I’ve just been judging the Asia New Zealand Foundation short story competition with Mark Broatch from The Listener. Each story needed to link Asia and New Zealand in some way, and include 3 required words or phrases. There were some very imaginative links between countries, and some clever use of the necessary phrases (although some certainly felt shoehorned in) but in the end we chose a story that felt complete in itself and had that sense of the writing being very well-honed. A reminder of how demanding the short story is!
I couldn’t have written The Score without piano technician Serge Grandchamp, of Piano Prestige. I had no idea how complex it was working out what height a grand piano could fall from and still be potentially repairable – exactly what damage it would sustain depending on how it fell, the costs, the time, everything. I talked about this research, and research for a few other projects, at Paremata Probus in August, and it reminded me how much research writing a novel can require, and how extraordinarily interesting it is.
Poets to the People has been running on the Kapiti Coast for years, thanks to the indefatigable Gill Ward, now with a great supporting group. They kindly invited me to read there in July. Clarinettist Louise Porteneuve joined me in some nostalgic poetry about longtime friends in Canada, and it was a chance to try out a sequence of poems about a bunch of Titahi Bay locals. I’ve put the first poem in the sequence on this website, but you can read all of it in The Fourth Floor online journal – 2014 edition available in November.
I’ve been working as a writer at Te Papa for ten years, and I’m finishing at the end of May. Working at Te Papa teaches you a huge amount. Mostly I’ve worked as an exhibition writer, so you learn a lot about whatever exhibition you’re working on, but it’s also taught me a lot about writing clear concise English – why use 500 words when 100 will do just as well! I worked with three fine head writers there – Michael Keith, Liz Grant and Frith Williams. Right from the start Michael taught me that ‘good enough’ is never good enough. There’s been a rigorousness about the writing process at Te Papa that I respect very much.
We’ve launched The Curioseum. It was a large project – 22 writers, a big editing job, and a great project to be involved with. At the same time as the launch for the book, there was a sleepover for kids in the museum. The sleepover was based on the idea of kids writing their own stories about weird objects in the museum – about half the kids were keen to write, and half of them were excited out of their minds. I would have been too, if I was 12 and could spend a night in a big museum! I love the idea of kids making up their own stories about weird stuff in a museum – as well as finding out the facts of it – and I hope the idea of The Curioseum takes off in museums all over the place.
It’s pretty hard reading your own work about immigrants alongside people who’ve lived through it all as refugees. It’s a reminder of a lot of things. We celebrated Race Relations Day at the Wellington Public Library with Samson Sahele, La Nan, Selia Kassa and I reading work. Samson, as well as being a poet, constantly encourages young ex-refugees like to write about their experiences.
It’s been a really busy few months. Feels like one book after another rolling out. I took the opportunity of talking to Friends of Te Papa to recap several projects – The Score, Abdel’s Favourites, The Curioseum – but also to talk particularly about working on Throne of Emperors, the historical Chinese exhibition on at Te Papa. Also to do a little demonstration of how you can take a piece of very ordinary text and transform it into really attention-grabbing read-at-a-glance text without changing the content. It’s the perfect answer to mis-placed ideas about dumbing-down.
Friends of Pataka (Pataka Art and Museum is Porirua’s excellent museum/gallery) hosted a music-and-words event based on The Score – a pianist, a harmonica player, a piano technician, and a writer telling some of the stories behind the novel, and playing some of the music that features in it. Porirua Paper Plus sold lots of books – they have to be one of the best booksellers around.
And here’s what we did for the Festival of the Elements – it’s Porirua’s great celebration of Waitangi Day. Four of us involved with Escalator Press – Mandy Hager, Mary-Jane Duffy, Janet Colson,and I – read from our work, then cobbled together some kind of crazy story from all the works, and the audience had to come up with suitable – or unsuitable – endings. Lots of fun, and a great way for us to send up our own work!
Abdel’s Favourites has hit the market, and it’s such a beautiful book. I’ve had my marketing hat on for a few weeks now. First for The Score — I’ve never been great at marketing my own work, but when there’s something bigger at stake, like a new press, you really drive it along! And now the cookbook — last week a stall at the Hataitai market, this week selling to the staff at Te Papa. But the publishing team did a wonderful job promoting it. I feel very proud to be part of that project.
September 2013 saw the launch of The Score and brand-new publishing house Escalator Press, and the 20th anniversary of the Whitireia Creative Writing Programme. Quite a lot to celebrate all at once! It’s brash, setting up a new press these days when publishing is in such a state of change. But we (small Escalator Press group) think there are real opportunities. We’re using a totally new funding and operating model, and The Score is a kind of guinea pig. But it’s all going really well, and it’s very exciting.
Kate Whitley took the photographs for this website. She and I wandered around Titahi Bay, which is my home ground – an extraordinarily beautiful and very diverse place with its own distinctive character. Her clear photographer’s eye saw all kinds of things I’d never even noticed – a bench against a boatshed, graffiti, odd signs – and our two strange shadows on the sand.