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March 19, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books | [ssba]

The Wulf Man: An Interview With Hamish Claton, Author of Wulf

Wulf is a historical novel. Do you think that the novel is a valid way of dealing with history?

I think it is a valid way, but as long are you are aware of what you’re bringing to it as a novelist, rather than as a history writer. I tend to think that historians are better on providing a strict sense of historical clarity. I’m more interested in historical novels which register the fleeting experiences at the edges of the facts.

You don’t think that making it a good novel distorts it as good history? I can think of several things that complicate matters: Haast’s eagle before anyone knew about it, Te Rauparaha referring to Kapiti as his shield and spear.

Well, no. Who’s to say that Cowell hadn’t accidentally wandered into a limestone cave and seen the remains of the eagles before they were noted by historical record. The way I was using the historical record was to say “Well, what’s feasible for this person to have seen?”

It need not have actually have occurred… Cowell didn’t call it Haast’s Eagle, did he? He didn’t describe it as the largest eagle that ever lived. It was just a moment where he tells his audience: “Here I am in a limestone cave, and the bones of these enormous birds remind me of the indigenous stories I’ve heard.”

A central theme in Wulf is the personification of the land, and I’d like to talk about that. 

It’s a colonial trope I suppose; that’s why the land is so heavily eroticised and the idea of possessing the land is so important.

Some parts of Wulf are intensely visual, as well. I’m thinking of the description of a tree stump that’s not a wolf, for example.

That scene unfolded in cinematic focus for me. There’s actually a track in the Botanic Gardens, one of the really dark ones, where there is a tree stump that looks like a wolf. I’d only just started writing the novel, and went out walking in the dark, when I was only two or three pages into the writing of it, and I happened to see this thing. It was quite bizarre.

Can we talk about the nameless narrator?

He had to be nameless. I never wanted to find out who he was, specifically because of my idea of historical fiction. I’m resistant to the idea of representing history in a novel. The nameless narrator is the character we know most intimately in the novel, the character we know next best is Cowell, who does appear in the historical record, and beyond that we have Te Rauparaha, who’s solidly part of history. So there’s this reversal: the more solid they are in history, the further away they are from the reader. It was one of those little motifs and structuring devices which, once I realised it was there, I used.

What was your writing process?

I finished the first half of the first draft, and then in a huge burst of energy I finished the rest. And it was utter crap, and I had to go back. You can’t crush the ideas when they arrive in your lap. I remember being nine, in 1986, when Halley’s comet came to New Zealand, and standing out in the backyard trying to see it. You couldn’t see it unless you looked to one side, and then you could see the tail. It’s like that. You have to creep up, very carefully, on the ideas sometimes.

So, shall we talk about ambiguity in your novel? It’s bookended by poems you can’t translate, and filled with signs like the spiral that the narrator can’t interpret.

That ambiguity is definitely the thread running through it. It ties back into that central idea I have of cultures not being able to understand each other. Do you know the story of how I found the poem?

My friend shows me the poem and says it’s one of her favourites and makes the off-hand comment that someone ought to write a novel about it. I read the poem, loved it, and started obsessively collecting translations of it. And then the light went on years later when I realised it seemed to be evoking line-by-line aspects of Te Rauparaha’s history. What I liked about the idea was that historical period I’ve mapped onto it is so hard to get to, in the same way that the meaning of the poem is hard to get to.


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