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Interview: Whiti Hereaka talks about her novel Legacy

Novelist and playwright Whiti Hereaka is of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Te Arawa: Ngati Whakaue me Tuhourangi, and Pakeha descent. She lives in Wellington. Whiti has written three novels: The Graphologist’s Apprentice, Bugs and Legacy. She has also written for the stage, radio and TV. Whiti works with emerging writers as a mentor for Te Papa Tupu and is a scriptwriter for Pukeko Pictures’ The Kiddets. Whiti likes to make things — she loves to sew and knit. Lately she’s been enjoying photography.

Her novel Legacy is nominated for the Young Adult Fiction Award at this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. In Legacy, Riki wakes after an accident to find he’s gone back a century. He is mistaken for his great-grandfather, who happens to be a soldier in the middle of Egypt during WW1 — a long way from present-day Wellington and his girlfriend. The convincing characterisation and scene setting help readers understand the moral complexities and challenges of life as a Māori soldier during the WW1 campaigns.

Tell us a little about your book.

Legacy is a time-slip novel where a teenager from 2015 goes back in time to 1915 and lives as his tipuna in the Maori Contingent. It’s a story about embracing your history and your role as a part of that history. It’s a story about digging deeper into myths about our past. It’s a story about how our lives are ultimately stories and we should tell our own stories.

What inspired you to write this book?

Brian Bargh from Huia Publishers called me up about an opportunity to write a story about WWI — I hadn’t really thought about writing anything about WWI, and knew very little about it. At the time I was working for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and part of the Ministry’s work was the one hundred year commemorations, so I was in a great place to start my research. The Ministry library had resources on the war, but better yet — historians who were working on their own research and books about WWI. Once I started reading about it, I was struck by how little I knew about the Maori Contingent in WWI so I thought writing a novel about the Contingent might ignite interest in their stories.

What research was involved?

I did a lot of research for this novel: general reading about WWI — the battles and campaigns that the Maori Contingent were involved in, the formation of the Contingent and their training, the general conditions of WWI, uniforms, rations, arms… basically as much as I could to bring the world of 1915 alive. I also tried to read social history about the early 1910s — what was the world at home like for the men that went on to serve in the Maori Contingent? What was the attitude of their communities in sending them to war? And to get the language and the tone of 1915, I tried to read as much I could of the literature then. For the time travel aspect of the novel, I dusted off some of the philosophy I had studied as an undergrad — looking particularly at the Grandfather and Bootstrap paradoxes. I also indulged in my love for timey-wimey wibbly-wobbly stuff: so I binged Doctor Who (in particular “Blink”), Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I’ve always been pretty disciplined when I write so it was the same for Legacy, although this was the first novel I have written as a full-time writer. I treat writing as a job — because it is my job — so I write every day when I’m working on a project.

Because I had different time threads to keep in order and I was working with historical and story events, I spent a bit of time planning and outlining the novel. When I started writing the first draft, I had daily word count goals to meet: some days I would achieve my goal pretty quickly and other days I’d struggle most of the day.

Once I had finished the first draft I sent it off to Huia Publishers and then after a while I went through a structural edit with an editor. For Legacy I worked with Jane Parkin, who helped push me to make the work better. After that draft had been completed, I worked on the next draft with Daisy Coles to help refine the work further and fact-check some of my research. From there, I worked with Bryony Walker at Huia Publishers on the proofs. There are a lot of people that help to bring a novel together and I’m grateful that I’ve worked with some very talented editors.

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

“Once in a Lifetime” Talking Heads and “Bohemian Rhapsody” Queen

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

Because Riki is only seventeen at the beginning of Legacy, I don’t think the perfect actor has made his debut yet. I’d hope that the producers hire a great casting director to find the mostly young cast — I’m impressed by the casting choices of Tina Cleary (Boy) and Stu Turner (Hunt for the Wilderpeople). For Te Ariki, I think Jim Moriarty would do a great job, although he’s probably too young for the role.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

I enjoyed experimenting with form in Legacy. Part of the story is told via transcripts so it was nice to dust off the old scriptwriting brain for those bits. I also liked delving back into the thought experiments of philosophy to figure out the implications of time travel and whakapapa.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I probably had a cup of tea, packed away my notes and then picked up my next project!

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

“The Order of Time” Carlo Rovelli. This was a book I had to read for a panel, so I didn’t pick it out myself; but it felt like it had picked me. Rovelli, a physicist, explores time — what we know about it and our misconceptions of time. It has reminded me of the poetry in physics and how each of our lives is precious because of our unique place in space and “time” — and that books can time travel.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m working on another novel, Kurangaituku, which is a retelling of Hatupatu’s story from Kurangaituku’s point of view. I’ve been working on this novel since before Legacy and it’s been a big challenge for me as a writer. I’m also hoping to write a draft of a new play this year, it’s been a while since I’ve written a play and I miss it.

The winners of the New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults will be revealed at a ceremony in Wellington on 7 August. Full details of all the nominated books are available here (


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