Sunday, March 30, 2008

Truly, Madly, Deeply.

I found out over the weekend that Anthony Minghella has died of surgery complications following an operation for cancer. Minghella directed many films based on great books - The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain, and one of his next projects was The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen, a book I have been meaning to read.

But it is his first film that I will remember the most. I first saw Truly, Madly, Deeply at the Auckland International Film Festival in 1990 and I have seen it countless times since - one of the few films I have ever seen that I can watch again and again. I guess that makes it my favourite film of all time. Juliet Stevenson is superb in it as Nina - a scene early on in the film sees her crying to her therapist about the death of her partner Jamie, played by Alan Rickman before Hollywood found him. She bursts into angry, shouting, snotty tears about him leaving her. She is spellbinding.

She misses him so much that he comes back to her. While she plays the piano for a Bach piece and hums the cello part that accompanies it, he reappears, playing. He hangs out with her. More tears, more snot, but also great joy and silliness of a couple just hanging out. But things start to fall apart. He is perpetually cold. He invites his dead mates over and they watch videos. Eventually Nina realises that it's not going to work and she moves on, and Jamie lets her.

The film is a real tear jerker but it's also funny and so real that you have no trouble suspending disbelief. It is so unsentimental that it's hard to believe the same director went on to direct the schmaltz of Cold Mountain. But because of Truly Madly Deeply, I would forgive Minghella anything.

Because of that film I love Juliet Stevenson, I love Alan Rickman (who else can make a moustache look so sexy?), I love Bach's Cello Sonata in G Minor and always feel this odd mix of longing and contentment when I hear it (also this great rendition of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"). And because of all these things, I guess you could say that I love Anthony Minghella. Wish he'd made a film of my book. He would have been perfect.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Cabinet of Curiosities.

After being shamed in The Press last weekend about my bare office, I had to finally admit to myself that while I like the idea of a beautifully tidy office covered in inspirational pictures, diagrams and flowcharts, and all my research in orderly files and piles where I can find things in a second, the reality is this: I am a slob. Everything I need is indeed within easy reach, though, depending on when I last used it. Of the things strewn higgledy-piggledy on my desk, the items I used last will be near the top and the things I used when I first moved in here will be somewhere near the bottom. I do have a filing system - it consists of an 'outbox' where things will eventually find themselves if I have no immediate use for them. In 6 months time I will probably take half a day to sort through the outbox and put things in neat files in the filing cabinet, or they might just all go into a bag labelled 'for filing' to clear the way for more debris.

After having to sort through my father's papers, however, I have started to be a bit more ruthless with my own paper - not in the initial stages, but certainly when it comes to the filing cabinet. Because what I learned from my father's estate is that no matter who you are, you do not need to keep every single piece of paper that comes across your desk. I do have to give in to the initial hoarding urge (hence the 'outbox') but I think I'm learning to let go a little down the track, once I realise a piece of paper is never going to be of any use to me or my next of kin.

(As an aside: After having to sort out my father and stepmother's house, my husband and I have introduced a new rule in our own house which we put to good use when we were unpacking the boxes from our last house-move. If we look at something and say 'that might come in handy one day' then out it goes. We are sparing a thought for our son and any future children we have.)

But back to my office at Canterbury. To be fair, I hadn't yet unpacked my box of books that have now made it to my "towering wooden bookshelves": there is now one more very practical creative writing guide (good for brushing up when my subconscious and innate talent isn't doing the job) a book on mesmerism, a book on heavily tattooed men and women, a book to browse through when I'm taking a break called Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose (what a wonderful name for a writer!)... OK, the shelves are still pretty empty, but I will soon fill them after all my trips to the library.

As for the bare walls, I was very happy to be able to kill all the birds with one stone, or at least cover all the walls, when I found this book of posters in the University Bookshop (for only $29.95, despite what it says on Amazon) and I gleefully pulled it to bits and covered my walls with the contents of Albertus Seba's cabinet of curiosities which not only make my walls look pretty but are relevent to my work and will therefore be inspirational.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The little one said "Roll over".

You think that once you have written a book and it has been published that you move onto the next one and that's it. But I’ve had to put the new one on hold this week to put together the ‘extra’ material for the American paperback of The Sound of Butterflies, which comes out in October. I am certainly not complaining about this – it’s a great fun project, and I still feel a lot of affection for that novel so don’t mind discussing it all again. And I feel very privileged to be in this position at all. It just feels a little odd because I first had the idea for the book in 2001. I wasn’t able to start work on it until I had finished my MA in Creative Writing at Victoria, which took me to early 2002. I had to put it all aside halfway through 2003 as I had hit rock bottom on the finances and needed to get a full time job just to live on (let alone begin to pay back the huge debt that had mounted from trying to write a novel). I wasn’t able to pick it up again until the beginning of 2005, but I worked like a demon and had the novel finished by mid-2005.

And here I am nearly 3 years after I finished it – 7 years after I had the idea (one fifth of my life!) – still having to think about it. Going back and visiting in my mind the writing process and all the research I did, which is all a bit of a blur if I’m honest!

I am so excited about my new one, and have set myself such high standards for it (must…be…better…) that I hope I’m not kidding myself that I will get it finished by next March. Even then, I guess that means I could still be talking about it in 2012. Maybe I need to become more prolific, as I suppose having a new book gives you something new to talk about, and each one knocks the last one out of the way. Or is it more like the song ‘Ten in the Bed’ and you need to write a whole lot before ‘one fell out’ and you stop talking about the first?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Prizes and diversity.

I have just spent the weekend in Wellington for the tail end of Writers & Readers Week. One of the best sessions I went to was the Prize in Modern Letters readings. I don't normally go for readings, because I perfer to hear writers talk, but when you haven't read any of the entries and there are six of them, it's really nice to get a taste for what the books are like. The standouts for me were Michele Amas, Mary McCallum and Jo Randerson. Jo's story started out as a light, jokey sort of a tale and took the most unexpected gut-wrenching turn. Powerful stuff. Mary proved herself very adept at writing a sex scene without tipping over into ickyness, smut or coyness.

The winner on the night was David Beach who was quite a character, reading some poems from the point of view of God and I think he won a lot of fans with his nervous and charming delivery. The judge of the award, Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space and former editor of The Paris Review, said she found herself wanting to argue with his book, Abandoned Novel, which is a pretty good recommendation. I have to say I wasn't suprised by her selection after I saw her speak on the panel Who Owns the Story? with Jane Parkin and Fergus Barrowman. When asked by the chair what she looks for in work to publish, she made it pretty clear that she favours the experimental over the polished, which to me immediately ruled out four of the candidates I saw read.

Which got me thinking about how subjective awards are - not that there is anything wrong with that. I think the most important thing is to make sure that awards have varying judges so that a whole range of work gets rewarded. I can't help feeling that the Sunday Star-Times short story competition, which, along with the Katherine Mansfield is seen by many as one of the most important writing competitions in New Zealand, should look at getting a fresh judge. Owen Marshall* has judged that competition for a long time. The effect is that anyone whose stories are rejected by him one year can't then enter the same story again the next year because they already know he doesn't like it. Therefore all they can really do is keep trying with new stories and they may just end up writing the kind of story they think he likes rather than what they really want to write. And I reckon what can happen is that a sort of norm develops for the kind of stories that win awards, which are often the only ones that get read by the general public. And then there becomes a public perception about what 'good' writing should be. New Zealand's short story landscape becomes less diverse. If Owen Marshall had been judging the Prize in Modern Letters, the outcome would have been very very different.

*This is nothing against Owen, who is a fine judge and a great writer.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Come 'ere, go away.

I'm sure that this happens to all writers, but no doubt like all writers, I think this is unique to me when it's happening. Because surely nobody can be as indecisive as I am. I'm talking about the "come 'ere, go away" phenomenon, and not in relation to relationships with men (although I've had a few of those). This time it's about works in progress, bits and pieces of writing, short stories, novels, you name it. I can get hugely excited about my brilliant new idea (the "Come 'ere" phase) and work on it for a long time - months even - and my confidence in it starts to erode gradually, perhaps triggered by a fact I've researched that no longer works, or a comment from someone near and dear when I've told them my idea (there's an obvious lesson there), or perhaps just by that niggly little voice inside telling me I'll never amount to anything. The "Go away" phase.

So I decide it's time to suck it up and throw it away. Start afresh. Put those months of work down to experience, and maybe I can come back to it in a few years and mine the idea for a tiny amount of gold dust that surely must be in there somewhere.

So I start something new. And it's fabulous. I'm in love, I'm brilliant, it will break new ground, it will keep me enthralled for the year it will take me to write (because part of the "Come 'ere" phase is mind-busting optimism and faith in one's work ethic).

And then this will happen: I am in a rush at home and I accidentally copy the wrong file onto the memory stick I am taking into the office. I have copied that old novel, the abandoned one. Let's open it up and take a look at it, I think. And there it sits on the screen, giving me flirtatious, come-hither looks. Come 'ere, it's saying. And I print it out and I read it, and it's good. What the hell was I thinking chucking this out?

At least I have two novels trying to entice me, which is a lot better than having none. So over the next couple of days I am going to have to think seriously about which one I have a relationship with first. Which one will sweet talk me the most, buy me flowers, dinner? Which one can I rely on to not push me away the moment things get rough? I guess I might have answered my own question, because the first idea has already proved it can't be trusted, whereas the second is yet to break my heart.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Richard King

This evening I heard the very sad news of the sudden death of Richard King of Canterbury University Press. I didn't know him well, but I met him a few times. Only yesterday I bumped into him at the University Bookshop and he welcomed me and told me to drop into CUP and visit anytime - it meant a lot to me as I don't really know anybody in this new place. He and his partner Gillian, who had already made me feel so welcome the day before, invited me for coffee then and there; I was at the end of my lunch break and, wanting to form good work habits early on, declined. "Another time," we said. I wish I had gone for that coffee now.

My thoughts are with Gillian and their family, friends and colleagues.

Monday, March 03, 2008

I'm back with thoughts on getting older, and nostalgia as inspiration.

I'm back in front of the computer after a hectic couple of months of house selling, house hunting and estate sorting, not to mention childcare. Luckily I was able to do it all without feeling guilty or anxious about being away from my writing for too long as I knew that I was about to take up a 12 month position as the writer in residence at Canterbury University in Christchurch. It was quite refreshing actually, because since I became a novelist I have never really been able to have a holiday from it - just periods of non-writing where I feel, well, guilty and anxious. But the idea of those 12 months stretching ahead of me with an office, a salary and a more or less full time work schedule made it possible for me to relax. Or I would have relaxed if it hadn't been such a stressful time doing aforementioned activities.

So here I am, now safely ensconced in my lovely new office, with the sun coming in and only the tops of plane trees to look over. It's so quiet here. I thought my first day would be a day of procrastination while I eased myself into it, but there must be something in the air here because after checking out the library and the bookshop, I sat down at my desk and actually wrote for a few hours.

Perhaps I was spurred by nostalgia. Nostalgia for when I was a student - that excitement I always felt at the beginning of the academic year, when I had a clean slate and no late essays, when I was about to learn new things. As I floated around reminiscing, I realised with a bit of a bump that while I have always thought of myself as a "young person", it was exactly 20 years ago that I was walking around my campus for the first time. Gulp. I think I no longer qualify as a young person. Maybe I was momentarily confused into believing it was 1988 again by all the girls wearing almost exactly the same clothes that girls wore back then. Until yesterday, I would have looked at them and imagined them as being the younger end of my peer group, but of course, when I was starting university, they weren't even born.

Whatever it is in the air here - probably just the general buzz of academia and learning - I feel that this will be my most productive year yet. I have a lot to work on and that is a much better place to be in than to have nothing on which to start. Onwards.