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Interview: Diana Harris talks about Howling in the Wilderness

Diana Harris' first book was The Kiwi Fact Book, followed by a children’s story, Guardian of the Bridge, about a taniwha who went to sleep a long time ago and woke up in today’s world; then came Litterbugs, a story in verse about recycling. At the same time, she embarked on the epic Johnny Jones: A Colonial Saga, which traces the life of her great-great-great grandfather and which also recreates the people and events of the first half of the 19th century as it unfolded in the South Island. Now she has completed Howling in the Wilderness, which covers the first half of the 19th century in the North Island, this time concentrating on the lives of Henry and Marianne Williams. She believes the early 19th century was a crucial time when Māori and Pākehā people began to intermingle, and, in her opinion, it is the most fascinating part of our history. Diana talks to NZ Booklovers.

Can you tell us a little about Howling in the Wilderness?

Howling in the Wilderness is the story of Henry and Marianne Williams, who arrive in the Bay of Islands in 1823. They come with high hopes of bringing the Gospel of Peace to the Māori people, and of stopping fighting between the tribes. When William Hobson arrives in 1840 to persuade the chiefs to allow their country to become part of the British Empire, Henry is co-opted into supporting him, and is asked to translate the Treaty of Waitangi into Māori. The novel then deals with the fallout from that time on.

What inspired your novel?

I am fascinated by ‘early New Zealand’, when Māori and Pākehā began to intermingle. I had written a biography of my great-great-great grandfather, Johnny Jones: A Colonial Saga, which covers events in the South Island in the first half of the 19th century, and I decided to write a novel about the same period in the North Island.

An enormous amount of research was involved, with each chapter almost being a book in itself.

What was your routine or process when writing?

My process when writing was to do as much research as possible for each chapter, then to go over it until it became part of my brain. Then I sat down at my computer and let the story write itself.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany your novel, what music would you choose?

Henry Williams loved the organ and I think church music – stirring, sad and contemplative – would be a great soundtrack.

What did you enjoy the most about writing Howling in the Wilderness?

I enjoyed doing the research and making exciting discoveries about what happened, but I think my happiest time was when I sat down at my computer with a large cup of coffee and let the writing flow out through my fingers.

What did you do to celebrate finishing your novel?

I can’t remember what I did to celebrate, but I know when I wrote those last words I had an enormous sense of euphoria and relief: I had written the novel I hoped for.

What is the favourite book you have read recently?

The most interesting book I have read lately is Ka Mau te Wehi, about Ngapo (Bub) Wehi, who achieved so much in the Māori world, and who was a great inspiration to me when he was a tutor at AUT.

What's next on the agenda?

Once Howling in the Wilderness is out I will go back to finishing a contemporary/magical realism novel I have been working on – so it’s ready for some lucky publisher to snap up!


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