Does literature exist north of Auckland?: Our ongoing examination of so-called cultural deserts

Whangarei writer Michael Botur continues our occasional series which examines whether literature exists in any shape or form in the regions. He reports from Northland, home to Sam Hunt, Kelly Ana Morey, and a romance writer who sells more books than you’ve had hot dinners or whatever.

Tiny Rawene hosted the Hokianga Book Festival earlier this month, but Tai Tokerau’s biggest literary event of 2018 was NorthWrite. It was a two-dayer and held at Whangarei’s Northtec – the only place offering tertiary creative writing in Northland, although the classes are mostly online and many students are from outside Northland. Literary agent Vicki Marsdon showed up; a queue of hopefuls lined up afterwards to pitch their manuscripts.

But 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 New Zealand 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.”)

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One writer with no need of the NZSA is Kelly Ana Morey. She’s published five novels and three non-fiction books over the last 15 years. When I spoke to her at her Mangawhai home, she’d 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.”

Kelly rarely attends literary events. “I’ve said in the past that I’d 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. Other than that I’m on my own – but that’s my choice.”

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.

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. Meanwhile, Kelly’s feeling optimistic about her 2016 Phar Lap book Daylight Second. As Stephen Stratford wrote on Twitter recently, “Best news of the month: Kelly Ana Morey’s Daylight Second, which I edited, is to be published by HarperCollins in the US in November. Ever since I edited her first novel Bloom in 2003 I knew she would crack the big time eventually.”

 

Kelly Ana Morey (Feature photograph of Kelly with Nina the horse by Ana Rattray)

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Publisher Roger Steele once created a writers map of New Zealand with only Kelly and Hone Tuwhare on it north of Auckland. The map’s a whole lot busier these days if you factor in romance writers.

Daphne de Jong, born Daphne Williams in Dargaville in 1939, has become one of the most-published novelists in the country. She’s such a big part of New Zealand romance writing she has an award named after her (the Daphne Clair de Jong First Kiss Award). 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.

Her 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.

Daphe De Jong (Image: supplied)

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Flash fiction sells nothing, but people go crazy for it anyway. Plenty of 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 New Zealand to launch Canterbury University Press’s 2018 Bonsai: small fictions).

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 2015-2018. 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 says.

Flash fiction writers (left to right) Kathy Derrick, Jac Jenkins, Vivian Thonger, and Martin Porter (Image: supplied)

 

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Not far from Ruawai you’ll find poet Sam Hunt. I caught him on the phone briefly between chopping kindling and doing promotion for his new poetry collection Coming to it. Sam, 72, begins our chat in a cheery mood, having had some good medical news that morning. But having a journalist phone to ask him about his place in Northland writing kills his buzz.

“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 close 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.”

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 he demands to see this story and his quotes. Sam adds that he’s friends with Spinoff Review of Books literary editor 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?”

Piet Nieuwland (Image: supplied)

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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 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.


Michael Botur is travelling south from Whangarei to hold a fiction writing workshop in Auckland on Saturday, October 13,  after launching his new short story collection, True?

The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.

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