For years, Dale Husband has berated himself for not being able to dash off stories with anything like the ease and confidence with which he does his interviews. But here, with Whiti Hereaka, an award-winning novelist and playwright based in Wellington, he’s found a writing mentor and a real pro who’s encouraging him and other would-be writers to cut themselves a bit of slack — and not to toss in the towel just because the first draft stinks.
Tēnā koe, Whiti. In preparing for this conversation, I became much more aware of the range of your writing, especially your plays, and the way you’ve been mentoring emerging writers. So we’ll turn to that shortly.
But I also discovered that, through your dad, you have Tūwharetoa and Arawa whakapapa. Perhaps we can start with you telling us something more about your background.
My mum and dad (Trish and Abe Hereaka) are still around, which is great. They named me Whiti Isobel Hereaka. Dad was a bartender in Rotorua and then he was a manager of a bottle store for a very long time.
I’m the youngest of two kids. My mum, who’s Pākehā, pretty much stayed at home at first with my sister, Amanda, and me, but she retrained as a teacher when I was in my 20s.
When we were growing up, my parents ran a family home in Taupō. We spent a lot of time with kids who needed foster care before they moved on to other whānau or back home, depending on their situation.
So Mum and Dad did a lot for troubled kids when I was in my formative years. That was quite an inspiration for me growing up. Amanda went on to become the director of Taki Rua theatre in Wellington. We both grew up performing and in theatre, so that’s where I got my start as a playwright.
How did your folks come to be foster parents?
I have no idea. They started doing it when I was maybe three or four. I just grew up in that environment and never really questioned it.
Now Mum teaches young children. She comes from a family of teachers, so I think it’s a part of her make-up to be that kind of caring and nurturing individual.
My dad was always pushing me intellectually and he used to set me lateral thinking puzzles to do when we were kids. That’s helped me, I guess, to look at things with a slant and, generally, not head on.
Because Mum is Pākehā, I grew up with my feet in both camps. But probably with more emphasis on Pākehā. It wasn’t until I started university that I really started to explore my Māori identity.
I’m not sure why that was? I guess when you’re a kid, you don’t really think about that. It’s only when you get older that ideas about identity crop up.
Living a life with foster kids and being a part of the host family, I imagine, would mean you couldn’t help but be moved by their circumstances. Perhaps it gave you a sense of how fortunate you were that you weren’t in their shoes?
Absolutely. I’ve got a very good sense of my own privilege in life. I was good at school and I was supported in my education, and I know that’s a privilege that a lot of people don’t have. So I hope it’s made me more sympathetic to people.
And, in a lot of my work, it’s about exposing injustice and making sure that those people who’re being hurt still have a voice. It’s really important that they’re able to express themselves. I don’t want to tell people’s stories for them. That’d be terrible. But I’m hoping that in telling my stories, I’ll inspire others to tell their own stories.
Can you tell us a little more about your early days?
Well, I was born and bred in Taupō and went through all my school years in Taupō. Then, after high school — Taupō-nui-a-Tia College, from 1991 to 1995 — I moved down here to Wellington for university and still live here. My mum, my dad, and my sister and her children all live here, too. So, when I do go back up north, it’s mainly to Rotorua where my dad grew up, and because that’s where a lot of my cousins are living.
Somewhere along the line, you decided to study law. What’s the story there?
Well, that never became my life’s work. I sometimes joke that I took all the papers at law school that would guarantee that I wouldn’t ever get any work as a lawyer — things like feminist legal theory, Māori land law, Māori customary law.
Actually, I sort of fell into the law. It wasn’t a great ambition of mine. It’s just that I was studying at a time when doing two degrees cost the same as doing one degree. So I did them together. But I’ve never practised as a lawyer.
I’ve been admitted to the bar because I wanted to sort of close that circle. But I found that law is very closely related to writing and that the law is about storytelling. It’s about creating the most compelling story. It’s all about language, the use of language, the intent behind the language.
So, for me as a writer, that was probably the biggest appeal. It meant thinking about language and using it as a tool. And I think it’s really helped me as a writer because it’s changed my view of language. People are often surprised that writers and the legal profession go together, but I see them as closely related.
I see that, in the course of your academic work, you did a masters in creative writing at Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters. But there, and later on, I suspect that you’ve had a hand from a number of mentors and teachers.
I’ve been lucky all along. When I was very young, at Taupō Intermediate, I had a teacher called Mrs Hansen. She took a lot of my stories that I’d been writing in class and got them published in the Taupō Times. That was my first taste of being a published writer. She was really supportive.
Then, in high school, I got heavily involved in theatre. My drama teacher at that school, Mrs Gwyneth Glover, was very influential, and she encouraged my writing and acting. And we’re still in touch now.
And as I went through university, I was really lucky to become part of a writing group called Writers Block in Wellington. It was associated with Taki Rua Productions — and that was run by Hone Kouka. He was really influential on my writing. He encouraged me to keep digging deeper — and to ask myself why I was writing the piece I was writing, and why it was important.
That made me think about the importance of the work itself, rather than just showing off as a writer. The core of writing, for me, is something that moves you or confuses you about the world. Something you’re exploring.
And, when I did my masters, Ken Duncan was the facilitator. He was a great influence as well because he’s such an accomplished playwright and scriptwriter. And he has such a calm demeanour. You could ask Ken anything and it wouldn’t ruffle his feathers in any way.
So I’ve been fortunate to have those people in my life.
Then, on the fiction side, I was lucky that Brian and Robyn Bargh at Huia approached me to write my first novel. And they supported me through my development as a fiction writer.
Also, they put me in touch with mentors like Renee and Phillip Mann. That’s part of the reason why I’m enjoying being a mentor for emerging writers. There’ve been all those people who opened doors for me. I’m hoping I can do that for other people.
You must’ve had natural abilities. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have attracted so much support. But can you identify particular lessons you learned from your mentors?
Well, they inspired me to be more vulnerable with my writing. I learned that you can move the reader only if you’ve put some real emotional work into it. It’s the spark of humanity in your writing that readers respond to. It’s not the pretty words or the way your sentences are constructed. All of that helps. But it’s the humanity that people respond to.
It’s hard, though, to be vulnerable in such a public way. But it’s also rewarding. I think of my second novel, Bugs, which a lot of young people have responded to. They come up to me and say: “I finally saw myself in a novel that I can relate to. I can relate to her struggles and her journey.” That’s been really humbling.
You’ve had a great deal of success with your plays. But working as a playwright, I assume, means a number of difficult challenges.
It is hard work. But, because that’s where I started, it’s familiar work as well. I think the biggest difference between theatre and novels is that theatre is collaborative. You go into writing a play knowing that other people are going to bring their expertise to bring it to life.
Sometimes that can be confronting, because your work may be changed without consultation — and that’s annoying for a writer. But I’ve been at rehearsals and been blown away by the generosity of the people working on the play. Often for not a lot of money. Or for no money at all.
The actors always bring so much of themselves to the work. The director does, too. There’s something magic about being part of a play that you really don’t get when you’re writing a novel by yourself.
And there’s a point in time, when you’re sitting in the theatre and you’re holding your breath until everyone in the theatre responds the way you hope they will. There’s nothing like that rush when they all laugh when they’re supposed to, or when they all gasp.
There’s something really beautiful about the ephemeral nature of theatre that, even if a show’s been running night after night, it’s always different. Every night is different. The cast feed off the energy of the audience and vice versa.
I’m sure you’ll recall plays by other writers too, where you’ve been deeply affected.
How long do we have? There are so many. One of the plays I remember seeing and just absolutely bawling my eyes out was Waiora by Hone Kouka. I remember seeing that when I first came to Wellington. I was just overcome with emotion. It’s a beautiful play, so I’d recommend people read that, or even better, go and see it.
One ultra-important aspect about writing, and one that makes me feel uncomfortable, is having a disciplined schedule. And meeting deadlines. It’s not a lot of use, is it, to harbour writing ambitions if you can’t stick to task, because you’re never going to get published.
I tell mentees that keeping to deadlines will distinguish you as a writer. That kind of puts you ahead of a whole lot of people to begin with.
But I think the most important thing for writers at any level is to let yourself write terribly. I think a lot of people stop themselves from writing their first draft because they put their editing hat on too soon.
The first draft is all about experiments and making mistakes and having huge plot holes. And that’s okay. It’s okay to be a bad writer in your first draft because a lot of the craft of writing is in the rewriting. If you have something there in front of you, it’s easier to polish than if you don’t have anything at all.
So, that’s my advice for people who want to start writing. Just allow yourself to write. It doesn’t matter how good it is yet. You can make it better.
From what I’ve seen, there’s a burgeoning confidence in our Māori writing community. What’s your take on that scene?
I’ve been excited to be a part of Te Papa Tupu. That’s a programme that Huia Publishers launched in 2012. I started off as an emerging writer in that programme, and now I’ve gone on to become a mentor and also a trustee of the Māori Literature Trust. So I’ve seen the whole range of work in those years.
And what I’ve seen is a real diversity in genre and voice, and a broadening of what Māori literature is. Also, there’s been a growing attitude that we don’t need to prove ourselves to Pākehā. We don’t need to be part of that literary tradition, although it would be nice to be. But we can actually have our own literature on our own terms.
Sometimes people worry about their work perhaps not being Māori enough. It’s kind of like how people worry about their identity not being Māori enough. But, for me, I believe that Māori literature, written by Māori, has a way of looking at the world that’s different from Pākehā writing.
One of my mentees, Steph Matuku, has just published Flight of the Fantail. We worked on that together. And I see that as a very Māori book. It’s science fiction. It’s a Young Adult book and not all the characters are Māori.
But the way Steph has looked at the world is very Māori. And she’s showing that growing confidence among emerging Māori writers — confidence in being Māori and allowing Māoritanga to come through in the work.
I recall Steph being really complimentary when I spoke with her some months ago about the way you’ve been helping her, Whiti. Your kind of support is especially important. But so is your own writing. So it’s been satisfying to see — and, no doubt gratifying for you — that a number of awards and accolades have come your way over the last 10 years or so. What’s been memorable about them?
I’ve recently come back from a residency in China. That was amazing, so that’s still on my mind. I never thought I’d be able to travel around the world as a writer because it’s not a profession where you get rich.
So I don’t have a lot of money. But I’ve had these opportunities to go around the world and meet other people, meet other writers.
That’s been just because of my writing, and that blows me away. Being able to meet so many amazing human beings around the world just because I wrote some words on paper. Well, that’s just mind-blowing to me.
But, also, my biggest achievement and greatest satisfaction is when readers come up to me and tell me that my work has moved them. It’s lovely to get awards — and please keep them coming because that’s how I Iive! — but my greatest reward is having readers telling me how something I’ve written has moved them, or even changed their life.
These writer-in-residence fellowships, and there’ve been a number of them here and overseas, probably give you a welcome chance to focus on a writing project, away from some of the distractions of modern life. You’ve found them valuable?
Absolutely. The first residency I had in New Zealand was the Randell Cottage residency in Wellington. Without that, I wouldn’t have finished my first novel (The Graphologist’s Apprentice). There would’ve been no way I could do it. It meant I could take time off work and concentrate on the book.
I’ve been working as a full-time writer for four years. Most of that time is chasing up freelance work so I can actually put food on the table and pay my bills. So having time away, like at the Michael King Writers’ Centre, to work on my writing alone has been a godsend.
The residencies overseas are usually a bit different because it’s more about cultural exchange, as it was in China, than it is about the work itself. More about absorbing some of the culture of the country and meeting other writers.
Thank you for your kōrero. It’s been an enriching experience. But, finally, let’s turn from your major line of work to perhaps a lesser interest, a hobby or something. What is there in your life that we might never suspect — but which you can now share with us?
Okay. Well, I’ve always been quite good with my hands. I like to make things, craft things. I generally sew most of my own clothes and I knit.
I also, lately, for some strange reason, have taken up the hobby of repainting Monster High dolls. They’re weird. I wipe their faces clean, repaint them and make them new clothes.
It’s a very strange hobby, isn’t it? But that’s what I’ve been doing lately.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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