Thursday, 11 August 2016

An interview with Jenny Bornholdt

Jenny Bornholdt (photo by Deborah Smith)

What is like looking back over such a large body of work to make decisions for what to include in the Selected Poems?

It was like watching an old home movie––black and white and a bit shaky. I felt overwhelmed by it; by the way it took me back to when I was in my twenties and thirties. I had to stop looking at the poems for a while, then it was okay again. I was surprised that the poems affected me in this way ––I don’t mean because of their brilliance! Just that because they are emotionally pretty open, it was like bumping into an early version of myself and that was unsettling.

I’d already done this once before, for Miss New Zealand, and it’s not as though I don’t look at the early poems, or read them at readings, but there was something about methodically working my way through those books.

Were there poems you felt particularly pleased with after all these years? Or some you thought, what the hell was I thinking?

I didn’t ever think ‘what the hell!’ but I sometimes winced a bit. I still feel very fond of the ‘Sophie’ pieces––I remember the feeling of writing those––it was the first time I felt that everything I read or saw or felt or thought fed into the work. A bit like when I wrote The Rocky Shore poems, though that was different again.

It was interesting to read the books in order––I could see a progression, though there are things common to most of them––that mix of short/long/prose...I do think I’ve got better, so that’s something.

It’s the later poems I felt especially good about, but maybe it’s like that for all poets.

Do you have a favourite poem or book of yours?

The Rocky Shore is my favourite book. It’s the one I loved writing most––I felt completely inside those poems when I was writing them. They were exciting to work on. I had them in my head the whole time and I remember running up the steps to my shed every morning because I couldn’t wait to get back to work.

When you look back over your body of work does it seem to you that you’ve changed how you approach writing poetry? Is there anything you’ve learned over your writing career that’s been a hard won lesson? (For example, I’m learning about patience in writing. I’ve not got it yet, but I’m learning that I need to find some!)

I’m not sure about that, because I don’t know that I have an approach. On the back cover of This Big Face I wrote that the poems were ‘going for some kind of clarity.’ That’s certainly changed. Now I think life is mostly a great big shambles and I’m happy to go along with that. The earlier poems seem quite neat, as in tidily put together, whereas I think the recent poems have an unruly element to them, which I like. I’m probably more relaxed about writing now–– maybe that’s my answer.

One of the things that is obvious reading over the selection is how your poems have become longer. Of course there was the wonderful early ‘Sophie travels backwards on a train’ which I often think of as a short film, but by the end of your Selected you’re striding out with feature films like ‘Big Minty Nose’. What is the delight of the long poem for you? A desire to tell a story? I know you’re a great reader of novels and stories. It was you who put me onto one of my favourite books of the last ten years Olive Kitteridge.

It’s nice you think of ‘Sophie’ as a short film. I did Russell Campbell’s great film courses at Victoria University in the early 80’s and always wanted to make a film, but was completely intimidated by the thought of having to operate a camera. Ridiculous, but that was how I felt, so ‘Sophie’ is probably my short film in print. And yes, the poems have got longer. I do love narrative and the longer poems are me wanting to tell something––a story I guess, or stories, saying ‘this happened, then this happened and then this’, but I hope they’re not as straightforward as that. I like the way you can play with narrative ––the loops and moves and echoes that are possible. Much of the delight is in feeling able to stretch out, especially in The Rocky Shore poems. I really felt I hit my stride with that book.

I do read a lot of novels and I’m very pleased you liked Olive Kitteridge. It’s still one of my favourite books. Her (Elizabeth Strout’s) new novel My Name is Lucy Barton is extraordinary––I’ve read it twice and am about to embark on it again because I want to work out how she does what she does. It’s quite strange and compelling.

Your voice has spawned a thousand imitations over the years, but no one quite gets it right. I think the thing with you, Jen, is your writing voice combines a light glance around the beautiful horrible wondrous things of the world, but the eye that’s watching them, and the mind that’s thinking and reporting back is steely and fierce. I think your imitators don’t get how important those two things in tango are. Your poems are, as Jane Stafford pointed out in one of my undergrad English classes (she was quoting a Jen Bornholdt poem) ‘a decoy of simplicity’. Can you talk a bit about how you developed your own voice? Is it a thing a writer can ‘develop’ or are you just speaking out what you really think on the page?

Those are very complimentary things you said. Thank you. I do feel quite fierce. 

Your question about voice–– I am speaking out what I think on the page. I don’t feel as though I had to find my voice, it was just there. Sometimes I tell people things and they say ‘that sounds like a Jenny Bornholdt poem’, so my own voice is obviously very close to my writing voice. It’s probably to do with the things I write about, which, as we know are pretty down home.

I’m sure it’s possible to develop a voice, I just don’t have the flair or imagination to be able to do that. A poet like Frederick Seidel––his is a voice I wouldn’t like to run into in a dark alley.

Any writers who are really doing it for you right now?

I’m reading a lot of NZ poetry because I’m editing Best New Zealand Poems for the IIML. There’s some great writing going on out there, but I’m not going to name names for fear of causing a riot.

Jenny Bornholdt's Selected Poems (h/b, $40) is released today, and launched tonight at Unity Books alongside Ashleigh Young's new essay collection, Can You Tolerate This?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ashleigh Young – 5 Questions

Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young will be released on 11 August. Ashleigh's essays are already well known from her popular blog, eyelashroaming. She works as an editor at VUP and teaches creative non-fiction at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Ashleigh's book of poetry, Magnificent Moon, was published in 2012.

Ashleigh Young (photo credit: Russell Kleyn)

This book has been a long time in the making – from when you won the Adam Prize in 2009 with a portfolio of essays, to now, 2016. How does it feel to finally be publishing your essays in a book form? How much has the work evolved in the time between your MA portfolio and the published book?

That’s a long time! I feel glad and a bit nervous, but mostly tired because I’ve been so busy avoiding this book for seven years. I know all the avoidance tricks now. I could probably organise a special conference on avoidance, or a festival. My favourite trick for avoiding this book – because it was full of problems that I didn’t want to think about yet – was to write things that weren’t this book. So I finished writing a book of poetry and started writing a blog. The blog allowed me to write my way into things I probably wouldn’t have written otherwise – cycling, odd encounters, mental health, phrases and gestures, friendships, members of my family, inner voice … Sometimes the posts were intensely personal and sometimes detached. Nothing I wrote would be out of place, because it was the place. Also, publishing work on a blog feels more tentative – to me – than having it appear in a proper publication. You can say, ‘I’m just mucking around.’ What happened was I tricked myself into writing pieces that ended up in this book (in slightly different forms). So ultimately the only way I was able to pick up this book again was to tell myself I wasn’t writing it. And sooner or later, when I figured out that trick, I was able to look back at those earlier pieces from my MA year and work on them again. I think I’d loosened up a bit, as a writer. Maybe I was just taking my writing less seriously.

Can you explain what an ‘essay’ is, in the context of your own work in Can You Tolerate This?

I would describe many of the essays in this book as existential meditations. If that’s not too grandiose. It’s just that sometimes, not much actively happen in them. Or, all that happens is I examine a problem, like the problem of trying to do your work when somebody is distracting you, or the problem of being on a long walk that you don’t want to be on anymore and it’s too late to turn back. Or I try to see why things happened in the way they did and why they felt like they did. I have this hope that this book has a kind of vibrational field and that readers will come out of it and say, ‘What the hell was that?’ Some writers who made me feel it might be possible to try things this way were Natalia Ginzburg, Vivian Gornick, Lauren Slater, Helen Garner, Anna Sanderson, Martin Edmond, and Lydia Davis.

For ages I understood an essay to be an attempt, a trial or test, a stab at something. That’s what I was always taught. When I was starting out in nonfiction I read a lot of this guy called Phillip Lopate, who I got a bit of a crush on because of the way he wrote so freely about himself. For instance there was an essay just called ‘Portrait of My Body’ and it was all about Lopate’s body and had lines like ‘I have a commanding stare’ and ‘Often, I give off a sort of psychic stench to myself’. Lopate has written a lot about the 16th-century writer Michel de Montaigne, so it was through him that I came to Montainge’s Essais. They are held up as the first example of a writer exploring his subject – usually some aspect of himself – in a freeform, spontaneous way, turning them restlessly this way and that, trying to take some measure of them, and I liked that definition of an essay because it gave me permission to meander. But then I kept coming across essays that didn’t seem to work like that at all, like Eliot Weinberger’s. His famous piece about naked mole rats – so systematically, ruthlessly described – showed me that an essay could be something utterly else. (I recently read someone describe Weinberger’s essays as vortexes – when you read a Weinberger essay, the vortex opens up inside your head and ideas rush in.) I realized the essay is very slippery at heart.

John Jeremiah Sullivan has an essay called ‘The Ill-Defined Plot’ where he makes the point that the sense of ‘essay’ as ‘an attempt’ is only one layer within many other layers of meaning in that word. Some other possible meanings are: a swarm, a flourish, a preamble, a masterpiece, an amateur work … But maybe all essays – whether formal or familiar, literary or journalistic, academic or creative – enact the way that somebody’s mind can shape thought. The shape can be ever-shifting and ever-changing, because thought never quite settles into just one thing; it has to stay in motion, like a shark.

That was a long answer, sorry.

Two long, deeply personal essays are what I think of as the backbone for this book, ‘Big Red,’ about your brothers JP, and Neil, and ‘Bikram’s Knee,’ about your struggles with your own body image. Both essays are in their own way deeply sad, kind of hopeful and fascinating in a ‘watching a car crash’ kind of way. Can you describe how it was to write these? It seems to me that while these are non-fiction pieces, the experience of reading them is the same as reading fiction – we want to know what’s going to happen to these characters.

I was wary of those pieces seeming like straight confession, as if I were trying to absolve myself or ask forgiveness of the reader. I love all those ‘It really happened to me!’ stories, in the same way that I love advice columns, but that wasn’t what I was trying to do. I wanted to try to describe quite chaotic experiences in a way that might help people to understand why things can feel the way they feel, and I wanted to admit where I came up against the limitations of myself and the limitations you meet when writing about other living people. After the piece is written you still have to be a human being in the world.

It was strange to realise that neither experience had a clear ‘arc’ or a moment where things resolved themselves and all was well. It wouldn’t have worked to impose that shape on either piece but I still had to resist the urge to try. I guess, through the stories we tell each other all our lives, we’re conditioned to want really meaningful endings or moments of revelation. I think everyday life can be quite stingy with those.

Sometimes writing feels like a second chance, to me – I often can’t articulate myself very well in person, or speak about things at length without trailing off, which is frustrating because I really want to connect with people, but if I’m writing I get a chance to try again. That feels exhilarating.

Awkwardness, oddness, shame – I’m going to make a call and say these are your themes – you go back and back to them in the essays. Which isn’t to say that the book isn’t funny – you’re a good comic writer. Why do you think these are your big concerns? Or perhaps you disagree that they even are!

Those are my concerns because they’re my concerns in life – or, those feelings have always shaped my experience, at times much more than was strictly necessary. I wonder whether those feelings serve any evolutionary purpose. They make you a ruthless observer of yourself and others, so maybe it’s a hunting thing. I’m not sure whether, if I were more at ease, I would have been able to write any of these pieces. I also think that sometimes our self-contortions can be hugely funny. I would like my next book to be much funnier, actually. I wish this one were funnier. I’m in awe of anyone who can make people laugh. (That’s one reason why I wanted to write about my brother, JP – I just find him very funny.)

I have to ask this – what’s it like being the editor at VUP and having a book published by VUP? Be honest!

Well, it’s a bit weird. Is this even allowed? The most dangerous thing was that I was able to access the raw files of the book. I resisted going into them as often as I could, but a few times I went in there and start twitching around. It immediately felt wrong, like a dog stealing food. On the whole, though, being an editor here has given me really useful perspective as a writer. I can see that my book is just one of many in the pipeline, so I feel less precious about it, and I know how the process goes, and I’m extremely grateful for the book community we have here, who show up again and again to celebrate other people’s books. I also value my workmates’ judgement a huge deal and so it was good to have them on tap. I think if I wrote something like ‘Often, I give off a sort of psychic stench to myself’ they would say, ‘Maybe take that bit out’.

Can You Tolerate This? Personal Essays by Ashleigh Young.
Release date: 11 August. Paperback, $30.
Available at the best bookshops and through our online bookstore.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Best Book Design Award

Last night at the PANZ Book Design Awards, James K. Baxter: Complete Prose won the top award for book design. We are thrilled that this magnificent beast (5.5 kgs of books and over one million words) has been recognised for its great design.

The judges report said: "Shortlisted for Best Cover and Best Typography, and winner of the Best Non-Illustrated category, James K. Baxter: Complete Prose excels on all fronts. It is the complete package – an object of beauty that holds the eye and interest, and demands closer attention. The purple ribbons and foiling work in an unlikely – but extremely satisfying – pairing with the buttery three-quarter binding, which holds the gorgeous full-bleed images. These aspects combine to wrap up a tidy internal page layout. The design not only serves the content, it elevates the work of this literary hero, creating a desirable contemporary classic."

Congratulations to Spencer Levine, for his award-winning design. There's a short interview with Spencer below, talking about the Baxter project, and book design in general.

James K. Baxter: Complete Prose, edited by John Weir, VUP: 2015. 
(Grant Maiden Photography)

Q&A with Spencer Levine

First, be honest, do designers actually read the books?

It really depends on the book, so yes and no ––for me, mostly no.

Where did you start with the concept and design for James K. Baxter: Complete Prose?

It started with Fergus––it was his idea that Nigel Brown's work would strongly set the tone for the look and feel.

The heaviness of expression in the chosen triptych gives the box a cloak; the feeling of wearing heavy coat. There is no free space anywhere, just full bleed colour. Then finally on one facet, a flash of calmer colour with the four naked spines. These exposed spines worked well with the feel and heft of the work, and also provided a good material contrast to the case. It gives it a lot of space, and plenty of room to breathe. A lone image of Baxter sits on each book. He's iconic, so an era-specific photograph of him for each volume was enough.  Purple foiled type with a purple place ribbon gives each volume a 'holy' finish.

In your opinion what makes for good book design?

Good covers, and a connection to the material inside them.

Do you try and differentiate the covers for different publishers in terms of the style, or does the book necessarily create this constraint?

It's book first, publisher second... unless you're talking to the publisher!

Is there a publisher (anywhere in the world) that you think is consistently producing good book covers?

I really like Flying Eye books, but there are hit covers all over the place.

(Grant Maiden Photography)

James K. Baxter: Complete Prose, edited by John Weir.
4 hardback volumes with cloth spines presented in a box. Original paintings on box by Nigel Brown.
$200. Available at the best bookshops or through VUP's online bookstore.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Nigel Cox (13 January 1951 – 28 July 2006)

It is hard to believe that it has been 10 years since my friend Nigel Cox died. I think about him often, and I am enormously proud to have had a hand in publishing these half dozen essential books:

Below we post a piece Nigel wrote on 28 June 2006. We will never have Nigel’s vapour novels, but I know he wouldn't mind someone else having a go at writing Backyard Oblivion or Half Time at the Woburn Pictures.   

Tonight there will be a gathering at Unity Books Auckland at 5pm.

Thanks to The Spinoff for David Larsen’s NZ Herald review of The Novel That Must Not Be Named and a giveaway. [links coming!]

Thanks to Elizabeth Knox for her thoughts on Skylark Lounge

Nigel Cox

What I Would Have Written 

We all have days when it seems the rain might not stop falling and for me this is one of them. So I thought I’d just get a few things down, see if it cheered me up.

All going well, I’m about, oh, two weeks from the end of some kind of a first draft of my next novel, The Cowboy Dog. With luck, I’ll be able to follow through with my plan to tidy it and then—well, the usual things—more work, publication, and the world keeps turning with one more speck added to its burden.

However, I love my books and no matter what anyone else thinks of them, I for one will be pleased to see it.

With luck that’ll all happen: The Cowboy Dog. Then there’s quite a well-developed plan, between me and Fergus Barrowman, my publisher and close friend, to put together a book of some of my short pieces, most of them published before, that might be made together into a coherent whole. No name for this yet, but a first cut has been made. If he’s forced to, Fergus might have to put this together by himself—no worries.

And then ...

That’s when it gets interesting, for me anyway. Obviously I’ve had lots of time to stare out the window over the last few months. And at night: so many ideas, as though they all want to get their oar in. One that has been stinking around for a year or two is ‘a big family novel’. This is called Half Time at the Woburn Pictures, and consists mainly of smoke and the vaguest of thoughts. The idea is that this one wouldn’t be (too) weird, though I don’t seem to have much control over that; they get weird.

Then there’s a plan to write a novel set in the Masterton of my boyhood. This one has also been around for ages—stinking. Reeking!—and for some reason the title has the word Backyard in it. Backyard Oblivion?

That’s a couple of weeks’ work, easy.

Then you come to a different category of thought. No plot, no location, no shape, no name, but I always wanted to invent my own superhero. It’s a childish notion, and the existing ones from my boyhood—Superman, Batman, etc—have all been thoroughly postmodernised. But I always had a huge amount of time for The Phantom, Captain America, etc, and anyway I just want to—a figure modern and real, a genuine character, in a serious novel (I regard all my novels as serious). Same goes for an alien novel. I know I had a flirtation with aliens in Skylark Lounge, but that one kept itself very well within ‘acceptable’ boundaries. My desire is to go further out.

Some of that sounds a bit immature, and it is, I accept that. But there was a point where I decided not to be too constrained by the notions of what I thought I should be writing, and my writing got better.

But what I’m also thinking about here is (ta-dah) Nigel Cox at sixty-five. At eighty! I always thought I would live until I was seventy and in my mind I’d get better as a writer and become mature (ha!). But definitely improve. And know more and know how to write it. Contemplating it, it’s such a fantastic idea that I have to laugh out loud. But it would have been inevitable, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t everyone? I guess, looking at some writers, the answer is, not necessarily. But I was in hope.

And I still am. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I do expect to get these books written. I can see them sitting on my bookshelf, my impulse to write played out.

In the computer industry they call it vapourware. So, when you think of me (and do it often) please think of my vapour novels. Thank you.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Kerrin P. Sharpe – 4 Questions

Kerrin P. Sharpe is a poet and creative writing teacher who lives in Christchurch. rabbit rabbit is her third collection of poetry.

Your poems often seem to exist in what I think of as a dream space and a time-travelling space; where your mother’s Astrakhan coat is remembered as ‘the angels of stillborn lambs’, or in ‘the mary blanche in situ’ where she builds a ship in her stomach. The descriptions do seem to reach beyond metaphor into a strange wonderland. Can you explain this?

Yes, I suppose they do, though I don't think I have ever thought of it in that way! My poems often seem to me to have a life of their own; I'm a bit like a midwife coaxing and nurturing them into the world and then I'm a little surprised at what has arrived!

I generally begin a poem with an initial idea or image that keeps recurring in my imagination; often it's some memory or image from the past which grows on me or alternatively it may be a story or news item that takes hold of my imagination until I begin to feel I need to write about it. From then on I follow the rough path the poem offers me into that 'dream space'.

When I am writing a poem I often ask myself, 'What is this poem telling me?' I allow the poem's arms to lure me in until the poem suddenly jumps into something else. It is almost as if a new life has emerged and it has become a different poem from the one I first started out with.

My mother did have an Astrakhan coat during the war, and years later she replaced it with a more up-market black one but she still loyally kept the brown Astrakhan one stored away. When she died I remember looking at her old Astrakhan coat and thinking sadly to myself that it had somehow lost the early significance it once had for me, and it was out of those memories that my poem ‘when a crayfish could feed 6 men’ was written.

Many of the poems seem to be different characters speaking—is this how you think about voice in your poetry?

That’s true and I'm rather pleased that you picked that up from reading my poems. I like to think of different characters speaking in my poems with different voices. I want my poems to be faithful to themselves so their individual voices—their characters, if you like—not only need to be authentic but they also need to change, move and adapt as they interact with the main idea or theme of the poem.

For example the woman in my poem ‘the mary blanche in situ’, who builds a ship in her stomach, has a very different voice from the woman who describes her mother's funeral in 'the morning of my mother's funeral her cup is sober-minded', and they are both very different from the voice (or lack of one) of the redundant blacksmith in 'why talk to the bellows' boy when you can speak to the blacksmith', who no longer speaks at all.

The overall theme in my latest collection of poems, rabbit rabbit, is of poems telling stories, and I hope each poem speaks of the power of language and translation. The poems rabbit on, if you like! 

Images of the human body (especially the lungs) recur or are used for metaphor in rabbit rabbit, which give the poems a sense of being ‘earthed’ or at least contained. Can you explain your poetry’s fascination with the body?

I'm very interested in medicine; in fact my husband jokes about my taking a medical health diagnosis book to bed with me for a little quiet reading before I go to sleep! A bit weird, I suppose.

Yes the lungs do often occur in my poems in rabbit rabbit. But when you think of it, lungs are so important to us as human beings and of course we need our lungs for the breath that enables us to talk. As you no doubt have already guessed, rabbit rabbit is a play on the term we often use for someone who is a great talker, as in 'rabbiting on'.

I had a good friend who used to say something like, 'She went rabbit rabbit all day long,' of a mutual acquaintance who she disapprovingly believed talked too much. The phrase always used to make me laugh—I could just imagine these rabbits talking their heads off.

Many of my poems in rabbit rabbit share my fascination with the body and how it works, and I think this is because they too are thinking about and interested in how our bodies work

You’ve put out three collections since 2012—what is with this sudden burst of creative energy?

It was Bill Manhire who originally inspired my love of poetry as a young student in the 1970s. He welcomed me into his creative writing class 'Original Composition' at Victoria University and in doing so he lit a fire that flamed and has never died. Over the following 35 years as I married, had children and focused my life on bringing up my family, the creative writing flame continued to flicker, but as I concentrated on other priorities the flame hibernated (to mix metaphors) over that period.

Eight years ago, with family leaving home and more time for writing, that original flame has roared back into life, and I love my current life of writing and teaching creative writing. I feel as if I am once again fully awake and alive, with lots of memories, ideas and new experiences all clamouring for me to think and write about.

To complete the circle: it was a chance meeting with Bill Manhire in 2011 at my daughter's Victoria University graduation that led to the publication of my first book with VUP. He told me it was time I put a manuscript together for submission, which I did. Fergus Barrowman then accepted my first book and encouraged me to carry on—and I haven't looked back since!

Kerrin P.  Sharpe's third collection of poetry, rabbit rabbit, was launched last week in Christchurch. You can buy it at good bookshops or through our online bookstore here.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Elizabeth Knox's launch speech for Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley

I thought I'd start by reading a little list of some of the professions people have in The Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley. Apart from the practical, everyday photographer or novelist, there’s an illiterate Archival Assistant, a Sufi Soup Cook, and an Imaginary Languages Poet. There are Cartographers — but they’re cultists. Druids officiate at funerals. There’s a Sheriff of Te Aro, to which I say 'Yee-Ha!'  There's differential topologist, which I think is like non-computational geometrist, and has to be real since my niece is dating one. And there is my favourite character, a dog. A very professional dog, who offers a comprehensive description of the tasks and duties of a dog.

The characters are busy in this book, they’re hellbent, but the book isn’t busy, noisy, crowded, or antic — even in the midst of brilliant descriptions of antic antics! It is lively and forceful, but also deftly plotted, strongly real in it’s evocation of the world of the senses; it is thematically shapely, and purposeful in its transmission of the author’s feeling for life.

On a cold winter night, Danyl, the perpetually pantsless hero of Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley, having fled a mental health institution, returns to the valley on a bus. Danyl wants to find his girlfriend Verity. He wants something to eat and a place to lay his head. But the Valley seems more deserted and desolate than even midwinter rain could make it — and it’s not just atmosphere, it’s plot, more plot than a cemetery, right from the start. Danyl is the hero of the moment and, in Danyl speak, the moment has plans for him, no matter what other plans his brain might be entertaining, and it should be noted that Danyl’s brain is a distinct entity from Danyl himself — which I know is an experience we all share. Danyl’s brain might zap him, prod him to pay attention to things, but tends to fall ominously silent whenever he's having a good idea. That’s a bit of a theme, people having good ideas, congratulating themselves about it, and heading off energetically into calamity.

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is a novel of ideas. All arcane thrillers are novels of ideas in that this is the genre whose engine is the deep, indelible pattern of beliefs on human history. Many of the ideas in this novel are quite respectable, or recognisable. Notions people have about, for instance, the mathematical nature of the universe; or the best way to manage an archive, balancing the need to preserve materials against the needs of researchers; or how to run a local body election, and the proven strategy in our politics of a candidate presenting himself as sensible and friendly. In every instance the author is interested in the idea itself, and the process of the implementation of the idea. Then he sees the satirical possibilities, and then he takes it all a step further, beyond the boundaries of satire.  He uses the idea, the pursuit of the idea in the world, the logical absurdities of the pursuit, to generate a story. I am filled with admiration at Danyl’s ability to to go beyond type, the type of book this is. Not just to use exotic or complicated ideas as plot, or to use the absurdities generated by a situation then taken to a logical extreme as plot, to not just move in one direction evolving his story from esoteric idea to plot, but to be able to keep moving back and forth, building energy in the narrative by laying observation upon learning, upon satire, upon byzantine plotting and have the whole thing keep moving not like a machine, but like a well turned compost that’s fertile with humour, and mood, and drama, and character byplay, and warmth.

Danyl McLauchlan's feeling for place and space is spot on. The novel's streets, buildings, and weather are all recognisably Aro Street. But when the flooded stormwater drains of the Aro Valley flow away into a culvert and old drain inspection hatch, the reader follows them to an underground river, and of course the underground river has its own secrets and dangers. And the flow of real to speculative feels as natural and logical as water running downhill.  

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is an admirable advance on the Unspeakable Secrets, which was a delightful, engaging, and charming book. But this book is a mystery, a comedy, a work of speculative fiction; it is gripping and enchanting, it has that definitive quality of an arcane thriller (a genre that Danyl and I are both very interested in) of making human life and history seem larger and more magical, more full of portent and jeopardy, and more purposefully patterned. None of the novel’s types and tones undermines the other. It’s all of a piece. It’s simultaneously exotic, and close to home. It looks with proprietorial affection upon the Aro Valley as a kind of a microcosm of Wellington, and of New Zealand, and various New Zealand qualities like getting stuck in, and stuck, and keeping your head down, and running into unseen obstacles.
The novel achieves a tenderness for people, for ways of thinking about things — enthusiasms, obsessions, wounds — a tenderness for a neighbourhood, for human organisations, and human aspirations. Danyl said to me yesterday was there one rule of comedy he’d absorbed, that something was funnier if you remove most of the jokes. Just about every very funny bit in the book could have been played for more laughs, but Danyl has other fish to fry, he wants to tell a story, and he doesn't want to dilute what will matter in that story to the characters or to the reader.

So, in conclusion, read this book. Find out whether Danyl will be reconciled with Verity and his brain. Meet Steve, the Aro Valley’s Jack Reacher, see the election night bonfire, the orgy, the giant sponge. Touch the spiral. Test the reality of your universe. Spurn your loved ones and your bedtime and laugh like an Aro Valley drain.

Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley is available for purchase at all excellent bookshops at through our online bookstore. p/b, $30

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Interview with Danyl McLauchlan

Danyl McLauchlan (Robert Cross, 2016)

Your new book, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, returns to the familiar territory of your debut novel, Unspeakable Secrets – a main character down on his luck called Danyl. How important is it to you to base your fiction in the local environment? Why name a character after yourself? And why return to Danyl and the Aro Valley?

It’s not important to me to base my fiction in Aro Valley. It’s just a great setting for comic novels and no one else is using it, so I might as well take advantage of it. And I named the main character after myself because he was originally just a fictional version of me and I think it feels fake when obvious author surrogates are hidden behind fake names.  (Although sometimes it can be funny. Philip K. Dick called one of his surrogate characters ‘Horselover Fat’ because Philip means ‘lover of horses’ and ‘Dick’ is German for ‘fat’.) Sometimes I feel like novelists make fools of themselves when they have these very loosely disguised versions of themselves running around inside their books. They make themselves brilliant and brave and witty and attractive and, if the novelist is a man, irresistible to women. So giving the character my own name keeps me honest but also hopefully stops me from inadvertently embarrassing myself. I returned to the character and Te Aro because I liked writing the last one and people liked reading it. But my next book will be very different. New characters, new settings.

Mysterious Mysteries like Unspeakable Secrets deals with the occult, conspiracy theories, and the people that get obsessed and drawn in by them. What is the attraction for you in the occult?

The first book had occultists in it and I find the subject interesting because occult leaders are usually just writers who have convinced a group of people that their stories are true. Many writers like to think that stories are important and that they change people’s lives and mostly, I think, they don’t. But with occult leaders they do change lives, but the change is usually destructive. In this book the conspiracy is centred on several mathematicians, which might seem like the opposite of occultists. Mathematics is widely seen as a science; something very practical. But if you look closer at it and learn a little about the philosophy, it is very mysterious. What are mathematical objects? Are they real? Are they created or discovered? What is their relation to reality? Are there problems that are unprovable or incomputable? Cults of mathematicians can be just as sinister and mysterious as cults of occultists.

Are there books you’ve read or admire that helped you set a tone or find a way of writing your two novels?

My favourite writers are genre novelists who transcend their genre. Patricia Highsmith and Philip K. Dick are well known. There’s a less famous but, I think, just as brilliant novelist called Donald E. Westlake who wrote a number of thrillers under the pseudonym Richard Stark. They’re masterworks of minimalism and plot structure. Also a British medieval Arabic scholar called Robert Irwin who wrote a novel called The Arabian Nightmare set in 15th century Cairo against a backdrop of warring cults and otherworldly conspiracies. That book had some of the tone I was going for; this idea that the characters had stumbled upon plots and counterplots to bring about outcomes that were almost incomprehensible.

What is the attraction of plots and counterplots? Entertainment value?

I think so. I started to write my first book during the golden age of TV, when you had shows like The Wire and The Sopranos and Lost that were doing all of this complex innovative stuff in terms of storytelling. They were the first time I really paid attention to plot structure on a technical level. Like asking, ‘Why did this story work?’ ‘How did they achieve this effect?’ There’s also this quote from, I think, the film critic Pauline Kael who said, ‘A movie should be a machine built to surprise and delight the audience.’ That’s very much my philosophy to plot. And, of course, delight doesn’t mean a movie or a book has to be trivial. You can delight the reader with ideas or emotions.

One of the joys of your writing is how funny it is. I hoot with laughter as I read it! Is the humour a natural consequence of writing about conspiracy theories? Their ridiculousness? What writers do you admire for their humour?

Thanks! Umberto Eco died a few months ago and he wrote the classic comic conspiracy theory novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which anticipated and satirised The Da Vinci Code fifteen years before Dan Brown’s bestseller was published. I like the mid-century English comic writers Evelyn Waugh and Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. Graham Greene wrote comic novels – Our Man in Havana, Travels with My Aunt - that he didn’t even refer to as novels; he called them ‘entertainments’, to distinguish them from his very serious important work like Heart of the Matter or Power and the Glory. I think the entertainments have dated a lot better than the novels have. Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm was a send-up of a lot of serious literary books published in the 1920s that have mostly been forgotten, but her satire abides. It is also, bizarrely, a science-fiction book set in the remote future of the late 1940s in which people have television phones and Mayfair has been reduced to a slum. Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is another favourite. I went for years without reading that because the covers always made it look very serious and grim.

What do you do in your day job at Victoria University? How long have you been here? Is there ever any cross over between your day job and your writing?

I’m a computational biologist. So I work in a lab and do some research but mostly support other researchers and biologists. I’ve been here for just over ten years. There’s some crossover, in that I like to have characters who are scientists or who argue about scientific points. But mostly my writing is something I do very early in the morning when it’s very quiet and there’s nothing else around to distract me, and my day job is the opposite of that.

What time do you get up? And do you like to hit a word count? You seem like a writer who can produce work quite quickly.

Usually I get up about five or five-thirty. When I’m really deep into the book it is a bit earlier. I don’t try and hit a word count because almost every word I write gets rewritten or cut, so counting them would just depress me. I think I am a quick writer on an hourly basis but the rewriting slows me down. I do write every day though and you get so much done that way, even if a lot of it doesn’t end up in the final book.

Have you always wanted to write fiction? Have you done any of the popular writing courses, and do you have an opinion on these?

I have always wanted to be a writer, but it was only really when I reached my late thirties that I acquired the ability to commit to a book and rewrite and rewrite it, which is what you need to do to make it any good. Before that I’d just write a short story and not even revise it, just give it to friends or a girlfriend and expect them to lavish me with praise. They’d have to clench their teeth and tell me how it had potential as an idea, maybe. I’ve never done a popular writing course. I’d like to, it’d be nice to have all that time just to write and to have someone very wise give me feedback but it’s just not compatible with my job.

What made you realise you need to revise? And what caused the shift from short stories to novels?

I stopped writing short stories sometime in my twenties and I didn’t do any creative writing for maybe ten years. Then I wrote a screenplay with a friend of mine, Andrew Brettell, who used to lecture in Film at Victoria University. The screenplay never got made. We came up with this great idea, wrote the script and it wasn’t commercial so we just couldn’t get any interest in it. Anyway, Andrew knew a lot more about the actual hard work of writing than I did. Originally I went away and wrote all this comic dialogue, which I thought was hilarious, and I showed it to him. He basically tore it all up and said, ‘That isn’t how you write.’  So we went back to the beginning and figured out the structure of the movie, what the function of each scene was supposed to be, what was at risk for the characters, and all of that basic storytelling stuff. And then I went away and wrote the actual dialogue. We revised it and revised it, and the end product was just so superior in every way to what I’d originally written. So much funnier. So much more interesting. So I learned a lot about writing from that experience, but also that film wasn’t for me. You could put all that work into a screenplay and produce something really good and nothing would happen to it. At least when you write a novel you have a finished product you can take to publishers.

You have a popular following for The Dim-Post, your political commentary blog. Does that come out a desire to write also? Is writing partly a desire to have your voice heard (politically and fictionally)? Is it hard to get your voice heard, both your political and fictional voice?

For me, the desire to write is more of a compulsion. I get ideas or dialogues or arguments or scenes in my head that won’t go away unless I write them down. It’s very similar to the experience of rehearsing an argument with someone, or reiterating a debate in which you think of really great points you wish you’d made, except it can be directed. I can say, ‘Hey brain, figure out a way to make the opening scene in my book more interesting,’ and off it goes. And if I’m writing it down, I might as well try and publish it. With the blogging about politics, I see it as more of a hobby. It’s what I do instead of watching sport, or trainspotting, or whatever. And I try to be accurate and insightful but I don’t take it too seriously. With the novel writing I feel more of an obligation. People are going to pay for the book and invest their time in reading it, so I invest a lot more energy and work into it. Ironically, the political commentary is far more widely read and discussed. That’s fine. I should be grateful any of it is read. But hopefully the books will have a longer shelf-life.

Danyl McLauchlan's second novel, Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, is published on Thursday, and his launch will be held at Unity Books next Tuesday 14 June, 2016.