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Interview: Kayleen M Hazlehurst talks about Who Disturbs the Kūkupa?

Kayleen M Hazlehurst’s books are woven from the threads of family life in New Zealand and her own international travel.

Born and raised in New Zealand, the author moved to Canada in her twenties, where she was trained in film-making and anthropology and was later employed as an indigenous justice and policy adviser for fifteen years in Australia. After moving back to New Zealand, she completed a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing and returned to her earlier love of writing poetry and prose. She is the author of A Caramel Sky, The Antique Chef and Who Disturbs the Kūkupa? She now writes full-time and travels between her homes in New Zealand and Australia. Kayleen talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about your new novel.

Who Disturbs the Kūkupa? is a historical novel set in Aotearoa/New Zealand and Europe during World War II. It traces the war-time adventures of a young Māori soldier, Sonny Wirima, and the lives of his loved-ones left behind in a small village near the forested Brynderwyns.

Sonny is trapped behind enemy lines and must catch up with his lost Māori Battalion. In his retreat through mainland Greece and the Aegean Islands he is helped by friendly locals and later joins a group of fighters and secret agents in the mountainous region of Crete. Intertwined with Sonny’s journey is the parallel story at home, where his whānau and sweetheart, Atarangi, wait anxiously for his return.

What led you to write this book?

My first novel, A Caramel Sky, was inspired by memories my parents and grandparents shared with me. It is a story about family and society during wartime set against a backdrop of New Zealand’s air defence, communications and intelligence gathering during the Pacific War.

Who Disturbs the Kūkupa? flowed on naturally from the first book, with similar themes of love and war. I was drawn to tell the story of Anzac participation in the conflict in Europe, with a particular focus on the 28th Māori Battalion. Again, I wanted to portray the fabric of cultural and community life on the homefront, as well as the realities encountered by the men in battle. One character appears in both novels, giving readers a sense of familiarity with the world they share.

What research was involved?

My research covered a broad spectrum of enquiry. I needed to become imbued with the history and social customs of both New Zealand and Greece of the period. It was important to depict the military background authentically ‒ the technology, training, campaigns, and battlefield experience. My imagined characters interacted with real people in historically documented episodes, so I had to be especially careful to be true to what was known. During the seven years I spent writing Kūkupa, a great deal of time was devoted to gathering information from museums, libraries and archives, unearthing army reports, examining interviews, diaries, letters, and newsreels, and tracking down relevant New Zealand and international publications.

My house was littered with boxes of materials that needed to be absorbed in order to make events understandable through the fast-moving vehicle of fictional narrative. Every story must be exciting enough to hold people’s attention to the very last page.

What was your routine when writing this book?

Ah, my routine. Ideally, I’d get up at 6am, hit my desk around seven, and work until 6pm (with lunch and two coffee breaks). But it didn’t always work out that way. I needed daily exercise, which amounted to a little yoga on the floor or a quick gallop up and down the road. Sometimes I went to the shops! But overall, I was committed to getting in at least five hours a day, including weekends.

During my working life at university I nearly drove myself ragged. Retired now, I can write full-time and enjoy my days as they evolve. Some authors pick their time to write between 7pm to midnight, or 4am and nine. That works too, particularly when you have small children. I used to do it myself. The key is to progress at a comfortable pace. That way writing will always be fun.

What did you enjoy most about writing Who Disturbs the Kūkupa?

Writing a book isn’t always about putting words on a page. It might be organising your files, researching and reading, thinking about your material, formulating your ideas, and regular editing and polishing. My technique is a combination of structural planning and spontaneous writing (‘pantsing’). My strongest characters often have minds of their own, so I allow room for them to bounce off in a new direction. A moment of clarity, or a fresh idea might come unexpectedly, or in the middle of the night. Kūkupa was a particularly inspiring story to write. But now the book is out there, I just want to stand back and let others run with it.

What is your favourite book?

My favourite book is Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. I am also fond of the works of Thomas Hardy.

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