We recently caught up with Sam Coley, author of State Highway One, who kindly gave us an interview.
Describe your book State Highway One:
Twenty-year-old Alex Preston returns home to New Zealand after three years abroad when his parents die in a car accident. He is reunited with his twin sister Amy, with whom he had a fractious relationship growing up.
To avoid grieving properly, the twins embark on a road trip of New Zealand, all the way down State Highway One which runs from the top of the country to the bottom. As they drive, they unpick their grief, anger, hurt and trauma on a search for answers.
What motivated you to write about a road trip set in New Zealand?
I love road trips myself – the freedom of being on your own schedule really appeals to me. When I conceived of the book, I was living in London, feeling very homesick, and thinking of going back to NZ to do this very road trip, just for a break. As I started thinking about the trip I realised a fictional version of the journey would be a great backbone for a road trip novel.
How did you decide where your characters would visit?
I put a big road map on NZ on the wall above my desk and drew all over it with a Sharpie. Some places I already knew from visiting before – I almost drove off the side of a cliff in a storm in 2007 while driving a particularly precarious road, and I knew some version of that was going to end up in the book.
What background research did you do?
When I won the Richell Prize (and $10,000) in 2017, I went on my own version of the trip over summer 2017/2018. I took thousands of photos and pages and pages of notes. Previous to that I was pouring over Google images and maps to try and get a sense of places. There’s also some parts of the book set in Dubai, where I’ve never been – I have a couple of friends who lived there so I would text them random questions all the time so I could be sure to get the details right. There’s also a lot of music in the book, so I spent a lot of time on the internet looking up what songs were charting in New Zealand in specific weeks when the story was taking place.
Why do you start your first drafts on a typewriter?
A few reasons:
- The story in my head has to be moving faster than the story on the page. I’m a very fast typist on a computer, and if my hands catch up with my brain I get distracted or stuck. So if the words are always a sentence or two behind where my head is, I have time to think about where the story is going next without having to stop. Similarly, if I get writer’s block and can’t draft, I just transcribe what I’ve already written onto the computer. It keeps me in the story without driving me to frustration for not making progress.
- I can’t edit as I go, so I’m more likely to just get the words down instead of going over the same ten sentences over and over trying to get them perfect.
- When I re-type everything onto a computer, I do my first set of edits then. So by the time I start editing on a computer, my ‘first draft’ is already really a second draft.
- I like the noise it makes when I’m bashing away (my poor neighbours).
What are your top 5 places you’d recommend someone visit?
Stewart Island/Rakiura is the most incredible place I think I’ve been to. I was only there for a day and a night but I never wanted to leave.
The West Coast of the South Island (opposite side from State Highway One) is some of the most rugged and spectacular landscape in NZ. From Haast all the way up to Westport, you’ll wear out your camera taking photos.
Wellington is a very cute, interesting, condensed, cool city but ONLY if the weather is good (0.01% of the time).
It’s very touristy, but if you want to experience a lot of New Zealand in a short time frame, head to Rotorua. There is a crazy amount of stuff there, from the geothermal parks to cultural experiences to adventure tourism – something for everyone and a great place for a long weekend.
If you’re in Auckland, make sure you spend some time on Karangahape Road. Auckland’s former red light district still has a really fun vibe,…. and it gets even more after sunset.
When are you planning on travelling next?
Wherever I can! Given international travel is going to be limited for a while, it’s a great opportunity to explore more of Australia. I’m hoping to go to Western Australia early next year, and I’m desperate to explore some of the national parks in the eastern states as well. I’d also love to go back to NZ and spend some time with my family there.
Where do you call home these days?
Sydney’s where I’ve been for the past two years, but I’ve lived in Auckland, London, and Adelaide, and I’d still happily call any of them home.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully a movie deal haha, but failing that, I’ve started working on another novel. This one isn’t set anywhere real and at no particular point in time, so it’s a big departure from the concrete-details-obsessed way I wrote State Highway One. I write very slowly though, so it might take a while!
About State Highway One
State Highway One is a deeply emotional journey through the stunning landscape of New Zealand, illustrated from the perspective of a troubled young mind, filled with overwhelming grief and confusion at the sudden loss of his parents.
It’s been years since Alex was in New Zealand, and years since he spent any one-on-one time with his twin sister, Amy. When they lose their parents in a shock accident it seems like the perfect time to reconnect as siblings. To reconnect with this country they call ‘home’. As they journey the length of State Highway One, they will scratch at wounds that have never healed – and Alex will be forced to reckon with what coming home really means.
State Highway One is a work of fiction that will resonate with readers of all ages – it deals beautifully with themes of grief, the meaning of ‘home’, sexuality and family dynamics, all while steeping us in the beautiful surroundings of the NZ landscape. Each town, road and landmark of Alex’s road trip imprints your mind with searing beauty and devastating sadness. Tense, heartbreaking and beautifully written, State Highway One has the makings of a contemporary classic.
About Sam Coley
Sam Coley has called New Zealand, Australia and the UK all home at some point, and probably still would. With the prize money he won from the Richell Prize, he used it to drive State Highway One by himself and finish his novel. Most nights, he can be found at his desk with a pen and a legal pad and a bottle of wine. State Highway One is his debut novel.
You can follow Sam’s adventures via: https://www.instagram.com/rockjonny/