Interview: Alistair Luke talks about One Heart, One Spade
Alistair Luke is a Wellington-based architect married to an architect, Sharon Jansen. They have two daughters at university in Auckland. Aside from the usual excursions, Alistair was born and has lived in Wellington all his life. On his father’s side, he is a fourth generation Wellingtonian with roots back to its colonisation in the 1850s. Alistair is passionate about Wellington’s history and having experienced it as a teenager in the 1970s is, through writing, enjoying the sharing of those memories. Alistair talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about One Heart, One Spade?
One Heart One Spade is a police procedural set in 1977 and 1978 in Wellington. The running thread through the entire story is the disappearance of a twenty year old woman, Felicity Daniels. The story is told from the perspective of Detective Lucas Cole. His private life is unravelling and his professional life is beginning to unravel as well. Other crimes populate the story. Some maybe connected to her disappearance, some are clearly not. The CIB becomes divided and Cole forms relationships with some of his colleagues that threaten his position with others. The story is about his growing understanding of the complexities of the world he lives in, things he never had to confront before – sexuality, misogyny, racism, colonialism. This is the 1970s.
It is historical crime fiction that gives a sketch of a time not so long ago but one that is very different from today. Without putting it in quotation marks, or capitals, I hope the reader senses the differences but also senses what has stayed the same.
Primarily though, it is a series of stories of love and friendship set against those backdrops of time, place, circumstance and, in this case, crime. I wanted to show how my characters change and grow through those relationships in those backdrops.
What inspired you to write this novel?
The inspiration was very strange. I was driving through the Parapara’s for work. Coming from a hui in Parihaka and going to another in Ohakune. To keep myself alert, I synced my phone to the cars sound system and listened to my playlists. On such a remote road on a misty evening this suddenly struck me as remarkable. From nowhere, I started to recall a teenage friend of mine, Miles, who was randomly murdered in broad daylight in Central Wellington in 1980. I started to think about all of the things in the succeeding 40 years that he had never seen and would mystify him. When I got home I started writing about an incident he had when the brakes failed on his crappy Skoda while diving down a steep street in Wellington. To arrest its descent he crashed it into a bank. The writing just flowed from there, I had no idea where it was going, no plan, but once started it just kept going and going and going.
As I remember him, Miles becomes a character in the story but it is certainly not about his murder.
What research was involved?
I was born, grew up and have lived in Wellington almost my entire life. I was a teenager in 1970s Wellington and have very vivid memories, so very little need for research for that aspect. I did re-kindle my memories of the time from internet history searches. I also looked at the 1977, 1978 Year Books to try to figure out what things cost back then. I knew a packet of cigarettes was 45 cents in 1974 because I bought them then but I had no idea what they cost in 1977. In the end I made that up. The price of a house was easier to find and I think I got those about right.
I did internet research on the police but it was pretty light to be truthful. There are sure to be some who’ll pick holes in that aspect but that’s fine by me. It just serves the story.
I read Mark van Leewarden’s ‘Crimetime’ about his time as an undercover policemen in the 1970s drug scene. I read this after I had finished my first draft and corrected things to fit with a better picture of what that horror may have been like and how UC work was structured.
I am also involved in a project at Parihaka so that element in the story didn’t require any research other than the masses I had already done.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
Haphazard. I wrote it very quickly mostly in the evenings, at weekends and on a summer holiday. After the first draft, Stephen Stratford assessed it thought it was well worth pursuing but made some very strong recommendations about some of my characters. So I re-wrote those and their re-writing had knock-on effects to other characters. Through that process I tightened my understanding of who I was writing about, the characters in the story. As they become more fleshed out, the process evolved, became more calculated and, in some instances, redirected the plot threads.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
That’s a hard one. ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty comes to mind but just because Miles loved that song and I associate it with him but it has nothing else to do with the story.
‘Albatross’ by Fleetwood Mac another – melancholy but beautiful. From an earlier time but the sea is a feature in the story.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
Falling in love with the characters. I started inhabiting them and thinking about how they would react to this or that situation. What would they say? The random flow of my writing with no idea of what was coming next meant that every time I went back to the script I had a new day enjoying my completely made up people. It was fun to full them out and make them three-dimensional. Give them pasts and futures. I became addicted to the characters and the situations I had put them in. Having no idea where I was going, it was like meeting friends (enemies sometimes) and re-scripting them every day. Totally addictive!
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
Re-reading the ‘Constant Gardener” by John Le Carre. I have read almost everything he has written but the craft of this story, the issues it exposes and the interweaving of very authentic characters and places is miraculous. Also how Le Carre can effortlessly shift back and forth in time without the reader ever losing the thread. He was an utter genius.
But my book list of brilliant writers is endless.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
A follow on novel with Lucas, Erena and John. There will be conflicts and tensions that carry them through to the 1980s. A few friends of mine, who have read ‘One Heart One Spade’, want them back and I will try to oblige.