Did you like my novel?

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‘I like your novel. I enjoyed it.’ She says this plainly, a mere fact, but there’s no mistaking the rising inflexion making joy into a query… a statement of surprise.

‘I’m reading your novel.’ Nothing more. Just what should be a reassuring statement. But what does it mean? Has she finished the first chapter, where’s she up to? She doesn’t say.

‘I loved your novel,’ with a notable circumflex. But that’s over the top and you don’t believe her. It’s gushy, can’t be true. And a noted circumflex indicates there’s more to be said, but she says nothing more. What is it she won’t say?

Then there’s the silent friend, who came to the launch and never mentions your novel, ever again. Her silence more potent even than a notable circumflex or rising inflexion.

‘I liked your novel.’ The past tense. You feel robbed somehow. Only liked it.

Then a good friend goes on Goodreads and gives your novel four stars. You’re delighted and then you think… why not five stars? You check other books they gave five stars to. You try not to feel aggrieved. Now the distance between four and five stars becomes the distance between friends.

At last, a critic. You pay careful attention. Someone who read your novel and didn’t like it. They tear it apart skilfully, piece by piece, analyse its flaws. The flaws you already knew about and hoped no one would notice. You are riveted, you read every terrifying thing they write, not once, not twice, but over and over and over. You become greedy and Google your own novel become convinced that none of your friends know half as much as this really negative woman on Amazon. It feels good, you know you deserve this.

Praise is overrated.

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In praise of editors

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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.

Kate Sheppard and a tinfoil mouse

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I recently read Penelope Lively’s ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish‘, a thoughtful memoir in which she explores the meaning of memory and links moments in her life to precious objects, not valuable artefacts necessarily, but meaningful and even sentimental. Ian Wedde, too in his recent memoir ‘The Grass Catcher’ evokes memory through objects and the odours of his youth. The main object being the grass catcher. (Some of the odours he mentions are best left to be read about.) Although, I guess there’s probably not a Kiwi kid from the 50’s and 60’s who doesn’t remember the smell of freshly cut grass, and a hand mower with a canvas catcher. Or indeed, who doesn’t recall the whiff of two-stroke petrol when the family upgraded from a hand to a motor mower… and in your over-enthusiasm pulling out the choke, the mower flooded.

On reading these memoirs, I realised that my garden whenever I wander in it, evokes important milestones both happy and sad. It was over Labour Weekend, home alone with a broken wrist, somewhat sorry for myself, that I sat reading on our sunny deck and recalled it was my Aunt’s birthday.   That’s my deceased Aunty who would have been 94 this year. What made me recall her, was not just the date, the 25th of October, her birthday but that she would often come to stay with us for Labour Weekend and we would share her birthday. And that the cherry blossom tree that we built the deck around would be in full flower. Since then, we’ve chopped down the cherry tree – as it was taking up so much room on the deck but the memory of the cherry blossoms and my Aunt are intermingled.

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This prompted me to explore my garden and I found another blossom tree that forms an almost canopy on the lower part of our hillside section. The first year we moved into this house, our youngest son was six (he’s now 33) and we have a photograph of him standing under the flowering canopy with a chipped front tooth – memorable, because that very next day he was going to be page boy at the wedding of friends, fully decked out in matching tail-coat with his father who was the Groomsman. I remember being annoyed he’d broken his tooth. The couple who married, now have a daughter off to university next year. Whenever I look out our bedroom window in Spring and see the blossoms, I see our son with his chipped tooth, and then I remember our friends’ wedding anniversary.

Immediately beneath the blossom canopy is a very important memorial to our deceased cat Red who just happened to be a almost twenty year old black and white cat. Our granddaughter who adored Red, has made a pile of stones and shells in the garden as a tribute, and this includes a once shiny tinfoil mouse. The cat’s ashes are inside our house in a box, or are they? That’s another story, told in a poem and here is the link.

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Then there are my roses. They bring me both joy and a stab of grief.   Roses enjoy being hacked it seems. The possums last year were feasting on my roses, and so I cut them back savagely to pervert the possums – it seems the roses enjoyed this and they are looking positively radiantly ready to burst into many buds. This includes Kate Sheppard, named after the feisty Kiwi feminist whom we thank for the vote. My Korean daughter-in-law helped me plant Kate – a treasured gardening memory, all the more poignant as this year, she moves on to a new life, away from our family. No-one warned me that as a mother-in-law I could also have my heart broken.

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The Kate Sheppard Rose

The Kate Sheppard Rose

More violent and perhaps funnier, is the silk tree at our gate. One day, some years back now, after a fiery argument with my beloved, in fury and frustration, I attacked the silk tree – it was growing out over the path and obstructing the entrance. I chopped and chopped and snapped and attacked and I’m not sure what my neighbours thought. I felt bad afterwards and imagined the silk tree doomed, but it, like the roses, has thrived – but always to remind me of my tantrum.

Then there are the daisies that were once very fashionable in cottage country gardens. I tried slavishly to cultivate a cottage garden look to no avail. And then when we converted to a more coastal (but let’s keep the roses), suddenly the packet of seed that I sowed decided to grow. And now those daisies are considered weeds, but I allow them their rampancy as it only seems fair that they have tried so hard. They interweave with a beautiful old-fashioned red-leafed creeper with tiny mauve pom-pom flowers. The two fight for supremacy and I keep them both in check.

Too, as you enter out front gate by the almost demolished silk tree, there is a softly delicious smelling jasmine plant that entwines with the wildly fragrant honey-suckle. Both plants are now considered ‘outlaws’ as we live next to a native reserve… but the scent is so delicious of an evening that I cannot bring myself to be rid of them entirely. Inside our front gate are two Daphne bushes bringing their ‘lawful’ luxurious bouquet to our doorstep. Dare I mention my rogue (practically heretical) ginger plants. They look so striking and I’ve tried to strike them out. Alas, they resurge.

The last important memory is about our first day in this house. We inherited a beautiful old-fashioned garden and one of the main attractions were the pink water-lily dahlias. The previous occupant an older couple who had tended the garden for years with love and affection, slyly dug up some of the ‘considered rare’ dahlia bulbs and took them to their new abode. Due to landscaping and renovation, I no longer have any dahlias, but I know where they should be and they remind me of the key to the house, left in a glass bottle under the front veranda by the same elderly couple. And too the note they left us, filled with daily, weekly, monthly chores to be attended to, including the trimming and clearing of the zig-zag down to the road below. There’s a blackbird that comes to sing. We’ve named him after the dear old chap who lived here before us – although we’ve been in the house now for over 25 years, and I’m not sure how long blackbirds live…

Recently I posted a poem inspired by the tuis in our Kohwai tree. This tree was but a wind-blown seedling on the side of a clay bank that I was about to tear out while weeding when we first moved in. Something stopped me. It seemed wrong to not want a Kowhai, even though it was in the wrong place. The Kowhai now is a superstar where in springtime eight or nine tuis can be found feasting. It shades my washing line, something I lament, but the song of the tuis and the sight of the overweight kereru, more than compensates.

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So, my garden is full of birdsong, flowers and my heart’s song, a testimony to loss and new growth.

The Way We Live Now

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The way we live now

I am reading Anthony Trollope’s ‘The way we live now’ a free to download classic on my Kindle and evidently (according to Wikipedia) Trollope’s masterpiece. I can’t comment on that, as I’ve not read any of his work before. It is a fascinating book and feels so contemporary in so many ways in light of the recent demise of so many respected financial institutions, the queries around appointing ex politicians as Directors of commercial enterprise and all the associated pitfalls of modern capitalism.

But too, I am captured by the comedy and pathos of Lady Carbury, her willful blind spots and her shameless literary ambitions, the delightful satire of book reviews… can’t help chuckling. I can’t wait to discuss the book with my book group who are among the smartest women I know and of course, they will have plenty to say, and I shall report back. In the meantime, from my hammock, on Sunday evening, as the sun went down, inspired by Lady Carbury’s efforts at self-promotion…

Reading Trollope from the Hammock

Reading Trollope from the Hammock

From the hammock

Lego from the garden
sits atop
the chopped sleepers
my raspberry Hydrangea
has faded
in the face of summer
Kate Sheppard, the last rose
has buds
there’s not a breath of wind
just birdsong and the faint
traffic
in the distance sound
of the southerly
Lady Carbury
keeps me company
on my Kindle, I worry
for her
for me, for all mothers
their gardens, old Lego
new weeds
our lemon tree losing leaves
although he pees under it
some times
we Skype our family
here and overseas
imagine
that if we stay up all night
but we’ve done that to death
my glass
of Pinot Gris reflects
an upside down tree
a dog
barks half heartedly
and mist rolls in
our pines
went out by helicopter
leaving bleached beech
corpses
there are screams too
from fathers louder than
birdsong
And silent mothers make
school lunches in the dark

Maggie Rainey-Smith copyright 12/03/2013.

Faded Beauty

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Faded Beauty

Last year, my daughter-in-law, a human rights activist in Seoul, visited my garden in Wellington and helped me to plant roses.   We planted the Kate Sheppard rose, named after New Zealand’s most famous suffragette on the forefront of the fight for universal suffrage, who died in 1934. The rose is a soft apricot-pink colour, sturdy, tall and upright and appears to flower once a year.

This week in our local newspaper, a story featured about a woman they called the ‘faded beauty’.   A sad story.   Her husband was on trial for assisting her suicide and the good news is that later in the week, he was found not guilty.   But it wasn’t that aspect of the story that moved me to write this – it was the woman’s story, her great sadness at the passing of her beauty and her inability to live without it.  This ephemeral and much sort after blessing of beauty that for the very beautiful, must eventually, if they live long enough, become a curse.    For without Botox, face-lifts and collagen, it is impossible to maintain the perfection of youth.   And now, with Botox, face-lifts and collagen, we have a growing mass of startled baby-boomers, with smooth brows, widened eyes and impossibly pumped lips.   It’s a frightening generic sort of face, that lacks laughter lines and grief and as so acutely described by Anne Enright in her novel ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ “Indeed, a couple of women in the room had the confused look that Botox gives you, like you might be having an emotion but you couldn’t remember which one.”

This week too, I reviewed two coffee table books for the Good Morning Show  – both featuring attractive, older blonde women on the front covers.   One was ‘Absolutely Joanna’ by Joanna Lumley, in her early sixties, a blonde and fading beauty whom we all love for her role as Patsy in the Ab Fab series, and of course, we recognise that she sustains this fading beauty with the aid of either Botox or collagen or both (and perhaps a lift here and there).   The other book was ‘Pippa Blake – a Journey’ featuring the wife of our yachting hero, Sir Peter Blake, killed so tragically ten years ago.   She too is blonde, in her mid to late 50’s and showing a more natural countenance, the normal lines of life.

Joanna’s book is primarily about her famous life with plenty of photographic images of her absolute beauty as a young woman, her modelling career and her television fame.   It is framed by the story of her British Colonial heritage (born in Kashmir) and ends with her more recently high-profile successful campaign for residency rights for the Nepalese Gurkhas in Britain.     We love her, of course we do, and we don’t mind that she wants to stay beautiful, because it’s part of who she is – we forgive her the slightly startled, slightly scary, almost-parody of beauty.   She is boastful and self-deprecating all in one hilarious breath, and the photographs of her modelling career are a stunning look at fashion for any nostalgic baby boomer.

Of course, we all have preconceptions about famous people and in particular ageing blondes (well, I do) – that’s because I’m an ageing brunette with the aid of my six weekly magic-shampoo.    What is it about being blonde and ageing?   Well, there’s a certain cliché I guess, that is merely a broad brush stroke and wildly inaccurate.   But still, there is an ideal that women strive for and men admire, and other women who aren’t so blonde and attractive may scoff at.

Pippa Blake is no ordinary ageing blonde.   She is the bereaved (ten years) wife of one of our national heroes, she is one of us, an honorary Kiwi, intimately involved with the America’s Cup campaign when we won the silverware for the first time, bringing it home to a raging red sock welcome.   As such she is most probably one of our national treasures, although we know very little about her.

Her book about a journey through grief written to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of Sir Peter Blake’s death is an impressive read.   It dispels all myths about privilege, beauty, the yachting world and any other clichés that might have skipped through your mind as your thumbed the book shelves in your favourite book shop.  You do not have to be the least bit interested in yachting to find this book a most impressive read.   By exploring her very public grief, she rediscovers the artist in herself.  It is this journey that is for me the most fascinating part of her story and by the end of the book there was real emotional eloquence.   When she writes of her life with Sir Peter there is warmth and joy and true love, but there is a distance… when she writes of her journey through grief and her art, she unravels for us real intimacy.

I was moved to write this blog, thinking about the beautiful local woman from Eastern Europe, Eva,  ‘the faded beauty’ who had married well, raised a family (for some of us the greatest reward), but still, this wasn’t enough.  In fact, it seems she was estranged from some of her children.  How sad would that be?    Why is it that we lust after the ephemeral, trying to pin down something about our exterior that we hope reflects our interior, but somehow never quite does.

I’m 61 and now I’m noticing the lines I hadn’t noticed before, in myself, in my friend’s faces, and back again at me reflecting my age through them, their age through me, a mirror to our lives.   I dye my hair but I don’t plan to have a face-lift or use Botox, but some friends I know have begun this already – I wonder how they will negotiate this with frozen smiles, widened staring eyes, and emotions never quite expressed on taut faces.    Don’t you love old faces?    Some of the most beautiful faces that I know are the images by Marti Friedlander in Michael King’s original “Moko” – strong Maori women sporting beautiful moko, striking, handsome, powerful, lasting images.

I mean no disrespect to the bereaved family of the woman who inspired this post.  I feel great sadness for her and wonder if I ever saw her, took a second glance, noticed her beauty, honoured her one day in town with a second glance, out shopping, or catching a bus…    If that is what she craved, I hope that I did.   The tragedy is that now her beautiful life, the one she craved, has become public and like any beauty, when one tries to pin it down, to hold it, to name it, to own it, the beauty becomes elusive, impossible to know, fleeting, unsustainable.   The woman’s son is quoted saying that his father had loved her more than any sensible person would have. “I don’t think anyone could have done more than he did.”

It seems perhaps this woman had an interior beauty that she was unable to embrace.

Good Morning

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Here is a link to my brief career on TV… one more to go … talking books with Sarah Bradley on the Good Morning Show.

 

 

 

Book Reviews on Beattie’s Blog

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My blog started out as a writer’s blog and along the way it has morphed into a travelogue.   I thought it time to bring the focus back to literature and what better way than to showcase the book reviews that I have written over the last couple of years for Graham Beattie’s blog.

I am extremely grateful to Graham for giving me a voice as a reviewer, something I really enjoy and feel confident in doing because of the experiences I have had in belonging to no less than three book groups.

In a small country like New Zealand it is difficult for reviewers because we are a small literary community and there are many connections.   I’ve had my share of both good and bad reviews and the only important thing that I require from a review is that it is the truth from that reader, how they respond to the work and integrity is all we can ask for, not specifically praise.

I would never review a book simply to appease an author, and so my reviews are my response both as a reader and writer (always enthusiastic, and entirely my own opinions, except of course, when I quote my terribly clever book club friends).

If you get time, and any of these titles appeal, or indeed you have read them, do let me know if you agree, disagree, like or dislike.   The reason for a blog is of course, to encourage feedback and conversation about the things we writers and readers all love – books.

(And of course, I shall continue now and then to feed you photos of my travels – of course I will).