One Question Quiz
Keri Hulme (Photo: Philip Tremewan)
Keri Hulme (Photo: Philip Tremewan)

BooksOctober 3, 2022

Light on her feet: remembering Keri Hulme

Keri Hulme (Photo: Philip Tremewan)
Keri Hulme (Photo: Philip Tremewan)

Publisher Fergus Barrowman recalls the world of 1980s publishing in Aotearoa and his interactions with the late Keri Hulme.

Late 1983 I was coming to the end of my year as a teaching assistant in the English department – marking exams, not getting on with my MA, hanging out in the Salient office. To visit my friend Kathryn Irvine, the typesetter, I would push my way through long galleys of type hanging up to dry – while the newspaper wasn’t being published, Salient had taken on typesetting a novel for the Spiral Collective, as a commercial job.

1983 turned into 1984. I bought the bone people from Nigel Cox at Unity Books, and read it in a kind of trance of recognition and longing – along with, it seemed, everybody else in  Aotearoa. 

I had also exchanged tutoring for a part-time job as assistant to the editor of Victoria University Press, and soon learned that several years earlier the editor, Pamela Tomlinson, and the New Zealand Short Stories series editor, Bill Manhire (the series was a ruse to enable VUP to publish fiction as Bill’s academic research), had signed Keri up for a collection of short stories. The collection at that stage consisted of clippings from Islands, Broadsheet, Untold and other magazines, and some manuscripts, with a promise of more to come.

Pamela died suddenly at the beginning of 1985, and I held the fort until I was appointed Editor in September. As the bone people conquered the world, many faxes went back and forth between Keri and me. Unfortunately, when I went to look at them in the archive several years ago they had all faded to white, but I remember there were many very good jokes and cartoons, as well as promises of imminent delivery and explanations of why that hadn’t happened. It took a while for the penny to drop, but eventually I realised that Keri had a very clear sense of what she wanted to achieve and very high standards. She always sincerely meant to send the manuscript after the weekend, and there were very good reasons why she hadn’t been able to.

I don’t remember when I first met Keri. Could it have been as early as the 1984 New Zealand Book Awards, or on another Wellington visit? The first meeting I remember for sure was when I visited her while she was Canterbury University writer in residence, with a contract to formalise the agreement that had been made years before. I remember how light on her feet she was darting out into the corridor to waylay a passerby to witness our signatures. She was very happy.

That might have been when the book’s title arrived. Keri knew that the collection in the VUP filing cabinet was big enough, but it wasn’t good enough. The new story she was going to write would solve the problem. That might also have been when we decided what to leave out: a few lighter stories, some of which, possibly all, appeared later in Sport and other magazines; and a long story called ‘Lost Possessions’, which had a formal similarity to another shorter and more intense story. Lost Possessions became its own book, published under a plain manilla cover with no blurb or description (to the dismay of some readers who couldn’t tell what it was – the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature called it a collection of poems).

Te Kaihau gave me the best editing training I can imagine, and I was lucky I got it before I learned too many of the right ways to do things. I was perhaps a little intimidated by Keri – her fame; the bluff, cool exterior she cultivated as self-protection – but I soon discovered that there was nothing she enjoyed more than the intense reading that editing is. Many details were argued about by phone and fax. Now, proofreading the scanned text for a forthcoming reprint, I’m struck by how responsive the balance between order and needs of the moment is.

Fergus Barrowman profiled in North & South, 1980s (Photo: Supplied)

The book was all ready to go when we booked a launch slot at the inaugural NZ Festival of the Arts Writers and Readers Week, March 1986 – except for the title story. On Christmas Day I took a taxi down to the Wellington Airport freight counter, and this time there was an envelope. I turned the pages of the manuscript inside, until, on the last page, ‘to be continued’ . . . Nevertheless, I was holding part one of a terrific new story, which I edited and had typeset, and then when the finished manuscript arrived a week later part one had been completely rewritten, for the good. This story is my personal favourite of Keri’s works, and I remain awestruck that she produced something so strange and free under the weight of expectation she felt – I know; she talked about it – after the bone people won the Booker Prize just weeks earlier.

My only visit to Keri in Ōkārito was a week later, with the final book proofs. She picked me up in Hokitika and I sat with her for a day while she read them. The next day she drove me to Christchurch, where I gave the proofs to the typesetter, and waited until they were ready to take back to Wellington.

Among the many gnarly details we debated, my one concession I’ve never felt quite sure about was on Keri’s preferred spelling of “sandune”. At one point I asked her about Bait, which was OK because VUP didn’t publish novels so had no expectations. Keri pointed to a box under her desk filled with typescript. “There it is. It’s finished; I just have to put it in order.”

Keri and I met often over the next few years, at festivals and award ceremonies and other events, but it is that magical time of working closely together that I remember with aroha.

Lost Possessions (THWUP, $25), Te Kaihau | The Windeater (THWUP, $30), and the bone people (Pan Macmillan, $27.99) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. An e-book called Keri: Our Kuru Pounamu, a collective of writing from those who knew Keri, and Keri herself, published by Spiral Collective is forthcoming. Keri Hulme will be celebrated with a special event at Verb Readers & Writers Festival 2 – 6 November in Wellington and in Nelson at Nelson Arts Festival on Sunday 23 October.

Keep going!