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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Nicholas Lyon Gresson talks about Every Sign of Life: On Family Ground


Nicholas Lyon Gresson was born in Christchurch in 1939 into one of New Zealand’s best known legal families. He did not become a university trained lawyer, but has lived a life steeped in law and justice.


For his community work in mental health and crime prevention he was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal in 1999. His father, Terence Arbuthnot Gresson, was a much-loved judge of the High Court of New Zealand in Auckland. Nicholas talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about Every Sign of Life.

Every Sign of Life: On Family Ground is written as a memoir. It’s a testimony to my father’s life as a father and as a man in law.


Across the arc of my life stories are told, and along the way truths reveal themselves. It’s an auto-ethnography with first-hand accounts in context of a New Zealand social history. The saga tells of the life and death of my father Justice Terence Arbuthnot Gresson, a much loved Judge of the Supreme Court of New Zealand (now High Court). There will always be a story where there is a suicide, and this one is set in its authentic context and told with honesty. I think the Gresson fabric over the generations offers a living context to my father’s life and death.


The book is structured in a way that travels across my life, exposing other lives, loves, deaths, and incalculable challenges. I never wanted to sugar-coat anything. One thing I was conscious of is how the reader would navigate the episodes and dynamics. Family dynamics become exposed. From my family ground I was empowered to see it all as it was, and what I witnessed I would turn into the written word.


What inspired you to write this book?

The love of my father and the love from my father. I wanted to write a book that gave honour to my father. His life needed to be seen in its authentic context. That was my inspiration, always. And in writing about my father I discovered a family ground rich with mosses and saplings and tall trees. I wanted to write about them and set them in sight of each other through time and place.


I love the characters I grew up with and I wanted to bring them to life through my inter-relationships with them. There was a certain pressure in me to write my life as I knew I had witnessed so much, and through this witnessing I could sift and sort evidence that was available to me.


When I found I enjoyed bringing characters to life through writing, such as Granny Dot and Pa and Aunt Kaka, I knew I could intertwine their lives with relevant moments in my life. It was never going to be just about me. I wanted to give honour to these characters. I wanted to bring the great grandmothers to life, and Uncle Ken, Leslie, Mary, Olive, – they all had a place in time and I would bring it forth. And through the writing I discovered other characters I did not know so much about, but with reverence I learnt about them and for some, like Sir John Edward Denniston, their contribution to a New Zealand legal history I felt was important.


I am inspired by other people’s lives, whether they be the most esteemed Judge of the land or the cleaners and gardeners at Gartmore the family home, or the sailors or prostitutes I met on my sea adventures, they all deserve the same hand of honesty. From the glorious to the inglorious, the good, the bad the indifferent, for me there are no hierarchies.


A good example of inspiration from unlikely sources – the less grand, you might say – was my life on Thursday Island and the sea travels. Basic living, basic human enterprise and existence was there before me, and this has always been a vein of gold to hold to, and capture through the written word.


What research was involved?

Enormous research! This book has been germinating and growing for over 20 years. I am a great collector of archives. I keep letters, diaries, journals. I record anecdotes, interviews, conversations, thoughts on little bits of paper that might come in handy later. When the time comes to bring characters to life through the writing, then I turn to these archives and sift and sort papers until I find just what is needed. I am driven by the need to be truthful and authentic. It is in me to honour reliable and relevant evidence.


And there is the solid backing of secondary research, delving into written sources, biographies, encyclopaedia, media sources, papers past, museum records. While it’s a book wide in scope covering five generations from Ireland to New Zealand, it is also a book intimate in tone.


The Gresson Family Archive in the Canterbury Museum has been a rich source. The founding years of Justice Henry Barnes Gresson and his family are well recorded in Fanny Beatty’s diaries and in family letters dating as far back as 1800. I have been fortunate to own a copy of the Gresson family research undertaken by Sir Kenneth McFarlane Gresson, Uncle Ken, and unpublished collections of family research by Colin Gordon, Uncle Colin. All these sources and more have contributed and are collated in the Bibliography of Every Sign of Life. It was important to me that I recorded everything very carefully and honoured the primary and secondary sources.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I am a gatherer. I gather thoughts, poems, anecdotes, writings, words. I’m not terribly disciplined about it all. I do make a lot of notes. I have a character in mind and I write them into life, the way they talk, look, act, inter-relate to others. Characters come alive as their idiosyncrasies become apparent to me. Kindness and the colour of their ordinary lives are like magnets for me.


Writing a memoir is a process of bringing situations and characters into the terrain of the present. As a story teller I can easily talk about moments and anecdotes, and my wife, who is a lawyer and university academic, is adept at recording things I say. Sometimes she types and prints them and then I can reflect back over what I was thinking and make something of it. Writing is a craft. It takes work and time. A book doesn’t spring into life fully formed. It takes patient dedication. You have to find a way to love it. At the end of the day it becomes a revealing as much to the author as to anyone else.


Writing has its way. I love words and give honour to language. I like the way words will spring off other words, and out of the flow of words meaning becomes apparent. Overall my writing isn’t didactic or interpretive. As a poet I think I am driven by the aesthetics of writing. Even the structure of the book is an aesthetic of sorts. It has to be just right and land on the page as though without effort. Like Beethoven, there’s a cadence to the structure of writing. I value this. You flirt with the dangers of the unknown and the surprise of the falling leaf. I like to invite the reader in. The ideas can be carried as the words skim along – like a stone skipping on water, keeping the weight light and letting the movement have its own impetus and velocity in time. Short sentences are very useful for this – I took this from Nicholas Monsarrat’s ‘The Cruel Sea’. Writing holds the dangers of motor racing – it is very easy to go off the track. It is also a poetic process.


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

‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan’ and ‘Sylvia’s Mother’, and Beethoven is always lurking.

Verdi suits the latter part of the book.


Who will enjoy your book?

I hope anyone who picks it up! It’s certainly not tailor-made for any person, any one group of people. Those who have a curiosity for life will enjoy it. It was written ‘in hopeful curiosity of something, endlessly.’ – that’s a line from a 1963 poem, one of my earliest.


People who can handle the mystery of psycho-dynamics, I hope can enjoy it.


People who love law, I hope can enjoy it.


People who love childhood and funny things, I know will enjoy it.


And perhaps suicide can be seen in a new light.


It is a book about survival. And I touch on those heavy subjects like law and psychiatry, justice and injustice, and the distortions and aberrations that become implanted and rather too-easily take hold in family settings. Mis-spent power you could say.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

The investigation behind it. Thinking, discovering, then getting it down on paper. And I discovered how much I really do like research and blending it into the written word – bringing it to life from dusty corridors of time. Being pertinent makes me excited.


It’s pretty obvious that blending the poetic into the light, or serious, is a constant source of enjoyment for me. If it works it works. The poetry helps the prose and the prose helps the poetry. Poetry keeps prose writing taut.


When I write I escape the grand edifices of morality. There’s a great deal of smashing edifices when you write. For me there is a certain freedom to confront life as it is, warts and all.


What did you do to celebrate finishing Every Sign of Life?

Closed a few cupboard doors on the clamour of thinking. Back to my lazy mind and garden and a good quaff of a velvet shiraz with my lovely wife.


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

My tastes are wide. I enjoy biographies of poets and their lives, such as Dylan Thomas and Caitlin. Also ‘Letters Home’ by Sylvia Plath – and I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book. And ‘The Scene of the Crime’ by Steve Braunias I found to be excellent. I love books on crime and justice.


C.K. Stead’s three autobiographies, marvellous. And researching Baudelaire I have found fascinating, and endless books on Christchurch and Canterbury.


I read legal judgements, appreciating the language. This year I printed and bound the 154 pages of the Supreme Court of New Zealand judgement, Peter Hugh McGregor Ellis v The King. I have found this entire case challenging, and the Supreme Court findings very important for New Zealand.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

Finishing a new collection of poems written over the last four years. Finding an illustrator for my children’s stories and poems – they deserve to be published, and C.K. Stead told me that. Also continuing to support my wife, Elizabeth and her work as a barrister in law.


Quentin Wilson Publishing


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