Thursday, July 24, 2014

Diane Brown on Debra Daley

While we’re on the subject: the 73rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is Diane Brown’s review of Debra Daley’s debut novel The Strange Letter Z, which featured in the previous post. It too is from the November 1995 issue:
I have to confess to coming to The Strange Letter Z with an attitude. I had already read an extract in which the characters and the writing seemed so clever, so self-assured and glamorous that I was sure I would not like them or the book However, the opening chapters disarmed me. Not that the main characters, Nerida and Alexis ceased being clever, but Daley convinces that these are likable people worth knowing.
Nerida stands naked “on the wooden bed-end, her arms outstretched for balance like a winged Victory”. She is sensuous, restless and out of place in a Northland farmhouse. She has so much information in her brain she feels about to burst. Relief comes from masturbating while musing over the letter Z. It’s a discoveiy of self. A tragedy causes Nerida to move to London. She is beautiful enough to become a model.
Alexis is a precocious child, schooled in word-play by his Czech linguist father. He is melancholic and “too naturally clever”. His parents are suffocating: “He had been brought up to achieve greatness, but deep in his heart there lurked a kind of boredom. A laziness. He felt his mind to be both full and vacant.”
Alexis experiences his first orgasm when he has an epileptic fit; later fits are sparked off by the letter Z. He leaves for Europe to pursue an academic career as a linguist; his career is enhanced by the brilliant automatic writing he falls into after a fit.
By this time Nerida and Alexis meet in Paris, Nerida has become a photographer but she is still fixated by the letter Z in a way familiar to all New Zealanders living abroad. Reading a complex passage on Samuel Zeugen, an anthropologist and poet, has a profound effect on Nerida. She leaps on Alexis in a taxi and thus their explosive affair begins.
Much of this novel is centred on the work of linguists and anthropologists. It is intellectually rigorous in places and these passages may alienate some readers. Daley not only plays with ideas but also with form in a postmodern way, in the sometimes shifting voices and sudden digressions from one subject to another. Anticipating possible objections, she says, “the words that leapt off the page for any sentient person to understand, any gas station attendant or student or sales assistant or model if they were not watching television, were words of desire and frustration”. She demands and rewards attention with elegant sentences that carry the writing forward.
For Nerida and Alexis, a visit to Mexico brings a confrontation with the “language of catastrophe” and a painful end to their relationship. They have to relinquish vanity and learn to settle for “small finite things”, “giving up the storm-tossed life” before they can overcome desolation of the soul.
Alexis’ father says, “The world is full of intelligent, perceptive people who have no idea how properly to employ their talents.” This does not apply to Daley. The Strange Letter Z is beautifully and thoughtfully written and offers a positive vision of the strange nature of love.

Debra Daley and the strange letter Z

The 72nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is by Gwen Isaac and is from the November 1995 issue. It is an interview with Debra Daley on the occasion of the publication of her first novel. Her latest novel, Turning the Stones, was published to acclaim in April in the UK by Heron, an imprint of Quercus Books.

The intro read:
Gwen Isaac talks to Debra Daley about here, there and her new novel, The Strange Letter Z.

Z IS FOR IDENTITY
Debra Daley returned to New Zealand in 1986 to write the obligatory first novel that everyone has to write about where they came from and their identity. But she couldn’t write it in England, and her country of origin pestered her deepest subconscious. Finally she gave in and exorcised her life experience in the form of The Strange Letter Z. Published here by Penguin and next year in London by Bloomsbury, it is a confident, predominantly psychological novel, revolving around a complex romance that begins and ends in New Zealand.

When she left she had felt it to be “dull and mean-spirited”, with very little tolerance for people with artistic inclinations. After travelling incessantly, she needed to come back and see how it had changed. Sucked back into New Zealand she arrived with Universal Drive tucked safely under her arm. A TV drama about car-crazy kids in West Auckland, it had already screened here, making her known in the industry.

Daley was able to settle into a prolific phase of screenwriting, and after a few years, The Strange Letter Z. Following the parallel lives of the two protagonists, Alexis and Nerida, it begins by describing their respective dysfunctional childhoods in New Zealand that cause them to escape their past. Alexis, ambitious and self-obsessed, becomes a successful linguist who harbours a dark secret. Simultaneously, beautiful but aimless Nerida drifts into a fruitful modelling career. They are fated to fall into a love affair from which they can never derive happiness until they gain self-knowledge.

Daley says she was interested in two characters who seemed to have everything going for them. “With intelligence and good looks they move smoothly through the world,” she says, but adds emphatically, “This is not enough because you still have to know yourself.”

Losing her accent ensured that in England she was never questioned about her origins. And frankly she wasn’t even homesick for New Zealand. “For me New Zealand just didn’t feature,” she says — but then something strange would keep happening. She would open a magazine or a newspaper and the letter Z would jump out at her. At the time this confused her, but she soon realised she must have been looking for the word “New Zealand”.

This almost metaphysical occurrence was a catalyst for her to consider the country she grew up in. Like Nerida and Alexis, she needed to return to rediscover her identity. The letter Z is used as sustained symbolism throughout the novel. Its ominous shape weakens the resolve of the characters to dismiss their past identity.

To Daley’s surprise, she found it impossible to write fiction in London. She had to return to do it. Riding on the profile gained from Universal Drive, she began writing fast turn-around television (Gloss, Open House and Peppermint Twist), as well as writing TV drama and film-script editing. Presently she derives an income from medical copywriting and writing newsletters for the Auckland Area Health Board. It is near-impossible to earn a living from writing here, so all these activities buy her time for her greatest love. “In the perfect world, where I won Lotto, all I would do is write fiction,” she says passionately.

She uses an analogy in the book about Nerida’s training as a photographer being like that of a concert pianist having to do finger exercises for this big moment in front of the audience. For this, says Daley, you must be at your most brilliant — which only comes from practice. She absolutely revelled in the contrast of writing a novel: “Suddenly there was no one looking over my shoulder with a brief, which was very liberating”.

The book took her four years to write, while she fulfilled other commitments. A heavy manuscript was the product of her first draft as she found herself including all her life experience. “I realised to sustain a career as a novelist you don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket,” she says. So she completely rewrote it, dropping a lot of material, and leaving the final version of The Strange Letter Z highly edited.

Just as Daley’s restlessness always expressed itself in compulsive travelling, Alexis and Nerida country-hop through the book, providing a range of different backdrops for the progress of their relationship. They drift from one environment to another in an attempt to reinvent themselves, but also because they can no longer cope with their present situation: “They are constantly thinking things are a little difficult here so let’s move on and perhaps there will be some external circumstances that will make some sense of my life.”

Daley is concerned about how people become co-dependent and end up becoming part of each other’s fiction about how to live life. This becomes dangerous as the other person is instrumental in validating your story. Daley’s theories of self-definition through others link in with her interest in human happiness. Nerida and Alexis find happiness through one another, but ultimately remain unsatisfied within themselves “even though he could lie full-length in the dirt and kiss the footprints she had made. . . How could you love a woman utterly and still, it wasn’t enough?”

Daley asserts that our best achievement is to make ourselves as happy as we can. “By interacting positively with other human beings we will increase the quotient of satisfaction in the world,” she maintains. Fate is a useless notion to believe in, in this context. “If you identify the locus of control as external, you are doomed to believe that everything that happens to you is incidental. You must become the writer of your own life by realising nothing is destined to be.”

Despite her extensive screenwriting, she says that with The Strange Letter Z she set out to write something that possibly couldn’t be filmed: “I just wanted to get into the literary world totally, by writing something very cognitive.” She feels she certainly couldn’t write the screenplay because it’s over for her now.

Already her mind is focusing on her next novel, which will be more story-focused and driven by narrative. Its direction has been influenced by her love of genre work, in particular, thrillers. “I didn’t think it would be a thriller, but I am motivated by the satisfaction of thriller,” she says.

The epigraph, taken from Balzac’s short story “Z Marcas”, marks the strong purpose of the novel: “Do you not discern in that letter Z an adverse influence? Does it not prefigure the wayward and fantastic progress of a storm-tossed life? . . . Marcas! Does it not hint of some precious object that is broken with a fall, with or without a crash?” In the story, the letter Z in Marcas’ name becomes a badge of fate, like a defect that handicaps him for the rest of his life. Marcus’ tragedy, like that of Nerida and Alexis, is he believes he is helpless to alter his future, and therefore won’t. They were born, says Daley, with particular personalities that lend to torment, stress and trauma, which make them accepting of their fate.

Alexis’s greatest moment comes at the end of the book when he decides he will no longer accept this storm-tossed life, letting his love for Nerida assist in discarding his destructive persona. As Daley writes, “You love someone to overcome desolation of the soul.” 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Crime wave in Cambridge

People ask me, “How do you find living in Cambridge, population 18,400, after living for so long in Auckland, population 1.5 million?”

Here is the police report from this week’s issue of the Cambridge Edition:
Monday, July 14
Some time over the past week, plywood was stolen from the St Kilda residential development in St Kilda Rd.
There was a car crash on Maungatautari Rd. No injuries were reported.
A car parked in Taylor St was broken into and a radar detector was stolen.
A car, which was for sale, was stolen. It was parked outside a Hamilton Rd address and was taken for a test drive but not returned. Its registration was TZ1853.
Tuesday, July 15
Police attended a domestic incident in Hamilton Rd.
There was a crash on Victoria Bridge, when a truck hit the side railing of the bridge.
There was an accident at the intersection of Fort and Victoria streets. A street-sweeping truck reversed into a car.
An assault was witnessed by an off-duty police officer.
Thursday, July 17
A letterbox at a Cambridge address was set on fire.
A Te Miro Rd address was burgled and meat was taken. from a freezer.
Overnight a Richmond St address was broken into and a cellphone.was stolen.
Friday, July 18
Police attended a domestic incident in Oreipunga Rd.
There was a two-car crash at the top of Queen St hill.
A 20-year-old Cambridge woman was charged with another offence in relation to fake sales of cellphones on Facebook.
There was a three-car crash on Duke St. No injuries were reported.
Police attended a domestic incident in Raleigh St.
Saturday, July 19
Two Tokoroa men, aged 21 and 22, were arrested for theft at a Te Miro Rd cow shed.

Money for writers #4

First up, four grants of $5000 from Copyright Licensing NZ’s cultural fund. These are for writers wanting to undertake research for writing project, whether fiction or non-fiction.

One of the four is called the Stout Research Centre Grant and, in addition to the money, offers a six-week residential fellowship at the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University, from 1 October to 30 November. Recipients of the other three grants are free to research anywhere in New Zealand.

Applicants must be New Zealand citizens or have permanent residence, and must be writers of proven merit. To qualify, a project “must be of national or significant local interest or add significantly to the field or genre on the subject”.

The application form and guidelines are at the CLNZ website here. Deadline for applications is 31 July.

Second up, the Sunday Star-Times has announced the return of its excellent Short Story Awards. No details of the prize money yet, or who the judges will be, but there are three categories:
Open: 3000 words max.
Secondary school: 3000 words max.
Non-fiction essay: 1200 words max.
Entries open soon, on 4 August.

In 1997 an unknown writer called Eleanor Catton won the Open division with the brilliant story “Necropolis”, which you can read here. I wonder what became of her. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Michael Gifkins on Welby Ings

Yesterday I discovered in the recesses of our garage a long-forgotten stash of copies of the long-forgotten leftie magazine New Outlook, of which I was the editor and designer for its first two years, 1982-3. Looking at it now it wasn’t bad, especially the arts section which in a way was a precursor of Quote Unquote. Contributors to the magazine in my time included Lauris Edmond, Sandra Coney, David Robie, Dick Scott, Arthur Baysting, Peter Davis, Erik Olssen, Geoff Chapple, Marcia Russell, Pattrick Smellie, Paul Little, Russell Haley and Chris Trotter, along with photographers Gil Hanly, Bruce Connew, Mark Adams and Glenn Jowitt.

In the August-September 1993 issue Michael Gifkins reviewed Inside from the Rain (Brookfield Press), a collection of short stories by Welby Ings, who is now a professor of design at AUT. This too has been forgotten but it was, I think, the first book of fiction in New Zealand published by an out gay writer, and is therefore of historical interest. Also, I liked it. So on the founding principle of this blog that “if it isn’t on the Internet it doesn’t exist”, and because there is no other reference to the book anywhere that I can see, here is Michael’s review:
Most of the pieces in this first collection of short stories by Welby Ings rely for their effect on the twist that comes in the closing lines. There, the reader’s expectations are turned inside out. Two of the more successful stories of this kind — one about a gay young man who murders his lover’s “friend”, the other sketching with pastoral simplicity a day in the lives of a “dear old couple” who feed seagulls in the park — repay a second reading to enjoy the manner and the timing of the author’s signposting of the concluding shock.
A problem arises with other stories when the trick ending is too slight to justify what has gone before: the joke that irritates because the punchline does not bear its weight in “Nemesis” and the childhood myth recreated at over-respectful length in “The Desecration of Wilbur Wright”.
More disturbing is the way in which Ings tends to sell his material short. In “Jimmy” the confrontation between gay and redneck in a country pub inevitably calls in question reader prejudices, but the ending, by revealing that the gay is paraplegic, sentimentalises whatever understanding about his “handicap” we might have reached.
There is a sense in which the attendant publicity about the author works against these stories. Here is no expose of middle New Zealand such as a Taihape society allegedly shocked by his award-winning play Freesias might have been led to fear. When Ings is not being socially earnest (“Territory”) he is setting up easy targets and archly picking them off (“The Pigeon Social Club”, “Ram-Ram”). Moreover, the treatment of the theme of homosexuality by one who is self-confessed is uneven to the point of the reader’s feeling that he or she may be identifying with characters against the author’s intent. It is difficult to sympathise with the angst experienced so often over the treachery of bladder, and bowel; yet on the other hand we are invited to disapprove of a character’s flagrant homosexuality by the author’s narrating voice.
The distancing effect on the latter story, “Fairy” — arguably the best in the book and wickedly observed — is confusing only in the context of this particular collection. Many of the stories attempt to legitimise the self-awareness of oppressed homosexuality, only to suffer from the quick superficiality of its protective response. We are left seeking a more objective viewpoint on which to base our judgments, as is provided in “One Night Stand”, a slyly humorous put-down of a commercial traveller, dealing in lonely hearts, interestingly enough of the heterosexual kind.
Inside from the Rain is illustrated with superb pencil portraits by the author. Although these add considerably to the book’s decorative quality it is doubtful whether they resonate in any way with the stories they introduce. Production money might have been better spent on rigorous editorial intervention to sort out the many spelling and typographical errors which mar an otherwise attractive book.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The 2014 PANZ book design awards

Tonight the New Zealand book-design awards were announced. Back in June I wrote here:
There are seven categories: best illustrated book; best non-illustrated book; best children’s book; best educational book; best cookbook; best typography; and best cover. There are four judges: convenor Gideon Keith, a book designer; Alan Deare, a book designer; Cameon Gibb, a graphic designer; and Noelle McCarthy, a broadcaster and book reviewer.
Here is the awkward part: Alan Deare is a finalist in four categories, and Gideon Keith is a finalist in one.

PANZ responded here defending their use of potential finalists as judges.

On Facebook an author friend commented:
The part where they say thank you and shake their own hands will be good.

Alan Deare, one of the judges, won two awards, Best Cookbook for Josh Emmett/Random House’s Cut and Best Cover for Jill Trevelyan/Te Papa Press’s Peter McLeavey.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Country matters #6

While I spent the last four days at home editing a novel, my wife took Miss Ten and Miss Twelve to Feilding, where her set of grandparents are. While there, the children visited the ancestral farm. They phoned last night and I asked them what the highlight of the visit was. Miss Twelve reported:
We got there and they were killing the sheep. They skinned it and then Alice cut it up and showed us the heart. We saw the four stomachs and the cancer.

Miss Ten said:
It was yuckily interesting.

I bet you don’t have a veterinary pathologist in your family.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Authors’ incomes #3

Continuing again the vulgar theme of money for writersMike R Underwood, who is both an author and a publisher, on 25 Secrets of Publishing Revealed! Despite the terrible title he makes a lot of well-informed, professional sense. Highly recommended. Quote unquote:
If you sell a book to a major publisher, you’re agreeing to give over a big chunk of the book’s income in order to hire an army to go to bat for your book. If you sell to a smaller publisher, you’re hiring a smaller, more focused army. [. . .] You take home less money per copy sold, but you’ve got a lot more people on your side, who are working with you to make the book succeed. The entire army’s goal is to see each book succeed.

He is very sound on the retail side of thing, covers and how to self-publish. But this, surely, is nonsense:
Editors are some of the hardest and longest-working people I know, and they deserve all of the love and appreciation we can give them.
So here is one of my favourite tunes from Frank Zappa’s 1968 albun We’re Only in it for the Money, “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance”. Bill Manhire’s How to Take Your Clothes Off at the Picnic was published in 1977. I wonder if, by any chance, they could be related.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Authors’ incomes #2

Continuing the vulgar theme of money for writers, here are two funding opportunities for New Zealand writers. First up, Copyright Licensing NZ’s research grants. Quote unquote:
CLNZ and NZSA are delighted to announce that applications for the revamped CLNZ/NZSA Research Grants are now open. Following feedback received from writers in 2013, the value of each grant has been increased to $5,000 and the number of available grants increased from two to four.
One of the four grants is supported by the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University in Wellington. The Stout Research Centre generously offers its facilities for a period of six weeks during October /November. SRC offers a lively research environment for postgraduate students, international scholars and independent New Zealand researchers and writers – a great place to be while you utilise your CLNZ/NZSA Research Grant!
Applications must be received by 5pm, Friday 31 July 2014. No late entries can be accepted.

Full details here. The Stout Centre is a great place for any writer who can stand Wellington.

Second, from Creative NZ, the Todd Bursary. All published emerging writers who apply under Literature or Theatre for a stipend within the September Arts Grants round will be considered for the Todd Bursary ($20,000). The deadline is Friday 5 September.

From memory of being on the selection panel, there are some years when, as with the Iowa fellowship, there are few candidates so anyone eligible should have a crack at this.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Authors’ incomes

The Guardian reports:
Will Self's lament for the death of the novel earlier this summer has been cast into stark relief by “shocking” new statistics which show that the number of authors able to make a living from their writing has plummeted dramatically over the last eight years, and that the average professional author is now making well below the salary required to achieve the minimum acceptable living standard in the UK.
 According to a survey of almost 2,500 working writers – the first comprehensive study of author earnings in the UK since 2005 – the median income of the professional author in 2013 was just £11,000, a drop of 29% since 2005 when the figure was £12,330 (£15,450 if adjusted for inflation), and well below the £16,850 figure the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says is needed to achieve a minimum standard of living. The typical median income of all writers was even less: £4,000 in 2013, compared to £5,012 in real terms in 2005, and £8,810 in 2000.
Commissioned by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society and carried out by Queen Mary, University of London, the survey also found that in 2013, just 11.5% of professional authors – those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing – earned their incomes solely from writing. This compares with 2005, when 40% of professional authors said that they did so.

The ALCS statistics will be, as they say, “robust". CEO Owen Atkinson has a PhD in mathematics. We bonded in Ljubljana over maths. (Which is a sentence few people could truthfully write, not because of Ljubljana but because of maths.)

Presumably the same plummeting of authors’ incomes applies in New Zealand as well as other countries. Why should we be different? But what are we seeing here? There are international megasellers who make megabucks, and good on them. There are local artisan authors who are happy to sell out an edition of 100 copies. But. . .

Centuries ago ago the incomes of coopers collapsed, as did those of fletchers and thatchers. More recently, so did those of blacksmiths. A friend here in Cambridge is a farrier, in fact used to be the Queen’s farrier, but there can’t be many farriers left standing either outside horsey towns like ours. Sunset industry.

I wonder if authoring below megaseller and above local artisan levels is a sunset industry too. That whole mid-range area. So I emailed the text above to an internationally published NZ author friend who is in that zone. He replied: “Why did you send me this shit? Life is hard enough.”

So here is Joe Walsh with “Life’s Been Good”: