Are you a self-confident writer? The novel certainly wasn’t a safe debut in terms of the risks it took. Were you relieved when you got first the reviewers’ and readers’ reception and then does an award like this shore you up further, or are you a writer who doesn’t really care about that because you’re confident in yourself? The thing was, I thought I had this good idea for a novel and I thought it had legs, and it seemed like if it could have been written properly it would have been the kind of thing that appealed to me, and so I was just writing it for that, really. I had a good friend of mine who was reading the drafts and so on and giving me good feedback. Once it was finished, we showed it to a couple of my colleagues in the English programme here [at Victoria University of Wellington] and they approved of it and enjoyed it. And then Penguin liked it as well. So the circles started getting wider and wider and wider and further and further away from me. Initially, it was just something for me and then to show to one or two people whose opinions I trust and admire. After that, it’s taken on a life of its own, I suppose. It’s tremendous getting an award like this but I wouldn’t have picked this [to happen]. It might be categorised as a difficult novel.
What came first, the chicken or the egg: the poem or Te Rauparaha? What was the first thing you wanted to write and then how did they come together? It was actually my friend Kirsten Reid, who was the person I just mentioned as being the first reader. She had this natural interest in it because she was the first person who said to me years and years ago, “Do you know this poem Wulf and Eadwacer?”, and I didn’t. She showed me the Bill Manhire version of it. With the very offhand comment that she reckoned it would be interesting subject matter for a novel one day. It would have been years later – I don’t know where ideas come from – but I just had this idea that there was something about the mystery and the enigma at the heart of the poem that somehow spoke to the enigma when we regard 19th-century history, and just these faint evocations of Te Rauparaha’s history being sort of resonant somehow in the poem, and that was the first idea, really.
Was the novel always going to be from the perspective of the English sailors or the English? I had the idea about seven months before I started writing it and I didn’t know the way into the novel until I just heard this voice, and those first couple of pages, they just felt like I was just listening in to a voice that was saying those things. I dived into the deep end. When I started writing it, I didn’t know whose perspective I was writing it from, it was just I had this very compelling voice, I thought, and so I just followed it. I was some chapters through before I realised exactly what aspect of Te Rauparaha’s history it was going to be and all the characters slowly revealed themselves to me. I wanted to preserve that in the actual structure of the novel, so it does have that very amorphous opening.
The full interview at The Listener.