We are counting down the days to Zero Hour—Leon Davidson’s new book about the First World War, due for release on 1 March. The award-winning author of Red Haze and Scarecrow Army will be a guest of the New Zealand International Arts Festival held in Wellington in March, and will visit Australia in mid-April for publicity and school events.
His new book is that rare and perfectly balanced blend of firstperson accounts and the raw facts of war. Written with a younger reader in mind, this is a story many never lived to tell, and all of us should know. Gallipoli may have been the Anzac’s ‘baptism of fire’ but the Western Front was where they came of age as a fighting force.• • • •
Interview with Leon Davidson:
Q: A number of writers say they write because they have to, because the stories are bursting to get out. Is this the case for you?
A: I guess so. I’m always coming up with ideas that I want to write but there are not enough hours in the day. I know that if I stopped writing, I’d feel a little lost.
Q: You’ve mentioned in the past that writing your first book was an arduous task as you were working full-time. How has the process changed now that you have just completed your third book?
A: It got worse—although the writing is easier the research for this book has been enormous and on top of that, I’m now a primary school teacher.
Q: All your books deal with Australians & New Zealanders at war. Why has this topic engaged you so much?
A: Since I was young, I’ve always been fascinated in war, especially since my grandfather fought in Africa and Italy in the Second World War. Although I was born in New Zealand, living in Australia got me interested in our combined history, and Anzac Day brought that all together.
Q: And why did you decide to aim these at younger readers?
A: I was more interested in telling a story than writing an academic work. There are a lot of fantastic books for adults already, and I wanted to provide the same for younger readers—when I grew up, there didn’t seem to be much apart from Commando comics. Having said that, I’ve had a lot of feedback from adults, who’ve found the books an enjoyable and easy introduction into this type of history.
Q: What moved you most about the stories you’ve uncovered from the Western Front?
A: The little things, like reading about a wounded man crying out for Bill, over and over, and reading on to find that Bill never replied and the wounded man died alone.
Q: What has been the highlight of your writing career so far?
A: The first time I won an award, seeing my first book published and going to the library and seeing all my books out.
Q: Do you often get to meet your readers? Have they ever surprised you with their feedback?
A: I teach some of them these days. One boy recently contacted me to do an ‘author study’. That was cool. One thing I found really touching was hearing about a Vietnam veteran who’d never talked about his experiences with his children. He gave them Red Haze to read so they could understand what the Vietnam War was like. It was an honour to hear that.
Q: Does research for your book require you to travel often? Where is the most interesting place you have found yourself?
A: Not as much as I’d like—mainly the library. But I have spent some time at the Western Front, which was amazing. When I visited the Belgian town where my great-grandfather was wounded the car I was driving got stuck in the Flanders mud. Beside the rock we put under the tyre was a pile of rusting shells. Another highlight was going to Gallipoli and wandering around on a beautiful winter day without seeing another person for six hours.
Q: Are there any downsides to being a writer?
A: Getting up at 6 a.m. to write for an hour before going to teach, then coming home and doing several more hours. It’s also terrifying spending so long on a book and then sending it out into the world and knowing it will be judged.
Q: How do you unwind from writing?
A: I don’t (at the moment) but when I get a chance I love to bodyboard, mountain bike around Makara Peak, particularly when it’s muddy, and go for long walks over the Wellington hills. I always look forward to finishing a book, but immediately after, I’m a bit lost and mulling over another idea.
Q: In a past interview you mentioned that silver-bellied eel fried in butter was your favourite food. Can you tell us what that tastes like and are they hard to catch?
A: The truth is I’ve only had it once, a long time ago, and I’ve never forgotten it—it was more the experience of camping by a West Coast river with my family, going eeling at night with a torch and spear, then cooking it for breakfast over a campfire. I think it tasted of butter, maybe. But I do know not to eat the yellow-bellies. They live down in the depths of muddy rivers and taste of mud. At the time, it was just a matter of scanning a torch into a clear river and plunging your spear down, and wrestling with it as you got it to the bank. Now, I think they’re harder to find as some types are getting endangered.