TV One's New York correspondent Tim Wilson might have spent much of the last decade reporting some of the world's biggest stories but somehow he's found time to write his first novel, too. Stephen Jewell spoke to him in New York.
From Hurricane Katrina to the Virginia Tech shootings, TVNZ's American correspondent Tim Wilson has witnessed the aftermath of many of the momentous events in American history of the last decade.
All of which has fed into his debut novel, Their Faces Were Shining. Indeed, such cataclysms have marked the 45-year-old's time in New York City - he first relocated there nine years ago, a fortnight after the devastating events of September 11.
"During the first weeks I was here, I was able to walk down by Ground Zero and, even before you got there, you could smell burnt electrical stuff several blocks up," he recalls when we meet at a Lower East Side cafe.
"The book is set in America and during the time I've been here America seems to have been exposed to those kinds of apocalyptic notions, which are times when the established order is falling apart. I've got to watch that over the past few years and it's helped me to write about it from a sort of low level instead of what you usually get, which is the apocalypse from the Nick Cage hero's point of view."
Formerly a staff writer at Auckland's Metro magazine, Wilson had long harboured a desire to shift to the US, which he attributes to suffering a mid-life crisis at the age of 36.
"I really admired the American journalism that I was reading in Vanity Fair but most of all The New Yorker, which I was in love with," he says.
"I had a period for about 18 months when, after about five or six drinks, I would mutter to my mates that I was going to move to New York and work on The New Yorker. After a while, one of them suggested that maybe I should follow up on what I was saying. So I did - but I didn't end up on The New Yorker."
After arriving in New York, Wilson found himself in the eye of the proverbial storm. "After the attack on the World Trade Centre, America was where all the action was as a journalist, with the way that America responded with the two wars and an increased isolationism and unilateralism," he says, referring to the subsequent American -led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
"At the same time, America became the centre of an argument about the future of the West and the centre of lots of legal and illegal activities, so it was a good time to be a journalist here."
Now based in Spanish Harlem, Wilson originally stayed in a rundown Midtown hostel. "I was slumming it," he laughs. "I came over here with US$10,000 but a few months later I went to the ATM and I had just US$300 left. I wasn't living large and I remember wondering 'where did it all go?' I was living in a room without windows, my rent was US$900 a month and I'd been there about five months.
"Then a week later I got paid £3000 for a story I did for the Guardian Weekend magazine, which was about US$5000 in those days. Suddenly I was back in the black and it saved my bones."
Wilson's big break arrived in 2003 after fellow Kiwi Lauren Quaintance gave him her cellphone before she returned Downunder.
"At the time I wasn't set up. I was a charity case and she was being charitable," reflects Wilson, who was surprised when Pam Corkery called one day, expecting to speak to Quaintance, a former editor of Metro.
Quaintance had covered 9/11 for TVNZ during her stint in New York on a Columbia Fulbright Scholarship and Corkery, then hosting the now-defunct late night news programme The Last Word, was searching for someone in America to do a live link-up. "It meant getting up at 4am but I was broke so I was happy to do it," says Wilson. "I did it once and they liked it so they kept having me back. Then, at one point, Bill Ralston - who had been my editor at Metro and was the head of news and current affairs at TVNZ - came over and suggested doing it on a more formal basis, though still as a freelancer. It was basically 'we'll try you out but if you screw up, no hard feelings'. I said 'okay, can't be that hard, can it?' But TV is the hardest thing I've done and it was a big change in career as I was used to being a print journalist."
Since 2004, Wilson has been a regular fixture on One News, providing regular updates on significant events like the death of Michael Jackson and the BP oil spill. "I hope I'm a lot more fluent now than I used to be," he says. "I feel like I understand TV a bit better now."
He admits that he still finds it strange when members of the viewing public stop him in the street during his regular trips back home. "I have the best of both worlds, because people know me in New Zealand but no one knows me here," he reflects.
"In New York, I'm just a doofus on the subway. Being recognised is always gratifying but it's also odd, because the interactions you have with people who know you from being on TV are always going to be disappointing for both you and them. They expect a particular response or interaction but you can't always be that guy, so you end up disappointing each other. But people are always nice."
Wilson is hoping for a similar positive reaction to Their Faces Were Shining, which has taken seven years to complete.
"I didn't have a brilliant social life because I was always working on my book," he says. "I would just write and write and write. I wrote a lot of rubbish, crossed it out and wrote some more. It took a long time and I've since spoken to other first time authors and they've said their first book took them about seven to 10 years. So don't do it, kids! Don't write books; make viral videos on YouTube."
Wilson didn't aspire to write novels when we first met at the University of Auckland in Carl [C.K] Stead's stage three English Creative Writing class in 1986.
"We were festering young men, Stephen, malcontents," he laughs, almost blushing when I mention some of his more outlandish haircuts. "I was like any young person, my hair was a disaster! I used to have ridiculous hair. I had a spiral perm at one point in the 80s, which was more of a heavy metal thing. I would rock up with this horrible, manky hair and a Motorhead T-shirt and think I was the next big thing. When I remember that, it seems like a slightly crazy person."
Sometimes writing under the alias Holden Kingswood - in tribute to the old V8 he used to drive - Wilson would type out his poems on an old Imperial typewriter, that once belonged to his father. "I just wanted to write poetry back then," he says. "Absurd little twit that I was."
Instead of a natural or manmade Armageddon, the apocalypse that Wilson envisions in Their Faces Were Shining is more metaphysical in nature as the biblical Rapture unexpectedly occurs.
Following the old adage "write what you know", Wilson admits that he is tapping into many of his feelings about being raised in the church. "My father was a Presbyterian minister and I grew up in ministries all around provincial New Zealand, so I was able to see religious experience from the inside."
Born in Dunedin, Wilson moved to Pokeno at the age of 2 weeks. "The decisions that [my father] took as a man of the cloth had an impact on his family. The book is about a woman who learns to love and how to truly engage with family members and other people. It's interesting to observe how the faith and the beliefs we have surround us and our nearest and dearest."
Centring around devout believer Hope Patterson, who is unexpectedly left behind while many seemingly less worthy souls literally rise up through the sky to heaven, the novel explores the fact that Wilson is adopted.
"She's someone who believes that she is a Christian but then the Rapture comes and she is rejected," he says. "From what I've read about adoption, it's a primal wound. It's the ultimate rejection so maybe it was something I was writing out even though I didn't realise it. I'm sure the fact that I'm adopted gives it a kind of energy."
Taking his cue from the late J.G. Ballard, the dystopian future that Wilson envisions is distinctly humdrum. "He wrote sci-fi that was recognisable," he says. "It's the end of the world as seen from the kitchen sink. I wanted it to be low key, I didn't want it to be Hollywood sci-fi. It's a manageable apocalypse. The end of the world comes and the world keeps going. That's what I've seen when I've gone to these disaster zones. There's an earth-shattering event and then people get on with their lives. How do they do that? It's often very mundane things that concern you like how are my loved ones doing? Have I got some water and should I throw all the food out of the fridge?"
Rather than battling zombies or some other fantastical creature, Hope has more trivial concerns, including her rapidly diminishing bank balance, something that rings true in Wilson's experience.
"Money is important," he says. "When I was driving around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I was fortunate because I had a credit card that worked, so I was able to buy gas. There was one point where all these people were fighting for petrol at a petrol station and because I had a funny accent, the attendants said that I could have some. That's the kind of stuff that matters, the struggle for electricity, for water, all the things that we take for granted. I was able to do that through my job and I was able to write about it."
The novel takes place in Fairfield, located in an undefined Midwestern state. "It's one of the most popular names for a town in the United States, which is why I chose it," says Wilson. "I wanted to set it somewhere that was nowhere and everywhere at the same time. A small to medium-sized town, where there are the usual institutions and people going about their business. They're just very average but the things that happen are not average at all. The Rapture is not an average event, so I wanted it to happen in a generic and recognisable setting."
Wilson hopes Kiwis will read his book, even though it is set overseas. "New Zealand has recently become more outward-looking than it used to be," he says. "New Zealand fiction is fiction that is written by New Zealanders. I'm not an American and I'll never be an American, so my views of America are always going to be influenced by that. What Americans take for granted, I see as a bit strange. My view will always be as a New Zealander but I've written about America, which is where I've been for the past nine years."
However, Wilson might not remain in New York for much longer, as he has been touted as one of the potential replacements for Paul Henry on TV One's Breakfast. When we originally met, a couple of weeks before the race row that eventually led to Henry's resignation, Wilson declared that he has enjoyed his stints filling in for Henry over the past couple of summers.
"Live TV is a tightrope act but if you get it right, it's thrilling," he declares, heaping praise on co-host Pippa Wetzell. "She's fantastic and she's really funny. People think that she's this person who is shallow and mumsy, but she works very hard and has a ribald and subversive sense of humour."
However, Wilson says he would be reluctant to become just another reporter in TVNZ's newsroom. "I have a great job that takes me all over America. I get to engage with stories that are meaningful and interesting to me, which I think New Zealanders would be interested in as well. But New York is not a place to grow old and die in and I'm not getting any younger.
"I'm open to offers and if the right opportunity comes up in New Zealand, I will seize it with both hands. I've worked for TVNZ for seven years, it's my natural home."
When we speak again, in the wake of Henry's departure, Wilson plays his cards close to his chest. "Paul's departure means there's been lots of speculation about who would take his place on the couch, if not fill his shoes," he says. "My name's been mentioned, but so have the names of some very talented broadcasters. If TVNZ were to consider me for it, I'd have to think very seriously about the prospect."
Tim Wilson's Their Faces Were Shining (Victoria University Press $30) is published on November 1.