In the second of our occasional series of reports of literary activity in provincial towns, Taumarunui writer Antony Millen – a runner-up in last year’s Surrey Hotel writers residency award – describes what goes on in the King Country.
It’s nearly 3am, sometime in December of 2012, and I’ve just completed the draft of my first novel Redeeming Brother Murrihy. In this moment, whatever happens next doesn’t matter. Editing, publishing, marketing, writing two more novels, blogging, all the things that will consume my time over the next five years – none of it matters, least of all how this event will affect the literary scene in Taumarunui. I have no idea in 2012 if there even is a literary scene in Taumarunui.
Soon after my triumph, I’m at the front of the staffroom at Taumarunui High School, hoisting a large poster advertising a book by my good friend and teaching colleague, Chris Brady. He’s published a memoir with Xlibris called Life Begins After 49. I’ve discovered I’m not the only closet writer in Taumarunui. In 2017, it’s rumoured he’s working on his first novel.
It’s a dark evening in June and I’ve opened the door to Angela, a former colleague from St Patrick’s school. She’s arrived to collect her copy of Murrihy. It’s my second sale. “You need to have a launch!” she prompts, as if it’s the most obvious thing. I thank her, then scoff once I’ve closed the door. Who am I to have a book launch? What even happens at a launch? The following year I launch my second novel at Paper Plus in town.
I’m told the crowds are usually larger than the one at this morning’s market. It’s August and I’m in the Owhango Hall. I’ve frequented the monthly market in the past, skimming around the room, by-passing the quilts and watercolours and bric-a-brac, pausing for a few minutes in the back corner at the book exchange table, maybe buying a bag of organic blueberries before fleeing. Today I’ve committed to a four-hour stall, quietly proclaiming myself an author with my little piles of Murrihy.
I hear William Taylor is in the building and my heart quickens. This is a real author, one of New Zealand’s most respected writers of young adult fiction, an international legend based in nearby Raurimu. He arrives at my table with an entourage and studies my book’s cover, then my face. He asks how much I’m charging and I tell him. A man mutters behind him, “Should be giving it to him for free.” Taylor moves on but returns shortly, hands me cash, and says something about missing a meal this week. He’ll later invite me to his house for tea and tell me that if my book had been entered in the previous year’s Ashton Wylie competition, “it may well have won”. Upon his insistence, I’ll enter it in the next one. I won’t even get short-listed. But when I launch Te Kauhanga, I’ll be sure to give Bill a free copy. He’ll pass away in 2015. Tessa Duder will speak at his funeral in town.
Dean Sutherland hands me a cup of tea. I’m seated on his leather couch, across from his wife’s bed, a loaner from the Waikato District Health Board. Cate Sutherland doesn’t have many days left, but she’s still able to talk at this stage, and she wants to talk about her book. In fact, the teacup I’m holding boasts an image of the cover of In the Shadow of the Hills. Like me and my first novel, Cate had been toiling with her idea for at least a decade. Following her diagnosis and with the help of Dean, she’s done it: she’s written her novel and published it, treading the same paths I have. It’s a bond we’ll always share. And who would think Asimov-inspired science fiction would emerge from the King Country? Cate will pass away soon after.
Adjacent to the Owhango Hall is the 39 South café. It’s almost Christmas and my wife and I have been invited to dinner by Helen Reynolds, secretary of the Taumarunui Writers Group. William Taylor is here. I reunite with the father of a former pupil. He’s writing Crump-style memoirs. Over dessert, Stuart Campbell tells me about the trilogy of ninja novels he’s completing, set in feudal-era Japan. He’s inspired by his own expertise as a licensed Bujinkan Shodoshi and by Star Wars movies.
I’m not sure why the Poetry & Prose Evening is being held in the foyer of the Taumarunui Little Theatre, and not on the stage in the auditorium. Probably to do with heating. I’ve been advertised as making a special appearance by the organisers of the 2014 Taumarunui Arts Festival. Before my turn, I listen to poetry by Rhonda Wood, former editor of the Ruapehu Press, and to an award-winning short story by Dick Ward, also a former editor of the Ruapehu Press. His wife, Wendy, shares a poem from her collection that was shortlisted for the same Ashton Wylie competition that rejected me. A former primary school colleague shares an amusing story about a cat.
Two days later, in the Memorial Hall, I’ve set up my stall again and it’s not going well. Very few people turn up to inspect the two terrific tales on display at the front—my novel, and Jean Botting’s children’s book about a dog. While I stare at my watch, Jean spins wool on a mini spinning machine. The sun is brilliant outside and my wife and I have recently taken up mountain biking. Just as I’m about to fly the coop for the cycle, Lynelle Kuriger arrives and buys a copy of my book. She’d heard me read on Friday night. Only when she contacts me on Facebook will I realise I’d met Taumarunui’s only playwright, famous for a recent production of Jersey Girls. In 2016, I’ll attend a reading of her new play, Fleeced, a bawdy spin on Romeo & Juliet, due to premier in Taumarunui in August 2017.
Mike Gavin is the new owner of Taumarunui Paper Plus and he’s had the brilliant idea of hosting an author’s evening, bringing together new novelists with members of the town’s two book clubs. I’m part of a modest crowd, more than pleased to be acknowledged alongside Stuart Campbell and Nix Whittaker, though I’m not sure where to stand or who to talk to. I seek Nix out by the table of strawberries and plastic cups of sparkling wine. Nix is really Nicola Pike. She and I teach English together, but she’s here to promote her first science-fiction novel, Hero is a Man. Our books are on the shelves alongside Stuart’s ninja novels and the intimidating collection of volumes produced by Ron Cooke and the Taumarunui Historical Society, including the iconic Roll Back the Years series and a plethora of new tomes about trucks. It’s a pleasant evening. Not a single member of the book clubs speaks to us or looks past the sales on popular fiction in the centre of the store. By 2017, Nix will produce seven more novels, venturing into the Steampunk Romance genre.
I’m sitting in my office at the school, shoulder-to-shoulder with my mate, Dale Thomas, scrolling through his manuscript on my laptop. The office sits between our two classrooms. It’s the weekend, of course. We would never work on his book during school time. After many after-hours of supporting my writing endeavours in these rooms, through rampaging discussions about plot twists and character flaws, it’s my turn to support Dale. Together, we approve his final edits of Alphabetica, and send away for a proof copy, aiming to release it before Christmas. It’s a terrific collection of essays integrating inspiring quotations from the world’s most profound thinkers with Dale’s whimsical observations living in Taumarunui. Dale will win the 2016 local short story competition. He’s my favourite writer around here, even more so than his uncle, Ray, who has published a book about his recently departed cat.
Dale’s wife, Fiona, meets us in her office at the Taumarunui Library. By “us”, I mean me, Helen Reynolds, and our guests, Anna Jackson and Helen Rickerby, writers from Victoria University. They’re here to discuss Taumarunui’s involvement in the 2016 Ruapehu Writers Festival in Ohakune. I suggest Ron Cooke might be an interesting figure to contact. I look up to see Ron walk in at just that moment. If we need anything historical about the area, he’s our man. I suggest the festival might be opened by Mayor Don Cameron. Fiona spies him standing beside the Council’s front desk and invites him over. I mention Stuart Campbell. Helen says, “I’ll go get him.” Stuart works at the Council by day. He appears with Helen moments later.
It’s Saturday night, March 19, 2016, and I’m sensing I’ve already reached the zenith of my writing career. I’m in the Powderhorn Chateau in Ohakune, sitting next to Helen Reynolds, awaiting her turn in the Poetry Slam. As we listen to I.K. Paterson-Harkness and Nik Ascroft, I soak in the events of the weekend. Yesterday afternoon, I chaired a session with Emily Perkins, Bianca Zander, and Nix Whittaker. Tomorrow, I will sit on a panel with Elizabeth Knox and Tina Shaw, chaired by Martin Edmond. Earlier today, I learned I’ll have a short story published in Landfall. I now have three novels under my belt, but being accepted by Landfall convinces me I belong in the festival.
Helen has her own zenith to reach. Just recently, she’d shared one of her poems publicly for the first time. I wonder how lovely, quiet, Toastmasters-dependent Helen will brave the stage. She seems to have a plan. As her name is called, she stiffens her chin and mumbles, “I’ll have to go with the raunchy one.” Ken Arkind holds the mic for her as she levels the place.
I’ll reach a new zenith a few months later when I win second prize in the inaugural Surrey Hotel Steve Braunias Memorial Writers Residency in Association with The Spinoff Award.
Daniel Hutchinson is buying me lunch at Jasmine’s Thai Restaurant on the main street. I think that’s fair enough. I’ve been providing his Ruapehu Press with free content for the past two months. It hasn’t been that onerous. I’ve just been re-framing profiles of local creatives featured on my blog. In our conversation, I glean some insights into his world—an editor living in Taupo, producing a local paper with no local office, one reporter, and content fed to it from Fairfax. It’s a farewell lunch. “So, you’re done then, are you?” he asks between bites of the chicken cashew on rice I’d recommended. I suppose it’s a missed opportunity for me, but I confirm, “Yeah, that’s me.”
Daniel never did pick up my idea to run reviews of local books in the Ruapehu Press. So I’ve pitched it to Mark Ebrey, editor of the upstart Taumarunui Bulletin. I’ve known Mark and his family for as long as I’ve lived in Taumarunui. I taught his daughter in my first classroom 20 years ago. I ask him: Why start a second newspaper in the area? Mark confirms my suspicions: locals want to see more local content and the Press hasn’t been delivering. According to Mark, readers want more sport, but he agrees to look at any book reviews I send him – as long as they’re about local books.
I’m back at the Owhango Café. It’s June 2017, and I’m attending my first-ever meeting with the Taumarunui Writers Group. There are seven of us in attendance. Helen is here, cordial as ever, and I’m grateful for her presence and enthusiasm. She assures me the group also runs writing days. While we wait for breakfasts and coffees, I peruse Pixi Robertson’s new children’s publication, A Book of Circus. I ask her about the photographs, suspecting they’re sourced online, and am pleasantly surprised to learn they are mostly hers and her friends, genuine circus performers. I tell her about City of Circles, the new novel by Jess Richards I’ve just read. It’s set in a circus. She writes this information down. I listen as the group sorts out this year’s short story competition. Martin, seated to my right, has designed a website. A tennis match of sorts erupts between him and Pixi, on my left, about the venue for future meetings, a local school vs the studio behind the new art gallery. The studio seems to win out. By the end, I am somehow roped into helping produce a book featuring both local writing and art. Pixi will be in touch.
Chris Eyes opened our occasional series of reports of literary activity in the provinces with his controversial essay on Taupo.
Next in the series: John Summers on Greytown.
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