Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Launch of Paula Morris' FALSE RIVER

Tom Moody's opening remarks:

It was seventeen years ago, almost to the day, that Paula, then my wife of not even two months, told me that she had been accepted into Bill Manhire’s masters course, and that we would be leaving New York, where I had already lived for over twenty years – my entire adult life – to move to Wellington, New Zealand.
It was a big change for both of us, but I had no idea that it was just the beginning

Since that move, we’ve lived in Iowa City; New Orleans; Glasgow; Sheffield; and now here.

We weren’t just racing from country to country, across borders and oceans, one step ahead of the authorities. Along the way, Paula, in her university guise, reenergised or created writing programmes at Tulane University, Stirling University, Sheffield University, and, starting three years ago, Paula returned the University of Auckland’s masters programme to its rightful position among New Zealand universities.

Many of you know she’s also been involved in quite a few initiatives and committees and trusts, with special attention to programmes benefitting students in south Auckland schools, and, her own initiative, the Academy of New Zealand Literature.

During those years, Paula’s also written and published a few things – four novels for adults, a collection of short stories, three young adult novels. Her books have received awards and notable reviews, and have placed her in what I think of as the Donald Trump-sized handful of preeminent New Zealand literary fiction writers.

We’re here today, of course, to celebrate another publication, short stories and essays collected from the time that spans nearly Paula’s entire writing life. I’m sure Harriet will talk about the book in a little more detail, but I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the writing captures — in fictional or essay form — many of the obsessions, thoughts, emotions, and events that have occurred in the last seventeen years. There’s been lots of travel, a hurricane, celebrations, and too many deaths in the family. False River is often profound, moving, funny, disturbing. It’s like the best short film festival, or the best masterclass you could ever hope for: there’s a generosity throughout; as readers, we’re privileged to share these finely drawn moments and scenes, of a particular time and place and of every time and place,  revealed to us through the most acute eyes and ears and voice. It’s a book Paula is very proud of, and I’m very proud that she’s asked me to speak at her launch.

I’m looking forward to the next seventeen years and beyond, and all the adventures, hopefully fewer moves, and all the books to come. Until then, we have False River to keep us all going.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Harriet Allen, Fiction Publisher at Penguin Random House New Zealand.

Harriet Allan has kindly made available to the blog the speech she delivered : -

"Our reps write a weekly report on what they’ve been selling, and in it one recently commented on reading False River: ‘I loved this, what a cool writer (and person it seems from her essays).’ So, it’s official, Paula is the height of cool!

I was going to start by setting the scene and reading a river poem because, well, there’s never enough poetry in our lives.

But that was before I Googled ‘poems of rivers’ and realised just how wrong I was. Within seconds I had more than enough of babbling brooks, cold gliding and bright clear flows, crystal wandering water, rushes racing over rocks and tumbling on to the sea.

Which all goes to show just how difficult writing is. Put pen to paper and clichés gush out, or your writing is as flat as a millpond or goes stagnant with too many metaphors.

Not so with Paula. Her words ripple through this book with insight, provocation, clarity, beauty and honesty.
Yes, honesty, despite the title, despite the under-riding themes of lies, fiction riffing on fact and fact riffing on fiction, she reveals that by exploring our falsehoods we come to understand our truths.
Paula comes at this from multiple angles. In the nonfiction piece about Billy the Kidd, for instance, we learn about him but also about us, through the myths and industry that we have let grow up around this young delinquent lad. His story is about the past, now and the future.

As in the best fiction, Paula’s stories become real by being relatable to our own lives while also working in the opposite direction, taking us beyond ourselves, beyond our here and now.
There’s a hilarious and revealing story about premises for a movie, which explores originality, present-day populism, the plots of certain Georgian and Victorian novels and making a million dollars; it’s fiction but all too real.

Paula leads us to unexpected places, eras and subjects from witch-burning in Denmark to rocky relationships, from mortality to bee stings, from haggling over bags in Shanghai to murder, both historical and contemporary.

A reproduction painting in a modern Estonian hotel lobby takes us right back to a medieval part-fairy story and some revealing comments about beauty and preconceptions.
Another story begins in a bed in 1867, but despite the infidelity that occurs later on, the activity homed in on here is writing. And we come out of this book thinking a lot about writing. We learn about writers as diverse as Brecht and Laura Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books, as well as many more besides.

Paula opens up her own life as a writer schooled in telling lies at school — to get away from it — and by her mother, whose meandering and unrelated anecdotes were interminable and a lesson in how not to tell a story.

The false river of the title comes from the first piece, in which among other things fictional characters debate the possible fakeries of real people.
False River is actually a place in Louisiana, the oxbow of water is now a lake but was once part of the Mississippi that was cut off in a flood almost 300 years ago.

The effects of Hurricane Katrina are explored brilliantly in fictional form in this story and in the final nonfiction essay about Paula and Tom’s own experiences of it. By bookending the collection with these two pieces, fact and fiction talk to each other in yet another way, as well as to us.
Which brings me to another falsehood. I lied about not finding a river poem to read. Among the toe-curling offerings, there was one discovery that I not only liked but to my delight I realised it was actually relevant.

I may be showing up my ignorance by saying I had not heard of Lucille Clifton before, but on reading and admiring her poem, Google again came in handy with details about Clifton having been poet laureate for Maryland and twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Her poem ‘The Mississippi River Empties into the Gulf’ is of course immediately relevant to Paula’s work because of place, but also because of how Lucille emphasises the importance of the past to the present, something Paula does constantly in her book, discussing the present with reference to her own childhood or historical events, previous writers or imaginary once-upon-a-times.

So I will end with Lucille Clifton, because, well, we could all do with more poetry in our lives. The poem echoes and pinpoints the special quality of Paula’s writing so much more eloquently than I can, and, like Paula, Lucille writes about a river while not really writing about a river" :

October 30, 2017
Penguin -  NZ RRP   $35.00


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