For some obscure reason, tonight’s launch at Unity Books for the new novel by Wellington writer Damien Wilkins has been cancelled. But this is even better: a virtual book launch! The author will now present his speech, prepared especially for the non-occasion.

Kia ora koutou! Greetings from my screen to yours!

This book launch is unexpected. I didn’t expect it and nor did you. But here we are. Or here we aren’t. Not in Unity Books, Wellington. Not looking at you. Not thinking, there’s my younger sister, clever enough to get her second glass of wine* before the speeches start but who is the man behind her, with his back turned, happily reading a book which is Not By Me? Anyway, it’s great not to see you! And terribly sad.

If this was the real thing, I would have started by thanking Carl Shuker for his beautiful launch speech.** And I would have complimented him on his elegant shoes. He has a thing for shoes. And suits. Sometimes he seems barely from Timaru. But I know he went to Timaru Boys High because my mother-in-law taught him English and, if this was the actual launch, she would have been standing in Unity Books. They might have reminisced. Launches are about that too. English teachers, shoes.

Next I would have said something like . . .

A book is raised by a village. The village is in trouble. But here are some villagers without whom . . .

Annual Ink is the genius creation of Kate De Goldi and Susan Paris. I’m proud and pleased that they deemed my book worthy of joining their imprint. And I’m delighted that Massey University Press had the vision and courage to give Kate and Susan the freedom and the resources to start thinking about new ways to open up books for young readers. Thank you Nicola Legat! And thanks to everyone at MUP for your hard work and support.

I’m sure I wouldn’t have written Aspiring without the experience of listening to Kate De Goldi over the years in her conversations with Kim Hill about children’s literature. I love Kate’s expansive vocabulary, her unapologetically complex talk. She demonstrates again and again that good writing makes our minds work better, deeper, and with more of the strangeness we know is ours but which, like the frightened villagers in some fairy tale, we seek to bury in a pit at the edge of the forest.

Working this pit alongside Kate is Susan Paris. Susan is wonderfully straight-talking and also uninterested in making children’s literature “fine” and “appreciated”. I was surprised and gratified that Susan left in the corners of my book. I mean her reading wasn’t ruled by notions of age-appropriateness. (I was way more worried about that than Susan and Kate.) Susan is a brilliant editor and Aspiring was improved greatly by her questions. She also jolted me caringly from a few horrible prose tics.

My deep thanks also to Carol, who was Carl Shuker’s English teacher, and her husband Ross. I stayed in their house in Wanaka for a couple of periods when writing this novel. I hope this hasn’t spoiled me and from now on I will only be able to write looking at the Southern Alps with a lake in the foreground. Sometimes the lake enters the town . . .

Finally, if this was the real launch, I would have read a piece of the novel here.

Perhaps I would have started quite well. And you, dear launch-goer, would be following along nicely. Yes, I would have thought as I read, I believe I’ve chosen the right bit.

Yes, you would have thought as you listened, that was amusing just now. Ha! Hmm. Nice job. Good reading. I might kind of like this book. To be honest, his other stuff was pretty hard to get into. Universities. Maybe I could buy it, but who for? Didn’t they say it was kids, yeah? How old are my nephews? Didn’t one of them leave home recently? Now he’ll probably come home and eat all their food. Do I have enough food? I could whip over to New World. Before it’s too late. What a crappy day, with the wind back. Oops, lost the thread. Is another character speaking? Is this wine really Chardonnay? Is that person over there really Fergus Barrowman? He looks different. I wonder if he’s unhappy Damien went off with Massey University Press. Maybe that’s just his resting face. If I start sidling over to the drinks, I should make it just as the reading finishes. Hey, a book about bee-keeping! Great cover. Bees. So important for our future—and they sting humans. We deserve it. And I deserve this drink. Good old Damien Wilkins. How old is he? Like a boy with grey hair. The reading is a bit long. Tiny bit. But books! We are going to need these suckers. And bees. And bats! Even bats, who got us here, sort of. One bat can eat up to a thousand mosquitoes an hour. Respect. Okay, stuff it, I’m going to buy the book and when Damien asks me who to sign it for, my nephew’s name will magically pop into my head and I will say the name. And if it doesn’t, I’ll say my name. Pretty sure it’s Cam. Or Sam.

Just as I’m about to finish my reading – maybe it was a bit long – I pause, and right then the automatic doors open on Willis Street and people turn to look. We look to see who has arrived so late. We look to see who is here to save us. But it’s just the wind, coming off the melting ice, whipping up the virus, and the doors close again.

Aspiring by Damien Wilkins (Massey University Press, $22) is a YA novel about a very tall teenage boy trying his best to get by in a lakeside town in the South Island.

* Tilly Lloyd from Unity advises that if the launch had gone ahead there’d have been lots of beer from Wineseeker, and food from Molesworth cafe Word of Mouth, including crudités (eg, capsicum with four artisan dips), little slices of egg pie, baby tomatoes, olives, salami, and cheeses arranged flagrantly alongside. Plus a whole lot of ciabatta

** Carl Shuker hasn’t actually finished writing his speech yet


Damien Wilkins is director at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, and the author of 13 books, most recently the novel Aspiring (Massey University Press), which won the...

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