Friday, May 28, 2010

Murder They Wrote - and the benefits of a nap

Brilliant crime fiction night at Cafe L'Affare in Wellington - it is not exaggerating to say I was mesmerised by the three prolific, best-selling, full-time crime writers: Neil Cross, Vanda Symon and Paul Cleave.  My daughter who was with me, was similarly smitten - especially by Cleave's serial killer - and tells me now she's going to be a crime writer. That's how good the evening was. 

Cross is a UK suspense novelist and scriptwriter of movies and edgy TV crime drama (Spooks and Luther), now living in Wellington - 'my secret life'.

Cleave is a Christchurch author of best-selling books like The Cleaner which has seen him second to Dan Brown on Germany's Amazon.

Symon is a Dunedin author of the Sam Shepherd series that begins with Overkill - selling well here and in Germany. The event was magnificently chaired by Book Council Chief Executive Noel Murphy.

All three authors write full-time and their hard work and commitment to their craft made me realise what being an author really means - Cross writes every day all day with a break when the kids come home from school, Vanda writes from 9-3 while her two boys are at school and Cleave writes from 11 am, when he wakes up, until 2 or 3 in the morning.

A tip from Cross which he passed onto me at the end of the session - and which in turn was handed to him by Patricia Highsmith - when you want to switch from one form of writing (a TV script, say, to a novel), take a 15 minute nap. The brain rejigs and then fires again, and off you go.

I didn't take any notes because I just wanted to enjoy the session, but wished I had. Here from memory are the highlights. Don't consider these direct quotes more a kind of summary.

Cross: People leave school thinking literature is like brown rice - good for you and you should eat it, when in fact it's just one big trifle. (He was talking about how people stop reading and how they resile from crime fiction thinking it's a lesser type of literature...)

Cleave: was inspired by Stephen King books he read as a teenager and determined to write horror, then he read crime (Ian Rankin's Rebus series I think he said) and decided to go more along that route, although people tell him his novels aren't really crime fiction in the accepted sense and he'd agree. Cross prefers 'suspense novelist' to describe his work. Symon didn't intend to write crime, she just wrote the sort of books she likes to read and was told it was 'lady detective fiction' (or something like that), and while she understands the need to pigeonhole books to promote them, she thinks it puts some readers off and would like less emphasis on genre.

All three writers like to write crime/suspense to explore people's motives when they get into their darkest places. They are all fascinated by the psychology of their killers and their detectives. Cleave talked about building a killer's humanity so that a reader is on his or her side rather than on the side of his murder victims. He shared a story he'd heard from another writer about how a man will be standing on a roof about to jump and a crowd will be egging him on. Put a puppy on the roof instead and the crowd will want him to 'stay'. That sort of psychology fascinates Cleave.

Cross talked about creating his detective Luther for UK television and how he wanted to blend the archetypal brilliant but quirky detective character (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) where the murder victim is no more than a device in the story, with the 'moral' detective (e.g. Jane Tennant) where the murder victim figures as a person. He researched this by talking to a top murder cop in Britain whom Cross expected to be 'dehumanised' by all the murders he'd seen, but instead he stunned Cross by saying he felt privileged to be the one who delivered justice to the families of the dead.

Cross, Cleave and Symon all engage in research to ensure their work is authentic. Although one reason Cleave prefers to write from the point of view of a murderer is he feels it's easier than writing from the point of view of a cop - he can imagine what it is to be a murderer and doesn't have to research the details of a policeman's life. Symon similarly began her series of books by putting Sam Shepherd in a sole charge station at the start of her career because she thought there was more room there for both her and Sam to make it up as they went along.

All three writers feel murder is intrinsic to much of our great fiction and say the genre 'Crime' is following on in that tradition. Cross talked of the stuff of myth and legend underpinning his work eg. his latest novel Captured uses the Grail legend.

Cross: dinner conversation doesn't make it into Greek tragedies and myths and legends - murder does.

Cleave, Cross and Symon don't know where a book is going when they start writing and believe that's vital in keeping them going. If they're excited by the story and want to know what happens, then the reader will be too. Cleave says in one of his novels, he didn't know who the murderer was until quite a way through, then he got to a certain point, read it back over and thought 'he's the one.' He says after that he goes back in and rewrites the draft ... Symon knows where she wants to go, and has in mind some set scenes she wants in the book, but then lets it go from there.

Symon: didn't realise how difficult it would be to write crime fiction from the first-person point of view of her detective protagonist Sam Shepherd - so she uses a prologue each time to let the reader into other perspectives. Cleave agreed he'd used the same device.

Symon: as a pharmacologist, she has a good knowledge of how to kill someone using poison, but she tries not to fall back on that, preferring to investigate other ways to murder people. She cites some of Ngaio Marsh's methods including hitting someone over the head with a jeroboam of champagne.

Cross: literature is not about literary books and genre fiction - crime, suspense etc - it's just about GOOD books and BAD books.

And now, for your edification, a hilarious list of The Ten Rules of (Golden Age) Detective Fiction by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox, that Noel Murphy used go kick off the session. As he pointed out, the three crime writers at the podium regularly break all of these rules ...

1.The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2.All supernaural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3.Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4.No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5.No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6.No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7.The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8.The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9.The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10.Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Oh I still notice whales, I can't help it. I thought when the final edits for the novel left my hands, my obsess... fascination with things whale would quietly decline. The Blue is set in Tory Channel (NZ)  in 1938 when whalers took to the water in small fast boats and explosive harpoons, and the novel required an enormous amount of research. The thing is, though, I was interested in whales before I began the book - having reported on them and the International Whaling Commission while I worked for radio and television in the 1980s - so perhaps it will never let me go.

Here I am - to paraphrase Bette Midler - still smelling a whale at 500 paces. Having coffee with a friend the other day, I noticed a T-shirt with a whale on it four shops down the road; and in a recent visit to Wanganui with my Bookclub, I was transfixed by a piece of whale bone for sale (stranded whale, minke possibly) and bought it. I wear it around my neck. It's so light. So porous.

And here's another fave whale thing of mine - the song Whaling by Dave Dobbyn of DD Smash. My son, Paul, and his mate, Eddie, played it at my book launch on their guitars. They didn't want to sing. Hey to sing this song, you really gotta have that 80s thing going on....

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Pruning roses by Fiona Kidman

Pruning roses
for Joanna

That year we lived in France
I nipped home in July, the cold
set of winter, to prune the roses,

or so I said, although there was
other business too. I oiled
my shiny shears and set upon

the annual task, slicing
clean on the diagonal:
they're a semi-circle of white

Icebergs planted in friable soil
stretching beneath the green native
trees surrounding our house. 

There were four of us there
on the day of their ritual
planting: my daughter, her daughter,
               her brother's wife and me. 

We hummed wedding songs
in soft anticipation of the first
buds and then when they came

you wore a scarlet dress
and married your love
and we danced on the lawn. 

                             Fiona Kidman 

Pruning Roses is one of my favourite poems in Dame Fiona Kidman's collection Where Your Left Hand Rests, published this year to celebrate her 70th birthday, and already in the Top 10 of the Bestsellers' List. Like many of the poems in this gorgeous book, Pruning Roses is about family and the stuff that binds. Fiona writes simply and powerfully of family history and ritual and strength and love and joy. 

She also writes about what it is to be a woman who writes, and takes us from a bunch of poets in Thorndon to meeting a son in Greece to the year she spent in France as the Katherine Mansfield fellow. That's the year Fiona Kidman sat down at the writer's desk in that small important room and decided she'd worked hard at writing fiction for so long, and now she would work hard at her poems again. 

For those overseas readers who are new to Fiona's work - she has published eight novels including the award-winning The Book of Secrets and The Captive Wife, many collections of poetry and short fiction, and her non-fiction includes a recent two-volume memoir. Fiona has been awarded a Damehood, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the French Legion of Honour, and yet the last lines of her book are typically modest: ' ....My epitaph may be that she was a small woman/who spent her days in small airports flying/on very small aeroplanes to middle-sized towns.' 

As I said in my review when Where your Left Hand Rests was launched - some books fill you up, and this is one of those: its exquisite end papers and illustrations using vintage fabrics are just a start. The poems nestle inside - small treasures. 

Tuesday Poem

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Sunday, May 23, 2010


Liquid. Light. The most exquisite thing.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fugitive Pieces - when language surrenders

'On Idhra I finally began to feel my English strong enough to carry experience. I became obsessed by the palpable edge of sound. The moment when language at last surrenders to what it's describing: the subtlest differentials of light or temperature or sorrow. I'm a kabbalist only in that I believe in the power of incantation. A poem is as neural as love; the rut of rhythm that veers the mind.'   from Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.

I have waited too long to read this book. It is extraordinary. Michaels writes as Jakob Beer, the protagonist, describes above - right at the edge of language where it tips over into something else altogether. Something visceral, neural, call it what you will.

Michaels is a Canadian poet, and here in her 1997 novel she layers 'pieces' of writing in this book as a poem layers lines or stanzas, to build something that is deeper than an ordinary narrative. At times, the language feels too intense and carefully wrought for a story - a bit like watching someone through a highly ornate iron gate  - but for most of the book I feel like I do when snorkelling in deep water, or as I imagine flying to be - deeply inside another medium and somehow invisible, immaterial. Michaels writes of grief and love with such wisdom and beauty, it hurts sometimes.

Fugitive Pieces is the story of Jakob Beer who, aged 7, is rescued from the muddy ruins of a buried village in Nazi-occupied Poland. His family dead, he is adopted by a Greek geologist - Athos - and taken to Greece and then Canada. Jakob is persecuted by the violent deaths of his family and of the millions of other Jews who died in World War II. The way he grapples with what happened and tries to make a life for himself is both provocative and intensely moving. Unforgettable.

Here's my review of Anne Michaels' 2009 novel, The Winter Vault.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tuesday Poem: A Poem

A Poem

can stray like a hair on a cardigan

curl like an ear, insouciant, clean

can close like a mouth, thinly

and deepen those lines going nowhere

or coming from nowhere and finding

the lips there, for much is made of lips 

can howl like that mouth left alone in the house

can open like a wrist

                                       Mary McCallum

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Tuesday Poem

Mental pyjamas - the writer's day, and other insights from AWRF

Oh the joys of reading and listening to a reader and writer who 'looks at the world through an acute pair of eyes' - read Bookman Beattie on one of the highlights of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival: an interview with Rick Gekoski who has been dubbed 'the Bill Bryson of the Book world'. And then there's the gorgeous Irish author Colm Toibin (Brooklyn, The Master etc) whom I've heard read before (unforgettable) and whom - according to one of the comments on Beattie's report - likened the passing of the writer's day to being in 'mental pyjamas'. Yes!

It's those sort of sessions which make me feel deprived for not having gone to the Festival, but how lucky we are to have Bookman Graham Beattie who not only goes but writes it all up with such insight and verve. Amazing man. He also writes about sessions with Jill DawsonDavid Levithan, Marti Friedlander, Paula Morris and Rachael King, Lionel Shriver, Alison Wong, CK Stead, and Elizabeth Smither. Whew! I hope I got everyone - you can always search an author name on his blog to see. To supplement the Beattie roving reports, drop into the Christchurch City Libraries blog.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Daphne and Branwell Bronte

Daphne is about Daphne du Maurier during the time in her life when she was writing a biography of Branwell Bronte - trawling through the Brontes' lives and manuscripts to try and resurrect the reputation of the dissolute brother of the famous three. A popular 'lady' novelist - and not considered 'serious' because of it, Du Maurier has a complicated marriage, is a cousin to the boys who inspired JM Barrie's Peter Pan, and lives in the rambling Cornish home that inspired Rebecca - a place thronged with ghosts.

Knitted into this, is the story of a man called Symington who has a similar fascination with Branwell, and once stole Bronte manuscripts and notebooks, hoarding them against a time when he hopes to write a biography of Branwell himself. He is also on the fringes of alleged forgeries of signatures on Bronte manuscripts that muddy their provenance.

Symington's getting older and more confused ... and leads Daphne a merry dance as he tries to share what he has while keeping the best for himself. A third strand in the narrative follows a young woman in present day London who is studying Du Maurier, while battling to make her marriage work to a man who is still 'haunted' by his first wife... remind you of something?

A fourth strand is that the novel itself clearly represents the author's own obsession with Du Maurier and the Brontes and how the two overlap. This serves to make the novel feel highly authentic - and fascinates for that reason - but at the same time the author obsession makes the novel less engaging because it keeps reminding the reader that it is a story.

Daphne also feels too much like non-fiction writing at times as Picardie lays the ground work and then builds on it with back-story and current action, often repeating herself to be sure the reader has understood. The three stories and their similarities and coincidences feel a bit laboured - again, like the author is pointing and saying 'look at this and this and this' - and the language is too 'nuts and bolts' to really get us inside her characters' skins.

Having said that, the real stories Picardie has drawn on are fascinating for a Bronte fan with a Du Maurier bent, and I admire the trail she's followed to bring this material out into the world. Her novel adds rather wonderfully to The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan that I read earlier this year - a novel that fictionalises the lives of the Brontes and made me see them properly for the first time. Now I am inspired to go and read more of the Brontes and more Du Maurier.

In a lovely coincidence that Picardie would revel in, my daughter's in the middle of reading Jane Eyre. I keep saying, 'where are you up to?' And she answers in single sentences to fend me off. The last one was: 'she's bored with the house.'

Thursday, May 13, 2010

David Beckham as Achilles

How could I have missed this? The marvellous Carol Ann Duffy - Britain's prolific poet laureate - has been moved by David Beckham's snapped achilles tendon to write a poem.


Myth’s river – where his mother
dipped him, fished him, a
slippery golden boy flowed on,
his name on its lips.
Without him, it was prophesied,
they would not take Troy.
Women hid him, concealed him
in girls’ sarongs; days of
sweetmeats, spices, silver songs …
But when Odysseus came, with an
athlete’s build, a sword and a shield,
he followed him to the battlefield,
the crowd’s roar,
And it was sport, not war,
his charmed foot on the ball …
But then his heel, his heel, his heel …

                                         Carol Ann Duffy

Monday, May 10, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Where the Night is Long

Where night is long
by Pat White

just at the point of darkness, but
upon which day you are no longer
certain, you will learn that making
poems is only one of the many things

just as each dog runs its own gait
- tail held for balance – so
and the trout faces upstream
gills opening, closing, opening; it is
the job of the current to supply food

just as it is the hawk’s task to soar and the mouse
to enter the house because the hawk’s shadow
has hovered over the path, a momentary dark
or the coming winter to test strength, try the will
of the aged to breathe another, another –

just as the stars are out there
giving their show for free, maybe
after the equinox and you can’t sleep
because of the wind’s tantrum performance
for the third day, when the dead are willing
to lie undisturbed leaving scattered leaves to rise

just for a moment you may even be
happy enough to be no more than you are
to let other creatures function as they might
your poem can let go, just one more firefly firelit story
up in smoke, another breath to breathe in sleep
against the odds, an offer arrives

Pat White is the new NZ writer at the Randell Cottage in Thorndon which is home to a NZ writer for six months of the year and a French writer for the remaining six months. This poem is in an unpublished collection of 100 poems that Pat has been working on, and is posted here with his permission. I like the way it sets off the vigorousness and 'thisness' of nature versus the stillness and 'otherness' of the poet. And I very much like the way a poem is 'one more firefly firelit story/up in smoke'

I am involved with Randell Cottage as a Trustee and Chair of the Friends committee, and so have been helping Pat settle in over the past few weeks. This has included helping him dig over a rather neglected flower bed, so he can plant some vegetables!

Pat, you see, is as much a man of the land as he is a man of the written word. Here's what we've put up on the
Randell Cottage website about him:

Pat is a poet, essayist and artist whose work reflects his passion for the natural environment and an exploration of the way individuals relate to the land. His poetry collections are: Signposts (1977), Bushfall (1978),Cut Across the Grain (1980), Acts of Resistance(1985), Dark Backward (1994), Drought and Other Intimacies (1999), and Planting the Olives(2004).

He has also published In Gallipoli: In search of a family story (Red Roofs, 2005). Pat lives in the rural Wairarapa near Wellington. In 2009, he completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters with a folio of essays entitled How the Land Lies. He was writer in residence at the Robert Lord Cottage in Dunedin 2009/10. 

Pat will use the Randell Cottage residency to research and write a biography of West Coast writer, teacher and fellow environmentalist Peter Hooper (1919 – 1991). He says living in Thorndon will facilitate his research at the Turnbull Library and allow him easy access to papers in private hands.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Construction of the Nest

The construction of the nest
By Mary McCallum

There is a touch of sparrowness
about her, about me, a touch
of sparrow's nest.

She is feathers and flight and freckled
eggs, I am a place, well,
I am a place of rest.

I wait, all attentiveness,
for the thrum of those wings
that wormish breath,

to hold those noisy bones,
while mine rasp and scrape
like an old man’s chest.

Here I am, unheld, unmet -
and yet,
I know this now as I know the wind:

I, once shabby sticks and grass,
needed her to alight here,
her to gather me in.

The air is bitter, prinked
with rain,
when will  I see you, sweet, again?


Tuesday PoemGo to the Tuesday Poem blog for the featured poet this week and links to 23 other poems by poets from NZ, the US, Ireland and Athens. Click on the badge to get there.

The Construction of the Nest is my first fully-fledged Tuesday Poem - inspired by the TP postings and written to publish here - and I am very pleased with it. (My other Tuesday Poems were written a while back and polished up for the blog.)

It began last Tuesday, in fact. Sated by Tuesday Poems, I went for a walk and misheard a woman talking to a friend, it sounded like she said 'sparrowness', and it seemed such a perfect word I was surprised I hadn't heard it before. Immediately the word attached itself to a friend of mine, and a friendship, and then ricocheted off  ... 'Wormish breath' simply fell from the sky and seems to me to be perfect in so many ways, not least because it echoes Middle English poetry (which is rich pickings). 'Prinked' also arrived before I had time to think. I liked its onomatopoeaic sound for rain. When it was in the poem, I checked its meaning (think of 'primp' but more showy than that.)

The idea behind this poem is something I've been thinking about lately: how we assume certain things about relationships (who's dependent on whom etc) when they're always much more complicated than that  ....  a bit like a nest that paradoxically provides shelter and yet only exists because a bird requires it and gives it shape.

I had a bit of driving to do yesterday and the day before, and I used the time to say the poem out loud - over and over - as I used to do with poems when I was walking to university thirty years ago. The Tuesday Poem project is wholly responsible for thrusting me back into that wildly poetic time. How could I not be? I'm reading over 25 poems a week now, with a good swag of them in one day, and then finding myself starting a poem, and another, and another, and then needing to finish them to put them online.

It doesn't take much to think myself back to my Aro Valley flat in 1980, and my friend Sandra and I sprawled on the carpet arguing whether it was Coleridge or Wordsworth who deserved our love (yes, love), or to Bill Manhire's Original Composition class and Kirsty Gunn introducing her latest 'thing'. Or to a poem I wrote about camellias that I recited over and over on my way to university. I see the route (the zig-zag, the clockmender's, the skinny steps) and overlaid - fat and clear - are words:  the pale petals will burn ....  That sort of thing.

I never tire of sounding words out and hearing the way they work. I find new meanings that way - for example, the way 'sweet' works in the final line of The Construction. I also chew and spit the gristly bits  until I hope they're gone. The final stanza of my Tuesday Poem this week came when I thought it was finished. The best poems in the TP blogroll, have reminded me again and again that a good poem needs to move beyond description and metaphor, and deepen the mystery, so I hung on in there a little longer than usual with this one.

Hence the bitter, prinked air, my sweet.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Reading in the Digital Age

Sven Birkets on Reading in a Digital Age for The American Scholar:

I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation. In that thought-world it’s clearly desirable to have a powerful machine that can gather and sort material in order to isolate the needed facts. But in the other, the contemplative thought-world—where reflection is itself the end, a means of testing and refining the relation to the world, a way of pursuing connection toward more affectively satisfying kinds of illumination, or insight—information is nothing without its contexts. I come to think that contemplation and analysis are not merely two kinds of thinking: they are opposed  kinds of thinking. Then I realize that the Internet and the novel are opposites as well.

The full piece can be found at here.

Thanks to Zachary Bos of the Boston Poetry Union for this link via his extensive and fascinating mailer, and for his linking to the Tuesday Poem which is the upside of 'reading in the digital age' . We now have 24 poets from NZ, the US, Ireland, and Greece posting poems - written by themselves and others - every Tuesday. This week, the hub poem is Coverage by Tim Jones, selected by editor Harvey Molloy. And coming up on the first Tuesday of May, Helen Rickerby of Seraph Press is the editor. I'm looking forward to seeing what she selects. 

Meanwhile, one of the highlights of the Tuesday Poem for me this week was Palmerston North poet Bryan Walpert's selection: an extraordinary poem called All Things End in Fragrance by US poet James Hoch, which I found required both contemplation and analysis to fully understand. I love, too, the way it intersects rather wonderfully with Bryan's selection the previous Tuesday: The Starlings by Tim Upperton. And then I can't help but leap (fly?) to a poem by Tuesday Poet T. Clear that was posted two Tuesdays back called Last Rescued Bird. And then, well, where to stop....