31 August 2008

What Is Interstitial Fiction?

A couple of months back, I made the bold claim that my short story collection Transported is an example of interstitial fiction. “Ah-hah,” you might have thought to yourself, “I must get down to my local bookshop and raid the interstitial fiction shelves at once!”

Or, more likely, you wondered what on earth I was talking about. An understandable response, because “interstitial fiction” hardly trips off the tongue. But interstices are gaps or cracks, in this case gaps or cracks between genres, and much of what I write falls within those cracks. Things that fall through the cracks don’t always get much attention in this cruel world of ours, so this post is here to wave a flag – a multicoloured freak flag – on their behalf.

The concept of interstitial fiction, sometimes called slipstream fiction, is an American invention. It began to be used within the science fiction field in the mid 1990s to describe stories which tended to be published in certain science fiction magazines and anthologies, but which it was difficult to classify in conventional terms as SF.

These stories often used the traditional materials of science fiction – space ships and aliens, time travel and alternate histories – for non-traditional ends, with emphases closer to literary fiction than genre fiction as it had been previously written. Alternatively, they treated mundane materials in science-fictional ways. A parallel development occurred in genre fantasy, often bringing it closer to magic realism than had previously been the case.

Meanwhile, especially in the US, fantasy and SF elements were increasingly being incorporated in mainstream fiction. For example, the novels of Michael Chabon are marketed as literary fiction rather than SF or F, yet most of them have elements which bring them within one or both of those genres in a formal sense. Margaret Atwood, so vigilant against any claims that The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake are science fiction (although, as stories set in an imagined future which extrapolate aspects of our own world, they clearly are), nevertheless wrote The Blind Assassin, which interleaved mimetic realism and pulp science fiction within the same novel.

And that’s what interstitial fiction is: fiction that mixes genres, in particular, fiction that interleaves the realistic and the fantastic.

Transported qualifies as interstitial fiction in two ways. It contains a mixture of literary fiction and speculative fiction stories in the one volume (together with some surrealism and flat-out weirdness), and it contains individual stories that mix genres. The paradigm example, and one of my own favourite stories in the book, is “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev”, which mixes science fiction, travelogue, celebrity profile, political history, literary criticism, and the early short stories of Arthur C, Clarke, and comes out with – well, with interstitial fiction.

You can read “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev” as part of the New Zealand Book Council’s Read at Work promotion (although there's a couple of paragraphs missing from this version), or in Transported. You can learn more about interstitial fiction at the Interstitial Arts Foundation. And you can take the wildest ideas you have, mix and match them without regard to genre, and end up with a story that can still find a home with receptive readers.


Helen Rickerby has posted a long and thoughtful assessment of Transported on her blog, which references this post and various others from "Books in the Trees". Thank you, Helen!

27 August 2008

Another Good Review for Transported

This review of my short story collection Transported, by reviewer Mandy Evans, appeared in the Marlborough Express on 19 August 2008.

Transported by Breadth of Imagination

Expect to be transported by this collection of short stories and you won’t be disappointed.

From a neighbourhood debate about aliens moving in next door, a changing climate resulting in kiwifruit growing in Otago, an eye transplant that allows a man to better see the stars, and a country so crowded there’s standing room only, Tim Jones’s imagination and his pen range freely.

Jones has previously published two volumes of poetry, and one earlier collection of short stories, however, this is the first work of his I’ve read.

I found his writing polished and easy-to-read. His protagonists are all distinctive characters and the writing tone for each story reflects this. I particularly like that Jones has taken such diverse situations that at times seem like stray thoughts that would flit through most people’s minds and disappear, and turned them into thoughtful stories.

While not every story in the book was to my taste this just serves to prove the breadth of Jones’s imagination. I loved The New Neighbours which featured aliens living among humans. After The War, which tells the tale of one of Tolkien’s Orcs, also appealed to me.

One of the essential ingredients in a short story is its power to surprise; to produce the unexpected. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from reading a collection that does so with a flourish. Most of the stories in this collection finished with a satisfying element of doubt, ensuring the stories linger in the mind.

24 August 2008

Snippets: Earthdawn Sale; Readings and Launches; Valley Micropress; Likeable Things

Earthdawn 15th Anniversary Sale

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the roleplaying game Earthdawn. To mark the occasion, publishers RedBrick have discounted the prices of Earthdawn products until 4 September, so you can get my novel Anarya's Secret for a little bit less until then (in hardback, paperback, or e-book via RPGNow or DriveThru).

Readings and Launches

From the social pages: here in Wellington, it's been the season of readings, launches, and both combined. I wasn't able to make the launch of Sue Orr's Etiquette for a Dinner Party: Short Stories, but did attend the Wellington launch of AUP New Poets 3 - Wellingtonian Janis Freegard is one of the three poets included in this volume, together with Katherine Liddy and Reihana Robinson, and Janis ran an enjoyable launch at Mighty Mighty.

I was also an apologetic no-show at the first instalment of the annual Winter Readings Series, which featured the launch of three books by Mark Pirie, including Slips which I reviewed a while back. There's an excellent report on Helen Rickerby's blog.

I'll be there next week, though, when Helen's new book of poetry My Iron Spine is launched with Harvey Molloy MC'ing, and the following week sees the launch of Michael O'Leary's Paneta Street.

I've had a sneak peek at My Iron Spine, and it's excellent.

And the launches don't stop there: Harvey Molloy's Moonshot is not far away from lift-off!

(Enough capital-centrism: there's lots of readings and poetry events right round the country, such as Kay McKenzie Cooke reports on from Dunedin.)

Valley Micropress

I took part recently in a Montana Poetry Day event in Upper Hutt, and organiser Tony Chad kindly sent me a copy of the "Poetry Olympics" booklet arising from the event, and also a copy of the magazine he edits, Valley Micropress. This is a monthly - that's right, monthly - poetry magazine which Tony produces. Subscriptions cost NZ $30 per annum, and contributions are mainly from subscribers, but also include other work at the editor's discretion. If you'd like to know more, please email Tony, tony.chad (at) clear.net.nz

Likeable Things: Second Instalment

maps, a poem by Jill Jones

The Bibliophilia shop, which sells the handmade books of Meliors Simms

Blackmail Press 22

Strange Horizons

Eating Greengages, a beautiful piece of writing by Fionnaigh McKenzie.

A few things I've learned about writing poetry, a very useful and interesting blog post by Janis Freegard.

21 August 2008

Is Literary Fiction a Genre?

Via a comment which Steve Malley left on my blog, I discovered a vigorous — and very comment-rich — discussion by genre fiction writers on the perceived deficiencies of (some) literary fiction, a discussion carried on here after starting here. (Coincidentally, Polly Frost tackles the same topic from a different angle over at The Short Review.)

Apart from the debatable characterisation of Chaucer as some kind of early literary academic, I thought it was a very interesting discussion: and since I write both literary and genre fiction, and have even folded both in together in my short story collection Transported, I thought I would try to come up with a response.

At the core of Charles Gramlich's complaint is this question:

Can someone please explain why “literary” writers get to freely eviscerate the normal rules of writing but don’t get called on it, while you or I would be pilloried soundly if we tried the same thing?

My immediate reaction was to say that "the normal rules of writing" apply to genre fiction but not to literary fiction, but that did not seem adequate. I've read plenty of books which are classified as genre fiction (in particular those genres I'm most interested in, science fiction and fantasy) but which break the rules Charles lists.

What's more, literary fiction seems to have rules of its own. In a New Zealand context, these might be:

Write mimetic ("realistic") fiction ...
about middle-class and upper-middle class characters ...
with no significant political interests or concerns ...
who do not experience anything which could be labelled a "plot" ...
and whose close personal relationships ...
... and personal emotional development are of paramount interest in the fiction.

These "rules" have changed over time; formerly, working class characters were more common, and latterly, the stranglehold of realism has eased. But I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.

After the fashion of Carrie Bradshaw, doyenne of Manolo Blahniks and really large closets, I ask the readers of this blog this question: are the set of characteristics I've listed above a reasonable description of much New Zealand literary fiction, and if so, are they distinctive enough to act as a set of rules for literary fiction?

In other words (Carrie sits cross-legged on her bed, looking down at her laptop):

  • Is literary fiction a genre?

17 August 2008

The MA in Creative Writing: The Controversy Resumes

The Victoria University MA in Creative Writing is an object of desire (for those thinking of applying), hope (for those who have applied), envy, and controversy. It plays such a large part in the New Zealand literary scene, especially in Wellington, that it would be most surprising if this were not the case.

My own feelings about the MA (now joined by a PhD in Creative Writing) are mixed. For the record, I have neither taken, nor applied for, the MA. I have taken two undergraduate creative writing courses at Victoria: a Writing Short Fiction course taught by Robert Onopa in 2000, during which I wrote the first draft of "The Wadestown Shore", one of the stories in Transported; and the Writing the Landscape course taught by Dinah Hawken, in 2003.

Both courses were valuable, but I have particularly fond memories of Writing the Landscape and of Dinah's tutelage. About 1/3 of the poems in All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens were written for, or during, that course, and it sparked my most productive period as a poet. (I'm down to about three poems a year now!) So, on the basis of my own experience, I have no reason to think that the MA, being longer, wouldn't be even better.

The two complaints most commonly made about the Victoria MA (and creative writing MA/MFA programmes in general) is that they lead to work that is written for an audience of one — the assessor — or several — the classmates; and that the products of the course are too homogeneous. The second, if true, may well be an outcome of the first.

I'm aware that many fine books (such as Mary McCallum's The Blue and Johanna Aitchison's A Long Girl Ago) have come out of the Victoria MA. In my experience, the books produced are surprisingly diverse. So I'm not too bothered about those issues.

My concern is more about the market power of the Victoria MA and other such courses. Quite apart from the benefits to the participants' writing, there appears to be a clear commercial benefit to graduating from the Victoria MA. Graduates' work is more likely to be published in such literary journals as Sport, more likely to be published in book form, more likely to attract Creative New Zealand funding, and more likely to gain literary awards.

Viewed one way, that's a fair reward from the amount of effort and stress people have to go through to to be accepted for the course, let alone complete it; but from my viewpoint, in such a small literary market as New Zealand, the Victoria MA exerts an undue dominance. The published books of MA graduates are, in my experience, never poor, and often excellent; but what other voices might be heard, what other books might be published and promoted, if the MA did not loom so large?

These musings were sparked off by this post by Joanna Preston on the vexed subject of creative writing courses (and here's a contrasting viewpoint about the role of the workshop instructor). What do you think? Is the Victoria MA in Creative Writing good, bad, or indifferent for New Zealand writers and New Zealand literature?

13 August 2008

Transported: Reviews

I thought it was time to collect the reviews of Transported that are available online into one post. So here they are:

That's all the online reviews I know of. If you've seen another, please post a comment with the details.

10 August 2008

New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors

My fantasy novel Anarya's Secret, set in the universe of the Earthdawn roleplaying game, was on the ballot for Best Adult Novel at the 2008 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, New Zealand's local equivalent of the Hugo Awards. The award was won by Russell Kirkpatrick's novel Path of Revenge, and I was impressed by the quality and range of the novels and other works up for awards, and the number of them that had found international publication.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand (SFFANZ) has provided a measure of this upsurge in New Zealand science fiction and fantasy by listing books in the field by New Zealand authors. The listing was based on one created by Jack Ross, subsequently updated by Alan Robson.

Although the listing (split into A-L and M-Z) is short on bibliographic detail in places, it does show that a lot more New Zealanders have successfully written science fiction and fantasy than is commonly assumed by those outside - or inside - the field.

There's more to come, too - for instance Helen Lowe's forthcoming YA fantasy novel Thornspell, about to be published in the US, and her subsequent fantasy tetralogy for adults, Wall of Night. Although it has flown mostly under the radar so far, New Zealand science fiction and fantasy is becoming hard to ignore.

UPDATE: There's more about Helen and her new book on the HarperCollins (Eos) blog.

07 August 2008

A Watched Book Never Sells

So I'm sitting in the food court area of Wellington Airport. I'm heading up to Auckland for a conference. Due to bad weather, my flight has been delayed for 90 minutes. That's bad - it will make the kind person who's picking me up from the airport late. But it has a good side: I've had the chance to sign the copies of my short story collection Transported in the Wellington Airport Whitcoulls.

The staff are very well organised. The books are on a nice little display cabinet near the entrance to the shop, and they have a pen and a bunch of "Personally Autographed" stickers close at hand. I kneel down in front of the display, sign each book, and carefully place a sticker on the front. There are 17 copies to sign - that's good, because I know the bookshop started with 20. I rise to my feet (wishing I hadn't decided to wear both my jacket and my raincoat onto the flight as the easiest way of carrying them).

But now I'm about 50 metres from the bookstore, nursing a coffee, doing a spot of work, and peering intently at the foot traffic into and out of Whitcoulls. Nobody is stopping at the display of Transporteds. Are they too low, too far below eye level? Should I have piled them up higher when I put them back on the stand? Is the blue "Personally Autographed" sticker on the front putting people off? (I prefer the way Unity does it - instead of putting stickers on each book, they put a nice "Signed Copies" notice on top of the pile.) And, though I really like the cover, does it stand out enough from the gaudier books around it?

Eventually they call my flight and I head off to Auckland. The conference goes very well. While waiting for my flight back to Wellington, I sign the copies in the Auckland Airport Whitcoulls. There are less of them, and they are modestly hidden on the shelves. It's still good to see them, though, these old friends in unfamiliar places.

I'm aware this is all rather pathetic. I'm aware I should get over myself. Just as a watched pot never boils, so a watched book never sells. But whenever I walk past a bookstore that stocks Transported, I find it very hard not to go in and see if any have sold. Half the stock in the Wellington Borders has sold - joy! None have sold in Dymocks - damn, if only I'd been able to give a more exciting description of the book when Bruce Caddie asked me how they should describe it to customers.

The world faces multiple, interlocking problems: peak oil, climate change, food shortages ... the list goes on. I have work to do, a family to love, and a novel to be getting on with. But I took some visitors to Wellington Airport today, and - I stopped after farewelling my visitors and counted - now there are only 15 copies on that display. Two more copies have sold - yes!

Even the outrageous carpark fees (if only we had light rail out to the airport!) can't dampen the feeling, so precious, so fleeting, of success.


A review of Transported and author interview with me have just been published by The Short Review. Thank you, Tania and the team!

03 August 2008

Fifty Yards from Middle Earth

A flashback to 2000, and the filming of The Lord of the Rings in Wellington ...

I first beheld Arwen Undómiel at the test cricket. It wasn't quite the depths of Mordor, but the weather in March 2000 would have done justice to the dead marshes at Sauron's gates. A thin cold air was blowing across the Basin Reserve, the main cricket ground in Wellington, New Zealand, the city where Peter Jackson was busy filming the three books that make up The Lord of the Rings.

It was New Zealand versus Australia in the test, and New Zealand was in trouble. I took my seat at the northern end, well rugged up and prepared for disappointment, and settled back to watch the play. After a few minutes, I noticed a steady stream of young girls making their way to a cloaked figure seated a few rows below me and asking her for autographs. "Do you know who that is?" I asked the man sitting nearest to me. "We've been wondering the same thing ourselves," he replied. "We think it might be Anna Paquin."

But I wasn't convinced. Anna Paquin, Wellington-born star of The Piano, X-Men etc., was living in the US if my mental showbiz map was up to date. "I think it might be Liv Tyler," I whispered back. For once, I was right. Accompanied by her British boyfriend, and Bernard Hill who plays Theoden, the woman who would give up her immortality to marry Aragorn was spending an afternoon at the cricket.

She picked a good day for it, too, despite the weather: after the usual clatter of New Zealand wickets, Chris Cairns, he of the flowing locks and mighty thews, smote the Australian bowling hither and yon on his way to a rapid century. It made no difference to the result, but even in bitter defeat the memories were glorious.

By the time I left the ground, Arwen Evenstar and her party had already departed, leaving behind only empty chip pottles, Coke cans, and blessed memories of Elvenhome.

I live five minutes' walk from the Basin Reserve, so I probably have more opportunities to watch cricket than Liv Tyler does. More to the point, it's a 50-yard walk from our house in Ellice St to the Wellington Town Belt, where several scenes in The Lord of the Rings were filmed.

The Town Belt is a narrow but quite convincing strip of forest clinging to either side of the long ridge that slopes down from Mt Victoria to the north, and runs all the way to the southern coast at Island Bay. Some of the forest is regenerating New Zealand bush, some is introduced pine forest planted in the mid-20th century. It is gloomy beneath the pines, and when the wind blows the treetops whisper together of ancient wrongs. Something has made tracks, but they start and stop unexpectedly, and it takes a steady head and a stout heart to follow their many twists and turns without becoming hopelessly lost.

Even better, there's a quarry above the top of Ellice St. Not a Blake's 7-style gravel pit, but a real hard rock quarry, abandoned about the same time the trees were planted, with towering walls clad here in twisted bramble, there in flowering creeper, and trees overhanging the top and sides. What with the forest, the quarry, and some judicious post-production, you could film a movie up there, and Peter Jackson was faced with filming three movies back to back.

Jackson, the Wellington film director who first came to fame with the low budget (NZ $30,000) splatter-comedy film Bad Taste, was the director chosen by New Line Cinema to take on the daunting task of directing a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Ralph Bakshi's disappointing 1978 version, which used rotoscoping over live actors to produce a crude form of animation, the Peter Jackson production combines live action with the state-of-the-art effects developed over the years by Jackson and his cohorts at Weta Workshop.

And, with the whole of the country to choose from, filming started in the forest near our quarry and ended a year later, in December 2000, in the quarry itself. In between, sets were built and filming done all over New Zealand — inland Canterbury for Edoras, the rolling hills of the Waikato for Hobbiton, the North Island volcanic plateau for Mordor, another quarry in Lower Hutt for Helm's Deep.

In contrast to the saturation coverage given to the announcement of the project and the arrival of its stars in Wellington, the actual filming was characterised by a secrecy bordering on paranoia. My son Gareth and I realised that filming had started when we went for a walk to the top of the ridge above the quarry and discovered that tracks normally reserved for walkers had been scoured by ATVs (all-terrain vehicles — take a motorbike and give it four wheels, and you've got the general idea). Three portaloos had been installed next to Alexandra Road, which runs along the ridgeline through the Town Belt. The game was afoot.

The Evening Post newspaper gave us the official word that filming had started a few days later, but by then we'd also seen the horse-droppings, and were not surprised to learn that a small party of hobbits had been fleeing Black Riders through the twisted foliage, take after take after take. Peter Jackson likes to get things right.

In the next twelve months, Lord of the Rings was everywhere. Stars buying houses for the duration of the shoot pushed up house prices in the eastern suburbs to ridiculous levels. Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Gandalf, was a judge for Mr Gay Wellington. A couple of the hobbits were refused entry to a nightclub because they were underage. The original Aragorn was sacked and a replacement, the multi-talented Mr Viggo Mortensen, was announced. The Evening Post was banned from the film's set for being too curious and began to collaborate with various unofficial LoTR websites to ferret out unauthorised information.

For a couple of days in mid-shoot, the floor of the Ellice St. quarry was dotted with dead branches and clumps of tussock grass, and used for some second-unit shots. If you watch The Fellowship of the Ring, you'll get a glimpse of the Black Riders crossing the Ellice St quarry floor as they advance on Weathertop.

Just before filming was scheduled to finish we got a notice in our mailbox to say that Jackson's Three Foot Six Limited film company would be filming in the quarry for three days in late December 2000, and that our cooperation as affected residents would be appreciated. Based on others' experiences, I didn't think this would lead to great viewing opportunities. Gareth was attending morning kindergarten, and on the Monday, apart from asking a truck to move so I could get the car out, filming had little impact on us. On the Tuesday, when we got home from the kindy, Gareth said he wanted to go and look at the movie being made. "I'm sure they won't let us see anything," I said, but we walked to the top of the street anyway.

To be met by a guard. I was all ready to turn away when he said "Would you and the little boy like to see the filming?" We said we would, and he led us up to the quarry floor. A trench had been cut in it, and the riders of Rohan were riding their horses down the trench, around a tent, and then back up onto the quarry floor. They did it once. They did it again. We watched them do it several times, then we went home, happy and surprised.

On Wednesday, the last scheduled day of filming, it rained all day. Thursday dawned fine, and Gareth and I decided that we'd walk home together from his kindy — a half-hour walk up the far side of the ridge and down the Mt Victoria side, past the quarry, to our house. Quite a walk for a four-year-old, but he has strong legs.

Walking over to the kindy to get him, I saw activity at the quarry, but assumed it was preparations to dismantle the set. Forty-five minutes later, however, as Gareth and I descended homewards past the quarry, it was plain that filming was continuing. Still, we needed to get home, and I didn't intend to take the long way round. I said as much to the first security guard we saw, and he assured me we wouldn't have to. "Just walk quietly, please." So we did, and stopped when the action started, and saw a bearded gentleman — I won't be sure who till I see The Return of the King — stare straight at us and say "Six thousand spears — it's not enough." "It'll do fine," I wanted to tell him, but I kept my mouth shut.

That was almost it. They did pack up the next day, and dismantled the artificial forest they'd made under the quarry walls, and eventually filled in the trench and reseeded the grass so that the quarry floor could resume its former role as a dog exercise area and occasional venue for family cricket games. Filming was over, and the stars went home. Neither my wife Kay nor I were invited to the premiere of The Fellowship of the Ring, but we've each seen it twice. Gareth's a bit young to see it on the big screen. He'll have to wait till the video comes out.

Gareth and I still walk in the Town Belt. The droppings has been trampled underfoot by now, and the paths have mostly resumed their former shape, but there are still one or two places where the scouring of the land is obvious. One day, I expect, we'll see a glint of gold. Bending down, we'll find a little ring, the least of rings, lying forsaken by the path. We'll drive out to Seatoun and drop it off at Peter Jackson's studios, if the guard will let us through the gate.

An earlier version of this article was printed as "'Twas in the Depths of Mordor" in the fanzine Head, edited by Christina Lake and Douglas Bell. In its present form, it first appeared on the (now defunct) Silveroak Books website.

01 August 2008

Going Back

My mother is the gap in the windbreak
the fallen macrocarpa
the flooded river and the flooded plain.

The radio, not tuned to any station
the rails removed from a siding
the gash in the mountain's side.

My mother is the doorway
and the grip of my father's hand
and the stubble of his cheek on mine.

The missing face in the kitchen
the absent chair at the table
the silence under all we say.

Remembering, unforgetting,
on the edge of sleep in the darkness
my mother is each toss and turn.

The need to leave in the morning
the long goodbye to my father
the driveway and the car I drive.

My mother is the corner
the anxious overtaking
the yellow lines that double in my eyes.

The last lap of the journey
the final tick of the engine
my mother is the road I travel home.

This poem is included in my latest collection, All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens.