Literature in Northland, NZ: Who’s writing up north?
By Michael Botur
Tiny Rawene hosts the Hokianga Book Festival on September 14, but Tai Tokerau’s biggest literary event of 2018 was NorthWrite. It was a two-dayer and held at Whangarei’s polytech (Northtec is the only place offering tertiary creative writing in Northland, although the classes are mostly online and many students are from outside Northland.)
Exciting new High Spot literary agent Vicki Marsdon appeared at NorthWrite; a queue of hopefuls lined up afterwards to pitch their manuscripts.
None of the NorthWrite presenters were Northlanders, which is one failure up here: the region’s writers don’t know each other well enough. There are literary fiction novelists, flash fiction writers, page poets, performance poets and playwrights, but they’re siloed and hardly interact.
The local branch of the NZ Society of Authors does what it can to welcome all types of scribe, and spreads its monthly meetings around the region – sometimes in pretty remote places like Ahipara (the next meeting is at short story author Karen Phillips’ place; those attending the meeting are asked to bring their slide-in plastic name tags from previous events “to help cut NorthWrite costs.”)
Mangawhai Kelly and her critters
One writer with no need of the NZSA, though is a member, is Kelly Ana Morey, who says that the NZSA, “administer a number of writing grants I wouldn’t say ‘no’ to,’ but admits she’s never been to a meeting.
Kelly (born 1968) has published five novels and three non-fiction books over the last 15 years. When I speak to her at her Mangawhai home in July, she’s just ditched her museum research job and given herself what she calls “a self-funded six months’ writers’ residency at home.”
She’s happier at home, anyway, with her two Italian greyhounds, six cats, three horses, and two chickens. “I have a lovely warm sun-filled office and I can whip out in the middle of her work day and put a load of washing on or whatever. And I can go to work in my pyjamas, which is optimum work conditions for me really.”
Literary fiction doesn’t pay a lot, so she’s doing up a “big old kauri bungalow” to sell and make a few bucks, “and then I’ll probably do another. I’ve discovered I’m really good at living in chaos and builders’ noise.” After a two year break where she tried doing the commute down to Auckland to work at Auckland Museum as their oral history curator – “four hours there and back” – she’s returned to writing fiction. “The travel was killing me – I was going down twice a week and had short hours, but that road – SH1 – scares the living bejesus out of me.” Meanwhile, she’s writing 1000 words a day on an interwoven collection of urban Auckland Māori short stories from 1947 to the present day which she’s just realised is not dissimilar to her award-winning debut novel Bloom. “But with a taniwha rather than a ghost.”
Kelly admits she rarely attends literary events, ‘and I have said in the past that I would rather go to a horse show and listen to horse people talk incessantly about their horses than go to a book thing. But having said that, I haven’t been to a horse show for years which is pretty telling. I really need to get back on a horse.” Her ally in creativity is director/writer/actress Katie Wolfe who she’s known since high school. ‘We don’t talk about writing really, more about storytelling and we’re fascinated by the same fucked up things. We don’t see each other a huge amount, but it’s alway good when we do. But other than that I’m on my own – but that’s my choice.”
Kelly’s feeling optimistic about her own stuff when I talk to her. She’s excited her 2016 Phar Lap book Daylight Second might find an audience amongst North American horse-lovers when it’s published there by Harper Collins in November.
“Daylight Second is coming out in the USA on November 20th with Harper Collins USA. It’s taken a year to get me on the publishing schedule which is quite fast.”
With the weather starting to warm up she’s frantically getting a rough draft up and running before the tradies descend on her once more with their ‘infernal nail guns and Radio Hauraki” so that she can finish the house and sell it. To keep up the pretence of having cash flow she does a little bit of minimum wage waitressing, writes the occasional story for Stuff and does the odd bit of communications for NZ Thoroughbred Racing.
Roger Steele once created a writers map of NZ with only Kelly and Hone Tuwhare on it, she recalls. The map’s a whole lot busier these days if you factor in romance writers.
Mills & Boon & Maungatapere
Born Daphne Williams in Dargaville in 1939, Daphne de Jong has become one of the most-published novelists in the country, selling nearly 80 titles, all but three of them romance. She’s such a big part of NZ romance writing she has the Daphne Clair de Jong First Kiss Award named after her. She’s also known by the pen names Daphne Clair, Clair Lorel, Laurey Bright and – once – Clarissa Garland. That’s how it works when your books sell hundreds of thousands.
Daphne lived most of her life in the dairy town of Maungatapere, west of Whangarei. In 1978, Daphne got her first novel A Streak of Gold published by Mills & Boon and could soon afford to stop working as a librarian. Demand for writers at the time was strong. “During the 80s before the big crash, people were throwing money around – fortunately some of it got thrown in my direction,” Daphne recalls. It took just a few novels before she was attending massive Romance Writers of America conferences and meeting publisher Alan Boon himself. Back in Maungatapere, Daphne got her five kids to help with cooking dinners and ramped up her book production, putting out two 50,000 word manuscripts a year.
Daphne’s titles include His Trophy Mistress, Her Passionate Protector and, er, Carpenter’s Mermaid. “We don’t invent the titles for our books, unfortunately. The editors decide what they’re going to be called.”
Daphne says she’s become wary of talking about Mills & Boon “Because people like to make fun of it.” No one’s laughing at the success rate of the writing classes Daphne and friends used to put on in her Maungatapere home, however. They called it The Kara Veer School of Writing; the most successful graduate was Bay of Islands romance writer Fiona Gillibrand aka Fiona Brand.
“[Fellow romance novelist] Robyn Donald and myself used to do weekend tutoring… We lost count of the number of our students who successfully published after going through Kara Veer.”
Surprisingly, selling 80 books doesn’t make you Northland’s most successful fiction writer. The aforementioned Robyn Donald (born Robyn Kingston, 1940) has 500,000 copies of some of her books printed at a time. Look out for ‘Bride At Whangatapu’ and ‘One Night at Parenga.’
The small stuff
Flash sells nothing, but people go crazy for it anyway. Plenty of writers Bay of Island writers drive 80 minutes down to Whangarei for flash meetings where they hunch over a table in the public library. Some of the first proponents of the 2012 flash phenomenon were Northlanders. Flash took off nationwide after occasional-Whangareian Michelle Elvy and friends published the first Flash Frontier magazine in 2012 (Michelle has most recently been living on a boat in Tanzania, but has come back to NZ to launch Canterbury University Press’s 2018 Bonsai: small fictions).
Wild Side: Wild Sales
If you can publish from a boat in Tanzania, you can publish from anywhere – including Ruawai, a bend-in-the-road town 30 minutes south of Dargaville. There, Wild Side Publishing is becoming a pretty big deal. WSP took off in 2014 after meth memoirist Janet Balcombe met Ray Curle at a book convention. The two married soon after; WSP was their baby. Janet’s book The Wild Side was toured around the country from 2015 to 2018. Shortlisted for the Ashton Wylie Awards 2015, Janet’s memoir remains the company’s biggest seller and has helped sustain WSP. Ray brought to the company marketing experience from his background with Radio Hauraki and Christian Life magazine; Janet has done much of the writing of WSP’s best-sellers. Wild Side now distributes 45 titles and has published ten, primarily in the Christian publishing niche. “They’re mostly memoir, and all inspirational,” Ray tells me.
Profanities from Most-Published Poet
Not far from Ruawai you’ll find poet Sam Hunt. I caught him on the phone briefly between chopping kindling and doing interviews with mags like New Zealand Listener, promotion his new Potton & Burton poetry collection entitled coming to it (lower case, Sam tells me, though it doesn’t look that way on the cover). Sam, 72, begins in a cheery mood, having had some good medical news that morning. Having a journalist phone to ask him about his place in Northland writing kills his buzz, though.
“I don’t call myself a writer for a start. I don’t sharpen my pencils at half past eight in the morning.”
“Writer and Wanker are fairly closely together. I’m not saying all writers are wankers. I’ve never called myself a poet, never called myself a writer. If I happen to be in Northland, I guess… .”
I attempt to ask Sam when he moved to Northland. “That’s a dumb question. 16 years ago. Actually I don’t want [my town location] being blasted around.”
Sam doesn’t interact with any Northland writers. “I’m not into that league. My closest friends around here are fishermen and boat-builders. I’ve got more in common with them, and musicians, than literary people. I’ve never found the literary scene interesting. I’ve published 28 books of poems, or 25 or whatever it is, I haven’t counted, but I don’t hang out in a literary scene.”
We talk about Vaughan Gunson, who lives in Hikurangi, north of Whangarei (Vaughan would love you to check out his website vaughangunsonwriting.com). Sam admires Vaughan but reeeeeally doesn’t enjoy being asked if he interacts with other Northland writers. “For fuck’s sake, Hone Tuwhare I did [know] but he’s dead. These writers, I couldn’t give a fuck. It’s like W H Auden when he took the chair at Oxford, I told students I don’t want to see your poems, if they’re any good I’ll get to hear them eventually.”
Sam finally thinks up one Northland writer he admires. He urges me – following more swearing – to check out Oturu School principal Fraser Smith’s children’s book Awatea’s Treasure – then demands to see this story and his quotes. Sam adds that he’s friends with Steve Braunias and will be following up if the draft of this story isn’t shared with him. I ask Sam one last time if he knows of any other Northland writers and Sam thinks of half. “Someone at Russell… someone Heke?”
Poetry – paper and performance
Vaughan Gunson worked with Michelle Elvy and poet Piet Nieuwland to put together one of Northland’s first zines, Take Flight, in 2011. Take Flight included adverts and arts reviews; it was 2013 before Piet Nieuwland went solo and published the first purely Northland poetry collection, Fast Fibres. Piet’s passion for poetry dates back to 1983 when he was inspired by Poetry Live in Auckland, which he would drive to from Kaikohe. “I never knew of other people from Northland,” Piet recalls. He interacted with Hokianga poet Christian Martin the largest city, Whangarei, was pretty much dead in terms of poetry at the time (except for the annual bachanalian Northland One Act Play Competition.)
Piet names Riemke Ensing (Dargaville), Stu Bagby (Te Kopuru) Peter Dane (Russell) and Kendrick Smithyman (also Te Kopuru) as notable poets from up north.
“There are probably more people than we can ever be aware of who whakapapa back to Northland,” Piet estimates. “There was Māori oral culture which goes back as far as you wanna go. That was not written down – it speaks through whakairo and carvings.”
Northland has a population of 180,000 people and just one town with more than 10,000 peeps. There are few groups and movements, but tonnes of solo people doing solo stuff. Kerikeri’s Bianca Staines has won two Purple Dragonfly Awards for Children’s Books; NorthTec creative writing head Dr Zana Bell has published six romance and young adult books; Peri Hoskins got his second memoir a bestseller on Amazon; and I’ll get told off if I don’t mention Diana Menefy, who has had success publishing young adult historical fiction through Scholastic and One Tree Press.
So yeah, nah, Northland’s got heaps, bro, heaps – but apparently not Sam Hunt.
STAY TUNED AT WRITEUPNORTH.CO.NZ FOR ALL NORTHLAND WRITING NEWS