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Interview: Isa Pearl Ritchie talks about Fishing for Māui

Updated: Jul 15, 2018

Isa Ritchie is a Wellington based writer. She grew up as a Pākehā child in a bicultural family and Māori was her first written language. She has completed a PhD on food sovereignty in Aotearoa and is the fourth generation in her family to achieve a PhD. She is passionate about food, wellbeing and social justice. Since completing her PhD, Isa now works as a social policy advisor in the public service. Isa has written for the Pantograph Punch, the Spinoff, Organic NZ. Fishing for Māui is her second novel.

Isa talks to NZ Booklovers about Fishing for Māui

Tell us a little about Fishing for Māui.

Fishing for Māui is a novel with themes around food, family, and mental illness. It is also about identity, cultural disconnection, and a quest to reconnect with culture through mythology - that is where Māui come in. The story is told from the perspectives of five main characters and four more minor characters, each is on their own journey, and they are all connected by being part of the same whānau. The stories converge around a crisis that one family member goes through.

What inspired you to write this book?

The idea for this book was sparked from an experience that my own family went through where one member had a break down that was unexpected and frightening, but also fascinating. What I found interesting was how everyone had a very different perspective and experience. I couldn't write about my own family because it would violate the privacy of family members, so I spent a long time developing the characters and the story to capture the uniqueness of the situation if it had happened in a different family. Many of the events in the novel are based on real events, but they are happening in a different context. I had also been wanting to write fiction that was related to my food research, so I also drew heavily on this. I love reading novels where I learn things so I wanted to incorporate understandings from my research into the novel.

What research was involved?

My Masters thesis research focused on different understandings of health and nutrition, and I drew on this, particularly for Elena's character. My background is in sociology and food is a wonderful topic for social research because it is complex and interconnected with so many parts of life - it is both intensely personal and highly political, and there are so many strong views. I personally don't think there is one right way to eat and I'm fascinated by food ethics and values, health and nutrition. I also did wider research for this novel, particularly to get into the voices of the characters and how they think and talk. I spent a lot of time listening to people who talk in similar ways to the more blokey characters, and I read surfing magazines so that I could better describe those experiences. I always find it hardest to write the characters who are least like me. I had to brush up on my Māui mythology too and other Māori cultural things - I drew a lot from my own upbringing but I had to double check quite a few things to make sure I was doing them justice.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

When I first started writing Fishing for Māui I had already developed a lot of it in my mind, but I hadn't been writing it down because I was finishing my first novel and working on my Masters and parenting and working. I wrote the first 50,000 words quite quickly because I'd developed so much of it, and then it sat there for quite a while until someone challenged me to get it finished. At this time I had very little childcare, so I started going to a cafe where I was living in Raglan called The Shack, and spending an hour there in the afternoons and just aiming to write 500 words or so. I got into a really good routine, and this has served me well in that I can pop out to write in my lunch breaks or on weekend mornings when I'm in a writing phase. I do a lot of novel development inside my head and I don't try to write until I have the energy for it. This works really well for me.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I think a soundtrack for this book would ideally incorporate local music from Hamilton and Raglan, like the Cornerstone Roots songs Home, and Wake up. Kimbra and Katchafire are from Hamilton and and I can see their music working pretty well. There's also a lot of great lesser-known music from Hamilton, like The Hollow Grinders, Halcyon Birds, and Dynamo Go - some great music that would work well with the story. My dad Jon McLeary (also from Hamilton) has made some fantastic music with his band The Spines, and I can think of a few songs like Lily and I, Weathered Lines and Your Body Stays.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

It would have to be made with New Zealand actors, I think, for it to be the same story. I can imagine Taika Waititi making it with a bunch of local actors, doing the casting locally where the book is set. I can imagine it merging into fantasy animation with Rosa's imaginary worlds and with the Māui legends coming to life. That would be amazing.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I enjoyed getting to know the characters. Characters are really important to me in a novel whether I'm reading or writing. The characters drive the story for me. I enjoyed the collage aspects, like how Evie's sections all have quotes about activism and vegetarianism - I collected a whole lot of quotes and found the best ones and then matched them with her character sections, or with Elena's recipes, I drew a lot from the research blog I kept for my Masters thesis. I enjoyed working the mythology into Michael's narrative, which makes it playful and an interesting juxtaposition of the historic and contemporary.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I need to get better at celebrating. I tend to just move on to the next project, and by the time this book was finished I was ready to get started on the next one! I'm celebrating now with the book launch followed by a weekend in Otaki at my friend Kirsten's bach.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Earlier this year I read Carl Jung's autobiography and it really resonated with me. In his childhood he was very much an outsider. He had a lot of interesting intuitive understandings of things that other people around him didn't see. I felt a lot like this as a child, this sense of being liminal - of being in between different worlds. My friend David believes this is a quality that writers often have, a sense of permanent displacement, and that separation lends a kind of effectiveness and perspective that is useful for writing.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

My next novel is called Innerspace. It is told from the perspective of four close friends, over the course of twenty four hours at the beach, in various states of consciousness, reflecting on their friendship and their deepest thoughts. The story is driven by a secret that the characters Isaac and Moana have found out about Ethel, and whether or not they should tell her.


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