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Interview: Tim Saunders talks about Under a Big Sky

Tim Saunders farms sheep and beef near Palmerston North, he writes about his life and work on the farm that's been in his family for five generations. Woven throughout is Tim's love of, and respect for, the land, animals and the environment. His first book This Farming Life was published in 2020. He was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2021 for his story Carved; the only New Zealander to be shortlisted for this prestigious prize that year. He has had poetry and short stories published in Headland, Best Small Fictions, takahe, Landfall, Poetry NZ Yearbook and Flash Frontier. He won the 2018 MindFood Magazine Short Story Competition and placed third in the 2019 and 2020 New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day Awards. He performs poetry around the Manawatu and beyond.

Can you tell us a little about the new book?

Under a Big Sky: Facing the Elements on a New Zealand Farm chronicles the ups and downs of life on a fifth-generation sheep/beef/cropping farm in the crazy year that was 2020. Not only did we face a crippling drought, but we also had to produce food during the Covid lockdown, my father fell seriously ill, and there was an increasing pressure to make a bigger profit at the expense of the environment. The book studies how farming both affects and is affected by the elements of fire, air, water and earth, and I also look back at how my forebears farmed. How who we were affects who we are, and who we are affects who we can be. This is the story of my love and respect for the land, animals and the environment.

How difficult was it writing the follow up to your first book This Farming Life and what did you find different about the process from the first book?

The biggest challenge about writing the second book was not to repeat anything I had already said in the first book. This Farming Life looked at farming through the seasons, so I had to find a new angle that was interesting and engaging. Under a Big Sky looks more at how everything around us, including what we eat, has a story. Farming makes me aware of these stories, the narrative that runs through the land and soil and is imperative to the lives of people all over the world. Once I had this basic idea and structure, I was able to concentrate on the writing process. The main difference was that the first book could have been any year on the farm, whereas Under a Big Sky is tethered specifically to 2020.

What research was involved?

My Dad is 82-years-old, and has worked on the farm all of his life. He has a never-ending supply of stories about growing up on the farm, and he often shares them with us as we work. These tales are not always connected to whatever we are working on at the time, but they are always entertaining and interesting. Stories run through everything on the farm, they have become part of my life. There was no need to do a large amount of research for this book, I’d learnt most of the history by osmosis.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I like to be writing by 5:30am, six days a week. I write until 8am, and then it’s breakfast and out on the farm I go. I do this throughout the year, working on short stories and poems and whatever else I feel like creating. The book took about 10 months to complete, and I didn’t get much time to work on any other writing projects while writing it. I’m happy if I get some writing done, even if whatever I write never sees the light of day. However, I find there is more and more paperwork involved with farming these days. This has started to eat into my writing routine, which isn’t ideal.

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

Since Under a Big Sky is separated into four sections, each would need its own song:

Fire – Fire and Rain by James Taylor

Air – Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan

Water – Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head by BJ Thomas

Earth – Mother Nature’s Son by The Beatles

What did you enjoy the most about writing Under a Big Sky?

I love writing about the animals that I see every day. Not just the livestock, but also the wildlife that makes its home on and around the farm. Animals have a particular poetry in the way they move and behave, and to capture their essence and beauty in words is very satisfying. There is something extremely gratifying about seeing animals and landscapes come alive on the page in a way that encourages people to take more notice of them.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Me: “Well, I finished the new book today.”

Dad: “Great. There are 800 lambs in the back paddock that need drenching.”

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

I recently read My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, first published in 1956. The book is a natural history classic, with incredible descriptions of wildlife and scenery. Set in Corfu in the late 1930s, Durrell gives an account of everything he encounters with beautiful childhood wonder. The character development of his family and the wonderfully eccentric people around him is masterful, and the book excellently captures pre-war innocence. I have since started reading more of Durrell’s books, which are perfect for any animal lover.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I love writing short stories and poems. I carry a notebook around the farm with me so I can jot down ideas and phrases, and I work on them later to flesh them out. I didn’t have much time for writing stories and poems while working on Under a Big Sky, so I would like to return to short fiction for the rest of the year. I also perform poetry with a group called The Rouseabouts, and we’ll be getting back into taking our words and music back on the road. Perhaps there will be another farming book – I need to think of a fresh angle. I’ll just have to wait and see.


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