Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sitting pretty

The book as decor item. I know this is very superficial but the book as object has many different uses. Here it functions as an object of beauty, surrounded by an early Paul Hartigan painting (1979) aptly called ‘Dictionary’. To the front is the best prize I ever won (the most practical), a Waterman ‘cigar’ fountain pen which I won for my first book. Twenty years and a new nib and I am still using it.

On the evening of November 10th I am launching ‘The Hungry Heart’ here in Napier. I am eager for people who have been following the progress of the book on this blog to have the opportunity of being present. Send me an email with name and address to and I’ll send you the details of where and when. 

To those who aren’t in Hawke’s Bay, I have to say writing this blog has been amazingly helpful to me in thinking aloud and in terms of giving me an idea of what people might be interested in (I hope!) 

Anyway, I’m getting nearer to the book coming out and becoming real, which is both a bewitching and...nervous moment.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cover art and book design

The look of a book. The feel of a book. What draws you to a book?

I came into publishing after being a film-maker. It’s inconceivable a film would come out without careful thought about its image. The image has to tell you so much: expected audience, whether you might enjoy that type of product. It’s meant to excite and seduce.

Image and look should all head in one direction.

So it seemed unbelievable that as an author I was meant to have nothing at all to do with the look of a book I had written.

In my first contract I stipulated I had creative control of the cover. (At the time - prima donna that I was - I had no idea how rare this was.)

Over time this changed into ‘consultation with the publishing company’...

Thus adventures in the book trade and my journey working with contemporary artists to craft a beautiful book cover.

It began with my first book of short stories, Dangerous Desires. I worked with photographer Deborah Smith who created an evocative double focus image of fruit and classical male statuary. I liked the richness of the image. At this stage I wasn’t so conversant with typography and other aspects of book design. But in terms of the New Zealand book market at the time it was a stand out.

I’ll include here, for interest’s sake, the British cover (Minerva) which I think telegraphs in a much more competitive market its target audience.

The American hardback, interestingly, is the least successful in my view. It is a depressing image and to me always looks like a man crawling along in the dirty murk of a gay sauna. Hardly an uplifting image. 

Interestingly this was the second choice cover. The initial cover was much more pleasing but for whatever reason Dawn Sefarian at Penguin with whom I was working, imperially decreed that the murky cover be chosen.

I always see it as a lost opportunity, especially as the typeface and the paper quality had that characteristic American chaste excellence which New Zealand publications hardly ever match. 

My second book of short stories had a cover image specifically made by photographer Fiona Pardington. At this stage she was very interested in the aroma of sex, I guess you would call it. I can’t recall that I asked for that specific image. Fiona read the book and came up with the image herself, from memory.

(Both Fiona and Deborah Smith were people I knew at the time.)

The two young men on the cover were shocked that they were so easily identifiable. I paid Fiona a fee over what the publisher would pay, but the fee was still much less than she would normally charge. Publishers always cry poor. 

But all my carefully laid plans for this book went awry when I got the first copy. The publisher Reed had printed the book on cheap paper which has very quickly gone from white to yellow to that particularly unpleasant nicotine orange. It was a real disappointment. 

The British version of the book came out with an evocative image. But once again, that curious choice of ‘brown’. Given brown’s negative association with male homosexuality, I wonder if somebody’s subsconscious was in play? I still like the image however. The cute boy in the image reminds me of a character in one of the short stories.

The next cover was one crafted by myself and Rex Pilgrim. It wasn’t a contemporary photographer this time. The photograph was taken in the Edwardian period by Henry Winkelmann, best known for his magnificently breezy yacht photos. 

Privately he was homosexual and he took some extremely rare photographs of men on boats who were physically intimate. The photo was of two men tenderly kissing (one of the men being a Horton of the one-time newspaper owning dynasty.)

The Auckland Museum who owned the image refused to give permission for the photograph to be used. It was an act of censorship. Somewhat incredibly we went ahead anyway, and the publishers backed us up. (Thank you Reed for your courage there.)

It is still a hauntingly beautiful image and the book quickly became a collector’s item.

Jump forward now to my last novel, Lucky Bastard with Random House New Zealand. I was very lucky to have Martin Poppelwell create the image. (Once again, Martin was a friend.) It is a rich looking cover, sympathetic to the contents. In its own way it is like a mysterious Japanese box...

(By this time possible book covers were being vetted by main street stores which sold the book. ‘Would a book like this sell?’ I was fortunate in that some overseas books had parallel covers in terms of complex imagry. Otherwise no dice.)

The author is usually the last person to be consulted. This is a reflection of an inverted power structure. The writer who does the writing is the least powerful person in the equation.

I wonder if many people know that the author who writes the book gets slightly less than the GST on the book. Everything else goes to publishers and retailers. 

As Julian Barnes presciently said in his acceptance speech for the 2011 Booker (and a line which I noted all newspapers in NZ edited out) that the book will only survive as a physical object if it gives pleasure to the eye and to touch, as well as the mind.

My current book cover came about through different circumstances. 

The Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery commissioned contemporary artist Gavin Hurley to do a new portrait of William Colenso, the subject of my book. The current image on the book cover was an early version. The moment I saw it I loved it and saw its potential. (And once again I was lucky in that I knew Gavin. I don’t know how difficult negotiations would be if you didn’t know the artist. Or if the artist didn't know and to a degree trust the quality of your work.)

“The Hungry Heart’ published by Random House New Zealand is an updating of the story of maverick William Colenso. A completely contemporary fresh image messages this. 

Alan Deare, from Area Design, has shaped the product. He created the very beautiful spine motif - which is actually from kowhaiwhai sketched in the 1840s by the Reverend William Cotton. It glistens like just-wet black ink. The colourings are pleasant, cool in both senses of the word. And the fact the book is a hardback gives the book-as-object gravitas. 

I'm tickled pink.


Producing a book is a conversation. First of all, in your own head, as you write it, then as the book merges into the river of a publishing company, many other voices emerge. As a writer you have to keep a very clear sense of your own voice or you risk the book, like a boat, suddenly whirring off down onto another whole channel and being grounded on a shore you no longer recognise....

As for the cover image, as an author, it is something you live with for a long its own way it is permanent as a tattoo. And like a tattoo you want it to be...perfect.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

'worth buying...worth keeping' - Julian Barnes

Yesterday morning I got the first copy of ‘The Hungry Heart’ - the book - into my hands. It was the most exciting moment.

This is a photo of what the book looks like. 

It is a hardback, which has a special meaning to writers (think limousine.)

The image of Colenso is by contemporary artist Gavin Hurley.

The cover was designed by Alan Deare of area design.

In a few days I’ll write more about the design elements of the book.

But at the moment all I can do is gasp. When I go out of the room I think it will disappear. But when I come back in...there it is.

A side view, giving some sense of the subtle binding with a kowhaiwhai patterning.

The end papers....such a delicious word in itself....

Julian Barnes, in accepting the 2011 Booker Prize, had this to say just the other day (as reported in the Guardian):  

'Accepting the prize, Barnes thanked the judges for their wisdom and the sponsors for their cheque. He also offered some advice to publishers: "Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we've come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping." '

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Wreck of the Rena...

It was as if the country awoke from a dream. For week on week there had been a gathering hysteria, all about a game. It is possible in such a small society to swamp it with a single idea. Aotearoa New Zealand gave itself up with a singular intensity to the pursuit of an ideal: we were a host country sharing with our visitors a national obsession.
That it incorporated issues to do with identity (shaky) and importance (debatable) only made the situation more
intense. If you did not join in, you were a piker, someone faintly suspect. Cars became adorned with flags. Flags appeared in people's windows. People paraded the streets with their faces painted in national colours.

As a friend commented 'it is actually quite frightening to see mob-like tendencies among people who seemed quite ordinary.' At her gym on Auckland's North Shore a woman challenged her on the absence of a flag on her car. 'You have to show support for our team.' My friend, who is usually studiedly apolitical, commented: 'I find it all quite horrible. One can understand how in Germany once it was understood by everyone that Jews were fair game, Jews did become fair game.'

Is this an outrageous statement? A complete misunderstanding of what is a genial occasion, a time for celebration, a
period of especial innocence? Or is there something faintly neurotic about New Zealanders' obsession with
their position in the rugby world? It is neatly sandwiched between our usual colonial obsession with the niceness of making money. The Rugby World Cup was presented by the National Government as only partly about sport. More
realistically it was a chance to kickstart a dormant economy. People began to fantasise about how much money they could rent out their houses for.

In fact the reports are that only those bars and restaurants which are in the immediate 'fan zone' are making money.
Other parts of the city - and country - have experienced the exact opposite. New Zealanders have stayed at home.
Motels have many empty rooms. The promised inflow of cash has been debatable - especially when placed side by side with the final bills (which will conveniently arrive, post election.)

What about John Key and his cynical placing an election date just after the World Cup? He has fallen in my estimation. He appears at times to be a complete fool. His love of popularity is a terrible weakness. He needs to be weaned off it.

And then Rena happened.

It was as if a tarpaulin had suddenly developed a hole and piercingly cold water began to drip, then gush on
a feverish head.

The government, caught off guard - practically speaking nursing hangovers from its endless partying and immersion in the delusory world of rugby - didn't take notice.

It took days for Key to chopper into town and try and parlay his charm.

But people were angry.

It is a very real disaster and ecology is a key kiwi value. It is beyond race - the usually divisive issue in NZ.

If there was a deus ex machina, Rena is its name: a god which appears out of nowhere and promptly changes everything.

The All Blacks may win or lose on Sunday night, but for the government, they have lost already.

The tide begins to turn.

And it is bringing in black oil.....and more and more black oil...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Colenso the pie...

I have been shortsighted for a long time and got glasses, much to my mortification when I was 21. I refused to wear them for a long time until I found a pair of 30’s style specs, a variety of which I wear today.

But the fact was I had got used to soft focus, which is no bad thing given the general rawness of the world. Nevertheless it has its down-sides. The house, seen through my spectacles, suddenly assumes a mantle of months-long dust (I love dust’s old fashioned name - sluts wool.) 

Similarly, a glance into the mirror with and without specs has the effect of a pleasing lack of detail or a sudden collapse into the averlanche of age.

When I was out for dinner on Saturday night I walked into the kitchen for something - probably another glass of wine - when the hostess suddenly whipped the pie I knew we were having out of view. Because I didn’t have my glasses on, I saw nothing. Or rather, only a smudge. 

Imagine, dear reader, my feelings when I came in to sit down for dinner and there was the most lovely tribute.  The words Colenso had been formed on the pie crust, along with the smaller details of open books (printing) and leaves (botany). It really was immensely touching.

The pie was delicious, a chicken pie from Annabel Langbien’s ‘Great Food for Busy People.’ Since I believed Annabel Langbien was Nigella Lawson’s evil blonde twin sister and had been invented by some sort of chemical experiment, I was amazed when the pie turned out to be completely delicious. So thank you Lucy and Michael for making such a tasty tribute, one, moreover which could be eaten. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Is this rock bottom?

How much further do we have to go?

Sacrifices come in many forms.

As do obsessions.

The nation's manic mood deepens and gets a darker edge.

The question on everyone's lips: can we survive without Dan?