From a doorstop to the Man Booker prize

KEEPING IT REAL: Keri Hulme whitebaiting on the beach at Okarito in 1987.
KEEPING IT REAL: Keri Hulme whitebaiting on the beach at Okarito in 1987.

Decades before Eleanor Catton's success, whitebaiter and author Keri Hulme grabbed the literary world's attention. Tom Hunt reports.

It was the crackly telephone call nobody expected - and the response was undeniably Kiwi.

"Bloody hell," West Coast writer Keri Hulme said in a broadcast conversation over the phone when her book The Bone People won the Booker Prize on October 31, 1985.

She had rated her chances of winning as so low that she didn't even bother going to London for the ceremony. She was the only contender for the world's most prestigious prize not in the audience at the Old Library in London's Guildhall that day.

She was in Salt Lake City, Utah, when the call came through.

Her response was televised live in New Zealand: "You're not pulling my leg, are you? . . . Bloody hell."

Minutes later, she was in "disbelief" while talking to New Zealand media.

"I'll be able to give up whitebaiting now and concentrate full time on writing."

Copies of the book started flying off the shelves. Within a month, Hulme was on a plane to London to meet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

She had no plans to give the Iron Lady a signed copy of her book. "I'm not going to skite like that," she said.

She reckoned she would be the first whitebaiter from Okarito - a tiny settlement on the southern West Coast - to meet Thatcher. She even planned some formal wear. "Well, not my Swanny and gumboots, that's for sure."

There would have been a few red faces in the New Zealand book industry.

After 12 years writing the book, Hulme had shopped it around New Zealand publishers. None picked it up till feminist collective Spiral came along, publishing the bone people with small grants and gifts.

Even in literary London, a publishing house had told its New Zealand office to turn it down because it "was not a conventional novel", writer and historian Michael King pointed out.

Irihapeti Ramsden, Marian Evans and Miriama Evans from the Spiral Collective were in London for the awards in October 1985.

On the phone - and broadcast around the world - Hulme said the book would never have been published had it not been for the collective.

Marian Evans recently described the ceremony on her blog. She talked of how "no-one knew what to make of Miriama's and Irihapeti's karanga" as they made their way to the stage, where they were not permitted to talk.

She talked of how she had met Hulme, who also drew and painted, at a show at The Women's Gallery On Harris St in central Wellington in 1980.

The gallery had programmes for writers and artists.

"We came to understand that women writers and artists were often facing similar difficulties in getting their work to readers and viewers. Women writers, for instance, didn't tour, though men did."

In 1981 Evans tried to arrange a tour of women poets, including Hulme, but couldn't get funding.

"I was bitterly disappointed, and Keri sent me the bone people to read to cheer me up, a fat parcel of a manuscript she planned to encase in resin and use as a doorstop."

Finding a publisher that would allow the story to be published as Hulme had written it proved difficult. It was also long, therefore expensive to publish.

But Spiral signed on, publishing what would be only its second book of fiction and its first novel. The 1984 first edition - a copy of which was for sale on Trade Me this week for $350 - sold out, as did the second.

"Rather than attempt another reprint, we invited commercial publishers to propose co- publication." Hodder & Stoughton signed on. The rest became history.

Shortly after winning the Booker, Hulme would point out that New Zealand publishers had a "false idea" of what Kiwis wanted to read.

"A lot of people in New Zealand publishing have an idea that a New Zealand novel should be almost boring, stringently ordinary real life."

After a flurry of publicity, Hulme became famously publicity- shy but, over the years, has granted exceptions.

If she is changed by fame and success, it is hard to tell.

In 1986 - a year after the win - she allowed a reporter and photographer from The Evening Post to visit her home in Okarito.

She was a day late for the appointment. A fierce family Scrabble tournament in Christchurch was apparently the reason.

But, when she arrived home in her red Hillman Avenger, she was the perfect host.

The mead came out at 4pm - "it's a small concession to our livers that we don't start earlier" - then the community had a bonfire party on the beach.

The next day was whitebaiting.

In 2004, she again allowed a reporter to her West Coast home. The conditions were strict - no talk of her house or health, and actual questions were only by fax or email.

"I still love the book," she said.

"Obviously it's imperfect, journeyman work. Obviously, I'd do some things differently now."

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The Dominion Post