10 Questions with Peter Walker, author of Hard by the Cloud House


Q1: This your fourth book and it ranges far and wide. Where did the idea for it first take seed?

I was reading a newspaper one day and saw a story about the giant New Zealand eagle: it struck me that this marvelous creature was oddly shorn of associations, legends, symbolism. I thought I would take a closer look. I thought I might get a magazine article — let’s say 15,000 words in the New Yorker — out of it. Ten years later, I finally had a manuscript. But it was 80,000 words and took another four years to get it fit for publication.

Q2: How challenging was it?

Not very. I was over-confident. I was sure I would be able to find good material. I’d spent 20 years watching talented journalists at work and journalists are not worried if they are not experts in a field. They think they can fly in and master new topics and issues — and often they can. They can also do something that the experts generally can’t, which is to survey many different facts and disciplines and draw out connections between them.

Q3: The reader cannot help but discern the wide reading that sits behind all that you write. Where was that done and over what time span?

Once I got started writing, about 2013, I had my work cut out. For instance, I knew nothing about early open-ocean travel, or Bronze Age eagle legends. But there wasn’t a huge amount written about these subjects. I once wrote a book about Henry VIII’s court and Renaissance Italy, and that was terrifying: there was so much written about both that if you tried to read all of it, you’d never come to the end. This eagle book was different. A dozen or so medieval travellers’ accounts and another dozen early Chinese and Arab surveys of the world, and I had early sea-travel pretty clear. I probably read or ‘read in’ a couple of hundred books or so over ten years.

Q4: Anyone who knows Canterbury can appreciate how well you have conjured the Mount Torlesse area, where the great eagle lived. When you went back there to research for this book did you sense traces of the great bird in those hills?

I could imagine it there. I don’t think I had a sense of it as a vestigial presence. But I could see that the greatest of the eagles fitted into that kinetic landscape with its fast-rising mountains, westerly storms and hot summer winds. Not to mention the flocks — moa probably flocked together at times — of huge flightless birds to eat. Other people, I knew, did feel there was a strange, frightening ‘presence’ in the Southern Alps, though they didn’t know its source. J. B. Priestly wrote about it quite vividly in his 1970s book on New Zealand.

Q5: Your summation of the activities of the wily Walter Mantell and the means by which Ngāi Tahu lost their land is superb. The reader, surely, burns with anger. Was this an episode and a stratagem you had already known about?

No, I am ashamed to say. I had written about colonial land theft before, in Taranaki particularly, but the biggest single heist of all, in the South Island, I had neglected. I thought that whatever had happened there was not as dramatically charged, not as interesting, as the clashes between Māori and settlers in the north. In a way I still think that — but the identification of the young Ngāi Tahu chief Metehau with the eagle-killing hero in the legend of Mount Tawera made the South Island story jump into focus for me.

Q6: Just as the reader has bedded in to West Coast caves and the discovery of Harpagornis moorei bones you spirit them away to Arabia and a medieval world. What excites you about that period of history?

I like the fact that the people in that era were beginning to do what for us is routine. ‘Globalisation’ is a stupid word, since we’ve been wandering and trading about the globe for centuries. But in the medieval period, the world was a place of dangerous magic, mystery and fantasies, some wildly far-fetched. Dreading bewitchment, people still sailed over the horizon and without knowing it established the sea-lanes and trade routes of today.

Q7: How convinced are you that Chinese and Arabian craft did sail into the Pacific?

I’m not convinced but I know it was possible, especially for Arabian and Persian vessels which dominated the sea trade between India and South China. That route was opened about 100 AD. If only ten ships sailed every year, by 1100 AD that’s a total of 10,000 ships, and we know a good number of them were swept away by storms every year. ‘Travel’ into the deep Pacific would I think have been inadvertent and sporadic but not at all unlikely. And by that time, of course, Polynesians had been ranging far and wide over the Pacific for two millennia. There was no reason some Asian craft, swept out into the great ocean, might not occasionally make it back.

Q8: You reveal overlap after overlap, serendipities after serendipities, in all the many interlinking tales of great birds. Did they in a way fall into your lap?

Perhaps. I don’t have a memory of much falling into my lap: of course I like to think of it all the result of very hard work. But you do suddenly see patterns and repetitions. ‘History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes’ — it’s the same with mythology. In quite separate cultures with no chance of cross-pollination — classical Greek and Māori, say — the same strange themes might appear. For example, at the start of the book I quote a Māori song to the eagle Te Hokioi which is weirdly similar to a Greek poem about the eagle of Zeus, both invoking thunderstorms, which is fair enough, and yet also sleep, which seems counter-intuitive. At other times you do get an intuition that you are onto something. It’s like tapping on a wall and hearing a hollow sound: there’s a panel here that might open. For instance, when I thought of the Korotangi carving, I felt a certainty about it — not that it was necessarily connected to my subject, but that this book was a good place to discuss it, to interrogate it again, so to speak.

Q9: One might say the book is shrouded in many layers of deep mysteries. What was their cumulative effect on you as you wrote?

I had the sense that the world is far more richly interconnected than we think. It is not ‘random’ — the core word of late-teen nihilism — and not without meaning.

Q10: What do you hope readers may take from reading Hard by the Cloud House?

I hope that Te Hokioi, the largest eagle that humans ever encountered, comes into focus more clearly and takes on its own symbolic meaning. I also liked showing how some trivial event may carry on having an effect centuries later. For instance, 12,000 years ago a tiny wren, now extinct, fell down a sinkhole in the South Island. Its skeleton was found in 1980 and solely because of that those caves were saved from destruction and the scientific story of the eagle resumed. Another example: one day in 1849, the chief surveyor looking for a site for the new colony of ‘Canterbury’, decided to sail away from Lyttelton and look further south. But just then a sou’east gale sprang up and the ship wouldn’t move, and so he changed his mind. But for that puff of wind, Christchurch would not have been built where it was, I would not have come into existence (I was a Christchurch boy), this book would not have been written, this questionnaire would not have been written, you would not be reading it now. And so on and so on.