A sneak peek inside my ‘Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand’

A few weeks ago an e-book edition of my best-selling Illustrated History of New Zealand was released by David Bateman Ltd.

Wright_New Zealand Illustrated coverYou can buy that by scrolling down and clicking on the link below. Go on, you know you want to…

Today I thought I’d share some of the pages of the print version.

History, to me, is more than simply recounting past events. It is about understanding the shapes and patterns of life –  exploring how they led to the world we know today. From that, we can understand more about where we are – and where we might go. It is, really, about understanding the human condition.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p 104. Click to enlarge.

For these reasons history must be about people –  their thoughts, hopes and moods. About how they responded to the world they found themselves in. The colonial-age journey to New Zealand, which the sample pages I’ve reproduced here describes, brought that human condition out in many ways; a three month transition between old and new, a rite of passage in which they could shuck off the old world and more fully embrace the dream of the new.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p.105. Click to enlarge.

On these pages I’ve conveyed some of the thoughts of those settlers – click to enlarge each page. The poignancy of the journey was deepened, for many, by tragedy; children, particularly, were vulnerable – and often died, something the colonial government deliberately addressed in the 1870s. That’s covered elsewhere in the book.

The opportunity to write something as big as my Illustrated History of New Zealand – big in the physical sense, big in terms of being an interpretative history of an entire nation – is rare in the career of any author.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 106. Click to enlarge.

The opportunity to then re-write it, ten years on – to re-visit, re-cast, re-think, extend and renew – is almost non-existent. That’s particularly true here in New Zealand where the number of qualified historians to have written large-scale interpretative general histories of the country, solo, in the last 60 years, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

Sample of p. 107. Click to enlarge.

These samples have a copyright notice added to them. Pictures, forming part of the design collage, are from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

My Illustrated History of New Zealand is on sale now in bookstores across New Zealand, or direct from the publisher website. Scroll down for the e-book link.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Experience the past. See the journey. Understand the now.

I don’t often blog directly about the books I write – but I have some auspicious news. My publishers, David Bateman Ltd, have released my Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand as an e-book. My first major e-release, after 30 years of trad book publishing and 50-odd titles.

MJWright2011The print edition has sold very well – and continues to sell. Now it’s also available as e-book on Amazon, iTunes and Nook. And it’s not just a text book – it’s complete with all illustrations. That makes the file fairly big, but it’s worth it.

Here’s what reviewers have said:

“Books of this sweep, length, and immensity of topic are often described as “ambitious”. That it certainly is, but it is an ambition emphatically realised. Both author and publisher have done a great job … Everyone who lives in this country would benefit from reading this book, and would enjoy it.” Graeme Barrow, Northern Advocate

“Wright has covered a lot of ground, engaged with the best of current historical and archaeological thinking and served up a lively, sound general history of New Zealand for the general reader. Bateman should also take another bow…” Gavin McLean, Otago Daily Times

“…an extraordinarily accessible journey through our arguably short but undeniably rich history. I recommend it to anyone who has an active interest in the past or has simply been looking for an excuse to learn more about the events that shaped this country.” Lemuel Lyes, ‘History Geek’ blog.

I’m  marking the release over the next few weeks with a few posts, some sneak-peeks inside the book, and more. Watch this space. Meanwhile, here are the links. Go on – you know you want to…

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

And Nook is coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, geekery and more. Watch this space.

Motoring magic from the wonder age of deco – part 2

The other Saturday I spent a few hours in downtown Napier, New Zealand, where the annual art-deco weekend was in full swing.

'Art Deco' car parade, Napier, February 2014.

‘Art Deco’ car parade, Napier, February 2014.

For a few days the town turns into party central, celebrating the rich and famous lifestyles of 1930s Hollywood. There’s a lot of cosplay. And  a lot of tourists. I overheard a couple of them – done up in period costume down to the cloche hats – chatting in German, something like: ‘Ich muss ganz ein Eis kaufe mir’. I don’t go in for the dress-ups, nor did I attend any of the set-piece events such as a 1930s picnic or the tours. It’s my home town after all. And I’ve (literally) written the book on it.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

Crowds along the balcony of the 1932 Masonic Hotel, an early streamline building.

But I did make the point of going to see the vintage car parade. They spanned the gamut from the First World War through to the early 1940s. Few of them actually appeared on New Zealand roads at the time – the country imported mainly British. And none of them, I suspect, were in quite the sparkling order they are now. But that wasn’t the point …was it.

Quintessential modernism - streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Quintessential modernism – streamline-age Cadillac convertible.

Passing the Buick...

Passing the Buick…

The art of deco.

The art of deco.

Parasols and sun.

Parasols were vital wear in 33 degree C heat (91 degrees F).

My camera really didn't capture just how much the cars glowed in the sun.

My camera really didn’t capture just how much the cars GLOWED in the sun.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard.

Something tells me this is a 1936 Packard Super 8.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, science, geekery…and more.

Write it now: voice and style in action

It seems to me that writing style differs from voice. To me, voice is the framework authors use to express themselves, the characteristic ‘sound’ that identifies their work, conceptually, as theirs and sets it apart from that of other authors. Style is the detail of how that expression takes place, word by word, and it can vary – indeed, some authors tailor their style to suit the purpose of their book.

My "Illustrated History of New Zealand"

My “Illustrated History of New Zealand”

A couple of years ago I had opportunity to revise and re-publish my Illustrated History of New Zealand. This was a massive volume of 120,000 words and 600-odd photos which I’d written in 2003, published in 2004 by Reed New Zealand Ltd. It sold very well indeed, and though it went out of print in a flurry of corporate take-overs, I obtained the publishing license and offered it to a new publisher – David Bateman Ltd.

The book had to be re-made from scratch – but that made it possible to revise the whole. This was positive; some of the text could be re-written completely, reflecting the way research and discoveries about New Zealand’s far past in particular have changed since I originally wrote the text.

But I also reviewed the entire interpretation. Even where there was nothing major to change, there was still room to re-nuance the argument – to tweak, tweeze and re-polish the closer meanings, which I did often by changing a few words only. The idea was to change the meaning a little, but not too much – in effect, adjusting the voice. Novellists face the identical challenge when directing the emotional response of readers.

However, the resulting text couldn’t be allowed to stand with just those amendments. These simply rendered it a stylistic patchwork of old and new. I wanted something more consistent. I also wanted something more modern. I originally wrote the text for this book in 2003, styled specifically for the tastes of the general reading audience then. Time had moved on, and I figured it was essential to re-style the whole into a single form; chattier, more in tune with what’s needed now – yet still reflecting the voicing I had incorporated. For me it was an exercise in knowing the pitch, knowing what the audience wanted, and knowing what I wanted the style to be.

The point being that both first and second editions still reflected my ‘voice’ as a writer – yet quite consciously used different written stylings. For me it was part of the revision.

So yes, voice has to be unique to the author – their characteristic ‘sound’. But has to be understood; it has to be managed. Through that, it is possible to bring that voice to bear in any style.

That management comes from understanding – from understanding how ‘voice’ works to convey meaning and colour. It comes from accepting that, yes, it is more than just flat-out creativity. From knowing your own voice, through experience, and being able to apply it in any writing situation.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Shameless Plug: You can buy my illustrated history from Fishpond, New Zealand’s largest online bookstore.

Flagging away the Kiwi flag?

Last week a fresh debate erupted about New Zealand’s flag. It was prompted by the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should look at a new one.

I’m cynical. The issue pops up perennially, and I can’t help thinking it’s deliberately trucked out, every time, to divert public attention from something more important. The symbolism and emotion attached to it isn’t in the league of (say) the US flag – but it still pretty much guarantees a bite.

Maori under the 'United Tribes' flag 1834. Watercolour by Edward Markham. (United Tribes Ensign, Waitangi). New Zealand or recollections of it. Ref: MS-1550-120. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22776952)

Maori under the ‘United Tribes’ flag 1834. Watercolour by Edward Markham. Click to enlarge. (MS-1550-120. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22776952)

The history’s interesting. New Zealand’s first flag was a modified maritime jack, adopted by Maori in 1834 at the behest of the British Resident, James Busby. The motive was administrative. By this time small ships were being built in New Zealand – but they weren’t attached to a country as a legal entity, and liable for seizure as unregistered. The issue came to a head in 1830 when the Hokianga-built Sir George Murray was seized on arrival in Sydney.

Busby’s answer was to have the ships locally registered and sailing under a New Zealand flag – which had to be attributed to Maori because there was no New Zealand colony. Henry Williams, former naval officer and one of the heads of the Church Missionary Society effort in the Bay Of Islands, designed several options. These were approved – back in Sydney – by the Governor. Samples were fabricated and sent back to New Zealand for Maori to select.

What Maori thought of it is unclear; the concept and symbolism was foreign to Maori society of the day. There is good evidence that when Busby confronted gathered rangitira (chiefs) with the flags, they politely picked one for him – but it didn’t mean very much in their terms.

A few years later, New Zealand became a Crown Colony and its flag – inevitably – the Union Jack, that amalgam of the crosses of St Andrew, St George and St Patrick that Britain adopted, fully, in 1801.

The current New Zealand flag was adopted in 1902, defined by the New Zealand Ensign Act. It came in context of New Zealand’s re-invention of itself as the ‘best of Britain’s children’ – a rah-rah age of social militarism and imperial patriotism in which New Zealand was ‘our country’, Britain ‘our nation’.

The flag captured it precisely – a Union Jack in one corner, floating in the four stars of the Southern Cross that symbolised New Zealand.  However times continued to change, and by the 1920s the sense of nationality-within-Empire stood at tension with New Zealand’s sense of itself.  That wasn’t resolved until the 1980s, when the ‘colonial cringe’ driven mind-set of being ‘Britain’s least best child’ was broken, decisively, by a new generation.

From that perspective there’s an argument to change the flag – but there are also counter-arguments, including the point that the flag has grown up with the country – it symbolises events integral to New Zealand’s own individual history and self-image.

The other question is what to change to. The usual proposal involves a silver fern on black background. But there are other idea,s and we can be sure that – even if change were implemented – somebody would complain.

If you’re a Kiwi, do you have an opinion about the flag? If not, what does the flag of your own country mean to you? Would you change it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Writing tips, geekery and more. Watch this space.

Arguing about New Zealand’s founding Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 174th anniversary of New Zealand’s founding as a Crown Colony, when Hone Heke became the first of around 40 Maori to sign a treaty with the British government at Waitangi (‘Weeping Waters’).

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. New Zealand. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Reconstruction by unknown artist of the Treaty being signed. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

Copies of the Treaty were subsequently taken around the country, and about 540 Maori subsequently signed. Today the Treaty of Waitangi is upheld as a founding document. Like most ‘founding documents’ it’s also grown with us. Today we uphold the Treaty as a definition of race relations – a device for establishing the relationship between two peoples, buoyed on ‘principles’, developed in the 1980s, which guide the way claims by Maori against the Crown are analysed and settled.

It is also terribly divisive. Arguments always flare at Waitangi and the associated Te Ti marae on the day – down to mud being thrown (literally) at dignitaries. Meanwhile, nay-sayers deny it’s valid – particularly a lunatic fringe of ‘Celtic’ evangelists who think they have found a ‘real’ version in the drawer of a bureau in an auction house. These fruit-loops trawl the Treaty, word by word, for literal meaning they twist to suit their own agenda. On what I’ve seen of their rantings, they don’t have the slightest understanding of historiographic methodology. Still less any acceptance of the context of the Treaty as a living document. If they were in a class I was teaching on history – or philosophy, or logic – they’d get an F.

The reality is that the Treaty has become part of New Zealand’s cultural fabric – an evolving, current concept that far transcends its humble historic origins.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi - now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Treaty grounds at Waitangi – now a national historical site. The Treaty was signed near a marquee raised on the grass to the right of the flagpole, which is about where the flagpole was in 1840.

Back in 1839, when the Treaty was first mooted, the Treaty wasn’t envisaged as a colossal nation-founding treatise at all. It was a quick and cheap expedient for meeting an immediate need.

The problem the Colonial Office faced was that New Zealand was off the beaten track – it had little economic value. But white crime was rife, leaking out of Sydney. Ex-convicts and other pakeha (white people) in New Zealand thumbed their noses at British law. Then former kidnapper Edward Gibbon Wakefield decided the place would make a perfect venue for the socially ideal society he envisaged.

From the Colonial Office perspective it was a perfect storm. Crown Law had to be established. But the Treasury wasn’t prepared to fund it – meaning that colony by treaty with Maori, as a cheap alternative, gained ground. This idea keyed into Church Missionary Society thinking, in the ascendant at the time.

I've covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.

I’ve covered the Treaty story in several of my books, including this one.

New Zealand consequently became the only British colony set up by treaty. But it was done with terrible haste. William Hobson, the naval commander sent to undertake the task, didn’t know whether the colony should cover all the New Zealand islands, or just Northland where contact with Maori principally existed at the time. That was still being debated when he rushed to the Bay of Islands on board HMS Rattlesnake and met local British officials – the Resident, James Busby; and CMS head Henry Williams.

The short three-clause treaty that followed was hastily written and badly translated – there is evidence that Williams was given the wrong version to turn into Maori, and his translation of that was sloppy.

The  first clause repudiated the ‘Declaration of Independence’ of 1835, by which Busby tried to get Maori to enforce law over Britain’s wayward ex-convicts. The other two clauses  were designed to get land sales under control – and set up the colony. Maori had been falling victim to private deals during 1839 which, by British law, had the appearance of scams. Hence Maori were guaranteed possession of what they had – until they sold it to the British.

The lot fell foul of cultural differences. None of the British officials were sure Maori understood the distinction between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘chieftainship’, and the wording that emerged – which never made it into the Maori version – wasn’t clear.

It’s from this that a lot of the debate has since generated about the Treaty – but at the time it was a product of mis-fired good intentions. And, as I say, things have evolved since. As they should.

The story of how it was signed – which was only accidentally on 6 February – and the subsequent fate of the actual parchment signed that day almost exactly matches the way we’ve conceptualised it, culturally – but that’s another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, fun with science, and more. Watch this space.

Ever get that feeling of quake deja vu?

Monday was the provincial anniversary holiday in Wellington, New Zealand. Kind of cool – the provinces were abolished in 1876, but we still get the holiday.

Around 4 pm the house began shaking – slowly at first and then quite violently. We get a lot of small quakes. This wasn’t one of them. In fact, it seemed up there with last year’s big quakes.

The science behind it is fascinating. New Zealand has an automated seismic network that publishes estimated figures to the internet in near-real time. The first official figures – calculated by the duty seismologist – were available within fifteen minutes, with a final refined value just over an hour afterwards. This quake, at magnitude 6.2 and with an epicentre near Eketahuna in the Wairarapa, was classified ‘severe’. It was 33 km deep – felt widely, but not so destructive as the shallow quakes that hit Christchurch in 2010-11 and Wellington in 2013. It occurred in the Pacific plate subduction zone, where the plate is being driven down by the Indo-Australian plate riding up over it. It’s no coincidence that this is right under New Zealand – the islands are a product of that collision.

Gollum in Wellington airport passenger terminal - a marvellous example of the model-maker's art.

I don’t have a photo of the Wellington airport eagles, but this is Gollum – taken last year – near the model that fell into the foodcourt. Click to enlarge.

Where I live the ‘felt intensity’ was at the high end of V on the Modified Mercalli scale. Damage around Wellington included the Weta workshop model of a Hobbit eagle  in the airport terminal, which crashed into the food-court. It was worse across the lower North Island in centres like Palmerston North. Fortunately nobody was killed or hurt.

Quakes have been on the rise in New Zealand lately. Archaeological work reveals that quakes cluster in decades-long patterns. The late twentieth century was one of the calmer periods. And now it looks as if we’re back in the action again. Christchurch, alas, may have simply been the beginning. Are they linked? Possibly. Certainly a quake in one area can increase stresses in a fault nearby that’s already under tension. But there also seems to be a general process of rising and falling activity.

The Christ Church Cathedral - icon of a city for nearly 150 years and the raison d;'etre for its founding in 1850. Now a ruin, due to be demolished.

The Christ Church Cathedral, Christchurch – photo I took in early 2013. Click to enlarge.

Best case is it will settle down. Worst case – well, there is a disturbing precedent from the fifteenth century, where a succession of massive quakes estimated at magnitude 8+ tore along the length of the country over just a few decades. One of them, circa 1460, struck just south of Wellington and filled in one of the two harbour entrances, the Te Awa-a-tia channel. Motukairangi island – modern Miramar – became a peninsula and the water within its hills swampy terrain. Peter Jackson’s studio is built on the uplifted land.

It's all in an ordinary industrial-style street.

Warehouses opposite Peter Jackson’s Park Road headquarters, Miramar – under water until 1460. Click to enlarge.

Maori named the quake Haowhenua (‘the land destroyer’). The evidence is still visible as the flat land of Miramar and the Wellington airport flats – and as beach lines at Turakirae Head. The name seemed a puzzle – a ‘land destroyer’ that produced uplift? Then archaeologists discovered evidence of 10-metre tsunamis at the same time.

The question is not ‘if’ this will happen again – but ‘when’. New Zealand has many fault lines – the largest is the Alpine Fault, which moves about every 300 years and generates quakes of magnitude 8+. We are due for one, statistically, within 50 years. Recent studies point to the existence of other large faults each side of the South Island. They are still being researched. Scary? No.  We have to accept the reality as it unfolds – and be prepared.

Do you live in an earthquake zone? If not, what natural disasters do you face?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and humor. But hopefully not more quakes. For a while, anyway.

The top strange battleships of the world. Strange? I mean British.

Yesterday I listed the top five Google strings that found my blog. Not on that list was a string that found me a while back – ‘strange battleship designs’. Odd. I didn’t have any listed.

Hey – challenge! Although I can’t help thinking about the foolishness of nineteenth and early twentieth century thinking that uplifted these engines of destruction into symbols of national prestige – tributes to the pride and folly of humanity. But the geek in me has to admire the technology. And some of those designs were really, really strange. The British led the way…

HMS Victoria. Her bows are to the left. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Victoria, looking for all the world like a carpet slipper. Her bows are to the left. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

1. HMS Victoria (1890)

Built to a financially imposed limit of 10,600 tons, Victoria was expected to carry 16-inch guns. The result was this bizarre carpet slipper, mounting just two monster guns in a turret forwards. There was talk of her using these symbols of Britain’s national inadequacy complex to blast through the Dardanelles should war break out with Russia. However, in 1893, off Tripoli, she was rammed and sunk by HMS Camperdown, after a botched manoeuvre always blamed on Rear-Admiral Sir George Tryon.

2. HMS Glorious (1917)

HMS Glorious, 1917. Bizarre light cruiser with battleships guns. Public domain.

HMS Glorious, 1917. Bizarre light cruiser with battleship guns. Public domain.

There was no arguing with the volcanic and charismatic Admiral Sir John Arbuthnot Fisher – inventor of ‘OMG‘ - who returned in triumph to the Admiralty in 1914 as First Sea Lord and was able to get five battlecruisers authorised, despite a Cabinet edict against new capital ships. Every one was iconoclastic – including Glorious and her sister Courageous, over-blown light cruisers with a stupid armament of four 15-inch guns.  They weren’t good for anything – the sailors called them the Outrageous class – and the Admiralty lost no time converting them to aircraft carriers. Their gun mountings were re-used, a quarter-century later, on Britain’s last battleship, HMS Rearguard Vanguard.

3. HMS Rodney (1927)
A cherry tree of a battleship. Why? Because she was “cut down” by Washington.

HMS Rodney after refitting at Liverpool, 1942. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

HMS Rodney after refitting at Liverpool, 1942. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In 1920, the world seemed about to plunge into a new naval race, led by Japan and the United States. The British were the only nation with combat experience, and applied the lessons to designs that outstripped anything in US or Japanese yards. These 48,500 ton ‘G3′ battlecruisers – more heavily armoured than battleships of the day – were ordered in 1921.

All this came as the world emerged from the most devastating war in history, prompting the US to call other powers into a naval treaty, hammered out in Washington, limiting warship size and number. Most of the new ships were cancelled, but Britain was allowed to build two ships to 35,000 ton Treaty limits. Hence Rodney and her sister ship Nelson, sometimes dubbed the ‘Cherry Tree’ class because they had been ‘cut down’ by the Washington Treaty. The bluejackets – cruelly – called them Rodnol and Nelsol, after fleet oil tankers.

Despite being ‘cut down’ they were still the most powerful battleships in the world until late 1941, when Japan commissioned the Yamato.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: Regular writing posts resume tomorrow, more geekery (with custard), humour and other stuff. Watch this space.

Five reasons why blank paper’s a writing inspiration

Ever been caught when that ‘good idea’ floats in – and vanishes just as quickly, before you can get back to your computer? Just as you’re writing to a deadline or trying to make up your NaNoWriMo quota?

History offers us a few ways out of it. Back in the nineteenth century a good number of New Zealand settlers carried watercolours, paper and brushes with them – the same way most of us carry a camera (phone) today.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medTheir quick-sketch records are a wonderful snapshot of how they saw their world. Others carried notebooks – among them land buyer Donald McLean who wrote moment-by-moment events as he watched them happen. Like this moment when he watched Maori haul a canoe up the raging Manawatu river:

“…A strong tug and a long tug. Poor fellows – just touch and go and she will do it. No! Yes, she will! There comes the help – now! One strong pull and and one long pull! No – not yet! …Into the water, lads! Over she goes, some of the helpers struggling to gain the shore among the heavy boulders and rocks“.

Today it’s too easy. You can dictate into your phone, take a photo, even type notes (slowly). Yet I can’t help thinking that we’ve lost something. Specifically, the way that writing with pen and ink forces us to translate reality through the filter of mind. There is a value to that. And it does so in ways that electronic gadgets don’t.

A few hand-written notes can be incredibly valuable, quite apart from capturing ideas then and there. Because:

1. Writing ideas down with a pen frames your thoughts in ways that differ from a keyboard.
2. You can literally draw connections between ideas.
3. Ideas can float in, from left field, in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.
4. Paper works during power cuts and doesn’t need charging.
5. Paper’s recyclable and renewable…unlike plastic and electronic parts.

My top tip today? When you go out next, take a notebook with you. One made of paper…

Or do you already? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Write it now, more National November Writing Month tips, writing prompts and more. Watch this space.

Congratulations to Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton

New Zealand is on top of the world this month. Auckland singer Ella Maria Lani Yelich-O’Connor, aged just 16 and better known as Lorde, knocked Miley Cyrus off the US charts and just went to No. 1 in the UK. And, more substantially for us writers, Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries.

It’s the second time a Kiwi has won the coveted Booker. Catton’s win – coming after Lloyd Jones’ nomination and Keri Hulme’s similar win – also underscores just how much writing talent there is in New Zealand. I haven’t read Catton’s book yet, but I understand it flouts the usual structure – successfully – and that is SO hard to do well.

Board marking Catton's win in Unity Books, Wellington. Catton's book is in the window to the right (mine is in the window further along...heeey...)

Board marking Catton’s win in Unity Books, Wellington. Catton’s book is in the window to the right (my NZ history is in the window further along…. Click to enlarge.

It’s set in New Zealand’s colonial gold rush, which is also bold. Those stories are topic de jour in New Zealand at the moment. I discovered this a while back when I chatting about books I might write with a commissioning editor at Random House. I mentioned novels. ‘You could write one on the gold rush,’ she explained. ‘They sell well’. Alas, I was flat out of story ideas. I’d also written non-fiction about the period a couple of times and knew what I’d have to research for a novel, which demands a different style of data.

More to the point, as soon as a topic’s in vogue, it’s too late to leap on the band wagon. Especially in New Zealand, where just four percent of local books published are novels. (The book that actually emerged from that meeting was my non-fiction Big Ideas, which sat on the local best-seller lists for some months in 2009 and has only just gone out of print.)

So, to me, writing a novel – of epic length – on the goldfields, and catapulting it to the top of the literary world, is awesome.

All power to Catton’s writing arm – and I’m sure she has a great future ahead of her.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up this week: More NaNo writing tips and ways to get those 50,000 words and ‘Write It Now’ – an ongoing exploration of all things writing.