30 July 2013

An Interview With Latika Vasil

Latika Vasil was born in India, moving to New Zealand with her family as a young child.  She has mostly lived in Wellington with a couple of overseas stints in the States and Singapore.  She has worked in the education sector as a researcher and lecturer, as well as in the public service as a research adviser.  In 2010 she completed the Advanced Diploma in Creative Writing at Whitireia Polytechnic.  Her stories have been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Landfall, Takahe and Hue and Cry, and broadcast on Radio New Zealand National.  Her first collection of short stories, Rising to the Surface, has recently been published by Steele Roberts Publishers.  Currently Latika spends most of her time writing fiction, working as a freelance researcher and writer, and doing volunteer work.

1) Latika, how long have you been working towards this first short story collection?

It feels like much too long!  In actuality I’d say the writing of the stories occurred over a period of 3-4 years and then getting the book ready and out probably took another year. I’m quite a slow writer and it took me a while to get together enough stories so that I would have a pool of stories from which I could select the ones that worked best together as a collection.

2) Rising to the Surface features a stunning cover by Michael Soppitt: it not only looks great, but from what I know of your fiction, it also fits what's inside the book very well. How did you manage to find such a great cover?

I’m glad so many people have responded so well to the cover!  Finding the cover fell into place quite nicely.  I had an image in my mind of something involving an underwater scene but a surreal take on that.  Water is a strong motif in the book with several of the stories featuring the ocean at pivotal moments in the characters' lives. I also liked the feeling of people being inside a bubble, which the cover depicts so beautifully, as I feel many of my characters are living inside their own little bubble worlds. So having this concept in my mind I turned to the internet, as you do, and found this photograph by Michael Soppitt in the UK, and he kindly agreed to me using it! I feel very lucky that I was able to have some input into choosing the cover.

3) How would you describe the style of story in Rising to the Surface to a reader who isn't familiar with your work?

I would say the stories are strongly character-driven and the settings tend towards urban New Zealand.  There’s a lot of contemporary Wellington in the stories.  I did try to create some variation though in style and voice.  There are male and female narrators, characters of different ages and lifestyles, and tonally the stories are quite varied.  Having said this, I think there are some thematic threads linking the stories – the idea of disconnection and loneliness.  Many of the characters are at a point in their lives where they are perhaps adrift and looking for something to hang onto – something a bit more substantial.  This all sounds slightly heavy but I’ve been told by many readers that the stories have a sense of humour too!

4) Was it a difficult job to choose a set of stories that would work well together in your debut collection?

First of all I felt quite happy that I had enough stories to be able to pick and choose!  I tried to select stories that had enough variation to keep things interesting but also with links and connections so that hopefully it feels like the whole is greater than the sum of its part. I think this is really important in a collection. It doesn’t have to be overt but I think there has to be some sense of connectedness to the stories.

5) Especially in a debut collection, the first story in the book plays the key role of introducing the potential reader to the author and her work. What made "The Sand Mandala" just the right story to open the collection?

Yes, it’s like music – the first track on an album is so important.  It sets the tone and hopefully lures the listener (reader) into your little world.  One of the reasons I chose “The Sand Mandala” is that everyone kept telling me it was their favorite story and insisting I start with it!  I think it works well because it had many of the features and themes that are mirrored in some of the other stories – the idea of the chance encounter and how that can be a catalyst for reflection and change.  I also liked the visual quality to the story as it leaves the reader with lots of lovely images.  It felt like a positive note to start with even though it is partly about death and impermanence.

6) I'm noticing a strong trend towards publishers, e-publishers in particular, wanting novellas at the moment - a complete change from a few years ago, when they were very hard to place. Do you write, or have you thought about writing, longer forms of fiction?

Definitely.  And you’re absolutely right about the new interest in novellas.  As a writer I guess novellas provide a nice middle ground between short stories and novels.  I’ve always been a huge novel reader so I would love to write one.  This would involve a different writing approach for me as I tend to be quite intuitive and chaotic when writing stories.  I don’t overly plan the story at the outset and often just ‘go’ with the character and follow where they lead.  I think with a novel there has to be some structure and planning ahead of time. Chaos will not do!  I have a few ideas bubbling away at the moment for novels…

7) Who are some of the authors who have influenced your own writing?

I have read a lot of short story collections the past few years – Lorrie Moore, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Alice Munro, have been highlights.  Elizabeth Strout’s beautiful collection of linked short stories Olive Kitteridge has been influential.  I like the idea of linked short stories and would love to explore that in my own writing.

8) And who are some of the authors you currently enjoy reading and whom you think readers of this interview might be interested in?

Recently I have been reading several Indian-American writers. Both Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni are amazing short story and novel writers.

23 July 2013

Tuesday Poem: Mountains, by Sarah Jane Barnett

Her brother sits on the couch 
and suggests climbing the Remarkables
with their parents, his bare
hairy foot jiggling, and she
says ‘hmmm’ while her girlfriend
prepares couscous in the kitchen. 
‘You weren't there as a kid,’ she says.

In the levelled lot next door, relief 
men dig out stumps to make space. 
She likes to think they communicate
by pungent emission—she spends
hours against the window.

It takes a long time to dig out the heavy roots.

Her girlfriend—Sarnia—leads the way. 
The system of mountains stretch like panic,
montane, a complex breath.

She watches Sarnia's thighs:
upturned stratified formations wrapping around 
her flanks. Her axial crystals, a gulf
of sweetness and relief.

The wind unfastens a sheet of soil 
from the skin of the track. It sweeps out and over the ridge:
a lifted conversation or smudges of rain.

The range grows wider and higher 
as they move south. Each new face 
takes on its own personality. She can't see the granite,

but a woman, and then two men in the rock.
Far below the lake rests in the basin
as the mountain replicates itself across the lake.

She once went to a talk at the university
about the creation of mountains. The expert 
moved over the stage like a buoyant wave of radiation.
His voice intruded upward. He told them

it was fairly common for rock that does not fault
to fold. It will do this either symmetrically 
or asymmetrically. There aren't other options:
it is upfold or downfold, anticline or syncline.

She left the lecture and walked downtown to a bar.
This was during her dark phase: dark dresses,
her hair dyed dark in the laundry sink. In the bar
she drank white Russians and let a man—older,

a crusher—put his hand between her legs. 
He gave her a long string of beads he'd brought back 
from Peru. At least that is what he said.

Given time, the pressure of water will invert relief. 
The soft upthrust of rock is worn away and the anticlines 
become gentle. She rises up and down.

Over time she dissolves mountains by breathing. 
In bed Sarnia says, ‘There is no universal definition 
for mountain. It’s okay to live with ambiguity.’

She puts on her teacher's voice with its sexy 
unspoken argument over elevation and steepness.

Upon ascent, the women expand and cool. 
The subalpine forests of needled trees break
the sun into phosphorescent waves.

‘A mountain must be higher than a hill,’ she says
as the track threads around an elbow of scarps.
‘What, then, is a hill?’ Sarnia asks.

Years later they climb Puncak Jaya, the highest
peak in New Guinea. It will be after the death of Sarnia's 
sister, but before everything else.

The peak rises five thousand meters above the sea:
a precise measure of their strength and courage, or 
Nemangkawi to the locals.

Outside the guests are arriving. Her parents’ 
car pulls up and they wave their hands 
in front of their mouths. Her brother continues 
to talk about mountains, and how he found 
his true essence of self. ‘You should do it, man,’ he says
with conviction, such a small tremble.

Credit note: "Mountains" was first published in JAAM 29 and subsequently included in Sarah Jane Barnett's debut collection, A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue and Cry Press, 2012). It was included in Best New Zealand Poems 2012, where it is available in both text and audio formats. You can also watch a video of Sarah reading the poem. The poem is published here by permission of the author.

Tim says: I recently read A Man Runs into a Woman and, although there are many fine poems there, it was "Mountains" that particularly stood out to me for its combination of technical excellence and emotional heft. (Plus, I am a sucker for anything about mountains!). I wouldn't normally run a poem as long as this as my Tuesday Poem, but I hope you will agree with me that the poem's gradual unfolding is worth the wait.

The Tuesday Poem: rocks and rolls the place.

08 July 2013

My June Book Watch Column From The New Zealand Herald

Here's my June Book watch column from the New Zealand Herald:

from The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider, by Janis Freegard - print and ebook - http://www.anomalouspress.org/books/alice.php

Janis Freegard is an excellent New Zealand poet who features an alter ego called Alice Spider in many of her poems. This US-published chapbook brings together a number of the Alice Spider poems. Their characteristic tone is wry and sometimes surreal, but don’t be fooled: Alice is a character who goes for what she wants and gets things done. It’s a joy to read such sparky poetry.

The Shingle Bar Sea Monster and Other Stories, by Laura Solomon - print and ebook - http://www.amazon.com/The-Shingle-Monster-Other-Stories/dp/9888167359

Laura Solomon is a New Zealand writer whose work tends towards magic realism: stories in which fantastic events take place in an otherwise realist world. It’s a style of fiction most closely associated with Latin American writing, but in this collection Laura Solomon uses it to make what might otherwise be low-key stories ‘pop’, as they say in Hollywood: her characters, many of them girls and young women, show their mettle when confronted with bride-seeking sea monsters, angels, and men who howl for the moon, among other unsettling factors. Well worth reading.

The Spiral Tattoo, by Michael J. Parry - ebook - http://www.amazon.com/The-Spiral-Tattoo-ebook/dp/B0058DUKOU

I enjoyed this entertaining novel about a large troll and a small flying Eleniu who are partners in the City Guard of a trading city with six sentient races. While there's nothing especially original in this fantasy world, it makes a good backdrop to the murder investigation which is at the foreground of the story. Although I felt the villain, one of the most intriguing characters, was kept in the background a bit too long, I had a lot of fun reading this story – enough that I’ve now bought the second book in the series.

Night's Glass Table by Karen Zelas - print and ebook - http://ipoz.biz/Titles/NGT.htm

It took me a little while to warm up to this collection by Christchurch poet Karen Zelas — I felt as though the poems were keeping me at arms’ length — but once I got used to her quiet but insistent style, I enjoyed these sharply-observed poems about relationships, travel, family, and life in post-quake Christchurch. There is a lot of poetic technique, and many years of thought, at play here.

03 July 2013

The Joy Of Influence: Light Rail Coyote to Tuesday Poem

The original Light Rail Coyote: Portland, OR, 2002

Last week, I was the editor of the hub Tuesday Poem, and I chose Helen Lehndorf's fine poem Oh Dirty River, for reasons I detail below the poem itself. But there's another angle to the story that I didn't know at the time I posted the poem.

Wellington readers will know that there's a lot of debate about the future of Wellington's transport system at the moment. Whereas the Government has decided (quite rightly) to back an expansion of Auckland's rail system, it wants to drape Wellington in motorways and flyovers instead of backing a light rail system for Wellington.

Seeking a bit of light relief for a Facebook post I was making on the topic, a couple of days after I'd posted Helen's poem, I included a link to the Sleater-Kinney song "Light Rail Coyote". I played it to check that it had loaded correctly, listening with half an ear - and thought I heard the phrase "oh dirty river". I checked the lyrics online - not always a guarantee of accuracy, but there it was again, right at the end of the song, not long after the coyote makes an appearance. (Excellent lyrics, too!)

It couldn't be a coincidence - could it? I contacted Helen Lehndorf, and she said that yes, the title of her poem came from Sleater-Kinney's "Light Rail Coyote", and that it was one of her favorite songs. So an adventurous coyote (pictured above) that climbed into a carriage of Portland, Oregon's Light Rail Max system in 2002 inspired the Sleater-Kinney song, which contained the line "oh dirty river", which inspired Helen's poem, which inspired me to post it. Influence isn't only a source of anxiety!

If Wellington does get a light rail system - as it should - I think it will deserve a song of celebration. "Light Rail Tuatara", anyone?