Jeff Evans

A writer's life, struggling on the coalface

The Best {And Worst} of Tom Junod … by Amy Burgess

There are four basic emotional stages of writing, Tom says. “I’m shit. I’m a genius. I’m shit. I survived. That’s basically it, isn’t it? You think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe how horrible I am.’ And then you lie to yourself long enough to write your draft and you’re like, ‘I’m Mozart!’ And then you’ve handed in your draft and you haven’t heard from your editor in a day and a half, and you’re like, ‘Oh no.’ And you start reading your draft and you think, ‘I can’t believe how awful I am.’ Then you rework it and it’s closer to what you wanted at the beginning, and you’re happy. And you’re exhausted. And you do it again.”

You can read Amy Burgess’ piece HERE

Making it big in the States …

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Okay, maybe I’m not going to make it big in the States any time soon, but my publisher Peter Dowling of Oratia Media has been showcasing a couple of my books over the other side of the big pond and it seems I’ve got at least one fan! This review of ‘Polynesian Navigation And The Discovery Of New Zealand’ was recently published on the Midwest Book Review website:

Exceptionally well written and illustrated with occasional black-and-white period photography, “Polynesian Navigation And The Discovery Of New Zealand” is as informed and informative as it is ‘reader friendly’ and thoughtfully engaging. Enhanced with four maps, a two page bibliography, and a useful index, “Polynesian Navigation And The Discovery Of New Zealand” is an ideal and ardently recommended addition to academic library collections and New Zealand History supplemental studies reading lists.

Okay, I’m not going to make it on to a best seller’s list anytime soon, but it’s quite nice to know my writing translates well on the other side of the Pacific Ocean all the same. Maybe American isn’t a foreign language after all!

Cover design

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Things are gaining momentum! I’ve just received the final draft for the cover design for my up coming biography of Maori elder Hec Busby from the designer and I’m super excited to see it. We’ve been through a few versions and countless tweaks along the way, but I’m happy to say that this combination really hits the mark. Hec is a master canoe builder and master of traditional Polynesian navigation (among other skills) so the combination of images are perfect. I’m a bit of a fan of black and white photos, as well as the sepia look, so the overall colour palette ticks another box too. It’s been a long, long journey – so its nice to feel like we’re almost there!

 

Hi – I’m back!

Well I’m finally back after an extended break working on the final proof for my new book – and I’m relieved to announce it’s all but ready for publication. In fact I’ve been over the proof forwards and backwards and every other which way so many times that I’m now completely numb to it. I actually think I’ve reached the point of editing exhaustion. It might sound strange to some of you, but I no longer know if the changes I’m considering will actually improve the book or do the opposite! In part I think it is because I have at least to ‘reading’ voices in my head, and when I read in one style a page flows wonderfully, whereas when the other voice arrives I find myself reading second rate rubbish that’s flawed in oh so many ways. So enough is enough and it is what it is …

Despite all of that, I’m still determined to throw the odd line into cyber space; and this year I’ve decided to add a little more heart to my posts: to give my blog a little more reason for being. So in a nutshell I’ve decided to add a little more character to my writing. As an average penman of non-fiction I’ve not yet developed a decent narrative style, so that’s my challenge – to develop my style. It’s all part of polishing the craft, and god knows my writing needs some polishing!

 

Hawaiki Rising

Hawaiiki Rising

I’ve just received an autographed copy of Sam Low’s beautifully written book Hawaiki Rising and I’m super happy about it. I’ve known Sam for a few years, but due to us living on opposite sides of the Pacific (he lives in the States, I’m in New Zealand), I seldom get to see him – so it was a real pleasure to catch up with him when the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule’a was welcomed into Waitangi last weekend.

Sam has been involved with the Polynesian Voyaging Society since the early 1980s and has voyaged on Hokule’a several times. It’s that level of experience which has given Sam a great insight into voyaging, and allowed him access to many of the figures that were instrumental in the renaissance of Hawaiian voyaging. The result of Sam’s endeavour is a wonderful book that is quite literally a page turner. For anyone looking to write the history of an organisation or perhaps the revival of an art, I suggest you read this book to see how it should be written. I can’t recommend this book enough.

War canoes and 75-year old newspapers

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I’ve just spent an enjoyable few days in the far north of New Zealand photographing the giant Maori war canoe Nga Tokimatawhaorua. The 120-foot canoe, shown above, was completed in 1940 and carries 80 paddlers, and she is a fearsome sight to see close up in action. I was fortunate to be invited as it is quite rare to see her on the water these days; she is usually only launched for the commemorations of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in February of each year.

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My trip north had a second equally important purpose though (at least for me), and that was to spend some time searching back issues of the Northern News at the newspaper’s main office in Kaikohe. I was there to find any references to Nga Tokimatawhaorua’s construction and launch, and there were plenty to be found in the bound and yellowing pages dating from the late 1930s.

As a side note, I must say that it was actually quite a calming experience to spend the day sifting through 75-year old newspapers; a task I prefer to scrolling through endless digital resources.

Hec Busby biography: updated publication date.

Further to my announcement on 16 August last, I’m now able to confirm that Hec Busby: Not here by chance will be hitting the bookshops in May of next year.

The decision to have the book printed offshore has meant a delay of a few months, but fortunately the new publication date coincides with the opening of Hec’s whare wananga up in Doubtless Bay. It should be a wonderful occasion.

The Boys in the Boat

Boys in the Boat

I’m super excited to have finally received my copy of Daniel James Brown’s book, The Boys in the Boat. It’s been a few weeks since I ordered it and I’ve been counting down the days, waiting for that tell-tale package of well wrapped book to land on my doorstep.

I’d not actually heard of the book nor it’s author before stumbling across it on Amazon, but the book comes highly recommended with a phenomenal 4,521 5-star reviews on the site. Yeah, it’s a rating system that you can often take with a pinch of salt, but with that much support, I figure the book must be half decent! What’s more, it’s been on the LA Times bestseller list for nine straight months and it’s won several non-fiction awards, including the American Booksellers Association/Indie Choice Nonfiction Book of the Year Award.

The book itself tells the story of the nine young American college athletes and their coach who beat the odds to represent their nation at the 1936 Olympics in Germany. By all accounts its a great story, but as a writer what I’m really looking forward to is reading Brown’s evocative descriptions of time and place, reportedly one of the books highlights. It’s an area I have to work on, so I’m looking forward to picking up a few tips.

Brown also has a pretty good website, much of it dedicated to this, his third, and most successful book. You can view his website HERE.

You can’t make this stuff up

One of my favourite books at home is Lee Gutkind’s, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. The cover claims that the book is ‘The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between,’ which is a pretty big boast, but one I can live with. There is a lot of great information in Lee’s book, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any up and coming creative nonfiction scribe.

By way of an example of the books contents, here is a small slice explaining a nice way of structuring your nonfiction writing.

As I’ve said, creative non-fiction is an amalgam of style and substance, information and story. Whether it’s personal information, as in memoir, or public information as in immersion, you’re using building blocks, scenes, and/or little stories to communicate ideas and information as compellingly as possible.

I’m not an artist, but I’m now attempting to show, visually, the classic structure of the creative nonfiction essay, chapter, or book. So here we have a rectangle with nine blocks. (Nine is arbitrary, it could be five or fifteen – or any number.)

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The first block represents story or action because it’s usually best to start with a scene to draw readers in and get them involved. After you’ve captured your readers, you can provide any information you want or need to tell them. But you don’t want to provide too much information all at once because  you’ll only bore them or they’ll lose the thread of the story. So that third block continues the scene or story or starts another story. That’s the rhythm, what I call the creative nonfiction dance. Information and story – back and  forth – repeatedly.

The objective of the dance is to embed information inside the scene or story so that the  movement between blocks is seamless. Each scene or little story should simultaneously excite with action and teach with precision. In the perfect world, information will also be embedded inside each scene. As you can see, that is happening here.

Let me say a little more about the structure of  the creative nonfiction essay – or book. Creative nonfiction, as I have pointed out, is an amalgam of style and substance. The scene and story, the characters and the inherent suspense get people interested and involved, allowing the writer to communicate the information – or the nonfiction part of the genre – and keep readers interested. This is especially the case for readers who might not have an inherent interest in the subject.

So here’s the dance that is diagrammed. The scene gets the reader interested and involved, so you can then provide information, nonfiction, to the reader. But sooner or later, a reader will get distracted or overloaded with information, and you will lose him. But before you allow that to happen you go back to the scene – or introduce a new scene – and reengage. And it is really terrific when you can embed information inside a scene. This, as you can see in the diagram, allows you to go from scene to scene – without a break.

You can read some more about Lee at his website HERE.

Dawn of the Greatest: part 3

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The third and final instalment of my three part series, this post concludes my article celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cassius Clay’s upset victory over Sonny Liston.

The fight started as predicted, with Liston charging out from his corner like a bull intent on doing damage. Clay for his part stuck to his plan and kept moving, circling clockwise away from Liston’s jab. Time after time Liston attacked only to see Clay sway back or slip away before the punch could connect. Liston was missing by 30cm, sometimes more, and try as he might, he couldn’t connect with a decent punch until halfway through the round. “I just kept running and watching his eyes,” Clay said later. “Liston’s eyes tip you when he is about to throw a heavy punch. Some kind of way, they just flicker.”

When Liston finally caught Clay with a rip below the rib cage it only spurred Clay into action. First, he fired a series of single jabs at the champ, and then he unleashed a blur of two, three, or four jabs followed by an overhand right or a left hook. When the bell to finish the round sounded, Joe Louis in his ringside commentary said: “I think we’ve just seen one of the greatest rounds we’ve seen from anybody in a long time. I think Clay completely outclassed Sonny Liston in this round.”

The second round was more of the same, with Clay dancing and Liston missing. At one point the fans in the bleachers watched Liston mistime a hook that struck one of the ring’s ropes. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Clay cut Liston under his left eye. “He hit me some,” Clay would tell Playboy magazine after the fight, “but I weaved and ducked away from most of his shots… Then I saw the first cut, high up on his cheekbone… Then I saw the blood, and I knew that eye was my target from then on. It was my concentrating on that cut that let me get caught with the hardest punch I took, that long left. It rocked me back. But he either didn’t realize how good I was hit or he was already getting tired and he didn’t press his chance. I sure heard the bell that time. I needed to get to my corner to get my head clear.”

By the time the bell for the next round had rung Clay had changed his game plan. Instead of coasting the third he attacked from the outset, and it was all that Liston could do to defend himself. Time and again he was forced to cover up, and each time he sensed a barrage of punches was over and looked to counter, he would find Clay gone.

When the round finished, Liston, blood trickling from cuts and his tank already nearing empty, made his way warily back to his corner. He was worn out, not just from chasing Clay, but from all the punches he had thrown and missed with. “The punches you miss are the ones that wear you out,” Clay’s trainer that night, Angelo Dundee, would say – and Liston had already missed plenty.

Clay, by now aware that he was in total control of the fight reverted back to his original plan for the fourth round, leaving Liston in his wake as he danced around the ring. Everything ran to script, until late in the round, when his night nearly fell apart. Dundee takes up the story: “Near the end of the fourth round, Cassius started having trouble with his eyes. To this day nobody knows exactly what the problem was. It might have been liniment from Liston’s shoulder. My guess is, it was coagulant that his corner used on the cuts. Probably, Cassius got the solution on his gloves, and when he brushed them against his forehead, it had left a layer of something that trickled down with the perspiration into his eyes.

“Whatever it was, he came back to the corner after the fourth round and started shouting, ‘I can’t see! My eyes!’ and something was wrong. His eyes were watery. He was saying, ‘Cut the gloves off! We’re going home!’ and you can imagine what was going through his mind. He was winning the fight, winning easily, and all of a sudden he can’t see. I told him, ‘Forget the bullshit. This is the championship. Sit down.’ I pushed him down, and took a towel, and started cleaning out his eyes. Then I threw the towel away, grabbed a sponge, rinsed his eyes and threw the sponge away. There was something in his eyes, definitely, because I put my pinky in the corner of his eye, and then I put it in my own eye, and it stung, it burned.

“I only had a minute between rounds, and Barney Felix, the referee, was coming toward us to see what the problem was. Cassius was hollering, ‘I can’t see,’ and I was scared they’d stop the fight. So I got his mouthpiece back in, stood him up, and said, ‘This is the big one, daddy. Stay away from him. Run!”

“Just going out for the fifth round was an incredibly brave thing to do,” recalled Pacheco. “The things he did, staying out of range, reaching out with his left hand, touching Liston when he got too close to break Sonny’s concentration. It was an amazing, astonishing, breath-taking performance. Cassius can’t see, and still Liston couldn’t do anything with him.” Somehow Clay survived Liston’s attack, and with half a minute left in the round his eyes began to clear. Liston, the ferocious, indestructible, and unbeatable Champion of the World had missed his chance to put away an all but defenceless Clay.

In the sixth, Clay came out with clear vision and he went to work on Liston – and everything he threw landed. Liston, by now flat-footed, had nothing left. His heavily muscled arms that had been instrumental in so many victories were now a weighty liability as he struggled to keep them up. At one point, Clay recalled, “I hit him with eight punches in a row, until he doubled up. I remember thinking something like “Yeah, you old sucker! You tried to be so big and bad!” He was gone. He knew he couldn’t last … I missed a right that might have dropped him. But I jabbed and jabbed at that cut under his eye, until it was wide open and bleeding worse than before.”

When the bell sounded ending the sixth, Liston walked back to his corner. The missed runs and ill-discipline he had shown when he should have been training had come home to roost. “That’s it,” he announced as he sat down. Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston had quit on his stool: the first heavyweight champion of the world to do so since Jess Willard had succumbed to a broken nose, cracked ribs, a broken jaw and six broken teeth in 1919. Only Liston hadn’t been smashed into submission. Instead, he had been out-thought and out-boxed – and then he simply gave up.

To watch Clay on this night, in this fight, was to witness something special. Even now, watching black and white footage five decades on, you can instinctively tell Clay was in a new breed of fighter. He was the future, and the future combined the mass of a heavyweight with the speed and agility of a lightweight. In a stroke he had changed the face of heavyweight boxing. He was simply irresistible.