Hamish Clayton interview

by Guy Somerset / 30 May, 2012
A Q&A with the winner of this year's Best First Book Award for Fiction.


Hamish Clayton was announced today as winner of the New Zealand Post Book Awards’ Best First Book Award for Fiction for his debut novel, Wulf. Judges’ convenor Chris Bourke described the novel as “a work of bravura lyricism” and “a brilliant feat of imagining”. In it, Clayton echoes the enigmatic Anglo-Saxon poem Wulf and Eadwacer as he unravels the layers of storytelling that give rise to the historical “record” when English sailors aboard real-life 19th-century trading ship Elizabeth anchor off Kapiti Island and come into the orbit of Maori chief Te Rauparaha.

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.

You said the voice came almost naturally alone before you put it into a wider context. It’s a highly stylised voice. Almost at times like a prose poem. Did that voice just continue to come to you or was there a lot of moulding to be done with it? Not really. The first chapter came very quickly and it felt cohesive and it felt whole and it felt convincing to me, and once I had that on the page, and as the story came into focus for me, it was just a matter of trying to channel it through that voice I had. I had to shut myself up sometimes. You write something and think, “That’s crap, that’s not the character talking, that’s me just putting that in.” So there was editing and that kind of thing, but the voice itself always felt quite a strong thing.

For somebody like me who hasn’t actually read a lot of writing from that period, one might imagine people then were more prone to that poetic style of voice. Was it by immersing yourself in writing of the period you got the voice or is it really just you? I love Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf and I love Michael Ondaatje’s early stuff and Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame. Even Nigel Cox’s The Cowboy Dog. These novels that have a stylised voice and a cadence that makes up its own rules in a way. It wasn’t that I was going for a historically authentic voice. It seemed to feel authentic as I was writing it but I really don’t know. The mechanics of where it was coming from were possibly not something I was thinking about too much as I was writing it in case it stopped. But I’d say, yeah, Heaney’s Beowulf was probably the most obvious one I was modelling on.

I don’t know if you saw the interview with Lawrence Patchett we have in the magazine this week. His new book, I Got His Blood on Me: Frontier Tales, dovetails with yours in many ways in the sense we don’t really have any direct line to the past –  all we’ve got are stories refracted through further stories. That seems to be a big theme of Wulf. Wulf’s concerned with the postcolonial politics of place. We can’t ever really know the history as it was. We have to be aware of how it is contingent on the media and where the story’s come from. So I am interested in all that postmodern, I suppose, take on storytelling. But at the same time it struck me as being quite a powerful statement that comes out of that. These English sailors describe what they see in New Zealand through recourse to their own poems and myths and legends - it’s unreasonable to expect them not to translate what they see in front of them into their own stories. So that was the main point. About halfway through, that idea struck me, that that was what I was actually doing here.

Maori-speaking trade master Cowell’s rope knots seem a good symbol in that respect. The idea that everything gets knotted around each other and eventually it’s impossible to disentangle them. Cowell’s an interesting character historically. He sits beautifully at the edges of history. I like that, that he was another historical figure I couldn’t really get close to. You’ve got Te Rauparaha, whose obviously the character most firm in history, and he’s the one we have at arm’s length the whole way through; we don’t even know who the narrator is, he could be anyone; and in between we’ve got Cowell, who’s a historical figure but there’s not much about him. I like this idea that the more firm they are in the historical record the more shadowy they are in the text.

Given you use real historical figures, but in the light of what you’ve been saying about the unknowability of the past, to what extent did you just give free rein to your imagination and to what extent did you try to follow as many of the “facts” as we have in the history books? Because it was a story about telling stories and it’s the narrated experience of this strange country through the mediating lens of Cowell’s storytelling - and who knows where he’s got his stories from? - the way I used historical research and checking my facts and figures and all that sort of thing was just that not so much I wanted Cowell to have his facts right but I wanted it to be any story he told had to be plausible for a 19th-century sailor on a ship in New Zealand to be telling, even if its facts are completely wrong. So that’s where books like Robert McNabb’s histories and things like that, which are chockful of first-hand accounts, [come in]. They aren’t necessarily corroborated but they give you the idea of the kinds of story that were being told at the time. That was a structuring principle for me. There’s very little that’s actually made up in that any of the episodes of Te Rauparaha Cowell describes do have some kind of precedent in the storytelling of historical record. Whether or not they actually happened is another matter. But the fact is it’s conceivable somebody in Cowell’s position might have heard stories that were chiming with the chronicles he was relating.

How large did Te Rauparaha loom in your imagination before you came to the novel? Most New Zealanders obviously have some knowledge of him. To what extent did you know about him? Only a very passing knowledge. And quite contingent on the fact I’ve lived in Wellington for a while and we’ve got Kapiti just up the coast. I didn’t actually know much about the Elizabeth and the massacre at Akaroa and all that kind of stuff. It was quite interesting talking to Philip Matthews [of the Press newspaper] when the book came out and he said he didn’t know much about it either until he got down to Christchurch and saw it memorialised everywhere. Everyone knows Te Rauparaha wrote the All Blacks’ haka and about his famous crossing of the desert and all that kind of thing - we have those mythological stories. But beyond that I didn’t actually know all that much about him and that was the essential quality which first chimed for me, with this vague idea that this shadowy poem fits with these shadowy aspects of Te Rauparaha’s history.

Did you have many trips to Kapiti Island? I’ve never been to Kapiti. I tried to get across a little while ago and the weather packed up. So maybe I’m not allowed to go. One thing that was quite uncanny was I’d just got to the part where I was writing about the beach at Waikanae where the sailors are all camping. I hadn’t been there since I was very small and I didn’t really have any clear recollection of it. A friend of mine’s got a bach right on the beach there –  I turned up and had a walk along the beach and it was exactly as I’d written it. There were all sorts of those sorts of resonances going on all the way through. I felt like I was on the right track.

You’re very good at evoking the strangeness of the environment for the sailors. References to the black and green of the bush and so forth. Was it hard to estrange yourself from your familiarity with the environment and to look at it afresh with those kinds of eyes? I’m pleased you’ve said that, because that was something I was quite concerned with. Early on, it was my way into the storytelling aspect of it, to try to channel Cowell and channel the narrator to see things through their eyes. I suppose it comes back to the voice again. The voice was –  and I know this will probably sound hoky or something – like listening to a voice just telling the story at the start. I was just tapping into the words that were coming through. I like the outdoors and I like tramping and stuff like that. Even just walking around Wellington’s Botanic Gardens after dark, there are little gullies in there where you can imagine, “Oh yeah, this feels a little authentically 19th century.” The other thing I suppose I was unconsciously channelling was an ongoing interest I have in art history. That’s my other degree. So the 19th-century painters, Augustus Earle and stuff like that, the way Vincent Ward will channel those sorts of influences quite obviously in his movies, it’s a similar kind of thing. Partly, it was walking around at dusk in the Botanic Gardens just letting your imagination go a bit, but also it’s being conscious of the lenses that you’re using and that have been used. So yeah, there’s a fair bit of 19th-century painting that’s in there as well.

You don’t shy away from cannibalism in the book. No.

As Paul Moon might tell you, that can be a difficult area to get into. Has there been any response on that front? Surprisingly, there hasn’t and I was expecting there to be. I think maybe it comes back to what I said before about everything being focalised through stories being told at the time and being very careful to let the intelligent, engaged reader know we’re not actually there and the narrator isn’t there. We’ve got all these layers of mediation through the internal storytelling structures of the novel, which are echoing our storytelling structures we have through history. We’re never there. The narrator never goes to Akaroa and witnesses the massacre. He only hears about it. He doesn’t even meet Te Rauparaha. Te Rauparaha isn’t even in it. Everything’s kept at a distance. Given I haven’t really had any comeback on grounds of misrepresentation or anything like that, one answer is that possibly the structuring of the novel did its job in that way, and it was quite clear I wasn’t trying to put people back there so much as think about the ways we can engage with history.

You have in the past spoken about the puffery of New Zealand book reviewing and the soft ride given to local debuts. Since you’ve been the beneficiary of some very good reviews for your own debut, if you had to say something bad about Wulf, something you regret looking at it now, what would you say? I haven’t actually read it since finishing it, to be honest. But I can remember some of the bad jokes in it. I can think of words off the top of my head that I included and I shouldn’t have included, just words that jar with the overall scheme of it. I don’t want to mention what they are because, you know, you just don’t.

It was an unfair question. Some people would have been less honest than you’ve been. It’s absolutely fair given I have said I feel there’s a bit of puffery around. It’s just a shame – and it’s a part of the smallness of New Zealand - we don’t have more journals that have more resources to be given over to really strict, honest, thorough, ongoing, deep criticism. That that isn’t part of the mainstream critical environment.

You’ve also said you quite fancy the return of the literary feud. Is there anybody you want to take on? I’ll let them come to me.

You’re working on a PhD about David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down. That must be a great world to be immersing yourself in. Yeah. It’s really enjoyable. I really like Ballantyne because he’s such an outsider figure. He’s like a local equivalent of the 50s angry young men in Britain or something. He’s outside all the establishments. I’ve been in the Alexander Turnbull Library the last couple of weeks going through all his letters. It’s amazing being able to just sit there with the letters and feeling you’re in the room with him.

Do you have another novel in the offing? I do. It’s not historical at all. It’s a contemporary thing. But it always surprises me - and I don’t know why, it shouldn’t - when Wulf is pegged as a historical novel. I don’t think of it that way at all. I think of it as a metafictional thing where we’re talking about the nature of representation and gaps between stories and reality, and politics, and all this kind of stuff. Because to me that’s what it’s really about. When people say, “What’s your novel about”, they’re probably expecting me to say it’s about the massacre, but I would say it’s about representation and politics and things. If you’re going to draw a line between the two novels, I think you’d find a similar concern with metafiction and the gap between stories and life.

In what sort of context this time? It’s contemporary Wellington.

Right. Yeah.

Nothing more to say about it than that? No, sorry [laughs].

WULF, by Hamish Clayton (Penguin, $30).

Here is John McCrystal’s Listener review of Wulf.

And here are our reviews of Best First Book Award for Poetry winner Briefcase, by John Adams, and Best First Book Award for Non-Fiction winner New Zealand by Design: A History of New Zealand Product Design, by Michael Smythe.

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