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Really Great Expectations

Lloyd Jones is likely to be our most successful and widely read author - all because of his next book, Mister Pip, which has been getting "rapturous and gobsmacked" responses from international editors.

Lloyd Jones lives at the top of a converted shoe factory in central Wellington. He likes the ancient, rust-coloured industrial lift that rattles between floors. He's disappointed that someone has smashed a plate-glass window downstairs. He lives alone, moving here from a full house in Eastbourne a few years ago, and his writing room, on the mezzanine floor, has a desk and a laptop and a couch buried under a pile of bills and paperwork. Bookshelves made of planks from the old Millard Stand at Athletic Park display titles by Chatwin and Bowles and Sebald. If he owns any rugby biographies, he has hidden them away. ö When he writes up here, he has his back to the view. Fair enough: there isn't much to see in Wellington in July. But you can still hear the wind throwing itself against the windows. This morning there have been wild rumours of snow. Even Jones, a diehard Wellingtonian who was born in the Hutt Valley and has lived around here all his life, is feeling tried by this brutal, miserable weather.

Shaven-headed, fit-looking, serious: conventional wisdom would tell you that Jones doesn't look like a writer. But he may soon be our most successful and widely read writer. And that's because of his next novel, Mister Pip. Earlier this year, Jones submitted the manuscript to his publisher, Penguin, as per usual. Penguin publishing director Geoff Walker "absolutely loved" the book and wanted to find someone to represent it overseas. He came to an arrangement with Text Publishing in Melbourne in which Text bought world rights and Penguin kept New Zealand rights (plus, with Jones, film rights). Text publisher Michael Heyward then on-sold the novel to other international territories: the UK, the US, Canada, Brazil, Israel, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands. There's a Swedish offer on the table and more should follow after Heyward takes Mister Pip to the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.

The biggest deal is the American one with Dial Press for $US265,000. In the UK, John Murray paid £51,000. In Brazil, Rocco paid $US17,500, understood to be the largest advance for an English language novel there. Is it fair to say that, by the end of it all, this will be a million-dollar book? "We expect overall rights sales for the book to reach $NZ1 million by the end of this year," says Walker. "That's possible," says Heyward. "It's fair to say that the advances that have been paid in most territories suggest very strongly that the publishers are going to publish this book with flair and passion and expect it to do very well."

How can we measure this? Heyward says that Mister Pip is easily in the top five of Text's international sales. In terms of New Zealand literature's profile, it's a case of standing on the shoulders of giants: this is a whole other level above what happened to the bone people, Once Were Warriors or The Vintner's Luck. But more impressive for Jones than any talk about money or profile is the feedback from international editors. Heyward tells him about every one of the "rapturous and gobsmacked" responses, the fan letters, the urgent replies, the confessions of staying up all night to finish this gripping new book. This is the part of the story that really makes Jones happy.

This success story has its origins in illness and misery. Illness first: when Jones was a boy and sick in bed, a salesman came door to door hawking books. So his mother bought Great Expectations and The Old Curiosity Shop. "That was the first book I ever read by Dickens, Great Expectations." As the title might have let slip, Great Expectations features prominently in Mister Pip.

And misery? The novel is set during Papua New Guinea's blockade of Bougainville during the 1990s, an oppressive response to an independence movement. "It's about Mr Watts, the last white man living in Bougainville at the time of the blockade," Jones says. "He's been a peripheral character. He's married a local, but he's on the fringes of the community. After the blockade is imposed, the teachers, doctors, everybody leaves the island. Everybody's left to fend for themselves. Suddenly they need a schoolteacher, so he is sequestered to come in and teach. And he's got one book at his disposal: Great Expectations.

"Then the book goes missing, so he sets the kids the task of remembering it and they remember it imperfectly - of course - and one of the ideas in the book is to do with colonial culture or Pacific culture as an exercise in remembering something imperfectly. I don't mean the islands so much, but New Zealand and Australia." In fact, an earlier draft of the novel was called Inventing the Pacific.

"It's also about the imagination as a survival tool. How this man enriches the lives of these kids. He's a bit of a mystery figure. As far as he's concerned, he has no history. And really it's about those years when Bougainville was cut off from the world. It was Lord of the Flies stuff. Those villages were at the mercy of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force and the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the rebels, the 'Rambos'. It was a very difficult time in difficult terrain. It's like the Tararuas except in the tropics."

Was there a point during the writing at which Jones thought: I've cracked it, this is going to do well? "No. You don't ever permit yourself to think that. It's hard enough writing a book. It's not where your head's at. I toiled away for a number of years on this and didn't get it right until I realised I had exactly the right location." He was setting the story in New Zealand and it never felt right. Then it clicked: Bougainville. "Because I've been there three times - well, twice, and one other time I tried to get in - and as soon as I put it there, it just came alive like it was given to me. It was amazing. A good sign."

Jones's trips to Bougainville were reporting trips. He first tried to get there during the blockade itself. Given what he knows now, he's pleased he didn't make it: "It would have been incredibly dangerous." He flew into Port Moresby, then made his way to Lae on the east coast of New Guinea; from there, he hitched a ride on an old steamboat to Rabaul, near Bougainville. He slept on the deck. One night, he met a PNG Defence Force officer drinking beer in the wheelhouse. Unaware that Jones was a journalist, he told him all about Bougainville. "He was pleased to be talking to a New Zealander," Jones wrote. "He had trained with our SAS."

Jones was curious about rumoured atrocities on Bougainville. The captain was only too happy to confirm them. Rebel suspects, he said, were routinely thrown from helicopters over the sea or into deep jungle. Those were Iroquois helicopters leased from the Australians. "I can't write this down in front of him, but I'm suddenly pretending to have to go to the toilet a lot and writing these things down." In Rabaul, he heard torture stories from Australians who had worked in Bougainville. On the plane from Port Moresby back to Brisbane, he sat next to a young Bougainvillean woman who told stories of systematic rapes, this time by the rebels.

The scoop ran in Metro and the Sydney Morning Herald. Questions were asked in Australia's Parliament about why its helicopters were being used like this. But behind the blockade one of the world's secret, quiet, dirty little wars dragged on. Jones returned in the late 90s, after New Zealand had helped to broker the peace.

On the ground in Bougainville, Jones learnt about the reality of the blockade. "My original idea that a Lord of the Flies thing had unravelled there is true. The Red Cross did a report on as many incidents as they could find and it makes for grotesque reading. Fifteen to 20,000 people were killed over a 10-year period. You don't hear that, do you? As soon as PNG imposed that blockade, you had kids, babies dying. There were no malaria tablets."

As in Rwanda, you had people hacked into little pieces in a place routinely described as a Garden of Eden. "It is a Garden of Eden," Jones says. "It's the most beautiful place I have ever seen." The island is so fertile that locals call the jungle their "supermarket" and the machete they carry with them their "wallet". Even though Mister Pip is a work of fiction - there never was a Mr Watts - Jones's first-person observation brings the island to life. "It's not like I've made up South America."

The closest that Jones has been before to this new international interest was when Biografi sold to the UK, US and Germany in 1993. "But it was nothing like this. Nothing of the scale. Nothing of the eagerness of different countries to get their hands on it."

Biografi was the result of a six-week tour of Albania a year after Jones's first attempt to get into Bougainville. Albania had been behind its own cultural and economic blockade, imposed by Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha. Jones found a country stuck in a permanent 1972 - the last year that fashions from the outside world had beamed into Albania. Biografi ingeniously blended real travelogue with the quest for a fictional double for Hoxha.

"My interest in the same subject takes me to different places. My interest is identity, creating identity, false identities, which is what Biografi is about. I come from a family that has no history. Our history started here. I was always intensely aware that you can start things from scratch here. We didn't come into a made world. And the same with orphans [such as Pip in Great Expectations]. Orphans and migrants occupy the same ground. It's a great bloody gift, I reckon, that people aren't weighed down by the past or expectations or a groove that their family is in. But that freedom is scary as well."

Jones has mapped out some of his formative years in two essays. One, titled "1976" for the year he turned 21, appeared in Sport 21 in 1998. The other, "Notes Towards a First Novel", was a finalist in the 2002 Landfall essay competition. In both essays, you get a sense of someone drifting through their early twenties, easier to do in New Zealand in the 70s, and letting things happen to him: it's about tentativeness, indecision, being of no fixed career. Scary freedom.

Equally, Jones's much older brother, Sir Robert Jones, is a good example of families not being weighed down by the past: he started in a tiny state house in the Hutt. In "1976", there are funny and touching impressions of the older Jones boy coming home for dinner as he began to make it big and half-amusing, half-shocking his parents with stories of virtually shaking money out of trees. The idea, which must have seemed revolutionary, was of work as a pantomime.

"Did I write that? That's a good phrase." Did it feel like work was not to be taken seriously? "No, well, the world wasn't, really. I have a strong recollection of that. My father stolidly eating his meal. Mum was not encouraging Bob, not exactly approving, officially wearing a face of disapproval, and he'd be prancing up and down telling extraordinary stories. What had happened that day, how they had made money. I'd be lapping it up."

Jones's parents left school at 12 to begin their working lives. "I did know I wanted to work for myself. That was the big thing in my family. My brother encouraged me to go to university. He gave me $10 a week." Was that a lot of money? "It would fill a tank of your Morris Minor and get you a jug of beer." And how did he develop the patience to start writing fiction? "Patience? Desire. Huge desire."

And he was sure that there would be a point at which he would be good at this? "Yep. And there was no reason to think that at all. My first efforts were pretty lame.

"There are times when you're failing more often than you're succeeding. And you're banging your head against a brick wall. And you've got to keep banging your head until the brick wall gives. In order to find that Mr Watts character, I had to write hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words."

Is there a book of his that should have done better or been better received? "Biografi. I got something absolutely right, really right. And in Choo Woo, I got something right as well. It should have had a bigger stage, should have had more attention." And is there anything he would rewrite if he could? "Everything. You can always find something. Certainly my first two novels [Gilmore's Dairy and Splinter]. I don't even acknowledge them now. Things you did in your high chair, you know."

In July, Jones was in Sydney for 10 days working with Australian director Mark Joffe (Spotswood, The Man Who Sued God) on a screenplay adapted from his 2000 novel and Montana winner The Book of Fame. A loose and impressionistic - even poetic or Homeric - rendering of the 1905 tour to the UK by the early All Black team known as the Originals, The Book of Fame had plenty of New Zealand literary scribes penning lines about "intellectualism and sport seldom meeting" in this country (outside of the Millard bookcase, anyway).

But if sport's field of play is a theatre for questions of character and heroism, maybe it's worth putting a couple of sports questions to Jones. We've heard a lot about 1981 lately: where and on what side was he?

"I was in New York for the first half of that tour. The Waikato game: my in-laws are American, they know nothing about New Zealand. We're watching TV and suddenly New Zealand is on TV. And what do we see? People in oilskins screaming and police dragging protesters away. Over-the-top behaviour. None of it rang true. It was about something else.

"If I was going to take a stab, maybe it was frustration at rugby having too great a say. It was everything. It washed right through every part of life. As for us feeling that strongly about the plight of black people in South Africa, I don't believe that. There are people all around the world in diabolical situations and we don't chain ourselves to Parliament or go into hysteria. It was about us, I believe. Not about Africa. That's not a very popular view."

And the final of the soccer World Cup. The Zidane head-butt. Didn't he, in a sneaking kind of way, admire it? "Yes, I did, in a funny way. And usually I don't condone any kind of violence. But it was almost like he forgot where he was and what was at stake was actually greater than the moment. I was pissed off that Italy won. A bunch of thugs."

Anyway, The Book of Fame: the film, which Sam Neill is expected to appear in, will be titled The Originals and should shoot next year. To get the book's impressionism into film images and to play it outside New Zealand to audiences who don't care about what this rugby side meant to a little country forging itself at the other end of the world, the story has been reinvented. "There's lots that we take for granted as New Zealanders, a lot of unspoken stuff. Joffe requires it to be more explicit, which is good. It's like test-running this on an overseas audience."

Another question grows from that, and it brings us back to Mister Pip. Has this novel sold overseas because it - like Biografi or Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck - has scarcely a trace of New Zealand in it? Is there a kind of globalism that New Zealand writers should now aspire to? Heyward doesn't think so.

"You get an anxious reflex happening in smaller territories. It doesn't have to be Australia or New Zealand, it could be Denmark or another small European territory. Are they really interested? Are we really part of their worldview? Can a book from our part of the world speak to people on the other side of the world? My experience has always been that the answer is a resounding yes. If the quality is there."

That said, Heyward is all too aware of how New Zealand novels go largely unread in Australia. The only other New Zealand book on his publishing list is The Scarecrow. "We tend to be snobby about New Zealand books and New Zealanders tend to be snobby about Australian books." If New Zealanders are reading Peter Carey, it's because he lives in New York and has won the Booker. "The final arbiter of quality can't come from either of our countries. It's got to come from elsewhere." Actually, his initial reason for taking Mister Pip was to launch a New Zealand book strongly in Australia.

This is "probably" the biggest set of deals a New Zealand book has ever had, says Walker. He seems surer than Heyward that this success might have a flow-on effect that takes other New Zealand authors with it. Certainly, Jones's backlist should benefit (interestingly, the Jones book that Heyward really wants to read is Biografi). And certainly, despite being someone who can stand talking about his work but doesn't really like talking about himself, Jones is set to be a busy guy with a high profile. "The American publisher who has paid this amount of money is going to require personal appearances over there," Walker says.

So is Jones ready to meet these great expectations? "I know that one has a responsibility to the publisher to get out there and talk about the book ... But the publicity trail has never been something I've particularly enjoyed. Some enjoy it, some don't. I'm one of those who doesn't. The whole performance aspect is something I don't like. It's not that I'm not good at it, it's that I don't want to be good at it. It's not why I write. The writing is the performance."

MISTER PIP will be published in New Zealand at the end of September.

A forthcoming issue of the Listener will feature an exclusive extract from the book.