Tim Wilson walks into the down-market diner in Spanish Harlem and says hello to a woman he recognises from church. Aside from us two Kiwis, she is the only white person in the diner, which sells cheap coffee and American-style barbecue, the sticky-sweet smell of which pervades the premises.
In this northeastern corner of New York City, Latin Americans predominate in a landscape of cracked pavements, taupe-coloured housing blocks and taquerias. Wilson, a tall and amiable presence, has lived in this neighbourhood for the past six years, being assimilated into his diverse surroundings while holding on to a thick New Zealand accent and forging a career as a television journalist-cum-novelist from a bachelor pad across the street.
He sheds his heavy jacket, takes a seat at a window-side table and over a black coffee starts reflecting on 11 years in the city. He arrived here as a 36-year-old print journalist with socialist leanings and dreams of writing for the New Yorker, and will soon depart as a 46-year-old social conservative who has become a fixture on our screens.
It would be ridiculous to suggest a decade in New York hasn’t changed him, he says. Living in a city with few social and economic conventions has made him appreciate the need for structure and the power of allowing individuals to flourish. Eleven years ago, he didn’t think like that. In fact, like many Kiwis, he felt regulations solved, rather than created, problems and thought America was probably a bully. “It probably is a bully,” he offers, “but I would prefer to be bullied by America than by China or Russia, for example. Maybe I’ve just become more pragmatic or less principled, I’m not sure.”
Part of that has to do with the company he has been keeping. “I did meet a broader array of people than perhaps I had met in New Zealand and that made me reconsider my views,” he says. One of his closest friends is neo-con journalist Ann Marlowe, who writes a blog called Peace Later!
Wilson downs his coffee, adds an extra dollar to the meagre tip I was going to leave, and we head across to his third-floor apartment, where I gain “hitherto ungranted access” to TVNZ’s unofficial US headquarters. It is one long rectangle divided into a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and an empty space Wilson occasionally uses as a studio. There are boxes on the floor, piles of books teetering on a tall dresser unit and a computer desk that looks like it’s going to keel over.
“How would you evaluate this? Is it squalor?” he asks, before deciding: “It’s not quite squalor.” He got the apartment when he was a struggling print journalist, he explains. It didn’t occur to him to move once he became a “fabulously overpaid” television journalist.
A forgiving view would be that the disarray can be explained by Wilson’s impending move. A less charitable one is that he’s just a messy bugger. We sit at his kitchen table, which is strewn with envelopes, computer speakers, a fax machine, video cassette tapes, a bottle of sunscreen, CDs, sheets of paper, magazines, a stapler and a chunky black laptop, which he pecks away at intermittently to dredge up from the internet particular authors or quotations that are germane to our discussion. One of his favourites comes from Philip Larkin’s poem The Life with a Hole in it, notable for its contrast to Wilson’s literary lifestyle. He reads it aloud, revelling in the language: “So the shit in the shuttered chateau/Who does his five hundred words/Then parts out the rest of the day/Between bathing and booze and birds.”
Living in the US has helped Wilson elucidate what distinguishes a New Zealander from an American – a parsing ability that he applies to his reporting. He sees himself as a translator, interpreting US news for a Kiwi audience that is more suspicious of authority, military action and visible wealth than are Americans.
“New Zealanders are really interested in what happens in America, because it’s not just the politics, it’s not just the fact that it is the last military super-power – it’s also that America is the home of celebrity culture,” he says. Though he’s a lone-ranging freelancer who works for One News and Close Up on a story-by-story basis, he believes strongly in the role of the US correspondent. If there are correspondents in Sydney, Europe and London, he says, it seems reasonable there should be someone in the US.
Wilson, who in his print days was a regular contributor to this magazine and later went on to write for the Guardian and Newsweek.com, fell into television when he answered a ringing cellphone that had belonged to a journalist friend who had recently left New York. Pam Corkery was on the end of the line, looking for the reporter to file a story for her current affairs show, The Last Word. Despite his lack of broadcasting experience, Wilson offered his services instead.
Six years later, he has become a popular figure on TV news and was last year rumoured to be on the short-list of options to replace Paul Henry on Breakfast. His true passion, however, lies in literature. In 2010, his debut novel, Their Faces Were Shining, was a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards.
“All my life I’ve wanted to write a novel and have it published,” he says, “and when I did, I felt a feeling of accomplishment. Then I felt, ‘Okay, so I did that.’ I don’t think the feeling of accomplishment stays with you, because then you start to think, ‘What’s next?’” To celebrate the launch, he treated himself to a bacon burger, then turned his attention to his next project, Desolation Angel, a collection of short stories, published late last year. He’s now working on a new book – a slim comedic novel in the tradition of one of his heroes, Evelyn Waugh – about a middle-aged print journalist living in New York City who gets sucked into the maw of television. Sounds kind of familiar.
“I want to write something that’s funny,” he says, dangling a pair of round-rimmed spectacles that make him look professorial – until he reprimands himself for being pompous. “Apparently I’m funny. People are often surprised, because obviously when you’re reporting the news there’s not a lot of opportunity for jokes, but occasionally when they meet me they’re surprised to discover that I can be amusing. A lot of literature takes itself … not too seriously, because I think it’s a serious pursuit, but the seriousness sometimes sours the product.”
After more than a decade as an expat, he is excited to return to New Zealand. For as long as TVNZ 7 lasts, he’ll spend two days a week there as a producer-presenter for the channel’s news breaks. For the rest of the week he’ll be working with TVNZ’s clients on “marketing solutions”, a surprising move into business that will offer a sense of stability years of freelancing have never truly delivered.
He’s also ready to embrace New Zealand’s smallness, which he thinks is a virtue because it’s possible to make an impact on a national level that is difficult to achieve in the US. “I’m really looking forward to being able to do a variety of things,” he says, even while confessing that he’s not actually sure what those things might be. “It may sound odd to say I’m leaving New York for the opportunities in New Zealand,” he concedes, “but I am”.