Wednesday 25 April 2012

The life of Hugh Price

A great crowd of Wellingtonians gathered at Unity Books on the evening of Monday 23rd April - writers, librarians, booksellers, publishers, editors, academics and many friends, including old school friends of Susan's - for the launch of two books celebrating the life of Hugh Price, publisher and bookman extraordinaire.

Hugh died in December 2009 aged 80, and Hugh Price, Publisher includes tributes paid at the time, along with his own brief memoir and a timeline of his achievements. The accompanying book, A mind of his own, is Susan Price's record of her father's childhood.

Susan's warm relationship with Hugh shone through her speech in which she talked about some of the influences on him up to the age of 20. He was born with club feet and endured a series of operations up until the age of 13, a fact that she was sure many in the audience who knew him would have been totally unaware of, as he never referred to it himself. His early schooling was blighted by a "horrible" headmaster who was bigoted, racist and intolerant - all qualities that Hugh eschewed for the rest of his life. The title of the book comes from Hugh's realisation, sitting in a school assembly at age 8, that he didn't have to believe all the rubbish being spouted out by this man - and from then on, he always had a "mind of his own." Susan said that that his childhood stammer vanished within two days of leaving college, but his earlier unpleasant schooling experiences never blighted his sunny personality and she had never known him in a bad mood.

The book had been easy to write, Susan said, because it had Hugh at its heart, but it was undoubtedly helped by the fact that she had been assiduously taking notes for years, grabbing pen and paper whenever he started a new anecdote, and occoasionally having to resort to Hugh's chequebook if she had no paper on hand.

The whole evening was a heartfelt tribute to a man who was only 5' 4'' in height but huge in spirit, someone I never met but now wish I had.

Also I was delighted to find out that Susan has been steadily building up a collection of books for the two children of a friend of mine. I knew that she has sent books to many children and young people over a number of years, but I didn't realise that my friend's children were the recipients of some of them, and it was lovely to hear them talk about what books they have been sent and what it has meant to them.

Monday 23 April 2012

Children, Grief and Literature

One of my favourite museums in Wellington is the Museum of Wellington City & Sea. Visitors to the city tend to make a beeline for Te Papa, which is great too of course, but there is something special about the City & Sea museum. I've been there on several class trips when the children all squeal delightedly at the holograph rat peeping out from between sacks at the entrance, and I never fail to be moved by the short movie on the sinking of the Wahine.

On Sunday I was there for a panel discussion (part of the museum's current exhibition on Death and Diversity) titled "Children, grief and literature." It was a beautiful Wellington day, which had lured most people out of doors so the audience was not very big, although the intimacy of the occasion benefited those of us who were there.

There were five speakers, each with a different take on the subject but all displaying great insight: Tricia Irving-Hendry from Skylight (a charitable trust that helps those who are suffering from change, loss, trauma and grief), Alex Collins (editor at Learning Media, who produce the School Journal), Mandy Hager (author of Tom's story), Chris Szekely (author of Rahui, shortlisted for the NZ Post Children's Book Awards) and Julia Marshall (Gecko publisher), all chaired by John McIntyre from the Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie.

I enjoyed them all, but especially hearing from Chris Szekely about the development of Rahui, which has emerged from a 20 year gestation as a beautiful picture book covering big concepts in a simple and appealing way.

One other slightly bizarre feature of the talk was that the boy band One Direction had just arrived from Auckland for their concert that night, and the museum is located across the road from one of Wellington's top hotels, so every so often the serious conversation was overlaid by waves of screaming from the teenage and pre-teenage girls camped out on the pavement hoping for a sight of their idols!

Friday 20 April 2012

First lines

One of the things we did at this week's creative writing workshop was talk about "first lines". You often hear the advice that your first line has to provide a "hook" to draw the reader in.

When I went looking through our bookshelves for some examples, I found some that were brilliant. The first line of Charlotte's web, for example - "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast - packs both information and suspense into less than 20 words.

But a number of others didn't really stand out at all. And I never knew (until I looked) that two of the Narnia books - The lion, the witch and the wardrobe and Prince Caspian - start with almost identical words.

I think the need to find a good enough "hook" can paralyse you before you've even got going. Better to just dive in to the story and come back to it later. After all, you might find that your story doesn't even start where you thought it did.

But you have to start somewhere, and my creative writing students came up with some brilliant ideas. Here are a few of the first lines they came up with:

It was the 12th of August, the day we had been waiting for all year.

"STOP," I yelled.

So what if I did it again?

This was wrong, I knew it, but somehow I couldn't stop myself.

We always questioned our dad's work.

They were coming.

There are times for subtlety, and there are times for being thrown out of third storey windows.

The lights sparked, fizzled and died.

You don't know when it will happen.

I was pulled into this world the wrong way around, feet first, which is a pretty accurate metaphor for my life.

I could hear my heart beating fast as my mother's words rang in my ears, "Don't go out past 10!"

The man's cold eyes shone through the darkness.

And lastly...

The owls had begun their hooting, but we were already gone.

Great stuff!  Any one of those could be the start of a really good story.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

The fascination of fish

Later this week I'm taking a creative writing workshop at Katherine Mansfield House, so I've been planning what I'm going to do with two groups of thirteen and fourteen year olds. The first thing to do is to get them to introduce themselves, and as an ice breaker (and a way of finding out a bit more about them) to mention one thing they've enjoyed doing these holidays.

The "enjoyable thing" I'm going to describe to them involved taking my six year old nephew to look at the fish in the lily pond in the Begonia House, while we were on a family expedition to the Botanic Gardens.

The lily pond was swarming with fish. We circled it very slowly, stopping every metre or so to examine each new section. Most of the fish were tiny. Some had long tails that whisked along behind them, others flicked their iridescent blue, gold or silver fins and sent sparkles of colour through the murky water.

My nephew was fascinated. He kept exclaiming about the minute size of the fish, and trying to decide which one was the very smallest.

There were so many fish that it was slightly creepy. Every so often a large fish - there weren't many of them - swam into view and disappeared again. Once I was sure I saw a massive black fin lurking below the surface. What I was wondering was: how could so many baby fish survive in a not-very-big pool? How many of them grew to adulthood? What happened to the rest? Did they eat each other? They were lapping with open mouths at the surface but didn't seem to be finding anything. What did they eat?

But my nephew was happily enjoying himself and I'm sure none of these gloomy thoughts crossed his mind. We talked for a little while about whether they were all part of the same family, and how many cousins each fish must have, and how you could play with all of your cousins at once.

It reminded me of how totally absorbed in the moment children can be. They can find such fascination in things that we have seen so often as to take them for granted, and one of the challenges of writing for children is to recapture that child's eye view in an authentic and non-condescending way.


Thursday 12 April 2012

The Ripliad

Well, it turns out that there are some good non-vampire reads out there for teenage readers after all.

In 1955, Patricia Highsmith wrote a psychological thriller called The talented Mr Ripley. Forty four years later, it was made into a film starring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. I've heard of the film, but never seen it, and I didn't realise that it was based on Patricia Highsmith's book, or that she went on to write four more Ripley novels which are collectively known as the Ripliad.

Always so exciting to enjoy a book by an author whose work you don't know, and realise there are several more to go! I guess this is how young readers feel when they discover a new series. Sometimes you can gorge on too many at once and end up feeling like you've eaten too much choolate, so I've stopped for a break after the first two books. But what a great character Tom Ripley is: part charming, part repulsive, mixed up together in a way that reminds me of Lolita, so you are half horrifed at what's going on and half hoping he gets away wtih it.  

I don't like a lot of modern crime novels - too graphic and too unpleasant, but I did enjoy meeting Tom Ripley. And one of the reasons it's great for a teenage reader is because Identity is the big theme in English at this year level, and Tom Ripley certainly has some serious identity issues.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Non-supernatural books...

... are sometimes hard to find, at least if you're looking for YA books.

I've just been trawling through the YA shelves in the library, trying to choose some holiday reading for a keen teenage reader who isn't keen on supernatural romances. It isn't easy.

So what is on offer? Lots of characters defined by their capital letters: the Chasers, the Forgotten, the Immortals, the Demon King, the Storks (not birds, but an ancient order of women with mystical powers, if you're wondering.)  Blood and ashes and other nasty stuff with dark covers. You can choose from a  "scary, creepy, awful and awesome" read, a "gripping blood soaked tale" or " chilling trilogy with a deeply frightening story." There's a a boy who is supposed to be crowned Vampire King, a girl who can see and talk to ghosts and another girl who hunts, traps and kills demons, hellhounds and other supernatural creatures, but isn't quite sure who she is.

I'm sure some kids like to read these books - at least, I hope they do, because at least they would be reading something. I hope it's not just a matter of publishers jumping on the post-Twilight supernatural bandwagon and assuming kids will like them. You have to dig hard to find a book that reflects what a teenager's life is like today. Or to find books like Parvana's journey and The heaven shop by writers like Deborah Ellis, who deal with important issues like racism and refugees, and kids who face real-life problems.

I also wonder if all the writers writing these books actually like writing about vampires, werewolves and the rest. Again, some of them must, but what about all the others? Are they also doing it just to fit the trend?

But there is help out there. The Daily Telegraph has booklists for young readers including "Vampire-less books for teenagers" - so there you go.

Thursday 5 April 2012


The other day I was looking for the Stuff NZ news website and came across a comedy clip by George Carlin on the importance of Stuff in our lives. The caption dates it to his appearance at Comic Relief in 1986, but if so, it is just as funny more than 15 years on. Apart from making the word "Stuff" sound weird, as any word does when repeated often enough, it makes you think about it "Stuff" in a different way every time you say the word, which as he points out, is surprisingly often. Friends of ours are moving house at the moment - "so much Stuff!" one of them bewailed, and it seems that phrases like that are often attached to the word - "so much" or "heaps of" or "way too much." Sometimes "plenty of". Occasionally "enough."

It also makes you think about the Stuff we carry round in our heads, and whether it's true that we are so used to relying on Google now that we can't hold the information that we used to - like 7 digit phone numbers, or lines of poetry.

Anyway today seems like a good day to reflect on Stuff, how much we have, whether we need it and what the msot important Stuff in our lives is!

But for comic relief, here is George Carlin:


Monday 2 April 2012

Perfect timing

Yesterday I came home from the supermarket just in time for the Red Checkers flyover to mark the 75th anniversary of the RAF. There are some great photos on the Stuff website. I could have taken a photo but couldn't bear to miss a second of the spectacle to go inside for the camera. Five planes twisting and turning in perfect formation over a perfectly still harbour under a cloud-speckled sky. Every so often they would go zooming off over the hills (once right over the top of our house, their shadows falling on the deck) and then return to their acrobatics over the central city.

Perfect timing, I thought - getting home just in time, but that pales in significace to the timing the pilots display. I wonder how it feels, spiralling away up there, or if they have to concentrate so hard on what they are doing that they don't have time to notice where they are. Or are they so good at it that they do it almost by instinct? I couldn't help thinking too of those brave pilots in the First World War, when the life expectancy for a pilot over France was about nine days. If you've read the Flambards series by K M Peyton, you'll have an idea of the bravado and exuberance of those early flyers.

As well as the flyover, Wellington was also visited by a pod of dolphins on the south coast and a meteor that flashed through the skies at about 7pm. What an amazing place to live!

Sunday 1 April 2012

Cathedral to garden shed

Lovely post today on Beatties book blog, quoting Sadie Jones. "I'm never happy with what I've written," she says. "You imagine, before you start, there's a cathedral, and the moment it starts on the page, it's a garden shed. And then you just try to make it the best shed you can."

What a great description of what often happens between the words in your head and the ones that end up on the page! Anne Lamott in her writing guide "Bird by bird" says something similar about first drafts; how you've just got to get the words down on the page and then start shaping them into what you really meant. (She uses a slightly more graphic term, which I'll leave you to look up by yourself.)

When I think of cathedrals, there are two that immediately come to mind. One is Old St Paul's here in Wellington, a beautiful 19th century wooden church made from native timbers.

The other is Winchester cathedral.  We once lived in Winchester for 6 months and I loved being able to visit the cathedral often enough to get to know it better - the statue down in the flooded crypt, the stained glass window featuring Izaak Walton, the Close, the Winchester Bible in the Library and, of course, Jane Austen's grave - with the inscription that doesn't mention her being a writer.

Garden sheds pale in comparison. They are are smaller, jumbled, untidy, cobwebby, more personal. I guess you just have to hope that somewhere in there you might be able to unearth some hidden treasures and bring them to the light.