Monday, November 30, 2009

very pleased with myself

I am terribly excited. Without meaning to, I have ended up inside a children's novel, one of my own making - no, mine and Annie's.

At an exhibition here in Eastbourne, there were half a dozen paintings by local artist Annie Hayward. 'There's a story in those paintings,' I said to Richard the Rona Gallery owner, but one especially grabbed me by the hand and ran away with me. The next day, out walking with the dog, it wouldn't let go. I kept trying to engage with the scenery, ponder the adult novel, put one foot in front of the other etc, but the story was persistent and rather rude.

I saw Annie and I told her what was happening, and she said 'You're telling me the story of my childhood'. At first I thought we had a picture book on our hands, but then I started writing it down and after 1,000 words I knew it was something else. But what? I wanted Annie's paintings as illustrations, they had to be there, and an intrinsic part of the book, not extras. Suddenly, I remembered this.

I'd never read it, but I'd noticed it at the bookshop. So I raced in and bought it and sat down and read the story in a gulp. It starts like this:

Once, in a house on Egypt Street, there lived a china rabbit named Edward Tulane. The rabbit was very pleased with himself, and for good reason: he was owned by a girl named Abilene, who treated him with the utmost care and adored him completely.

And then, one day, he was lost.

It's a wonderful old-fashioned tale with lyrical language, a surprising protagonist with a vivid point of view, gorgeous colour plates and line drawings, and exquisite production values. Annie has it now. We're using it as a template for the shape and look of our book. I've written three-thousand words - about a third of what I think I need - and Annie already has three illustrations. Most importantly, the protagonist has been sketched. Today I think. Yes, today.

Annie and I talk regularly about what our story is actually about. She feeds me stuff, I feed her stuff. It is Annie's childhood first and foremost, but it is also mine, and my children's childhood, and her children's childhood. It is surprising where it's taking us. I love writing it. I love the collaboration.

It fills me up.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

this land of giant angularities

I have fallen in love with this unassuming book that has been on the bookshop shelves since 2002. It is an astonishing anthology of NZ spiritual verse - not religious verse, but pure, hearty, searching, gutsy, naughty, wise, spirited verse that tries to express the stuff that is New Zealanders by reaching outwards first and foremost, rather than delving inside like a surgeon looking for a tumour.

The thing is, I spent a morning this week trawling through NZ poetry for a friend who wanted some words for a client's reception desk, and while I re-discovered the marvellous, I also re-discovered the listen-to-me, watch-me, I-am-the-pivot-point sort of poetry. The bald 'I', the bald eye etc. I started to feel like you do after too many coffees - bloated and agitated. Reading this collection, leaves me feeling as I do when I've climbed through the bush to the ridge in the hills behind us.

In the introduction, the editors, Paul Morris, Harry Ricketts and Mike Grimshaw explain how they see this NZ spiritualism:

One aspect is the hemispherical, seasonal and other forms of dislocation, celebrated and re-inscribed under the southern skies, as in Charles Allen's 'Antiphon', M K Joseph's 'Easter in the South'. Lauris Edmond's 'Another Christmas Morning', and Eileen Duggan's 'A New Zealand Christmas'.
Another dimension lies in a post-Wordworthian nature romanticism, evident in Dora Hagemeyer's 'Ecstasy', and P R Woodhouse's 'The Tussock Hills' ... [and] let's not forget the expressions of a cheekier trickster 'Kiwi' spirituality: Keri Hulmes 'Headnote to a Maui Tale', David Eggleton's 'God Defend New Zealand', Peter Bland's 'Beginnings', and Elizabeth Smither's 'Temptations of St Antony by his housekeeper.'
It's all that and more - some of it new to me, some of it old. I was intrigued by Andrew Johnston's 'The Bibl', was blasted by Vincent O'Sullivan's 'Angels, whacko!' [the first time in a long time a poem's made me sit up and laugh] and been reminded again of the sheer wisdom and insight of Lauris Edmond on reading the extract from her 'Wellington Letter'.

On top of that, the essay at the end of the book by Paul Morris explained to me for the first time - really explained - this country's spiritual engagement with nature [more of this in another post]. Meanwhile, here are extracts from 'Wellington Letter' which, I believe, explain to some degree, the current response to the Witi Ihimaera plagiarism controversy.

From Wellington Letter
by Lauris Edmond

Let me tell you of my country, how it
suffers the equivocal glories, the lean
defeats of a discontented not a tragic
people; how it dreams in small townships
of interest rates and deals, possible
adulteries, the machinations of committees,
sickness and the humanely disguised
failures of children - not hunger, seldom
despair, but perhaps a rifle shot across
the dark paddocks, the indefensible sting
of a snub, the ache of boredom...


In this land of giant angularities
how we cultivate mind's middle distances;
tame and self-forgiving, how easily
we turn on one another, cold or brutish
towards the weak, the too superior...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Witi - the four positions of faith

And so the argument rages about Witi's infidelity to the god of original thought. It seems to me people who are interested - and we need to remember there are many who aren't - take one of four positions, and I have outlined them below. For better or for worse, I have fallen back on Position Two [see previous post], which I hasten to say is not a moral high ground. Every 'position' has its elements of faith, its strengths and its weaknesses, and those who espouse it have good reasons for doing so. Some of my close friends have taken the other positions, and I respect them for that.

Position One: 'Old Testament'
Thou shalt not plagiarise and thou shalt know my anger when thou does, in my eyes your action has sullied your past work and sullies your future work, any forgiveness is conditional on exemplary behaviour in future, we will use the 'big guns' - experts and the media - to get our point across, we will express ourselves in legal and academic terms even though neither is directly relevant to the work of an artist but hovers on the edges tapping your perplexing shell like a bird with a sharp beak, we will be watching you beadily, forever and ever ...

Position Two: 'New Testament'
Plagiarism is not something writers should do but we recognise it is a difficult area for creative people and mistakes will be made, we will be verbal in our disappointment hauling on our experience of your work as a whole - its originality and its impact - personally and culturally, we will refuse to savage you for your mistake but instead will try to gauge its level and impact, we will call on you by name, when you express contrition - we will forgive you in long sentences on many blogs and facebook pages and letters to the editor, we will buy your books again. Amen.

Position Three: 'Agnostic'
We believe there are facts and there is fiction, there is fact in fiction and fiction in fact and fiction in fiction and fact in fact, and however you approach this complex area as a writer [or a thinker, a doer, a be-er], you must always act in good faith and with the highest integrity. Before we can make a judgement of any sort, however, facts need to be gathered and analysed, and we will take the time to point them out to those who are not aware of them ... then, well, that's just the beginning...

Position Four: 'Atheist'
Plagiarism, under many different guises and names, is the order of the day for writers; we care more about whether or not the writing is good enough and that demands a high level of originality and personal guts. End of story.

Late addition to post on 23-11-09. Following a comment here from lit-blogger Paradoxical Cat, I have developed a fifth position:

Position Five: 'Pagan'
We have many ways of approaching the issue rather than the expected, more straightforward route, we build the sacrifical fires of satire and wit to burn the self-important and those without intelligence and wit in each of the other four positions, but like all fire-starters we have to make sure we have a safe place to stand downwind of the fires ...

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Trowenna Sea

Witi Ihimaera's The Trowenna Sea. I work at the bookshop on a Friday, and the owners are away so no-one's shifted the stack. I pick it up and put a lime-green post-it note on top for Laurie, 'Return these to Penguin. Due to plagiarism, they are reprinting and will replace.' I wonder about keeping them and selling them as they are - after all, surely everyone knows now that there are unacknowledged passages there. Surely, in a country as small as ours, the acknowledgment has been made - legally, morally - at least in part. Isn't that enough? Look at the size of the thing - think 0.4% plagiarised -  think of the original work in there crying to be let out. Can't we get on and sell it? [note, it is already a bestseller...]

But Witi wants the book to regain its mana, he's asked for it back, and I suppose, in the end, it's his call. And his publisher supports him. Geoff Walker, my publisher too, sounded sad on the radio. He talked of their long relationship and how this would all be set right. I know how much the relationship matters to Geoff. Not long ago, he gave a dinner in Auckland for his fiction writers. He spoke of  how important we are to him. With one novel to my name, I sat next to Witi, Witi sat next to Kapka. We drank good wine and ate good food. It was a good night.

But there it is, The Trowenna Sea - green-stickered - humiliated - waiting to return.

Witi Ihimaera is a literary hero of mine  - I still remember the day I opened Pounamu Pounamu. I was a pakeha teenager with bunkbeds; it was night-time. I opened the green covers of that slim book and there was a world I didn't know existed - kicking and screaming, funny and moving, deeply alive. And then years later, Bulibasha: all that energy and charm and humour and love in the covers of one book. Whale Rider: the characters, the mythology, the magic. I can forgive Witi Ihimaera anything because he has given me so much. What's happened now can't wipe that out.

I am sickened by how fast the NZ public is to leap on a beloved writer's back and dig the spurs in, crying, 'You, storyteller, how dare you steal!' Storytelling is about stealing, writers always steal, it's just that we also have to turn what we steal inside out so it looks like something else. That is the issue. Why Witi did it, how he did it, I don't know and I can't say. I'm disappointed. I think he should have refused the money he won this week. But the spurs, people, why the spurs?

Working at a university, I know how wrong it is not to synthesise research. To put it bluntly, plagiarism is a bigger crime at university than murder - although Auckland Uni has, strangely, not demonstrated this. Anyway, all of this is about protecting original thought. I get that, so does Professor Witi Ihimaera. Hence the recall. Hence the green sticker. Let it rest at that.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jawing with a blue whale - The Blue in Stanley

Nothing can adequately describe the feeling of vertigo I get when fiction and fact collide - the giddiness that is part thrill, part disbelief, part anxiety, part a weird kind of omniscience. It's like standing in a mirror room and seeing reflections of yourself receding to infinity. What comes first? What is true? How can all those words add up to a representation of reality that concerns and interests and moves people? How can it have a life outside of itself? And how does this thing I have made fit with all the wonders of the real world?                                
Above, you have a whalebone arch in the Falklands' capital of Stanley made from the jawbones of blue whales caught in the South Shetland Islands; and here, a photograph of The Blue next to one of these remarkable bones.

Is it nestling in delightedly, do you think, working up the courage to have a jaw about the largest creature the world has ever seen? Or is it leaning nervously, a little non-plussed, perhaps, by its close proximity to the 'real thing'?

A bit of both I think. O little audacious book.

The photographs were taken yesterday by Robert Paterson who works for the British Antarctic Survey on board the RSS James Clark. A Scot from the Isle of Bute, he travels thousands of miles to places like the Falklands and South Georgia where whaling is knitted into local history, much as it is in Arapawa Island, New Zealand.

Robert was in NZ a little while back and while here he stumbled upon my blog. Being a seafaring man who connects with old whaling towns on his voyages, he thought he'd like to read The Blue, so back home in Scotland, he emailed to ask me where he could order a copy. I put him onto Louise at NZ Books Abroad and she got to work. Unfortunately, the book didn't arrive before he left the country for his latest expedition, so he contacted Louise again and asked her to send another copy to Stanley in the Falklands, which is one of his ports of call.

So here it is, The Blue. Rather surprised to be so far from home and snuggled up to the jawbone of a blue whale. And it's all thanks to a Scot of the Antarctic! No, really, what a thoroughly lovely thing to do. I still can't quite believe The Blue is doing things in this world over two years after publication, let alone making expeditions south. There's that vertigo again...

Robert tells me that these whalebone arches are common sights in places where whalers once lived and worked. He says, 'I remember one in Edinburgh, by the Meadows, and I'm told there is one in Whitby too.' [Here's a Stanley local, Chelsea Middleton, holding The Blue beside the whale arch. It looks more confident like that I think.]

And to finish, Robert included a photograph of an old whale station in South Georgia. He says in his email:

I wonder what Johnny Norton and the other whalers would make of South Georgia? Here's a photo of the old station at Leith. There aren't many places in the world where you can see reindeer grazing alongside elephant seals and penguins - but this is one of them.

Johnny is one of the former whalers of Arapawa Island that helped me with my research for The Blue. I reckon he'd be fascinated by the old whale station at Leith. As I am.

All photo credits: Robert Paterson

For more photographs of the travels of The Blue see the links in the right hand column of the blog - and I'd love more. Send them to

Monday, November 9, 2009

One for sorrow, two for joy: Magpie Hall

Dora says nothing but sinks back into silence, concentrating on distilling the pain of the needles. She is so much more comfortable this time; now she reclines on a chaise longue, with her arm resting on a small table beside it

Henry has allowed McDonald's apprentice to tattoo him, a small picture of a spider on his leg, and so far the boy is making good progress; husband and wife lie side by side and now and again take each other's free hands. Dora feels a current pass between them - the shared experience creates something that sparks and crackles like electricity. McDonald feels it too - she knows he does. He shifts and sighs in his seat, glancing at their interlocked fingers. If he thinks them strange he says nothing - it is not his place after all..... [Magpie Hall]
This is the scene I have stuck in my head on finishing Rachael King's new novel Magpie Hall. It is powerfully evocative of the whole relationship between Dora and Henry - the growing attraction, the need to 'illustrate' their love on their skin; and more than that, on Dora's part, to somehow ink her skin with the desire that is bursting inside her but that she cannot express due to societal strictures. A desire for Henry, for adventure, for an independent life.

It is the late 1800s and Henry has bought and renovated Magpie Hall - a transplanted gothic castle in the Canterbury plains - for his new wife. Their stories are told in the third-person as the novel unfolds, but the main narrator is Henry's unhappy great-great-granddaughter, Rosemary, who has come to stay and write in Magpie Hall, which has been vacated after her loved grandfather died. She has inherited the taxidermy collection begun by Henry and continued by the grandfather, and she has also - it seems - inherited a love of tattoos. There are a number of skeletons in the Magpie Hall cupboards - not least what happened to Dora [was she drowned or murdered by Henry?], and then there's the story of Henry's cabinet of curiosities that went mysteriously astray.

There is another insistent secret that pushes its way into the story via ghostly sightings and some bizarre events, which seem to come straight from the pages of a Bronte novel. And this is no accident, as we know by now that Rosemary is writing a thesis on Victorian gothic novels: Wuthering Heights looms large in reality and by suggestion. Everything simmers away, until suddenly, the novel is turned on its head, and we discover the truths, or what we think are the truths, behind the ghosts and the gossip. At the same time, nothing is necessarily reliable ...

Great stuff. Rachael King spins a good yarn, and one that has a powerful aesthetic. Like her first novel The Sound of Butterflies, she chooses elements that both fascinate and repel and blends them with the morbid, the erotic, the eerie and the exquisitely beautiful. There is the same fascination with collecting and obsession and science, and with the stuff of illustration - how to show and hold and remember those evanescent things: love and beauty?

My favourite things:
*the tattooing - what makes someone want to be inked, and the history and detail behind it - Rachael's descriptions are visceral and exciting
*the taxidermy and its links to the controversial work and logic of Buller: kill to preserve
*the historic story especially the emergence of Dora's character
*the subtle references to the Bronte novels
*the twist in the tale - unreliability in the narration of a story is always compelling, I think, because it most accurately represents the stuff of story-telling

My not so favourite things: 
*I didn't engage with modern day Rosemary or feel much empathy for her - she is too self-conscious for my liking and not quite convincing enough
* I felt the Bronte material fell heavily on the page at times - for example, meeting masculine young 'Sam the farmhand' who hunts rabbits etc made me feel like there was a long (Ha)worthy finger pointing and saying 'He's one of mine!' [Not by name but by nature.]
*I wanted more of Dora.

And here's where you need to understand how unreliable I am at this point in the review - because I know Rachael, I was terribly excited by Magpie Hall so I read it quickly and through a lurgy-induced haze [see previous post]. I don't think I had all my wits about me when the whole novel was turned on its head, and, frankly, I'm still trying to work out all the references and clues - there are some hugely satisfying links between the two stories.

I think I really need to re-read Magpie Hall properly to 'get' it all, and I may have been too hard on Rosemary and young Sam ... So take what you will from this. There's certainly no getting away from the fact that it's been a blast - there's just the sort of uncertainty I like in fiction, and material that changes the way I see things.

'Two for joy' it is, then.

Book cover and web links in previous post.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Magpie Hall Launch must have been Mighty Mighty

I'm guessing the Magpie Hall Launch at Mighty Mighty in Wellington last night was a humdinger. Rachael King doesn't do events by half-measure and she was promising surprises. I couldn't be there because I have the Dreaded Lurgy - a lurking, lung-clogging lethargy [isn't Lurgy the exact right word?] Oh, I was disappointed! Still am. However, I toasted Rachael's book with a bowl of chicken soup, and proceeded to get down and read as much as I could of the reader copy I'd gleaned from the bookshop where I hang out - oops, sorry - work every Friday. I'm about half way through and really enjoying myself. This woman knows how to tell a good yarn [Sound of Butterflies was her first novel - winner of the Best First Book of Prose at the Montanas that year].

On Facebook, I called Magpie Hall NZ Gothic Erotic, and here's why: there's an old manorial house, leering magpies, faces at the window, old silk wedding dresses, hired help who shoot rabbits and are happy to jump in the sack, gorgeous tattoos on men and women, skeletons in the closets, stuffed animals watching every move ... and there are echoes of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights! Spooky, really, after my last post... Meanwhile, I gather Magpie Hall is on sale from tomorrow! Go here to Rachael's brand-new rather lovely website to find out more about it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Taste of Sorrow

I am in thrall to this book. Since I started reading it on Friday, and ever since I ended it in the early hours of this morning, I have thought of little else. The subject matter - the lives of the Bronte sisters - is compelling in itself, but the writing by Jude Morgan is of the most astonishing sort.

And I have to say quickly at this point that a fictional portrayal of these writing heroes of mine did not appeal to begin with - but I was persuaded by lit bloggers I know and love to pick the book up and give it a try. This was sealed when I read that Bronte biographer Juliet Barker declared it 'Quite simply the best book about the Brontes I have ever read.'

Oh yes, it is. And one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Author Jude Morgan treads carefully, respectfully, quietly, so quietly you can hear him breathe at times, and then - like a hunter - he grabs his prey, twists and breaks its neck. He writes in a way that skins the animal and shows it to you, and then later elevates it, clean and like new. And all you can do is stare.

Breaking from the hunting metaphor, I was surprised at the - for want of a better word - feminist care and attention Morgan gives each one of his characters. Charlotte is at the centre, but Emily and Anne, their father and their brother, even Aunt Branwell and Tabby the housekeeper, are all developed and given life. Emily's shyness/reticence is especially well drawn.There's a sense that Morgan is feeling through the haze - much like short-sighted Charlotte does - and trying to put his hands on the exact word or phrase or feeling that will bring the Brontes to life. He pokes and prods, circles, tries and tries again. And then, there! There it is. My breath was taken away so many times.

One of the most compelling things about the novel for me is the marvellous understanding Morgan shows of the creative process - of the worlds of Angria and Gondal that the Brontes created and inhabited well into their adult lives, and the pain they felt when they couldn't write, and the intense and complicated joy they felt when they could. I found the time when the three surviving sisters finally came together around a table and shared the novels they were writing unbearably moving. And the goosebumps stood up on my arms and the back of my neck when the word 'Wuthering' first surfaced ... and the name 'Eyre'.There's a lot that's unbearably moving in this book, in fact, it is called The Taste of Sorrow after all. All that incredible genius, all those wasting deaths from consumption.... it has been analysed and written about so many times. But what Morgan has done is re-created these women by - as he says - trying to clear away the myth and legend surrounding the Brontes.
My own conviction about the Brontes was that they were not these fey ‘children of the moors’ who somehow happened to write great novels. They were very driven, very conscious as artists.
Which is what I love most about this book. The rest of the interview with Morgan is here [and it's a rare thing as Morgan is as shy of attention as Emily Bronte it seems - Jude Morgan is a pseudonym just like Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell.] And there is another review at Gondal-Girl's blog here and some Bronte fan links here  and the Bronte parsonage website here! Needless to say I've spent any spare moments I've had today trawling through the net for more on the Brontes and Jude Morgan. His novel Passion is on my reading list.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The way words cluster

Goodbye, I say to the mother of boys I don't know but my daughter does, after we've discussed the Halloween Party she's having - what time it starts, ends, that sort of thing. And what's your name again? I ask because I hadn't quite caught it the first time. I can tell she's busy putting up pumpkin lights and slicing blood sausage for vampires and ghouls to nibble on. Tansy, she says patiently, but her voice is a little further from the phone as if she was about to put it down. Tansy? Tansy. Like Pansy but not Pansy. Tansy. I don't think I've ever heard it before.

I hang up and drive to the local shops to buy provisions and have a coffee. Scott who sells heritage tomato plants and organic herbs and flowers is in the little lane between one shop and the next. My heritage tomato plants are already in the ground at home - one of them will produce tomatoes which are black inside, and another will produce tomatoes the colour of chocolate - but I need some other plants to fill my small dug-over beds: daisies, herbs, anything really. I rummage among the pots and pull one out. What's this? Pyrethrum - it's a natural insecticide. And this? Ants hate it - plant it around your house and the ants skedaddle. What's it called? Tansy.

I bought two.