Home' The Wellingtonian : March 1st 2012 Contents 10 THE WELLINGTONIAN, MARCH 1, 2012
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The story of a storyteller
Joseph Romanos talks
to author Sir James
McNeish about the
David Bain case, his
love of tennis and why
he writes in the
Sir James McNeish: ''I can't think without a pen in my hand.''
Photo: JOSEPH ROMANOS
Do you prefer writing fiction
I m sometimes accused of com-
bining the two! I enjoy writing in
my own way. At present I m
writing about a German resist-
ance fighter. So little is known
that it is accurate that I m writing
it as a novel. I m having to invent
a little as I go along.
So facts aren't crucial?
You can get overwhelmed with
facts. Often there s something
underneath that is essentially
true. I enjoy bringing it out. I m
really a story-teller, but I base my
novels on something that has
happened. It s creative non-
One of your early works was
Fire Under the Ashes, about
anti-mafia campaigner Danilo
Dolci. Did you run into any
trouble with the mafia?
No. I lived in Sicily on and off
for three years while writing it,
then I was gone. More
surprisingly, they never killed
Sounds like a great place to
write a book. How did it work?
He was available only in the
mornings, so I had to get to him at
7am. I got into the habit of getting
up early and have done so ever
since. By 9am I have two or three
hours work done.
What is your process for
writing a book?
I handwrite it first. I can t think
without a pen in my hand. Then it
goes on to a computer and I do
various drafts until I m happy
Is that a long process?
It can be. In The Sixth Man I
wrote one chapter 13 times. Dylan
Thomas wrote one poem 149
times. You work at it until it s
What was your fascination
with Jack Lovelock?
A remark by a colleague, James
Bertram, who described Lovelock
as a young god under strain .
Those words stayed with me.
Then I got invited to go to Berlin
and felt it was the finger of God
pointing me to write about
Was the strain because of
his running achievements or
It was from within. There was
mental instability in his family.
It s possible to argue that his
nature contributed to his early
Not all your books are cre-
ative non-fiction -- for
example, The Mask of Sanity
about the Bain murders. What
interested you about that
I listened to a report on the
radio. It was the story of the
young brother, who had fought his
killer. It intrigued me, so I went
down and listened to the
The Bain case has become a
cause celebre. Do you still fol-
I shut off at the time of the sec-
ond trial. But you know a great
deal and naturally keep an eye on
Joe Karam has defended
Bain passionately for so long.
He took the opposite view to
you. What do you think of
There are things I could say,
but I think I m best to leave the
Weren't you a journalist
before you were a writer?
At school I couldn t write an
essay to save myself. But I learnt
the craft of a journalist working
for the New Zealand Herald until
my late 20s. I wasn t really suited
to journalism. I was always more
interested in the end of the story
than the beginning. And I got
bored with covering courts and
doing the police round.
You worked on a Norwegian
freighter when you were
younger. How did that come
I got the chance, at one day s
notice, to be a deckhand on a
freighter leaving Auckland. We
loaded grain in Macau, went
through the Suez and were paid
off in Oslo. I was a deckhand and
did whatever needed to be done --
scrub the decks, cleaning.
You have described yourself
as an outsider of the literary
establishment. Do you mind
Janet Frame said every writer
is an outsider. I ve had a few hard
knocks and have learned from
I understand you're writing
Touchstones, coming out this year.
Do you ever suffer from
I probably have had it, but not
to the extent of Dan Davin, who
said, My only exercise these days
is running around my writer s
block . If you are 100 per cent cre-
ative and trying to keep that side
up, I m sure you could go blank.
I m often working two books
ahead, so I m always working
towards something. A change of
scene or a new project helps.
What's your favourite
among your books?
I found Dance of the Peacocks
very stimulating to research. It is
about a group of New Zealanders
who were Rhodes Scholars. They
were a talented, unusual group
and it was fascinating researching
You're apparently a tennis
fan. Who have you especially
I liked Agassi and was fasci-
nated by the way Sampras would
mooch around the court, even
when he was winning. When I
lived in London, all the great
Aussies were in their prime and I
did enjoy watching them.
You've lived in a lot of
places. Where is home?
Home is really where my wife
is. We ve been in Wellington for 30
years, so this is home. I enjoy the
wind here. It s bracing.
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