Michele Hewitson interview: Tim Wilson

By Michele Hewitson

The newlywed journalist, a devout Catholic convert, is already writing a sequel to his new novel, News Pigs

Tim Wilson, the son of a minister, became an atheist in his 20s as being a Christian got in the way of his carousing. Photo / Greg Bowker
Tim Wilson, the son of a minister, became an atheist in his 20s as being a Christian got in the way of his carousing. Photo / Greg Bowker

Grumble, grumble, grumble, went Tim Wilson, author, journalist, TV guy, brainy guy and wit. Have I left anything out? Oh, yes, there is the little matter of his conversion to Catholicism. He said: "Were you surprised when you heard I'd become a Catholic?" Of course I was surprised! Wasn't everyone? But why was I? he wanted to know.

Because it's weird, I said, lamely but truthfully, and we'd been talking about God for a good long time by then and we had both had enough of talking about Him. Or at least we had both agreed he wasn't going to be able to talk me into faith — "You were raised an atheist? You poor thing!" — and I wasn't going to be able to talk him out of it. He said, hardly smugly at all, really: "You'll probably, on your death bed, be screaming for the mercy of the Blessed Virgin." I most certainly will not. "I shouldn't provoke. I shouldn't provoke," he recited, failing miserably at piety. He can't really believe in the virgin birth, I said, but of course he does. "Absolutely."

He said: 'Why are we talking about religion so much?" Serves him right.

He had said, about our God talk: "It was very Dawkins versus the Bishop of Canterbury ... but maybe scaled down a bit." Huh. Only on his side. "On my side. More like a stammering convert up against a princess of atheism; a deacon of disbelief!"

I have no way of knowing what his character was like before he got God (actually he was raised a Presbyterian, his father is a minister, and then became an atheist in his 20s because "everyone does" and because being a Christian got in the way of his carousing.) But at a guess, he has a way to go towards goodness, if goodness is giving up sarcasm. Or arguing. He sent me an email the next day, a very sweet email about the interview in which he wrote: "And I like a fight, even though Our Lord blesses peacemakers. *hangs head*." He's funny.

Obviously he wanted to talk about his book. This was a bit tricky because I loved his first book, Their Faces Were Shining, about The Rapture, and love, and I was still thinking about the new one, News Pigs. It is very different, stylistically, and so a bit of a jolt. "It is. I suppose Their Faces Were Shining was an art gallery and this is like a carnival."

He wanted to write a book that was short and fun, as well as funny, and he started thinking about this while reading a Gossip Girls novel on the subway in New York. Of course, because he is so brainy, he came to be reading Gossip Girls because he'd read Janet Malcolm writing about it in the New Yorker; News Pigs includes graphic elements (blocks of black in the text) he first saw in Tristram Shandy.

I decided to pretend I thought it was a memoir and sent him an email addressed to Dear Tom — Tom Milde is the name of his protagonist. Ha, ha. I thought. He is a rather wimpy character, a poet and freelance hack, who is living in New York and, miraculously, perhaps, ends up covering news events for a channel called PLC TV. PLC stands for the Plucky Little Country, "Milde's motherland: social laboratory and cheese larder ...; widely admired for the nobility and humility of her inhabitants ..."

Tim Wilson, on the other hand, once wanted to be a poet and became a freelance hack and was living in New York when he, miraculously, perhaps, ended up covering news events for TVNZ.

He liked the idea of, in Tom Milde: "Having someone who is almost completely unsuited to the task". That might have been a bit like him. "What is this? It's like pop psychology." Of course it is. "I know! I know. I would do the same thing. No, I was suited to the task. Yes, of course. Intelligent, sober, televisual." He is supposed to be good-looking and used to appear in those "hot bachelor boy" lists. So I, being a pop psychologist, said: "Good-looking?" He said: "Symmetrical."

News Pigs (coined by his mate, Steve Braunias) is quite obviously not a memoir, then. It is a satire and it opens with a hangover and a nightmare: "His dreams circle: vultures with the bodies of beautiful corpulent-calved girls. Their terrible beaks open. The sound is like subway trains." I am not to say it goes on being like a hangover. Would I like to go to the launch, and drink dirty martinis? he asked, kindly. No, thank you. I know about book launches. There is too much drink and then the next day you wake up and you're in a Tim Wilson novel! "Don't describe it as a hangover novel! No one's going to read a giant hangover novel!" I though that was rather a good plug, actually. But they are very sensitive, these satirists — and given to grumbling. So he can do his own plug. "It's a buddy novel, Michele."

He is writing another Tom Milde book and writes one day a week and is still a journalist, at TVNZ, where he works on Seven Sharp for three days and for one day a week on Breakfast. He does a series called Take Me Home where he goes up to people in the street and asks them to take him to their place to tell him their stories.

This recently involved going to the South Auckland home of a young Pacific Island woman, finding that she had been in a beauty pageant and asking her to teach him to walk in high heels. She provided her heels which he put on and staggered about her house while she gave him catwalk lessons and said things like: "Own it!"

What sort of journalist was I? he grumbled, madly and absurdly, given that tottering-about-in-heels tale of his own intrepid journalism. I had turned up early. I was supposed to be late, and drunk. I didn't ask enough questions about the book. He said, much later: "I know what you're doing ... I know how this is going. I'm estimating, let's say, 25 per cent on the book." What an optimistic chap he is. He is an obliging one. He came up with a belter of a headline: God-Botherer Writes Pamphlet.

But first he had to change his shirt. I hadn't told him a photographer was coming. Mutter, mutter. He had put on a red shirt which he exchanged for a blue one. I had no idea why the blue one was better, but I was encouraging. "Much better," I said, soothingly. He thought so. He wasn't sure red was his colour. "I mean, I'm pink enough."

He was a bit pink. He had a sort of glow about him. He'd just got married. It looked, on Twitter, to be a very traditional sort of wedding. He wore a morning suit. The bride and groom both glowed. He said: "It was the best day of my life!" His wife, Rachel, a teacher and musician, had moved into their inner-city studio apartment before him.

Aside from the honeymoon, obviously, they have never lived together before. "Most certainly not." I thought he was joking but of course he wasn't. They met at mass, at St Patrick's cathedral, in the city. He is a Catholic convert and they are more Catholic than the "cradle" ones, which is what Rachel is. I wondered just how you chatted up a girl at mass and he said: "You don't!" He noticed her, of course — she is beautiful — but he thought: "That girl's trouble." She is given to nattering away to her mates during mass and he is tut-tutty about that sort of carry on. "She's a cradle Catholic, so it's as natural as breathing, going to mass, whereas, as a convert, I'm more shiny-shoed, with a sort of, you know, that scintilla of Protestant rectitude. You don't chatter in church."

She is 28 and he is 48, which makes people's eyebrows go up (or it did mine.) He says the age gap is the "elephant in the room", which he had to address in his wedding speech. "So, I was, like: 'She's such a wonderful, wonderful woman ... And you think to yourself: I wish I'd met her 20 years ago. And then you think: No. Wait! She would have been 8."'

Anyway, he obviously got over that age thing (as did she) and the nattering thing because now they are married and so have been "co-habitating, as man and wife", since last Thursday. He said: "You know me Michele, I'd rather say co-habitating than living together."

His wife is, he says, as "smart as a whip" and without having met her, I'd concur. He said: "You know, she once observed of me that it was a weakness of mine that I tended to overvalue intellectualism." Does he think that's true? "Absolutely." And did she mean his own intellectualism? "She could have been referring to that."

I don't know him at all but you only have to know him for about 10 minutes before guessing that he would say co-habitating rather than living together, which might be common. He is very likely the only person you will ever meet who could, in the space of an hour, come up with that "scintilla of" sentence and, earlier, describe his new co-habitating life as "the Garden of Eden". He is a romantic, "now" and a satirist. He used to pride himself on his cynicism. I wondered what he'd done with it. "I don't know. It's been neutralised."

He might be nicer than he used to be. He tries to be a good person, but who would want to be a goody-goody? He said: "Do you think I'm a goody-goody?" No. "Do you think I'm a baddy-baddy underneath it all? Oh. Really? That's actually probably true." It is, because that would make him human, perhaps? "Exactly. Church is a great place for sinners."

He is now a domestic creature. He said I could come to his apartment but that he wanted an out-clause should the cleaning elves not do their chores. They had. Instead of giving up booze or sugar or coffee, as their "Lenten observance", he and Rachel had given up being messy. He would make coffee. He took 23 minutes to make the coffee. The grumbling was contagious. He said, faux-outraged: "Here I am delivering quotes on Christopher Hitchens, God, romance and it's like: 'Where's my coffee?' says Michele Hewitson."

Hitchens cooked him lunch. What did he cook? "Sausages and tomatoes. He greeted us at the door of his house, at noon, holding an Olympic swimming pool-size tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black Label."

That's a good story. But it's not about the book! This is: For heaven's sake — or mine — buy it. I don't want any more of his grumbling. But I stand by my giant hangover novel plug. They should put it on the cover. He can't always be right. That would be very bad for his character.

- NZ Herald

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