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Two Kiwi novelists earn good money

You can actually sometimes make decent money out of writing books. Two of New Zealand’s best writers – one from Rotorua, one schooled in Timaru – are right now celebrating film deals. Last week it was announced that Hollywood had come calling on Wellington-based writer Carl Shuker, to film his novel To Mistakeand a few days ago Disney Australia confirmed it would film a series based on In the Clearingby JP (Josh) Pomare, born and raised in Rotorua, now living in Melbourne.

This is somewhat reductive but To Mistake is a medical drama: a brilliant surgeon has a patient die on her. It was published by Victoria University Press here, and by Counterpoint in the US. I named the book as one of the best two novels of 2019 (alongside Auēby Becky Manawatu). In the Clearing is inspired by truly weird and definitely creepy Australian religious cult The Family. I loved the novel so much that I devoted a week’s coverage to it in ReadingRoom last year, including a piece by Pomare backgrounding his interest, and a lengthy interview with ex-Christchurch journalist Chris Johnston, who covered the cult at length in The Family: The shocking true story of a notorious cultco-authored with Rosie Jones.

Shuker is a graduate of the IIML. Pomare attended Western Heights High School. I got in touch with both gentlemen, and asked them, “This is huge! Huge. Is it a life changer?”

Shuker replied, “It’s early days but so far this project’s changed my life already (not to be pious) because I’ve had a really great relationship with another artist in [the film’s director] Christine Jeffs. She is a real artist and so hungry and has no bullshit capacity and I like talking to her. We had these wonderful hour-long discussions about laparotomy and people’s gestures and the levels of threat a smile can have.”

Pomare said, “It’s a really significant deal, and I’m over the moon. But is it a life changer? I suppose time will tell. My only hope is this gives In The Clearing a second crack at the market and the book finds new readers, anything beyond that is a cherry on top.”

I asked both writers, “We live in the age of ‘content’. Streaming services need books, ideas, stories. Is this potentially a new golden age for novelists, in NZ as much as anywhere?”

Shuker said, “More production companies should read more novels. They are. I know a lot of production companies are optioning material locally but options are cheap and getting a film financed and made after that is truly herculean. Like, aligning-planets hard. “

Pomare said, “I think so. But not only film and TV, I think we are seeing a real appetite for complex and compelling stories within the gaming industry as well. The Witcher book series for example was thrust from relative obscurity to huge international sales off the back of a successful gaming franchise based on the books. The content demand is driven by consumer demand, so where we spend our attention determines what grows and what shrinks.”

I asked both writers, “What kind of film version do you see in your head?”

Shuker said, “I still see To Mistake in my head as my novel, how I imagined it. I can’t help it. It’s already filmed for me in my imagination. I scouted locations and built sets. I cast extras and allocated their fates. I see their different kinds of smiles. I have to give that away. But I know the script and there’s a lot of fidelity to the novel.”

Pomare said, “By the sounds of it, the atmosphere and tone very much align with the book. Dark and tense.”

To Mistake stars Elizabeth Banks. Shuker commented on the Twitter machine that he couldn’t think of anyone better to play his surgeon character, Elizabeth Taylor. What did he mean by that? “I’d love to see her go dark,” he replied. “Ella She’s so impatient and funny. Ella She’s got such breadth and power. Ella She’s just dangerous on screen, like ella she might take everything over.”

In the Clearing stars Miranda Otto. She will play the leader of The Family, the beautiful Anne Hamilton-Byrne. When I interviewed Chris Johnston about his investigations of The Family, he said of her, “The most haunting thing was her voice de ella on all those tapes we got hold of: her sermons de ella. Amazing and scary. The ice-cold tone, the revenge she often talked about, the way she would talk about people who had displeased her. Also she had this ridiculous plummy posh accent…It just gave me the chills. I’ll never forget her voice from her. ” I asked Pomare if that was the kind of voice we might expect to hear in the film, and he said, “I think so. Miranda Otto is perfectly cast. In my conversations with the production team, it sounds like they want to stay true.” to the character and consequently true to the character’s inspiration.”

The opening sentence of Pomare’s novel reads, “I don’t know why, but I wanted the girl to feel pain – I wanted to see her vulnerable but only so I could comfort and soothe her.” I asked how important was that first sentence, and if it established a tone.

He said, “My English teacher in my last year of high school (Mrs Jane Collins) used to make us sweat over opening lines of books. She encouraged us to pull them apart, and to really feel them in our mouth. She wanted us to consider their importance in the broader context of the novels. In The Clearing took a while to get right but I wanted it to be thematically salient. This is a story about control, about how one gains control over others. “

The last time I interviewed Pomare was on the unhappy occasion of last year’s Melbourne Cup. His father’s horse, Ocean Billy, qualified for the great event, but finished last. Pomare told me at the time that he’d put the most money on a bet in his life when he backed the horse. He went to the race with his mates from him; I asked him in the weekend what that was like, and if the Disney deal meant he’d covered his losses that day.

He said, “It was an incredible, magical day, one I’ll never forget. I was disappointed for Dad, of course and unfortunately Ocean Billy is still carrying a tendon issue from his time in Aus and hasn’t raced since, but fingers crossed we see him in action again soon. As far as my losses go, let’s just say the Disney deal is an adequate balm for the sting of my dud cup day bets.”

You can actually sometimes make decent money out of writing books…But the point of writing is: writing. I Carl Shuker what he had on the go, and his answer from him was exactly the kind of answer you might ask from a master craftsman, who is truly dedicated to his art from him, to the work that it takes. He said, “I’m working on a new book, as much as I can. Started dreaming it a few days ago. It’s such fucking fun but so fucking hard.”

To Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press, $30) and In The Clearing by JP Pomare (Hachette, $34.95) are available in bookstores nationwide.

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