Spring 2018

2019

2018

2017

Lost Wonders

Kevin Rabalais
Lost Wonders: Vanished Creatures of Aotearoa

The books you read as a child can have a significant effect on shaping your world view (which is just one reason why I worry about my son’s wholehearted consumption of Captain Underpants). In my case, there are two books which I read when I was in my pre-teens which made a huge impact on me, which I have carried forward into my adult life.

One was Louis Lowry’s debut novel A Summer to Die, in which a girl comes to terms with her sister slowly dying of leukaemia. I remember reading it while being on lunchtime duty in the school office at Belmont Intermediate and bawling my eyes out when I got to the end — my first experience of being so moved by a book that I literally couldn’t stop crying (re-reading the synopsis on Wikipedia has just set me off again, BTW). It created in me the determination that a book was only truly great if I was moved to tears by it, a maxim I have stuck to throughout my life. Other books which more recently have made we weep throughout the last few chapters have been, notably, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. I hope one day to write a book which moves its readers to this extent; I probably won’t succeed, but it is a worthy goal.

The other book which I read during this time, which also affected me but in more mysterious ways, was a Puffin paperback edition of a 1976 children’s non-fiction title, The Dodo, the Auk and the Oryx, by American Robert Silverberg. (Wikipedia helpfully tells me he was also a massively prolific writer of science fiction and, when financial times were tough, soft-core pornography. Didn’t know that in 1982.) It told the sad but important stories of a number of species around the world which had become extinct, through the actions of humans — either by deliberate hunting, over-exploitation, greed or sometimes simple carelessness. It featured New Zealand’s prodigious bird, the moa. And, like any good young writer, I remember thinking at the time: I could write this book. And in it I could tell our stories, about the things we have lost here.

I was brought up in a conservation-minded household; my parents were very active in Forest & Bird and most/all of our holidays and family outings revolved around nature and conservation (except for the ones which were based around New Zealand’s history, which developed my other passion). I was morbidly fascinated by the idea of extinction — as a fairly anxious child, obsessed with not losing things, the thought that something as significant as an entire species could be allowed to vanish from the world forever seemed both disturbing and strangely compelling. I used to wonder, what would it have been like to see flocks of passenger pigeons so enormous their wings blocked out the sun for hours at a time as they flew over? And how could it be that, within a few human generations, they could have been utterly wiped from the Earth? Likewise, what must it have been like in the primeval forests of New Zealand, the air loud with birdsong and huge flightless moa crashing about? And how did it feel to shoot the last huia the world would ever see?

However, it took 37 years and a couple of false starts before I finally sat down behind a desk at the Michael King Writers Centre in Devonport and put my fingers to the keyboard. At the end of the previous year, 2018, while recovering from the emotional and physical exhaustion of submitting 40,000 words of a novel for my Master of Creative Writing assessment, I had managed to put together an application for the New Zealand Society of Authors/Auckland Museum research grant and residency. The goal was to utilise the museum’s resources, a $5000 stipend and four week’s writing time at Michael King to write a draft of my own salute to New Zealand’s extinct species.

I was standing at a large playground trying to keep track of both my kids when I checked my phone and got the email saying I’d been awarded the grant. This was it — the book I’d thought about so long could finally become a reality! And with the support of my publisher and friend Jenny Hellen of Allen & Unwin, with whom I had discussed the book about a decade earlier (pre-kids) when we both worked at Random House, Lost Wonders: Vanished Creatures of Aotearoa came into being.

Anyone who’s ever tried to write a book and run a household at the same time (i.e. just about every writer) knows what a blessing it is to be given time and space to just write. This was a golden chance to immerse myself in research and pour out all the stories that I had been writing in my head for so long. Some of the stories I already knew a bit about — the huia, the moa, Lyall’s wren, takahē and kākāpō (which fall under the heading of ‘lost and found’) — but the process was also a voyage of discovery for me, uncovering the sad but true stories of the lost species of Big South Cape and the Chatham Islands, the native thrush and quail, and the grayling, New Zealand’s only extinct fish. There was so much more I could have put into the book — the challenge was selecting what was vital to the story and what would have to stay rattling about in my head.

Capturing the vivid pictures I conjured up in my own mind while researching, I used a narrative non-fiction technique at the start of each chapter to draw readers into each story, helping them to imagine being back in the past when these amazing birds and other creatures were still among us. And I made sure to pay tribute to the conservation pioneers, especially of the 70s and 80s — the time of my childhood — who saved species like the black robin and saddleback from obliteration, so that these wonders remain in the world today.

Always in the back of my mind when I was writing was the hope that by telling these stories of what we have lost, and what stands on the brink, another generation of young people can develop an understanding of our history and a passion for conservation. I like to think I’ve done justice to my original inspiration, The Dodo, the Auk and the Oryx, and I hope that in the future, reading books like mine will instil a love of nature in more Kiwi kids, fuelling their desire to protect it. In the meantime, I’ll go on trying to write that novel that makes people cry.

When one of the biggest bands in the world bought my tiny poem

Kevin Rabalais

The phone rang mid-morning on a Sunday – I was brushing my teeth but seeing the caller ID, I gulped down the toothpaste.

Mary McCallum, my publisher at The Cuba Press. She sounded a little stunned.

‘U2?’ I said when she told me, trying not to choke, ‘As in the band?’

‘Yes, they want to use your poem.’

I’d thought she was calling to talk about my book We are tiny beneath the light, which had just gone to press. The call from her a week earlier had been to make sure I wanted to go ahead.

‘Remember who will read it,’ Mary had said, ‘family, friends, the mums you see on the school run.’ It wasn’t a question about the writing, I knew, it was an act of care.

The book dealt with the wreckage of my first marriage. It was due to be published two weeks before I married my second husband. Mary had met with a writer that day, who reminded her over coffee of how books can ruin lives. The writer listed examples: relationships fractured and lost. I thought of the American writer I’d met three years earlier at the Shanghai Writers Program residency – she had been about to publish a memoir about an intense brief love affair. Her publisher had said it would sell well, but asked if she was sure; her new partner begged her not to. She was considering it for the two months we spent in Shanghai. I noticed from Facebook now that she was no longer with him.

‘We can wait,’ Mary had said, in that last phone call. ‘Think about it over the summer. It’s good, but you need to be sure.’

I wasn’t, but I was so close to having the book my hands. The act of writing it and shaping it had made me the most vulnerable I had ever been. Mary had gently, carefully, encouraged me to scrape away until I got to the bone. I couldn’t not publish it now. Yes, it was an intense, personal book, but I knew people read your life into your poetry, plundering your personal history, no matter what the ‘truth’ was. Still, Mary was right – the thought of publishing it did terrify me. The American writer was a lot more famous than me, though, and realistically, I was about to publish a poetry book in New Zealand – probably no one would read it anyway.

‘We thought this U2 business might be a joke,’ Mary said now, ‘but I’ve spoken to their people. It’s not.’

‘Really? But really?’

Michael, my soon-to-be-husband, hearing my rising pitch, came to check I was okay. After the last phone call from Mary I’d waited a while, brooding before asking him what he thought, knowing I would pull the book if he asked me to. Holding my face between his hands, he told me I must publish it. That it was too good not to. I knew it was necessary as my future husband for him to say that, but I loved him for it. And I knew he meant it when he told me that not publishing it because of him would hurt our relationship more.

Michael’s head appeared around the bathroom door now, eyebrows raised. I batted him away and shut the door, leaning into the dressing gowns hanging behind it.

It was hard to take in the details – U2 had contacted Mary out of the blue and asked to use my poem, ‘Piha Beach, Winter’ in their upcoming New Zealand tour of The Joshua Tree.

‘I don’t know when they want to use it exactly,’ said Mary, ‘details are light. They’ll pay. What do you say?’

‘Yes! Of course! Yes!’ Something wonderful occurred to me, ‘Do you think they’d give me tickets?’ I knew that was a long shot. The show opened that Friday night.

‘I’ll see what I can do,’ she said. ‘And Heidi’ – Mary was laughing now – ‘I’m beginning to think Clara might be right.’

During the process of refining the book, Mary had brought up the idea of illustrations and, after bandying a few illustrators’ names around, had asked me if my girls liked to draw. They do, I’d said. And they did.

Only a week earlier, Clara, my five-year-old, had come up to me holding one of her illustrations, saying, ‘This is my drawing which will be famous,’ and I’d nodded and smiled but thought to myself that this most definitely over-estimated the power of poetry in this country. But now?

I emerged from the bathroom dazed. Michael and the kids had clustered behind the closed door. The three of them stared at me.

‘I can’t believe it,’ I said.

‘You have toothpaste all over your face,’ Clara told me.

‘What?’ Michael looked like he wanted to shake me.

‘U2,’ I muttered, and told them the story.

The deal was strictly confidential, so for the next few days the knowledge lurched in my stomach like a balloon filled with water – about to burst and spill at any moment. It wasn’t possible. I knew it would all fall through. It was like I’d had a dream I couldn’t shake. Who even reads poetry? The contract wasn’t signed yet. I still didn’t have any details – and why this poem?

It was written on a bleak day in Piha on a solitary, three day residency while I stormed the beach, wrestling with the last draft of my Master’s novel – writing the poem as an escape but also a response, forcing a difficult, thorny and formless feeling into words on a page, spiked with hope. Shortly afterwards Paula Green asked me to send her something new to consider for her poetry site, NZ Poetry Shelf, in celebration of including my work in her non-fiction book on New Zealand women poets, Wild Honey. I sent her ‘Piha Beach, Winter’ mostly to see what someone thought. She published it. In the intervening two years, by accident, I built a book up around it. ‘Piha Beach, Winter’ had become ‘Piha Beach, Two Years On’ but it was essentially the same poem.

What a strange and wild journey writing is.

Mary called me two days after the bathroom call. ‘Their lawyer wants us to sign over the rights to your poem so U2 can use it in whatever way they like, whenever they like, wherever they like.’

‘Sounds okay,’ I said.

‘And for you to agree not to assert your moral rights over the poem in perpetuity throughout the entire universe.’

‘Sure.’

‘The UNIVERSE,’ she repeated. ‘How does that even work?’

‘That’s fine!’ I said, ‘That’s fine – just please say yes!’

There was no news on the tickets. By Thursday, I’d put the thought of them out of my mind. I still didn’t believe it was going to happen. My tiny poem on the giant screen.

Friday morning just before work I got an email from my publishers, who had been working hard behind the scenes – there were tickets, details to come.

What does that mean? My mind whirred. Tickets for tonight? Surely not? Hopefully Saturday? I needed to arrange a babysitter at very short notice. I still didn’t quite believe it would happen. I went to bed obsessively checking my email. Nothing.

I woke up Saturday morning to a message sent the previous night from a friend I hadn’t heard from a while – ‘I’m literally in Joshua Tree,’ it read, ’and OH MY GOD Heidi! U2 had your poem! My sister recognised your name (I had never met the sister) and sent me this.’ It was a picture of my poem, giant on the giant screen.

I woke up Michael. OH MY GOD was right.

I checked my email. I was to collect my tickets at a central Auckland hotel Saturday morning.

I arrived at the appointed time, the girls with me. There were black vans outside the hotel, a gaggle of young people hanging out across the road. ‘Who are they?’ asked the kids.

‘Fans,’ I said.

‘What do they want?’ asked Indie, my six-year-old.

‘You know how your aunt taught you to say, “No paparazzi?”’

They both nodded, the girls sauntering around the streets of San Francisco being famous in oversized sunglasses had been a feature of our holiday the year before.

‘Fans like photos too – a bit like paparazzi,’ I said, ‘but nice ones.’

There were built men in dark suits with wires at the hotel entrance. I felt under-dressed in a sundress and jandals. The girls were off running through the polished floor of the hotel lobby.

‘I’m here to see C –’ I said to the doorman, nervous, sure this was all still a weird mistake.

‘Of course, ma’am.’He bowed slightly towards the lift and I herded the girls towards it. The doorman swiped his card; we went up. The doors opened and the girls were off down the dark wood-panelled corridor. I tried to hush them as they charged over the plush carpet.

‘No paparazzi!’ they chanted. I regretted bringing them for a moment, but they loved that this was their book too. They went silent, glued to my side as we approached the end of the corridor and the open door of the suite.

Heavy hotel-white tablecloths, fresh flowers and small bowls of mini M&M’s greeted me. The people in here were in business suits, typing on laptops, murmuring on phones, wearing headpieces. One woman came forward, smiling. Ushering me to sit, she offered the girls M&M’s, and held out a crisp white envelope. Her manicured fingers dipped into the contents, sliding them out and over the tablecloth.

‘This is your pre-show Desert Lounge pass,’ she began in her lovely American accent. Noticing my confusion, she smiled a perfect-teeth smile, ‘That’s for family and friends. This is your red zone wristband. This is the ticket – though you won’t need that past the gate.’ She unfolded a map detailing our entry point.

‘Thank you,’ I whispered, still unable to believe it was actually happening.

‘Were they the famous ones?’ the girls whispered on the way back up the corridor. ‘Where are their sunglasses? Where are the paparazzi?’

I sent Michael shouty texts waiting for the lift: ‘We are RIGHT next to the stage! We have FAMILY AND FRIENDS PASSES!’

We arrived early to the Desert Lounge. ‘How will we get to the red zone from here?’ I had asked when we scanned our tickets at the gate.

The man looked at us, ‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘Where did you get those?’

‘They – U2’s people – I mean, they gave them to me,’ I said,.

‘Did they now?’ he said with a snort.

‘We’re early,’ I whispered to Michael shrinking back as we approached, but then there was a man in a black suit, sunglasses and an earpiece. He spotted our passes. ‘This way,’

We were directed into a darkened room overlooking Mt Smart Stadium, at least I assumed it was, the blackout curtains made it hard to tell. There were three other people in there. The lights were low. The music was most definitely not U2.

My paper invite had said ‘light snacks’. It appeared the family and friends of U2 were to be treated to chips, as the whole illustrious display of chip varieties available to purchase in New Zealand stood proudly before us. I approached the bar. We got glasses of bubbly, some pretzels, slightly fancier veggie chips and BBQ-flavoured chips and sat on tall stools.

After 30 minutes and a glass of bubbly I couldn’t help myself, I slid off my stood and approached the blackout curtain, twitching it open. The daylight roared in – I had a perfect view of the giant screen currently playing American poetry. The stalls were pockmarked with empty seats. The room behind us filled up. Michael ate more veggie chips. I kept checking the world behind the curtains. The people at the next table were smiling at us.

Michael, in a bid to explain my obsessive window watching (the support act wasn’t even due), told them my poem was going to be on the big screen. They were excited. ‘You’re the friends!’ our new Desert Lounge buddies said, ‘We’re the family!’ Although of who they demurred to say.

I kept watch at the window, others came over to see. Some Dubliners sampled the veggie chips with us. Someone else arrived with a box of pizza: ‘There’s only so many crisps one can handle!’ Soon I had a cluster of people sharing my view outside. But then security glided over, ‘Please move away from the window. Remember,’ he said looking at me like I might be almost famous, ‘the curtains closed is for your comfort.’

‘No paparazzi,’ I said, but only in my head. It wasn’t as good without the girls.

When night fell, the veggie crisps couldn’t hold me any longer. Michael took my hand.

‘This way please,’ said the man on the door with the sunglasses, directing us to follow the pink arrows down into the stadium, at the end of which waited another black-suited man. And that’s when I felt a glimmer of what it might be like to be famous. I savoured it, giddy for a brief moment while we sauntered through the exclusive area, past the crowds in the stands behind the barrier; we were heading towards the red zone .

We were moments away from the stage. If it wasn’t for the throbbing base that reverberated through our skulls when we got too near, we could have reached out and touched it.

When the title of my poem started to scroll up – the women in front of us must have thought we were insane (there was absolutely nothing else happening on stage) – we exploded. Michael started taking photos – me spilling with excitement while my poem made its way, did its thing on the giant screen.

‘It’s her POEM!’ Michael yelled to the confused women in front, pointing at me. ‘That’s HER poem!’

It filled the screen a few times during the event, but this was the one we caught on camera, reaching up to hold onto it and save. It was strange, beautiful and crazy. As it finished and the next poem scrolled up, I closed my eyes, listening to the roar and swell of the crowd, feeling the heat of the lights and the hot concrete beneath us, still clutching the day’s heat, the throb of the base, the tang of warm beer from the stand behind me. It seemed utterly incongruous that I would be here with my small poem about the despair of life coming quiet and enormous into that place brimming with joy and anticipation. But also exactly right.

The night is one I’ll remember my whole life. My poem playing under the gaze of thousands, on the largest screen I’ve ever seen – may ever see – in my life. It was moving to see not just my poem, but all the other New Zealand voices U2 chose to showcase alongside mine, Louise Wallace, Briar Wood, Albert Wendt. It made me so incredibly proud.

At the school run on Monday morning, a mum I hardly know and don’t cross over with on social media waved me over. ‘You must have had a great weekend,’ she said. ‘How was U2’?

‘U2?’ I said sliding on my sunnies, ‘They were great.’

Not so tiny beneath the light after all.