A Suitable Anthology for Easter

Helen Lowe alerted me to the following competition and anthology, which seems like a suitable one to post about at Easter:

Spiritual Writing Competition

Closes: End of May

Judged by a church-based panel led by Pleasant Point writer Karalyn Joyce

Prizes: 1st $500; 2nd $250; 3rd $100

Up to 50 submissions are to be published in a new “Spiritual Anthology” launched in November 2009

Calling for all non-published poems/fiction/non-fiction work with a “words to inspire” based theme; i.e., life; death; creation; peace; miracles; wonder; reflection from new and established writers of all ages

For entry form send a stamped self-addressed envelope to: “Spiritual Anthology”, 4a Horton Street, Pleasant Point, South Canterbury; or email: daphnej (at) xtra.co.nz

The entry form has further details:

  1. Submissions (fiction/non-fiction or poetry) must be the original work of the entrant, previously unpublished and not under consideration elsewhere. A suggested length for stories is up to 1,500 words. Poetry is suggested to be no more than 50 lines. The editing team reserves the right to select work from the submissions received and will contact the writer to gain publishing rights but copyright will remain with the writer.
  2. Contributors published in the anthology to receive a free copy in lieu of payment, and the right to order further copies at a special rate. Prizes to be presented at special launch of the anthology in November, or forwarded to the writer following the launch.
  3. The theme is: “words to inspire” (i.e., life; death; love; peace; grace; miracles; healing; creation; reflection; spirituality).
  4. Winners and the writers of the chosen work for the anthology will be notified by email/telephone, others will be destroyed unless there is a stamped self-addressed envelope with the submission.
  5. The entry fee is $2 per poem/ $5 per short story and writers are welcome to enter two or more times. The competition is open to all ages.
  6. Entries are to be typed single sided A4 paper and double spaced.
  7. Judge’s decision is final.
  8. The writer’s name must not appear on the manuscript. Please use the entry form below. Photocopies are acceptable.
  9. The closing date is the 31st May 2009.

Walking the White Road: An Interview with Tania Hershman

Here we are: Tania Hershman’s virtual book tour for her excellent short story collection The White Road and Other Stories, which is available in New Zealand from Fishpond (here: The White Road and Other Stories), has touched down at my blog for its fifth stop. (For details of past and future stops on the tour, see the end of this post.)

What links a café in Antarctica, a factory for producing electronic tracking tags and a casino where gamblers can wager their shoes? They’re among the multiple venues where award-winning writer Tania Hershman sets her unique tales in this spellbinding debut collection.

I’m reading The White Road and Other Stories at the moment, and am really enjoying its mixture of flash fiction (very short stories) and stories inspired by articles in New Scientist magazine. I recommend it!

Biography

Tania Hershman was born in London in 1970 and in 1994 moved to Jerusalem, Israel, where she now lives with her partner. Tania is a former science journalist and her award-winning short stories combine her two loves: fiction and science. Many of Tania’s stories, which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in print and online, are inspired by articles from popular science magazines. In November 2007, she founded The Short Review, a unique website dedicated to reviewing short story collections. For further information, visit The White Road and Other Stories. Tania blogs at TitaniaWrites.

The Interview

Tania, you made a very interesting comment on my blog, in response to my post on Is Literary Fiction a Genre? You said, in part: “To be frank, I hate genre distinctions, anything that sets something apart from something else and runs the risk that someone who loves to read will miss out on great writing because it’s on another shelf in the book shop.” Yet the whole publishing industry — publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and indeed many readers – appears to operate on the basis of genre. Do you feel that you’re a lone voice in the wilderness on this issue, or part of a growing trend?

Tim, first, thanks for having me, it’s great to be here. Second, I have no idea if I am a lone voice on this, I haven’t read that much else about it, but whenever I’ve written about it, such as during a guest blog post on Vulpes Libris, I have had a lot of great comments. I asked author Polly Frost to write a guest post on The Short Review blog about genre (she called herself a “genre slut”, which I love!) She said: “You’d think that anyone who writes or reads would be cheering for everyone else. Instead, some highbrow literary people sneer at genre stories. Meanwhile, there are genre people who are belligerent and defensive.” This doesn’t make sense to me, now that I am being exposed to what is called “genre” fiction, which I am finding far more beautifully-written, touching, relevant and peopled with well-rounded and fascinating characters than much of the so-called “literary” fiction. Why draw these lines? Why section off whole swathes of literature? I can understand how this would make those in the sectioned-off part rather defensive. Who wouldn’t be? Tear down the walls, get rid of the genre shelves, I cry!

But then, on the other hand, fans of a particular field – I will say field instead of genre – of literature, such as science fiction, or crime, may object. Where will we look to find the kinds of books we like to read? they might ask me. What I would say is, as you are searching through the shelves for the books you already know you want to read, you must just find a book or two that you didn’t know you wanted to read and might just love. What’s better than those moments, the finding of a new favourite author?

In terms of the publishing industry, it’s obviously easier for them to operate with the genre distinctions: they know who to sell what to, it’s all clear cut and neat, in boxes. They know where to advertise, how to spread the word, where to send an author to be interviewed, to give readings. But will that get an author new readers? Readers who don’t know they like science fiction, like me? No. To do that would be a far greater challenge – perhaps similar to the challenge of “suggesting” to novel readers they might also enjoy a short story collection. Cynical, me??

If we consider interstitial fiction as being fiction that crosses, or falls between, genre boundaries, do you regard all or some of the stories in The White Road and Other Stories as being interstitial fiction, and if so, do you feel a kinship with other writers of interstitial fiction?

Well, strictly speaking, interstitial fiction only exists if you believe in the genre boundaries in the first place. But since we haven’t reached a genre-less state yet, I will answer your question. When I wrote the stories in The White Road, I had no thought of genre, of where they might “fit”. Plaits is a story where a woman talks to her knees; in The White Road the main character sets up a cafe in Antarctica; the protagonist of Rainstiffness is temporarily paralyzed every time it rains; the main character of Self Raising makes “scientific” cakes. I don’t know where this places my stories!

I did hope I was writing mostly what is called “literary fiction”, which is incredibly hard to define and might be best defined as generally being the opposite of commercial fiction and more concerned with the quality of the writing and with language than with page-turning plots. But as to where it fits now, I am waiting to see what readers think. I have been told that some of the stories remind people of science fiction. I had a long discussion on Vanessa Gebbie’s blog about magical realism but am unsure whether some of my stories fall under that heading. Some of the stories are “realist”, sort of. So, I guess the long answer is yes, my stories tend to fall between, rather than within, genres as they are currently defined.

I am most definitely attracted to interstitial fiction. It has a wonderful appeal, that it doesn’t fit neatly into anywhere. I don’t like neat and tidy. I like things that shake up the establishment, writing that can’t be easily labelled. If I am in this category, I am delighted to be here! I have only read one anthology that was defined as interstitial (although “defined” seems like the wrong word!); the Interfictions anthology published by the Interstitial Arts Foundation. I enjoyed it greatly, but it seemed to chime with a lot of what I already love to read – stuff I would call surreal, irreal, magical realist, stories you can find in publications such as Cafe Irreal, Sleepingfish, Conjunctions.

Strictly from a marketing point of view, has your approach to genre been a help or a hindrance?

I am new to the book marketing industry, my book has only been out since September, but since I am spending a lot of time myself trying to market The White Road and wondering how exactly to do that, I can see how it would have been far easier to fit into a “genre” and aim the book squarely at that genre’s readers. Say science fiction, for example. I would have known where to go, which magazines to send review copies to, etc… As it is, I am having to make it up as I go along. But the fact that half the stories are inspired by articles from UK science magazine New Scientist certainly seems unique, and I was delighted when New Scientist itself enjoyed the stories (I was concerned they might think I was taking their science and somehow trivialising it!) and decided to publish the title story on the New Scientist website.

That was a fascinating experience and provoked some interesting comments. At first, those who commented didn’t seem to understand that what they were reading was fiction and not journalism. Several scolded me harshly for being ungrammatical, when in fact it is my main character who has an “interesting” approach to grammar. A few writer friends stepped in to explain about fictional voice, and the complainers mostly recanted and apologised. But then a discussion was generated about whether the story’s denouement was plausible, with those for and against, and I just sat back and watched, fascinated, as the two camps argued it out. I was delighted because it seemed my story was reaching an audience that never normally reads short fiction So there I crossed genre boundaries, straddling the territory between fiction and fact. I would love to repeat the experience, if New Scientist wants to! I am not sure how many books I sold through that article, but I had many hits to the book’s website, and that’s pretty wonderful.

New Zealand has a distinguished tradition of short story writers, including some, such as Katherine Mansfield, who have achieved international fame – yet, overtly or covertly, I’m told all the time that short stories aren’t “proper” fiction, whereas novels are. Do you get the same reaction?

This is the attitude that dogged me throughout my MA in Creative Writing in the UK four years ago. From the start, I and the one other “fool” who insisted on writing short stories instead of a novel were treated as though we were a lesser species. At one point, my short stories were referred to as exercises whose purpose was simply as a warm-up to the “real thing”. Every agent and editor who came to talk to us said they weren’t interested in short story writers. It seemed ridiculous to us, it was like deciding, for example, to cut out all nuts from your diet simply because they are small, despite the fact that peanuts and pecans, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, are all shapes and sizes, tastes and textures.

However, this attitude “backfired”: it made me all the more determined only to write short stories, at least for my MA thesis. I have heard the same attitude voiced since, and all I can say is that it is a shame; publishers, it seems to me, are demonstrating a singular failure of imagination in not even attempting to persuade the public to buy more collections and readers are missing out on great writing if they insist on sticking only to novels. If the Short Review [see below] can make a minute dent in this wall by reviewing more collections and demonstrate that everything you look for in a novel you can also find in a short story collection, then I will be happy.

You have done something to promote and succour the short story: you set up The Short Review exclusively to review short story collections. I won’t ask the dreaded question “where do you get your ideas”, but I will ask: where did you get that particular idea – and how do you find the time to keep “The Short Review” going and write as well?

Thanks for not asking that first question, I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea how to answer. As for the second, the idea for The Short Review came in the period just after getting the life-altering news that Salt Publishing had accepted my short story collection. I had waited over 30 years for that day, and when it came I felt as if I had had the wind knocked out of me. It was all I ever wanted – and when someone offers you that, what do you do next?

I moped around for a while, and then decided to do something short-story-related but which didn’t actually involve writing. Whereas I had always blamed the lack of sales of short story collections on publishers not publishing enough of them, I realised that the fault also lies with reviewers: short story collections get a small fraction of review column inches compared to novels. I thought I would do my bit to redress the balance. To be honest, when I bought the domain name and set it up, I really thought it would be for me and ten friends. It grew beyond my wildest expectations: we have a mailing list of 400, and I have 35 reviewers around the world who review for me, both new and old collections, across every “genre” (am I allowed to say that??!) and category, from steampunk to erotica, young adult to historical fiction.

Yes, it takes up a great deal of time – I do the maintenance and layout of the site myself, uploading each issue, as well as fielding offers of review copies and finding reviewers to review them, following up to see if they’ve arrived, making sure reviews come in on time, doing as many interviews with authors as possible, and reviewing a book myself each issue – but it is a labour of love and it makes me so happy to do it. Every issue we publish, I want to buy almost all the books we review. The interviews are often enlightening, touching, funny, it’s wonderful to get a peek behind the scenes at the process of putting together a short story collection, and authors have been honest and generous in their answers. I try not to work on the Short Review throughout the month, but do most of the work in one week, so it doesn’t spill into my writing time. But reviewing someone else’s stories teaches me so much about my own writing, and inspires me greatly, as do the interviews, so I don’t think of it as interfering, more as enriching my writing life.

You live and write in Jerusalem. What impact do the many and intertwined special circumstances of Jerusalem – religious, political, military, and personal – have on your writing, and on your circumstances as a writer?

A very interesting question. I have several author friends who used to live in Jerusalem and had to leave because they found it too stressful to write there. But I love the atmosphere, I wake up in the morning thrilled to be living here. Yes, it’s hard, the news is full of tragedy, on all sides, but there are so many small moments of joy, just the way the sun glints off the golden stones, the way Israelis will talk to you everywhere about anything, the atmosphere on the Sabbath – Shabbat – when the whole city closes down, few cars on the road, people are walking to and from synagogue, to and from dinner. There is magic in the air. No wonder people have been fighting over Jerusalem for thousands of years.

For each copy of “The White Road” published, a tree has been planted through the Eco-Libris scheme. Is this idea of offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions from books catching on with authors and publishers you’re in contact with? Have you been satisfied with the way it’s working?

I came across Eco-Libris two years ago, just as I was finishing up my career as a journalist – it was established by Israelis in Israel and the US – and I loved what they were doing so much that I decided I had to write about them. Then, when Salt wanted to publish my book, I realised that partnering with Eco-Libris would ease my guilt about wanting a beautiful book made from many trees, as well as, I hope, spreading the word about what Eco-Libris does. I pay them a certain amount per book for them to plant a tree per book in developing countries around the world, where they are working with the locals to find out what is best for them. They have also been furiously publicising my book – which may be the only short story collection ever to have had a tree planted for each copy printed – on green and environmentally-conscious sites around the world, and I am very grateful for that. I will be “appearing” on the Eco-Libris blog on Dec 10th as part of this Virtual Book Tour, so will, no doubt, be talking more about our partnership then, but so far, I am delighted!

Finally, a question from left field. Your collection “The White Road and Other Stories” has 27 stories. My collection “Transported” has 27 stories. Should the reading public be concerned? Are we the vanguard of a new literary movement, the “Group of 27”?

An excellent idea! I’ll buy the domain name, you invite people. I am sure 27 has mystical roots – divisible by 9 and 3 only, that sounds mystical to me! Hmm, we’ll have to talk about this more, definitely.

Walking the White Road: Tania Hershman on Tour Oct 2008-Jan 2009

Next stop on the tour:

Previous stops:

What I’m Writing

I set up this blog to write about and promote the three books I had published between September 2007 and June 2008 – All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens, Anarya’s Secret and Transported – plus post about other writers, books, and matters of interest to me. I’ve been doing all that, and will keep doing it, but I realised a few days back that there was one topic I hadn’t tackled: what I’m writing now.

I write short stories, poetry, and novels. Inefficient, maybe, especially for someone who writes part-time, but that mix doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future – because I’ve got all three types of writing on the go. My main focus is my new novel, but short stories and poetry refuse to be entirely set aside.

First, the novel. I’m prone to calling it “my new novel”, but that’s not strictly accurate. Before I wrote Anarya’s Secret, I had written another novel, with the working title “Antarctic Convergence”. The jumping off point for “Antarctic Convergence” was a story I wrote in 2000, “The Wadestown Shore”, which is included in Transported.

[SPOILER ALERT]

This is the story that begins:

I cut the engine in the shadow of the motorway pillars and let the dinghy drift in to the Wadestown shore. The quiet of late afternoon was broken only by the squawking of parakeets. After locking the boat away in the old garage I now used as a boatshed, I stood for a moment to soak in the view. The setting sun was winking off the windows of drowned office blocks. To the left lay Miramar Island, and beyond it the open sea.

and ends:

The sunken office blocks of the Drowned city were far behind me. The rich waters and virgin shores of Antarctica lay ahead. I made my way forward to greet them.

[/SPOILER ALERT]

“The Wadestown Shore” is (in revised form) also Chapter 1 of the novel.

I finished the initial version of this novel in 2004, but was unable to get it published. I decided to shelve it for a while, write something else (that turned out to be Anarya’s Secret), and then revisit the novel and the feedback I’d had on it.

I did that earlier this year, and though there are some valid arguments against rewriting your first completed novel, I felt that the basic idea of “Antarctic Convergence” was still good, but that the novel had major structural problems, especially in its second half. So I’m rewriting it pretty much from scratch, and I’m almost half way through the redraft. More news, I hope, in 2009.

Next, the short stories. I’ve written three new stories since Transported was put to bed, and am currently working on a fourth which I’m trying to finish in time for an anthology submission deadline. That isn’t exactly enough for a collection, and I’m putting completing the novel ahead of writing lots more stories, but I will keep plugging away. When new stories of mine do appear in print or online, I’ll let you know.

Last but not least, the poetry. Although All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens was published in 2007, I completed the manuscript (more or less) in 2005, so I have had three years to get some more poetry written. But, whereas I can decide that I’m going to work on my novel for the next two hours, sit down, and get 1000 or so words written, I have found that I can’t make myself write poetry: it arrives when it wants, and when it doesn’t want, nothing will induce it – yes, it’s that old favourite “the muse” again!

All the same, when checking the other day, I found that I had 29 poems which I’d consider putting towards a new collection – and what’s more, 29 poems that fit a theme. Will I write more poems that fit this theme and assemble them beautifully into a collection, or will I go off on a complete tangent? Watch this space!

Ten Reasons Why Transported Makes a Great Present

Presents. We all need to come up with them from time to time: for Christmas, for birthdays, for other holidays. But what to buy? For many situations, the answer is short story collection Transported, by Tim Jones (which you can buy online from Fishpond, New Zealand Books Abroad (for both overseas and New Zealand residents), or Whitcoulls). Here’s ten reasons why.

Teenagers: Although – or perhaps because? – Transported wasn’t written with a Young Adult audience in mind, I’ve heard that it’s doing well in high schools, among both boys and girls. So if you’re looking to buy a present for that young man whom you wish would read more, or that young woman who has recently started writing short stories, Transported is the book to give them.

Adults: But just because Transported is a good gift for teenagers doesn’t make it an unsuitable gift for adults. Transported is packed with adult themes and content. There’s sex (discreet), violence (not too much), and language. In fact, it’s nothing but language from the first page to the last.

Fun: Transported is fun. Don’t take my word for it: listen to reviewer Mike Crowl, who says: “Tim Jones’ Transported is a pleasant surprise. None of the tales have that kind of super-seriousness about them that’s typical of NZ short stories. Instead, they’re an intriguing mix of tongue-in-cheek, subtle humour, history turned inside out, and sci-fi”.

Funny: It’s not only fun – it’s funny. There are jokes, quips, and jests. There is surrealism, absurdism, and plain old silliness. Reviewer Rosemarie Smith says: “The mix is clever and compelling, and though there may not be much riotous laughing out loud, there’s many a quiet chuckle.” So Transported is the perfect book for buses, trains and planes, where riotous laughing out loud won’t go down well.

Proudly local: Transported is as New Zealand as the All Blacks, Lemon and Paeroa, and our banking system – oh, hang on a minute …

But anyway, the contents include stories set in Southland, Fiordland, Dunedin, and Wellington. Palmerston North gets a look-in too. It’s as New Zealand as a Tourism New Zealand billboard!

Confidently international: Tired of stories set in provincial backwaters? Ready to go exploring? Then take a trip to the Caribbean, Russia, the USA or even Dubbo. Investigate the inner workings of the Soviet Politburo, the Australian Tax Office, and the College de France. Meet famous historical figures such as Michel Foucault, V.I. Lenin and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Live a little!

Boldly outerspatial: Hard to find presents for the alien in your life? Cow tipping and rectal probing not really doing it for them any more? Then invite them to kick back and relax with tales that encompass election campaigns contested by talking kangaroos, eyes that work like telescopes, and how alien immigrants are received by the inhabitants of a typical New Zealand street.

Epiphanacious (not sure this is actually a word, but what am I, an author?): Everybody knows that proper short stories must include an epiphany, a still, small moment in which the protagonist experiences a moment of revelation about his or her life. New research reveals that 11 out of the 27 stories in Transported contain an epiphany. That’s over 40% proper short fiction in one compact volume!

Value for money: Transported contains 27 stories, and its recommended retail price is NZ$27.99. That’s only a dollar a story (apart from a few inconvenient cents which we can account for as “rounding error”). A buck a story? That’s real value!

Readily available: Sure, you can buy Transported online, but it’s also available in lots of New Zealand bookshops. A full list is here, and it includes Whitcoulls, Dymocks and Borders branches, Unity Books, and many independent booksellers, such as McLeods (Rotorua), Page and Blackmore (Nelson), and Wadsworths (New Plymouth).

So there you have it. Transported. You will be.

Extreme Weather Events, my first short story collection

Extreme Weather Events was my first short story collection. It was published in 2001 by HeadworX, as part of their now-discontinued Pocket Fiction Series. There are twelve stories in Extreme Weather Events:

Maria and the Tree
Wintering Over
The New Land
Flensing
The Kiwi Contingent
My Friend the Volcano
The Pole
The Lizard
Tour Party, Late Afternoon
Black Box
The Man Who Loved Maps
The Temple in the Matrix

To introduce a few, “Wintering Over” is set in Antarctica, where an isolated scientific party has an unusual visitor from the past: Titus Oates, that very gallant colleague of Captain Scott who went for a walk, and proved to be quite some time indeed. “The Pole”, also set in Antarctica, rewrites the struggle to be first to the South Pole. “Black Box” sees strange developments on the Wellington skyline, while “My Friend the Volcano” blows her top in Taranaki.

“Flensing” and “The Lizard” are pretty much the only two horror stories I’ve ever written. “Flensing” is set in South Georgia, which gives it a slight edge, I think. And “The Temple in the Matrix” pokes a few toes into the interstitial pond in a Bill-Gibson-meets-HP-Lovecraft-uptown kind of way.

The book got some good reviews and I still come across satisfyingly dog-eared copies in public libraries. If you’d like a copy, you can order it from me for $5 plus postage & packing (in NZ, p&p will be $2, making a grand total of $7 for the book. I’ll need to work out the postage & packing for other territories). Please send an email to senjmito@gmail.com saying you’d like a copy, and we’ll take it from there.

A Short History of the Twentieth Century, with Fries

This 600-word story appears in Transported. It was first published in Flashquake and has also been translated into Vietnamese.

By the time they got to the Finland Station, Lenin and his posse were famished.

“What’ll it be, boss, Burger King or McDonald’s?” asked Zinoviev.

Lenin rustled up the kopecks for a quarter-pounder and fries all round and they set to chowing down. By the time he finished, Lenin had had a better idea.

“I’m tired of this revolution business,” he said. “Let’s set up a chain of family restaurants instead.”

It took a while to convince the Mensheviks, left-SRs, and other petit-bourgeois elements. Nevertheless, Lenin’s will prevailed, and Party cadres fanned out across the land in a sophisticated franchising operation. By the end of 1917, Moscow and Petrograd were under complete control, and Siberia was falling into line. Lenin’s Bolshevik brand — “the burger for the worker” — was taking command.

The big international chains didn’t take this lying down. With an aggressive combination of discounting, free giveaways, and sheer intimidation, they muscled in on the Bolsheviks. For four years, the struggle went on. The starving inhabitants of Northern Russia woke up each morning not knowing whether the Golden Arches or the Hammer and Sickle would be standing atop their local fast food outlet.

It was a bad time all round, but at the end of it, the red flag with the yellow emblem reigned supreme across Russia. Crowds flocked to enjoy the cheery, efficient service and chomp their way through the basic Bolshevik burger or such additional menu choices as the Red Square (prime Polish beef in a square bun) and the Bronze Horseman (horse testicles on rye — an acquired taste). Fuelled by Bolshevik burgers, Russia was on the move. Tractor production went up twenty per cent. Electricity output doubled in five years.

After Lenin choked to death on a fishburger on 1924, new CEO Joseph Stalin launched a full-scale campaign of collectivisation and industrialisation. Horse testicles were out, borscht was in. These changes were far from universally popular, but, as the slogan went, “You can’t say no to Uncle Joe”. From Murmansk to Magadan, it was Joe’s way or the highway.

The years 1939 to 1945 were bad ones for the Bolshevik brand. An ill-advised attempt at a strategic alliance with Schickelgruber’s, an aggressive new German franchise, ended in disaster. The names Leningrad and Stalingrad will forever be remembered from that period as examples of poor service and unusual burger ingredients. But Schickelgruber’s was finally seen off and the Bolshevik brand entered a new phase of expansion. It was time, said Uncle Joe, to export Lenin’s legacy to the world.

This wasn’t an unqualified success. What goes down well in Kharkov can cause indigestion in Kabul. The expansion policy did net Bolshevik the important Chinese market, but even there, Russian attempts to include cabbage in Chinese burgers were soon met by Chinese demands that all Bolshevik meals include a side-order of rice. Before long, there were two competing Bolshevik brands, and then three once the Albanians got in on the act.

It was the beginning of the end. Weakened by the massive costs of enforcing brand compliance in territories as diverse as Kazakhstan and Cuba, the Bolshevik empire collapsed in debts and squabbling. It was all over for one of the major franchises of the 20th Century.

For a nostalgic reminder of those days, take a trip to the Finland Station, where you can still see a statue of Lenin addressing the workers, burger in one hand, fries in the other.

Said Sheree

This story of love and literary funding appears in Transported.

Sheree and Miranda met at a party. Each left with the other on her mind.

Several weeks later, the Mexican Ambassador, a keen patron of the arts, held a reception. Miranda, ranked as a Tier Two poet for funding purposes, saw Sheree across the room. Miranda made a beeline for her – only to realise that Sheree was with a group of Tier Ones. Embarrassed, Miranda backed away.

That would have been that; but, a little to the north and far beneath their feet, Gaia shifted in her sleep. Poets and patrons alike rushed for doorways and crush-proof spaces. Sheree and Miranda found themselves pressed together against an antimacassar. Their mutual awkwardness was obliterated by fear. “You’re beautiful,” said Sheree. Miranda, plain and tall, was swept away.

Heads were counted once the tremor passed and the tumult subsided. Miranda and Sheree were missing. Separately, from Sheree’s bed, they phoned in their excuses.

Miranda went home. “I haven’t seen you for days,” her flatmate remarked. It wasn’t much of a flat, not really, and the flatmate held the lease.

“You can move in with me,” said Sheree.

Having lugged the last of her boxes up Sheree’s steps, Miranda went out on the deck. The harbour view, which she had admired since the first night she spent there, now felt like hers. The weather was grey and cold. Far below, hardy ants, gloved and muffled, scurried to and fro on the beach.

Between Miranda’s job and Sheree’s funding, they had enough to pay the rent, and a little left over. They each had time to write. Sheree wrote in the morning, after Miranda had left for work, and spent the afternoon completing grant applications and working on a project to deliver sonnets by mobile phone. Some platform-specific issues were still to be resolved.

Miranda wrote on Saturday afternoons, while Sheree played hockey.

They had other interests in common. They both collected earthenware. They both loved tramping. In summer, they joined a party heading south to Nelson Lakes. They were the only writers. It was bliss.

They dealt with literary functions by arriving separately and avoiding each other, though they exchanged sly glances when they thought no one was looking.

It worked for a while. But, inevitably, word got around. A small independent publisher agreed to bring out Miranda’s first collection. “I want to be with you at the launch,” said Sheree. “I’m not going to pretend.”

The publisher had hired a church hall. A few bankable names came along. When Miranda read, Sheree stood in the front row. When Miranda signed, Sheree sat next to her. “You must be so proud of her,” someone told Sheree.

Sheree’s third collection was launched at Unity. Sheree dragged Miranda along. That didn’t go so well. Miranda hung back, feeling like a fraud. Sheree talked with her friends and cast irritated glances Miranda’s way.

Miranda retreated to the outer shelves, looking at a bound edition of Ursula Bethell. Blanche Baughan was reassuringly close at hand.

Sheree forgave her. They forgave each other. They got drunk. They compared royalty statements. “It’s more about grants and residencies,” explained Sheree.

In the autumn, Miranda was up for reclassification. Without the support of a university press, Miranda had no realistic hope of moving up to Tier One, but she was still disappointed when the envelope came.

“Never mind,” said Sheree. “I love you anyway.”

Sheree’s status was secure for two more years.

Miranda came home from work a few weeks later to find Sheree bouncing off the walls. “Look at this!” she said.

It was an invitation from the Northern festival circuit: Nuuk and Norilsk, Vorkuta, Longyearbyen. Four weeks north of the Arctic Circle, reading, writing, workshopping. And watching out for polar bears – they could kill you. “I’m to be preceded by a man with a rifle,” said Sheree.

New Zealand literature had never before been represented so far north. It was a feather in everyone’s cap.

“I’ll miss you so much,” said Miranda. She clung to Sheree, tenderly, fiercely.

Sheree bought Miranda a video-enabled phone before she left. Four weeks of Sheree – blond hair poking out of her fur-lined hood – cavorting with new friends, silhouetted against snow, standing next to oil drums full of burning blubber to keep warm.

Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, was surprisingly cosmopolitan. Norilsk was one giant chemical dump. In Vorkuta, Sheree won the V. I. Morozov Prize for Best Recital of an Individual Work, for her declamatory piece in the style of Gregory Corso. The prize, thanks to a well-connected local businessman, was paid in US dollars. With the news, Sheree sent an air ticket. “I’m stopping over in the Caribbean on the way home to thaw out,” said Sheree. “See you in Basseterre!”

It took some nerve to ask, but Miranda’s boss was understanding. “I wish I could go with you,” Miranda’s boss said, and Miranda realised, suddenly, that she meant it.

Basseterre! Miranda had never heard of it. Palms shaded the beach, the locals talked about cricket, and once they had circumnavigated the island of St Kitts, there was nothing to do but eat, drink, sleep, and make love. Sheree kept Miranda entertained with tales from the frozen North. Longyearbyen had been the wildest of the lot. “Those Norwegians!” said Sheree. They were crazy up there. So were the bears.

They came home to the wind and the rain. Sheree set to work completing her fourth collection and editing podcasts from the festivals. She had secured funding for a G5 workstation, her latest pride and joy. Miranda had three poems published in Takahe and two more accepted by JAAM. She read at the Angus Inn. It was a wet night in the Hutt Valley, and some of the locals stayed away. Her collection, which was now heavily discounted, sold three copies. Not bad, considering. She was given a voucher for petrol, though she had conscientiously taken the train.

Sheree’s poem about their week together in the Caribbean is justly famous and much-anthologised.

Miranda’s boss gave her a promotion. Miranda and Sheree joined a soccer team. Sheree was the centre-forward. Miranda was a holding midfielder.

Delivering sonnets by mobile phone had not been a complete success, but the project hit the jackpot with haiku. Haiku were back, said Sheree.

People grow and change. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. A new funding category, Tier Four, was introduced. In consequence, Tier Two poets became eligible to be mentors, and Miranda took on a mentee. She was young, tiny, a wounded bird. Her name was Caroline. She lived in Johnsonville.

Nothing might have come of it, had Sheree’s success at Vorkuta not been noticed in high places. It took a public-private partnership, with a mixture of tagged funding, corporate sponsorship in three bands, and matching Government contributions, but at last the deal could be announced. Sheree would be New Zealand’s first poet in space! She would carry leading New Zealand brands to low earth orbit, and return with a three-book deal.

It was on for young and old. Sheree became public property, meeting the Prime Minister, appearing on Takatapui and Kiwifruit. In months, in weeks, in days, she was off to Star City to train for her mission.

“I love you,” she told Miranda, from the airport, from Moscow, from Star City. Photos: Sheree in a centrifuge, her compact body whirling round. Sheree hanging weightless in the hydrolab. The two cosmonauts who would be flying her to the International Space Station, Valentina and Vsevolod. Their brave little Soyuz spacecraft. I love you, Miranda, said Sheree.

Miranda’s mentee was promising but needy. Miranda allowed herself to engage in conduct that was inappropriate to the mentor-mentee relationship and breached the terms of her contract with the funding agency. She reproached herself late at night, as she watched Caroline sleeping.

Sheree appeared on BBC World, CNN, and Al Arabiya.

Miranda kept writing. A second published collection would be something. Not everyone made it that far.

Live streaming video of the launch, with Russian-language commentary, was available. Using high-speed broadband on Sheree’s G5, Miranda was able to hear the countdown, see the rocket on the launch pad, watch it vault upwards into space.

Sheree made contact. Docking had been successful, and she was aboard the space station. Three months to do nothing but write, and sleep, and float. (And help around the place; tidiness was especially important in space.) Every 92 minutes, she would pass overhead.

The mentoring period finished. Caroline could now be revealed as Miranda’s girlfriend. She had dependency issues, but that meant she was usually home.

Miranda broke the news to Sheree by scheduled uplink. Sheree did not respond immediately. One orbit passed, two. Then Sheree said she was sad, but not surprised. Also, two nights ago, she and Valentina …

Miranda had three poems published in Bravado. Sport and Landfall regretted to inform. Trout did not reply.

As a result of Miranda’s excellent mentoring, Caroline was reclassified to Tier Three. She sold a poem to North & South. You’re going places, girl, thought Miranda.

Caroline had an empty room and a double bed. Miranda decided she was going places too. She moved her boxes out of Sheree’s house, down the steps, and off to Johnsonville. She promised Sheree that she’d continue to water her plants. Sheree had already asked Miranda and Caroline to come for dinner the first weekend after she got home from Russia. I want to be your best friend, said Sheree.

When the last lot of boxes was safely in Caroline’s van, Miranda returned to stand on the balcony for one last look across the harbour. Oh, she would miss the view! On the promenade below, hardy ants rode skateboards, walked dogs, and ate products containing dairy, gluten, and traces of nuts.

Above, the stars shone steadily. Among them was Sheree. Miranda could see her clearly. She was looking out of a porthole, smiling fondly down.

Transported Interview Podcast Available

My ten minute interview with Ruth Todd of Plains FM in Christchurch is now available online as a podcast. It can be played online or downloaded as an MP3 file.

Ruth and I talk about:

  • my short story collection Transported
    (which you can buy online through Fishpond or New Zealand Books Abroad, among others, or in person at an increasing range of bookstores)
  • why some ideas turn into poems and others into short stories
  • the benefits of diversity in a short story collection
  • my disastrous attempt to impress a woman [you know who you are!] with my Russian accent when it turned out that her boyfriend spoke the language fluently
  • the educational benefits of the Intermediate Section of the Invercargill Public Library
  • being the child of assisted immigrants
  • writing a short story about literary funding (come in, “Said Sheree”)
  • acceptance and rejection from both the writer’s and the editor’s point of view
  • The Frank O’Connor Award longlisting for Transported.

The interview was a lot of fun to take part in. I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Nice Photo … Shame about the Review

After the very positive review by Jessica Le Bas in the Nelson Mail, and several good ones in other papers, most lately the Timaru Herald, Transported has had its first bad review, by Steve Walker in the Listener.

Mind you, it wasn’t all bad. He said good things about “Rat Up a Drainpipe”, “The Wadestown Shore” and “The New Neighbours”, but he seemed to struggle with the shorter stories, and the less realistic stories — and as for the shorter and less realistic stories, they were right out.

Well, there’ s a name for this aspect of what I write : it’s called interstitial fiction, and it’s something I’ll be posting more about in future. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I hope it will be yours.

(Incidentally, Chris Else had an entertaining reaction to a bad review by Steve Walker of one of his books — see the third article down.)

The Listener review is headed by a jumbo-sized version of my author photo. This pleases me, not for egotistical reasons, but because a recent interview with photographer Miriam Berkley points up the importance of author photos in a crowded book market. There’s some wonderful author photos accompanying that interview, and it’s well worth reading.

Sonali Mukherji, who took my author photo, is an excellent photographer. She took the photo at the Kelburn Croquet Club, next to Victoria University, on a brilliantly sunny day last year. The sun was reflecting off my glasses, so she insisted I take them off: that also took years off my apparent age! It’s a bit like The Picture of Dorian Gray; I can grow steadily more decrepit, while my photo continues to twinkle at the world.

Transported, not Transporter!

The things you never think of … quite a few people seem to think my new book is called “Transporter” rather than “Transported”. This post is to make it clear to everyone (including Google) that the title is Transported, and that it isn’t a tie-in novel to the movie starring Jason Statham. There are slightly more explosions and car chases in Transporter than Transported.

In other news, the shortlists for the Montana Book Awards have been announced. It’s good to see Johanna Aitchison’s A Long Girl Ago included in the poetry category, and Mary McCallum’s The Blue in the fiction category.