INTERVIEW: Jon Bauer on ‘Rocks in the Belly’ (Scribe)

Pictured: Jon Bauer (photo by Natasha Blankfield)

Rocks in the Belly (Scribe) is the story of a young boy who is overcome by jealously after his mother fosters another child, and the man he becomes as he returns to face his now chronically ill mother. The book was officially launched last night by Cate Kennedy.

Bookseller+Publisher Reviewer B Owen Baxter interviewed first-time novelist Bauer for our July issue.

What inspired you to write this book?

This book began as far back as 1998, way before I began writing. I was visiting family friends in England with my mum at a time when she was showing the first signs of her illness. I saw a photograph on the mantelpiece of a wonderful 13-year-old girl with an intellectual disability. I asked about her and it was clear that this girl meant a lot to the family, that they’d fostered her but she’d died. I must have carried that image because in 2007 it returned in the form of a first line: I used to tell people I was a foster child.

To what extent did you draw on real-life experiences (whether they’re your own or from somebody you know)?

This is fiction but of course there are parallels with my own life. My mother dying of brain cancer is the clearest link although her illness is more a cameo than a central feature of the book. But I made sure I put real emotion into the fiction so that the book’s heart is my heart, even if the events are not mine. If you want to move people you have to risk your own truth. If you want to do anything well I think you have to give of yourself.

The main character (particularly as a child) has quite a disturbing combination of naivety and sociopathy. What (if any) research did you do in order to portray this?

I researched fostering through a friend who works in the field, but I’ve long been an avid observer of the human condition. I believe that we all contain every element of humanity, which is why history is so repetitive. None of us is all good or all bad. We’re often simultaneously both.

What is the significance of not revealing the main character’s real name?

This was an instinctive choice but I struggled with it during editing because it made things hard at times—to avoid the name without if being a conspicuous avoidance. I think a nameless character can add power. It’s more personal for the reader somehow, and the writer. Perhaps it was also about my own need to keep the character inside of me. I’d tremble sometimes while he was up to his ‘sociopathy’. Especially because, in my mind, he was doing it to the memory of my dying mother.

Do you have any plans for a sequel/prequel? If not, what do you think your next project will be?

I am returning to a novel I wrote prior to this—The Prophet of Loss, a story I spent 18 months researching in Morocco. I’ve also started looking into blindness (including plans to be blind myself for two weeks) for another book I want to write about an older man losing his sight: Winter Solstice. Continue reading

New Zealand’s best lookin’ books: PANZ Book Design Awards

The winners of this year’s Publishers Association of New Zealand Book Design Awards were announced in Auckland on 22 July:

Gerard Reid Award for Best Book, sponsored by Nielsen Book Services

Random House New Zealand Award for Best Illustrated Book

Cameron Gibb for The Life & Love of Trees (Lewis Blackwell, PQ Blackwell/Hachette New Zealand)

HarperCollins Award for Best Cover

Sarah Laing for Magpie Hall (Rachael King, Random House New Zealand)

Pindar Award for Best Typography

Grant Sutherland, Mission Hall (interior), Robyn Sivewright, Afineline (typesetting), Neil Pardington (cover) for Art at Te Papa (ed by William McAloon, Te Papa Press)

Hachette New Zealand Award for Best Non-illustrated Book

Keely O’Shannessy (cover), Katrina Duncan (interior) for Mirabile Dictu (Michele Leggott, Auckland University Press)

Pearson Award for Best Educational Book

Book Design Ltd for Year 9 Graphics (Paul Bourdōt, Cengage Learning)

Scholastic New Zealand Award for Best Children’s Book

Michael Greenfield for Old HuHu (Kyle Mewburn, illus by Rachel Driscoll, Scholastic New Zealand).

Awa Press Young Designer of the Year

Keely O’Shannessy for Ned and Katina (Patricia Grace, Penguin NZ), Zone of the Marvellous (Martin Edmond, Auckland University Press), As the Earth Turns Silver (Alison Wong, Penguin NZ), Walking to Africa (Jessica Le Bas, Auckland University Press), Mirabile Dictu (Michele Leggott, Auckland University Press)

How did I get here? author Kalinda Ashton

In this piece from our May/June 2010 issue, author, editor and lecturer Kalinda Ashton tells us how she got where she is today.

1. I go to a tiny community school housed in a church hall in Malvern; there are 20 children and two teachers. We have no grades, no formal marks, parents who teach what they know something about, and three hours of ‘choosing time’ every day. I read Bridge to Teribithia, Playing Beattie Bow, To Kill a Mockingbird, I am the Cheese. But I can’t do basic arithmetic.

I use words like ‘immensely’ and ‘complacent’ because I don’t know any better yet.

I am seven. When my brother steals from the shops we’ve set up to sell non-existent goods in (why are we so petty-bourgeois, even at seven?) he is forced to participate in a mock legal trial; I lead the prosecution and discover I like the adversarial system.

We make up plays about the Aztecs and homeless kids. I am so thrilled when I get to be the dove and dance in our opera about Noah’s Ark. It’s only later that I realise it’s a kindness, a non-singing part, because I’m tone deaf. I am going to be an actress.

2. I am 11. I go to drama classes and win a bit part in a TV series. I do an ad for Rollups. The makeup artist frowns. ‘Did you wash your hair before this job? You should always wash your hair before a job, darling. Just some advice …’ I don’t even like to brush my hair. I don’t even want to wear shoes.

In my new, ordinary primary school, I walk out of the room when I feel like it; I ignore bells. I don’t put up my hand to speak. On my first day, I have read every book on the grade-six syllabus. I answer every reading comprehension question in English class. I am making myself despicable but alternative school has not equipped me to know this yet. Continue reading

INTERVIEW: Shaun Micallef on ‘Preincarnate’ (Hardie Grant)

Shaun Micallef’s novel Preincarnate is due from Hardie Grant Books in November. Dani Soloman, who reviewed the book for the August issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, spoke to the comedian about his first—and, he says, last—novel.


Preincarnation, the concept of a character being reborn backwards in time, is a relatively unusual topic to tackle, even in the world of sci-fi and fantasy. What was it about this topic that appealed to you?

I’m pleased to hear it’s not well trammeled territory. Because I’m not a real sci-fi buff, I was half expecting it to end up being a standard trope in the genre that I had unwittingly stumbled into, thinking it a fresh field; like my theory immediately following 9/11 that the terrorists had chosen the date because they wanted everyone who would ever ring 911 to be reminded of the attack. I thought I was the only one who’d thought of this and was most disappointed when I found out that it had already occurred to half the world’s population.

I think the thing that appealed to me most about the premise to Preincarnate was not so much being reborn in an earlier body, but being able to prevent your own death. It’s not so much a who-dunnit as a why-dunnit or how-dunnit.

You revealed some of your comedy influences in your show Good Evening: The Sketches of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. What are your literary influences?

I tell everyone I’m very influenced by S J Perelman and Robert Louis Stevenson, but this is just to sound posh. I’m really influenced by Spike Milligan (Puckoon), Norman Hunter (Professor Branstawm), John Kennedy Toole, A P Herbert, Tom Sharpe, Hunter S Thompson and Douglas Adams.

This is not your first book. Smithereens, a collection of poems, essays and sketches, is alas no longer available. Do you see yourself writing more in the future?

No, that’s it. I only had the one novel in me so you better enjoy Preincarnate because that’s all there is.

Preincarnate starts off with a very interesting, almost L Ron Hubbard-esque theory on the beginning of earth and what happens to the human soul before and after life. In fact, one could be forgiven for thinking you might be following in the footsteps of the Scientology founder. If you were to start your own religion, what would your first decree be and who would be your chosen one?

I’d bring back Latin for a start. When I was at school, I had to study it in Year 9. And then the next year they dropped it from the curriculum. No-one had to study it anymore. I figure this is a waste of a year and I’d like to think I could issue an encyclical forcing people to speak it. And not just at Mass either; I mean in every day speech.

My chosen one would be Isabella Rosselini.

Dani Soloman is a bookseller at Readings Carlton. Her review of Preincarnate appeared in the August 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned books this week

A J Mackinnon secured two places in our most mentioned chart this week for The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow (Black Inc.) and, most notably, his new title The Well at the World’s End (Black Inc.). The Old School (P M Newton, Viking) made it the top of the chart. You can read the Bookseller+Publisher review of Newton’s debut thriller about the New South Wales police force here.—Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: A Simpler Time (Peter FitzSimons, HarperCollins)

Reflecting on childhood from the great height of middle age seems to give you both compassion for your parents (rather than a sense of injustice) and a desire to honour them. Peter FitzSimons is driven by this desire to honour the goodness of his parents and his childhood despite his intimation that in adulthood his politics and choices changed from those instilled by his parents. Once you fall into the rhythm of the book, and FitzSimons’ agenda (as it were), this becomes a moving read that allows you to share in his profound love for his parents who raised a bunch of kids the best way they knew how. This is not a perfect book; I found some of it a little disingenuous, including the title, but FitzSimons does explore (in the epilogue) the problems of writing an ode to a childhood that may have been ‘simpler’ because of a collective lack of knowledge (or wilful ignorance). And he certainly doesn’t present his childhood experience as devoid of violence, sex, bullying or, indeed, mental illness. There is a sense today that these are new problems, but they clearly mark FitzSimons’ memories and challenge the notion of simpler times. But, this aside, FitzSimons knows the value of a yarn, and this book contains some great ones. Good for nostalgia and a laugh.

Annelise Balsamo is a teacher and freelance reviewer. This review first appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

INTERVIEW: James Phelan on ‘Chasers’ (Hachette Australia)

James Phelan has followed up his successful adult thrillers with a new trilogy for YA readers, ‘Alone’. John Webb asked him about the first book, Chasers.

The four young central characters in Chasers seem quite resourceful in dealing with a difficult situation. Do you think they reflect the skills of a current younger generation?

I think teenagers are as resourceful as any age group, particularly so when we are seeing this story’s events through the eyes of 16-year-old narrator, Jesse. Characters are more stylised than people we know and stories in novels are the more dramatic moments, so 16-year-olds in fiction, such as Holden Caulfield and Picene ‘Pi’ Patel, seem more resourceful than we’d expect. I put Jesse into a post-apocalyptic world and tried to be true to him while letting the chips fall where they might—extraordinary circumstances brought out some unique methods of survival for him.

This is very much a New York story. Do you think this will be a problem for readers unfamilar with the Big Apple?

I chose New York because it’s the world’s greatest city and its most inglorious, its most frenetic and its most lonely, and it has played a key role in spawning two global events that have shaped the opening of this century. Australian readers will see New York as Jesse sees it—through Australian eyes. The setting is a backdrop to the series but is a minor component compared to the story of Jesse that unfolds on the page. I tried to make every word of his so true thatit hurt, so that by the final chapter when our truth is skewed it hurts all the more but at the same time it’s an uplifting revelation because the lies preceding it were beautiful: they’d saved a life.

The parallels with 9/11 are drawn by the book’s narrator. Were you trying to make a metaphorical link between the nature of terror and horror?

I’d written three novels for an adult audience that dealt with terrorism and 9/11. The third one, Blood Oil, was very dark: my response to where we’d gone as a society. Chasers was a departure as it was an entire world that I created—a world forever changed from the end of the prologue. Jesse is aware of 9/11 (he was headed on a field trip to the memorial when the disaster struck) so it seemed logical he’d think of it in the context of what he’s seeing all around him. Linking real events in his mind was something he employed to cope with the situation at hand—this kind of thing has happened before and people have overcome it, so he can do that here too. It deals with horrors as Jesse sees them: illness, mortality, heartbreak and loss. Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Spinning Out (Christine Darcas, Hachette Australia)

This is Christine Darcas’s second novel and, like her first, features a main character who migrates from the US and who discovers a renewed sense of self, community and solace within the studios of Latin and Champion Dancesport. At 33, Ginny is living the New York dream—her own small apartment, a glamorous career in advertising and an on-again-off-again romance with the talented Simon. But after a frantic phone call from her best friend in Melbourne—on the very day she is ‘let go’ from her job—the exhausted Ginny finds herself taking some extended time out for the first time in years. The reason I liked this book so much was the realistic characterisations and scenarios. At no point do we need to suspend disbelief, which allows more space for the reader to relate to the characters. Darcas does a great job of portraying Ginny’s complex and fraught relationships with her mother and her best friend, and I found these aspects very moving. It is clear from the writing (and the author’s bio) that dancing is her passion, and she does a fine job of balancing these elements without overwhelming the main story.

Rachel Wilson is Melbourne-based academic and former bookseller at the Sun Bookshop in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned books this week

Blanche d’Alpuget’s Hawke: The Prime Minister (MUP) sits at number one on the most mentioned chart this week. The release of this book coincides with the announcement of the federal election and the screening of the Hawke miniseries, all of which shouldn’t hurt sales. Other local titles in the chart included Roddy Parr (Peter Rose, Fourth Estate) and Gunshot Road (Adrian Hyland, Text). My Friend the Mercenary (James Brabazon, Text) and Inheritance (Nicholas Shakespeare, Harvill Secker) also received a number of mentions this week—Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: The Crime of Huey Dunstan (James McNeish, Text)

First published in New Zealand by Random House, this is a dark courtroom drama in more than one sense. Professor Chesney is a blind psychologist acting as an expert witness for a young man who has admitted to killing a man who befriended him. Young Huey Dunstan claims the events from his past caused him to lash out in such a vicious way. As Professor Chesney tries to get Huey to talk to him about what triggered the attack, small pieces of a complicated jigsaw begin to join up—pieces that will reveal a brutal, deeply hidden past. This is the way The Crime of Huey Dunstan unfolds—shapelessly, but with plenty of substance, asking readers to think for themselves and make judgements that may or not be correct, much like the trial. James McNeish makes his readers pay attention to detail by going ‘off story’, but also keeps them guessing to the end by dropping vital information in a fairly random fashion. It’s a masterly way of working the novel in the age of the easy read. This will appeal to people who enjoy a challenging read.

Doris Mousdale is the owner of Arcadia Bookshop in Auckland and reviews books weekly on NewstalkZB and BBC Worldwide. This review first appeared in the July2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.