Last month, Bill Pomare was getting all the publicity. Bill, a hard-case, semi-ancient Rotorua farmer and horse trainer, is a part-owner of Ocean Billy, a handsome chestnut galloper who’d won the Auckland Cup back in March and who’d set Bill and others wondering whether he might nail the $8 million Melbourne Cup as well.
Billy didn’t bring home the cup this time, but the Pomare name has carried on getting attention. That’s because Joshua Pomare, who used to help his father with the horses, has made a name for himself as a crime writer in Melbourne. Four crime novels in less than four years: Call Me Evie, In The Clearing, Tell Me Lies and The Last Guests. He’s won significant awards for his writing too. And here, in this conversation, Dale gets to hear of the Pomare pathways.
Kia ora, bro. I’ve been impressed with your mahi over the last few years, so it’s a pleasure to have a yarn with you about your background and your writing life. Am I okay to call you Josh? Or is it JP?
My name is Josh, but my friends call me JP — and now, because of the book stuff, everyone calls me JP.
Maui Pomare, like Apirana Ngata and James Carroll, was one of the renowned political figures in Aotearoa a century ago, so you may have some important rellies.
Well, my dad is Wiremu Bill Pomare, which he anglicised because he couldn’t get a business loan with such a Māori name, a long time ago. His mum’s surname was actually Ruatara, so we should be known as the Ruatara whānau.
But she was only 16 when she had twin sons — my dad and Uncle Jim. And they were whāngai’d to another part of the family where the husband’s surname was Pomare. So, that became Dad’s surname.
Dad’s one of about 10 kids — he doesn’t know for sure — and then he’s got about 10 kids of his own as well. There’s a big Ngāpuhi whānau of us up north. We’re from a place called Pouto.
I’m still piecing all this together because I did a DNA test for research and that pulled a few skeletons out of the closet. We found out who might be my father’s father. He never actually knew him.
And your mum?
My mother passed away when I was 10, so I didn’t get to know her too well. But I have great memories of her. Her mother is as British as Earl Grey tea but her father was a third generation Kiwi of UK heritage.
Mum was a nurse, and I’m not entirely sure how she met my father but they got married and started a family in Rotorua.
Pouto is an interesting place, at the northern tip of the Kaipara Harbour. Have you been there?
I went there as a kid for a tangi, but I have no real memory of it, apart from feeling like we were outsiders. When I was 19 or 20, I hitchhiked trying to find it, but I ended up in the Bay of Islands. Someone picked me up and took me there instead.
You have strong Rotorua connections, though, don’t you?
We grew up in Rotorua and I went to Kaharoa primary school where we were “the Māori family.” It was mostly dairy farming kids, so I didn’t get much exposure to Māori culture as a boy.
Then I went to Western Heights High School in Rotorua which is mostly Māori and I got much more exposure to te reo and Māori culture there.
But I haven’t been to Pouto as an adult, and I haven’t got it in my memory. I can sort of see bits and pieces, but I need to get back. Hopefully, after Covid, I’m going to head up north again and check it out. Partly because, one day, I want to write my Dad’s biography and he’s starting to get old. So, I need to get on top of that.
Pouto is a wonderful place and no doubt you’ll be inspired by the visit when it eventuates. But let’s now talk about books. Did your folks read to you?
Nah, not at all. We grew up on a 30-acre farm outside of Rotorua. We had sheep, cows and chickens along with the racehorses. We rode motorbikes and later on we had guns too. It was a pretty typical farm upbringing. And, like anywhere rural, anything approaching the academic wasn’t as appealing. Reading just wasn’t the thing to do.
Because I wasn’t read to as a kid, I didn’t come to books until later. I have a 17-month-old daughter Blake, and I read to her every day for an hour or so. Whereas if I had four kids, five and under, which Mum and Dad did, you know, I wouldn’t read to the youngest one for an hour a day either, would I?
So, part of my background was being the fourth kid. And also, growing up on a farm, there’s fun to be had — and when you’re the youngest, your parents aren’t keeping an eye on you all the time.
I didn’t read that much until my mid to late teens and, even then, I wasn’t reading a great deal. I didn’t realise how influential and important reading and literature really is, and what it can do to help you understand the world.
There were books in the house, you know, nice-looking books, some of them leather-bound. But they were just volumes of random books that no one in the house had ever read.
I think every house has them, a stack of unread books. We’ve got them at our house too.
It’s sort of décor. It signals sophistication but it’s usually unearned. My aunty, who was over in England at the time, sent me a copy of Harry Potter — the first one when I was probably 11 — and I read that and just loved it. And those were what I read as a teenager, all those Harry Potter books. And, also, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Samuel Beckett and just whatever the English teacher gave us.
Your old man, Bill Pomare, had a starter in the Melbourne Cup this month, didn’t he? I know Ocean Billy didn’t go as well as he might have, but just to have a horse in the Melbourne Cup is neat. Did you grow up riding horses?
Yeah, I was always keen on riding. Dad used to put me on horses to help break them in. More than once, I was thrown off and I’d be on the ground and the horse would still be bucking and stomping around me. I was always quite proud of that, though, because it signalled that I was tough.
I’ve actually just been writing about the time I was sent to Tolaga Bay to stay with a Māori fulla called Coke. He used to drive the Coke truck up the East Coast and he had a horse called Cracker.
Then Coke got diabetes and lost one leg. So, he had a prosthetic. He’d whistle and Cracker would lie down, because Coke couldn’t get on with his one leg. So, Cracker would just lie down for him. I went and stayed out there with Coke and we went pig hunting on horses, and I came home thinking: “Ah, I want Dad to buy me a horse,” even though he had about 30 in the paddock.
So, yes, I did go through a phase, in my early teens, of wanting to be a cowboy. I also used to go to the races all the time. And I still have a flutter now and again. That’s usually only on Dad’s horses, so I tend to lose more money than I win. When Dad’s got a runner, I’ll probably chuck $20 on it and see how I go.
Let’s turn now to your writing. When did you first write a piece that you enjoyed or even perhaps had published?
I was at high school and I had something published as part of a Herald newspaper thing for students. I wrote about going to the ball for some reason. But I was very proud of it, and it was on my dad’s fridge for about 10 years.
That’s probably the first time I’d ever written anything I was happy with. My journalism teacher got me on to it. We were talking about the different types of writing you could do, and how, if you were a journalist, you could perhaps be a foreign correspondent in a war zone. I thought that would be cool.
My journalism teacher at Western Heights was Neil Watts and he warned me that, if I was a novelist, I wouldn’t make much money and that it could take me years and years and be such hard work.
That didn’t put me off, even though I’ve always considered myself pretty lazy and I didn’t think I’d be able to sustain that level of concentration for that long. I haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, but I have that kind of busy mind where I was always over-stimulated.
But after I left high school, I started reading lots and I got on top of my insomnia and slowed my brain down a little bit. And I found I could stick to one project for a long time and stay focused.
I was in my 20s when I started having my fiction published, but the first time I thought I could write something worthwhile was in that journalism class and with some solid encouragement from my teacher.
I’m sure that, by the time people are reading one of your stories, it’s been through many drafts. Or did you assume that it’d be hunky dory first time around?
In those early days, I’d write one draft and hope it was good enough because I couldn’t be bothered with the editing and the redrafting.
But that’s just lazy and now I realise that, if you do the mahi, you give yourself 10 times more chance of success than if you just have one stab at it and settle for the first draft.
Maybe with one percent of your stories, the magic happens first time. But it can take five to ten drafts before the real story emerges. That’s how it generally is, with short stories particularly.
A lot of people say they like writing — or they want to be a writer. But it’s not a soft touch, is it?
Yes, a decent percentage of people harbour some ambition to write a book or to become a novelist. But there are many people who start a novel and then don’t finish a first draft.
Or they finish a first draft but never go back to it. So, if you eliminate all that, it’s really not as competitive as it may seem. And I’ve known intuitively that, if I stick with it, redraft and redraft until I think it’s as good as I can get it, then that’s gonna give me the best chance.
Also, my old man is the hardest worker I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t say he’s contributed a helluva lot to my career as far as reading and writing go, but he taught me to work hard. I looked at the work he does to get where he is and that gave me an idea of what I needed to do.
How do you respond when other people critique your work? Because, no doubt, some people are offended or even demoralised by criticism.
It’s much easier taking feedback from someone whose job it is to give feedback. Skilled editors are pretty delicate about that — they deal with writers who have a much closer and more attached relationship with their work than I do. I’m often flattered by the attention that I get from the editors and I’m so grateful for the work they put into it.
When you first see their notes about what they don’t like or want you to change, you put 10 minutes into being angry. Then, for me, it’s gratitude that someone with all that expertise is giving my work their attention.
They know how I work now and they tend not to give me direct suggestions if it’s something big that needs fixing. They’ll just say something like: “This isn’t quite working,” and then that will usually unlock something for me.
I’m pleased you pay tribute to those who assist you to become as good as it can be. We have a similar debt to our editors here at E-Tangata too. Had you written much before you headed to Australia? Or did the writing bug take over once you hit the land of sand?
When I first moved over, I saw a thriving scene of art and music and books — and I saw myself fitting in.
But I’d begun thinking about writing fiction when I was about 18. Up until that point, I’d thought about journalism. But then I started doing a blog which included some fiction.
Also, I began reading more. Roald Dahl’s short stories, for instance, and a bit of Kurt Vonnegut. I started sending entries into short story competitions and literary magazines. And it went from there.
You’ve had great success over the last few years. It’s been a book a year. That’s a pretty hectic pace you’ve set yourself.
Well, I’ve just kept working. But the pace is stepping up because, the more you write books, the more people want you to write articles and things, and then you’ve got publicity — and then suddenly I’ve got a 17-month-old toddler at home as well.
I don’t know how much longer I can sustain it, but I’ve got a book out next year and then I probably will take a couple of years off to hang out with my daughter and catch my breath and then come back to it.
I often look at authors who are doing a book only every two or three years and I’m like: “What do you do with all your time?” But we all work at our own pace, and we all have different approaches and different markets, and I find it takes longer to write a beautiful sentence than to write a commercially gripping scene.
To refine your prose so it’s only your strongest words that are reaching the final page takes so much longer than writing a slightly more commercial story.
If your prose is so clean and crisp and tidy that the readers forget they’re reading a book, then that, for me, is the best writing.
I know the authors who do that for me and it transcends storytelling and that’s the art in it.
Can you share some of those names?
Cormac McCarthy is one, although it’s such an intellectual experience reading a Cormac McCarthy book. It demands a lot of you and keeps you on your toes, and he’ll just deliver these incredible lines here and there.
John Steinbeck is another, although I realise he was a commercial author at the time. Also, there’s Helen Garner, an Australian author. And Margaret Attwood who is a brilliant stylist. These are the names I go back to.
Another book that I loved and returned to quite a lot is Once Were Warriors. Before it was a movie, it was a fantastic novel.
And New Zealand has such an abundance of poets coming through. Hera Lindsay Bird and Tayi Tibble are incredible. If I’m stuck for ideas or images or if I want to remind myself what good writing looks like, I go back to poetry and to Kiwi poets.
We’ve got too few Māori authors of novels. In fact, we have too few of our people as avid readers. I’m wondering if you feel a responsibility to encourage more Māori and Pasifika writers now that you’ve enjoyed success?
I do absolutely, and I’m forever trying to think of what that giving back looks like. I have a problem with this thing that happens in Australia — and everywhere.
It’s where there’s a decent amount of support for Indigenous authors, or authors of colour, with their literary writing, but as soon as you start skewing towards commercial writing, there seems to be far less support. There’s this idea that there’s a responsibility for Māori writers to write serious literature and be representative of the entire culture.
People of colour and First Nation people, Indigenous people — they’re not pushed towards writing commercial narratives, they’re always pushed towards writing auto-fiction of their memoirs or writing literary fiction.
The problem is that their strengths may lie in writing commercial fiction — crime fiction, sci-fi fantasy or whatever. Not only that, there’s just a much greater potential readership in those genres. So, as a vehicle for change and social commentary, crime novels are perfect because you’re reaching a larger audience.
A crime audience is usually reading Ian Rankin, you know, or traditionally very white, Pākehā voices. So I do want to encourage Māori and Pasifika writers to not feel as though they have to be an activist voice in a traditional sense — they can be subversive in another genre.
We want Māori and Pasifika writers to be on the world stage. We want them to escape what is typically a small audience.
I do feel a sense of guilt that I could be doing more. I could be contributing more, I could be giving back more, I could be running more workshops.
If I were to do more, it should probably come in the form of properly mentoring young Māori and Pasifika writers to find what they want to write and read, and where their strengths are.
It’s been such an interesting conversation, JP. And I’m so pleased to have had a chance to kōrero with you. As a broadcaster, I’ve always thought that my best years are ahead of me because, as you go, you accumulate more life experience, you see more political cycles, you hear more music, you see more sporting careers.
As a writer, is it also true that the older you get, the more you have to draw on? How far down the track in your career do you sense you are now?
The more time passes, the more material you have to draw from. I look back on my first novel Calling Evie, and I think: “Who wrote that?” I’m a different person now even though I wrote it only five years ago. I’ve got a different worldview, a different perspective, and I couldn’t write the same book today, because I’m informed by new experiences.
So, my work should continue to get better. But, time and time again, I’ve been proven wrong by some of my favourite authors and their worst books later in their career. So, you never know!
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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