Inside the author’s remarkable first novel on 19th century New Zealand, the country’s early explorers, and Te Rauparaha’s conquering of Kapiti Island.
Hamish Clayton’s debut novel Wulf is a fascinating, hypnotic read: for the most part, a sailor’s account of confronting New Zealand for the first time. It weaves together the Old English poem Wulf and Eadwacer with a first-person portrait of Ng?ti Toa chief, Te Rauparaha, all the while placing a country at the hands of people who have no idea what they are encountering.
Clayton’s original passion was art, but he always wrote. “I hadn’t realised how important it was until I was in my mid 20s,” he recalls. “When I was growing up at school, I was always the kid who knew how to paint or draw. I had this visible talent—the kid that did art always seemed to stand out a bit. I came to Wellington because I wanted to see how I’d go at painting and being a fine artist.” The catalyst for becoming a writer came from a chance encounter in the Peter McLeavey Gallery. “I noticed this painting. It was off the wall hanging face down, and I recognised the title Song of Solomon by Ralph Hotere. I said ‘is that Ralph Hotere?’ Peter said, ‘yeah… I don’t really like Ralph Hotere, but I’m selling it for a friend. I’ll show it to you.’ Then he asked me, ‘what do you think?’ So I opened my mouth and started talking about this painting and he said ‘you should be writing about art.’ And that was the first time I thought I should be a writer.”
Clayton had dabbled with short fiction since his late teens, and while studying English Literature and Art History at Victoria University in his mid-20s, he worked on Wulf . “By the time it was out, most of the surprises were that Penguin took it up so quickly,” he admits of its swift and unexpected acceptance. “I was only waiting a few weeks for them to get back, and they were really enthusiastic, and that was the real surprise. I suppose once you’re with someone like Penguin, they’re this big machine and it gets this attention, which is cool.”
And it all began from an off-hand comment by a friend who suggested Wulf and Eadwacer should be made into a novel. “The last thing that anybody in their right mind would tell, is this story of Te Rauparaha through it,” he explains. “It came to me in the middle of the night, this sudden flash. Line by line, parts of it was seemingly Te Rauparaha’s story. I can’t remember if I emailed her, or texted her, but I said, ‘is this a good idea?’ And she was pretty vehement that it was. So I got cracking on it.”
Given the novel’s pre-colonial setting, the post-colonial thematic strands are hardly a surprise. Still, it was not always obvious, according to Clayton. “It was only about halfway through that I realised that there was this potential other resonance, this post-colonial kind of thing going on,” he says. “You have this one culture trying to describe this strange culture that they’ve come up against, but they can’t do so except by recourse to their own stories and poems. I suppose this idea chimed with my own academic allegiances.”
But he also concedes that such an interpretation is inevitable. “As far as I’m concerned, you might be writing a historical novel. But you’re also doing a contemporary one. If you just want to read a historical novel to read about what life was like way back then, you’re better off reading history writers, because they’ll know. I actually think it’s quite flimsy and short-sighted to be assuming for historical novels only to be painting this picture of the past. On the one hand, you do pay attention to authenticity and things like that, but I’m more interested [in] art plays on paradox, in Ondaatje’s first two novels, or Lloyd Jones’s Book of Fame, which take this historical subject matter and they ring absolutely true in the times they are trying to evoke and they do it in this utterly contemporary way.”
Te Rauparaha isn’t really seen in the novel, and in effect, acts almost like a Kurtz figure (Heart of Darkness). Clayton confesses this wasn’t intended. “Someone else said that. It’s bizarre I wasn’t thinking that, because I love that book. I really love it. I never thought of it like that. I suppose when I was writing that, I was just trying to listen to that voice—sometimes it’s Cowell’s voice. I was trying to honour that and block out other static. Once I had this idea that you never meet Te Rauparaha, it’s about this idea of Te Rauparaha, rather than him as a historical figure—once I figured it wasn’t about Te Rauparaha himself, but Te Rauparaha as a symbol. I blocked everything else out. I might have been a bit hamstrung if I thought about things like that.”
One of the novel’s strongest suits is the way it manages to evoke the idea of New Zealand as a physical character. Clayton, born and bred in this country, says, “I like the outdoors, and I like tramping. But also, New Zealand is this artistic trope. Look at The Piano—people who have never been on a windswept beach can identify with this version of New Zealand. One thing I was chuffed about was how so many people said the landscape was so compelling, how you felt like you’ve never been there before.” He adds that his artistic background may have assisted. “I love 19th century New Zealand art, Augustus Earle stuff, being a bit of a painter myself. I like writers who have this cinematic quality—Ondaatje, Lloyd Jones at times, people who had that lyrical quality to their writing. There’s this sumptuous beauty in the words, but they’re also putting something right up there.”
The 19th century setting also compelled Clayton to carry out considerable research. “I’m interested in all of that sort of stuff. To me, that was something else—the ambiguity, the idea of cultures coming up against each other, misunderstanding each other, cultural collisions—that’s all dressed in ambiguity. When I realised Wulf [the poem] was such an ambiguous text, I loved that there was this other metaphor for cultural miscommunication. It sparked a whole lot of ideas, the ambiguous sexuality of the characters. Because there is this trope of colonisation: sexuality is this powerful identifier of colonising the land in that sexual procreation kind of way.”
But what of the potential cultural minefields of the setting—for instance, the novel’s clinical treatment of controversial elements such as cannibalism? Clayton gives an example: “At the book launch a woman came up to me—she was there to put her point across—and said, ‘I was interested to know why you would write this story.’ She was related to the character. I said to her, ‘I hope you’ve read it first, and if you have, I hope you would find out my intentions do not square with your expectations. I was only going to write this poetic impression of the place that Te Rauparaha might have occupied in the imagination. I never get close to Te Rauparaha. You never see him. At one point you do, but you don’t even know it’s him. He has this hold on the imagination. I think it’s this great metaphor for post-colonial politics.’ She looked a bit miffed that I had this good answer. She would have been happier if she could have just got stuck into me.”
Clayton’s academic rigour naturally stems from his academic background, with his MA thesis on Dylan Horrocks’s Hicksville providing an inspiration for Wulf. “To me, they were two sides of the same coin,” he elaborates. “My thesis was trying to point out this book is about New Zealand, but isn’t about the place New Zealand is. The book is about versions of New Zealand that exist artistically and culturally; that strain I picked up going through that novel. I’m doing that during the day, and at night, I’m writing this novel, [which] in another way deals with another New Zealand of the imagination—this historical one that we have through all sorts of historical artefacts.”
On the heels of the success of Wulf, Clayton’s next project is inspired partly by his current PhD thesis on David Ballantyne’s 1968 novel Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Clayton says Ballantyne “wrote this social realist novel in 1948, which got a lot of reviews, and was important in New Zealand. It’s really boring. The thing is he discovers—I’m surmising Patrick Evans—in his early fiction, the problem you have as a writer when you’re trying to write authentic social realist fiction, in a country where nothing fucking happens. You can only write a boring book. He gets forgotten about. He becomes disillusioned, but in 1968 he writes this glorious Gothic masterpiece, this unredemptive fairytale set in Hick’s Bay. It’s so dark and fucking brilliant. I love it. It was republished by Text in Australia [this year]. And it’s being paraded as this neglected gem of New Zealand literature. I suspect the reason it was ignored [was that] it wasn’t the kind of book that would serve New Zealand literature’s purposes. But now it seems to fit, this sign of this maturing aesthetic climate. It has this magical quality running through it.”
Wulf is a compelling historical version of New Zealand, and yet the characters don’t really exist. While loosely based on historical figures, the novel is much more about voice and impressions. Clayton says of the sailors: “whether or not they are accurate or not is another matter. I was pleased that there weren’t any real colonising figures involved. I much preferred having these great shadowy figures.” He goes on to explain, “I started writing before I knew exactly what episode of Te Rauparaha I was dealing with. My way into creative writing is through voice. I had this first sentence in my head, and I thought this is the voice. I tried to listen to it a little bit and that’s why it’s quite amorphous. You don’t really know where you are. I wanted to preserve that. I didn’t want to go back and tighten that up. I wanted to give this impression of a reader of seeing this country for the first time.”