Thursday, 26 March 2015


Congratulations to Caoilinn Hughes. Gathering Evidence has been named a finalist in the Royal Society of New Zealand 2015 Science Book Prize. It is one of five titles shortlisted for the prize which is awarded to a title 'which communicates scientific concepts in an interesting and readable way for a general audience.' The prize will be announced at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.

We were delighted to hear from Caoilinn that Gathering Evidence has also won the Irish Times' Strong/Shine Award for Best First Collection. Gathering Evidence was a finalist in the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

March newsletter

Forthcoming books in 2015

In April we release Bridget van der Zijpp's second novel, In the Neighbourhood of Fame. The trappings of fame, the power of social media and dysfunctional relationships play out in this vivid contemporary story. A launch will be held on Wednesday 8 April at Portland Public House in Kingland, Auckland, 6.30pm on.

We will also launch current Poet Laureate Vincent O'Sullivan's Being Here: Selected Poems at the National Library on Wednesday 15 April, 5.30pm on. Bring Here is the first book to survey O'Sullivan's poetry from 1973 through to new poems first published in this book. The launch at National Library will also include a book of essays about Vincent's work edited by Judith Dell Panny and published by Steele Roberts.

Baxter and Gee

Some of the publishing highlights in 2015 include two mammoth books due out later in the year, Complete Prose: James K Baxter, edited by John Weir, and Rachel Barrowman's biography, Maurice Gee: Life and Work.

Weighing in at over a million words, the Complete Prose will be a the four-volume boxed set. It will include reviews, essays, lectures, stories, interviews, and diary entries and more, and covers Baxter’s entire career. This comprehensive work is a testament to Baxter’s huge contribution to New Zealand culture and society.

Rachel Barrowman has been at work on Maurice Gee: Life and Work for almost ten years and the result is a compelling story which interweaves the literature and life of the much-loved New Zealand writer. Barrowman says that from the start Gee stated that there was no point doing a biography unless it was 'warts and all'. The result is a biography which gives an engaging and sometimes surprising narrative of Gee's life.


A debut novel about the 1928 New Zealand and Australian Ravat-Wonder team in the Tour de France will be released in June. David Coventry's The Invisible Mile is a powerful re-imagining of the tour from inside the peloton.

The current Victoria University/Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence, Tim Corballis, will also have a new book out later this year. His two novellas R.H.I are based on events in the lives of Joan Riviere, an early 20th-century psychoanalyst and Herman Henselmann the Chief Architect of the German Democratic Republic. The two novellas are what Corballis describes as 'an accidental history of the 20th-century.'


We also have new poetry this year by David Beach, Roger Horrocks, Morgan Bach, Brian Turner, Joan Fleming, Brent Kininmont and Dinah Hawken.

We update our forthcoming books page regularly with information about the books, their covers and release dates.



TIBE fellows: our wonderful and tireless organiser Yuching Liu,
Robert Watkins of Hachette Australia, FB, Lynette Evans of Scholastic NZ,
Jenny Hellen of Allen & Unwin NZ.


Fergus Barrowman spent a week in at the Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE) as part of a publisher's fellowship programme. Fergus reports:

"I had a great time in Taipei. My hosts were very welcoming and generous, and the programme of seminars, a guided tour of Taiwanese publishers’ exhibits and visits to publishers’ office was extremely interesting. The parties were good too.

I was struck by some of the similarities in the challenges Taiwanese publishers experience, as a relatively small industry with some very large neighbours, and by the liveliness and confidence of the publishing. I’m always envious of the middle-sized independent publishers who can publish their choice of globally-famous English-language writers in translation, alongside their own writers.

The publishers I met were very interested on a personal level in finding out about New Zealand writers and books, but my feeling was that the major opportunities in that market are for educational and children’s books. But they embraced Eleanor Catton – packed out audiences; intricate and engaged questions through an interpreter; signing lines of well over an hour.

The New Zealand guest of honour programme was slightly surreal at times, perhaps most of all when some of our finest difficult musicians – Greg Malcolm, Jeff Henderson, Campbell Kneale – played to a large mixed audience of wildly enthusiastic hip young Taiwanese, and slightly puzzled New Zealanders."

Yuching got to the Grayhawk Agency party at midnight on a Taipei U-bike  








Information for booksellers

Don't forget that from March 1st all VUP books will be distributed by Upstart Distribution.

Please send orders to,  Ph 09 478 4390 (warehouse), Ph 09 280 3199 (office), Fax 09 281 3090.

Our books will continue to be sold into the trade by Archetype Book Agents, contact, Ph (09) 814 9455, fax (09) 814 9453.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Christmas holiday hours and closure

Victoria University Press will be closed from Friday 19 December at 3pm and will reopen on Monday 5 January at 9am. Final orders will need to be received by this Wednesday 17 December. Any orders received after Wednesday will be processed when we return in January.

Happy reading everyone! And thanks for supporting VUP.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Four questions for Dylan Horrocks

Dylan Horrocks's much anticipated Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is out now. If you're in Wellington he is at Unity Books on this Friday 12 December, 12pm – 12.45pm for an instore reading and signing session. Come along!

Dylan Horrocks photographed by Grant Maiden

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen considers the importance of story and fantasy in our lives – our ability to dream and do crazy stuff in our dreams is what keeps us going – but your protagonist Sam is suffering because he's forgotten how to dream. Was this the germ for starting Sam – the value of dreaming?

When I started thinking about the Magic Pen, I was going through a rough patch in my relationship with fiction and fantasy. I had spent a few years writing monthly comics for a big American publisher, and the relentless routine of churning out scripts non-stop – often telling stories that were a long way from preferred style or content – took its toll. Over time, it's like I lost contact with my own imagination. I was spending so much time in imaginary worlds that had been made up by other people, many of which were (to be frank) pretty horrible places, that simple pleasure of entering a fictional reality stopped being fun and became a chore.

Imaginary worlds had always been a big thing for me. Immersion, exploration, indulgent daydreaming. That's been the wellspring for a lot of my writing, and also for my relaxation and play. I felt like Lucy Pevensie, standing before a locked wardrobe, with no way into Narnia.

So in the end, I did the only thing I could think of: I started dreaming up a story that would allow me to explore the mess I was in. I put Sam Zabel into a similar situation, because Sam's often been my go-to guy for making sense of dilemmas and problems in my own life. He's a different personality in many ways, but he's a useful experimental subject. By watching how he responds to certain conditions and seeing what happens next, I can learn all kinds of things about the questions I'm wrestling with myself. Ultimately, I hoped Sam could lead me back to the wardrobe, and help me unlock the door.

The story also deals with the ways in which females are portrayed in many comics as sex symbols, and it throws up a number of interesting questions about a comic as a place where artists (of both sexes) might play out their fantasies and what responsibilities might go along with that, if any. Are these ideas you've thought a lot about over your years in both the 'industry' and as an independent maker?

When I was writing superhero comics – which often revolved around horrible crimes and the search for justice – I began to wonder about the nature of the fantasies that drove the stories I was telling. Every imaginary scenario carries assumptions about how that world and people within it work. Motivations, social structures, gender relations, the causes of violence, the meaning of justice and the nature of power. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether the comics we were making contributed to myths and distortions that permeate our shared conversations about the problems we face. I remember watching Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine on television one night, and when he interviewed a producer on the reality show Cops – challenging him about the way the show repeatedly depicts African American men as violent criminals, and white people as victims, protectors and avengers – I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. It was the way the producer passionately defended his liberal credentials, even as he insisted his show's racial politics were an unavoidable consequence of the need to present "exciting television." I felt uncomfortably close to that producer.

One of my lowest moments was when an issue of Batgirl that I had written arrived from the printers with a recruiting ad for the US Army on the back cover. This was around the time the US Army was dropping white phosphorous bombs on civilians in Fallujah. I worried that the fantasies we were indulging and promoting in that comic were also being played out in the coverage of the war.

So yeah, I was thinking about it a lot. Fantasy no longer seemed harmless. And it wasn't just a matter of avoiding obvious genre stories and committing to 'serious, naturalistic' fiction; the whole enterprise of art - of storytelling - seemed inherently dishonest. Because it's all make-believe, whether we recognise it as such or not, and distortion and delusion creeps in to every story we tell. I thought a lot about Picasso describing art as "a lie that tells the truth." What if it's actually a lie that tells a lie?

At the same time, though, I had spent a lifetime obsessed with the power and potential of fantasy to enlighten, liberate and transform. A friend described what I was going through as a "crisis of faith", which sounded about right. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is partly my attempt to find a way through that crisis and out the other side.

You use two epigraphs which contradict each other, and I found myself agreeing with both of them. The first is Yeats: 'In dreams begins responsibility' and the second is Nina Hartley: 'Desire has no morality.' It doesn't seem to me that this book draws any firm lines anywhere, except for being very opposed to the sexual violence of characters like Akio. I'm interested to know if you have settled somewhere in between Yeats and Hartley – or is this a line that needs to be constantly renegotiated?

I'm so glad you agree with both epigraphs! I used them both because I wanted to set up a discussion – maybe even a debate or argument – right from the very beginning. Because I went into this not knowing how to answer the questions I was wrestling with. And yeah, I agreed with both, too, and I wanted the book to keep the debate going, rather than allowing myself to adopt easy (ultimately dishonest) answers. So every time a character takes a stand or expresses a firm position, something else will undermine or contradict them. I wanted the book to simultaneously question and indulge the pleasures of fantasy (and eroticism), and in places even the drawings and words are working directly in opposition. I don't want to say too much about my own opinions at this point, because I'm more interested in readers entering into an open-minded conversation with the book, themselves and each other. But I will say I still think both epigraphs say something important, wise and true. 

How long has Sam Zabel taken you?

Oh God. 10 years, all up. Although most of it was drawn in the last 12 months. And I wrote and drew plenty of other things in that time too (some of which are in Incomplete Works). Hopefully the next book will be a whole lot faster!

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is out now. You can buy it here on our online bookstore or in great bookshops around the country. p/b $35

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

December newsletter – new releases and forthcoming titles in 2015


Dylan Horrock's long awaited graphic novel is released this month. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is the thoughtful, erotic and funny story of cartoonist Sam Zabel as he struggles with creative block.

Dylan has been working on Sam Zabel for over ten years now and he said that his love of imaginary worlds as well as his struggles writing monthly comics for big publishers found a life in the work.

"Imaginary worlds had always been a big thing for me. Immersion, exploration, indulgent daydreaming. When I started thinking about story, I was going through a rough patch in my relationship with fiction and fantasy. I was spending so much time in imaginary worlds that had been made up by other people, many of which were (to be frank) pretty horrible places, that simple pleasure of entering a fictional reality stopped being fun and became a chore. So in the end, I did the only thing I could think of: I started dreaming up a story that would allow me to explore the mess I was in."

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen is available for purchase now at all good bookstores or through our online bookstore. $35, p/b.

Dylan will be reading and signing copies at an in-store session at Unity Books on Friday 12 December, 12pm–12.45pm. All welcome.

Creamy Psychology surveys photographer Yvonne Todd's work, from her earliest work in the late 1990s to her most recent Gilbert Melrose project (reprinting photographs of small town life taken in the 1950s by her second cousin) and her series Ethical Minorities (Vegans). The book features new essays by Todd, Misha Kavka (on Todd and soap operas), Megan Dunn (Todd and anorexia), Robert Leonard (Todd and cults), Claire Regnault (Todd and costume) and Anthony Byrt (Gilbert Melrose).

Creamy Psychology is released the same week as a major exhibition of Todd's work opens at City Gallery, Wellington. Todd will be in conversation with curators this weekend. More information here.

Creamy Psychology can be purchased at all good bookstores and through our online bookstore. $60, h/b.


A preview of two new novels and two new poetry collections due out in early 2015.

New Hokkaido
by James McNaughton,
novel, p/b, $30. February 2015.

It is 1987, forty-five years after Japan conquered New Zealand, and the brutal shackles of the occupation have loosened a little: English can be spoken by natives in the home, and twenty-year-old Business English teacher Chris Ipswitch has a job at the Wellington Language Academy. But even Chris and his famous older brother – the Night Train, a retired Pan-Asian sumo champion – cannot stay out of the conflict between the Imperial Japanese Army and the Free New Zealand movement. When Chris takes it upon himself to investigate a terrible crime, he is drawn into the heart of the struggle for freedom, guided along the way by the mysterious Hitomi Kurosawa and the ghost of Kiwi rock ’n’ roll legend and martyr Johnny Lennon.

New Hokkaido is a fascinating counter-factual history and an adventure that thrills and disquiets at every turn.

Wonky Optics
by Geoff Cochrane
poetry, $25, p/b. February 2015.

Wonky Optics is Geoff Cochrane’s fifteenth collection of poems. He is also the author of two novels, and Astonished Dice: Collected Short Stories (2014). Geoff received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award in 2014.

‘The Cochrane tone is one of the great pleasures in our literature – and somehow sweeter for appearing not to be part of that literature.’ – Damien Wilkins

‘Over the years, Cochrane’s work has been a joy to me, a solace, a proof that art can be made in New Zealand which shows us ourselves in new ways.’ – Pip Adam

Half Dark
by Harry Ricketts
poetry, $25, p/b. February 2015.

In his new collection, Harry Ricketts addresses the people and places that fill a life and the gaps they leave behind. These are poems of friendship, romance, youth, and moments that still glow or ache decades after. Half Dark is tender, funny, sad, and deftly crafted from the splinters and spaces of the past.

In the Neighbourhood of Fame
by Bridget van der Zijpp
novel, $30, p/b. April 2015.

Rock musician Jed Jordan’s former fame means the events in his life have become public property. Years after ‘Captain of the Rules’ made him world famous in New Zealand, Jed is living quietly in an Auckland suburb with his family, growing peppers and recording in his home studio, when some disturbing new attention threatens to tear his world apart.

Also profoundly affected are three women whose lives are closely caught up in Jed’s – his wife; a childhood friend who has returned from Australia for her father’s funeral; and the fifteen-year-old Jed chats to in the local dog park. Vivid and engaging, In the Neighbourhood of Fame shines a light on modern relationship struggles within and between families, and on the unpredictable power of celebrity and social media.




I’m going to read Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik. This won the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books and it looks weirdly enthralling. It’s an exploration of all the materials that shape the modern world. Also, The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause, which talks about soundscapes in nature (e.g.  glaciers, storms, whales, gorillas). Others clamouring for attention: Colm Toibin, Marilynne Robinson, Anna Jackson, Yiyun Li…but then I also have this strange urge to reread some old favourites, like Vivian Gornick and Diana Athill. Holidays are all about the comfort-reading.

I have a pile of books that have built up steadily over the last few months, the MA deadline was looming! But happily now I can get stuck into – in no particular order – Richard Ford's new Bascombe book Let me Be Frank With You, Colm Toibin's Nora Webster, William Gibson's The Peripheral, the new Ann Leckie Ancillary Sword, Sebastian Faulks' PG Wodehouse tribute book  Jeeves and the Wedding Bells and topping it off with Lila by Marilynne Robinson and Mal Peet's The Murdstone Trilogy.


My reward for finishing reading and commenting on the 2014 MA in creative writing folios (a million words!) is going to be The Murdstone Trilogy, Mal Peet’s send-up of the literary world. I read Hermione Lee’s fabulous biography of Penelope Fitzgerald this year; I’ve been reading/rereading her novels and luckily for me have three or four to go. And there’s the stack of unread new fiction: Ali Smith, Peter Stamm, Jenny Erpenbeck, Patrick Modiano...I’m not afraid of running out.


Lila is waiting for me to finish my rereading of Anna Karenina. She'll have to be patient because AK does go on, in the nicest possible way.


I plan to read Lila by Marilynne Robinson, as she was my favourite character in Gilead and I really want to find out her back story. I also want to read Stephanie de Montalk’s How Does It Hurt?, after the rave reviews everyone in the office has been giving it! Having devoured the first book in the series, my kids will probably be making me read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to them (despite my appalling Scottish accent when reading Hagrid’s lines). And for light relief I’ll be dipping into What If?, by xkcd creator Randall Munroe.


Subscribers to our monthly newsletter are offered a chance to win copies of new releases each month. You can subscribe to our newsletter from our homepage.

Congratulations to Marie Buchler who won a copy of Prendergast: Legal Villain in last month's giveaway.


Our office closes on Friday 19 January and reopens on Monday 5 January.

Happy holidays and thanks for reading!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Dear Neil Roberts launch speech

We launched Dear Neil Roberts by Airini Beautrais last week.

Poet Maria McMillan launched the book and she has kindly allowed us to post her launch speech here.
at The Guest Room for the Dear Neil Roberts launch

Before I start, I just want to acknowledge a few things. It feels to me, that every book is, to a certain extent, a book of acknowledgment, and this one in particular.

I want to acknowledge the land beneath us, the things bubbling there, the things lying in shadow. The sky above us, where sometimes in dreams we float. I acknowledge the Tangata Whenua of this place. I acknowledge the anarchists, the peace thinkers, the conscientious objectors, the punks, the pacifists, the parents, the activists, the writers, the readers, the thinkers. Those no longer here and those not in the room and those in the room, all of you, I want to acknowledge Neil and those who knew him. I want to acknowledge VUP who have published the book. I want to acknowledge Airini’s family, her partner Norman, Airini herself. Warm greetings to all of you.

One of the things I really admire about this book, is that while there is a strong focus on Neil Roberts and the circumstances of his death, this is very much Airini’s story told straight. Airini doesn’t play with words, or mince them. She doesn’t invent an intimacy with events she wasn’t part of, she doesn’t make assumptions. She’s just telling us her story as honestly and as well as she can. In honour of that, I thought I’d quell the temptation to get all grandiose and pontificate or assume I can imagine what the experience of reading this book will be like for anyone else, or what it means in a wider sense, but rather I thought I’d talk just a little about what this book was like for me, a few of the things it means to me.

I know Airini through activism, we’ve been on some of the same protests, hung out in the same houses, been to some of the same meetings. I don’t really know what to call this world that we have both occupied, this anarchist-leaning activist thing. It’s passionate, lifelong friendships are forged but stakes are high, and people get far more grumpy with each other than anyone else because it matters so much more, and it’s fragmented and lots of us disagree, and lots of people feel isolated and lonely, but for all that there is something there in common. A shared culture perhaps of overt and conscious preoccupation with doing the right thing in a world of much wrong doing.

A thing, which is based around the idea that, however futile it feels, attempting to set things right is not only an important thing, but the most important thing. I think maybe this thing lurks in most of us, active or dormant or bubbling away, or ready to rear upwards when the time is right.

And somehow, reading this book, I thought about how Neil Roberts was part of this same thing, whatever it is. That had he been born a bit later, or had he died a bit later or if he was still around, he might have been in one of the vans with me in the late 80s that travelled up from Christchurch to Waihopai, or he might have held a banner with Airini and her friend at the APEC protests, or he might have had a cup of tea and ate dumpstered pastries with us at 128 Community Centre.

Some of the people Airini and I know knew Neil. I am not trying to ramp up this connection, but just to acknowledge, as it seems to me Airini’s book does, this thread between us. And it seems that with this thread comes an obligation to write about Neil’s story as Airini has or to listen to it. It’s a thread that links many characters in the book, Neil, Airini’s old neighbour jailed for refusing to kill, Airini’s anti-nuke parents, Airini’s essay writing teenage friend, Geoff, Lucia, Sam, Janice. This feels like a tribute to the spirit of resistance that connects all of them. I never felt like this was a tribute or celebration or honouring of the bombing of the Wanganui Computer Centre and Neil’s death, but it really did feel like a tribute to the spirit of resistance that in part motivated it. A tribute to those who love freedom and human dignity and to those who hate the things that seek to control and limit us. A tribute to the suspicion of tools or systems that may be wielded to curb freedom or dignity.

Airini’s book gives us enough information to suggest that Neil’s actions were deliberate, thought out, controlled - of the graffiti he wrote before he dies Airini says ‘The text strikes me/as having been written with a steady hand’. But the book never forgets that a young man died. The book doesn’t shy away from the politics of what happened, nor does it shy away from the tragedy of it. A son was lost, a brother, a friend, a thinker. Airini quotes Sam:
 ‘I think Neil must have been terribly lonely’ and later:
‘He made me think’, says Sam, ‘but then
I wish he’d just talked to me,
because that would have made me think more.’

If I was to say what this book is about, I wouldn’t say it was about Neil Roberts. I would say it is about Airini’s investigation of the death and life of Neil Roberts. The book reminds me of a very good mystery where we learn as much about the detective as about the crime. The narrator, which I’ve made the brave assumption through this talk, is Airini, is wonderfully present in these poems, we stand with her and look around and see what she’s seeing. We watch as Airini bends into the topic of Neil Roberts, finds out about it, reads the newspaper reports, thinks about the time it happened, talks to people about it, and lets us sit with her as she tries to figure out how it fits and doesn’t fit into her own life, her own acts of resistance, her parenthood, her pregnancy. 

This book is a single story, but made of smaller stories. I love its assured narrative tone. Airini knows what makes a good line and what makes a good stanza and how words should sing together to make a great poem. This together with the directness and simplicity of the speech lifts the poems into some dazzling place. Fresh is a very unfresh word to use to describe it, pungent perhaps, vivid, beyond all, real.

There’s a lot of space around these poems, they don’t tell me the ending. They don’t tell me what it all meant. The poem ‘Conclusions’ near the end of the book, is just as interesting but no more illuminating than the poem ‘Introduction; at the start. We’re presented with take after take on what happened, and what happened after. How the action was minimised and dismissed, how it shrunk and shrivelled up, how silence was maintained, but also how in some realms silence was broken, the action grew, and blossomed and expanded.

This book is too a meditation on meditation. An exploration of intense thought on a single subject. Pondering. Figuring things out. How what’s going on in your brain can change your life. How a woman shifted in her seat, a belly full of baby, waiting for birth and needing to make room for a story about death. How she needed to acknowledge something.

Dear Neil Roberts is a wonderful book and I hereby declare it officially, anarchically and peacefully launched in Wellington. And in doing so, I invite you to fill your glasses and I propose what appears to be a kind of toast that Airini has written:
‘Therefore future. Therefore past’.

Dear Neil Roberts is in all good bookstores and can also be purchased from VUP's online bookstore

Monday, 24 November 2014

Launch speeches for How Does It Hurt?

We launched Stephanie de Montalk's How Does It Hurt? at Unity Books on Tuesday last week. Damien Wilkins delivered a fantastic launch speech which he's kindly allowed us to post here. Stephanie's own speech is also posted below.

Damien Wilkins launches How Does It Hurt? (photo by Matthew Bialostocki)

It’s a privilege to say a few words about Steph’s incredible book. Incredible not just for what’s in it, of course, but also for the circumstances of Steph’s life which made, and continue to make, writing of any kind a form of heroism—though she wouldn’t like that word.

The fact that writing under such a hostile and capricious force—and I’m not talking about the Faculty of Graduate Research at Victoria University—writing not just about pain but in pain, through pain, that this has earned Steph a doctorate and now resulted in this sustained piece of prose—a work already recognised by health professionals as ground-breaking and riveting and beautiful—well, it inspires awe. So probably all I need to do to communicate the effect of this book is to sort of stand very still right here, looking stunned.

But launch speeches come with words so let me try. I came in at the very end of the PhD process with Steph, following Bill Manhire’s retirement and, working alongside Kathryn Walls, all I really did was express wonder and pleasure at the potency of the text and especially the shape the narrative had taken—it’s probably important to say that how she tells this story is key. The book’s title puts How first—How Does it Hurt? And that question quickly becomes How Do I Speak? (How do I tell people I meet about this thing that’s happened, that’s happening to me, in ways that are accurate to the experience, and then How Do I Write? What words in what order to communicate to readers who are often strangers the significance of chronic pain not just in one life but in the unwritten lives of other sufferers?

Because that’s the powerful, broader remit: this is not a narrow confession, though it’s full of candour; indeed I’ve always thought that Steph as a poet is among the least confessional we have; or perhaps her confessions are so well-hidden they slide by in the dark hood of her unusually formal diction. Steph certainly steps forward in this book but again she wants to make some larger points: about nursing, which she feels has moved in the wrong direction, about the relationship between different kinds of knowledge—her quest for release from pain takes her in many directions, from Touch Healing to surgery; from Eastern philosophy to poetry to the contemplation of the pine tree in her backyard. The tree is a bit of a star in the narrative. The book is political, fierce, open, buzzing with ideas about how the body treats the mind and vice versa.

It’s an unflinching account, terrifying and bleak in its tracing of nerve pain’s unpredictable torture methods. Steph at one point characterizes her pain as a gremlin fiddling knobs—yet even that image quickly feels too homely as we catch the idea that this pain is not only secretive in that mostly you can’t tell the person has it but also that it—the pain itself—has secrets from the sufferer, secrets about its intensity that are only disclosed in viciously random ways. An hour of ‘not too bad’, followed by a day, a month, a year of ‘hideous’. We might ask the sufferer, ‘How are you?’ but that can only set off an unthinkable, inexpressible set of recursive notions, ‘You mean this minute?’ It’s actually what Steph said to Wallace Chapman when he asked this question on Radio New Zealand the other week. We may want something definitive, brief and promising: ‘A bit better, thanks.’ But, as this book points out, that’s our conventional need to be consoled and move on and it discounts the sufferer’s cyclic ongoing involvement with torment.  

Still, I think it’s more than my own clutching at straws to find in this book, dare I say it, fun or at least a savouring of ironies and absurdities. I love the scene in the hairdressers when Steph is reading Schopenhauer and she covers the title of the chapter with her hand when the stylist comes over. The title of the chapter is ‘On Suicide’.

I’m also going to take my pleasure where I can find it and if the defeating of a narrative pattern—its lack of a progress—is one of chronic pain’s most cruel manoeuvres, this book is itself a triumph of patterning. Here’s the opening sentence of a section about half way through the book: ‘Word was out that the surgeon in Sydney was about to become the Southern Hemisphere’s first pudendal neuralgia and entrapment specialist.’

I think it’s a measure of how deeply engaged we’ve become in the story of Steph’s pain that this sentence is not only intelligible but exciting, as exciting as say hearing in a 19th Century novel that someone has set the date for their wedding. Oh good, we think, Sydney finally has a pudendal neuralgia and entrapment specialist!

How Does It Hurt does two things at the same time: it practices an extraordinary embrace, making us come closer and closer, while at the same time reminding us of the arm’s length of suffering. As good readers trained in empathy we feel the pull of the writer’s terrible plight—yes, we silently agree, I hear you—but we also experience the necessarily harsh corrective of Steph’s exclusivity—since it is, according to this powerfully argued text, only the fellow-sufferer who can connect finally. Everyone else is just a literary tourist.

I must admit during the time I was a supervisor of the PhD, I struggled with this exclusion and prodded at Steph more than once. Didn’t she think the capacity of her account to move people—and it has this capacity—show that she was communicating something? Maybe not the interior world, the cave, as she calls it, or the cliff, of her pain, but at least its affective power? Wasn’t that a tiny victory in the battle for expression, for a language that did more than just hint at what it’s like to be inside her skin? But Steph is unwavering. No, no, you haven’t understood. You can’t. To be honest, I still haven’t come to terms with this no. Since it goes against all my carefully built-up instincts of hope, as well as my writerly tools: the grounding faith in the potency of description, analysis, suggestion: the idea that story in all its forms is revelatory.

At one point Steph quotes Alphonse Daudet: ‘Pain is always new to the sufferer but loses its originality for those around him. Everyone will get used to it except me.’ Yes, I think, I am used to the Steph who when we meet has to be lying down. Even though I knew her before she was supine, I realise I’ve made an adjustment that she hasn’t made, that she is working against constantly. Daudet is depressingly right. Yet I also want to adapt that observation and say, having read this book, I think it’s harder to lose a sense of the originality of other people’s experience. Books like this one remind us we should never get used to anything.  

Stephanie de Montalk (photo by Matthew Bialostocki)

This is an excerpt from Stephanie's launch speech:

Three primary concerns underpin my memoir and study of chronic pain.

The first is a notion posed by a Canadian academic and long-term sufferer by the name of Lous Heshusius. How, Heshusius asks, can such pain be put on paper? She says: “Love would be easier. Or joy, or pleasure. Things people desire. Then you can evoke that which cannot be said. The reader will gladly fill in the meanings left unsaid by the words. Trying to speak of chronic pain, on the other hand, the unsaid meanings are not easily imagined. For who wants to know what constant pain is like? How to tell of this dark, dark place?”

The second consideration is that of the distinction between chronic pain and acute, or temporary, pain. By definition, this separation seems obvious. But it's one that I have found to be woefully under recognized. Unlike acute pain, which is ubiquitous, familiar – shareable to some extent – and, importantly, relievable and finite, chronic pain is relegated, in the words of writer, Alice Sebold, to 'the Wild West of medicine'. The mechanisms of transmission that sustain this renegade pain long after an injury or illness has apparent been resolved, or for which a cause or treatment cannot be conclusively identified, are far from understood. As a result, much chronic pain cannot be adequately relieved, and sufferers, unable to articulate and share their condition, frequently dismissed as complainers and malingerers, tend to retreat, their physical suffering heightened by emotional isolation and distress.

The third concern expands on the sense of exile I've just mentioned: a state in which I found myself after the onset of my own pain, and one that led to this memoir. I was first alerted to the idea of raising the profile of chronic pain, and easing the aloneness of sufferers, in 2005, the year I was writer in residence at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML). It happened like this: My colleague, Damien Wilkins, came to my room one morning, held out a small hard-backed publication by the 19th century French Writer, Alphonse Daudet titled In the Land of Pain, and said 'This book has your name on it.' I read Daudet's brief but powerful account of more than a decade of the pain of his tertiary syphilis, and I felt strangely consoled. I also felt empowered by his honesty – by his graphic descriptions, penetrating observations and absence of stoic pretense. Moreover, I felt validated by Damien's unexpected acknowledgement of my own hidden condition. That morning, a door opened in pain's wall, and although it would be another five years before I embarked on the dissertation from which my memoir is adapted, that day remained a watershed pin my thinking about the need to confront what is increasingly termed 'chronic and intractable non-cancer pain'.

A statistical aside: As we live longer – and as previously fatal conditions and injuries become treatable – the incidence of chronic pain silently raises. Today, it is described as reaching epidemic proportions. In the United States, there are one hundred million sufferers – one third of the country's population – of whom ten million are significantly disabled by pain. In New Zealand, one in six are said to suffer varying levels of on-going pain: that is, 700,000, of which as many as 70,000 may be seriously and lastingly incapacitated.

To recap then: How Does It Hurt? aims to give informed weight to the phrase 'chronic pain'; it hopes to fill in some of the meanings that the words 'constant pain' leave unsaid, to lessen the misapprehension of bystanders and to ease the exile of sufferers – for it's difficult to come to terms with a life-changing pain that no one talks about or understands.

How Does It Hurt? can be purchased on our online bookstore here or in all good bookshops in NZ. $40, h/b.