24 December 2009

And The Winner Is ...

The winner of the signed copy of Nalini Singh's UK edition of her novel Angels' Blood is blog commenter Edna (see my interview with Nalini). Congratulations to Edna, and thanks to everyone who commented and tweeted in response to the interview and the competition - a special thanks to Nalini for her responses to comments.

That about wraps things up for 2009. Until about the end of January 2010, I'll drop down to my "summer schedule" of roughly one blog post per week. But I have already lined up my first three author interviews of next year, and in between those - well, I'm sure I'll think of something to post...

The highlight of this year for me from a writing/editing point of view has been the success of Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry for New Zealand. I haven't had quite the same level of success in meeting my self-imposed deadline of Christmas Eve to finish my novel draft: I still have a little under two chapters to go. They are more or less complete in my head: I just need to channel them through my fingers.

By New Year's Day, maybe?

After that, while the draft sits for a few weeks, I want to turn my attention back to my much-neglected, partly-completed next poetry collection. Furthermore, there's a world to save ...

But this is Christmas, this is the holiday season. Family time. Then, as the robots say, I'll be back.

21 December 2009

Book Review: The Last Church, by Lee Pletzers

The Last Church is available from Amazon.com. Other availability details are on Lee Pletzers' website. The Last Church is published by Black Bed Sheet Books, RRP US $20.95.

New Zealand horror writer Lee Pletzers' The Last Church does the job of a good horror novel (or, I suppose, any novel): it keeps you turning the pages, wanting to know what happens next, and hoping that at least some of the characters - not to mention the world - will make it out alive at the end of the story.

And the fate of the world is very much at stake. I don't want to give too much away, so let's just say that there's a man with a plan for the future of the world which isn't what most of us would wish for; that this man has, or embodies, demonic assistance; and that a diverse coalition of characters with less power but equal determination come together to stop him — or, at least, to try.

Along the way, quite a lot of the characters meet gruesome fates. And some of them are very gruesome: The Last Church doesn't stint on sex, violence, and in some cases sexual violence. You have been warned.

It took me a while to get into the story. There is a large cast of characters to start with - before the main villain and his henchpeople start to whittle them down — and the story jumps between several time periods. I had trouble keep track of everything and everyone for about the first quarter of the novel. Also off-putting were quite a few proofreading and grammatical errors: mostly minor things, like missing apostrophes, but until I got into the flow of the story I found these distracting. I know only too well how hard it is to eliminate all such errors, but another proofreading run would benefit future printings of the novel.

As I read, I wasn't always convinced that characters' motivations for their actions were sufficiently well established. The principal villain is a nasty piece of work, but he has a goal, and his actions are consistent with that goal. On the other hand, to my eyes at least, the behaviour of his "dream woman" and subsequent consort seems inconsistent; or, put another way, I didn't feel I had a clear enough understanding of her character, so that her actions sometimes seemed arbitrary rather than well-founded.

But it would be a mistake to dwell on the negatives. The Last Church is scary, gruesome at times, and increasingly gripping as it approaches its climax. If you like horror with a side order of apocalypse, The Last Church is worth a visit.

17 December 2009

An Interview with Nalini Singh

Nalini Singh is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Psy/Changeling and Guild Hunter series. Born in Fiji and raised in New Zealand, she spent three years living and working in Japan. Now back home in New Zealand, she is currently at work on her next Psy/Changeling novel.

You can see travel photos, read excerpts and find behind-the-scenes info on her books on her:

Website: www.nalinisingh.com
Blog: www.nalinisingh.blogspot.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/nalinisingh
Twitter: www.twitter.com/nalinisingh

Paranormal romance has become a very successful genre over the past decade. For the benefit of blog readers who aren't familiar with the genre, can you describe it?

Paranormal romances (pnr) are stories that encompass a wide range of elements beyond the norm – things like psychic abilities, vampires, alternate worlds, and shapeshifters to name a few.

Because of this, there’s a huge freedom in where you can go as a writer – and for readers, this means a wonderful breadth of choice. I think that depth and breadth of content is one of the strengths of pnr.

The three authors who come to mind when I think of paranormal romance are Laurell K. Hamilton (with her Anita Blake series), Charlaine Harris (with her Sookie Stackhouse series), and Mary Janice Davidson (with her Undead series). Each of these, to my mind, combines romance with horror. Would you say that the romance/horror combination is characteristic of paranormal romance, or do romance/science fiction and romance/fantasy also form an important part of the genre?

For me, the three series you’ve mentioned are more closely aligned with Urban Fantasy. UF and PNR are on the same continuum, but in very basic terms, urban fantasy tends to focus on one protagonist’s journey through a number of books, while pnr tends to tell the story of a different couple in each book.

I think one of the best things about pnr is that there are endless possibilities. Horror/sf/fantasy, all of these elements can, and have been utilized by different authors. For example, my book ANGELS’ BLOOD, is very dark and gritty, and could be said to have elements of horror. (This book actually has Urban Fantasy Romance on the spine, which speaks to the overlap between pnr and uf). However, my Psy/Changeling series has elements of science fiction.

In addition to your own work, which paranormal romance writers and novels do you particularly recommend?

As I’ve noted above, the brilliant thing about pnr as a genre is that it is so huge. If a reader wanted to dip their toes into the water, I’d suggest trying a number of different authors and series – not every author works for every reader, but by that same token, there are lots of diverse and vibrant voices in this sub-genre.

Some of my recommendations:

PNR: Meljean Brook, Jayne Castle, Christine Feehan, Lora Leigh
Urban Fantasy: Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews

I’d also recommend Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy. It’s dark fantasy with a romantic thread, but most readers of pnr really enjoy this series.

If you’re looking for a PNR with fantasy, C.L. Wilson’s Lord of the Fading Lands is brilliant.

And Kay Hooper does a wonderful thriller/mystery series (Bishops/SCU) that also has paranormal / romance threads.

I see that your work has been commended for its strong world-building — and world-building is one of the things I most enjoy about both writing and reading science fiction. How do you go about building the worlds in which your stories take place?

My writing style is very character-based, so I tend to let my characters show me their world. I see through their eyes, and each time they turn, there’s something new to discover.

However, given that I write series, I also maintain complete notes about the world – continuity is so important in world-building, and I make a lot of effort to ensure that it’s maintained from book to book. Nothing makes me crazier as a reader than a writer who doesn’t follow the rules of her own world.

What are the main series you have written or are writing?

I write the Psy/Changeling series, which is set in the not too distant future and features three races—humans, the Psy (who have powerful psychic abilities), and the changelings (who can shapeshift into certain animals). Book one is SLAVE TO SENSATION.

I’ve also just begun the Guild Hunter series, which is set in an alternate earth where archangels hold sway over mortals, with vampires as their servants. Book one is ANGELS’ BLOOD.

They’re two very different series, and I really enjoy that. If your readers would like to check out either series, excerpts are available on my website.

What does it feel like to get on the New York Times best-seller list?

Amazing, stupendous, fantastic!! I still can’t believe it at times. ☺

I'm very impressed by your productivity as a writer. What kind of writing schedule do you maintain, and how do you balance this with the many demands on a successful author's time?

I write pretty much every day, and I think that’s important, not just in terms of productivity, but also to flex and strengthen your writing muscles. I also set daily goals for myself and stick to them.

As for balance, that took me a while to work out, and what I found is that being flexible works for me. If, for some reason, I’m unable to put in productive hours on one day, I’ll work an extra hour or two over the next couple of days to bring myself back on track.

Paranormal romance appears to be a field where there is a lot of collaborative work – multi-author anthologies, and so forth. Have you got involved in many such projects, and do you enjoy taking part in them?

Most anthologies tend to be by-invitation, and I’ve been very lucky to be invited to participate in several, including a recent one headlined by the fantastic Charlaine Harris.

And yes, I love them because I really enjoy writing novellas.

What's next for Nalini Singh?

I have the second book in my Guild Hunter series, ARCHANGEL’S KISS, releasing in February.

Then in July I have BONDS OF JUSTICE, the next book in my Psy/Changeling series, and in August, I have a novella from the same series in the BURNING UP anthology.

I’m very excited about all of these releases!

Nalini Singh Book Giveaway Offer

Nalini Singh has generously offered a signed copy of her book Angels' Blood (US version - the cover image used in this interview is from the UK version) as a giveaway to accompany this interview. If you'd like to be in with a chance to win this copy of Angels' Blood, you need to either (1) Make a comment on this blog post or (2) follow me on Twitter (http://twitter.com/senjmito) and then send me a tweet saying why you'd like a copy. The deadline is one week from today: 5pm on Thursday 24 December (New Zealand time). If you are making a comment on the blog, please include your email address or Twitter or Facebook ID so I have a way of contacting you to get your address details.

Happy commenting and tweeting!

UPDATE: Helen Lowe has interviewed Nalini Singh for Plains FM. You can listen to the interview online, or download the interview in mp3 format, on the Plains FM site.

10 December 2009

Summoning, Revised

In 2006, I responded to a call for submissions to Poem, Revised, an anthology which, as Amazon puts it, is

An in-depth look at the writing processes of 54 poems, each by a different modern author, is provided, complete with early drafts, subsequent revised versions, and short essays from the poets themselves revealing how and why they made specific changes

I wrote my piece on the revision process for my poem "Summoning", first published in Strange Horizons in 2006 and subsequently collected in All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens. My submission wasn't accepted, but I dug it out recently and thought that it would be worth reposting here.

Summoning (published version)

Behind coded invitations,
long night journeys,
country house gatherings
of like-minded men -

behind the fear of women,
banishment of servants,
locked doors, shuttered windows,
guards to ward off spies -

behind cloaks, hoods,
symbols scrawled on vellum,
books of lore and learning,
circles of protection -

behind scrying-glass,
crystal, speculum,
the lighting of a candle
and the speaking of a name -

you never know.
That is the truth of every incantation.
You never know
what will come to the flame

Published in Strange Horizons, February 13, 2006

Origins, Revisions and Comments

On January 6, 2004, I jotted the following lines in my diary:


You never know what will come. That
is the truth beneath ...

I had recently read John Crowley's novel The Solitudes (also published as Aegypt, but in fact the first volume of the Aegypt tetralogy), and I think these initial lines were inspired by the book's depiction of the 16th-century magicians and alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelley working, under conditions of great secrecy, to contact the angels and learn their secrets.

The lines looked promising, so I transferred them into the "Poetry jottings and ideas" file on my computer, and returned to them from time to time, turning them around on the screen and in my head, trying to make a poem.

It took almost two years for this process to bear fruit. I expanded the lines I already had into the final stanza of a poem, and then it was a matter of getting from the title to that final stanza. Once I hit upon the first word of the poem, the rest of the first draft quickly fell into place:

Summoning (first draft, November 11, 2005)

Behind the long night journeys,
coded invitations,
gatherings, late at night in country houses,
of like-minded men -

behind the fear of women
banishment of servants
locked doors, sealed windows
casting out of spies -

behind the cloaks, hoods,
books of learning,
circles of protection -

behind mirror, crystal,
speculum, entreaty,
the lighting of the candle
and the speaking of a name -

You never know.
That is the truth of every incantation.
You never know
what will come to the flame.

I let this draft sit for a few weeks. When I returned to it, I was encouraged. The poem had structure, imposed by the regular stanzas and the repetition of "behind". It had movement, going from the preparations for summoning (lines 1-14), to the moment of summoning (lines 15-16), to a more general observation about the process of summoning (lines 17-20).

It also had several obvious flaws. Line 3 was both clumsy and far too long. "Casting out" in line 8 would be more appropriate for demons than for spies. The word "entreaty" does not fit among the collection of physical paraphernalia for "seeing" angels listed in lines 13 and 14. When read aloud, lines 5 and 6 did not sound right.

Something else struck me. Lines 1-17 form a sentence of the form "Behind [a list of things] you never know." This is syntactically odd at best, and I would not use it in prose. After careful thought, I decided that it did work in the context of this poem, so I retained the odd construction, but made the sentence form more clear by removing the initial capital in line 17.

I did my customary pruning of the extraneous instances of "the" that festoon my first drafts, shuffled words about for a while, and came up with this:

Summoning (second draft, December 7, 2005)

Behind coded invitations,
long night journeys,
country-house gatherings
of like-minded men -

behind the ban on women,
banishment of servants,
locked doors, shuttered windows,
constant fear of spies -

behind cloaks, hoods,
symbols scrawled on vellum,
books of learning,
circles of protection -

behind crystal,
scrying-glass, speculum,
the lighting of a candle
and the speaking of a name -

you never know.
That is the truth of every incantation.
You never know
what will come to the flame.

I returned to the poem for the third and final time five days later. One problem jumped out at me as soon as I read Draft 2 aloud: I had ended up with "ban" in line 5 and "banishment" in line 6, which would never do. I spent a lot of time on this couplet, and in the end, decided that I liked the version in my first draft better than any of the alternatives I could think of - so back came the original wording.

In line 8, I had replaced the original "casting out of spies" by "constant fear of spies". But if line 5 was to revert to the original, then "fear" would appear twice in the same stanza, which was rather too phobic. Besides, the emphasis of the first four stanzas is primarily on actions taken by the magicians rather than emotional states, so I came up with "guards to ward off spies" instead.

I changed the order of words in lines 13 and 14 (the first two lines of the fourth stanza) purely for euphony: "scrying-glass, crystal, speculum" sounds better to my ears than the earlier version.

After making these changes, I was satisfied, and submitted the poem to Strange Horizons.

It's interesting to look back on the variety of poetic techniques used in "Summoning". The poem uses internal rhyme and half-rhyme (e.g. "night" in line 2 and "like" in line 4); alliteration (quite a few examples, e.g. "lore and learning" in line 11); assonance (e.g. "hoods" in line 7 and "books" in line 9) and near-assonance (e.g. in "country-house" in line 3); repetition ("behind" as previously mentioned, and also "the [verb] of a" in lines 15 and 16, and "You never know" in lines 17 and 19). It’s hard now to remember how much of this was planned, and how much spontaneous. More than anything else, I go by ear.

06 December 2009

You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best!

Well, you got one of the best, anyway. The New Zealand Listener has included Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand in its list of the 100 Best Books of 2009.

This is good news not only because it is welcome recognition of science fiction poetry in general and this anthology's contributors in particular, but also because it should increase the public profile and the sales of the book. Plus, after five years' effort to get Voyagers published, this is a very welcome vindication!

You can buy Voyagers...

In New Zealand

  • Directly from me. I now have a limited number of copies for sale for NZ $28 plus $2 p&p. If you'd like one, please email senjmito@gmail.com with your address and preferred payment method.

  • From an increasing range of bookshops, including (but not limited to) Unity Books (Wellington and Auckland), Books a Plenty in Tauranga, Bruce MacKenzie Books in Palmerston North, Madras Cafe Books in Christchurch, and the University Book Shop in Dunedin.

  • From Fishpond.


USA only


Now the Herald has got in on the act! That's great, but still no endorsement from New Zealand Plumber magazine .,..

03 December 2009

An Interview With Sally McLennan

Sally McLennan says she writes strange fairy tales and lives stranger ones. She was once the tooth fairy of a small mountain town and she has been the editor of two American health care newspapers (The Medicare Pathfinder and The Medicare Navigator). She has lived in Australia and Thailand. Her time in Thailand gave her the ability to speak passable Thai, carve a pumpkin into really interesting shapes, and she gained her parachuting wings with the Thai Royal Airforce. After living in Thailand, Sally studied at Canterbury University where she gained a First Class Honours degree in English literature. Now, some years later, she divides her time between many bookish works in progress.

Sally's first book, Deputy Dan and the Mysterious Midnight Marauder, recently won the Sir Julius Vogel Award for the Best Professional Publication. It is a picture book heavily influenced by graphic novels. Sally describes the book as the story of 'a crime spree so unfathomable that the law enforcement agencies are stumped, and the public is captivated, and a criminal so strange that nobody could guess who the culprit might be.' Dan, the hero of the book, sets out to solve the crime and bring the criminal to justice. This is a story about magic and regrets, about learning to feel more and judge less, and the true treasures in life.

Deputy Dan and the Mysterious Midnight Marauder can be purchased from Te Papa's Kid's Store, Barbara's Books, Scorpio Books, The Children's Bookshop, Unity, Storytime, Vic Books, Arty Bees, The Christchurch Cathedral shop, UBS Canterbury, The Arts Centre Bookshop in Christchurch and from Sally's website.

Sally, there's all sorts of stuff I want to ask you about, but to begin with, how did you manage to get the Wizard to compere the launch of your book? Also, the launch of her first book is a very special time for any writer – how was this launch for you?

Ah, Jack the Wizard was lovely. It was no trouble at all. I randomly mentioned how much I wished the Wizard was my compere to the Town Crier of Christchurch, Steven Symons, after someone introduced us. I'm not even sure how it came up! It turned out they were friends and within a day he gave me the Wizard's contact information so I was able to make a very nervous call to the Wizard. Luckily, he was pleased with the idea, and played along with everything beautifully. He said a wonderfully theatrical blessing of the book which would have been perfect if he had been able to actually remember its name. Instead he called it by five or six different titles and I think this added greatly to the charm of the event. We did two launches; one each in Wellington and Christchurch. The reason was that my publisher is based in Wellington, and we wanted an event that coincided with the National Science Fiction convention held there, as the people involved have been very supportive of my writing. However, everyone else who worked on the book - and there was a large team - was based in Christchurch.

The Christchurch event was huge. We started with dinner served in trams circling the city while jazz musicians played their way through the carriages. Then, we had the launch ceremony at the Design and Arts College of New Zealand where Joel (the illustrator) studied. Five hundred individual cakes were served that night and a segment from the book was narrated in sign language. It was completely special. One of the best nights of my life. I think for both launches Joel and I floated - leading up to them there is this strange terror that something will be wrong with the book or people wouldn't love it somehow - then momentum takes over and the launch itself is a blissful dream come true sort of experience. Its a feeling I can highly recommend and one with lasting sweetness.

What was the path that led you and Deputy Dan and The Mysterious Midnight Marauder from first thought to publication?

It was long and twisty, that path. It started with a dream while I was still studying. In it a blond boy was trying to track down a robber... who it turned out was not a robber at all! I asked myself if I could write that boy's story and - just for kicks - write it into verse. It was a sort of joke with myself, an experiment, and I suspected I was insane for wanting to try it. Twelve years later the book was published and my suspicions had been confirmed! I wrote Deputy Dan during tea breaks from my day jobs - ten minutes at a time - all that time. After several years of that my health abruptly deteriorated. I was - mistakenly - told by one Doctor that my condition was terminal. I decided that I preferred to fulfill the dream of being a writer, and finish Deputy Dan, rather than succumb. I finished the story while still very ill. When she was out with him for a business lunch my sister told Tim, the publisher, that he had to read my work. He declared it all publishable. At about the same time I submitted the story to the judges of the Conclave Award (for Fantasy Poetry) as a handful of photocopied sheets and it won.

Production began. I had an idea that as the book started life as the work of a student I wanted another student to illustrate it. I ran a competition with the Design and Arts College of New Zealand and the student who came up with the most apt character sketches won the chance to illustrate the book. That was Joel and we worked closely together for almost a year and a half. We were, under Tim's direction, involved in all the processes of publishing. Tim wanted to teach us what was involved. Finally, at about 1.30am on the 17th of March, 2008, the first printed pages of the book began rolling off the presses. It's an amazing thing to experience on the ground as I did.

Why do you write? What do you hope to achieve from any by writing, both in personal terms and in terms of the effect your work has on readers and on the literary community?

Writing is a strange illness that nobody has found a cure for. For me, its a compulsion, and I am happiest when fulfilling that absolute need, instead of hiding from it. I feel like I am talking with the world I am part of when I write. I reach out, and see if anyone reaches back, while breathing life into characters and their world; communication and creation at the same time. In personal terms I hope to make a book people might enjoy. I also try to write beauty more than ugliness (inner and outer). I don't know if I think of having an effect on the literary community - it seems like such a big thing - but I do have a few ideals I cling to about what I want my work to do socially. I want to wise up children rather than dumbing down books. In other words, I don't like limiting my vocabulary or ideas when I write by trying to direct them to an age group. I think that breaks your writing and I don't want to patronise readers. I think using more challenging words well encourages kids to learn them.

How do you fit writing in with the rest of your life? Where and when do you like to write?

At the moment it's really difficult. I am transitioning between cities and that is taking its toll on me physically. So, I am in a hiatus. In the past six months, I've done a fair bit of editing and written ten thousand words of the series I am most focused on. I've also written a short story. Now I am at the tail end of that transition, I am really looking forward to more writing time. I think to myself that I've just had the rite of passage now I want the writing of passages!

I've learned I am someone who needs a dedicated writing corner of some sort. Now, I have bought a home and it has a long, narrow, office at the top of three stories looking out over trees. I am really looking forward to writing in that tower like crevice. I do most of my writing in bursts late at night in my office and in cafes during the afternoon. I am also often running ideas around in my head when I am seemingly otherwise occupied. I do some of my best writing while drifting off to sleep or doing the dishes. I have learned to carry paper everywhere.

Some writers say that they find it hard to read for pleasure – that, willingly or not, they read with one eye on how the book they're reading achieves its effects, or they read to see what other authors in their genre are up to, or what's selling well at the moment. Are you an analytical reader, or do you read primarily for pleasure? Can you tell us some of your favourite writers?

I read with absolute indulgence for pleasure. I know the book is failing for me when I become super analytical and start pulling out my inner editorial red marker. I write the sort of stories I enjoy reading - YA, Children's books and fantasy/ slipstream. My absolute favourites are Robin Hobb, Catherine Valente, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Mahy, Diana Wynne- Jones, Keri Hulme, Paul Stewart, Phillip Pullman... well, its a long list and one I could add to for a while!

I know that you really enjoy New Zealand's national science fiction conventions. What's so good at about them?

I've found the people there to be incredibly enthusiastic and supportive - its a great community. I've learned more about writing at those conventions than through any other forum - its invaluable to meet the experienced guest authors they host each year - and the convention members themselves have sometimes benefited by the years and years of exposure to these guests. So they are also really knowledgeable around the craft of writing. I've learned a lot about how to get published (ah, the debate about the necessity of agents continues though!), generating ideas, and by seeing how other authors work. I found that many use sensory keys to tell themselves its work time, such as a particular drink, or piece of music. When that music is played or that drink poured its time to sit down and write. It almost becomes self hypnotic the association becomes so strong and that's a good thing; the hardest part of writing is sometimes to start doing it.

Why are the Sir Julius Vogel Awards so special to you?

I think its huge that New Zealand has its own trophy for Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. Its got a great lineage, being named for the Prime Minister who wrote science fiction back in the Victorian era, and with the trophies themselves crafted and donated by Weta Workshops. It seems like each year the award gains significance and gets more noticed. The award has its origins in the grass roots of fandom and is an absolute credit to the teams of volunteers who have devoted years to running it for little or no recognition. The service they do to the writing community is amazing. To be awarded one was an incredibly proud moment and especially because it put me in the company of a group of author friends. On the actual night of the awards Helen Lowe and Nalini Singh and I all sat together and all, happily, got at least one Vogel (Helen did really well and got two!). It made things even more special, if possible.

You have been involved in the Books In Homes scheme. What is so good about this scheme, and have you found your involvement rewarding?

Duffy's Books in Homes is a wonderful programme. They have given away over five million books to kids in lower decile schools in the fourteen years they have operated and their 588 schools show a 35% increase in mean reading levels. So: that's great. But the Books in Homes focus on learning and achieving through goal setting - with reading as a tool and a focus - seems to have a massive impact on entire communities around participating schools. Parents are taught and encouraged to read to kids, jail rates fall away in these communities, bullying and truancy diminish. Camberley school reports that vandalism of school property dropped by 90% as a result of involvement in Books in Homes. Adult literacy improves and job opportunities are derived as a result. The programme involves kids in pre-school, primary school, and then High School kids become role models. Parents - especially Dads - and grandparents are encouraged to participate. It's inspired.

I went into the programme as a role model. This means I visited schools talking about how reading has made a positive difference in my life, to encourage kids to read, and I gave out their free books at the awards ceremony afterwards. I thought I was engaging in an act of service but, in fact, it has proven at least as inspiring for me as it was for the kids. I was the Books in Homes role model for Van Asch Deaf Education Centre in Sumner. The kids there, and their teachers, were amazing. I never saw anything as expressive as one of the teachers signing part of Deputy Dan to the kids. Their whole language of gesture is beautiful and an art form in itself. Later, they hosted me at a school performance of Oliver which was really special. Then, at the book launch, a senior student named Mark signed part of the book. His skill dumbfounded everyone who watched - I was mobbed by people wanting to talk about how theatrical it was afterwards - and it was a powerful moment. He gave me a brooch bearing a golden butterfly which made me an International Friend of the Deaf - it apparently is recognised all over the world - and which symbolises the Deaf Community: silent but beautiful.

What's next for Sally McLennan? What writing projects do you have underway, or in mind?

I'm dying to get settled into my new home and stuck in! I want to have as much as possible, if not all, of the Somewhere Else trilogy finished ahead of World Con (AussieCon 4: The World Science Fiction convention in 2010). The first book is about a group of kids who are translated into another world, one linked with our own, and at war. Of course, as in all fantasy stories of this type, there is the expectation that the children will be heroes. Of course, this story is a little more true to life about what happens to young people who suddenly find they are in the middle of a war. It's quite gritty and I am really enjoying writing it. A series about an imaginary friend who comes to life is ticking along nicely - the Jessica and Spuds series - which is definitely in prose. I also have, way on the back burner, a sequel to Deputy Dan.

While all that is going on Joel wants me to pen words to his graphic novel about JoJo, a boy in a circus, in space. That is a perfect continuation of our partnership: he has had to put images to my ideas now I have to match words to his images. I love working with Joel. He is my creative brother. Together we could come up with almost anything.

30 November 2009

The Pole

The Pole: Preamble

This 500 word short-short story appeared in my first collection, Extreme Weather Events (2001). It reflects my continuing fascination with the events of December 1911 and January 1912, when the Norwegian expedition under Roald Amundsen and the British expedition under Robert Falcon Scott contended, with their different methods and different personalities, to be the first in recorded history to reach the South Pole. It's an era and a competition about which there is still controversy.

I was raised on tales of the heroism of Scott and his other great rival, Ernest Shackleton - yet, in those tales, Amundsen was always regarded as an outsider and something of a bounder, a Johnny Foreigner using such underhand methods as meticulous preparation and detailed organisation to succeed where British pluck and improvisation failed.

"The Pole" is far from the first story to re-imagine the race for the Pole - one of its most distinguished predecessors is Ursula Le Guin's short story Sur. I even have an idea for a "The Pole 2", which, perhaps fortunately, I haven't yet written. But here, in 500 words or so, is my version of the race for the Pole.

The Pole

Amundsen and Scott approached the Pole from opposite directions. They halted when they were each about ten feet from it. Their men, who had been following warily behind, joined their leaders, and two semi-circles of tired, hungry, dirty explorers glared at each other through the drifting snow.

There were protocols to be observed on such occasions. "Pony-butchers!" yelled Helmer Hanssen.

"Dog-killers!" replied Wilson. This wasn't really fair; the English had killed their dogs, too, but the difference — an important difference to all right-thinking Englishmen — was that this had been the result of incompetence rather than design.

"Disorganised rabble!" True enough.

"Cheats!" This was the Englishmen's greatest complaint. Everyone knew Scott had first dibs on the pole, yet this arrogant Norwegian had tried to beat him to it.

Insults go only so far. It may have been Evans who scooped up the first handful of icy snow; soon, the air was filled with missiles, little packets of misery bound for neck or chest or face. The activity released something in them; they danced and capered, bending and straightening, hurling challenges when they were not hurling snow, their ranks dissolving into a fluid ballet of man and ice.

But it was cold, utterly cold, and they were tired. Scott and Amundsen (who had kept themselves largely aloof from the frenzy infecting their men) looked at each other, brushed the snow from their clothes, then motioned for silence. Each leader walked forward, step for step, until their hands could clasp.

"Welcome to the Pole, Captain Scott."

"Welcome to the Pole, Mr Amundsen."

They shook hands again. Then they moved to one side and repeated the handshake for the cameras, and it is Bjaaland's photograph we have seen so many times, the two leaders, hoods thrown back, smiling at each other, there at that desire of all true hearts, the Pole.

After the handshakes were over, after the exchange of gifts between the men, they returned to the Pole itself. Whoever had made the cairn that stood there had built well, but there was no clue to their identity, nor to how they had brought the rock from some distant outcrop. It took the best part of an hour to dismantle the cairn, bury its rocks a suitable distance away, and smooth over the snow.

When the site had been cleared, they stood two ski poles upright in the snow, lashed on the Norwegian flag and the Union Jack, and took a further round of photos. After the British had gorged themselves on the Norwegians' food — for the British were half-starved, while the Norwegians had more than they needed — each party left the Pole behind, with many a final glance at the two flags fluttering bravely together in the wind, and began the long trek home.

25 November 2009

Genre Benders: How Interstitial Fiction Is Bringing Speculative Fiction and Literary Fiction Together

This is a lightly edited version of my article of the same name in the journal English in Aotearoa, Issue 67, April 2009. Keen readers of the genres I discuss will be aware that I have missed out much more than I have included!.

1. What is Interstitial Fiction?

What do you call a short story that incorporates the Soviet Politburo of the mid-1980s, the early science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, consensus decision-making techniques, matter transmitters, the KGB and emissaries from the Galactic Federation?

You might call the story "Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev!", as I did when I wrote it. You might call it science fiction. You might call it satire, or metafiction, or even literary fiction.

But these days, especially in the United States, you're most likely to call a story like "Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev!" interstitial fiction. It's not a term that rolls off the tongue, and there probably aren't many people who go to their local bookstore and ask to be shown to the interstitial fiction shelves. Yet it's helping stories that previously fell in the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction (a portmanteau term for science fiction, fantasy and horror) to find a home.

In this article, I'm going to look at what interstitial fiction is, how it has developed out of science fiction and fantasy, how it relates to both speculative fiction and literary fiction, and what it's like to be a writer who straddles genres in this way. I will also take a look at New Zealand science fiction and fantasy, and close with a few comments on the significance of interstitial fiction.

What is interstitial fiction? The Interstitial Arts Foundation defines interstitial art as "literature, music, visual and performance art found in between categories and genres — art that crosses borders." Thus, interstitial fiction crosses the borders between fiction genres, or exists in multiple categories at once.

Of course, in the very act of a defining a term such as interstitial fiction lie the seeds of creating a new genre, locked into its own rules, its own critical conventions, its own magazines and anthologies and publishers. Indeed, the Interstitial Arts Foundation has two collections of interstitial fiction stories, Interfictions I and II. Most literary movements start with innovation and end in ossification; fortunately, interstitial fiction is still very much in the innovation phase.

In the early twentieth century, literary fiction and speculative fiction became divided from each other. The impetus behind the concept of interstitial fiction came from the speculative fiction side. To see why, it's necessary to look back at the roots of that division.

2. The Great Divorce

In his magisterial history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss makes a strong case that what we now call science fiction begins with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Though Dr Frankenstein's anguished creation had Gothic antecedents, the spark that brought him to life was scientific, not supernatural: thus, Frankenstein marked a break from its Gothic predecessors, and was the first novel which set out to investigate the powers, limits and moral challenges of the scientific method and scientific experimentation.

In the 19th and early 20th century, many novelists, the most famous of whom were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, wrote science fiction. Wells, in particular, initiated many of the characteristic tropes of the genre, such as time travel in The Time Machine, and interplanetary war in The War of the Worlds — which was also an early critique of colonialism, with the invading Martians playing the part of the colonists.

The term "scientific romance" was sometimes used in the UK to describe such books, but H.G. Wells was free to move between novels of time and space on the one hand, and social comedies like The History of Mr Polly on the other. It was the growth of pulp science fiction magazines in the United States which established the reputation of science fiction as a distinct, and inferior, genre in much of the English-speaking literary world.

The pulps! How beautiful the brass-bra'ed heroines depicted on their covers, and how hideous the many-tentacled monstrosities that menaced those heroines in brazen defiance of morality and logic alike! How breathless the adventures within their pages, how unimaginably powerful the super-weapons, how dastardly the villains, how stalwart the heroes!

They may have been fun, but they certainly weren't literature. The pulps, so-called for the cheap paper stock they used, were cheap and cheerful, but the science fiction pulps were disastrous for both the literary reputation and the literary ambitions of aspiring science fiction writers. At the very time when literary fiction was moving to new heights — or depths — of complexity, the most easily visible examples of science fiction were not the sophistication of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells, but the "super-science" of E.E. "Doc" Smith and co.

While literary fiction underwent the convulsions of late modernism, science fiction and fantasy, now severed from the mainstream, underwent their own, separate development. The pulp SF writers and their readers formed a community that had its own meeting places — science fiction conventions; its own critical literature — science fiction fanzines; and its own argot and set of conventions.

Increasingly, SF writers assumed that their audience understood the core conventions of the genre: faster than light travel through "hyperspace", time travel, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory which allows for the possibility of multiple, simultaneous, slightly different universes. If you were an SF reader, you didn't need these things explained to you; if you weren't normally an SF reader, you quickly became baffled. Thus, the divide widened.

Though SF would be dismissed as "pulp fiction" for decades to come, the actual pulp SF era was largely brought to a close by World War II paper shortages. At about the same time, magazine editors such as John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction began to insist that science fiction stories be based on credible science, while other editors pushed for a higher standard of writing. The result was the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, from the late 1930s through to the 1950s: the period when the defining tropes of science fiction as a distinct genre were fully developed.

At the time, the distinction between fantasy and science fiction as publishing categories was less marked than it is today. Fantasy tended to be written by science fiction writers, who applied the same extrapolative disciplines to systems of magic in their fantasy that they did to science and technology in their SF. Though stories of magic and the fantastic had a pedigree long antedating SF, it was the explosive success of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, published in the mid-1950s, which inaugurated high fantasy, with its own conventions of halflings and orcs and talking trees, as a separate genre, a genre that is now far more successful than science fiction in commercial terms.

Meanwhile, science fiction has undergone several more waves of innovation, which have had the net effect of increasing its sophistication and bringing both its concerns and its sensibility closer to that of literary fiction:

1960s: The New Wave. A movement, led by British writers, which infused the techniques and sensibility of European experimental fiction, such as the French nouveau roman, into science fiction. The results were wildly uneven, but this was the movement that brought authors such as J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss to prominence.

1970s: Feminism. While other aspects of SF had become more sophisticated by the 1970s, its treatment of women hadn't progressed much beyond the brass-bra'ed heroine-in-peril stage; and the New Wave was characterized as much by its sexism as its experimental techniques. Female, and feminist, authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr (real name Alice Sheldon) introduced realistic, complex women characters and a turn away from masculine preoccupations with the size, shininess and general thrustfulness of spaceships.

1980s: Cyberpunk. Authors such as William Gibson married thriller narratives and a noir sensibility with near-future SF in tales of how pervasive information technology interfaced with human life and culture. The result sometimes read like Raymond Chandler with extra swearing, but the significance for the genre was to bring its concerns closer to the present day and to the harsh realities of life on an overcrowded Earth.

I've simplified, of course, in associating each of these movements with a specific decade: each movement had antecedents, each continues to have an influence on the field. But, to follow the pattern, we may say that the 1990s saw the beginnings of interstitial fiction, and hence the beginnings of a sustained attempt to tear down or break through the wall dividing speculative fiction from literary fiction.

3. Tearing Down the Wall

One of the peculiar features of this wall was that it only worked one way. It was almost impossible for science fiction authors to make the transition to becoming respected authors of literary fiction — though J.G. Ballard was a notable exception — but perfectly possible for literary authors to spend a while "slumming" on the SF side. Some, such as Doris Lessing in her "Canopus in Argos" series were clear about what they were doing; others, such as Margaret Atwood in writing The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, refused to admit that they were writing SF at all, much to the frustration of authors within the SF field.

Given this imbalance in the ability to cross the literary fiction-speculative fiction boundary, it's not surprising that the initial impetus for interstitial fiction came from the speculative fiction side: from a group of young American authors of speculative fiction, the majority of them women, whose work was not easy to categorise into science fiction, fantasy or horror, were frustrated that, despite their stories sharing common territory with what was known on the literary side of the fence as fabulation, metafiction or magic realism, they found it hard to reach a sympathetic audience.

One of these writers was Kelly Link, best known for her short story collection Magic for Beginners (2005). She and her husband Gavin Grant founded a small-press magazine with the improbable title Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and the publishing company Small Beer Press, to provide venues for interstitial fiction. Despite the small scale of these ventures, they quickly attracted a lot of critical attention, and writers published by Link and Grant soon gained attention and sales in bigger magazines and anthologies.

Since, then, an Interstitial Studies Institute has been set up at the State University of New York, and various people involved in the interstitial fiction movement have created the Interstitial Arts Institute, which publishes the Interfictions anthology series. Interstitial fiction hasn't yet had the dramatic impact that cyberpunk had in the 1980s, but it is providing a pathway into literary fiction for genre authors, and into the less "techy" end of speculative fiction for literary fiction readers.

4. Writing Interstitial Fiction

Transported is my second short fiction collection. The first, Extreme Weather Events (HeadworX, 2001), collects my early short stories, which were mainly science fiction, with a couple of horror stories and one hard to classify — perhaps interstitial? — story about a man whose obsession it is to walk every street in Dunedin, on both sides, in anticipation of the reward he believes awaits him when he completes his task.

The scope of Transported is much wider. The underpinning themes and motifs of the book — transport and journeys; climate change and its effects on individuals and countries — are expressed via a wide range of styles and genres, from the interstitial bonanza of the aforementioned "Mikhail Gorbachev", through humour, satire, good old mimetic realism, cautionary tale (in "Filling the Isles", it is literally true that all we have left is each other), alternate or counterfactual history ("A Short History of the Twentieth Century, with Fries"), science fiction, fantasy, and fable.

Many of the stories in Transported were written before I conceived the idea for the collection, and some were initially published in magazines and anthologies in New Zealand, the US and elsewhere. But, looking back, it seems that I have used genre as a tool to look at a recurring set of concerns in different ways: to look at climate change, for example, as an approaching threat ("Robinson in Love"), an imminent reality ("Going Under") and a done deal ("The Wadestown Shore").

What about the interstitial stories? Well, I know they are among the most enjoyable stories to write: it is very liberating to put the conventions of genre to one side — and here I count literary realism as a genre, with its own conventions, critical terminology, and markets. It's fun to mash up two very different genres or topics: the political history of the Soviet Union with 1950s science fiction, say, or the trauma suffered by New Zealand workers under the New Right reforms of the 1980s and 1990s with the perils and pitfalls of crossing the South Island's Main Divide, as in my story "Best Practice" — and to create a story out of the clash of narratives that results. I also note that there is often a historical component to these stories: though I have never written 'straight" historical fiction, I love to use anachronism, to juxtapose the morals and concerns of one era with the morals and concerns of another.

For me, interstitial fiction is more of an impulse or a mood than a genre, and I'm therefore cautious about the prospect of its becoming overly codified. I've only once set out with the intention of writing an interstitial fiction story, and I found it hard to do deliberately — "have I got the proportions right? Are the fantastic elements too prominent, or not prominent enough? Does this story really count as being interstitial fiction?" These are hard traps to avoid. Spontaneity, and a willingness to let the story have its head, are better guides.

The interstitial fiction movement has been mainly characterized by short fiction, and though I have read some novels that fit the template (for example, Jeffrey Ford's The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque), I've yet to be convinced that interstitiality works as well at novel length as it does in short fiction. This is something I may put to the test before long: I've had one fantasy novel published, and the novel I'm working on at the moment is near-future science fiction, but the idea I have for the novel after that is distinctly interstitial. Writing an interstitial novel is a challenge I'm looking forward to.

5. New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy: Emerging from the Shadows

How are speculative fiction writers faring in New Zealand, and are there signs of rapprochement between the speculative fiction and literary writing scenes?

The strange thing about New Zealand publishers is that they are more than willing to publish science fiction and fantasy for children and young adults, but very reluctant to publish it for adults unless it comes from writers already well established in other fields. Therefore, New Zealand speculative fiction writers have usually had to look for publication overseas. Doing so has been made much easier by the Internet, and in recent years there have been some notable successes: for example, Christchurch writer Helen Lowe has recently had her first novel, children's fantasy Thornspell (2008) published in the US, and has another standalone novel and a four-volume adult fantasy series under contract there, while author Russell Kirkpatrick is doing very well in the US with his fantasy novels, such as Across the Face of the World. A glimpse at the list of science fiction and fantasy novels by New Zealand authors published in 2008 shows that there is a lot of work being done in the genre.

With the exception of science fiction novels by such recognised literary authors as Ian Wedde (Chinese Opera) and Kevin Ireland (The Jigsaw Chronicles), however, most of this work remains unnoticed by the wider New Zealand literary community. The New Zealand science fiction field has its own set of annual awards, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, and its own annual conventions, but they don't yet make much of a ripple outside the SF community.

Yet there are signs of change. The Royal Society of New Zealand recently instituted its Creative Science Writing prize, which has non-fiction and fiction components; each year's fiction winner is ipso facto a science fiction story. New Zealand's most venerable literary magazine, Landfall, devoted Issue 216 (2008) to the theme of utopias and dystopias, a theme which has long roots in the science fiction tradition.

I got the chance to contribute to this process when I was asked to guest-edit Issue 26 of JAAM magazine. JAAM (Just Another Art Movement) is a Wellington literary magazine that publishes fiction, poetry, and essays. In the call for submissions for Issue 26, I said that I would be giving equal weight to speculative work as to literary work — and I was pleased to receive and publish many good speculative fiction stories, and even more pleased to get some that moved between genres; that were, in other words, interstitial.

[TJ adds: Lots more has happened in the science fiction field in New Zealand since I wrote this article, including the publication of Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, and all the exciting developments that people wrote about in NZ Speculative Fiction Blogging Week.]

6. Conclusion

It's become a cliché to say that we live in a science-fictional world. Many ideas that were the province of science fiction as recently as the 1970s, such as personal communicators and personal computers, are now part of everyday life, while even those science-fictional concepts once derided as impossible have now been demonstrated on a small scale in the lab (teleportation) or are under active development (cloaking devices that render an object invisible at certain wavelengths).

Yet the literary reputation of science fiction, and speculative fiction in general, have not risen in parallel. SF remains a genre walled off from the rest of the literary community, sequestered into its own shelves in bookshops and libraries. Those who love it, love it; those who do not, disregard it. Conversely, many science fiction and fantasy readers disdain literary fiction, finding it too snobbish, too obscure, too slow-moving, and lacking in the virtues of narrative.

The interstitial fiction movement offers the possibility of tearing down this wall, or perhaps, more accurately, tunnelling through it, so that authors from each side cane make unexpected but welcome appearances on the other.

Part of the reason I loved reading science fiction so much when I was a teenager and young adult was that it was all about ideas and story. My English teachers wanted me to appreciate characterisation, and style, and thematic subtlety, but what I wanted was a story I could immerse myself in, characters I could identify with and some thought-provoking ideas about the nature of the universe to take away with me.

Interstitial fiction can offer the best of both worlds: story, but also style; characters, but also concepts. I hope this article encourages you to seek out work in this new and fluid field.


Aldiss, B., with Wingrove, D. (1986). Trillion Year Spree. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Clute, J., & Nicholls, P. (1995). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

Fenkl, H. (2003). The Interstitial DMZ. Interstitial Arts Foundation. http://www.interstitialarts.org/why/the_interstitial_dmz_1.html. Viewed on 12 March 2009.

23 November 2009

Book Review: Watching For Smoke, by Helen Heath

Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover.

Paekakariki poet Helen Heath's chapbook Watching for Smoke, recently published by Seraph Press and available from Seraph Press or on Etsy, is a beautiful package both inside and out, with its card cover featuring an inserted knitting needle and its coloured and textured end-papers.

The epigraph to Watching for Smoke is:

Family is a waiting fuse
watching for smoke.

Family is the subject of these poems: partners, children, parents, seen from the point of view of a daughter, a lover, a parent. Parents are ambiguously loved figures, sometimes too close, sometimes too far away, their lives brought into perspective by their daughter's giving birth to and caring for children of her own:

The hills are my father
with a shotgun
as I write you a letter. ("Evidence")

my mother's brow, her heavy lids,
there, in my new daughter.
I am home now and she will leave me. ("Homing")

I enjoyed the precision of the language and the viewpoint in these poems. The language is subtle, appropriate to the subject matter, well chosen. And the viewpoint is equally precise: each poem takes a stance, while not denying the right of other stances to exist.

"How We Disappear" both ends and summarises the chapbook, its nine short stanzas thumbnails of a woman's life moving through time. I think it's the best poem in "Watching for Smoke", but I enjoyed each of the eleven poems, and only one, "Infallible Father", did not quite possess the satisfying completeness which is a hallmark of the other ten.

You've probably gathered by now that I like "Watching for Smoke" a lot. It has been produced in a limited edition of 100 hand-bound copies. There are copies still available. I recommend that you get one soon, and watch out for Helen Heath's first full collection when it appears.

17 November 2009

Wellington Essay: Close To The Edge

This article appeared in the Dominion Post's Wellington Essay series in December 2007. It makes me think of summer.

Nothing stays the same on Mount Victoria. The pines through which I walk with my son weren't here in 1930 and won't be here in 2030. On one side of the Mount Victoria ridge, the Basin Reserve used to be a swamp. On the other, Miramar used to be an island. Film crews come and go. Mountain bikes race by. Tracks narrow or widen, appear or disappear.

But things stay the same long enough that I have been walking these tracks for more than twenty years, and I hope to walk them for many more years yet. When I still lived in Dunedin, I used to visit Wellington several times a year, and stay with a friend who lived in Hataitai. Young, fit, and skint, I chose to walk over the hill into town rather than take the bus. From the heights of Mount Victoria, I began to get a sense of how Wellington was put together.

In 1993, I moved to Wellington to be with Kay, who owned a house high on the slopes of Mount Victoria. I had been a tramper down south, taking off with friends during the Christmas holidays for a week of sandflies, speargrass, and sensational views in and around the Southern Alps. Despite my best intentions, I did not take up tramping again after I moved to Wellington; but I did get very familiar with the track network that runs from the coast at Oriental Bay, around the flanks of Mount Victoria, and south past Wellington Zoo towards Island Bay.

Our son was born in 1996. By the time he was eighteen months old, I was taking him with me to the lower slopes of Mount Victoria, next to the quarry at the top of Ellice Street. I'd carry him in my arms, then put him down carefully on a level section of track to watch him waddle in front of me until he either sat down with a well-cushioned bump or called for me to pick him up.

By the time he was four, we were venturing well off into the distance, even making it all the way to the Mount Victoria lookout on one memorable occasion. (Memorable, but tiring – I carried him much of the way back.) We came up with our own names for the tracks, like the Ball and Sport Track, so-called because a tennis ball placed at the top would roll straight down it, and sport is where you use balls. I think he came up with that one.

He attended Hataitai Kindergarten and then Kilbirnie School. When I was working from home, I'd drag myself away from my computer at 2.45pm and slog over the hill to get him, then we'd walk back at a more leisurely pace.

The view from above the pines of Mount Victoria

Changes followed us down the years. When we started, the forest airspace was ruled by magpies. Since then, they have been challenged and largely supplanted by the equally aggressive but much more lovable tui, colonists from Karori. We witnessed the unchecked proliferation of the mountain bike, and learned to listen hard when walking along narrow tracks with no easy stepping-off places for the sudden whir of wheels.

Our path to Kilbirnie School went up and to the right of the quarry at the top of Ellice Street which is now immortalised in both The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Return Of The King. Anorak time: in Fellowship, there's a brief shot, taken from above, of the Black Riders approaching Weathertop. The ground they are crossing is the grassed quarry floor, with some added vegetation brought in for the filming.

More famously, in Return, the quarry is the setting for the muster of the Rohirrim before they ride off to the aid of Gondor. Elrond bears the sword Andúril to Aragorn there, and when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli set off to walk the Paths of the Dead, they do so through a narrow chasm created in the back wall of the quarry by the magic of CGI.

By special permission, the film-makers were allowed to dig a trench in the quarry floor. My son and I looked at it, wondering what it was doing there and where it led. It was not until we watched Return that we learned it was the beginnings of a track the Riders of Rohan rode down on their way to Gondor.

A few days after the trench was dug, as we descended past the quarry on our way home from my son's school, a friendly security guard let us stay and watch Théoden and Aragorn stare out from the quarry over the Muster of Rohan and decide that six thousand spears left them a mite short-handed.

Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing? The trench the Riders rode down was filled in soon after filming finished, and only a careful eye can see the faint depression it has left in the restored earth of the quarry floor.

After the Ring left Mount Victoria, the next peak of excitement was the arrival of the Wood Weta. As part of its plan to revegetate the Town Belt with native plants, and to reduce danger from windfall, the City Council decided to cut down the mature pines that dominated the slopes above the old Chest Hospital where my mother-in-law had once been a nurse. The Wood Weta was brought in to deal with the twigs and small branches left behind when the chainsaws fell silent. My son and I sat at one end of Alexandra Park and watched the monster wood chipper chomp its way through the detritus at the other.

In the long term, all the pines will be gone, and native forest will once again cloak the flanks of Matairangi. On an intellectual level, I'm in complete agreement with this plan. But, if I live long enough to see the process complete, part of me will miss the pines. The soughing of the north-westerly through their branches, audible from our back deck on windy nights; the roots setting traps for the unwary walker; even the risk of having one's head split open by a falling pinecone or a falling branch on windy days: I'll miss them all. But if the native bush returns, and the pests are kept at bay, the birds will return also. Mount Victoria may never reproduce the wall of sound that is the dawn chorus on Kapiti, but the tui have whetted my appetite for more.

Nothing stays the same on Mount Victoria. The mountain itself will be dust one day. But while I can, I'll keep on striding those narrow, root-riddled tracks, dodging the mountain bikes, listening to the tui, walking above the city and under the sun.

12 November 2009

Under Government and Restraint: An Interview With David Howard

UPDATE: An extended version of this interview will appear in the Journal of New Zealand Literature during the first quarter of 2010.

After serving as a pyrotechnics supervisor for acts such as Metallica and Janet Jackson, David Howard retired to Purakanui in order to write. His collaboration with photographer Fiona Pardington, How To Occupy Our Selves, was published in 2003. A draft of the opening poem "There You Go" featured in Best New Zealand Poems 2002; the full text was set for mezzosoprano, narrator and piano trio by the Czech composer Marta Jirackova. "The Harrier Suite" appeared in both Best New Zealand Poems 2004 and The Word Went Round (2006).

In 2007 David worked with Brina Jez-Brezavscek on a sound installation, The Flax Heckler, in northern Slovenia. On 18 September 2009 soprano Judith Dodsworth premiered Johanna Selleck's setting of his lyric "Air, Water, Earth Meld" at Melba Hall in Melbourne; a recording is planned for release by Move Records later this year. David's texts for composers are collected in the limited edition S(t)et (Gumtree Press). His poetry has been translated into German, Italian, Slovene and Spanish.

David, I hope I'm not being unfair when I say that your profile as a poet is comparatively low within New Zealand, despite your impressive track record. On the other hand, you have worked extensively with overseas artists. Is the international aspect of your collaborative work a matter of choice, necessity, or a little of both?

Profile, which is periodically if irregularly the consequence of talent, is determined by third parties who are immovable objects before the irresistible force of authorial ego. I prefer pyrotechnics and production management to talking about words; my modest profile reflects my immodest choices.

Choice is, in part, the acceptance of necessity. I can't regret working with the All Blacks or touring with Metallica, so I can't regret the invitations that never came to present my poems – nor can I deny that I'd have enjoyed such invitations. Am I saying that the book world is like a classroom where the noisiest pupil gets the most attention? Only on Black Fridays – although a talent for self-promotion naturally turns heads and gets bums on seats. There's no conspiratorial mystery here. Despite my physical absence, I've enjoyed ten fifteen twenty years of respectful reviewing. It began with Kendrick Smithyman:

David Howard’s poems are accompanied by photographs from Paul Swadel. These are formidably sophisticated. They may make you doubt that you are intellectually up to them. The poems may have a similar effect at first, certainly a sense of shock, an uncommon astonishment at the extraordinary poise which is part and parcel of these usually quite short pieces. They are admirably judged, they last long enough to get their various effects but not longer. A certain authority matched with an appreciable intelligence, a body of information used with taste guides the reader into puzzling and on to delight, under government and restraint . . . Howard’s collection comes from 10 years, 1980-1990, his twenties. It should be exciting seeing what he produces in his 30s. (Auckland Sunday Star, 30 June 1991)

And it continues with the younger generation of Richard Reeve, Anna Livesey, Emma Neale and Kapka Kassabova:

David Howard is a mystery figure on our poetic landscape. Sparse in his output, virtually invisible to the media and involved for the last few years in staging entertainment shows around the world as a pyrotechnician, he belongs to an endangered species: the truly independent artist who remains quietly active throughout the years… In poems like ‘Care of the Commanding Officer’, ‘Cain’, ‘On the Eighth Day’, ‘Dove’, ‘To Cavafy’, to name but a few, the cerebral blends with the visceral with a brilliant lightness of touch. (New Zealand Listener, 2-8 Feb 2002)

So it’s valorizing crap to quote Hofmannsthal, ‘Die andern wollten mich daheim zu ihrem Spiel,/ Mich aber freut es so, fur mich allein zu sein.’ (‘The others wanted me to join them in their games,/ But to roam freely and alone is what I like.’) The latter is true but if I haven't been invited to join then it's partly due to my curiosity for exploring the byways of elsewhere.

Like everyone else, I need to work with people who are interested in what I do. After all, the faithless man discards himself. For me collaboration is a halfway house between the private ideal and public service. Perhaps it’s a corollary to the pastoral/urban tension, with genre rather than geography providing the frame.

Shebang, by David Howard, on Trout

Having happily collaborated with artists Paul Swadel, Jason Greig, Fiona Pardington, Kim Pieters and Garry Currin I wanted a more compressed, essential process so my interest shifted to music. Who? Anthony Ritchie has creditably set poets but I don't like his music. I'd like to like it however, as philosopher Alan Musgrave points out, we don't choose our likes or dislikes, nor do we choose our beliefs. So far I’ve worked with three composers: Marta Jirackova of the Czech Republic, Brina Jez-Brezavscek of Slovenia, and Johanna Selleck of Australia.

When most of my contemporaries (and potential listeners) are rocking backwards and forwards to variants of popular song, why am I attracted to the art song, oratorio and songspiel? The latest hit song gives us the liberty to be superficially involved but still enjoy; it is the artistic corollary of casual sex. A contemporary classical piece demands commitment before it surrenders its charms. Karlheinz Stockhausen, speaking about Stimmung, asserted: 'One listens to the inner self of the sound, the inner self of the harmonic spectrum, the inner self of a vowel, the inner self.' I hear that as a Kantian challenge to respect the autonomy of whatever and whoever. Each of my collaborators has the modesty of one who understands ‘the fascination of what’s difficult' (Yeats). They care more for the material than for attention; otherwise why set a poet from New Zealand? Marta's answer: ‘I see that it is a country of miracles.‘

Reading Richard Reeve's 2002 interview with you in Deep South, I got a strong impression that you are largely out of sympathy with the current state of poetic practice in New Zealand – both with much of the poetry being produced by individual poets, and with the infrastructure by which poetry is published, reviewed, and brought to the attention of its potential audience. Is that fair comment, and have your views changed since 2002?

As the view has got darker (it must have, look at all those stars!) so have my views. But I've been lucky enough not to wake up a curmudgeon who is bruised by youthful failure. I still smile at the horizon as I sip coffee that is stronger than my attraction to the NASDAQ. When I arrive at my desk I find the draft of a literary quiz; it begins 'Which top or leading New Zealand poet is the subject of these lines?'

Because his subsidy comes from the State
For teaching self-expression to the masses
In jails, nut-houses; worse, in grad-school classes
In which his sermon is (his poems show it)
That anyone can learn to be a poet.
With pen in hand he takes the poet's stance
To write, instead of sonnets, sheaves of grants
Which touch the bureaucrats and move their hearts
To turn the spigot on and flood the arts
With cold cash, carbon copies, calculators,
And, for each poet, two administrators.
In brief, his every effort at creation
Is one more act of self-perpetuation
To raise the towering babble of his Reputation.

Small wonder that his subject matter's taken
From the one sphere in which his faith's unshaken
As, fearful of offending powers that be,
He turns his gaze within, exalts the Me,
And there, neither with wit nor with discretion,
Spews forth page after page of mock-confession
Slightly surreal, so private, so obscure
That critics classify his work as "pure"
Because, in digging through the endless chatter,
They can't discern what is the subject matter,
And so, instead of saying they don't get it,
They praise the "structure" they invent to fit it.
He has no fear, for when his work's reviewed
Friends do it; thus, he's never gotten screwed.
He'll do the same for them, and they remain
Pals in the literary daisy-chain
Where every year, like Hallowe'en surprises,
They pass each other fellowships and prizes,
Include each other in anthologies
And take their greedy cuts from poetry's moldy cheese.

You’re wrong, it's not Bill Manhire. But your inference makes my point. I hear you clear your throat. Of course the question was unfair – a low blow intended to double up the reader, albeit with laughter. That excerpt is from The Narcissiad (Cedar Rock Press, 1981) by the American satirist R.S. Gwynn so the situation described is typical rather than particular. Typical of what? An institutionalised poetry scene such as has developed here over the last three decades.

When Richard Reeve interviewed me after my return to the mainland I affirmed that the first responsibility of an institution is to export its values, its valuations, in order to extend its longevity and therefore make more money. The imperative is economic rather than poetic. This means that statements by the representatives of institutions should be viewed as propaganda regardless of their truth quotient. In other words, whether the statements are true or not, their primary purpose is to impress rather than inform. The IIML is infamous for referring to itself as famous; the frequency of repetition is Orwellian yet commercially irreproachable.

Institutional or not, we do seem desperate to puff up our chests and strut like roosters across a painfully small backyard. Even the finest suffer. When Andrew Johnston asserts that Manhire is ‘our best poet’ then I hear Johnston's ambition rather than Manhire's achievement, which is (brilliantly) derivative and acknowledged as such by him. Curnow's polished poems appear to have been written primarily so they (and their author) could be admired, while Baxter insists on repeating stage directions out loud. Karl Stead (institution and iconoclast in one) is the world authority on C.K. Stead; we learn this by reading any recent essay by him irrespective of its stated topic. In an age when reviewers crib press releases, assertion of will is a determinant of reputation (it was Dan Davin who mentioned 'the plasticine of truth') but evangelical self-regard is rather different to the verdict(s) of history.

Look back a century – what most people believed then is not what their descendents believe now. Future generations will have a plurality of responses to today’s poetry, responses that will negotiate the leverage of today’s institutions and discard authorial special pleading. Who knows what will settle where and for how long? Our superior collections have had mixed fates: Michele Leggott’s Dia deservedly won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry, whereas Graham Lindsay’s stringent The Subject was sidelined. Both books were published by Auckland University Press in 1994 so imprint, release date, publicity and distribution were comparable and therefore neutral factors. Admittedly, as a Christchurch resident, Lindsay was disadvantaged – and this despite the presence of literary historian Mark Williams who, like a colonial functionary, looked to the main chance of Wellington.

Tim, since you speak Russian, here's an instance where the main chance was a missed chance. This example avoids the prickly pear of reputation; instead it squeezes the lemon of ignorance. Had Williams put down Sport long enough to browse the Christchurch journal Takahe, which I co-founded in 1989, then he could have read the editorial of Takahe 3 (Autumn 1990) by Tatyana Shcherbina and R.V. Smirnow. "The New Zealand Project", an open letter sponsored by 42 Russian signatories, called for an autonomous laboratory of new artists, asserting:

The geographical place where this autonomous laboratory will meet the new age, and perhaps be realised in its integrity, we call New Zealand. This is a land out of fairy-tales, belonging to the Queen of Great Britain and to God in equal measure, islands at the «end of the world» which, compared with the rest of the world, are governed with more ecological sensitivity, which have preserved a culture and a political purity that quite miraculously turn out to be parallel, new and independent in relation to the rest of the world. So it is to this country that we would like to present our computer-bucolic project of a community of free people.

Williams could have looked through Curtainless Windows: Contemporary Russian Writing (Takahe 5, Spring 1990), discovering poems from Mikhail Aizenberg, Tatyana Shcherbina, Alexandra Sozonova, Ludmila Stokowska, and Sergey Stratanovsky – all translated by J. Kates, whose Zepyhr Press published The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova (1990). He would have learnt that the Cyrillic alphabet abbreviates 'emergency ration' to 'N.Z.', but for Shcherbina

N.Z. is now only New Zealand.
Once it made me think of emergency rations,
I mean, a touch of the commie state – not its ill-wishers
but its orphans (that obscene look never wears thin)
a touch ever more unfeeling, without strands of wool
on its pelt, nor birthmarks.
You can love a hag's eyes and touch eyelids
where the eyelashes have fallen out, white and iris –
shot off into space at an enemy.
Only a single husk left over, a foil
with the superficial depth of a hologram.
You can scrutinize it, and wait until it revives,
skewer it on a Finnish knife –
the way spectators got into silent movies,
now that N.Z. is an antique canvas.

In America this material was commended by the likes of Marilyn Hacker, who wrote of Mikhail Aizenberg: 'American readers are introduced to the work of an important contemporary Russian poet, whose world-view and aesthetic will seem at once welcome in its otherness and pertinently familiar… In J. Kates' translations, these poems have a new and discrete life in English.' But not a life our scholars share – there's no acknowledgement in either Mark Williams’ introduction or Gregory O'Brien's preface to Land of Seas: An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry (with E. Pavlov, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2005).

Perhaps this is forgiveable; their task was to showcase New Zealand poets to Russian readers, not to catalogue contacts. But Landfall 213: Russia (OUP, 2007) shows that a history missed is a history rewritten. What are we to make of the failure by Jacob Edmond, Gregory O'Brien, Evgeny Pavlov and Ian Wedde to recognise a direct precursor, "The New Zealand Project"? They are scholars not enthusiasts rapping in a back yard as the barbecue spits. How can an essay entitled "No Place like Home: Encounters between New Zealand and Russian Poetries" fail to cite (to sight) the Kates’ translations, which also appeared in Takahe 15 (Winter 1993), especially when Edmond discusses the samizdat issue (Leningrad, 1989) of the open letter? [To be fair, when I directed his attention to this he was enthusiastic and apologetic.]

It's simple. When there's a lot of noise from one direction then heads naturally turn that way. Scholars of contemporary poetry look to Wellington with good reason. The obligation is not on the IIML/VUP/Sport nexus to quieten down, but on scholars to explore elsewhere before drawing conclusions. Too often when they turn their backs on the capital it's to use a Claude glass. Rita Angus’ absurdist quip from 1947: ‘New Zealand is, in essence, medieval' could be whimsically applied today, with Bill Manhire our urbane Aristotle: an influential teacher, a model of professional generosity, whose centrality is simultaneously inspiring and an obstacle to seeing clearly.

Perhaps, all said and nothing done, I have woken up as a curmudgeon. If I think of New Zealand poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the front row, arms tightly folded, seeing no one but the registered teacher. If I think of, say, Arabic or Spanish poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the back row, arms wide open, looking over dozens of others, perhaps adopting this one's posture but that one's gesture then abandoning both. And I know that Arabic and Spanish are greater for engaging with an overt subject rather than pirouetting on a pinhead, which is the indulgence of the privileged. I can't regard the cynical non-poetry of Damien Wilkins as more deserving than that of the committed Bill Sewell, who wrote to Iain Lonie: 'no doubt/ the palace seems full of intruders.’

Again based on your interview with Richard Reeve, you are not enamoured of the role of artists within a capitalist system…

Privilege and barbarism should be strangers; instead they are close relatives. Capitalism is that procedure whereby we sanctify greed. When our politicians reinforce the imperative of ‘economic growth’ they are enlarging the cathedral – in order to maintain the cemetery out back. Poetry is what marks the headstones and honours those below. It is antipathetic to systems. William Morris offers the consolation, but also the impotence, of hope: ‘It is not this or that...machine which we want to get rid of, but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny which oppresses the lives of all of us' (Art and Its Producers, 1881).

Privation magnifies appetite, but so does abundance. Whether blue or white, New Zealanders are greedy (once, say 10.47am on 17 June 1996, even I was greedy). We consume well above our share, and we go into debt to do so. That can’t last, nor should we try to make it last. Dr Megan Clark (CSIRO) warns that 'in the next fifty years, we will need to produce as much food as we have ever produced in the entire human history.' How? Our lifestyle is founded and founders upon impossible assumptions, our arts are regarded by administrators (who should know better) as consumables, and more people ask themselves 'When Madonna adopts an orphan does she get stretchmarks?' than worry over global warming.

I'm too worn to believe that the lyric fosters intimacy beyond a one-on-one reading – it's not a blueprint for unity between people(s). But I recall Charles Brasch’s early pointer:

…the arts do not exist in a void. They are products of the individual imagination and at the same time social phenomena; raised above the heat and dust of everyday life, and yet closely implicated in it. Any serious consideration of them is bound to involve an inquiry into their place in society and the social functions which they fulfil – what part they play in life, what use they are. This in turn must lead sooner or later to questions about society itself and what it exists for, and, eventually, about the nature of man. (Landfall 1:1, March 1947)

After reading material from the winners of the seven literary prizes highlighted this week, I have to ask: Did we wean ourselves from an imperial motherland in order to suck the tit of free market globalization? Following New Zealand's political reorientation, our poetry has turned from British to American (rather than indigenous) models. This is change but not the liberation that many claim.

Yes, this is a young country – but that doesn't mean we have to trumpet the infantile. Perhaps the reward of sentiment and bathos is one indicator of our exhausting immaturity as a literature. Reading Jenny Bornholdt's The Rocky Shore, which is anecdote leached of the life it purports to honour, I recall Christopher Lasch's warning: 'The record of the inner life becomes an unintentional parody of inner life. A literary genre that appears to affirm inwardness actually tells us that inner life is precisely what can no longer be taken seriously.' E.M. Cioran is sharper and blunter: 'art, on its way to exhaustion, has become both impossible and easy.' There's an ocean of talk but no one is walking on water. I take pleasure and hope from those prepared to ask harder questions than 'How much attention?' and 'How much?' Sally Ann McIntyre and Robert McLean, both of whom have yet to publish collections, can think and write beyond the obvious.

I remain a naturally reclusive character who, politically, is committed to the notion of community. There are many ways to approach that notion. For the poet Thomas James, whose stony tenderness I admire, it was through the theatre of extremity. You might write yourself into a corner, yet a corner is also a social place.

It's my impression that some poets are writing primarily for an audience – writing to be heard, or read – whereas others are writing primarily for themselves. Do you think there is any truth in this distinction, and if so, which "camp" would you put yourself in?

Logically it’s possible to do both simultaneously. It depends on your temperament. You need to be extroverted to work the populist (rather than the public) vein with integrity. An audience may be the intended but it is not the only beneficiary of fine writing. Here some poets proceed, filled with a rather bumptious enthusiasm, on the basis that they are required to entertain primarily rather than secondarily – and they do violence to their work by trying to be stand-up comedians. They may be praised for a gritty accessibility (Tuwhare, Colquhoun, Camp) but, after picking up their collections, my fingers are left sticky because the appeal is often sentimental. I don’t feel either capable or obligated to enter the bun fight for popularity so I suppose I write for my self.

If I attend then language will provide entry points for that silence which is the reservoir of the reader's memory – although I know it is impossible to reach let alone satisfy an undifferentiated mass. 'I write for the people' is meaningless, whereas 'I write for the person' means a good deal. Like many others I attempt to make sense of the senseless, to move with purpose through the arbitrary, to learn from instances of hate how to rage my way into the impassioned calm that is love. You don't have to be a poet to do this. A gardener might have more success. But poetry is my method and my madness. Because language is social then I necessarily have a social vision – it's not coherent but it is motivating.

More generally, why do you write poetry?

Poetry is a way of knowing. My poems work to limit the claims of pathos as they announce them.

You have previously worked as a pyrotechnics technician and SFX supervisor for acts including Janet Jackson and Metallica. Has it left traces on your poetry?

Pyrotechnics promised a wider collaboration with the musical, sporting and entrepreneurial worlds than was possible in literary New Zealand. While visceral, fireworks are impersonal and I wanted clear of the word writer. Perhaps my poems had come, like the trees of Birnam Wood, to rout the person who owned them. I withdrew from the submission-publication-review cycle. I fell silent, only it didn't feel like falling.

What then? Kenosis. Fireworks were and are part of that challenge to empty. They appear to dominate the sky but it’s a percussive illusion; they get their power through surrendering to the night. By vanishing they stay with us. Seeing is not believing; belief comes after the seeing, when you’re gazing at black. And with poetry you have to listen for what’s not there. An attentive listener knows the word partners something larger than a dictionary definition. On tour, rigging in gantries, then smoking at four in the morning under security lights rather than the moon – it all helped me to weigh silence.

Designing fireworks displays, articulating space, gave me the strength to attempt longer poems: I was now confident of my ability to structure the unseen, the becoming. How? If site provides context then fireworks don’t so much map as transcend it because they take the viewer into an apprehension of the eternal through the momentary. The report of a launching charge is more than a deafening report on experience. Exposed by the exploding shell, perhaps site is akin to the light-sensitive paper that photographs are printed on – but a paper that has not been treated with fixative. When the spreading charge transforms common chemicals into uncommon effects, then the audience participates more than the pyrotechnician. No exposure matches that of the spirit – it cannot be captured. After all, is this so different from what happens with language? Words turn around the world, searching the pockets of discarded jackets for secrets. See, here is a piece of crumpled paper. It is the charred casing of a star shell.

If it were possible, would you want to be a full-time poet?

A poet is like an alcoholic: dry or wet, he remains one until he runs out of time. My maternal grandfather and uncle both died at 61. They were only 11 years older than I am now. I’d like the opportunity they never got to work uninterrupted. So many poems have been lost because of my peripatetic history, however I’m still writing. I’m conscious of the sustained silence of talented poets like Rob Allan, Julia Allen, Blair French, Brian Garrett and Michael Mintrom; also of the passing of Michael August, Iain Lonie, Joanna Paul, Nancy Ragland and Bill Sewell. I wear a ring which was made in Moesia shortly after the death of Ovid. Whenever I'm worried by trivia I admire the bezel. It tells me that I have all the time in the world, which is no time at all.


Freighters destabilized by their cargo,
poets nose into the bar
and take on water.
The resigned smile of a lemon slice;
the parasol that drags like an anchor.
What a to do
now there's nothing to be done.


The strength of the current
measureless, everyone was swept
off - even the historian
before he could take note.
You never know muttered Mum,
tucking in her skirts
as the sun came up for air.


Too ridiculous alluding to Odysseus:
One man they hate and another they love...
The terror of being
overlooked, the pleasure of obscurity
balance on a blade of grass
moved by sharp gusts rather than gods
who are edgy yet blunt.


You can't take the faces with you
but they come. No miracle
on the road, just haze
and the dust ahead, although
direction is neither here nor there.
The signposts are left-overs:
Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, Disneyland.

UPDATE FROM TIM: This interview has sparked off a very interesting discussion on Ross Brighton's blog. Worth checking out!