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Interview: Janet McAllister talks about Life on Volcanoes


Life on Volcanoes is edited by cultural and social commentator and former Pantograph Punch editor JANET McALLISTER /, who toured Auckland’s 55 public libraries for the NZ Herald 2016–2018. Janet talks to NZ Booklovers.


What inspired you to organise and edit this book?

I was greedy to read more from these five writers, and I also wanted to share my love and excitement for their fantastic work with others. For a variety of reasons, their writing wasn’t being seen regularly in the public domain. They were too busy to write, or they were shy about putting their work forward, and/or they had been censored in the past. For Life on Volcanoes, they could write whatever they wanted as long as it was non-fiction – it’s not often writers get to do that professionally, and I was curious to see what they’d come up with.


Secondly, I was keen to honour the writers by housing their words within a stylish hardback with high production values (which we’ve done thanks to Beatnik Publishing director and designer Sally Greer!). I had the Montana Estates essay series from the early 2000s in mind, not as a literal template but as an idea: superb and unusual pieces, beautifully presented. I would love people to come across Life on Volcanoes as I came across the Montana series: as an unexpected delight.


My other motivation was to commemorate the life of my mum, Heather McAllister, to whom the book is dedicated. Heather died of shock lung cancer in December 2017, aged 67. She wanted to be at her grandson’s 21st, instead she died before he turned 3.

The book is a way to remember this person who was full of joie de vivre, love and intellectual curiosity. The essays aren’t about her, instead the idea of the book is one she would have loved: critical and personal reflections on life in all its glory and trauma, from some amazing writers.


How did you choose the contributors?

They all combine humour with depth; style with substance; the personal with the political. Courtney Sina Meredith hadn’t tried her hand at non-fiction before. Given she’s written extremely clever poetry (some of which I’ve been privileged to edit), short stories, drama and songs, I figured it was high time she gave some love to my favourite genre! And she has risen to the essay challenge with aplomb.


Ruth Larsen’s wry observations of family life have kept me laughing for years. Tui Gordon has a knack of turning whole chunks of cultural history into witty and telling one-liners, and she movingly offers hope in dark places. Tulia Thompson is another genre-bender – poet, YA novelist, sociologist – who offers far-reaching insights through a series of droll and not-so-droll scenes. And Tze Ming Mok is one of New Zealand’s best socio-political commentators.


What was your routine or process when editing this book?

I tried to make it as enjoyable as possible for the writers, in spite of the deadlines! One small way of doing this – which I try to do with all the writing I edit – is to let the writer know when their phrases or ideas particularly tickle me, not just when I’m suggesting something that could change.


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

Ruth Larsen mentions desperate memories of her Standard Four “Camp Granada” action song. We’d put instructions for the actions in the liner notes.


What did you enjoy the most about editing this book?

Reading the writers’ drafts … they got my invisible antennae purring. Their writing is so stylish and smart. And I learnt a huge amount that was new to me – for example, Tze Ming Mok gives details about China’s persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang, and Courtney Sina Meredith writes about the crippling pain of her endometriosis. I also had a number of “I can relate!” moments when writers wrote about ordinary life in wise and often amusing ways. Tulia Thompson describes excusing herself from an awkward conversation at a bar: “I said I was going to meet a pretend friend outside.” We’ve all been there!


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Proudly took my advance copy everywhere I went and made everybody admire it, from my uncles to my neighbours.


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

I recently pulled a good haul out of the biography section of Devonport Library and am particularly enjoying Diana Wichtel’s award-winning Driving to Treblinka. She writes movingly about finding out what happened to her Holocaust-survivor father after his family (including Diana) moved to New Zealand without him. There’s the added immediacy that comes with reading a memoir from someone whose Listener writing is so part of national life.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Maybe it’s time for me to start writing again myself! I’ve enjoyed a break for about a year now, after finishing my “Woman who read Auckland” libraries series for NZ Herald. But I can feel the old itch coming back… editors, you have been warned!


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