Author Spotlight Q&A: Emma Hislop

author emma hislop standing in front of a garden

Emma Hislop (Kāi Tahu), is a Taranaki based writer and māmā, whose debut collection of short stories, Ruin, is published this month by Te Herenga Waka University Press. Photo credit: Ebony Lamb


Congratulations on the launch of Ruin! What is Ruin about and who should read it?

Kā mihi nui ki a koe. I think of Ruin as an exploration of power. My editor, Anna Knox, blurbed the book and I like what she said – This is a book about power and its contortions, powerlessness and its depravities, and the ends to which we will go to claim back agency.


Sometimes writers talk about their book as if it is something they’ve birthed – a struggle as well as a gift. If you were to think of your book this way, who are its whanaunga? Who helped you bring this book into the world?

A huge number of people helped with this book, and I’ve certainly thought of it as both a struggle and a gift over the past nine years I’ve been writing it. My whānau helped with my son, Lenni, particularly when he was little. James George read an early draft and provided extremely useful feedback. Towards the end of writing the book, I was lucky to score Pip Adam as a mentor for six months. Pip asked the hard questions of the work and undoubtedly made it much better. Spending time at our marae at Puketeraki for the first time in 2020 helped me finish this book in ways I struggle to explain and I’m grateful to whanauka who helped make that happen. In a lot of ways it felt like the beginning.


You completed your MA at the IIML, and Ruin is published by Te Herenga Waka Press. What has it been like to develop and deepen your relationship with Te Herenga Waka?

I sent the pukapuka to Te Herenga Waka first, because I’ve built up a relationship there over the years, and that was important to me. They published a story of mine in Sport in 2014, and others in subsequent years and have always been approachable and supportive. But when they accepted Ruin for publication, I was in shock! Initially, I was a bit nervous about the editing process, because I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was very much a kōrero.

Also when I suggested Maiangi Waitai’s amazing mahi toi for the book cover, they understood how it encapsulated what I was trying to do in the writing. I’m very grateful to Te Herenga Waka.


What tikanga or kawa do you apply to your writing process?

Writing usually needs to be built in around my other mahi and whānau responsibilities. That’s my personal tikanga. Sometimes I just write for ten minutes when I wake up. What I’ve noticed is the more I’m writing, the more ‘in it’ I am. I’m very all or nothing with everything, so it’s better if I’m writing often, even if it’s just a bit. For the past few months, I’ve been writing all day, because I was lucky enough to get some funding to draft a novel.


What do you think your mokopuna will think of your book? What will their reactions be?

They’ll probably think whoa, Nanny was angry. Lol. Seriously though, I have no idea. It’s an interesting pātai, and the fact that our kids are growing up knowing their whakapapa is everything to me.


What was it like to hold your book in your hands for the first time?

I really wanted to have a cool unboxing, and film it like my e hoa essa did. But only two copies of my pukapuka arrived and I asked my kid to video me opening the parcel on my phone. We did that, but when we went to watch it, he hadn’t pushed the record button. It was an epic fail. When I got over that, he and I marvelled at Maiangi’s mahi toi on the cover. I was stoked with how incredible it looked. We celebrated with ice cream.


What books (or other art forms) influenced you while writing this book?

My Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado.The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood. Filthy Animals, by Brandon Taylor. Fen, by Daisy Johnson. Also Sarah Hall’s Madame Zero and Sudden Traveller. Orange World by Karen Russell.


What are your dreams for this book?

I hope it’s accessible to everyone who wants to read it. This might sound weird, but when it was accepted for publication, it was like I was able to let it go. This was a huge relief, after nine years of working on it.


What projects are you working on now or hope to be working on in the future?

I was super fortunate to get some CNZ funding last year to draft a novel, so I’ve been working on that full time for the past six months or so. It feels like a totally different machine to the short story. The funding runs out soon, so I’ll be looking for other work.


What tips do you have for building relationships in the Māori writing community?

Relationships are everything I reckon. A group of us established a Taranaki branch of Te Hā in 2019 after the Hui Kaituhi in Porirua and it has been awesome. Just having a few writer mates to have a cuppa with, or a Facetime and talk about writing, or just whatever’s on top. A lot of us are Mums as well as working from home, juggling lots of things at once.


Which book by a Māori author have you read lately that you loved and what did you love about it?

Can I please have two? Both explore the importance of place, which is something I’m thinking and writing about a lot at the moment. Alice Te Punga Sommervilles’ How to Write While Colonised. I was lucky enough to catch a live, online reading from Alice recently, and hearing the poetry out loud moved me to tears. I related strongly to the experiences described, the intergenerational stuff, trying to reclaim our reo and the talk of the younger ones coming up and the hopeful way things are shifting. It was a little while ago now, but I also loved Tauhou, by Kotuku Titihuia Nuttall. Tauhou feels like a book full of possibilities. I loved the fact that the characters in the book share a family, and the way what felt important was where people come from and who their families are.


What advice do you have for emerging Māori writers?

Haere mai, e hoa mā. Write whatever you want, and if you live in Taranaki, come along to Te Hā hui for a cuppa!

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