Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

217

A new (old) sensation

The piece below originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Metro magazine, billed rather provocatively on the cover as "What's wrong with NZ novels?"

I'm grateful for the softening effect of that question mark: "A few diagnostic gestures towards a working theory of some current plot trends in the New Zealand literary novel" would have been more accurate, but probably wouldn't have helped sell copies of the magazine.

The article got a lot of feedback; most of it positive, and pretty much all of it off the record (both of which surprised me).  One correspondent summed up the general response thus: readers thought I was basically right, except for one thing -- and that "one thing" was completely different for each individual.

In fact, it wasn't right I was after, so much as useful: I distrust grand unified theories, but am intrigued and beguiled by patterns, and by exceptions. It's always easier to identify patterns in the past, once the dust has cleared and the canon stands outlined against the sky, but I wanted to at least try to draw some literary isobars on the map of here and now.

Re-reading the article now, what strikes me (underneath the gleeful hyperbole) is a pretty transparent tug-of-love between exasperated critic and soppy literary fan-girl. I didn't particularly want to be right about this  impression I was gathering. But I didn't want to be alone with it, either.

So let's make it more useful, more nuanced. Tell me your "one thing" -- or, even better, your more-than-one thing -- that I'm wrong about. What have you dozed off over lately, despite yourself? What's keeping you awake? Does the changing context of reading make you crave less sensation, or more?  Is this just a phase we're all going through, readers and writers alike? Tell me, do. I'm all ears.

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Once More With Feeling

Jolisa Gracewood has had enough of the "new sensationalism" in New Zealand fiction.

At bedtime, there’s no sweeter soporific than a beloved paperback. But too often, lately, I’ve sat down in broad daylight to read something new and promising, only to startle awake some time later with the book lying across my nose like a chloroform-soaked hankie. It took me a while to figure out what was going on, and longer to admit it: I wasn’t tired. I was bored.

This was bothersome. Firstly, because so many of these narcoleptic volumes were by New Zealanders. Given that it is theoretically possible to read all the New Zealand fiction released in a given year, it feels rude not to at least try. These are our stories. And I don’t want to just lie back and think of the South Island, I want to love these books. All of them.

Secondly, and paradoxically: the novels that were testing my stamina were the very ones clamouring for my attention. Full of thrilling atmosphere and lurid incident, all vaudeville and freak show, they seemed explicitly designed to keep me up all night. So why was I nodding off by lunchtime?

A few off-the-record conversations reassured me I wasn’t alone. (Also, that we all felt a bit stink about it, so if you’re a publisher or author breathing into a paper bag at this point, give thanks for the enduring power of the national brand.) Then I stumbled across a pithy quote, from 19th-century American orator Wendell Phillips, that gave me some hope: “Boredom is, after all, a form of criticism.”

All right: perhaps my resistance to this hectic prose was not a failure, but a hint. Witi Ihimaera’s The Trowenna Sea helped set my compass. Frankly, the borrowings were the least of its issues. This was a novel I was excited about reading, based on a powerful, heartbreaking local story that Ihimaera had boldly expanded across a stage the size of the British Empire.

The result was, alas, a sentimental hodgepodge. A heavily foreshadowed romance never eventuated, while fascinating historical events came festooned with needless grotesquery. I’m still trying to erase from memory the deeply peculiar death scene of the poor hunchbacked Scotsman.

A few months earlier, I had read Gillian Ranstead’s Girlie. Like Ihimaera’s novel, it promised to interrogate the parallels between dispossessed Highlanders and Maori. In practice, it buried its considerable light under a bushel of such unremitting misery and disaster — visited particularly upon children — that I struggled to finish it. Not for the first time I wondered why, in our multigenerational stories of settler families, there’s never anything nice in the woodshed.

Meanwhile, other writers were raiding the colonial cabinet of curiosities. Which is, it must be said, a great place to find material, but there’s a fine line between rewriting and recycling. Quinine, Kelly Ana Morey’s foray into the German colonial adventure in Papua New Guinea (see review, page 102), might almost be a satire of the frontier romance, but left me
unsure whether to laugh or sigh.

The indigenous people so invisible in Quinine were at least present in Rachael King’s lush but troubling South American adventure The Sound of Butterflies and Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, but (Matilda aside) mainly as voiceless victims and/ or perpetrators of capricious violence. Oddly, none of this gruesome slaughter affected me as much as the matter-of-fact death by hanging in Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew.

And it wasn’t only the novels set long ago and far away: even authors tackling the way we live now went a bit Hudson and Halls, over-egging their puddings and sometimes over-saucing them too. Jones’ ambitious Hand Me Down World, which UK reviewers generally loved, ranged widely but struck me as implausible at almost every turn (except for the bit about sleeping in the railway station: I could have read a whole novel about that).

Eleanor Catton’s much-lauded The Rehearsal is a three-ring circus fizzing with genius. Still, more than one reader told me they got through it only by skipping an entire thread. I fantasised about slicing it into three perfectly stunning books: a drama school exposé, a girls’ school story, and a dark lesbian romance for those who like their Muriels sparky. Thrice the readership, thrice the profit.

And when Emily Perkins wove a ghost story and a fallen woman and an orphaned infant into Novel About My Wife, her deliciously dark portrait of property speculation and procreation in contemporary London, I couldn’t help wondering if it would have worked just as well if it were Novel About My House. I read it in one sitting, and was never bored — but I might have re-read it a few times already had it been a slightly less hyperbolic novel of manners.

Obviously, I’m tugging at a single thread here, just part of the wider fabric of our literary landscape. If a dedicated literary locavore tires of an overly fruity diet, there are perfectly good alternatives: the thrills of genre fiction; the cooler-headed chroniclers of modern mores, like Paula Morris, Chad Taylor, Charlotte Grimshaw; or new classics from the old guard, models of narrative decorum and wit.

But the surfeit of incident in current novels, and my own stubborn indifference to it, set me thinking about the “sensation novels” of the 1860s and 70s. These racy potboilers, full of intrigue — murders, kidnappings, blackmail, bigamy, stolen inheritances, double identities, orphans — were devoured all over the Empire, including our rural hinterland, as recounted in Lydia Wevers’ Reading on the Farm (full disclosure: I edited the manuscript).

For colonial readers, Wevers argues, such colourful fare was not just escapist, but often reflective of the world they lived in. It was also disposable: very little of it survives in the canon.

This “new sensationalism”, though: will it last? And where is it coming from? It’s not exactly what critic James Wood waspishly called “hysterical realism”, the sprawling, busy novels into which Zadie Smith and other writers tried to cram the vast panorama of modern life. (Wouldn’t you love to see a New Zealander have a go at that, though? Debra Daley’s millennial Cruel World comes close, but languishes unpublished.)

Ours feels more like drama for its own sake. But is it a reaction against the old laconicism, or just a new form of it: so much sensation, so little feeling? I wonder if these pyrotechnical plots spring from the same source as my readerly impatience. You know, ars longa, vita increasingly brevis: reading as a zero-sum game. Squeezed off the shelf by dragon tattoos and Leonardo codes, aware that readers’ attentions are finite (but infinitely catered for), are our authors just throwing everything they’ve got at us and hoping some of it sticks?

The novel is in crisis, as usual, although our writers have never been better trained or had more opportunities to promote their wares. Even as the publishing world hunkers down behind cookbooks and sporting biographies, the advent of e-books opens up a world of new fiction readers. The internet could be to our literary exports what refrigerated shipping was to our mutton trade. It’s a great time to be bored with New Zealand literature: anything could happen and it could be right now.

What to do in the meantime? The Atlantic Monthly’s critic B.R. Myers recently suggested avoiding new fiction altogether “unless it promises to be as good as the classics we thereby leave unread”. That’s bonkers, but he’s onto something: let’s compare what we’re buying off the shelves because we think we have to, with what we’re taking back down off the shelves because we want to.

I asked my online circle what New Zealand novels they’d re-read lately. The twitterati responded with a number of classics from the usual suspects (mine were Patricia Grace and Robin Hyde), with a surprisingly strong vote for Ngaio Marsh. One wit nominated The Hobbit. But most popular were young-adult novels, especially by Margaret Mahy, Maurice Gee and Kate de Goldi. Why? Nostalgia, yes — but also, I suspect, a joyful re-engagement with stories about recognisable, complicated people on the cusp of brave action.

That’s the kind of sensation I’m after: I read novels in order to feel something, but I want to spend time with characters who do something, rather than relentlessly suffer things done to them. This isn’t a retro manifesto. I adore technical bravado and stylistic risk, but without a beating, plausible human heart, they’re a largely mechanical exercise. And atmospheric plot machinations alone won’t keep this reader coming back for more.

All the special effects are wasted if we lose sight of what’s especially affecting. I want to care for, fear for, cheer for the people on the page as they stumble into their ordinary, shining, all-too-finite futures — all of us with eyes wide open.

108

She loves you, YA, YA, YA!

Up-and-coming New Zealand author Karen Healey first caught my eye via her LiveJournal blog, the magnificently named Attention Rebellious Jezebels. One day, as a consciousness & self-esteem-raising exercise, she asked her readers to write in and explain why they were  awesome. The resulting love-in made my day.

Turns out Karen herself is not short on awesome: a book-loving globe-trotting big sister of three who has spent several years in Japan, she has  an M.A. (with a thesis investigating SuicideGirls.com's claim to be "empowering erotica"), and is currently completing a Ph.D. on contemporary superhero comics as fan-created text. At the University of Awesome.

And now she's an acclaimed YA author, whose first book, Guardian of the Dead,  has just been named one of Kirkus Book Reviews' top novels for teens of 2010 -- and is a finalist for the American Library Association's prestigious Morris Award, which honours debut novels in the field of teen fiction.

Guardian of the Dead is a funny, uncanny, terrifying adventure, featuring a kick-ass misfit heroine with unrealised powers, a gorgeous boy who's out of reach, a mysterious boy who's a bit mad, possibly bad, and certainly dangerous to know; and some enormously scary indigenous fairies. I'd describe the book as fantasy, but it's not that exactly. It's real world stuff --  school, drama club, parties and crushes -- sliced on the diagonal by a blade of sheer supernatural horror. The NZ edition, in particular, has a seriously lovely cover (and there's an interesting story behind it).

I've also had a sneak read of her equally exciting next book, The Shattering, which is set in a fictional town on the West Coast of the South Island where it's always summer. A trio of teens -- a straight-edge Samoan guy, a sexy rock chick, and a strong, androgynous Maori-Pakeha heroine -- set out to solve the mystery of a string of untimely deaths. In the process, they stumble across a big dark secret and a few small dark ones as well. (My e-mails to Karen while reading the typescript consisted of a series of variations on "Whoah, did NOT see that coming!").

I got my chance to meet the awesomeness in person this summer, when Karen was in New York for the US launch of her book. She trekked up to New Haven for lunch and a swim and some convoluted conversations with a pair of small boys who were pretty excited to meet a real live author, especially one with such great hair.* And then, some months later, we conducted a proper interview via e-mail.

Q. For starters, I adore your quick-and-dirty conversational book reviews. Ever chatted up your own book that way? Care to do so for my readers, in a not too spoilery fashion?

I have, actually, somewhere on the internet, but I've no idea where. So here we go.

BOOK: I'm, um, I'm about Maori mythology - and other mythologies - in a contemporary setting and I have a first person protagonist who-  

ME: BORING. Why don't you let the characters speak for you?  

BOOK: FINE. Characters, enter stage left.

ELLIE: Lalala, another dreary winter's day in dreary Christchurch at the boarding school my parents dumped me at while they toured the world, far from my Napier home. Luckily, I have a single but great friend in Kevin, who would never get me drunk and drag me into using my martial arts experience to choreograph the stagefighting for his university play with his other best friend, the way-too-perfect Iris!  

KEVIN: Um, actually...  

ELLIE: UGH. Okay. Lalala, another dreary morning walking to school and bumping into the silent loner upon whom I have a crush, which appears to have awakened my latent magical powers.

MARK: I'm gonna lie to you a lot and mindwipe you now.  

ELLIE: What? I object!  

MARK: Sorry, I'm too busy trying to save your best friend from a [spoiler redacted] to worry about some totally standard everyday mindwiping that made you spew.  

ELLIE: That's going to cost you a punch in the face later.  

MARK: I guess I'll be REALLY sorry then. Oh, by the way, now that we've [spoiler redacted], the whole North Island is in danger.  

ELLIE: Not the North Island! All my stuff is there!  

MARK: Maybe your punches will help?  

ELLIE: No, for this I'm going to need some side kicks. Also, some ethics. 

MARK: You're fascinating. Tell me more about this "ethics".

ELLIE: I will if we can make out.  

MARK: [wahey, spoiler redacted!]

BOOK: They forgot about the desperate fight against powerful enemies! And Iris didn't get to say anything! And Kevin only got one line! And Professor Gribaldi wasn't mentioned at ALL. Also, there wasn't any discussion of the way the book handles variant mythologies in a multi-cultural society with a –  

ME: Shhh! Make-outs!

Q. Ha, I'd say that's a pretty fair summary. So, the first part of the book is set firmly in Christchurch. Having lived there, I could (as with many of Margaret Mahy’s books) feel myself walking through the various locations. Or, in the case of one particularly spooky scene set in Dean’s Bush, cycling through it very extremely super fast while not looking behind me. This solidity of geographical specification seems unusual to me in YA fiction. Or is it?

Thank you! I worked pretty hard to make that part of the setting thoroughly Christchurchian - even the places I made up are as close as I could get to a Christchurch aesthetic. I have the feeling my version of Napier is a little less specific, since I've never lived there, but no one has complained yet.

I don't think it's that unusual in YA -- Holly Black's Tithe has a very tangible New Jersey, for example -- but it seems to stand out to people who have spent a lot of time in Christchurch. To me Christchurch is a very real space, and I wanted to ground the fantastical adventures in that sense of reality.

Q. I stand corrected on the question of location, having also just read (on your recommendation) the delightfully Christmas-themed Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, which could only have taken place in New York, and which is compulsory reading for anyone hankering to be sixteen, in love, in a bookshop, in NYC in a snowstorm, or any combination thereof.

Back to Guardian of the Dead: one American reviewer said “This isn’t a book that uses New Zealand as a backdrop; this is a book that couldn’t exist without New Zealand.” That’s incontrovertible, given the crucial role that Maori mythologies play in the plot. Two questions here: was there ever a moment where you considered not using that material? And were there times when that material was especially difficult -- or indeed productive -- for you?

Given that the book is, in a lot of ways, a story about how stories shape us and our land, there's no way I could have written Guardian of the Dead without drawing upon the first stories of the land. Actually, I'm not sure whether thinking about the mythologies or thinking about the theme came first, but they were both very early in the conceptualisation process.

The difficulty for me came in trying to ensure that my treatment was accurate and respectful; I grew up with these tales, like a lot of Kiwi kids, but these stories aren't my personal cultural heritage, and I needed to be careful for the sake of those for whom they are cultural property. I did a lot of research and had the benefit of several cultural consultants, but worrying that I'd screwed it up was a big concern. Especially since I knew the book was going to be sold in the US -- it's not like readers there have the resources young New Zealanders can access. For a lot of readers, it was the first time they'd ever encountered Maori mythology or a New Zealand setting in YA.

But it's enormously rich material. A lot of the myths, like Maui's quest to be claimed and recognised by his parents, or the story of Rangi and Papa's sons, or Hine-titama's conflict with her father-husband, are really strong family stories. I think stories of family conflict especially resonate with teen readers, and I found that really inspiring.

Q. You know, before reading Guardian of the Dead, I’d never thought of the patupaiarehe as having pre-dated any human arrivals. The notion of early Maori arriving to find a land already populated, albeit by supernatural creatures, is provocative and exciting. How did you stumble upon it?

I think I first read that notion in one of the stories Governor Grey collected and published. Those are often bowdlerised accounts made palatable to European tastes, rather than true translations, so they're not good sources in a lot of ways, but I thought the idea was pretty interesting. Or it might have been one of the other texts located on my *internet boyfriend*, the University of Victoria Library's New Zealand Electronic Text Collection!

One of the things I wanted to write about is how Aotearoa is an immigrant country -- even our first people have a strong immigrant history, with the iwi connection to their first waka -- and how subsequent clashes are mediated through story. So having pre-human settlers seemed an interesting slant on dealing with that.

Q. One of the main characters in Guardian of the Dead is in the process of coming out as asexual (and oops, I almost typed “asymmetrical” -- an instructive Freudian slip, given that asexuality is often misunderstood as a transitional state en route to a supposedly more definitive orientation). This struck me as deeply unusual in teen/YA fiction; if anything, the genre as a whole seems to be concerned with blossoming desire of one sort or another, and the troubles and excitement thereof. As you reveal, an asexual teen has a very different set of interpersonal challenges to negotiate when coming to sexual maturity amidst a bubbling cauldron of hormones, cultural norms, and familial expectations. Can you tell me more about where this part of the story came from?

Like a lot of parts of the story, the genesis was in me looking at a well-worn trope I didn't like much and wondering how I could screw with it -- in this case, the ideal of the lady in the tower, the damsel in distress. A lot of the time, her marker of goodness is that she resists sex, because she's chaste and virtuous (which are apparently the same thing) and then when the hero turns up to save her she's awarded to him. But she hasn't evinced any interest in sex! Why would she want sex with this guy? How totally unfair.

So I was noodling about this in the back of my head. I knew a little about asexuality; through friends and LGBTQ(A) ally interest rather than personal identity. I started thinking, what if the lady in the tower, the person who might need saving from a vile seducer, were actually asexual, rather than "chaste", and were acknowledged as such? And didn't want sex from the evil seducer, nor the heroic rescuer, and wasn't awarded to the latter? And, incidentally, what if she weren't a lily-white maid, but an athletic Maori teenage boy?

So I did research and talked to people and so on; again, it's the idea of trying to be as respectful and accurate as possible. Ace people aren't a monolith, of course, and there are plenty of different ways to be asexual, all of them valid. I really hope that Kevin isn't seen as reflecting all asexual teens, or a universal asexual experience, because that doesn't exist. But at the same time I wanted to hit a few points that are common for a lot of -- but not all -- asexual people. That unless they come out people will assume they're sexual, because it's just assumed people, and teenage boys in particular, are automatically sexual, that that's the norm. That once they do come out they often have to explain they're not gay (or sometimes, they are, but asexually so) or just going through a "stage". I mean, sexuality and sexual identity can be fluid for a lot of people, but no one ever says to a straight sexual person, "oh, maybe you're just going through a stage of being straight and sexually interested in the opposite gender. Maybe you'll be normal soon." That idea that straight sexual identity is "normal", instead of just "most common", it's insidious.

And so Kevin's asexuality tied into the story in a few ways, I think; as part of his characterisation, of course, but also in the ways the story deals with inheritance, and with magic, and how it connects to personality and how it can be resisted. Not all of that is explicit, but it's what I was thinking about while I wrote.

Q. Guardian of the Dead is narrated by Ellie, who is a classic teen fiction heroine in many ways: she's an outsider, smart, witty, observant, and possessed of hidden depths and unusual talents that will come in useful in the course of the book. Was writing from Ellie's point of view a deliberate choice, or just the way this particular story needed to be told? How did you go about finding her voice?

As you say, smart outsider teen heroines are common, for which I, as someone who was a smart outsider teen, am eternally grateful.

Writing from the point of view of an outsider has lots of advantages from a craft point of view; you get to have things explained to your protagonist without so much of the dreaded as-you-know-Bob exposition (which I still wasn't quite able to avoid). In terms of writing about cultural treasures in which you have no personal ownership, it's often a good choice to do so from an outsider's point of view; my inevitable errors can be Ellie's cluelessness, rather than errors that would be totally mystifying (and insulting) from someone who's supposed to be familiar with the culture in question.

I actually wrote a couple of early chapters in the third person, but first person narration entirely from Ellie's point of view seemed a better fit - I was able to narrow the focus down, and still reveal things to the reader of which Ellie wasn't aware, because of Mark's habit of wiping her memory from time to time. Not that ethical, but real handy for plot! Ellie's voice was always something that came easily.

My second novel, The Shattering, has three protagonists and three points of view - one is in the first person, and the other two are in the third person. That was a lot of fun, and more of a challenge when it came to creating three authentic voices. On the first run through the manuscript my editors noted that the two girls sounded too similar. I eventually abandoned feeling my way through what came naturally and made lists of lots of linguistic tics for all three of them - i.e., Sione never swears, Keri uses Kiwi slang, Janna uses American slang and run-on sentences - and obsessively combing through the manuscript to remove cross-pollination.

Q. Unlike writers who coyly protest that they never read reviews, not even the good ones, you not only happily read reviews of your work, but seem singularly relaxed about them. What’s the best positive line about your book that you’ve come across -- and the best negative line?

Hah! Yeah, I'm incurably curious, and I live on the internet, which would be a terrible combination for anyone trying to resist reading their reviews. So I don't even try. I'm not always singularly relaxed, but inflicting my occasional stiffness on the public wouldn't be terribly productive. I don't think anyone would be particularly interested by me scoffing at someone who just doesn't UNDERSTAND my work, my BRILLIANT BRILLIANT work with all its SUBTLE AMAZINGNESS. Even my friends aren't that interested, and they have to listen, cause I know where they live. Reviews aren't even about me, anyway; they're about the book, which isn't, and can't be, all things to all people.

I think my favourite positive line was the teen reviewer for VOYA, who said, "This captivating tale will have readers hiding under the covers with a trusty flashlight until they finish the last fascinating and heartfelt page." I was so flattered! Torch reading, excellent!

And my favourite negative line, which I will paraphrase, to prevent their being identified, was someone who protested that it felt as if I had included as many sexual orientations as possible, and they weren't even serving the plot (which presumably would have been more forgivable).

I found that hilarious, because I'd worried first that I hadn't accurately represented the actual diversity of New Zealand (one offscreen queer woman and an asexual boy in a large cast isn't that diverse!), and second that I'd made Kevin's asexuality too plot-relevant, that it might read as if he wasn't allowed to just BE asexual, but had to be so in order to serve the story. I mean, Bella Swan's sexuality is vastly important to the plot of Twilight, but no one says, "Well, clearly she was made straight on purpose, but it serves the plot, so that's okay". Invisible "normal" straightness, again!

Q. You write for young adults, although older adults who can remember being young will also find their way to your books, as should anyone who simply loves a jolly good story. From where I sit -- credentialled by the literary-academic establishment, and mostly a reviewer of Serious Adult Fiction for Serious Adults -- YA literature seems kind of the fierce but neglected younger sibling who just can't get no respect. Especially in the review pages of Big Important Papers and Magazines. And yet: Harry Potter! Twilight! Mockingjay! Percy Jackson! And my just-turned-9 year old is saving his pocket money so he can buy yet another boxed set of an interminable epic about warring clans of wild cats (incredibly wealthy wild cats, at this point)!

Which is to say, when the great publishing houses fall because Nobody Reads Anything That's Not on the Internet Any More, the printing presses will still be cranking out fictional fodder for the young and hungry, yes? And this is a good thing, yes?

I'm also credentialled by the literary-academic establishment, and like many writers, I read a lot, in varying genres. I am (of course!) biased, but I genuinely think that YA literature is at present producing some of the most original and certainly the most engaging stories available. I think a lot of the scorn YA authors see in established literary venues is based in ideals of high culture snobbery. It would be great to have our fiction assessed according to what styles and ideas are presented, what cultural work it actually does, rather than slinging it all into the general category of unworthy, juvenile fiction, beneath the notice or interest of the discerning reader. Other than the really big sellers, only a few shining examples, nearly always contemporary or "problem" novels, are picked out as somehow rising about their filthy genre.

I don't write YA because I'm not skilled enough to write adult literature, or because I think teenagers are a passive audience who will indiscriminately devour any old garbage. On the contrary, I think they are demanding, involved, canny readers. They won't keep going with something that's "improving" literature if they don't like it - they get enough of that in school. If a book doesn't entertain them in their leisure time, they'll toss it. The YA blogosphere is amazing. These young readers establish international book tours, run prize draws, and engage in social media in a lot of ways that more established review outlets have entirely ignored, to, I think, their detriment.

So yeah, it's annoying that YA is all but ignored in the major review outlets. I think a lot of adult readers are missing out on stuff they would really enjoy, although more and more of them are crossing over into the YA section, where they are very welcome. But, you know, we're doing our own thing. It would be nice to have the big names take more notice, but in the YA world, we don't really need them to get by. It's a bit like the situation with romance as a genre, which is routinely ignored or condemned by the literary-academic establishment, but is by far the largest slice of the English-reading consumer market at 13.2 percent. The printing presses will still produce YA! And that is indeed a good thing.

Q. I recently reviewed a book by a writer who has said "Nothing I write comes out of consideration for the reader" (in my rather cranky opinion, it showed). Do you have an Ideal Reader in mind when you write? Could you write without one?

My Ideal Reader while I'm actually writing is myself. I read a lot of YA, I know what I do and don't like, and I write, to the best of my ability, the story I want to read.

But after I've written, my Ideal Reader is everyone who reads the book and goes, "I liked this bit!" or "This bit made me think!" or "I didn't like what she did here, but I think she was trying to do this and I wish she'd done it this way instead." I pretty much appreciate every reader, but readers who take the time to think and communicate what they're thinking are just fantastic.

--

* Great hair, I tell you:

Image by Karen Healey

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Karen Healey's Guardian of the Dead is currently on the shelves; The Shattering will be released in September 2011.

57

A Classical Education: Chapter 4 Going On 5

On Dialogue

It is true, my child, that dialogue is how we come to understand the world. By steady question and answer, between the curiosity of youth and the wisdom of age, we approach truth. And yet though there may not be an end to your questioning, there may sometimes be an end to the answering, as when you find yourself yet again in a conversational cul-de-sac with your mother on the exact details of the demise in battle of Obi wan Kenobi, vis-à-vis the death by old age of Yoda. There are some things we do not know, or have forgotten, or do not give a stuffed fig about, whereupon we must bring our dialogue to an end with an aphorism from the great Xanthippe herself: Ask Your Father.


On Nostalgia (In a busy taverna)

“Hey, hey, hey, HEY, remember that time I said ‘Holy shit’?” Note: this is also an example of a rhetorical question.


On the Myriad Schools of Philosophy

The Logician (aged 4): “I know why chicken wings are called chicken wings. Because: they are wings. From a chicken.”

The Sophist (aged 9): “OK, what about buffalo wings?”

This is what we call an aporia.


The Gods

Although geographically suspect, Thoth, the God of Wisdom, is a perfectly good choice for your Favourite God. Not least because your painstaking pronunciation of the phrase “Thoth, the God of Wisdom”, lisp and all, will cause all about to you melt in delight and shower you with sweetmeats and demand that you say it again and again.

Wisdom is, after all, the goal of all young men. You may seek it from your elders -- some of whom, at twice your age, are full of it. Respect your brother, but retain an open mind, as he is known to spend long hours in the library consulting the comedic scrolls of Bill Watterson as well as the more reliable authorities of Popular Science and How It Works.

If you begin, on the harsh advice of your brother, to doubt the veracity of the gods, be warned that it is not wise to ask a jive-talking Magic 8 Ball if the gods are “really true.” Great unhappiness will follow should the oracular ball respond “IN YOUR DREAMS.”

To restore harmony in the domestic sphere, it is considered auspicious for a parent to shake the Magic 8 Ball until it says “FO’ SHO.” Be thus reassured that the gods have not abandoned you, and your brother shall be justly punished for his excess of sceptical proselytising, although probably not with a hemlock milkshake. This time.

Your suggestion of asking the ball “Did you just lie to me about whether Thoth is really true?” is not without philosophical merit, but recall the paradox: All Magic 8 Balls are liars.


Drama; also, Hygiene (In a public convenience)

Your mythos, or story, is “I need to go to the bathroom! I need to go to the bathroom! I need to go to the bathroom!” Your ethos, or character, is an independent young man who can do everything all by himself. (We do not, at this age, regard such a trait as a tragic flaw, but rather as a laudable expression of heroic aspiration). The dianoia, or theme, of this particular drama is: the eternal balance of convenience vs inconvenience. Also, penises are funny.

Act I

Announce your intention and narrate your performance. This is lexis, or speech. For example: “Hey guess WHAT I’m just using the magic willy window in my Star Wars undies to do a awesome wee! Did you SAW that?! That was AMAZING!”

[NB in younger players, such hubris goes unpunished; this lessens the dramatic effect somewhat but improves morale among the actors, not to mention the chorus]

Chorus: (as if accustomed to such proceedings) “Yes, I saw it. Yes, it was amazing.”

Act II

Adjust your costume, approach the sink, and bang firmly on the soap dispenser six times, without result. Shout “WHAT THE!”

Help is needed; this is a moment of perepeteia, or reversal.

Accept assistance from the Chorus. Praise the results. “Whoa, PINK SOAP! COOL!”

Chorus: (briefly occupying the hero’s aesthetic viewpoint) “Huh, you’re right. It’s all shiny and it sort of glows. That is cool, actually.”

Ignore the Chorus and turn on the tap as far as it will go, such that a great roaring cascade of water pours down. Jump back one step and bring your fists up to your shoulders while yelling “AWESOME!!!!!!!” This is opsis, or spectacle.

Chorus: (apparently genuinely impressed) “Wow!” or possibly “WHOA!”

The handwashing ritual, as the dramatic height of the performance, should be enacted over a minimum of five minutes. Throughout, perform a full range of tongue-extending and eye-rolling gymnastics in the mirror, as if entertained by (or entertaining) a monkey on the other side of a window.

Chorus: (urgently) “Come on. Come on. They must be clean by now.”

At this climactic point, verbal extemporising is encouraged. A ceaseless ululation of “ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE ARDLE” considerably assists the effect, amplifying the tension experienced by your immediate audience while emanating beyond the walls of the theatre to arouse wondrous thoughts in passersby, whether of horror or curiosity. This we call melos, or music.

Chorus: Dramatic hand gestures.

[Optional: the Chorus may moan quietly to itself at this point, expressing impatience beyond endurance, or a bittersweet commentary on the hero’s bumpy progress towards independence, or a combination thereof.]

Act III

Rip paper towel from its dispenser, rapidly dry hands. Then abruptly swivel and pause before the mirror to gaze at self (anagnorisis: a moment of recognition).

Now: gently wipe away the chocolate moustache that has lent a mock gravitas to the entire performance. This shall cause a great and nearly unbearable wave of pathos to roll over your audience.

Then, without warning, SLAM DUNK the paper towel into a nearby nappy disposal and FLIP THE LID, just because.

THUNK!

This is catharsis.

135

Front, man

"Some people are easily offended", offered Paul Henry in the first hours after his calculated race-baiting stunt went a bit Evel Knievel at Caesar's Palace, with overtones of Fonzie-on-water-skis. Funnily enough, Henry sounded a smidge offended himself. As if he'd been aiming a bit higher, hoping to offend the people it's really, really hard to offend, instead of the usual right-thinking fish in a barrel.

"I am sincerely sorry if I seemed disrespectful to [Sir Anand Satyanand]," he hazarded in his official "apology", introducing a wistful note of conditionality into the brew, as if hoping it would all just go away.

Sir Anand, to his credit, brushed the offense off, Obama-like. Water off a duck's back. A model of dignity, as befitting a dignitary. And as for the other 4 million New Zealanders who were explicitly included in the offense, well, if some people are easily offended, that's their problem, right? After all, we're all grown-ups here.

Except we're not. A significant proportion of "us" are children. And another way of saying "easily offended" is "impressionable." For them, in this case, there is no meta-cognitive "if." There is only the brute fact of divisive, demeaning racist thinking, in just one of its many slippery verbal guises.

One of the cool things for me about having a brother who reviews nifty gadgets on TV is that this makes him a cool uncle. Also, of course, a cool Dad. And also, for his son's mates, a cool "my friend's Dad who is on the telly." On the telly with that funny man Mr Henry.

Children are watching and listening, all the time. Even as the Wii generation abandons television for the more immediate delights of on-demand entertainment, they still pay attention to what's on the screen, especially if it sometimes involves remote-control helicopters. Even if they have to sit through the bit with the Prime Minister.

But as someone once put it, children are insanely good observers and slightly crap interpreters. For all that they have powerful bullshit detectors, they can also be very literal thinkers. Just this week I had to talk a four year old down from the ceiling after he freaked out over a casual reference to Wall*E's "motherboard" getting "fried."

Likewise, just this week, a friend of mine is trying to avoid explaining to her Pakeha-Chinese-New Zealander kids why mummy is grumpy with a man who thinks they don't "look like" future governors-general. Because how do you explain that to your kids without saying that the man on the telly thinks they shouldn't be in charge of the country when they grow up because of what they look like?

In this case, I think the punishment should fit the crime. No need for a public flogging, no heads on spikes, no scalping, no pound of flesh. Nothing too medieval, just a spot of good old restorative justice.

Which is why I propose that Paul Henry undertake an apology road trip, in the course of which he visits every kindy, every play centre, every kohanga, and every school in the country, where he will look every single child in the eye and say:

"You know what? I said a really dumb thing. You totally look like a future Governor General."

I think it's important for it to be one-on-one, and out loud, and in person. More effective that way than from behind a camera. Otherwise kids might confuse it with the cartoons, and wait for the ACME one-ton weight to fall on him as a punchline.

Also, as my going-on-nine-year-old just pointed out over my shoulder, it's not nearly as much fun to throw eggs at a TV screen.

The other nice thing about kids is that they're usually more than happy to "say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud" (to borrow TVNZ's spokeswoman Andi Brotherston's regretful phrase). I'm quite looking forward to that bit.

And as I type, I hope someone somewhere is, as @johubris suggested on twitter, making T-shirts that say, "This Is What a New Zealander Looks Like." In several colours, and all sizes: XL, large, medium, and small.

91

Reading Room

Even if it’s true that this photo of the University of Canterbury library shelves tumbled like dominos was by far the worst of the library damage, it’s an image that has stuck in my head these past weeks. Imagine -- as with so much else about the quake -- if it had happened in daylight, on a working day! How many students would have been flattened like so many pressed flowers in a Victorian album?

OK, probably not many. But -- if it’s permissible to indulge in black humour at this stage -- they would have been the diligent ones, yes? A generation of future scholars wiped out at a stroke! What a blow for New Zealand’s intellectual life that would have been.

(I suppose we would need to know the call numbers of those particular shelves to be able to figure out the true intensity of the blow.)

--

When I saw the pictures of what the earthquake had done to the library and to Homebush, I thought of Brancepeth, a historic house in the Wairarapa that was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1917.

“It was the worst I have ever felt,” said Mr H.H. Beetham, of Brancepeth, in reply to a query. Mr Beetham stated that out of about fifteen chimneys at the homestead only three remained intact. The whole of the chimneys in the homes of the station hands were also down. Mr Beetham states that his loss in plate glass, ornaments, etc., was fairly heavy.

Evening Post, XCIV: 32, 7 August 1917, p8 (via Papers Past)

The funny thing was, the grand old house had already been partly demolished and elaborately rebuilt in 1904-1905 (due to its rotting sapwood frame; an elementary mistake on the part of the original builders), and would eventually lose its
restored chimneys to another earthquake in 1942.

Happily, the homestead still stands. And what also survived those various disasters -- and why I was thinking of Brancepeth at all -- was its magnificent lending library, which was established by the Beetham family over the course of several decades from the late 19th C into the early 20th C.

The only reason I know about Brancepeth is from Lydia Wevers’ fascinating new book on the subject: Reading on the Farm: Victorian Fiction and the Colonial World, which (full disclosure) I was lucky enough to help edit.

The two thousand volumes of the Brancepeth lending library, still wrapped in their now-faded red linenette covers, were donated to the Victoria University Library in 1966, where they sit quietly in the original glass cases that were built to hold them. Lydia originally set out to write an essay on the collection as a literary-historical curiosity, and in the course of settling down to work, wrote to the current generation of Beethams to enquire whether the family had any related material lying around.

Did they what! Diaries and letters, yes, but also -- the farm office standing virtually intact from the way it was at the turn of the last century, with the ledgers and account books still sitting dusty and undisturbed on the shelves.

It was a treasure trove for the devoted researcher – which, fortunately for us, is exactly what Lydia is. Anyone else might have glanced at the spidery, minuscule handwriting of the clerk, and put it away as job for some other scholar. Lydia patiently deciphered over a dozen years’ worth of notes about farm business, and in the process discovered, as her book puts it, the “next best thing” to a great New Zealand 19th C novel of manners.

She also discovered a complex, brilliant, and troubled character, in the melancholic person of John Vaughan Miller. He was an educated gent who washed up in the slightly déclassé job of Station Clerk and worked almost without stopping for the 14 years he held the post. Lydia patiently and expertly traces Miller’s story not just via the station diaries, but also through his anonymous annotations in the library books, and his various letters, articles, and other fulminations in the local newspaper, in which he undertook to educate the local populace about crucial matters of the day.

The gap between Miller’s ambitions and his daily life is painfully apparent; likewise the gap between his hard-won learning and the happy leisure of his masters and employers. There are also various feuds and debates and affairs and squabbles and scandals, as well as shopping lists and gardening and visitors and dinners and clothes. The result (and I think it’s all right for me to say this, even though I worked on the book) is a superb example of non-fiction that is almost fictional in its quality and quantity of character and event.

My favourite character, besides Miller, is Willie, the young scion of the Beetham family, whom we meet in Surrey in the early 1850s. Poor self-conscious Willie applies himself with energy but little success to his studies while the family figures out where best to emigrate to. In his diary, Willie laments how pathetic he is at everything; utterly useless at Latin and Greek, too clumsy even to get an apprenticeship with the local blacksmith -- and a really crap diarist, to boot.

But as soon as he boards the sailing ship for New Zealand, something about the salt air invigorates his brain, just as in the best adventure fiction of the day. Within his first couple of years in the new country, Willie goes on to perform feats of engineering to make a blacksmith cry, while also becoming proficient in a language that he never expected to master, and generally advancing the family fortunes. He’s like a walking advertisement for colonialism.

Lydia is careful to remind us just what a pyramid scheme the whole colonial business was, particularly once the early land-grabs were over. The irony is that, like John Vaughan Miller himself, most of the readers on the farm -- the shearers and daggers and shepherds and gardeners and passing homeless swaggers who devoured the colonial romances of patience and pluck rewarded -- would never enjoy the success or wealth of their employers in the big house, who had simply capitalized on their initial luck, good timing, and investments.

That didn’t stop the working men (and likely their wives) from reading and fantasizing about tales of material good fortune, though. One of the delights of Reading on the Farm is how it brings to life those readers and their avid consumption of the best and trashiest fiction of the day. Readers paid the equivalent of a week's wages for an annual membership of the library, and colour plates in the book show some of the best-loved (which is to say, tattered and torn) volumes, their worn covers and their annotations in various hands. But even more affecting is the way Lydia has managed to conjure up a lost world, by patiently and intuitively reading between the lines and in the margins of the station ledgers and the hundreds of long-forgotten Victorian pot-boilers. It’s marvellous stuff.

See also Denis Welch’s feature in the Listener, this story in the local paper, and from a couple of years ago, an audio tour of the station, featuring Lydia Wevers and current station owner Ed Beetham, with interlocutor Jack Perkins. Also, Helen Heath’s lovely pics of the launch, which took place at Brancepeth itself.

--

Speaking of the earth rumbling, and books toppling: the old Trowenna Sea discussion thread has sprung to life again, in the wake of Penguin’s admission that there is to be no revised version of Witi Ihimaera's novel. Hardly surprising; everyone who is prepared to pay for a copy has already got one; there is clearly still plenty of stock to drip-feed to the bookshops; the author, recently bereaved, may not wish to revisit the material. Still, as BookieMonster forthrightly points out, it makes last year’s representations about preserving the “mana and integrity” of Te Umuroa’s story ring a little hollow.

--

Never mind. There are better books out there to spend your money and time on. This week I have been joyfully locked into Emma Donoghue’s Booker-shortlisted Room. The novel is already drowning under a tsunami of hype, but is worth the praise: it is, among many other things, a stunning depiction of the mother-child dyad, a beautifully imagined representation of how children experience the world, and a bittersweet parable of parenting -- its fierce love and its circumscribed orbit -- and the inevitable weaning and separation.

(Having known a few people who’ve found themselves living in the author's hometown of London, Ontario, I did briefly and uncharitably wonder whether the locked room also functions as a geographical allegory… Probably not, but that leads me to my favorite moment in the FAQ on Donoghue's appealingly modest website:

Q.Why did you move to Canada in 1998?
A. I once answered this question at a reading in Ontario by saying "Love", but the questioner then asked confidently, "Love of Canada?" - so I had to spell it out and say "No, love of a Canadian!"

Ah, Canadians. The New Zealanders of the north. Gotta love ’em, eh?).

Back to the book: Room is also a spectacular example of the difference between plot and story. Yes, the plot of the book is grim: a kidnapped young woman and her years in a makeshift dungeon with the child she subsequently bears. But that’s just the pretext. The story that Donoghue unfolds is vaster, larger, deeper and more humane than any of that. It’s a modest ante-chamber that opens into a labyrinth of paths; wandering them as you read will take your mind to places it’s never been before, and to some places you’ve been but have forgotten, like the numinous, luminous world of childhood, all totem and taboo and magical thinking. The very best kind of fiction.


--

So how many books did you own when you were eight going on nine? I ask because one of this summer’s domestic tasks was to reconfigure the older child’s room -- itself about the size of the room inhabited by Donoghue’s Ma and Jack -- to accommodate his personal library. Which is currently about the size mine was when I finished grad school.

His impressive holdings are partly a function of living in a country where books are cheap. (So cheap, in fact, that when in my first semester of grad school I sat down to cover my textbooks with that sticky plastic stuff that in a more book-poor country tends to preserve their resale value, my American flatmates laughed themselves silly). When you can buy the latest hard cover Rick Riordan with just over 2 weeks’ pocket money, you can be as acquisitive as you like; the local book exchange gets a run for its money, too.

But it’s also partly a function of a dedicated collecting instinct, I think. By tripling the linear footage of shelving, we not only managed to get the various piles of books up off the floor, but also left space for future acquisitions, and -- crucially -- elbow-room for moving things around and categorizing them.

So now there’s Fiction (alphabeticised, natch) and Non-Fiction, of course, with separate sections for reference, how-to books and self-published efforts. A small collection of rare editions rivals my own prized shelf of 20th C New Zealand first editions.

There's also a magazine corner, featuring Science Illustrated; National Geographic for Kids known hereabouts as National Geographic for Babies on account of being photo-heavy and not especially full of multisyllabic scientific terms and other really hard stuff; and the splendid How It Works. (This month’s fave How It Works feature: how to mod that Nerf gun that your mother can’t quite believe she bought for you at Wal-Mart. Next I’ll be shooting wolves from a helicopter.)

And of course the mainstay of every eight or nine year old's library: the graphic novels, especially Calvin & Hobbes, which he has entirely from memory, chapter and verse, like a good evangelist, and reads daily for inspiration and consolation.

See, too, the volumes of Footrot Flats that were a crucial part of his breakthrough to literacy -- was it only three and a half short years ago? And now it's probably a matter of months before his alphabetically-inclined four-and-a-half-year-old little brother is queueing up to borrow those same books, if he can scrape together the membership fee. Upkeep, apparently. Of the librarian's lolly stash.