Naomi Arnold travels to Westport and subjects Becky Manawatu to the unholy art of the profile interview
It was a damp Saturday afternoon in Westport at the end of August, and we stood on the sidelines at a rugby league match, not looking at each other. It was patently obvious that author Becky Manawatu didn’t particularly want to do this profile, and she couldn’t be blamed for that. All profiles are akin to being flayed alive, particularly if you’re someone who doesn’t really want the spotlight but it goes with the job, which is doubly unfair, really, because the job is 99 per cent sitting quietly by yourself writing.
There are other things that Manawatu would like to be doing on this Saturday afternoon, such as simply enjoying the rugby with her family and yarning to people who showed up. Instead, I lob questions at her while we both stare at the match, and she offers replies that are as honest as possible while still guarding herself as much as she can.
She’s been caught at a tender time, feeling exposed and a bit hounded after her beautiful, visceral family novel Auē won the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in May. It took her three weeks to agree to be interviewed, and she worried that, by now, people would be sick of her.
“It was a little much,” she says.
Since Auē was released to widespread acclaim, and since she’d won the big prize, she’d had to cope with suddenly becoming public property, fielding requests as well as people’s opinions about her and her work, and coping with the whakamā that goes along with that as she figured out how to absorb this sudden new identity into her being. Manawatu, who is Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mamoe a Waitaha, and Pākehā, also had to deal with being pegged as “a Māori writer” who’d written “a Māori story”, with the burden of representation that can sometimes accompany that.
But now we were together, standing on the sidelines, not looking at each other. We’d met at Westport’s Denniston Dog, and she’d wanted to take me on a quick tour of the town before the game. She’d brought scones and snacks for us, and everywhere we went, we bumped into someone she knew. Outside PR’s Café we dodged a pair of kids’ Red Bands tipped over by the front door, then met their owner inside, clustered round a table with his family.
“Hi Becky,” they chorused as we entered.
“Hey guys, how are you?” she said. “Looks like a mean feed.”
At the rugby field, a tall, lean older man clipped a cycle helmet over a ‘Ban 1080’ cap and greeted her.
“How’s your book going?”
“Good thanks Pete,” she said, and he rode off.
The league game was the first in the region for more than a decade, and the Westport Stags had reformed to play a team from further down the Coast. Manawatu’s husband Tim, with whom she’s been since Buller High School days, was wincing from a broken rib after a rugby injury last week, and Becky herself was walking gingerly, nursing a sore back. The couple’s two children were there, and so was Manawatu’s niece, who was staying with the family, and her three children. Around our feet, children chased and tackled each other, still wearing their own jerseys from Saturday morning sport. Despite her shyness over the interview, Manawatu, with her pile of curly hair, tattoos and surfer’s bearing, always has an easy laugh, and she often flashed the same wide, delighted smile as her daughter as she cracked jokes at her own expense while we fumbled through the interview.
Vulnerable to the infinite anxiety and distraction of social media, she had been a week off Twitter when we meet, having exceeded her limit of what she calls “exposure” for the time being. In fact, she goes on and off it frequently, feeling the pull and joy of connecting before having to draw back; on November 17 she tweeted: “Twitter fam, I don’t *think* I ask for much, but I will ask u feel free to drag me if I pop into your timeline within the next 21 days – tryna reset my noggin and survive without lovely Twitter dopamine hits lol. Much love, stay mean, Māori, mean xx.” She pinned it to her profile, left, and is still gone. (“Can’t be done,” tweeted Victoria University Press editor Fergus Barrowman in reply, but she successfully refrained from answering.)
On social media, she gets a sinking sensation like she’s giving too much away – and in order to write, she needs to contain her multitudes, building up her thoughts within herself. She’s recently turned down a column opportunity, having already experienced, as a columnist with the Westport News, how a piece of writing stays locked in time as you grow and change, and in five years’ time, you likely won’t even agree with yourself anymore. It’s painful, like looking back at old hairstyles.
“I don’t have very strong opinions about things so I would more go for very mundane little stuff, and then you’re forever making it revolve around you because that’s your point of reference… and then eventually people are just like, ‘Shut the fuck up’.”
Columns also ruin your life, she says, because she can’t help but move through the world thinking narratively, constantly observing for the specific, telling detail and filing it away in her head. She doesn’t want to go through her life obsessing even more over that, in order to draw it out every week for her audience.
“It’s cool that you can do it sometimes, but if you’re doing it all the time then I think your personality gets a bit fucked over by it,” she says. “I don’t think it’s helpful for my creative writing, which is really what I want to gain that energy for again.” She cracks up. “I mean, it’s not the worst dilemma. Woe is me.”
Not wanting to be a dick; but “now that people want to hear from me, a little bit, and then if I do it too often I’m like… you’re satiated”.
“I definitely worry about people not being interested in your work anymore because there’s too much about you. Not that many people probably want to know that a novelist really even exists, they just want the story.”
But we do, don’t we? I ask, because look how we all turn up to writers’ festivals.
“But then if they get too much, where does it stop? You pretty much end up saying the same thing over and over.”
“This is the worst sort of interview when I’m interviewing someone,” she says, laughing, as we sit down with a lager at the Cosmopolitan Hotel after the league. “I’m just looking at this mess and I’m like, ‘You poor thing.’ Actually I feel so sorry for you.”
“I felt so bad for you that you had to do this,” I confess.
“I know it’s your mahi and I know that feeling,” she says. “It’s your kai on the table.”
“It’s not that much kai on the table,” I say, haha journalism, haha low pay and she laughs, and I say I’ll just write about Westport’s timeless scent of coal smoke, and she says people always do that and Westport gets a bit tired of people thinking just mining-country-town and she really wanted to talk it up for me, and hahahahaha on we go until we lapse into silence and turn instead to gaze at the small and perfectly-formed Carnegie Library down the road, empty of books now and earthquake-prone, and she mentions how she wants to buy it and do it up.
“We should have tea before you go,” she says.
There are really just two main roads to Westport: one going up the West Coast, and one feeding from two points across the South Island. The town is 100km from the end of the road at Kahurangi National Park, and you get there by winding through the mainland’s craggy interior and then emerging out of the heavy river bluffs onto flat coastal plains studded with power pylons, cabbage trees, wildling pines, the very green grass and the crumbling sea edges.
The town is built on the powerful Buller River, on a promontory between two shallow scoops of the South Island’s West Coast, backed by the heavy, coal-rich ranges of the Denniston Plateau. The Manawatus live 15 minutes up the road in Waimangaroa, where Becky grew up. Nothing has changed much, she says, since she was a child at Waimangaroa Primary School. The school and pub and dairy there have gone but she can still surf and walk her dogs on the beach, with all its space and blustering air.
Waimangaroa is a good place to be Becky Manawatu, a place where you can indulge the impulse towards being uncontactable. It suits her. She’s not particularly easy to get on the phone; she quite enjoys having it off for days at a time. “It’s like a little addiction to ghosting people,” she says. At first it’s off for an hour, and then it’s five days and no-one can get hold of her and she feels bad about letting people down but still doesn’t really want to charge the thing. And you don’t necessarily have to, when you have all you need close by.
Born in June 1982 in Nelson, she grew up much like the kids in Auē, running rampant on paddocks, bush and beach. The novel’s disturbing early scene of weka tearing apart a rabbit happened to her while she was writing it – except when she realised she’d have to kill the maimed animal herself, she had to get her husband Tim to do it, out of fear her blow wouldn’t be lethal.
“And then we threw it to the wekas anyway, because I’d interfered with the natural order of things.”
Other places she has felt at home: Kaikōura, where her husband’s whānau hails from. “And then I found out that actually my tribe [Waitaha] was originally from there, and it was interesting because it really felt like home there,” she says. “And Tim’s tribe, Ngāti Kuri, they peacefully had the Waitaha removed. Peacefully,” she laughs.
That was their first stop when the pair left home at 18 to follow Tim’s rugby career, which eventually led to him playing internationally in Germany and Italy. (He’s now the Tasman Rugby Union’s development officer.) The Manawatus have been back from Europe for four years now, and she says the community are really supportive of Auē. “Everyone – I mean, not everyone, I won’t ever say that word, that’s a terrible word. But I feel like lots of people are really proud.”
In Germany, and then in Italy, Manawatu wrote “bits of little things” to get her writing going when the children were small, joining a writing group, producing short stories.
“And a blog.”
Which is …?
“Which I’ve deleted.”
So Auē was first born in Germany, against the backdrop of longing for home. On the very first page of the novel, there’s a painful separation from the security of home, and that isolation continues all the way through. Manawatu thinks feeling so apart from New Zealand during the novel’s gestation made her feel “a little bit freer” about writing it.
“And I think the homesickness really was a big part of what fed into the story. Because there’s all that longing for people; the people within the story have a lot of longing for each other, and I think my homesickness was the seed for that.”
So was the ocean; she loves the sea, and living in landlocked Germany only heightened that.
“That was quite difficult. And so I guess that thing of the sea is also the homesickness coming through in the book. That was one of the things I was yearning for.
“I was so desperate to be home, to be honest. And I just felt so at peace to be back.”
In 2016 they moved to Nelson, and she took her draft of Auē, then called Pluck, and began studying a diploma in writing for the creative industries at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. Six months later, they returned to friends and family in Waimangaroa, and Becky found a job at the Westport News and continued working on her novel.
Tim was her first reader, while it was “still pretty rubbish”, and when she felt bogged down in the work, he’d advise her to just tell the story. “Just do your thing,” he’d say. He’s not an artist, he’s a rugby guy, she says, but that contrast in their household is refreshing.
“I don’t think I could handle, and our family couldn’t handle it, ,” she says. “It’s a balance, and he really knocks me out of my dumb little head. When I said ‘I got things wrong’ he said ‘You could put aliens in the book! You could do whatever you want!’”
She wrote a lot of Auē in a family friend’s house at the moody mouth of the Mokihunui River, 20km north of Westport, where there was no wi-fi but a little pub across the road for lunch. The novel’s heart, of loss, family violence, love, and pain, has emerged out of some of her own experiences growing up, principally the death of her cousin Glen Bo Duggan, who lived with her family for a time but was later murdered by his stepfather. Manawatu was 11, and felt deep, helpless rage when he died. Her mother gave her a book in which she could write about him – but she also gave her an axe, so she could go out the back of their house and smash it into a dead log, over and over.
“That made me feel better,” she says. “I was pretty angry when I was as a kid after Glen Bo died. But that’s not to say that my anger is more important … lots of people were feeling their feelings and I’ve just been the one who’s kind of talked about it a bit more, and that’s even uncomfortable because everyone has their own experience of what it’s like to have lost Glen Bo.”
She’s often thought about who he would have grown into, and thinks he would still have been her best friend today. “He had a real gentleness about him, [a] real sweet nature. He was just so kind. And I know lots of people in hindsight think about people they’ve lost and think about the beauty of them. But this is really essentially who he was.
“Every Christmas we got money to go and buy each other presents with, and I bought Glen Bo a packet of felts, and Santa Claus also bought him a packet of felts. And when he opened his felts I was like ‘Oh I’m so sorry, I bought you felts [as well]’.
“And the reason I can remember this very clearly is mostly because we have it on video – you know how you video Christmas mornings. His voice just goes real comforting, [and] he says ‘No Beck, I’m going to keep one packet of felts at home and take one packet of felts to school.’ And he just always wanted to make people feel better all the time, feel good.”
Without giving anything away, there is a scene in Auē where a girl of that age manages to grab some agency in response to a violent man, and Manawatu says that urge to narratively right some past wrongs in her life “had to come out” in her work.
The man who killed Glen Bo “has become a bit of a nothing to me now”.
“The book made me feel that way as well.”
Auē is also soaked with the sadness she feels at falling out of touch with her older sisters, Tami and Nicole, who always looked out for her. She doesn’t want to talk too much about it, as they are not here to speak for themselves and she doesn’t want to hurt them; but does say that physical distance is difficult. Tami, for example, was there on another West Coast rugby sideline 20-some years ago, at the moment teenage Tim noticed teenage Becky on the field.
“Tami gave Tim a growling because he was perving at me,” she says, laughing. “She said ‘That’s my sister you’re talking about!’ That’s why I miss them so much, because they were such protectors of me and my [younger] brother.
“I think my sisters really made me feel Māori and I think that’s why I’m so sad to be mostly without them, physically.”
She can hardly bear to look at Auē now. But when she first wrote it she would read things over because she missed being with the characters, although some of them are so deeply absent it’s painful.
“I just wanted to create that absence, and have characters longing for each other,” she says.
The longing that you had for your sisters?
“Yeah. And for my family as a whole to be together properly again. Yeah, I don’t think we’ll ever have that.”
But Auē has helped them find a connection again. Nicole loved the book. “And maybe it kind of maybe made her realised how much I miss her.”
Manawatu and Auē have been compared to Once Were Warriors’ Alan Duff and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which is incredibly flattering on the one hand, but on the other, if there was equality in Māori writing and being published, it could be that one day two Māori authors wouldn’t have to be automatically compared at all.
“Once Were Warriors was an amazing book,” she says. “I thought it was a really impressively written book and perhaps the uncomfortable part is the comparisons to the movie which is way more…” She trails off. “I’m worried people are comparing it to the movie rather than the book.”
What’s it like being called “a Māori writer” when Pākehā writers aren’t “Pākehā writers”, and their work just gets to be a story?
“Yeah. It is a weight,” she says.
Feeling like you have to be representative?
“Yeah exactly, like you were supposed to have represented a whole… it’s not fair. I thought about that today because someone was asking me if I thought it would make a good book for high schools to study. And I thought about, like, perhaps Māori students are in that class and how they might feel if people were reading it and trying to say this is representative of them. Whereas a Pākehā student wouldn’t have to feel like that.” (In high school, she had to study Pride and Prejudice.)
But she felt strongly the responsibility to tell well the story of people who were marginalised, particularly as she walks the world with her paler skin and lighter hair.
“I am Māori and I’ve always identified as Māori, but in the world I can choose,” she says. “I just think there needs to be way more stories told.”
Auē was launched in Whare Tangaroa, a beautiful restored 110-year-old French colonial villa overlooking Cape Foulwind on Clifftop Lane, lent to her for the night by the owner, whom she’d written a Westport News story on. And then everyone walked to the nearby Star Tavern, on Lighthouse Road, to see the night through.
It was a good night. Those early days when Auē was first released were a dream, her first festival invitation nerve-wracking but wholly thrilling. When Nelson Arts Festival coordinator Kerry Sunderland met her at the Nelson Saturday Market and showed her the Pukapuka Talks programme with her name in it, her first-ever writer’s festival as an author, “I was just so emotional about it, eh. Mostly because of the other people in the festival that I was now alongside. I was just so excited to be with them.”
She was appearing with acclaimed poet Renée, who helped ease her nerves a bit. Renée was a huge supporter of the book in its nascence and offered her thoughts on its development.
But listening to her string of interviews over the past 18 months or so, you can tell Manawatu lost something in between that first festival appearance and the Ockhams – or rather, maybe gained the knowledge of what it’s like to be published and have other people react to what was before just a precious thing to you, and you alone.
“At that festival I was more like, I was still my little naïve little child. I think I’ve definitely become an adult [over the book publishing process].”
That happened when reviewer Cindy Kiro on Radio New Zealand called her use of te reo Māori in the book “kohanga reo-ish”, which sent a devastated Manawatu into a bit of a tailspin.
“I had a really dark few days,” she says. “I actually cried in bed with my curtains closed for several days. But I don’t think I would necessarily take it back. I would still have listened to that review and I would still have let myself have that yuck time.
“I was so wanting to not win [the Ockhams] actually. Cos then everyone would be ‘Actually…’ But no one has been cruel to me.”
She actually agreed with the review, she says. “The negative parts that I agreed with as well I was already kind of working that out, so I suppose it would have been more painful for me had I not agreed with it and I was just like … surprised by it. I wasn’t.
“In some ways I was grateful for it. I don’t think you’re supposed to actually read or listen to reviews anyway. It’s pretty hard not to, but I think in some ways it kind of helped me go to a … it kind of pushed me into the yuck place of really deeply thinking about my story.
“Obviously at this stage I’ve had a positive response and of course they will help me get confidence to try again.”
Because she can pass as Pākehā, because she looks a bit different from her two older sisters, there was a painful bit of processing to go through.
“At the time I fully felt Māori enough to write the story and it was only afterwards that I wondered about how Māori I was,” she says. “And I think I was so sure of my Māoriness to tell the story, that it might have made me more bold in places. So it was only afterwards that I began to wonder and doubt. It was pretty tough.
“Again, I think I was writing quite naively mostly. My motivation was entirely pure, it just came out of a little bit of sadness over family being so split apart. So I’m not ashamed of my motivation at all.”
“I was writing just for myself… but obviously you have that other part of you that’s like ‘Oh, you’ve done all that work, so find someone, get it read, get it published’. But at the time, you’re working in a place that’s more like ‘This is for me, this is making me feel, not always better, but it’s getting out some of the raruraru, the yuck.
“So I think I questioned my rights to lots of the story. It takes a lot of unpacking afterwards for sure. All that stuff from my family has kind of found its way into the book and I think I would have always tried to let some of that out, no matter what, and if I had been stopped at the start I probably would have kept persevering until it was. So I don’t know that I ever would have dropped that story.”
But it’s important to face it, she says. People get things wrong but if your wrongness becomes such a source of pain that you can’t look at yourself honestly, that’s worse.
“I think it almost kind of can be a reason which stops people from growing because they are so scared to advance on and see how further wrong they are. Wrongness can help you learn, but if it is then painful then you’re almost reluctant to learn more because you’re so afraid to see how wrong you were.”
That was just one reviewer, though. The overall response has been really positive. What does she think about that, the wins in the Ockhams? (She would later win the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, too).
“I’m surprised and also, sometimes I just would love to be alone with the book again,” she says. Just her and the story, without everyone else’s words and opinions?
“And relook at things. I feel a bit torn still about how I feel about the book, the story I wrote. I think I was naturally going to tend towards that. I am pretty self-reflective [and] I didn’t really know how it would feel to have people read a story that I wrote, so I think I would have gone into a bit of a reflective place afterwards anyway, without other opinions and comments. Even some negative stuff I agree with and I feel like I was already in that place of reflection so I was okay with it, but it’s a little bit tough.”
In fact, she feels done with the book now. She hasn’t been able to have a good look at it since the Ockhams.
“I’m scared I’ll flick to a page that will be one of the pages that I see things I’m not happy about, so I don’t touch it,” she says. “And also, it’s just time to let it go. I was so obsessed with it and I’m a very obsessive worker, as far as I know from doing this one thing. But it was a long period of doing this one thing and I was obsessed with it. So it’s almost like I just want to drop it.”
It sounds bloody awful to be a writer. To be sensitive enough to the world and other people to observe and capture so well; insular and driven enough to get it done and trust in that vision for years; open and gregarious enough to do the publicity machine and give readers what they want from their authors; tough enough to withstand criticism and rejection; yet vulnerable enough to open themselves up again, and keep writing.
“It still seems like kind of a fluke that I managed to [be published],” she says. “I couldn’t get anything published before, it’s not typical that someone just gets their novel published and they haven’t had a single short story or poem or anything else published, because I had tried.”
I point out she had already been longlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2018, and one of her essays was selected for a Landfall anthology.
“Oh yeah…” She still feels like it was a fluke, that publisher Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press read something on the right day. She repeatedly calls the book – which is, let’s not forget, New Zealand’s best novel this year – “flawed”.
Sure, everything is flawed. And that’s writers for you. But it is so painful to hear this from the writer of something genuinely gentle, brilliant and moving, that it’s hard to not go off script and say maybe – just maybe – it’s also a great book and she’s a great writer?
“It is a lot of luck. Things line up…” She laughs again. “Obviously there were some things I did right but all I can think about is what I could have done better…” More laughter. “We are such assholes to ourselves! It’s so fucked up.
“The conflicting feelings felt a bit heavy. Thinking about my rights to tell that story and reflecting on things I could have done better, etcetera etcetera. I suppose that’s another reason why you just have to get on and start a new one, eh?”
She will do that now, with the 2021 Robert Burns Fellowship newly in hand, and is already well into her second novel, Papahaua, which develops some of Auē’s characters.
“I’m really going to have to harden up more this time,” she says. “I’ll just look at finding balance through a new story. I feel naturally like I’m tending towards something a little bit obviously softer, but is that just what people end up doing?”
Does she mean, is each novel a reaction against the story previously written? She doesn’t know.
“I think all you can do is try and do better. Over and over again. Not necessarily better from the outside, but better for me.”
While she’s in Dunedin, she wants to connect with her whakapapa; her marae are all in Southland, including Murihiku. She also wants to study te reo Māori.
That night, she drops me off at my car, and offers me the scones she made us, as a snack for the three-hour drive home.
“I was worried you would think these were dry and then you would take me to task for them in the profile,” she says. She tells me to make sure I text Tim when I get home safely; her own phone will be customarily off.
“Good luck,” she says as I go to shut my car door, and she and Tim are both laughing again at this hopeless task of writing a profile on someone who doesn’t really want to be profiled at all, but who would prefer to be left a bit alone, to get on with writing, reading, being with family, yarning with friends at the netball and rugby, and going to the beach to be whipped by the wind, rinsed by the surf.
“I feel so sorry for you,” she says. “And then I’ll probably feel sorry for me.”
Auē by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press, $30) is the biggest-selling New Zealand novel of 2020 by a long stretch, and is available in bookstores nationwide.
* Created with the support of the Copyright Licensing Fund NZ *