Interview: Gordon McLauchlan talks about A Short History of the New Zealand Wars
Gordon McLauchlan is a well-known journalist, author and social commentator. He is a seasoned media commentator not afraid to speak his mind. His previous books for include: Great Tales from Rural New Zealand; Great Tales from New Zealand History; The Saltwater Highway: The Story of Ports and Shipping in New Zealand; The Passionless People Revisited; and A Short History of New Zealand. He was also editor-in-chief of The New Zealand Encyclopaedia for ten years. He talks to NZ Booklovers about his latest book A Short History of the New Zealand Wars.
Tell us a little about A Short History of the New Zealand Wars?
I set out to tell an accessible story of the NZ Wars inside 40,000 words and managed that. I also wanted to put the wars in the context of the world in the middle of the 19th century when the British Empire was at its height and quite ruthless in expanding its commercial and colonial interests around the world. In fact, Europeans had been invading and exploiting countries in Africa and Asia since the 16th Century.
What inspired you to write this book?
This sort of accessible history in not as fashionable in New Zealand as it is in other countries. I have a copy of a history of England in 40,000 words by the late Christopher Hibbert. It was a big seller in England. The idea is that readers will be pulled into the subject and seek longer and more scholarly books. There has been an outpouring in recent years of longer works about this country in the 19th century and I’m hoping that readers will be pulled into longer, more detailed works.
There must have been a huge amount of research to write this book, how did you go about it?
My research consisted of rereading all the books on our 19th century history from James Cowan’s two-volume on the wars right up to Vincent O’Malley’s impressive work published recently. I stand on the shoulders of scholars and hope to introduce readers to their work.
What was your routine or process when writing the book?
I read, absorb, consider and then write, starting every weekday morning and working until I get a bit weary. Then I go for a walk or swim. I had a tight deadline for this book so I was pretty exhausted by the end of it.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing the book?
It was that Kawiti, Hone Heke’s ally in the Northern War, was an engineering genius, something it took the British a long time to understand.
What did you do to celebrate finishing the book?
After you finish the writing task, there are the proofs to check before and after editing; so the work kind of tapers off. I’m just relieved when it’s finished and not too concerned with celebrating.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year, and why?
I get a deep sense of satisfaction from reading serious modern fiction and it’s difficult to put them in order. But two I have been impressed by recently are Mothering Sunday by that very experienced novelist, Graham Swift; and Outline by an author new to me, Rachel Cusk. I’m planning next year to go back and reread some of the authors who shaped my life when I was young: Ernest Hemingway, George Eliot, E. M. Forster, George Orwell, Jane Austen and others.
You are a prolific author. Apart from this latest book, which of your books are you most proud of and why?
I’m proud of all of them, really. Writing is hard and lonely work but satisfying. A book I wrote called The Saltwater Highway – the story of ports and shipping in New Zealand is one that sold out quickly, mostly to people in the industry, and didn’t get a lot of public notice. I travelled around the country during research and I’m especially proud of it because it’s such a good story and so important to this country.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’m considering another commission from David Bateman Ltd and messing about with some fiction and essays in the meantime.