Back in the mountains, under the sea

An interview with Richard Hall

New Zealand likes to hunt, and when we’re not hunting, we like to write about it. There’s so many hunting books out there that a guy in the Wairarapa was able to produce a whole other book by listing them all. But for the most part though these are big yarns about big stags, hunters writing for other hunters. Wellington writer Richard Hall brings something different to this much covered ground, his recently published Dark Forest, Deep Sea describes his years’ of hunting and diving as an emotional experience foremost.
We had a chat to him about writing, hunting, and fear.

Your book is structured around the emotions that you've felt as a hunter and diver, can you tell us a bit about why you chose to present it that way?

I don’t think that many would consider hunters to be emotional creatures. The only glimpse the modern world gets of hunters are the pictures of them standing by dead animals, or perhaps seeing a camouflage-clad character fuelling up a muddy ute at 6 in the morning at the local service station. The stereotypical hunter is meant to be silent, tough, craggy, and stoic. But hunters are complicated, and a cross-section of the population. They have flaws, vulnerabilities, fears and imaginations. I wanted to write a book that told the human story of hunting, without bombast or bravado. I wanted to go beyond straightforward accounts of trips away or daring adventures. I wanted to give people that do not hunt a way to access these activities and to better understand the people that do them. I think the world needs stories that connect people from different perspectives and backgrounds. If some keen trampers read the book, or cyclists, or people who never leave the inner city, then I’ll feel like I have accomplished what I set out to do.

I thought you were particularly good on 'fear'. Were any harder to write about than others?

‘Fear’ was hard to write to begin with because I had something of a complex about whether my fears were really worthy enough. I never broke any limbs. I wasn’t in any helicopter crashes (though I have friends who’ve been in them when hunting). After some time spent struggling with this insecurity I realised that the reason I was writing was to make a human connection with the reader, and I wouldn’t be able to achieve this as easily if the tales were too sensational. However, hunters and divers do some crazy things every day that many people wouldn’t dream of doing. I think I got some of that across as well.

The hardest part about writing a nonfiction book like this is that the characters are real people. They are also my friends. The writing was easy. It just flowed out on the page. I never got ‘writer’s block’. I wrote with as much honesty and authenticity as I could muster. It wasn’t until afterwards, when I had drafts of the manuscript, that I realised how careful and respectful I needed to be about the other characters in the book i.e. characters other than me. I was quite prepared to delve into my own feelings and insecurities!

The chapters 'Loneliness & Solitude' and 'Awe & Longing' were the easiest to write. They are probably the closest to my heart and contained the least painful memories. 'Fear' and 'Despair' were the ones that had the darker qualities, making them a bit more difficult to relive when I was writing them.

There's quite a swag of hunting books out there already, and I recall you telling me that you were consciously trying to do something different to most of them - could explain that?

There are some great nonfiction books on New Zealand hunting out there. But with the exception of hunting references in a few iconic works, like those from Barry Crump, most hunting books are written by hunters, for hunters. The same goes for fishing. Diving is a bit more esoteric and the interested groups are split up into SCUBA divers, freedivers and spearfishermen; each with different reading tastes. I wanted to write a book that anyone could read and by the end of it they might see, or feel, some of the allure and mystique about hunting, fishing and diving. I thought the best way to do this was to write about emotions, and mix that up with my imagined perception of the wilderness.

I think the book that I have written offers a different way for society to view a hunter, and maybe even a different way of viewing the landscape. I mention this last part because when you are taking animals for food you stop becoming a spectator in the wilderness -- the hunter becomes entangled in the wilderness, for better or worse.

Your book explores the things that drew you to hunting and the outdoors. Can you tell us what drew to writing? Is it something you've only done in recent years, or is this something you've been working on for yonks?

I have always written poetry. I have no idea why. I’ve collected it over the last 25 years. It is mostly about the wilderness.

I had been storing up the desire to write this book for a very long time. But before I came to write it, I had been making lots of videos and feeling disappointed with what I made. They weren’t bad. One year, I even won the national video competition that the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association run. Videos couldn’t communicate the emotions of hunting or my imagined perception of the wilderness.

The book took me five years to write. I started when my wife was pregnant with our first son, Angus. Whenever I had spare time, usually in the evenings once the kids had gone to bed, I would write until my eyes became dry and my lower back ached from sitting in the same place all night. I was totally disconnected from the world during my writing. I was back in the mountains. I was under the sea.

Did you have a model for this book? Another author or book that gave you an example?

I did not have any model for this book -- no author, no other book. I worked in a bit of a vacuum in many respects. I’d followed the mantra of ‘write the book you’d want to read yourself’ that a friend, Cassandra Gaisford, had told me about. I think this book is very different from other hunting and fishing books out there, because of the amount of emotional disclosure in it.

I’ve read a lot of poetry in my life, but I haven’t read enough in general. Scientific reading around the time of my PhD really curbed my enthusiasm for reading anything for a while. It has taken me over a decade to recover!