Friday, September 26, 2008


Paula Morris – Penguin Books - $28

Paula Morris, presently the Buddle Findlay Sargeson fellow at the University of Auckland, and the author of three acclaimed novels, has moved to short fiction in her new book due for publication Monday, September 29.

I caught up with Paula yesterday to talk about Forbidden Cities and started by asking her if her opening story, Like a Mexican, ever felt like it might turn into a novel.

That story has had several incarnations, recently voyaging into second person, but I never saw it as a bigger story. The longest story in the collection is the final one, Chain Bridge. At times I was tempted to make it even longer ... It’s too long for most literary journals, unfortunately.

I believe I am the second person already to interview you today. Are you comfortable as an interviewee?

Yes, I was interviewed by Kim Knight for the October 5 issue of the Sunday Star-Times. I’m a nervous and circumspect interviewee, I think; I feel much more comfortable asking the questions. Though when interviews are published, I always feel as though I wasn’t quite circumspect enough.

It seems to me that you are NZ’s most travelled author making the title of your new novel especially relevant. How many trips have you made across the Pacific this year? How many across the Atlantic?

By the end of the year, I’ll have crossed the Atlantic six times, and the Pacific ten times, in the space of nine months. The guy in the Koru Club at LAX remembers me now, though that’s probably because I had to spend eight long hours there after a “bird strike” incident in July. And also because I tend to wear the same travel clothes, and pounce on the tray of Afghan biscuits (which get offered far too infrequently, in my opinion).

How many literary festivals have you attended this year? As a participant or as an observer?
Not that many, really – I took part in the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans, and the wonderful Auckland Writers and Readers Festival; I gave a paper on writing about New Orleans at the AWP (Associated Writing Programs) conference in New York, and visited Lafayette College in Pennsylvania to give a reading and speak to classes. Kirsty Gunn and I talked about short stories at the Centre for NZ Studies in London in June. I was sad to miss Going West this year; I was travelling back from the US last weekend.

Do you feel that your extensive, regular travel helps with your writing or do you regret the time lost? What do you do during those interminable hours waiting to board after checking in?

In search of lost time, indeed: this is why I forked out for the airport lounge membership this year. I’ve done quite a lot of writing in airports. As long as I have a table and chair, I can work pretty much anywhere. I’ve had too many deadlines this year, so I can’t just languish, reading magazines and abusing the free snacks. Once on the plane, however, I cease to be productive. I watch TV and silly movies.

How do you handle the time you are away with your teaching commitments?

I only had to teach for the first part of this year; I’m free from the end of April until next January, because Tulane has given me time off. Usually, I teach two afternoons a week, though university jobs come with many additional time-killing responsibilities, of course, like committee work, thesis supervision, etc. Even though I’m officially on leave, I was back there last week to interview writer Mohsin Hamid for a big campus event. We received a large creative writing gift which we spend on programming at Tulane: last semester we hosted Louise Gluck and Salman Rushdie; in November we’re holding an African Writers Symposium; and in the New Year we have visits from Claire Messud, Billy Collins, and Joan Didion scheduled. These visits mean a tremendous amount of planning and promotion. I’ve developed a “literary events management” internship to involve students, and next semester I’m offering this as one of my courses, along with the advanced fiction class I usually teach. My background in PR/marketing is proving quite useful.
Over what period of time did you write the stories in Forbidden Cities?
The stories represent my entire adult writing career to date. Many Mansions is the oldest, its first draft written 11 years ago when I was going to night classes at the West Side YMCA in New York. The most recent, The City God, was written in May, when the manuscript was already past deadline! Several of the stories started life with “foreign” settings that I changed in order to get them published in New Zealand; I’ve changed all these back to their original settings for the collection. Unfortunately, I was reading the proofs at speed in various airports in England and Ireland, and missed, in one story, a word that needed to be changed back from Kiwi usage to American. I’m sure eagle-eyed readers will spot it at once. It will give them something new to tell me at festivals, other than critiquing the navigating-Auckland specifics of Hibiscus Coast.

Do you find writing short fiction more or less challenging/rewarding/satisfying?

I really love writing (and reading) short stories. Often the writing of them stretches over several years, in part because I’m an obsessive re-writer. Many of my favourite writers are short-story specialists, or best known for their stories: Jhumpa Lahiri, William Trevor, Ellen Gilchrist, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders. Completing work on anything, a story or a novel, is extremely satisfying. Until I start wanting to make changes, of course.

Have you any theory as to why NZ writers seem especially fond of, and generally are more than competent at short fiction?

I’m in the process of making final selections for a contemporary short story anthology for Penguin, so I’ll save any theories for the introduction.

Do you enjoy your blog writing?

My blog isn’t informative like yours – or rather, it’s of interest, I think, mainly to my friends and family (and some of my students). I like keeping them entertained. It started as a cheap, easy alternative to an author’s web site, a way to let people know I had a new book coming out, and tell them how to buy copies, etc. I don’t know what it is now.
Nonsense with photos, perhaps. I’ve been taking lots of pictures of signs in Auckland and plan to post them at some point.
I just discovered that if I mention certain businesses or organisations , large numbers of their employees get alerts and end up reading the post. I intend to abuse this with mentions of other corporations any time I have a new book to promote.

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