I haven’t written for a while. My father died in August, and all my pretty words flew away. Actually, if only they had. Instead, they swooped and soared in my brain, coalescing into ominous shapes. They landed in musical lines on telephone wires, singing me awake night after night, as my mind furiously tried to make sense of the absolute affront of the fact of death, a lifetime’s conversation forever interrupted.
I didn’t trust my words because they strung themselves together into tidy, familiar units, like Orwell’s “phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” I couldn’t be sure I would write anything original, so I didn’t write anything at all.
One thing that kept me busy was reading other people’s words. I was thrilled to be a judge for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. As regional judge for the Pacific region, I read dozens of stories from writers, professional and new to the business, from New Zealand and Australia. Then, with the other regional judges, I read the best from each region and winnowed them down to a subset of finalists. Look at these lovely faces, and, if you have an idle moment, you can listen to their work.
My Dad got an enormous kick out of this gig. Mainly because I was finally using my hard-won degree in Comparative Literature to actually compare some literature!
The arrival of the long-listed stories coincided with my last visit home (innocent days, when I was sure I would be seeing him again at Christmas), so we spent an afternoon printing them out.
With the bizarre range of fonts, the conflicting page sizes, and Dad’s temperamental printer, the job took three times as long as it should have. But Dad was in his element: technology, efficiency, and helping his daughter out while avoiding conversations about the meaning of life. (This is the man whose idea of a holiday was to fly to the other side of the world and paint our house, from top to bottom).
He helped me collate and staple the stories, and I brought them along with me to his chemo session, where we sat and busied ourselves with our respective reading matter. He wasn't much of a one for sitting around, and even less of a one for sitting around watching other people sitting around watching him sit around, so it was nice to be able to bury ourselves in the written word. In forty years of being father and daughter, we didn't always find ourselves on the same page, but right up to the last week of his life, we never stopped swapping recommendations for a good read.
So I'm deeply glad he got that one last peek at my world, in which I get to read things before other people do and work my private thoughts about them into complex public statements. And how beautifully ironic that the story that eventually won is one that caught our eye as it chuntered out of the balky printer in Dad's upstairs office that day, a story that skims the subject of death with grace and humour.
Speaking of difficult subjects and public statements, you might be interested in the cover story in the upcoming Listener, in which a mild-mannered book reviewer finds herself in it up to the neck after discovering uncanny resemblances between a review book and other sources.
As a writing teacher, I’d occasionally come across a phrase or a paragraph that was somehow out of kilter with the surrounding text. It’s a curiously physical phenomenon: the hairs on the back of your neck go up, and your heart sinks.
(Sometimes it’s a false alarm, thankfully. One of the Commonwealth short stories gave me that unhappy sensation: I googled a few significant phrases and quickly discovered hard evidence that the writer had ... oh. Posted his own work on his own webpage. Phew. Turns out, he was just a really accomplished writer.)
But I never expected to encounter that feeling as a book reviewer, let alone with a major new work by a respected writer.
Google was my first port of call -- it turns out that Google Books is bad news for authors, in at least one more way than previously suspected -- and then the extraordinarily well-stocked Yale University library.
You'll be able to read the results in the Listener on Monday, or earlier, if you are a subscriber. In the meantime, the Herald has gotten wind of it, and Radio NZ is following up the story as well. Given the 21st C way things are unfolding, I’ve caved in and joined twitter, where you will find me as nzdodo.
It’s been an odd, difficult, unsettling week. There really is no joy in stumbling across a story like this one. Dad would have appreciated my discomfort with the whole affair, but ever skeptical of my soft-spoken ways and excessively tender heart, he would have encouraged me to speak up. And I think he would be really tickled (more so than I am) to see me on the front pages - especially since I got there by comparing the literature.