Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I may be some time.

I may be absent until mid-January as I do summer holiday type things and other activities that aren't so pleasant but will take up an awful lot of time.

I promise to take things up again then, and hopefully I will have gathered lots of interesting thoughts to blog about.

Have a great summer (or winter for you Northern hemisphere readers).

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I have recently been reading Nigel Cox’s posthumous collection Phone Home Berlin, a fantastic assortment of essays, articles and musings. Nigel’s non-fiction is so eminently readable and it’s easy to dip into it and end up getting lost. I have now read his story about his early writing experiences and encounter with a mentor-figure twice and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. It reminds me of a very good novel or short story by one of those incredibly smart British male authors of yesteryear, with characters that are so interesting and perfect, it’s hard to believe they’re not actually made up. But that is the secret to engaging non-fiction – the ability to turn real events into a bloody good yarn.

I wouldn’t even mind if I’d heard that he’d embellished it somewhat, like Paul Theroux embellished a lunch party at VS Naipaul’s that was attended by my old English lecturer, Michael Neill. CK Stead wrote a wonderful article comparing the two events, reported and actual, which unfortunately is not available online, but let’s just say that Neill didn’t recognise himself or the events, and Stead’s article is easily as entertaining as the chapter, (from Theroux’s Sir Vidia's Shadow, a memoir of his friendship and rivalry with VS Naipaul) that it criticises.

It just goes to show though, that people can, and do, and perhaps even should, fiddle with the ‘facts’ a little bit for the sake of some good reading.

But back to Phone Home Berlin – reading the Berlin chapters transported me to my own time in Berlin last year on my honeymoon. A strange destination for a honeymoon, people have told me, but I’d been wanting to go for a little while (German was my best subject at school and despite having been to Europe four times, I’d never been to Germany); my husband had been there and loved it, and when we decided to go happened to coincide with getting married, so presto! It became our honeymoon. We had been planning to do a whiskey tour of Scotland as part of the same trip, but pregnancy dealt with that little dream.

Berlin is a blast. Especially if you are young and like going out to bars, and even more especially if you like smoking in bars. I have been known to do both of these things, and if I had gone there even as recently as three years ago I know I would have had a much different (yes, probably better) experience. But being four months pregnant is not the best state to be in to visit Berlin. The bars were fantastic, the best I have seen… homely and shabby and characterful and full of interesting people you’d like to get drunk with… but I wasn’t drinking and to make things worse the bars were all so smoky I nearly gagged when I walked into them. And by about ten, when people were just starting to go out, I was tired and ready for bed. I had an overwhelming feeling that I had come to Berlin just too late.

Of course there were other aspects of interest there, but I have to admit that the things that draw me to a foreign country are its romance factor, its art, its food, its drink. And the reason I had never been to Germany before was because I had never felt that it would quite provide what I was looking for in those departments. While I like sausage as much as the next person (unless that person is vegetarian), I can’t really get excited about three weeks of sausage and Spargel (white asparagus). When I went to Thailand a few years ago, I would wake up very morning excited thinking – what will I eat today?

So with no exciting food and no bar action, we just did the usual tourist things and looked at lots of castles and war memorials. Now I’m not saying that German history isn’t interesting – it most certainly is fascinating – it just doesn’t inspire a sort of languid dreaminess like, say, Spain.

There were a couple of places in Berlin, however, that did blow me away, and those were the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum that Nigel Cox worked at and that he talks about in the book. Again, being pregnant made it not quite the experience I would have hoped for (being attacked by a sudden and voracious hunger when I was in the middle of the museum which takes about 15 minutes to walk through – designed so you have to go past every single bit of it, no shortcuts. I wanted to grab the nearest staff member and say in my seventh form German that was last spoken 20 years ago: “Achtung! Wissen Sie nicht, ich schwanger sein! Geben Sie mir Essen!”) but it was moving and fascinating and upsetting and beautiful and exhausting nonetheless.

I read and enjoyed Nigel’s novel Responsibility last year and was taken back to those Berlin trams, with the incredibly sexy recorded announcements (“Alexanderplatz” had never sounded so much like foreplay), and now I get to read the real life experience of the city as well as the fictional one.

I’ve talked more about me than the book of course. I never pretended to be writing reviews on this blog, I just bring up books when they get me thinking about things I want to write about (OK, ramble might be a more accurate word). But Phone Home Berlin is a great book, and just so sad that it’s the last we’ll hear from a unique New Zealand voice. I wish he’d got to write all those books he would have written.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Grant Smithies’ wonderful new book Soundtrack - 118 New Zealand Albums has recently been published by Craig Potton, and what a great piece of work it is. Beautiful production and sublime writing from Grant and assorted other contributors such as Shayne Carter, Hamish McDouall, Jolisa Gracewood, Chad Taylor, Damien Wilkins, Duncan Sarkies and Chris Knox. A true celebration of some great New Zealand music, including many of my personal favourites: the 3Ds (but sorry Grant, that’s not me on the recording of Hellzapoppin’ – I just came up with the opening bass riff during my short stint with them), Life in One Chord by the Straitjacket Fits, JPSE, Bressa Creeting Cake and my favourite band of the last few years, The Phoenix Foundation.

What I love about it is that it’s not just about the artists and the music – after all there have been plenty of words written on NZ music – but about the writers who are describing them, with these 118 albums as the soundtrack to some important moments in their lives. Grant’s story about The Jean Paul Sartre Experience and the death of a friend’s baby had me weeping into my decaf.

Actually, Grant asked me to contribute to the book, and I now deeply regret not doing it. I was a bit busy at the time, being pregnant, publicising my own book, giving birth and looking after a newborn baby. I wrote a story in my head though, so thought I might put it down on paper (well, on screen, anyway) now. It was about The Phoenix Foundation’s Horsepower being the soundtrack to my son’s birth.

Our baby was a week overdue and we went in for some routine tests – a heart and movement monitor. We’d had the same tests two days prior and everything was looking good. It had been a model pregnancy up until then. The baby was in the right position and good to go whenever he felt the urge to pop out.

Then we had some scary news – I won’t go into it in too much detail because it’s a bit too personal to share the feelings, on the internet, of what we went through at the time. The gist of it is that the baby’s heart was beating too fast and the doctors wanted to take him out that afternoon by caesarean to treat the problem.

After several false starts I was finally wheeled into the operating theatre. We had been told that we were welcome to take our own CDs with us, but my husband had forgotten to bring our selection of music, and it was too late to go back and get it. Crowded House were playing on the stereo as they sat me down to begin the process of putting in the epidural (which was a lot more unpleasant than I had prepared myself for!). I put my foot down. I was not going to bring my baby into the world to Crowded House. So they skipped to the next CD. Dave Dobbyn. Even worse. So the procedure was put on hold while they brought me over a box of CDs to look through. We browsed through the most mediocre selection of music I could have possibly hoped for, and just when I was about to give up and let them play some so-so compilation, my husband found a gem: Horsepower. My mood instantly lifted.

As they slid a needle into my spine while I sat hunched over, holding the hands of my husband and midwife, trying not to cry, I let the opening trill of 'Sister Risk' wash over me. Yes, sometimes it does bloody “get so hard”. I can’t explain how it felt to have that familiar sound around me while that most unnatural procedure was performed on me. A mixture of sweet anticipation and fear, instead of just fear.

After my legs had filled up with warm liquid ('Let Me Die a Woman' - the video for this is spookily apt for how I was feeling) then gone numb, and after I was laid down, and the initial wave of nausea caused by my dropping blood pressure had passed ('This Charming Van'), it all went remarkably quickly. At some point – I don’t remember if it was before or after the babe was out – I was paying enough attention to the music to make my husband get up and skip track six, the only blight on the landscape of Horse Power, the only song I didn’t want in the room with me to share that moment.

Once the baby was out (and I will spare you the details), I didn’t really pay much attention to the music, for obvious reasons. Instead I had something new to think about: a kicking, squashed, mewling bundle that was rushed off to the neo-natal ward to have an emergency ECG, where he stayed for a week while the doctors worked out what to do with him. I was wheeled into recovery and I don’t know whether it was the morphine or the endorphins, but I think I cracked jokes while the nurses did whatever they had to do to me, and I don’t remember much except looking at my green pearl-lustre toenails (thanks to a last minute pedicure from my five-year-old niece) and not being able to move them, and wondering when I would be able to eat something since they had starved me all day in preparation for the operation (my friends will read this and think ‘typical Rachael, thinking about food when she has just witnessed the miracle of birth’).

I would like to report that it has a happy ending – one year on, our son has come off his heart medication, and he has grown out of whatever it was that was causing his heart to beat twice as fast as it should.

But back to the book – a gorgeous present for any New Zealand music lover, full of stories much more well thought out than this one. I didn’t even talk about what the album Horsepower means to me, how it is my summer, my winter, my grief, my freedom. And now it’s the birth of my son.

Monday, December 03, 2007

More Coincidence.

Please excuse the absence of late – I’ve had more than the usual amount of work to do, having taken on various quick (or so I thought) projects that I don’t seem to be able to perform quickly at all. I have some juicy blog posts lined up in my head, but they will just have to wait until this run is over and I can get back to selfishly thinking about nothing but my own work.

In the meantime a few things: the wind took my broadband again and I can’t blame Telstra this time – a tree beside my office, which is on council land (the tree not my office), has numerous cables running through its very bushy branches, including our power and phone. We’re lucky it’s only been our broadband affected so far – a really big storm could take it all out in one gust. I’m about to see if I can get the council to cut the offending tree down, which seems a shame, but I promise to plant another somewhere else to make up for it.

Speaking of trees, the cabbage trees were in full bloom in South Canterbury where I was in the weekend, and our splendid and miraculous kauri tree (supposedly they don’t grow this far south very easily) is sprouting fabulous new leaves and looking very happy with itself.

Finally a note about one of my previous posts The Serendipity of Writing: not two days before I made that post, probably because I had been thinking about the Pan Bookshop, I wondered to myself what might have happened to a friend I met when I was working there. Alexander worked in another bookshop (Books Etc I think) and we met over champagne at the Ritz for the launch of a racy Dick Francis novel, a shop girl and shop boy slightly at odds with the surroundings (though I do recall he had made an effort to dress up in a suit while I was still in my rags).

I tried unsuccessfully to find him on Facebook, and I googled him, but didn’t trust that the email address I found for him was current, so left it at that.

Then lo and behold, a post appears on my blog from an Alexander. It couldn’t be, I thought. It was. It seems serendipity isn’t just at play in my writing at the moment. We had decided at almost the exact same time to track each other down more than ten years later.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Terror or fiction?

In the wake of the "terror raids" in New Zealand and the evidence as reported in the Dominion Post, I thought this article by Hari Kunzru* in the Guardian ("Given the kind of titles I have on my bookshelves, the police raid could be coming any minute") was very interesting. Maybe what we have is just a bunch of novelists and film-makers discussing ideas?

*No I am not Hari's publicist - he just seems to have voiced one or two things I've been thinking about lately.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

RIP Pan Bookshop.

I was very sad to hear the news today, from Emma Darwin, that the Pan Bookshop, the shop I worked at in London, is to close its doors in January, as reported in The Bookseller. This shop shaped much of who I am today. I wrote a blog post about my time there, but as it has just been picked up by a magazine (made of real paper!) I have taken it down. I will keep readers informed of when it will be published. It is a sad state of affairs indeed to see good independent bookstores shutting down in the face of too much stiff competition from the big chains. I pray that it doesn't happen here in New Zealand.

I remember when the net book agreement was scrapped in the UK - I was working at the bookshop at the time. The agreement meant that all bookstores had to sell books at the recommended retail price, which meant the tiny shops were selling them at the same price as the big shops. At the time, June Formby, then manager of the shop, predicted that the end of the agreement would spell the end, eventually, of the shop, and maybe she was right. Because chains like Waterstones would buy in huge quantities, they demanded huge discounts from publishers and were able to sell them to customers for a much lower price. This was great for the book-buying public on one level, obviously, but shops like the Pan Bookshop couldn't compete with that as they were buying books in much smaller quantities, thereby not getting the discounts. In the long run it is bad for the book-buying public (not to mention the authors, but that's another post!) because they lose shops like the Pan Bookshop, staffed with passionate, enthusiastic, and most importantly, knowledgeable people who know the stock inside out and can recommend a book to anyone.

So Rest in Peace, and I hope you all find nice jobs to go to.

Emma left this note on the other Pan Bookshop post that isn't there anymore, so I leave it here: "Oh, this rang so many memories. Pan were the bookshop of my childhood - I grew up a few streets away. My agency lives in the ex-Pan offices above, so it's a nice nostalgia trip to go there. And now they're finally being closed down. See here. Someone on the comments is suggesting a management buyout - here's hoping...Emma"

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Memento Mori

I came across this image last week while researching the concept of 'memento mori' and it has haunted me ever since. It was not uncommon for the Victorians to photograph the dead as a way to pay tribute and remember them, but there is something so utterly sad about this photo that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The baby looks like it is sleeping. I’m sure this is deliberate. But it is the eyes of the woman holding it that I am drawn to: huge, hooded, slightly lop-sided, and full of grief. I am intrigued by the fact that the woman’s appearance is immaculate. She has been dressed as she would for any formal family portrait (one can’t help see echoes of the Madonna and child), and it must have taken her hours to get her hair just so – perfectly flat and pinned. I suppose it would have been a distraction for her while she was beside herself with sadness over the death of her baby. I am also disturbed by how young she is – little more than a child herself. And so there she sits, groomed, staring into the camera, and under her eyes you can see the dark circles probably caused by many sleepless nights – not just from mourning, but perhaps from sitting up night after night with a sick baby. I almost can’t bear to imagine the story behind this.

I’m sorry for being so morbid. I can’t even look at that baby.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The serendipity of writing.

I have been thinking this week about serendipity and coincidence when writing and researching novels. The way you stumble across a subject, decide to use it, and suddenly keep finding it everywhere. I don’t want to be too specific, but the novel I have just abandoned (sorry, put aside for now) was partly ditched because another author published a novel with the same premise and the same title. I tried to not let it bother me, but the whole thing just froze me up inside, and I needed something to blame.

I don’t think it’s going to happen again, but after having a new idea my subject matter does seem to be stalking me.

It started one day a few months back when I was searching my bookshelves for something new to read. I acquire books at a greater rate than I read them, so I have hundreds of books on my shelves that I haven’t read, and many of them I have forgotten even buying. I was in the mood for something specific, and the only way I could describe it to myself or anyone else was a “booky, literary, mystery-type-thing”. When I couldn’t find one after scouring high (eight feet high, probably) and low, I realised with a little thrill that I would just have to write something like that myself. That set me on the path to my latest project, for sure. Still starved for the kind of book I was after, I ordered five novels that I liked the look of a few months ago from Amazon (sorry local bookstores, but the exchange rate is excellent at the moment and I am not seeing it reflected in the prices at home).

While waiting for the order to arrive, I had the brainwave for my new novel, in no way related in subject matter to the five books I had just ordered. My protagonist has a specific occupation (lets call her a ‘postman’) and in the novel, a certain object that I had never heard of before until very recently (let’s call it an ‘umbrella’) plays a big part in the story. So the Amazon package arrives and I am happily reading the first novel when unexpectedly, what should turn up, unannounced, but an ‘umbrella’. The book delves right into the history of ‘umbrellas’ and gives many prime and beautiful examples. That book finished, yesterday I randomly picked up the second in the pile of books and lo and behold the first page has the main character delivering letters and sorting mail. He is a postman (you know he’s not really doing things with mail right? That’s just my substitute occupation because I don’t want to reveal what my character really does – I don’t want to jinx it.).

There are many more examples of how I am suddenly being crowded by the very things I am now so interested in (a shop that someone told me about in Melbourne that I decided woudld make a good setting was featured in a short guide to Melbourne in the paper this morning, for instance), but I can see this post will get stuffed full of code-words and it will become completely unintelligible. I will have to revisit the post in a few years when the book is safely written and published and it will make rather a nice story, I think. In the meantime, I have decided not to take all this as a bad sign, but rather one of encouragement. Serendipity rather than unfortunate coincidence. Although I am a bit nervous about reading those other three novels I ordered.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Acts of Love by Susan Pearce

I've been a bit absent from the ether this past week since the wind took out my broadband connection (of course I didn't know the cause until the Telstra technician finally showed up today. It always amuses me when I hear their slogan Now's Good, and I use it to taunt the poor person at the end of the phone regularly). Anyway, this is just a quick plug for my friend Susan Pearce, whose first novel Acts of Love is being published this week by Victoria University Press. It received a stunning review on National Radio this morning - the reviewer declared it a definite contender for the Montana Book Awards next year. Because Susan is part of my, ahem, very exclusive writing group, I have read it in many forms and have seen the work and dedication that has gone into it. I can't wait to read the finished work in its own beautiful package (I expect nothing less of VUP, who produce the most consistently elegant books in the country). Now I can't wait for my other writing group friend Kate Duignan to finish her long-awaited second novel. Breakwater is one of my favourite NZ novels. No pressure, Kate!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Writing from experience.

This is a subject I would like to come back to some time, but in the meantime here is a letter in the Guardian from an as always level-headed Hari Kunzru on the subject of whether you should only write from your own experience and background. It was in reponse to this article about Monica Ali's Brick Lane and the furore that has plagued it at times.

The Shitty First Draft and other ponderings.

I think it was Anne Lamott, in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird , who coined the term 'shitty first draft', whereby a writer switches off the inner critics (Lamott imagines them as mice which she then locks in a jar) to just 'get it down' for an entire draft. They can then go back and use that raw material to start to shape and mold, to see what's there (or, as EM Forster once said, "How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?").

In principle, I have always used this method for my non-fiction - reviews, articles, essays and whatnot - and sometimes for my short stories. That way, the 'shitty first draft' may only take an hour or so to write, depending on the length of the piece and the level of inspiration that day.

But as for writing novels, I have not applied it - at least, not for a whole draft (for the record, I have written two novels and started another two, not counting atrocious first efforts in my 20s), but certainly for one chapter at a time. This is partly due to the fact that I need to establish a 'voice' for the novel before I can go on. For The Sound of Butterflies, this meant that the first chapter probably went through twenty drafts by publication, whereas the last quarter of the book may have only had five - by then the voices were well established and I was off like a rocket.

So this method has always worked for me, and a shitty first draft of a whole novel was just not an option. Until now.

I have just abandoned a novel that I have been trying to work on for two years. Not steadily, I'll admit - in that two years I had a book published with all the distraction that brings, got pregnant (a sense of fog and wonder prevailed) and given birth (cue sleepless nights, no time and so on). The current novel was no longer the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep and the first thing I thought about when I woke up.

After struggling with an empty page and the realisation that I had a small truckload of research to do before I could write each scene or description (with TSOB I dived into that with glee, but things have changed!) I finally gave up and realised that not only did I need a new idea to get me inspired again, I needed a new method of working to fit my new life.

The new idea came to me as all my ideas do - out of the blue, this time triggered by an article in a community newspaper. I could finally relieve myself of the burden of that other novel. I am a different person than the person who started that novel. A new project allows me to acknowledge that and embrace it.

So I started writing it, and even though I knew vaguely where I was going with it, I was dissatisfied with the voice of the narrator as it was appearing on the page in front of me. But I kept going anyway. Then I read this, from a link posted by Emma Darwin on her wonderfully (and scarily) erudite blog about writing, This Itch of Writing. And I realised that this new Rachael could do things differently. I need to do things differently now that I can't selfishly devote all my headspace to the creative monster. I only get three days a week to write and the rest to devote to my other little creation. At least I have my nocturnally wandering mind back, now that he sleeps through the night, but mornings definitely have a different focus.

And so I am embracing the shitty first draft. And it seems to be working. I am switching off that pesky inner critic and just writing. I have a vague idea of where it is going - I am in that wonderful stage where aspects of the story and characters pop into my head at all times of the day, night or week - but I'll have to see what I say to know what I mean with this one.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Joys and Woes of the Internet

I'm a guest blogger over on the Picador UK website this week, writing about my love-hate relationship with the internet. Go here to check it out.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sponsor Bianca

Well, in a month when a report by the New Zealand Society of Authors shows just how poor the lot of NZ writers is, it is refreshing to see someone take matters into her own hands. My friend Bianca Zander has come up with the genius plan of asking people to sponsor her novel writing. And it's working. She has so far raised more than $3000, which is well on the way to her goal of $8000, with which she plans to write for six months. Hardly the lap of luxury.

I applaud her initiative. Rather than sitting about moaning, she has come up with a scheme. I also applaud her cheek. Some people might be indignant that someone would ask them to fund their "hobby". But stop for a moment to consider the long tradition of arts patronage in western society. Pick up any programme at the opera or the ballet and you'll find a long list of 'friends' at the back who are people with a bit of spare money who love the arts and want to show their support. This is arts patronage of the 21st century ladies and gents.

Which is what could have been a very interesting discussion when Bianca was interviewed on National Radio recently. I didn't expect the interviewer to bow down and blindly pimp the website, but she forsook an interesting discussion on arts patronage and initiatives for artists and instead came over rather prickly and asked Bianca if she didn't think that having a long list of acknowlegements might hinder her chances of publication. When Bianca said she didn't think so, no, and that if it was a good book then that should take care of things, the interviewer asked her if she'd spoken to any publishers about it (in a rather 'oh, you're so naive' kind of way).

For the record, you can fit about 300 words onto a printed page, so even if Bianca gathered 300 sponsors, it would still only fill two pages (using first and surnames, in an admittedly dense block of text). I have seen authors' notes and acknowledgements run to eight pages in a novel.

Anyway, she implied that Bianca should get a job and struggle a bit, like everyone else, thereby missing the point that she was actually doing something different and that was why she'd been invited on the programme to begin with.

If you'd like to sponsor Bianca, go to or click on the title to this post. I'm happy to support a fellow artist.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Blog at NZ Book Month

I blogged all through September at the NZ Book Month site. Topics included: a diary of a writing day; what we expect from our novelists when it comes to 'the facts'; imagining if the arts were given as much coverage on the nightly news as sport; and finally a week which saw me goingto the Going West Festival, the Prime Minister's awards for literature, and my book being released in the USA. Click the title above to go to the blog.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Hello. Welcome to my new blog. I enjoyed blogging as a guest on the NZ Book Month site (see above) so much, I decided to keep going. So this blog is not so much about The Sound of Butterflies as about my thoughts on the writing life and books. I hope to inspire and maybe generate a bit of discussion. I will try and post regularly, at least once a week. If you enjoy this, then please feel free to link to it if you have your own blog. And if you're interested in my novel, you can find out all about it at Thanks for visiting!