Monday, May 30, 2016

The Age of Slaughter

Tracey & me

Tracey Slaughter's Booklaunch

So on Thursday Bronwyn and I drove down to Hamilton for the launch of Tracey Slaughter's latest book, deleted scenes for lovers.

Here's Tracey with her book (unless otherwise noted, all the pictures in this post have been borrowed from Mayhem Literary Journal's facebook page):

Tracey & books

The event was very ably MC'ed by Waikato University's own Mark Houlahan:

Mark Houlahan

It was very well attended:

The Crowd in the Gallery

The speakers included her publisher, Fergus Barrowman, of Victoria University Press:

Fergus Barrowman

Distinguished novelist (and Tracey's good friend) Catherine Chidgey:

Catherine Chidgey

And also me, making the official launch speech:

Me launching the book

And, for those of you who are curious, here it is:

Tracey Slaughter. deleted scenes for lovers. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2016.

There are many great New Zealand poets, novelists – and creative writers generally, but I still feel confident in claiming that the short story is the genre in which we’ve most distinguished ourselves.

To my mind, these are the four great epochs of the New Zealand short story:

First (of course) the Age of Mansfield: It’s fair to say that the atmospheric intensity of Katherine Mansfield’s fiction was helped by her reading of Chekhov, Flaubert and Maupassant. But I think her work would have developed that way even if she’d never encountered them.

Secondly, the Age of Sargeson: Again, there were outside, mainly American influences on the innovations pioneered here by Frank Sargeson. But his exploration of the literary resources of the New Zealand vernacular – breaking away from dialect as a kind of comic turn – remains revolutionary.

The chronology gets a bit more shaky after that, but the next great age, for me, is the Age of Marshall. Owen Marshall – still with us, fortunately – with his immense body of work exploring the New Zealand experience in all its multifaceted variety, built on the work of previous writers such as Maurice Duggan to present a more consciously symbolic reading of the landscape and mores of the country.

And now we come to the Age of Slaughter. This last category may rouse a bit more controversy. There are, to be sure, many fine practitioners of the art of the short story in New Zealand right now: Breton Dukes, Sue Orr, Alice Tawhai, to name just a few. What is it about Tracey’s work which gives it such extraordinary significance?

It’s not simply a matter of talent – though I would defy anyone to read Tracey’s latest collection, deleted scenes for lovers, which I feel so privileged to be here today to launch, and question the sheer magnitude of her ability as a writer: her ear for language, the mythopoeic intensity of her imagination. No, it’s more of a question, for me, of a paradigm shift.

This is one I’ve been sensing for quite some time, both in the work I receive as an editor, and the kinds of writing I see our students starting to produce – since Tracey and I both work as teachers of Creative Writing.

The Age of Slaughter, for me, has an Apocalyptic air. The authors born into it, or who inhabit it by necessity, feel at home with intense emotion. Unlike the schools of the laconic and the ironic that preceded them, they have no problem with excess, with big themes and extravagant linguistic tropes.

There’s a certain black humour about them, too: like William Faulkner, Tracey writes about situations so devastating that she almost forces us to laugh. Sometimes, as in the passage from a projected memoir with which she won the Landfall essay prize last year, she jets out passages of jewelled prose so intense and dazzling that we hardly notice the banalities of the seventies key party and ranch slider aesthetic that underlies them.

Both Sargeson and Marshall specialised in apparent simplicity: a straightforward surface concealing strange depths. Tracey, by contrast (I would argue), has taken inspiration from Mansfield’s late stories to use the full resources of a poet’s word-palette when painting her complex and devastating scenes. You always have to read a Tracey Slaughter story twice: even then some of its subtleties may lie in wait to ambush you later.

Courage, however, is the word which most frequently comes to my mind when I read Tracey’s work. She goes places others (including myself) are afraid to. The interrogation of the word “consent” in the story of that name, the sheer intensity of the wish for escape and freedom in “How to Leave Your Family,” the dark close of “The Longest Drink in Town” – there’s no holding back in any of these pieces. But neither is there any over-simplification, no failure – above all – to find the “right word, not its second cousin,” which Mark Twain defined as “the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

If you want to know where New Zealand culture is right now, read Tracey Slaughter. Buy her book; get her to sign it; you won’t regret it. I’ll go further. Even if many of you couldn’t care less about New Zealand writers and their various turf wars and attempts at self-definition (why should you, after all?), if you want to know how it feels to live in this country: to recognise the thousand small details that go to make up a sense of place: the feel of wet flannelette pyjamas on a child who’s wet the bed; how it feels to kiss a smoky mouth you shouldn’t, read Tracey Slaughter.

To say I recommend this book is to put it mildly. I think it’s an indispensable book. This is our Prelude, our That Summer, our The Day Hemingway Died. This is no drawing-room talent we’re talking here: this is Tracey Slaughter. And for better or worse, in all its beauty and complexity, but also its fears and devastations, its intimations of total eclipse, this is the Age of Slaughter.

Steven Toussaint, Catherine Chidgey, Catherine Wallace et al.

Congratulations, Tracey!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Movies about English Teachers

Peter Weir, dir. Dead Poets Society (1989)

The moment I'd posted the previous list, Bronwyn pointed out a whole lot of movies I'd left out. I still think there's a slight difference between inspirational English teacher movies and inspirational university Creative Writer teacher films, but I agree that there's not a lot in it.

Is there anybody on the planet who hasn't watched Robin Williams getting his students to stand on top of their desks, judging how they walk, and telling them to rip out the introduction to their poetry anthology? It's a pity that Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" seems to be their poem of choice (though Shakespeare gets a bit of a look-in, too), but there's no doubt that this is the King Kong of English teacher movies.

John N. Smith, dir. Dangerous Minds (1995)

Michelle Pfeiffer as a poetry teacher, yes, I can see that (just). Michelle Pfeiffer as an ex-Marine - we-ell, that's a bit harder to swallow.

Much ranting about Dylan Thomas is how I remember her pedagogical approach ("when you can read poetry, you're loaded for bear!"). Oh, and the Dylan-Dylan challenge ... Great sound-track album, though, definitely (even before the Mad Al Yankovich parody).

Richard LaGravenese, dir. Freedom Writers (2007)

While it seems to have sunk without a trace, and was a little clunky in its construction, this movie really packed a surprising punch, I thought. And it really did preach the virtues of writing things down - if not to exorcise them at any rate to assert some sort of control over them.

In fact, looking through the page of quotes from it on the IMDB, I feel like watching it again. Here's one of the quotes from Hillary Swank's character, Erin Gruwell, who's just found a racist drawing by one of the students, Tito:
Maybe we should talk about art. Tito's got real talent, don't you think? You know something? I saw a picture just like this once, in a museum. Only it wasn't a black man, it was a jewish man. And instead of the big lips he had a really big nose, like a rat's nose. But he wasn't just one particular jewish man. This was a drawing of all jews. And these drawings were put in the newspapers by the most famous gang in history. You think you know all about gangs? You're amateurs. This gang will put you all to shame. And they started out poor and angry and everybody looked down on them. Until one man decided to give them some pride, an identity... and somebody to blame. You take over neighborhoods? That's nothing compared to them. They took over countries. You want to know how? They just wiped out everybody else. Yeah, they wiped out everybody they didn't like and everybody they blamed for their life being hard. And one of the ways they did it was by doing this: see, they print pictures like this in the newspapers, jewish people with big, long noses... blacks with big, fat lips. They'd also published scientific evidence that proved that jews and blacks were the lowest form of human species. Jews and blacks were more like animals. And because they were just like animals it didn't matter if they lived or died. In fact, life would be a whole lot better if they were all dead. That's how a holocaust happens. And that's what you all think of each other.

John Krokidas, dir. Kill Your Darlings (2013)

I suppose that this is more of an anti-English teacher film than one in praise of them. Nevertheless, at the end the pompous Walt Whitman-hating Professor ends up encouraging Ginsberg to keep on writing.

Some nice quotes from this one on the IMDB, too:
William Burroughs: Show me the man who is both sober and happy, and I will show you the crinkled anus of a lying asshole.

Gus Van Sant, dir. Finding Forrester (2000)

Ditto this one. The J.D. Salinger-like "Forrester" of the title encourages the young black writer despite all the put-downs he gets from his loathsome teacher F. Murray Abraham.

The best scene is probably the one where Sean Connery is telling his protege to really bash those typewriter keys: "Now you're cooking ... You're the man now, dog!"
No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is ... to write, not to think!

I suppose films based on romantic images of J. D. Salinger would take us to Field of Dreams:

Phil Alden Robinson, dir. Field of Dreams (1989)

While "poetic mentor" films would take us to the more recent Set Fire to the Stars (based on John Malcolm Brinnin's tell-all 1955 memoir Dylan Thomas in America). You have to call a halt to the process sometime, though. In any case, the real - rather unexpected - star-turn in this Dylan Thomas bio-pic was Shirley Henderson playing horror novelist Shirley Jackson (though, strangely enough, she goes unnamed in the cast list, and the role isn't even listed on the actress's wikipedia page. Maybe something ... uncanny happened during filming. Maybe they all drew lots in some unspeakable ceremony. Maybe they all swore never ever to tell anyone anything about it ... on pain of death):

Andy Goddard, dir. Set Fire to the Stars (2014)

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Movies about Creative Writing Teachers

Marc Lawrence, dir. The Rewrite (2015)

Bronwyn and I were watching this truly silly Hugh Grant vehicle the other night, when I got to thinking about the portrayal of Creative Writing teachers on screen - to date, at any rate. Strangely enough, there were one or two moments during the film when I got a faint intimation that its author (also its director) might know something about what he was talking about.

Hugh Grant was turning in his usual foppish performance as ineffectual-Englishman-abroad, but sometimes - such as the moment when he was forced to face the full horror of a Creative Writing class he hadn't prepared for at all - when it began to resemble reality for a brief instant.

His method of evaluating portfolios - consisting of checking out their respective author's profile pictures on facebook, rather than actually reading any of them - had a certain undeniable panache, but it was when I found I was actually taking note of some of his techniques and resolving to try them out next time I'm in class, that I realised that the movie was working for me, at least: despite the complete lack of any screen chemistry between Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei; despite the floppy, rather pointless ending.

That's pretty sad, isn't it? Taking pointers from Hugh Grant. I must be desperate.

Curtis Hanson, dir. Wonder Boys (2000)

It got me to thinking, though. What are some of the other notable Creative Writing teacher performances in cinema history? I was very shocked indeed to discover, a few years ago, that none of my colleagues had ever even seen the Great-Grandaddy of them all: Wonder Boys.

I'm afraid that this film has been in my personal pantheon for so long that it is, for me, beyond all criticism. I know people say that Michael Douglas was miscast, that he's too old, that he doesn't look enough like an intellectual ... etc. etc. Blah blah woof woof - as Jessica Alba once memorably put it in an episode of Dark Angel.

Who the hell cares what he looks like? Whether there's even the slightest plausibility in any of the events of that long strange weekend in Pittsburgh, the weekend of Word-fest?

"That book of yours must have been one nutty ride," as one of the bit-players remarks to Grady Tripp, Michael Douglas's character in the movie, author of Arsonist's Daughter, "a little book I wrote 'under the influence,' as you put it, which happened to win a little thing called the P.E.N. award," as he points out pompously to Katie Holmes, who is trying to persuade him to edit out one or two little details ("the characters' dental records, the genealogies of their horses") from his latest opus.

I find myself quoting from it at least once a day: "As fit as a fucking fiddle" - Grady's description of Tobey Maguire's character, aka: "James Leer, Junior Lit major and sole inhabitant of his own gloomy gulag", whom he's just caught with a loaded gun out in the garden of the Vice-Chancellor's house; "Jesus, what is it with you Catholics?" - the "sensitive" response to James's latest story from one of his classmates; "Sometimes people just need to be rescued" - when Grady and his editor bust James out of his grandparents's house, leaving a dead dog behind in his bed to act as decoy:
"Spells? Jesus, James, you make it sound like we're in a Tennessee Williams play. I don't get spells." / "What do you call them, then?" / "Episodes."
I love the way that nobody uses anything but a typewriter to produce their various works, short or long, with somewhat unfortunate results when it turns out that Grady, for one, does not make copies. "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there," as Bob Dylan puts it in one of the two songs he contributed to the film.

"It's nice to know that the youth of America are in safe hands" is Robert Downey Jr.'s parting shot as he disappears into the Dean's office to attempt (with mixed success) to parley them all out of trouble.

Part of it is the excellence of the book it's based on, of course. Michael Chabon's second novel is yet another long love-letter to Pittsburgh, his "drug of choice," as Grady characterises Frances McDormand's taste for the written word. Whole sections and subplots of the book have been left out of the cinematic version. What is there, however, rings true enough to Chabon's semi-autobiographical tale of a writer caught in the trap of an unfinishable and uncomfortably vast second novel, after the breakthrough ease of his first, the Great Gatsby-like Mysteries of Pittsburgh.

Mostly, though, it's just that even though our professional (and private) lives could never bear the faintest resemblance to Grady's (perish the thought!), one can't help feeling at times that they should - that it should be as cool a thing to do as Michael Douglas makes it. For me, this is the closest thing to Holy Writ the profession has yet inspired.

Danny DeVito, dir. Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

When it comes to quotable quotes, though, this early effort by Danny DeVito and Bily Crystal is pretty impressive, too. The DeVito character's "short stories" - all of which run something like "He came into the room. He was carrying an axe. He hit her with it again and again and again. Until she was dead" - are quite effective, as are Billy Crystal's attempts to improve them a bit: "There's no real suspense. We don't get to know any of the characters, to feel for them, before they get killed - perhaps instead of killing her he could offer her a mint julep?"

Good, too, are Crystal's struggles with the first line of his new novel: "The night was ..." hot, sweaty, cold, dark, humid - culminating in the "Momma" character's suggestion: sultry. "I'll kill her myself," shouts Crystal. Maybe because she's a better writer than he is.

The term "criss-cross" certainly entered my vocabulary thanks to this film. For years, though, I was under the impression that it was an actual quote from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, which Throw Momma from the Train sets out to parody with such vigour. Not so, it would appear. It's all Danny DeVito (or, I suppose, the screenwriter, Phil Silver).

David Anspaugh, dir. Moonlight and Valentino (1995)

Finally, last and probably least, there's this little zircon from the mid-nineties. At the time I had a bit of a crush on Elizabeth Perkins, who plays an uppity poet forced to teach Creative Writing classes for a living after her husband dies in this otherwise forgettable rom-com. I can't quite remember who gets off with Jon Bon Jovi, who plays a hunky house-painter - but the plot summary on the Internet Movie Database says that he "profoundly affects" each of the four female star's lives.

I do remember a scene in class where Elizabeth Perkins is trying to explain to a student why the single repeated name of his girlfriend does not constitute a poem. He keeps claiming that to make any addition to the word would be pointless: it already expresses all the meaning in the universe. She keeps on arguing that his work cannot be expected to connect with an audience who've never actually met her. He says that he doesn't care.

I suppose what interested me about the scene was the way in which you could see the teacher gradually becoming more and more persuaded of the merits of his argument, while feeling unable to say so without letting the side down. A not too unfamiliar situation, I'm sorry to say.

Spike Jonze, dir. Adaptation (2002)

So what do you think? There are bound to be others I've missed. I suppose one should include Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, with its brilliant parody of Robert McKee - played by Brian Cox - and his (in)famous "story seminars."

Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton, dir. D.O.A. (1988)

Then there's a minor thriller called D.O.A. (a remake of the 1950 film noir classic), starring Dennis Quaid as an English professor who is poisoned by a colleague who is planning to plagiarise a novel by one of Quaid's students, a young man who has just committed suicide by jumping off a building (though actually he was pushed - by the colleague in question).

It turns out that the drunken slacker Quaid never even read the student's novel, simply scrawled an "A+" on the front, and so would never have been able to detect the theft. By then it's too late, though: everybody dies or goes to prison and the book doesn't even get to see the light of day. No great advertisement for the profession, to say the least.

There are plenty of other films about writers stealing other writer's work: The Words (2012), with Bradley Cooper, would be a case in point - or the rather more amusing The Hoax (2006), with Richard Gere, about the faking of Howard Hughes' memoirs - but that's not really the same thing. There's no element of writing teaching going on in either film, so far as I can see.

The same goes for the excellent 2006 Will Ferrell / Emma Thompson film Stranger than Fiction, or the even better Love and Death in Long Island (1997), or the surprisingly entertaining Ruby Sparks (2012), or even Misery (1990) itself, for that matter - or any of the rest of those truth-gets-confused-with-fiction-in-the-screwed-up-mind-of-a-writer movies ...

Richard Kwietniowsk, dir. Love and Death in Long Island (1997)