Glyn Harper has five books in the works

Glyn Harper sits under a shelf loaded with war stories.
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Glyn Harper sits under a shelf loaded with war stories.

Glyn Harper is a man of letters – hundreds and thousands of them – and they tell of significant periods in New Zealand's history, writes Jimmy Ellingham.

On writing mornings, his office at home comes alive with the sound of tapping.

Amid the piles of paper and library of books, it comes in spurts. Sometimes quick. Sometimes slow. It's fingers on keyboard. It's prolific. And it's responsible for some of the most acclaimed scholarship on New Zealand's war history.

Glyn Harper reads his WWI children's book Jim's Letters to a class at Tiritea School.
MURRAY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Glyn Harper reads his WWI children's book Jim's Letters to a class at Tiritea School.

Although, calling it scholarship is painting the wrong sort of picture about author, Professor Glyn Harper. The Palmerston North-based historian's books are no hefty tome of jargon-filled brilliance appreciated only by the dust that accumulates in university libraries.

No, his writings are history at its best, where it's relatable, interesting and, of course, accurate.

Harper doesn't stop at producing adult work – he's also an award-winning children's author.

Glyn Harper talks about Gladys Goes to War, an extraordinary tale of a woman ahead of her time.
DAVID UNWIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Glyn Harper talks about Gladys Goes to War, an extraordinary tale of a woman ahead of her time.

For younger readers, with the help of brilliant, whimsical illustrations from Jenny Cooper, Harper has brought to light the New Zealand liberation of French town Le Quesnoy in World War I and the remarkable story of WWI ambulance driver and later New Zealand's first female pilot, Gladys Sandford, among other tales.

"With the children's books, because I'm working on military history, I find things that I think will make interesting stories for kids. For example, I found [Sandford] in a library in Australia.

"Her story was so remarkable, I thought I really need to try and tell it."

Ideas don't come together overnight. Harper will find someone or something to research and sit on it for a year or two, mulling how to present it.

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Then, once the ideas have formed, it's mixture of writing and researching, says Harper. Leaving all the writing to the end might leave an author overwhelmed and unsure of where to start.

He'll write drafts, make alterations and keep tapping away four or five hours at a time at home, before wife and "quality control" Susan Lemish takes a look.

"She has a big red pen and she goes through it and says 'this isn't clear and you need to fix it'. She's my harshest critic, I think, but I need that."

Harper's method is to get the words down and then begin the "rigorous editing process". "I usually look at a book three times before I'm satisfied."

Generally, it's adult books during the week and children's stories on a Saturday. There's no getting up before the larks or burning the midnight oil, if he can help it.

"The big difference I find is I can be a bit more creative for the children's stories. If I don't know something or I can't find the material, I can make an educated guess. I can't do that with adult books. I say I can't find [something] or say it's probable that...

"I enjoy them both. I find writing for kids you can experiment a little bit more. I really enjoyed them, but I do still like writing for adults as well," he says.

"I try to be scholarly and accessible. I think it's important if you're asking people to read a book it should be an enjoyable experience and it should encourage people to read it to its completion."

His most popular children's book comes with a royal seal of approval. Prince William and his wife Catherine were given a copy of Le Quesnoy for their son Prince George, during their 2014 visit to New Zealand.

It has sold more than 4000 copies and the royal presentation gave sales a considerable boost.

The next children's book, Bobby's War, is another unusual tale – of a canary used in tunnels on the western front in WWI.

Also in the works, and probably best suited to older children, is the story of Michael Niven, whose bravery in the Libyan desert in WWII preceded his capture and internment as a prisoner of war. Niven made several escape attempts, never giving up and finally setting himself free in 1945.

Niven's story is mentioned in dispatches in the 2016 work Acts of Valour Harper wrote with Colin Richardson, and its companion volume, aimed at a younger audience, Best and Bravest.

Soon, thanks to Harper, Niven's previously forgotten war story will be preserved for posterity in a book of its own right.

"I think the wars are pivotal events in our history and it's part of New Zealand's heritage and what makes us as a nation, and I've tried to get kids interested in history and in the past," Harper says.

The 59-year-old's career is long and varied. Born in Christchurch, he trained as a secondary school teacher in Australia before joining the army, then transferring to the New Zealand army when he moved back across the Tasman. About the turn of the century, he was the military's official historian for the deployment to East Timor.

He's written more than two dozen books and holds the title professor of war studies at Massey University. This term, he's out of the classroom to focus on his role as project manager for the Centenary History of New Zealand and the First World War, a collection of works on the Great War.

Already, the weighty Johnny Enzed: The New Zealand Soldier in the First World War 1914-1918 has looked at the typical New Zealand soldier of the war and the horrid conditions they found on what many thought would be an overseas "adventure".

Now, Harper and his researchers in the war-book-lined offices of Massey's Hokowhitu Lagoon campus are looking at New Zealanders who joined up in other countries' militaries.

Trawling through databases from around the world is no easy task, but the team has so far uncovered that about 10,000 Kiwis served under different banners and, of those, about 1600 were killed. This means New Zealand's WWI contribution is even bigger than was thought.

Oh, and there's also another book coming out in September about the WWII Battle of El Alamein in Egypt, a decisive Allied victory in the desert campaign. And, next year, a new version of Harper's Vietnam War book is due for publication in the United States.

That's a lot of war and, as expected, Harper devours war histories.

But his leisure reading is varied. Crime thrillers are the go-to, a little Jack Reacher perhaps, as are books on the 1960s and Jane Austen. "I re-read Pride and Prejudice every few years."

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that Harper is one of our foremost war historians and he shows no sign of slowing down his hectic pace of publication.

The busy tapping in his office will continue for as long as there are fascinating stories to be told.

 - Stuff

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