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!