From a young age Jones wanted to be a writer. Her vague desire crystallised when she read Mrs Dalloway at the age of fourteen. There was something about the prose that made Jones feel she could do it. Obviously she had nothing like the talent of Virginia Woolf - her own sentences had no cadences to speak of and her mind was vastly inferior to Woolf’s – yet it was that book, that author, that swung her from being a dedicated reader to a wannabe dedicated writer.
It was to be a long stony road to success. At first Jones had no voice of her own, could only write in imitation of others. Although she felt deeply, indeed her teachers said she was “too sensitive”, the feeling got lost in translation to the written word. Rejection, not long in coming, hit her hard and yet her determination drove her on. As a child she had been taught to persevere and so, rather than read rejection as an indication that an alternative career might be in order, she just kept on going, rather like the early pioneers in colonies throughout the world who never let themselves see they were beaten.
Even so, after writing three novels and being unable to get them published and learning to hate the need to sit down every morning to go through the ordeal again, Jones hit the Slough of Despond. The coup de grace was the realization that some authors actually enjoyed writing novels.
What Jones did enjoy was writing about people she knew. She loved turning her own life into a narrative, she loved exploring dilemmas, philosophical questions, the meaning of things - but she hated making things up. Her novels were never driven by plot, there was never a sense of an organic unfolding, things happened in her novels because they had happened in real life or because she made them happen with her own blood, sweat, toil and tears. Finally the machine ground to a halt. Jones understood she was not a novelist. Novelist was what she was not.
The sun still shone, the trees grew, the flowers bloomed. Jones lived in a supremely beautiful country where food was varied and plentiful, roofs over heads were the norm and she felt safe walking down the street. Why make herself miserable for the rest of her life, thought Jones, just because she wasn’t a novelist? The logic was compelling.
What did fame matter? Why be a millionaire? One should write for oneself – but with a reader in mind. That was the trouble with the novels – there had never really been a reader in mind. For a year Jones followed her own advice. She edited some family letters and wove a narrative around them and self-published eleven copies for family members, under the title, Not a Bad Bunch. Jones laughed at the thought that she was writing a book for eleven people. It was her act of greatest daring yet. To find the intrinsic value of writing. To find the authentic reader.
Then Jones had a stroke of luck. At the Dublin Writers Museum she was entranced by quotes by Irish writers on poster boards showing that many of them knew each other. This was Jones's epiphany. Here was the germ of an idea that had been waiting for fertilisation. Jones got fertilising. It would be a book about the very first New Zealand writers – the pioneer writers of her own country. How did a written literature develop there, how did the first writers fare, how did they learn to write meaningfully of a place so foreign to them, so obliterating of the place they came from? What kind of people were they? What were their dilemmas and their triumphs?
The book took four years to research and write. Jones fell in love with each of her pioneer writers in turn. They changed her experience of New Zealand for ever.
This is how Jones became a historian.
But history is neither watchmaking nor cabinet construction. It is an endeavour toward better understanding