Important reading and writing questions for Whiti Hereaka

Whiti Hereaka’s novel Kurangaituku (Huia publishers) is a finalist in the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction.

The story of Kurangaituku you’ve known since you were a child – when did you feel ready to start writing?

I don’t think I ever felt ready to start writing this novel – but it was ready to be told! It’s fairly typical of me to just start a project and figure out how I’ll pull it off along the way. I think with all of my creative works, ideas and threads of story build up in my mind until some magic happens and I start seeing the connections between the bits. I think I’ve been collecting things for this novel most of my life.

About halfway through writing, I realized that I didn’t have the skills I needed as a writer to create the story I wanted – so I put it aside and wrote another novel (Legacy) to hone my skills. Was I ready after that? I think I was closer!

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What was it about Kurangaituku’s story that gripped you?

I grew up in Taupō and I whakapapa to most of the central plateau so this Pūrākau has always been around. We’d always stop at Hatupatu’s rock as we headed up north. I think I’ve always been interested in the story behind the story or, plainly, I’ve always been that hōhā kid that asks why??

I wanted to know about the Bird-Woman’s life. And the illustrations in the Reed version (from Maori Tales of Long Ago) of Kurangaituku scared me! I think part of that story is why I often feel a bit uneasy in the bush at night. So she’s been a visceral presence in my life for as long as I remember.

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You’ve mastered novels, playwriting and screenwriting – how do you switch between them?

I don’t think I can claim to be a master! When I wrote my first novel, I had to write it as a screenplay to figure out the shape of the thing. Shifting between formats is really about shifting what part of our senses you are writing for. Theater is most aural, film you write for the eye, fiction? I think you’re writing for the psyche.

What I’m really enjoying at the moment is thinking about how you can push story within formats – how can you tell this story in a way that can only be told in the theatre, on film or in a novel. I think my heart will always be with theater – I wouldn’t be writing at all if I didn’t start by treading the boards. Thank goodness I found writing though – I was a terrible actor!

Are you working on anything new?

When I was writing Kurangaituku and struggling with it, I was talking with Witi Ihimaera (we were editing Pūrākau together at the time). Now when I talk about my projects I get very animated and gesture wildly (in the hopes of distracting from plot holes!) but he very calmly asked if some of my problems were because I was trying to write three novels and squish them together as one . He was right.

So I’m working on a novel called Aria in which Kurangaituku appears, but in a very different way from this novel. It’s a haunting or possession story. And there will be a third novel. They’re not a series as such – you can read them in any order, or just read one of them – but Kurangaituku appears in all three and I hope that the reader will get a deeper understanding of all the books from reading the others!

And what are you reading?

I’m reading The Island of Missing Trees in preparation for an interview with the amazing Elif Shafak that I’ll be recording for the Aotearoa NZ Arts Festival Writers Online series. I’m also reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Assembly by Natasha Brown​ and today a book that I don’t remember why I ordered it showed up so I’ll be reading They by Kay Dick as well.

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