This interview was first published in the Listener in 2011.
Paula Morris is in that heady state of traversing worlds when I skype her at home in Glasgow. She’s had a morning dashing about while trying to watch Samoa play South Africa and later obsessively checking her phone from the osteopath to see the result. “Then my father rings from New Zealand, as he always does after any big rugby match, so we can discuss everything.”
Vibrant and fast-talking, she’s also very excited to be talking because she’s been a constant contributor to the Listener since 2003 yet has never been interviewed. She may live a hemisphere away with a well-established writing pedigree but these bonds are deep and ever-present. Indeed, on the eve of publication of her long-gestated fourth novel, Rangatira, it’s time to redress the balance. An expat since 1985, Morris came to writing later in life after a glamorous career in the 90s working for record companies in London and New York. But the dream job turned out not so dreamy and she burnt out, leaving her shiny office overlooking Times Square for Victoria University and Bill Manhire’s creative-writing course. 2001 was a prescient time to flee the Big Apple – and the record industry, as it turned out.
Defending America (having married an American) amid the fervent post-9/11 anti-Americanism can’t have been easy in po-faced Wellington, but she completed the course and her first novel, Queen of Beauty, which won the Adam Prize that year and launched her new brilliant career. Yes, she misses the fat pay cheque. To fund her craft she goes where the creative-writing jobs take her – to Iowa, New Orleans (surviving Hurricane Katrina) and, last year, to Glasgow. An international flotsam-and-jetsam career. “It’s a life rather than a career, I guess. I have a writing life and I have to do what I can to support it. When the job I have now [at the University of Stirling] came up, it seemed like a good opportunity. Opportunities come up, and you take them.”
It’s not that different, she suggests, to Paratene te Manu, the narrator of Rangatira, when he got the chance to go to England. The Ngati Wai chieftain, whose portrait by Gottfried Lindauer graces the bookjacket, travelled there in 1863 with a party of northern rangatira organised by the impetuous, naive and narcissistic entrepreneur Henry Jenkins. It was a cultural mission to meet British royalty and aristocracy but disintegrated into poverty, mistrust and humiliation for all involved. Unsurprisingly, there’s still a big question mark over the trip and the intentions behind it.
The tale fascinated Morris, whose tribal affliliations are Ngati Wai, and became the inspiration for a short story she wrote in 2003 for an Iowa workshop taken by US literary luminary Marilynne Robinson. “There wasn’t much of a discussion, though I do remember Marilynne saying one scene was ‘under-imagined’. A cruel blow!”
The story was published in Landfall in 2004 and various anthologies. The thought of developing it into a historical novel hadn’t entered her head until Witi Ihimaera suggested it, and Penguin then-commissioning editor Geoff Walker hooked her in with a contract. The idea of the 19th century Maori voice speaking out was a story that hadn’t been told in fiction, they insisted.
She flung herself into months, then years of obsessive research. Her starting point and constant guide was Brian Mackrell’s Hariru Wikitoria!, which details the history of the trip. Fascinated by the delicate relationship shifts and etiquette and protocol issues, she came to wonder “if the class differences that exist in England and that also existed and still exist to some extent in Maoridom were just not very apparent to Jenkins and his Pakeha colleagues.” Those complexities and ambiguities drew her further in.
“I think I loved the research a little too much,” admits Morris. Finally in January, Penguin put on the hard word. “At various points I thought, is this going to be the book I never finish, that I never have the courage to write because it’s too difficult? It was much more difficult in lots of ways than it was to write, say, Trendy but Casual [her third novel], which was another first-person book but one in which the narrator was closer to my own age and experience.”
The sense of conscientious historical research is remarkable but most striking is the utterly convincing male narrator, with whom, despite the time and cultural divide, you feel empathy. “Paratene was a huge imaginative leap for me. I imagine it’s like acting, where you get so engrossed in the character that you lose yourself.”
And the biggest imaginative leap: a Maori 19th-century man who was also profoundly Christian. “I spent much more time reading the Bible than I’ve done since Sunday school in Henderson many years ago.
“[Paratene] was also someone who converted to Christianity, so was brought up with a completely different belief system. And that was a big challenge because, as we know, we can never entirely escape the beliefs of our childhood.”
Morris can undoubtedly tell a good yarn. With novel writing, she explains, “I asked the questions you always ask yourself: who’s telling the story, why are they telling it, how are they telling it and to whom? So I came up with the conceit that after the English trip – in which they were all burnt, in a sense, by not being able to communicate clearly in English, by not knowing what was really going on – Paratene secretly learned English, to the point where he could write down his own account for posterity.”
She stresses it’s not a history book; she made things up, notably the scenes between Paratene and Lindauer, which take place 20 years after the UK voyage: “That was a fairly late decision. It was when I thought, (Okay, let’s have these sessions with Lindauer and Paratene), that the book really came together.
“I first came across this material when I was doing research for Hibiscus Coast, my second novel, and exploring the relationship between an artist and a sitter. In Hibiscus Coast it was Goldie, and here it’s the work of Lindauer. I was thinking about portraits where the individual identity of a sitter is not necessarily that important to the painter or to the person who’s going to own the painting.”
It’s extremely unlikely that Lindauer and Paratene met. “It’s probable that Lindauer was working from a photograph that I assume or suspect was taken in 1886, so I started investigating what was happening that year. Of course, I came across the eruption of Mt Tarawera, and” – she erupts into laughter – “I wrote in my notes, ‘AVOID!’ I thought, I can’t get into that, because I’ve already got so many things going on. But then I considered the possibilities for the story. And I knew that an older Maori like Paratene would absolutely interpret it as a very bad sign and be concerned about what it meant for the future.”
It was too great a dramatic gift to ignore. “Novels are always a lot of things coming together and then something clicks and you think, this is it. When I thought more about the Tarawera eruption, I realised that this was it.”
For Morris, a book like this will make sense to a lot of New Zealanders. “There may be some things in the novel that will make New Zealanders think about certain aspects of our culture and history in a different way. Of course, it would be fantastic if people outside New Zealand read the book as well, as I think it has some interesting things to say about our relationship with Britain in particular. Readers everywhere, I’m sure, will find mistakes in the novel. I always have mistakes in my books. I try to tell people that I put them in on purpose, because everyone loves to point them out.”
No time to dwell on that, though – she’s busy teaching, and also penning ghost stories. Her new young adult novel, Dark Souls, is out in December, set in York where Morris went to university.
“I have a contract with [US publisher Scholastic] to write a third book in what was originally this haunted-city series – New Orleans, York and Rome. I was in Rome early this year doing research for it, but that book’s been postponed. I now have to write a sequel to the first novel, Ruined, right away. So I have this ongoing relationship with Scholastic, though you never know, as a writer, if this will last.”
If not, there’s film: “I’ve sold options for Hibiscus Coast and Ruined. With film people, it’s always tomorrow, next week, next year, but I’m always busy myself, so I don’t mind waiting. I’m really, really keen to start screenwriting myself, but I always seem to have book projects in the way. But once I finish these next YA novels I have a big void in front of me where, for the first time, I’ll have no novel I’ve promised to someone. It sounds fantastic, really. What I work on next – it’s up to me.”
RANGATIRA, by Paula Morris (Penguin, $39).