Auē by Becky Manawatu won the novel of the year prize at the Ockham New Zealand book awards this week. Steve Braunias assembles the making of a remarkable novel.
Becky Manawatu: I just sat down at the computer one day having said to myself, okay, it’s time to stop thinking about it and start writing your novel.
Tim Manawatu, Becky’s husband: I thought to myself, “Oh here we go.” Nah, I dunno what I thought. I was just stoked that she was doing something. But I was proud too.
Siena Manawatu, their daughter: I thought it was amazing.
Maddox Manawatu, their son: I thought maybe it was quite a waste of time. We didn’t get to see her much because she was working on her book all the time. Sometimes I had to make my own breakfast.
Becky Manawatu: After finishing the first draft I almost immediately sent the shittiest version off to every publisher whose email address I could find. I probably waited about three weeks, heard nothing, did some more work, sent out shit version number two, and repeat. Got a few kind rejection letters.
Then I calmed myself down, took some time, did the whole ‘put it in the drawer’ thing and came back to it.
I just wanted someone to say it had potential. And give me a bit of help, a bit of encouragement. Or even just something, so that I could say to my family, I’m really not just sitting on my arse, someone thinks I might actually be a writer.
Mary McCallum, publisher at Makaro Press: My first email from Becky was in April 2016. She said: “I have an 85,000 word manuscript. It is about separation, love and loss. I am a New Zealander living in Frankfurt Germany and am curious if you are interested in new submissions.”
Becky Manawatu: Tim was playing professional rugby in Germany, then coaching youth professionally. A really rich German man was investing money into getting kids interested in rugby. I was working as a teacher assistant in a bilingual kindy. Basically the rich guy helped all the Wags get their foot in the door at the kindy.
I quit about eight months before we finally came home. I quit because I was so sure I was writing something good. It was rough as fuck but the story was so important to me I couldn’t concentrate at work, I’d like write notes and daydream at work. Then I’d get home and write too late at night.
Mary McCallum: Becky says she wrote the novel to take her home to New Zealand. She was living in Germany, and felt isolated and far away. She also wrote to deal with the terrible grief she carried over the murder of her cousin Glen Bo by his stepfather. After he died (Becky was 11 and he was 10) her mother bought her a notebook and Becky put Glen Bo’s name on the cover.
“I either wrote about him,” she said, “wrote poems for him, or took an axe mum gave me and pummelled a dead tree at the back of our house in Birchfield, near Waimangaroa on the West Coast. I started not always writing about, but certainly thinking about, violence. I thought often of the house that Glen Bo was beaten in. How he must have felt to be in a closed space with a monster. How trapped he must have felt, how animal-like it must have been. I thought about how Glen would have hoped someone would turn up and save him from the beating that put him into a coma and killed him.”
I liked that she appeared confident in her choice of material and in the structure she’d chosen, and that her novel wasn’t caught up with telling a story of the talking classes or the privileged classes or whatever you call them, but was about New Zealanders without much, and definitely not much that was going right, except that they still had an ability to discover freedom and joy. And most of the characters were Māori. So yeah, it wasn’t a story I knew, but it felt real and unapologetic, and the author seemed to be writing from a place of knowledge and compassion. I was sold.
Becky Manawatu: A kind woman recently wrote to me to say that a book is one person in pain telling a story to another person in pain. That resonated with me so much. I think I set out speaking to my tane; my pain to his. Then at other points in the story I spoke to other people, and their pain, such as my sisters.
Lee Scanlon, Becky’s editor at The News in Westport: Becky had begun Auē long before she joined us. At some stage, she mentioned she was working on a book – she didn’t make a big deal of it. Honestly, I didn’t take that much notice – lots of people are working on books that never eventuate. I subbed a draft chapter, early on, and thought it had potential but needed work. That’s where Becky excels – she’ll work and work and work, and take advice, and keep plugging away until it’s right. Fifty percent inspiration and the rest perspiration.
Mary McCallum: Becky emailed again on November 8, 2016, and sent the first three chapters. It took till New Year 2017 for me to read them. On January 4, I emailed her: “I think you have talent as a writer and the audacity of a novelist.” I asked for the whole manuscript, a hard copy if possible. Two weeks later she turned up at our office with a printed manuscript clutched to her chest.
She was slender and in her thirties, with a Rachel Hunter toss to her tumble of blonde hair. She looked tired and a bit wary and had a wild look in her eye that I took to be determination. She told me later she had a hangover.
Lee Scanlon: It was her personality which impressed me at the job interview– she was warm and vivacious, but not in a ditsy way. She pretty much flunked the writing, interviewing and subbing tests, because she had no journalism training. But I really liked her. She was enthusiastic, and convinced me she wanted to be here and would work hard.
She’s just a lovely person to have in the newsroom. She never complains or jibs about what I ask her to do. She meets deadlines. She does extra outside work hours. She has all the qualities I prize in a journalist: honesty, persistence, curiosity, interest in other people, guts, determination to find out the truth and tell it accurately. Her ability to empathise with people means she gets human interest stories many of us would miss out on.
Her writing has improved hugely. It still needs work sometimes (she would be the first to admit that), for the mechanical stuff – tenses, punctuation, brevity etc. But she remains so keen to learn. She never gets upset by constructive criticism or occasionally brutal subbing. She just gets on with the job.
There have been too many good stories to mention. One that stands out was about a local couple who had a still born baby after a series of medical mishaps. I defy anyone to read it without tears. Becky also began an occasional column which often had me in tears too – usually of laughter. Her columns about the death of her cousin, Glen Bo, at the hands of his stepfather were heartbreaking.
Mary McCallum: The editing for Auē went through five passes over a year before it was typeset by Paul, and then there was one more edit before Paul proofed it. (This is about double what novels usually get, but no less than first-time novels deserve, I believe.).
Becky told me later she started rowing to deal with the stress of waiting for the edits from me. I hate that I put her through that. Becky works crazily and obsessively, immersed so deeply in her fiction that it frightens her, I think. She can barely put her head up. It takes her away from her family and the rest of her life. But she loves it too. She thrives on feedback and edits, she drinks them in, wants to learn and learn and learn — if she trusts you, if she thinks you understand what she’s trying to do.
She can be really hard on herself, thinking she hasn’t done well enough. But she has. So many times over.
Lee Scanlon: We were all on tenterhooks before the first copies arrived. Becky wasn’t sleeping because she was worried the book would be a disaster. We were worried for her. Then the boxes of books turned up in the newsroom. She opened one and picked up her own book for the first time, smoothing her hand over that beautiful cover we’d seen proofs of. It was such a privilege for Teresa Smith (our other reporter) and I to share that with her. There were tears.
Honestly, I was afraid to read Auē. I knew Becky so well by then – if I didn’t think much of her book, she’d know regardless of my faux praise. But I really, really loved it. The writing, the characters, the story, are fresh and real. It made me laugh and cry. I was so relieved I didn’t have to pretend how much I liked it. I’ve recommended it to everyone I know and deluged my own family with Auē presents.
Mary McCallum: I hoped people would love this book as I loved it. I hoped we’d sell the first modest print run of 500, and if we were lucky we’d print again and be longlisted for the book awards. But I’m realistic about New Zealand fiction – I know it’s hard to get people excited about it, especially debut fiction published by a tiny press, especially debut fiction by an unknown author who lives on Waimangaroa on the West Coast and hasn’t attended a university creative writing course, especially debut fiction with Māori characters and a Māori title.
Lee Scanlon: The book launch was held at an historic home on the cliff top at Cape Foulwind, a stunning setting. The event was like Becky – authentic. In her speech she thanked just about everyone except the seagulls flying past.
Mary McCallum: The third time I ever met her was at the Auē launch, which was in brilliant sunset on a cliff top at Cape Foulwind. She was so nervous she shook like a leaf.
Becky Manawatu: It was awesome.
We held it at Whare Tangaroa. A house on the clifftops at Cape Foulwind which local woman Kay Morgan, who owns the Star Tavern, renovated.
Not long after she finished doing it up, I came and interviewed her and found out some history about the house and wrote a feature piece on her and the house for the local paper. I checked in with her about a year later to ask if I could book it for the launch, she said she loved the story I wrote and would like to let us hold the launch for free.
My friends made plates of food, my dad made whitebait fritters and brought shitloads of alcohol. I made a casserole -size bowl full of hummus.
Tim made chicken nibbles.
Tim and my friend Tokohau had to play rugby for Buller that day, but zoomed off the field after the game, didn’t have beers in the changing rooms and made it out there in time.
Tokohau was doing a mihi for us, which was awesome he wasn’t late, and my son said a karakia for the beautiful kai we put on.
Mary did a lovely speech which made me get red in the cheeks. I did a terrible speech but said “I love you all” about 10 times, so everyone forgave me.
My Taua sat beside me while I signed all the books – all 100 sold. My other mate’s mum, Mary Smith, bought the last copy, despite having one or two in her bag already I think.
A friend of ours, Craig Soster, brought his guitar and set up speakers and played on the deck, and we all got drunk and danced and then we walked 100m up the road to the Star Tavern where Dad had put 500 bucks on the bar.
We played this amazing drinking game where you split into teams and stand across the room from each other and you take turns shouting a word out, and sing songs in each others faces with that word in the song, until a team runs out of songs that relate to the word and then that team drinks.
We ended up taxiing into town around 1am to the Criterion Hotel and that’s when it all fell apart.
I woke on the Charlie and Jan Wanoa’s lounge floor, (a bed made for me!) parents of one of my oldest freinds, Brookey. She doesn’t live in Westport anymore but came home especially.
When we woke it was late already in the morning and my niece, Cayla, had driven 2000 miles to be at the launch and had to leave the next day so I got all stressed and we had to locate our car then race home, and fortunately met her on the highway heading out of Waimangaroa.
My cousins Holly and Kellie came, my mum and dad were there at the launch. My aunty Tollie and my taua.
My taua died on May 1. One of the first things my dad said when he told me was, “I thought she was trying to hang in for the awards.”
Mary McCallum: Winning the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize could change our lives.
What a ride it’s been. A tribute, above all, to one woman’s persistence and imagination.
Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $35) is available in all good bookstores; handily, ReadingRoom has a complete list of all good bookstores throughout New Zealand.
THE OCKHAM WINNERS IN FULL
Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, and $55,000: Becky Manawatu for Auē (Makaro Press)
The Hubert Church Prize for best first book of fiction, and $2,500: Becky Manawatu for Auē (Makaro Press)
General Non-Fiction Award, and $10,000: Shayne Carter for Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press)
The E.H. McCormick Prize for a best first work of General Non-Fiction, and $2,500: Shayne Carter for Dead People I Have Known (Victoria University Press)
Illustrated Non-Fiction Award, and $10,000: Stephanie Gibson, Matariki WIlliams (Tūhoe, Te Atiawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Hauiti) and Puawai Cairns (Ngāti Pūkenga, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāiterangi) for Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance (Te Papa)
The Mary and Peter Biggsy Award for Poetry, and $10,000: Helen Rickerby for How to Live (Auckland University Press)
The Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of Poetry, and $2,500: Jane Arthur for Craven (Victoria University Press)
The Judith Binney Prize for best first work of Illustrated Non-Fiction, and $2,500: Tim Denee and Chris McDowall for We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa (Massey University Press)