NICK HAWKES' GUIDE TO THE LIFE OF WOW!
By Pete Court
It seems odd that Nick Hawkes is sitting still. A big Mac (the computer, not the burger) looms over his desk. Soft carpet absorbs the cheerful chatter of birds in the leafy green outside the high windows of his home office. The “dappled sunlight of an English country cottage” feel rests on everything. Nick’s voice is soft, patient and carefully proper, like it’s wearing a bow tie. His life, however, has rattled about like an adrenaline-charged pinball.
Nick grew up white in the black “outback”, dove into marine biology, surfaced in theology, then collided with cosmology. He has run churches, travelling the world as an explorer and a man of mission; with his partner in all things, Mary, he has raised a family; and as an author, he has flung out books like a whirlwind, winning accolades, awards, scorn and respect at every turn of the page.
From apologetics to explanations, explorations to flights of fantasy and fiction, Nick’s work variously leaps around the globe and launches out into the universe. The Stone series, comprising nine novels, sees his characters blazing across the Australian outback in The Celtic stone, ancient Cagliari with The Atlantis stone, the sodden marshes of the Thames in The Viking stone, and the war-torn Middle east of The Syrian stone. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, an iceberg is pretty much the only place the series doesn’t take its readers.
In short, the man is all over the place. Yet in person he always seems quietly at peace, if not at rest. The frizz of grey hair emerging after the harsh barber of chemotherapy is perhaps the only indicator that, somewhere within, something sinister is at work. Yet he remains filled with inner peace. I recall, years ago, introducing Nick on radio in the most satirical way I could, referring to him as “The Angry Young Man”. It was evident to all that he was neither – angry nor young. Fortunately, Nick laughs easily and can take a joke.
That pinballing life, pinging all over the place, has stood him in good stead as a writer, with much of his childhood and early life appearing on his fictional pages. “I think in childhood you are a blank page,” he muses. “The things you experience for the first time are ‘wow’ aren’t they?” I ask him what he means and he explains, not surprisingly, with a story:
“I remember the first time. We lived at the Woomera Rocket Range, and it taught me to look at the night sky. They sent up rockets. One was called The Black Knight and it was distinctive; it used to let out little coloured flares. We got used to looking at the night sky and someone old and wise once told me about (the Indigenous story) of the Seven Sisters and the Magellanic clouds… and if you’ve ever experienced that, it makes a huge impact. My goodness! You say ‘wow’ a lot if you’ve not been jaded by life.”
The childlike Nick appears on the page frequently, the result of a life spent absorbing life as well as analysing it. But you don’t have to read far in Nick’s work before the academic, the thinker, emerges. Living day-to-day has been his greatest field of research:
“Every one of my novels is autobiographical to a degree, so when I went on a trip and went seriously off grid in a village in Vanuatu, that formed the basis of another novel (The Fire Stone). I think that these childhood things are hugely impressionable… if you can hang on to the childlike quality of saying ‘wow’, it’s easier to draw on life’s experiences as an adult as well.”
When not creating fictional wonders, Nick has been exploring the wonder of the “real” world. And he has always aimed big. Universes swirl on the cover of the investigative Who Ordered the Universe? (2015). Or for those more earth focussed, Dr Nick will lead you through The Bible on the Key Issues of Life (2013). All his exploratory works are steeped in wonder. His introduction to Who Ordered the Universe? tells the reader:
“This book invites you to be thoroughly discontent with shallow thinking. It is an invitation to think about the big questions of life, to discover who you are and why you exist. These are vital issues. So, may I encourage you to think big? Dare to read God’s signature on the invitation he’s sent you. Learn to be amazed at the things around you. Let yourself say ‘wow!’ frequently.”
Clearly, wonder figures large in all Nick’s writing. I ask him, is the secret to being a writer, then, that you never stop being a child of wonder? He answers:
“I think intense curiosity and intense empathy – those two things dance together well in the world of good writers.”
Within Nick there is clearly a bubbling, sparkling, constant movement. People who are compelled to create tend to do so from an internal disequilibrium. Despite being a man at peace, I wonder, is there a drive within Nick that comes from being internally unsettled?
“Yes. The activist is alive in me. But with it, there is a Christian overlay, or foundation. I have always loved stories, instilled at mother’s knee. You develop the Protestant work-ethic (that you are defined by what you do) so you’ve got that engine driving you.”
He sighs as though about to share a hard-learned truth:
“What other people think of you, drives you. Some of that is good and some of that is bad and is neurotic – even heretical as it is ‘justification by works’. But in the end, we are created in God’s image and God is wonderfully creative.”
Now his hands fly, and the brief frown is blown away:
“I mean, for goodness’ sake, creating this massive universe, it’s a bit profligate don’t you think? This massive universe just because God wants someone to write the first four verses of Psalm 19, ‘The heavens proclaim the glory of God,’ Boom! he says; whether you’re from the Stone Age or the age of the Higgs Boson, I’m going to give you something that is going to blow your mind.”
Nick sits back and grins:
“If I am creative, it’s because I can’t help but be so. We are made in God’s image and God is creative… and the wonder of it… and the love of it!”
For a man who has written all his life, and across many fields, forms and formats, perhaps “I can’t help it” explains his sheer volume of output, but there is one question that gives Nick pause, even in the face of failing health:
“Why do I do it? I get a great deal of pleasure in telling a good story, as you would when sitting down with the grandchildren. There’s pleasure in that, something primal. And to see people’s eyes go wide as you’re taking them on a journey – there’s an innate pleasure in surprising people with insight because the other main reason I write is to introduce the greatest wonder and, this sounds terribly pious, but to introduce God. Every one of my characters is flawed in some way or having to deal with a major grief. Whether it’s shame, or the grief of being blinded – it’s the journey of brokenness to wholeness. All my novels tend to be the journey from brokenness to wholeness… with something heroic happening at the end. It’s been said that there is only one story, and every story is a variation of it. An unlikely hero faced with massive reversal has to face things about himself or herself, overcome it, and rescue the day. It is a shadow of the gospel story, and I like that.”
He folds his hands in his lap and quietly confesses:
“Yep, if you’re reading one of Nick’s books, there’s going to be a happy ending, there’s gonna be a flawed hero, there’s gonna be a character in there who is a source of wisdom, and there is going to be romance because it’s fun, it’s the human condition.”
Nick’s novels are all “good” stories; there is an innocence, almost a safety in them. So I ask him, Could you write really dark? Horror or murder mystery? His answer intrigues me:
“No. It’s not me. I am an optimist. There is a degree of darkness in my books. Bad things happen, they are not ‘sugar and spice and all things nice,’ because they reflect real life. You need some darkness and tragedy to show reality, you can’t just be sugar and spice. That’s not how life is. But here’s a bold statement: I’m not sure it is normative for a Christian writer to stay in a brutally dark place of horror and bad endings… and for that not to reflect a significant brokenness or neurosis. It is just not the Christian story. It may be a human story, but the danger is it pretends to be the only human story, whereas the Christian sees hope and joy in the face of that brutality – and that hope and joy is always there.”
Nick’s reply says a lot about what makes his stories unique – the defining heart of his writer’s voice. While we’re on the subject, I ask him about what, if anything, inhibits his creative flow. He is quick to knock down the concept of writer’s block, defining it as simply some variation of fear that keeps us from the page:
“I meet writers who talk to me about writers block who say I can’t get started. I have to say, that’s very rarely been a problem and I feel a bit guilty. I keep quiet at that point. Because it’s usually fear.”
In fact, the struggle for Nick this morning, and indeed a “problem” that many writers fail to acknowledge, is another curse: the curse of always writing:
“I realised, after submitting my latest thesis, I looked at my computer and I was conscious that I had become a complete neurotic. I wanted to continue to create and write but I didn’t have anything that I should do, or needed to do, and I was unable to really settle in the peace of a waiting time. I was unable to do the ‘seventh day,’ the resting. I couldn’t do it. I paced up and down. In the end a friend took me to the men’s shed where I fiddled around with some wood…”
He leaps to his feet and strides to his desk from which he procures a simple block of pale wood, streaked with darker veins. “This is black-hearted sassafras,” he enthuses, “and I’ll be turning that into this.” He holds up a curled template, “and make a pair of shelves that sit on the wall. When I’m not writing, the best antidote for writing is to work with wood.”
So writing needs an antidote? My question tips the conversation in another direction, and we find ourselves talking about the creative heart of life. Because, surely, woodturning is creative too, but not the same sort of creative? Is that whole period of not being able to do anything, (that feeling of having become a fallow field), does that not describe much of our Covid existence? And we ponder if that is actually terribly draining because we have the habit of being functional and creative but it’s not “happening”? Is this, perhaps, trying to harvest a crop when the crop isn’t ready yet?
Yes, it’s easy to find Nick’s mind taking you somewhere you didn’t expect. So, in an effort to regain the conversation, I ask a simple question: Is life simple or is it complicated?
“Oh my goodness. Brutally simple, ‘to love God.’ But of course life is also an extremely complex, and a bruising and grieving process. Arch Hart, a psychologist from Fuller Seminary, makes this point that life is a process of coping with grief. Life is dark and it is complex but in the end, there is a fundamental, underlying, foundational simplicity. God is, and God loves… and therefore there is hope. That is foundational simplicity that I cling to.”
I press him on this point, asking him, as a man who has spent his life learning, exploring, delving, do you ever want to know it all?
“I couldn’t bear it! I mean, leave me some mystery!” He laughs.
So do you write because you know stuff or because you don’t know stuff?
“It has to be both, it really does. My latest novel features a modern-day monk Julian, who was a quantum physicist before he went in to the monkery. He ends up looking after this street kid who has tried to suicide. And this street kid asks the monk, ‘How can you be a monk, having been a scientist?’... which is the question I get all the time. And the monk, Julian, replies ‘Because I know too much.’ He doesn’t know everything, but he knows enough to know that life is not an accident.”
Nick sits back and nods, grinning gently. Quietly:
“But there will always be so much more to explore, to experience. And so much of it is Wow!”
Nick Hawkes has two degrees in science and two in theology. He has been a research scientist, theologian, educationalist, apologist, author and radio broadcaster. He blogs and records Podcasts at nickhawkes.net and you can read about Nick’s fiction writing at author-nick.com
Pete Court teaches creative writing and communication at Tabor College, Adelaide. He is also a broadcaster, satirist and author. He primarily writes realist fantasy, as he has a tenuous grasp on reality. When not engaged in pursuits literary, he mentors in radio and marketing and, when the moon is full, advertising.