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A Way with Words: A Memoir of Writing & Publishing in New Zealand by Chris Maclean

Some advice for my fellow NZ booklovers: read the memoirs and biographies of writers. Immerse yourself in the inspiring lives of your favourite authors and local ones too. In this way, you can catch a glimpse of the creative and formative experiences that shaped the books we read and the texts that bring us together. Chris Maclean’s memoir, A Way with Words: A Memoir of Writing & Publishing in New Zealand, describes the processes of a book’s creation, a fantastic agglomeration of ideas and people. Chris Maclean is a Waikanae-based author, biographer, stained-glass artist, and owner of the publishing imprint, Whitcombe Press. His family and professional background have always centred on the written word. He hails from one of New Zealand’s oldest publishing families, Whitcombe and Tombs. Having spent over four decades in the book business, Maclean stresses the collective experience that characterises literary production. Time and again it surprises me how much really goes into a book. A Way with Words is a great reminder.


History and the outdoors form the subject matter of a number of Maclean’s books. He has written extensively on tramping, landscapes, architecture, and culture in New Zealand. Through the Whitcombe Press he published Tararua: The Story of a Mountain Range and Kapiti, the latter detailing the cultural significance of the Kapiti island to Maori and Pakeha. With his colleague Jock Phillips, Macleans produced two books on stained glass and its place in New Zealand architectural history: The Sorrow & the Pride: New Zealand War Memorials and In the Light of the Past: Stained Glass Windows in New Zealand Houses. In addition to The Sorrow & the Pride, his book For whom the bells toll: a history of the national war memorial introduces a significant aspect of New Zealand commemorative culture.


The title A Way with Words neatly encapsulates Maclean’s writing passion and talents, and also alludes to the journey-like nature of writing, its many phases, and rewards. The book documents, in Maclean’s keen style, the various stages involved in writing each of his books, the research process, and the strategies he employed. For instance, in writing his biography on historian, author, mountaineers, and photographer John Pascoe, Maclean dug out archival material in the form of correspondence at Alexander Turnbull Library. He opines on the benefits of writing longhand as opposed to tapping away on a keyboard. Writing directly on paper engages the parts of the brain that manage information, learning, and memory. He also mentions sleep-assisted writing, which is a process of crystallising material by consciously ruminating on a solid day’s research before going to sleep.


A Way with Words features quality colour photographs, pictures, and maps, combined with a tidy format for pleasant, relaxed reading. All these elements are without doubt the products of sheer diligence. Writing takes hard work, a dash of luck, and electric doggedness. It is an exciting, never-ending journey. Maclean’s memoir reinforces this truth, and carries a hint of optimism in the future of the New Zealand’s publishing industry. Aotearoa’s booklovers can learn from Maclean’s multifaceted professional life. Seek out opportunities and pay extra attention to activities, hobbies, and interests. The time may come when you can write about them.


Reviewer: Azariah Alfante

Publisher: Potton & Burton, RRP: $49.99

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