Whiti Hereaka answers the questions that have been bugging us about Bugs

Interviewed by Abby Loader and Abby Simpson

Whiti Hereaka: playwright, screenwriter, novelist, trained lawyer and a lovely person. When we found out Whiti lives in the same town as us, Wellington got that little bit cooler and we set up an interview in one of our town’s many cool cafes. Ironically, as were we meeting a writer, the menu told of a “rassberry” soda, something Whiti aptly pointed out while she explained she was in the editing stages of another book, so fine-tuned to spotting spelling errors.

We ordered our drinks (Whiti ordering the incorrectly written raspberry and elderflower soda) and then got down to business, with questions about her YA novel, Bugs, which we recently reviewed. After a few minutes, however, things got less business-like as her answers got more intricate and fascinating to the point where we sometimes forgot how essential note-taking was. Here’s what we managed to get down.

Where did the nickname Bugs come from?

It stemmed from the Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox stories by Uncle Remus, specifically Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby (which explains a lot and can be read here: http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/2010/07/brer_rabbit_meets_a_tar_baby.html). I wanted to write a character like Brer Rabbit in that their personality would get them both into trouble and out of it again. From there Rabbit turned to Bunny and Bunny into Bugs.

Stone Cold got her nickname from the Brer stories too. She was full of hollow bravado, like the Brer Fox and so became Fox. She said the Stone Cold nickname came from her old school but I’m doubtful if that’s true, it seems like something she’d convinced herself of.

As we were reading, Bugs was finishing year 12, just like we were. Are we going to be able to read of Bugs going to university as we do? ! SPOILER ALERT !

I’m not sure on that one, maybe. The book finished with Bugs asserting herself and showing despite everything she was feeling she was still feisty like Brer Rabbit. Bugs was going to university and it seemed almost like a happy ending. University was seen as the place where she could move away from the troubles she had throughout this book but, to be honest, university would bring a whole new depth of troubles. She would be the odd one out, she would have to move cities, money would be a problem, the work would be very hard and she would struggle to have helpful contacts. For example, to be admitted to the roll of barristers and solicitors, you need a current lawyer to sponsor you and Bugs lacked those connections. University would be an uphill battle for her.

I also think the book finished with us hearing and feeling an energy between the audience and the storyteller which was really fantastic. The story of Bugs lives on without needing to engage with it. Bugs herself lives on and exists for both me and the audience. Writing a sequel may kill that energy.

If I were to write something else from Bugs, it would be from a different point of view. Bugs made a lot of assumptions about those around her and hearing the happenings from one of the other characters would shed some different insight. SPOILERS FINISHED.

A recurring theme in the book is about expectations, particularly on Maori youth. Did you experience these expectations yourself?

I very clearly remember having the same assembly as Bugs about Māori achievement when I was at high school. I was a headstrong teenage girl so decided it was bullshit and never held anything of those expectations, but I saw the impact of the assembly and the expectations of failure being fulfilled.

What message were you trying to show to the audience through these expectations?

In 2013, I went to a writers retreat in Iowa [we googled this and it is a really prestigious program that connects 1400 writers from 130 countries]. I met female writers from around the world; from places like Yemen, Iran and Pakistan who had important things to say in their work and some were in danger because of that. It inspired me to value my own voice.

Bugs had many messages behind it and mostly I wanted people to start questioning things. I wanted readers to question the expectations on Māori youth but also the education system. I did a bit of research on our current school system while I was preparing to write and I noted how restricted it is. I wanted to comment on how we expect teenagers to make life changing decisions so early. I think young people shouldn’t let themselves be locked in by these early decisions because careers can change and everything is open and flexible. I think it’s really important for youth to know that uni isn’t a sausage factory churning out people, but instead is a place that expands our minds. Learning how to think and criticise how the world is really vital for teenagers. Bugs had lots of critical thoughts which were all really valuable in questioning everything, especially when it came to making decisions.

I also wanted Bugs to emphasise the importance of having people. The love that Bugs shared with her mum and with Jez shaped her life. Stone Cold wanted to be friends with them because she was lonely and wanted to be loved. She saw the love between Bugs and Jez and joined them because she wanted to be part of it. Through this book I wanted readers to see how it affected Bugs and then see it in their own lives.

Something small that we’ve wondered since we first picked up this book, is why the G on the front cover is the only red letter?

I’m not sure about that one! That’s something you’d have to ask the designer, Sam Bunny, about.

Sam Bunny? We all laugh. It seems Bugs is filled with great opportunities for puns.

I’m a big fan of puns, they’re bad but they’re so good.

We’d previously theorised the red G stood for Girl and had something to do with the hidden gender of Bugs in the first chapter. Your choice to hide the gender of Bugs was such a definite one, what was your reasoning behind it?

Really it was about confronting my own sexism. When I first started writing I’d assumed Bugs was a boy and it was a real surprise to me when I wrote further and I found out she wasn’t. Usually an active and decisive character is male and when I thought about it, I decided to challenge that stereotype about female characters with Bugs. Someone said to me later that boys wouldn’t want to read a book with a female protagonist which made me feel even further that Bugs should be a girl. Why can’t boys read about girls? It seemed especially important to me to have a female lead after that realisation.

The drug scene in Bugs was very graphic and in a YA book something like that is rare. Were you confident that readers would be able to handle it? I never actually wanted Bugs to be a Young Adult fiction and when writing that meant I felt less constricted to avoid certain scenes. Once I finished the book, I was talking with my editor about target audiences. For a while I’d been trying to deny it was a YA book, but my editor caught me out when I said my ideal would be for a 16-year-old living in Taupo to pick it up. Bugs is categorized as a YA book but I hope lots of adults are still reading it.

As to YA being able to handle the drugs scene, I just decided that what I was writing was life. That’s what happens in the real world and it seems ridiculous to shield kids from that.

Bugs is set in your hometown, the characters attended the same high school as you did and Bugs’s goal was to become a lawyer (what you became!). How much of this novel was fiction and how much was based on your life?

Lots of people ask if Bugs and I are the same, but I was a lot different to her as a teenager. I never had a clear ambition to be a lawyer like she did. Law wasn’t my big dream, but I slipped into it. I think I was actually more like Stone Cold, if I’m honest. She was an arrogant, very loud thespian, like me in my teens – I’d like to think I’ve quietened down a bit as I’ve gotten older.

It becomes very dangerous to base characters on people I actually know because my portrayal of them may not be how they see themselves. People see themselves in my writing when they aren’t actually there, because lots of experiences are universal. I only use pieces of other people, for example some of the teachers I had are very similar to those who teach Bugs. I’ve found characters based on my friends lack the depth of a fresh creation, because what I know of a friend’s mind is only the tip of the iceberg. I find writing characters rich in complexity comes from fabricated personalities nuanced with real experiences.

So you hold a law degree (cool!), how did your interest in writing develop into law or was it the other way around?

I always knew I wanted to be a writer but when I first started at Victoria University – I had enrolled partly because of the Creative Writing Course (now the International Institute of Modern Letters), but at that time there was no screenwriting course. I decided to take Laws 101 to test it out and really liked it because of the way you need to wield language. When you’re building a case you’re telling a story and it needs to be a strong enough argument to convince the court. Writing is the same, in that you need to convince the reader or the audience of your story. I passed and am a solicitor, but I’ve never actually practised. Practising never really interested me, my heart was in writing and I followed that but law definitely made me a better writer. Once I finished my law and English lit degree, there was a screenwriting course which I then took. I was a student for a long time but now I’m able to work fulltime on my writing which is great!

You originally began writing plays, how did you become a novelist?

I wrote a short story for the publisher Huia which caught their attention. They kept asking me to write a novel for them and they romanced me into it. My first novel, The Graphologist’s Apprentice, took me four years to write because I kept getting side-tracked writing about tea. I approached Bugs differently and started it as screenplay in third person, but then moved to writing from Bugs’s perspective and it just flowed. Before I knew it I’d written the first chapter and applied for a place in a writing incubator, Te Papa Tupu, which supported writers to work on their writing for six months. I was working part-time at the time as well, which meant I was very busy! When I met my new mentor, who was to help me write it, she was shocked that I didn’t have more than that first chapter written. I spent a month planning and wrote character biographies before I really started on the storyline. Knowing I only had six months of this meant I worked to that deadline and the process didn’t drag out. No-one expected me to get the whole book finished in that time, but I did.

Writing novels took me out of my comfort zone, because I started my writing career as a Playwright. Witi Ihimaera gave an interview years ago and something he said has always spurred me in my work. He said that it was alright to be whakamā (shy) in your personal life, but it wasn’t something you should be in your career.

When you speak of your mentor, what was it that they did to help you with the book?

She pushed and challenged me to develop the story further. My mentor was frank, but we both came from a theatre background and the no-nonsense approach was what I was used to. It could be a bit hard when I needed to fight to keep something in the book, the swearing for example, but everyone wants to make the best possible work so it isn’t personal.

When you read books, what makes you enjoy them?

The best books are the ones that make me forget I’m a writer, the ones with storylines I can just go along with. I like to get caught up in the characters and not see all the techniques or how the story could be written differently. Reading other books is part of improving, so I can learn and make my own work better.

From here we got wildly off topic talking about our plans for after school, complaining about the mass of dystopian novels for YA readers and admiring the homemade marshmallow that came with my hot chocolate. Talking with Whiti Hereaka about her motives behind Bugs, the origins of the characters and the process of writing the novel was really wonderful. We gained special insight into this brilliant piece of New Zealand fiction and are seriously excited to be able to share it with you! We hope this interview has been a good read :~))

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