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Interview: Matthew Wright talks about Living on Shaky Ground



Matthew Wright is a New Zealand writer with over thirty years hands-on professional experience as a published author and in publishing. He is deeply curious about a lot of stuff, especially the human condition. Matthew has qualifications in writing, music and anthropology among other fields, and hold multiple post-graduate degrees in history. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.

Tell us a little about your book.

Living On Shaky Ground is a one-volume look at the history and science of some of New Zealand’s major or notable earthquakes, from the earliest days through to the present. It’s intended to explore both the human experience of those quakes, and to explain some of the scientific reasons why such quakes occur in ways that are easily understandable.


Why did you first write Living on Shaky Ground?

I felt it was time to highlight the way that earthquakes have been so much a part of New Zealand’s life since the very earliest days. By the early 2010s, when I wrote the first edition, it was clear that a new cycle of quakes had begun after a period of relative quiescence in the late twentieth century, and I thought that deserved exploring. I also wanted to be able to bring the latest science into the picture in a way that was easily understandable. These reasons still hold good today, and perhaps more so given the science that has unfolded since the original edition, about both the Alpine and the Hikurangi faults.


What research was involved?

The research had to be quite broad-ranging because the book covers both science and history. I did the sciences before I swung into history, so it was quite enjoyable to dig out and read a lot of the papers on the mechanics of quakes. I asked GNS to peer-review what I’d written, which they very kindly did for me; and they also read the updated science I included in this new edition, along with providing images and photos. I’m very grateful for their support.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

This was, I think, my 55th book so the process was pretty well established in terms of how I was going to tackle it. I identify the end-point, develop a plan to get there, and proceed with it in a way designed to make sure the publisher gets what they want on time. Basically it means systematic hard work. No doubt this stands against the concept of an author as an artist, working as the muse strikes; but the reality of the field is that publishing is a commercial business, and ways have to be found by authors to integrate that need with the required artistry, morning routines involving coffee, and inspiration. This is as true of non-fiction as it is of fiction. I see non-fiction as, in effect, ‘photography’ because it’s working with existing source material that must be conveyed accurately. But – as with photography – that doesn’t reduce the requirement to make sure it’s a quality product in terms of the medium. Just to extend the photographic metaphor, anybody can take a snapshot, but there is an artistry and skill in being able to create a quality photograph. That’s true of writing too. And always, the calculation comes back to the fact that people engage emotionally with what they read, be it fiction or non-fiction. An author has to keep that in mind constantly.


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

I can best answer this by explaining that, to me, music is more than just songs: it’s a mode of human expression that encompasses all the ways we can conceptualise sounds, and is designed to evoke emotion in the listener. It is also a very powerful way to do so, more powerful, I think, than any other. Equally, the purpose of any writing – non-fiction included – is to also invoke an emotional response, be it as simple as the satisfaction of discovery or as complex as following the story of a life. The fundamental reality of our earthquake story, here in New Zealand, is human; it’s about how people felt, reacted and responded to what was happening around them, or to the loss of loved ones, and so forth. I wrote chapters in the book detailing personal experiences during and after selected major quakes. So the question is about being able to bring music together with the writing in a way that complements the emotional journey of the reader. And really, it’s going to be a personal choice for any individual. Zappa’s ‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’ or Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ will be as relevant in that sense as somebody who finds connection, instead, in Billy Ray Cyrus’s ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ while reading my book. But I’d hope they prefer Zappa or Britten.


Could your book be made into a documentary or TV series? If so, who would you like to see as the presenter? Why did you choose that person?

Yes, very easily. I structured and wrote the book in such a way that it could readily translate to a visual medium. I’d want to present it myself; one of the things I’ve been trained in is how to be a presenter, I’ve done it before.


What did you enjoy the most about the writing for Living on Shaky Ground?

I particularly enjoyed being able to integrate the historical coverage with the broader social-historical themes I’ve explored in my other books, because it added a significant dimension to understanding how people responded to any given quake. It was particularly poignant in terms of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay quake, because this was the generation that had survived the First World War, and that experience coloured the nature of response in significant detail.


What experience in your working life was most helpful to you in the writing?

I write professionally, and my books all draw benefit from my working experience as a whole. In terms of general experience, I’d actually been in some of the quakes I cover, which was useful.


What’s your next project?

I write full time and have multiple projects in hand, however you’ll have to wait until they’re released for details.


Published by Bateman

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