Archive July-June 2011

An interview with Greg Simpson, book designer

July 05, 2011 |
Lives of the PoetsCongratulations on being shortlisted for the PANZ Book Design Awards. Can you tell us a little about how you came up with the design ofLives of the Poets? 
Well before I’d read any of the poetry, Fergus had mentioned the book covers of Faber and Faber designer Berthold Wolpe. To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with Wolpe but having done some research and after reading some of John Newtons work, I found that Wolpe’s style seemed to have a certain heft that I found in Lives of the Poets. The poems have quite a visceral quality and seem imbued with the smell of wood, grass and leather. By using Wolpe’s minimal but robust forms and informed by the quality of Newton’s writing I tried to construct the cover from basic elements, to create something new and robust. I wanted it to look well built and sculptural but also to contain some quiet surprises.
So many people think they’d like to be a designer but what is the reality of working in the industry like? 
Every job is a process of negotiation and compromise. The people you work with, whether they be your clients or workmates are so important. If you can create and maintain good relationships then you’re on the right track.
What other sorts of design do you do? 
I’m studying digital interactive design part time, while continuing my freelance work, which usually has me doing some sort of typesetting and production. Recently I designed a catalogue for Hastings City Gallery and I’m currently working with another client, developing some campaign work around the up-coming elections and MMP referendum.
What helps to spark your creative juices? Do you just sit down and work or do you have things to inspire and motivate you? Who are you’re your biggest influences? 
I just sit down and work – I’ve got to have coffee to get the ball rolling and music to carry me through. But then I’ll probably drift into a magazine, Twitter, a website …  I’m easily distracted but in a good way I think, these things feed into what I do. I’ve always admired the work of Peter Savilleand Mark Farrow, but my influences change a lot ­– it depends on what I’m working on ultimately. At the moment the stakes seem high within the social/political sphere but there is also a lot of hope and I am inspired by the positive thought and work done by colleagues at design school – students and lecturers. That environment is inspiring and I hope I can carry that positivity into my work.
What is your favourite book cover you’ve made for VUP? 
Well I enjoyed the first cover I did for VUP – Moonmen by Anna Livesey. There was a certain naivety in my working process, not having designed for poetry before – and this required me to re-evaluate my approach – and I was absorbed by it! Having this work published and to see it on shelves is a thrill – it always is. Lives of the Poets was my second design for VUP so I’m very humbled to have had this nomination.
Greg Simpson

Greg Simpson

A word from our chief teabag buyer - Craig Gamble

June 30, 2011 |
Craig GambleSince I started work at VUP about six years ago, not many things I do day to day have changed. I still do all the really important things: talk to Booksellers, pay the bills, help (where I can) get the books to the press and make very sure there is a plentiful supply of teabags.
There is one thing that's changed though and that's the ever growing amount of time I spend thinking about, helping produce and trying to sell ebooks. I like to think VUP got into ebooks early in the piece, and we're about to get even more involved. Apart from our ongoing relationship with mebooks and our participation in the Great NZ ebooks project we're also soon to start selling ebooks in the USA via our American distributors IPG. Once the details are sorted there, we should have access to resellers like Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
I can't help but notice though that when it comes to ebooks, there are more than a few myths and misapprehensions, so here are a two I most commonly hear, and why they should be debunked.
1. ebooks will make print books redundant: Well, not so much. You may have seen some recent reports about ebooks outselling print books on Amazon. Problem with that is Amazon is notoriously secretive about actual numbers, and didn't take into account all book sales, only paperbacks in this announcement. Implicit in this myth is the idea that digital makes physical redundant, you know, just like in the music industry. But that's a myth too; music companies still sell a huge pile of CD's, even if CD sales continue to fall year on year. In 2010 CD album sales fell by 12.5% to 98.5 million units, and digital sales rose 30.6% to 21 million units, but the digital rise did not make up for the physical slump. It's true that the halcyon days of huge CD sales are over, but it doesn't seem like digital will replace physical, but rather that both will sell in overall smaller numbers. Perhaps there will come a day when physical books will be a rarity, but if the music industry tells us anything, it's that day is a long way off, if it happens at all. It's more likely that both forms will coexist for a long, long time, even if the total market shrinks.
2. ebooks will make publishers redundant: Traditional publishing models will be replaced by more authors selling directly to their readers. Look at Pottermore, JK Rowling's new site that sells ebooks direct to readers, look at self published author John Locke recently becoming the second million selling author on Amazon's Kindle ebook platform, surely the end of publishing is nigh. Or not. Yes there will always be some self publishing that is very successful, but there will also always be a lot of dross that is self-published and that sells nothing. There are a lot of authors too who don't have the time, resources or inclination to go it alone even if they are good. Publishers, with their years of experience, still have a huge role to play in discovering and nurturing new talent, not to mention supporting existing writers, and presenting it in its best possible form to the reading public; a public that I think largely know that. It's not about marketing and hype, it's certainly not about greedy publishers taking all the profits. Good publishers will survive, even thrive, by continuing to be good publishers and caring enough about the work they publish to be fussy.

Craig Gamble is our super helpful administrator and all round good guy. You can follow him on Twitter - @Craig_Gamble.

Barbara Anderson honoured with an Icon award

June 24, 2011 |
Barbara Anderson
Barbara Anderson pictured with Damien Wilkins (her first editor at VUP). Photo by Robert Cross
VUP are thrilled to congratulate Barbara Anderson, who has been honoured with an Icon award. The Arts Foundation says – Icons are artists whose work represents a legacy to, and a mark on, our culture. They have made a significant impact on their chosen art form. They remain influential and inspirational and continue to be admired for their work. Selected during their lifetime, they are world-class.
The Arts Foundation Icon Awards - Whakamana Hiranga, honours senior New Zealand artists for their extraordinary achievements. These artists are recognised as leaders in their fields. The Icon Award is the Arts Foundation's highest honour.
Barbara Anderson was born and educated in Hawkes Bay, graduating with a BSc from Otago University in 1947. She then went on to become a medical technologist and teacher in Hawkes Bay and Wellington. A lifelong interest in writing and reading saw her attend the Creative Writing Course at Victoria University.
Several of her stories were published in Metro, Landfall, Sport and the New Zealand Listener. Her first book, a collection of short stories, I Think We Should Go into the Jungle was shortlisted for the Wattie Award in 1989 and the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction the year after. As 1991 writing fellow at Victoria University, she completed Portrait of the Artist's Wife, which won the 1992 Wattie Award. The book received critical acclaim in the United Kingdom and the United States. Her novels have been republished on numerous occasions.
Barbara is proof that a writer can start late and produce a substantial and original body of work. She started late, but she was always a writer in waiting, and she brought to her work the lifetime experiences of a sharp and worldly observer of communities, workplaces, families and individuals. Hers is a graceful, surefooted prose that seemed fully formed at the start of her career - then kept getting better. She has a remarkable ear for dialogue, and an acute sense of how people represent themselves to themselves, and to others. Hers is an amusing, amused and deeply humane view of human life. And her novels, with their combination of vitality, gaiety and gravity, are unique in our literature. Barbara was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature from the University of Otago in 2009.
To quote Nick Hornby in the Sunday Times, "the promise that was evident in Girls High has been splendidly fulfilled, and now it seems only a matter of time before Wellington replaces New York as the literary capital of the world."

Irresponsible Reading

June 21, 2011 | by Ian Wedde
Ian Wedde
Last night at dinner the round-the-table conversation passed quickly over the names of various writers and the titles of their books. At one point I found myself nodding that, yes, I did know the book being discussed. It was true, I did, and the book had probably spent time in the bookshelves at our place, getting browned-off by UV and nibbled by silverfish, before going wherever little-read books go, somewhere not far from the solo sock purgatory. 
    But then I had to pause over my hasty assent, because the truth was not so straightforward. The truth is that the book being discussed probably belonged in the category of my ‘irresponsible reads’ – one of the many books I’ve read at high speed (I’m a very slow reader), dipping and sampling rather than methodically turning the pages, flicking to the end, and probably never finishing. Swallowing without chewing, as it were, and then getting up from the table in a bad-mannered way and going off somewhere else.
    As a kid I was an obsessive reader and consumed anything that came my way, whether I understood it or not. As often as not, the books I didn’t understand fascinated me as much as those I did, but for different reasons. I liked the sense that what was in front of me on the page was a kind of screen behind which stories and meanings were hidden; I liked these mysterious reads as much as stories that rushed me through a narrative without boring detail.
    Then my eyesight deteriorated rapidly when I was about nine, and (as I found out later) it became clear that I also had a very mild form of dyslexia; the combination of these two factors meant that reading methodically tired me, so that I began to fall asleep or lose concentration. The reading habits I developed were a combination of binge reading followed by exhausted crashes, painfully slow methodical reading in small doses, and ‘irresponsible reads’ which resulted in the random hoarding of fragments whose connections to each other were usually lost, or rewired in promiscuous ways. I still read like this.
    The few books I love and enjoy the most usually fall into the binge category, the ones I get to read when they and I are both trapped and free – on a long plane trip, with my fellow passengers’ faces lit by flickering screens through the night; or on holiday with no deadlines or projects looking over my shoulder, when I can read, and nap, and read some more – William Gaddis’s JR, for example, in which a rubber-tipped pencil flung to the floor in a rage rebounds many pages later and hits the character in the eye – you have to be up for the long, deadpan trajectory of the joke. 
    The slow, short-bite reads have probably been the most responsible in terms of how I’ve been trained to think: Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet, whose tremendous intellectual verve demands a fast read, but which I’ve never quite finished reading, even though I’ve got to the end several times; the meticulous detail of Judith Binney’s accounts of Te Urewera, which seem almost without narrative momentum, but hypnotic page by page; the extraordinary sense of immersed observation in Geoff Park’s essays about landscape, texts that read much like the physical experience of going for walks with him and listening to his marvellous, obsessive commentaries. Turning the pages of Geoff’s books is like walking with frequent pauses to look; the tiredness you feel at the end is as much physical as mental.
    And then there are the ‘irresponsible reads’. In fact, there are several kinds of irresponsibles. I love to tear through great thrillers at high speed, a blink ahead of nod-off, reading the centre of the page – anything fast, droll and frugal by Elmore Leonard; or books in which there’s an emotional current that I can’t resist, such as My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. There are irresponsibles I’ve read irresponsibly because I didn’t have time, or had to get them under my belt for some professional reason, or just wanted to pillage.
    And then there are the irresponsibles that I can’t really be bothered with, or am annoyed by. These mostly display what I uncharitably call the ‘Zadie Smith effect’. This effect kicks in when the author knows far more about the situation or circumstances of a character than they do, and describes in exhaustive, discursive detail what the character cannot (or doesn’t need) to see – or wouldn’t  be aware of, if they were left to be ‘in character’. It happens when the author’s overbearing research falls across the text in a matted web of parenthetical asides and annotations, until I want to tear the page apart with my bare hands just to let some light and room for imagination in. It happens when the point of view of the character, and even their subject pronoun or name, skids all over the page and in and out of the narrative; when the basic questions, ‘Who’s talking? Who’s watching? Who’s listening? And who’s reading?’ just never get answered – may in fact never have been asked.
    Of course I hope my own books won’t get read ‘irresponsibly’ in this last way. But of course they will. And I probably dig myself traps out of my own reading habits. I want to write the kinds of books that readers will binge on. I also want them to beat the contradiction of being simultaneously great fast reads and immensely absorbing slow ones. And I want so much to avoid the traps of ‘the Zadie Smith effect’ that I risk removing much of the narrative sympathy that will help the reader to engage.
    But in the end, just as you are what you eat, so you are what you read; you can’t be what you read without also being how you read; and if that’s true, then it’s also likely to be true that you will write how you read.
    Does this mean (following the logic to its limit) that my books are doomed to have only one ‘responsible’ reader – me? Fortunately not; because when other people read my books they’re not reading the same book as me. They’re reading the book their own reading habits have predisposed them to. And the chances of other readers’ reading habits matching mine are remote enough to guarantee my books their freedom. Whether they end up in the purgatory next to solo socks isn’t up to me.


  Ian's new book The Catastrophe will be released in a couple of weeks. You can read the first chapter as a free download here.


Baxter’s Classical Baggage

July 14, 2011 | an extract from The Snake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth


James K Baxter orates Homer to Odysseus by Marian Maguire
Baxter, myth and the critics
In 1960 the literary quarterly Landfall circulated a questionnaire to a number of New Zealand writers. It asked about their economic circumstances: how much do you earn by writing, what outside work do you do, what kinds of state assistance would help you? Most of the respondents reported back in the same matter-of-fact terms. James K. Baxter’s response came from a different universe of discourse. The problems raised by the questionnaire, he suggested, 
"are chips off a single granite block, possibly from that remarkable boulder which Sisyphus, streaming with sweat, shoves uphill every day and night in the not-so-imaginary Greek underworld. [. . .] The real problem raised concerns the weight, size, shape, geological or theological formation of this boulder, and what handholds (if any) can be found on its surface."
After describing his own hardscrabble literary existence, in which the time and energy for writing must be found by ‘robbery’ from his employers and his family, he concluded that this way of life was nevertheless the necessary condition of his writing:
"If my economic or social or domestic condition were alleviated in such a way that I had more leisure to write, and possibly more stimulus to write, I would be a Sisyphus divided from his boulder. The gritty touch of its huge surfaces, the grinding weight, the black shadow which it casts, are the strongest intimations of reality which I possess, and the source of whatever strength exists in my sporadic literary productions." (‘Writers in New Zealand: A Questionnaire’ 41–42)
In the following year, writing to his friend Bill Oliver (21 Feb 1961; FM 27/1/11) about Bohemia and respectability, Baxter returned to the image of Sisyphus. ‘I think I agree fundamentally with the kind of thing the Boulder is likely to say to Sisyphus,’ he declared, and improvised a Goonish dialogue between them. ‘You bloody great heap of the fossilized dung of a dinosaur!’ curses Sisyphus. ‘Ssh! Ssh!’ responds the boulder primly. ‘You mustn’t swear.’ The dinosaur which excreted Sisyphus’s stone is presumably the same beast which appears in Baxter’s famous description of New Zealand morality: ‘the Calvinist ethos which underlies our determinedly secular culture like the bones of a dinosaur buried in a suburban garden plot’ (‘Notes on the Education of a New Zealand Poet’,MH 125). What Sisyphus is pushing uphill is the Calvinist work ethic, a system of values Baxter loathes but knows he must remain in touch with—shoulder to the rock—if his writing is to remain relevant to the lives of his fellow New Zealanders.

An extract from The Snake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth by John Davidson,Geoff Miles and PaulMillar. Due in bookstores next week.
Illuminating the complexity, adventurousness, imaginative energy, and unexpected wit of Baxter's dealings with classical mythology, The Snake-Haired Muse sheds a new light on New Zealand's most iconic poet.

A word on Douglas Lilburn from Jack Body

June 09, 2011 | An extract
LilburnFor us as New Zealanders, Lilburn's musical legacy is immense, not only for the quality of the work, but also for the power of its manifest personality; his Overture: Aotearoa (1940) is heard and played so often that it has become a kind of musical branding for the nation. But what about Lilburn's ideas as expressed in these two lectures? Do they have any relevance for us in the twenty-first century? Do they have any meaning at all for composers currently working here? …
I interpret his words as a call to New Zealand composers, indeed to all our creative artists, for creative honesty as a basis for achieving an authenticity of artistic expression.
For the composers of today, focused as they are on their own careers, Lilburn's 1946 dream of a shared musical vernacular seems a rather irrelevant concept—it is, after all, the job of music commentators, rather than composers, to discern whether or not there is a 'New Zealand sound'. And yet, as a nation, there are signs that we are learning 'the trick of standing upright here', of recognizing and embracing who we are and where we stand. We hear it in the voices of radio and television broadcasters speaking with accents that are our own, we recognize aspects of ourselves in popular culture, in pop music, in films likeGoodbye Pork Pie, Heavenly Creatures, Whale Rider and Boy; we enjoy seeing ourselves caricatured by the likes of Fred Dagg, the Topp Twins and Flight of the Conchords; and we are absorbed by watching our lives reflected in the domestic dramas of television's Shortland Street and, for those of us who can remember, Close to Home.
As a people we have gained a self-confidence far beyond that of the New Zealand of 1946 or 1969. But the creative struggles that Lilburn faced are perennial, and his words of advice, encouragement, and also of warning still ring true for the composers and other creative artists working in this country in the twenty-first century.

by Jack Body.
This is an extract from the afterword of A Search for Tradition & A Search for a Language, these thought-provoking essays by Douglas Lilburn have been published to mark the 10th anniversary of his death. Illustrated with sketches and watercolours by Rita Angus, introductions by JM Thomson, afterword by Jack Body.

Thoughts on writing from Susan Pearce

June 07, 2011 |
Susan Pearce
Can a writer alter the type of story she instinctively writes, or the temporal and psychological structure of that story, and produce a new story that is not false, unsuccessfully experimental or try-hard, but has conviction and internal strength?
Here's a story I often find myself writing. In the story's present my protagonist is strongly affected by an event or series of events that's already complete, and usually of some duration and complexity. The effect of the inciting event on my protagonist is inevitably emotional and psychological. Therefore, in order for the reader to properly understand the protagonist's current state of mind, the event needs to be narrated in detail.
Easy to divine that this story's already in danger. When you describe events that occurred prior to the story's now, you automatically create a flashback. Whether you deliver the flashback in one lump or spread it in shorter blips through the story's present moment, your reader always cares most about what's happening now. Regardless of how pressurised or intriguing your flashback is, it's never going to be more than exposition: how the protagonist got here. And in general it's much easier to bore a reader with exposition than with dramatic action.
You might hope that my protagonist's memories of the event and her discomfort with her current condition would provoke her to run naked into the streets or hijack a plane. Nope. She has to think through her feelings until she attains peace of mind. There's not a lot of action in thinking. Your character and story risk being static and unexciting. The legendary writing teacher Frank Conroy is quoted online as having said, 'Try to never have your characters think'.
I've asked myself, If what happened then is so interesting and provocative, why not set the narrative's now at the beginning of the inciting event?
The idea feels alien to me. I'm deeply, unavoidably interested in an individual's mental state, and how she (or he) got there. For me, the dramais her mental condition. The fundamental question is, Will she survive what happened to her? (That's right: to add to the angst, she's often passive.)
To make the story work, I have to demonstrate to the reader how much hangs on her state of mind, and that's where my toughest imaginative work lies. What's at stake in the physical world of her actions and relationships?
Of course, rules like Conroy's are made to be broken. It's not that my instinctive story-type never works. I've made characters think in sufficiently dramatic ways, and have completed a number of stories (and one novel) along those lines that I'm pleased with.
So in attempting different structures and tones, am I giving myself an unnecessarily hard time? And am I only doing it because the story I described above is tricky to pull off? No. I'm doing it because the possibilities of fiction excite me, and I don't want to be limited by my semi-unconscious patterns and preoccupations. And maybe I've had enough of protagonists who sit around thinking.
Can we help what stirs our imaginations? Maybe. Aside from reading and writing as much as possible, I'm consciously shifting my mechanism for seeking out story-worthy drama. As well as my usual practice of picking up intense psychological states and letting them compost, I'm recalling and sifting through everything I see and hear.
It's fun. Maybe I can become deeply, unavoidably interested in what's going on now, as well as what happened before and its aftermath.

Susan Pearce is the author of Acts of Love, published by VUP. She alsoblogs about the books and ideas that get her thinking.

Pip Adam - Best First Book, NZ Post Book Awards

June 01, 2011 |
Pip AdamVUP are thrilled to announce that Pip Adamhas won 'Best first book, fiction' category of the NZ Post Book Awards.
Pip gained an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from Victoria University in 2007. Her work has appeared in Sport, Glottis, Turbine, Lumiere Reader, Hue & Cry, Landfall andBlackmail Press. Her work has also appeared in publications produced in conjunction with two exhibitions at the Wellington City Art Gallery and her reviews have appeared inMetro. She is currently working toward her PhD Creative Writing at Victoria University. Her PhD project explores how engineers describe the built environment. She is using this research to write stories about our relationships with built forms and the structures that hold them up.
Her first book - Everything We Hoped For - is an unusually strong first book, distinguished by an exquisitely crafted surface and barely contained emotional force.
We asked Pip to reveal a little known fact about herself and Pip replied:
"I've always wanted to write a TV sitcom, I was kind of brought up by TV and I always kind of slip into imagining my life as TV (I often think 'Roll Credits' or 'Queue laugh-track') and I've always wanted to write a sitcom with my friends - nothing excites me more than writing collaboratively, that's why I really like the writing I'm doing for an engineering journal at the moment because the writing is really collaborative. But I've never had the balls.
A friend reckons what I watch affects my writing - I love Nighty Night and Louis CK and Sarah Silverman and all those kind of nasty, uncomfortable, squirm in your seat shows. I love slapstick and I love extreme slapstick where it is so awful you're laughing but in that weird place where you're stopping yourself from crying - or your cringe got so big it turned into a laugh. I also love Lucille Ball, there's an episode of I Love Lucy which has Tallulah Bankhead in it and I just love it - Lucy is putting on airs trying to impress Miss Tallulah Bankhead and it just is hilarious but says some interesting things about class and fame and about the insecurity of the artist and the whole time the pretence is going on you just know Lucy is going to be found out - and then there's this great scene where Lucy gets covered in paint - baha.
I really love it when people slip on banana skins - there's a scene inArrested Development where Lucille (another great Lucille) spills wine on the kitchen floor during breakfast and everyone that comes in slips on it, I just have to think of that scene and I crack up. I recently re-watched the whole original series of The Office and man, I think that might be one of the greatest pieces of writing of our time, it feels so epic - like King Lear or something - Extras is the same, his latest stand-up is way more challenging than a lot of literary fiction I've read lately. I don't like it much but I love the way Gervais finds society's line and waves at us from the other side so we can't help but notice there is a line and ask ourselves why. Comedy is where all the stretch happens I reckon - politically and morally. Look at Infinite Jest, one of the funniest books I've ever read."
VUP authors Tim Wilson and Kate Camp are finalists for Best Book, Fiction and Poetry respectively. The winners for the remaining awards will be announced present at the Awards Ceremony on Wednesday, 27 July 2011.
Tim Wilson has also just launched a new website.

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