Oh Welly, you shining star Today you were my heartbeat as I walked your streets to Te Papa to listen to a conversation about a very modern woman our Katherine Mansfield 100 years since she died Oh Welly, what would she think of you today... Wouldn't she be surprised The things she might have said about the dreaded cruise ships parked on the sea, disgorging elderly tourists into Lambton Quay imagine the parody... Oh Welly, you sure turned it on today, and I listened in thrall to talk of our Colonial girl so ahead of her time I found you waiting for me in your dress of words and I took your hand for a brief moment just you and me babe you and me until an elderly tourist offered to take my photo Oh I know you'd love the irony.
On Saturday, I left home at 7.30 am to drive over the hill to Carterton. The reason for this, was the lure of a free Poetry Workshop and later on, performance by Chris Tse. What’s not to like?
The Poetry Workshop was at the rather flash new Carterton Events Centre (well, it looks very new). We were in the Hurunui o Rangi Room. Rather like a Corporate Boardroom with Chris and his whiteboard at the top table.
One and a half hours to unpick the meaning of two poems and have a go a writing something ourselves (with several song lyric prompts on the whiteboard).
But, first we had to introduce ourselves and tell the group what sparked joy for us, or in us. Of course cliches abound with such a question. One group member had both a mother and a granddaughter named Joy, which was rather special. One woman claimed that joy for her was elusive and she needed to work out how to find it. A dog licking a waking face was another rather lovely image. Grandchildren, the night sky… You get the drift.
We looked at Jenny Bornholdt’s now very famous poem ‘Make Sure’. It is a perfect example of how to undercut, and distill what is for sure, a Kiwi cliché – man lost in the bush – grieving wife talking to the news. The discussion around this poem was interesting because love was the enduring theme in responses to it. The clever final shift of pronoun from you to I in the last line, owning the whole poem. It’s easy to read this poem several times and find new ways to inhabit it. It had an extra resonance with the shadow of Cyclone Gabrielle stalking our thoughts.
We then read a poem by Sam Duckor-Jones ‘Allemande in G by J.S. Bach. I’d read this poem before and to be honest, I’d dismissed it as pretentious modern and who cares. But, when I had it explained to me by Chris and what Sam was doing with musical notes, I finally ‘got it’. No longer pretentious, but clever, ingenious and great fun. Poetry that has constraints is something I admire. The Villanelle, Sestina or even a Sonnet.
The final exercise was to write for about ten minutes (maybe a little longer, but not long) – just the first response without thinking too hard, to prompts from the whiteboard.
Here’s my effort… yet to be tamed.
I didn’t start the fire
Mum did, she sharpened the axe first, in the shed cobwebs overhead, the smell of lawnmower petrol and freshly cut kindling what was she thinking falling for the returned soldier who proposed in the graveyard threatening to kill himself as she scrunches paper into tight balls to build a cushion, allow air in before setting the wood before striking the match before does she hesitate does she wait to strike the match to smell the sulphur sometimes, peeling onions she stuck a struck match in her mouth, evidently folklore has it this will stop you crying
Chris generously gave out pencils at the end of the workshop and I grabbed two – see my photo. He really is an inspirational poet. His journey as a young Chinese Gay man and the story he told us at his performance later in the day…. He talked to his Mum about ‘coming out’ and she said to him ‘you’ll be lonely’…. His reply ‘I’m already lonely’. Wow. Right to the heart. He owns the stage, he owns his poems and he’s generous to boot. After reading several of his own poems, he chose to read some of his favourite poems from other poets he knows. Applause.
They say she biked in her ballgown
possibly in a brace, and her with just
one kidney and a ciggie dangling from
the corner of her marvellous mouth
The black sheep of the family, we
thought, a scandal for daring to dance
but then it turned out, her quiet older
sister had a baby out of wedlock
The lock on wed is worth scrutiny in
retrospect, possibly related to the
Death do us part people mentioned
when marrying back then
Another sibling, a younger brother
managed to impregnate a married
woman twice, before she died in
childbirth and he married another
Thank God for adoption everyone
thought back then, and the locals
conspired to contain the secrets
known as the fabric of society
We think of weaving, stitching and
the spinning of yarns, and that’s
just what they did, they hid knots
it was all more warp than weft
And we were left to unpick the
pieces, years later when grown
men arrived in the image of once
unknown fathers to surprise us
Including the girl whose family
won the Golden Kiwi and who
grew to look remarkably like
the Parish Priest who relocated
Where documentation fails, we
have our own imaginations, on-line
DNA matching and curiosity to
rewrite our family histories
Saintly mothers with secrets
that speak of wild passions to
inspire their granddaughters
‘The Wonder’ (and growing up Catholic in New Zealand in the sixties)Standard
My No.1 Book Group chose ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue for our November read. I hadn’t read ‘Room’ and I was wary of all the hype. But, very quickly, I was immersed in 1860’s Ireland, and astonishingly, recognising so much of my own childhood as a 1960’s Catholic girl. It was confronting. I was wearing my new-age, non-Catholic, 21st century sensibility, but I was also recognising and understanding so much of what was happening. I knew that when book group convened, I would need the one other Catholic in our group to offload to. Because truly, so much of the crazy cult-like thinking of the times, can only be understood, if you have lived it. What was so shocking for me, was that I understood so clearly what was driving the characters in the story. I wasn’t surprised by the prayers, by the fatalism, by the unravelling narrative and denouement. It made perfect sense, in all it’s weird and shocking ramifications and revelations. Most shocking was, that my memories were of 1950’s 1960’s New Zealand and this novel was set in 19th century Ireland.
Emma Donoghue got right under my skin. She lifted off my skin, and she burrowed right there into my once Catholic soul, the guilt, fear, the superstition. And of course, I thought I’d tossed it all into the bin of yesteryear. But listening to my friends at book group and trying to explain why certain things happened and hearing that they had no understanding, not in the way that these things rang so true for me – I realised that you never truly lose this thinking, this darkly embedded (skewed) world view. We’ve often said at book group, that you can tell the way an ex Catholic will respond to a narrative. Indeed, as our book group has been together now for twenty years, we can often guess how all of us will respond to different narratives, our likes and dislikes. But, ‘The Wonder’ took the lid off my carefully construed and civilised self. I knew how to beat my breast and recite ‘though my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’, recognising how faulty this really is. I knew the prayer to my guardian angel. How lovely… I once had one. What a treat. I believed. She kept me safe. I’d forgotten all about her. I’ve learned to live on my own without her now, but when fatalism is your creed, back then a guardian angel was a lovely prop.
And then, my non-Catholic friends wanted to know what the holy picture cards were all about. I promised next time, to bring some along. I have cards printed for my mother’s death, my brother’s death, three aunts, and a few extras, such as St Theresa the Little Flower, whose name I took at my confirmation, along with Our Lady of Perpetual Succour… the name of the church we attended. Virginal women reigned supreme.
I understood unequivocally, the need to suffer, so Anna’s brother could be released from purgatory. Of course, I knew how crazy it was, but I understood too. Suffering the road to redemption. I remember my confessions and the need to say penance. Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s four weeks (maybe three weeks), since my last confession. Since then I have: disobeyed my mother and father, sworn and had impure thoughts… I think this was the extent of my sinning, the impure thoughts consistently pervading my growing pains. Guilt was ever present and of course, you had to have sins to confess. Possibly I admitted envy now and then, for surely that’s the beast of sins, but usually one we outgrow, or age diminishes the sting of. As for the impure thoughts, I grew to like them.
I was from an ordinary working-class family. I didn’t attend a Catholic school because my parents couldn’t afford the uniform and bus fare into the city. The story goes, we got a Papal dispensation. As part of that dispensation, I was shipped on a bus, in the August school holidays to the convent to be indoctrinated in Catholicism. The nuns at the convent we attended, told us terrifying stories.
The story that has lingered the longest and never left me, goes like this and bears some resemblance to a tale in ‘The Wonder’… I’m guessing there are many more stories of a similar ilk out there.
A young girl dies. As per the custom of the Church, she is buried in a white coffin, the sign of purity for a child. During her funeral service, there is a knocking sound heard coming from the coffin at the front of the church. The knocking continues. There is nothing else for it, but the priest must open the coffin to see who is knocking. Inside the coffin is the young girl and her tongue is sticking out. Her tongue is black and upon this black tongue lies the host. As the story goes, this young girl, while still living, had dared to receive Holy Communion while in a state of sin. The Priest removes the host, the child’s tongue returns to it’s normal colour and the coffin lid is shut again.
Can you imagine how terrifying this story must have been? Add to this, the dilemma of distinguishing between a venial and mortal sin. Dying with the stain of a mortal sin on your soul, meant going direct to hell. I can’t recall, but I’m guessing that receiving Holy Communion while not in a ‘state of grace’ as the saying went, would be borderline mortal… anyway, we never found out if the poor child went to heaven, but the story as you can tell, has never left me.
I read a short bio on Emma Donoghue and almost relieved to know she attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin… for where else would she have gained this incredible insight and understanding of the motivation of her characters, her empathy for them in all their blind faith.
This is not a book review. If anyone is confused about the lack of detail and reference to the plot, the parts that the characters play, I apologise. I am simply moved, to respond to the impact this novel had upon me.
But also, this novel is more than just the things I have responded to. To quote Justine Jordan of The Guardian “Her new book is based on the many cases of “fasting girls” reported across the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries: women and girls, often prepubescent, who claimed to live without food for months or even years.”
And too the desire by the Church for worldly proof that there is another world leading to fabrication and blind faith in the search for such perceived blessings.
The alchemy of memoryStandard
What is a Memoir? This question came up at my book group a few years back after we had read A History of Silence by Lloyd Jones. I was complaining that after reading Lloyd’s story, I knew more about his family, but not as much as I had hoped about Lloyd. My fellow book group members disagreed with me. They vehemently defended Lloyd’s right to write whatever he wished in his memoir. Was I really wanting to read an autobiography? It sounds like a quaint term now doesn’t it? It used to be quite mainstream, but mostly now when we look for work about a writer, we find their memoir. The on-line Merriam-Webster, gives this definition of memoir a narrative composed from personal experience. This sure sounds like quite a bit of leeway.
More recently, at another book group, after reading Ashleigh Young’s Can you Tolerate this?, the question was raised ‘What’s the difference between an essay and a short story?’ As a writer of both essay and short fiction, I was taken aback to have this asked. It seemed to me to be self-obvious but then we began to discuss and I was left floundering a little, to substantiate clearly the actual difference. Of course, I expostulated, a short story may well be true in essence, but it is fiction. So, my fellow book-clubbers insisted, isn’t that what Ashleigh Young has done? And indeed, I quote Bill Manhire on the blurb, who says of the essays ‘Some of Ashleigh Young’s personal essays feel to me like beautifully told short stories – they just happen to be true, or true-ish.’
I read A History of Silence as a writer wanting to know more about another writer – Lloyd Jones’s life, his development as a writer, what drove his creative impetus and what important milestones developed his unique character as a person. I felt the author always at a slight distance from me throughout the memoir. And then, I came to the conclusion, after a lively discussion with my book group, that this slight distance, was in fact a truth about the character of the author.
Around the same time, I read The Lie that Settles by Peter Farrell. His memoir could just as easily be titled A History of Silence. It explores similar themes of family secrets, again, and in particular, the secrets of a mother and grandmother. Farrell is an immigrant to New Zealand, and the sense of dislocation is both geographic and genealogy. But the same themes recur to reinforce the stoicism of that era, the complicity of communities in upholding these secrets and the often devastating impact of those secrets on future generations.
Then, I was given a memoir What Lies Beneath by Elspeth Sandys to review for Landfall. It struck me how similar the themes were in these three memoirs. The search for identity, the secrets that inhibit this and the social fabric of the time as dense material evidence of how these secrets were able to be sustained for so long with such devastating consequences. For the one thing that truly strikes to the heart of these three memoirs is the incredible pain caused through being denied access to identity, acknowledged links to biological family.
In contrast Ian Wedde in his memoir, The Grass Catcher, knows exactly who his biological family is, but somewhat unusually, his parents, in the sixties, abandon conservative Blenheim for a life in Pakistan with their twin boys who were still young. It is this uprooting from the familiar and the consequent and perhaps slightly unusual freedoms that this new environment offers, the author looks back on. He compares his own character with that of his twin brother, and tries to find meaning in why he views the world one way and his brother the other. Although there are no dark secrets to uncover, there is the exploration of the relationship between the two boys and their parents. Again it struck me, that this relationship is at the core of many memoirs and is a driving force in any identity quest. Who are we? Who were our parents? And then, what we do or have done with this information.
Although not a memoir, I’ve written about my own father in an essay published in Landfall about how he was raised by his grandmother, the bastard child of her eldest daughter. He was told by his grandmother, (who was resentful at having to now raise another child, having already raised seven of her own), that he’d been found under the cabbage patch. He had a loving relationship with his grandfather that sustained him through his youth, but no contact with his actual father. This was in small town New Zealand where surely everyone knew everyone’s business. But yet, in the last few years, we have uncovered through DNA testing, the family of my now deceased father – five siblings who never knew about him, and yet they grew up in the same small town. How could this happen?
The back story to this is a family legend, second-hand, a hand me down story. It is a story our mother told us (note the absence of my father telling the story – he was typical of his generation, a POW, who didn’t talk a lot about the war or his childhood.) According to the story, our Dad was about to go off to war, so he rocked up to the local pub, had a drink for Dutch Courage, stood next to his father, and said ‘Shout for me, I’m your son and I’m off to war.’ His father ignored him. Now that we’ve met the ‘new’ family and they, in trying to make sense of this new information about a man they adored, tell us he was profoundly deaf in one ear. And even if we don’t quite believe it, and still nurse a grudge, we allow this story air… we nod in acceptance of a new idea, that perhaps their father didn’t hear our father. We willingly embrace a new dimension, because it alleviates us, leaves room for possibility, smooths the narrative between us.
I begin to like this man they call Pappy, my father’s father. Evidently a dapper individual with a high profile in his community. A good man, a family man, at odds with our childhood story of his abandonment of our Dad. With this story in my own background unravelling, I reconsider my review of Elspeth Sandy’s memoir about her own illegitimacy and adoption. She chose the device of recreating ‘actual’ (but actually imagined) conversations and even thoughts. I found this very disconcerting, as it assumed quite a lot, even if backed up by family lore or legend. It seems to me that we can never inhabit the internal dialogue of anyone, to discern their motives or their hearts desire. But yet we long to. In retrospect, having been somewhat harsh about Elspeth Sandys re-creating dialogue to cast her own father in a poor light, I have more empathy for this tactic. Why not I think, because after all, a father who abandons can be judged, arguments for and against, but the truth forever buried.
And too, I recall being startled one day recently when I realised that poetry was in the non-fiction section of the library. Why this had never caught my attention before, I don’t know. But I was so startled that I tackled our local librarian as if she had made a mistake. She carefully explained the Dewey system to me. I began to interrogate my idea of poetry. Was it truth disguised, or was it fiction made fact? What is poetry? Is it memoir crossed with essay and fiction in the form of stanza, verse, rhyme, so I googled it, and found poetry could be divided into four sub categories: epic, lyric, narrative, satirical, or prose. All my own poems seem to ferment from out of the personal, a way of expressing a truthful recollection, but in the moment of transformation, elements of fiction enter the alchemy along with play, hubris (to sound poetic), editing for cadence and meter, truth abandoned for impact or impression. But it is the distillation of all these elements that provide us with a truth that we choose. Each reader brings their own version of events to the reading, thus rendering the truth more, or less according to their view. I recall being taken aback when poets who had not been affected by the Canterbury earthquake, wrote poems about it. It felt inauthentic, and yet they were good poems. Part of me felt that actual survivors had more right to the writing of such poems. But am I right. Probably not. It is possible to evoke a visceral and emotional response from the reader with a poem that has no bearing in fact or experience, but one that speaks either a universal, or an intimately personal truth (and not necessarily that of the poet).
The 4th Floor Journal called for submissions this year under the currently popular euphemism ‘alternative facts’. I knew immediately what to do. I had a story I needed to tell, about me and my sister. It’s a fight we had when we were both still at school and walking home late one night from the movies. My sister older than me, was my chaperone along a dark path from the cinema to our house. We both wanted to rush home and tell our parents about something in the movie (what that something was, neither of us can now recall). But we do recall, that my sister abandoned me on the dark path so she could run home first to convey the important story. I called the piece of writing ‘alternating facts’, because whenever my sister and I tell this story, we have our own version of it. We’ve agreed to accept each other’s version and yet we are both drawing on imperfect memory, and recreating the memory in each retelling. It is a narrative from personal experience, our very own memory. My original version of the story was entirely about my own grievance and with age, I have managed to inhabit my sister’s memory, place myself in her place, and consider how it was from her perspective. This works on two levels. I feel magnanimous and my sister momentarily feels validated, but truthfully, even in my magnanimity, there is at my core, an attachment to my own story.
I have to some extent a photographic memory (although not of the exceptional kind) but yes, I can recreate memories through images, snapshots I consider frozen in time, evoking what I have come to believe as exact emotions felt at the time. This led me to believe and to convince my family, that my memory is better than theirs, but as I grow older I become less certain of this. These images and emotions are my alibi. I’ve honed them to reflect my version of events, myself as a person of integrity, my version, my fiction, my personal memoir easily dipped into.
A biographer interprets other people’s memories, and chooses what to include or leave out, and thus, these choices are influenced by their impedimenta, and will be different from the subject’s choices if they were to write a memoir. On reading the biography of the extraordinary Jane Digby A Scandalous Life by Mary S. Lovell, I was frustrated on many occasions by the author’s digressions, seemingly to establish factual asides that drew my attention away from an engrossing story. I wanted to stay on track, in the moment, moving with this fascinating woman on her amazing journey from husbands to lovers, to Palmyra on camel-back and nurturing her garden in Damascus. But I was hampered, by what to me was extraneous detail, the author straining to convince me with facts that simply annoyed me, seemed out of context and intrusive – not allowing me to draw enough of my own conclusions. At the heart of this, is me, the reader, wanting a story.
It seems, that the conclusions we draw as a reader, come from our own flawed memories and experiences, casting approval, doubt, or affirmation, finding truth in fiction and fiction in the truth. Ashleigh Young has most likely embellished her memories to make a better story. She hasn’t lied to us. She’s given us her personal story. In doing so, she risks what the fiction writer avoids, the embarrassment of family or friends who are part of her story, but they lend weight in the way that a fictional character might not, and too, as writers we all know, people see themselves in our fiction, even when they are not there.
In the middle of writing this essay, I attended the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and purchased the memoir My Father’s Island, by Adam Dudding, writing about his father Robin Dudding, editor at one time of Landfall and somewhat scandalously sacked from that position and creating the now legendary (a story that relies heavily on a variety of memories) Islands. Indeed, in the latest issue of Landfall celebrating 50 years, there are three interesting essays from writers who were around during the period that Robin Dudding was ‘sacked’… and their version of events are not entirely similar or unalike. The piece in Dudding’s memoir of his father that most interested me (apart from all the wonderful juicy tit-bits about people I have heard of, or know) is near the end, when he admits that a story he quoted in Chapter 2 of the memoir, and his memories of this story, after research and fact checking, are misaligned, and factually incorrect. But beautifully, he decides not to restore the Chapter to a more factual account, but leave it there as evidence, a clue perhaps, to the unreliability of memory (his or memory in general) and perhaps also to allow himself leeway – look this is my account of my dad, but don’t believe it all, it’s just my version.
So, does memoir gives access to the truth in the same way that fiction does? We know that autobiography tends to claim a certain accuracy and sometimes even requires a chronology, date specific, verifiable facts, as we perceive them to be. At the Auckland Writers Festival where George Saunders spoke about the ‘limits of our own perceptions’. So perhaps we can say that a memoir is the limited perception or perspective of the author of any memoir. And we should bear in mind, that the reader brings their own impedimenta to the reading.
At the funeral of a much-admired woman from the literary world, several people gave eulogies that recalled different aspects of her life. Indeed, the deceased had made a recording and spoke to us herself, mentioning most poignantly, some of her regrets. She was dying when she made this recording and we talked about it after the funeral, cup of tea in hand, sausage roll, some holding wine glasses. Did those regrets she mentioned only become apparent because she was dying and was making the recording. If she hadn’t been facing death in such stark terms, would those regrets have ever surfaced, or were they there all along, and she hadn’t spoken them? We can’t know the answer to this, we can only speculate. It was her life ending, and this was the final story she chose to tell us.
There’s a beautiful alchemy to memory, I now see. It is a chemical distillation. The particles assemble and disassemble. They choose to be this or that, depending on the day, the date, the year, the collection of years, the age of the person whose remembering, the relationship to the people remembered. Often the pieces missing, even more important than the pieces recalled. And the missing pieces when they are found, can be construed in a myriad of creativity to convey one point of view or another, the story, our story, the one we wish to tell, today.
Everything is here except ElvisStandard
‘Everything is Here’ by Rob Hack
I really like the profile on the Escalator Press website that says this about the poet…
Rob has lived in Paekakariki since 2005, after a third attempt to live across the ditch. He has been an insurance salesman, greenkeeper , builder, personal trainer, gym owner, factory hand, gardener, shop assistant etc and currently works as a handyman, to buy second-hand poetry books, and petrol so he can visit his grandchildren each week.
There’s a nice anarchy here, the poet as an insurance salesman, which grabbed my attention immediately. And then there is the interesting fact that Rob was born in Invercargill but spent his childhood in Niue. It’s hard to imagine such a striking shift in landscape and indeed, the landscape is preeminent in his poems.
‘Everything is Here’ is the title of his collection, a series of poems. The poetry is freighted with an emotional energy connected to family, milieu, place, and displacement. It speaks to a New Zealand childhood that I recognise. The poem ‘Canons Creek Four Square’ could easily be my home town of Richmond, but then there is disconcerting twist, the poet as an outsider. The boy from Niue sent by his Mum to buy a tin of peaches. Innocuous, but powerful and nicely underplayed where racism is mollified with a lifesaver lolly.
The collection resonates with a spiritual thread from one sea to another across the Pacific and as far as Europe. It is a poetic memoir traversing connections to the two sides of his family. They are snapshots into a life, or lifestyle, at times cinematic, but often leaving the reader wanting to know more. An example is a poem ‘High Noon in Avarua’ which feels like a second-hand local myth retold, handed down, and turned into a poem. And yet I wanted more, I felt I’d only glimpsed ‘Te Kope, the adopted son of the late Nui Manu’. At times, I was reminded at times of Tusiata Avia’s ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’. ‘Blue Laws’ a list poem with fines for misdemeanours including, my favourite ‘If a man cries at the funeral of an unrelated woman $10.00’.
Another poem I really enjoyed with a fabulous long title is ‘James Cook couldn’t land and Elvis never sang on Niue’… which ends with a great three lines
Dad said, Elvis would’ve come to Niue
if he saw your mother dance
but he’d have to leave his hips at the door.
The poems have warmth and humour, they are easy but not light, warm and heart-warming. There is darkness written lightly. Rob is a true bard. I’ve heard him read now twice (the first time at open mike at the Writers Symposium at the National Library) and then at Litcrawl. He has a strong presence as a performer and these poems lend themselves to the oral tradition. They have an anecdotal conversational air about them.
Adoption and a Xmas stocking filler storyStandard
My friend Robyn Cooper is a born storyteller. She has a quirky way of inhabiting the world that I admire. Whenever I meet up with her, she is bursting with stories that are full of wit, chaos and the joy of being open. She does what most of us try to avoid doing… she allows a kind of chaos to enter her life, instead of plotting and planning to prevent it. It means she keeps an open heart to story and to the people around her.
I first met Robyn when I was in Timaru and she was in Days Bay. I was on my much written about 21-week sojourn to be a writer and Owen Marshall, who had met Robyn, handed me her memoir and suggested I might enjoy reading it – and that I would probably like Robyn seeing as we lived in the same bay.
Her memoir is called ‘Don’t ask her name?’
It is a powerful adoption story from both a mother’s and the adopted children’s experience. The children’s stories are different, because they are from different birth mothers and these encounters are retold with tact, understanding and absolute affirmation. One of the great joys Robyn has shared with me is being present at the birth of one of her grandchildren with the birth mother of her daughter. Two expectant grandmothers sharing the same unbelievable joy.
Robyn’s own personal story has tragedy and yet it also has beautiful romance. I am now friends with Robyn and her husband, Roger. Their love story after the death of Robyn’s first husband is truly perfect romance. It is essentially a tribute to the gorgeous quirky open nature of Robyn that this romance happened. She is open to the world and unafraid to take chances. Roger and Robyn travel together, and share a great love of people and a deep sense of enquiry about the world. He is a scientist and she is a story-teller, a rather perfect combination.
I am hopeful that her memoir will soon be an E-book as it is now out of actual print, but available in many local libraries if you would like to go and find it. For anyone who has adopted children or been adopted it is a warm and life affirming book about this sometimes-difficult journey that is made all the more wonderful by the open heart of the author.
I just found this recommendation on the Wheeler Books website which says the book is no longer available.
This is an “unusual and moving story of adoption in New Zealand (that is unique in its power, scope and warmth. While it is harrowing it is also optimistic, without being sentimental.”
Now, I want to tell you about Robyn’s latest book ‘Snails, spells, and snazzlepops’ written for children.Robyn now has grandchildren and has always been their ‘storyteller. Over the years, she has made up stories for them whenever they came to stay at her house. This innate ability has now been transferred to the page.
Snails, spells and snazzlepops
An absolute Christmas stocking filler.
I loved it. I bought it for my granddaughter but I read it first. What a wonderful romp of a story! Full of verve, energy and wit. A writer who understands children and adults. The dialogue captures so well the gap between children and adults and how they see the world. It is fast-paced, lightly tripping over big topics like bullying and your mother having a new boyfriend and moves deftly from funny to wise with a dose of magic realism. There is a fabulous granny character who like the author herself, is open to the imagination of the children and willing to go along with their crazy plans which include (close your eyes or block your ears if you are squeamish), cooking snails, but better than that, sorting out the bully. Also, hats off to Makaro Publisher for the lovely production from cover to lay-out and trailing snail through the chapters.
Here is a photo of Robyn Cooper and publisher Mary McCallum at the launch.
As you can see, the book has a marvelleous cover and has the heads up from the wonderful Barbara Murison in her Around the Bookshops wrap-up and from Bob’s Books blog
In praise of editorsStandard
In praise of Editors
Inspired by Stephen Stratford’s recent article ‘The Book didn’t sell…’ I decided to write about my experience of editors from an author’s point of view.
My first novel ‘About turns’ was published by Random House. I had the great good fortune to be assigned Jane Parkin as the editor (arguably NZ’s best editor). I was totally new to this process. Although, most gratefully, the manuscript had been somewhat tamed and shaped through the generous mentoring of Barbara Else of Total Fiction Services, before being offered to Random House.
Jane invited me to her home. We sat at her kitchen table. We chatted like old friends about the characters in my novel. It was a revelation to me. Jane engaged with my characters as if they were ‘real’. She even went so far as to identify one of them as just like her friend from the local tennis club. I was flattered, delighted and excited. The experience was unforgettable. I knew that Jane had worked with the likes of Maurice Gee and Witi Ihimaera and other luminaries. It was my ‘pinch me’ moment.
And then, the edits came back to me, and I was dismayed to see how many things needed my attention – a word order reversal (actually many), a sentence (many sentences) to remove, a paragraph to create, a scene to cut, and queries in the margins of every page. It was daunting and then it was exciting. Jane made me a better writer (well, she made me look like a better writer).
Once my novel was published, I had a coffee with Jane and chatted about the edits and her experience as an editor. Where did I fit on a scale of how bad to how good, I nervously asked? She told me that when she read Maurice Gee, she barely had to touch a thing. She said there were some novels she joked she could have put her own name as author and somewhat hesitantly I asked ‘Where do I sit?’ Perhaps generously, perhaps she fibbed to flatter, but she said ‘somewhere in the middle’… I was relieved – after all, this was my first novel.
Then came my second novel ‘Turbulence’ published by Random House. My assigned editor was in Auckland, so we worked on-line and on the phone. She’d just finished editing the reissue of works of Janet Frame. I felt trepidation that mine was the next manuscript. We developed a working rapport but there was none of the affection and connection to the story or my characters in the same way there had been with my first novel. It felt like more of a ‘technical’ edit. The novel didn’t do so well, although all my male friends preferred it to my first novel and Owen Marshall, who I so admire, felt it was better than my first novel.
My most recent novel ‘Daughters of Messene‘ (7 years in the making) was by far the most stressful and yet the most rewarding editing experience. I had done so many revisions prior to the novel being presented to Makaro, but Mary McCallum, both a writer herself and a publisher, saw where the novel wasn’t working. She pushed me to increase the pace in the first part of the book, to get my central character to Greece where the action would take place. She pestered me for conversation, names of characters, and challenged me constantly. Then work began with the Whitireia students Emma Bryson and Megan Kelly, two very talented young women completing the Publishing Diploma. They became champions for my young character Artemis. They identified with her and took me to task when she wasn’t on track. They pushed me to make her stronger, to give her a backbone. It was thrilling. I revelled in the collaborative nature of this editing – lots of it was on-line and every new query became an opportunity to either stand up for my work or take up the challenge to improve it. Although exhausted, and at times utterly frustrated, it was exhilarating and unforgettable. I always be grateful to Makaro and Whitireia. It is my best piece of work.
Katherine Mansfield and a bookmarkStandard
Last evening, October 14, we celebrated the birthday of Katherine Mansfield. Nicola Saker, Chair of the local KM Society made a short and pithy toast, pointing out that as poor Katherine had so few birthdays and had the misfortune to be married to a man who often forgot her birthday – it behoved us to raise our glasses on this (if she’d lived) her 127th birthday. This celebration was also a special occasion to raise funds for the prestigious Menton Fellowship.
We were in the new Meridian Energy building – glass from floor to ceiling, looking out at the almost calm and very blue harbour. One of the red tug boats made a cameo appearance, but most of the time our eyes were on the objects being auctioned. My heart was set on a painting of KM by Seraphine Pick. Alas, the auction for this, kicked off beyond my bidding price. It was a real joy to see that it reached $4,000 even if I wasn’t the lucky buyer. I am both a friend and fan of Seraphine who is a most joyful down to earth and hugely talented woman. It was the first time, she told me, that she had been in a room when one of her paintings was being auctioned.
It was interesting to observe the room. These were people with deep pockets. We were drinking French champagne and eating dainty canapés. I love French champagne and I scoffed the stylish canapés to keep pace with my bubbles. When I say deep pockets, I mean people with the discretion to bid recklessly and generously to support the Menton Fellowship. It was a very flash version of the local cake stall in the village – a fundraiser. Kiwis are good at this. And in the arts, we are very good at this and we have to be grateful for people with money who want to support the arts. There were a few writers in the room, but not many.. We talked about this. It’s probably because most writers do not earn enough to bid recklessly at auctions, but are very grateful for the support of the residency.
The highlight for me was queuing at a table where three local poets, Bill Manhire, Greg O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt sat, on demand, and for a donation, creating one-line poem bookmarks. Earlier in the evening Bill made a very warm and witty speech about the personal impact of the Menton residency on his sense of self as a writer. He then read a poem he was commissioned to write for Sir Ed Hilary on the 25th anniversary of the Erebus crash. A most poignant poem and yet such a tricky topic to do well. Manhire paid tribute to his time in Menton giving him the courage to tackle such a poem for such an occasion. As he was reading the poem, spookily, the super-duper air-conditioning unit re-calibrated making the sound similar to a jet’s wings adjusting.
I chose to queue and wait for Greg O’Brien because he was my mentor in the late 90’s when I undertook the Victoria University undergraduate Poetry Course – I think one of the first of the CREW series. It was an amazing time in my life. I was almost 50, my teenagers had left home and I was full of crazy doggerel. Greg managed to find the poetry in my wild scribbles. I’ll always be grateful for this doorway to a writing life.
The poets asked that you give them a hint or theme for the bookmark poem. I mentioned my character Artemis from my new novel due out soon to Greg for his drawing and to Jenny, I said that I will be getting my ‘gold card’ in November.
This is the beautiful bookmark that I received. I will treasure it. And don’t you just love that something so special can be created ‘on the spot’ by true poets and artists.
The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese chestStandard
The Virgin birth and a faux Chinese Chest
Christmas. It used to have a religious significance for me. But that was a long time ago, the fifties and sixties when I believed almost everything, anyone told me. And I was a dutiful sort of person, obedient, willing and looking for a story that would explain the strangeness of ‘being’, human.
Then I had a family and Christmas was nostalgia and the creation of my own new story, a family story. It was sewing Christmas stockings that we still use, in spite of my limited skills as a sewer. Each year, I bring out the stockings for a brief cameo and then I stow them away in a faux Chinese wooden chest where we keep newspaper clippings and the Christmas lights.
A virgin birth. It never occurred to me as a child how odd this was. How could a child be cynical about the Angel Gabriel arriving on a beautiful cloud? Mary so pious (in various versions, possibly a little startled), but attractively compliant. You have to remember, I was a Catholic girl who read her Catechism and could recite the Apostles Creed in English and possibly parts of it in Latin. The Angel Gabriel arriving at the annunciation was a powerful fairy-tale.
I had no sympathy for Mary who was to carry this unplanned pregnancy. I was filled with the light of El Greco paintings on Colomban calendars, sermons from a small church in Richmond – Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. And then after abandoning my faith, and travelling for a few years, eventually I married the man I’d been ‘living in sin’ with for almost five years.. and became that very Lady of Perpetual Succour… a wife and mother.
I’m older now, and there are decades between my love of filling stockings at midnight, baking the cake weeks before, writing cards, attending Midnight Mass (merely for nostalgia and now not at all), buying a real Christmas tree, decorating it, making food that will please everyone, and then, finally, realising, that it’s not up to me, and you cannot ever please everyone.
I no longer weep when Christmas music (Snoopy’s Christmas) comes on the radio. I still dance to the Pogues ‘Fairytale of New York’ because my granddaughter has been dancing to it with me for seven and a half years…
In my life-time, I have celebrated Christmas in Richmond, Nelson, Wellington, Washington DC, Norway (Santa arrived on Christmas eve in the snow), Edinburgh (practically alone), Istanbul (snow again) and Laos.
I’ve experienced joy and disappointment and one of my most memorable gifts was a swimsuit from an Aunt when I was about eight years old – it was covered in Christmas pink bon-bons and had a pink bow placed strategically at the base of the bodice where it flared into a cute skirt – prior to that I’d worn my Mother’s seersucker, over-sized swimsuit (with bra cups that possibly kept me afloat).
It’s New Year now in our bay. The Pohutakawa next door is flowering. We’re re-united with our son who has been living overseas for ten years. We had a happy Christmas family breakfast and thoughtful inexpensive gifts under the tree. We were almost sitcom material on New Year’s Day with everyone on their best behaviour. Our granddaughter is besotted with her Uncle and we’re all besotted with her.
This year, I want to embrace being human, and to recognise the glorious potential of difference, rather than indifference, the beauty of the individual rather than the duty of togetherness, the magic of family in all its inordinate incarnations.