Last week Ali Ikram travelled to Oamaru to interview one of the country’s greatest living writers. Keri Hulme does not travel by plane to avoid lung infections. So they set out on a 1324 kilometre odyssey by land and sea so she could attend the Auckland Writer’s Festival.
Out beyond the headland, the strait is grey-black. The rolling swell hits the bow, each time producing a towering cascade of salt water. The Santa Regina is nearing the end of her service life. A steady ship – ideal for traversing back and forth between Wellington and Picton. This is mild. It gets much worse. Sometimes you can’t stand up. “I’ve seen three hundred people all lying on the floor clutching sick bags,” the woman from the ferry company’s marketing department says. The words offer only a mild form of reassurance. Either way I would still quite like to vomit. I turn off my microphone retreat to the bridge’s small office and begin clearing a box of paper in preparation.
Tangaroa, the sea, is not my element. But it is where my travelling companion feels most at home. Keri Hulme lives six months of the year by it at Okarito on the West Coast in an octagonal house. A fifth of her time is spent at the window watching the Tasman roll in. That is, if it’s not between September and mid-November where the 67-year-old will be in the surf with a long handled net scooping up inspiration. For whitebait hold such a cherished place in her oeuvre, the thousands of juvenile galaxids are a wriggling, translucent, ink-eyed muse.
An hour below decks, honking your stomach contents into small bags in a ferry cafeteria reserved for long haul truck drivers gives you time to think. Between the violent convulsions there is an impossible stillness as unexpectedly sudden as the bile. Enough time to wonder, if this isn’t your element – what is?
On the night we pulled into town, the grand limestone buildings of Oamaru glistened like teeth, white and wet. In many ways my career began on the main street with a horrendous two week secondment to the local paper. It all started promisingly with the front page lead on an accident with a hedge trimming machine which flung a large macrocarpa branch through a family’s front window. A photo of the lank hair son holding the offending chunk of wood looking mournful heralded the arrival of the coming man. But my later mishandling of another big story on the opening of a second hand electronic goods store led the editor to dub the fortnight, a bit of a disaster. “It will be interesting to see where you turn up,” were their words of parting. Fifteen year later, I returned.
“You have been recognised by one of the staff behind the bar,” said the waitress at Robbie’s Bar and Bistro, Ashburton. “Can you please sign the menu?” Now it hangs next to a picture of my beaming face, beside other luminaries who have passed through town and dined there, including The World Champions of Robotic Milking. But really anyone who can milk a robot should be bronzed. “Going to Oamaru to interview Keri Hulme,” I wrote next to the signature, hoping it might prop up any claim to notoriety. “Who is she?” inquired the waitress.
Television is my element, if it may be classed as one. It is highly unnatural, though. Neither air, water, fire not earth, but as ubiquitous – a layer superimposed on the physical. We take existence, cut out the pauses, stillness, frequent boredom and sell advertising in the spaces left behind. It is easy to forget how turbulent this flow of life can be until it mingles with another more rarefied current.
So it was last Wednesday, I – a denizen of this fallen world came face-to-face with a true artist. So bold and uncompromising is Hulme’s vision, that the author took sixteen years to write her first novel and so far three decades completing the next. The yeti has made more media appearances. Though if you are going to conduct a rare interview with a notoriously reclusive famously cantankerous writer my advice is – don’t be late – and if you are late – don’t be 16 minutes late. There was a legitimate excuse. The railway crossing in Oamaru had malfunctioned causing a traffic jam. But it cut no ice.
Finally arriving on the doorstep I felt as dejected, lost and initially unwelcome as Simon Gillayley, the mute tousle haired boy who washes up at the tower of one Kerewin Holmes in the bone people. After travelling from Auckland and driving through the night to get there, the door was thrown open to reveal Hulme remonstrating with the director of the writer’s festival adamant the interview was not going to happen. “Do you realise you have arrived among a family of cannibals?” asked a much bothered writer, “We were famous for eating each other during feuds!” “Well, I am Pakistani and we know a thing or two about feuds. Someone once spilled acid on my grandmother’s face during a feud. She spent years undergoing plastic surgery when the science was in its infancy to restore her appearance. This was after she killed a cobra with the single blow of a broom.” I replied. Perhaps it was this tale of a formidable matriarch, but things ran rather more smoothly afterwards.
From the step as Keri stormed about I caught a glimpse of her own mother in the background. Mary is one of the unsung heroes of New Zealand literature. She raised six children – her husband dying when Keri, the eldest was aged 11. She refused to believe there was anything wrong with her child when teachers judged Hulme to have a learning disability. The problem was in fact caused by an inability to read the blackboard due to visual impairment. She nurtured her daughter, who was obviously different –as a 12 year old retreating to bed to read Kipling with a candle, under the blanket. Mary was the only person allowed to suggest changes to the bone people after it had been rejected by every publisher in Australasia. When Keri won the Booker Prize she sent the cheque to Mary and it is Mary who has been promised Bait , the long awaited manuscript, will be finished by the end of whitebaiting season.
The first leg of our journey complete, we parted company in Timaru. I had asked to be dropped off in Christchurch but Keri won’t go back to her hometown after the earthquake. I unburden myself to the show’s producer, “At least it went better than when John Sellwood interviewed Janet Frame. She wouldn’t let him in the house and spoke through a crack in the door, then chased him round the garden with a broom.” Yet such a reaction from a brilliant loner doesn’t always mean they don’t like you. Janet was fond of John. In her will Frame specified it was to be he who played the bagpipes at her funeral. There he was, a character in her final scene.