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Author QandA Nothing to See - Pip Adam Uncategorized

QandA with Pip Adam

READ CLOSE: Nothing To See has such an incredible cover. Could you tell us more about the process of design for this book?

PIP ADAM: Working with VUP on covers is really fun. We send ideas back and forward. It’s very collaborative and also acts a really good exercise in working out exactly what the book is about and how best to talk about the book.

My memory of how this cover came about is we were having a lot of back and forward and, although we had some good ideas, nothing was sticking. I think I was being a bit difficult because I wasn’t sure I wanted an identifiable person on the cover.

I was in Sephora in Auckland and there was a poster where two women were cheek to cheek each with different eye liner and I thought, Hmm. So, I found a stock picture of two people cheek to cheek to everyone. Everyone had been talking about asking the incredible Russel Kleyn [https://russellkleyn.com/] to take the photo for the cover. This excited me heaps because I love Russel’s work.

Russell recommended Franca and took the photos and then Fergus laid the cover out. It was very exciting for me. I have never had a real person on my book before and I feel very grateful to Franca – it’s no small thing to allow your likeness to be used to interpret someone else’s art. I particularly like the cover because I don’t think Russel simply mirrored the image – this means both halves of Franca’s face are slightly different. I think this is slightly more un-nerving, which I really like.

If Nothing To See were to be made as a film or TV show, who would you cast in the roles?

I don’t think I would want to cast this myself. I think my answer for this question goes back to my resistance to having an actual person on the cover of the book. I have this hope, which I think is possibly a cop-out, that people will build the identity of the characters for themselves. I’m quite light on description of characters, purposefully, and I think in my head, I often don’t see characters. Instead, I kind of experience them from inside. I hope what this means is that people who read the book can do the same.

I think this was part of the discussion we had around the cover. People were talking about a ‘non-descript’ or ‘unrecognisable’ person on the cover and we always kept landing on this ideal of ‘normal’ that I felt didn’t represent the way I had been trying to write the characters. I think ‘normal’ often means ‘closest to the people in power’ and, like I say, I have this idea that if I write characters the way I do, there’s space for people to insert people who look like they do into the work.

Like I say, I’m aware that maybe this is a cop-out for facing the harder questions around including characters who have experiences different from mine.

I always imagine books existing in conversation with other booksIf you could place Nothing To See with two or three other books that it would ‘speak’ to, which books would they be?

One book I had in mind was Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly because of its interest in addiction and the way it talks about this in a science fiction world. I also have a lot to owe Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous which is a work that holds itself strong as a novel despite being linked strongly with autobiography.

Are there any books or writers you see as the most influential in your writing?

Bae Suah has been incredibly influential. Bae Suah writes the feminine experience like no other writer I can think of.

I also think Nothing to See owes so much to the TV series The Leftovers and the work of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij both of which were a touchstone for the book.

The Leftovers reminded me that what I was more interested in was the lived experience of the people in an unusual situation, than the mechanics of the situation. Tom Perrotta’s book series begins with a preface which explains a lot about the occurrence and it was interesting to see how much information could be left out of the TV show and it still be satisfying.

I am very obsessed with the idea of ambiguity – or the possibility of two things being true at the same time and that’s where I turn to Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij work. I am always in awe of the way they manage to keep two realities alive at the same time – resisting resolution – but still make fully engaging and exciting work.

If there was a playlist to accompany Nothing To See, what songs would you have on that list?

Oddly, there is a playlist for Nothing to See J It includes, music from each of the years the book takes place in, quite a bit of Aldous Harding, Fever Ray, Orchestra of Spheres, Car Sseat Headrest (‘Bodies’ in particular), The Knife and Sufjan Stevens.

Tell me how you challenge yourself as a writer, and how you see fiction writing in particular continue to grow stronger in New Zealand?

I think being a writer in New Zealand comes with quite a few in-built challenges and I guess part of how I challenge myself is by trying to find ways to lessen these challenges for other writers. I’m always interested in ways to make room for other writers because I think this is the only way to strengthen fiction writing. I often fail at these very badly and I guess this is another way I try to challenge myself – it’s tempting when I fail to give up, to retreat back into my privilege where I’m safe, but when I mess up I try really hard to not do this. I think often I expect living this way to be straightforward and like a smooth improvement but it is messy and I fail in all sorts of new ways but I can’t see an alternative at the moment and I want change very badly.

What are you reading right now? What is next to be read?

Right at this moment I am reading incredible work in progress from some amazing writers who I’m working with at a couple of tertiary institutions and through a mentoring programme. I get extremely excited when I read this work. I have also really enjoyed the work in Stasis Journal [https://www.stasisjournal.com] which has been an amazing project.

I am really looking forward to reading Almond by Won-Pyung Sohn and Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann.

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Author QandA The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman Uncategorized

QandA with Charity Norman

READ CLOSE: The Secrets of Strangers has a quality of film or television to the storytelling. Do you see your story in your mind like a movie before you write?

CHARITY NORMAN: I do, except it’s perhaps more immersive than a movie. For me, the fun of writing is imagining the entire story as though I were physically present. Much of this story takes place in Tuckbox café. I had a clear picture of the place and drew myself plans of the layout. I thought about sounds – the milk frother, the chatter, the radio, the smells of coffee and toasted sandwiches, and that London-winter-café feeling of warm radiators and cold blowing in every time someone opens the door. I spent time in cafés as part of the research – or so I claimed! Much the same process applied to other parts of the story – a Sussex farm, or a Rwandan hospital.

If The Secrets of Strangers were to be made into a film, are there any actors you’d like to play your characters?

Oh, that would be great! I think I would leave casting up to the experts. Mind you, if I had a magic wand it would be awfully tempting to invent a role for Daniel Craig just so I could look into his eyes …

You’ve written six novels – does it get easier, or is each book a different experience?

It doesn’t get easier. In fact as technology has become more sophisticated and online news more all-pervasive, I find it increasingly difficult not to be distracted. Of course, there are ways in which experience is a great help – for example, nowadays I write a detailed synopsis before I begin, so there are fewer blind alleys. I used to be swamped by self-doubt halfway through but now I’m writing book seven I recognise this symptom as normal, and press on. It takes a long time to put 115,000 or so words into the right order, and there are days when it feels like a chore. I need to be immersed in the story, to let the characters breathe and come alive, to edit again and again and again. None of that gets any easier!

What book has had the biggest impact on you? How has it influenced your writing?

Just one? So tricky! Well, I hugely admire the 20th century Irish writer, Molly Keane, especially her novel Good Behaviour. It’s exquisite – sharp and wry, occasionally vicious and never sloppy; it’s literary without being pleased with itself. Keane never gets her own cleverness get in the way of the story. This book has the most brilliantly portrayed naïve narrator I’ve ever met (or is she as naïve as she pretends to be?). I can never write like Molly Keane, but she is an inspiration to do better.

This book is set in London. Do you think this novel would be different if you set it in a small town?

It would have felt very different. I spend at least a month of every year in London, and most of my family live there, so it’s a second home to me. The city has a glorious vibrancy and I wanted to bring that into this story. People can be trapped in a café together, be very diverse and the chances are they won’t have met, have any acquaintances in common – try that in Waipukurau!

If your book was to be on a bookshelf next to two other books, who would you choose as its companions, and why?

The Long Way, a memoir by the iconic lone sailor Bernard Moitessier, because reading his words makes me remember that the planet is much bigger than its present troubles. And Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson, because he is hilarious and brilliant and just seeing the jacket cover makes me smile.

What are you reading now? What is next to be read?

I’m reading Anna Burns’ Milkman. Next on my list is The Cat and The City, by Nick Bradley, which is a fellow BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.

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Book Reviews The Secrets Of Strangers - Charity Norman Uncategorized

Book Review: The Secrets of Strangers by Charity Norman

Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, Fiction

7.30 am London. Not long before Christmas. A cafe called Tuckbox. A young man with a gun enters and a nightmare begins. Charity Norman explores what happens next in her sixth novel The Secrets of Strangers.

The story brims with suspense and energy, full of bubbly language that feels cosy and comfy even when we’re reading about violent and terrifying events. Norman writes characters with incredible depth – the people in her books fizz with detail. She wants us to see them as though they are real, believe in them. Her last novel, See You In September, was shortlisted for the Best Crime Novel at the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Awards for Crime Fiction, and Second Chances was a Richard and Judy Book Club Choice in the UK, so if you haven’t read any her books yet, and you enjoy fiction with a gripping plot, you need to remedy that.

The Secrets of Strangers moves quickly – short chapters lending the narrative a strapping pace. The main characters are introduced one by one – Neil, a former teacher now living rough; Abi, an ambitious solicitor on her fifth round of IVF; Mutesi, a carer from a nursing home having breakfast with her grandson; Eliza, a copper working as a negotiator; Rosie, a waitress. Although Norman now lives in New Zealand, the characters feel distinctly British. At times I thought it felt like a PG version of the Bodyguard television series with the original King of the North, Richard Madden. But less sex, and less violence. Although there is a dead body on the floor for most of the book, he’s mostly ignored, and sometimes I forgot he was there.

Secrets do abound in this book, not least the ones Norman keeps from the reader: Why is Neil homeless, what is the tragedy in Mutesi’s past, why doesn’t Abi tell her husband she’s taken a pregnancy test, who is Rosie, who is Nicola. Who is Sam? Why is he holding these people hostage?

These secrets, these hidden pasts, are often referred to in the story – we find out the horror of Mutesi’s past in Rwanda, we hear about Arthur’s lucky absence from the tube station in Balham that was bombed in World War II, an event that also featured in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Norman reminds us constantly that our present selves are not always what they seem: past trauma is often hidden away, and we should be gentle in our appraisals of others.

The short chapters lend the story a pace that feels hectic and out of control, much like a hostage situation must feel like to the people involved. With each chapter change, and sometimes within a chapter, the character point of view switches, and we’re lifted out of one person into another with a speed that gives a couple of characters short shrift. It does give the novel the quality of a film, with quickly shifting camera angles. I admire Norman’s astonishing ability to throw many balls into the air – and catch them. There’s not one loose thread, not one idea or tangent that isn’t followed up on, and this thorough plotting is more difficult than it looks.

Later in the book, Mutesi speaks about the power of the radio. We hear Abi’s partner Charlie speak on the radio playing in the cafe. I thought of the radio in All The Light We Cannot See; of Serge Carrefax, born to the noises from the first wireless stations in C by Tom McCarthy; of Hinemoana Baker’s new collection of poetry Funkhaus, that takes the German word funken – a transitive verb meaning signal or ‘ to radio’ – and I think of the power of words. Words that travel along lines, in radio waves, words that we hear whispered into our ears. Sam finds a sense of peace when he tells his story to Eliza. He says it is the first time he feels heard. The first time someone truly listened. And I suppose that is all anyone might want, too: to speak and be heard. To feel a connection to others; to find community. To be supported by those people, and not hurt by them. The Secrets of Strangers offers us a glimpse into a tragedy that leads to friendship, with strangers that we might otherwise have passed by on the street.

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Author QandA Fake Baby - Amy McDaid Uncategorized

QandA with Amy McDaid

READ CLOSE: If you could say something to the Amy who is just starting to write Fake Baby, what would you tell her?

AMY MCDAID: I’m not sure I’d tell her anything! She doesn’t need advice, because I know she’d learn what she needed to at the right time, at the right place in the writing process, and that she will always have something to learn, and those lessons will be precious (and sometimes painful) when this happens. She doesn’t need added encouragement either, because (plot spoiler), she is going to eventually finish the damn thing without words from her older, somewhat more haggard self either. I’d give her a hug though. She likes those. Maybe a pat on the back too. 

You have three main characters in your novel Jaanvi, Lucas, and Stephen. Tell us about how you came to see this story best served by this set of characters and what is the dynamic you see between them?

It went the other way around really, because I started with the characters, and then I heard their story. As opposed to having the story and then creating the characters to serve it. It’s kinda like getting to know a person in real life. You start off with a small detail,  like a name, and then maybe you learn something on the surface, like what they do for a job. And then you hold a conversation and if you like each other it goes deeper and you become privy to some of their thoughts. Except I guess in writing, you get to take that step further — right up to when you’re deep inside their skin. And then you hear their story. So I guess, yes, for me, Fake Baby is character-driven, so the story serves them.

The dynamic — they all live in the same city, inhabit the same space, are struggling in some way. To others, they may appear as unusual, but to me they are all, ultimately, survivors and heroes in their own right. If they were to meet, you’d think they wouldn’t get on. But maybe, just maybe, they would. 

If Fake Baby were to be made into a TV show or a film, what actors would you want to play your three main characters?

Taika Waititi, this is a direct shout out to you. Please direct the film version of Fake Baby. I trust you to make the best call on the actors. (Though I think Ryan Gosling should be slotted in somewhere, perhaps as the good-looking homeless guy). p.s. if someone out there can give me Robin Cohen’s address, I’ll send her a free copy of Fake Baby. Will throw in some chocolates. 

I always look at books as part of a wider conversation. Tell me, if you can, two or three books that you would like to see Fake Baby site alongside in conversation, books that would inform and augment a reader’s experience of your novel. 

I love that — books as part of a conversation. I’d be curious to see Fake Baby alongside Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and Eamonn Marra’s 2000ft Above Worry Level. They are very different novels, but are all contemporary with the same grain of dark funny, dealing with serious topics and mental distress while utilising humour that counteracts the bleak. They can’t and won’t appeal to everyone. The characters are polarising, certainly not always ‘lovable,’ (though I love them all with all of my heart), and their choices will be judged by society. Anyway, a good part of the reason why I chose these two books is I really like them, and I feel flattered by the idea of Fake Baby getting to hang out with them in conversation. 

What writers do you consider having had the most impact on your life, and your writing, and why? 

This is hard! I read so widely, and every time I read a book I learn something and then that’s stored away somewhere at the back of my brain, and then I move on to the next book. The books I love the most, that have stayed with me, impacted on my life, are not necessarily those I see as having had a big impact on my writing — in part because my writing is so different from theirs. I love unusual reads, the rambling stream-of-consciousness seen in Anna Burns’ The Milkman and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport. Reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was for me, like being hit by a truck. I was devastated and cried for hours after, which had never happened to me before with a book. I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith and Bernadine Evaristo for opening up worlds. All of these books have had a big impact on my life because they’ve helped me develop empathy for someone else’s experience — which is what the best literature does, in my opinion. But again, my writing is rather different from the sweeping narratives of these writers. 

For a direct, tangible impact on my writing, I’d probably have to be a little boring and go with some writing guides. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose; the latter was suggested reading for the Master of Creative Writing. I read these at the very beginning of writing Fake Baby. Bird by Bird was important because it presented a reason to write beyond publication. And I was doing that anyway — I didn’t expect to be published at that point — but it was validating and spurred me forward. And Reading Like a Writer was great because it taught me how to interrogate my prose and specifically helped me a tonne with things like dialogue and detail. It’s a book I still pick up and read and continue to learn from.

What are you reading right now? What is next in line to be read?

I am just finishing off Ali Smith’s Spring. Love, love, love! The seasonal quartet is incredible for the speed they are produced and published to engage directly with the times. Though I’ve been a little slow getting to them! So I’m determined to read Summer as soon as it’s out. Next up — Caroline Barron’s memoir Ripiro Beach, which is getting great reviews. It’s about her near death experience after she gives birth, her journey through PTSD, and her journey of discovery into her Māori whakapapa.

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Book Reviews Fake Baby - Amy McDaid Fake Baby - Amy McDaid Uncategorized

Book Review: Fake Baby by Amy McDaid

Penguin Random House, RRP $36.00, Contemporary Fiction

Spoiler alert – plot points are discussed in this review

Last Halloween, I tied four sparkling fake spiders to our gate, to let families on our street know that we’d welcome trick-or-treating. My husband decided this wasn’t scary enough, so he retrieved the plastic baby doll that belonged to our young children and tied that to the gate as well. That plastic doll, when it was in the arms of my daughters, was cute and sweet. Once the doll was attached to the fence, it became the opposite: creepy, unsettling, alarming. 

 The title of Amy McDaid’s debut novel, Fake Baby, brings to my mind this doll. Of course, the fake baby in the book is a doll of much grander ambition – it is made from silicone, baked and hand-painted and weighted perfectly to mimic a real baby. The doll, a Reborn worth more than $5000, is stolen by one of the main characters, Jaanvi. The doll symbolises an idea interrogated in Fake Baby: what are the differences between fakeness and reality; where are the boundaries of pretence and authenticity? The doll and the act of playing with dolls, so acceptable when we were children, ceases to be considered ‘normal’ once we are adults. What is normal, this book challenges us. What is not? 

 A trio of characters forms the basis for the story: Stephen, Jaanvi, and Lucas. Three people who behave in ways that seem unfathomable to others, and sometimes even to themselves. Stephen is the first character we’re introduced to, and it’s in his chapters that McDaid’s most confident writing occurs. Although the very last parts of his story feel weaker than the other two storylines, the whole book to me is carried by the confident, playful, free prose in his passages. Even when the storylines felt a touch forced, it was the zest of language that captured my attention. McDaid’s writing was never fussy or flimsy, and the comedy of the writing feels fun and natural. 

 Stephen’s a man battling with the memories of his father. The two other characters, Jaanvi and Lucas, are also dealing with issues around parenthood – their relationships with their parents are tense and difficult, and these painful feelings form Jaanvi’s experience of being a parent herself. She loses her son when he is nine days old, flashbacks deepening our understanding of what this loss was like in real-time. All the characters in the novel find that disappointment and hurt destroy or maim their love for their parents. In one of Lucas’s flashbacks, his mother gives his childhood puppy to the neighbours. He peers through the hedge to watch the dog grow. His mother discards a beloved family pet, and in the same way, Lucas feels discarded and forgotten as an adult. Lucas and Stephen have both been hurt by the people who created them, and this damage leaves deep scars. Lucas sums up his thoughts about mothers succinctly when he watches ducks at Green Bay beach: ‘They did such a poor job of caring for their young.’ 

 I imagine Jaanvi would be horrified to hear this idea. She’s a mother willing to do anything to be a mother, to give love. She has the hope that all new parents have: that they won’t repeat the mistakes of their parents. Her theft of the doll may be exactly what she says – a coping mechanism, but for some this behaviour strays too far from the norm. Her husband doesn’t seem to find it comforting or healing, and their relationship suffers from the aftershocks of their loss. Edith, Lucas’s pharmacy customer, offers a counter view of mothers and parents when she says, ‘Mothers do what they can do to get through,’ and this could be what Jaanvi’s trying to do – doing what she can to get through her pain, albeit in a way that seems to be teetering on the edge of what is creepy and what is cute.

 The novel seems to suggest that everyone moulds their behaviour to fit what is considered ‘normal’ by others: we put ourselves on display, and we shift and mutate our behaviour based on the response from our audience. Jaanvi’s friend Ayla performs in this way – she displays herself on social media and then can behave to please, with statistics to help her figure out what’s acceptable, and what is not. It’s the gaze of others that determines whether we are merely eccentric or if we require psychiatric care, whether we need a cocktail of drugs or if we need to be hospitalised. 

 McDaid’s language in the book flickers with an off-beat whimsy; words like ‘cock-a-doodled’, ‘hoed into’ and ‘hullaballoo’ pop up. There are other childlike nursery rhymes referred to at times; Stephen sings himself Twinkle Twinkle little star, Winnie the Pooh is mentioned as a potential wise sage, and offer a light touch in moments of darkness for the characters. 

 One scene has stayed with me, from a book packed with memorable scenes: Stephen, cradling the fake baby, singing a lullaby – rock-a-bye-baby. Two men take the doll from him, call him a ‘pedo’. Once they realise it’s a doll, they damage the doll. and burn it and break it. This behaviour feels more gruesome because the same pain, the same damage, is inflicted on real children in the same ways when they should be loved and protected. It’s this balance between grim and harsh reality and the clever playfulness of language that keeps Fake Baby ticking along, weaving through Auckland, exploring the heartbreak and the small joys of the people who live there.