Tuesday, 7 July 2015

10 Qs for Rachel Barrowman

Rachel Barrowman's much anticipated biography of Maurice Gee is released this Thursday (9 July) and ahead of the release we asked her about her experiences working on the book.

How long has the bio taken you? When did you begin?

I started working on it midway through 2006. It’s taken me quite a lot longer than I anticipated – which is all to do with life – mine – getting in the way along the way. Also, Gee has had a long and very productive writing career – seventeeen adult novels, thirteen children’s novels, a volume of short stories (and writing for screen). So it was always going to be a big job.

When did you first approach Maurice Gee about the bio? Had he had other offers?

It wasn’t quite exactly a matter of me approaching him. One or two people had been gently persuading him that there should be a biography, and that it would be better that it was by someone he was comfortable with and had said yes to, that he should take the initiative; if he kept refusing, someone would go ahead and do one anyway. At the same time, I needed a project and I was suggested to him. He had read my Mason biography and liked it. I think I was unthreatening as a potential biographer.

So one day in 2006 he contacted me and asked if I would be interested in recording some interviews with him. He’d decided he needed to, that it was time to get some stuff down on record – and that if I wanted to go on from there and do a biography, he was (albeit still hesitantly, I suspect) happy with that. He would regard me as his ‘authorised’ biographer to the extent of turning anyone else away. So we went ahead with the interviews and I applied for and got the Michael King Fellowship.

What was he like to work with?

He was very open, generous and honest. He said at the outset that he didn’t like the term ‘authorised biography’, in the sense that it implied he was maintaining/wanted to exert control. It was to be my book, he wouldn’t interfere. As far as he was concerned there was no point in doing a biography if it wasn’t to be ‘warts and all’, and he said that he would be as honest and open with me as he could.

So he didn’t place any constraints around it ­(except regarding a couple of subjects where other members of his family were involved and where he told me he would need to know they were happy with them being written about – so that was about their sensitivity, not his. But in the end there were no issues there). There were, it’s true, one or two things he was reticent about in those initial conversations and which I came across in my research, but he was forthcoming when asked.

Five or six months after I got started he and Margareta moved from Wellington to Nelson, and since then our communication has mostly been by email: me asking questions as I went along, him remembering or elaborating on things, and also keeping me up with what he was doing. He was still writing – four novels published since 2006.

What were some surprising details you discovered about his life?

I really didn’t know anything much about Gee’s life, so there was all sorts of stuff that was new and fascinating. Dedicated readers of Gee’s work will know that his fiction draws heavily on his childhood and family history, and the few (short) pieces of memoir he’s published have covered that territory, but there’s a lot else that he has not previously spoken or written (directly) about publicly.
You’ll have to wait for the book to find out more though!

One thing I didn’t know was that he’d written quite a bit for television: Mortimer’s Patch, notably (early 80s small-town cop show, very successful), and a feature film (starring Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame).

The bio is also very much about his fiction – did you reread all the books? Did you get the sense of themes he would return to/characters he would reinvent in the novels?

When I first started working on the biography, the first thing I did – alongside the interviews – was to read them all in order of publication. I hadn’t read all the novels: not the pre-Plumb ones, with the exception of In My Father’s Den which I only read after the film came out, and I’d read few of the short stories. Nor had I read many of the children’s novels – only The Fat Man and Hostel Girl, and none of the fantasy ones. Now I’ve read them all at least twice and many of them three times.

Repetition, echoing – of themes, incidents, places, images and metaphor – is a significant feature of Gee’s work. A fugue-like quality. (This is also a quality of the novels themselves: Plumb, and the Plumb trilogy, especially.) Reading the novels (and the short stories) through in order, what comes through very strongly is not just the sense of Gee’s distinctive ‘territory', but the novels’ own life story, if you like, how they relate to, speak to one another, either distantly, and through the commonality of language and metaphor, etc, but sometimes more directly, as in The Fire-raiser providing the basis for Prowlers, and Hostel Girl for Ellie and the Shadow Man. Often those connections are smaller and less conscious, and it was fascinating to recognise them. I enjoyed reading and re-reading the novels (and stories) very much and I’ve written more about them than I think I anticipated I would when I started.

Did you have any favourites?   

When pressed for a favourite I might say Prowlers, which is Gee’s favourite too. It was the first novel he wrote after the Plumb trilogy and the enjoyment he had with it is palpable. And I have a special fondness for A Special Flower, which is probably his least known novel (it’s the second), and the least Gee-ish (though in some ways it’s very Gee). A quite strange, creepy novel. It’s also the one novel he has not wanted to see reissued.

Of the children’s novels: The Fire-raiser, The Fat Man and Hostel Girl. I’m less a fan of the fantasy novels but that largely reflects my own reading preferences.

How was the process of researching and writing different or similar from the Mason bio?

Quite different in a number of respects. Firstly, Mason died in 1971, so I couldn’t go straight to the source, so to speak, as I could with Gee; nor to contemporaries.

I started the Mason bio with a previous, unpublished biography and the research for that biography available to me as a starting point – though the book quickly became my own and I supplemented that material with my own research. But you could say I had a ‘head start’. With Gee it was all mine from the outset.

Thirdly, Mason’s literary oeuvre was quite small. Gee has had a 50-plus-year writing career, which has produced 33 books. So it was bigger deal, in a number of ways. Certainly it felt like a bigger challenge (and for all those reasons).

But in terms of my own method, and my approach in terms of style and form, these were pretty much the same. With the form and style of the biography – a chronological life narrative, weaving the story of the literature in with that of the life, wanting to let Gee’s character and the themes emerge from the narrative and quotation and not be too heavy-handed or directorial – I was aiming for the same thing.

How does it feel to complete the book?

A little unreal; a little scary.

What do you think literary biographies add to a body of fiction or non-fiction work?

I find it hard to answer this. The relationship between the literature and the life is really the point of ‘literary biography’. Of course. But of course, the extent to which and the ways in which they relate will vary hugely from subject to subject. With Maurice, those connections are pervasive and subtle and, I believe, important.

This is not to say that one needs to know about the life to appreciate the novels; not at all. But the two do inform each other, in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Are you nervous about Maurice's reaction to the book?

No, because he has already read it. I sent it to him when (and only when) I had a complete draft done, which was in August last year. Naturally I was nervous. But his response has been very generous.
How he will feel once it’s out there in the world is another question, of course. (I think we’ll both be feeling a little terrified.)

Maurice Gee: Life and Work is released on Thursday 9 July. A launch for the book will be held at Unity Books in Wellington. All welcome.

Monday, 6 July 2015

July newsletter

This much anticipated biography, Maurice Gee: Life and Work by Rachel Barrowman, is released on 9 July.

The biography interweaves the story of Gee's life with that of his long literary career. Barrowman says Gee was very open, generous and honest with her.

"He said at the outset that he didn’t like the term ‘authorised biography’, in the sense that it implied he was maintaining or wanted to exert control. It was to be my book, he wouldn’t interfere. As far as he was concerned there was no point in doing a biography if it wasn’t to be ‘warts and all’."

Barrowman has spent nearly ten years researching and writing the book, which covers Gee's long and productive career of seventeen adult novels, thirteen children’s novels, a volume of short stories and writing for screen.

Maurice Gee: Life and Work will be launched by Damien Wilkins on Thursday 9 July at Unity Books in Wellington, 6pm–7.30pm. All welcome.

Rachel Barrowman will be a guest speaker at Going West Festival on Saturday 12 September where she will talk about the biography with Geoff Chapple. The Festival takes its name from the novel by Gee, who spent his childhood in Henderson. The fictional town of Loomis features in many of his books.

Rachel will also be a guest at the Page and Blackmore's Readers and Writers Festival in Nelson on Saturday 24 October.

Morgan Bach's debut poetry collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, weaves a line between waking life and the unstable dream-world beneath. In poems of childhood, family, travel and relationships, she responds to the ache and sometimes horror of life in a voice that is restless and witty, bold and sharp-edged.

The fallings

I wake and watch the planes
from my bed—each one an uncalled
number. An unspilled cup of tea,
covers still clean, hands
unscalded and reaching
under the sheets to the cool patch
on the other side where you were,
and you were and you
and you too, though none
of you now. Out my window
the planes take off at different angles,
some keep low and rise slowly
but others are full-tilt
to the heavens
hoping the weather
is better there, with clouds below
to give the illusion of being pillowed
should they find themselves
alone, so suddenly,
in the cool patches.

Some of Us Eat the Seeds will be launched at Unity Books by Ashleigh Young on Thursday 16 July, 6pm–7.30pm. All welcome.

Morgan will be doing a free reading at Scorpio Books in Christchurch with Bernadette Hall, Kerrin P. Sharpe and Victoria Broome on Saturday 11 July at 3.30pm. She is also part of a poetry session at Writers on Mondays on 20 July with David Beach and John Dennison.

Design Awards

Victoria University Press is proud that four of its titles are up for PANZ Book Design Awards this year. Congratulations to all our finalists: Dylan Horrocks for Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, Spencer Levine for Creamy Psychology and The Families and Alice Bonifant for The Critic's Part. The PANZ Book Design Awards will be held on Thursday 16 July in Auckland.

Recent Reviews

The Invisible Mile has been receiving some rave reviews, the most recent in Metro and here on the Booksellers NZ site. An interview with author David Coventry and Radio New Zealand's Lynn Freeman is online here. You can read Carl Shuker's launch speech for the novel here


Events in July

Maurice Gee: Life and Work
by Rachel Barrowman
at Unity Books, Wellington
on Thursday 9 July
All welcome.

Poetry and Prose at Pegasus Books
with David Coventry, Therese Lloyd, Brannavan Gnanalingam and David Merritt
on Friday 10 July, 6pm
Leftbank, Cuba St

Morgan Bach, Bernadette Hall, Kerrin P. Sharpe and Victoria Broome read at Scorpio Books, Riccarton, Christchurch on Saturday 11 July, 3.30pm.

Some of Us Eat the Seeds
by Morgan Bach
at Unity Books, Wellington
on Thursday 16 July
6pm–7.30pm. All welcome.

All sessions are held on Mondays, 12.15–1.15pm at Te Papa Marae, Level 4,
Te Papa
Monday 13 July
Vincent O'Sullivan talks to Fergus Barrowman about his favourite themes and preoccupations, recent work and the public role of poetry.
Monday 20 July
Morgan Bach, David Beach and John Dennison read from their work and talk to Cliff Fell about their new poetry collections.
Monday 27 July
Rachel Barrowman talks to Bill Manhire about her biography of Maurice Gee.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Invisible Mile - launch speech

We recently launched The Invisible Mile by David Coventry at Unity Books. Carl Shuker, who gave the launch speech has kindly allowed us to publish it below.

Carl Shuker, photo courtesy of Aaron Smale

I first encountered David Coventry five years ago – I was in London and external assessor of a project he’d been working on at Victoria that year for his MA in creative writing. When his novel arrived the package was roughly the same size and shape as a 14” cathode-ray TV. On final extraction from the courierbag the massive thing showered me like a destination wedding in the confetti from the grotesquely oversized spiral binding that was pitifully struggling to hold it together. Which is to say it was big. It was also brilliant. I wrote on it at the time: “Shipton-Pearce is a grand, colossal, twilit thing of astonishing range and scope.”
I kept in touch with him and know that David worked on this book for years. There’s a sort of trope that another David – Foster Wallace – lifted from Don Delillo in an essay called “The Nature of the Fun”: it’s about your unfinished book being a damaged infant for which you’re responsible. It’s unfinishedness and flawedness is your fault and responsibility and is directly attributable to your incompetence as a writer. The child follows you around, refusing to let you go out, sleep, eat your dinner in peace. You love it, and are devoted to it. It moans inconsolably, dribbles on your french fries, thus ensuring your undivided attention to making it whole.
It takes a lot of guts and discipline to raise a child; to write and revise just one novel. It takes a whole other order of guts and discipline, when publishers are lazy, frightened and unsure, to say, well that kid’s just going to have to go in the naughty cupboard, and I’m starting a new one. It takes more than discipline and persistence; as David writes, it takes a marvelous, transformatory kind of madness. He shelved that book to work on the book we launch today: The Invisible Mile. In 2012 David wrote to describe the new book to me: “1928 Tour de France. Lots of drugs, lots of religion. I’m thinking of introducing spacecraft and spacemen.”
The book you’re holding in your hands shows how he held true – almost – to that vision. The Tour de France in its chaotic years post-World War I: raced on cobblestones and shingle tracks, riding wooden-rimmed, fixed-gear bikes. To change gear when they hit the mountains a rider has to remove his rear wheel, flip it and refix the chain to the larger cog prepped beforehand on the other side. You’ve got two options and in the Pyrenees you know neither of them are good.
Not only did David shelve a brilliant novel, he went and wrote another brilliant novel, and this about the damn Tour de France. The Listener called The Invisible Mile: “A truly extraordinary first novel.” Stuff wrote, “brilliant … an important and impressive debut.” So much of our contemporary literature avoids the high style, and is damned with the faint praise, “quietly astonishing.” The Invisible Mile is high as a kite and loudly and profoundly astonishing. This is a book full of blood, darkness, speed, injury, insight, comedy, warmth, and bashfulness too. This is the kind of book where the narrator can say: “I find myself thinking of Harry’s wife as he writes to her of our day. Back home she is so pregnant we get shy when her name is mentioned.”
Then he can say: “I’m sweating like old dynamite.”
Here’s the NZ-Australia team sipping drinks and watching two riders from the Belgian team brawling in the street in a tiny village in the south of France:

Harry drinks the brandy and winces. He wipes at his mouth. “You know, if we were Greeks and we were back in the age.”
“They’d be starkers.”
“And we’d be doing this race starkers,” he says.
“Lord,” Percy says. “The Lord’s mercy.”
“Our bits waggling about.”
“And they’d kill us afterwards,” I say. “Lions they haven’t fed for two months.”
“That was the Romans.”
“Romans, lions. Who cares? The point is we’d be starkers.”
“And then, they’d put us in a corner and stone us,” Harry says. “They’d stand around throwing rocks.”

David’s prose is always doing this: he’s funny, he’s dry, he’s dark. But there is always a mature artist’s warmth and rhythm, and a glow of discovery. David’s narrator, and thus David, is constantly talking and thinking about awe and thus he’s able to write the aria of awe that’s fitting for a 3000-mile race to the top of the Pyrenees.

Because prose is a competitive sport, and an endurance sport too. From a writers’ perspective, the problem with a project like the Tour de France is that with this material you’ve got a long way to go and simultaneously nowhere to go. 300 pages in the present tense about a race with finite boundaries – not just a beginning and an end but a whole lot of predetermined French towns to hit along the way. You’ve got nowhere to go. Characters race, they stop, they’re tired, they talk. Nice French town looks like this. They race, they stop, they talk.
How do you approach such a task and how do you approach the Tour? The ambition simply to write an event of this gravitas is one thing. Doing justice to it is another. The pressure this externally imposed structure puts on a work of art is immense: but I think some of the answer is you have to play the changes, to show your secret list of gear inches for each stage. You have to show what you can do. With lists, memories, geography, arcs within arcs, dialogue, research, pacing, poetry, action, insight. This is the challenge and David revels in it.
The rest of the answer to how you get this book done is – and it subsumes the variations you can play and it helps nobody, really – is talent.
David writes about it too, about talent, when his unnamed narrator thinks finally, finally he’s going to win a stage. He’s going to pass the Yellow Jersey, current champion of the Tour, unbeatable freak of nature Nicolas Frantz of Luxemburg. Narrator is grunting, spitting, shouldering his way through the peloton, dying for this. Suddenly he’s neck and neck with Frantz. Beside him Frantz shouts, “Look at me. Look at my bike.” The narrator passes him. The narrator wins.
They coast together a while. Here’s David’s narrator:

Finally he dismounts and I too step from my machine and I go to him and stand beside him. We both look at his bike, it is not an Alcyon bike. It is not a man’s bike. It seems half-sized, though it’s not. It is a woman’s bike with small cogs made for the village, its handle bars a simple set for riding upright, its seat sprung for comfort and its frame angled so a lady might not undo her honour as she dismounts. A hollow there, and a hollow in my body and I know not how to fill it until I remember to breathe and what the man in Colombo had said. Breathe, be mindful of breathing.

The thing with Frantz is just talent. It doesn’t matter about the constraints. You just have to be good enough. It’s the same with prose. I’d like to proudly welcome this talent and this amazing book into Unity, and the literature. The Invisible Mile by this chap, David Coventry.

David Coventry signs for a full crowd at Unity Books

 The Invisible Mile is available now at all good bookshops and through our online bookstore.

Monday, 8 June 2015

June newsletter

David Coventry's debut novel is set during the 1928 Tour de France. It re-imagines the tour from inside the peloton, where the test of endurance for one rider becomes a psychological journey into the chaos of WW1 a decade earlier. David spoke to us about how he came to writing the book.

"I used to be the research manager at the NZFA (now Nga Taonga: Sound and Vision) and all questions pertaining to the content and usage of the collections came through me. In late August 2012 I received an email from Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race fame. He was asking for footage of a cyclist named Harry Watson, who I was utterly unfamiliar with. I did a bit of research to see if I might be able to help out. As soon as I saw Watson’s fairly thin Wikipedia page, that he was referred to as ‘The Priest’ during the Tour de France I just knew I was about to start my next writing project. It was the connect between history, sport and religion that immediately excited me. I heard a rhythm and a voice, went home and started writing."

David says that the link between sport and religion has always interested him.

"I adore sport and find the shape of emotions that spill out similar to what I’ve sensed in the religious activities and organisations I have spent a lot of time around during different occupations and eras of study. I’m fascinated with the compulsion of both, fascinated with the strange binding connections the dramas lend to cultures’ ideas of themselves; ideas of nationhood and individuality."
The Invisible Mile will be launched by novelist Carl Shuker at Unity Books on Thursday 11 June, 6pm–7.30pm.
All welcome.

Readers' Salon

The Readers' Salon with Anna Smaill and Bridget van der Zijpp on Wednesday 3 June at Vic Books was a sold out event, and huge fun. We look forward to running more of these events in the near future.


Thanks to all our writers and the keen readers who took part in another successful Auckland Writers Festival.

We were delighted to be present when Stephanie de Montalk received the Nigel Cox Prize for her book How Does It Hurt? after her AWF event. Susanna Andrew, who organises the prize alongside Unity Books, said that in a year where there are no book awards, they couldn't let How Does It Hurt? go unnoticed.

"It is a book Nigel Cox would have been in awe of. At a talk at the 2015 Auckland Writers Festival, Stephanie de Montalk said that although she was in constant pain the mere liminal presence of books, the spines (in particular of New Zealand books) in her sightline gave her something; the presence of others, that fact of the books’ existence was a comfort. Though we’re not sure she used the word comfort. We are glad then that the second Nigel Cox Award for 2015 and $1000 worth of book vouchers from Unity Books Auckland can be given out to such a praiseworthy recipient." 

Reviews and news

Nicholas Reid finds much to praise in Steven Loveridge's Calls to Arms here.

Roger Horrocks was interviewed by Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon about his new poetry collection, Song of the Ghost in the Machine. Nice to note this collection was no. 1 on the NZ list in its release week.

"Van der Zijpp has written an adult, thought-provoking and gripping story on a real social issue." Sunday Star Times review of Bridget van der Zijpp's In the Neighbourhood of Fame.

"...her [De Montalk’s] own book deserves to be regarded as a classic on the singularly uncomfortable subject of ongoing human bodily suffering." Stephanie de Montalk's How Does It Hurt? reviewed in  Landfall Review.

"A fantastic first novel," Kerry Donovan Brown's Lamplighter reviewed in Landfall Review

Pip Adam has been building up a strong library of podcast discussions about books with other writers and readers at Better Off Read.

We are pleased to note that all Fairfax book reviews are being posted on the Stuff website now.

Report from London

Fergus Barrowman attended the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature this past weekend with Elizabeth Knox. He writes:

"I am grateful to Creative New Zealand and the New Zealand Book Council for sending Elizabeth to London, and to the Australia and New Zealand Festival for her invitation. I have enjoyed my role as baggage handler and research assistant.

It was more like an academic conference than any festival I've been to before. You enter by an unmarked King's College door on the Strand, and look for the first of a series of green teeshirted volunteers who conduct you down corridors and up stairs to the rooms in which the events take place. Elizabeth's 2.5 hour world-building workshop was in a standard tutorial room – and because it was under-subscribed it was a great experience for everybody.

My two highlights were both in the chapel. First, a recital of settings of Denis Glover poems: Lilburn's 'Sings Harry', and new commissions from Patrick Shepherd and Lyell Cresswell, beautifully performed by Christopher Bowen and Lindy Tennent-Brown. And a poetry reading featuring Vincent O'Sullivan and three good Australians: Claire Potter, Emma Jones and Omar Musa.

Now we're in Liverpool, where people are still apologising for the weather."

Above picture: Vincent O'Sullivan reads at King's College Chapel.

Monday, 11 May 2015

6 questions for Roger Horrocks

Poet, filmmaker and biographer Roger Horrocks has a new poetry collection, Song of the Ghost in the Machine out now. Ahead of his launch at Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland on this Wednesday, we asked him a few questions.

You say about writing poetry that it is 'almost always a process of looking inside’ – do you think that poetry in particular equips you to do this better than say with prose? Why use poetry to put these thoughts in order, and not say, an essay?

Poetry is like music in that it requires a writer to take great care with the rhythm. I enjoy that challenge.  At the same time, I think too many contemporary poems are as short and limited in scope as generic pop songs. Poets paint themselves into a corner by feeling they must be lyrical in a conventional way. I like lyricism but I also want poetry to think and argue more. What’s wrong with the idea of a ‘poem essay’?  Lucretius wrote a famous one – “On the Nature of Things” around 40 BC – and there have been plenty of later examples, from Pope to Blake to Stevens.

Song of the Ghost in the Machine is divided into 11 different sections ‘melancholia’, ‘self’, ‘sleeping and waking’ - did you set out to write on particular subjects or did the material accumulate into what I’d almost like to term a poetic-essay?

I’ve always admired the omnivorous kind of long poem that has the appetite to absorb everything – grab-bag poems like Williams’ Paterson, Pound’s Cantos, or Silliman’s Alphabet. I can’t claim to be in their league, but I have also set out to write a book-length poem that will swallow as much of life as possible, in a year of writing.

The book also seems to be a way to explain what it is to exist – both physically and spiritually (or metaphysically) is this a fair description of what you’re doing with this book?

Poetry is almost always about what’s been called ‘the experience of experience.’ But mostly we stay close to the surface of our lives, writing about ourselves and something we’ve seen or felt, so it’s rather like a ‘selfie’ in words. This time I wanted to go deeper and ask basic questions about what it’s like to be alive, the rock-bottom facts of human life. Scientists have a lot of interesting things to say on the subject, and I quote a number of them, but the way we consciously experience our lives remains a mystery.  Scientists refer to this puzzle – how the lump of meat which is our brain produces our personal feelings – as ‘the hard problem.’  Some scientists see our cloud of thought as a kind of mirage and call it ‘the ghost in the machine’ – hence the title of my book. But as the poet John Donne – and the artist Colin McCahon – put it, ‘Each of us has one world, and is one.’ This book happens to be my world, inhabited by a freewheeling ‘ghost,’ and these are its curious songs.

Can you make an argument for poetry? As a publisher of poetry, we’re in a minority – with diminishing attention and readership as people turn to other forms of entertainment and ways to use their time – what is it about poetry that gets you excited? What would you say to a reader to get them interested in your own work?

I don’t think any writer can concentrate on producing their best work if they worry too much about the potential audience and whether their work can compete with Xbox, Fifty Shades of Grey, the World Cup, etc. Of course a publisher and a bookshop-owner does need to worry, and I am profoundly grateful to every person of that kind who risks his or her shirt on poetry books. But as a writer, I want to say how angry I am with the promoters of Rogernomics and its many successors who think of the space of the arts as just another marketplace, and the writer or artist as just another brand. To readers I would say, ‘Don’t reduce your scope to that of a “consumer” looking for “entertainment.” Think about Paul Gauguin’s comment “Art is either revolution or plagiarism”. (This is the artist who made a great painting with the great title: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’)’

Quoting from your poem ‘The Daybook’: ‘All thinking is wishful, all questions are rhetorical […] There’s no escape/from double talk’. Is writing somehow getting beyond cheap talk or simply another form of wishful thinking?

I guess it’s typical that the lines you quote can be interpreted in more than one way, and they can be taken positively, too. A few lines later I say: ‘I think, therefore I write on the walls of our cave.’  In short, writing is as natural an activity as breathing. But I can’t say exactly what writing is because I have a different view each day. In the end, my book isn’t philosophy or science, it’s irresponsible and unresolved as poetry prefers to be. In the course of my poem I refer to John Keats’s lovely description of ‘Negative Capability’ which is when a person ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

There is a lament for pen and paper, the physical book in your poem ‘Evolution’ . How is this lament tied to your own thinking and writing?

I can’t imagine anyone who has learned what the Internet has to offer wanting to give it up. But we do need to be aware that every powerful new technology comes with a downside as well as an upside. Otherwise, before we know it, we have swallowed the problems as well as the perks. The Web yields a marvelous wealth of words and images, but it may encourage us to respond to overload by developing a faster, superficial style of reading. The Internet specializes in quick answers, headlines and sound bites. Studies like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid provide evidence of the mental and social changes this can produce. For some people, life on-line is like a constant diet of fast food. In contrast, reading a book can exercise a different set of mental muscles, which is just as important for adults as for kids. A book stretches our attention-span and reminds us of the benefits of looking at a subject in depth. Poetry offers this experience in an especially heightened and engaging form.  As a reader, I think of myself as having a range of different speeds – there are times when I need to surf through a stack of documents at top speed, but I also value the opportunity to change down to first gear and move slowly through a particularly rich, concentrated piece of writing. I never imagined that books could become an endangered species, but this will happen if we don’t continue to buy them and keep flexing the reading and thinking muscles they have helped to build.

Song of the Ghost in the Machine is out now. You can buy it through the best booksellers or on VUP's online bookshop. p/b, $25.

Monday, 4 May 2015


Two new poetry titles in May

We release David Beach's fourth collection of sonnets this month. Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo contains series of sonnets that tackle these three topics in turn. We asked David to talk about this form, and why he can't keep away from it.

"Apart from that I can’t write anything else the reason I keep writing sonnets is that it’s a particularly useful form if unity is the thing you’re most aiming for. Too much shorter than a sonnet and there just isn’t enough of a poem for the unity to seem meaningful. Too much longer and the sharpness of the unity starts to blur. And unity appeals because with that as its engine a poem writes itself (slow though the process might be), the conscious mind put in its place as the lackey of the subconscious."

Our blog this month features a piece written by David about the form and his obsession with it which you can read here.

Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo will be in good bookshops on 7 May or you can order it through our online bookstore here.

Songs of the Ghost in the Machine by Roger Horrocks is a free-wheeling philosophical poem that emerged during the walks he took over one year of his life. About the book, Roger says that writing poetry is almost always a process of looking inside.

"This time I wanted to go deeper and ask basic questions about what it’s like to be alive, the rock-bottom facts of human life. Scientists have a lot of interesting things to say on the subject, and I quote some of them, but the way we all consciously experience our lives remains a mystery. Scientists refer to this puzzle – how to get from our physical brain to our personal feelings – as ‘the hard problem'. Some think it’s just an illusion and call it ‘the ghost in the machine’ – hence the title of my book. But as the poet John Donne and the artist Colin McCahon put it, ‘Each of us has one world, and is one.’ This book happens to be my world, inhabited by a freewheeling ‘ghost’, and these are its curious songs."

Song of the Ghost in the Machine will be launched by Murray Edmond at Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland on Wednesday 13 May, 5.45pm.




Auckland Writers Festival 2015 fantastic line-up of writers includes some VUP literati. Stephanie de Montalk talks about her incredible memoir, How Does It Hurt? with Deborah Shepard on Sunday 17 May at 10.30am.

Helena Wisniewska Brow (Give Us This Day) talks with fellow memoirist, American writer Daniel Mendelsohn about loss, discovery and heartfelt family matters on Saturday 16 May at 12pm.

Bridget van der Zijpp (In the Neighbourhood of Fame) appears in a reading event alongside Australian writer Tim Winton, and fellow New Zealand novelists Tracey Farr and Laurence Fearnley.

Wystan Curnow (The Critic's Part) talks about the role of the critic with Shakespeare critic Peter Holland on Friday 15 May at 2.30pm.

Airini Beautrais (Dear Neil Roberts) appears in a reading event with international writers on Friday 15 May at 4pm.

We're delighted that Caoilinn Hughes is a finalist in the Royal Society Science Book Prize this year for her poetry collection Gathering Evidence. The prize announcement will be made by Dr Philip Ball following his event on Friday 15 May at 5.30pm.

Finally, we were excited to learn that VUP's Ashleigh Young is a finalist in this year's Sarah Broom Poetry Prize alongside Diana Bridge and Alice Miller. The prize, one of New Zealand's most generous, is worth $12,000. The three finalists will read in a free session at the AWF15 on Sunday 17 May from 1.30-2.30pm in the Upper NZI Room, Aotea Centre, Auckland. Irish poet and this year's Sarah Broom Poetry Prize judge, Vona Groarke, will announce the winner at this event.

AWF15 programme is online here.


Readers' Salon After-hours at Vic Books


Join us for a glass of wine as we chat to writers Anna Smaill (The Chimes, Hachette) and Bridget van der Zijpp (In the Neighbourhood of Fame, VUP) about memory, music and fame in an insightful evening especially for book-lovers, hosted by writer Kirsten McDougall at Vic Books, Kelburn.

Share in the conversation as Vic Books is transformed into an intimate after-hours readers' salon on Wednesday 3 June, from 6.15pm–7.30pm.

Tickets $15 – includes a glass of wine & shared platters, plus 10% off featured books on the night.

Tickets are strictly limited and can be purchased on our webpage here

The news

The news hasn't been that good for the NZ literary world recently, with NZ Book Month being put on hold indefinitely, the loss of sponsorship for the Katherine Mansfield short story competition, and no New Zealand book awards to celebrate this year. It's nice to see a small initiative started today on twitter where in lieu of NZ Book Month, people are being encouraged to tweet a favourite NZ book each day for a month using the hashtag #NZBookMonthMay. Also good to see Eleanor Catton's Horoeka Reading Grant website up and running and now looking for editorials on the state of play in NZ literature.


Ian Wedde reviews Wystan Curnow's The Critic's Part in Journal of New Zealand Literature, 2015.

"...there is not often that I can read with such enjoyment a book built on a theoretical platform I'd decline to share. I think this enjoyment is made possible by the writer's generosity [...] to the objects of his close attention, to his readers, and to his belief in the need for such 'transactional relations.' And, in the end, to his generous fidelity to his own convictions."

Susanna Andrew reviews Bridget van der Zijpp's In the Neighbourhood of Fame in Metro, May 2015.

"The writing is marked with empathy and perception. Van der Zijpp is good at fathoming the odd ways in which people think and love and miscommunicate, and she puts me in mind of Zadie Smith's writerly commandment that 'the time to make your mind up about someone is never'."

You can also hear an interview with Bridget on Radio NZ here.

Briar Lawry reviews Stephanie de Montalk's How Does It Hurt? on Booksellers NZ

"Regardless of your own experiences with chronic pain, How Does It Hurt? is an important and beautiful book, both tragic and hopeful."

Friday, 1 May 2015

On Sonnets

"Generally poets viewing the universe, post-Darwin, post-Freud, post-J. K. Rowling, as meaningless, continue to feel the need to incorporate a fair amount of meaninglessness in their poems, the results not so impressive, partly simply because it’s hard to distinguish between chaos representing the chaos of life, and chaos which is just chaos."

This month we have a new poetry collection by David Beach, Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo. This is David's fourth collection of sonnets, and here he explains the attraction of the form.

David Beach winning the 2008 Prize in Modern Letters

Before I was a foe to Romanticism writing chopped-up prose sonnets I was a foe to Romanticism writing chopped-up prose shortish poems some of which in a bad light could have been mistaken for sonnets. As an example of early work, the following poem was published in The Canberra Times and then a little later in my self-published first collection ‘Apropos of Nothing’ (1993):


The film is over and lights
start to appear in the lot:
they flick on at random,
just a few at first, white
canes tapping the dark;
then the place goes up like
paper – a gorgeous pit where
the wild, jousting beams have
their few minutes fray until
the cars fly into the night.

Reading this poem now, I think it does contain a sense of the self being provisional. However, I wouldn’t call it anti-Romantic. Indeed it has quite a whiff of epiphany––the view mightn’t be from a mountain top, but it’s from some vantage, and some sort of significance is perceived. I might have felt I was battling the Romantics, but clearly had far from escaped Romanticism’s clutches myself. That’s not to say the poem is a bad one. Contradictions can be the stuff of art and the first year or so I was writing poems I think the contradictions in my position were productive.
However, that didn’t last, and over a period of a few years the poems dried up, until eventually I gave up poetry ‘for good’. That turned out to mean for a couple of years, when trying a few things I stumbled into writing sonnets. And writing to a form seemed to provide a kind of missing ingredient. In fact I saw the sonnet as a frame as much as a form. And having the poem ‘out there’, in some sense already occupying its space, prompted the lighter tone which had been eluding me.
The tone, as well as being lighter, seemed dare I suggest it, modern. I realise that the notion that poems might be modern should hardly be expressed nowadays without accompanying hollow laughter. But is a century of sparse achievement, more sparse the nearer one comes to the present, a reason for poets to give up on the avant-garde project?

The task can be put as how to write as a self which isn’t a soul, isn’t sovereign over the brain it’s a function of, doesn’t have even a secular essence it’s so shaped by circumstances. And the chief problem is that selves have a natural, probably a healthy, disinclination to be demythologised––it’s one thing to intend modernity, quite another to prevent the self insinuating itself back onto centre stage.

Restricting myself to sonnets helped with this problem because it did away with the Romanticism inherent in a ‘content generates form’ approach––previously indeed I would never have written to a form on the very grounds that to do so was inauthentic. And by calling a sonnet simply 14 lines, each approximately ten syllables, I had a form (frame) which fitted very well with my prose-does-the-job style. It became a case of cutting poetry back to its essentials––a doing away with the aura of the self by doing away with the aura of the poem.

It might be objected that just by deciding what a poem will be about the self grabs the microphone. I would point though to the cumulative weight of the choices made in writing a poem, and here I think, if the focus is wholly on the poem’s subject, whatever it is, the self’s pretensions can be reined in–– the poet ‘losing’ him or herself in the effort to do justice to the subject, to write on it with all possible vigour.

I’m not suggesting that prose sonnets are a magical pass to the modern. Indeed Romantics and other truth-tellers have been responsible for most recent prose-style poems, sonnets or otherwise––writing unpoetically because they want to convey their truths clearly. My point though is that the unpoetical approach is also available to poets who dispute truths exist. Generally poets viewing the universe, post-Darwin, post-Freud, post-J. K. Rowling, as meaningless, continue to feel the need to incorporate a fair amount of meaninglessness in their poems, the results not so impressive, partly simply because it’s hard to distinguish between chaos representing the chaos of life, and chaos which is just chaos. Prose sonnets, and especially sonnet sequences, are a way for moderns to keep hold of clarity and eloquence. Romantics hate the idea that their suffered-for wisdom and heart’s blood feelings don’t in fact come with any authority––that these are simply the product of the history behind any individual. To be modern is to accept what a complete accident any of one’s particular personal bedrock amounts to. And one sonnet after another, rocking out in pirate prose, seems exactly suited for this aesthetic of ‘anything could just as easily have been anything else’. The form maybe won’t generate the content, but at least it won’t subvert it.

Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo is released on 7 May, $25, pb.