Friday, September 29, 2006

On air

If you're listening to the radio on Sunday, tune into National Radio for the lovely Lynn Freeman's Arts on Sunday show and there I'll be, chatting about pirates.
What else?

(For people outside NZ, a podcast will be available after the show.)

I feel like I'm taking over the airwaves next week, from Coromandel to Canterbury, as the pirate's revenge upon an unsuspecting populace begins.


I thought I was blase about last night's book launch until I actually got to Jabberwocky, saw all the posters all over the window, and couldn't extricate myself fast enough from the taxi driver who was offering to distribute my books in India (he's very versatile - also a dairy farmer in his spare time).
It's a bit like having a 40th birthday, except you don't have to clean up afterwards. All about me. I'm not very good at that.
It'll be more extreme in Melbourne, my home town, next month, since my entire family will be there (except my brother who will be at Mount Everest, which is the best excuse I've ever heard), Mum will cry (don't pretend you won't, I know you), and half the people I've ever known in my life will be staring at me.
I think I've changed my mind.
Nevertheless it's at Readings in Bay Street on October 18. That's the old Port Melbourne post office.
I was born in Port. Well, technically I was born at the Royal Women's, but the Borough is my spiritual home, which is why I wanted to have the next launch there. Many major points in my life have occurred in Bay Street: weddings, christenings, funerals, and my debut at the age of three, in hot pink shantung, as a flower girl. I was forced to wear a prosthetic hair bun, which looked a little like a furry cinnamon doughnut and was supposed to make me look like I wasn't a ratbag little tomboy.
That was the last time anyone succeeded in that endeavour.
When my grandfather was a kid, he could have stood in the middle of Bay Street and looked towards the beach and seen a forest of masts. And when I was a kid, he'd take us to see the ships at Station Pier. He was a warfie, and back then it was all still nets and crates and ropes and hooks. Small cranes, but no containers, so when a ship was in, the wharf looked alive - not like the Legoland you see on a modern wharf. Streamers from the passenger ships. Baggage sitting out in the open. Blokes shouting, unloading bikes and brown cardboard suitcases with labels all over them, or hessian sacks and wooden boxes.
One day, there was a huge sail training ship, probably the Argentinian Navy's Libertad. Everything was white: the officers' uniforms and dazzling teeth, the holystoned decks, the hull. It was covered in gold trim and bright brass fittings.
That's the day I fell in love with sailing ships. So it's only fitting that The Pirate's Revenge be launched upon the briny in Bay Street.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Thar she blows

It's the NZ launch of The Pirate's Revenge, book two in the Swashbuckler trilogy, this evening.
It's at 6pm at Jabberwocky Books, 202 Dominion Road, Mt Eden. You are most welcome.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Buyer's guide

I recently had to answer a question on selection criteria for children's books (as part of my course work). I framed it as a checklist, and post it here in case it proves useful for anyone buying or selecting books or poems for young readers:

Does the book or poem achieve one or more of the following through its use of language:
• Enchantment and wonder
• Authentic emotional engagement (free from sentimentality)
• Intellectual and educational challenges
• Nourishment for learning development
• Imaginative journeys?

Does the poet or author’s word and phrase choice offer attributes such as:
• Novelty and variety in vocabulary
• Rhythm or pace
• Respect for young readers (that is, not patronising)
• Delight in wordplay and sentence construction
• Compelling narrative
• Accessible or interesting style
• Engagement with well-formed characters
• Adequate grammar, form, syntax, scansion and usage
• Authentic humour and playfulness?

Does the treatment of the subject matter encourage or engender:
• Reflection or questioning
• Knowledge or understanding
• The pleasure of reading (and writing)
• Appreciation of language and listening
• Enjoyment?

Note: this is only about language/text, not illustrations or design. I might get around to that another time.
Other suggestions are, of course, welcome.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reader, I married him

As the BBC launches its new adaptation of Jane Eyre in the UK, Lucasta Miller in The Guardian seizes the opportunity to take a fresh look at Jane, Charlotte and their impact, particularly on female readers:
It was its interiority, not its narrative mechanics, that seemed the key to its originality. This was a story that compelled the reader in a completely new way to identify with the heroine...
The "I" of Jane Eyre is what the novel is really about; it is as much a Bildungsroman as a love story. Brontë's originality was to centre the Romantic individualism she had learnt from male writers in the figure of a "poor, obscure, plain and little" governess, the persona into which she had in life often felt boxed, despite her ambitious but secretly held belief in her own poetic genius. In her youth, she had had few female literary role models; her idol had been Byron, whose reputation was based on a personality cult and whose works were all regarded as self-portraits. Debarred by her gender and background from the public posturing of Byron, she invented a new form of specifically female self-expression, based on autobiographical confession, which was less flamboyant but in some ways even more inflammatory. When Jane declares that she is Rochester's "equal", despite being a woman and of a lower social class, it is hard not to suspect that Brontë is implicitly asserting her own equality as a writer with Lord Byron. With his secret guilt and enigmatic brooding, Rochester is her version of the Byronic hero.

Monday, September 25, 2006

What's stopping you?

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
~ Gene Fowler

This morning, my first ever royalty cheque in the mail. Imagine that. All that fun and someone sends you money as well. Only they seem to have left off a nought.
This afternoon, I'm up to one of my favourite parts of the process: the printing out of a final manuscript onto actual paper with actual ink to be read - at which point the story takes on an entirely different aspect and things appear which were not at all obvious and the mind plays tricks and scribbles ensue... and in the case of this particular manuscript, it's about the eighth time I've got to this point and it is, I trust, almost unrecognisable. But it's still a marvellous moment.

Spring seems to have suddenly sprung, too, at long bloody last, so I can sit in the sun and read the damn book - with much coffee, after a five-hour country drive back to town very very early this morning. Once the sun rose there were small lambs and clouds of cherry blossom and mountainous rhododendrons. This country is just so ridiculously green everywhere. You'd think I'd be used to it after three years but I just stare stupidly out the window saying perceptive things like "Look at all that grass." It's not like that where I come from.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Had to flee the house today, due to threatened invasion by plumber, landlord and cleaner all at once. Merely clamping my headphones on tight was not going to protect me against thumps from roof, pipes and vacuum cleaner. Friends very kindly lent me their house so I could sit at the dining table with my laptop and stare out to sea.
I wondered during the morning whether one would ever actually get any work done with such a view. Our own study window looks into a thicket of flax, with only the odd passing chicken to distract the eye. But in fact I powered through everything I had to do. Nearly finished yet another redraft of an old manuscript, and scraped away at a short story as well.
But there were builders working next-door and, as everyone knows, it's impossible to build anything without a radio blasting feeble 80s hits out across the entire neighbourhood. Never mind the power saw and nail gun - Flock of Seagulls nearly finished me off completely.
I suppose one should say that one requires complete silence when writing, and that contemporary music detracts from the sensibilities required to write about the Great War. But actually I took my headphones so it was Me'shell's Plantation Lullabies and good old Missy Higgins that saw me through safely.

By the way, I have a couple of short stories out this month: 'Florence Nightingale's Owl', in the NSW School Magazine, beautifully illustrated by Noela Young; and 'Anzac Day', in the latest Random House NZ anthology of stories for kids, History: Hideous and Hilarious, edited by Barbara Else. My story isn't particularly hideous or hilarious, but it's in there. The book hits the shops on October 6, I think.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The only certainty about writing and trying to be a writer is that it has to be done, not dreamed of or planned and never written, or talked about (the ego eventually falls apart like a soaked sponge), but simply written; it's a dreadful, awful fact that writing is like any other work.
~ Janet Frame

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Shooting season

The last day or so I've had to smile over the stories in the US publishing trade along the lines of "Unknowns take over Booker shortlist!"
That's unknowns like Sarah Waters and Kate Grenville, you understand. And that's one good reason for ensuring the Booker remains an award for "Commonwealth" writers.
Anyway, it's book judging season all over the place, and there's an interesting outline of the process, ethics and pitfalls of judging (including conflicts of interests and dubious invitations to dinner) in this conversation between Ramona Koval and Hilary McPhee on Radio National.

Housewife of the year

The best time for planning a book is while you're doing the dishes.
~Agatha Christie

I'm just going out to test whether this theory applies to mowing the lawn.

Later - I can faithfully report that the only creative thoughts that entered my head while mowing were of revenge against the person who laid shell paths in the garden: it has never been a decent mulch, murder on bare feet, and spreads through the grass to become deadly shrapnel when the mower hits. I think I maimed one of the chooks.
I can also attest that unblocking the composting toilet for the fourth time in as many months doesn't do much for the creative process either.
I'm going to try baking banana bread instead.

Reviews and reviewers

For many months I've dreaded the appearance in my letterbox of the NZ Book Council's Booknotes. Nothing against the Book Council, you understand, of which I am a member, nor its august journal. I've been living in fear of its children's book reviewer, Susan Paris, getting her hands on Ocean Without End.
She's wicked. Often deliciously so, although sometimes it's hard to decide whether to laugh or wince at her forensic reviews. I love the complete lack of fear, the idea that kids' books deserve as fearless an approach as any other literature, and above all the iconoclastic freedom with which she lays into almost everyone, even (gasp!) Margaret Mahy; unless the book is very good, in which case she can be equally lavish.
Well, my time has come.
Here it is:
Middling-decent adventure, weakened slightly by Kelly Gardiner's inability either to maintain or to avoid an in-period style. It isn't clear where we are in history, but the characters slip in and out of a mish-mash nautical-historical dialect more or less at random. Lily is a little inclined to feel and think only whatever the plot currently requires her to, with minimal regard for plausibility or consistency, but things move along quickly enough for this to be a minor niggle rather than a fatal flaw.
I slapped it closed, and after a few hours wandering around the house muttering "Middling!" to myself, changing into my pyjamas, eating chocolate, and watching two episodes of Pride and Prejudice on DVD, I read it again.
On second reading, I accepted that I'm hardly likely to have got everything right in my first book, and it's a critique that will make me focus more closely on voice in future.
I also noted that the entire review is about two aspects that are described as "slight" and "a minor niggle", so while overall it will ensure nobody in their right mind will buy the book, I think the reviewer is actually saying it's not too bad. As an editor myself, I wondered vaguely whether there was more to it that didn't make it to press. I ate more chocolate.
But then I flicked through the rest of Booknotes, and found a letter about the journal's kidlit reviews signed by 26 children's writers and illustrators, including such people as Vicky Jones, Tessa Duder, Lorraine Orman and Joy Cowley - none of them shrinking violets nor likely to complain needlessly. They write to say that the review pages are often "less than fair and balanced", "disparaging" and "sarcastic".
Kate de Goldi's reply as editor takes the line that kidlit reviews ought to be as exacting as any other and that she stands by her reviewer.
I checked the review pages again, to find that this month it's not by Susan Paris at all, but David Larsen (who also, I think, reviews adult books for the Herald and the Star Times).
Will you think me strange if I say I feel disappointed to have been scathed by the wrong person? But I can't fault his taste, since another review gets stuck into Three Fishing Brothers Gruff and agrees entirely with my own view, whereas everyone else seems to love it uncritically.
These general issues are fascinating, and I suspect my position sits somewhere between those of the writers and the Booknotes editor - or perhaps somewhere else entirely.
A scathing review alone doesn't necessarily help an author to learn and improve. There's a difference between robust and "disparaging" reviewing. If I'd been on the receiving end of some of those reviews I might have given up altogether.
But uncritical blurbs aren't much help either in that regard. I'd rather honesty.
On the other hand, there's far too much uncritical reviewing of children's literature, and certainly few reviewers who engage with the actual writing.
I can also sympathise with reviewers who get so sick of being sent crap that should never have seen the light of day they feel the need to vent. (I've decided not to review any more badly-written interminable rural memoirs in my magazine, for example, unless they have some redeeming features - anything will do.)
Over at Misrule, Judith Ridge was thinking about this issue recently:
...Perhaps it's that children's book reviewers are, as we are so often accused of, soft on our own, and lacking in rigour in our critical discourse. I do believe there's some truth in that - most reviews are written, after all, as de facto buying guides for parents, librarians, teachers, and so they focus on content rather than literary merit. On the other hand, the mainstream review pages generally offer few opportunities for the reviewing of children's books (that old song), and thus, I imagine, most reviewers prefer to accentuate the positive - I know I do. And yes, it's a small community, and we all pretty much know each other, and it has to be acknowledged that this fact can influence what you're prepared to put your name to into print.
But I'd like to think, given all the above, that perhaps there's also a culture of courtesy and respect in the children's book community, where the ego and ambition of the critic (usually) becomes secondary to the desire to give children's books, those poor relations, an even break. Now what we have to work on is marrying that courtesy and respect with frank critical writing.

Quite. We need rigour - and good manners. We need kidlit to be reviewed by people who understand how children learn and read, and how they relate to the world and to books as they grow. We need reviewers who engage with language, who can encourage as well as critique; but who are also happy to declare any emperor's new clothes a little threadbare. If that hurts sometimes, well, there's always chocolate.
The very next day's post brought me a clipping of Tessa Duder's review of Ocean from her new kidlit review column in the Australian Women's Weekly. Now, for those who don't know, if you're writing about nautical matters in NZ, Tessa and Joan Druett are royalty, and Tessa is a very experienced, no-nonsense children's literature specialist (and what a good idea of the Weekly's).
If she says it's a "fine debut" novel, that I've got all the nautical stuff right and am writing in the "best tradition" of Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease, and that Lily is "wholly believable" then, frankly, I can die happy.
But I will be working on the finals of book three, The Silver Swan, this week, and now I also know I have to ensure it isn't a middling mish-mash.

Back on land

Right, where was I? Just been off earning a living for a few days, writing a searing expose on soil improvement and reporting on rural issues, and now it's back to the (un)real world.
In my case that's 1799, as I have to proof the edited manuscript of the third Swashbuckler book; and then 1917, as I'm looking forward to spending the rest of the week on my War Songs manuscript.
What luxury. It's so exciting that I have to start this very minute.
Well, perhaps after another coffee and a bit of a blog.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Note to self

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~ Anton Chekhov


I'm terribly proud of my friend Ana Kokkinos's new film of The Book of Revelation. Actually, I haven't seen it yet, because it hasn't arrived in NZ, but it has been invited to Toronto Film Festival and premiered in Melbourne Film Fest last month. I'm proud anyway - of her.
It was always going to be a tough and dark film, challenging audiences and critics, as did Rupert Thomson's novel. She's a brave, thoughtful and insightful film-maker.
But I delight most in the fact that she made herself into a film-maker, at a ripe old age (I can't remember, exactly, it seems so long ago - in her late 30s, I suppose) after years as a lawyer, and her partner Mira also leaped from paid work tilting at windmills to starving in a writers' garret. Well, almost. They both took a risk, and began to do what they most wanted to do.
It would be enough if they were making a living and producing anything - that they are both writing, and in Ana's case directing, varied and remarkable films is a wonderful, inspiring thing. But then they are both wonderful inspiring things, and always have been.

You can watch a few clips and an interview with Ana from the ABC's At The Movies show here.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Adventure story

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant.
The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.

~ Winston Churchill

Launch dates: Pirate's Revenge

Here are the dates of the launches for book two in the Swashbuckler trilogy:

Thursday 28 September, 6pm, Jabberwocky Bookshop, 202 Dominion Road, Mt Eden.

Wednesday 18 October, 6.30pm, Readings Books, 253 Bay Street, Port Melbourne (my spiritual home).
You're all welcome.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hot off the press

What an odd week.
I read The Pirate's Revenge, hot off the press, and although I've read it a million times since I finished writing it, it has had a strange effect.
There are a couple of flabby sentences in the first half that I wish were better, and the feeling is a little like looking back in time to a moment when I was just making it up as I went along and hoping the writing would work. Of course it's a very different set of words to those I originally wrote, and I've edited it several times since then.
But I read it now and realise how much there is still to learn and know, how much more disciplined I've grown over the last year with all the editing and writing - so different in fiction than in journalism. I'm so hard on myself and others when I edit the magazine, and I have to learn all over again how to be my own harshest critic in fiction.
But perhaps other critics will be more harsh - we'll see in a few weeks when it hits the shops and the media.
It's paying off in my work on an old manuscript this week, as I pore over it word by word, and realise how much more there is to do and how much time one paragraph can and should take.
And also, I realise now that I've always believed my life would change irrevocably once I'd written a novel and somebody had actually published it; but now, as my second book rolls off the drydock, life is much the same, although it contains more work and a little more to worry about.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Quiet now

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)

by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your work,
doubt their judgement.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
There are only sacred places
And desecrated places.

from Given: New Poems, Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington DC, 2006 (but I read it on Miss Snark)

Friday, September 01, 2006


The other morning my better half was sitting at my desk plucking her eyebrows or some such thing and as I passed she said: "You know, you're not really like other people's girlfriends."
After I finished staring blankly, she pointed out the scribble on the otherwise empty page of my notebook:
Actual maggots.
Made perfect sense to me.
I'm rewriting a story about a World War One ambulance driver. There must be maggots. I have hinted at maggots. I have mentioned maggots in passing. But so far there have been no actual maggots. Never let it be said that there was telling about maggots rather than showing of maggots.
In those two words lies an entire rewrite and rethink on a manuscript that's been haunting me for years now. It's not actually about maggots at all, but about voice and tense and representation of action.
Granted, a maggot or two may eventually make an appearance, but that's beside the point.
Anyway, I have just now finished my final assignment in one of my college subjects (oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen) so I can now get to grips with those maggots.
Which reminds me, when you use maggots as bait you call them "gentles". Wish I understood the etymology of that. I imagine it's one of those marvellous British inversions, or simply because they are white and soft - like gentlemen rather than poachers?
They're very good for trout (Izaak Walton recommends them for barbel, but we don't much see their kind abouts these parts).
So instead of fishing on this fine spring afternoon, I've got plenty of gentles to be going on with.

G'day sport

First of September. Never mind Spring and all that. It is, as we Melburnians say, the business end of the footy season.
We'll draw a kindly veil over my own team's performance this season, but I would like to share with you my favourite passage of sport-related writing, which also happens to be, for my money,the most perfectly rendered colloquial strine (that's Australian) since The Sentimental Bloke:
‘If I’ve arksed youse boys once I’ve arksed youse a thousand times, don’t buggerise with the bloody ball on them flanks, kick the bugger up the bloody centre.’

Cracks me up, every time. That's from Phillip Gwynne's young adult novel, Deadly Unna?
My grandfather used to shout something similar at almost every match: "Don't handball it, son - kick it up the bloody middle!"
I've been known to yell it once or twice myself, at the telly.