Finalist Interviews: The origin of Anzac Day: A New Zealand story

books_anzacdayIf you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out. We have asked our fantastic finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses!

Anzac Day: The New Zealand Story is a finalist in the non-fiction category of the awards.

Thank you to Philippa Werry for her responses:

1.    As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
The idea behind Anzac Day came from my experiences of going to our local Anzac Day community service. Every year, people are waiting to hand out service sheets, and they collect them again at the end to re-use them on the next Anzac Day. That means that the format of the service – the words that are spoken, the music that is played, the songs that are sung – remains much the same.

I started to wonder why that was so, and why we always spoke those same words and played that same music, and I thought that exploring those ideas might give more meaning to an Anzac Day service for children who attended one. But then I realised that there was a lot more to find out: not just what happens in the service, but also how Anzac Day came about in the first place, and why we have the dawn service and the red poppy, and how memorials of different sorts help us to remember. I tried to put together a history of Anzac Day from many different viewpoints, without glorifying war but honouring the memory of those who served and died for their country, to show why it has been important in the past and why it still matters today.

2.    Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?
There were two big hurdles. One was condensing the huge amount of information available, and working out what to leave in and what to take out.
The other was the question of images. We wanted the book to be richly illustrated with a wide range of images – modern and historic photographs, paintings, maps, diaries, even stamps. So that was a huge process in itself: tracking down the images, emailing institutions and museums and libraries to find out if they were available for use, negotiating payments, keeping track of a budget. Some people were very generous and let me use their photographs or images for free, as long as they were properly acknowledged. We’d have unexpected hiccups, like an image we thought had been cleared suddenly becoming unavailable so we had to quickly find a replacement. And then there were captions to write and the acknowledgements page, which had to be tied to the page numbers and was very complicated to draw up.

I thought at the time there must be an easier way, and I did work out a few practical steps to help improve the process but I’m going through it again for another book and it is just as complicated the 2nd time round!

3.    Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?
The publicity info says it is aimed at 8 to 12 year olds, but a lot of adults have told me that they’ve read it and enjoyed it, and they all say they have found out something they didn’t know before.

4.    Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
There are so many books written about war, World War One and Gallipoli in particular, and about New Zealand’s place in war. I found the oral histories very moving, like Nicholas Boyack and Jane Tolerton’s, In the shadow of war: New Zealand soldiers talk about World War One and their lives.

I also loved Anna Roger’s book While you’re away: New Zealand nurses at war 1899-1948 because my great-great-aunt, Louisa Bird, was one of the first group of WW1 nurses to leave for the war in 1915.

5.    Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
We usually spend New Year at my husband’s family’s bach in the Bay of Plenty. There are always lots of people – adults and children, and lots of books lying around. People bring books that they think others would like to read and we stock up supplies from the local library. This year, one book that fascinated us all was Tūhoe: portrait of a nation by Kennedy Warne, published by Penguin. It has stunning photographs – many of places that we have visited, and gives an indepth look at Tūhoe history.

6.    What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Swimming for exercise, walking because it helps me get ideas, movies because we have a wonderful local cinema just around the corner and cryptic crosswords because they provide a lot of fun with words.

- Philippa has a Children’s War Books Blog


Book Review: Thorndon, by Kirsty Gunn

I’ve mentioned previouslythorndon I much prefer to read non-fiction over fiction – there’s something that sparks interest for me when I know what I’m reading is a true story. I was delighted when I realised the slightly-smaller than an A5 book I’d been given to review intertwined fact and fiction perfectly. An excellent way to kill two birds with one stone.

Published by Bridget Williams Books as part of the BWB Texts series, Kirsty Gunn’s memoir Thorndon Wellington and Home: My Katherine Mansfield Project stands proudly alongside other great New Zealand authors including Claudia Orange and Maurice Gee.

Thorndon beautifully recounts Gunn’s time in Wellington having been awarded a Randell Fellowship. Gunn comes home to the city she grew up in and swore to never return to, having set up camp in Scotland and London. “A couple of years ago I came ‘home’ to Wellington. I came at first alone, and then I brought my daughters with me.”

Whether you know Wellington well or could care less about the city, Gunn’s account of her time spent as a Fellow here resonates with all who despise the place they grew up in. Her two daughters are able to attend the same school she did, create the same memory of the Zig-Zag stairs, and remember the way horizontal rain is created by wonderful winds.

Alongside her wonderfully written and easy to read account of Wellington, Gunn has intertwined quotes and extracts from Mansfield, as well as from biographies. A selected bibliography is included for any person looking for the place to start their Mansfield readings. Alongside these, Gunn’s own stories she wrote while here sit perfectly. As a non-reader of modern fiction, I found these simply delightful to read.

Gunn has produced a simple yet effective book in Thorndon. She tells her own story, which could have been a rather dull subject, in a real and relatable way. I, for one, don’t find myself particularly attached to the small town I grew up in, but something resonates with me every time I go back there. Gunn’s account draws my thinking back to the words I wrote in that town, and makes me long to visit soon.

“Coming or Going. Leaving or returning. Whether dark or light, north or south, present or past… The words themselves are real. As I have written before, as I continue to write… The words themselves bring us home.”

by Kimaya McIntosh

by Kirsty Gunn
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927277447

Penguin Random House’s “My Independent Bookshop” – a rash word of caution, by Thomas Koed

This is a member opinion piece on the creation of My Independent Bookshop, a website launching soon from Penguin Random House UK.

Penguin Random House UK’s CEO Tom Weldon has indicated his company’s focus on getting books to consumers is shifting “from a browse-and-display model to one of online search and recommendation”, and has said “the biggest challenge for publishers is […] building a direct relationship with consumers.” By “browse and display model” he means bookshops (the implication being that a CEO of PRH sees bookshops as merely spaces for consumers to browse through books (and booksellers as merely cashiers and shelf-stockers)). In seeking to provide for (create) a post-bookshop world the publisher is exploring ways to sell directly to the consumer by “getting to know” (i.e. gathering data about) them.

‘My Independent Bookshop’ creating a culture of enthusiastic amateurs
The flagship for PRH’s mission into the supposedly uncharted seas of post-bookshop bookselling will be the website “My Independent Bookshop”(currently in closed beta mode), “a new reader recommendation platform allowing book lovers to set up a virtual bookshop, share their favourite reads and discover, recommend and review books online.”. The words ““My” “Independent” “Bookshop”” need to be nested in inverted commas, both severally and collectively, for the platform recalibrates what is ordinarily understood by these words. Users of the new platform will be able to create their own “bookshop” by placing up to twelve titles on a virtual shelf, recommending them, and locating their bookshop in their very own “high street” of “bookshops” curated by like-minded readers. Visitors to the “bookshops” will be able to purchase the books. The website will also allow PRH to profile its users and use this “direct relationship with readers to tell them about the books they might fall in love with” (i.e. market PRH’s books directly to them). This profiling data is so valuable PRH is prepared to sell other publishers’ books to generate it.

There’s nothing particularly new about any of this (we already have Amazon’s Goodreads, Bookish and the amorphous capacities of Facebook), and there would be nothing particularly wrong with it either if it weren’t coming at the expense of the most effective and adaptable bookselling interface, bookshops-on-the-ground. By calling the new platform “My Independent Bookshop”, PRH are both acknowledging and appropriating the attachment consumers have to independent bookshops and draining the term ‘independent bookshop’ of meaning (thus depriving bookshops of their marketable identity). In a world where anyone can have their own “independent bookshop” just by showing a bit of virtual enthusiasm, the actual independent bookshop and the expertise of the professional bookseller will be lost in an immense ocean of enthusiastically dogpaddling amateur recommenders.

A dangerous connection to make
Users of “My Independent Bookshop” will be able to register their support for an actual bookshop, which will apparently receive a 5% commission from purchases they make through the site (I am generously assuming that this will apply not just to purchases made from the bookshop’s virtual bookshelf).

This may at first seem like a good thing, but we need to consider where “My Independent Bookshop” is designed to attract sales from. If users are being encouraged to believe that buying books through PRH’s platform is way of supporting their favourite independent bookshop, it would seem that they will be buying books there that otherwise they would have bought from that independent bookshop.

If the new platform flourishes, the independent bookshops, given only a small kick-back for delivering their customers’ purchasing focus to the PRH platform, will wither and die in the tiny margin. PRH might appear to be making a nod towards the independent bookshops that have always supported them, but they are maybe more interested in getting the nod from the independents, or, rather, in ensuring that the consumer gets the impression that such nodding is going on. It would be one step too cynical to suggest that the “My Independent Bookshop” platform, with its “bookshop”-lined “high streets” is designed specifically to attract just those consumers whose attachment to independent bookshops and to the local high street has made them resistant to the on-line piranhas Amazon and Book Depository.

The behemoths take over
“Our scale is what enables us to do this properly,” says Tom Weldon. This is true, which makes it important what they choose to do. Will this “new model” be effective and sustainable? Can PRH stand up to Amazon/Book Depository without slitting its own pockets? Pursuing an outdated volumes-based sales model, publishers eagerly (or reluctantly) bent over backwards (or possibly forwards) to give this rapacious double-headed monster the discounts and universal stock-range it needed to sell books so cheaply that high street bookshops (who have subsidised those discounts) have been dropping like flies (something that is usually noticed only after it has happened).

The post-free Book Depository model was never intended to be sustainable: it was only intended to be more sustainable than the bookshops it is designed to replace. A price-war would ensure further casualties on the high street, an over-concentration on titles most likely to attain immediate high returns (without these returns being invested in the diverse list that is necessary to healthy publishing) and the accelerated atrophy of the international limbs of representation, distribution and determination that support and flex the book trade, but these are exactly the effects that abandoning the bookshop model and forming a “direct  relationship with consumers” will have anyway if it is successful.

Will Penguin Random House’s so called ‘Independent Bookshop’ be successful? Will it be successful? Nothing beats a book in the hand. Nothing beats expert forces on the ground and among the people, selling books from hand-to-hand in bookshops. My own small experience with bookselling in the “new media” suggests that it is worth developing but that its best effect is in keeping customers coming in an actual door and in cementing the bookshop as a place where physical and virtual communities can overlap. Without an actual bookshop, without actual booksellers ready to listen and talk about books (and about all sorts of other things), without books actually on-hand, without the chains of supply and support extended by publishers to bookshop where their books are sold, we will all (publishers included) be reduced to standing on some virtual street corner in an infinite virtual city of such street corners crying our wares, or stumbling around guided only by our fellow stumblers. At the same rate that we are realising the limitations and narrow satisfactions of the brave new world of virtual shopping, we are finding that that world is becoming the only choice.

- Thomas Koed

Thomas Koed sells books and produces digital and print catalogues for Page & Blackmore (Nielsen Data New Zealand Independent Bookshop of the Year 2013)

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The biggest buzz in international sci-fi book circles at thecv_the_martian moment is The Martian, by Andy Weir: Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Set in the foreseeable future, astronaut Mark Watney is alone on Mars, left behind by crewmates who believe he’s dead, with no way to communicate with Earth and only limited supplies of food, water and oxygen.

Cue a fast-paced, warm-hearted, sci-fi action movie romp. Critics have complained that The Martian is too heavy on the technical detail and too light on philosophical meatiness, and these are fair points. There are many entire paragraphs that read like maths exam questions: “Let’s call the volume of the airlock two cubic meters [sic]. The inflated EVA suit probably takes up half of it. So it took five minutes to add 0.2 atmospheres to 1 cubic meter. That’s 285 grams of air (trust me on the math). The air in the tanks is around 1 gram per cubic centimeter, meaning I just lost 285 milliliters.” There is a lot of jargon and elaborate use of acronyms, many of which are confusingly similar (MAV, MMU, MDV, VAL).

Many times I wished for an index, or explanatory notes – often I caught myself skimming over the surface of descriptions of technical high-jinks, watching out for plot points. And the solitary protagonist’s soul-searching is so perfunctory as to be non-existent: “Mankind reaching out to Mars to send people to another planet for the very first time and expand the horizons of humanity blah, blah, blah.”

But the sheer verve and good-natured bounce of the story make up for all that, and more besides. Weir’s lifelong enthusiasm for all things space-geekery shines through every sentence. And if protagonist Mark Watney is a fairly transparent exercise in authorial wish-fulfillment, he is also a genuinely endearing hero we cannot help cheering along.

Weir’s prose is open and confident, and The Martian is excellently plotted, with tense, page-turning pacing – no mean achievement for seasoned authors, let alone a software engineer turned debut novelist. As well as a cornucopia of one-liners (“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”), there are also moments of genuine comedy: “[At NASA] Teddy swiveled his chair and looked out to the window to the sky beyond. Night was edging in. ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’ He turned back to Venkat. ‘I wonder what he’s thinking right now.’ [On Mars, Mark's POV] Log entry: Sol 61. How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”

Overall, then, The Martian takes a decent shot at being that rarest of beasts: ‘hard’ sci-fi that also appeals to the general reader. Despite its faults, I came away completely seduced by its puppy-like charm. I look forward to the inevitable film.

Review by Elizabeth Heritage


Book Review: Eketahuna German Literature Society – A Poetry Collection. Curated and translated by Cordelia Black and Robbie Ellis

ekatahuna_german_literatureA bit more than a year ago two friends decided to put a Kiwi spin on a bunch of classic German poems. First they collected them on a tumblr site, then they decided they had enough to put together a book.

This is the result. And I think it is brilliant. The idea is brilliant, the execution is ingenious. They have not only modernised the classics they have also dipped them in L&P, stuck them into gumboots and re-coiffured their pathos into a mullet.

It helps, if you know German, but this book is still immensely entertaining, if you just look at the Kiwi side of it. Most German poems are available in traditional translations on the internet, if you are keen to know what they are actually saying. I took the book along to my creative writing group, which happens to crawl with Germans, and I had to literally do a bag check on the way out to find out who was trying to sneak the book home. The giggle gave them away.

The transkiwifications do not render the poems as they were, but rather capture their sentiment. There is bromance, love lost and discarded and they talk a lot about the weather, too.

Rilke’s grave and sombre ‘The Panther’ jumps species and turns into a cougar in a rural night club.

The succinct rendition of the great anthem ‘Ode to Joy’ is in a league of its own. Even the Valkyrie gets a Kiwi musical makeover. Good on ya. Keep them coming.

There are two book launches coming up:

17 April Auckland University, Room 501, Arts 2 Building, 18 Symonds Street, 5.30pm
24 April Wellington, Victoria University, Kelburn Campus, 28 Kelburn Parade 5.30 pm

by Melanie Wittwer

Finalist Interviews: The origins of Mortal Fire, by Elizabeth Knox

pp_elizabeth knoxIf you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out. We have asked our fantastic finalists all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses!

We have previously reviewed Mortal Fire on this blog, and please also see our review of the event Elizabeth did during the New Zealand Festival Writers Week, for further information about this book.

Thank you to Elizabeth Knox for answering our questions:

1.    As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
This is the big question, so here’s my only big answer – starting small.

The basic idea for Mortal Fire came, as many of my ideas do, cv_mortal firefrom my imaginary game (for an explanation of that see my website The basic idea was that a family of magic users have imprisoned their most powerful member in hidden house and, after decades, the original spell has grown so strong that it is strangling the vitality and future of the whole family. And, so far, no one in the family has been able to say about the family’s choices: “This is crazy. This isn’t working.”

I wanted the story to read like a mystery, so needed a mystery solver, in this case a determined girl who visits the valley, knows something strange and magical is going on, and wants to get to the bottom of it.

But before I began the book a number of terrible things happened to my family, one of the hardest of which was that my husbands’ brother Duncan died leaving behind a wife, and four children, the Barrowman nephews and niece to whom Mortal Fire is dedicated. They are south Auckland Pasifika kids. Which is one reason the book’s heroine, Canny, is a Pasifika kid.

Duncan was killed in Rarotonga (where he was with his team on a Golden Oldies rugby tour). The man who killed him went to prison for manslaughter. Some thoughts I had during that man’s trial became the secondary theme of Mortal Fire. (It’s first theme is how you can’t always save people, or spare them. The two books I wrote between 2009 and 2012 have that, partly because my mother was dying of Motor Neurone Disease – which among other things is an exercise in being able to do less and less to help all the time. But also because of Duncan, and my husband’s family, especially the kids. Because of many nights lying awake, thinking in desperation and worry, “What can I do? What can I do?”)

The secondary theme was about our desire to punish people who harm us, and what that desire does to us. When we were in Rarotonga, attending the trial, we all hoped for a guilty verdict. The idea that the guy who did it might get off was awful. But one day, when we were driving on the inland ring road, we passed a sign pointing to the Cook Island prison and went to take a look. We sat in the car for a short time staring across a humpy green field at the long, low building. It had barred windows, each with a single horizontally-hinged shutter. The shutters were propped open. The sunshine was bright and hot and the prison’s interior was just a blackness. Now – I might have wanted the guy to go to prison, but right then the thought of putting any fellow human being in that place and making them stay was quite hard. Or serious. Or just real – it made my desire for this man’s punishment something I had not just to feel, but to be responsible for. So, the trial ended and I came home and I went on thinking about that moment, and my own piteous human hesitation, a piteous human hesitation which the man who drove his truck into Duncan failed to have. It wasn’t that I stopped feeling angry and vengeful, or even thought I should stop feeling that way. It was only that I came to understand that my human hesitation was a far, far more valuable feeling (I mean not just to me – but in life, in the world). And some of this found its way into Mortal Fire.

2.    Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?cv_dreamhunter
I’ve written many books now and there seems to be an endless variety of problems that can turn up during publication each one. Mortal Fire had a straightforward start. My editor and agent chivvied me along. I gave it to them and structural/copy editing and proofing all got underway with FSG in the US and Gecko Press’s Julia Marshall here. A great cover turned up, and really good blurbs from writers I admire (Holly Black and Margo Lanagan and Kelly Link and Delia Sherman). Then my wonderful editor Frances Foster suffered a bad stroke. Frances is still alive and facing daily challenges, but she has retired. Frances was my editor for Dreamhunter and Dreamquake too, and I owe her a great deal, and I’ve missed sharing with her things like Mortal Fire being a finalist in the LA Times Book Awards.cv_dreamquake_

3.    Did you tailor this book to a particular audience – or did you find it found its own audience as it was written?
With each book, adult or YA, I just write the book that is there to be written, as faithfully as I possibly can. If I have any useful ideas of an audience it is people who love the books I love. And that’s a wide brief, since I read and love many different kinds of books.

4.    Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
Anything by Megan Whelan Turner, Holly Black, Margot Lanagan, Diana Wynne Jones and Margaret Mahy. No other book was a direct inspiration, but these are some of the writers of young adult fiction who continue to inspire me.

5.    Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
cv_night_watchTimes that stick in my mind are these: staying up late in a Tata Beach bach bed with a hammock-like saggy mattress reading Terry Pratchett’s The Night Watch. Lying on a window seat of a bach in Marehau with a view of a rose garden and fruit falling off trees and onto a trampoline then bouncing off like popcorn when you take the lid off the popper. I was reading a formidable, dark book by Roberto Bolano, called 2666. Or, again Tata, two rainy days at the beach reading my first Lee Child books. Or, years ago, looking out over Tata lagoon, and a garden where my four-year-old was playing with round-bellied Burmese kittens while I read an elegant, icy, lethally sad book called The Periodic Table by holocaust survivor Primo Levi.

The thing is, there are times when you’re reading a book that you read the world along with it, and the book reads the world, and the world seems to read the book – especially if it’s a great book, like The Periodic Table or 2666 – or even, in its own way, Pratchett’s The Night Watch.

6.    What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Playing imaginary games (see website). Why? Because I get to be someone else somewhere else – and usually several someones – much more completely than I do when I’m reading, or watching films or TV, or even writing.

- Booksellers NZ material. Please ask if you wish to extract this material in any way.

Book Review: Heartland, by Michele Leggott

Heartland, like Leggott’s other title Milk and Honeycv_heartland_leggott(2005), points to something wholesome and of the earth. Yet Heartland is more than its bestiary of oyster catchers, crayfish and dogs. Rather, it is a work wherein the ‘strange and familiar’ intersect to create dreamlike sequences − tethered to the past and filtered through the imagination.

The Heartland of Leggott’s work is not constrained to one spatial or temporal location. The reader travels from the Taranaki to Brisbane, from the ancestral to the present. Classical references sit beside footnotes to New Zealand history. However, one does not need to know the work of Heraclitus or the tale of Von Luckner to enjoy the work at hand. Leggott is not one of the ‘poets waiting in their towers’ and although she insists that ‘poetry is a crayfish’, it is not only to be picked apart by a privileged few. It is the rich imagery, more than the intellectual treasure hunt, which endures in the reader’s mind.

Leggott’s world is chiaroscuro, and one speculates that, in her blindness, Leggott has ‘learned to love the dark’. But there is light amongst the darkness − ‘white linen on the lawn is moonlight’ and, even in her poem titled ‘the longest night’, there is a ‘bright star’ and the ‘white-flowering Puawananga’. Celestial markers, angels, and Leggott’s own guide dog, Olive, provide the reader with tools to navigate ‘the world I can’t see’.

The darkness Leggott writes of is no silent vacuum. Leggott writes that she ‘stood in the darkness with many others’ and Heartland is pulsing with people and ghosts – the foot soldier, horseman, arrower, earthwalker. These archetypes she recalls to light, as if by séance. They are the ‘foundered derelicts no one mourns’, quoth Mary Stanley, and it is as though Leggott’s exhumation acts to pay its people final respects.

Like the wrecked ship of the cover-image, the poetry within speaks of things prostrate but lingering – the people of our past and their voices that remain, if only in our dreams.

Reviewed by  Elizabeth Morton

by Elizabeth Morton
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408084