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Interview: Steph Matuku talks about The Eights Gifts of Te Wheke

Steph Matuku (Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama, Te Atiawa) is an award-winning writer for young people for the page, stage and screen. All her books have been published by Huia Publishers. Her novels, Flight of the Fantail, Whetū Toa and the Magician, and Falling Into Rarohenga were Storylines Notable Books, and Whetū Toa and the Magician was a finalist at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Steph likes coffee and zombie movies, and has two children who inspire her every day. The Eight Gifts of Te Wheke is her first picture book and it was shortlisted for the NZ Booklovers Children's Book Award 2022.

Tell us a little about The Eight Gifts of Te Wheke.

‘The Eight Gifts Of Te Wheke’ is a picture book about an octopus who kidnaps a little girl from her family and holds her for ransom so that he can get presents.

What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to write a classic folk tale. They’re always gruesome. Us parents tuck our kids into bed and read stories like Hansel and Gretel: two children abandoned in the woods by their father under orders from his jealous wife, who get lured into a lolly house and imprisoned by a cannabalistic witch, before they shove her in an oven and burn her to death. And then we cheerfully say ‘The end, good night!’, give our kids a kiss and leave them alone in the dark. Gruesome! I wanted to write one of those.

What research was involved?

I loathe research. I didn’t do any. Oh wait – I saw an episode of The Equalizer with Queen Latifah, where they mentioned that octopi have arms not tentacles. So I googled it to be sure, and then emailed my publisher. No tentacles!

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I tend to work on two or three things at the same time because I get bored easily. I faff about on one thing, fiddle with another thing, and dance around with something else, and before you know it, I have three finished things. Voilà! This one was written very quickly a few years ago. It was my first picture book and I hadn’t had a lot of writing experience then, so it was pretty rough. Huia sat on it for quite a while before deciding to publish. I was embarrassed at how raw that initial manuscript was. I edited it HARD, man.

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

Prince. Always Prince.

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

Cohen Holloway would make a brilliant evil octopus. The Mum would have to be Carrie Green because she has such a beautiful, capable vibe. And a couple of cute kids. I dunno who – they’re all cute, aren’t they?

What did you enjoy the most about writing this book

I like the ending. It cracks me up every time. And I liked how the book came out. Laya, the illustrator, absolutely killed it. I love the palette, her drawings, how you can read it over and over and still find something new and interesting on each page. I love her interpretation of the story, and how real and beautiful she made the characters look.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I moved on to the next.

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

To be honest, I’ve found it hard to get back into reading this year. The state of *gestures wildly at world* is depressing and draining, and I tend to doomscroll with one eye and watch telly with the other, rather than use both on a book. In saying that though, I do listen to audiobooks and I loved ‘Last One at the Party’ by Bethany Clift. It’s about a woman who finds herself the only survivor after a deadly virus wipes out the world. Cannot think why I liked it so much.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m writing a young adult novel about the indigenous response to climate change, the fourth in the Whetū Toa junior fiction series, and a screenplay about a woman haunted by the loss of her child. Just faffing about, really.

Huia Publishers


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