David Hair: Stranger In A Strange Land

Stranger In A Strange Land

David Hair talks about the inspirations for his recently released book Mage’s Blood, first book of the Moontide Quartet.

David Hair

Caught in suffocating traffic, fumes making you woozy as the auto-rickshaw inches forward. Horns clamour constantly so that you have to shout to talk. The forty-plus degrees Celsius heat is survivable because there is no humidity – it’s not rained for months. Layers of dust and silt from the thousand and one building projects cover everything, turning your snot black and filling your eyes with grit. Rickety trucks painted with gaudy decorations and demon faces all about, hemming you in. A young beggar girl of maybe twelve holds a baby under your nose, tugs at your sleeve. ‘No Mama, no Papa, chapatti…’ Her fingers feed invisible bread into her mouth. The baby has kohl-lined eyes and she’s got cheap jewellery on her fingers; they’re based under the Ring Road underpass on Africa Avenue. You’ve been told over and over that they’re part of criminal-run gangs and whatever money you give they’ll barely get a sniff of, but you give anyway. To her you’re a rich foreign tourist, but really you’re just a displaced middle-class guy with a mortgage, living the life of Reilly for a couple of years. You can’t help ’em all, you tell yourself, give her a few rupees and wave her away.

Beside the road, saree-wrapped dalit women dig trenches while their men watch and play cards. Crows caw in the trees above, waiting for scraps. Every smell, from the stale sweat of the rickshaw driver and the trash rotting on the curb to the fresh roasted nuts being cooked over a tiny fire of litter by a boy who looks about fourteen, assaults your nostrils. Your senses try valiantly to take it all in, and overload. Holy men call from the PA systems of the nearest mosques, bells chime in temples, and everywhere there are people – walking, driving, sitting, laughing, talking, friends going hand-in-hand through the clamour, intent on their conversations. Looming above it all, some forgotten ruin of the Mughal era slowly crumbles, just part of the backdrop. In any other country it would be a revered relic, but here such places are so common they’re just glorified nests for birds and bats. You barely notice – you’re more concerned to be home before four, as the market you’re heading for had a bomb go off two weeks ago. The terrorists like to time them to explode when there are maximum people and in time to headline the evening news.

Later that night you’re at a cocktail party, with every language you can think of being spoken by people from every continent. The setting is a lawn in a five-star hotel. The lobby is entirely of decorative marble, the water features filled with beautifully crafted flower features. Candles float on tiny leaf-boats in the ponds, immaculately dressed staff in stark uniforms, red turbans and white gloves offer finger food and top up your drinks. Beautiful Indian women in sarees of every shade, glittering with gems and diamantes, float by like elegant birds. The air is ambient, music tinkles from hidden speakers, and every person here has a story of how they came to be here and what they’ve seen and done. Foreign phrases like magic spells float through the room, invoking other places. Kinshasa. Berlin. Washington. Cold windy isolated New Zealand has never felt further away.

Come on, who wouldn’t be inspired to write about it?

How did a Kiwi bloke end up spending nearly four years in the maelstrom that is India? Well, in 2006, divorced father of two is chatting to attractive similarly-aged woman on the Johnsonville train, a random passenger he’s bumped into. Her name is Kerry. They get on, make a date for coffee. Do a movie. The usual things. A few months of intense getting to know one another pass and they’re talking of moving in together. Then she drops the bombshell – she’s just been offered a four-year post with NZ Immigration in New Delhi and wants to go. Do I want to go and live in India with her?

It’s no small thing. I have two teenage children. I’ve got a good job in financial services, and I know that dropping out for four years will set back advancement hugely, perhaps kill my career altogether. I have friends and family and a mortgage. We’ve really only just met. Can I risk so much on this relationship?

Sure I can. Why are we alive, if not to seize such opportunities to do and see wonderful things? It’s a chance to see part of the world I’d never dreamt of, and show the kids how the rest of the world lives. I can’t say yes fast enough.

We weren’t totally reckless. Kerry went out first, to settle in and ensure it was what she’d been promised. I then joined her for a two week holiday, and was utterly entranced. The colour, the chaos, the contrasts, it all blew me away. I proposed at the Taj Mahal, as you do when you’ve just had your life turned upside down by a lovely woman and you’ve got a handy ‘temple of love’ right there. She said yes. We got married just after Christmas and New Year, at a Hawkes Bay vineyard during a brief break back in NZ, having known each other less than a year. One of the best things I’ve ever done, and ever will.

It was a wonderful experience, looking back. A genuine real-life journey to another world. India and New Zealand have a couple of things in common: we’re both ex-British colonies and we both drive on the left hand side of the road. That’s about it for common ground. New Zealand is small, cool-climate, lush, young, relatively prosperous and modern. India is so many things. Modern and primitive. Fabulously rich and heartbreakingly poor. Beautiful and ugly, pristine and filthy, all pressed together and clamouring for attention..

In May 2007, just before leaving to join Kerry fulltime in Delhi, I posted my first YA novel (The Bone Tiki) to a couple of New Zealand publishers. That book had been gestating in me for some time, and I’d been chipping away at it since 2001. Kerry, and my friend Mark, persuaded me to submit it for publication, but I had no particular sense of optimism about it. I felt it was a good story and of publishable standard, but I doubted that was enough – I’d need to get lucky.

Because in India I’d be unable to work (being a spouse in a diplomatic mission), I intended to divide my time between professional study, and giving writing a real go. The writing was boosted by the news just before Christmas 2007 that The Bone Tiki had been accepted for publication – I had got lucky after all. It went on to be released in 2009 and won Best First Book at the 2009 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards. Three sequels in what is now the Aotearoa series are now out with two more to come (if you’re curious, they are YA fantasy novels set in New Zealand, drawing heavily form our culture and history. The publisher is HarperCollins New Zealand and they are available in New Zealand and Australia (and through some online bookstores who ship globally)).

While in India I also wrote a 4-book Indian-based YA fantasy, The Return of Ravana, loosely based on the Indian epic The Ramayana. How that came to happen is another story. It was published by Penguin India, and subsequently distributed in New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Book 1, Pyre Of Queens, received the New Zealand librarians association (LIANZA) award in 2012 for Best YA Novel.

While I was working on those stories, I was also working on what would become Mage’s Blood. I didn’t finish it until Kerry and I left India in 2010, when our posting came to its end. Anyone who picks it up will immediately see the influences of the time spent in India, particularly in the scenes involving Ramita and Kazim. Ramita could be any girl in the vast crowds of Delhi or Mumbai or Varanasi, born to a life of family and duty, contained and constrained and upheld by tradition and lives preordained by generations that have come before. Kazim could be any of the young men playing cricket in every available open space, full of restless energy and passion, knowing that their future will nevertheless be to work in their father’s trade for the rest of their lives.

But influences didn’t just come from my immediate surroundings. I have a history degree, and have worked in financial services. I watch the papers and the news. The depressing banal roundabout of greed, lies, bigotry, racism, superstition and exploitation goes on and on. While we were in India the so-called ‘Global Financial Crisis’ burst like a boil – India was one of the few countries relatively untouched by it. It still angers me that taxpayers were forced to bail out reckless and criminal financial institutions and continue to do so in the US and Europe. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rumble on with few visible gains, yet you just know that the moment the West turns its back, those hideous zealots of the Taliban will be back in force. Criminal bankers continue to take bonuses and school girls in Pakistan get shot for going to school. The world is infinitely messed up, and the things that make it so are so entrenched that it cannot change, except by tiny degrees. We try to fight our own corner, and do our best for ourselves and those we care about. To behave like human beings and hope that eventually time and tide will look after the rest. At least we writers are never short of tragedy to inspire us.

The other inspirations of Moontide come from writing itself. As a teen my favourite books, the ones I loved growing up and still revere today, were all the long books, and the big series. The Lord of the Rings, obviously, and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books, David Eddings’ The Belgariad, Julian May’s Pliocene Epoch series, Morgaine, Dune… all the usual suspects. What I loved about them was that they were utterly immersive. They required your concentration, demanded your focus and embracing their alien worlds and cultures. They rewarded you with the ultimate in escape from ordinary life. Where a crime novel or a thriller keeps you rooted in this world, fidgeting in time to the rhythms of daily life, the fantasy and sci-fi epics took you to another place, with a different heartbeat. They gave you new dreams. They were unconstrained by such petty issues as gravity and rules of science and nature. They made anything seem possible. They were inspiring, because they were filled with people whose moral and physical struggles had meaning beyond the humdrum of passing exams and earning pay. They suggested that life might have some noble purpose if we look for it hard enough. So having set my feet on the writing path, I wanted to have a go at a really big story, to see if I could do it. That Jo Fletcher had the faith in the story to pick it up and run with it is something I will be eternally grateful for.

Kerry and I are back in New Zealand now. India slowly recedes. We both miss it, and visited again recently for one last hurrah with our closest friends there. But everyday life here in Wellington takes over. I’m juggling a fulltime job with my writing, hoping that eventually the writing will bring in enough to take over. It’s good to be back where the air is clean and cool, and you can drink water from the tap. But I have only to see a flash of bright colours, or have some of my Hindi music pop up on my iPod, and I’m back in traffic on the Ring Road, staring wide-eyed about me and soaking it all in.

David Hair, November 2012