Interview with Sarah-Alice Miles

When did you first start writing?
I began writing when I was 14 years of age. I had gone to spend the week in a small rural city in New Zealand, Invercargill in the region of Southland. I spent the week on a large sheep farm. I was friends with framer Jack's (yes that was his real name) children. On this particular occasion we spent the day skinning opossums in one of his several large farm sheds on the property and in the evening headed inside for a traditional roast lamb meal. After dinner the fire was lit and we settled in for a quiet evening. No television, just friendly banter. As the evening drew on, I got to talking to Jack and he began to tell me of his years of diary writing. He told me he'd written a diary for forty-five years and that every day he recorded the weather and any major events on the farm or in his life. I heard his words but did not really understand the magnitude of what he was telling me. It was only when and until he dragged out a large box with his 45 years worth of diaries and personal history piled high, that 'the penny dropped'. I was truly astounded and momentarily flawed and from that very moment - I was a convert. On the upper edge of every page was a small hand drawn image of the weather for that day - clouds, sunshine, rain or snow, it was all there.
At the end of that wonderful week I couldn't wait to get home and buy myself a diary. I too have kept a diary ever since. I am now 48 years of age. Unlike Jack's very functional diaries mine are beautiful books written with fountain pen. Over the years I always keep my eye open for beautiful books worthy of a life times of experience scrawled over its' pages. The same energy has gone into buying just the right fountain pen and ink by which to write the words - I am currently using a silver Victorian Yard-O-Led. As time has gone on the style and use of my diaries has changed. In the early days everything was recorded, as I have aged I tend to use the books' pages to work through issues, thoughts, quandaries. The books are no longer an everyday chronicle of the practicalities of life.
As the years past I came to really admire Jack, I remain friends with his son. Jack has since died but that evening is forever etched on my mind and in my heart and I remain very humbled and thankful that he felt he could share his diaries with me. That night a writer was born.
What's the story behind your latest book?
I live in New Zealand. We had a series of major earthquakes in Christchurch City, the South Island of New Zealand between 2010-2012. As a result of those earthquakes there were hundreds of thousands of insurance claims. Mine was one of those claims. Driven by my experiences I wrote this book as a commentary on the post-earthquake reconstruction phase of Christchurch City after the earthquakes.
Over the past five and a half years the private insurance industry has failed miserably to achieve any decent level of progress with the reconstruction of residential properties in the Canterbury region and has thus contributed to the on-going misery of the affected population. These are patterns replicated the world over.
The Canterbury events are in actuality of concern to all New Zealanders and others around the globe for a variety of reasons. In my book I share the background information I have gathered and analysed from both New Zealand and from other disaster stricken areas in the world. It is my hope that in this way New Zealand and other global citizens affected by natural disasters and with insurance policies will be better able to protect themselves.
In The Insurance Aftershock I share the outcomes of my research with others. I intend to bring a better awareness of the underlying issues behind the state of affairs in Canterbury and other communities affected by natural disasters. The last decades have seen an alarming increase in global natural disasters affecting hundreds of thousands people, most recently Hurricane Sandy in the U.S, the Japanese Tsunami, flooding in the UK and the Western Australia bush fires. What we are beginning to become aware of is that it is likely in the years to come that these natural disasters will increase in number.
The aftermath of the 2010-2014 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand offered me a rare opportunity to examine the national policies and effectiveness of Government funding and management of catastrophe on a national scale. My findings are both surprising and disturbing. The slow and confused recovery phase led me to examine the insurance industry, locally and globally. This has revealed a clear pattern of corporate greed at the expense of citizens and has shown that the profit-driven model of private insurance can, and very often does, fail those who have paid-up policies based on “good faith” responses that are their due. This is not a book about idealistic sociological concepts, but a revelation of actual Government administrative failure and financial risk-taking, in concert with corporate malfeasance.
It is a book every homeowner, policy-maker, politician, local-government official, Treasury official and economist, should read. This is a story the wider media chooses not to publicize and consequently few people outside Christchurch are aware of the extent of the ongoing insurance battles. These are the same insurance battles fought by citizens the world over after similar catastrophic events. The opportunistic behaviour of the insurance companies together with the lack of transparency and integrity within these corporations, is compounded by the failure of corporate watch-dogs, such as government, the legal system and regulators, all of whom have failed to protect the public interest after the recent events. In the background, behind closed doors, are the strategic alliances and the networked relationships between Government, corporates, professionals and other major stakeholders with the object of profit. The interests and voices of the policyholder and homeowner are conveniently ignored and the lack of redress is well understood by these arguably complicit parties. The book discloses the failures and fallacies of current disaster management strategies, not only in terms of the huge financial implications but also the management of the ‘recovery’ phase.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
I do not particularly want to list my five favourite books because they change on a regular basis. I rarely read fiction and I read a lot of non-fiction, including books on politics, biographies, democracy and social justice.
There is one little gem of a book which holds a very special place on my bookshelf - actually it is in a beautiful box that my husband had made for me one birthday. The book is only a very small book, yet its pages are full of great riches and profound wisdom s. It is a book that many people are probably familiar with. It is a book that never fails to touch me when I read it. Have you guessed what it is? It's the story of the Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde. Oh how I love that book. If you get the chance and you have not read it - give it a go.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
When I'm not writing I spend my time immersed in art - all kinds of art. It provides a healthy balance between the rather dry subject matter of insurance. My favourite art form is mosaic. I usually travel to Italy annually to attend a course on mosaics (in particular smalti, a Venetian glass) but I also enjoy drawing and textile art. I enjoy the opportunity of travelling to a destination and meeting a group of people spread around the world who have come together for a short time frame (normally 10 days) to share their passion for the art form. That one shared commonality keeps the group together. I have never had a bad experience, its always fun and lasting friendships are formed. If you are interested in seeing some of my art works check out https://www.pinterest.com/sarahmiles68/my-art-work/ . I am currently mosaic-ing a dolls house.
What are you working on next?
As a result of my experiences with the insurance industry over the last half decade I have become very passionate about the subject matter- insurance. As I gaze through my crystal ball I see “a stormy and uncertain future for property insurance in New Zealand and around the globe…” Climate change has the potential to pose threats to the insurance industry’s financial stability. As we know insurance has been so intrinsically woven into the very foundation of our society – in the event that its availability is lost or its stability undermined then the outcomes look potentially gloomy for consumers and their governments. So the need to pre-empt the likely arrival of climate effects becomes critical.
Along with increased weather events we are seeing an ever-increasing rise in property insurance rates for catastrophe-exposed risks i.e. consumers are having to pay more for their cover. Homeowners in the U.S. for instance, living in wind exposed areas, such as coastal regions are seeing rate increases and many insurers are restricting capacity, decreasing deductibles and requiring wind mitigation construction.
Insurers are having to foot the costs of rising payouts while at the same time they are confronted with historically low investment returns and a dubious global economy. The insurance industry’s overall financial performance (as measured by average return-on-equity) lags behind other industries. The threat of rising catastrophic losses triggered by increasing concentrations of insured assets do present very real and significant challenges to the sector’s financial future. Insurance sector losses and poor financial results have the potential to undermine the industry’s financial ability to weather the storms.
One of the other big risks for the insurance industry lies in that industry’s interconnectedness and interdependency in the global marketplace. For example, the extreme flooding in Thailand, with associated loss estimates now at US$15 billion, testifies to the economic damage that can be caused by supply chain disruptions. As a result of the flooding, home computer shipments to the U.S during the first quarter of 2012 were expected to drop more than 20 percent from the previous quarter. (See http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2012/04/27/thai_flooding_impact_on_tech_companies_suppliers/).
In Japan similar difficulties arose after the earthquake and subsequent nuclear plant melt down in 2011. Where one of the most uncertain elements is the insured loss associated with large international (non-Japanese) corporations, primarily insured by major international insurers. Insurance protections business interruption, extra expense and contingent business interruption (CBI) cover, when suppliers can’t supply needed production materials to customers. The CBI element becomes difficult to estimate because the financial effects of supply chain interruption are not usually known for some time.
The potential for third-party liability claims from climate change is less well understood but has even greater potential to affect the industry. Financial assets held to meet claims and provide a capital buffer may also be affected. Therefore the balance sheet of an insurer may be damaged from all sides.
In addition there has been an extended period in the U.S. of near-zero interest rates which was designed to assist the ailing economy. This too, poses significant challenges for insurers and profitability. The economic uncertainty with the situation in Europe has also contributed to ongoing market volatility. Yet in order for property insurance companies to benefit financially, what is required are safe, predictable investment returns in order to pay claims.
In the wake of heavy catastrophe losses of 2011 and with an eye to maintaining enough cash on hand, insurers began moving some of their money into short-term bonds. Short term bonds produce lower yields which in turn have led to a further decrease on companies’ investment income. It is also true that the full extent of recent catastrophe losses on insurers’ solvency may not be seen for several years to come. Usually, even in the face of extreme losses, insurers can support solvency or capital adequacy and profitability ratios for several quarters, particularly as they hold onto reinsurance funds avoiding claim settlement. They do this by being propped up by reserve releases, only to become later financially impaired by unforeseen shock losses.
Insurers have been ‘sticking their hands in the financial cookie jar’ for the past few years by releasing reserves to help boost financials. The time may have come where the jar is empty with significant implications for sector profits and capital growth. (See Guy Carpenter & Co., Catastrophes, Cold Spots and Capital, Navigating for Success in a Transitioning Market. January 2012 Renewal Report.)
So this is where my focus lies - exploring, explaining and expanding upon the risks for policyholders....
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
I am still experimenting with marketing and marketing techniques. One thing is clear though - it all takes a lot of time. I have been working latterly on establishing a 'platform'. I have created a considerable following over the last three years and have a popular blog which I am currently in the process of morphing into a website. There are so many things to know. I find myself wishing I had studied computer science as I do struggle with the technological aspects sometimes and find the speed of technological change difficult to keep up with. As me again in another year and I'll update you on how the platform is working.
Describe your desk
I'm an orderly type. My desk is not covered with papers. In fact I work best in a room which is clear of clutter. I find papers and books lying about incredibly distracting and I find it difficult to concentrate. I have a reasonably large desk on which my desk-top computer is firmly planted. I like the big wide screen. I have a couple of small pieces of sculpture on either end of my desk as well as an old Dutch tile on which I use to balance my many cups of tea. My kindle lies beside my computer and I have a large desktop sized writing pad on which I scribble all manner of notes. Every couple of days I have a tidy-up, rip off the top layer of paper leaving a fresh crisp new piece underneath and begin the process a new. The room is certainly not clinical but it is definitely organized. I have several large paintings on the walls as well. It is a room which is very much in my control. I do enjoy having my own writing space.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up all over the place. I lived a rather nomadic life as a child - my father was a consultant engineer in the aluminium industry and we traveled and lived in all sorts of countries including Wales, Italy, Ghana (Africa), United Kingdom, USA and New Zealand. As an adult I continued to travel and live in different places including Spain, and The Netherlands and New Zealand. I'm not sure how this has influenced my writing particularly. I am sure though that it has had a major influence on the way in which I see my world and my role within the world. I have a very strong sense of citizenship. It has certainly informed my sense of justice and notions of democracy. Citizenship is not a concept one hears talked about much these days. Citizenship is the quality that we saw lots of immediately after the devastating events of the 22nd of February earthquakes in New Zealand in 2011. A city and a nation pulled together for a while and we saw and experienced the New Zealand spirit at its brightest. Divisions of class and creed were immediately replaced by a united urge to help each other. We witnessed courage and compassion first hand, an overriding sense of civic duty, and the profound recognition that we were not merely a collection of strangers but in the hour of our greatest need, we bound together by a set of ideals and commitments to a city and country we have a deep connection with.
To maximize our citizenship is to be a fully participating member of society. This entails challenging and engaging with the main pillars of our democracy: i.e. politics, the economy and the law. Our Society belongs to all of us and it is what we make of it, it reflects who we are as a nation. What we put into it creates what we get out of it.
After the Christchurch earthquakes of 2012-2012 it became so apparently clear that so many of our processes are not functioning in a democratic way. Local and national authorities in our society fell short of protecting the people whom they were elected into office to protect. What is taking place in Christchurch after the earthquakes awoke in me a renewed sense of citizenship. At the same time I realize that I am but one voice among many voices but that doesn’t prevent me from raising the issues – as the need for good citizenship should be of concern to us all.
I do believe that society functions at its best when we all join in. That is, when we all bring our energy and judgment to it. In this way we can create an honest and fairer and a more inclusive society. It helps to support a democracy in which people participate and belong. Sometimes I have the feeling that democracy is slipping between our fingers and it gravely concerns me.
Through our media I am often reminded all too frequently that many of the institutions that give structure to our society also betray our trust with slow creeping changes which seem to ignore the desires of the majority of the population and are simply imposed upon us. I make my voice heard in an attempt to slow that creeping process.
Published 2016-03-12.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Insurance Aftershock:The Christchurch Fiasco Post-Earthquakes 2010-2016
Price: $9.99 USD. Words: 136,500. Language: English. Published: March 12, 2016. Categories: Nonfiction » Business & Economics » Insurance / property, Nonfiction » Politics and Current Affairs » Economic policy
More than five years have passed since the September 4, 2010 Canterbury earthquake. Many thousands of Cantabrians are still living away from their homes, paying rents, mortgages and rates on uninhabitable properties, slowly going broke and as yet there is no end in sight. In the background is an insurance industry and a Government that has done little to assist the population in its time of need.