Thursday, 15 December 2016

VUP closing hours over Christmas

VUP will be closed from 22 December 2016 until 9 January 2017. Any web orders received after 22 December will not be processed until 9 January. But if you really need our books - go to one of the excellent bookshops that stock us.

Happy summer reading everyone!

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Six questions for Catherine Chidgey

Catherine Chidgey (photo by Fiona Pardington)

Could you start by telling me about the genesis for The Wish Child? Is this a period of history you’ve always wanted to write about?

I didn’t deliberately sit down and think right, now I’d better produce a WW2 novel, but in hindsight it seems natural that my work took that direction. My father was a child during the war and as an adult he had a particular interest in the period, so I grew up exposed to books and documentaries about it. 

I studied German at school and at Victoria, and when I was 16 I spent three months on exchange in Germany. One of my host families lived in a farmhouse near Lüneburg, and some aspects of my time with them have made their way into the book. In particular I remember Herr K talking to me one day about the war. It was just the two of us, and he told me about his experiences fighting in Russia – he said there was very little for the soldiers to eat, and when they came to a field of watermelon they fell on them and gorged themselves, they were so hungry. He also said that if he hadn’t killed, it would have been an act of suicide. That conversation stayed with me. 

Then in 1993 I went to Berlin to study, and found myself living in a city in which the past – and in particular the war – seemed always present, always visible. You could still see bomb damage and shrapnel marks and bullet holes on the buildings, particularly in the east, and Sachsenhausen concentration camp lay just to the north of the city. One of the professors at my university showed us a campus building – now the department of Political Science – that had been the site of medical experiments during the Third Reich. He also took us on a trip to Buchenwald concentration camp, purportedly built around Goethe’s famous oak tree; we stayed overnight in the former SS quarters. It was powerful stuff for a fledgling writer. I remember, too, seeing a beautiful old Berlin building that had been bombed in the war; the façade featured caryatids in the form of children who were holding up the windows, but they were badly damaged. It seemed to suggest something rather poignant about a child’s experience of war, and I tucked it away to use in my writing. 

The real spark for the novel came, though, when I stumbled across a reference to the mysterious figure who narrates the book. I realised I had to give this forgotten person a voice, but at first I was frustrated when researching him; the sources did not agree on the facts of his life and death, or even on his name or gender. One story contradicted another. In the end, however, these very contradictions were a gift, informing and shaping the novel.

The Wish Child is an incredibly complex, textured piece of writing – all these delicate plot threads that slowly weave together to form an incredible tapestry about war and violence, and love and friendship and the consequences of bad deeds.  How did you go about creating such a dense, full story? How long did it take you to write it?

This particular child demanded rather a long gestation – 13 years. That was partly due to life getting in the way, but also because of the intricacy of the story I wanted to tell. It took some time to find its voice – it started off as quite a different book, actually, about a boy whose mother was a film star in Nazi Germany – but those sections ended up on the cutting-room floor. I don’t see that as wasted time, though – what you remove from a book defines it as much as what remains.

Gottlieb Heilmann’s job as Senior Retrospective Editor, Publications Division, is a terrifying illustration and metaphor for how history gets cleaned up, and erased under totalitarian leadership – you even have him erasing the word ‘God’ from the Bible! I think you made this job up?  It’s a marvelous creation to have in a novel and for a writer to play with.

I did invent Gottlieb’s job, yes – it’s one of a few instances in the book that verge on magical realism. He methodically cuts forbidden words from books, and as the war progresses the number of words on the forbidden list increases. When we talk about Germany under Hitler, we often use words like ‘unbelievable’ or ‘unthinkable’. We ask ourselves how something so unimaginable could have happened. The Germany of The Wish Child, therefore, although historically accurate in many respects, is in other respects not quite real. It was a way for me to comment on the absurdity of a regime in which language and meaning were routinely manipulated and abused – ‘special treatment’ meant execution by lethal gas; ‘protective custody’ meant anything but.

You’re a German speaker? And reader? How did you go about creating the texture of 1940s Germany? I would think that taking a period in history that is not only well documented in non-fiction, but also in fiction, has its hazards and possibly makes the novelist’s job harder because it can seem like somewhere we’ve all been before, which it doesn’t here.

I was already familiar with Germany, both rural and metropolitan, and of course a lot of the architecture I encountered when I lived there was present during the period – so I drew on my memories of particular structures, and wandered around Google Maps (a wonderful tool for writers). I also immersed myself in the everyday literature and ephemera of the period – ration booklets, advertising, women’s magazines, menus, children’s books, as well as eye-witness accounts. Being able to read German obviously came in very handy with that sort of research. The internet has allowed me to access some fascinating and obscure documents that would have been difficult to find otherwise – a guide for leaders of Hitler Youth groups for girls, for instance, on appropriate activities for 10-year-olds (singing, sewing, learning about the life of Adolf Hitler), or a fairly deranged propaganda leaflet produced in the final desperate months of the war in which ‘two possibilities’ are presented to Berliners – the options including hanging themselves or being liquidated by the Russian army.

Your story is a story of ordinary Nazi families, and how the WW2 affected them. It’s a fine balancing act to strike between representing the banality of evil and not reducing the evil. I have a feeling that the point of view of the children is important here as their understanding of what is going on is limited, but tell me, how did you go about making ground that feels fresh to tread here? Is this something you even thought about?

I was aware that many writers before me have trod this terrain, yes – but I always try to come at my writing from an original angle. Discovering the narrator’s story when I was researching was a real turning point – I knew straight away that it belonged in the novel, and indeed that this cryptic voice formed the heart of the novel, allowing me to shift in and out of the minds of the two children and their parents. I can’t say too much more than that without giving the game away, though! Something else I did was to splice in quotes from songs, poems, speeches of the period – sometimes overtly, but often subliminally. So for instance, a comment by Hitler on the attractiveness of German children finds its way into the mouth of Erich’s mother; a teacher quotes a speech by Goebbels as if the words are her own. This was a way of expressing something of the zeitgeist, and showing how completely evil can penetrate the attitudes of ‘ordinary’ people; I hope, too, that it lends the writing a kind of heightened immediacy.

It’s been thirteen years since your third novel, The Transformation, was published. How does it feel to be releasing your fourth novel?

I feel relieved, nervous, excited. The book has been part of my life for so long – I am more than ready to let this child find its way in the world.

The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey is available for purchase from 10 November at all good bookshops and through our online bookstore.
$30 pb, $45 hb.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

A message from JC

John Campbell couldn't make the launch for Nick Ascroft's Back With The Human Condition, but he did send this....

Ashleigh Young reads a telegram at Nick Ascroft's launch

Dear Nick,

Hello, it's John Campbell here.

I'm so sorry I couldn't be there tonight. I'm in a coma. Or hosting Checkpoint, which, depending on who I'm interviewing, may feel like the same thing.

Ashleigh kindly invited me. And I would have loved to have come. I think your book's fantastic, not withstanding the inexplicable mystery of why you didn't help that Chinese grandmother with her shopping bags?

Jesus, Nick. What kind of person are you?

And while we're asking the big questions – whose idea was it to use a photo of you in a dressing gown on the back of the book?

Did Hera Lindsay Bird put you up to that?

Fergus must have been appalled!

You'll regret it.

Later, when a signed first edition inevitably makes its way to the Houghton Library at Harvard, to sit beside Dickinson, cummings, Frost, Stevens, Williams, and the like, and you go to visit with your grandchildren – those hallowed halls, all hushed reverence before the magnificence of such words – they'll ask you: "Granddad, why are you in a dressing gown? Did Hera Lindsay Bird put you up to that?"

And an older one will ask, incredulous that anyone would confess to this: "Granddad – did you really have sex in your socks?"

Having said that, and overcoming my deep disappointment at not being there to see Kate's haircut, I'd like to say, Nick, that your poetry is gorgeous.

Sparkling and delicious.

So full of wonder, and curiosity, and a profound but not reverent awareness of life – of how absurd it is, and funny, and great, and seriously unserious.

Nick, there are poems that are so superb, I wish I was there to hear you read them.

What a great book this is!

I shall cherish it.

And return to it over and over for years to come.

I'm better dressed than you, obviously, but am gratefully in awe of the way it pops at me, again and again, every a poem a bomb, making me arise from my slumber - my coma - line after line, poem after poem. And you, there - "a moon, punched all over with old bruises, but whole, orbiting on, pressing on, whole."

Congratulations, Nick.

What a great book.

And thank you.

Yours, in admiration,


Be like John Campbell and order your copy here today!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Nick Ascroft – 4 Questions

Nick Ascroft (Grant Maiden Photography)

You are counted in the pantheon of genuinely funny poets – let’s not name the others in case we hurt feelings... Did you make a conscious decision to not write in a serious timbre or is it simply the way it came out? Were you writing like this when you started to write poetry?

There’s a great song from last year by Wilco called ‘The Joke Explained’ off the album they inexplicably called Star Wars and put a cat on the cover of. I think this somehow encapsulates my answer to your question. Ah, it doesn’t, does it. Gah. Nonetheless I love a line in the middle of the song: ‘It’s a staring contest, in a hall of mirrors.'

Poetry can seem a little high and grand to people, and writers of it, wary of this public and their idea that a certain height and grandeur is expected, can try and force the stuff out. But it’s a nasty trap, this temptation to write in a style that sounds to the ear like something that will convince others it bespeaks poetry. TS Eliot bumbled into it. A funny poet, writing about buffoons with rolled up trousers, he became popular and felt he had to write poetry worthy of his ideas about poetry. Four Quartets? Snore me a sickbag.

I think of Kushana Bush’s art. It’s full of depth, insight and historical reference, but it’s haha-funny, and she’s kept it funny while art-world chin-strokers have praised it in solemn tones. That isn’t easy. So she’s the paradigm I follow.

Do I try to be funny? Yes, as shameful as that sounds to admit. And often enough I really bomb, and the tumbleweeds whistle past. I remember Pamela Gordon once saying that poets were just failed stand-up comedians. And it’s a little bit true. Poetry also allows you to be funny-hmm, you know: ‘I find that funny. Right now I am experiencing amusement at your witticism.’ Or epigrammatic. In 1994, I wrote the first line of poetry that wasn’t just intended for a friend or family member to read. Kapka Kassabova had recommended I enter a student competition with Rob Allan as one of the judges. The first line was: ‘Let’s consummate our divorce with a documentary.’ It was funny to me anyway, and as ever I didn’t win but got my first of many ‘commendations’. I had a punkish outlook on poetry when I started and that’s easy in your twenties. But it gets harder to sell: that middle-aged public servant is so irreverent.

The ultimate answer to your question though is I don’t have as much control over what I write as I think I do. I write mostly quite traditional sonnets and unfortunately a lot of experimental poetry. I hate experimental poetry. What’s the experiment? What’s even the hypothesis? I hypothesise you won’t want to read this twice? Bullseye. It’s another veil in the seeming of poetry: that’s so weird it must be poetry and not an annoying five minutes I could’ve spent on biscuits. And yet, yes I write the stuff and I desperately want you to read it.

Your new book is split into four sections: ‘Love’, ‘Money’, ‘Complaints’ and ‘Death’. Explain ‘Complaints’? Is that instead of ‘Family,' or is it the same thing?

The splitting is convenience and an afterthought. It was about sandwiching the poems into the themes they seemed mostly to be falling in. ‘Complaints’ was the ‘everything else’ probably, as I generally whine about something as some point in a poem. ‘Death’ is the best section I think, and perhaps I should’ve shuttled it to the front, but I’m too much of a boring pedant to start with death.

This is a minor point when considering your work, but there is something un-New Zealand about your poety – no gazing upon our ‘pure’ skies or water, no laconic references to sheds. Your landscapes, in their rare appearances, are northern hemisphere, or a mix of places. What are your influences and do you see yourself as a part of any mode of poetry writing?

I think my last two books were more NZ-centred, and the lack of the shearing-shed backdrop is simply a product of having lived most of the period writing this book in the UK. I’m self-publishing a sci-fi novel set in Southland later this year which will redress the balance.

I’m a big fan of Richard Reeve’s poetry, and you can’t imagine his poems without the place they are happening in. But for whatever reason I can be a bit blind to the world beyond the walls. Things happen in human habitation zones: houses, offices, streets and rookeries. OK not rookeries yet, but I’ve been trying to work the following line into a poem all year: snug as a buggery in a rookery.

As to my influences, it’s difficult to say. Everything you read and hear and see has its effect and response. Certain writers’ voices stick in my head – Richard, John Dolan, David Eggleton and Cilla McQueen spring to mind – but I don’t think I mimic them. Perhaps I occasionally mimic certain nineteenth and twentieth-century poets I admire. Song lyrics certainly. I think the screenplay to Withnail & I by Bruce Robinson has been massively influential, as have the wordier skits Monty Python, Peter Cook or Fry & Laurie. I’d like to say PG Wodehouse. Is it true? I don’t know. Tina Fey, that’s demonstrably the case.

You delight in language – have you always done so? Do you keep the OED in your brain? And how, if at all, does this connect to your Scrabble playing? Are the Scrabble brain and the poetry brain connected?

Delights are dangerous of course. There are some poems where I know I am just delighting myself. Why has he used the word ‘impachydermatous’ or rhymed ‘cowlick these’ with ‘galaxies’? These days I try to invent fewer words, as it is a kind of excess. But this is my whole problem.

I remember interviewing Vivienne Plumb and she spoke of how writing poems involves whittling down the words into a minimally perfect skeleton. I was shocked. This should’ve been educational but I still see ‘overwriting’ as poetry.

I am genuinely delighted by language, which every drab old poet says, but it’s just true. And the delight is what sustains both my reading of others’ poetry and the writing of my own. Perhaps my most successful poems are those where I don’t wear that delight so loudly on my sleeve, or I distract you from it, but I need the delight to bother at all.

I think the Scrabble urge and the sonnet-writing urge are similar. It’s the mathematical puzzle. Scrabble also sneaks words into my poems. The word ‘eloigns’ in the poem ‘The Thirst of Lucy’s Copy’ sitting beside ‘lingos’ and ‘longshoremen’ is no accident. In Scrabble the words LINGOES (an alternate spelling of the plural), ELOIGNS and LONGIES (which means longshoremen) are anagrams, and the poem works as a mnemonic to help me remember that. Ah, a weight has lifted in confessing it. But again I try to avoid using words memorised for Scrabble tournaments in poems. Slowly I will clamp down on all my delighting until I’m like that no-dancing protestant town in Footloose awaiting its Kevin Bacon.

Back With The Human Condition by Nick Ascroft, p/b, $25. Available now.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Tim Wilson – 5 Questions

Tim Wilson (photo by Nicholas George)

What made you want to write a sequel to News Pigs? 

Neither the characters, nor New York would let me go. I had some things to say about NYC, about status, about anxiety, about insurgency there, and about the whole class––wiped out now––of writers and bohemians that scrounged out a living pre-Internet Ascendancy. This novel seemed like the right spot. As I was writing, Donald Trump commenced his rise. How could I leave him out? I spent a pleasant anxious afternoon with The Don through my job with TVNZ. Do you know what? His hair is real. Everything else? I can’t say. We fell out, sadly, Mr Trump and I, and no longer talk. He didn’t like the piece I did; I doubt he’ll enjoy The Straight Banana either. Note: ignorance of News Pigs is no barrier to reading The Straight Banana.   

The main character in The Straight Banana and News Pigs, Thomas Tudehope Milde, is a New York correspondent for Erewhon TV of ‘the PLC’ (Plucky Little Country). You spent ten years as the New York correspondent for One News. How much of Tom Milde is you?

What an outrageous suggestion! True, I was working for TVNZ for most of my time in NYC. I once worked in print, like Milde. I’ve botched stories, like Tom; my first job for TVNZ was a total washout. I’ve read widely, but without depth. I know what a bar looks like at 9.10 pm; 11.20 pm, 1.45 and 3.38 am. I’ve roistered with vivid, insalubrious characters. I remember a cameraman in Portland whose strategy for parking was to vandalise every meter he parked at, then send an immediate letter of complaint to the local authorities. The notion of fictional biography fascinates me, just as it mesmerises Milde. My mother’s middle name is Tudehope; so what? I love reading and writing, and yet appear to be a man of action; I once enjoyed dinner at the Harvard Club, like Tom Milde. Such trifling coincidences aside, this is a work of pure imagination.

Like News PigsThe Straight Banana is packed with references, in-jokes, wacky fonts, quizzes and off-the-wall layout. Do you think books have a duty to entertain the reader?

Books have no duty to entertain readers, but they must entertain their writers. I want to write the kind of book that I’d like to read, one that mimics the junky energy of Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ and New York itself, a place where half a morning on the streets can leave you feeling like you’ve been on an all-night Scotch binge. The Straight Banana has quizzes, a pie graph, diary entries, and a painting by one of the greatest artists of the era. Thumb through it, and the eye jumps here and there. But it’s also a plot-driven story that involves increasing jeopardy for Tom Milde. Books are to be read, devoured hopefully. One of the greatest compliments ever paid News Pigs was from someone who was reading it in tandem with Anna Karenin. He confessed that for relief, he kept finding himself drawn to my book. There’s the tag line: Bored of Tolstoy? Try Wilson.

Recently in a panel on comic writing, Danyl Mclauchlan said that when he went back to redraft his latest novel he took all the jokes out and that made it funnier. Making people laugh is hard work, are there any tricks to humour that you’ve discovered in your writing?

Humour is like dancing. If others agree you’re doing it, you are.

You’ve got two young children, present shows on TV and radio, and you’ve just written a novel. Do you ever sleep?

My wife is the best; she likes me to write. I take Fridays off to do novels, but spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m writing the rest of the week. On Friday, mostly I’m mooching around the house with my head in other places. Fortunately, I’m still available to change nappies, and replace dummies. Yes, we use dummies in our house. I love writing. I’m so blessed to be able to do it. Admittedly, time is a problem; if I’d had more of it I might have written a shorter book.

The Straight Banana by Tim Wilson is available at the best bookshops and online at VUP now.
$30, p/b. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

An interview with Jenny Bornholdt

Jenny Bornholdt (photo by Deborah Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a favourite poem or book of yours?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ashleigh Young – 5 Questions

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

Ashleigh Young (photo credit: Russell Kleyn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a long answer, sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 29 July 2016

Best Book Design Award

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Spencer Levine

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

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

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

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

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

In your opinion what makes for good book design?

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

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

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

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

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

(Grant Maiden Photography)

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

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Nigel Cox (13 January 1951 – 28 July 2006)

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Elizabeth Knox for her thoughts on Skylark Lounge

Nigel Cox

What I Would Have Written 

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

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

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

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

And then ...

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

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

That’s a couple of weeks’ work, easy.

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

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

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

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

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