How to like reading about a hero you don’t like – ‘The Goodbye Kiss’ by Massimo Carlotto

May 2nd, 2013 by Zirk van den Berg § 0 comments § permalink

Reading Massimo Carlotto’s crime novel The Goodbye Kiss, I was once again reminded how intriguing an unsympathetic main character can be in fiction.

My own novel No-Brainer features a main character some readers find too hard to like. However, I do ascribe to the accepted truism of writing that the reader should care for the main character and preferably like them enough to root for them. I also wrote elsewhere that one of the reasons I don’t like reading books about serial killers is that I don’t want to spend time with sickos.

So why did I enjoy Carlotto’s book so much when the main character is a lying bastard, robber, serial abuser of women and commits a string of murders?

For one thing, he’s not a sicko. He commits these crimes, but unlike the serial killers I detest, he doesn’t derive particular pleasure from doing so. Although he does confess in one place to always having enjoyed murder, that is not the motivation for his actions. He is simply trying to look after number one the best way he knows how. He is callous and cruel, but not sadistic.

The way the book is written, with its incredibly fast pace, is also not indulgent. You never get the feeling that the narrator is enjoying the gore or is hoping that the reader will get kicks from descriptions of violence. The violence happens, matter of factly, and the story moves on.

Massimo Carlotto reminded me of nobody so much as Jim Thompson, whose main characters can also be morally corrupt. Both these authors write lean and mean fiction… and these words are not just chosen because they rhyme. There is a commendable, merciless quality to the writing of both these men.

I read The Goodbye Kiss without as much as a glance at the blurb. I saw the book at a second hand store, liked the look of it and decided to simply open on page one and start reading. It is only afterwards that I read the blurbs and discovered the degree to which Massimo Carlotto’s life story mirrors that of the protagonist in this book. (Presumably the author is not really a murderer, though he did spend five years in prison before his conviction on a murder charge was overturned.)

While Carlotto’s biography can be considered to lend credence to his work, I believe that’s neither here nor there. What you read in the book is the work of someone with a hard-nosed approach that is clearly not put on. (I’m so bored with narrators who pretend to be tough. Isn’t it far more compelling to read stories, especially crime stories, courageous enough to show vulnerability?)

Interestingly, I also recently read two other books where the main character didn’t entirely win my sympathy: John le Carré’s Absolute Friends and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.

In Le Carré’s case, the character was a victim of larger forces and should’ve evinced more sympathy. Yet somehow he just never came alive to me, despite all the pages and all the information and everything that was done to him. A spark of life was missing. Brilliant writer though he is, I think Le Carré didn’t quite get this character to come off the page.

The title character of Mildred Pierce was more appealing, at least at first, though her actions made one care about her less as the story progressed. Still, it is a marvellous book and one I can almost not believe has been as successful as it has been. It certainly doesn’t follow the popular pattern. It’s actually an incredibly brave book.

And one cannot consider unsympathetic main characters without a nod to Nabokov, whose works feature a succession of them. In his case, the trick is that you recognise the humanity of these characters. You may not admire them, but you feel you know them and, however begrudgingly, are willing to indulge their weaknesses. And, of course, there’s that Nabokov style to make the reading a pleasure.

Which brings me back to Massimo Carlotto’s book. If the writing is good, then the book is a joy to read. As Oscar Wilde said: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.”

Say Books thriller to be published in Afrikaans translation

December 11th, 2012 by Zirk van den Berg § 0 comments § permalink

Say Books author Zirk van den Berg’s acclaimed crime novel Nobody Dies will be published in Afrikaans translation in South Africa in 2013.

Nobody Dies was originally published by Random House New Zealand in 2004 and then published as an ebook by Say Books in 2011. On its original publication The New Zealand Herald named it one of the top five thrillers of the year.

Nobody Dies is set in South Africa. It tells the story of a policewoman in charge of the witness protection programme who finds it easier to kill her charges rather than set them up with new lives. As they are between lives while in her care, nobody misses them and her crimes go undiscovered. Then an innocent man enters the programme and forces change.

South African publisher Kwela (part of the country’s premier Afrikaans publishing group, Media24) approached Van Den Berg, proposing an Afrikaans translation of the book. Though Nobody Dies was originally written in English after the author had migrated to New Zealand, Van Den Berg’s first language is Afrikaans and he made his debut writing in the language. He is undertaking the translation himself.

“The translation is surprisingly challenging in parts, especially the more poetic passages,” says Van Den Berg. “One of the real difficulties was translating the title. A direct translation or anything close to it simply didn’t work, so we ended up opting for something completely different.”

The Afrikaans title, ’n Ander Mens, can mean both “another human” and “a different person”, as in someone who has changed.

The book is slated for publication in May. Meanwhile, the original English version is available from Amazon and directly from Say Books.

Kia ora, Frankfurt Book Fair

November 21st, 2012 by Anna von Veh § 0 comments § permalink

Visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair this year was special of course because New Zealand was Guest of Honour. I  loved the quiet spaces at the New Zealand Pavilion where dreams of water, myths, stories, and history swirled in sounds of dark and light. (For once, the word ‘twilight’ in a publishing context didn’t conjure up visions of vampires.)

Inside the New Zealand Pavilion

Inside the New Zealand pavilion

My week started with my participation in a panel on The Evolving Role of Readers at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference. I am interested in online publishing for books, with a particular interest in using fanfiction as a business model. My fellow panelists were Allen Lau and Amy Martin of the online writing platform, Wattpad, and the moderator was Ami Greko of Kobo. Wattpad is a phenomenal success, with numbers of readers and writers in the millions, and viewing minutes in the billions per month. This is the future of reading (and possibly publishing), most of it on mobile. Even Margaret Atwood is a fan.

That evening, I attended the Official Opening Ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair and I wore my silver fern brooch with such pride. Bill Manhire’s speech was quintessentially ‘Kiwi’ and his easy going, intelligent and kind and generous words resonated with everyone. Bill English and Joy Cowley also gave good speeches, and it really was a good night to be a New Zealander.

I spent one day enjoying the sites of Frankfurt and had the bizarre experience of reading Fifty Shades of Grey (it really was research for our panel) at a café on the river and then visiting the nearby 12th century Cathedral called the Dom. #wordsfailme #definitionofirony

The Fair itself is larger than one can even begin to imagine, and even though I’d been there last year, I was still amazed.

Just one of the many Halls. Shuttles ferry tired visitors between the Halls

Digital played a much larger role this year, with several stages devoted to discussions of digital publishing of one sort or another, and the StoryDrive Conference was a magnet for many.  I also attended an excellent presentation on Networked Publishing arranged by Helmut von Berg of Klopotek, moderated by David Worlock, with a distinguished panel of speakers (Brian O’Leary, Fionnuala Duggan, Ingrid Goldstein and Christian Dirschl) which looked beyond digital product.

The actual footprint of digital products was still small in comparison to the still almost overwhelming focus on print. In the ebook survey conducted by Bowker (discussed in a keynote at the Tools of Change Conference), New Zealand had one of the lowest uptakes of ebooks, but I imagine our presence at the Frankfurt Book Fair and the resulting demand for New Zealand titles might well drive quicker exploration of digital in New Zealand too.

The New Zealand stand bustled with activity every time I stopped by. It seemed everyone at the fair was interested in New Zealand as a whole, not just in its publishing. We are so far away from nearly anywhere else, that it seems almost a mystical place to many people.

It was truly a memorable  experience to be at the Fair this year. And congratulations to all who were involved in creating the wonderfully creative and wide-ranging representation of New Zealand culture.

Home sweet home



Musings on Digital Publishing (aka Blog in a Book)

October 27th, 2012 by Anna von Veh § 0 comments § permalink

Digital publishing moves quickly, and a while back, I wanted to see all the posts I’d written over the past year or so to see how they held up [pretty well I think, she says modestly] and it was easy enough to do, but not as easy as it might have been.

And then I thought of Pressbooks and also thought it might be nice to have all my posts available in one easy-to-read place. So I’ve compiled them into a [free] online book here Musings on Digital (thanks Pressbooks).

I’ll update it as I write new blogs.


Tech and Publishing: From the Outside In

October 2nd, 2012 by Anna von Veh § 0 comments § permalink

First of all, let me say I am SO delighted to be going to Frankfurt when New Zealand is the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair!

In finalising things before leaving for the Tools of Change Conference and the Fair, I have been pondering again my dual working life (explored fully in my last post).

I have a foot in both the Tech and the Publishing businesses. Working at a software company keeps me on my toes and reminds me that no matter how much I’ve achieved in the past or how well I’ve done academically, there is always more to learn. I’m not yet fluent in the language of SQL servers, networks, and computer infrastructure, but I can hold a decent conversation. I’ve also learned just how important communication and tacit knowledge is. What people take for granted is often the thing that is the hardest to explain: it’s so ‘known’ that the words are not there. It’s been fascinating to see the theory of Knowledge Management (a postgraduate paper I did last year), borne out. And I am only fully aware of this in this environment because I’ve come from the outside in. I’m no longer the one with all the knowledge.

The proverbial other side of the coin is why it is precisely those from outside an industry who may see the opportunities. We know that the tech startups have much to offer the Publishing industry. However, it’s not just because of their tech skills, but because they are outsiders, with new perspectives. I explore some of this ‘rewriting of narratives’ in an article just published in Publishing Perspectives called ‘Why Fanfics are like Startups‘.

All my new and my own tacit knowledge come together here at Say Books, where I explore my passion for online publishing, and can establish close relationships with authors and readers. I love one on one conversations (Susan Cain, yes!). Of course in the Castle fandom, and with people who share my enthusiasm for publishing, I can be mistaken for an especially outgoing extrovert!

Hello, Frankfurt!