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We cross live to a black hole of New Zealand literature: Taupo

A passionate, intense essay by Taupo writer Chris Eyes, in answer to our innocent question: what kind of literary scene is there in the lake city?

Images courtesy of Ben Horgan (@aotearoller).

Can I be perfectly honest with you? There isn’t a literary scene here. No-one in Taupo, outside of my friends and family, gives a fuck that I wrote a book set in Taupo.

Tina Shaw is the only other person writing fiction here and I’ve never read any of her books. She helped me out, in that I paid her about $200 for a manuscript assessment at around the third draft stage, and I appreciate her kind words and critical encouragement, but beyond that I’ve met her once, at a stall she runs at the market selling bread and cheese. She told me her book distributor was going to shred the remaining copies of her last book, The Children’s Pond, because it was costing them money to store them and they weren’t moving. She looked on the verge of tears as she told me this. She had paid to get them back and was now trying to sell them on her stall. I said maybe we could work together and she agreed, but since that happened before Christmas I’ve not heard from her until I contacted her about this article.

Adrienne Nairn is a lovely older lady who runs a stall at the Taupo Market each Saturday, weather permitting. She doesn’t have a marquee. She saw an article about me in the local paper and got in touch. She sells local books on a humble fold-out table, mainly because she is trying to sell her book, a self-published autobiography called My Brother, My Enemy.  I haven’t read it, just skimmed through it, but it seems very bitter. The clue is in the title. Not my cup of tea, but all power to her, each to their own. I’m guessing it was therapeutic for her to write. Yet because she has the gift of the gab she sells, on average, four or five copies a week, sometimes as high as 10, whereas I was doing well if she sold two of mine. Often it was a big fat zero.

The other local books included the self-published life story of the late Walter de Bont, who was the local weather recorder and founding father of the famous Round the Lake Cycle Challenge. Everyone knew Walter; he was the eccentric old Dutch guy who walked for miles picking up rubbish in his boxer shorts (he wore them like stubbies), but no one bought his book.

There was a book about the history of the Western Bays of Lake Taupo by local District Councillor Christine McElwee. She barely sold a copy. Then there was a children’s book author from the Hawke’s Bay who had his books on the stand and sometimes attended, and he sold a few, here and there.

I was standing there once with Adrienne and a middle-aged woman with a short haircut and round face came up to the stand and started looking at the kids books. Adrienne engaged her, as she did everyone who showed the slightest interest in her stand, and the lady said she was a primary school teacher and was always on the lookout for new books for her pupils. After a time, Adrienne introduced her to me. She looked at my book politely and I told her a little bit about it and tried to give her a business card which had links to the music from my novella, telling her the songs were intertwined with the narrative.

“Oh, I don’t like music,” she said, declining the card. She paid for her children’s book and was off.

I don’t have my books on the stand anymore. I gave it the busy summer period and sold a few, but it was a harsh introduction into the Taupo book scene. Adrienne is the nicest lady and we’ve shared war stories on book selling and I don’t begrudge her anything, but I felt like an alien in my own home town.

Taupo used to have a local bookshop named Prices, a well-stocked and well-informed store, that sadly closed after 53 years of operation in 2013. We have the big names, Paper Plus and Whitcoulls, but even Whitcoulls has halved its shop size in recent times. The nearest dedicated second-hand bookshop is in Rotorua, while I make do with the charity shops and once a year SPCA book fair. I got my book into Paper Plus and the Taupo Museum Gift Shop, but couldn’t get it in anywhere else. Approaching local shop owners and showing them my book, I often felt, by their response, that I was handing them something like a dead rat riddled with plague-infested fleas.

*

There are other authors in Taupo. Donovan Bixley seems like a nice guy, just doing his thing and he does it well. He is a great illustrator and his literary books are great ideas. I recently read his book on Shakespeare and some of the pictures honestly take you into moments of the bard’s life. There is a fire in the eyes of the characters he portrays and you get a sense of the real man, and his acquaintances, behind the legend.

His illustrations are mainly for children’s books, but he also worked on Marc Ellis’ Good Fullas. He has written a few books himself, amongst them Monkey Boy, which won him a Junior Fiction award at the 2015 Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. He dresses up and reads books to primary school classes at the local library. I was in there once and there was an over dressed pirate, quite an elaborate costume, make-up and all, acting out a story about Long John Silver or some such to a bunch of kids who were squealing both in delight and surprise/fear. I found out later it was Donovan, a man I had read brief articles about in the Taupo Times.

I approached him via email for this article and he was warm and forthcoming, but he told me he didn’t feel a need to participate in any wider scene here as he was busy enough with his work as it was. He said he got asked to do a lot of things about the place but he had to decline most of them because he was so busy. I could understand that. He did what he could, as he also had a family, a high-achieving young family by all accounts, and he maintained an involvement with theatre groups, acting and designing sets for them, and he played sax in a couple of big ensemble local groups. He’s perhaps the biggest fish in this tiny pond.

In his email he mentioned the name Craig Phillips, an illustrator for American comics, but I’d never heard of him or seen him around. Another in-demand illustrator, Phillips similarly used the quiet pace of life in Taupo as cover for his work further afield. And by the sounds of it, he is a relocated Australian. Not that I have a problem with that, I’m just passing on the facts.

Rowley Habib was a name I had heard in passing once or twice and seen in the local papers. It was most prevalent when he died in April of 2016. He was a pioneering Māori writer, of plays and scripts, poetry and more recently, a children’s book called The Building That Ate Trees. He was once awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship and spent a year in Menton, dedicated to writing.

In an article in Hawke’s Bay Today after his death, a close friend wrote of how her husband and Habib would share their frustrations, namely “a lack of recognition, financial challenges, isolation.” I went looking for Habib books in our local library and couldn’t find them. They are there, in the system, but not on the shelves.

Eilish Wilkes is a worthy inclusion, but barely qualifies as local. She only recently moved here from Auckland’s North Shore, a JAFRA: Just Another Fucking Relocated Aucklander. (I just made that up, and I apologise in retrospect.)

She’s a brave soul who is looking to develop her young talents and use them for real good in the world. She’s battled cancer since the age of two but does not want to be defined by that, choosing to use her struggles to inspire others. Her first book, a children’s book called Hospital Happenings, aims to make hospitals less daunting places for those that really need them.

*

There are other writers, such as Barry Faville (sci-fi) and John Parsons (fishing guides). These are names passed on to me by others and I’m unfamiliar with them. That’s not to denigrate them at all, I’m sure they’re well-respected in their field, but I’m just not that interested, sorry.

The biggest finds of my literary journey so far are a couple of writers over the other side of the Lake in Taumarunui. I came across them in a copy of the Ruapehu Express by pure chance. They are Antony Millen and AD Thomas.

Millen is a relocated Canadian who teaches English at the local High School and has published three books and is working on a fourth. He finds living in a small town both a blessing and a curse. While the online world opens up all sorts of possibilities, meeting people in the flesh is what it’s really all about and this is hard in the small, sadly fading towns and villages of the Central Plateau. He enjoys attending festivals in the bigger centres, such as Palmerston North and Whanganui, but finds it expensive. He has his own publishing imprint, Maple Koru Publishing, and he seems to work hard at his craft and associated promotional tasks.

AD Thomas is more of an enigma. A Middle Earth man of letters who lives largely offline (who does that these days?) he resides in a former church in Mananui, just outside of Taumarunui, and has painted his ceiling a la Michelangelo. A writer, painter and poet, Thomas’ first book Alphabetica was a pleasant surprise to read, a collection of essays musing on life and its preoccupations, like Art, Books, Childhood and Death, for example. He combines his own thoughts with quotes from a wide range of literature, old and new, to create an insight into the daily life of an “everyman” New Zealander.

I recently began an old-fashioned correspondence with Thomas. That’s right, letter writing. I’m intrigued to learn he has other, as yet, unpublished works: a collection of essays about colour, another about art and artists like Gauguin, Goya and Cezanne. He has poetry and short stories up the wazoo and many more projects, “in various stages of unfinishedness”, as he puts it, among them his paintings. He calls his canvasses “odes to colour” and he infuses them with snippets of text, in the same vein as Colin McCahon.

This is the type of person I wish Taupo had more of, and maybe they’re out there. Maybe.

*

My book Even Time took me roughly four years to write. I did it largely in secret. I had a nervous breakdown just before I published it. It uses Taupo as a beautiful backdrop for a reunion between a father and daughter, 20 years estranged, and follows the trials and tribulations of their new relationship, as they head toward major life events, a death and a birth.

They say “write what you know” right? So that’s what I did, setting it at Five Mile Bay, a tiny collection of mostly holiday homes on the southern outskirts of Taupo. I live at the other end, some 20 minutes away, out past Wairakei on the northern frontier. I love driving into town on a good day, even a bad one, and seeing the horizon from the top of Control Gate Hill, with Mt Tauhara to the left and the Kaimanawa Ranges off in the distance. Then there’s Motutaiko Island, a tiny jewel amidst the mass of Lake Taupo-nui-a-tia, a giant caldera formed by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions known to man. Beyond that, there are the giants of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, the mountains of the Tongaririo National Park, which rise up as if out of the water and claim the horizon as their own.

I was born here, grew up here, left here and now have come back to start a family and begin my writing journey. My job as a pasta maker for Pasta Mia, a small but well respected artisan pasta producer, gives me plenty of time to think. My skills, by now second nature, mean that while I’m making fresh fettuccine I’m likely to be developing a character’s raison d’etre, or as I’m separating tortelli I’m having a tete a tete between two people that exist only in my head. Much of Even Time was planned out this way and written down in stolen hours before or after work, sometimes sneakily at work.

Taupo is a place where kids grow up and then leave, and people come to retire and die. The art groups are full of nice old men and women who paint scenic vistas and people read either Harry Potter or Fifty Shades, sometimes both. Perhaps I’m being harsh, in fact I know I am, but Taupo is missing its middle, the young, hip crew, the educated, well-read artisans, appreciators of art and culture. Hell, it’s even missing the averagely educated, partially-read demographic who acknowledge that art and culture exists.

I love Taupo. It’s beautiful and I want to write more stories set here, or using here as a jumping-off point. I’m into Hunt, Crump and Baxter, as well as Hone Tuwhare and CK Stead not to mention recent finds like Geoff Cochrane and Bill Direen. I’ve enjoyed Janet Frame and Courtney Sina Meredith. I’m inspired by all of these writers and many more and I want to be like them and I want to do that by telling New Zealand stories that share worldwide truths.

I want to make my way in the literary world and accept that I am up against it, because Taupo is an outpost, an inbetweener, neither here nor there in a cultural sense, slightly unsure of itself – and I fit somewhere in the middle of all that.

Even Time by Chris Eyes ($25) is available at selected bookstores, on Amazon as an e-book, or through the author at PO Box 1620, Taupo 3351.

 

Postscript: We have received an email from Joshua Drummond, which reads, “That’s a fucking great essay by Chris Eyes but it’s a shame that he glosses over Barry Faville. Barry’s the author of one of the best young adult books I’ve ever read, Stanley’s Aquarium, which is about a mad old coot who breeds pirhanas. It’s set in Lake Taupo. I read it when I was a kid and it left a really lasting impression on me – really spooky NZ gothic stuff.”

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