Filmmaking and social media – the pros and cons of direct engagement with fans

Just a short post to promote my latest article, published today at Pantograph Punch. I particularly enjoyed writing this, as all my interviewees were generously open about all aspects of what they do, and were also very excited about their different projects (which made me excited). I felt so inspired, in fact, that I’ve begun working on a webseries of my own – more on this to come!

Click here for the article.

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Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

A very long song

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is about Peter and Bea, husband and wife, separated by billions of miles of space. It’s a beautiful story that left me thinking deeply about it long after I read it. Although the plot is straight-forward and the prose itself satisfyingly plain, Faber managed to fit in so many different themes – miscommunication on a monumental scale, biological inequalities, faith, the end of the Earth, hope. And loss. At the start, in fact, during the opening chapter, all I felt was loss – poignant, yet uncomplicated. But as the story unfolds the emotions become increasingly confused, a whirlwind of frustrated feelings, and all the while each chapter heading tells in advance the last sentence of that chapter, so I felt as if I was being propelled forwards towards some horrific, yet unavoidable conclusion.

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Peter is a missionary who has been sent to Oasis, a geographically dull yet habitable planet that a multinational corporation (USIC) has been developing. Bea was not invited by USIC to join Peter in his mission. Their separation is a shock to them both, as they’ve barely ever spent time apart since they first met. They are devout Christians however, and trust that since they are doing His work nothing could go terribly wrong.

Oasis’s local inhabitants (the ‘Oasans’ as Peter calls them) trade food for medical supplies. They had already learned of Jesus Christ from a former missionary, and are extremely eager to hear more. Peter’s work with them is easy – stupidly so. The Oasans are a peaceful folk (dressed in full body cloaks, gloves and boots), and their thirst for Christ is a pastor’s dream. Although the USIC base is within driving distance of the Oasan settlement, Peter chooses to spend two weeks about (Earth time) at both the Oasan settlement and the base. He would sooner not travel back to the base at all if the apparatus with which to contact Bea was not back with his human colleagues. The story is told through Peter’s eyes and experiences, but through Bea’s letters to him we see snapshots of what is going on in their life back home.

Snapshots. Pools of electric light in the darkness. Windows. Car headlights illuminating a thin band. The imagery throughout the book creates the feeling of being utterly confined by our own meagre viewpoint of the world. We come to conclusions without knowing the full story. We only ever see part of the picture, and only ever from our own perspective.

At the start it just seems a shame that USIC didn’t allow Bea to come along, but as the story progresses it begins to seem like a terrible mistake. His time alone with the Oasans beings to change Peter. Firstly, he’s terrible at looking after himself (Bea is a nurse, she’s the practical one) and allows himself to become underfed, dehydrated, exposed to the sun, which leads to unclear thinking. But it’s not just that. He doesn’t fit in at the base. He’s a pastor so his world revolves around philosophy, thought, the human struggle. USIC has chosen particularly unimaginative scientists and engineers, fit to survive a bland alien landscape far from home. They don’t question why they continue to follow Earth time when Oasis has a perfectly good sun to set time by; they aren’t disturbed by the sterility of their environment, the constant air conditioning to mimic Earth’s atmosphere. Peter becomes further and further alienated from the humans, drawn to the Oasans who live naturally from the land, who desire to think and learn. Only one other at the base stands out from the rest – Granger, but she has problems of her own.

As Peter becomes lost within his work in this whole new world, his life and Bea’s drift apart. Experiences are unshared; vital details from Peter’s day are not recorded for Bea, who is desperate for any news she can get. But mostly, Peter doesn’t hear what Bea is saying. Things are falling apart rapidly for her. She faces struggle after struggle, and Peter seems hopelessly incapable of truly realising how badly his wife is suffering (or how quickly things are deteriorating back on Earth), so certain is he that his mission had been sanctioned by God, so stuck is he within the path they’d chosen. Their tightly knit whole begins to break apart into separate pieces because he’s unable to properly communicate with his wife or see things for what they truly are.

And if Peter is unable to properly communicate with Bea, his love, the person who knows him best in the world, what hope does he have with an alien species? Oasis is mostly just dirt and ground-hugging plants. It’s devoid of trees, rocks, mountains, crags, branches (sharp things barely occur naturally). The Oasans have evolved into biological beings quite different from humans. Their facial expressions, their tones of voice – unrecognisable. Their history, unknown. Their symbolism (if they have any) entirely different. How can he know if the word he is using means the same thing to both species? A word like ‘pain’, for instance, has layers of complexity. And if ‘pain’ is difficult to explain, what about the Bible passages? Why do the Oasans sing Amazing Grace, when they appear to live sinless lives? What does it mean to them? When an Oasan hears Peter crying, she mistakes it for a song.

It’s a sad story. I found myself guessing all the way through (“the Oasans don’t like sharp things because they are unnaturally occurring shapes”, “they are hiding something under their long cloaks”, “they are using the USIC medication for nefarious ends”, “they have killed the old pastor”). Maybe it’s because I’m human that I think that way, or that being human allows me to think that way. The truth is that those peaceful folk who sing sweetly to their Lord are afflicted by a biological disadvantage that Peter could not have fathomed. They simply wanted to be able to self-heal like they’ve seen humans do. Even the smallest injury to their body causes them to rot, and die. They weren’t seeking eternal life after death – the abstract concept probably didn’t register with them at all – but probably presumed that this miraculous gift had been bestowed to believers by God. And this realisation – when it hits Peter – the unfairness of it (if God loves every creature equally..?), and the hopelessness of his cause, shakes him like nothing ever has.

Too late, it feels, Peter decides to travel back home, to find Bea, wherever she is in a world gone swiftly to ruin. It ends with him waiting to leave, and you can only presume that USIC will let him. But who knows? Everything is left up in the air. Left to hope. Peter’s hope that he’ll find Bea. The Oasan’s hope that the ‘Technique of Jesus’ will help their people live longer; my own hope that science eventually will. I knew before I started reading The Book of Strange Things that Faber had written it while his wife was dying, and so, maybe because of that, the beautiful story felt like a very long song.

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Book Review: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is another classic book that is difficult (and possibly pointless) to review. But I’ve just read it for the first time, and it’s worth a review in any case. My grandmother sent me the book a couple of years ago, and every time she’s seen me since she’s asked, “have you read it yet?” And so yes, Sylvia, yes I have!

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In her eagerness for me tor me to read it, my grandmother actually sent me two copies of the book. With one of them she included this article about Jane Austen – not sure what the relation was.

It was first published in 1950, and is set in that post-war period. It has an old-fashioned tone, narrated by a lawyer named Mr Strachan, an old man and widower who appears to have plenty of time on his hands. His story describes the life of his client, a Miss Jean Paget, between the years of her twenties until her early thirties. It begins with probably the longest flashback I’ve ever come across in a book, as he recounts what occurred to her while she was a prisoner of war in the ‘East’. She and a band of women and children were forced to walk hundreds of miles across Malaysia in search of a prison camp. Each Japanese commander they came across, too busy to really care, turned them away. It was during this time that she witnessed something truly horrific, which changed her life.

From Malaysia, to England, to the outback of Australia – this is a love story at its heart. Good things can come from horror, or at least this book would have you think. Good things also come to people who have plenty of money. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the message, but it rang loud and clear all the same. Miss Paget had dough, and with it she eventually got everything she ever really wanted (nice eh?).

The vastly different terrains covered in this book are interesting to read about from a geographic point of view at the very least. When in Malaysia, I could feel the sticky heat, hear the insects, smell the decay. In the Outback (in which the second half of the book is set – ‘Alice’ is in reference to Alice Springs) I could see the men and their horses outside the old wooden hotel, taste the cold beer, feel the baking sun. The fact it was written about seventy years ago does mean there were times I squirmed a bit as people of different ethnicities were described (basically anyone not white). It’s also quietly sexist – again, a product of its time.

Despite this, it’s an easy read and reasonably enjoyable. I didn’t feel there was anything ground-breaking about it – I wasn’t at any point blown away by what I read – but it’s a solid story. Like many older English books it’s all very proper and restrained. By the end I quite liked the narrator, Mr Strachan, and felt a little touched and saddened by the fact he felt he had to write it all down.

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My grandmother included this letter with the other copy she sent.

Interestingly, this is what my grandmother (born 1931) had to say in the letter she sent me with the book:

Here is a book that I have always enjoyed and is probably a good representative of its time – which of course is no guarantee that you will find it easy to get through. At least I have worked out its appeal for me – it’s because it covered my ERA and I can understand the MORES & MORALS of the time.

I remember the war years and the horror stories, plus the austerity that still prevailed at the time when we left England. Then – the time that Dot and I went to outback Australia (1952) would be virtually the same time as the heroine first went there and became aware of how hard life was – the climate, the isolation and the womens’ lot.

I can also identify with the money value at the time because when we left England tradesmen in the building trade were earning between 2/6d and three shillings per hour – roughly $13 for a 45 hour week, and a labourers wage was roughly $9 or $10 per week – from which tax was deducted. Working in the office I earned $2-50 per week, which was good for that day and age. I have added the above information to show that her legacy, which doesn’t sound much these days, really was a fortune at that time.

Anyway, give it a go – and if you don’t like it blame it on how times have changed.

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In a world full of birds

Ben’s body keeps replicating each month, and it’s a hell of a mess disposing of his old body each time. Now he’s waiting for the the police to arrive, and he knows he has to prove himself innocent against charges of murder

I thought it would be a good idea to put one of my favourite stories up on-line. In a world full of birds was the first thing I wrote after finishing my Masters in Creative Writing at the end of 2012. Around that time Random Static (a small Wellington speculative fiction press) were doing a call-out for stories for their newest anthology, Regeneration. I submitted the story, and was thrilled to have it accepted (here’s a link to the publication). After that, it went on to be short-listed for the Sir Julius Vogel’s Best Novella of 2013 award, and it came first place in the Au Contraire short story competition, which ran alongside that year’s national sci fi/fantasy convention.

All in all, I was very happy with how it got on, and I feel it’s time to share it in its entirety.

So here it is: In-a-world-full-of-birds-pdf

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Book Review: Ghosting by Jennie Erdal

Ghosting, by Jennie Erdal (2004), is an intriguing, somewhat unsettling glimpse into the lives of a ghostwriter and her employer. It’s a true story – her story – and spans nearly twenty years of her life. During this time she loses love, finds love again and her kids grow up, but all the while her relationship with her employer deepens into something increasingly complex and binding.

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She calls her boss “Tiger”, due to the Tiger head he proudly displays on his wall. A prominent member of the British elite and publishing industry, he’s also one of the most interesting people I’ve ever read about. He’s extravagantly wealthy, flamboyant, a romantic extrovert driven by whims and fancies, but he’s also anxious and obsessive to point of being compulsive. A collector of nude art, a gracious host, a cook, a clean-freak, the owner of murderous dogs – I think you could read this book purely as a character study and get a lot out of it.

Erdal, on the other hand, comes across as being an analytic, systematic, studious type. An expert in Russian language and literature, she was first employed (above the table) as a translator and editor of Russian books. I don’t think Tiger ever set out to employ a ghostwriter. It seemed to me that he started finding extra jobs for her to do out of kindness, as her situation had become difficult. But one job led to the next until she was eventually writing novels for him, and the voice the world knew of as his was actually hers and he couldn’t let her go.

Ironically, she probably wasn’t the best fit for him. His tastes were far different from hers. He wanted graphic sex scenes (“poetic” ones). He wanted her to put down on page extraordinary – hell, supernatural – sexual techniques, which she struggled to write about convincingly. She had no prior experience in writing fiction, and no real inclination either.

Despite all that, she’s obviously a good writer, so Ghosting is a good read. It’s reasonably light, yet full of insightful observations about childhood, relationships, and also the act of writing. About divorce she writes:

Yet when a marriage falls apart, every memory is threatened, and the good times can be blackened overnight. There is nothing that cannot be reinterpreted. Divorce violates the present, but it also slithers backwards on its filthy tentacles and desecrates the past.

Nice. And so very true.

I did feel, however, that she often relied on other people’s quotes to make her point (and maybe that’s the academic in her). Many times throughout I wished I could speak French.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the relationship between Tiger and Erdal. Before I began reading this I imagined the life of the ghostwriter to be a secretive, secluded thing. There would be midnight phone calls and code words, the whole affair steeped in dirty guilt. But Erdal played a prominent part in Tiger’s life – she was in and out of his London office, vacationed with him in France, travelled to foreign book fairs with him. By the end, their lives had become so horribly entwined that I felt suffocated just reading about it. Strangely, it was like Tiger never properly admitted to himself that he wasn’t actually writing his own work. It was like he believed that he was the muse, and she simply his pen.

This is a good read. I highly recommend it.

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Yellow Pill – Ink Stains Volume 2

Howdy folks. This rather gruesome (**non-vegan!**) image is the cover of the newest anthology that my writing is a part of. Published by Dark Alley Press, the anthology contains seven gritty, dark fictions.

My story Yellow Pill is a suspenseful tale about Lata, who begins to become increasingly suspicious about the pills her boyfriend Joseph takes for his asthma. He seems to take them an awful lot. He’s cagey about where he gets them from. The local pharmacy is even hounding her, after they ran some tests and didn’t even recognise what the hell they were. Things get much worse when Lara decides to take one of the pills herself.

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Ink Stains Volume 2 can be purchased here at Amazon – either as an ebook, or print. Happy reading….

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This Giant Papier Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy (movie review)

Every time I go to write down the movie’s name I end up missing at least one word. In fact, when I asked for a ticket at the cinema, I got half way through the name and then both the teller and I went “and blah blah yadda yadda” to finish it off. It’s certainly a mouthful, but it’s also quite clever. Because before you even watch the film the name instantly gives you a sense of what you’re going to see. I figured it would be funny, self-referential, and very cheaply made. I imagined an amateur indie film, in which the props are made by the director’s flatmate’s girlfriend, and the soundtrack is recorded on an early-90s Casio keyboard with built-in drum beats.

This was pretty close to the truth, though the music was marginally better than that. It’s made in New Zealand – maybe a classic Kiwi film of the future.

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The story begins with the three main blokes – Tom, Gavin and Jeffrey – watching an old B-grade sci-fi film ‘Space Warriors in Space’. Part way through, they are mysteriously sucked into the movie, and come under attack from the evil Lord Froth. With the help of some friends they meet along the way, not to mention the scantily dressed warrior women (obligatory for any sci-fi adventure film), they must find their way back to Earth, and back to reality.

This film is done on a budget – seriously. But they’ve cleverly gotten away with it by setting the story inside a very low-budget film. It reminded me of the early seasons of Red Dwarf, when they used a computer joystick to steer the ship, and pretty much everything else was built from cardboard boxes glued together and painted grey. In TGPMBIARH the lids of pump bottles are buttons on the ship’s console; an electric egg beater is a cargo ship flying through space; lampshades (or possibly suspended baking bowls?) serve as those visor things you wear when you want to aim your ship’s cannons at another ship (you know what I mean…). And no animals were harmed in the film, because they were mostly soft toys (quite cute ones, too). But the cheapness is essential for the plot, it’s part of the point. The characters, for the most part, realise they are stuck inside a budget film, and are generally stumped by the fact that a recognisable kitchen utensil actually fires a laser out its end. Which is why it’s also surprising that the “giant papier mache boulder is actually really (fucking) heavy”.

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I had quite a few laughs. They got the theatrical nature of an old sci-fi film right. When someone is punched in the face they don’t just drop to the ground, they fly through the air. If someone rolls down a bank then they bloody well fall off a waterfall too. That’s just common sense. However, if I’m going to pick a hole (and I will), it’s that I felt the film could do with a brutal edit. Some scenes went on too long, and some were superfluous altogether. I know that when you’ve worked closely on something for a long time you get precious, but really it could have done with a good snip snip snip.

TGPMBIARH is running for another week at the Rialto in Newmarket, and also the Dunedin Rialto and the cinema in Devonport. Go out and support a NZ independent film.

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