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Hard Yakker and Magic with Kay McKenzie Cooke

Kay McKenzie Cooke is a New Zealand writer of Scottish and Maori descent who lives in Dunedin but was born in Southland, the southernmost province of the South Island. She has published three volumes of poetry, all published by Otago University Press: Feeding the Dogs (2002), Made for Weather: Poems by Kay McKenzie Cooke (2007) and Born to a Red-Headed Woman (2014). Her website, Time & Place, features samples of her writing, beautiful photographs and news about what she’s doing now.

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With friend and fellow Dunedin writer Jenny Powell, Kay is a member of J&K Rolling, a travelling duet of self-described ‘outrider poets’. Every so often, like a literary Thelma and Louise, they head out on the road together and share their joy in writing with language-lovers in small South Island towns. Their next whistlestop will be at the Goldfields Cavalcade. Catch them if you can at the Owaka Cavalcade Market on Saturday March 3 at 10.30am.

Kay has nearly finished her first prose book, which I’ve been lucky enough to peek at. I asked her a few questions about her novel experience and with characteristic grace and generosity, she agreed to spill the beans.

 

1)      You’re already well known in New Zealand as a poet, with three volumes of poetry. How would you compare writing a volume of poetry to writing a novel?

Quicker is the word that comes to mind first.

Well … quicker in the short term. Building a poetry collection ready to send off to the publisher, for me takes about four or five years of poem-writing. At first anyway; the scaffold of a poem can be as short to write as five minutes to half an hour; but after that initial writing, there’s the editing, which for a single poem can take many hours of tweaking and polishing. It can be days, weeks, months; sometimes years before I am satisfied a poem is ready. On the other hand a single poem can be done and dusted in a trice.

A novel feels more like a slog; a walk, sometimes through mud; rather than the dippity-skippity, alighting and departing nature of writing and revisiting single poems. I’ve discovered that writing a novel takes stamina and time – extended periods of time (uninterrupted time being the ideal rather than the reality) in order for the train of thought to run the tracks for miles, rather than the shorter dashes a poem is able to survive on.

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2) Was writing a novel a real learning curve with unexpected challenges? What did you learn?

It didn’t feel like a learning curve so much as a long straight road I simply had to walk, one foot in front of the other, in order to arrive at the finishing line – which appeared to constantly keep moving forward! The challenge was to keep walking, to remain dogged. The reward was reaching places where suddenly the road begins to run under your feet like a treadmill. That is always a good feeling. It is that rush that keeps you moving on, energised and believing.

Once I began writing, the novel started to write itself. The process of writing itself sparked off previously un-thought-of ideas, thus leading the story to situations and characters I hadn’t consciously started out to create. Much of the process of writing a novel involves allowing the sub-conscious mind freedom to surface. For me however (maybe I’m slow!) this sweet flow of the subconscious floating to the top; to the writing part of my brain – I wonder if that part of the brain has ever been identified? – demands the luxury of decent lengths of uninterrupted time).

This energy flow also requires one to be in the midst of writing; in the mode; in the zone. There is an element of serendipity to writing … maybe a song you’re listening to sparks an idea, or an unexpected phone call or conversation … but in order to catch whatever is there to catch and use, one needs to be doing it.

 

3) What was the genesis of your novel? What made you decide to go ahead with it?

The genesis may have started as a child. I always knew that I would one day write a book. I didn’t imagine that my first book would be a book of poetry. I thought if I did ever write a book, it’d be a novel. I imagined that it would be a bit like Anne of Green Gables transferred from Prince Edward Island in Canada, to my own hometown in Southland, New Zealand. The fact that it has taken me nearly sixty years to achieve this is possibly neither here nor there. I was always going to do it. Early retirement finally afforded me the time I needed to achieve this lifetime goal.

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4) The plot is quite complex, with at least three intertwining storylines, but you make it seem so easy. Did it just evolve or was it something you planned beforehand on paper, or in your head?

I almost followed a ‘How to Write A Novel’ instructions to get off the blocks. I remember working on a plot outline and some background family tree and character information, when Christchurch had its second earthquake, February 2011. But even before then I had started by participating a few times in the NaNoWriMo challenge to write a novel in a month. The work this threw up became the bones of the novel I eventually got down to writing.

Consequently, the novel’s scaffold, in the form of a written plan (or several plans, some surviving, others not) took about ten years to put up. This was largely due to not having solid enough blocks of time and constantly absconding to write poetry instead. Once I decided to really ‘get going’, the writing of the novel took about two years and was formed from the basic idea I had in my head of two cousins returning to the small town where they had grown up.

The plot became more and more complex as the tendrils of history and relationships began to stretch and grow. This is when the novel began to evolve. At times it did become a bit of a juggling act to keep it all flowing together and not become too convoluted for the reader. Often my head ached from the effort and I had to stop and work out family trees and dates of birth etc. Sometimes it felt like I was working on a mathematical puzzle or formula. (Not my forte).

 

5) I understand the novel bears some resemblance to your own family history. How closely is the story related to truth?

Sometimes a throw-away line from a family member has been all it took to imagine a story around it. Some of the ‘side characters’ resemble my late relatives and they would most likely recognise themselves if they were alive. Other characters are perhaps an amalgam of people I know, or family members. Some of the ‘incidents’ in the novel have been inspired by family tales. Heaven knows whether they are true or or not. However, the main events and characters are all made up.

In saying that, without the pepper and spice provided by my family tree characters and stories, the novel would be very different.

 

6) Your work frequently foregrounds the land, the weather and your identity as a Southlander and this novel is no exception. How would you describe your relationship to the place you come from?

Earlier I made reference to this urge I have had all my life to write a story set in my home town (and province) which in turn is some indication of the importance I place on this place I know as my turangawaewae (the place where I stand). Even though I left Southland some forty-seven years ago now, it still remains home. For whatever reason the umbilical cord was never cut. My writing will always be stamped with this personality trait. This birthmark.

I have made other homes since moving away from Southland (the city of Dunedin and the province of Central Otago, are two in particular) but my many return trips ‘back home’ to Southland, and the strong memories and associations of place it holds for me, fuel my work at a deeper, more primal level that anywhere else can.

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Western Southland in winter.

 

7) What are your favourite novels? Why?

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – because of the irrepressible and brave, red-haired, chatterbox orphan Anne, who is wonderfully penned by Montgomery. As a child I was also particularly taken by the descriptions of the landscape of Prince Edward Island where the novel is set.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I also read this book at a very young age and it has also remained a firm favourite; mostly for its portrayal of Jane (another orphan) and her quiet, fierce strength of character that in the end triumphs over life’s cruel twists and turns. I’m pretty straightforward – I like stories where good conquers evil and kindness shines over cruelty.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – for the charm of this book’s writing voice. It has one of the best opening chapters of any book I’ve read.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grasse – for the clever intricacies of its plot and, again, the writing voice.

Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – and again, for the writing voice – droll, verging on unremarkable; yet despite this restraint, striking a clarity that I find extremely satisfying.

Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame – Frame’s voice is unique – natural and unfettered by any semblance of pretentiousness or trace of laborious cleverness.

Persuasion by Jane Austen – my favourite of Austen’s work. I admire the expert handling by Austen of plot and protagonist to build tension, contrast, drama, conflict and an overall compelling sense of delayed gratification.

Middlemarch by George Eliot – I like this masterpiece of a novel for its grand sweep of plot, character development and strong sense of time.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, are two novels in the magic realism genre that I’ve enjoyed.

Favourite modern authors (whose books I always enjoy without any particular favourite titles) Tim Winton, Ohran Pamuk, Margaret Forster, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, VS Naipaul, Anne Tyler, Anne Patchett, Ruth Rendell, David Mitchell.

 

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8) Can you describe how you approached the re-writing / revision process?

Once the notes I’d made on plot and characters contained the potential for fully-formed characters, a beginning, a middle and what could possibly be termed a conclusion, I started to write up the story / stories in a linear or chronological fashion (despite dipping in and out of the past), editing as I went because even though much of the advice I’d received (or read) about writing a novel, insisted that for the first draft you just go for it and write without editing, I just couldn’t help myself. I was compelled to correct, add, cut, polish. As I went.

After many edits, corrections, additions and ‘getting facts straight’ (making sure dates lined up etc.) I felt I had a first draft. This was then pored over again with tweaks, removals, additions … until on about the fourth or fifth draft, I felt I had it. Something ready to give to people to read. (Scary!)

I gave the ms (as I was then calling it) to some trusted people to read. Their feedback was valuable and enlightening and meant going back into the work again to either add or remove. One plot suggestion, one which I agreed with and was pleased to accept, meant that I had to change the order of some events. Disturbing the plot this way, caused ripples and currents that had to be diverted elsewhere. At times I felt like I was playing the game of Jenga (a game my grandchildren are far better at than I am) as I attempted to remove pieces without the whole thing collapsing.

This final process all added yet another few weeks to the work.

 

9) What publishing options are you considering now?

I’ve been told (and personal experience has led me to agree) that it is very difficult to get a novel published in New Zealand. Especially, I strongly suspect, a first novel. There seem to be very few publishing houses accepting fiction.

I am due to get back to a publisher who has agreed to read it through with an aim to p o s s i b l y publishing it. (Something along those lines, anyway … )

It is looking like the self-publishing road (or an e-book publication) may be my best option. (Praying against hope for a brave and discerning publisher willing to back me, is another).

 

10) What advice would you give to someone who would like to write a novel but is having doubts?

Firstly, feed those doubts a little by considering the strong possibility that finding a publisher at the end of the road, is not a given. I’m tempted to suggest that like first experiences in romance, it is inevitable that your heart will get broken; if not your heart, definitely your spirit. Factor that in to your desire / urge / overriding passion / goal … to write a novel.

If you can weather long stints of writing, only to discover that it’s all rubbish, yet are attracted by the idea that you will eventually strike gold, that the story will reveal itself, the characters will come to life and solidify as real people right there under your fingertips (zip-lining from some mysterious coil of your brain down to the words you are writing. Ah! such a magical, wondrous process). If this idea excites you, then I say, Go for it. You won’t regret it. It’s worth it just for the sense of accomplishment and completion. You have created something unique; brought a book with its own identity into existence. Compared to that feeling, finding a publisher is (almost) irrelevant. Almost.

 

11) Do you think you will tackle another novel in the future? What’s next on the cards writing-wise?

Interesting Katherine, your use of the verb ‘tackle’. It is of course very apt! When starting to write a novel, it does feel a little like wrangling a creature to the ground; vainly leaping at it in the dark in order to accomplish some form of miraculous flying tackle.

And the answer is yes.

For all of its hard yakker; years of work; I have been well and truly bitten by the novel-writing bug. I will continue to write poetry, because that part of my writing voice will never be stilled. But I know that I have at least one more novel in me. As I was writing this one, I felt like it was only Part One of the story (or stories) I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to let go of some of the characters, or the setting … or maybe more truthfully, they were saying they hadn’t finished with me yet.

Already there are new characters and personalities forming in the subterranean regions of my imagination. Along with the old, there will be new settings (although still mainly in Southland) and characters.

I’ve discovered that despite the gruelling nature of writing a novel, there is something wonderful that occurs. In your fourth question Katherine, you asked if my novel was planned or whether it evolved. My answer indicates that for me, it was a mixture of both. But it is when I could feel the story moving away from my own plan, that the magic occurred. Marvellous and surprising. So rewarding. Needless to say, I’m hooked.

 

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In Praise of P.G.

“You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour. Like Jeeves, Wodehouse stands alone, and analysis is useless.”  Stephen Fry

It’s a bad year for the flu here in New York City and I too have caught the ‘wily virus’ with its trademark hacking cough and leaking snoot. I was feeling of need of some sunshine until John kindly bought Full Moon by P.G. Wodehouse, a novel of the Blandings Castle series. One chapter in and I was soon chuckling, coughing hysterically, gasping for air and generally enjoying myself as much as possible.

Appreciation of P.G. Wodehouse is a sacred and pleasant duty. Consider this, a typically masterful excerpt from the first chapter of Full Moon:

 

The ninth earl was down by the pigsty near the kitchen garden, draped in his boneless way over the rail of the bijou residence of Empress of Blandings, his amiable sow, twice in successive years a popular winner in the Fat Pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural Show.

The ecstasy which always came to the vague and woolen-headed peer when in the society of this noble animal was not quite complete, for she had withdrawn for the night to a sort of covered wigwam in the background and he could not see her. But he could hear her deep, regular breathing, and he was drinking it in as absorbedly as if it had been something from the Queen’s Hall conducted by Sir Henry Wood, when the scent of a powerful cigar told him that he was no longer alone. Adjusting his pince-nez, he was astonished to behold the soldierly figure of Colonel Wedge.

The reason he was astonished to behold Colonel Wedge was that he knew the other had gone to London on the previous day to lend his support to the annual banquet of the Loyal Sons of Shropshire. But it was not long before his astute mind had hit upon a possible explanation of his presence in the grounds of Blandings Castle – viz., that he might have come back. And such was indeed the case.

‘Ah, Egbert,’ he said, courteously uncoiling himself.

Going for a stroll to stretch his legs after his long journey, Colonel Wedge had supposed himself to be alone with Nature. The shock of discovering that what he had taken for a pile of old clothes was alive and a relation by marriage caused him to speak a little sharply.

‘Good God, Clarence, is that you? What on earth are you doing out here at this time of night?’

Lord Emsworth had no secrets from his nearest and dearest. He replied that he was listening to his pig, and the statement caused his companion to wince as if some old wound had troubled him.

Egbert Wedge had long held the view that the head of the family into which he had married approached more closely to the purely cuckoo every time he saw him, but this seemed to mark a bigger stride in that direction than usual.

‘Listening to your pig?’ he said, in an almost awe-struck voice, and paused for a moment, digesting this information. ‘You’d better come in and go to bed. You’ll be getting lumbago again.’

 

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The Empress [image taken from http://public-domain.zorger.com/laughable-lyrics/37-line-drawing-of-a-fat-pig-with-curly-tail.php%5D
No wonder he was and is so revered by so many writers. Here are some choice quotes in praise of the Master:

Evelyn Waugh: “Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale.  He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.  He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”  BBC broadcast, 1961

Rex Stout: “He always used the right words, and nearly always used them well.  As an entertainer he was unsurpassed.  While apparently being merely playful he often made acute and subtle comments about human character and behavior.”   (John McAleer, Rex Stout.  Little, Brown, 1977, p.577.)

Roger Kimball:No writer has given me more merriment and delight.”

Eileen Jones:   “Wodehouse was the man who gave us the Jeeves and Wooster chronicles, the Blandings Castle saga, the Mulliner tales, the Ukridge stories, the great stuff on Hollywood and golf and boxing and so on, God knows how many dozen volumes that he cranked out with incredible steadiness from the 1910s to the 70s. On top of that, he was a big deal in Anglo-American musical-comedy theater of the 1920s and 30s. Considered the Grand Old Man of 20th c. lyricists, Wodehouse was an early partner of composer Jerome Kern, as well as Ira Gershwin’s personal mentor and hero. If you care about such things, that’s very big stuff. One stellar career in an impossibly competitive field is amazing; Wodehouse had two going simultaneously in two impossible fields, popular literature and theater.”

Hillaire Belloc: “His object is comedy in the most modern sense of that word: that is, his object is to present the laughable, and he does this with such mastery and skill that he nearly always approaches, and often reaches, perfection.”

Douglas Adams: “Wodehouse is the greatest comic writer ever.”

George Orwell even felt compelled to write an essay titled “In Defence of Wodehouse”, in which he argues the old duffer had no political awareness so it was ridiculous to call him a Nazi sympathizer: http://www.drones.com/orwell.html

***

So what were his craft secrets? Well, by all accounts he was a ‘writing machine’. It’s interesting to learn a bit about his methods from this interview with Gerald Clarke for The Paris Review (Issue 64, Winter 1975). Wodehouse was 91-and-a-half years old at the time:

INTERVIEWER

What is your working schedule these days?

WODEHOUSE

I still start the day off at seven-thirty. I do my daily dozen exercises, have breakfast, and then go into my study. When I am between books, as I am now, I sit in an armchair and think and make notes. Before I start a book I’ve usually got four hundred pages of notes. Most of them are almost incoherent. But there’s always a moment when you feel you’ve got a novel started. You can more or less see how it’s going to work out. After that it’s just a question of detail.

INTERVIEWER

You block everything out in advance, then?

WODEHOUSE

Yes. For a humorous novel you’ve got to have a scenario, and you’ve got to test it so that you know where the comedy comes in, where the situations come in . . . splitting it up into scenes (you can make a scene of almost anything) and have as little stuff in between as possible.

INTERVIEWER

Is it really possible to know in a scenario where something funny is going to be?

WODEHOUSE

Yes, you can do that. Still, it’s curious how a scenario gets lost as you go along. I don’t think I’ve ever actually kept completely to one. If I’ve got a plot for a novel worked out and I can really get going on it, I work all the time. I work in the morning, and then I probably go for a walk or something, and then I have another go at the novel. I find that from four to seven is a particularly good time for working. I never work after dinner. It’s the plots that I find so hard to work out. It takes such a long time to work one out. I like to think of some scene, it doesn’t matter how crazy, and work backward and forward from it until eventually it becomes quite plausible and fits neatly into the story.

INTERVIEWER

How many words do you usually turn out on a good day?

WODEHOUSE

Well, I’ve slowed up a good deal now. I used to write about two thousand words. Now I suppose I do about one thousand.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work seven days a week?

WODEHOUSE

Oh, yes, rather. Always.

INTERVIEWER

Do you type or do you write in longhand?

WODEHOUSE

I used to work entirely on the typewriter. But this last book I did sitting in a lawn chair and writing by hand. Then I typed it out. Much slower, of course. But I think it’s a pretty good method; it does pretty well.

INTERVIEWER

Do you go back and revise very much?

WODEHOUSE

Yes. And I very often find that I’ve got something which ought to come in another place, a scene which originally I put in chapter two and then when I get to chapter ten, I feel it would come in much better there. I’m sort of molding the whole time.

***

 

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Remembrance of Things Past and Forgetting of Mice Present

Last night we had two unwelcome visitors: the flu and a mouse. Sitting blearily typing on my laptop on the couch in the living room, I was wondering why my bones were aching so much. It was just dawning on me that I might have the flu when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye — I could have sworn I’d seen a small brown shape flowing like liquid across the wooden floor.

As I turned my head, the shape froze mid-step. As such I enjoyed an excellent view of the tail, soft plump body, fine whiskers and pink ears of a large mouse or small rat.

 

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I shrieked lustily. The mouse had previously been heading for the space under the kitchen cupboard. In light of new developments, it decided to return to the skirting board under the table, behind our suitcase.

‘What is it?’ John called, alarmed.

‘A mouse!’ I wailed.

The soles of my feet tingling with horror, I snatched all the bags up off the floor and set them on hooks. Then I made sure all food was stowed high up in cupboards or safe in the fridge. It sickened me to see some unswept flax seeds on the floor. No doubt they were sending tempting scent signals to that moist little snout.

I didn’t want to think about the mouse. It soon became clear I couldn’t not think about it. Is that what that musty smell is? What were its bathroom arrangements? What if it made itself a nest in the suitcase? How did it get inside? What if it gets up on the bed and dances on our sleeping faces? I don’t want to kill it exactly but it’s a question of health…

I looked at the door that leads down to the basement, where we are not supposed to go. Maybe there were hundreds of them down there. One of those Rat Kings —tiny bodies merging into one enormous, writhing rat monster!

My only option was to retreat to the bedroom and shut the door. Even then, with the constant coughing and intense mouse-fear, it took me a long time to sleep.

Now John’s away for the whole day recording a show and I’m sick at home constantly aware that a small creature is cowering somewhere in the background. It’s bad enough having big creatures upstairs who clomp around in boots, but this furtive intruder is getting on my nerves.

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So, partly to get my mind off it, partly because my eyes and fingers hurt too much to write, I decided to listen to an audio book. Almost at random I found an English-language recording of Proust’s Un Amour de Swann.

Swann in Love is sometimes considered a novella, other times the second part of Swann’s Way, the first in Proust’s series of novels known as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time.  Swann’s Way is also the book in which Proust introduces the concept of involuntary memory, roused by that soft cookie known as a madeleine (a fact most of us absorb through cultural osmosis rather than by actually reading Proust). By the way, maybe madeleines used to taste better, but the ones I’ve tried at Starbucks are like small pieces of cushion foam.  In Swann in Love there is a similar memory prompt, this time a snatch of music called the Vinteuil Sonata:

 

“The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin. At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. . . . But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony—he did not know which—that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one’s nostrils. . . . This time he had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound.”

 

When Proust wrote this there was no piece of music called Vinteuil Sonata. It really appealed to readers’ imaginations, though, because since its publication there have been endless discussions about what piece of music it was (maybe Brahms  or Franck?), and some composers have even tried to recreate what it might have sounded like, like Jorge Arriagada and  Joseph Fennimore.

 

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Zipporah in ‘The Trials of Moses’ by Sandro Boticelli

 

Swann in Love describes the life-cycle of a love affair between a Parisian aristocrat Charles Swann and the courtesan Odette de Crécy. Swann at first is repulsed by her appearance but eventually convinces himself that she resembles Jethro’s daughter Zipporah from Boticelli’s  fresco “The Trials of Moses” in the Sistine chapel:

 

“He stood gazing at her, traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and body… And when he was tempted to regret that…he had done nothing but see Odette, he would assure himself that he was not unreasonable in giving up much of his time to an inestimably precious work of art… When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine he was holding Odette against his heart.”

 

Sir Ralph Richardson, a contemporary of Laurence Olivier, reads this version, which was recorded in 1961. I must say it’s pretty entertaining. I don’t know what makes an actor good, but I could listen to him all day. He manages the complicated, flowery syntax and periodic sentences with ease, and you find yourself leaning in to the intimate, gossipy tone. He does Odette’s voice beautifully, really bringing out the comic touches.

 

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In short, the perfect thing to forget an infestation of mice!

Solving the Mystery Plot

Last June I decided to write a mystery novel based on a few lines in an obscure book called Witchcraft in the Valleys of Susa and Environs by Massimo Centini. The crime, the tale and the setting were such a gift that it all made my mouth water. A true story! Minimal invention required! Pay dirt!

 

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Witches presenting wax dolls to the devil, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720) — Source (Wellcome Library)

 

There was one biggish problem, though, and that was that I had no idea how to plot a mystery. I’m good at poems and  travel memoirs but poems aren’t generally plotted at all, and travel stories have an intrinsic shape (you go somewhere, weird stuff happens, you leave). Mystery, a genre where readers have very specific (not to say rigid) expectations, was familiar to me as a reader but not as a writer.

So, after Googling ‘How to Plot a Mystery Novel’, I spent four whole weeks at the Primo Levi library figuring out all the details. It was me and the regulars—the lady in with a dachshund in a pram, the retiree sipping gin from a plastic water bottle, the cute Chinese boy and grandfather and the studious Sudanese Adonis. I did everything I was supposed to do: mined relevant historical detail, invented characters with compelling backstories, drew a timeline of key events, and summarized 20 chapters following the ‘rising action/climax/denouement’ pattern. At last there was a blueprint ready and it was all going to be so easy.

Seven months and several countries later, I’m halfway through the third draft and realizing with distress the plot needs Major Repairs. The writing has been about as straightforward as Magellan’s pleasure cruise to the Philippines. Help!

Time to abandon the crime scene for a day and go back in search of the Platonic Mystery Plot. I switched on the computer and scoured the internet for clues.

 

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A poster advertises a stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, starring actor William Gillette in 1899. Library of Congress

 

The first page I stopped at was ‘Plotting the Mystery Novel‘, which offers a clear, detailed recipe. Come here for examples of how to build a subplot, how to pace the sleuth’s discoveries and how to emotionally involve the reader and ‘raise the stakes’ (a phrase that keeps coming up–must investigate). It’s a nice, comprehensive overview and easy to relate to my fledgling manuscript.

Next, I enjoyed Hallie Ephron’s essay ‘Dramatic Structure and Plot…or how to keep your story from circling the drain’, particularly the title. It could have been written especially for me; I can hear that gurgle as I lie awake in bed at night. Ephron’s advice seems sound, if slightly sadistic:

‘Drama works in direct proportion to how miserable you make your protagonist….Begin with minor woes and build as the story progresses to its final climax. From time to time, things should improve. Then, just when it looks as if your protagonist is out of the woods, let the next disaster befall him.

‘Finally, keep raising the stakes, insert a ticking clock, and above all, make it personal. Reaching the end goal should feel heroic, worth all the pain and misery your protagonist had to overcome along the way.’

 

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Hopes and dreams.

 

Taking the Mystery out of How to Write a Mystery‘ by Dennis Palumbo’s’  takes a  psychological view. He argues that a mystery is not simply about a crime, and that the reader wants certain things:

  • order restored, the violator of the social contract caught, our world set right
  • a clever detective-hero as a reader surrogate
  • an exploration and resolution of psychological tension

 

Finally, I spent some time doodling on Dramatica, an online writer’s tool that offers interesting ways to organize and think about your plot. Even after a couple of sessions, it’s highlighted big gaps in my throughlines. In a plot crisis such as this it seems an appropriate resource.

How I learned about Dramatica is quite a funny story. I was at an actual party (a super-blood-moon-type occurrence) and met a guy who looked like a professional middleweight boxer but who was actually a keen historian and novelist. He said he was writing an alternative history of Rome in the Byzantine age and he knew all about plot-wrangling (hence the bodybuilder neck). ‘Try Dramatica!’ he said. I figured I’d take his advice.

OK, back to the drawing board. The corpse is getting cold!

A Perfect Piece of Pleasant Hell

Last Friday we headed over to the sound studio and John read his memoir Pleasant Hell (2005) to see how it would sound in an audio format. As Brendon worked his magic at the switches, I had the luxury of sitting back and listening on a comfy couch in the control room (if that is indeed what it is called). It was a revelatory experience because John’s voice, naturally enough, is the perfect vehicle for the humor, the faultless phrasing and the elegiac tone. I enjoyed listening to it even more than reading it.

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Below I’ve given a particularly lyrical excerpt from chapter four. I believe the youth of the Future will study it as “Dolan’s Funeral Oration to the American Dream”:

 

BART: Bay Area Rapid Transit. A light-rail system which was the technological equivalent of the Vietnam War. BART-NAM. With subway gremlins standing in for the Viet Cong…little red-star Looney Toon gremlins stealing a weight-bearing girder here, altering a blueprint there, then snickering in Vietnamese/Gremlin patois as they watch the test-train get buried under a million tons of sandstone.

The blueprints were classic con-game stuff: soaring suburban rail stations, approaches lined with trees as supple and willowy as models on a catwalk, the stern noble canopy of the station, the sweep of the aqueduct on which the trains would carry lebbenty-zillion commuters home at almost the speed of light. They would never age, even. Dad would come home younger and cleaner-shaven than when he’d left, and there would be the whole set-up waiting unchanged: toothy kids, well-groomed dog and docile loving wife. They never saw it coming, the docile-wife problem. She was a weight-bearing girder as far as they were concerned—and then she sues for divorce.

Ten years and a trillion dollars behind schedule, just in time for my freshman year at Berkeley, BART started running. Sort of: three trains per hour, prop-like aluminum shells, “futuristic” in a dated way like the monorails of old science-fiction films. Inside these chrome bodies were weary ancient engines capable of toiling to San Francisco at about 30 mph unless they broke down, which they invariably did. Then you had time to look at those poor losers zooming home on the freeways—they didn’t know what they were missing!—while you stood (there were never any seats) and held onto something, the side of a seat, or just tried to eep your balance. There were no handholds of any kind, because as we had been told for the 15 years we’d been paying it off, no one would need to stand on BART. There would be trains arriving every 30 seconds and taking off at nine-tenths lightspeed. After all, this was not filthy New York, this was no dirty subway. This was the clean zone, the golden time.

When they christened the first shovelful of BART back in 1965, the guest of honor was the president after JFK, a Boris Gudonov regent known as LBJ. I was a child, and we went there to see him. Americans still wanted to revere their presidents, and no President had ever come to Roofland. So we went to the site in the heat, the terrible summer smell of straw baking; people were there, waving Soviet-style placards: “Join us, Comrades! We are building the Future!” For me it was confusing, a clash between vision and smell. I could smell some really bad omens: dust, baking straw. But all around I could see the smiling placards.

Should’ve believed my nose and run off to some place nice and cold. Antarctica perhaps. But back then I believed; my parents believed; and so did the half-million neighbors. Most had arrived early in their feckful Protestant way; we, naturally, were late, had to park a mile away and walk down a gauntlet of sun-flashing mirrors and windshields to the even brighter glare of the model-home BART car.

Rohr, the company which made the BART cars, was in the fighter-plane business. Which accounts for the fact that the model car gleamed so bright it hurt our eyes, and for the 2,000% cost overruns, and decade-late delivery time, which was standard Defense-Department procedure. Not that any of us knew that. All we saw was that futuristic glint, not the money pouring down through the rails. The car hurt to look at, it was so sharp. A sharp aluminum nose like an F-4 Phantom. It had cost as much as a Phantom, too—and that was without an engine. As the sign by the car said, they would add the engine later. Do you not trust the engineers of the people, Comrade? The main thing was the gleaming Soviet shell. So shiny, Comrade! It would do Mach 3 on the straightaways, intercept oncoming ballistic missiles and still get you to work ten minutes before you left. The shock-wave of its passing would blow all the smoggy evil cars right off the freeways, and the sonic boom would scour every dingy tenement in Oakland. Another sign explained that the train would have “a human operator,” though it didn’t need one. The Computer would make all the real decisions.

The chrome prop sat on a 100-yard stretch of track—all the track which BART had actually laid. All around were stacks of rusted rails. The rust surprised me; I thought BART wouldn’t rust. But I was ashamed of myself for noticing it. They probably wanted the tracks to rust before they used them—a kind of tempering, like firewood. It was just another proof of my stupidity that I even noticed! So I erased the rust from my sight, like a good Soviet child.

We wove our diffident way toward the circle of dust and dead grass where LBJ’s helicopter would land. A hundred thousand trusting villagers ringed that circle, eager to lend their faith to restoring the Royal magic which had poured out of JFK’s broken head. We stood in a circle and waited. And after two hours in the heat, we heard the big drum of the rotor announcing the royal Presence. Helicopters were full of pride back then. “Futuristic,” that’s what they were. Someday every suburban home would have a helipad, the same grinning dad waving to the kids as he got aboard. He got around, that futuristic dad; he just seemed to go from one conveyance to another.

It was another couple of years before the helicopter lost its magic—before people got tired of seeing jerky footage of them landing in unpronounceable rice paddies, disgorging bewildered cannon fodder from the high schools of America to fall face-first into paddy water that was two parts human shit and one part grenade. But for us, waiting in the heat for the President, the helicopter still meant the future, the royal steed, grace descending on the populace like Pentecost. There was a hum of excited gratitude from the crowd as LBJ’s copter hovered overhead, then descended to our level through a column of cyclone.

And then the tornado touched the ground—the hard adobe chips and dry straw—and flung it up, a claymore mine blasting the Rooflanders with supercharged dust, blades of straw that could pierce a flak jacket, and clumps of adobe hard as concrete. The crowd hunched and cowered; parents tried to shield their children and the helicopter continued its descent, though by the time LBJ walked out only a few combat-hardened veteran photographers were still facing him.

The official figures were that a couple dozen people were injured and several more “treated and released.” But the lawsuits went on for years. And everyone knew, though as good Soviet citizens they never said it: the dynasty was cursed.

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Poster for the Bennie Railplane system from 1929. Railway posters, 1923-1947: from the collection of the National Railway, By Beverley Cole, Richard Durack, p.155

Stuff that Works

About a month ago I was chatting with a friend about how to get better at writing. She’d recently had a frustrating experience with a Creative Writing teacher. She joined his class because he had a good reputation and a lot of contacts in literary circles, so she expected him to provide guidance in the craft. As it turned out, he expressed dissatisfaction with her work but couldn’t offer any more specific critique than ‘be more original’ and ‘be more literary’. She sensibly decided to quit the course but was left with that dangling question:

How do I get better at writing?

We did a brainstorming session and ever since then the topic has been bouncing around in my head like the ball in Breakout.

 

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I don’t think that there is any one way because everyone’s different, but there are tricks and principles that make the job easier. Excellent writers have sometimes been generous enough to share very useful insights with me. Whenever I’ve managed to absorb and apply those insights they’ve worked beautifully—the writing has become more fluent, clearer or more compelling. I’m sharing them here because it’s proven, I’ve tried it – it’s been road-tested and crash-test dummied.

 

Work

Writing is just work.

For some reason it’s often regarded as if it were the Sphinx of Thebes: a sacred and mysterious creature who offers a riddle to any traveler wanting to gain entrance to the city. If he can’t answer the riddle, she kills and eats him. There is a mystical power about writing fiction because it involves the imagination; you don’t have conscious control over all the aspects. I suppose that’s where the idea of Muses, inspiration and genius comes in. Like sailors (also notoriously superstitious) some writers like to perform rituals or set the scene before they get going, needing ‘a room of one’s own’ or the smell of rotten apples or whatever.

In practical terms, though, there’s no use standing trembling in front of the Sphinx waiting for omens. Writing is, when it comes down to it, producing a lot of words and putting them on a page. The more you do that, the better you’re going to get.

 

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Writing ≠ the Sphinx

 

Use Dialogue

Dialogue works. I don’t know why but it does. Here’s an example from the first chapter of The Big Sleep:

 

“Tall, aren’t you?” she said.

“I didn’t mean to be.”

Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on that short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her.

“Handsome too,” she said. “And I bet you know it.” I grunted.

“What’s your name?”

“Reilly,” I said. “Doghouse Reilly.”

“That’s a funny name.”

 

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Dialogue had to be altered to ‘Not very tall are you?’ for the film version.

 

Engage the Senses

Words referring to smells, sights, sounds, tastes, textures and actions make writing more vivid and involving. That’s because the reader’s brain registers those words not just as concepts but also as sensations.

George Orwell makes good use of this principle in all of his writing. In fact John Sutherland has written a book called Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography.  You can see in this small excerpt from chapter 4 of Burmese Days that George Orwell includes a vivid (and not necessarily pleasant) sensory strike in nearly every sentence:

“Flory pushed away in disgust the toast and butter that Ko S’la had  brought, but he mixed some whisky in a cup of tea and felt better  after drinking it. He had slept since noon, and his head and all  his bones ached, and there was a taste like burnt paper in his mouth. It was years since he had enjoyed a meal. All European food in Burma is more or less disgusting–the bread is spongy stuff leavened with palm-toddy and tasting like a penny bun gone wrong, the butter comes out of a tin, and so does the milk, unless it is the grey watery catlap of the dudh-wallah. As Ko S’la left the room there was a scraping of sandals outside, and a Burmese girl’s high-pitched voice said, ‘Is my master awake?’

 

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A nice nose. Portrait of a Young Man, Head and Shoulders, Wearing a Cap, Attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo (Italian, 1443–1496), about 1470. Pen and brown ink over black chalk, 14 1/4 x 9 in. (36.2 x 22.9 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2012.3

 

As a footnote to this, and I don’t know if it’s tied to the sensory apparatus or not, but I think any reference to the human body is inherently interesting. Orwell employs this principle in ‘Shooting an Elephant’, where he conveys the brutality of Empire by describing the bodies of its victims.

“In a job like that you see the dirty work of Empire at close quarters. The wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been Bogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt. But I could get nothing into perspective.”

He could have indicated the ‘dirty work of Empire’ in other ways–using statistics, for example, or parsing newspaper reports, or listing crimes. He chooses instead to show it to you, to ‘rub your nose’ in these wretched, suffering, fearful bodies.

 

Imitate 

Models are useful because imitation is how we learn. I’m not advocating plagiarism, of course, but watching masters at work, admiring their grace and trying to match their movements.

Sometimes you’ll read an author and realize that you’ve almost unconsciously adopted phrases, tones and rhythms. That’s the easy (lazy) way to do it.

You can also go about it in a more deliberate manner. My friend used the term ‘backwards engineering’ – reading and analyzing texts and then trying the same techniques. Another writer I know has become extremely good, partly because he does this almost obsessively with writing he admires.

 

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The sincerest form of flattery. Image taken from https://www.boredpanda.com/funny-pinterest-fails/

 

Follow the through line

When I showed the manuscript of Girls of the Empty Quarter to my playwright friend, he sent it back to me with a lot of comments about the (lack of) ‘through line’.

“What’s a through line?” I said.

“Look it up,” he said (he’s British).

 

through line

NOUN

throughline (noun)

a connecting theme or plot in a movie, play, book, etc.

if there is no main through line the reader gets bored or lost

 

Get Readers

Show your story to people—friends, strangers, literary mercenaries—it doesn’t matter, and ask for their reactions. Once you get over being outraged and sulky you’ll realize that there probably is some truth in what they’re saying and that another revision won’t hurt.

 

Do you agree? Is there any branch of wisdom you’d like to add to the bonfire? Do tell!   

 

Kiwi Sci-Fi: Ascroft’s Way with Worlds

“The thought of them freaked me, the fences. But really, why? I’d only seen them from a distance. The noise they made, that high-pitched tune that my hedge blackbirds sing-songly sang. It hurt your ears. Like the burglar alarm I once set off in a disused hotel office. Each screech you felt squeezing at your eardrum. But more than that, it was, I don’t know, ominous, otherworldly.”

In Nick Ascroft’s new novel As Long as Rain it’s November 2018 and Earth is in the thrall of aliens aka Loopies: the gassy, slug-like Puncs and their slaves the Commas. Humans have been confined to prison camps, sterilized and mentally ‘impaired’ so they can only think and babble in solipsistic language structures. Southland teenager Libby Lavers is an exception in two ways: he was conceived after the invasion and allowed to live, and he has the ability to think logically and talk coherently.  Libby must escape and save human kind.

 

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Cover features the Antennae Galaxies

 

Nick is well known in New Zealand as a prolific poet, performer and editor. He’s also a Scrabble champion, an alternative-music expert, a ‘WikiPlatypus’ and the author of the players’ guide How to Win at 5-a-Side: Take Your Team to the Next Level (2016). This year he has published a science-fiction novel. He was kind enough to spare some of his diminishing free time (he’s also a new dad) to discuss this exciting prose enterprise.

 

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Photo credit: Grant Madden

1)   Some authors might be content to present an ‘alien’ and leave it at that, without offering much further explanation. You’ve drawn whole planetary eras, evolutionary processes, intellectual and linguistic histories and intriguing academic digressions. The compendium-like effect reminds me a little of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Are you enamored of the idea as writer as Creator?

It’s too fascinating to leave the idea of alienness undissected, isn’t it. Some of the creatures on Earth are so alien to us, especially those in unimaginable environments like the midnight zone of the deep sea. But they all share this planet and are all related to us, the vertebrates especially not being that deep in time since splitting, half a billion years or so. So how different would an alien be? Entirely different planetary geology, different chemicals, different isotopes. Different essential replicating mechanism. No DNA for aliens. And what would be the same? It’s a bit unknowable, but highly conjecturable. Yet disprovable too, if your conjecture lacks logic. All of which makes it fun to write evolutionary stories of alien entities. Is this some sort of fantasy of playing God? Are writers no less conceited than surgeons? Probably. In a sequel I haven’t written, but noodled at in my mind, Libby (the main character) receives God-like powers – not a God-like mind, just the ability to do a whole lot with some whizz-bang technology – and this suggests I have a fetish for omnipotence. It would be nice, no?  As to the Silmarillion, that book is one of my favourites of all time. To tell a creation myth that ignores physics and has a couple trees that light the world and is just generally so invested in a kind of wilful primitivism is to be applauded. I read it as: someone from the old campfire cultures might’ve believed this. What a thing to aim for. And yet it’s better than any folklore I’ve heard of. My guess is they all had too many authors, the old myths. You know, folklore by committee. Everybody wanted to add their own episode. Really, Eric? A magical dog? Yep. Big old dog. Yep. Bite give you hiccups.

 

2)   You play with perception and its inherent flaws in a way that teases the reader’s intellect. The story reads like a puzzle that Libby, the beleaguered teen protagonist, must solve, but it’s complicated because each new puzzle piece can radically alter the developing picture. Did you have any models for such a mind-bending concept? Are there other authors who do something similar?  

The ‘fallible narrator’ was one of those phrases people peppered essays with in my university days. I can’t think of a single book that has one, but there must be zillions. Must be, right? Anyway, I took the idea to heart along with a lot of other postmodernist nonsense and it provides fire for my ideas on fiction. I kind of want to escape postmodernism. Endless questioning and destabilising without answers or structure. But something in the set of ideas is stuck in my throat like a fishbone. I’m sure it’s unfashionable, and I’m the kind of scumbag who WANTS to be fashionable. But there it is. As to the mind-bending, I think that’s where science fiction has the jump on other genres. There’s the bit in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch I think where the protagonist is on Mars, but through the drug that puts him in a dreamworld he returns to Earth. The story continues and he’s on Earth. But wasn’t that just a drug dream? So what, says Philip K Dick, roll on. Nevertheless I did have a very fixed idea of what the truth is in As Long as Rain. The first readers of drafts had airy theories, such as that Libby was schizophrenic and there were no aliens. Nice idea, but it annoyed me. And that’s the danger with saying the narrator is definitely lying to you on occasions and that other people are lying to him. I hope that some sense of the puzzle revealed has occurred by the end, but I can’t fully imagine the reader experience that I am trying to sculpt. There was one point I left deliberately unanswered, and that was to leave room for my imagined sequel. Not to let off a spoiler bomb but it concerns the point of McKinnon’s work in the technicolour kitchen in Doubtful.

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3)   How did the story develop? Did you know the shape from the very beginning or follow a thread to its end? Did the narrative change much throughout its production?

I always knew the end, but I realised early on that if it was all planned then the typing was no fun. The bashing out of the sentences is creative, but the imagining and the dreaming up is the real fun bit. So if there’s some of that while typing, it’s more likely the typing will happen, if you follow. Originally, in another postmodernist shamefulness, the story was based on Hamlet, so I had at least a strong framework to hang things on. Rose and Chris are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for instance. Hamlet ‘deliberates’ on some petty family thing while Fortinbras is out there offscreen doing some real heroism. I let that concept dilute a little to ongoing references to Hamlet as opposed to strict plot-mapping. Glad I did. It’s an Easter egg rather than the story itself, and that should be of more importance than a self-set postmodern exercise for no purpose.

 

4)   The book fits snugly into the New Zealand canon. There are self-referential allusions to The Quiet Earth and Man Alone, livestock-killing, a ute, the native bush, Māori spirituality… I thought of iconic kiwi shows like Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the old mini-series Children of the Dog Star (remember that?). I read this as a combination of homage and oneupmanship, showing what you can do with it. Fair?

Yeah. It’s Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee for sure. That was a TV show too. The Wilberforces next door were actually slug aliens. That shit got in my head. When I was ten I wrote a story about slug aliens taking over Te Anau. My life is just a repeat showing of the horror and thrill-ride of seeing Under the Mountain. But yes. I liked the idea of aliens who spoke New Zealand English. Aliens who said, ‘No yeah. No I reckon, eh.’ It’ll never happen, but I imagined a film version or TV version, and the fact that humans could play the parts of the aliens without makeup – ah jeez, again the postmodernism with references to aliens in 1960s scifi TV – and that New Zealanders could without putting on an appropriate accent, I liked it. I was recently asked in an interview why my poetry wasn’t more New Zealandy of landscape, etc. I wanted to say, read my upcoming novel. As a linguist I worked on the phonetics of New Zealand English vowels. I’m a dreadful daft patriot. I love this country for the only reason that I was born here. Patriotism is just self-satisfaction in another hat and I know it’s wrong. But whoop. This is a bit of a love letter to Fiordland, the undead rainforest and the bush parrots.

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Great YA book by Maurice Gee!

5)   At the ESL school I taught at in East Timor there was a quote on the high barred fence: ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world – Wittgenstein’. There was a slum just across the road and it seemed appallingly obnoxious in that context, considering the parents there couldn’t afford clothes let alone tuition fees. In As Long as Rain, though, it’s demonstrably true: humans are circumscribed by a degraded language. There is an examination and critique of language as insufficient to comprehend cosmic mysteries. Does this reflect your own frustration with the limits of human discourse?

No. I think I’m mired in human discourse and can know no different. But the idea fascinates me, that our language is a cul de sac. Our psychology is shaped by old ape needs and our language reflects this. The limits of our language and psychology limit our ability to comprehend anything outside of it. Apes don’t smell no quantum states. Apes don’t gotta have sex with no interface of time and space. So we say: ha! Mathematics. We get maths and that’s what the universe is. Don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong, I love maths. Yay maths. But I think things like maths, morality and music, while being very real and important to us, are meaningless outside of human being. The latter two are easier to argue, but surely things are less than or greater than other things independent of some dude falling in a wood or whatnot? I’m working on it. Wittgenstein deserves his due (or those that have summarised him successfully). Not just for lauding it over the Timorese with soundbites, but because he saw that understanding the way language works was crucial to talking about philosophical conundrums. I’d go further. To understand the human condition you have to read the dictionary. What words do we use? Why are they so morally charged and judgy?

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“Quant what? I don’t smell nuffing.”

 

 

6)   Anyone familiar with your poetry will recognize the Ascroft style, which might be characterized as sheer verbal exuberance. There are rare words, weird phrases, laugh-out-loud wit, arresting metaphors and meticulously elegant descriptions. The prose seems quite as carefully crafted as the poems and in fact there are poems embedded in the text, including a limerick and the rather beautiful lyric that supplies the title phrase. Are there significant differences in the way you write prose to the way you write poetry?

That I had written a lot of poetry was a curse really. With a poem you can reasonably expect a reader to perhaps read it twice to get the nuances and meaning. I’m not saying that you can be more cryptic or that that is a good thing, but a reader of a poem expects to have to work a little and to go back and appreciate an early line as it relates to a later one. I didn’t want to do that with the novel. I wanted it to be a series of fun scenes, described as discernible events – a bit of meditative pondering, but intelligible – and in modern clipped prose, not stylised wang. But in fact stylised wang would’ve presented no harder a task (if a questionable result). I found it tough not to hide details of importance. I liked to be descriptive, but the basic good housekeeping of prose, like providing the physical appearances of your characters, I was blind to. The poems were the easy bits. I can write the soft blather of poems any old time. But the generosity of leading a reader through specific events and reiterating details that need reiterating, that’s a tougher proposition, and leaves me with massive respect for novelists, especially the populist ones. I don’t have the ability to write a populist novel, not because I’m so super-fancy, but I’m just not a good enough writer. It was an important lesson to learn. You have to write in a way that fits your abilities. My novels will be like this, and slowly a little slicker. I am going to spend hours on every sentence. Then I’m going to go back and change one word. Then I’m going to be too precious to change or delete material I should. I need a brutal editor who says STOP USING SO MANY ADVERBS, but I don’t have one. And I love adverbs. They are duck-splittingly irremovable from some sentences, or so says my preciousness.

 

7)   What were the most troublesome aspects of writing a book of this density and magnitude?

I am glad that you suggest it might be troublesome. Thank you for suggesting there is magnitude. I have only ever beaten myself up over how lazy I’ve been writing this tiny tiny book over countless years. Ultimately the boring answer is that time is all that’s needed. To be a writer who spends hours at the keypad you have to be obnoxious enough to people you know to shut them out. I am bad at this. Sounds like I’m blaming all the nose-pokers who want to have lunch with me. Sure, it is totally their fault. The toughest battle in fact is procrastination. Whenever I play sergeant-major and demand that I sit down for so many hours and pump out so many words before being allowed a biscuit, the work gets done. None of it is hard … beyond the learning-to-crawl frustration of every sentence. But my usual mode is to think about writing all the time and do absolutely none of it. This causes the density perhaps. I have spent thousands of mental hours on this book and so many thousand more than I spent typing. My next book is exactly the same. I promised myself it wouldn’t be, but I failed to get the promise in a legally binding contract and myself is a weaselly bugger.

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Writer’s conference.

 

8)   Your first volume of poetry From the Author of (2000) has an aye-aye, a lemur native to Madagascar, on the cover and Madagascar also features prominently in your novel. What’s the fascination?

The main thing to note from that cover is the back. There is the phrase in the bio: ‘He is working on a novel’. That line has haunted me for 18 years, because YES this is the same novel. It’s only 176 pages in the (forthcoming!) paperback, so a novella really. How’s that novel? My friends would ask, laughing. How’s that … uh … novel coming along? (Exhales.) I finally finished it. But yeah, Madagascar. I saw a documentary in the 1990s called ‘The Living Edens: Madagascar’. It’s brilliant. The narrator has a wonderful camp drawl that reminds me of the black guy in the Mannequin movies. He talks of a plant that ‘secretes a bitter latex’ and it’s all in the delivery. This was where I first encountered all the lemurs and chameleons and mantises of the African island time-capsule of our pre-monkey origins. The aye-aye was the winner. Ugly, smelly, misshapen, shaky, bug-eyed and weird. How can you not love it? Short answer though is that I’m fascinated by primates, and Madagascar is ruled by them. Well, they’re all doomed of course. And I am grimly fascinated by extinction too.

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As Long as Rain is available here as an e-book for USD $2.99. A Kindle version is available at Amazon. A hard copy will be released soon–watch this space!