The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - LLOYD JONES

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.’’

Pic­ture: Lind­say Moller

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