Saturday, December 10, 2016

In praise of: Karyn Hay

Photo by Chris Skelton for Fairfax.

To Auckland on Wednesday for the launch of Karyn Hay’s new novel March of the Foxgloves at the Women’s Bookshop in Ponsonby. Launches there are always good and convivial. The only drawback with this one was that I was the launcher. This is more or less what I said:
We all know Karyn as a brilliant broadcaster on radio and TV. She is also a fine journalist – the interviews she did for last year’s New Zealand Women in Rock on Prime were a model of empathy – she knows the territory – but she was firm with them too. Nobody was let off the hook.
With all these talents, can she also write fiction? I’m sorry to say it, but. . . yes she can. Please don’t hate her.
Her first novel, Emerald Budgies, published under a pseudonym – she is the Artist Formerly Known as Lee Maxwell – was a cracker and won Best First Book in the 2001 Montana awards. A few years later she was awarded the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship. It’s been a bit of a wait since for March of the Foxgloves – for all of us – but it has been worth the wait.
The novel is intelligent, sexy, witty – just like the author – and is beautifully written. There is sparky dialogue, lovely descriptions of place, and the two women Frances and Dolly are great characters. You’d want to meet them.
It’s about women’s independence, how new technology can enable that, narcissism and obsession, there’s sex and drugs and music, and a whole lot more.
It was especially interesting for me because it is set in London and Auckland, cities I know, but mostly in Tauranga, where I grew up. So I knew the streets and buildings. I felt right at home.
I learned a lot while editing it. I do a lot of fact-checking when editing fiction, just as much as I do when editing non-fiction – but this one was really hard. Because much of the factual material wasn’t in my reference books, not even in the Centennial History of Tauranga. Karyn had dug it all out of old newspapers, all sorts of obscure places. When I could check something, she was invariably right. That was impressive – and very unusual in historical fiction, in my experience.
But the best part, apart from the pleasure of working on such a terrific novel, was how much we laughed during the process. Even though we both take writing and editing very seriously, it was a lot of fun. I have edited many authors – Lauris Edmond, Vincent O’Sullivan, Paddy Richardson, Graeme Lay, Lloyd Jones, Kelly Ana Morey, loads – but Karyn is, I have to say, by far the sweariest.
And now here is the published novel. The paperback looks good but the hardback looks fantastic. The illustrations by John Constantine are lovely and the photos Vicky Papas Vergara took of burlesque artist Miss Sina King are brilliant, exactly as I imagined that the photos Frances took of Dolly would look. It is a thrill to have been involved in such a superb publication. I know you will enjoy reading it when you have bought your copy. And now, here is Karyn Hay!
 After the launch Karyn and I went with friends for a drink, as is customary after a book launch. Then dinner at SPQR, as is customary in Ponsonby. Then she dragged me to a bar (The Golden Dawn: Tavern of Power) to see Voom. They were much louder than my band was when I played that venue, and better. Good drummer, which is the main thing with a band. And a good night, which is the main thing with a book launch.

Stephanie Jones’s review of March of the Foxgloves for Coast FM was enthusiastic: “Hay is a sly and delightful wordsmith, a grand raconteur of the page, in whose hands historical fiction feels utterly current, even urgent.”

David Herkt interviewed Karyn for Stuff here. She tells him: “We think of history as with people who were entirely different, but often that's a misconception. We have the same motivations – and foibles, of course – and the same ambiguities.”

Radio Live plugs the novel here.

Plutocrats can order the hardback here; paupers can order the paperback here.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Nigel Cox on Kinky Friedman

The 102nd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
Kinky Friedman introduced the Frisbee to Borneo, where he ate raw monkey brains. He made his name as a country singer in the 70s with his band the Texas Jewboys and songs like “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed”. Now he’s a bestselling author of six wise-cracking mystery novels featuring a former country singer called Kinky Friedman who, like the author, keeps his cigars in a bust of Sherlock Holmes. He recently toured here with Rita Jo Thompson, Miss Texas 1987, and told Nigel Cox, “Course, in Texas we consider anyone a homosexual who likes girls better than football.”
WRITE ’EM, COWBOY
QU: How come you’re called Kinky?
KF: My real name is Richard Kinky Big Dick Friedman, you can just call me Dick, if you like. Kinky came basically from my moss, which before I got my most recent haircut looked like a Lyle Lovett starter kit — moss being hair.
QU: And are there a lot of Jews in Texas?
KF: They’re kind of like leprechauns, there’s actually a bunch of us, but it’s hard to pick out who they are because Jews tend to — it’s like a survival thing, like a chameleon — get very much like the kind of people that they’re living around. The Jews in Texas would just be these big guys with the pickup trucks, you know, and the gun racks and everything else.
QU: One wouldn’t normally ask that, it’s just that you’re a very Jewish Jew. 
KF: Well I’m not a religious Jew. I’m not a religious person. I believe in Tom Paine’s credo “The world is my country, to do good is my religion”, being serious for just a small moment in time there. But being Jewish in Texas is interesting, because you can pass for a Texan if you want. I think both have this in common, they’re both independent-minded kind of peoples, and both are vanishing breeds, at least the Jew and the cowboy are, I would say. And I also like the way that they stand a little bit apart from people, from the world as a whole, look at things from the outside in, which is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from being a Jew. It’s real helpful as a writer, gives you a kind of interesting slant, that a member of the country club might not have.
QU: Texas has a wonderful musical heritage, but you wouldn’t necessarily think of Texas as the home of country music.
KF: I think Hollywood is what did it. Even though the movies were shot in Hollywood they all appeared to be emanating from Texas. By the time Anne Frank found out about the cowboy, it was Texas, and that’s why she had pictures of cowboy stars on her wall in her secret annex. The cowboy has reached a lot further than he ever dreamed, thrown his lasso to the sky quite a ways, to have captured the imagination of children all over the world. Texas means something. Texas is a very progressive state and a very primitive state, simultaneously. Makes it very, very interesting. A lot of wide open spaces, in general and between people’s ears, and out of that sometimes comes a creative thought, an original thought.
QU: Who’s your favourite Texan?
KF: Jack Ruby, the guy that killed Oswald. He was a very glamorous, flamboyant type, he was the first Texas Jewboy I would say, and he kinda got a bad shake. People don’t realise, Jack Ruby was one of Hank Williams’ last friends on Earth. Although Hank had the biggest funeral in the world — both of his wives set out on the road immediately afterwards, calling themselves Mrs Hank Williams, with bands, quite a tribute — nonetheless, Hank had very few friends, and in the last few months of his life nobody would book him, nobody would play in his band. Jack Ruby was one that stuck with him; continued to book him, took him on trips. I believe they went to Cuba together. I’d like to know more about that, that is something I might like to research myself, just as a historical thing, Hank Williams in Havana.
QU: How long did your musical career last? You’re playing some gigs on this tour, but you’re not playing so much.
KF: No. My career with the Texas Jewboys was almost exactly as long as Hank Williams’ recording career, which was a little under four years. Following that I toured with Bob Dylan and with Willie Nelson but that was mostly without the band by that time. I think the really good music, the good work is usually created by people who are under-appreciated at the time. It makes me wonder about some of these guys like Tom Clancy or Stephen King or Garth Brooks — they must, inside, be asking themselves, Am I really worth a shit, if this many people like me? Do I really have much to say?
QU: What was it made you wind up that career?
KF: When ]oseph Heller said in the mid-70s that “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” was his favourite country song, that was my warning flag that I might not be a mainstream country artist. After that — Damon Runyon said that all of life is six to five against. That’s basically it: if there’s a way for people to misunderstand you, they will. Like my old friend Doug Kenney, who started National Lampoon, said, you’ve got to learn to roll with the bullets.
QU: What happened between the Jewboys and the books, which didn’t appear until 1987?
KF: I was in a liberal arts programme at the University of Texas, a highly advanced programme mainly distinguished by the fact that every student in the programme had some form or other of facial tic. I graduated from there, went on to the Peace Corps, and the 70s were big with the Jewboys. Late 70s the Jewboys were already on the wane, and the 80s was pretty much between cases, as Sherlock Holmes would say. But it was out of that emptiness and that unhappiness, I think, that I started writing. My first piece was for a magazine called High Times, a drug magazine my friend Ratso edited. It was called “My Scrotum Flew Tourist: A Personal Odyssey”, about my Peace Corps experiences, and that was my first prose. Now I think of myself more as a pointy-headed intellectual mystery writer, the Raymond Chandler school of writer, though maybe that’s limiting, for him, or me. . . I’m surprised that more of these clever writers in music don’t or can’t write prose. When I was 43 I found out I could do it. There was a voice there, I suppose.
QU: You named your hero after yourself, so I’m talking to a character out of a book here. Do you have to walk around and be that character?
KF: That’s fatal. That’s what happened to a lot of people. I think it happened to John Belushi, Iggy Pop — you have to be real careful with that. You’ll die if you try to be a character. I’m very close to the Kinkster, in the books, and most of the people in the books are pretty accurate, but there is a casino of fiction and it’s a wonderful place, and often deals with the truth, more often than the real world does. I often quote the old Turkish proverb, “When you tell the truth, have one foot in the stirrups.” Because it’s murder. But in fiction it isn’t.
Of course, I’ve been accused of not beating myself to death inventing new characters, but why bother when you’ve got these guys? You’re stuck with these old friends and as I’ve often said, you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t wipe your friends off on your saddle.
QU: Do they mind being in the books? Was Chet Flippo pleased with the picture of him in Lone Star?
KF: I think Chet now is pretty flattered to have passed into fiction. You walk a close line when you’ve got a character that’s evil. I’ve seen Chet since then anyway, he speaks to me. I spoke to the class he teaches on writing in Tennessee, so he must be relatively flattered to have passed into the casino of fiction with Robin Hood and Sherlock and Ivanhoe.
QU: I read that something specific started you off on the writing.
KF: Yeah, there was an incident in New York, in January ’83, where I rescued a woman from a mugger in a bank in Greenwich Village. She was being stabbed to death, it looked like to me, at least when I got into the bank, so I held the guy, the assailant, until the police arrived and in the morning there was a newspaper headline, “Country Singer Plucks Victim From Mugger”. And the girl turned out to be Cathy Smith, the woman who’d been with John Belushi when he died. She gave him the drugs. Well, she looked vaguely familiar. See, I’d lived with Belushi for a while when I first came to New York. I thought that was really weird, that out of 12 million people I would rescue this one — not to tarnish my role as a hero at all, but that I would rescue Cathy Smith. Tom Waits later commented that he thought that was the baby Jesus telling me to stay away from drugs, which is possible also.
Anyway, I went home from that experience, the randomness of it just blew me away, the whole thing, and I started writing the first book in a Georges Simenon-like style, starting with just an address on the back of an envelope and flying by Jewish radar, never having written anything before. And also Shel Silverstein helped, telling me, “Just write, ‘He said’, ‘She said’. Keep it really ruthless.” That worked, for me, anyway. The voice seemed to be there, and the characters I knew, and I loved mysteries.
I fancy myself as a sort of country-and-western Dorothy Sayers. So it’s worked, particularly like in England, where the books are now bestsellers, maybe because the British cherish eccentricity, I don’t quite know why it is, but the Australians have now really picked up on it big, and I think we’ll do well in New Zealand. Probably all that means the kiss of death in America, but we’ll see. Americans may be coming around too — we're a little slow out of the chute, to use a rodeo term.
QU: So you think you're a bigger star as a writer in England than you are in America?
KF: No, we’re selling more books in America, because it’s bigger. Remember Chandler was a bestseller in England, but he was not that big in America until after his death. Elmore Leonard’s written how many, 60 novels? Now somebody is finally making him a bestseller. ]ohn D MacDonald is another great writer that went through that, and Rex Stout is another one, with Nero Wolfe. All of those three guys are as literary and as great as the other kind of authors that are lionised by the New York Times, except we’ve always considered them mystery writers until very recently.
QU: Who are your heroes in the crime-writing world?
KF: I like Robert B Parker. He and I are adult pen pals — he commented that anybody who dots their i with a Star of David can’t be all bad. I like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, of course, and I like Reginald Hill and Colin Dexter. I like those British guys, and I don’t go for too many of the smart-ass American types like myself. Chandler once said that the business of fiction is to re-create the illusion of life, which is a rather laborious way of saying, you forget you’re reading a book. Dick Francis does it well. Dick Francis is a guy who doesn’t have a great deal of lyrical talent, his books are formulaic almost, one after another, they’re pretty dry, but somewhere in there you forget that you’re reading a book, and this is his genius.
The really good writers, Chandler, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Crumley, don’t write too much, they’re not real prolific. Elmore Leonard, he’s a real pro. He’s pretty even. It’s almost incredible how long Elmore Leonard was regarded as a pulp kind of guy. It goes back to what F Scott said: if you write one book, you’ve written one book. If you write two books, you’re an author. And to that I always add, if you write three books, you’re a hack.
QU: There are six Kinky novels all set in the Greenwich Village, but the new book is going to be set in Texas.
KF: It is. Tragic mistake on my part. [Lights another cigar.] You never take the detective out of his milieu. I hoped we could conduct this interview without using the word milieu, or genre, but, it’s happened.
Simon & Schuster, I signed a three-book deal with them and they said, do two mystery novels and a, ah, real book. Forget the Kinky stuff and the mystery stuff, and really stretch, let’s try and write a really great novel. But Elvis, Jesus And Coca-Cola, the first one, has done so well that now they’ve said, forget the real book, stay with the Kinky thing. Moving to Texas was a device at the time we thought might widen the audience, before we realised that the book was doing real well.
When I moved to Simon & Schuster from my first publisher the sales jumped about eight times over, it became very close to being a bestseller in America. It would have been if they’d printed enough books — one of those deals. Catch-22 was never a bestseller. Sold 20 million copies, has never been a bestseller. .
An author is probably the worst person to ask certain questions of. I’ll just point out Conan Doyle’s belief that The White Company was his great masterpiece that the world would long remember him for. We all know that seven people in New Zealand have read it, if that many, and seven people in North America: that’s about it. And likewise Heller thinks that Something Happened is his great work. Bob Dylan probably has no sense of what he’s done. So all I can do is look back down the hill and I’m amazed that I have six books out and Armadillos and Old Lace coming out of the chute. I think the books are getting better, which is good, and I’m not that tired of the Kinkster where I have to kill him off yet. When it happens it’ll be a little uncomfortable. I’m very close to the character.
QU: I’m amazed at how you keep going.
KF: I have a brilliant pharmacist.
QU: I think I’ve just about used up my questions.
KF: And I’m fresh out of charm, Nigel, so it works out very nicely. You’re a fine New
Zealander. I’ll give you a good-luck guitar plectrum. Did you get one? Have two.

So here is Kinky Friedman in Dublin in 2003 performing Joseph Heller’s favourite country song, “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Any More”:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What I’m reading #140


The complete short stories of CK Stead in book form, as pictured above. One of these contains some of the others, mysteriously altered: temperatures have changed, as has a character’s wife’s name. What is the author playing at? Some of this will be revealed soon in the Listener.  

Bereavement bling is a thing, reports Anne Jolis in the Spectator. Also, how to preserve your loved one’s tattoos when they die. Go on, you know you want to.

In the same issue Matthew Parris, on tour touting his new book Scorn about abuse and invective, makes a case for Twitter being the new Shakespeare and that we live in a golden age of swearing. He persuasively sets Shakespeare’s “whey-faced loon”, “obscene, greasy tallow-catch”, “You mad mustachio purple-hued maltworns!”, “you whoreson upright rabbit!” and more alongside responses to this tweet by Michael Gove, “We need to renegotiate a new relationship with Europe, based on free trade and friendly cooperation.”  A twitterstorm ensued:
you are one confused bag of mince.
you boil-in-the-bag rent-a-clown.
you reprehensible spam-faced tool bag!
you back-stabbing cockwomble.
you haunted pork mannequin.
Parris reports that when he read from the book on tour, “cockwomble” did not go down well in the rural Midlands, whereas the other c word was fine in Chester. 

Mick Hartley has three great photos of the airship Hindenburg: one shows its construction in 1932, one shows it in flight over New York in 1937, and one shows it crashing later that day in New Jersey: 36 people died, and that was the end of airships.

So here are the Pretty Things in 1967 with “Balloon Burning”, which is about that disaster, from their masterpiece SF Sorrow, the first rock opera, recorded at Abbey Road at the same time the Beatles were making Sgt Pepper and Pink Floyd Piper at the Gates of Dawn. This rocks much harder than either:

Monday, November 21, 2016

Stephanie Johnson on Salman Rushdie


The 101st in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the February 1996 issue. The intro read:
Salman Rushdie talks to Stephanie Johnson about Michelle Pfeiffer, the invisible buildings of Bombay, the colour of his bedroom — and his new novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh.
INDIAN INK
QU: Do you have a favourite among the books you’ve written?
SR: No. Or to put it another way, it changes all the time. If I look at Midnight ’s Children now I still feel very proud of it, but it’s somebody else’s book, it’s a much younger chap’s book. When I started writing Midnight ’s Children I was about 29. Now I’m 48. The Moor ’s Last Sigh feels a lot closer to how I’m sounding now. I’m very proud of Harourz and the Sea Of Stories, I have to say. I think that was a difficult trick to pull off, to try and write a book that would have some interest for both grown-ups and children. It looks like it might be the first of my books to be made into a movie, an animated feature.
QU: Do you go to the movies a lot? There are a lot of references to movies in The Moor ’s Last Sigh.
SR: I’m very keen on movies. If you grow up in Bombay you’ve got movies being made on every street corner. You grow up with the movies in your blood.
QU: You were an actor yourself, weren’t you? .
SR: I never acted in a movie. When I was a student I certainly did more acting than writing. After I left university I was so anxious to be a writer, [yet] so desperately anxious that I might not be able to be a writer, that in a funny way it was easier not to start, so I acted for a couple of years after leaving university.
QU: Did you write plays?
SR: I have written one or two dramatic things, which mercifully are lost in the mists of time, they were so dreadful. But I discovered that I was not going to be a good actor, so I had no excuse not to write.
QU: Do you watch television?
SR: I watch television news and sports sometimes, but I don’t watch much television as television because it’s usually very boring. I watch the All Blacks, but who wouldn’t? Recently in England they did a serialisation of Pride and Prejudice. They’re always doing Jane Austen every six weeks. I watched this thing and it was quite well done, quite polished and so on, but I thought the loss of Jane Austen’s incredibly sharp, acid voice turned it all into a series of parties. That’s what her books are if you don’t have the voice.
QU: They’ve made a series of Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha Of Suburbia. Do you know him?
SR: Yes he’s a very old friend of mine. We go way back.
QU: Is there a kind of solidarity among writers from the subcontinent who live in England? Do you know Vikram Seth?
SR: I do, but he’s mostly in India. I’m not a close friend of his. Hanif I’ve known for many, many years. He’s much younger than me, he’s kind of my kid brother. He’s different to me in that first of all he’s half-English, which I’m not. Secondly he was born in England, in Bromley — he went to school with David Bowie and Billy Idol. Bromley Comprehensive is responsible for a lot of terrible people.
Hanif’s background is as a South London kid. Nine or ten years ago he decided to go to Pakistan. It was very difficult for him, because he doesn’t really speak Punjabi or Urdu or any of the other languages. He speaks South London. His mother tongue is English.
QU: How many languages do you speak?
SR: Well, I speak English and French, and I speak Indian languages, Urdu and Hindi. And I can understand large chunks of Punjabi and a couple of others.
QU: Do they all overlap, those languages?
SR: To an extent they do, but not that much. They overlap at the most colloquial level. The more complex they get, their vocabs diverge. Urdu and Hindi overlap more than the others. In fact there’s a kind of composite language called Hindustani, which officially doesn’t exist, but it’s what everyone speaks. So if you go to the movies, the language of the movies is this strange amalgam, which is a mixture of Hindi and Urdu, but spoken with a Hindi accent. It’s in fact the lingua franca of North India, although you can’t find a newspaper in it. It’s a rather extraordinary fact that North India has this huge language that actually doesn’t exist.
QU: The language in The Moor ’s Last Sigh is something that’s fascinated me, especially the way that Aurora talks. The way she says “proceedofy” and “killofy”. Do people really talk like that?
SR: People don’t, no. I made it up because I’ve heard particular people in India speak like that. People in India play with language.
QU: You don’t think you might stand accused by a politically correct person of lampooning the Indian way of speaking English?
SR: Maybe. But that’s too bad. The fact is that the people in India use it a lot. This book has been in India since the beginning of September and people love the language, because everybody recognises it. It would be awful for the sake of political correctness to have to clean up one’s act and force everybody to speak in some terribly posh Fosterian English. It’s something I have tried all my life to get away from, Standard English.
QU: It’s really only in the dialogue.
SR: In some of my books that kind of, let’s say, “Indianised” English is also in the narrative voice. It’s there occasionally in this. The narrator does have the tendency to erupt into ladies-o and gents-o.
QU: How did you manage to concentrate during the fatwa, to be quiet enough to bring yourself down into that dreamlike state? Were you nervous about sitting in a quiet room on your own, to write?
SR: It wasn’t nervousness. It was a question of there being so much noise in my head that by the time I was able to clear that away in order to then think about what I’d sat down to think about, I was exhausted. There was too much static for a long time. It really was very difficult. I was very upset about what happened, in a literary sense. The way in which my book was reviled, the way it disappeared inside this cloud of shit that people threw at it. Well — it’s disappointing, isn’t it? You spend five years writing a book and then everybody throws shit at it. Fortunately it doesn’t feel like that now. The book showed itself to be resilient and has survived the mess quite well.
QU: How long did it take to write The Moor’s Last Sigh?
SR: On and off, I suppose five years. And some of it for very much longer than that. A friend of mine reminded me the other day that I’d first told him about my interest in the story of the fall of Granada 15 years ago. I’d said to him then that I was interested in having that involved in some way in a novel I’d write. The idea of a novel about a painter I’ve wanted to do for a long time, because I became friendly, again over the last 15 years or so, with a lot of the contemporary Indian painters.
QU: In your mind do Aurora’s paintings fit into a kind of informal school of painting?
SR: I do know what they look like. Some of them are a kind of combination of Magritte and Velazquez’s Las Meninas. There are tricks of sight-lines, impossible mirror reflections. In the sequence of the Moor paintings the way in which the figure of the Moor becomes more and more fantasised is similar to Ned Kelly in Nolan’s paintings. In that series Kelly becomes more and more abstract until he’s just a square with a slit in it.
So I pinched ideas from a lot of contemporary art in order to create something credible for her. But a lot of her pictures just came from somewhere, I don’t know where. I have absolutely sharp-edged, brilliant pictures in my mind of those paintings and it’s really frustrating that they don’t exist.
QU: Maybe you should try to paint them.
SR: I can draw quite well, but I’ve never tried oils or anything. There are one or two writers who are good painters or sculptors. One of the great examples is Gunter Grass. I went to visit him. He lived in a small village outside Hamburg. He had a house where he lived and worked and then he had another house down the road which was his art studio. It was full of the same stuff — little boys with tin drums, eels, flounders, rats. And I thought how wonderful it must be to put down your pen at the end of a day’s writing and fool around with the same ideas in bronze or dry-point etching, instead of with words. I envied him that.
QU: I think it’s possible to get weary of words, sometimes, isn’t it?
SR: Sure is.
QU: There was something I laughed at in the book — the famous model Ina, who refused to do interviews because they would ask her what colour her bedroom was. What colour is your bedroom?
SR: What colour is my bedroom? Well, it’s a rather simple, plain, whitish bedroom.
QU: Who’s your favourite movie hero?
SR: These are Ina’s questions, yes. How odd to be subjected to them! Who is my favourite movie hero? I don’t know. Michelle Pfeiffer.
QU: That’s a heroine.
SR: Let’ s not be sexist about this. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
QU: I won’t ask what song you hum when you take a bath, then. That was the other question. Did you do a lot of research for The Moor ’s Last Sigh?
SR: Some. I don’t have to do a lot, because India is carried around in my DNA. Research is probably too grand a word for what I did, but I did do some checking up. Particularly the first part of the novel, which is in South India, because I’m not from South India. I’ve been to Cochin many times, and to the synagogue. It does have those blue tiles and every one is different, although they’re not magic. The Jewish community is so small, there’s now under 40 people.
QU: You were saying that that community doesn’t have a rabbi. How on earth did they evolve not to have a rabbi?
SR: They never had one. The community has been there for so long. These people came from all over, some of them are Sephardic Jews, some of them came from Iraq, some of them came from Southern Spain, in successive waves of migration over a 2000-year period. Any member of the community can lead the prayers. It’s really tragic. Even 40 or 50 years ago there were hundreds of Jews there. But when the state of Israel was created all the young people left. So it’s all the old bachelors and spinsters sitting sunning themselves toothlessly in the lanes. It’s a very beautiful little bit, Jewtown, the part of Cochin where they live.
QU: So it’s not your own family portrayed in this book, at all?
SR: This one isn’t, no. I think it would be fair to say the family in Midnight ’s Children had more to do with my family. My mother is more the opposite of Aurora — a calm, peaceful serene lady, who would be horrified to be confused with this foul-mouthed dragon lady. My father was a reasonably successful Bombay businessman.
QU: But he never put heroin in baby powder.
SR: No, that’s true. Nor was he getting involved in the sale of nuclear technology to countries that shouldn’t have it. Almost all the business corruption in the novel has not exactly happened, but it is derived from stuff that has happened in the subcontinent over the last 20 years. So Abraham is a kind of encyclopedia of all the crooks in India rolled into one. A lot of the stuff that may seem to a reader who doesn’t know India to be fantastical is actually true. Baby Softo isn’t. I made it up. I rather like it, don’t you? Baby Sofio is all my own work.
There’s a passage in the book which deals with invisible people building invisible buildings. In Bombay in the 80s the city authorities decided they didn’t want to be bothered with all these people sleeping on the pavements. They won a court case against various activists, who sued them, and as a result they were able to declare that anyone who had been resident in Bombay at the time of the last census then would have claims on the city and rights to education and welfare, and so on. So if you had not been counted in the census then legally you didn’t exist. The poor often fall through the net and don’t get counted in the census anyway. So they were declared not there, literally hundreds of thousands of people, they didn’t exist as far as the city was concerned.
With the building boom in the 1980s they needed lots of unskilled labour to work on these
building sites, so these invisible people got hired. Then of course the buildings were breaking the law as well. Bombay being like Manhattan and built on a peninsula, there were laws preventing the building of skyscrapers. The city authorities wanted to prevent overcrowding in that downtown area. But this was valuable real estate, so people were bribed in the city hall to sign documents stating that these 45-storey buildings were actually only 15 storeys high. Suddenly these buildings were invisible too.
So you’ve got people who weren’t there, building buildings that weren’t there. This is literally true. If the reality of a country is like this, you just write it down as reportage and then you’re accused of writing magic realism. I don’t think there’s anything magic about my realism, I think it’s just there.
SJ : They have these expressions now like “dirty realism”.
SR: Yes, that was invented by my friend Bill Buford when he was editing Granta. He invented it to describe a particular group of young American writers. It fitted some of them, the kind of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jane Anne Phillips kind of writing.
QU: Have you read Will Self? .
SR: I have, yes. Dirty, but not realism.
QU: So who do you read and enjoy?
SR: Like most of us, I read a lot. The writers who I admired most when I was learning to be a writer were writers like Joyce, Sterne, Gogol, Cervantes, Beckett and Dickens. They would still be among the writers I think of as the best.
I go through reading jags. There was a point where I got very keen on North American fiction. I’m still a great admirer of Saul Bellow. I think he’s a great writer. I’m fond of Thomas Pynchon and some of Philip Roth.
QU: What about women writers? Do you not read women writers much?
SR: I think I do. Didn’t I mention any?
QU: Not a one!
SR: I said Jane Austen, didn’t I? I like Toni Morrison a lot. She’s a friend as well. I really thought Song Of Solomon was an extraordinary book. In a way I still prefer it of her books. I’ve read quite a lot of Atwood, and when she’s good, she’s very good. The writer whom I really admired, who was probably my closest friend among British writers, was Angela Carter.
QU: Angela Carter was a seminal writer for me. I always read and loved her, through my late teens and twenties.
SR: I think she’s getting her due now that she’s dead. And I think it’s sad because she would have loved it. But she had great confidence in her work and she had plenty of people telling her how much they admired it. It wasn’t as if she had no recognition, because she always did. I once had to introduce Angie to a reading in London. It was in winter and a huge snowstorm developed, which is not very common in London. I arrived at the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith and there was Angie at the bar and nobody came. Eventually six people arrived. She was determined to go on, so instead of stupidly doing it in this big theatre we went to a smaller room and drew six chairs around in a circle. She did her reading flat-out as if it were a thousand people and it was completely brilliant.
She loved to read her stories. She had a story-reading voice, which wasn’t like her real voice. A
strange artificial voice, much more sing-song and rather fey. A curious, witchy voice.
Doris Lessing is someone I’ve admired for years and years. I’ve got travelling round with me in my suitcase a proof of her new novel, which I’m told is about to scandalise people yet again. It’s a novel about an old lady who has an affair with a much younger man and is quite explicit, I gather, on the subject. So Doris has got it, she’s still able to churn people up.
QU: That’s what we hope, isn’t it, that we can go on writing. Like John Cheever, who wrote well into his 80s. One last question: is it odd, now, to find yourself more famous among non-readers as a celebrity rather than a writer?
SR: If one of the few advantages of this situation is that people will be drawn to my work out of curiosity, then fair enough. If I can get that small benefit out of seven dreadful years, then I’m happy to accept it. Actually, mostly I don’t think about it. Fame, who needs it?

Friday, November 18, 2016

Coming attractions

Stephanie Johnson interviews Salman Rushdie (QUQ Feb 96), Mark Amery on Barbara Else’s fantasy (QUQ March 97), Nigel Cox interviews Kinky Friedman (QUQ Jun 94), something about Laura Solomon (cover girl, QUQ Jun 97) and my report on Rachel Stewart at the Wintec Press Club earlier this month.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

And don’t call me Honey


Every time I drive along Racecourse Road to the secret café we don’t tell outsiders about and pass this sign, just after the equine hospital, I think of this scene from Airplane!:


Monday, November 14, 2016

What I’m reading #139

Dinah Birch reviews Brendan King’s biography Beryl Bainbridge: love by all sorts of means. I suggest to many writing clients that they read Bainbridge’s later novels, which are miracles of concision. I don’t suggest they emulate the smoking, drinking and shagging. Quote unquote:
Before the troubled attachment to Colin took over, she started “going out proper” with a married friend (“So there we were at one in the morning with a bottle of scotch with Clive running after me – begging me to put me clothes on … the exact desperation in his voice floating up Hampstead Heath – ‘Do please pull yourself together, I’m a respectable solicitor’”). […] Among the thought-provoking connections to emerge from this rewarding biography is the association between Bainbridge’s selfdramatisation and the steady discipline of her creativity. Her wilful eccentricity would sometimes disrupt her writing, but it was also central to its distinction.
John Freeman is grilled by Poets & Writers about his new journal Freeman’s. Which is kind of like Granta was for the four years John edited it, but better. If ever you see a copy, grab it. Preferably pay for it. Quote unquote:
With the release of the second issue, have your aims for Freeman’s changed?I guess a little bit. I’m teaching a class on the journal at the New School and doing more about the history of the journal. In the United States in particular, the journal was attached to the growth of modernism. A lot of little journals published writers like H. D. and Hemingway first—Ezra Pound was basically everyone’s contributing editor—but they had a lot more power than they had readership. All of them were attached to salons, which were run by, or funded by, wealthy individuals. And I realized that by publishing Freeman’s this way [with each issue accompanied by many events and readings] I’m trying to invert that scenario. I want the journal to feel like a salon, but I also want to it also feel like an accessible salon for readers. That if they live in Sacramento, or Minneapolis, or Miami, or Barnes, Kansas, they can go and participate in an event. That the pieces in the journal rise up through their storytelling. And I think that’s an important step for literary journals—if not mine, then someone else’s—to take forward, because I think for too long they’ve been an elitist institution. Obviously they have small acceptance rates because they get lots of submissions, but I’m talking more about their interaction with culture at large and their readers and their assessment of who their readers are and can be.
The scandal about 1MDB has not been widely reported in the New Zealand media. Or in the Malaysian media, for rather different reasons. It was and continues to be appalling for those of us who love Malaysia and despair at its government. This tiny detail is trivial in the scale of the scandal, but is typical:
The funding for The Wolf of Wall Street, the US complaint alleges, can be directly traced to the billion dollars diverted from the PetroSaudi joint venture.
Here, via Open Culture, is 30 minutes of JRR Tolkien reading from The Hobbit, recorded in 1952. I had to read some of Lord of the Rings for work earlier this year – fact-checking questions for Mastermind. I loved the books when I was a kid but OMG the writing is terrible:


And here, also via Open Culture, is four minutes of James Joyce reading from Ulysses. If ever a novel was meant to be heard rather than read, etc. Not quite the accent I expected:


Tanya Gold on the Queen:
You cannot lick a woman’s head every time you mail a letter without believing that, in some small way, she cares for you.
A friend of mine works for her. The Queen, that is, not Tanya Gold. He reports that she is very nice, very funny, knows her stuff. I am not sure how he will get on with her eventual successor.

Neil Hannon, who trades as The Divine Comedy and is one of the cleverest lyricists in pop music and possibly the only son of a bishop in that industry, talks to the BBC about his excellent new album Foreverland. Quote unquote:
“I think when you put literary figures in pop songs it’s mostly because it’s fun. You get to use odd phraseology, to talk about Voltaire and Diderot. If you’re allowed to do it in novels, to talk about other figures in the arts, or even in politics or history, why not in songs? It’s not so much why do I do it, it’s more why can’t I? I think an awful lot of people who write pop songs do unnecessarily censor themselves.”
Fad diets will proliferate if they have simple rules and pseudoscience justifications to help them stick in people’s minds, but examine them in detail and the logic falls apart. Take Paleo for instance, based on the premise that we are not ‘designed’ to eat certain foods. Newsflash genius, not sure if you missed the memo about Darwin and Wallace, but we are not ‘designed’ to do anything and neither is any part of the natural world. We evolved from a random sequence of evolutionary accidents, existing only because certain characteristics keep us marginally ahead in the arms race of existence. Nature is not pure and benign, it has no wisdom and it does not exist to nourish us and help us thrive. Nature is vicious, harmful and for thousands of years has been trying to fucking kill us. In the Palaeolithic period it was far better at doing this, with survival beyond thirty being extremely unlikely. Our ability to control the natural world, to process and store foods and to adapt our environment to meet our requirements is the one thing that has kept our head above the evolutionary waters and saved us from the miserable fate that befell every other hominid species in history.
Rob Hosking reflects on events of the week: let’s pass over Donald Trump to get to Paul Kelly on Leonard Cohen. Quote unquote:
I watched him and thought, that’s a way to be, that’s a way to act, there is a road to travel. To walk in gravity and lightness, to be serious but not take yourself seriously, to pay attention, to know that you shall reap what you sow.
Sartorial advice from Thomas Seal, who advises that brown shoes can ruin your career in London banking. Quote unquote:
“Bright working-class kids” lose out because they don’t know “arcane culture rules,” Alan Milburn, the commission chair and a former Labour lawmaker, said in an e-mailed statement. “Some investment bank managers still judge candidates on whether they wear brown shoes with a suit, rather than on their skills and potential.”
So here are Frank Zappa and the Mothers in 1967 with “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”:

Monday, November 7, 2016

Waikato Times letter of the week #74

From the edition of Saturday 5 November. As always, spelling, punctuation, grammar and logic are exactly as printed in the Waikato Times.
Food for thought
Well! It looks like the “gold old days” for tenancy-managers and their “black”  ways of removing unwanted tenants, are being revisited these days.
One well known local firm has reverted to the use of centuries-old methods, consisting of the blackening of tenants’ personal character, using food supposedly given in friendship, but surprisingly, found to be containing fatal does of high toxic material, and now their latest “song and dance” item of illegally entering the rented premises with examples of dead or dying small animals (cats usually) and salting these hapless corpses into boxes of rubbish placed at strategic positions throughout the house!
(Larger animals – elephants – would be somewhat counter-productive for the manager’s ends, although the subtleness may give them away). Food for thought, eh?
Glwyn McInnes
Hamilton

Friday, November 4, 2016

Elizabeth Smither on Brian Turner

The 100th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1995 issue: the cover featured a portrait of poet Jenny Bornholdt by Annelies van der Poel. From the first issue we had a monthly column by Bill Manhire called “The Poetry File”, in which he would discuss a particular poem: 24 of these columns were reprinted in his 2000 non-fiction collection Doubtful Sounds. For some reason Bill couldn’t do a column for this issue, but Elizabeth Smither stepped in with this radio talk about “The Pebble Population” from Brian Turner’s first collection, Ladders of Rain, which was published in 1978 and won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

“The Pebble Population” by Brian Turner
The Auckland poet CK Stead has said that the poet needs to work on himself, not the poem, and I take this to mean that to write good poetry a poet needs to attend to his own character which will then affect the poem in a way that mere considerations of technique cannot. And sometimes, and perhaps this is a continuation of this idea, unspoken qualities of restraint, scrupulous observation, scepticism — the things that are said behind and between the lines — can be as effective as the words themselves.

This has always seemed to me a characteristic of the poetry of Brian Turner. It is a poetry of restraint but humour, open-mindedness and rigour, pessimism (sometimes) and warmth. It is certainly poetry that never fools itself; the opposite of high-flown; though not without passion, it seems to scorn vagueness.

Brian Turner often chooses subjects that resemble his own poetic character and in “The Pebble Population” there seems a perfect blending of poet and subject. It’s also a perfect example of his manner of working. Listen to it as a very gentle but soundly-researched theory. Each word as it appears on the page keeps its distance from the neighbouring word, each pebble is separate.

It begins conversationally and casually. There have always been pebbles. Presumably they have had a long history. And if you’ve had a long history, pebble or human, it probably means you’ve been peaceable. Think of those empires that collapsed by not being like pebbles. If there were wars and sacrifice for pebbles, and music and revelry, they would surely have different attitudes to it. Attitudes of not burning themselves out. A bit like Mother Courage.

Pebbles don’t move about much, a bit like inhabitants of a sleepy English village who think travelling 20 miles is too far. They have a philosophy. They must mate because there are so many of them, but it’s outside our ken. The passion of it isn’t. They suffer like us.

You can see the poem running through all these thoughts and conclusions and discarding them one at a time. Man simply cannot be a pebble. Then at the end there is a surprise, an O Henry twist, and pebbles and man fall off the universe together, almost hand in hand. This is roughly what the poem is about.

Notice how the humans in the poem appear as inferior: “we saccharine humans” or “meeker than a brow-beaten son-in-law”. Or if we share pebble characteristics, ours are of a more diluted kind: we are meek in this brow-beaten way whereas the pebbles’ meekness has the virtue of stoicism.

As the poem progresses, the pebbles become heroic. This happens after the word “philosophy”, as though something has hardened in the pebbles themselves. Suddenly you almost see a Buddhist temple with bare bending heads. And when the pebbles “grate together” there is a sense of the strangeness of Eastern music.

But if this flavour is there, Brian Turner always writes from the viewpoint of Western man. You feel he wishes he didn’t have this Western romanticism which is always threatening to break out and which needs to be kept in control if we are to have any proper or useful understanding of nature. How do pebbles love compared to us? Do they have a better chance of success? It seems they may, for they take “one hell of a long time to get to know one another”. You may notice here how the colloquial follows a summit of emotion. In a lesser poet it might be a purple patch followed by a piece of gruffness. Sometimes when a poem has cut loose in one place it is necessary to bring it back to ground again. This is a feature of English itself; emotion followed by withdrawal, a re-defining, and then it can begin all over again. After this rather gruff stanza:

You can’t hurry
                        a pebble.
                                    Pebbles
take one hell
            of a long time
to get to know
            one another

the lyric bursts out again just like the “unpredictable madness of river travel” mentioned earlier in the poem, one of two methods of pebble travel.

As the poem goes towards its end, the pebbles have become more than pebbles. They have added human qualities, they have the faces we would have — “stubborn expressionless faces” — if we were pebbles. At this point the poet seems to have given in, after some resistance, the attempt to keep his distance. He thinks how awful it is for them to be rained on:

The irony of it,
                        all this grief
pouring down on them.

It reminds me of the Edith Sitwell poem “Still Falls The Rain”: “Still falls the rain/ With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer beat.” How still and stoical they are in this “mushrooming century’? — surely a reference not just to the mushroom clouds of atomic fallout but also to the mushroom speed of this century’s implacable change and stress.

If this is the case, what can we learn from pebbles? The instability of the century we live in separates poet and pebble at the end and a detachment returns. What could we have in common? And here’s the answer: we can all crack. For all their stillness, silence, inwardness, pebbles can be cracked and shatter as easily as heads or hearts. Just the blow of another stone will do it. So they are like us. So the poem that starts on an observation ends on a similarity, which is sympathy.

Listen to the careful choice of words, the way a stone would choose them if it spoke, but most of all to the mood — elation, identification working against the desire for detachment, so by the time the poem ends there has been a small revolution and something gained. .

The Pebble Population
You would agree,
                        wouldn’t you?
that from
            the beginning of time
there have always
                        been pebbles.

To be a pebble,
                        therefore,
is to have
            a long,
                        respectable,
worthy,
            peacable history —
a mother
            could safely
                        and proudly
send one off to war —
                        which,
to state
            the obvious,
                        is more
than we saccharine
                        humans
can claim
            for our goodselves.
A pebble’s music
                        is not
plink plink
            but
                        plunk plonk.
Pebbles
            don’t move
too far
            from home
                        of their own accord,
preferring,
            instead,
                        the unpredictable
madness
            of river travel
                        or the slow
constriction
            of glaciers.
                        If
pebbles
            seem bland
                        and stolid
and meeker
            than a brow-beaten
son-in-law
            then they’ve good reason,
don’t you think?

                        The pebble philosophy
is
   might as well keep your mouth shut
   you’re going to get hurt anyway —

the classic
            ‘grin-and-bear-it’ syndrome.

Reluctantly,
            pebbles sometimes shift,
move in the wind,
            roll over,
                        grate together.
Theirs is a painfully shy
                        brand of lovemaking,
almost an unseen cringing.
                        Oh,
                                    if this
is love
            it must be the most
                        agonisingly
passive copulation
                        of all.

You can’t hurry
            a pebble.
                        Pebbles
take one hell
            of a long time
to get to know
            one another.

When the heavens cry
                        tears stream down
their stubborn,
                        expressionless faces.
The irony of it,
                        all this grief
pouring down on them.
                                    But
how can you be unfair
                                    to a pebble?
Wrapped
            in their own terrible embrace
theirs is the pity
            of silence,
the pitiless cry
            out of the heart
of this mushrooming
                        century.

Pebbles
            won’t talk, can’t talk:
they just stare
            and stare,
but I shall go on
                        watching them
in case
            someone
                        or something
prises open
            their mouths,
                                    ends
their muteness.
                        Pebbles
are really like humans,
                                    one crack 

and they’re gone.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Nigel Cox on Patricia Grace

The 99th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
As modest as she is talented, Patricia Grace doesn’t wage public campaigns, engage in literary debates or air her opinions on The Edge. She simply writes fiction. “That’s what my job is,” she tells Nigel Cox.
LIVING IN BOTH WORLDS
The best writers, they say, are the. ones who concentrate on the work. So when you ask Patricia Grace about, for example, what she thinks of Alan Duff’s books, or for some background on her withdrawal from CK Stead’s recent South Pacific anthology, she pauses for thought, then says carefully, “I like to concentrate on the writing. I consider that that’s what my job is. I leave commentary and reviewing to those who make that their work.”

You get the sense that being subjected to interviews is something she would also like to see as being beyond her brief. A patently sincere person, she makes a clear effort to summon a worthwhile answer to even the most mundane question. So when you ask who she reads she says, “I’m inclined to enjoy work by writers who write about communities and inter-relationships within communities, whether they be family, or village or inner-city groupings. I’ve recently enjoyed Maps by Nuruddin Farrah, and The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. Writers like Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Michael Ondaatje, Thomas King. I like all of those.”

In the face of such an immaculate response to the basics, it seems pushy to try for answers to more awkward questions about, for example, the place of magic and kehua (spirits) in her work. After all, though she presents herself with enormous modesty and (you can’t help recalling her surname) grace, she is one of our most highly respected and successful writers. Since her first publication in 1975, the superb Waiariki, Grace has produced 11 further books, an outstanding achievement in itself. But what sets her apart from most other New Zealand writers is that all her books have remained in print. And in print they’ll stay. Her publishers, Penguin, are in the process of preparing a uniform edition of her work.

Her reputation continues to rise; her most recent collection of stories, The Sky People, was greeted with phrases like “a touch of magic here and a quality of timelessness”, “goddess ability”, “to be treasured”. A fulltime writer, she says she puts pressure on herself to always be coming up with new projects, which perhaps accounts for what she calls the “different, experimental” qualities that distinguish each book. But these new directions haven’t affected her popularity; quite the opposite. Her popularity with Maori audiences is not hard to understand, but the Pakeha audience has proved perhaps even more enthusiastic.

Grace’s writing depicts spirit presences that subtly challenge materialist assumptions. So is there a difference between Maori and Pakeha realities? “Yes,” she says, “I kind of live in both worlds, been brought up in both and there’s more difference than most people realise.”

Discussing a story in The Sky People, where a child’s boils seem to be burst by magic, she says, “There are two ‘anecdotal’ stories within ‘Boiling’. They’re both true, things that actually happened.”

There’s no trace of defensiveness here, no insistence, merely a clear statement of difference. This difference isn’t the main reason that we read her — we read her because she’s a wonderful writer — but when Pakehas consider how they know what they think they know about Maori lives and values, the writing of Patricia Grace must be seen, I think, as a major influence.

At the interview’s end she gives me a card so I might ring and check any facts. “Patricia Grace, fiction writer”, it says. Going down in the lift, perhaps slightly disappointed not to have got anything from her on the hot topics of the day, I reflect that she is one of the tiny handful of people in the country who might honestly give that as their job description. A hard-earned position, and one worth protecting.