Unfortunately even community swap libraries are out of bounds for now – this one was taken down shortly after our walk on the 26th. Photo: Catherine Woulfe
Unfortunately even community swap libraries are out of bounds for now – this one was taken down shortly after our walk on the 26th. Photo: Catherine Woulfe

BooksMarch 29, 2020

No shops, no launches – but the NZ book scene is finding new ways to reach people under lockdown

Unfortunately even community swap libraries are out of bounds for now – this one was taken down shortly after our walk on the 26th. Photo: Catherine Woulfe
Unfortunately even community swap libraries are out of bounds for now – this one was taken down shortly after our walk on the 26th. Photo: Catherine Woulfe

Books editor Catherine Woulfe takes an energising walk around the lockdown block of New Zealand books. 

When the bubbles settled over us they settled over the books too. Libraries were the first to shut down, then the physical bookstores and finally, the hammer blow: online sales and indeed any notion of benevolently posting books about the place were whipped off the table. And fair enough! Poor old posties and couriers, they’ve got enough to worry about without your to-read pile.

What’s been really cool to watch is how nimbly the whole scene is adapting. At The Spinoff we want to help writers and publishers and we want to help readers, so with that in mind, here’s a miscellany of bits that have come our way these last few days – all the workarounds and tips and new projects and clever ways to get books read, regardless. Or at least heard about. (We can add to this list so please email any we’ve missed: catherinewoulfe@thespinoff.co.nz).

We’ve also got the Unity Top 10s as they were tracking when life got flip-turned upside down, and a speech Carl Shuker wrote for the launch of Damien Wilkins’ Aspiring. Because just about all we can do through this strange time is support one another and shout about the good stuff.

Here goes then:

  • A publicist made the potentially sanity-saving point that you don’t need an e-reader to access ebooks. You can use your smartphone, tablet or computer – just download the free Kindle app or use the Apple Books app. Note that lots of NZ ebooks are available at mebooks.co.nz. (Note also that they are promoting a book on their front page about the “global warming scam”. Don’t buy that one.)
  • Vive la local library! In electronic form, for now. A librarian writes: “You can download ebooks and e-audiobooks onto any device. Listening to e-audiobooks is particularly handy on a smartphone. There are thousands to choose from and your library website should have instructions about how to set it up. And if you’re not a library member you can likely still join by emailing your library staff, who will be working from home to provide a digital service.”
  • Siouxsie Wiles made the point that if you are sharing or borrowing hard copy books outside of your bubble you might want to quarantine them for three days before getting stuck in.
  • On Friday night Rose Lu and Chris Tse hosted a Pegasus Poetry Reading on Zoom, featuring Carolyn DeCarlo, Chris Price and Freya Daly Sadgrove, emceed by Therese Lloyd. Also there were penises. “We did not anticipate porn trolls being an issue so a thousand apologies about that,” tweeted Tse. We pressed Lu for detail. “I think one of the clips they played was two girls one cup!?!?! and then a few penis things,” she said. “but it was really only an issue at the end.” Sadgrove emailed to say it was “sort of funny and also a very important lesson for people doing virtual events, the upshot of which is to never ever share your zoom link publicly!!! … We are all soft pure book nerds and we forget that the internet can be a nasty weapon as well as a cool tool.” Edited recording will be added soon.
  • Also over at Poetry Shelf was the launch of Mikaela Nyman’s Sado (VUP), which was recorded so you can watch it here. We have a review in the works too.
  • The Coalition for Books, keen to ensure that New Zealand children are still able to enjoy all that a good book has to offer during these unsettling times, is working with publishers, libraries and schools to provide a way for storytimes to continue online over the next little while. The scheme will be launched this week and keep an eye out for more information on the Coalition for Books website. Any questions please email Catriona Ferguson catriona@publishers.org.nz.
  • Spinoff favourite Eamonn Marra plans to read his whole sublimely great novel 2000ft Above Worry Level on 4 April, out loud we mean, live on his webcam. On Twitter, he said, “I’ll be accepting donations (only from people who have not lost work because of this) which I’ll be splitting 50/50 between me and Wellington Night Shelter. More details to come soon.” Excellently, his novel is also now available as an ebook.
  • Literary journals are marching on valiantly. Starling is open for submissions for the next issue until April 20. (Big thanks to Starling for helping with this list, btw). Sweet Mammalian are open for submissions until the end of May.
  • Landfall is pushing out the entry deadline for its Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Essay Prize. You’ve now got til April 30. Get on it, youths. Per Emma Neale, the May issue was almost headed for the printer, full of wonderful writing and visual art, but the deadline shift means it won’t be out until June. She has a backlog of reviews so will keep adding to Landfall Review Online on the first of each month.
  • MUP has pushed back release of High Wire, the graphic novel by Lloyd Jones and Euan Mcleod, Penguin Random House has pushed back Fake Baby by Amy McDaid, and Hachette has pushed back Tiny Pieces of Us, by Nicky Pellegrino. Those are the only three NZ books we’ve been told about. Please let us know any others. (Meanwhile, Scribe’s Animals in that Country, a novel about a pandemic set in Australia’s Northern Territory, has been brought forward – it’s by Laura Jean McKay who is based in NZ and right now hunkered down in Palmerston North. Stand by for an essay.)
  • Donna Chisholm wants to see your bookshelf:

    Images: Twitter
  • Migrant Zine Collective is calling for submissions for an ongoing e-zine called “Recipes for Resistance”. “We’re looking for recipes which can be easily shared amongst our communities to create foods which foster collectivity. This could be a new recipe you’ve learnt while self-isolating, a recipe your parent(s) have shared with you for herbal soups or dishes with non-western medicinal values, or one which serves as a comforting reminder of family and home … Submissions can include a simple photo and text document of your recipe or illustrations, prose, poems to accompany the piece.” Details via Instagram.
  • Publishers Lawrence & Gibson will email PDFs of five of their back catalogue to anyone who donates anything to Downtown Community Mission Wellington. Send lawrenceandgibson@gmail.com a screenshot of payment and they’ll email out the books. The books are Brannavan Gnanalingam’s first three (Getting Under Sail, You Should Have Come Here When You Were Not Here, and Credit in the Straight World), Thomasin Sleigh’s Ad Lib, and Richard Meros’ Richard Meros Presents the Southern Man. Nearly $500 raised so far. Bravo Lawrence & Gibson.
  • Paula Green, long-time champion of poets and writers, has swung into lockdown mode with barely a pause for breath. “I am doing loads of stuff on my blogs,” she reports. “Poetry Shelf doing virtual launches plus daily postings of audio, video, poems, lists, interviews, reviews from poets, NZ authors, NZ book fans and me. On Poetry Box I post daily videos and audio of me and children’s authors reading and setting challenges, and on Friday I post things children send me – poems stories artwork video audio.” Bravo Paula.
  • We arm-twisted our poetry editor Ashleigh Young into handing over her diaries for Lockdown Letters, a new series here at The Spinoff. She threatens/promises lots of tea and bike rides. Speaking of us, might we persuade you to dive into the archives of our terrific booky podcast, @papercutspod?
  • Sarah Laing is drawing her diaries; you can find them and adore them on Instagram or Twitter.

    Image: Instagram @sarahelaing
  • Nina Mingya Powles is crowdsourcing hers; called Stay Home Diary, she’s taking submissions from Asian writers all over the world and has already featured several New Zealanders. There’s a new post up every day via her Bitter Melon Poetry press. Powles “aims to create an accessible collective archive of our day-to-day experiences at this strange, isolating time, while also helping us feel more connected”.
  • Fabo Story, a friendly writing competition for kids that’s run by a bunch of award-winning children’s writers, has been brought forward and upped its capacity.
  • Madeleine Chapman, legend, has written an intimidatingly deft and funny biography of Jacinda Ardern for indie Australian publishers Black Inc Books. It’s out on Tuesday and full of zingers and a sit-up-straight tone of authority and we will give it much love. Meanwhile Mad, who once rode an Onzo to Huntly in the name of good content, wants your ideas for “hip” and “online” promo guff. See her Twitter.

Right! Here’s the Unity Books bestseller charts for the half-week ending abruptly at 2.30pm on Monday 23 March. 


1  The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, $50)

2  Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury, $33)

3  Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists by Julia Ebner (Bloomsbury, $33)

4  Auē by Becky Manawatu (Mākaro Press, $35)

5  The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts (Doubleday, $38)

6  Apeirogon: A Novel by Colum McCann (Random House, $28)

Imagining Decolonisation by Rebecca Kiddle, Bianca Elkington, Moana Jackson, Ocean Ripeka Mercier, Mike Ross, Jennie Smeaton and Amanda Thomas (Bridget Williams Books, $15)

8  The Overstory by Richard Powers (Vintage, $26)

9  The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox (Victoria University Press, $35)

10 The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, $55)


1  The Mirror and the Light 

2  Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo (Penguin Books, $24)

3  Imagining Decolonisation 

4  Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton (Fourth Estate, $25)

5  To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War & Peace by Kapka Kassabova (Granta, $40)

6  Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (Vintage, $24)

7  My Dark Vanessa: A Novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell (Fourth Estate, $33)

8  Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Little, Brown, $25)

9  Aspiring by Damien Wilkins (Massey University Press, $22)

10 Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, $25) 

And finally, here’s Carl Shuker on Damien Wilkins:

I remember interviewing Damien for his book Chemistry nearly 20 years ago. Our half-hour talk produced three tiny quotes in an 800-word review I wrote for The Press (I used to send those reviews in on a floppy disk in the mail). There was so much gold leftover I repurposed it for NZ Books (salut!). 

Be kind to a young reviewer. I was young, hungry, nervous as anything. I thought I was very sure of a lot of things. Damien was what Damien is and seems always to have been: gleefully thoughtful, quietly privy to secrets, supremely confident, supremely articulate about his ongoing project. If not the what, the how has been established early on in this project (though who knows what “early” even means when you are as vampirically ageless as he). Damien told me about going to the US as a very young man to study under Stanley Elkin in St Louis:

“I went there with a lot of the writing I was doing at the time, which was full of adjectives and … full of ‘writing’. Full of voice. But it was quite a stylised, self-conscious, adjectival voice, and once I got there, I thought, no, I can’t do this anymore. Mainly because the people who had taught me all that were sitting there, and they were the masters of it. So I felt I had to reinvent myself.”

Now I vividly remember thinking, because I was working on a long wordy book at the time, I completely disagree with this aesthetic, but he is important. “Stylised, self-conscious, adjectival” pretty much described everything I was doing, and it was an amazing feeling to completely disagree with him yet completely get where he was coming from and why. And to register, somehow, even then, that at some point just maybe his truth might be true for me. My disagreement comes out in the interview when I (I thought carefully) deployed some William Gass to provide the counterpoint:

But Damien, I said, Gass says, “the art is in the music; without the music, there is only comprehension.” How, I said, I thought with winning subtlety, would a comment like that sit with what you do? 

Damien then floored me by knowing exactly where he deliberately sits within a Gassian taxonomy of music versus comprehension, quoting Gass’ mad early practices (writing 40 descriptions of a tea cup), then bending all this knowledge to a justification for his own process – “when you make a book you make a world, you don’t make a vision of the real. You actually make some thing.”

Always the feeling reading a new book from Damien, those first few pages, is – wait – where is the flair? Where is the fabled genius; the pyrotechnics? Everything he said in that interview is imprinted on my brain – how to learn pace, to learn what a speed hump is in a narrative and how it affects what went before and what comes after. Critically, for all Damien’s characteristic understatement sentence by sentence, he is a plastic writer, a sculptor. How things look on the page, the interplay of paragraph size, the steady shrinkage of falling lines of dialogue when a conversation is dying or a disgreement winning – all this complex artistry of the visual and verbal is a vital part of the way he plays with our brains and hearts. Damien thinks in chapters, he feels in whole novels, but he speaks in those simple sculptured sentences, smuggling in the pieces of something huge and potentially dangerous. 

Another thing he told me that went into my brain without a ripple: “You give everyone their moment. So there’s no character in there who’s unredeemed by style. Even the peripheral characters; they just have a few lines to say, but I try to make the situation interesting or odd or amusing.” That last line hides the genius in what he said before: “there’s no character in there who’s unredeemed by style.” There are theses to be written about walk-ons in Wilkins. About how the redemption of character – no matter how peripheral – by style generates in his fiction this feeling of a deep-breathing patience, that is warm, ultimately heartless perhaps in the possible fates it might bestow, but, in the immediate, warm, sensitive, even kind. 

That’s a key thing reading Damien – that simplicity, that offhandedness, is somehow some kind of a terrible lure into reading him simply, offhandedly, trusting him that he won’t hurt you, like we sometimes trust the world and simply live in its small moments, unaware of the stratospheric changes the world and Wilkins will wield upon us. Because hurt us both he and the world does. In Aspiring I was reminded of a phrase I read elsewhere – “nested, high-impact stimuli.” This seems a quiet book about a quiet boy (nearly seven feet tall) in a quiet town by a quiet, thousand-year-old lake. But as we read, comforted, soothed in detail, we suddenly have to remember where we put our feet. Masquerading as YA, it’s another Wilkins trick. Come in, he says, look at this and look at this, but don’t look over there, something’s coming. The sense of looming threat and dissolution – even if it’s only the routine disappointment of more life in a small town – is masterful and only exists because of this mastery of all the mundane and small that may be dissolved.

In our troubled times, Aspiring is a gorgeous reminder of what we stand to lose, of course an object correlative for a loss of innocence, and also a secular reminder to attempt to lift ourselves, to aspire, despite our bullies, despite our broken-hearted fathers, despite whatever’s happened or happening, again and again. 

Keep going!