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Interview: Alan Titchall talks about While the Fantail Lives

Alan Titchall is an editorial manager with a magazine publisher and has been involved in editorial and journalistic roles for the past three decades.

He studied New Zealand and Pacific history at Otago University and was involved in the film industry in Australia working on a script treatment. Alan talk to NZ Booklovers about his debut novel, While the Fantail Lives.

Tell us a little about While the Fantail Lives.

The book is an historic thriller set on the weekend of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, in a remote North Island hydro village.

The legacy of WWII hangs over the community as its residents – characters of all ages, ethnicities and nationalities – seek closure, forgiveness and even revenge, while preparing for a possible nuclear war.

What is worse, at the beginning of this fateful weekend, a fantail, the bird associated with messaging and death, has been injured. And this is a white tiwakaka that is the kaitiaki (guardian) of a local kehua (ghostly presence) that will wreak havoc if it escapes.

The basic theme is about the curse of war passed on through generations while capturing a slice of New Zealand at a time of socially adjusting to its involvement in world wars, post war immigration, air travel and multiculturalism. The fantail theme is about sharing strength from those around you for mutual protection.

What inspired you to write this book?

It was a promise to my Mother who sent me off to university with a leather writing case. I came from a large ‘working class’ family where my parents sacrificed a lot to make ends meet. I am amongst the younger of their children and the only one who didn’t leave school as soon as they could to seek work, which was thanks to Mum encouraging her asthmatic son to study. Remembering an incident from my childhood at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wrote on the writing pad; ‘My weekend began with the end of the world and got a shitload worse’. I went on to become a journalist/writer but it took almost 50 years to finish the story! I still have the writing case.

What research was involved?

Massive amounts of research! You cannot avoid it with an historic theme. Thank goodness for the Internet.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

The same as noodling with an old car restoration – I applied myself to the project when the inspiration came to me. I have been lucky in being consistently paid over the past four decades writing non-fiction to have had the luxury to do that.

If a soundtrack was to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Both songs/tunes are already in the book – the father’s 40th birthday chapter 20. They are the beautiful folk song, Hoea ra te waka nei, or Come where duty calls, which is a poi song from the East Coast used for recruiting during WW1. The other tune is a sax duo, also played during the birthday scene as a duo, called Little Sheri by Stanley Turrentine that was popular in the early 1960s.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

There is plenty of local Kiwi acting talents out there, or on their way, I am sure, but funny you should ask that: The book is written in ‘script style’ (I have worked on film treatments) and the best commercial chance it has is the sale of its screen rights.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

At times it was very cathartic and it made me tearful.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I didn’t. Your first novel is never finished. You can always do better if there wasn't a deadline. Plus, the realities of the publishing world, in our small market at least, keeps your ego sober. Some books have been overnight successes, others shine decades later, but most are also-rans. However, to complete a document of book size takes a lot of support from family, friends and professionals, and they deserve most to 'celebrate'.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

It is Wilbur Smith’s memoir On Leopard Rock. I got to know him in the mid 1980s when he used to travel to New Zealand around November to fly-fish for trout around Turangi where my parents lived. It was he who first prepared me for the commercial realities of writing fiction. Chapter 17, This Writing Life, of this memoir should be read by anyone with aspirations to become a fiction writer.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I will wait and see how this first novel pans out. I have already started the sequel with the same child characters as young adults, but I haven’t got another 50 years left in me to dawdle this time.


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