Anticipating the next trend in book cover styles

I recently dug out some of the military histories I wrote in the late 1990s-early 2000s, largely because Intruder Books are reissuing some of them and I wanted to check out the old cover designs. Not to use those covers again – the license isn’t available – but to remind myself how they looked, way back when, and just how far styles have changed.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.

I commissioned the base artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF, which Reed NZ’s designer used as the basis for this cover. I still have the original painting.

A lot of that change, I think, flows from the way new technology provokes new styles. Actually, that was happening even before software oozed into the process.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 200 px

Same book – 2015 cover. Click to buy. Go on, you know you want to…

Way back, sci-fi book covers were bright yellow and plain, in which case they were published by Victor Gollancz. Or they were traditional for the day – a cover painting (sometimes full colour), usually by Ed Emshwiller, with often hand-lettered title at the top and the author’s name at the bottom. Just like every other book on the planet, except that the sci-fi featured a spaceship or googly monster or something.

Then, around the turn of the 1970s, a young British artist named Chris Foss cut loose with an airbrush and a new concept – multi-faceted, amazingly detailed fantasy spaceships floating on abstract clouds. And he set a trend. As in: Bam! A Trend! Three milliseconds after Foss’s artwork adorned the Panther editions of Asimov’s Foundation ‘trilogy’ (it was in the 1970s), every sci-fi book cover on the planet suddenly featured fantastic, multi-faceted, hugely detailed spaceships floating against billowing backgrounds.

This book of mine was pretty hard to structure - took a lot of re-working via the 'shuffle the pages' technique - to get a lot of social linear concepts into a single readable thread.

Superb, superb design

For me, the best cover ever designed for any of my books remains the one Penguin commissioned from an Auckland designer for Guns and Utu. Just awesome. (Want a copy? Email me.)

Today’s covers are all Photoshop layer blend and SFX effects, which I can usually spot from about half the distance of Jupiter (I began working professionally with Photoshop in 1988…) Every cover on Amazon has a sameness which I just know has been done with Photoshop layer blends in various flavours. Sigh…

I’m determined this over-use of glow won’t happen for the New Zealand Military series I wrote from 1997 to 2009, half a dozen titles of which are due to be re-released by Intruder Books over the next two years. Layer clipping paths? Sure. But not glow. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the next release is coming up in time for ANZAC day. Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18. A tenth anniversary reissue, in fact. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

History you can touch – now available in North America

New Zealand has a short history by world standards – the first humans to even reach these shores did not arrive until around 1280. But it is unquestionably an interesting past – particularly once we get into the so-called ‘historical’ period after 1840, when British and Maori came into collision.

St Alban's Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington - site of a major pa in 1845.

St Alban’s Church at Pauahatanui, near Wellington – site of a major pa in 1845.

Open warfare flared between 1845 and the early 1870s, from Northland to the northern South Island. That is virtually yesterday by historical standards, and that makes those events a history we can touch. The more so because many of those events were not in remote bush locations – but in places we can see and touch. The Battle of Boulcott Farm, for instance, was in the middle of what is today suburban Lower Hutt. The bush pa of Titokowaru, Te Ngutu o te Manu, became the Hawera District Council camping ground. Really! The Battle of St John’s Wood, in Whanganui, became a supermarket. Gate Pa is, these days, a Tauranga bowling club lawn. Te Rangihaeata’s pa at Pauatahanui became a churchyard. And so it goes on.

The cover of my next book.

The cover – click to go to Amazon

It is a salutary reminder of the way history gets forgotten that these places – used daily by ordinary Kiwis – have such a dramatic past. And that’s why I made a point, in my latest book on the New Zealand Wars, of highlighting some of the easier places to get to. We should. History comes alive if we can visit the terrain – and history this recent should not be forgotten.

The New Zealand Wars – a brief history is my third book on the subject. And it’s been released this week, in print, for the North American market. Which I think is pretty cool.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Waitangi Day: the story behind the Treaty

It’s Waitangi Day here in New Zealand – the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty that established a Crown Colony in these islands. These days it’s a public holiday.

Possibly the closest equivalent in the US is Independence Day, though the New Zealand version isn’t quite the same. Our day is usually divisive, and the normal outcome is a succession of public spats in a couple of key places around the country – including Waitangi itself – while just about everybody else ignores it and has a day off. To me that isn’t really how it should be, but it’s hard to see what can be done to change it – such matters are generational.

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 of the Treaty being signed. Note William Hobson (left centre) in his blue morning coat and hat. Department of Maori Affairs. Artist unknown : Ref: A-114-038. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22701985

I’d like to think things might be less tense if people better understood the differing historical and present realities of the Treaty of Waitangi, so called because it was signed at Waitangi (Wailing Waters) just north of the Te Tii marae (formal meeting place) in the Bay of Islands. These are indicative of the way that the Treaty is a living document, not just a historical relic – something that underscores its importance and value to New Zealand. Legally and constitutionally, it remains a key founding document; and the idea of the Treaty – its social place and meaning – has been re-cast many times since it was signed, reflecting changing values, all of them valid to their own times. Some of the mid-nineteenth century ideas were backdrop to the career of the man whose hidden private life and character I explored in my latest book Man Of Secrets – The Private Life of Donald McLean (Penguin Random House 2015). Donald McLean,  coincidentally, arrived in the Bay of Islands just as the Treaty was being signed – little realising that he had a career ahead of him as a major Crown land buyer and Native Minister whose job it was to live by its values. Sort of, anyway. (Click on the cover in the sidebar to the right to check it out).

Those ideas, in turn, were very different from the way it was seen in the late nineteenth century, or the twentieth, or today. Needless to say, all of the ways the Treaty has been seen are a far cry from the gimcrack way the Treaty was actually set up in 1840.

Gimcrack? Sure. In 1839-40, when it was mooted and then signed, the British weren’t very interested in setting up a colony in New Zealand. Theirs was a trading Empire, and although there was a supply centre developing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand lay far off the main trading routes. To a penurious Treasury, it seemed to offer only cost and very little benefit.

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 on the grass to the right of the flagpole, about where the flagpole was in 1840.

But pressure was growing to do something. The place had become a haven for white criminals – escaped convicts from Australia among them – and there had been some nasty incidents, including the Elizabeth affair, when a British sea captain apparently chartered his ship to Maori so they could conduct a war expedition that ended in heavy bloodshed and, allegedly, cannibal feasting on board the British vessel. Nobody objected to what Maori had done; it was accepted that they were at war and the conduct of the war party was precisely correct according to their own values. The problem was the intimate involvement of a British sea captain; not only had he profited from it, but apparently his crew had gotten rather too enthusiastically involved – and by British law, those actions rendered him a pirate.

A photo I took in 2011 of the 'Treaty House' at Waitangi - the home of British Resident, James Busby from 1833. Now restored as a museum. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

A photo I took of the ‘Treaty House’ at Waitangi – home of British Resident James Busby from 1833. The Treaty was finalised in the room behind the window on the right, which is laid out today as it was on 5 February 1840.

In this context the Treaty was an expedient – a cheap way of applying British law to a country that, it seemed, was going to be drawn into the British sphere whether the Treasury and Colonial Office in London wanted it or not.

The moment came in a brief window of time when a war-weary Britain was exploring a more liberal and humanist approach to the world. The Anglican-based Church Missionary Society led the charge, arguing that British civilisation would unerringly destroy any indigenous peoples it encountered. The Colonial Office was effectively a hot-bed of ex-CMS officials; and the Treasury – which reflected similar thinking – was insistent that a New Zealand colony could only be set up with the full consent of Maori, by Treaty.

That was why the Treaty was ordered. It was done in haste by officials such as William Hobson, who were not familiar with New Zealand – he was, in fact, a naval commander – and it was drafted in circumstances where neither he nor his local advisors were sure whether it should apply to the whole of the New Zealand archipelago or just the part around the Bay of Islands. Even the way it was signed was ad-hoc. It was put to local rangitira (chiefs) on 5 February 1840; they did not agree during korero (discussion) that day, so Hobson arranged for a further meeting on 7 February. But next morning, 6 February, chiefs arrived to sign it. Hobson decided to take up the offer and rushed to arrange it, clad informally in a morning coat rather than his official naval uniform. Later, when the Treaty was taken around New Zealand, the only people the British actively sought to sign it were rangitira who had signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, which the Treaty of Waitangi superseded – its whole first clause, in fact, was given over to that purpose.

The Treaty remains the only example of its kind in the world – and it’s fitting that it has become a blueprint in New Zealand for race relations since. But that’s a far cry from its gimcrack origins, a fact that underscores just how times change, and how interesting a foreign land history really is.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Should we be dispassionate about writing – like Spock?

The other week I argued that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara was a poorly written Tolkien rip-off that put me off the rest of the novels. Responses fell into two camps – people who agreed and thought the whole Shannara series was dismal; and those who were offended.

Wright_Typewriter2Fair point. People don’t have to agree – indeed, differing opinions are great, because they push discussion. And maybe something nobody thought of will come out of it. That’s what counts. Good stuff.

But what intrigued me about the discussion was the level of emotion it provoked in one or two places. A couple of of the responses were – well, a bit personal. Surely it’s possible to chat about the abstract value or otherwise of books? And then I got thinking. In some ways it isn’t, because the purpose of both reading and writing is emotional.

Authors write because they get an emotional satisfaction from doing so. Readers read because of the emotional journey it produces. By describing the opinion I and apparently others have of Brooks, I’d affirmed one sort of opinion. But I’d also trodden on the toes of others, who got a positive charge from reading his material.

The question, then, is whether writers and readers should step back from the emotion? In some ways I don’t think it’s possible for reading, because the very purpose of reading is to have an emotional experience. People read to become entangled in the emotional journey – be it to learn something, to feel validated, to find place, or simply to be distracted. However, I think it’s essential for writers to step back.

Yes, authors write because they get their own emotional satisfaction from doing so – from producing material that meets a need of their own and which will take others on an emotional journey. But at the same time, the clarity of thought that this process requires demands abstraction. How often have you written something in the heat of a moment and then, later, read through it and realised it’s foolish?

Authors have to be able to not only include the intended emotion, but also to step back from their own entanglements from time to time – to look at what they are producing from a more abstract perspective. Only then can the content and intent become properly clear – and the emotional journey on which they are going to take the reader emerge in balance. Really, we all have to approach writing like Spock would.

Seething with emotion underneath – sure – but not letting that get in the way of careful thought and analysis. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Do societies re-package their narratives of recent events? And is that ‘history’?

The other day a reader commented on a post I’d written about 9/11 as history and pointed out, quite rightly, that it doesn’t take long for events to be ‘packaged’ in ways that stand against the more dispassionate requirement of historians to understand.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.

The cover of ‘Shattered Glory’. Out of print (sigh…)

I agree. There’s no doubt in my mind that dramatic events affecting whole societies are swiftly re-invented by those who live through them. Not least because of emotional entanglement with what’s just happened. This is normal, historically. I traced just such a re-invention of New Zealand’s 1915 Gallipoli defeat in my book Shattered Glory (Penguin 2010). By April 1916, just five months after the stalled campaign ended in an ignominious retreat, it had been re-cast as a glorious victory, because it was a sacrifice for Empire. This reflected prevailing pop-sentiment of the day towards our place in a wider British Empire and helped address grief at the death toll, which was colossal for a country of just under 1 million souls. But the conception of Gallipoli as triumph was the exact opposite of the military defeat and human truth; a demonstration of the way societies, en masse, rationalise events to suit immediate emotional needs. And it had an impact on our view of history because, in a demonstration of the stickiness of re-invention, that view is largely what guides the popular conception of New Zealand’s Gallipoli experience today, nearly a century on.

So can we analyse recent events ‘historically’, in the same sense that we can analyse something that happened a century or two ago? History-as-discipline is one of the intellectual pursuits that self-examines its analytical philosophy. Hobsbawm, for instance, didn’t divide history via round-number centuries but by events, typically, political and social (‘social’, inevitably, encompasses ‘economic’, which despite the ‘hardening’ of economics with a mathematical over-gloss since the late 1940s, is at heart about society).

To Hobsbawm, the nineteenth century was ‘long’, book-ended by the French revolution of 1789 and the First World War of 1914. Whereas the twentieth century was ‘short’, framed by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and the end of the Cold War in 1992.

Those arguments were possible because Hobsbawm stood at the end of the cycles; they were evident to him and he had a distance to perceive what had happened in fully historical terms, certainly as far as the ‘long’ nineteenth century was concerned. But what about things that have just happened? Things we popularly call ‘historic’ but which still burn fresh in memory and haven’t achieved the more sonorous quiet of a deeper past?

To me there are several issues. The first is the problem of context. Sometimes, the deeper over-arching forces that drive the widest patterns of history – combinations of long-standing technological, social, political, ideological and, it seems, environmental factors – aren’t obvious for decades afterwards. We can’t tell precisely what a particular development may mean until it’s put into place not only of what went before, but also of what went after – and, usually, some time after. Last week’s, last year’s or even last decade’s news won’t cut it in these terms.

The second issue is the related one of emotional perspective. It takes about 25-30 years, or more, for one generation’s problem to be resolved and replaced by another; and also for the people primarily involved in it to be far enough back to be treated with the (ideally) abstract dispassion of history.  It is only now, for instance, that we are seeing treatment of Winston Churchill that moves beyond the pro- and anti- partisanship of his life and immediate decades after his death.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai.

Me, on the Bridge over the River Kwai, a place that brings the human condition into sharp relief. Something happened to me five minutes after this photo was taken that gives the lie to notions of ‘rational egoism’. Ask me in the comments.

Thirdly there’s the ‘recency’ phenomenon, in which we tend to view events just gone as larger than those further back, to the cost of proportion. This also fuels a tendency to view whatever just happened as the arbiter of the future. Take the Cold War, which – via Hobsbawm’s thesis – was a temporary product of the way the old world collapsed in 1914-19. But you wouldn’t have known that living in the middle of it. And when it did finish with the predictable collapse of the Communist economy, Francis Fukuyama insisted that history had ended – that Western capitalist ideology, as he defined it, had won, and there would be no further change. Ouch. This was ‘recency’ in full display.

The reality of abstract historical analysis, of course, is that it has nothing to do with ‘direction’ or ‘progress’ towards an inevitable or ideal one-dimensional ‘end’ such as I believe was implied by Fukuyama. Indeed, by definition, history cannot end. It’s a product of human change through time; and the onus is on historians to understand that deeper human condition, the ‘unity in diversity’ beloved of social anthropology, as a pre-requisite to being able to understand how that then expresses itself in ever-smaller scales of detail when framed by a specific society.

I’ve found through my own work in the field that practical detail changes affecting a specific society usually happen generationally – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes with sharper impact as happened in the 1960s when the generation brought up in wake of the Second World War objected to the philosophy of their parents.

And so we have the tools with which to approach the issue of ‘recent’ history. The pitfalls of those tools may not be fully overcome – indeed, logically, they cannot be; but to know they are there and to understand how these limitations work is, I think, a very great step towards being able to couch recent events in more dispassionate light.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

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Piling on the coals with the radical reds, 1890s style

One of the themes I wove into my book on New Zealand coal mining involved its radical work force. Coal miners – mostly imported from Britain – were viewed as a breed apart in colonial-age New Zealand. Not least because they brought their radical ‘union’ thinking with them, wrapped up in evangelistic Methodism.

The problem wasn’t the Methodism – it was the radicalism. And that image remained, growing by the 1880s into a pro-unionist movement urging workers’ rights, particularly improved conditions on the coal-fields. That fell over with the Maritime Strike of 1890, which broke the early power of the unions. But it re-emerged, this time in context of international workers’ rights movements.

The turn of the twentieth century – ostensibly – brought New Zealand’s years of ‘red’ agitation. The coal miners and their allies in the maritime unions were, apparently, going to overthrow New Zealand’s capitalist system in a violent communist revolution. Apparently.

The fact that just 4000 coal miners were thought capable of this gives perspective to the hysteria.

The reality? I checked it out. The centre of the ‘red’ movement was in the union hall at Runanga, where miners regularly met to discuss their movement’s agenda and aims. They called each other ‘comrade’ and on the face of it this looked like the very hot-bed of revolution that authorities feared. Except….e-e-e-e-xcept that their discussions had very little to do with revolt and quite a lot to do with making arrangements to buy and distribute classic literature to members. The hall itself was sponsored by local businesses, whose advertisements – those quintessential expressions of capitalist enterprise – flanked a placard urging the workers of the world to unite.

Michael Joseph Savage

Michael Joseph Savage

There was the usual range of opinion among them, of course. Some were quite dramatically radical. But most were not. What the bulk of these – er – ‘radicals’ – wanted, in fact, wasn’t the overthrow of the system that fed them – they wanted a better deal for themselves. And while there were ambitions to enter government, that was always going to be done through the existing system – by political party, through democratic election.

They did it, too, in the end – though it took until the fourth decade of the twentieth century for the miners’ party, Labour, to become government.

Conservative elements feared the worst, but these former coal-mining unionists-turned-politicians proved remarkably conservative when they entered power in late 1935. Their main focus was on getting New Zealand back on its feet again – and making sure that people who were beset by poverty not of their own making would never again suffer hunger, homelessness or be unable to get medical help. The Prime Minister, former mining unionist Michael Joseph Savage, called the approach ‘applied Christianity’. And it was.

That was New Zealand under the coal miners.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Collisions of coal: an author’s perspective

My biography of coal in New Zealand was published this month by David Bateman Ltd. It’s a book taking as its subject a ‘thing’, but in reality telling the human side of that ‘thing’ in all its dimensionality.

Coal 200 pxReview comments so far have been excellent – ‘this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark‘ and ‘a fascinating read…such a good way of understanding NZ history‘ among them.

It was certainly fascinating to write. I’ve been trunking on in this blog about ways and techniques of writing – well, this book represents one way I put those things into practise.

All writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – must have structure, a theme, a dynamic around which to take the reader on an emotional journey. In fiction, that’s the character arc. In non-fiction, the author has to find something else; and for me the obvious angle was the intersection between humanity and this unique – almost chance – product of nature. That gave me the organising principle for the book, the thread around which I could weave the story. To do that I had to draw together a whole lot of thinking in areas that – on the face of it – seem quite disparate, but which in reality are all expressions of the one thing, our relationship with the world and with ourselves.

It was a story of collisions. You can’t tell the story of coal without delving into how it came to be, product of peat swamps and geological processes that, in New Zealand’s case, stretch over sixty million years. To give that context I decided to set it against the span of human existence – which, at best, is a tiny fraction of that time. The time during which we have dug up and burned that coal is shorter still, a tiny eye-blink against the span of years during which our coal resources formed.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

The question follows – why have we been so profligate in our burning? The answer, also explored in the book, flows from our nature and the way we think. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, when New Zealand’s coal was first exploited on an industrial scale, was an age of a particular style of thinking. It was common across the industrialising world but particularly evident on the whole colonial frontier from the United States to Australia and South Africa – and one of the key drivers of the impecunious pace with which we dug up and burned the coal.

That same thinking also introduced another side of the human story of coal – our attitudes to it; the way we relied on it and yet also saw those who dug it as a social threat; and the way we relentlessly found news ways of exploiting it.

One theme became increasingly clear throughout. We have been digging and burning coal, not just in New Zealand but around the world, with ever-increasing pace in the last 250 years. The fact that coal is no longer burned in domestic homes has disguised the fact that in the last few dozen years particularly, that pace has skyrocketed.

Today, coal combustion produces 43 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half. And the jury is back on climate change. It’s happening – and it’s an own goal. Big time. Making coal the chief villain.

That was why I ended the book the way I did. With – a well, you’ll just have to check it out for yourselves.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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