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Renowned in Bulgary

When I was interviewed by Bulgarian Cosmopolitan in May, I asked if they could send me one of the magazines with the free copy of Smart Casual. When I had no response, I presumed my request had drowned in the editor’s slushpile.

Then, about a month ago, I received a bulky parcel from Headline Publishing. This was extremely exciting, since I rarely get anything in the mail except second hand books from Trademe or letters from the Vinegrowers Association of Marlborough, (the snailmail version of remedies to enlarge my penis).

The parcel contained two virgin, cellophaned magazine/book packs, along with five copies of what I presume is Smart Casual. Because the cover of the book was different; and both the magazines and books were in Bulgarian. That’s one of those acrylic languages.

Bulgarian Cosmopolitan

I flicked through the magazine and couldn’t understand anything, although the article on ten ways to pleasure your man in bed was fairly clear even in acrylic. I’d sent the editor of Bulgarian Cosmo a photo of myself, but I couldn’t find it or anything that resembled my interview; she must have decided to go with Eva Longoria Parker. Hey – I’m sure I could look twice that good with some extreme photoshop.

I wasn’t even sure whether the book IS Smart Casual, but it has 63 chapters, which is consistent. Also, there were the same number of sentences per paragraph on the first page.

This is what Smart Casual looks like in Bulgarian. That might be a generic cover, but I love it; I would give a lesser limb for a set of pins like that, and I covet those shoes.

Now, when I talk about Smart Casual, I can say:

SMART CASUAL!
THE INTERNATIONAL BOOK!
TRANSLATED INTO ONE LANGUAGE!

Although that really deserves to be exclaimed.

Two weeks later, I got another parcel from Headline . . . with more packs and copies of the magazine/book.

I’d noticed there is a section in Marlborough Library which contains foreign language books. Since I don’t have many Bulgarian friends, and was now in possession of about fifteen more copies of the book than I knew what to do with, I decided to give some to the library.

I thought any more than three copies was a touch over-fervid. There was mass confusion amongst the librarians when I presented the books at the counter. It took significant time and gesticulative overhead to establish that I wasn’t either a) checking out or b) returning the books.

Then the librarian was suspicious about my handing over new books, and tried to torture me into confessing that I expected renumeration. Once she established that I was donating the books to the library’s collection – and determined the translation was Bulgarian – she became positively frisky.

“Aw, wow,” she said, “I’ll have to set up a whole new section! We don’t have a Bulgarian section,” she confided.

I successfully mastered the urge to correct ‘Bulgarian’ to ‘Bulgary’ – yes, yes, I know my geography is pure shocking.

The librarian looked as if she wanted to high-five me, but honestly, I just couldn’t get that enthused about a whole new section.

An Equal Music/ Vikram Seth

The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.

There is no one about. The birds are still. The traffic slashes through Hyde Park. It comes to my ears as white noise.

I test the bench but do not sit down. As yesterday, as the day before, I stand until I have lost my thoughts. I look at the water of the Serpentine.

And that’s about as explosive and action-packed as An Equal Music gets, at least within the first 200 pages – which is about as far as I read before I said aloud, “Oh, please!” in exactly that tone of voice.

The Sunday Times quote on the cover enticed me into buying the book: Seth’s novel is a wonder-work: irresistible, tense, deeply moving.

Well, as far as irresistible goes, I suppose the cover is nice; and I can see how the critic could conceivably have found the book tense if he was reading it whilst simultaneously picking his way through a mine-field wearing clown shoes; but ‘deeply moving’? That’s either a whopping typo (although how do you get ‘moving’ from ‘dreary’?) or he can only have been referring to his lower intestine.

The prose is generally fine and lovely, which almost makes the book worse in that it is such a profligate waste.

I also feel bad, because Vikram Seth – who, if I weren’t trashing his book, I’d call ‘Vik’ – looks like a dude:-

The main problem is the characters: they’re dislikeable. This wouldn’t be problem if they were also intriguing e.g. wittily cruel, or given to sadism (apart from existing as characters in a book I’m reading), or – ideally – engaged in a plot to poison each other. But regrettably, they are uniformly mundane.

Their defining characteristic is that they love music. This doesn’t make them INTERESTING. I mean, I love coffee- no, let’s take something less pedestrian; I love the smell of petrol. Does that make me interesting? – of course not. That would be my intriguing personality.

The plot revolves around the four members of the Maggiore Quartet. There’s Michael, who still suffers an adolescent crush on Julia over ten years later. Helen’s main feature appears to be the flat she inherited from her aunt. Her brother, Piers, is gay and resents living in a basement. The fourth member, Billy, appears to have no purpose in the novel. I stopped reading before a character named ‘Tarquin’ or ‘Fanny’ made an appearance.

The characters face a series of clichés crises: losing a piece of music, contention over who will play first and second violin, how to afford a multi-million pound instrument, whether or not to accept a recording contract.

While I would love to face any of these middle-class concerns crises, they don’t make for dramatic tension.

I couldn’t help but feel that a few corpses would have benefited this book – but unfortunately not saved it.

3/10

The PR juggernaut rumbles into town

I was recently asked to do an interview for Bulgarian Cosmopolitan. I KNOW! When I was little, I thought my only chance of featuring in Cosmopolitan Magazine would be because my husband ran away with my mother, or for owning the world’s largest chihuahua. I’ve come a long way from The Limerick Leader.

And here it is pre-edit, in case anyone’s interested:-

I loved “Smart Casual”. What made you decide to write that book?
Why, thank you!

Look, to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing when I started Smart/Casual. How difficult could it be? – I could spell!

I had always been told ‘write what you know’, which is why I decided to set the story in a large corporation. I’ve always been intrigued by the workplace: every one is its own little microcosm with a unique set of politics, intrigue, villains and heroes. Office relationships are so tricky: even if you loathe them, you have to get along with your colleagues – a bit like your family, or the police.

Originally I conceived Smart/Casual as a satire of the Mills & Boon ‘she gasped as he pressed her to his glistening chest’ genre, but about five chapters in I feared that was a bit cheeky. Also, I was concerned the market for romance spoofs might be somewhat limited.

The book segued into a standard romance, until I got bored about halfway through and it turned into a kind of thriller romance supernatural murder-mystery, without the ghosts or corpses. Chick-lit if you prefer.

Don’t worry: it was edited a lot.

Has writing always been a passion of yours?
Not at all, I’d much prefer to be having sex.

I always liken writing to going to the gym: I put it off and put it off – I will vacuum rather than write. Then, when I get there, I am pleasantly surprised: hey! This isn’t so bad! And afterwards I feel all noble and worthy. In short: it’s a love/hate relationship.

However, I am passionate about making people laugh. I don’t have many talents (unless I count being able to play ‘chopsticks’ with my toes, which is difficult to work into a resume), but being able to write humour is one of them. I love having an outlet for that.

In the scheme of it, my grand passion – what makes my world go round – the one great love of my life – would have to be: coffee.

If it weren’t for caffeine, I would not be able to write and would probably have maimed and/or divorced my husband.

Do you find writing comedy difficult?
I think difficulty is relative to the type of writing you enjoy. For me, writing comedy is easier than ‘the moon rose like a silvery planet’ style of litter-chewer.

Jokes sometimes visit me at unexpected moments: driving, weeding, washing my hair. I always think I’ll remember them later, but never do. I’m convinced The World’s Best Joke Ever is one of those I thought of and forgot over the years.

I try to carry a notebook around to jot down creative brain burps. In desperate circumstances, I have pressed my hand into service, but then you have to find a pen . . . I find it easiest to record ideas on my phone, despite feeling like an arse talking to myself.

Otherwise, I write pretty much as I speak, although slightly more articulately (unbelievable as that may be). My friends who read Smart/Casual said they could hear my voice in their heads, complete with Irish pronunciation.

I can only imagine what a terrifying experience that must have been.

What is your writing process like? Do you have any special rituals or anything?
First I like to slaughter a chicken . . . oh wait, did you say special rituals for writing?

Apart from stapling myself to my desk, I don’t have a process as such. I wish I did, because it sounds much more effective than my random scattergun approach wherein I am often distracted by dolphins.

I can’t even open my laptop without a cup of coffee on emergency standby.

I like to write with my headphones on channelling Bruce Springsteen.

I prefer writing in the mornings, or just whenever I can pin myself down.

I beat myself with the guilty stick if I don’t write at least five hours a day.

I don’t believe in writers’ block. The most important thing is writing, preferably words. If stuck, I like the words ‘ficus’, ‘shinsplints’ and pretty much any swear word.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Thank you so much for taking time to read Smart/Casual and I hope you enjoy it. My second book, About Time, was published at the end of April this year. I would be delighted if you bought it, so that no more chickens must die.

Overachiever

I admit it: I have an automatic Google search that informs me when Smart/Casual or About Time is mentioned on a website.

Mostly the alerts are about second-hand copies of my books for sale, but occasionally it is something else: The Ampersand Agency’s blog, the debut album from Kids in Glass Houses, or the Smart Casual Raiding Co. of Earthen Ring (“Someone talked to Tirion and decided we don’t need the strength of Wrynn buff – and we do not!” Don’t ask. Here. See for yourself and let me know if you have any idea what brand of mushroom they’re smoking.)

A couple of weeks ago, Google Alerts emailed me the link to this review of Smart/Casual, by Read in a Single Sitting. My critic was kind enough to award it 4 stars out of 5. That’s an A-, right? Well, it is in The University of Western Ontario, which doesn’t sound like the type of college where you can buy your degree at all.

So that would be the highest score I ever got for English Composition and, you know, I can only consider it a failing on my former English teacher’s part that she never likened my writing to:

a Jack Russell: small and with a lot of character, but once you get past the fact that it jumps all over you and tries to do the dirty with your leg, you can’t help but love it

Arabian Sands

Wilfred Thesiger 1948

Wilfred Thesiger 1948

Here, to be alone was to feel at once the weight of fear, for the nakedness of this land was more terrifying than the darkest forest at dead of night. In the pitiless light of day we were as insignificant as the beetles I watched labouring across the sand. Only in the kindly darkness could we borrow a few square feet of desert and find homeliness within the radius of the firelight, while overhead the familiar pattern of the stars screened the awful mystery of space.

All the time I lived in the Middle East, I resisted explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s books. One reason for this was that generally, although I am an avid reader, I am not a big fan of autobiography. I prefer to have Experiences of my own, instead of reading about other peoples’.

Despite the photo below, I was never about to jump into a head-dress and wander across the Empty Quarter fighting off camel raiders with a second world war rifle; but the OTHER reason I didn’t read Thesiger’s account of his travels is because I feared it would be a bit ex-colonial pip pip jolly good tally ho old cock, what?

Eid 2003: Intrepid explorer. That thing you see in my hand? A mug of sea breeze. The insistent knocking sound you hear? Wilfred Thesiger turning in his grave.

Two weeks ago, I came across a copy of ‘Arabian Sands’ at the Blenheim Friday Market for $1 and felt it would be churlish bordering on ill-mannered to leave it on the stand.

This would normally be one of those books that would sit worthily on my bedside table for a while before being relegated to the top of my Stack Of Worthy Books, gradually making its way down as the pile collects additional Worthy Books, but never quite reaching the bottom which is reserved for ‘Heart of Darkness’ and anything by Paulo Coelho.

Instead, I started reading Arabian Sands, and was surprised to find it – ‘gripping’ is not entirely accurate, but I wouldn’t balk at – ‘unputdownable’.

The book is an account of Thesiger’s expeditions from 1945-1950 in the Empty Quarter of Arabia, one of the largest sand deserts in the world covering around 650,000 square kilometres.

Slightly more recent satellite image of The Empty Quarter

At the time, obtaining permission to travel the area was problematic even for an upstanding member of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit. Thesiger and his Bedu guides faced constant threats: being massacred by warring tribes, plotting a course through the barren terrain, locating the sparse wells, leaking water skins, gnawing hunger, grinding thirst, starving camels, and testicle-hunters:-

The Danakil country, where the people were head-hunters who collected testicles instead of heads. Among them a man’s standing depended to a very large extent on his reputation as a warrior, which was judged by the number of men he had killed and mutilated. There was no need to kill another man in fair fight; all that was required to establish a reputation was to collect the necessary number of severed genitals. I found it disconcerting to be stared at by a Danakil, feeling that he was probably assessing my value as a trophy.

Thesiger spends little time on analysis or introspection, but his factual, astringent prose beautifully describes the desert environment. The book also features some gorgeous black and white plates.

Wilfred Thesiger

The Empty Quarter 1948, Wilfred Thesiger.

Wilfred Thesiger

Dubai Creek, undated.

The Empty Quarter, Wilfred Thesiger

Desert.

Arabian Sands is a little sparse on plot, and any suspense is tempered by the author’s evidently surviving to write several books. But there is no shortage of baddies, trial, tribulation; and it is a startling snapshot of the Arab people and a vanished way of life.

The Qarra, a tribe that lived near Salala, had a unique technique for milking cows:

Before a man milked a cow – women were forbidden even to touch the udders – he would sometimes put his lips to the cow’s vagina and blow into it to induce the cow to lower her milk.

And a remedy for your camel refusing to give milk: 

. . . an ugly grey, which we had bought in the Raidat because she was in milk. At first she refused to give us any, although her calf had already been weaned, but Amai sewed up her anus, saying he would not undo it until she let down her milk. After that she gave us about a quart a day.

Arab place name conventions are evidently more – let’s call it – imaginative than New Zealand:

Two days later we were camped near a well with the uninviting name of Faswat at Ajuz, or ‘the Hag’s C*ough!*’.

And let me tell you, the Tihama know how to really rock a circumcision.

Long melancholy tragi-horror

When Little Black Dress offered me a two book deal, the contract specified only that the second book should be a ‘short, funny romance’.

At the time, I had already started another novel. However, since Revenge of the Cow is a long, melancholy tragi-horror, I postponed it and started a book that featured more boners.

That covered the romance.

‘About Time’ is a sequence of snapshots over an extended period, narrated by both the male and female protagonists.

“Oh my goodness,” said my agent, when I told him I was writing half the book from a male perspective. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Maybe you could write his sections in omniscient pluperfect. Or . . . something..”

Indeed, for a long time I wondered whether I could pull it off. I’ve always considered my humour fundamentally female, deriving as it does from exaggeration and dramatic over-statement; and Conn’s personality was the precise opposite. Although I had a clear idea of Conn’s character (highly intelligent but pathologically incapable of normal social interaction), getting his ‘voice’ right – the clipped sentences and formal structure – was an arduous process that felt entirely unnatural at the outset.

At least my sense of humour was ideally suited to Lara’s free-spirited character with an uncanny ability to pick emotional wankers.

The story is about the concept of fate or destiny as opposed to free will/choice.

Also, of course, boners.

I’m not going to get a chance to post over the next couple of days, but in the meantime here’s an excerpt from About Time. I hope you enjoy it.

x

Chillin, Onemana

My idea of a perfect holiday: people you love, light glinting on waves, sun-scorched sand, damp togs, ice-cream melting down your fingers, camp chairs on a deck, salads and chilled wine, early afternoon siestas, spending not too much time with an excellent book, ambling along the beach at dusk, sandy feet, the mild Cajun heat of sunburn on your shoulders, falling asleep to a chorus of cicadas.

Andrew’s idea of a perfect holiday: propelling himself over rough terrain at vast speeds and making up words for ‘bored’.

Hard to find a middle ground.

Biting off more than he can chew: Jed attempts to fetch the swing.

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