Friday, November 27, 2009

CityDance Ensemble Choreographs my Poem

Have a look at the CityDance Ensemble's choreographed performance of my poem What I don't Know at Nine.

You little beauties. Thanks to Kathryn and Jason who did such a beautiful job of choreographing and dancing an interpretation of the poem I wrote for them on Fall and Recovery.

They asked me to read part of my poem as part of the performance. In hindsight, I think the dance would have been better left alone, but I still like it. I wasn't exactly prepared to talk about the poem, as it was based on something that had happened to me personally, so it was a bit of a surprise that each writer stood up and talked about why they wrote what they wrote.

I was a bit embarrassed, said a few ums, but I'm getting used to listening to myself stumble and blush in this video. I'm sure you'll get used to it too.

Have a look. Isn't it lovely?

Monday, November 16, 2009

I'm in a New York state of mind

Well, this is my last night in New York with my writing friends. I'm starting the flight home tomorrow afternoon.

These last few days in Chicago, Washington DC and New York have been fabulous. I've done lots of things with my lovely Australian room-mate Alice, but we've also been to the Native American Indian museum with Effie from Israel, underneath the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island with Lijia from China, and to the dance show Burn the Floor ... by myself. Dancing, dancing and more dancing. Pure heaven.

Here is a slideshow of some of the things we've done and places we've been in our travels over the last week.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Some answers to your questions

Hi there International Literature Today students. Thanks for the questions you asked. I have assumed that your comments and questions were mainly in relation to the Sausage Sizzle excerpt that is online for you to read but you may have read A Hairy Tale or Muffin Magic. Copies of these are available in the University of Iowa Library and at IWP at Shambaugh House if you want to read them. A Hairy Tale is currently out of print so it isn't available to purchase. The manuscript of Sausage Sizzle is in progress.

Joe said "You have a real gift for making your characters seem believable and real. Did you base your characters on people you know? Why does Michael seem to not really care about his family, only about his gifts?" Chelsea said "In the extract from Sausage Sizzle, the father (Michael) seems to act almost child-like. I wondered if this was intentional, and if so, why?"

Answer: Thanks for the compliment. That's reassuring to know. My characters are based on small pieces of people I know but each character is a unique mixture that makes up a different person. The things that happen to them are based on small and big things that have happened to me, my friends and family, or that I have read about or heard on TV. Michael does care about his family but he's a slightly reactive person. He's a bit selfish and he's had many years experience of receiving bad gifts for birthdays and Father's Days. How many of you remember giving your dad socks or soaps on ropes as gifts? Well, I visited my father when I was about 30 and found a Brut soap on a rope hanging in the guest bathroom, that I gave him when I was about 13. I probably don't need to say more on this topic. I have exaggerated the issue in relation to Jack and his dad to make this common phenomenon funnier than it would be normally. Michael does have a slightly childish tantrum about the gifts. It wasn't intentional that I make him child-like. His voice just came out that way. Interesting ....

Michael said "Your piece has a sort of humor that is both childish and mature. What is the biggest influence on the humor you present in your story?" Also someone Cramer said "The cucumber incident at the beginning of your story was very humorous and unexpected. Where does your humor come from? Any particular source of inspiration?"

Answer: I suppose I draw on everyday things that I find funny or that I think kids find funny and I exaggerate them. I take things to extremes with humour. I laugh at the same things that kids laugh at, and the things that some adults consider silly in a childish way, often appeal to me. I like playfulness. Laughter. Joy. Pure joy. Most of the time, I see this in children, but not so much in adults, so I draw from what I see in children. I like simple slapstick humour. However I also like paradoxes and irony. I like playing with language, and that is something that appeals to children as they get older and develop their language and puzzle-solving skills. I use humour in dealing with serious topics too. Morris Gleitzman is an author who does this extremely well. I also like the way David Hill does this in See Ya, Simon. The cucumber incident is based on a real situation. A mentally ill gentleman (who obviously had voices in his head) used to come into a library where I worked and say disgusting things in a loud voice. On one particular day he was doing this and simultaneously thwacking a large cucumber into the palm of his hand. He was in my children's department at the time, and I had to try and use the skills I had learnt in a recent 'dealing with difficult people' course. I exaggerated this incident for the purposes of this scene in Sausage Sizzle.

Julian said "You do an amazing job of showing us how nervous Jack is at the beginning through his activity. What sort of things do you do to make that seem natural? Why do you work with children so extensively? Where do you find inspiration for stories that will be successful with younger audiences?"

Answer: I think it works to show things through action and dialogue rather than to try and describe abstract concepts like feelings. As readers we all know how we behave when we're nervous. I just have to think about that, but also how Jack's age will affect that. I think about his physical, mental and emotional development (taking that psychology 101 paper was useful!) and how that determines his behaviour. His own personality affects that too. I discovered when I began working as a Children's and Teenage Services Librarian that I have a natural rapport with kids. I actually like them a lot as people. It's not that I have particularly overriding maternal instincts. I just like them. I read a lot of children's books because I enjoy them more than adults' books. I also go to children's movies and visit toy stores, simply because it's fun. These things help with inspiration but getting the 'ideas' has never been a problem. It's persevering with them until the end which can be difficult.

Hannah said "Are the characters in Sausage Sizzle fictional or are they based on real people? Can you talk about the process for developing your characters, especially Jack who I found myself really empathising with."

Answer: The characters are completely fictional but they each have an element of someone I know or a mixture of bits. I was bullied for a couple of years at school, so bullying as a theme has appeared in a couple of my books. Muffin Magic was published in the Kiwi Bites series. Sausage Sizzle isn't finished yet. The girl who bullied me when I was 11-12 could even recognise one aspect of herself in the boy Jason who is mean to the main character Mark if she thought about it carefully enough. Bullying is a commonly experienced phenomenon in schools, so I feel it's important to talk about it and provide support in as many ways as possible. Developing characters requires you to think a lot about big and little things to do with your main characters, and ask a lot of questions. What's the point of the story, what are their problems, what do they need to do, how would they behave in certain situations, who are their friends, what are their relationships like, what do they eat, wear, etc, etc. You can use a character grid if you want and fill in the blanks but you don't have to know everything about them to start with. A lot of the detail gets filled in later as your characters start to interact during your manuscript drafts.

Joseph said " Was the grass seed responsible for the barbequed sparrow?"
Another person with the surname Thomas (sorry, my photocopy chopped off your first name) said "The impression was that there was some science fiction influence on the excerpt from Sausage Sizzle. Is the novel a science fiction piece or were you at all influenced by science fiction when writing it?"

Answer: Yes, the grass seed is responsible. Yes, it is related to science fiction. It is connected to a genetic modification experiment that goes wrong. I don't read a lot of science fiction but I am interested in things like genetic engineering, toxins, pest control, evolution, animal conservation and environmental issues in general. The idea for the book came up during an exercise when I was running a writing course. We used nouns and adjectives that commonly go together. Then we mixed them up and brainstormed possibilities relating to unusual combinations. The combination that I played with was grass and explosive (I think). I came up with the story idea after asking a lot of What If questions.

Karen said "The author has a style of writing that enables the audience to read the story smoothly. The characters are all very believable as is the story line. Bullying is a very serious problem, something many of the characters seem to struggle with. What other sorts of everyday issues does the author find important to incorporate into a story?"

Answer: Thanks very much. Also see the reply above for my comments about bullying which I think can be a very destructive thing in a child's formative years. It's interesting that you say 'many of the characters' struggle with this. Do you mean just in Sausage Sizzle or in my other books too? I'm wondering what you've read. I guess Michael is behaving like a bully in this excerpt although if you read on, you will see it's a short phase related to him reaching a landmark age with which he's not that comfortable. William is undoubtedly a bully. There's nothing subtle about this. There will be a satisfying resolution to this however. In Muffin Magic there is also a satisfying resolution. In both stories, the resolution is brought about by cleverness and likeable personality because neither of the boys who are main characters are in a posititon to be physically dominant. I also like to incorporate themes that show that children are powerful and can use their talents even though they may feel like adults are making the decisions in their lives. I guess that's why adventure stories are so popular with kids. I also want to help kids to talk about the problems they encounter in their lives, because nobody can prevent bad things from happening, but the impact of them can be lessened by teaching children how to talk about them. Themes that involve conservation, animals and our environment regularly get incorporated in my stories too.

Emily said "You use a lot of colloquial and (I assume) distinctly New Zealand or Australian phraseology, which works well in young adult and children's books. How do you think that writers of adult literature can imbue that same sort of realistic dialog and tone into their work?"

Answer: Firstly, I think some people find it easy to write natural conversations between people, but this depends on how well you know the lifestyle and background of your characters. I get a bit carried away when I write dialogue, whereas I struggle with descriptive passages. It helps to really listen to the way people of different ages and backgrounds talk (focus on detail), watch movies and read books that are aimed at a particular age group. In some ways, it's about really listening and practising writing dialogue. But I do know people who try really hard and never manage to write natural dialogue. You have to be able to get into the head of that person, and that can be the most difficult thing of all for some writers.

Tony said "I love how the story is so real and there are no unnecessary literary devices. It seems like such an everyday occurrence that you could picture yourself or your neighbors in Sausage Sizzle yet it is extremely captivating. What inspires you to write stories like this? Are these events based on experiences you've had or someone you know?"

Answer: I like writing for children because you have to get to the point quickly. They don't put up with waffle or a writer trying to impress with clever literary devices. The writing just needs to grab the reader and be entertaining. You can still do this with everyday, ordinary events and people. Perhaps that's what makes it appealing. Everyone can see themselves in these situations. They can empathise with the experiences of the characters because they are things we have in common - sibling rivalry, bullying, neurotic parents, etc, etc. I always loved reading about other children's lives when I was little. I admired the naughtiness of Ramona the Pest, the strength and freedom of Pippi Longstocking, and the stubbornness of Laura Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie. I guess that's why I'm inspired to write stories like this about characters that I like.

To be continued ....

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Favourite memories of Iowa City

Eating caramel pecan rolls and drinking coffee with my landlady Pam on the porch at the College Green House in warmer days.

The view of Fall colours from my window looking over the College Green.

The Ramona Punzel felt doll that Alice made for me one day when I was sad. It comes complete with brown Kathy hair, incredibly long blonde Ramona Punzel hair, and copies of my books Muffin Magic and A Hairy Tale, even to the extent of having bites out of the corners to represent the Kiwi Bites series. This is SERIOUSLY COOL.

Reading questions and comments from students which made me realise they like my writing, especially the Jack character in my Sausage Sizzle excerpt. Let me say that again. They LIKED my writing. Wahoo!!!!!

Everything about the Mountain West trip. I can't get the view from Angel's Landing in Zion National Park out of my head.

Winning at the pool hall.

White chocolate mocha with whipped cream at The Java House.

Making the video Yr Ymylon.

Joe saying 'You two are SO much in trouble.'

Learning the moves in the barn dance at the Johnson County Senior Centre.

All of the music - from Deer Tick and Corndawg, to Fflur Dafydd, and the blues and folk bands.

Dancing like a lunatic everywhere I could ....

Dressing up as Morticia for Halloween and seeing everyone else get excited about their costumes.

Writing and giggling over my Cane Toads and Underpants panel presentation.

Writing a poem for the CityDance Ensemble.

Performing in my own reader's theater script Little Green Riding Hood and listening and watching everyone else's works performed at the Global Express play and poetry readings.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The leaves are falling ... where did I lose that earring?

Oh, God, I was just wondering why I feel so crappy this morning, and it's suddenly hit me. I haven't had any coffee yet. No wonder.

I'm looking out my bedroom window at the people who are all rugged up in the park. The yellow, orange and red leaves make a beautiful sight, and because we've had a few stormy days, a lot of the leaves have fallen already. But there's a tree outside my window that has one leaf left on it, and it's hanging on for grim death. It's looking very fragile. I'm feeling worried for it. Hee, hee.

It's Monday morning here - my laundry day. I've just scrambled out of bed to throw my stuff in the washing machine so I can get out of here as soon as possible to meet Alice for coffee and writing at the Java House. And I've just received an email from Paula at the farmer's market to say she has a corn cob earring for me, and where can we meet. I bought a pair when I first arrived and lost one in between the Global Express readings and the barn dance, so this woman has made me a replacement and is going to put backs on them this time so my 'bounceability' doesn't lead to more losses in the future. These are the sorts of stresses I experience in Iowa City. Nice, huh?

I must go downstairs and give Pam the gift I bought her at the weekend as well. Everyone here is big on decorating their houses for seasons and celebrations. She has Fall decorations everywhere on the inside and outside of her house. Anyway, I saw a Christmas snowman the size of a toddler at the CVS store and I can picture it on her porch. I want to bring one home for myself but I've tested it in my suitcase and it only just fits length-wise. Am I nuts? You can tell me.

Alice thinks I will find a way to get it home without having to throw out all my clothes. I think she's right. I'll just wear all my clothes and arrive in Auckland looking like a blimp.

P.S. The amazing corn cob earring woman Paula Griffin gave me a new set of earrings for nothing. She said she felt bad about me losing one. How kind is that? She is the sort of person I encounter all the time here in Iowa City.

Thanks to Azeem for the beautiful photo.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween and Fairy Tales

The Halloween party at Felix and Ana's house was a blast, although it appears that I wasn't as spooky-looking as I should have been. I started out intending to be Victoria, the vampire at the prom, who watches over Edward and Bella at the end of the Twilight movie. But the vampire teeth I bought popped out like Goofy and they made me dribble terribly. Not a good look for a vampy vampire. So I decided to go as Morticia instead - you know - from the Addams family. However because I was there with Snow White (aka Alice), people took one look at me and thought I was ... Sleeping Beauty. A logical conclusion? Yeah, right. How do you explain the trail of blood coming out of my mouth? Perhaps everyone just thought I'd smudged my lipstick.

After the party, Alice and Millicent wandered the streets of Iowa City, filming people in costume, using Millicent's felt chicken (a chicken made of felt, just to clarify) to do the commentary. They encountered people dressed up as a deranged Santa, 2 Jesuses, a birdman and a set of dominoes.

My accent is still giving me trouble. Pam asked me this morning how the Halloween party was. I said it was great, nearly everyone came dressed up, and there was lots of dancing and snacks at Ana and Felix's house.. Try saying 'snacks' out loud. Does it sound anything like 'sex' to you? Either Pam has a one-track mind after the 'deck' story or I'm the one with the problem. Whatever the case, she burst out laughing and said 'what did you say?' I'm getting a bit of a nervous twitch about my vowels.

Hee, hee.

Thanks to Alice for the pics.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Global Express plays and poetry performed

Last week was an exceptional week. Everything we have done here on the IWP has been fun but last week pushed us over the edge. Not only did we get to see our plays and poetry professionally performed, but some of us were allowed to perform on stage as well. This is as good as it gets!

Seven of the IWP writers contributed plays and poetry to the Iowa Playwrights Workshop alumna Maggie Conroy, who worked with Joe Luis Cedillo to adapt, direct and present an eclectic evening of theatre called Global Express. The evening involved Iowa undergraduates, grad students,faculty and IWP participants to bring pieces to stage.

Items performed were: Poem by Rumi sung by Salomat Vafo (Uzbekistan); Tenacity by Vicente Garcia Groyon (Philippines); Chair Does Not Know by Han Bo (China); Metallic Wing by Efrat Mishori (Israel); The Neighbor by Marius Ivaskevicius (Lithuania); Little Green Riding Hood by Kathy White (New Zealand); Longing and Unfinished Ode Upon the Clitoris by Violet Grigoryan (Armenia)

Actors: Joe Luis Cedillo; Fabian Rodriguez; R. Paul Gray IV; Julie Daniels; Brittainy Barattia; Becca Robinson; Eric Forsythe; Maddie Cole; Dawn Olsen.

Stage Manager Nicole Sedivec.

Thanks to Joe Luis Cedillo and Vicente Garcia Groyon for the photos.

Fabulous people

This is a selection of photos taken of people on the IWP.

Thanks again to Alice, Vicente, Azeem and others for pics.

Images of America

People on the International Writing Program have been taking a lot of photos. Most of them have been taken in Iowa, but others were taken during the Mountain West trip. Some of my favourite landscapes are featured here.

Thanks to Alice, Vicente, and Azeem (and others) for photos.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Up close and personal with corn

Iowa is big on corn. Have I mentioned this already?

We were lucky enough to be invited to the Dane Family farm Fall Harvest dinner, which was a bit like the front runner for Thanksgiving. Everything served up had been grown on the farm from the turkeys, to the sweet potatoes and corn, and the apples and pumpkins that were made into pies. Even the ice-cream was made on the property. About 100 people packed into their barn, sitting at long tables, decorated with carved pumpkins.

We saw wild mice (more wildlife!!!) scurrying as the tractor towed us on a hayride around the edge of the cornfields. I suppose it's a bit like tourists seeing sheep for the first time in New Zealand. It's exciting, right? Well, we were a bit like that about the corn, even though it seemed like we'd found the stunted corn variety.

By the way, I finished my poem for the CityDance Ensemble. I struggled with it but now that I have started writing poetry again, I'll probably never stop. And I'm making progress with my manuscript for teens. Originally it was going to be about a 13 year old boy, but he's aged in the making. I decided I wanted him to be a couple of years older, so the story has subtly changed as well, and will need to be longer. Occasionally I get angry when I struggle to make myself write, but I've been listening to comments by other writers and have given myself some freedom to experiment. Maxine Case said she doesn't always write her chapters in sequence. She works on whatever she wants to write at the time. Osman Conteh says he doesn't get too bothered if he doesn't feel like writing. He knows the voice will come back and he has faith. Siobhan Ni Shithigh says she knows the fully-formed poem already exists and it's just about her finding it and giving it a voice.

These words of wisdom and faith have been very reassuring to me in this part of my writing journey.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Yr Ymylon Music Video on YouTube

A music video of the song called Yr Ymylon by IWP singer-songwriter and novelist Fflur Dafydd, directed by Azeem Sajjad, is now ready for you to see. It's from her new album Byd Bach. International Writing Program participants feature in the background, and also as director, editor and camera operator.

Have a look, make a comment, and give it a rating.

See Yr Ymylon on YouTube here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Words to dance to

Within the next few weeks, the IWP participants are heading off on another trip to Chicago, Washington D.C. and New York. Calm down, calm down. Jeepers, you're excitable little chipmunks, aren't you?

Well, the CityDance Ensemble in Washington D.C. has invited the IWP writers to write texts based on the theme of Fall and Recovery, to be interpreted and choreographed for a special performance in mid-November. Look here for a preview of past performances. For a woman who loves to dance (I'm talking about me here, you know, Tango Kat?), this is an exceptional opportunity. I have no idea what this might look like, but mixing media is exciting, hopefully not too exciting for words, or I'll be stymied in my task. I'm normally a prose writer, but this is stimulating a desire to write poetry.

What is happening to me here in Iowa?

I think those poems by Mani Rao at Prairie Lights on Sunday may have sparked off my desire to experiment with word forms.

I'll let you know the outcome.

Kaikoura to consider ban on 1080

For those of you who watched the documentary Poisoning Paradise about the use of 1080 poison in New Zealand pest control at the Cinematheque two weeks ago, and wondered what action is being taken, you'll be pleased to know that the documentary, roadshow and blog are making a difference.

Screenings of the documentary in a touring roadshow have led to two councils banning the use of 1080 in aerial drops since the beginning of the year, and two more are considering a ban since councillors have seen the documentary. Taupo District Council has set up a steering committee to try and encourage other councils to take similar action.

See the statement by the Kaikoura mayor in the South Island of New Zealand and news from the Dunedin City Council, via the Otago Daily Times, both of which have been released within the last week.

It's all good news. Thanks for the encouragement.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pumpkins and Puppets

This is a week of movies and celebrations. Alice and I took a ride on the bus to Coral Ridge Mall to go to see the roller derby movie Whip It, featuring Ellen Page of Juno and Drew Barrymore.

We also went to check out Halloween vampire teeth and guillotines for our Halloween costumes. There's at least one party to go to next week, possibly two. I love this attitude towards celebration in the United States. Everyone has Halloween festive decorations making a statement in their gardens, and there are Fall colours in tubs of botanical grandeur on their porches and in their hallways, in corn doll sculptures and painted Victorian chairs. As a children's librarian who loves dress-ups and performing, this is something special. It must have sparked something else in me, because when I found myself burrowing in The Haunted Bookshop, I discovered lifelike folktale puppets of wolves, jackrabbits and deer, not to mention other species that I'm sure I'm destined to revisit over the next few weeks. I did ask if they had an opossum. They didn't, but they might be able to order one. I wonder if they'd confiscate it on my re-entry to New Zealand ....

Monday, October 12, 2009

Poisoning at the Cinematheque

Poisoning Paradise was screened at the Cinematheque last Wednesday - a documentary about the use of 1080 poison to control mammal pests such as possums in New Zealand's Clean Green 100% Pure landscapes. The documentary showed that as well as killing pests, it also kills a large proportion of some species of native birds, invertebrates and other animals, as well as posing health risks for people and risking contamination of meat products destined for export.

Milos (Croatia) said he was stunned by a government that is so shortsighted and suffering from 'induced hysteria' over the need for such extreme pest control measures. Others wondered out loud whether an entertaining style like Michael Moore's would be a better way of reaching a wide audience. And one student asked whether we could do anything to prevent the Alabama factory from exporting 85% of the poison to New Zealand.

The conversation was stimulating and it continued in front of a class of students on Friday morning. I guess it's refreshing because I've lived in New Zealand for so long and have heard the propaganda from the Department of Conservation for so long, that I haven't stepped back and seen what the policies look like from the outside.

The lecturer Natasa took the doco home for another look, fascinated by what she felt was indisputably persuasive content but in a form that felt like 'an angry shout' - a bit like the haka that features at the end. Later she said that it seems to her that the Department of Conservation has taken on the role of predator and feels the need to take complete control over the animal it has turned into some sort of evil demon. She printed out DoC's arguments for doing aerial 1080 poison drops, and was surprised to find that many of their arguments are circular in nature.

Their statements say things like the ERMA (Environmental Risk Management Authority) review said '1080 poison is safe to use, so we're going to use it' (even though the ERMA process has been seriously questioned, and ERMA receives funding from DoC). Spokespeople from DoC also say that if we don't use 1080, we will lose our endangered birds, including the 'kiwi', even though the kiwi is less endangered than others. This argument pushes all New Zealanders' fear buttons, because the kiwi is our identity, our icon, and so much of our history connects with it.

This hysteria seems misplaced. Research shows that our endangered birds are more likely to be killed by 1080 the way it is currently being applied, than they are by pests like possums.

For those who want to read more about the background to this documentary, look at the Poisoning Paradise information on The Graf Boys' blog and The Graf Boys' website.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Iowa Romancing

Mani Rao just told us that back in 2005, she wrote a poem that features a swing that sits on the porch of Shambaugh House, home of the IWP writers. This poem features in the latest issue of Literary Review.

Iowa Romancing
Stretched on the swing at Shambaugh, hands squirreled shirts.
Across Clinton Street streaked moon-spanked dorm geese.
Hoarse hostel boys yelled back – from trees? – “Encore! We love you!”
Broken-winged from marriages that had gone on too long, two
Vegan amputees drove solemnly to Macbride Raptor Park.
“Hey who’s stuffed?,” said Bald Eagle Lofty, and shat specially.

Four in the audience at Marshalltown Public Library.
The librarian, the lady who laid out cookies, and a brave couple
Out on their first date. I did the love poems; they bought a book.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

Adventure in the Canyon

I'm in the Grand Canyon (well not physically in it at the moment). However when I said I knackered myself in the Zion National Park, I nearly killed myself today and I'm not sure I'll be mobile tomorrow. This morning, the seven of us who are on our Mountain West trip decided we were going to do a really difficult trail from the South Rim of the Canyon (called the South Kaibab). We had a few hiccups in the morning and didn't get going until 10.30. The ranger told us we would be nuts to try and get from the rim to the Colorado River and back in one day.

"Please don't do it," he said. "You would have had to start at 7am and most people can't manage it in a day no matter how early they start. We have to send out search and rescue parties for those who are silly enough to try. Please ... don't."

But it was tempting.

You know how when someone tells you not to do something, suddenly that's all you want to do, just to prove them wrong. And after all we'd done so well on the Angel's Landing hike in Zion National Park.

"I'd really like to go to the river," Marius said to me outside. "I'm sure we could do it."
I put on the voice of commonsense. "There's not enough time. You heard the ranger. They don't even list the river as an option on their billboards." I pointed to the displays. Silence. I could tell he wasn't convinced.

As a group, we decided to hike as far as Skeleton Point and then turn back. But we had a short break at Cedar Mesa, and as Marius chomped on his sandwich, he casually said to our leader Joe. 'I'd like to go further than Skeleton Point. I'd like to try for the river."

Poor Joe. He threw his hands in the air. "I knew it. I just knew there'd be someone." After all, it's his head on the chopping board if anything happens to one of us. "We have a rule," he said. "There has to be two of you." If he thought this was going to be a barrier, he was mistaken.

"Kate will come," said Marius. I think Lithuanians, Uzbeks and Russians all struggle to say the 'th' in the name Kathy because I am Kate and Katya to them all. I started shaking my head, even though I wanted to go to the river. All of the guide books said it takes twice as long to walk out especially in the mid-day heat. I was doing the math in my head - and math isn't my strong point.

"Come on Kate, we're fit enough to make it to the river. Remember Angel's Landing?" Yes, flattery often works on me, but to my relief, Ge Fei put his hand up. "I will go," he said.

The pressure was off.
No expectations.
I could do what I liked.

When we got to Skeleton Point, it didn't feel far enough so I decided to stretch my limits a bit further. "What's another mile or so," I thought. How quickly, we New Zealanders forget kilometres. But bloody hell, we got another mile in, as far as the first view over the river. It looked a long way away, and a long way down. Ge Fei laughed. He was turning back.

And Marius turned to look at me.

Now all the persuasion in the world didn't change the fact that it looked like a steep descent to that suspension bridge. I was starting to get twitchy about it. I knew I would be slow on the climb out, but I pushed on, just that little bit further, as far as the lookout past Tip Off Point. And that was where I left him, feeling a bit uncomfortable about it. But I understood why he didn't want to stop. And at least he could refill his water when he got to Phantom Ranch on the other side of the river.

I ran out of water on the way back, and have never felt exhaustion like it in that heat. But I saw a condor up close. What a bonus! I didn't have a watch and was paranoid about getting out before nightfall and the last shuttle bus. But I was still in better shape than some. I passed guys with serious cramps in their legs.

"Hey man, we'll be okay. It's only another mile to go."

I hadn't the heart to tell them it was more than double.

As for Marius, the descent to the river was further and steeper than he thought. He made it out two hours after me, when it was dark and the wild animals had started to emerge.

"At the worst point ... I was so tired I thought I was going to die," he said when we met him at dinner, and could reminisce over blistered lips and windburnt face stories. Then he grinned. "I'm so glad I did it."

And what did Joe say when he saw us? "You two are SO much in trouble."

Thanks for the photo, Joe!!!

Wildife seen so far: 1 coyote, a few squirrels, 2 condors, deer on the way to the start of the trip and some skinks.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mexican girls on Angel's Landing

I'm on my Mountain West adventure with six of the people from the International Writing Program. You can picture excitement here ... and also weariness.

I'm actually feeling a bit knackered. I know that's a slightly rude word to use, but it's the only one that accurately describes my physical state. I completed the most strenuous of hikes in the Zion National Park yesterday - Angel's Landing. Try googling it and see what the place looks like. Marius, Vicente, Hagar and I climbed all the way to the top, even though the last half-mile involved rock-climbing and chains. Sounds exciting, huh? We finally emerged on the top platform where the view was phenomenal. Coming back down was even worse for those who were tall or who had dodgy knees. I have neither of those impediments, so I have no excuse for slowness.

After that we drove to Las Vegas for the night. Yes, we're nuts. Two hours there, two hours back. But it WAS fascinating. We walked the Boulevard with all its flashing lights, peep shows and men flicking you cards on every street corner. I wouldn't have known what this meant if Joe hadn't warned us. Their t-shirts say Girls direct to you in less than 20 minutes. Sex is everywhere in LV. They'll sell you their daughter, their sister, their mother, on a street corner. I got so used to seeing signs advertising sex, that when I saw a flashing sign outside a restaurant, I thought it said 'Mexican Girls' when actually it was a 'Mexican Grill.'

But the trashy flashiness didn't put me off. We had our photos taken in front of the fountain spectacular at the Bellagio. Remember the scene from Oceans 11 or was it Oceans 13?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Scenes from Fflur's music video

Fflur Dafydd, the singer-songwriter-novelist who took part in the IWP 2009, has now returned to Carmarthen, Wales. However before she left, she shared the news that she is producing a new compact disc of  music and we had the opportunity of helping her make a music video for one of her new tracks. As soon as the video is ready, I'll provide a link, but in the meantime you can just look at the photos we took on the day or you can have a listen to her voice here.

Have a look at Fflur's website and MySpace site if you want to know more about her books and music. Thanks Alice for the photos! And Azeem for directing the video!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Addicted to Java

I'm in the Java House, drinking a filter coffee called Giant of the Earth. Giant what, I'm not sure. It IS very earthy, but not in a good way. Giant bone, maybe, but I'm drinking it anyway.

It's a bit quiet in here. I came in mid-afternoon on Sunday and the place was jam-packed with people studying and playing games like chess and scrabble. I struggled to find a seat. Someone in Auckland needs to replicate this cafe environment - sort of laid-back Bohemian student, coffee-swilling, flavour. Mind you, last week, I was sitting behind a couple who were talking in loud voices about very personal things, and it made me wish I had a recorder. Truth is weirder than fiction sometimes, and I'd never be able to dream up the sort of things they were discussing, with his South American accent giving it a slightly exotic twist. In the end I swapped tables because I couldn't concentrate on my own story.

Anyway, I made an error of judgement this morning. It was cooler last night. I almost needed a blanket. So I wore my Kathmandu top this morning, thinking it was going to be the beginning of Fall weather ... and I'm bloody boiling sitting here. I can't peel it off because I stupidly didn't wear a singlet underneath.

I forgot to tell you that I was reading the brochure about the Effigy Mounds that are in the shape of animals, and it talked about white-tailed deer and elk being staple foods of the indians in the northeastern part of Iowa. There are no photos of them in the brochure though so I don't know if it's the same as what Hanaa and Maxine photographed near Lake Macbride.

I can't wait to see one so I can find out.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Deer in the cemetery

On Sunday, I went to inspirational poetry readings at the Prairie Lights bookstore by two of our group - Milos (Croatian) and Jan-Willem (Dutch). Afterwards we were taken out to Amy and Lindsay’s house near Lake Macbride, and treated to a barbecue, apple pie and wine, while sitting watching the sunset. Two women took off for a walk and when they returned they said they had seen deer (even had photos) so I was off in a flash to look for them. I only had 15 minutes before it was dark, which wasn’t enough time, so my wildlife-spotting was postponed.

Hugh, one of the IWP staff said there will be lots of opportunities to see deer because there are so many of them. He reckons they even wander through the cemetery near his house, and hunters are paid to shoot them with silencers so they don't disturb the dead (only joking about the last bit). They really do shoot with silencers, but people care more about the sensibilities of the living than the dead.

Chris Merrill, the director of the program told me he had sent my Cane Toads and Underpants pocket guide on writing for boys to a number of people, including some kids that he knows, and they have written a book already based on my suggestions. Anyway, he's going to forward me the email if he can find it. Please comment here if you have read it and it helps you. I’d really like to know.

Thanks Azeem, for letting me use your photo.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Effigy Mounds in north-east Iowa

Gees, the trip in the van was squashed and hot. There were four of us squeezed in the back seat where it felt like there was no air, and the sun was streaming in the window. We girls had to strip off to our skimpy singlets, which was probably offensive to some, but when you're that hot and feeling nauseous, you really don't care who you offend.

It was about six hours total travelling time to and from the northeast corner of Iowa near the Wisconsin border, and looking out over the Mississippi River. We had a picnic lunch (this was a highlight - I adore surprise boxed lunches) and walked to see the Effigy Mounds, which are Native American Indian burial sites and ceremonial grounds (made up to 2,500 years ago). Many of them are in the shape of animals from their tribal stories, like bears and birds. There are 206 of these prehistoric mounds in the National Park. We only had time to see a handful of them in a few hours. You would think that looking at mounds of dirt wouldn’t be that exciting, but knowing what they really are, and feeling momentarily part of that history – that’s priceless.

The only disappointment was that we went specifically this weekend because we had been told the autumn colours were spectacular right now - but whoever said this was misinformed. The trees are all still green, so we missed seeing the yellows, oranges and browns of autumn.

This treat is yet to come!

Thanks to Alice for the photo (doesn't the ranger look like a wax model?)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Food Inc

Yesterday I did some productive writing. Picture fireworks and champagne corks popping here.
I came to The Java House and spent two good focused hours here (which isn't bad considering they have a time limit of one hour). Anyway, I got up early and made it here again today by 8.30. Almost all of the tables are taken now, with students tapping away on their laptops. I might have to move soon though, because I have a table near a man who not only sniffs, but who also reads aloud what he's typing. And when he's thinking but not typing, he taps his fingers on the table. There is an invisible expletive here.

This place is really cool AND their coffee isn't bad. It's the closest I've come to coffee like we have in NZ, but the weird thing is that I think my taste is changing. I'm getting used to having coffee without a lot of milk now so having a latte feels a bit rich. This is frightening. Not only will I come home with an American accent but also a hankering for filter coffee.

I've just got home. What a movie!!!!! Man, you have to get that movie out on DVD to watch. It's called Food Inc and I think it's an important documentary for everyone to see. I was fascinated by the degree to which large corporations control the agricultural industry in the United States - the frightening way in which animals and workers are treated in the biggest intensive farming system in the world, and companies patenting and controlling seed and suing people who gather it - it's all scary. God it's changed the way I think about food. Alice and I have even signed up to get involved in working on the roof garden - organic veggie growing here at the university.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Banned Books

I'm back at The Java House. I was standing in line waiting to order a Java House organic blend brew (yes, filter coffee) and someone comes up behind me and gives me the sort of squeeze that could crush ribs. It's Dragica, the Swiss Croatian who thinks I'm going home with her to marry her son. She's here writing, like me. It's a good place to write.

It's only 10.30, and already I've had two people chat to me about the International Writing Program (because of my bag) and one woman tell me she likes my skirt. I like this overt friendliness. It makes a person bubble first thing in the morning. Apart from that, I've been making faces with a little girl at the table next to me. Yes, I'm supposed to be writing!!!!!!!

But there's so much to look at. Like, the fascinating artworks on the wall, and the banned books brewed coffee line-up. You wait for your coffee to filter under a banned book number. It's like a mild form of political protest. Let's pour coffee on the powers that be that try to control what we read. Mine was number 7 today - Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which I have read). Number 8 is Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, which I just returned to the library.

In America, the religious order is very strong and controlling and has caused many books to be banned in libraries and schools - books which question and provoke thought like 1984 by George Orwell and The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton which is about poverty and gangs, and how good kids get caught up in it because of where they are born and what becomes their community. Thank goodness, book-banning doesn't happen so much in New Zealand. Although I do remember Lockwood Smith trying to get The Color Purple by Alice Walker banned as a studied text at secondary school level. Did he succeed? I can't remember.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cane Toads and Underpants: A Pocket Guide to Writing for Boys

I gave a speech at my panel presentation on Friday. There were five of us talking about Teaching Writing, so I wrote the Dingbat's Guide to Writing a Boys' Bestseller (you know, in the same vein as the Dummies guides and Idiots guides for adults). None of the other panelists were children's writers so I thought it was a good niche to exploit. It also allowed for some humour, and little chance of me slipping into academic-speak. I rounded it off by reading out the beginning of Morris Gleitzman's Bumface, which demonstrated so many of the things I had included in my 'pocket guide.' Thank goodness everyone laughed in all the right places. It shows that New Zealand humour isn't completely unlike the rest of the world.

On the same day I read aloud from my own work at Shambaugh House - from my published work A Hairy Tale (Kiwi Bites series) and an excerpt from Sausage Sizzle (which isn't finished yet but can be read by following the link). I absolutely loved both the panel presentation and the reading. People are so supportive in the IWP and they enjoy hearing you share your work.

People like Osman from Sierra Leone (picture above) confirmed for me that my writing is funny and that I manage to capture the essence of children in my characters. That was hugely reassuring.

Deer Tick and Corndawg

Now this was a treat! I love this music. Even more amazing was that the IWP people were given free tickets to hear this music live at The Mill on the corner of Burlington anc Clinton on Friday 11 September. I'm going to have to buy some CDs, bring it home and torture you with it. Have a listen and a read below.

Deer Tick on myspace
Jonny Corndawg on myspace
Shame Train on myspace

Deer Tick with Jonny Corndawg, Shame Train:

When Deer Tick first played the Mill back in 2006 it was just young John McCauley on his lonesome, toting his acoustic guitar around the club, leaping from table to table serenading us with his heartfelt folk rock -- songs that pulled from the depths of a sharp and poetic heart. In between tunes, McCauley would tell jokes while pulling long drags from his tall glass of Makers. Now, three years later Deer Tick is a full-fledged band, a rock n' roll machine that spits out the spirit Hank Williams, the middle finger of Johnny Cash, and the charm of Mr. McCauley himself, a rare and remarkable songwriter who shines with a voice of his own. He ain't Dylan, he ain't Neil Young, he's his goddammed self. With rave reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, SPIN Magazine, and even NBC's Brian Williams, Deer Tick is one of the best acts around. With Jonny Corndawg in tow, this is bound to be the country-rock shakedown of the year. So dust off your Makers. 9PM

It was everything that was promised.

Friday, September 11, 2009

How's this for a big deck?

In order to be understood here, I have discovered I need to open my mouth wide and scrunch my face and say 'ass' not 'arse' (not that I have needed to say either of those words - just demonstrating the letter 'a', you understand). So I found myself saying pathway, not parthway yesterday. And ah-some, not oar-some. And apparently a New Zealander's 'i' and 'e' sound very similar, which can be problematic.

Pam, my landlady at the College Green House, suggested I might like to talk about a balcony or a porch rather than use the New Zealand term 'deck', especially when referring to someone having a big one because there may be some confusion over my pronunciation (I'll pause here to allow you to think about this carefully).

I told this story in the van on the way back from a dinner function at the Levitt Centre and all of the other IWP participants rolled around laughing. Now they keep prompting me to say 'deck'. Our driver and coordinator of all sorts of vital activites, Joe, was very quiet during this conversation. However, after everyone else had been dropped home, he said very calmly, 'To the right is the home of another IWP person who will probably host a party soon. He has a very big deck on his ute. I think you should ask him about it, Kathy.'

Ha, ha, ha. When hell freezes over.

I suspect I'm going to americanise my vowels quite quickly. But I'm sure all of you will set me right when I return.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Crab rangoon, square dancing and Slaughterhouse-Five

My Aussie friend Alice came to the market with me on the way home tonight and we ate crab rangoon and fresh raspberries in the grass picnic area, while listening to the band and watching people dance something that looks like a cross between slow ceroc and a square dance. Alice tells me there was a square dance on the uni campus at the weekend and she'll keep an eye out for another one - I love square dances. I went to one with my schoolfriend Dinah in Taupo when I was about 14. They had hay bales for seats, a fiddler and a caller - "Step to the right and do-si-do." It was a hell of a lot of fun, so Alice and I are going to go to the next one here. They're not exactly common in Auckland or Melbourne.

I'm reading a book by Kurt Vonnegut called Slaughterhouse-Five because Pam, my landlady, took me on the Summit District Heritage Walk, and showed me where Kurt Vonnegut lived here in Iowa City while on the Writer's Program. There are some great quotes so far in this book:

"And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

"It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds."

I'm sure even the birds are quiet.

On the back of the book it says it is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

I find myself saying 'And so it goes' after talking about anything sad and significant. It's one of the repeated phrases that lingers with me after finishing the book.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Literature of Desire

The first IWP (International Writing Program) panel discussion called 'Literature of Desire' began at the Iowa City Public Library on Friday. This was one that I said I was prepared to be involved in but they chose five others so maybe they thought a children's writer would be less knowledgeable on the subject of sex and desire. They're probably right.

Millicent from Jamaica read out a Shakespearean sonnet:

Being your slave what should I do but tend
Upon the hours, and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend;
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world without end hour,
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu.

Isn't it beautiful?

And this one by Tony McNeil, which is called The Catherine Letter. She read it with pauses where there are spaces and the way it appears on the page has significance, so I hope it replicates okay here.

my writing to you
Can I say a cliche

Never thought I would see the day when you would cut me
glimpsed you in
should have said at
should have said near
a bank one day; smiled; waved; and you cut me

name from the north
there's a mystery to women of frost
the young men stride to the woods and snip them dark lilacs
a wren wheels in the distance
the sun shells east of the lake

Couples kiss in the field across the wild cherries
In the dream the woman is sitting under a cotton
a man kneels on the slope
the pair meet in the mist, stuttering prayers

Have you seen lilies tilt in the wind
Do banks stretch shadows on people so that when they see the familiar they turn away

It reached in and touched my soul when she read it. I used to read and write poetry. I stopped. But I think I'm going to start again. These people are doing me good. Stretching me, opening me up, making me feel things unexpectedly. So much about a person is revealed in their writing - or it can be.

I felt closer to Hanaa from Saudi Arabia after hearing her choked up voice as she read her short story about walking in the street, in her white jeans, hair loose and blowing in the breeze. What a tortured twist to find at the end that it is not real and never will be. It's a freedom I take for granted.

Two more people in the group do readings at the Prairie Lights Bookstore this afternoon - a Tamil Indian woman called Meena and a Lithuanian playwright and scriptwriter called Marius. I believe it's broadcast on radio. Did you know that in rural parts of India, they still lynch people who have relationships outside of their own caste?

The struggles we face are different by culture, by gender, by religion, and by individual. But we also have so much in common. The more I listen, the more I like these people who write from their hearts.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

You're so exciting, little brown frog

Our first week was full-on. On our first day together all of the IWP participants went on an excursion through the rural outskirts of Iowa City to the Redbird Farms Wildlife Area, which featured prairie grasslands and woodland. This was where I spotted my first wildlife specimen - a little brown frog. Since then, I have seen rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels, but no bears or deer yet. Do you think I need to get out of the city more?

Our official orientation began with a welcome party and Mexican dinner at the home of IWP director Christopher Merrill, where we introduced ourselves in front of 300 people. What a night! These people seem to think we're superstars. It's really quite bizarre. There was a congressman there giving a speech, and a representative from the Iowan Dept of Foreign Relations. I was speaking quite casually with both of them before I knew who they were.

The foreign relations man, in a very Iowan checked shirt, chatted to me for quite a while and said he was looking for a writer who is politically motivated to speak at a function. I didn't click into gear straight away, but I went back to him later and told him I'm politically-motivated about the use of a deadly poison called 1080 which is manufactured in Alabama, that 85% of the world's production is being used in pest control operations in clean green 100% pure New Zealand, and that I'm prepared to talk about it (deep breath). I get the feeling it isn't quite what he had in mind, but we'll see what comes out of it.

I must have talked about it to a few more people than that because I'm now scheduled to introduce and show the documentary Poisoning Paradise at the Cinematheque in early October. The Cinematheque features a fabulous line-up of films and documentaries from around the world. It also showcases the work of some of the scriptwriters in the writing program - their short films, features and docos.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

In love with Iowa

Well, I'm here. If you saw the new Star Trek movie, you may remember an early scene where young Jim is speeding down roads flanked by wide cornfields, being chased by a cop. Patchwork fields for miles to see, big red barns, grain and corn silos and water towers - that is rural Iowa and that's what I remember from flying in from Chicago.It was dusk and the light was gentle. Sawyer was waiting to pick me up at Cedar Rapids (yes, it does sound like the setting of a soap opera) and drive me through to my home for the next three months in Iowa City.

There is a fabulous mix of fun people on the International Writing Program - 35 in total, plus the teaching staff. Alice, from Melbourne is into young adult books too (Melbourne), Osman from Sierra Leone who has given me some fabulous advice about writing for teenagers, and Millicent from Jamaica who is in love with the Flight of the Conchords. I spoke a little with Maung from Myanmar because he is the editor of a children's magazine, and the first thing Dragica of Switzerland said to me was:
"You are Kathy, ja? My son vants me to take you home vith me."
"I'm sure I'm a bit old for your son," I said.
"He's 32," she said. "And he likes older voman."

I'm not in the Iowa House Hotel where most of the other people are being housed. I'm staying in the College Green House - a period house which was built in 1890, which is only a 20-minute walk to the International Writing Program at Shambaugh House.

I'm not disappointed with anything yet. I have the most amazing view of the College Green, and the walk into town (where the good cafes are) is going to be good for me. There's a cute little yoga joint right around the corner from where I live. Can you believe that? My landlady seems happy to show me around. She took me through the Summit District Heritage Walk and the Farmer's Market on my first weekend, where I bought caramel (pronouned carrrrr-mel) pecan rolls from an Amish man ... she even brought me a piece of homemade apple spice cake this evening. How good is that? And she took me to Kalona, which is an Amish community, complete with horses and carts, and bakeries with the most amazing fruit pies and yeasty buns. Have you spotted the recurring theme in this paragraph? I'm not going to starve here.

Check out this parody video called Amish Paradise by Weird Al.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

If you need a laugh

It normally takes me a couple of weeks to knock off a book but if it's funny and the characters are great, I'll manage it in a couple of hours. Stop in the name of pants! is the latest in the Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison, and once again I fell in love with Georgia's diaries about the activities of her psychotic cat Angus, sister Libby, pseudo-love interests Robbie the sex-god, Dave the Laugh and Italian hunk Masimo.

The dialogue is fabuloso. Georgia would probably say it is a mixture of maturiosity and craposity. I don't think I've grown up because I find these books hilarious. The only disappointment was getting to the end and thinking I have to wait for eons for the next installment. The good news is that Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging has just been made into a movie.

Adventure, thrills and spills

They're plot driven, pacy reads, with an emphasis on action, rather than relationships between characters. Reading them is a lot like watching an action thriller. The detail is in the stunts and the gadgets. You normally can't help but like the main character in each one, because they're often orphaned or alone, or separate from others in some way. They are everyman, ordinary characters in lots of ways, but they always have a few understated talents that make them extraordinary.

I've enjoyed the Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz and the Cherub series by Robert Muchamore. The Charles Higson series Young Bond looks popular too, as does the Zac Power spy series for younger readers. It's interesting that primarily adult writers have started to write YA series recently. Who has read the new YA series by James Patterson, Chris Ryan and Andy McNab for instance? What do you think of them?

Twilight Saga Rocks

I just finished reading the four books in the Twilight saga by Stephanie Meyer. Talk about blown away! I was very sceptical about whether I would enjoy books about vampire romance, but Bella, Edward and Jacob were so full of passion and intensity that it was impossible to not get drawn into their love story.

It reminded me a lot of Wuthering Heights, so it didn't surprise me that it's one of Bella's favourite books, and that she even quotes from it. Breaking Dawn arrived on request at the library before I had read the other three, so I borrowed a bestseller copy of Twilight, and then was so desperate to read the next two that I trawled through four shops before finding a place that hadn't sold out.
These books may be about teenagers but they're not just for teenagers. Everyone will remember the hunger, the restraint, the isolation and fear connected with teenage love. The only problem might be that you don't want to put each book down and you never want the series to end. The good news - apparently her follow-on book called The Host is very different, but just as enthralling.