Saturday, April 29, 2006

Leading lights

"We are the lantern bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward against the darkness and the wind".
- Rosemary Sutcliff
This timeless line is from The Lantern Bearers, one of her novels for young readers about the centuries-long battle between Briton, Roman, and then Saxon civilisations.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Grenville in the red corner

I had thought Kate Grenville was backing off a little from her claims that novelists are somehow able to write more authentic history than historians. Or perhaps she didn't mean it quite that forcefully.
Clearly that was not the case.
Shortlisted, along with several other writers of historical fiction, for the Miles Franklin Award (which I admit has never quite recovered its lustre after the Demidenko debacle), she had this to say:
"There's a sense that a cupboard has been opened in the last 20 years that was always closed before in Australian history. We built a big, beautiful armoire and put the uncomfortable parts of our history in there.
"Bit by bit, door by door, the cupboard is being opened. Lawyers and historians have played their part and now the novelists are moving in."

Them's fightin' words!
I wonder what Robert Hughes (Fatal Shore) or even Alan Moorehead (Fatal Impact) would think of being dismissed so lightly? Not to mention novelists from Marcus Clarke (For the Term of his Natural Life) or poets like Judith Wright (everything).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

And in the morning

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them...
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end they remain.

'For the Fallen', Laurence Binyon, The Times, 21 September 1914
(From The Winnowing Fan: Poems of the Great War in 1914)

Anzac Day

It's bucketing rain today. I woke up early, almost early enough to go to the Dawn Service, got up to check we weren't being flooded, and was greeted by a shower of cold water on my still-sleepy head. It was raining inside the house.
That still wasn't enough motivation to get me out into the weather for the first service. I might go later. Last year, for the first time, I wore my great-grandfather's ribbon bar. Trooper Horsfield was a stretcher bearer and medical orderly in the South African War, and then in Palestine and Flanders. I never knew him, never even knew about his war service until recently, as he was gassed and died later of complications when Dad was still young.
When Dad heard I was writing about World War One ambulance drivers (a few years ago now) and had also started collecting medals, he gave me the ribbon bar and silver Wound Badge.
Anzac Day has always meant a lot to me, even though it was not supposed to if you were on the Left in Australia in the '80s and '90s. We've always been in two minds: the other side of Dad's family were leading anti-conscription campaigners during the War To End All Wars. And on the other hand, I'm obsessed with military history. I find now that it all fits together perfectly easily in my head. How? I'll explain another time.
But Anzac Day means a great deal more since I've been to Turkey and understood more deeply what the conflict meant to the Turkish people - and since I stood in the little graveyard near Anzac Cove and stared up at the impenetrable hills.
Nearby stands the monument on which is inscribed one of the most moving and generous statements on any war memorial. It's from Ataturk's 1934 speech - the words of the man who was by then the leader of the country but who in 1915 was a young commander in the defending forces.
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives: You are now living in the soil of a friendly country therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Two thousand years before, across the blue Aegean from the Dardanelles, someone else who knew how to stir up the emotions, wrote something more abstract but equally fitting:
Each one, man for man, has won imperishable praise, each has gained a glorious grave - not that sepulchre of earth wherein they lie, but the living tomb of everlasting remembrance wherein their glory is enshrined.
For the whole earth is the sepulchre of heroes; monuments may rise and tablets be set up to them in their own land, but on the far-off shores there is an abiding memorial that no pen or chisel has traced; this is graven not on stone or brass, but on the living heart of humanity.
Take these men as your example. Like them, remember that prosperity can only be for the free; that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.

- Pericles

Monday, April 24, 2006

Day dreams

The desire to build a boat ... begins as a little cloud on a serene horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky so that you can think of nothing else.
- Arthur Ransome

This is the small but perfectly formed pirate ship my mate Amanda and I would love to build. Tomorrow we will have gone on to planning something else. A trek in Bhutan. Sailing to Fiji. Or something like that.
Instead we'll probably have lunch and look at boating magazines.

The dreaming is half the fun. It's much better than actually doing all that sanding and sawing, or hiking up a mountain, or anything too strenuous. (Well, she might do strenuous mountain climbing and undertake complicated building projects, but I prefer looking at the brochures.)

Henry on history

The 'historic' novel is, for me, condemned... to a total cheapness. [As an author] you have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman - or, rather, fifty - whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force - and even then it's all humbug.
- Henry James

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Researching history

Many people have been asking me how I researched the historical events on which the three Swashbuckler books are based. What did I do? Well...
1. Immersion
Read novels set in the period. In my case I had already read lots of inspiring nautical adventures such as Patrick O'Brian and CS Forester, but I have read many more since I started the research.
I also had to read all the older and current maritime novels and adventures aimed at children, even if they're bad: firstly to make sure I wasn't replicating anything, and secondly to get the hang of the vocabulary and feel of the reading age (9 - 12).
Read history texts until my eyes fell out. Looked at maps, original (or facsimile) manuscripts, engravings, paintings, newspapers and pamphlets - anything. Read other stuff - tangential but interesting histories - because you never know what you might find. I didn't know about the uprising against the French invasion of Malta when I first started writing book one: I just stumbled across it, and found it so fascinating that it became central to the plot of the trilogy.
2. Detail
Once the narrative and the sense of time and place is clear, there's an awful lot of referencing, fact-checking and map-staring that has to happen. This can be particularly difficult if you're stupid enough to set three books on the other side of the world, and live in a city without a vast collection of references on Malta. The internet helps a great deal, of course, and through it I found brainy people in Malta who could answer dumb questions for me.
But the web can also mislead. Many websites (like my own) are written by enthusiastic amateur historians - even Wikipedia. This is a great and wonderful thing, unless you're relying on them for absolute accuracy. They will sometimes be wrong. So will the professionals, even in books. I read about four different locations for the church in Mdina where the uprising took place, for example, some not even in Mdina at all. I couldn't be sure until I stood outside it.
3. Tracking
I keep a spreadsheet of real life action tracked alongside fictional action, which includes things like seasonal changes (which wind will be prevailing, for example) and actual events. Sometimes I needed to track the action and characters hour by hour - other times it's week by week. This is particularly important in books two and three where the characters get more caught up in real life events on Malta, as well as lots of fictional events.
I didn't keep proper records of where I'd found certain items of information (I got bored with keeping card files, which is what I usually do) and as a result drove myself completely mad looking up things all over again.
4. Stand there
I didn't feel that everything was right until I could stand in the limestone dust of Malta and feel the sun on the back of my neck and stare at the sea and just - know.
From now on I am always going to base my books somewhere fabulous so I have to go visit. Often.
5. Check everything again
Redrafting can be as much about checking and refining information as it is about language and character. You end up taking out a lot of those historical details that seemed so critical at the beginning, and I spent a lot of time working on how to convey information without it feeling like a history lesson. Looking back, I think I got better at it by halfway through book two.
Even though the narrator, Lily's, voice is really rather modern, I tried to check the etymology of every phrase and significant word to avoid glaring anachronism. I double and triple-checked maps, dates, language, clothing, food, ship details - everything. I hope. No doubt there's something stupid stuck in there somewhere.
6. Editing
This is how editing works. The manuscript is edited, then I check it, then it is finalised by the in-house editor, and then typeset (beautifully) and I check the pages again, then they are proof-read, then the editor looks through them one last time.
In the early stages, I can still fix things that I've realised aren't quite right, say if I've woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I'm unable to remember which arm Nelson lost. Editors can ask clever questions like "Why is the candle burning when it's broad daylight?" (Answer: Because the author is an idiot).
I'm a (magazine) editor by trade, so I do this stuff for a living and my work ought to be flawless - and there's still a bloody typo on page 89. No, don't look.

Sandra Gulland, who wrote a successful trilogy on Josephine B, has a great website, and she records some of her less reliable research methods, all of which I also did:
I spent too much money on books;
I collected tacky memorabilia;
I travelled long distances to go to museum shows;
I grew teary-eyed on the cobblestones of Paris...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Weekend reading

Devotees of realist fiction for young adults should take a look at this:
YA Kit - Create Your Own Young Adult Novel
Hilarious - or at least it would be if it wasn't so apt.
By the way, you might have noticed a new widget down the right hand side of this blog: Library Thing is one of those brilliant, simple-yet-elegant ideas that make the web sing. Free online reading catalogue. You can see what I've read lately, and anyone can set up their own, even for private viewing.
It's sensational. Also rather addictive.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Thar she blows!

My book hit the decks last night, blessed by kind words from Lorain Day (Commissioning Editor, HarperCollins, and person of impeccable taste in manuscripts) and Julie from Jabberwocky Children's Bookshop, which hosted the launch.
For those who weren't there, here's - roughly - what I said, besides thanking everyone:
It’s an honour to be a part of such a rich tradition of children’s literature, and to be welcomed into a community of writers, illustrators, teachers, librarians, and devotees completely focused on books and the children that read them.
My family isn’t here this evening – they’re all in Australia – but if they were, they’d all say, without exception: it’s about bloody time. They’ve been waiting a while for this.
I meant to start writing my first book about twenty years ago but somehow it slipped my mind.
I finally got around to it just before I moved to Auckland. My girlfriend reckons I wandered into the study and by the time I came out for dinner I’d written a book.
She might be exaggerating slightly. The truth is that when I’m writing I usually forget to eat dinner altogether.
But it does seem that suddenly (well, three years later) there are three books, and more on the way, and more ideas for new books and stories than anybody could ever write.
So here’s the first one, and I’m very happy you’re all here this evening to help me launch her upon the stormy waters.

Yes, that is a pirate hat on my head. I snatched it from the head of a passing Jabberwockian, who had dressed for the occasion.
And don't I look tall? That's what being published does for you.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

History repeats on me

More on the idea that the children's fantasy writing can offer freedom to discuss contemporary issues.
I don't deny it. It's just that this is nothing particularly new, even for JK Rowling, and nor is it a freedom confined to fantasy books. I don't read much realist fiction because I figure the world's dreary enough as it is. Although I do read a lot of non-fiction and reportage - so clearly I'm conflicted and contradictory. And I read a lot of history and nowadays a great deal of (preferably good) historical fiction for kids.
Over the past month or so, I've read a few of Catherine Jinks' Pagan books, all about a young Jerusalem street kid who gets caught up in the Crusades and their aftermath. Her latest is Pagan's Daughter, who is stuck in the middle of the European Crusades against French heretics - not all Crusades, of course, being based in the Holy Land.
There are myriad concepts in these books, almost an antidote to all the great children's Crusade adventures of the past, where the Infidels (always partly clad and swarthily untrustworthy) were little more than slavering hordes, and Richard the Lion Heart rode up on his charger at the critical moment (I always loved that bit).
Those moral conceits were more anachronistic, in a sense, than Jinks' street slang. On the other hand, the recent movie Kingdom of Heaven failed to achieve credibility, with a protagonist who was 1990s wishy-washy liberal and a plot that bore no relation to the real historical characters on which it was based, nor their actions and documented beliefs.
I recently re-read Ronald Welch's Knight Crusader, which I remembered clearly from my childhood, and which is perhaps a midway point between that tradition of great heroic Crusader novels and our contemporary story-telling.
But moral-heavy Victorian interpretations still weigh on our image of the Crusades, and create a potency around them almost unmatched by other historical events.
It's the tradition that led to George Bush seeing modern parallels, although he's stopped using the word "crusade" about his own efforts. Perhaps Condoleeza Rice managed to get through the idea that he had the wrong end of the stick: that the Christians failed, and took hundreds of years to realise it (not a good precedent, after all); and that Holy War, martyrdom, and excessive slaughter have often been associated with Christian wars.
But Jinks is not using history (nor is Rowling, for that matter, using fantasy) to whack readers over the head with a current message about violence, or religious intolerance, or war. Those ideas are timeless and will often be part of good writing about the Crusades; or historical fiction set in any war; or indeed fantasy. Someone clever, like Jinks or Rowling, or Jackie French in Hitler's Daughter, can present more facets of these ideas, and pose questions without sermonising.
Pure evil and pure good exist - or do they? Where do temptation, and fury, and fear, and weakness fit?
Into the fictional human stories that are woven from history - the conflicts and messages aren't trumpeted, and the stories are above all compelling adventures. That's what matters, what engages, what creates drama.
In his action-packed A Very Short Introduction to the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman (Oxford, 2004) mounts a sensible and determined argument that bears repeating:
There can be no summoning of the past to take sides in the present. Plundering history to deliver modern indictments serves no rational or benign purpose. To observe the past through the lens of the present invites delusion; so too does ignoring the existence of that lens. However, the burden of understanding lies on us to appreciate the world of the past, not on the past to provide ours with facile precedents or good stories, although of the latter the Crusades supply plenty.

Launch date

The launch of Ocean Without End is on this evening - 6pm at Jabberwocky Children's Bookshop, 202 Dominion Road, Mt Eden (Auckland).
As HarperCollins says on the invitation: be thar or be keelhauled. I hear a rumour there's even pirate grog on offer.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Tony Blair: Muggle man

Prominent children's authors are incorporating issues of terrorism and government propaganda in their books, a Monash University study has found.
Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario examined children's books and movies including J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy, Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series and Disney movie Lilo and Stitch.
She also analysed the way these authors questioned ideological and political motivations.
"Rowling's Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince and Stroud's Ptolemy's Gate were released in 2005, just after the terrorist attacks on London in July. Both books question government propaganda," Dr Do Rozario said.
"In Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, the magical world's response to terror is increasingly reminiscent of contemporary Western governments. For instance, a purple pamphlet, 'Protecting your home and family against dark forces', resembles Australia's 'Be Alert Not Alarmed' campaign advice regarding suspicious behaviour. There is the sense of bureaucratic compulsion to guard against fellow citizens.
"Harry and his mentor, Dumbledore, though, dismiss bureaucratic measures as ineffective in ensuring security against villains such as Voldemort and the Death Eaters."
Dr Do Rozario said children's books, particularly those from the United Kingdom and Ireland, were well ahead of most adult books in writing on 9/11 themes and aspects of terrorism.
"These authors present an acute understanding of the ambiguities of war and terrorism," she said.
"They are not writing on what is literally happening, but through their storytelling they reflect that not everything is black or white, or as simple as 'good versus evil'. Readers are shown the importance of questioning what is going on - of looking at all sides of the issue."

She later told Radio National's Kate Evans this was "a good thing - it's encouraging children to question."
Ms Evans wondered if these authors are particularly prescient, but points out that "political and contemporary themes in children's literature are nothing new: in the Cold War a lot [of books] had alien invasions and threats of nuclear weaponry, Bedknobs and Broomsticks was set in WW2, Lord of the Rings can be seen as that whole anti-modernist statement." She asked whether if was more possible to deal with such themes in fantasy writing.
"More literal realistic literature can't quite deal with those big difficult questions because it's bound by what's happening in the real world" Dr Do Rozario replied. "You can't portray George Bush in a certain way, but you can portray a Muggle Prime Minister who is invented, and question that way."
Now, that's a bit of a stretch. I'm fascinated by the fact that my niece and all her friends are reading the best-selling Parvana books and other really quite harrowing stories about life in our war-torn world - quite the opposite to Dr Do Rozario's theory about realism.
Ms Evans quite rightly went on to remind listeners about the animals in Animal Farm. There's nothing astounding about children's authors dealing well with contemporary issues, or indeed with young readers wishing to engage with them.
Fiction helps explain the world, and writers can use it to explain or expound to their heart's content. Sometimes it works, because the engagement is genuine - see, for example, the arguments about "mudbloods" in Harry Potter - sometimes it sounds hollow (Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small bangs on about girl power so much even this die-hard feminist wanted to slap her). Hopefully we're well beyond the era when good versus evil is a simple equation.
Young readers know perfectly well when they are being spun a line, or a moral, and when the author is trying to understand and analyse with the reader the mysteries of real and imagined worlds.
At least, I hope they do.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


My book is officially launched this Thursday, but there have been a couple of reviews so far - one in the NZ Herald with a whopping great mug shot which nearly gave me a heart attack when I opened the paper on the ferry. Forgive me if I brag - I promise to post critical ones here, too:

Ocean Without End is a rollicking, action packed yarn sure to captivate young readers.
- Dorothy Vinicombe, NZ Herald.

Kelly Gardiner writes fast-moving, lively prose and Lily's indomitable spirit makes her an engaging pirate.
- Trevor Agnew, Magpies Journal (Source/online).

A great read! 10/10.
- Erik Steller (aged 10), Chatterbooks Kids' Bookclub newsletter.

Easter appetites

Bit cold over Easter. Such a pity. Had to stay inside and read. And eat (why do they call them scorched almonds? Anyone know?).
But there was a no-writing rule in place over Easter. After weeks of work, and writing, and study and everything else, I thought my writing arm was going to drop off last week. Luckily it's recovered, because it's back in action this morning.
Finished Kipling's Kim, which rekindled the desire to write about the Great Game; the first volume of Diana Cooper's autobiography, which I thought might help with my task for the next month, the re-writing of my adult WWI novel, but the Lady Diana's adventures are really too other-worldly to be any use at all for my middle-class protagonists; two very good YA historical adventures by Sherryl Jordan (The Hunting of the Last Dragon and The Juniper Game); and an awful lot of picture books while looking for a suitable present for a one-year-old (The Very Hungry Caterpillar and our old favourite Harry The Dirty Dog won out). And Eloise, of course. I also read Rumpus at the Vet to the one-year-old, who has got very good at turning pages since we last met. And squealing. That's her real specialty.
Now I'm back in The Crusades.
The problem is, the more you read, the more, usually completely tangential, ideas you get and there simply aren't enough hours in the day.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cross, hot buns

Today I went into a bookshop to see if my book was there. It was. Sitting on the shelf between Maurice Gee and Sally Gardner. Right there. Did I mention it was on the shelf? In a bookshop. A proper bookshop.
Just like a really truly book.

(Then I had to buy a copy of Kay Thompson's Eloise. I always wanted a copy of Eloise. It makes me laugh out loud.)

Anyway, from the sublime to the rollicking, my book's being launched next Thursday, 20 April, at Jabberwocky children's bookstore in Mt Eden, Auckland.

In the meantime, I'm away in Taranaki for a few days over the Easter break, eating chocolate and buns and probably sneaking into bookshops. Just to look. Maybe I'll do a little subtle reshelving while I'm there.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The business

It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.
- Ernest Hemingway

New best poems

I'll shut up about poems soon, but just noticed that the new crop of Best New Zealand Poems (whatever that's supposed to mean) has recently gone live.
They are, of course, a mixed bunch, but it's a splendid idea publishing the anthology online.
I particularly like Fiona Farrell's Eel. Here's a taste:

...but now I am old
and the sea knocks
at my head and there’s
a taste to the water
that was not there before

I cannot eat cannot settle
guts shrunk to dry rattle
I turn head on to the current
and swim against the stream
drawn by the sound in my head

Read the whole journey here.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

More on remembering poems

Some poor soul innocently asked their students in my Children's Lit diploma to "recall personal experiences of responding to and creating poetry" in school. Next week they'll be churning through reams of paper wishing they'd never asked. Anyway, here's part of my answer:
Then along came a dishevelled, chain-smoking teacher with a wild look in his eye (denim shirts, for God’s sake) and an incisiveness that left me marvelling. I marvel still. At Marvell.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Dickinson. Keats. Eliot. Plath. Frost. Donne.
Thou sunne art halfe as happy as wee,
In that the world's contracted thus;
Thine age askes ease, and since thy duties bee
To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

Smith (1967) criticises the teaching of poetry "as a sort of mystery, and to the student it remains a mystery, a mystery that belongs to shy men and elderly ladies" . My experience was the clichĂ©: a class of girls with a gay teacher – albeit far from shy. But I quite liked it being a mystery, because it was a mysterious world within reach; with willing guides and no sense of reproach if you followed the wrong path.
Of course there were exams, the trials of forced memorisation, dull moments wrestling with Blake, who I only pretended to understand. We read aloud, discussed context, questioned interpretations, stared blankly when Mr Lewis asked us what "Mending Wall" might mean – none of us had ever seen frozen ground, never mind the sub-text.
Other teachers used poetry too, especially for social studies or political purposes, for it was the time of the Vietnam War (Owen, Sassoon) and a growing modern nationalism in Australia (Slessor, Wright, Walker) and a movement I now know to be Aboriginalism.
I always loved the way poems can slam home a message (political or not) and deliver that unexpected "Ah!" moment with a deft twist or a sudden thud.
Kathy Perfect (1999) sums it up:
"And when you like a poem, you care about understanding it. But it must be an understanding you can personally embrace. One’s own understanding is a vital element in forging personal connections to poetry and making the reading of poetry an activity one seeks instead of dreads."

Friday, April 07, 2006

Tasting salt

I'm thinking a lot about poems. About poems that I remember remembering. About the stinking hot afternoon in the portable classroom behind the library when Mr Lewis first read "Skunk Hour" out loud to us and something hard and sharp turned over in my mind. More on that later.
In the meantime I was stopped in my tracks by this, from Elizabeth Bishop (to whom, spookily, "Skunk Hour" was dedicated):
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world...

If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

(From "At the Fishhouses" from The Complete Poems 1927-1979)

On the slips

Today is the day my first book, Ocean Without End, goes into the shops in New Zealand (26 April in Australia).
Thank you to everyone in Australia, New Zealand and Malta who has helped me research, write, and finally publish the first Swashbuckler book.
Bless her, and all who sail in her.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Gallows humour

In the case of pirates, say, I would like to know whether that profession of theirs has any peculiar glory about it. It sometimes ends in uncommon elevation, indeed; but only at the gallows.
- Herman Melville

Monday, April 03, 2006

The death of the literary novel?

The Australian newspaper has posed the question (again) of whether the literary novel is dying a feeble and unrecognised death.
Author and academic Mark Davis recently conducted research that shows the number of home-grown literary novels produced by Australia's mainstream publishers has almost halved since the mid-1990s.
In a paper on the decline of the literary paradigm, published last year, Davis concluded: "The project of the 1960s to the late '90s, in which publishers competed for prestige, of constructing a national literary canon, has otherwise ended ... It's reasonably safe to predict that the activities of reading, studying, writing and publishing literary fiction will increasingly become - if they aren't already - the preserve of a rump of 'true believers'."

Shona Martyn, publishing director at HarperCollins (and a person with impeccable taste in books - like mine), has a slightly different take, and suggests things have never been that great, unless you happen to be Tim Winton or Peter Carey.
She says: "It's tragic to see how many of our most awarded and talented writers sell in Australia ... under 1000 copies."
Books short-listed for the Miles Franklin literary award, the nation's most respected literary prize, often sell "well under 5000", she adds. Sales of books that win premiers' awards can languish in the hundreds.
"Australians are not buying a broad range of literary fiction," Martyn says. "And in terms of buying an unknown Australian author, they're very, very sceptical."

I suspect she's got a point there. Lots of people have always sold just a few books, and a few people have sold lots of books. The problem arises when only certain kinds of books ever get to be published.
I recently heard an industry panel on Ramona Koval's Books show on Radio National claim to be shocked (after seeing the new Nielson Bookscan figures) at how few local writers ever sold more than 5000. They'd been in the business for years and had no idea things were that bad.
For many authors, that's not about a lack of promotion, or local loyalty, or cultural cringe - or even that it's a bad book, although some undoubtedly are.
After all, I remember the good old days when major publishing houses still produced several volumes of fine new poetry every year. Ah. Nostalgia.
I don't think it's peculiar to Australia. British writers report similar numbers (even more dismal when you compare the population levels). Kiwis say much the same.
Cause for depression? Perhaps no more than usual, although in this market it means that the buying, distribution and shelving policies of the ever-growing big bookselling chains become that much more critical.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Cry me a river

You can hear Langston Hughes explain about writing 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' here, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets:
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The willfulness of words

How are we to say what we see in the crow's flight? It is not enough to say that the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow's flight, the bare-faced bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gypsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the downstroke, as if the wings were both too heavy and too powerful, and the headlong sort of merriment, the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness - you could go on for a very long time with phrases of that sort and still have completely missed your instant, glimpsed knowledge of the world of the crow's wingbeat. And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying.
- Ted Hughes.