By Pamellia Smith
Michigan, US (Lazybookreviewer)
Geoffrey Robert is a first time novelist of The Alo Release, A Genetic Modification Thriller. I was asked to read a pre-published edition of this novel for an honest review. While reading the book, I thought it would be interesting to interview this author.
PS: Good morning, Geoffrey. Thank you for participating in our author interview program. I have a few questions for you about your writing and personal life. What was your original inspiration for writing your first novel, The Alo Release?
GR: A hike in the Whitcombe Valley on New Zealand’s rugged West Coast. I remember standing in the bush above this unbelievably wild river in the middle of nowhere, and thinking this is as good as it gets. Exquisite birdsong, jagged peaks of the Alps beckoning like the spires of mystical cathedrals, the smell of moisture in the beech forest like an elixir. Nature in its raw, unpredictable state – at an entirely different end of the spectrum from the confines of a test tube or comfort of a biotech lab. I wanted to tackle an important international issue from a uniquely New Zealand perspective, giving readers insights into the environment, the culture, language, attitudes – warts and all.
PS: After reading this book, I must say that you met your goals! However, what were some of the challenges, such as research, literary, political, psychological, logistical, in bringing this story to life?
GR: The biggest challenge for me was logistical – making the time to complete the manuscript. It has been a long project that I’ve gone back to as time has allowed, juggling writing with the demands of my job as a newspaper editor. In March this year my wife and I made the decision to uproot and follow our dream to volunteer in a developing country. It has given me the time and creative space to complete the novel – and a thirst to write more. I’ve drawn on more than 30 years experience as a journalist and communications adviser. Journalists, whether in Detroit, New York or Auckland, come under constant pressure from businesses and other organizations with large budgets to spend on manipulating public opinion to boost profits or advance their agendas. The Alo Release highlights how vulnerable citizens and governments are to manipulation on a grand scale during an international crisis. The issue is timely, given widespread concern in many countries about the safety and labeling of genetically modified food, and alarm over the level of influence multinational corporations are having on trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership.
PS: I’m certainly pleased that you did find the time to complete this project. The three protagonists of the book, Matthew, Cat and Jay, have such different personalities. Which character do you most identify with and why?
GR: Probably Jay, as the Kiwi among the three. We share a passion for keeping things natural, the importance of social justice, backing the underdog. Both of us have reasonably laid-back, understated approaches to life, but I only abseil down buildings to unfurl banners, steer kayaks into the path of ships carrying nuclear waste, or ride zodiacs under the bows of whaling ships in my dreams.
PS: Jay’s personality was proactive. His character seemed to be able to do whatever was necessary to win the day. As I read the book several different colorful characters came to life. I wondered if you based some of them on actual people you have known in New Zealand. For example: were Auntie Fay, Auntie Joan, Detective Inspector Hansen, The Plucker (actually too many to name them all) based on people living in New Zealand?
GR: Some of them were. Others were amalgams of people I know or have come across. I have had aunties called Joan and Fay, who share some of the heart-of-gold no-nonsense traits of the aunties in the book. The Possum Plucker is based on a real person I met in one of the backcountry huts in the Whitcombe Valley. Colorful is an understatement for that bloke. The SwordPhish character is based on an IT expert I once knew, and Jay’s hiking buddy Andrew is loosely based on a friend who accompanied me on many excursions into the New Zealand bush.
PS: Those characters gave the book a down-home realism. This is the first novel I have read set in New Zealand. Can you tell us about your life in New Zealand including growing up?
GR: Many New Zealanders don’t realize how lucky they are to live in a peaceful, stable country in the South Pacific, with a deep-rooted commitment to social justice and easy access to a relatively unspoilt environment. A line in the novel about the most dangerous creature in the New Zealand bush being the sandfly is true! No snakes, bears, lions or anything that will give you more than an irritating itch for a few hours. It only took one trip to the mountains of the Southern Alps as a teenager to get me hooked, despite suffering mild hypothermia crossing an icy river. I headed into the bush and mountains every opportunity I had during my teenage years and early working life. Career and family eventually intervened, but I still managed many trips into the wild places – in New Zealand and abroad – to recharge. When parts of the body started complaining about the more arduous hikes, I turned to mountain-biking. I grew up in a working class family in a fiercely independent little country with a proud history of standing up to the bullies – whether it was America over its demand to bring nuclear ships into New Zealand harbors or France wanting to test nuclear bombs in the Pacific.
PS: No snakes!? I’m there!! It sounds just lovely. Have you explored the areas you describe in your book?
GR: Many of them. I’ve spent numerous days hiking in the Whitcombe and Rakaia Valleys, and other places off the beaten track. I grew up in Christchurch, so am familiar with several of the areas where the novel approaches its climax. I’ve lived in the capital city of Wellington for seven years – including working for five years in Parliament — and have been a regular visitor to Auckland, where my brother lives. I’ve spent time in most of the other New Zealand locations mentioned in the novel, such as Rotorua, Coromandel, Napier, Wairarapa and the West Coast of the South Island, at various times in my life. Many scenes in The Alo Release are set in locations outside New Zealand. I don’t claim to have visited them all, though have traveled widely, witnessing first hand the swelling disparities in wealth and influence at the root of many of the world’s problems. From the dazzle of Times Square to the clogged alleyways of India, the orderly streets of London to the chaotic bus stations of Kenya, the bountiful swagger of Sydney to the dirt floor poverty of Timor Leste.
PS: Your travels are interesting. What message would you like for your readers to grasp after reading The Alo Release?
GR: Question and challenge what you read, see and hear in the media – whether it be newspapers, television or social media. I’ve always been a great believer in the power of common sense and the ability of people to see through propaganda. Public opinion surveys consistently show the majority of Americans don’t think GMOs are safe, want their food labelled so they can make informed choices, and don’t trust big business, which they know has far too much influence over government decision-making. Social media has many strengths. It has brought the world closer together. I’d like to think genocide on the scale of the holocaust wouldn’t happen again because someone will upload a video to Youtube and the world will have to react. But the proliferation of social media has also blurred the lines of media ownership and influence, opening the field to greater manipulation by vested interests, which is one of the underlying themes of The Alo Release. Many of the techniques of corporate manipulation featured in the novel are happening now to a degree. The book explores what could happen on a grand scale – and what a ruthless corporation could get away with – during an international crisis. ‘She’s scary stuff’, as Jay would say. I also hope international readers will get an insight into New Zealand and what makes Kiwis tick. If it encourages some of them to venture Down Under for a look-see, even better.
PS: With everything going on in our world today, that is some good advise. What writing projects are you working on now? Will we see another novel from you in the next year?
GR: I am in the early stages of my next novel, which I’m aiming to finish in the next 12 months. It is likely to be another social justice thriller about little guys standing up to a multinational corporation. I’m thinking of focusing my microscope on the pharmaceutical industry. I’m also interested in exploring the links between the clothing industry and child slavery, but that might have to wait for novel number three.
PS: From your internet biography I see you are a long time writer. Would you give us some examples of the articles you have written and for what purpose?
GR: Before becoming a newspaper editor, much of my career as a journalist was spent in news, covering the field from politics, science, the environment, law enforcement, the courts/justice and defence. My introduction to the profession included a few baptisms of fire – nationwide anti-apartheid protests that divided New Zealand in the 1980s, and the bombing by French terrorists of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbor. I spent several stints as a freelancer during extended travels through Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and my writing was published by newspapers in the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Africa made a big – and lasting – impression on me. Particularly the disparities of wealth and the disgraceful aftermath of colonialism. The developed world has a lot to answer for.
PS: I had not thought about the aftermath of colonialism in this way. I appreciate your openness. Kindly comment on the volunteer work you and your wife are providing in Timor Leste.
GR: We always intended doing volunteer work but assumed it would be when we were closer to the age of retirement. Various stars have aligned for us this year, and the opportunity to volunteer in Timor Leste presented itself. The country, one of the poorest in South East Asia, is struggling to develop its economy after hundreds of years of exploitation as a Portuguese colony and a quarter of a century of ruthless occupation by Indonesia. My wife is volunteering for a non-government organisation working in the education and peace building sectors. I’m juggling my time between writing and helping young Timorese eager to improve their English – at university and at a remote school in the south-west of the country.
PS: Geoffrey, I wish to thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview. We at The Lazy Book Reviewer strive to select well written and interesting books to review. The Alo Release certainly fits this criteria. The interesting life you have lived certainly assisted the branching out we are beginning with author interviews. We hope to read another of your novels in the future and wish you the best of luck in your future writing endeavors.
(4 August 2015)