Monday, 17 August 2015

Six questions for Tim Corballis

Tim Corballis's new book, two novellas, R.H.I. combines historical research with fiction to tell the story of two twentieth-century lives. Joan Riviere (the 'R' of the title) was an early English psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud's translator. Herman Henselmann (H) was a German architect, famous for many of the post-war buildings of the German Democratic Republic. The two novellas about their lives form an incomplete history of Europe's twentieth century—its wars, politics and thought.

Tim Corballis (Fiona Amundsen)

Can you explain where and how these novellas started? When did you first learn about R (Joan Riviere) and H (Hermann Henselmann)?

Im not sure where I first learned about RiviereI think it was in any essay by Adam Phillips, but it was a long time ago and Ive completely forgotten the context! I think I kind of invented a significance for her that is probably different from her objective significance. I became interested in the idea of someone who feels like she is a mask, and perhaps nothing behind the maskand the idea of trying to sympathise with such a person. You know, the problem of understanding what is going behind the mask when the mask is also everything. Thats what interested me about writing about her.

My interest in Henselmann is an easier story: hes impossible to avoid in East Berlin, or at least his buildings are. Karl-Marx-Allee as its now known, formerly Stalinallee, is just around the corner from the flat that Creative New Zealand rents for their Berlin Writer in Residence. At first these things strike you, as a visitor from somewhere like New Zealand where monumental architecture and planning are really pretty unknown, as just big. But the Soviet inspired socialist realist architecture is also pretty strange, so I was curious to find out where it came from. Once Id read a bit about Henselmann, I became pretty interested in his situationa believer in high modernism kind of forced to adopt the Soviet style, but he also I think was genuinely persuaded of it too, even though he then changed his mind again later So its another kind of mask without interior I guess.

Did the two stories always feel like they would be novellas or is this a conclusion you came to as you wrote? Is a novella just a shorter novel, or did you feel that there was something in the construction that sets your novellas apart from the novels youve written?

The book about Riviere was always going to be a novella, initially part of a trilogybut the other two projected novellas came to nothing. Henselmann was added later. In fact I did initially submit R to VUP on its own, but realised in discussion with Fergus that another companion novella would be good.

From the start, though, I liked the structure of three (later two) novellas that speak to each other thematically. Ive always, in my longer-form writing, thought in terms of structure: large movements or sections within a work, say, rather than chapters, plots, rising actions, climaxes, denouements. And Im also interested in the juxtaposition of unrelated materialso juxtaposing materially unrelated, long-ish forms made sense to me.

These works are different in so many ways from my earlier novels, that its hard to say whether length is really a factor in that difference or not. Im currently working on a novel, and it shares a lot of features with the novellas, so maybe not. But I saw the novellas a kind of sketches I guessnot biographies, but small snippets of a life or a situation. That doesnt justify much length. To lengthen them, to give them novelistic arcs, would be to impose a fictional structure on themsomething thats done often enough, but Im not really interested in doing it. Ive added fictional’—in the sense of made up’—material in them, but I havent wanted them to conform to the expectations of the biographical novel that things will develop in a certain way, that there will be a meaning or a lesson to a life, etc.

In your introduction you call yourself a trespasserin history and biography and describe your expertise as an expertise of not-knowing. Is this what fiction can offer traditional historical interpretation, a messing-up, in a way, of History with a capital H?

I hope so. Fictions a complicated word here though, since I think the danger behind much history writing is precisely that it hopes to give narrative coherence to eventsto give it a fictional arc, a meaningful arc. Think of Belich, for example, whose histories of New Zealand always seem to end in the glorious present, in the moment of maturity and decolonisation. What a wonderful novel! Historians can be wonderful synthesisers of huge amounts of factsbut whats interesting to me in these novellas is the possibility of letting facts remains unsynthesised, unshaped, stubborn, confusing. Maybe that can be called fiction toothough its a very different sense of the word. I hope it can open up the possibility that a life doesnt need to be narrated to be valuable, to be enjoyablethat different things can be made out of a life than the stories were used to. Something like that, anyway.

I think your approach to history accidental also begins to articulate your approach to fiction a way of resisting the clear arc, the easily understood meaning of a story.  How hard is this to do? Sometimes it seems to me that it is almost impossible to avoid the arcin fiction or perhaps in any sort of story-telling. What do you think?

I think youre probably right. I mean, there are stories told in these novellas too. I do structure them in ways that interrupt a more expected narrative arcand of course Im by no means the first to do that. Even a non-story could be read as a kind of story, anyway, whose meaning is there is no meaning’… so sure, its hard to avoid. Maybe its partly about how a reader comes to the work too? Thats partly why I liked the idea of an authors note: something that can kind of prime a reader not to want to understand everything, to allow the form of the work to be true to the difficulty of understanding the world. I guess the main thing I would want to avoid is the need to understandI want to give not understanding its own forms of pleasure.

You have a clear aesthetic statement about your novellas you say that theyre an Antipodean form, and that their form is a form for the internet age. Can you explain these statement a little more here?

The relationship of the Antipodes to somewhere like Europeand I guess other places too, partly just by virtue of distanceis that its very easy to take stuff out of context. We read European books here without knowing well the very dense worlds of thought and argument and politics that they come from. Im thinking partly about the histories of psychoanalysis and communism that I write about in R.H.I.these were never strong public movements here, and they certainly arent now, so these bits and pieces of history can seem here like theyve come from outer space. Theyre totally out of any context that can give them their full meaning. I like that we can then pick them up and make something new out of them. Theres a freedom in forgetting all that dense culture, but taking its tokens and ideas, thanks very much, and constructing something.

The internet is another name for all that. Its a name for the way information can so easily float free from its contextand for how impossible it is ever to have a view of all the information out there. It inevitably comes in the form of bits and pieces, snipped here and reported there. So the process of making somethingthis resembles ideas of sampling and remixing, but has an older heritage toothats interesting to me. Maybe its a way of coping with that big world without needing an overarching story Instead you pick up its flotsam and jetsam, stick them together, and hope that the result is a partial view, sensitive to whats out there, but not summarising of it.

Youve been writer in residence at the IIML this year how has the year gone for you and can you tell us something of the project youve been working on?

The years been very productive so far. For the first time in years, Im finding my writing day very longeven, sometimes, too long! That means Im kind of loading myself up with projects. The main thing is a novel with a time travel premise, which should be complete at least in draft form by the end of the year, but Im also working on various essays and a project that starts with interviews of a small handful of Victoria academics.

R.H.I. will be launched at 19 Tory St this Wednesday 19 August. 5.30pm–7pm. All welcome. 

R.H.I. is in all good bookstores and the VUP online store now.

Monday, 3 August 2015

August newsletter

 Three new releases in August

James K. Baxter: Complete Prose has been a long labour of love for its editor Dr John Weir. He began the project back in 1965 when he produced a bibliography of Baxter’s poetry and prose. Through a shared interest in literature and religion, he and Baxter became close friends and confidants. Although primarily known as a poet, Baxter was a prolific prose writer, very little of which was previously published in book form.

Dr Weir says the prose tells the reader much about Baxter as a person.

“The quality which he regarded as most essential in writing was honesty. He doesn’t gild the lily. So his prose tells us that he was an honest man, a conflicted man, a man who felt a compulsive obligation to help people who were being trodden underfoot by the industrial, political and social juggernaut of our times. And it reveals that his preferences and prejudices were lifelong – the opinions and values which he held as a young man in his late teens and twenties weren’t greatly different (though less urgently expressed) than those he held late in life.”

A seminar and launch for James K. Baxter: Complete Prose will be held at Te Taratara ā Kae in the Kelburn campus library at Victoria University on Saturday 29 August. Seminar speakers include Dr John Weir, Dr Paul Millar, Colin Durning, Eli Kent and John Baxter. Dave Dobbyn will perform Baxter's "Song of the Years" at the launch. All welcome to attend but RSVP is essential.

James K. Baxter: Complete Prose
4 hardback volumes in a box set, $200rrp
Available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore from 13 August.

Two new novellas by Tim Corballis, R.H.I., combine historical research with fiction, blurring and refocusing our ways of seeing the past. Joan Riviere was an early English psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud’s earliest translator. Hermann Henselmann was a German architect, famous for many of the post-war buildings of the German Democratic Republic. The two novellas about their lives form an incomplete history of Europe’s 20th century – its wars, its politics and thought.

Tim says that the novellas offered him a chance to reflect on the idea of history, a way to mess with simple historical interpretation.

"Historians can be wonderful synthesisers of huge amounts of facts – but what’s interesting to me in these novellas is the possibility of letting facts remains unsynthesised, unshaped, stubborn, confusing. Maybe that can be called fiction too – though it’s a very different sense of the word. I hope it can open up the possibility that a life doesn’t need to be narrated to be valuable, to be enjoyable – that different things can be made out of a life than the stories we’re used to. Something like that, anyway."

Tim will present a brief moving image presentation about the novellas on Wednesday 19 August, 5.30pm–7pm at Concerned Citizens Collective, 17 Tory Street, Wellington. All welcome.

R.H.I. will be available at good bookshops and through our online bookstore from 13 August.
$30, p/b.

Joan Fleming's remarkable second poetry collection, Failed Love Poems, is a book of fiction and slant autobiography. You can read the first poem in the book, "Traces", on our blog here, and where she also discusses the provenance of this poem. She also talks about the choice of the striking Kushana Bush illustration which is featured on the cover, which Joan said she thought of immediately as the perfect cover image.

"The details are both delicate and visceral. The lovers are touching tenderly, but there is something between them, keeping them apart. In a way, the entire book is about that ‘something’ – the sometimes unspeakable, sometimes unseen thing between lovers that keeps them from happiness."

"There is joy in the book too, though. I don’t believe in 'failed love' as a failure, not really. The relationships that don't last can teach us as much as the ones that do."

Failed Love Poems is released on August 13.

You can hear Joan reading on Poetry Day at Unity Books, Wellington, Friday 28 August, 12pm–1pm.

Reviews, news and podcasts

Rachel Barrowman's Maurice Gee: Life and Work has received some wonderful reviews, most recently this one in the Stuff book section. Damien Wilkins' launch speech and a note from Maurice Gee can be read on our blog here. Rachel was interviewed with Kim Hill on July 25 and you can listen to that podcast here.

We are offering free international shipping on Gee biography purchases on our website. Enter 'Gee' in the coupon code field at the checkout.

"Reading Morgan’s debut is utterly rewarding as it sets every part of your readerly self on high alert, every bit paying attention to the pulse of the poem." Paula Green reviews Some of Us Eat the Seeds by Morgan Bach.

We are delighted to hear that Anna Smaill's debut novel, The Chimes, made the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist. Anna's debut poetry collection, The Violinist in Spring, was published by VUP in 2005.

NZ History Seminars are a rich resource for listeners interested in an enormous variety of topics. One of the most recent features Grant Morris on James Prendergast, an infamous figure in New Zealand's legal history.

The Arts Foundation podcasts on the RNZ also feature a number of VUP writers – this one features Bill Manhire, Geoff Cochrane, composer Ross Harris and film maker Louis Sutherland. Listen here.

Fiction writer Pip Adam is now reviewing books on the new Jessie Mulligan 1–4pm show on Radio New Zealand.

Ashleigh Young asked some writers and artists about criticism of their work on her blog here.

Events in August

Writers on Mondays
All sessions take place at Te Papa Marae, 12.15pm–1.15pm

3 August: Anna Smaill and Tim Corballis
17 August: David Coventry and Hamish Clayton
29 August: Best NZ Poems 2014

Book launch
R.H.I. by Tim Corballis
5.30pm–7pm, Wednesday 19 August
Concerned Citizens Collective, 17 Tory St, Wellington.

Auckland library event
An Hour with Helen Riddiford, author of A Blighted Fame.
Helen will discuss her biography which traces the life and extraordinary career of George Samuel Evans. Wednesday 19 August, 6pm at the Leys Institute Library, 20 St Marys Road, Ponsonby, Auckland. Gold coin donation, light refreshments provided.
RSVP: (09) 8908755.

National Poetry Day
Friday 28 August
Vic Books, 10am–11.30am: Poetry reading including Ashleigh Young, Anna Jackson, Jane Arthur, Harry Ricketts, Cliff Fell, Faith Wilson and more.

Unity Books, 12pm–1pm: Poetry reading includes Joan Fleming, Geoff Cochrane, Anna Jackson, Nina Powles, Helen Rickerby and Chris Tse.

More information about Poetry Day here

Seminar and launch
James K. Baxter: Complete Prose
Saturday 29 August, seminar: 3.15pm-4.45pm
launch: 5pm-7pm
RSVP essential to attend the seminar and launch