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An Interview with the Author, Part Two

Today I'm continuing an extensive interview with myself that began yesterday.

Recently, Mount Tongariro hit the headlines spitting ash and lava. You yourself grew up underneath the crater of Mount Taranaki in New Plymouth. How is life at the foot of an active volcano?

Mount Taranaki is a dormant volcano, not currently active, but not quite dead, either. Like its nearby mountainous sisters, the possibility remains that it might one day violently awake, and while that seems a remote possibility, that doesn't mean the volcano isn't dangerous. The mountain was the central feature of my adolescence. I spent almost every weekend walking its slopes, sleeping "rough," carrying all I'd need to survive from Friday night until Sunday night. And on its slopes I faced death several times, crossing flooded rivers and being swept toward a waterfall, or being lost, stuck on rocky ledges at high altitude as night descended, but always I managed to find a way out of my troubles. I will always be grateful to the mountain for teaching me my limits.

Did you always want to be a writer, or did you learn something else first? If yes, when did you decide to do something else?

At 17, I wanted to be a rock star. I had a Springsteen/Dylan/Neil Young/Tom Waits phase (which is still going), and I made a record. I wrote all the songs for the album and did vocals and lead guitar. Oh, the folly of youth. I was wise enough to know that I sucked. For a couple of years after that I was a journalist, the only one serving a small rural part of New Zealand. I got a free house, a car, and a cat. I was miserable. At some point I thought: Is this all there is?

Who do you write for?

Everyone and no one — and so far I seem to be reaching my target audience.

Your most recent novel, Brilliance, is set in New York in the 1880s during the Gilded Age. Why?

It would have been nonsensical to have set a novel about Thomas Edison, and J. P. Morgan anywhere else, and I chose the 1880s because it seemed to be a hinge moment in history which saw the birth of the modern electro-corporate age.

Your novels often mix tragic situations with odd and comical elements. Is it typical for New Zealanders to handle difficulties with humor?

The harshness of life in early colonial New Zealand, about which I have spoken, also required people to have a sense of humor. How else to deal with so much hardship? Modern New Zealanders have inherited this attribute. The New Zealand sense of humor is tough and realistic. Jokes are not surreal; they are about life and death and tough decisions. For instance: An old man is dying of a poisonous snake bite, and his son is on the phone with the doctor asking what can be done. The doctor replies that the son must make sure the father drinks liquids. The son goes to the refrigerator, and inside is a single bottle of beer. The son stares at it. When the dying old man asks, "What did the doctor say, son?" the son replies, as he opens the beer and drinks it himself, "It's not looking good, Dad."

Is it true that everybody in New Zealand is crazy about sports?

Yes. Few would argue with this statement.

Without being biased: North or South, which island has more to offer?

Simplistically, the North Island has people and the things that people produce; the South Island has nature and the wonders of the natural world. You must take your pick.

You like to drive along the West Coast of New Zealand. What is so special about this road trip?

This 300-mile stretch of road which winds between wild black sand beaches and dense forests behind which rise into peaks always gives me a sense of the land my ancestors first encountered as they stepped off those first ships, a land that flowered for English sailors' eyes, a land — to quote Scott Fitzgerald — commensurate with people's capacity for wonder. Less a car journey than time travel.

You live in England mostly, though you spend a lot of time in Munich and L.A. also. What do you miss, thinking of your home country?

I miss my beach house and the sound of those waves rolling in. Fish and chips cooked the New Zealand way, with bread-crumbed local fish and twice-cooked chips. I miss the way, when you arrive in your homeland, you breathe slightly easier.I miss the way, when you arrive in your homeland, you breathe slightly easier. I fly home at least once a year, 12,000 miles there, 12,000 back. Travel time to get there? From my flat in London to my beach house in Wellington, it's about 36 hours door-to-door, and that's if you try and do it in one clinically insane burst of travel. Add a necessary stopover in L.A. or Hong Kong en route and you're talking the life span of several small animals.

As you swoop over blue water and the clusters of small off-shore islands, you'll soon see below — if it's not raining — a bird's eye view of tin roofs dotted one quarter acre apart, houses with gardens and an obligatory lemon tree and a plastic swing for the kiddies, houses approached by concrete slab driveways poured by their do-it-yourself owners, driveways linked to snaking black roads that roam and insinuate into the hilly terrain that almost always overlooks, inevitably here, the sea. A South Pacific country.

Did you ever try the Maori dish kanga pirau, a mash of fermented corn?

Yes, I have. Quite extraordinary dish — not one you will find in Jamie Oliver. For those who don't know, kanga pirau is prepared by putting corn cobs into sacks which are left in a clean running stream for up to six weeks until they have fermented. If you can get past the awful smell and stop yourself from gagging, it tastes rather like porridge cooked by the devil on the Day of Judgement.

Which dish is a must for every traveler? And what better they not try?

Must: lamb, washed down with a good Otago pinot noir.

Must not: sushi in small towns. I was once asked for spicy tuna roll and was served canned tuna with mustard.

How do you avoid putting your foot in it with a New Zealander?


Can you say goodbye in Maori?

Haere ra.

(Read Parts One, Three, and Four of "An Interview with the Author")

÷ ÷ ÷

Anthony McCarten's debut novel, Spinners, won international acclaim and was followed by The English Harem, the award-winning Death of a Superhero, and Show of Hands. He has also written 12 stage plays, including the worldwide success Ladies' Night, and is a filmmaker. Brilliance is his new book.

Books mentioned in this post

Anthony McCarten is the author of Brilliance

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