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How breakthrough crime writer Joshua Pomare put Maketū on the map

Joshua Pomare. Photo/Supplied

A 30-year-old Rotorua-born, Melbourne-based writer had publishers fighting for the rights to his debut novel Call Me Evie. 

Maketū is a seaside town 40 minutes south-east of Tauranga. As a teenager, Joshua Pomare was a frequent visitor on surf trips away from the Rotorua horse-racing farm where he grew up. And in his debut novel, Call Me Evie – a book that is about to be published in much of the English-speaking world – a 17-year-old with a shaved head and fractured memory stands on the Maketū headland, listening to the boom of those waves.

She’s not from around here. She’s also under the watchful eye of a man who says he’s trying to keep her safe after something terrible happened.

Pomare’s first novel is an exquisite literary chiller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn while being an atmospheric nerve-jangler of its own distinct style and voice, including plenty of antipodean touches.

The book had six Australian-New Zealand publishers bidding on it (Hachette won). The North American rights went to Penguin Random House US imprint Putnam and the UK ones to Sphere, a commercial fiction imprint of Little, Brown.

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The 30-year-old Pomare says his first successful attempt at writing a novel – after years of practice runs, aborted attempts and a lost manuscript – came from the merging of three elements. The first was Maketū.

“It’s a place that’s just endlessly fascinated me, he says. “I don’t quite know what it is about Maketū, the atmosphere there. We used to go surfing there, and we had a few sort of incidents … it’s this little thumb of rock right in the middle of the bay that’s a Mongrel Mob sort of stronghold. I really did love it, but it was a lot like a dare going there. You’re just a tiny bit ambivalent; sometimes things would happen that were a bit off or strange, or you’d see certain things.”

That vibe stuck with Pomare even though he’s spent much of the past decade in Melbourne, working in marketing, publishing short stories, and running a podcast of author interviews. His earlier attempts at novel writing, he says, were more acts of mimicry to teach himself rather than a serious attempt to pen something publishable.

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At school, he far preferred maths to English until his final year. He soon became an admirer of such literary stylists as Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami and started to find his own voice by deconstructing others’.

“Back then, I knew I wasn’t ready,” he says. “I’d think, ‘I know I can’t write as well as this’, but I could see the mechanics of a story. What if I changed this?

“So I rewrote those stories, in a way, changing various things. For example, in The Crossing, the second in McCarthy’s Border trilogy, there’s this beautiful first 100 pages about a kid tracking a wolf, and this deep bond he had. It’s still one of my favourite books purely for the feeling McCarthy evoked in me towards the wolf, towards the boy – it’s really tragic.

Maketu Point. Photo/Getty Images

“I thought, ‘Wow, it creates such a strong feeling in me, why does it do that?’ It’s not just what happens, it’s like he’s calling on something deeper. So I tried to rewrite that, wrote about 60,000 words, then, ‘Okay, cool, that was fun, now what?’”

Pomare says he grew up in a family that loved stories but weren’t big readers. “My dad in particular loves a good yarn. When you get us all together, endless tales come out but it’s more oral storytelling. If there’s anything I picked up from my siblings and my dad it was probably that.”

The first manuscript Pomare wrote had more of a young-adult feel but the manuscript vanished in a computer meltdown. “I was just devastated, for all of three days. Then I bounced back.”

It was around that time that Pomare began formulating ideas for what became Call Me Evie. The atmospheric setting of Maketū was rattling around in his subconscious, and then he read a book that opened his eyes to new possibilities – All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.

“It’s no coincidence that a character called Evie is very central in my book, because that book had such a profound effect on me and what I believed a short literary novel could do.”

Pomare was used to the lengthy literary tales, but Wyld’s much shorter story inspired him. He devoured it in a few hours while admiring everything it “had going on” structurally.

“I thought, ‘I can do this’; I can’t write as well but I can be experimental with structure, I can see all the moving parts. This makes sense to me.”

In contrast to his earlier efforts aping McCarthy or Murakami, Pomare wasn’t mimicking Wyld but was rather inspired by her before-and-after, backwards-and-forwards narratives. “I took elements of that novel and elements of my own background and heritage I wanted to write about, then I kind of fused them.

“Through the rewriting and editing process, basically all the elements from All the Birds, Singing fell away. In a way, I learnt to write a novel that way, learnt about structure, learnt what was necessary, how to plot. I learnt so much by putting it all in there and then slowly throwing it out and replacing it with parts of me and my history and what I actually wanted to write about.”

The third and perhaps most important element for Pomare was the central character of Kate, a troubled 17-year-old from Australia who tells a Maketū shopkeeper her name is Evie.

“Kate sort of personifies Melbourne for me,” he says. “She’s very neurotic but outwardly cool, which I think is such a Melbourne thing. She’s reasonably self-aware but also completely oblivious to things. So I had the idea of a story set in Maketū [and] this character I was obsessed with. But how did she get there? What is she running from? So that was the real seed of my story.”

Call Me Evie is an unsettling tale with an unreliable narrator, and Pomare adroitly shifts between “before” and “after” Kate’s mysterious life-changing event. But is the teenager a victim, or a villain? Are the supposed horrors that she and her career are running from best forgotten?

Writing about a 17-year-old female in the first person was a challenge that Pomare faced with plenty of help, as well as some interesting tactics.

“So much of Kate/Evie was me, my world view, fears, trepidations, and anxieties, but there were things I could never experience. So I talked to my wife about what it was like being a teenage girl, the experiences with swimming, first boyfriend, first love. I talked a lot with my friends and editors, to make sure it was authentic. There were things I could experience myself, like shaving my head – so I knew the feeling of a shower or the wind on your naked scalp, which is like nothing else. And I shaved my legs and tried on tights, which was quite strange. There were things I did or observed, and then I think it’s just about empathy.”

CALL ME EVIE by JP Pomare (Hachette, $34.99) is out now. Pomare is a guest at the Rotorua Noir crime-writing festival on January 26-27.

This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.