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Interview: Di Buchan talks about Aiming High

After a career in social and environmental research, Di Buchan retired to Ōtaki and became a historian. She previously published a history of the Ōtaki Children’s Health Camp – Sun, Sea & Sustenance, and Triumphs, Tribulations & Tragedies: The Low family of saddlers in Otago and Southland, a history of her maternal ancestors. Aiming High is her third book and, like the previous works, is very much a social history of a particular time in Aotearoa.

Di was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal as part of the King’s Birthday and Coronation Honours 2023 for her community and environmental work.

She is a firm believer in the importance of recording the stories of the past to help us understand the world we have inherited.

Please tell our readers a little about your book.

This is a biography of two amazing people – one, a man of enormous drive and ideas who combined being a man of business with being a politician, a community leader, broadcaster, poet, environmentalist, philanthropist and an internationally recognised expert on the works of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. He can be described as the father or modern Otaki and as such was buried as a rangatira. The other amazing person was his granddaughter, Mary-Annette Hay (nee Burgess) who grew up using the skills, knowledge, and confidence she had absorbed from her dearly loved grandfather to become an artist and an actress and to play a defining role in the development of New Zealand’s wool industry. She was also a broadcaster and philantropist.


What inspired you to write this book?

I had known Mary-Annette for over twenty years, beginning when we were both on the board of the Wellington Civic Trust. I attended the Te Papa exhibition on her work for the Wool Board and that made me think someone needed to write her biography.  It took me more than ten years to realise that the writer had to be me! She spoke often about her grandfather who clearly had a huge influence on her life. When I moved to Otaki in 2010 and became a trustee of the Otaki Museum I found out much more about the huge contribution Byron had made to the town. For example he donated land in Otaki for the first children’s health camp in New Zealand.  I had written the history of the Otaki Children’s Health Camp (Sun, Sea & Sustenance) which contained a little about his life but it took another book to tell the full story of this energetic, complex, talented and generous man. It was clear that I could not write about Mary-Annette alone, I had to also tell Byron’s story.

What research was involved?

Three years fitted around my many other activities! The research was a mixture of interviews with Mary-Annette (who was 96 when I began but still had an amazing memory), Papers Past(a very rich source since both lived very public lives. Byron, for example, has over 5,000 entries in newspapers all over the county), the Otaki Historical Journals and Byron’s private collection, especially his letters to his wife,  which are held at the Alexander Turnbull Library. These in particular gave me a wonderful insight into his character and emotions in a way that newspaper articles couldn’t.


What was your routine or process when writing?

My writing had to be fitted around my busy life in various voluntary organisations but I tried to research or write for at least two hours a day seven days a week.


Do you have a regular routine, such as writing at the same time every day?

If I started writing first thing, I found it hard to stop so I  would try to clear all my other obligations first and then whatever was left of the day was my time to work on the book. Sometimes I couldn’t start until late afternoon but I would keep going until 8 or 9pm and then realise I hadn’t thought about what to have for dinner. The local takeaway shops did quite well – especially towards the end!


Where do you write?

In my office which is in my house, never anywhere else. I look across my desk at the Tararua Range, the same mountains that Byron would have looked at and from my computer I look at Pukekaraka, the hill behind New Zealand’s oldest Catholic Church that is still operating. Byron would have walked that hill many times.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

The times I spent with Mary-Annette going through her scrap books and hearing her stories. Also meeting other members of her family and going through the family photo albums (including Byron’s) with them, seeing the faces of the people I had been writing about and telling them things about their ancestors that I had discovered which they hadn’t known.


What was most challenging aspect?

 Managing the huge amount of information, especially from Papers Past. There didn’t seem to be a week go by when Byron wasn’t doing something that was reported in the media. He was exhausting to keep up with. In the end I made a huge timeline to list his and Mary-Annette’s activities in date order because I couldn’t believe they were doing so many things at the same time.


The other challenge was writing two biographies in one book in a way that was seamless. I really worried about being able to pull that off but I was rewarded at the book launch when Jock Phillips congratulated me on achieving it and said he thought I was brave to try and that he would not have dared!


Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your book and its key subjects?

These are two people who could have been quite ordinary but instead, grabbed life by the throat and in doing so made huge contributions to Aotearoa – the country they both loved with a deep and abiding passion all of their lives.


What kind of books do you like to read for enjoyment? What’s your favourite of the books you’ve read this year?

Biographies are probably my favourite – people fascinate me, but I’m also a fan of the Donna Leon and Alexander McCall Smith type literature.  For total indulgence I read Jo Jo Moyes and Jodi Picoult. My favourite in the past year would have to be Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – absolutely brilliant!


Do you read physical books or digital ones? Why? 

Physical books every time. I love to hold a book in my hands and since I’m staring at a computer most of the day the last thing I want to do when I knock off is stare at another screen.


What’s your next writing project?

Having written 3 books in 5 years I am ready for a long break. Another book is very far from my mind at the moment.


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