1. You've been obsessed with World War I for 40 years. What sparked your interest initially?
Finding out about my family's involvement. When I was 25 my grandmother died and left me a brass tin from her brother L/Sgt Forester Kent who was killed at Gallipoli. I knew my grandfather Lt Harold Hall had served in France in WWI and started to become curious. I read everything I could and when I ran out of books went off on my own journey to all the sites where New Zealanders fought.
2. Why does Gallipoli play a key role in our sense of national identity rather than Passchendaele where more lives were lost?
For some reason Gallipoli's got this myth surrounding it but as far as I'm concerned what happened in Belgium two years later is far more important to our history. April 25th became a national day of remembrance just a year after the Allied landings at Gallipoli and at that stage it was our only experience of military tragedy. It got worse at the Somme and worse again at Passchendaele. We lost 2700 soldiers at Gallipoli, 2000 in France and 5000 in Belgium.
3. Your debut novel Good Sons focuses on two major battles in Flanders; Messines on June 7 was a triumph whereas Bellevue Spur on October 12 was a disaster. What went so wrong?
The attack on Messines ridge was in spring when the ground was drier. The Allies had spent months tunnelling under the German trenches and on the morning of the attack detonated 19 huge mines that lifted the whole ridgetop, then drenched what was left in artillery fire. The infantry that went in afterwards found little resistance. Four months later in the attack on Bellevue Spur (the 1st Battle of Passchendaele) it was raining and the ground was such a quagmire the artillery was unable to damage the concrete bunkers at the top of the ridge housing German machine-guns, or cut through the 50m of barbed wire in front. The few soldiers who managed to get up the ridge in the rain were caught and shot in the wire. New Zealand suffered its greatest loss of life in a single day - 846 dead and 2,700 casualties.
4. Your novel follows the fates of three young friends from Oamaru. The action only shifts to the war itself in the second half of the book. Why?
To me, it was about turning names on a memorial into actual people. I wanted to show that these were ordinary young men who had families, went to school, played rugby and went camping with their mates. I also wanted to show the reasons why boys enlisted were many and varied. Tom goes first because he's one of those "King and Country" types, full of bravado. Robert is rebelling against his anti-war father and running away after getting a girl pregnant. Frank wants to get a job and see a bit of life first. Haunted by his mate's death at the Somme, he feels compelled to sign up.
5. Is your novel based on the letters or diaries of anyone in particular?
I used a book of letters written by William Malcolm of Oamaru called Boots, Belts, Rifle and Pack for the tone and vernacular of the novel, and my great-uncle's last letter home. I only learned how he died two years ago when I visited Waitaki Boys High and found a letter to the rector, Frank Milner, an influential local figure who I've also included in the book. The official history of the Otago Battalion was my bible. I started each chapter with a clipping from the Otago Daily Times or the Oamaru Mail to show how things were being reported back home.
6. Why did you write a novel instead of non-fiction?
For the last 100 years, so many people have tried to understand what happened through writing, art, film, music and dance. All these people are doing what I'm doing - trying to get to grips with this disaster called World War I. Writing things down helps me find a way to express my grief and pay tribute to the men who were there - it's a cathartic process.
7. You were a high-powered corporate banking manager until quitting at age 59. Did you always want to be a banker?
It's funny, if I had my life over I'd study literature instead of maths and economics but I got married very young and had three children to support so the bank was a means to an end. I'd spend my nights and weekends doing things I enjoyed like reading and going off on my strange path to try and reconcile WWI in my mind.
8. When did you start writing?
When I first went to France and Belgium 20 years ago. I was travelling alone so I'd go back to my hotel at night and write in my diary. I must've harboured a thought that I'd like to write one day and when I got out of banking I started looking at life from a fresh perspective. It took me a few years to enrol in a creative writing course. Self-doubt held me back. I joined a writing group that meets in a Takapuna pub once a month and they've kept me going. I was fortunate to have a mentor, Judith White, who would put a big red ring round anything resembling cliché but my writing style is naturally very plain and from the heart.
9. What does the Passchendaele Society do?
It was a joint initiative by the Belgian and New Zealand governments to cement the friendship forged in WWI. The Belgian people have a very high regard for New Zealanders but we know very little about them. When the newspapers announced the Battle of Passchendaele people didn't know where it was or how to pronounce it. Not only did New Zealand lose 5000 soldiers in Belgium, we spent the whole war raising money for the Belgian Relief Fund. I got involved in the society after seeing a travelling exhibition called The Belgians Have Not Forgotten.
10. Have you ever met a Passchendaele survivor?
No, but last year I got to interview seven children of men who fought at Passchendaele for an article in the Listener. To most people WWI is in the realms of ancient history but to me it's very immediate.
11. How is the Passchendaele Society marking the centenary on October 12 this year?
We're building a New Zealand memorial garden at the Passchendaele Memorial Museum in Flanders. All the parts were fabricated here and given a very moving send-off at the Auckland War Memorial Museum last month. The basalt pavers have 846 brass discs representing the men who died on October 12, 1917 and a 3m concrete tower with 2,700 penetrations to let the light through, representing all the casualties. We're also sending 10 high school students to Passchendaele, one from every school district in New Zealand.
12. Will you be at Passchendaele for the centenary?
No, I prefer to go to places like Passchendaele when I can wander around on my own. Whether it's an Allied cemetery or a German one, I prefer it cold with low cloud and misty. It's weird, some people would rather wander in the Louvre but I prefer the emotion of a war grave cemetary.
• Good Sons by Greg Hall, April 2017, RRP $32