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Phil Smith - A Man of many talents

He's worked as a journalist and Communications Director for World Vision and has also written hundreds of illustrated features for various NZ and Australian newspapers and magazines. He's also been a wood carver, stained glass artist, timber worker, forklift driver, builder… and is a keen surfer and rock climber.

Phil SmithHe's now turned his hand to fiction writing and we were lucky enough to catch up with him (when the sets weren't rollin' in!) to find out what inspires and motivates this extraordinary man…

Did you start out to write specifically for a young adult audience?
I wasn't writing for an audience at all. It was a learning experience. You could say I was upskilling. The Unknown Zone was the outcome of my effort to switch from journalism to fiction writing. I'd worked for newspapers and magazines in NZ and overseas since 1965 but I'd always found it easy to invent stories and extrapolate imaginatively. I'm grateful to know that the book might have an audience and I'm thrilled that Random House decided to publish it. It's not really suitable for younger teens because some of the language is a bit strong, even for me, and there are certain scenes that could be upsetting. If young adults like it then I'm stoked. Girls are sure to enjoy it because most females these days are into some kind of excitement and adventure, and all of us enjoy a dash of romance. I would love for those who read it to acquire the strengths and qualities of my main character, Hemi Ratana, the timid teenager who grows into a man of influence and honour. I hope it entertains and enlightens large numbers of readers and encourages people to buy my next book.
Just wondering if the story evolved as you went along or did you know exactly where you were going with it?
No, I had no idea of where it was going. It started ages ago when I read of how some bushmen in the fifties felled a giant kauri on the Coromandel and in the head branches they found a human skeleton. A gum harvester - years earlier - had apparently dropped his rope and perished in the treetops. I wondered who he was and how he came to be there.
How long did it take from initial idea to finished product?
It took roughly ten years. Until recently it had the rather clunky working title of The Boy Who Climbed Trees. But I was (and still am) on a learning curve, don't forget. I was doing a self-imposed polytechnic course on novel writing. I really wanted to develop the craft of storytelling. You have to understand that making the transition from newspaper journalism to novels was, for me, like going from stock cars to Formula One. I roamed the secondhand bookshops for books on writing, as well as the other subjects I'm interested in, and I prowled round museums, rambled up rivers, talked to old timers, took photos, mucked round on the net …
You must have spent a lot of time researching - where? Or did you rely on writer's licence and embellish a lot of the facts. Curious to know if the Legend of Moanawhakamana actually exists or all from imagination? Likewise with some characters, iwi etc … did you have to consult with anyone or get permission to include them in your novel - especially if you worked around fact/fiction?
One of the benefits of journalism training is you become extremely good at researching things, finding out stuff. You have an intense curiosity and enjoy meeting people and asking questions. You also appreciate the necessity for honesty and accuracy so I was careful about what material I selected and how I presented it. The Legend of Moanawhakamana is as true as any other legend, but most of the work is factually correct. Anyone familiar with our history, geography, Māoritanga, European culture and so on will find something that resonates. For example there really is a curve in the Kauaeranga Bridge in Thames and the beach in South Westland is mostly schist. I didn't consult with anyone or get permission. I have characters who are English, Irish and Māori and it never occurred to me that consultation might be necessary or that ethnic sensitivities should be an issue, because its all based on recorded history. And I also know that it's often easier to obtain forgiveness than permission.
Susie surfingDid you have someone helping you at all with research, editing, Māori history, etc
No. I mean yes. My beautiful Australian wife of 37 years, Susie. She's the one who drags me away on surf trips whenever I'm in a melancholy malaise. She listens to my outpourings and tells me if I'm being stupid or pompous (I have a stunning propensity for pomposity!) The best breakthrough happened when Random House gave me an editor in the form of the Dunedin writer Emma Neale, who has a PhD from University College, London. For three or four months we set about revising and refining the manuscript. Interestingly we worked with hard copy. We made a prodigious number of improvements. I've worked as a newspaper subeditor on and off over 35 years and I vainly thought the original manuscript was plenty good enough: I'd never worked collaboratively on anything before so I had no idea how thorough and intensive the editing process is for a book. I was enthralled. I learned more in three months with Emma Neale than I learned in the previous ten years. For example she would write comments on the copy like, "We need to try not to sacrifice realism and authentic character development for the sake of pace and climax."
Why do you write?
Because I'm a writer. I have always written things, poems, essays, lots of letters, mysterious meanderings of the soul. Writers have to write, the same as golfers have to hit little balls. It's not something I actually chose. Some of the time I'm letting off emotional steam. Now and then I look at stuff I wrote years ago and I shrivel with embarrassment. Other times there's something I think needs to be said so I say it and people are generally amused or edified by it. A good motivational question to ask yourself is, What do you really want to do in life, and why do you want to do it? For me, I want to write. The reason? I love it!
Are you going to do more fiction - would it be in the same genre or something totally different?
Yes, I'm part of the way into a slightly bigger action adventure novel in the same genre. It's called Return to Normal and it is set in the Hokianga region of Northland, as well as in some of the world's war zones. I'm working on the rather shocking back-story right now. I think it will be another young adult novel. I'll let my publisher decide.
What do you think is the biggest challenges facing teens today - as opposed to what it was in 'your day' ?
Not becoming overweight, staying out of jail, and not committing suicide. I was a teenager in the sixties when these phenomena were rare. That's because most families stayed intact, virtually no one took drugs or ate fast food, cars would only do 80 miles an hour, and only a few homes had television.
Most valuable advice ever given to you.
Trust in God.
Worst piece of advice ever given to you
If it feels good, do it!
What do you think NZ will be like in fifty years
Two possibilities:
1) By 2055 the survivors of Earth's environmental collapse will be living in hydroponic bliss in biospheres on the Moon. New Zealand's landscape will look like the Sahara in summer.
2) Humanity will come to its senses, learn from history and put an end to killing and polluting.
Rawene SunsetYou've had a whole heap of jobs - which one was your favorite and why?
In 1976 and 1977 I was communications director for World Vision International in Nairobi, Kenya. My task was to visit and write about the various relief and development projects throughout central Africa. I went to seventeen countries, some during drought and famine, and documented more than 100 projects for magazines and newspapers in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The stories and photos helped raise money to assist the African people.
I can't tolerate
Pretentiousness and pomposity.
Most favorite possession
My Bible. I've read between one verse and one chapter every day (except for two or three occasions) since 1974. It's the King James version. That's why I can regress to an archaic writing style whithersoever opportunity existeth.
Any chance of a TV programme/movie
I would love to think so. For twenty years Susie and I have been travelling from North Cape to the Bluff on research (surf) trips. Each year we're away from home for around eight weeks, discovering magnificent locations and devising situations that would look good on TV.
Your novel's been described as a glimpse into the world of Māori for those who may never have experienced it … is there any chance of it being published internationally
That would be amazing! But how would you write Moanawhakamana, or Komuhumuhu in Japanese? I would be happy to think the Unknown Zone was helping to make New Zealanders more aware and appreciative of their own country, and of its fascinating Polynesian heritage.