Friday, 4 April 2014

Who's afraid to read about death?

I was talking publishing the other day (a conversation that could go on until the cows some home, go out and come home again) with Mary McCallum who's just published through Mākaro Press the extraordinary journal of Harriet Rowland, who records her last two years, living with osteosarcoma, in The Book of Hat. We touched on the difficulty of 'selling' books in which the author is facing her own death (as Annie also was in co-authoring Fields of Gold). We acknowledged the deep-rooted anxiety that to read about death and think about it is tantamount to inviting our own. All of us and especially those facing their mortality through illness are more inclined to seek stories of healing and second chances.

However, it seems that when we lay aside this natural but primitive fear, the contemplation of death and difficulty can deepen and intensify our experience of life — that's the curiously joyous truth radiating from these two books. One initially reluctant reader of Fields of Gold, told co-author Pam Morrison that through her engagement with the story she was extraordinarily and entirely released from her own (very present and pertinent) fear of death.

That's powerful writing, and it's what comes from writers who have courageously entered the darkness and found there inextinguishable light.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Compelling reading in Fields of Gold

Readers are finding the co-written journal Fields of Gold (Celebrating Life in the Face of Cancer: a tale of two sisters) potent, heart-aching, inspiring. You can hear surviving author Pam Morrison speaking powerfully in a radio interview here: you have to choose 'Write On with Vanda Symon' from the category list then Pam's name will be near the top of the list that comes up (and mine is under hers, speaking the previous week about Rosa Mira Books).

 Reviewing the book, author Mike Crowl of Dunedin wrote: This book, which started out as a journal in which the two sisters wrote collectively, was never intended to be published. Fortunately it has been. All books that help people to understand that their journey through something painful, such as the cancer that affected one of the sisters, is both unique and universal, are of value. 
Annie is a lively and outgoing personality, seen through her own words and those of Pam. The latter is quieter, perhaps more reflective, and even more vulnerable. It is the delineation of her increasing sense of powerlessness and separation that makes the book’s latter half so compelling.

In a completely different vein, last year I almost published a cookbook-with-stories-and-photos called Fait Maison: Recipes from a Kiwi in France. I didn't go through with the process, but had found the recipes attractive, wholesome and easy to make — described as 'simple, delicious, quotidien or day-to-day recipes for homemade food, with a French and Mediterranean influence,' and commend author Rachel Panckhurst for seeing this through and publishing the ebook here.  

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Fields of Gold, published

Did you know? Fields of Gold: Celebrating Life in the Face of Cancer — a tale of two sisters, was published in the weekend. It's out there. Available here. It's Pam Morrison and Annie McGregor telling their story in journal entries, and forging a path, actually, for others (for all of us) who are likely to lose someone we love and who will need to find a way to utter those things too subtle, painful and precious to be spoken. The reach of this book is profound.

P.S. Pass it on.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

What they wrote

Here are a couple of extracts from the journal (sisters) Pam and Annie wrote the year Annie was dying. We're launching the journal on Sunday: Fields of Gold.

ANNIE                                                       Sunday 20 April 2003
Last night the kids were here. There was music playing, the sounds of whistling and chopping, cooking noises, recipes being changed. I was in front of the fire under the mohair rug. And I tell you what: I was in heaven, or pretty close to it, about five kilometres away. Sometimes I wonder: why didn’t I come to this place earlier? Then I remember – oh, that’s right!

Graham says he’s noticed some frailty in me. And there is, at times. In the mornings sometimes, the tears come – just pop out. This morning they came. I wet Graham’s pillow. But they weren’t hot tears. They were cool by the time they hit the pillow. And I think, it’s only ten days since I had the treatment. I was told I would feel terrible. But I haven’t been trampled by an elephant; I’ve been trampled by a sheepdog.

PAM                                                  Sunday 18 January 2004
Life has been far from straightforward. At times I feel like I’m in a paper boat, bobbing on a current, which takes me anywhere it pleases. At other times it’s felt like I’m under an ever-changing sky. I look up and find there’s been a dramatic shift. And I’ve had absolutely nothing to do with it.

I’ve been wrestling with the question of how to give expression to my own needs and feelings when I’m with Annie. A week ago I was feeling dismantled and, consequently, distant from her and me. Lots of crying.

Now, three days on, I think there is no place for any of this while Annie is alive. I was almost appalled that I would take any measure of sorrow into my interaction with her.

And now, as I write that, the pendulum has swung again. How could sorrow not be present? And so the sky changes. My boat sails on.


Friday, 21 February 2014

'seizing a pencil was a desperate act'

RMB: Pam, late last year you presented in Glasgow at a conference on ‘“Attentive Writing”: Healthcare, Authorship, and Authority’. Thank you for letting me turn a little of your presentation into a dialogue between the two of us (Penelope/RMB and Pam Morrison). I’m sorry if I’ve left you sounding even more lyrical than you are in actual conversation (but you wrote these lovely words). In it you were drawing on your own story, which we’re soon to publish as Fields of Gold: co-writing with your sister Annie McGregor the year-long journey towards her death.

PM: It’s the story of how we together found a way to navigate life’s most certain and possibly most cruel reality: You will lose the people that you love. Though the story is ultimately about death, primarily it is about life. Terminal illness is cruel, but it also potentially invites in grace, gratitude and courage. And love.

RMB: You’re from Dunedin New Zealand where you’re a counsellor in private practice and a lecturer in social services and counselling. 

PM: Yes, and in both of these roles I encourage reflective writing as a useful, sometimes vital, therapeutic tool. 

RMB: I know you as a uniquely lyrical creative writer and song-writer.  So perhaps in a sense it was natural for you to turn to writing when you learned that your beloved sister was dying?

PM: I wrote my first entry on 12 March 2003, three days after receiving news of Annie’s diagnosis of secondary liver cancer. Seizing a pencil was a desperate act to make some scrawls on paper about a reality that felt too big, too crazy, too unthinkable to absorb. Annie lived in a different city, and the journal came with me when I visited her one week later. Within three days, we had decided this would be a shared repository. It became our own illuminated manuscript. 

RMB: Has the decision to publish been a hard one?

PM: A long one! It hasn’t been an easy decision. But I have come to see that this is both a unique story and a universal one. The details are mine and Annie’s; the themes may well have resonance for many. For illness, loss and grief always take place in the context of relationship.

What we offer in Fields of Gold is an insiders’ view. We were not researchers. We were sisters who were set reeling by an unforeseen event. The journaling, which came about almost by accident, was our instinctive response to the shocking intrusion of cancer into our lives.

The journals have lived for a decade on my bookshelf at home. The content was typed up and shared with friends and family while Annie was still alive. It was then shared with an ever-widening circle of people.

Now with Annie’s express blessing before she died, the journals come alive again, marking the tenth anniversary of her death on 10 March 2003.

RMB: Thank you, Pam. Dear readers, Fields of Gold will be published on 2 March. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Publishing in the south

Like Ratty below, we've been heading south over the last week, pulling onto the roadside as needed to attend to Rosa Mira business. Yesterday we reached Dunedin. It's good to have the new 10k books out in the world and if you've missed them by any chance, they're summed up here: yes, here.

The first reader review is in for Albatross. Dusty Sandison from New Brunswick writes: "Three thoughtful stories that share the pained thread of grief, regret, remorse — and hope. The writer delves into relationships with friends, strangers, family and self that are touching, even heartbreaking, and make you look inward and examine your own journey in life."

Ratty drives south. I used to have a VW this colour — hand painted with roof paint. I miss it. Let me know if you have a Beetle for sale.
This month, I have my head down preparing Rosa Mira's next exceptional publication, Fields of Gold, subtitled: Celebrating Life in the Face of Cancer, A story of two sisters. It's the journal, written over the course of a year, of two remarkable women, one of whom is dying. Pam Morrison wrote for both herself and sister Annie McGregor, recording their shock, love, bafflement, humour, deep respect, grief  — the rich life that flowed between them. I'll be saying more about it in the coming weeks, and introducing you to Pam who lives here in Dunedin.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Shattered and reshaped: Q&A with H.T.R Williams

H.T.R. Williams is a Dunedin writer whose work has been praised for its flare, sensitivity and painterly eye for detail. His essay Angel of Reshaping: Fifteen Years of Alienation is a probing and gutsy look at his own psychosis and recovery.

Hayden, would you say a little about writing this essay — what it meant to you?
Angel of Reshaping was about coming to terms with dark and very difficult times in my life, I see it very much in that mythic way, going into the underworld, the chaos of the unconscious and being completely overwhelmed by it and pulled out of everyday life into that inner world -- but the discovery is that it has transformed me, I've come out the other side of it and made art out of it too. Learning to write has enabled this channel between the two worlds of that turbulent inner life of imagination, which can be dark and scary but also rich and colourful, and an outer form, being able to express things in words and construct narratives over whole novels etc. 
Writing for me is like driving a road at night and only seeing as far as the reach of headlights but knowing and trusting that the whole journey and town and people ahead are already there and just need to be brought to life, discovered. I'm often amazed when this whole pattern emerges as if by itself, which I didn't consciously intend when writing, and though it seems like chaos or maybe nonsense at first there's ultimately some ordering wisdom or magic at work, and my experience with psychosis has been the same. I've suffered a lot through it but it's not tragic at all because it's made my life meaningful and it's helped me to heal as well.
I've observed that the troubles, migrations and dissolutions repeating in my own life and mind seemed to reflect the friction and fragmentation happening everywhere, in the displacement of peoples and communities, the breakdown of relationships, families, social institutions, and structures of all kinds with the exception of class division, which only seemed to be solidifying into more definite, imprisoning strata, fossilising the abilities, hopes, dignity and independence of many thousands in what was beginning to be called an ‘underclass.’

I don’t believe I was experiencing this correspondence between inner and outer worlds through some solipsistic fantasy. Rather, as a mentally ill friend suggested shortly before committing suicide, the psyches of those prone to psychosis are perhaps more susceptible to external influences in the same way that frogs, with the thin partitions of their more permeable skins, are more susceptible to poisons in the environment. I’d already felt oppressed and sickened by the atmosphere in South Wales under Thatcher and John Major. The same social ills were arriving here. New Zealand’s opportunity to do something original and not repeat the same ugly mistakes was diminishing. An atomistic, self-serving culture had been advanced, and consequently we’d begun to care less about each other, to our own detriment. In writing this I was musing on the origins of both individual and collective breakdown.

Are there writers you draw on for encouragement or inspiration?
Carl Jung. R.S. Thomas for honestly nutting out the quandaries of his faith, condensing his thinking so concisely. Thomas Merton for the way he writes about abstract subjects with such clarity. James Kelman and Saul Bellow for their compassion and humour.

What are your current writing challenges?
Trying to find a conventional publisher for my first novel. Unlikely.

What is delighting you?
The avant garde, imported faux ceiling mold in my nouveau-retro tormented artist’s garret. My first conversations in Welsh.

What's in the pipeline for you in 2014 
Hopefully writing a fourth book.

Thanks, Hayden. It's been a great experience, working with you and the Angel. May your readers be many and riveted.