Tuesday, 1 December 2015

My first 'adult' book | an essay on Maurice Gee's MEG by Holly Hunter

We welcome Holly Hunter, fresh from the Whitireia Diploma in Publishing, who will be joining our team in February for a six-month internship. Holly edited The Plays of Bruce Mason this year as part of her course work. 

She has written about her long-standing affection for the novel Meg by Maurice Gee in this essay, which she has kindly allowed us to post here.

Holly Hunter (photo supplied)
I was sixteen when I stole Meg from my parents’ bookshelf. Since then, Maurice Gee’s Plumb trilogy has travelled with me to Wellington, weathering five relocations and four suburbs. It wasn’t as though my discovery that day was particularly fortuitous; aside from Dad’s mid-life love affair with Herman Hesse, my parents’ bookshelf was mostly non-fiction, and not the good sort – medical encyclopaedias, atlases, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

I had resorted to their collection out of boredom, my own books exhausted – as well as my brother’s, and the ones I’d checked out of the library. We lived rurally, so there wasn’t much else to do. Meg was a faded Penguin classic, a 1983 reprint of the 1981 book. It was thin (a quick read), had a woman on the front (I was, at that point, under the impression all adult books were about men) and ‘Maurice Gee’ slapped in large type across the cover, a name I’d only heard of. I didn’t realise until later that Meg was the second in a trilogy, and soon after finishing it I read Plumb and Sole Survivor. Reader, we married.

When I reread Meg now, I can’t single out the root of my original affection, which would eventually see it take a permanent place on the revolving list of ‘favourite books’ I cite when I’m asked that tricky question. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to pin down why one book touches you more than another, and it’s this I want to write about: why a critical awareness of how you feel while reading a text is so crucial an element to the usually technical practice of editing. 

Meg was the first ‘adult’ book I read, which, to me, meant the characters were old, but also that the book dealt with adult themes: family, endurance, fortitude, tolerance, inheritance and growing old. The story centres on Meg, daughter of Reverend Plumb (of Plumb) and mother of Raymond Sole (of Sole Survivor). As with most of what is selectively titled ‘New Zealand literature’, plot and story are secondary to themes. Meg nurses her brother Robert during his last years, the Plumb siblings are torn, and then reunited over their brother’s sexuality, Meg, spoken of as ‘sentimental’, is oddly unsentimental as she encourages her husband to run away with a younger woman. Nothing comes to a head, but tides change and you finish the book feeling as though you’ve walked through a life. There are no happy endings, no morals to take away – only experiences that leave shapeless but definitive impressions. The book leaves you feeling, not thinking.

What strikes me now is that I was able to connect with Meg in ways I couldn’t with Plumb, simply because Meg is a woman. She’s not a strong feminist character, and she is written almost exclusively in relation to male family members who are granted greater agency. Unlike Plumb or Sole Survivor, our eponymous character is confined to domesticity. Her life before marriage, however, is one of adventure in the fertile orchards of Peacehaven, a sharp contrast to the skeletal grounds she later inherits in the book’s narrative present. By intermittently diving into Meg’s childhood recollections and then surfacing to this underwhelming present, the book carries an anticlimactic sense of lost innocence and disappointment. I guess it’s no surprise my punk sixteen-year-old self was morbidly fascinated with the idea that a woman’s prospects were grim. Nonetheless, there is some limited hope at the end of Meg; hope that Meg’s husband will return to her and that they will live out an enduring, though passionless, love. Meg is not the love story I expected it to be. It’s a story about love.

Gee returns to the word ‘sentimental’ again and again to describe Meg, though it’s never noted how strong, rational and steadfast she is. But it’s sentimentality that separates her from her siblings, who grow into caricatures. I love that Gee treats sentimentality in a way other New Zealand writers had maybe not considered before the 80s. Sentimentality seems to be an underrated quality, tossed aside along with other traditionally ‘feminine’ traits, but it’s something I’ve found essential to my work this year and in my studies. Part of editing is intuition, feeling language, riding the wave and ensuring it reaches the shore. That shore, in its academic treatment, is called affect. A text’s affect is an amorphous emotional or political pull on the reader that happens somewhere between the page and the reader’s reaction. I’ve found that being aware of how a text makes you feel, following your instinct towards a more technical response, is so valuable when editing – mediated with self-discipline, self-awareness and perspective, of course. Something can be technically wrong, but still feel right. Being able to unpack affect and take a look at how it is rhetorically constructed is one reason I’m so compelled by editing and the editing process. Conducting all those different instruments simultaneously while assessing or editing is my favourite kind of challenge. Gee has stated in interviews his struggles to achieve a narrative ‘wholeness’,1 and I believe editors can help authors bring that wholeness into being by using a wholeness of skills, technical as well as emotional.

I was interning at Victoria University Press this year when the Maurice Gee biography was published, and when I left, I was allowed to take a copy. At morning tea one day, Kirsten and Ashleigh talked about how Maurice Gee had been their initiation into New Zealand literature. While Meg was, for me, a gateway into any adult literature, it was also my first real encounter with New Zealand literature’s pastoral nostalgia. I think it speaks to the passive influence of this country’s cultural mythology that the idea of a rustic Kiwi lifestyle still carries such strong potential for affect within it. My favourite online writer, Mallory Ortberg of The Toast, joked last year that cosiness is the most underrated literary quality. The Peacehaven of Meg’s youth appeals to me because it seems so quaint and cosy, and though a part of me wishes I were a more globally minded citizen, Meg is representative of my love of New Zealandness in literature. While eventually I want to work in publishing overseas, I also want to help produce quality local literature, and to be there as it continues developing from its rural focus into something more globally relevant and visible.

In her biography of Gee, Rachel Barrowman exposes how much of the Plumb trilogy mirrors Gee’s own life and family. Meg is Gee’s mother Lyndahl, and Gee is Raymond; ‘memory flows into fiction . . . dream and story echo and overlap’.2 It’s only fitting, then, that I stole Meg from my parents’ bookshelf. Maybe I didn’t inherit the book the way Meg inherits Peacehaven, or the way culturally significant books are normally handed down, but I feel that the Plumb trilogy is a part of my literary inheritance as a New Zealander and has shaped how I read and edit with head and heart. I’m not embarrassed to acknowledge my attachment to Meg is largely sentimental and nostalgic. Those qualities, I think, are the strengths of our canon.

1. Vivien Van Rij, ‘The Pursuit of Wholeness in Maurice Gee’s O Trilogy’, International Research in Children’s Literature 3.2 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 148.

2. Rachel Barrowman, Maurice Gee: Life and Work (Wellington: Victoria University Press. 2015), 286.

If you want to know more you can buy this book here!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Launch speech – The Stories of Bill Manhire

The Stories of Bill Manhire was launched at Unity Books recently. Damien Wilkins gave the launch speech below.

Bill Manhire signs at the Unity Books launch (photo courtesy of Matt Bialostocki)

Last year I was in Palmerston North for a reading and before it began I was approached by an older woman who said, Hello Damien, you won’t remember me but I’m Noeline Arnott. And I said, Well of course I do remember you, you won the Mobil Short Story Contest in 1989 when I was one of three finalists along with Barbara Anderson. And she said, Yes that’s right. And she smiled shyly and then she said, And in the 1986 American Express Short Story Award I beat Bill Manhire too!’ 

That anecdote doesn’t really have much to do with this wonderful book we’re celebrating except I re-read these stories in a kind of nostalgic delirium. 25 years ago the short story was obviously corporate clickbait – though we didn’t have that word then. Petroleum companies and credit card businesses believed – bless them – that acts of fiction were somehow sufficiently aligned with commerce to throw some fairly lavish parties and sizeable wads of cash at people who could write 3000 words about invented worlds. And Bill, like all of us, like our dear friend Barbara Anderson, was in like a robber’s dog. Sadly for Barbara and me and Bill, Noeline Arnott cleaned up. Still, heady days! I find it strangely powerful that Noeline’s winning entry when Bill came second was called ‘Relics from an ancient tomb.’ 

The problem, or better, the joy, was that Bill’s short stories never quite behaved like magazine fiction. They sailed close and sometimes pretended to be in the world where characters had epiphanies and life’s little ironies were revealed in slices as if falling from a sharp and sympathetic butcher’s knife. But really, no.  

I remember asking Bill about a line in one of his poems, why he’d done a certain thing or what he intended by it – this was in an MA class a few years ago, he was a guest writer – and he sort of looked surprised at the suggestion—almost as if he hadn’t written the poem and I had the wrong man—and then he just shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And later he said that if it were a toss-up between meaning and sound, he’d go with sound every time. He’d go with the music of a line.  

There’s an amazing moment in ‘Days of Sail’, one of the elusive and enchanting stories in this book when the narrator, who lives with his aunt—a woman who may or may not be involved in an assassination attempt on the Queen during her 1981 visit to Dunedinreflects on their relationship, or his life, or his mode of being in the world, the line sort of erupts and then sinks again . . . here’s the sentence:  ‘She says that I am her beautiful boy but I am one of those songs in which the melody gives advice to the words. I sing the song of circumstance, I do as the tune tells me.’ 

I do as the tune tells me . . .  

It’s not a bad way to approach this book – to listen for the tune as much anything. Because while it’s true that these beguiling, discomforting stories take many strange and sudden turns, I was struck all over again by how hummable they are, how they stick to the ear and the mind. You walk across these pages with the sense that a great swallowing crevasse can take you down at any moment but the trick is that you end up, like come daft mountaineer, wanting the sensation of falling. You look forward to being that cartoon character who continues running even though he’s in mid-air, about to plummet. You want to hear the mad mournful music of that descent. 

These stories, the bulk of which come from that period I was talking about, the late 80s, early 90s, can look like a weird interruption to the glorious march of Bill’s poetry. A holiday, a detour—as if the writer was mugged or drugged and woke up to find himself living with a different tribe of cannibals—would he ever get home again? But the continuities are everywhere—for one thing there are lots of poets in these stories—none of whom come out of it very well—Bill relishes the opportunity fiction gives him to castigate, satirise, and generally beat the living daylights out of anyone who has the temerity to announce the poetic calling. I think fiction allows him to be off-duty about a thing that he values the most. And there are lots of poems, or snatches of verse in these stories. The repeating bell of song seques very nicely into Bill’s current musical adventures. More than this, any reader of Bill’s poems will notice in his fiction the pull of his generative material: Antarctica, the moon, country music, masturbation, Southland—maybe those are actually all the same thing! You’ll also be struck again by Bill’s peerless ability at phrase-making, so much a part of his poems; great-sounding lines leap up all the time: ‘. . . we live in the broad Pacific, meeting and parting shake us, meeting and parting shake us, it is always touch and go.’ I think that sounds like a much better slogan than Absolutely Positively whatever. Because these are also highly civic stories somehow, intensely concerned with how we name things, how power is distributed, how the world is divided up and what gets lost in that process. They take aim at the fatuous, the bland, the banal and the bully.  

These stories were my education when they first appeared. They taught me about timing and verve and recklessness. They were like hand grenades lobbed into NZ Lit which when they went off covered you in confetti. Re-reading them, it turns out nostalgia doesn’t really do it. Because these stories, no matter if characters in them play magnetic Scrabble on long-distance flights—remember that!—remain fresh acts of rebellion.

Finally there's a bit of a masterstroke in this book and I think we can thank Fergus for this. The last ‘story’ here is in fact Bill’s great essay about his childhood. And coming to that after the short stories delivers a body blow. It’s like going behind the curtain and catching the magician changing into his civvies. 

Let me say just one thing about how this works. We’re so used to these scraps of song in the fiction, many in a comic register, for example: 
It was down by the old Clutha River 
That river so famous in song 
That Colin fell in love with Maria 
But he didn’t make love to her long. 

We’re so used to that mode that that to meet a song again but this time one which belongs to Maisie – Bill’s Scottish mother – is extraordinary. The essay begins with these four lines: 
I left my baby lying here, 
Lying here, lying here; 
I left my baby lying here 
To go and gather blaeberries. 

We’re so used to voices – one of the stories here is Ventriloquial – about throwing voices – it’s another level of delight and affect to learn that when Bill went to school he had his mother’s Scottish accent. I just find that so cool. For me these little connections made the whole book tremble a little – or I trembled a little.  

There's a dizzying, cosmic joke playing out here – to be born in this strange place New Zealand to a couple, one of whom was, well, under the influence most of the time and the other who spoke funny and had come 12,000 miles – and then to discover that somehow, among all the powerful forces of Southland, you’re attached to poetry, it’s not hard to imagine a fairly weighty inheritance of alienation.  

I think of these stories as ludic on the outside but ferocious in their hidden centres. They are full of jokes and japes about being a New Zealander, being in the South Pacific, being Hank Mushroom. But their engine is a furious melancholy. Or sometimes just fury. Here’s the narrator of ‘The Moon at the End of the Century’: ‘The thing is saving money. How to get enough. How to amass. And how to do this poetry job without yawning . . .’ and the narrator thinks of places to escape to . . . ‘Sydney would be a great place . . . But even Wellington would do. I’ve got to get off the South Island somehow. It’s full of missionaries. It slopes downwards. It’s so fucking cold at the bottom.’  

We're all so pleased Bill got off the South Island and settled among us. Here he is!

The Stories of Bill Manhire is available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore now. h/b, $40.

Monday, 16 November 2015

4 Questions for Brent Kininmont

Brent Kininmont's debut collection of poetry Thuds Underneath is released this month. Ahead of a trip back to New Zealand from his home in Japan we asked him some questions about his book.

Brent Kininmont (photo by Hana Kininmont)

Thuds Underneath travels all over the world, and one of its preoccupations is flight. The perspective is sometimes that of a nervous flier, sometimes that of someone curious about the act of flying and the world seen from 30 000 feet. Where does your interest in flight come from?

‘Flight’, in the sense of ‘running away’, seems to crop up throughout the collection, though it’s an interest shared by a lot of New Zealanders. Regarding a preoccupation with the other, more obvious sense: in my teens I went to sleep surrounded by pictures of aircraft Blu-Tacked to my wall, though daydreams of becoming an RNZAF pilot were eventually dispelled by my worsening eyesight and remarkably inept science results. That devotion to aircraft was quite superficial – I could name an awful lot of planes on sight, and I took out the same large library books over and over for the intricate cutaway diagrams inside, but I didn't feel compelled to learn the parts of planes or to study how they stayed in the air.

Much later the idea began to take hold that those hurtling metal objects sometimes fell out of the sky. It might have been when airline pilots started looking my age, and an image of them as guardians began to crumble. Although the book’s title can be interpreted several ways, it’s lifted from the opening poem in which the ‘thuds underneath’ are bags being loaded into an airliner’s hold, as heard from the passenger seats. Rather than those noises filling somebody with dread, they suggest order and reassurance. That my father was a baggage handler for three decades is not incidental to that poem and a handful of others in the collection.

The perspective of the speaker in many of these poems seems to be from in the skies – as if they’re hovering above physical places and events, rather than being located in any one place. Is this a consequence of you living away from NZ or is it part of the flight theme?

It’s probably linked to the theme of flight, though it may also have something to do with an outsider only skimming the surface of a culture and relationships. I wasn't conscious of how often poems in the collection look down from up high until I started thinking about how to order them. A god’s eye view from an airliner window seems to mesh with ideas in the book of how people relate to some kind of colossus ­– a dormant volcano, a typhoon, the Parthenon, a Hercules, and others. At one stage I considered calling the collection ‘The God Zones’ due to the recurring views from above, but also because the main settings in the book (the classical lands, the South Island, Japan) could be considered distinct god ‘zones’ where giants and temples appear now and then.

The frequency of that angle from above was also a reason for the Maurice Askew picture on the cover. It looks over a vibrant Colonial Williamsburg, but the straight roads, the cathedral, the hills at the back, and the windmill (read: airport) are strongly suggestive of Christchurch – the place from which I took ‘flight’, I suppose, quite a few years ago. The barren green spaces between buildings in the picture imply a town still being built. Or a post-quake landscape ­– after the broken structures have been swept away.

There is an occasional suggestion in the poems – and perhaps in the book’s title – of the Christchurch quake, though they are usually accidental because so many of the poems were written before the tragedy. Admittedly, those echoes became a lot less ‘accidental’ after I noticed them but chose not to silence them. The most obvious example is a line that compares a father’s glasshouse to a ‘chapel without a steeple’ – an allusion to the quake, except it was written before the spire and tower of the Anglican cathedral were toppled. I considered rewriting that line, out of a concern it might muddy the poem, but I caved to a sense it was meant to be there.

Some of the poems are about your mother’s death. Was it hard to find an angle from which to write about that?

Some poets are able to write very candidly about the serious illness of a parent – Sharon Olds in her book ‘The Father’ is an example of somebody who has done it well. The poems about a mother slipping away that appear in my collection weren’t composed in a straightforward manner; three of the four key poems weren’t even initially written with a mother or an illness in mind. (And the event in the fourth poem didn't actually happen – but poetry is very forgiving.) This includes the poem called ‘Morphine’, which was fully formed, and about a baby daughter drifting off, when I noticed something else in it. I changed the title and suddenly the words were about sitting at a very ill mother’s bedside. In another poem I’m cycling the long straights from Christchurch Airport to my girlfriend’s house in the middle of the city, but where that poem is positioned in the book, and because of the characters appearing in poems either side, the poem suggests a father racing home to his sick wife. Those three poems I mentioned are better, I believe, because of the new readings. Importantly, they are true to an experience of watching a parent fade away ­– something I didn't think I could achieve by walking through the front door into the subject. I also like that those poems retain a lot of their original meaning, even if I’m the only one who recognizes that.

You live in Japan – what’s the poetry scene like there? Do you follow publications in NZ or is your reading focused elsewhere? Does Japanese poetry influence your own writing?

I mostly pay attention to poetry written in English and coming out of New Zealand – the only place where I have submitted poems. I read a bit of what appears online, and I get back home once a year and visit the bookshops for the latest local poetry releases and for used editions. The shops in Tokyo, however, aren’t a total loss for New Zealand poetry. I once picked up a secondhand copy of Jenny Bornholdt’s terrific first collection, This Big Face, for 200 yen (about $2.40). It’s an out-of-print VUP title that I hadn’t been able to unearth at home. On my shelves I also have a hardback edition of James K. Baxter’s collected poems that I found at a used-book sale for 900 yen ($11)­. Probably I was the only person in that hall who would have recognized its worth, in both the literary and financial sense.

I don't know with any authority what the Japanese poetry scene is like. I get by in the local language, but poems written in even quite spare Japanese remain at arms length for me because the contextual differences are still profound. I can’t imagine writing poems in Japanese – it’s a struggle just to get the words right in English. There are expatriate writing groups in Tokyo that gather writers from all over, but I’m a little suspicious of feedback that isn’t grounded in a reliable sense of my home culture. I suspect quite a few of the poems in the collection would only resonate with New Zealanders, and a handful only with fellow readers of New Zealand poetry.

I used to be a newspaper sub-editor, and likely that has had more influence on my own somewhat spare poetic style. One of the biggest influences from Japan is how I go about rewriting. Thanks to a first-rate train system, I get a lot done using the Notes feature on my iPhone while zipping around. Probably every poem in the collection has been tweaked to some degree while riding on bullet trains or sitting elbow-to-elbow with commuters on the subway. 

Thuds Underneath is available at good bookshops and through our online bookstore.
$25, p/b.

You can read some of Brent's work online at Turbine, Best New Zealand Poems and Trout.