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Tom Baragwanath wrote an attention getting debut with Paper Cage. The main character, Lorraine Henry, a white file clerk at the police station of her New Zealand town, looking into the disappearances of several Maori children, including her nephew, dealing with culture rifts, gangs, and some questionable cops. It feels like. across between a Masterpiece Mystery and James Ellroy. Mr. Baragwanath was kind enough to talk about the creation of the book as well as pastry

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: How did you decide the story for Paper Cage for your first book?

TOM BARAGWANATH: I started working on Paper Cage in a fit of homesickness. I’ve been living in Paris for a few years now, and I often find myself missing things about Aotearoa / New Zealand deeply: friends and family, or the weather, or just the availability of certain kinds of meat pies. I started with an exercise in talking to a character with a distinctive voice, who turned out to be Lorraine, my protagonist. The story really grew organically from there.

S.M.: Did you draw from any influences?

T.B.: I was really reading a lot of Ottessa Moshfegh during the writing of this book, in particular her novel Eileen which I found quite instructive in terms of voice. Hanne Ørsavik’s novel Love was another big influence, and Lucy Ellmann’s amazing stream of consciousness novel Ducks, Newburyport.  

S.M.: What did you want to convey about your native New Zealand?

T.B.: Where to begin! My primary goal in approaching this story was to unpack and analyze a particular vein of social paternalism that exists in a lot of cultures, including New Zealand. For whānau (family groups) experiencing hardship, there’s a tendency for others to think they know what’s best, and to act as though they’ve got all the answers, which tends to downplay the complexity of the way people really live. Alongside that, I wanted to explore the kinds of mutual surveillance that can come with small-town life.

S.M.: How did you construct a character like Lorraine Henry?

T.B.: I began with her voice and worked from there. Growing up, there have been a few close analogues for Lorraine in my wider family, so I felt like I knew how someone like Lorraine might behave in a particular set of circumstances, and especially how she might sound. Choosing the first-person voice for the novel made a lot of sense, as her vocabulary and rhythms of speech helped me to understand her more deeply.

S.M.: What stood out in the book for me was how I felt I knew the town of Masterson in the book, even though it's in another country an ocean away. How do you approach setting?

T.B.: That’s a delight to hear, thanks Scott. It’s where I spent a good chunk of my childhood, so it’s immediately accessible as a place to set a story. My biggest goal is to have the reader feel the town almost as a separate and distinct presence laced throughout everything that happens in the book - as though the town is not only hosting the characters, but observing them too. That’s the sense of paranoia and constant surveillance I wanted to describe. 

S.M.: It says in your bio that you spend some of your time, consuming French pastries. Have you found one that aids your creativity?

T.B.: This might very well be the greatest interview question I’ve had to consider. It’s really hard to put a foot wrong when it comes to pastries over here, except perhaps eating too many. I have a few favourites, like the classic pain au chocolat or the less celebrated but equally wonderful pain aux raisins, but ultimately I have to go with the chausson aux pommes. It’s the perfect combination of buttery pastry and slightly spiced apple: confident, understated, but with every ingredient playing an essential role. That’s just how I want my stories to feel.


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