Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taking myself off.

It's probably no surprise as I've talked about it before, but this novel seems to be much more difficult to write than The Sound of Butterflies. For a start, when I wrote TSOB, I was fancy-free and could write at any time of the day or night with nobody to answer to (apart from the year and a half I was working full-time and put it on hold). Now I have boss - a two-year old boss - who demands that I down tools at 4.45 to catch the bus home and spend time with him before he goes to bed, and in the weekends that I spend all day with him. As for the evenings: my brain puts up a 'gone fishing' sign and shuts up shop. On top of my new restricted hours, this novel is turning out be far more complex in subject matter, themes, characters and structure. At least, that is how it seems in my head at the moment. I'm sure once it is all out, and polished, it will seem simple and breezy.

I just feel that every time I start to make some headway, the day finishes, or more often, the week finishes and it's time for a break. I mentioned to my husband that when I felt bogged down with my last one, that would be the time to take myself away somewhere to be on my own with no phone, no TV, and nobody to talk to, even if just for a couple of days to give myself a boost. I did it when I was writing chapter 4 of The Sound of Butterflies, which was quite a dense chapter, with a lot of research. I got to the point where I had done the research and just wasn't sure how to write the chapter. So off I went to Murawai for three days on my own. And wow, did it work. I wrote the whole chapter in three days. That chapter is about 13,000 words, or 44 pages long. It is the single biggest burst of writing I've had in my life. Not only did I get that down on paper, but it also meant that I had gathered a momentum which kept me going for months, right up until about chapter 10 or 11, when I ran out of money (and then some) and had to get a job.

I felt a little glum that it's not so easy for me to do that now, but I have a very understanding husband who did not hesitate to tell me to get going, if that's what I need, that they'll be fine without me for a couple of days.

So I can happily report that on Monday morning I am heading to a bach (or crib, since we're in the South Island) two hours north of Christchurch to see if I can't find that muse that only comes around when the internet and TV have been banished and when there are windy beach walks to be had and chocolate to be eaten. I'll be taking my ancient dunger of a laptop and squinting into its tiny screen for three whole days (and two nights), with no blogs to read, no emails to check, and lots of lovely (research-related) books to devour.

Right now I feel like the luckiest novelist in the world.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The last word on Wordstock.


Night of Literary Feasts: A wonderful idea for any festival, and hosted by the fabulous Larry Colton, this was a very relaxed party out at a vineyard half an hour's drive from the city on the Friday night. We dined and supped on delicious food and wine and then sat down for a panel with Kim Barnes, William Ketteridge, Ann Packer and Selden Edwards. We sat there while Larry asked us some informal questions which produced some wonderful anecdotes from my illustrious companions.

Saturday: My talk with Dave Boling, author of Guernica. Dave was utterly charming and a great speaker, and when the small but very receptive audience was a bit hesitant about asking questions in the end, he drawled "Oh, come aaahhhhn!" The whole event was held in a large expo space at the Portland Convention Centre, with exhibitors and bookstores as well as different stages, so several events took place at once. Visitors paid $5 to get for the whole day and could drift from session to session. I have never seen it done this way but it seeemed to work brilliantly. There were thousands of book-lovers throughout the day and the buzz was fantastic, with people wandering around clutching book bags, reading programmes, browsing stands and listening to authors.

To get an idea of what it looked like, here is a photo I took from the stage as my First Novels panel on Sunday was starting. By the end of the hour, all the seats were full and people were standing in the aisles. You can see activity going on behind the audience, but this doesn't really give you an idea of the scale of things as it shows only a sliver of the convention centre.

It''s...LIVE WIRE!: I was very lucky to get a ticket (thanks Greg!) to Live Wire ("Variety for the ears. Vaudeville for the mind"), the live taping of a radio show at the very cool Aladdin Theatre, an old vaudeville theatre in SE Portland. Think Prairie Home Companion crossed with The Daily Show. I finally got my dancing-in-the-streets moment when they were warming up the audience and asked: "How do we feel about the election results?" and hundreds of people screamed and roared and cheered and it was one of the most elating experiences I have ever had. Truly a highlight, up there with "Ding dong the wicked witch is dead". Over the next couple of hours I was treated to a great show - sharp, funny, entertaining - and was witness to some unexpected pleasures, such as: hearing cartoonist extraordinaire Lynda Barry in conversation with graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel; "humorist, former literary agent, and minor television celebrity" John Hodgman, along with his troubador sidekick Jonathan Coulton, and another helping of the wonderful Anis Mojgani. For more information and to actually hear the event itself, go to In the meantime, here's a taste:

Sunday: A great First Novels panel with Selden Edwards and Randa Jarrar. Another highlight of the festival was meeting Selden and his lovely wife Gaby, whom I have now adopted as my American mom and pop. Selden spent 34 years writing The Little Book (nearly my whole life, I pointed out to him, and he took it with good grace), which has now become one of the big books of the year worldwide, so Selden is the poster boy for perseverence and patience. And his success couldn't have happened to a nicer man.

I finished the festival fairly exhausted back in my hotel room with Randa, drinking wine and gossiping. It is so nice when you meet strangers that you feel so comfortable with when you're both so far from home.

Random Thoughts:

# Portland has only 800,000 people and yet they can sell out a 600-seat theatre for a poetry slam on the same night that a poetry reading attracts 1200 people. I would therefore like to think that somewhere like Auckland can make just such an effort the next time its festival is on.

# I had dinner with an old friend of my mother's who told me that as a self-employed artist, her health insurance costs her $US400 per month and she still has to pay the first $5000 of any medical treatment she gets. Therefore, the insurance is basically not health insurance, but bankruptcy insurance. It makes me glad to be living in a country with more socialist leanings (I was glad anyway of course, it just made me realise even more how lucky we are. I shudder to think what will happen in the future).

# Because many of the 180 or so authors involved in the festival are not well-known in New Zealand, and because there were so many of them, I didn't know where to start. I had to let fate lead me where it may. I wish I could have been in many more places at once and taken the time to hear more authors, but most of the ones I did see were very nice suprises.

# It was great to catch up again with Mark Sarvas, he of The Elegant Variation, who I met in Christchurch, but our schedules clashed somewhat and we didn't see each other speak or get to hang out as much as we would have liked.

#Portland rocks - the place, the people. Everyone I spoke to loves their city with a passion and feels that they live on an island of sanity in an otherwise crazy world. I will definitely be returning.

Projects and gratitude.

I just spent an hour this morning with my friend Jo Randerson and family, once again making me realise how much I miss my Wellington life and the more regular contact with those friends living similar lives (nothing against my lovely Christchurch friends of course!). Huge congratulations are in order to Jo who just picked up one of the Arts Foundation's New Generation awards - a great honour and a great financial boost. Very well deserved - the multi-talented Jo is tireless in her commitment to the creative life.

We talked about the usual things, babies and writing and the coincidence thereof, and I told her what things were looking like for the next year. My fellowship finishes at the end of March (to be taken over by Victor Rodger - more congratulations!) and then I'll be on my own financially with what I hope will be at the very least a completed draft of the new novel. I will also be back to more child-minding as my husband will be studying full-time. I'm both looking forward to next year and dreading it. If I can be disciplined, I hope to both finish my novel and spend some quality family time. Not necessarily a 'conducive' situation but we'll see. The thing is, I have no fewer than five projects lined up after this novel: a screenplay, a children's novel, another adult novel and two non-fiction projects, as well as a project in my capacity as my father's literary executor. This is all very exciting for me - I can think of nothing worse than getting to the end of a novel and not knowing what the hell I'm going to work on next. Here's the scary thing: I do worry how I am going to support myself and my family. These projects are all going to keep me very busy and creatively fulfilled but they are not things that anyone will be rushing to my door to pay me for, at least not until they are finished. Chances are, I will probably have to take on some kind of paid work which will push all of these things further and further back.

I am not complaining - I have had my fair share of help in my writing. I guess I just want to write down some thoughts about the uncertainty in life when one chooses a creative, independent path. There are certainly sacrifices to make - hell, I wouldn't even call them sacrifices, that is way too strong a word. Compromise is probably better. And I wouldn't swap this life for all the high-flying , highly-paid jobs in the world (been down that path; it did not make me happy). What I'm leading to is to thank goodness for organisations such as Creative New Zealand, and the Arts Foundation who recognise the importance of the arts and who get together with patrons - those with both money and kind hearts - and make it possible for people like me, and like Jo, and the 94 people who have received Arts Foundation awards, and the countless others who have received CNZ grants, to keep doing what we do so that others (hopefully) may enjoy it too.

This started out as a post about all the exciting projects I have lined up and it ended up being about gratitude. Go figure.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On rejection.

Bernard Black's take on rejection, especially for A Cat of Impossible Colour. Thanks to Louisiana, who first posted it on her blog. In other words, I stole the idea from her.

My musical and creative idol finally writes another novel.

I just heard, via Literary Minded, that Nick Cave has his second novel coming out (after And the Ass Saw the Angel, published in 1989) in 2009. The new one is called The Death of Bunny Munro, and here is what his publisher, Text, says about it:

'The Death of Bunny Munro delivers exactly what you want and expect from the enigmatic and phenomenally talented Nick Cave—a dark and compelling portrait of characters who dwell on the fringes of society and stumble through life on a diet of drugs, chaos and disappointment, but who'll never give up stumbling which is in part why they fascinate us so much. It's a funny yet tragic novel, proof all over again that Nick Cave is a writer out of the box. We cannot wait to publish this remarkable novel in Nick's native Australia where he is a revered icon.'
Michael Heyward, Publisher

I hope it doesn't take me 20 years to produce my second novel, but then again, I'm not a musical genius who has brought out countless albums and toured the world. I am looking forward to this novel greatly as Nick Cave (specifically, his music) has been a big influence on my life and my work, especially my current novel. You might not be able to see it, but it's there!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A real American highschool.

On the Friday of Wordstock I was picked up by the lovely Donna and taken to Lincoln High to talk to a couple of classes in the school library. What a great bunch of kids. I was quite nervous beforehand, not because I was scared of them, but because I didn't really have anything prepared and hoped I wouldn't run out of things to say. Someone had made this wonderful sign for the event:

I had nothing to worry about. I ended up just chatting to them about life in New Zealand and about being a writer - they asked lots of really great questions and the time just flew by. I asked them what they knew about New Zealand, and most of them said 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Flight of the Conchords' so I was able to supply good anecdotes that arise from living in a small country where everyone knows each other.

Afterwards I played tourist and took photos of a real American high school! This might seem a bit pedestrian to any American readers out there, but imagine what it's like to grow up watching American teen TV dramas and you'll see what I mean. Schools there are so different from ours, and this one was just like the many I've seen on the small screen over the years.

Case in point:

This photo also captures well the gorgeous autumn-ness of Portland. I also discovered that Elliot Smith* and Matt Groenig both went to Lincoln High so they impressed me right back.

Thanks for having me, Lincoln!

*It has just occurred to me looking at this plaque that Elliot Smith would have been my exact contemporary at school. So very sad.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Poetry Slam!

Wordstock kicked off with a poetry slam on the Thursday night. I've never been to a poetry slam, I'll admit it right now. I always thought I preferred to read poems in my own head. Boy, was I wrong. The stunning Baghdad Theatre in Hawthorne (very cool district - lots of great vintage clothing stores) was packed (sold out, even) with 600 people and the poets received the adulation normally reserved for rock stars, or at least for stand-up comedians. The fact that most of them sort of swaggered as they walked on stage probably helped. I am ready to join the fan clubs of Anis Mojgani, Jodie Knowles, Good Sista Bad Sista, Derek Brown and Buddy Wakefield. 

Hell, check them out for yourself.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I heart Portland.

First off let me say a big thank you to Larry Colton, Greg Netzer, and all the folks at the Wordstock Festival and the New Zealand Book Council for getting me over to Portland last week. I had a fabulous time, was treated like royalty and recommend Wordstock to everyone, whether writers or readers, both or neither.

It was very frustrating for me to find that in the few short years since I last went travelling (to Europe in 2006), internet cafes - those ones with rows and rows of computers so you can check your emails and update your blogs - seem to have disappeared. Instead, WiFi is available everywhere, which is great, but not so great if you didn't bring a laptop. Also, I bought my Apple iBook just before everything seemed to make a great technological leap forward, so it has no wireless capability and doesn't even have a DVD drive. Sigh. Guess it's time for an upgrade if I'm going to do more roving.

So apologies for my silence. I had hoped to give a daily update of festival festivities, and of course once I got home the task seemed a little overwhelming, cue more silence. So instead I will be presenting an abridged version, in bite size pieces.

When I took off from Sydney to LAX, CNN was announcing that the American presidential candidates had just cast their votes. The announcement came somewhere over the Pacific from the pilot that Obama had won and I expected more of an uproar than there was - I looked around and saw a couple high-five each other, but other than that, people seemed keen to get back to their movies. Maybe they were all Aussies. I also expected when we touched down that America would feel different somehow, but other than a surprisingly short wait at immigration, people just seeemed to be going about their business as usual. What did I want? Maybe I wanted dancing in the streets. I'm sure there was dancing in the streets, somewhere, just not in the transit lounge at the airport.

Still, it felt like a pretty special time to be there. Everyone I spoke to in Portland was very pleased with the election outcome. They were dancing on the inside.

I was picked up from the airport by the lovely Jan, who drove me into the city. Portland was perfectly autumnal, with rust coloured leaves and heavy grey skies, colours which didn't change for the five days I was there. Even the buildings seeemed to be painted to suit the season and the effect was very harmonious, even in the more industrial parts of town. Jan dropped me off at the very flash historic Benson hotel. I was exhausted, but I took myself off for a walk and found some very funky shops and cafes just around the corner. Powell's bookstore ("City of Books") was a little overwhelming for my jetlagged brain, but I was pleased to see that they had a stack of my book in the Debut Fiction wall and another on the general fiction shelf. It was the first sighting of my lovely new paperback cover and it was gorgeous to behold. It was also great to see an independent bookstore so dominant.

Predictably, I wilted, went back to the hotel, ordered room service dinner and crashed out...

...only to be woken just after midnight by someone trying to get in to my room. Luckily I had locked it from the inside, or the couple with the key card would have walked in on me asleep in their bed: I had been given the wrong room apparently. After I had sent the couple away, two burly hotel staff knocked on the door, waking me again, to ask me who I was. All a bit disconcerting, but they apologised profusely the next day and explained that I had been allocated the wrong room by the clerk and so my details had been filed under another room number. I hate to think what hilarity would have ensued if I hadn't locked the door from the inside. The couple would have walked in to find Goldilocks asleep in their bed and I would have got a hell of a fright in my disoriented state. But being interrogated about who I was and what I was doing after midnight and after a 28 hour journey from New Zealand was bad enough!

Still, it was all cleared up and I did sleep in the luxurious bed for another 9 hours solid after that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Transmission interrupted stop

here in portland stop wish I had a laptop as there seems to be no such thing as internet cafes all wireless for which you need your own computer stop hotel internet access $US5 per 15 minutes hence telegram stop having a great time and will report back if I can find a cheaper computer stop lots to tell exclamation mark

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Portland schedule (or, two and a half sleeps)

I can't believe it's only three days before I leave for Portland. I was struck down by flu this week (yes, the actual flu, not a cold, although it hasn't been too bad) and so am behind in my preparations. I wanted to get all the planning out of the way so I could keep working on the novel; that way I'd be in full flight by the time I left and could keep working in airport lounges etc. Ah well.

It's only two and a half sleeps because I leave at 4.30am on Wednesday, which means being at the airport and 2.30. I may not sleep at all.

On Friday I visit a high school to talk to freshmen and seniors about being a writer, and I will also lead them in a writing prompt. That should be easy to prepare for - I'll just chat about myself and answer questions, and get them to write about an obsession, be it butterflies, clothes, boys, music or miniature trains. I'm also taking with me a stash of NZ YA lit to introduce them to some NZ kulcha: beyond the Lord of the Rings films and Flight of the Conchords I'm not sure what they'll know, and I'm interested to find out.

Friday night I take part in a thing called The Night of Literary Feasts. It's a nice idea: the public can 'hire' an author to come and have dinner with them and their book group/friends/clients/whoever they want in their home or at a restaurant. All proceeds go to a local literacy charity. I'm going to someone's house with two other authors, so it should be relaxed and fun.

On Saturday I'm doing a 'Historical Novels' session with an author called Dave Boling. I'm going to look for his novel Guernica before I leave NZ. Basically, we both talk for 20 minutes each, then answer questions. This might seem like the easier format, but I have to say I prefer panel discussions where we sit and get asked questions. You have to think on your feet, but the upside is... no preparation. When I have to prepare something I tend to over-prepare for fear of being struck dumb, and consequently it always takes up a lot of time and possibly introduces a grey hair or two. But I'm sure it will be fine, and I have double-checked with Dave that he's not going to give a full-on powerpoint presentation with bells and whistles as that would not be fun to be up against armed with nothing but a microphone and some notes.

On Sunday I take part in a panel about first novels, which should be fun. I know nothing about the other participants, Selden Edwards and Randa Jarrar, but I'm looking forward to meeting them and hearing about their work. 

Other than that there are the usual parties, mooching about in hotels and exploring a foreign city. I would say that shopping was on the agenda, but as usual when I go to the USA, the NZ dollar buys practically nothing there at the moment, unlike 6 months ago. How I wish I had discovered the delights of online clothes shopping back then...

I will try and report from Portland but I am not taking my laptop (which is too ancient to be of much use anyway). I'm looking forward to catching up again with Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who I shared the stage with twice at the recent Christchurch Writers Festival, but other than that everyone will be a stranger.

I have to say a huge thank you to the NZ Book Council for making this all possible through their international writers' programme.