I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

Sleep Sleep Sleep!

A long plane journey is normally the ideal time to read a book in one sitting (forget the threat of clots and the need to flush into open sky, the chance to provide a shower perhaps for some poor devil below!). There is no such luxury this trip. I need to get lost in the land of nod.

I am slowly making my way back to the north, from the beautiful south, a numbing 37-hour slingshot when you add in the waiting in airport lounges. I must arrive in top shape; the day after I get back I am watching an old friend tie the knot in the centre of London.

So, Ian McEwan, your lovely book Saturday is there in the pocket in front of me, but I am sorry to say that the words have all mashed into one. I won't get through it unless a screaming child suddenly appears. I have fancy plugs for the old ears - chewing gum-type stuff tested in combat zones - and I will happily guzzle the Australian wine that comes my way.

There may just be the odd moment for a poem. We'll see.

A Shameless Review

I have just finished reading another of the six books that launched the Macmillan New Writing imprint in April. The fifth on my list was Selfish Jean by Cate Sweeney, and it turned out to be an absolute treat.

I must admit that I wasn't keen on the cover when I first picked this up - I'm not sure what the twirly thing represents - and I was expecting a kind of light "chick lit" book. I only had to read a few pages, however, and that fear disappeared. I read this in one sitting, which is very rare for me, as the writing had me by the neck and wouldn't let me go.

I think the novel is a master class in how an author needs to find an original "voice" and keep it going until the end. There are two distinctive story lines, broken up into separate sections, and each has its own style. There was a kind of sweet and sour feeling to this novel and it really worked.

Jean is fumbling through a dull relationship, becoming obsessed with the need to adopt a child, and ends up becoming attracted to the mysterious social worker assigned to their case. Her story is touching and funny, and I felt like I knew this woman by the end. The parallel story features Levi, a young boy trying to cope in an unhappy home with an unstable mother. I was gripped by this narrative, the "voice" of which is stunning. I was there with this child, feeling every bit of the angst.

It was also such a delight to read a book where all of the text was crucial to the story, where I didn't feel the urge to skip ahead to escape unnecessary detail. The humour and tragedy works well together, and the writing was fresh and accessible. The way things are tied up at the end was intelligent and inspired.

This is a short novel, only 218 pages, and I didn't want it to come to an end.

The Big Mix

This really is turning out to be the year for collecting air miles. No, strike that; it would be if I did in fact have an air miles card. Drats! Think of how many wonderful weekend breaks I'm not claiming. Could I still apply and do a retrospective thing?

I have just completed an unexpected 37-hour trip home to New Zealand, Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. I was planning on returning next year, but an 'incident' in the family has made it more important to be here now. Telephones just don't do the trick.

All this time away from work - after trips to Dublin, Portugal and New Zealand, I'll be in London, Paris and then New York in October - is giving me lots of space to think about my writing. (It's better than thinking about how I'm going to balance the books with the woman who organises the work schedules!)

Arriving back here in Auckland makes me realise, for example, that I am less inclined to want to write about things here. There is the odd poem, and the main character in the novel I am trying to sell is a Kiwi. Something is being washed from my system though, and I feel more driven now to write within a European context. This was going to happen. I left NZ in 1994. European life has well and truly seeped into all of my veins.

I suppose, however, that the fabric of my writing will always have traces of Aotearoa in it, no matter what I write and where the stories are based. I wouldn't want to lose that; I believe our past experiences define the fuel and motor in our creative processes. I imagine that traces of my life in France - since 1997 - can be found there in the big mix. My three years in England will also be in there somewhere. Wouldn't it be fun to go through and identify all the different influences!

I don't think I will produce another book set in NZ, unless it's my memoir - and wow, that would be one hell of a read! And that reminds me! I'm still waiting to hear back from the NZ publisher who's had the first three chapters of my novel for a few months now. Are they travelling, like me? No time to think about what their next big hit will be?

It's time for action again. I think I'm going to send the manuscript off to a few more publishers on this side of the pond, while continuing with efforts to spark interest in the UK. Of course, that's when I get home, at the end of September!

A Thin And Tasteless Soup

In amongst all the emotions and thoughts that unsettle me when the anniversaries of September the 11th come around, there is one that especially pertains to writing, particularly fiction.

In the days that followed those awful events, I remember very clearly the feeling I had of being emptied of ambition and drive, of almost believing that I wouldn't be able to continue with the story I was working on. The material seemed so insignificant when held up beside the enormity of what had unfolded; and it was absolutely impossible to declare oneself immune to the universal dread that was created that day. Everything to do with creative writing seemed such a paltry, pale endeavour, up against the backdrop of such screaming insanity.

I remember thinking this in the weeks that followed: My writing contains nothing worth thinking about, nothing that challenges, nothing that matches the heaviness of the issues surrounding September the 11th. My work looked like a thin and tasteless soup, in which no one would bother sullying their spoons. I heard this thought echoed by others in other fields. How can we go on with menial missions after what's happened? Who would bother themselves with my little project here when all of that is looming behind us?

Thank goodness this sentiment didn't last. I came to the realisation that often it's the work that begins as a paltry endeavour that blossoms into something magical. There is a place for the heavy and a place for the light. There is a place for the thinking and a place for the mental larking!

This brings me on to that whole issue of how much substance a novel should contain. Does there always have to be a message, analysis, a social commentary, an examination of the nature of life? Why can't we just write something that is a jolly good read, that doesn't pull on all corners of our mind, that doesn't sink us into deep contemplation?

I say there is more room for the thin, tasteless soup, which appears - to the unknowing - to have very little substance. Remember that these simple tonics are sometimes needed by those who are not able to take in anything else, when life has reduced them to such a state that nothing heavy is beneficial anymore.

A Shameless Review

I am fast becoming a fan of the South African writer André Brink, who has been shortlisted twice for the Booker prize and has won numerous others awards. I started reading Brink late, devouring one of his latest novels, Before I Forget. I am determined now to do a big "back read".

The first I picked out of the pile was A Dry White Season, an acclaimed novel first published by W.H. Allen in 1979. The copy I read was published by Vintage in 1998. I have heard some people say that this is the Brink novel to read, the absolute must if one must make a choice.

The story, set in South Africa during the apartheid era, chronicles the terrible experience of an ordinary, respectable white man who takes on the system over the death of a black friend at the hands of the security police. This is a powerful novel that really made me question my own moral strength and how far I would go to try to right an outrageous wrong. The story has a wonderful pace, creeping along at just the right speed to make sure that you are truly engaged in the tension created by a ruthless tyranny. There is nothing in this book that smudges its brilliance, even if the subject matter is sometimes difficult to digest because of its brutality.

I am now eager to hunt down all of Brink's other books, feeling regret that it took so long to be introduced to his work.

The Lions of Lyon (20)

Talk about painting the town red! This one is definitely a boy!

By the way, there are plenty more of these beauties coming your way.

And I promise there will be a beauty contest once they've all made an appearance. I will put all the lions on one web page and then ask you fellow bloggers to pick out the best three.

A Pause For A Poem


will they just one day forget?

the same breathless questions
shooting out through the night
agony's very own untiring voice
fingerprints on endless websites
hit replay hit replay hit replay
2417 visits in three cold months

smoke, approaching, screaming,
explosion, screaming, falling
dust, panic, where is he today?
oh my God, oh sweet Jesus
what did he say this morning?
where did he say he was going?

grainy pictures make a shrine
visitors stop their enquiries
no one answers the little boy
so what was it all for then?
who won what in the end?
is anyone else better off?

does anyone cry for my daddy?
did they know he'd be there?
why did he stay to help others?
way way up on the 92nd floor
will I ever get any answers?
will they just one day forget?

© Copyright, 2006. Shameless Words.

Behind Every Good Writer Is A Very Talented Cat

Let me introduce you to Muffin, our adorable Siamese cat (lilac point), who has just celebrated her first birthday. I had to share these photos with you after being inspired by an image of Minx's cat on her blog, The Inner Minx.

I'm not sure if the title of this post is true for all writers, but it certainly is for many that I know or have read about. The celebrated New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield often talked about her cat, and seemed to believe that it gave her inspiration and strength.

How many other writers - and don't forget that many live isolated, solitary existences - rely heavily on the presence of their dogs and cats. I find that having Muffin curled up somewhere close is comforting when I'm sailing off on a long and arduous section of storyline. Also, I soak up her energy and passion as she darts forward and tries to get her gorgeous paws all over my keyboard. What a wonderful way to get motivated for a writing session!

It seems that academics also share the belief that cats and literary endeavours can go hand in hand. I have heard lots of good things about the book Writing With Cats: An Inspirational and Practical Guide For Writers by Gerald J. Schiffhorst, an English professor in the US.

A blurb on Amazon.com, says: "An experienced writing teacher uses humor to help emerging writers develop greater confidence and shows why writers and cats have long had a creative relationship. Gerald J. Schiffhorst, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Central Florida, has taught writing and literature for more than 35 years. He has published eight books, including McGraw-Hill's "Short Handbook for Writers" and is now an editorial consultant in Winter Park, Florida."

On the website writer-on-line.com Rachelle Nones writes:

'Throughout the book, Schiffhorst closely examines the many ways in which cats function as a literary muse. Schiffhorst believes strongly that every writer can benefit from utilizing a catlike point-of-view towards the writing process; in particular, the cat’s strong powers of observation, focused attention and contemplation. He advises his writing students, 'If you are serious about writing, don’t buy a new computer; what you need is a cat.'

For an added treat, there’s a listing of notable author’s [sic!!] cats, stories inspired by cats, and historical cat tales. In one chapter, Schiffhorst highlights the role of cats in literary history. He reports that Samuel Johnson visited the fishery daily to buy oysters for his beloved cat Hodge; William Butler Yeats once cut off a part of his coat so as not to disturb a sleeping cat at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; and the French poet Stephane Mallarmé once wrote, “mon chat est un compagne [sic!; compagnon] mystique.” (Translation: My cat is a mystical companion.)"

(Sorry, but I couldn't leave those errors go unchecked!)

I, for one, needed no convincing that a cat was an important part of my writing package. They can add so much to the environment we set up for ourselves, the convivial digs needed for the production of something vital.

Also, while she is here, Muffin would like to join me in sending a special get well message to Noelle, one of this blog's most regular and loyal readers, who has had a stay in hospital. We send all of our best thoughts your way.