• NZ Booklovers

Interview: Matthew Wright talks about The Battlecruiser New Zealand



Matthew Wright is an award-winning New Zealand writer with over 35 years hands-on professional experience as a published author and in publishing. He has qualifications in writing, music and anthropology among other fields, and holds multiple post-graduate degrees in history. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.


Matthew has been published by Penguin Random House, Bateman Books and Oratia Books. His work includes over 600 articles, academic papers and reviews, and over 65 books on topics that include biography, engineering, military and social history. These include a best-selling general history of New Zealand and two critically acclaimed biographies of Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg. His latest title, The Battlecruiser New Zealand: A Gift to Empire, is published in the United States by USNI Press, in Britain by Seaforth and in New Zealand by Oratia Books. Matthew talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about your latest book.

The Battlecruiser New Zealand: A Gift to Empire was released in the US and Britain in September and is now being published by Oratia Books in Aotearoa. It’s about early twentieth-century imperial intrigue, politics, putting one over the Australians, and funny business with government debt programmes. All this came at the cusp of an historical moment – the First World War – when the world changed forever. To me, as the world seems on the cusp of another sea change, the theme seems timely.


What inspired you to write this book?

It’s a concept I’ve had bubbling along for decades – I wrote my thesis on the politics behind the ship. The book has emerged very much as the flip-side of an earlier book I wrote for Oratia, The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front. That explored the way that pre-war social militarism, with its fantasies of glory and patriotic sacrifice, was shattered by the realities of industrial-age warfare. The Battlecruiser New Zealand, by contrast, explores that world of social militarism at its pinnacle a few years earlier, when we gifted Britain one of the most expensive warships of the day. In a sense it’s a prequel, and the two books can usefully be read together.


What research was involved?

The usual investigation of archives, official documents and so forth. Material I looked at included HMS New Zealand’s Captain’s Ship’s Book, which is one of the largest single objects held by the Turnbull manuscripts section. It came out on a trolley of its own, a huge mahogany box with a filing system inside. A few minutes later the head librarian came out to admire it. Nobody had ordered it in years. I might have been the last to do so, thirty years earlier.


You’ve written more than 65 non-fiction books over the past 30-odd years, you must have a strict regime when it comes to writing. Can you share your process?

Because I’ve had a good deal of experience working in publishing, and as a writer, I can write efficiently and to purpose. But it still involves applying considerable effort over an extended period. It’s worth noting that some of my books are more work-heavy than others. I’ve written, for example, an ethnographic analysis of the ‘musket wars’, and a historiographical study of the Treaty of Waitangi which, I’m told, has been picked up as a core university text. These and others I’ve written of similar nature, such as my general history of New Zealand and both regional histories I wrote of Hawke’s Bay (1994 and 2017), were heavy-duty exercises in historical methodology and analysis which demanded considerably greater time than some of my other titles. That said, everything takes its due time – quality can’t be compromised.


What did you do to celebrate finishing your most recent writing project?

Nothing. To me writing is a constant, and there is a commonality of idea and concept running through everything I do. My interest is in exploring the different ways the human condition expresses itself through history and across different aspects of society, be that to do with earthquakes, twentieth-century social militarism, or how we’ve viewed the Treaty of Waitangi over the past 180-odd years. So I don’t usually celebrate the end of writing a particular book: it’s all part of a continuum.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’ve got a variety of projects on the go which will be revealed in due course – all, variously, continuing the theme and ideas that run through most of what I write. What’s the phrase? ‘Watch this space’.


https://www.oratia.co.nz/product/the-battlecruiser-new-zealand

Matthew blogs at: mjwrightnz.wordpress.com