Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sweating the small stuff – Menton Week One

Well, here we are: one week checked off in our six month adventure in Menton, France. It’s been a roller coaster of a week – huge, ecstatic highs and equally plunging lows.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, to be met at Nice airport by the loveliest of men, William Rubinstein, Nice-based representative of the KMM Trust. It was such a help to be met by a friendly, smiling face and deposited into our lovely apartment, the sea immediately in front of us and the ‘Old Town’ of Menton rising through the trees. It’s gob-smackingly beautiful. The stuff of dreams.

With no stores in the cupboard we wandered along the waterfront in search of food, immediately running into the first huge cultural difference between NZ and France. No eating establishments open until 6.30 or 7pm here (sometimes even later)  – extremely civilised, unless you’re a hungry traveller who has just arrived.

Eventually we found somewhere and then came face to face with our greatest fear: with a few very basic French phrases under our belt we stared at the menu in the hope something would miraculously disentangle itself of its French vocabulary and reveal what it really was! It’s like ordering food blindfolded, while a somewhat bemused (my kind interpretation, which could also be
read as haughty and disapproving) waiter let us fumble for the words. But we did eventually order something and did eventually eat it, stumbling back to collapse into an exhausted sleep.

The next day, Sunday, we discovered one to the other highly civilised things about French culture: they have no need to serve the 7-day a week, 24 hours a day god that NZ seems to have fallen prey to. In other words, nothing much was open! We couldn’t stock up on food and the only places open seemed to know we were at their mercy – charging exorbitant amounts for fairly basic meals. But then, this is Menton, a tourist town, and they know they’ve got you by the short and curlies!

We wandered up and found the Villa Isola Bella – a lovely building only a five minute walk from our apartment – and then kept walking. Four hours later (those of you who know me well will know that this is not without its difficulties for me) we finally made it home. But, oh, the place is beautiful. Dreamlike. Ancient. Nothing, not even an aching body, can change this fact.

Monday morning we got brave. We negotiated with the ticket machine at the local railway station and got ourselves to Nice to collect our leased car. Thank god for GPS! We have christened it ‘Mum’. It tells us in the calmest of polite English accents where to go (‘Do a u-turn, do a U-TURN, DO A U-TURN….) and when we fail to heed her good advice (still trying to figure out how the hell to navigate on the wrong side of the road) she patiently re-jigs her calculations and gets us back on track. 

At this juncture I have to give a big accolade to my dear husband Brian. He is coping with this sudden shift of steering wheel and orientation incredibly well. I, on the other hand, have discovered that I’m even more navigationally challenged than I thought I was! After nearly 54 years on this earth, it is now apparent that, in times of stress, I have not yet learnt to automatically know my right
from left! If it wasn’t for ‘Mum’ we’d be seriously **cked! A Navigator I am not! That Brian hasn’t pushed me out the door yet, while he is multi-tasking with all these jobs (and I am panicking and jabbing at imaginary brake pedals  on the passenger side), is nothing short of a miracle!

We ventured forth the next day into Italy, which is only a kilometre from our apartment. We ended up winding up an extremely narrow road to a tiny town right at its top, and the views were spectacular. Then back to Menton to finally do some decent foraging for food.

Once we’d found a good sized supermarket we must have spent well over an hour there, peering at labels and contents as we tried to identify what each thing was. Actually, I’m exaggerating here – it’s not that hard – the hard part is not going crazy and filling up the trolley with every kind of cheese, olives, pastry, bread, exotic fruit …. you get the picture. I’m just warning those who know me now:   I am going to come home twice the size as when I left! And the wine, folks, is so damn cheap…. 

I’ve been very good for the last year, only drinking when I went out socialising (which is not that often) – but, honestly, it’s impossible not to live the dream! With a view out over the Cote D’azur and cheap, highly drinkable wine, all my good intentions have gone out the window. As an aside, though, there is an over-whelming and unnecessary amount of packaging – individual tea bags each sealed in both branded plastic wrappers and then more clear plastic inside; items like individual croissants in a pack likewise. I feel guilty each time I unwrap something and have to dispose of it. The thought of all this plastic makes me shudder.

Internet access was causing some difficulties at first, until our lovely landlady sorted it, and it took us three days (and another trip to Nice) to sort out our mobile phones. It’s strange how vulnerable this made me feel. I needed to know I had some connection to family back home before I could truly relax – and as soon as it was established and I’d caught up with people by skype I felt a hundred times more relaxed.

We’ve now ventured into Nice three times (I spent 4 hours  speaking to students at Nice University – a great experience) and survived! We’ve been welcomed officially in the Menton Tow Hall town hall, in the room set aside for marriages, painted in 1958 by Jean Cocteau – incredible — and met many lovely, friendly people who have opened their arms to us and made us feel very welcome.

What I’ve learnt from this week is how much I’ve come to rely on technology to connect me to those I love – and how much that connection means to me. And how wonderful and resilient my darling B is under pressure – and how bloody grateful I am that he’s here with me to help ease my way.
And I’ve learnt that if I preface any conversation where I need something by announcing that I’m from NZ, that I’ll get a much more friendly reception than if they assume I’m from England – I’ll leave the conclusions that can be drawn from this to you.

Tomorrow I will start my research – and am very excited to do so. This is a beautiful place. In the early morning, while the light is still silver and the sea shades of pink and the palest of blues, the sun hits the buildings of the old town and lights them golden, glowing like a precious jewel. I feel very lucky to be here. And I know that it can only get easier with each new day.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Amidst the Soup of the London Book Fair – and how Malorie Blackman saved the day!

When I started planning my trip to France, the fact that the London Book Fair would be on when we arrived in the UK seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the other side of the book world — the hard-nosed business end — and it certainly has proved an eye-opener!

My dear friend Ann Neville, who has recently set up her own small publishing company ‘Create Books’ ( ), had organised a stand there to promote her own books plus several other writers’ work (including my own), sticking her toe into the soup of publishers, agents, distributors, scouts, printers etc., all of whom are touting for business or hoping to discover the Next Big Thing!

According to the official blurb from their website: From the giant houses to the smallest independent, there are the publishers of blockbuster novels and academic texts, and the producers of children’s books and graphic novels, mobile companies, gaming start-ups. Over 1,000 overseas companies are represented from 50 countries, and 25 international pavilions. 

Walking into the Earl’s Court Event Centre on the afternoon before the official opening was like walking into a messy teenager’s bedroom, but amplified by about 1000 percent! The place was in chaos — carpet still being laid across huge swathes of the building mid afternoon, booths being pieced together, and pallet-loads of books being delivered on small fork-lifts. It was overwhelming.

But by the following day, their first official day of business, all was in place, as if Mary Poppins had flown in overnight and set everything to rights. But, oh, the volume of people! It felt as though a small country had upped-sticks and decided to immigrate to Earl’s Court! After wandering around in a dazed state for a couple of hours, crushed by the roving hordes, I felt exhausted and deeply depressed. How on earth is one ever to be ‘discovered’ when the place is so awash with books?

My publisher at Random House had warned me that it was no place for authors and she was right! I had thought that perhaps I could make some introductory moves towards finding a UK agent there…
yeah, right! Agents and literary scouts (whatever they really are!) were relegated to a huge area upstairs – row upon row of tables filled with busy, unapproachable people who fiercely protected their turf and were not just unavailable to authors who had the gall to approach them personally without an appointment, but bit back like angry wasps when approached.

Maybe one of the most positive lessons to come out of this, for a small country/small town girl such as me, is how incredibly lucky we are in New Zealand. While most of us are never likely achieve the kind of fame and fortune (and sales) such a global event offers, our community of publishers and agents in NZ are open and friendly and, most of all, supportive and approachable. For this I’m extremely grateful.

This is not to say that all authors were unwelcome there. Every day there were sessions by a range of ‘top’ writers (from all corners of the world), including an opportunity to listen to UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman. More of her in a minute – but, first, a slightly sad note: the opening day’s Author of the Day was Terry Pratchett. In fact, on closer reading, the session I attended was dubbed a ‘celebration’ of him — for, of course, he is now too unwell for public speaking. The speaker, instead, was his current co-author, science fiction writer Stephen Baxter (a very impressive author in his own right), who spoke about their collaboration, and touched on the tragic elephant in the room: Pratchett’s decline into Alzheimer’s Disease. They showed a prepared clip, with Pratchett answering a set of questions to introduce the session. To watch him fishing for words, even in the carefully orchestrated clips, was heart-breaking. 

On a more positive note, however, the session with Malorie Blackman was wonderful: full of laughter and down to earth honesty across a range of subjects. She was teamed with Melissa Cox, the children’s/YA buyer from Waterstones, who also shared some very interesting perspectives.
Blackman started off by clearly stating her agenda as Children’s Laureate: to encourage teens to read by talking about books with them — with an underlying belief that if a teen isn’t a reader, it’s only because they have yet to find the book to ‘switch’ them on. She also saw herself as a role model for cultural diversity — the idea that if she can be a writer then it is achievable by anyone.

She said she was fed up with the negative rhetoric around teenagers; that there are a lot of young people doing fantastic things and truly interested in making a difference in their world (something I agree with whole-heartedly.) She also said she has no problem with being seen as an ‘issues’ writer — that young people are hungry (my words) for information and agency in the real world. This, too, I support without hesitation. Young people, in her experience, are passionate about social justice issues and keen to see this reflected in the books they read. Good writing should be about raising topics for debate and discussion, and exploring a unique perspective on the world through younger eyes. When asked why she loved YA as a genre, she said that YA books have more story and are better written than adult titles — a comment that garnered much spontaneous applause!

According to her, one of the other reasons she chooses to write YA is its possibility for subversion! She welcomed the teenage desire to question everything and to talk about the issues that make adults feel uncomfortable! On the question of ‘appropriateness’, she said young people never say ‘this isn’t suitable subject matter for me’ (!); that it’s only ever adults laying their own values onto it. She believes it’s better for young people to be thoroughly informed than purposefully blinkered or misinformed – and that, as parents (or other gate-keepers) we have to trust young peoples’ ability to handle the issues; that we under-estimate their ability to cope with challenging situations and ideas. It is the young person’s role to question the world, she said; they want to make sense of the world and figure out how they fit into it.

It’s about a balance of perspectives, she explained; that kids need to know all the different kinds of opinions and issues out in the world in order to form their own views. For this reason, young people should be encouraged to read widely, while writers should canvas the breadth and depth of subjects (though avoid gratuitousness), and both her and Melissa Cox agreed that a book/issues/subject matter could be deemed YA if the events and feelings in the plot could happen to a teenager (in other words, they are capable of relating to it in some way), for it is out of this that empathy, understanding, and self-identity grows.

When asked about the propensity for YA/children’s books to end hopefully, she said that she believes this is very important. It’s not necessary for a book to be tied up with happy endings, but that the message has to be that it’s possible to go through hardship and emerge out the other side.

Both women agreed there is a distinct lack of diversity — few culturally diverse authors and protagonists (i.e. not white and middle class) – and that this is one of the big problems currently facing all fiction, esp, YA/children’s (and that the problem is growing worse again, after tentative steps forwards in the past). They both also believed it’s a problem in terms of publishers and booksellers who, because of their own social-economic, class and culturally dominant position, do not necessarily recognise this dearth of perspectives. When asked if there was a failure of ‘nerve’ within these industries to seek out more diversity, she answered ‘probably’ — and said that at the beginning of her writing career she had been told that no white person will ever read a book with a black person on the cover (i.e. would sell more books with a white person depicted there.) This blinkered thinking was one of the reasons she decided to start writing – to provide an alternative cultural narrative and to challenge such stereotypes.

I think all these are incredibly important points – and ones we, as writers in the genre, should be having our own robust discussions about — noisily and dogmatically! Anyone who has found themselves either writing for, or trying to be published within, for instance, the US market, will have encountered this myopic lack of cultural diversity. I am always amazed when told one of my books isn’t suitable for the US market because it is ‘too New Zealand.’ As a reader I revel in reading books authored by people from a different culture/country to my own. Surely it’s how we come to learn tolerance and empathy?

So, despite leaving the book fair feeling like one tiny salt crystal in the ocean of the publishing world, I find, in retrospect, much to mull upon and celebrate. Just listening to Malory Blackman validate everything I feel about YA fiction was worth the assault on my small colonial writer’s ego!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

So long, farewell . . . (or: waiting, waiting, waiting . . .)

Only six sleeps to go until I head off to Menton in the south of France, for six months research for my next book project, thanks to the generous Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship. It feels like it’s been a long time coming – having been told back in October last year. 

Plans have been made, and changed — the news that I’m to be a grandmother at the start of October both delighted and panicked me as I had to rebook tickets to arrive home in time for this exciting development. The thought of missing out on such an extraordinary experience (and not being here to help support my son and daughter-in-law) made the decision to shave two months of the trip easy in the end!

I’m chomping at the bit to start my research. I’ve been nosing around this project for the past five years and the thought that I’ll be able to have dedicated time to dive into it is incredibly exciting. Not that I’ve been slacking: in October, when I first heard the news, I was only 20,000 words into a new novel, so I’ve spent the intervening months writing every day, sometimes up to 9 hours a day. I’m pleased with it – and it’s now in the hands of an excellent editor, which can only further lift it. 
Singing Home The Whale is a strange book – like nothing I’ve written before. It ambushed me late one night, flooding me with fully formed sentences in a voice that was clearly not human, so what was it? Over the following weeks the story (and the story-teller) slowly revealed itself to me, and through a series of remarkable ‘coincidences’ (that I prefer to think of as ‘signs’!) it became evident that this creature was, in fact, a whale, and he was tasking me with writing his memoir, focussing on his extraordinary relationship with a boy called Will.

It’s a story with a mythic scope, the whale (an orca) reflecting back across his fifty-three years in order to teach others the strengths and weaknesses of human behaviour, and the path we must take in order to find a better balance for the world.

And it’s a story about the gradual healing of a young man who has been brutally battered by the dark side of human behaviour and who, in confronting his own fears, helps others to do so as well.

I’m proud of it. I know there will be some who won’t be able to enter into this world wholeheartedly but it’s my hope that the magical element that first delivered me the story will sprinkle fairy-dust into the eyes of the reader to allow them to suspend disbelief just long enough to fall in love with this most gracious of ambassadors from the deep. 

His sections are told in prose poetry, the words sourced solely from Old English (except for the odd lapse when nothing else would do!), it has been a lesson for me in etymology and I have spent a great deal of time trolling through an online etymology dictionary and thesaurus to translate exactly what this wise old fellow is trying to say. Coupled with his predilection for assonance, it has made for slow, but very fulfilling, writing (sometimes only achieving 300 words a day) – but, as a result, the care taken over each word seems to have impacted on the ‘real world’ telling of Will’s story as well. I’ve always had a problem with over-writing – not trusting that I’ve made my point. I think, thanks to this gruelling process, I might finally have got it sussed. Fingers crossed! I’ve certainly never pored over a piece of writing with such rigour before.
Perhaps the most thrilling part of the whole process is that my daughter, Rose Lawson, has done the most intricate black and white ink drawings, which will sit between each changing chapter (and voice) like the woodcuts of old, with the chapter titles in the box at its centre. They are beautiful – and I’m so proud to know they’ll be in the book (and can’t wait to see the finished product!)

Her participation has not been without its strange otherworldly influences either: in the week before I first spoke to her of the idea, she dreamed (two nights in a row) of a pod of orcas swimming in through her bedroom window! The whole project has been riddled with these kinds of strange linkages and occurrences – spooky possums!

Perhaps the lesson from this, in terms of writing, is the need to keep our eyes and ears and minds open – that there are stories out there banging on the doors of our souls, so long as we are alert to listening for their call.

I’ll blog again from England, and tell you what it’s like to be thrust straight off an aeroplane into the London Book Fair! À bientōt!