The long way to Crete

Dunedin author Chris Worth, who is about to release the first novel in a World War 2 trilogy....
Dunedin author Chris Worth, who is about to release the first novel in a World War 2 trilogy. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
Chris Worth travelled a long and winding road before publishing his first book and he is about to send his main character on a similarly testing journey, Mike Houlahan writes.

They say everyone has a book in them. For Dunedin writer Chris Worth, finding his was the work of decades.

"I have always had an ambition to write something, but what sort of book I had no idea."

Finding out took him to the other side of the world and back ... and it turned out that Worth did not just have a book in him. He had internalised what is projected to be a trilogy.

The first volume, The Rabbit Hunter, begins to tell the story of the war experiences of second lieutenant Neil Rankin, a fictional construct but one grounded in solid research and informed by other people’s first-hand experiences.

From Dunedin but raised in rural Clyde, Rankin develops into a crack shot as a boy, shooting rabbits to help support the family. The book begins at a sedate pace as Rankin and his fellow soldiers slowly make their way to Greece, but it picks up appreciably once the company is flung into the rapidly retreating front line to try to stem the advancing German tide.

"Not all of the things in the book happened to the same people, but most of these things happened to somebody," Worth says.

"You also have to make an entertaining read but without being flippant, and it’s a fine balance. People need to recognise the characters and want to know what happens to the characters ... I didn’t want it to be a James Bond story, because that would be disrespectful to the people who were there and what actually happened, but in order to make the characters come alive and be interesting you’ve got to have them do something."

Cliche would have it that the career Worth followed professionally, accountancy, is an arid and dry one, bereft of adventure and excitement.

That may be so, but it also teaches a would-be author valuable lessons, Worth says.

"Accountancy is a disciplined profession but it is also about communication.

"I have written a lot of reports in my time and reports need to be capable of being understood but not misunderstood, so you have to be a reasonably lucid writer to be an effective accountant: it’s not just about numbers, it’s about the meaning behind the numbers."

And it can also be intrepid. Worth’s career in book keeping was more exciting than most as it included a stint as an auditor in the Moscow office of multi-national firm Coopers and Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers).

"I went into the Dunedin office one Sunday and a fax had been left on my desk which said that the Moscow office was looking for staff at all levels and I thought that will do me, although it came as a bit of a shock to all at home.

"The Berlin Wall had just come down but life was still very, very grey in Russia ... every second car was a taxi, probably driven by a professor at the university or a doctor at the hospital who couldn’t make ends meet, hyper inflation was rampant, and it was a disastrous time for the Russian people."

One thing seven years based in Moscow did allow for was convenient travel to the rest of Europe. A family holiday to Greece was highly influential in that long suppressed book bubbling to the surface.

"We went to Crete on holiday and the kids had no idea what had happened there or that New Zealand had had any part in it ... people have asked me why did I do it [write a book], why did I put myself through all this, but they had no idea that something like 8 or 9000 New Zealanders ended up on Crete and fought a pitched battle in 1941, and if you go to the war cemeteries plenty of them are still there.

"Hopefully the book can give their generation some sort of insight."

Earlier, as a younger man, on his first OE, Worth had also visited Crete, and still gets emotional remembering the welcome he received for the simple fact that he was a New Zealander.

"It had a huge impact on me, that these people have never forgotten, even though there have been generations after. That memory had a huge part of play in convincing me that this was a story worth telling and that I would like to tell it in our way."

Which makes writing The Rabbit Hunter sound like a well-plotted undertaking but Worth, a self-confessed terrible planner, came slowly to the point of realising his vision.

After coming home to New Zealand in 2003 he did a creative writing course that nurtured the kernel of what is now his debut novel. However, further work on it was stalled by Worth beginning a second career as a freelance accounting practice reviewer.

"It ended up becoming more of a job than I intended it to be, so in the meantime bits and pieces got added to the book as I went along. But when you pick something like that up again you forget what you had written so you re-read the last chapter, decide you don’t like any of that and rewrite it, and it’s easy to get continuity issues: you don’t want someone who died on p.48 to reappear on p.96."

Following examination by various friends, Worth was emboldened to send it to manuscript assessor Chris Else, who sent back many pages of comments.

"Clearly there was a lot to be worked on, but there was also a lot which was actually starting to be all right, and it was all encouraging enough to get on to the next stage and he recommended a publisher ."

Worth was still working part-time, which meant that by the time The Rabbit Hunter was finally ready for submission it ended up being referred to a new publisher, who was keen to pick the book up.

What was going to be a single novel has now expanded to be a trilogy. As The Rabbit Hunter ends, those New Zealand soldiers who could be saved are being evacuated to Crete, where Rankin’s adventures will continue in book two.

"While writing I eventually came to the conclusion that I had started at the end of the story and not at the beginning," Worth says.

"I had to go back and recreate the beginning, which is what we have got now and, of course, as that went on it informed book two, and as that went on to inform book three, which is how they get off Crete ... or do they?"

The Rabbit Hunter, by Chris Worth, published by Renaissance Publishing, is released on March 22.