, we see Reid from his point of view, his relationship with a woman who claims he raped her, the ensuing trial, and his reaction to the ex-flatmate's attendance in court. Wonderfully, Grimshaw's stories can also echo real life. The undercover name for the cop accused of rape is Brad Richards....

We get to see inside smaller characters like Viola who 'stalks' the doctor [Simon]; we see her point of view and the motivation behind the way she acted in the first book and the second. In fact, this is the reason this collection isn't some kind of post-modernist novel: each story is self-contained, so it allows even the most minor character his or her day in court, something that would unbalance a novel. At the same time, as I read Singularity it became harder and harder to judge a story on its own merits. Each one is so clearly linked to what's come before and is about to come.

Grimshaw is also a writer of ideas which she threads through the stories, letting them surface and recede and shift, much like her characters. A singularity is the point at the start of the Big Bang, and - I think I have this right - the pinpoint to which we could return when the universe finally expands to its limits and creates a black hole to suck us in. Inside the collection there are all sorts of 'black holes' from Uluru/Ayers Rock which is a kind of absence at the heart of Australia to addiction of one sort or another to a character's migraines. The black hole is also representative, it seems, of threatening nature, the tedium of the suburbs, a physical stasis, an unemotional/controlled personality, and a watchfulness which - in some people - becomes the writer [ there are a few writers in the collection.]

At the edge of this darkness are such things as life, light, ease, children, animals, action, humour, those competent in the world and, possibly, God. These themes tease their way through the stories and are hugely satisfying to track and trace alongside the developing characters.

As I said in the radio review, Singularity is a collection of dark diamond-hard stories, well-crafted with superb language and dense characters. The stand-out story for me was Paraha where Emily (aged eight in this story) and Larry (10) and another small boy battle a difficult bush track and arrive at Karekare Beach to distraught parents. The writing delineates the sheer oppressiveness of the exquisite landscape, and the implacable face of nature, in a way that both chills and thrills in equal measure.

P.S. Congratulations to Kate de Goldi for her wonderful book The 10 PM Question winning the NZ Post Children's Book Awards.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Money for JAAM

Well actually not a lot of money - only $20* - but more importantly JAAM wants something from me: an essay I wrote especially for the next issue's theme of wandering [across genre, ideas, geography etc]. This will be my first ever 'thing' in JAAM and one of the few pieces I've ever had in a literary magazine. After a poem in Landfall in the early 1980s, I went all reclusive about sending off work to be published. I hadn't realised what that sort of exposure meant and I wasn't ready back then to be exposed. Or maybe I was a bit self-conscious or scared or disorganised - or all of these. Anyway, since then I've had some work in online lit magazine Turbine which was very exciting, - and now here's another one of those printed publications: JAAM 27 edited by academic, memoir/travel writer and soon-to-be mother of twins Ingrid Horrocks. I am looking forward to it very much indeed - not just to see my piece in black and white on the page jostling up against poems and fiction and all the rest, as much as to see what Ingrid does with 'wandering'. It's always interesting getting inside that particular head.

*$20 and a copy of JAAM is what contributors are paid.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The trick of words or how to sleep like a dead donkey

Marking student stories this week reminds me over and over of the wonderful story UK writer Jim Crace tells about a donkey in a desert. He tells it by letter to a fictional pesky would-be writer called PJ to illustrate what it is that makes a good writer .The letter was part of a Guardian article which came out four years ago when I was studying for my MA in creative writing and battling with The Blue and needed Crace to remind me that research has a limit where fiction's concerned. [It was Crace who audaciously made up how a dead body decomposes in Being Dead.]

For the whole article by Crace go here. It's a hilarious read. Btw, his other novels include Signals of Distress and Quarantine.

Extract from The Secrets of My Success by Jim Crace, The Guardian 5/02/05

To be a good writer, a confident writer, especially a Fantasist, you do not necessarily need to assemble the mere facts and then allow them to dictate the shape and colour of your work, you must instead do what the dictionary indicates and master the art of lying. And to do that, it is not information you require, but vocabulary. I appreciate your kind comments about my novel, Quarantine, although for the record, you are incorrect to say that I know the Judean desert like the back of my hand and that the depth of my knowledge was displayed in every paragraph. That's what the critics said, too. But actually I only spent a couple of nights in the Judean desert, and those were only to give me the confidence to make it up. I had a professional tour guide up there, a Bedouin called Izzat abu-Rabia, who had a gun on one hip, a mobile phone on the other, and a clutch of languages at his disposal. He spoke better English than the average Anglican bishop. (He made it musical and interesting, in other words.) So this is not a point about language. It is a point about culture.

On the first night, Izzat and I slept out in the desert above Qumran under his Jeep. In the morning, as I stretched the aches out of my shoulders, he asked me, "Well, Jim, how did you sleep?"

I said, "I slept like a log," and as I spoke I saw his eyes narrow with less than comprehension, and, as his eyes narrowed, I looked across his shoulder to see the bald and baked Judean hills stretching away without the benefit of any vegetation. This country hadn't seen a log for aeons. If there were a log then it wouldn't be sleeping. It would be snatched up and put on the fire. Wood smoke was preferable to that of the only other option, camel dung. My log image, like fine wine, hadn't travelled well. It had no meaning in Palestine.

"OK, Izzat," I asked, "How did you sleep?"

"Me?" he said, "I slept like a donkey. I slept like a dead donkey. If you had kicked me I wouldn't have woken up."

So there's the simple ploy, PJ. Vocabulary. I now understood that if I wanted to dish up a convincing version of the Judean desert without doing any real research, I would only have to remember to turn all my logs into donkeys. The trick of words.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The 10 PM Question: do read this book.

If you love story read this book. If you love a story which has in its arms myth, fairytale, legend, iconic picture book, adult and childhood classics, read this book. If you have a family member who is different from the people in other families you know, read this book. If you love a book which pulses with the chaos of family life - of life in fact - but at every turn reminds you of the wonder there, read this book. If your family harbours a secret, read this book. If people in your family harbour deep-seated worries, read this book. If you like a book which asks the big questions but doesn't try to give answers, read this book. If you want to read a book that buzzes with the possibilities of language, read this book. If you love birds, read this book. If you loved the movie: What's Eating Gilbert Grape? read this book. If you want to read one of our best authors at the peak of her game, read this book. If you want to remember what it is to be 12 again, read this book. If you are 12, read this book. If you want to know what it's like to be 12 in NZ in the time of spaceman candies [no longer spaceman cigarettes] and ipods, read this book. If you want a large dose of de Goldi [insight, wisdom, compassion, humour, intelligence, skill], read this book. If you want to read a book that is already a modern classic, read this book. If you want to meet Frankie Parsons and Gigs and Sydney and Ma and Uncle George and Gordana and Louie and Ray Davies and the Aunties and the Fat Controller and Mr A and Cassino. Oh do, do, do, do, do, do, do read this book.

Stop Press. The Commonwealth Writers Prize was announced tonight at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Best Book - Christos Tsiolkas The Slap and Best First Book -Mohammad Hanif A Case of Exploding Mangoes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Character for lease

If only it were that easy. You need a character for your novel (office or retail) so you call Karl and he couriers one round. Perhaps one like the nice little green man on the right.

Saw this on my way to teach at Massey University (Wellington) and had to photograph it to use in a lecture on 'writing character' today. The little green man appearing in the shot is completely accidental but rather wonderful.

Friday, May 8, 2009

through the resistance

US author Jayne Anne Phillips, praised once by Nadine Gordimer as "the best short story writer since Eudora Welty", believes that the tension of balancing the roles of writer, mother, director and teacher in an MFA program for writers feeds her work.

“Everyday you force yourself through the resistance you are working with and you get deeper into the material. This way you get to stuff you wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” said Phillips.

“My work has to be so deeply compelling that I can put it down and return to it, re-enter it, at another time. I don’t have the kind of life where I can set a (per day) page count or a word count. The tension of needing to do the work affects the intensity of the kind of prose I write.”

Hallelujah for that. I was just thinking today how I am writing too much of my new novel in my head at the moment mainly because I am tied up with too many other things -much along the same lines as Jayne Anne Phillips - and there aren't enough hours in the day. I have many scenes waiting to be put onto paper - varying from those with strong definition that change very little, to those that continually shift and change and blend and re-form much like oil paints on water before you lay white paper on top to create a marbled effect. I guess Phillips is right that when I get to the computer in the key hole of time I am able to make for myself then the writing has to rear up and push its way through - there is no time for mucking around - and the novel sucks in some of this intensity/tension and is able to go deeper than you'd think it would.

Sometimes, though, I delay writing because I still need to think things through. That's certainly happened in the last few days when I have come to realise that the end of the novel [which I always write early on] isn't what I wanted at all. I get it now. This new ending - the one in my brain with a small picket fence around it - is much better than the last one which had a frenetic and desperate feel to it. I had another realisation watching my daughter play netball today - it has something to do with a fur coat and what someone else told me yesterday about a book she loved as a child. Suddenly those two things connected with something else inside the novel and a stray thought I had a while ago - and bingo! Just need to get it down on paper now.

More from the Jayne Anne Phillips interview here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

alone through the gateway entered

"It may be well for a reader to enter the world of literature, to stay there, going from favourite city to favourite city, taking a full share of the good things;it is not well for a writer. To visit the land - yes; again and again; but not to stay, not to set up house within a favourite gateway where the view of the 'world' provided by Dostoevsky,Tolstoy, Shakespeare, may combine to give a lifetime of spectator pleasure. A writer must go alone through the gateway entered or arrived at, out into the other 'world', with no luggage but memory and a pocketful of words, some of which may be like shells crumbled to sand before the oncoming waves, while others may turn out to be jewels - turquoises - that time has shown to be the teeth of the dead mastodons" Janet Frame, Times Literary Suplement, 1964

I saw this in the hallway at Massey University where I'm teaching today. It is included on one of the marvellous Book Council writer posters. Powerful stuff, and it came at the right time - after a creative writing/short fiction tutorial with the usual mix of those who yawn so deeply they can barely read the lines in front of them and those who sit bright-eyed with copious notes, those who run in bare feet so as not to be late and those who trip on the wet steps and text to say they're missing class to get an x-ray (I kid you not), those who write of salt flaking from skin or dancing sheets or 'frightful fruit eaters' and those who don't, just don't. So shells that are sand or jewels that are dinosaur teeth. Only Frame. Oh, and a nice blog post here by someone called Maria Angeles about visiting Frame's house in 2006. An Angeles at my table indeed.

Monday, May 4, 2009

My words echo thus, in your mind. But to what purpose

I discovered T.S. Eliot in the sixth form. I remember opening a book of his poems while I was babysitting for the neighbours, and feeling the immediate painful thrill of words like small darts hitting home here and here and here.

I fell in love with Eliot, dear reader, and bought his Collected Poems 1909 - 1962 the following year. Sometime after that - I don't know when - I lost it. Last week, my friend Whena Owen gave it back to me [picture above] wrapped up in an old dress pattern. Apparently her brother, Dylan, was cleaning out his bookshelves when he found it and found my name in the front, and underneath excerpts from Eliot's poems written in fountain pen with curling daisies instead of full-stops (eek). Whena and I were at school together and flatted together once, too, so somehow the Collected Poems of T.S. had migrated into her shelves and then into Dylan's.

My excitement at getting the book back was partly about the book itself and partly about what it had gone on to become for me in the intervening years. You see, when I wrote The Blue I deliberately wrote several passages which reflected the key literary influences of my life - in style, ideas and/or content. One of them is Eliot. Others are Janet Frame, Katherine Mansfield, Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf and Witi Ihimaera. The connections aren't at all obvious and I don't expect people to make them - and oh, when I read this I think how pretentious it all sounds - my motivation was primarily to slip in a small tribute to each of those authors and poets and partly to satisfy myself. I hoped that some readers might make the links sub-consciously or consciously and that would give them a deeper understanding of the text itself, and some insight into the shady places from which my writing springs.

Okay - if you're still reading - where is Eliot in The Blue? First of all, you need to read the extract at the start of this post which comes from Burnt Norton in The Four Quartets by Eliot, and the one below from the same poem. Then read the extract from The Blue at the end of this post about the wedding of Lilian to Ed. It occurs straight after WWI and 20 years before the story opens, but comes near the end of the novel as a memory. The Blue extract is enhanced by knowing the Eliot link, I believe. The theme of all time being 'eternally present' and therefore there being no point in 'disturbing dust on the bowl of rose leaves' is critical to what unfolds in The Blue. Readers of the Four Quartets will also know the bird is likely to be a deceptive thrush, and will know lines like these: 'Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/cannot stand too much reality', and all the rest....

How marvellous it was to open my old creaking copy of Eliot's Collected Poems and find them there: the garden, the gate, the excitement of the children, the bird calling - all as I remembered them, and as I had written them into The Blue in one way or another [rose bushes become pine trees, the children become silly, trilling Jeannie etc.] There's also a complete change of rhythm in The Blue at this point, and the point of view switches from limited third person to second person, with two possibilities: either Lilian is talking to herself and/or the author is talking to Lilian, or both.

THE BLUE [2007] Extract from Chapter 25

Back a step. Back a step up the path. Back up to the small gate of the small churchyard and make a decision there not to enter. To turn at the sound of the small birds, to turn at the smell of the pine trees, to turn at the first crunch of the gravel, and leave quietly, without fuss or hurt. If you had to go in, you fool, you, Lilian, you should have turned back at the first small gravestone, and if you didn’t turn then, there was a point on that path where you could see him and he couldn’t see you, and you knew with sudden clarity that there was nothing there that was familiar. If it hadn’t been for Jeannie, giggling behind you and running into your back like that, you might have turned at last and, seeing the gate there and the small gravel path, you’d have known what to do. As it was, he’d heard that silly trilling friend of yours, and looked for her and saw you, Lilian, in your borrowed silk georgette and red fox, and come forward, trussed in his uniform, his head dipping bashfully and his large hand out. He’d waited outside to introduce you to his Best Man, the cousin you’d heard so much about, who had even written you a letter or two. And there he was stepping out from behind him, a shorter, stockier man in uniform, too, but filling it differently, with thick black hair and ruddy cheeks, older than Ed by a few years, his eyes an astounding blue. Ed clasped his hands together, and waited to see that you liked him.

You remember how slowly it unfolded, the cousin stepping forward and removing his soldier’s hat and taking your hand in greeting and saying your name in a way you’d have usually thought of as familiar but in fact was less insolent than that. And then he said nothing more, although he looked as if he wanted to. Jeannie came forward, wishing he would smile at her like that, but he didn’t. He took her hand instead and kissed it, and Jeannie chortled, silly girl, and showed her crooked teeth.

‘Come on, Owen,’ said Ed, looking pleased at the way it had gone. And they went inside the church, the two of them, to wait for you.

©Mary McCallum

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Year of Blogging

I realised when I did a video-conference on 'authors who blog' with Rachael King that I'd been blogging for a year! It seems longer - but no, I started in April 2008. So in honour of that I've inserted a section into the right-hand panel with all the subjects I've blogged on. It's a bit long to have it there all the time, but it's kind of wonderful to have it up for a day or two. Like a flag declaring my interests, passions, obsessions around The Blue and books and writing, and then there are those loose threads, stray thoughts, glimpses of other things flapping around too ...

I'm off to the bookshop now to sell a few books, and to - frankly - be a bit overwhelmed by the number of books out there, new ones every week. Sometimes, one more book from me seems like a stray snowball in an avalanche.