Memoir    Interview    Poetry    Fiction
Mary McCallum

The Incredible Shrinking Novel: Extracts from a Reading Journal, 2005

Note: Gaze, referred to in some of the extracts below, was the working title of Mary’s novel, now titled The Blue.


My first assignment, a naked woman and a dead donkey
Books and authors: Carson McCullers, E. Annie Proulx Shipping News, Jim Crace

I did my assignment in a hiss and roar yesterday – and thought, ‘well that’s done’. We had to write a bio of ourselves written from the point of view of someone else and have one lie in it. Mine is written from the point of view of the bird I adopted last Xmas and I can’t tell you where that came from. I had quite a strange relationship with that bird. I’d never thought much of birds before that – strange, sharp-eyed, sharp-beaked creatures, but this one seemed to love me, I couldn’t get it to leave. Strange what came out in the writing, the stuff about my brother Peter, too. I can see the point of these exercises, you don’t get too uptight about them and then things just flow. Anyway, I wasn’t able to leave it alone having ‘finished it’. True to form, I am still fiddling. I think of Oscar Wilde spending all morning removing a comma and all afternoon putting it back in. My friend Penny sends me what she’s written (she’s in Bill’s class). In it George says his mother loves walking around naked. I can imagine that of Penny, she is a little bit naughty. But then I get this:

From: Wilwak5
Sent: Monday, 14 February 2005 10:09 p.m.
I changed my mind – wandering around naked was too obvious. I’ll think about it for a while.

I can’t help but think of Bill Manhire’s poem about the naked horse. On another note, my Paul (16) has just read and been enchanted by McCullers’s Ballad of the Sad Café. It’s a bit like he writes, really. I read some of it at his behest and then he whipped it away back to school. It reminded me of McCullers’s Member of the Wedding which I read when Paul was small. I love that cool collected style like putting fresh picked apples in your lap, but I’m not sure I can achieve that myself. I lack the restraint. Paul has it, and a necessary hatred of sentimentality. He’s also just finished and loved Proulx’s Shipping News. Now, that is a wonderful book. Proulx is an astounding writer the way she builds the character of a place and the people in it – Quoyle is a masterpiece with all his lumpish goodness. She constructs a terrific plot, too.

Proulx living in Newfoundland to write Shipping News has always been a shining example to me of how a novelist should approach his/her craft. To research! To go there! It encouraged me to stay in Tory Channel not once, but twice. But then the downside of that approach is getting TOO tied up in the details and the facts and forgetting that what you’re writing is fiction. Not that Proulx did, but I was on the verge of that. Geoff Walker from Penguin mentioned it and I didn’t know what he meant at first. ‘Of course it’s fiction!’ I cried. I see it now. I’d forgotten the first rule – it’s made up so you can do with it whatever you like. What a liberating idea. The IIML recently recommended a satirical article by Jim Crace called ‘Secrets of My Success’. Here he is talking to PJ who’s writing about Birmingham but hasn’t been there:

      So what’s all this nonsense about research? Let me recommend you look up the word
      fiction in your dictionary. Mine defines it as 1) ‘literature that describes imaginary events
      and people’, and 2) ‘something that is invented and untrue’, and 3) ‘a belief or statement
      which is false, but is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so’. Doesn’t that fill
      your heart with joy? Isn’t that going to save you time? And money? There is no need to
      set aside your bucks for an air fare or even to Google Birmingham on your home computer.
      To be a good writer, a confident writer, especially a Fantasist, you do not necessarily
      need to assemble the mere facts and then allow them to dictate the shape and colour
      of your work, you must instead do what the dictionary indicates and master the art of lying.
      And to do that, it is not information you require, but vocabulary.

Crace goes on to say that to write Quarantine, he only spent a couple of nights in the Judaean desert and that was enough to give him the confidence to make it up (do I believe this?) He said he had a Bedouin tour guide who taught him the wonderful phrase ‘to sleep like a dead donkey’. As Crace said, to get the authenticity, you need to learn the trick of words.


Week one & the bitter-sweet symphony of sentimentality
Authors/books: Alastair MacLeod No Great Mischief, Charles Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Le Petit Prince, Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Excerpt from email I sent to tutor Damien Wilkins 25-02-05:

... I am still reeling from the word ‘sentimental’ used to describe my prose writing yesterday. Having thought hard about it ever since, I’m still not sure I really understand the term as you used it – did you mean the piece was governed by the emotional rather than the rational or that it relied on sentiment rather than sensibility or that the sentiment was inauthentic/exaggerated?
What astounds me and threatens my judgment and confidence as a writer is that I didn’t think it was sentimental. I saw the piece as relaying facts about me through the eyes of someone who loved me unreservedly because I’d saved its life. Was that the mistake I made? A sentimental idea? But why can’t that be valid as a point of view? I really felt the whole thing was simple and authentic rather than mawkish. Does everything need to have a dark underbelly, bitterness and double meanings? What is wrong with something based on the emotional? Even today I’ve read whole poems like that by Lauris Edmond – and what of novels like Jacob’s Room? Or was it the way I wrote it, the language I used?
I am asking these questions not in an attempt to get you to rethink your judgment, Damien, which I respect – but simply to find out exactly where I erred so I don’t do it again. If the prose I submitted yesterday is sentimental, I have a terrible sense of dread that I might have fallen into this hole before with both my poetry and my novel.

Damien called and assured me I was not in a deep dark hole at all, but warned of the need to be aware of sentimentality in my writing. He said some themes/ideas etc are loaded with connotations and to engage the reader a good writer needs to steer away from sentimentality by using every tool at his/her disposal. One example of a loaded idea is a person caring for a sick bird.

So, I take from this that one should first be careful in one’s choice of subject matter as a writer and then, if one decides to choose a ‘loaded’ subject, one needs to go all out in one’s use of context and language and narrative to steer the reader away from sentimentality and get them to see the subject in a different light. I obviously didn’t get the balance right this time. Note this quote from a review of Alastair MacLeod’s book No Great Mischief: ‘Though sentimentality plays a considerable part in the unfolding of the drama, MacLeod’s clever writing disciplines and subdues it.’

Another thing – I’ve always found it hard to understand the need many NZers have to undercut the emotional things they say with a bit of a laugh or something else that will qualify the feelings expressed. They seem uncomfortable with emotion as if it’s something ‘girlie’. Classmate Vana Manasiadis’s email to me on 25/02/05:

I would have described your work as more poetic than sentimental and in any case the word sentimental carries some stupidly unnecessary negative weight. (I think Anna’s comment expressed something similar.) Secondly, I always end up thinking about cultural values – emotion and beauty are difficult concepts to grasp/express in our cynical English-speaking world. Often things get described as sentimental, when they are simply beautiful.

N.B. Vana and I have Greek heritage and have lived in Greece.

[Later note: in Bill’s class a week later, sentimentality came up and Penny Walker emailed me about it. ‘Bill said to him it meant, emotionally sloppy or emotionally taken for granted.’ So it’s still the idea of not controlling the ‘loaded subject’.]


Then there’s the story of The Old Curiosity Shop nearing its end and Dickens receiving many appeals from readers not to kill off Little Nell. It was said he felt ‘unspeakable anguish’ in writing the scene, and the reading audience grieved when it was published. Oscar Wilde said, ‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.’


Showing not telling
Books/authors: Stephanie de Montalk and her novel-in-progress

This has been a week for learning about holding things back and setting the scene with dialogue and action rather than description or reflection. I deliberately wrote the exercise this week using only dialogue and action. It was great to see how well it worked and wonderful to have people laugh in all the right places. I also tried Damien’s suggestion of cutting off the top of a piece and coming in later – it can immediately give tension and a welcome ambiguity. Another lovely tip came from Victoria’s resident writer Stephanie de Montalk who talked to us about her historical novel this week. She said she thought it was important for an historical writer to use language as close as possible to the language we use now so the reader can engage with it. We need to ‘write in translation’. What a lovely session that was with Stephanie. She seems such an intelligent, considered and considerate person. When she read out loud to us in that sunny room, with a bird outside on the tree, it was heaven.


Losing the Plot
Books/authors: Jasper Fforde The Well of Lost Plots, Andrea Levy Small Island, Ian McEwan Atonement, Annamarie Jagose Slow Water, Mark Doty Firebird

More on the importance of leaving things out. As a nascent novelist, I see now I don’t have to cover all ground – it’s up to me to decide what’s necessary. What a relief. The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde first pointed me in that direction when I dipped into it last year. I’m only just realising how much writers deliberately delete and how much readers fill in themselves.

The well of lost plots is where all fiction is created and Thursday Next, literary detective, ponders her next move inside an unpublished novel of dubious merit. Meanwhile, she notices a lot of things missing inside a book that she took for granted outside in the real world. For a start there’s the absence of breakfast. Most books only have dinners, lunches and afternoon teas because they offer better opportunities to further the story. Then there were the other things: ‘There was a peculiar lack of cinemas, wallpaper, toilets, colours, books, animals, underwear, smells, haircuts and strangely enough, minor illnesses.’

Strangely enough, in Small Island by Andrea Levy, which I am reading now, a cinema is the focus of one incident; there are also toilets and smells. But then I suppose that illustrates the point – those things are all opportunities to further the story.

Damien is constantly emphasising the need to lose things from our work, to leave gaps, to try coming in later so more tension is created leaving out probably unnecessary exposition. He says this is what writers do. They position the story around what they really want told and if we don’t do that we are writing essays, no more. Geoff Walker told me, too, that he wants more happening by page 90 in Gaze.

In Atonement, the second section follows the story of a soldier in WWII – the soldier isn’t named and we don’t know his back story or what he’s doing there. This gives dramatic tension to that section. In Robinson’s Housekeeping, the lives of the young girls are detailed, but, around them, the people of Fingerbone are an amorphous mass with only the odd face shining through the mist when they’re needed. We fill that in. Our focus, almost claustrophobically so, is the two sisters and the grandmother’s house. This provides its own tension and pace.

Needless to say I am continuing to delete things from my novel at a great rate – for the sake of the narrative and for dramatic tension. It has become in my head The Incredibly Shrinking Novel. I think of it as running my prose fingers through my poetic hair, loosening things up a bit, making it into fiction. If the writing is too tight, people feel uncomfortable, trapped, as if they should be weighing up every word as the author did and appreciating it. I know this was the reaction some had to Annamarie Jagose’s Slow Water, and another completely different sort of writing, Mark Doty’s Firebird. Language becomes the thing in those books and while one can float on its deliciousness, the understanding side of it can be hampered, and the reader’s engagement lost.


Folio feedback

I started writing this at midnight so I could use the above date. I feel unhinged by the business of putting in the first stage of my folio tomorrow. All this self-doubt. At times I think the novel reads as absolute rubbish, at other times I think, yes, I have something here. I wonder if I need a cover sheet to explain things. But no, I should trust my readers and let it stand alone. ... The novel now stands at 38,000 words. It’s had a net loss of 10,000 words since I started the MA course.


I got a lot from the session. It was amazing to me what people agreed on, what bothered them, what didn’t. Damien was very encouraging and I will frame his written comments (‘fine writing’, ‘this novel has legs’, ‘excellent stuff’). There was a warning, too: he talked of avoiding ‘symbol land’ as far as the whales go, and he’s right. ‘Whales are loaded,’ he cries! I’m beginning to understand this cry of Damien’s, his own writerly version of ‘thar she blows!’ Damien also identified three main events: Lilian’s fall, Micky’s return and killing the whale; and then pointed out how they weren’t referred to much again as the story unfolded. ‘Use everything in a novel!’ Another catch-cry (much as one uses everything in a whale). Good point, I’m still in poetry land as well as symbol land – each chapter standing too much alone.

Sadly, some of my prose alienated even the poets! They felt I over-described things or the writing was too rich in imagery at the expense of something happening. Most balked at images such as the sea like milk about to boil and they pointed out that I’d overdone the bird, milk and bone images. There was some disquiet about alliteration and repetition. Funny isn’t it? Those are many of the things that are held up in poetry as good. I see that prose is something different, people want to follow the story without too many interruptions, they want to live it without pulling back. ...

Interestingly, the class generally thought the women characters stronger, but Airini preferred the men because they were less sentimental – while still wanting them more ‘grunty’ and basic. There was some thought that the men should be more male – fewer feelings, more grunting etc. All liked the whaling scene. I believe that’s because I had nothing else I was trying to do there, I just had to get from point A to point Z and kill a whale in the middle. Maybe I should approach all scenes the same way.

There was some concern re the dreams and the Maori references re whales – ‘loaded’ again. Anna said how the problem of talking about things outside our culture can be got around, by using the perspective of someone who is not in the culture looking at them (e.g. Lilian) – so the character is the same distance from them as the author. Good idea. We’ve talked already of how a writer cannot step easily out of his/her cultural/racial shoes to write. The writer’s name is on the cover of the book and its being there makes readers mistrust what’s written if it’s way outside his/her ken. This is a depressing fact that I wouldn’t have believed before. The approach Anna suggests does get round it to a point.

Anyway, most of the class wanted a clearer indication of the date of the novel, so I needed a cover sheet after all! After much thought, I think a title page saying ‘Tory Channel New Zealand 1938’ will do. It seems to give it a stronger sense of foreboding as well as a simple explanation of time and place. The class also wants more context – political, fashion, wars, depression etc. So I’ll have to get to work – I’ve done the research at least, I just needed the impetus to use it.


Throwing it away
Penelope Fitzgerald The Beginning of Spring


I like the cool cleverness of Fitzgerald’s writing; it feels a little like the Russian novelists the way she leaves space around the things she writes about. Her pace is measured and nothing seems rushed, she has humour which seems so Russian and there’s a certain formality there – of the time as much as anything. For example, when the station master arrives back while the P is picking up his children, they have to take their coats off and stay and talk to him even though they were ready to go. Fitzgerald does all this well. She also manages the style of speech of a Russian as separate from the English protagonist.

I have been told that in my novel I write a scene and show things that I then insist on explaining. I suppose I want to be sure people have got it. Then in Fitzgerald I see the way she shows how distraught a man is after his wife has left him with the children – a friend visits to calm him but the man doesn’t want or need the visit, it’s that simple. There’s no plumbing his soul to explain it. It’s just a fact – he is missing his wife, he doesn’t want visitors. Refreshing. Even more wonderful, the bumptious visitor leaves his old bag behind which is ‘reassuring’ because he has done it many times before.

One has to trust the reader to find and understand those things. I know this. It’s just difficult to know if you’ve shown what you wanted to show. It’s always a bit of a surprise to me when I’m told I have. So when is a digression of thought something discursive only and not a ‘tell’ situation? Maybe when it’s an exploration of an idea, not a discussion about what has gone before? I will have to think about this some more.


I came to the computer to write about the Penelope Fitzgerald novel to find that I had already started. Here’s the truth: I persisted with it for a few days but one evening, reading in my daughter’s room while she read her book, I closed it and threw it across the room. It was boring me. I think it felt like nothing much was happening; I don’t think I saw much potential in the story unfolding. It worries me, though, that maybe I’ve been reading too many books too quickly and need to slow down. Maybe books are losing their charm in the endless probing and unravelling I have to do when I read them? Am I too much aware now of all the facets of a novel, do I see the novelist setting it up, laying clues like a trap, writing the best lines and the best scenes, providing the ‘connective tissue’ as Damien would say. I think of my reaction to Enduring Love – I could see where the joins were and that ruined that book for me. I think I’ll leave Fitzgerald for a while, maybe talk to Kerry. She’s been reading the one set in Cambridge in 1913, Gate of Angels.


Huge beasts


Email to me from Penny...

Keep those words going. When are you getting to the hooks on the heart? I just love that bit – pulling out a whale’s heart through its mouth. Bet the blokes have something to say about that. They must feel so manly with such a huge beast. Go on put in a bit about erections and being big. Let someone stand on the whale and think about sex in that powerful way I suspect men do.

Hmm. Penny would have a good conversation with Ian Wedde. Men and what men think is intriguing. I haven’t really got to the bottom of that and I wonder if a woman writer ever can. It will always be ‘men in translation’, won’t it? I have written more ‘sex’ into the novel but Penny would put in still more. After her William Brandt short fiction course she is confident about throwing sex into any situation and has some lovely scenes in her memoir. In the end it is the choice the writer makes, to concentrate on all or parts of people’s lives. It’s also what you’re comfortable with. But I must remember the whale’s heart. There is so much whale information sloshing around in my head that despite my index cards, despite the post-it notes stuck into books, despite my research files, despite my notebooks, some of it’s going to get lost. But not the whale’s heart. I’ll have to find that again and put it back.


The Agony and the Ecstasy

It is getting harder and harder to judge this novel. I am so involved in it I cannot see it for what it is. I feel like the face painted by Salvador Dali with the skin pulled out and pinned to the ground. Is there such a picture? I’m the face and the novel is the pins. How can you know what it looks like, feels like, is? All I know is the pain, and sometimes (am I a sado-masochist?) a deep and intense pleasure. I sent a quote from Tóibín’s The Master (a novel about Henry James) to the class to help them keep their chins up. It seemed to me to sum up the attraction of the writer’s life. ...

Peter Whiteford says he’s too close to my novel now too. He says I should listen to first time readers like my class as they come to it fresh. After all, most readers will only read it once. We had such a good discussion last week and then I got home and, after feeding the children and sitting up into the night with Gaze, I fell into a depression. The book was, I felt, unwieldy and amorphous and had no point. The beginning of it, after all the rewrites, still didn’t knit together. It was like an ugly, screaming baby and for a moment there I lost my love for it. Bearing in mind what Peter had said, I had Penny round the next day and gave her a chunk of the manuscript to read. She has read bits and pieces of it before, when we first started meeting and talking about our writing, but it wasn’t as a coherent whole and things have changed. I feel a bit guilty giving her so much to read at this stage when she has her own class work to read, but she’s adamant she wants it.

From Day One, Penny has been excited about my novel and I have hung onto that when it doesn’t seem exciting at all. How many talks we’ve had over coffee and walking the dogs on the beach, often about minutiae. At the Chocolate Dayz café, we found out they were calling us the ‘bookclub’ because we’d turn up with our writing and books and pile them on the table. Last year and the year before, that seemed so much fun; this year it feels so serious.

And then there’s Peter. Really, he goes well beyond the role of a supervisor for this novel, spending hours and hours reading my many drafts, discussing them with me and anything else that comes up. Sometimes it’s getting dark outside and the traffic’s building on the motorway and Peter is yawning and still he won’t stop. I appreciate more than anything else his belief in me and also the fine detail he gives me about New Zealand in the 1930s. He loves NZ and its literary and social history and offers me little unexpected gifts of it every week. Ursula Bethell, one week, Mulgan’s Man Alone, the next.


Shapely Fiction

Email from Penny 16-08-05:

I was thinking about what you were saying about the scene with the burning church and memory [Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson] and found a handout Bill gave us from ‘Making Shapely Fiction’ by Jerome Stern. I wondered if you’d had it?
‘Don’t paint pictures, paint action. Description should move the story forward just as dialogue and action do. If it’s not crucial to the dynamics of the story, description is static. Those are the parts readers feel are skippable, description is kinetic and important when it provides necessary information or affects the characters in the story as well as the readers. Begin to think of settings as characters in your story. A character plays against other characters increasing tension, creating drama, and advancing the plot. A story about a stepfather and a boy and a toy store is about three characters.’

And there was I not minutes before the email arrived grappling with just this thing. Look at my novel’s opening chapter – why was the bellbird there? I thought it was beautiful and evocative when I first put it in. I wanted to ‘make’ a New Zealand morning. How my motivations have changed; now I want to tell a good story. So, dear reader, I’ve taken the bellbird out. She’s been there since I started writing this novel – unformed thing that it was, all images and feelings and little story to speak of – two years ago. Her role has been reduced gradually over that time down to...nothing. And the tui? Well the tui acts as a bridge to get Lilian out of herself and her chickens and back into her day, the tui and then the smoke. And of course, it is New Zealand and it is isolated and it is countryside/island life and I want that to be evoked at the start. So for now, the tui stays. What about the frosted weed making a sound like a wishbone breaking? That’s gone. Hey, the wishbone thing has ‘naff’ connotations, I can see that now.

‘Naff’ is the Airini word we’ve adopted in class to cover anything cheesy, sentimental, emotionally flaccid and is usually used to apply to writing that makes use of moons, rivers, hearts, love, birds etc (Damien’s ‘loaded’ things). Amy and Damien are our naff meters, they get it straight off and wrinkle their noses, Airini and Anna aren’t far behind, Ben and Kerry are up there but less likely to tell us, Stef can go either way, Suze too, Jen’s on the edge because she’s too much in love right now, Vana and I are usually the last to make the call. In fact, I’m way behind Vana, but intellectually I get it now. Anyway, the wishbone’s gone and the weed. Kerry liked the puddles having rinds of ice, so they’ve stayed (God, if Kerry likes an image it must be good). Also, in this environment, it’s cold, it’s isolated, the weather and nature are pure and unadulterated and they have a direct and daily effect on people, they can make things terribly difficult, they can kill. I need the frost and the rinds of ice. I also need the distant water, the mention of a boat (prefiguring what’s out there and what comes later), I need the dark water waiting for the sun, I need the rugged land. Yes, Arapawa and its environment are certainly characters in my book.

So why are the chickens there in a book about whales? Because they set the scene, the time, the place etc, but they also show how the focus in the end is on Lilian and her interests, her needs. The chickens are important to her, the eggs they produce are too. The chickens are her early morning communion and the eggs are the ‘bread of life’, the sustenance she works to provide for her family. This is the beginning of our understanding how Lilian sees herself and critical to what has happened in Lilian’s life to that point.

I have had some new thoughts on this after the class discussion of my book. Lilian is an isolated person, we don’t know why, she has no friends and only sees her family, surely then the chickens are her replacement friends? They are mostly female, she has names for them, and she talks to them. They do what animals do, they fill that void. Of course, she has to have a practical approach to them too, I don’t want to be silly about this – she is after all a farmer’s wife. But I felt the chicken coop section needed some more nuances, suggestions of Lilian’s fragility, if you like.

I’ve learnt over this year what Stern tells me – that in the modern novel everything means something; no one these days can write an Anna Karenina, apparently. That’s okay. I see the benefits of that. It makes the novel tighter than I imagined, more achievable than I imagined, it makes it more like the poetry I started with where every word matters, but in the novel every thing matters and plays a part. That’s kewl, as our recent lodger and runaway Natalie would say.

At the same time, over the past year I’ve also seen how prose can be cleaned up and opened out so you can see the gaps between the words and have room for your brain to move. That’s more relaxing and more stimulating all at once. It’s more about taking the car on a long journey than making the intense skateboard run down a steep hill that is poetry. ...

Another thing I’ve been meaning to talk about in my journal is the writing group I take at my sons’ school, Athena College, in Willis Street. I go there every Thursday (every second Thursday this term) to work with a group of six to eight kids aged 11-14 and all amazing writers. Sometimes I turn up a bit tired after a three hour session at IIML, but their enthusiasm and talent always leave me energised. They are all so different in their writing styles but all are writers already. In the group meeting, we do exercises, we appraise each other’s work. It’s like a mini MA class. Last week, the whole meeting erupted when Georgie read some of her novel and she had a twist where the mother of the teenage girl turned bad. Darshini was furious as she said it had come out of the blue, there was no motivation etc. Then everyone started shouting their view on it. It was amazing, and it made me think again how vital it is for a novelist to get those things right – to set up the clues early on so readers aren’t shocked and to be close observers of people so they get the motivations of their characters right. It is the most important thing of all that people are convinced.

I have always loved novelists but my regard has increased a thousand-fold now I realise how much leg work the good writers do that most of us aren’t aware of, and how perspicacious they are, and often, with the best ones, how bright. I am observing people so much more closely now than I ever used to. I listen in to conversations all the time, I listen in to stories about people and what they do. In some ways it is exhausting because one is never released from it, and anything and everything is fodder. But it is also exciting because it is about story and story is something mankind craves in one form or another – to get beyond the mundane and to provide some relief from all of this.

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