Dame Claudia Orange on How I write &
Author Claudia Orange loves to dip into a crime novel. Supplied.
Claudia Orange, How I write: Dame Claudia Orange, Stuff, 1 March 2023
Dame Claudia Orange is one of New Zealand’s most distinguished historians. A director at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for many years, she is now a research associate at the museum. She has just released The Story of a Treaty, He Kōrero Tiriti, a lively account of the Treaty from its signing in 1840, through the debates and struggles of the 19th century, to the gathering political momentum of recent decades.
Which book do you wish you’d written and why?
A recent shift from Wellington to Auckland has made me realise how important is family, and the records for a biography. This was evident in my keeping whakapapa, photos and stories of my mother’s German-speaking forebears (from Bohemia) who settled at Puhoi. Alongside them are those of my father Monty Bell, whose forebears had migrated from Cork and the Isle of Man. They settled in Marlborough and then (for him) in Feilding, where he surprisingly learnt te reo during WW1. Bell family reunions and Puhoi anniversaries, celebrated with waltzes and polkas, were part of my growing years. There is a book to capture here – still to be written.
Which book had such an impact on you that you bought it for your friends?
With democracy seemingly at some risk in 2022, I bought a new book by law professor Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Gwen Palmer Steeds – Democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand: a survival guide. It was just the gift my law student granddaughter Dominique needed. Concise and easy to read, it was also a gem for me too – a quick and clear reference guide, expressed with clarity and a degree of quirkiness.
What book do you go back to time and time again to re-read?
As a historian and writer, there is more than one book which I keep referring back to and reading. That tapestry of our history called The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography (online) has been a must for checking on people of the past. But contemporary affairs and the recent past have made me treasure Aroha Harris’s Hikoi: Forty Years of Maori Protest and her section of the history Tangata Whenua. Others that capture political work are Christopher Finlayson’s He Kupu Taurangi on settlements and the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Which writer do you turn to when you have writer’s block?
I seldom have writer’s block, but if slow to get to my computer then coffee and talk with other writers and friends makes me “fire up”. And good advice from a past historian stays with me – stop halfway through a sentence – easy to continue when you come back to it.
Which authors would you want in your book club?
I love crime novels so Jane Harper (Exiles) whose work emerged from a journalism career would be a must. And from a similar background too, Colin James (Unquiet Time) and Guyon Espiner (The Ninth Floor).
What book did you read as a child or teen that had a profound effect on you?
As a child I often read a book a day, fed by an expert at Ponsonby’s Leys Institute library. I was captured for a time by an American “Maida” series where Maida was capable of leading in any project. Primary years giving way to secondary demands, the Knox-Cox gospel stories with commentaries exercised a need to influence the world for better. And at that time Keith Sinclair’s book on the New Zealand wars emerged, followed by his History of New Zealand. These made senior history relevant to me and I recall my excitement after a history class.
Have you ever finished a book and gone straight back to the start to read again?
Yes – one of Jane Harper’s first, The Dry. PD James The Murder Room. And many of Agatha Christie’s novels, in particular Murder on the Orient Express.
When it comes to a memorable book, what is more important, a great plot or great characters?
Great characters live with one after a book is finished. A plot can sometimes be disappointing, and must be one of the greatest challenges for writers to construct.
What’s your writing routine?
When involved in writing a new book, I keep a daily diary that lists the work to address, the research to unearth, and the key topics to be addressed. I decide what I want to say paragraph by paragraph, and express it briefly and in terms that can be understood. I check the diary record regularly which spurs me on but does not necessarily tie me down. If the words keep flowing, the computer stays on!
And where do you write?
I have been fortunate in having a space at Te Papa’s environment area that has enabled me to keep books, papers, legislation and other records there. At lockdowns it became essential to work at home, and so a good laptop and a bedroom cum study was and is essential. No distractions are essential: All necessary stuff done in the morning with the afternoon into the evening being my best time. I have also kept a notebook by my bed and carry a small pad with me to capture those points and expressions which can be elusive.
What “must read” book have you not read? Go on, fess up
The Iliad is often referred to by my husband, so it is one I will attack this year.
See also: The Story of a Treaty He Kōrero Tiriti