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Carl Nixon (Image: Archi Banal)
Carl Nixon (Image: Archi Banal)

BooksSeptember 6, 2023

Dabbling with Ulysses: The reading confessions of Carl Nixon

Carl Nixon (Image: Archi Banal)
Carl Nixon (Image: Archi Banal)

Welcome to The Spinoff Books Confessional, in which we get to know the reading habits and quirks of New Zealanders at large. This week: writer Carl Nixon.

The book I wish I’d written

So Long, See you Tomorrow, which was actually written by William Maxwell. It’s a brief story about jealousy, murder and suicide set in rural Illinois. A narrative of aching nostalgia and regret with all the best qualities of short fiction yet the scope of a novel. Every sentence carries its own weight and needs to be there to make the story work as well as it does.

Everyone should read

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle because generally speaking it’s either being read to you as a small child and there’s nothing better than being read to as a child. Or you’re reading it to your own small children – again, nothing better.

The book I want to be buried with

It seems weird to be buried with any book. Why? In case the Egyptians were actually right and I’ve got some spare time on my hands in the afterlife? If they were right there are a few more practical things I’m going to be cramming into that coffin. That really would be the right occasion to stockpile toilet paper.

The first book I remember reading by myself

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. A classic gateway reading experience not just for fantasy books but for all compelling storytelling. I probably read it when I was 11 and I remember being so excited.

The book I pretend I’ve read

I don’t actually lie and say I’ve read Ulysses by James Joyce, but if it crops up in conversation at the pub on a Wednesday evening, say on June 16th, I’m not going to come right out and say that I haven’t actually read it. I’ve dabbled with sections but haven’t read it.

From left to right: the book we should all read (or have read to us); the first book Carl remembers reading by himself and the book he pretends he’s read.

The book that made me cry

I do remember crying when I finished reading The Lord of the Rings because I was so immersed in the world of the books that I didn’t want it to be over. You can never read a great novel for the first time more than once. I was about 17.

The book that made me laugh

Doon. National Lampoon’s Doon by Ellis Weiner is a parody of Frank Herbert‘s novel Dune. The planet Arruckus is also known as “Doon”, the Desert Planet, and its only export is beer. On Doon there are only sugary treats and no savoury food. I remember thinking this was absolutely hilarious, but I should say that I was about 18 years old and also knew and loved the original Dune. Both of those factors are probably very, very important.

The most underrated book

True Grit by Charles Portis. A lot of people have seen the movie adaptations but assume the book is a silly western. Not true. The book is a literary classic. Mainly because of the perfect first-person narration of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross who sets out to avenge the murder of her father.

Favourite literary encounter

I once met the author Patrick Evans. He lurched out at me from a dank Christchurch alleyway looking like a tall gnome and tried to sell me cheap remaindered copies of one of his novels. I did buy one – ironically, it was called Gifted. He wandered away with some bitter mutterings about a conspiracy to overlook his work for any major national prizes. Disturbed by this possible portent of my own future, I hurried on.

Greatest New Zealand book

The complete stories of Owen Marshall. Owen’s short fiction captures a certain type of New Zealander, a type who still exists but may these days be seen as old-fashioned, even embarrassing. The stories, however, are universal. They cover the full spectrum from the darkest of dark depravities to hilarious with deft craftsmanship, wit and insight.

From left to right: The book that cracked Carl up; the book he thinks is underrated; and the book gifted to him in an author encounter.

Greatest New Zealand writer

Without a doubt, Maurice Gee. For almost thirty years Gee produced classic after classic at a rate of about one every couple of years. And not just for adults, his young adult books are also exemplary. No other NZ novelist comes close to competing in terms of either the brilliance of the individual works or sustained quality. 

Best thing about reading

Developing empathy with a consciousness outside your own – not the characters in the story, but the author who has created every detail in it.

What are you reading right now?

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. The great American writer died recently and I thought I’d revisit what is often referred to as his greatest book. It’s a rewriting of the American western myth. The message is that life is violent and random and without meaning. After that the story gets quite bleak. Rereading it, I now realise that I only got about two thirds of the way through the first time before I put it aside – probably to renew my faith in humanity.

Carl Nixon’s latest novel The Waters can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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