GIVEN that Kiwi writers are not the highest profile people in Australia, trying to conduct an interview with Lloyd Jones, winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers Prize for his novel Mister Pip , is something of a surprise.
We have barely settled into the warm winter sunshine of an outdoor cafe when the four women at the next table explode into the air like a covey of startled quail. ‘‘ Oh, you’re Lloyd Jones,’’ the tallest exclaims in gushing tones.
I’d just like you to know that all the women at that table have read your book and loved it. We are telling everyone we know. Even my husband read it.’’
Even adjacent, as we are, to a writers festival, Jones is not a face people see regularly in the media and he smiles in surprise as the compliments cascade over his balding dome.
‘‘ I don’t know who they are,’’ he says with a slightly embarrassed laugh, ‘‘ I didn’t plant them here.’’
The women move off, almost immediately to be replaced by two female strollers who also recognise Jones and rush to shake his hand.
It’s all word of mouth; it is spreading like wildfire,’’ one explains. ‘‘ Everyone should read his book.’’
By this stage Jones is looking shocked by the recognition and reception. He landed at Sydney airport only two hours before, after a nightmare series of flights from Jamaica, where he picked up the Commonwealth Writers Prize, that caused him to miss his flight out of Los Angeles and spend 24 hours waiting there for the next trans- Pacific jet. He desperately wants just to sit in the sun so his body clock will reset. He also jokes that he is still recovering from a midnight book reading in Jamaica where there was so much ganja being smoked by the 1000- strong crowd that he fears he is suffering from secondary inhalation’’. But when Jones won the Commonwealth prize it came as no shock to anyone on the eastern side of the Tasman Sea. He is one of New Zealand’s best- selling authors, even if he dislikes the term. ‘‘ I’m not an author, we are all writers now,’’ he corrects me when I use the word. Mister Pip, his novel set in Bougainville just after the government of Papua New Guinea slapped a total embargo on the island and effectively cut it off from the world, has sold more than 50,000 copies to NZ’s bookmad population.
Jones says he was drawn to writing a novel set in Bougainville because he was fascinated that an island and its people could be removed from the eyes of the world by a government blockade.
It’s a bloody remarkable thing that blockade,’’ he says. ‘‘ My fear and apprehension was that it would become a Lord of the Flies scenario, which it did.’’ Jones tried to enter Bougainville just after the blockade was imposed but couldn’t get through PNG’s ring of Australian- supplied gunboats and helicopters.
I kind of circled the island and picked up quite a few stories from people who had fled. And then I went there after the peace and reconciliation talks and stayed with Sam Kauona, the military leader of the rebels [ Bougainville Revolutionary Army]. So I developed quite an intimate understanding of the situation. But this book isn’t to represent the Bougainville rebels; it is a work of imagination.’’
From childhood Jones says he was a voracious reader and that led him to his present occupation. ‘‘ At some point readers become writers,’’ he says. ‘‘ I didn’t really know how to become a writer, other than perhaps become a journalist. There were no writing schools in those days, but I’m pleased I did become a journalist; you engage with the world in a different way, certainly in a different way to an imaginative writer. But now it is actually quite a vital part of how I go about writing. I react to something real in the world, something concrete. I like to walk the landscapes of my fiction. I like to walk those landscapes with a notebook and a pencil. I think it is a throwback to my old journalistic thing.’’
Jones’s most successful book is his novel about the original All Black rugby team, which toured the world in 1905, The Book of Fame. He describes the reaction and the sales in the land of the long white cloud as magic.
It is New Zealand’s Greek myth and I was surprised it hadn’t been done before. The 1905 All Blacks go on a bloody ship to the other side of the world. They go there to discover it and they are discovered and in turn they discover themselves. It is a kind of identity thing.
New Zealand is wired to rugby. It goes back to our settler days when every solution in New Zealand was not an intellectual one but a physical one. You broke the land and moulded the country into whatever passed as paradise at that particular moment. It is a physical response rather than an intellectual one, and that is how we play rugby. We hammer the other side into submission.’’
Jones is working on two projects, one of which he says will die suddenly’’ when the other takes off.
In the past I tried to write two books at the same time, but it isn’t a good way to work,’’ he says. You are not fully engaged with one. But this time around I have an essay type book and a novel kicking around and they may not compete for the same mental space. You know that John Updike has two rooms — two studies with two desks — one where he writes his novels and the other where he writes nonfiction. He goes to the novel one in the morning and the nonfiction one in the afternoon. But I don’t know if I am that disciplined. My mind is an untidy place, I can’t organise it to that extent.’’
Jones says that when he is writing fiction the actual writing drives the story. It is an act of discovery, an exercise in discovery,’’ he says. ‘‘ It is not like you sit down with a nice, neatly sequenced plot. The story is a bit of push and pull. You start off laying down the conditions and providing the situation and at some point it picks up some steam and just drags you off into an area you were not expecting. When that happens it is perfect.’’