Coin Toss

I’m not a nautical person but that never stopped me taking to the sea. When I was a kid my stepfather had one of those tin boats that sat so low in the water the waves used to slosh over the side and mix together with the guts and blood of the fish, tainting the salt water pink around my ankles. I’d spew and spew over the side and vow never to go out again but for some reason I couldn’t help myself. I’d hear Dad getting ready outside the tent in the dark and I’d drag myself shivering with cold and climb up onto the wooden plank in the boat. Sitting there under my lifejacket, teeth clenched, we’d bump our way down the road in the darkness, diesel fumes and blood and vinyl choking my nostrils. I could already taste the vomit rising. It wasn’t Tangaroa that called me but the promise of time alone with my stepfather. I wanted him to be proud of me, his fishergirl, the Chunderguts.

I’m not a nautical person but I married a guy who loved the ocean. In the years we were together we owned kayaks and boats and all manner of things that float. I wanted to love the ocean like he did, because he did, and I thought it was that simple. I thought love was simple. The year before we separated, a fishing boat capsized while trying to cross the bar in the Kaipara. Eight of the ten men on board were killed and the skipper was blamed. On the news, boaties shook their heads in disgust and called him a cowboy. ‘You don’t mess with the Kaipara,’ locals said. When the force of the outgoing tide meets the muscle of Tāwhirimātea coming in, near vertical swells rise up against the massive underwater hills. There’s a channel through the bar, a safe place to cross, but it changes shape and location all the time, even in the space of a day. The coast guard on the T.V. that night looked grim in front of the debris. ‘They should have stayed out at sea and ridden the storm out,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘They would have been cold and hungry the next day, but they would have been alive. It was a coin-toss.’

I’m not a nautical person but I stayed another year after the boat crash in the Kaipara because I’m not the gambling sort. The next summer we crossed the Cook Straight on the Bluebridge Ferry to the Queen Charlotte Sounds. Te Moana o Raukawa ki Toronui. We booked a lodge accessible only by boat and stayed for ten days. I wanted to love it because he loved it and I thought love was that simple but I was already studying the bar. I was up early every morning watching the channel, the shape of the underwater hills, lightly discernible if you pay attention. On the second day of that holiday, a yacht sailed into the little bay and hitched up to a mooring. We instantly connected with the family on board, spending several days together, laughing, eating, swimming. It was easy. The kids were happy. For a moment I considered changing my mind. I remember thinking: I could stay out at sea, couldn’t I? Everyone is happy here. Can’t I be happy here? But I was seasick and tired, and the time had come to admit that I really just didn’t like the ocean that much. I wanted to feel the earth solid beneath my feet, I missed the smell of soil and rain and wet leaves. I longed to go home.

I’m not a nautical person but writing a book is a lot like I imagine sailing solo must be. Setting off in the sunshine with all the hope and anticipation in the world, tanks full of fresh water, crisp new sails, what can possibly go wrong?

Everything.

I was bailing water before I even hit the open ocean. It wasn’t just that I doubted my ability, it’s that I was uncertain where I was going. Was I writing memoir or essays? Was there a difference?

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one out there on the ocean. I let off a flare or two and always, without fail, the other Te Papa Tupu interns held up a torch in the darkness. I have this image of us setting off together nearly eight months ago, sails up, blue skies. We sat in the conference room in front of the flash pens and little booklets Huia Publishers provided feeling like minor celebrities. We had our photos taken standing in front of the hedge by the pool looking all authorish and then they told us about all the places we were going: from a stodgy conference room in Kilbirnie to book festivals and writer’s forums in Auckland, Sydney and then who knows where? We gawped and stuffed our faces with free food. All we had to do was finish writing our books, how hard could it be? We didn’t exactly put our hands in the middle and do a team-chant but we left our egos on the threadbare carpet of the Brentwood Hotel and promised to help each other out. Writing is complicated. It’s better not to be in competition with each other; there’s wind enough for all of us.

I’m not a nautical person but I don’t know if there’s a better metaphor for a mentor than the image of a lighthouse. They’re the ones who let you know where the rocks are so you don’t smash yourself up on them. The mentor is to the writer as the lighthouse is to the sailor. Intermittent but constant. He toka tū moana.

John Huria, whom I met at the first workshop, drew a little compass on a piece of paper, telling me that my writing is full of heart and strong on narrative, two things that he said seemed to come naturally to me. A writer can go a long way on a little bit of encouragement. When I’m feeling shitty about my work or stuck on something, I still look at that diagram. John pushed me to explore the aesthetic, the scope and breadth of metaphors that can straddle two intellectual worlds at the same time. He also introduced me to the phrase ‘pre-loved language,’ a gentle way of pointing out the clichés that had a habit of creeping into my work (‘John, I hope this whole nautical metaphor doesn’t sink like a stone’).

I’m grateful to Paula Morris whose close-reading of my work helped me to sift through my stories to find those that were worthwhile polishing. I know that other mentors like to work to strict deadlines but that wouldn’t have gone well for me. I was crossing the bar and my family needed me, my kids needed me.  My manuscript couldn’t be the priority all the time and Paula understood this and gave me space to work at my own pace. Her feedback was always precise and articulate, and I know my work needed the kind of detailed critique she offered.

Diane Brown read my manuscript before anyone else more than two years ago. What I remember most from Diane’s mentorship is our friendship. I don’t think I could have handled a lot of harsh critique, back then. I needed to know just that my writing wasn’t terrible and that the stories were worthy of being told. Diane reassured me they were. In her emails she told me she’d crossed the bar too, years ago, and that it gets easier. Marriages fail, poetry falls out, blue skies return.

Not all our mentors are hand-picked. Some of them find us. Anahera Gildea is like that. I was out there in the ocean headed for darkness and I could see where everyone else was going but I just wasn’t convinced that was where I needed to be. I was looking for others who write and sound like I do. Anahera was one of the first. She’s chartered these waters before me.

I don’t know if it’s because the stories I’m writing are true or because of my anxiety, but fear has been a constant since I started publishing. One of the first personal stories I ever shared was about my father and it was meant to be a mihi to him, but it was my mother who was hurt. Three days before Christmas we spoke on the phone and she said: ‘you write beautifully, Nadine, but you tell lies.’

It cut me up. I never wanted to weaponise my words. I wanted to uncover and make things known, but it’s not about settling scores. It’s about breathing. It’s about holding hard things and good things in my hands at the same time. It’s the opposite of telling lies. The manuscript I sent to Huia Publishers six weeks ago is around 55,000 words and before I hit submit, I asked myself: Is this beautiful, is this true?

The trouble is, some truths cannot be made beautiful, no matter how many ways we rewrite the story. At some point, we have to let go of how our words will be received. We can’t control how the reader will interpret what we’ve said. This lack of control is awful. It’s more awful when you’re Māori. We write with authority about our lives and with all the authenticity we can muster but people will always pick it apart and mine our words for truth. None more so than those closest to us. These are the waves; this is the sense of drowning. This is when I heave my guts over the side of the tinny boat, not a yacht at all, who was a kidding thinking I could sail?

On days like this, mentors throw out just enough light to help you stay on course. One mentor isn’t enough. The ocean is treacherous. It’s not just about where you’re going, it’s about why you want to go there in the first place. If you’re a writer and you’ve got something to say I think you need to know why you want to say it, at least before you make landfall.

There are other mentors, too many to name, but especially: Karlo Mila, Annette Morehu, Alex Keeble, Cassandra Barnett, Leonie Hayden, Stacey Morrison, Victor Rodger, Kennedy Warne, Tapu Misa, Whiti Hereaka.

And of course, my kids, who don’t exactly understand all of this, but support me with unwavering faith: Bobbie: See her brave Liam: Have you finished your manuscript yet? Cormac: Writing a book is like having a baby, you can’t stop pushing half way through.

I’m not a nautical person but lately I have begun to feel like I’m arriving. I can see the outline of the hills ahead of me and the water is shallow enough to make out the little ridges in the sand beneath. It’s calm and quiet and I know the other Te Papa Tupu interns are already there on the beach. In a few days’ time we will find out who among us has done enough to earn a contract for publication then we’re all off to the Sydney, dragging our suitcases behind us and striking poses that look authorish. It makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It’s terrible to want something and also not want it. It’s terrible to want to go out in the boat with your Dad even though you know it’s going to make you sick. Or to want to leave your marriage when you know what you’re gambling with. It’s terrible to want the things you want.

I’m not a nautical person but there are some days when I feel good out on the water. It’s a coin toss. It really is.


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

A Place to Grow

I took this photo during my time in Tokyo. It is of a lotus about to bloom. I’ve always loved the Buddhist view of a lotus – as a lotus can grow out of mud and blossom above the muddy water, we too can rise above the mire and messiness of our lives. We can transform.

Last week we had our final Te Papa Tupu Workshop in Wellington. We kicked off with HUIA Executive Director Eboni Waitare inviting us to reflect on our  journey with the programme, before meeting with our mentors: James George, Jacquie McRae, Simon Minto and Whiti Hereaka. That session was followed by informative and stimulating workshops: point of view with Paula Morris, story arc with Simon Minto, marketing and personal branding with Waimatua Morris and publishing with Robyn Bargh. We finished up by sharing thoughts on where we see ourselves going with our work, before heading off to drinks and nibbles with Creative New Zealand, Te Puni Kōkiri and Huia Publishers’ staff, and finally dinner and cocktails at The Library – an aptly named and decorated watering hole for book nerds like us. It was a full day, and I believe we all left with full hearts … yes, I am a giant cornball. I admit it.

At the mentor meeting, James George asked me what was going on, as I’d said I was in a bit of a slump. I explained that I was having difficulty with creating more of a narrative spine in some of my stories. I was feeling blocked, and I wasn’t sure why. As always, he cut to the heart of things very quickly:

find some other place where there is some energy in your work and work on that / a piece of description, a piece of dialogue / something poetic and wistful / what are your strengths in this collection? / what are you good at? / don’t look at what’s not there / maybe it isn’t there / have confidence that you have fascinating subject matter that you can invoke truthfully / you may have to confront a truth about yourself that you are terrified of / let your characters speak their truths to you / make the undercurrents noisier / more disruptive / pile these themes / not to fix them / embrace who you are and what you do.

Once again, I am reminded how fortunate I am to be here, now.

During the workshop discussions, James George made a great point that HUIA invests in writers, unlike other publishing houses who harvest. This makes HUIA very unique. I feel incredibly supported and nurtured by HUIA, and by each and every person who is a part of the HUIA whānau. I am so grateful that I was able to thank Robyn Bargh personally for what she has built for us. What she has created is phenomenal, and a success story. This opportunity came at a time in my life when I deeply needed someone to believe in me. Take a chance on me (lol Nadine). I was so ready for it. It’s been life changing. It’s been emotional. It’s now my dream that we will take this beautiful taonga that HUIA has given us and share our stories on the world stage, to inspire and uplift our people and make them proud.


Colleen Maria Lenihan (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is a photographer. On returning to New Zealand in 2016, after fifteen years in Tokyo, she began writing short stories. In 2017, Colleen received an Honourable Mention for the NZSA Lilian Ida Smith Award and a scholarship from The Creative Hub and Huia Publishers. She is thrilled to be selected for Te Papa Tupu 2018.

Changing in Unexpected Ways

I’ve never been a very confident person. Even when I was very young, I was timid. My little brother seemed to get all the courage, and he approached the world like it owed him – the world responded as if he was right.

I envied him that, wished I could feel like I was worthy too.

It took me a ridiculously long time to see how wrong the belief that I wasn’t enough was. It took me even longer to begin trying to kill it with fire. But I’ve been working on it.

Some of this irrational belief stemmed from my crippling anxiety. For the majority of my life it’s tarnished everything I’ve done. The voices in my head constantly told me how stupid I was, how unimportant I was, how bad I was at just about everything, how the world would just be better off if I wasn’t around. I used perfection as a crutch, because if I couldn’t get it perfect then I couldn’t move forward and take the next step. The risks were minimal. Life was safer that way.

Of course, you can’t stay hidden when you’re a writer. At some point you actually have to send your stories out and let other people read them. At some point some of those stories are going to get published, and then people will occasionally leave reviews, and they aren’t necessarily going to enjoy what you wrote.

It is literally impossible to please everyone. Not even chocolate can do that, so I know I shouldn’t try either. But it was always there in the back of my head. And every single time I submitted a short story or published something I felt sick to my stomach, felt the bile in the back of my throat, felt tears welling in deep pools inside me as I waited to be told how crap I was. I wanted to hide under a rock or sit on the review sites until someone said something awful about me and I could have my certainty that I was a terrible writer confirmed.

But that never happened.

No one said awful things about my writing. (Aside from one guy who likened me to a terrorist or something, which stunned me and then made me laugh because I know without doubt that I’m a lovely person. I just sometimes write not so lovely things. Anyway, he didn’t say the writing was bad, and obviously, it evoked a response from him and that’s goal achieved!)

You might have picked up that I’ve said ‘was’ a few times so far, and that’s because that feeling has faded substantially. I think it’s a combination of things.

First up, I’m medicated now. I started taking this antidepressant to try and dull some of the awful pain I have from my Fibromyalgia, but the upshot is that my moods have balanced out and my anxiety has diminished. My confidence is—wait, let’s start that again. I actually have some confidence. I keep doing things and then being amazed at those things, and that’s a really nice feeling. I can finally hear my family, friends and fellow writers when they tell me I’m amazing or that they like something I did – for the longest time all those kind words were drowned out by the voice in my head negating all the things they said.

October was a big month for testing out this new way of being as I had a few writing related events on. First up, we were invited to the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement event in Wellington. Hone and I road tripped down for it, hung out with our mentor and fellow mentees, chatted to a whole range of amazing people working within the literary industry, and I didn’t feel scared at all. I was excited and inspired, and a little out of my depth, but I wasn’t anxious.

Premier House, Wellington

The next big thing was an appearance at Armageddon in Auckland – I was on a panel talking about an anthology that recently came out, in which I have a short story. Quite a different vibe to the awards but similar in that it’s another place full of people who are out celebrating the things they love.

I’ve never done a panel at such a big event, and on the few occasions I’ve participated in one, I was unable to think of anything else for the entire day before, or eat, or function. And yet, I was there signing books at the table, chatting to people, so busy and having fun that I almost forgot to feel nervous about the panel. When I did, it was a faint echo of past feelings. Enough that I could ignore it.

And it went well. I ENJOYED it. Like, really enjoyed it. I left wanting to do more, and then caught myself out, reminded that just a year or so ago this would have been impossible for me.

So, medication is wonderful. At least, for me, for right now.

Secondly, I’ve been noticing how supported we are. How well supported I am.

At Armageddon, the editor of the anthology made sure we were all comfortable and okay before the panel started and assured us that if we ran out of things to say, he could carry on talking until we found our feet. I don’t think we ran out of things to say, but when someone in the audience was getting a little difficult, the editor made sure to be clear about his feelings on the matter and show his full support of our work.

When we were at the awards, Brian Morris and Robyn Bargh were both there, introducing us to people and making sure we were all good. Our mentor, Whiti Hereaka, kept an eye out for us too, and I never once felt isolated despite being out of my comfort zone.

My mentor is amazing. I know I’ve said that before, but she’s everything I could hope for in a mentor. When I told her about my Fibromyalgia diagnosis, which is pretty recent, she came up with ideas for tweaking the schedule to make sure I could get to events that were important to attend (at the National Writers Forum), and knowing she was taking my needs into consideration meant that I could push through and do what I needed to.

Sometimes, it’s just that knowledge that someone has your back that makes all the difference. Knowing you’re supported and looked after, that someone is cheering you on and will be there to throw you a rope when you’re sinking. Without that, this writing gig is a whole lot harder, and for those dealing with extra struggles like mental/physical health, they really are essential.

I feel really blessed, really grateful for all the support I have, because I know not everyone is so lucky. And I’m so pleased that I actually have some confidence now, because I tell you what, it makes the revision process a whole lot easier when you’re not constantly second, third and fourth guessing yourself.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

Te Maunga Teitei (The Pinnacle)

The National Writer’s Forum, Auckland.
L-R: Nadine Anne Hura, Brannavan Gnanlingam, Anahera Gildea and Vana Manasiadas (Photo supplied)

For the briefest moment last month, I felt like I belonged to an exclusive club of writers. All six writers on Te Papa Tupu programme were flown to Auckland for the National Writers Forum. They put us up in a lovely hotel at the top of Queen Street, across town from the University of Auckland where the two-day conference was held. I arrived, exhausted after missing flights and transfers, and lay back on the bed trying to take it all in. It felt a bit surreal: the sound of laughter from the street below, my carry-on suitcase lying open in the half-light and a tumble of books strewn across the carpet.

The sensation was still there the next morning when Whiti Hereaka knocked on my door to take me downstairs for breakfast. Surreal, because Whiti used to be just another author whose work I admired from afar, not someone I ever expected to pick me up to take me for breakfast like an old mate. And yet here she was, sitting in my hotel room practicing Mandarin in preparation for her upcoming residency in China, occasionally looking up to provide an opinion on the selection of my outfit. 

Later that night, after all the workshops and panel discussions were finished, I found myself at a table surrounded by a group of authors I’ve followed for years. People whose books were sitting on my bedside table at home. When a plan was made to go out for dinner I almost declined. I felt like an imposter. How to feign belonging? There was only one other unpublished person at the table, another Te Papa Tupu intern, otherwise, everyone else was working on their second, third, fourth or even thirteenth title. I felt like someone had opened the door to the club, and we’d snuck in while the bouncer was looking the other way. 

Coming home was a relief. Writers’ forums and book festivals can go either way for an aspiring writer. Some sessions leave you motivated and inspired. Others can make you doubt your capacity to fill out forms let alone finish an entire manuscript. I withdrew to gather myself. I wanted to spend less time thinking about the work and more time doing it. 

As the weeks have passed and I’ve settled into a rhythm, I’ve found myself returning to ask why I want to belong to this club of published authors so much. Part of it is to do with ego, I suppose. I have identified the pinnacle, and I want to know if I can reach it.

But lately, I have started to wonder if, in pursuing legitimacy in the Pākehā world of literature, I am turning my back on the inheritance offered by Māori literary traditions. How much better could my writing become, what potential could I discover if I didn’t reject the qualities of excellence embedded in oral traditions in favour of those of the written word but instead held both in my hands at the same time? It’s something our ancestors have been doing for a long time. Perhaps this is the true pinnacle I should be aiming for. 


Like many New Zealanders, Nadine Anne Hura (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) has grown up with a foot in two worlds: Te ao Māori and te ao Pākehā. She joins Te Papa Tupu eager to work on her manuscript of essays about identity, language and belonging. She has three children and lives in Porirua.

Specificity

I’ve known for a while now that my biggest weakness when it comes to writing is in the detail. I mumble through stories using broad strokes rather than a fine-haired brush, and in doing so, I lose something.

Part of me thought none of these details mattered because they have no relevance to readers outside our country, and when most of those in the book biz will tell you that there is no market for adult genre fiction in New Zealand (written by New Zealanders) anyway, one must try and think about the global market.

But I was also scared of pinning things down too much in part due to my overwhelming fear of doing my culture wrong (I push through those fears, but that doesn’t mean I have less anxiety about them) or doing anything wrong, really. That risk of stuffing something up, offending someone, getting the facts wrong held me back and meant I skimmed over the top of things rather than going deeper. Which is where research comes into play in a big way, and I’ve gotten so much better at that in the last few months.

What I’ve come to see is that the importance of the specifics lies in their relevancy to me and to my characters. I’ve learned that when I imbue my work with these details it helps every part of my story come alive.

‘What I’ve come to see is that the importance of the specifics lies in their relevancy to me and to my characters.’

Because it’s the little things that matter.

When I was reading Bugs, by my mentor, Whiti Hereaka, I was struck by how well she does this. There was a moment when reading that it finally hit me how I could colour my world without overdoing it. And it was something so simple but utterly beautiful to me: when Bugs is learning how to clean a hotel room there is a mention that they clean the taps then wipe them down with a dry cloth so there are no water marks.

See, simple right? But it made it real. I knew that hotels always look perfect, but it had never crossed my mind to think how they did that. This was a touch of insight that made this scene real to me. Like I was on the inside. Like the characters were real people with real knowledge.

I want my stories to feel real too, even when I’m writing about ghosts, possession, aliens or gods. And it’s particularly important for me that I do this with Butcherbird, but at the same time, that feeling of importance might be what makes it hard to do.

‘I want my stories to feel real too, even when I’m writing about ghosts, possession, aliens or gods.’

You see, I set this book on a fictional version of my grandparent’s farm. It was a farm I spent a lot of time on, nestled at the foot of my maunga, Taranaki. And so, it should be easy to make things real – I’m not writing about my family (Rose is definitely not my grandmother; I am not Jena), but I know what growing up in the country is like. I know the curves and folds of the land, the feel of the air, how cold the rivers coming off the mountain can be, the taste of water that comes from a spring and not town supply.

And yet almost none of those things are present in this book. Not even my mountain.

The view of the farm

When I was halfway through writing Butcherbird, my Nana had a massive stroke. We rushed home from Paraparaumu to be with her, but she never regained consciousness. I wrote bits of Butcherbird while holding her hand during her last days.

Writing this book gave me something to focus on that wasn’t the fact Nana was dying. She is so much a part of this book because of time spent by her side, both on her death bed and throughout my life, and because I was writing it as a love letter to that place we called home.

But it’s not home any more, and she’s not with us. Hasn’t been for almost a year now.

It took me another twenty-four days to finish the book, but I did, even though it was so freaking hard and I had to face death again within the pages. She was a pragmatic woman, and I could hear her telling me to just get on with it. And I did. I got on with it. I finished the book. And now, here I am, revising the book. And while sometimes it hurts to dig deep, I know that I have to reconnect to my initial desire for this work, and that’s going to require me to get specific, to get detailed.

And, yeah, I have some resistance to that. Because it still hurts. I miss her. And sometimes digging deep makes that ache a little harder to bear.

But specificity is important.

It’s vital.

When we were at the National Writers Forum in September this was one of the key things I took away from it – it turns out that the books from New Zealand authors best received both here and around the world were those deeply grounded in New Zealand’s culture, land and experiences. People want those details; they want our flavour.

‘… the books from New Zealand authors best received both here and around the world were those deeply grounded in New Zealand’s culture, land and experiences.’

I listened carefully to the keynote speakers over that weekend: Lani Wendt Young, Dr Anita Heiss and John Marsden. All spoke eloquently; their experiences and passion for writing blooming in our imaginations as they spoke due to the details they used to richly colour their lives.

It’s very clear to me now that the broad strokes I mentioned earlier aren’t doing me any favours. More importantly, it’s not doing my story any favours either. I’ve been bashing my head against this lesson for what feels like years now, but I think I’m almost there. I think I’m finally brave enough to dig deep and do the things that need to be done.

The writing life is a series of lessons – there are always more things to be learnt – but this particular one has been a mountain I’ve failed to climb many times before. It’s well and truly time I conquer it.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

I Have Always Been a Bookworm

When I was a child, my mother worried that I didn’t get out and spend enough time with friends, but who needs friends when you have books?

I’m joking! I’m joking. I have many wonderful friends.

But I also have many wonderful books.

I spent a lot of my childhood embedded in pages. Mum didn’t need to worry; the books were taking very good care of me, leading me on all kinds of adventures through this world and countless others.

We come from a long line of avid readers, so the whole bookworm thing wasn’t really a surprise. However, my choice in books was a puzzle my mother could never solve. Our extensive, extended family library was mostly composed of science fiction and fantasy, and while those are genres I adore, it’s horror that really captured me.

It still does.

I love that breathless sensation you get when you think something bad is going to happen. The way the skin at the back of your neck tingles and your shoulders shrug into your ears as if you can save yourself – save the characters in the book – with that movement. The way your feet lift off the floor, subconsciously tucking underneath you because who knows what’s hiding in that space beneath your seat. As if these little movements will protect you from killer or monster, from the unknown, the unknowable.

The way that even after you’ve finished the book you might hear something, and it triggers that gasp, that inhalation, that rush of adrenaline you need to get the hell out of there and somewhere safe.

Oh yeah, I love horror.

So, it’s no surprise that I love to write things that creep people out. The vast majority of my short fiction has elements of horror woven in. Which brings me to Butcherbird because it was the first time I set out to do this in a longer format.

You see, I’d been writing a lot of romance and the need to creep someone out was overwhelming, an itch that needed to be scratched; I needed horror. Not the B grade slasher film type (not that there is anything wrong with that. I love a good B grade slasher). I’m more into the subtle chills, the rising levels of discomfort and fear than I am blood and gore. I want the creepiness that lingers, the one that’s kind of familiar and could be waiting for you around the next corner, in the next person you meet. The one that follows you home (the creepiness, not the person, though that’s creepy too).

‘I want the creepiness that lingers, the one that’s kind of familiar and could be waiting for you around the next corner, in the next person you meet.’

I had this idea, and it hit me in the way the best ideas do, which is to say while I wasn’t looking for it at all. (I was actually playing Minecraft with the kids. Seriously, ideas can come from anywhere.) I was walking through a wheat field, water up to my knees, and it took me back to all the games we’d played in the rushes of the swamp on my grandparents’ farm. Birds swooping overhead, the sun blocked out suddenly by clouds, the drop in temperature that follows.

Once I’d scrawled down that initial flash of imagery, I set to work expanding this idea for a book and decided to fill it with all the things I love, and to set it on a fictional version of my grandparents’ farm, the very same place I spent so many years playing out stories with my cousins as a child.

And I couldn’t bring them to life – this book is not those stories, it’s a thing of its own – but all my memories of the farm, all my love of tales about family and secrets, of rural New Zealand and that slow-build fear that tickles the back of the throat are in this book.

These things aren’t perfectly honed yet, but they’re getting there with the help of my mentor, Whiti Hereaka. She’s making me think harder about all the elements I put in from the smallest reference to a book or object up to much broader things such as character motivations. I’ve spent these past weeks researching and reading, and all this background work means I’m coming back to my book and finding new ways to breathe life into the story, to add touches to dialogue and setting, to ramp up the world building and make the whole thing shine more.

‘I’m coming back to my book and finding new ways to breathe life into the story.’

It’s been really enriching to be forced to sink into research, to be directed towards specific texts to grow from and to pick my own as well, and a real challenge being told not to work on the book itself for weeks. My fingers were itchy for the craft by the time I was allowed back to writing.

I’d been slacking a bit on my reading goals, and this has all been excellent incentive to drown myself in books again.

This bookworm has taken her reading game to a new level.


Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.

I am a Writer. I am Māori.

I come from a family of storytellers; they seem to be able to spin the spoken word into magic. Put me on the spot, and my words get tangled in my mouth and become something awkward and heavy. I can never quite seem to articulate my thoughts that way, but give me a pen? Give me a pen, and everything changes.

I’ve always made up stories. I used to develop worlds and characters for my brother and cousins so we could play out vast adventures across our grandparent’s farm. I shared my writing with friends and family and had a few things published here and there.  It’s so much a part of me that I couldn’t imagine life without it.

I am a writer.

I wasn’t sure about applying for Te Papa Tupu though. I almost didn’t. It was such a big, wonderful thing, a thing I really felt I needed to help next level my writing. And I was petrified of not getting in. I managed to make myself apply by lying to myself – because I’d encouraged a couple of other friends to enter, I had to do the same in solidarity.

Aside from wanting to improve my writing, I was starving for connection with Māori writers. We’re spread out, we don’t all look physically Māori, and we’re not always identifying ourselves as Māori on social media, etc., either. At the same time, I felt like maybe I wasn’t Māori enough to join the few groups I knew of.

Te Papa Tupu is the first time I’ve ever applied for anything where being Māori was a requirement. My whole life, I’ve had that voice in my head that I’m white enough to pass, to get all the benefits that are available to Pākehā, so I should just not. And on the other hand was the fear that if I claimed I was Māori, people would tell me I wasn’t Māori enough. I was stuck in that place of not feeling like I was being entirely myself but scared of discovering I was somehow doing my heritage wrong. I don’t look it. I don’t speak it. I don’t know where the macrons go half the time.

The reality is that I am Māori, and it’s only my fear that’s held me back. Fear and lack of knowledge. Lack of connection.

I’ve been working on that barrier for a long time. About a year ago, I added the word ‘Māori’ to my twitter bio. It was such a small thing, and yet I deliberated over it for days. It felt like I was revealing a hidden part of myself; coming into the open. I’m not sure what I thought would happen – what does it even mean to be a Māori writer? Do people read your work in different ways? Is there an expectation of what Māori will write about? Will people see things in my work that they didn’t before because they are looking at it through a new lens? I didn’t know, and it made me anxious. But I took that step anyway.

Applying to Te Papa Tupu was a much bigger step, and it’s already opened my eyes to how supportive, inclusive and amazing the community is once you find it. Since getting accepted, there has been a lot of ‘I didn’t even know you were Māori!’ (in a positive/sorry-for-not-realising way) and not a single ‘You’re not really Māori/not enough’, not even a ‘You don’t look it’.

Sometimes taking those big leaps is really worth it, and I’m still grinning ear to ear about being selected.

I swear it took me a week to believe I got in. Two. Hell, it might not have been until we were on the plane to that first workshop that it sunk in. Maybe not even until I was in the room with all the mentors, the amazing folk from HUIA and the Māori Literature Trust and the other mentees – each of them looking as exhilarated and nervous as me; eager to soak up wisdom, to learn and grow.

I feel so fortunate to have been chosen for this round of mentoring – thrilled that I get to work with Whiti Hereaka, who has already had such an impact on my writing. I’m so grateful to all the individuals and organisations involved in making this happen, and I can’t wait to see how our books look at the end of this process.

I am a writer, and I am Māori. And I tell you what, if you are both of those things (even if you’re not confident in those things), reach out. There is a whole world waiting for you, and it’s shiny and wonderful. I’m only sad it took me so long to dive into it – and now that I’m here? I’m going to make the very most of it.


DSC_0238Cassie Hart (Kāi Tahu) is a writer of speculative fiction and lover of pizza, coffee and zombies (in no particular order). She’s had short stories published in several anthologies and been a finalist for both the Sir Julius Vogel and Australian Shadow awards.