Heidi North in conversation with Keith Lyons
When New Zealand author Heidi North won an international Irish Poetry Prize in 2007, and was told by the Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, to keep writing, it made her realise that not everyone wrote the way she did. Further recognition and confirmation of her own unique voice came just before Covid hit, when the band U2 used one of her poems in their Joshua Tree Tour on a gigantic screen before audiences of thousands. The writer of poems and fiction has been published in anthologies, journals and magazines around the world, but underlying her writing is a fascination with the human condition and how out of grief we make parcels of light.
When did you first start writing?
I’ve always been writing. I think I thought everyone just wrote poems and stories the way I did, when I was a kid. But as to when I started taking writing more seriously, that was when I won an Irish poetry prize in 2007 (The Feile Filiochta International Poetry), that’s when I realised that perhaps not everyone wrote quite the way I did.
What cultivated your love of words and storytelling?
My mother was a great storyteller and she often told me stories, especially family stories, growing up. In fact, a lot of those have made their way into an essay collection that I’m currently working on, a few decades later. My dad was an architect and artist, and my step mum is an artist, too so I grew up surrounded by creative people and books and a feeling that creativity was valued.
What do you enjoy about the process of writing?
It can be a frustrating one at times, there’s the gap between what you want things to be and where they are and finding the way to work from that point to another can be a challenge. But the great joy comes from the flow state, when you’re in that state, time and space are nothing, there is just you and the page and it’s joyful. You have to hold onto that as a writer, because a lot of the time is spent berating yourself for not actually writing, feeling deep despair about your work, and the process of editing, which can be joyful and painful too.
What differences are there between writing poetry and writing short stories/novels? Do you have to put a different ‘hat’ on to create?
For me, it’s sort of instinctual, I just know when what form things I want to explore will take. I was a poet first, so I did have to go through a process of really learning to write fiction. John Cranna from The Creative Hub (Auckland, New Zealand) really taught me how to bolt my fiction writing down. I feel like fiction adheres to the rules of gravity whereas poetry doesn’t have to. But writing both has made each form stronger, my poetry has become more narrative and my fiction benefits from the stripping back you do in poetry.
I wrote my second poetry collection, We are tiny beneath the light, as a sort of side project while I was working on my bigger project for my Masters. And it’s more a narrative than my first collection, Possibility of flight, which I published in 2015, for that reason.
How do you go about your writing? With planning, spontaneous, inspiration or contemplation?
These days, between work and kids and the obligations of adulthood, the writing has to be planned and I have to give myself deadlines and hold myself accountable to them. But in terms of what I want to write, that still is fairly spontaneous. I have never felt like I choose what I write about, things just tug at me until I make something out of them.
Does being a writer make you more observant, mindful or aware, or does noticing details and recording them make you a writer?
What a chicken and egg! My dad always says I was fascinated by why people did things, so I think writing perhaps helps me make sense of the world.
What did you gain from studying creative writing at university?
Every time I’ve done any writing study, there have been two great gifts of it; one, it ringfences writing time and gives me deadlines, and a place to play with writing, to read and to really think hard about both. But the second, and perhaps the greater gift, is the cohort. I finished my Master of Creative Writing at Auckland University in 2017, and that cohort of writers, and our lecturer, Paula Morris, have been so valuable to me since. Plus, I still keep in contact with, and champion writers from other courses I’ve taken along the way. I’ve taken several short courses at the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington and those always gave me new inspiration and introduced me to new writers, many of whom have stayed friends.
What was your experience in China/Shanghai like?
Being in Shanghai for the International Writers Program in 2016 was just such a wonderful, stimulating creative time. I’d lived in China, in Huizhou, 12 years earlier for a year teaching English at a language school there, so I had a bit of an idea of what China was like, so while in some ways I was prepared, it was also so different. I loved spending two months there. I loved having the time dedicated to writing and to being in a different culture and to be being part of a group of 10 writers from around the world and to spend time with Chinese writers and particulate in many literary events. I feel so very lucky and thankful to the Michael King Centre in New Zealand for the exchange.
It was also hard and challenging and bizarre to be away from home. I had a small daughter at home and my marriage had recently broken up. So it was many things, all at once.
How do you go about getting published?
Just sending things out and keep sending things out. Hopefully, you send things out that people like and they get published. I’ve had a lot of rejection letters, and I’ve also learnt that some people will love your work and some people won’t. It’s true what they say that everything is subjective. I’ve had work rejected by someplace that ends up winning a prize somewhere else.
How do you think writing can address difficult subjects, such as your ‘We are tiny beneath the light’?
Your hope as a writer, when you write about difficult subjects, such as I did in, ‘We are tiny beneath the light’, which is about the breakdown of my marriage and the process of rebuilding myself after that, is that it illuminates something for someone else. Maybe someone else going through a hard time reads my poems and it gives them a foothold into their own life, or a way to express their grief, or offers a sliver of hope. I go to hard writing in hard times, and it gives me great comfort.
Does writing from your own experience mean being vulnerable on the page? If so, how do you live with that?
It would be easier to step back from your work and say it’s not you, and in ‘We are tiny beneath the light’, I could no longer do that. Was I scared of being vulnerable? Yes, I was terrified. My publisher and editor Mary McCallum was invaluable through that process and trusting in her careful guidance helped me get to the heart of the story I was telling.
The other thing is, that writing anything truthful always contains poetic license, and even if it’s not about you people will make assumptions anyway, so that’s freeing in a way. And you have to get past what you think people might think of you if you’re a writer, or you’ll never write anything.
Being vulnerable is something I find quite difficult, and yet, both of the projects I’m currently working on have memoir elements, so demand a level of vulnerability. In the end, I think all good writing is an act of vulnerability of some kind, and when I’m scaring myself that’s when I know I’m going in the right direction.
How do you make a bridge with the reader for them to get into your writing?
I think it’s vulnerability. You don’t have to agree with me or like me, but you have to know I’m telling some kind of truth – which is widely subjective, but that’s what the reader is here for, to see the writer tell the truth they have in the best way they can.
How useful are deadlines, goals, and writing groups to writing and improving your work?
They cannot be underestimated! It’s not an understatement that the process of getting to the desk is extraordinary hard. It would be such a relief not to want to write, because it’s so fraught just getting to the page. You have to really want to write to overcome that dread. It makes absolutely no sense that something you love is so intensely hard to do. This is where deadlines and writing groups, that come with deadlines come in. And it’s great to be able to talk about the craft with people who care about it as much as you do.
How rewarding does it feel seeing your work and name in print?
Holding the copy of your book in your hands for the first time is such a wonderful feeling. And when you get accepted for any kind of publication there is just this instant bubble of joy. And you have to hold onto that, because the slog is hard, and the rejections keep coming. It can be hard to savour the feeling of reward that comes with seeing your work published, but it is why we continue writing, so that someone will read it.
How has your writing ended up being shared to the wider world? Is it true that U2 used your poem ‘Piha Beach, two years on’ in its New Zealand concert screen images?
Yes! Isn’t that just wild? Having my poem picked up and used by U2 is one of the most unexpected and wonderful things that being a writer has led to. I wrote about it — the surreal joy of having my poem selected to play on the largest screen I’ve ever seen – may ever see – in my life, to a crowd of thousands here: When one of the biggest bands in the world bought my tiny poem
If you can’t make a living from writing poetry, what other benefits are there from publishing poetry?
You don’t write poetry or short stories in New Zealand for the money, but being a writer has lead me to some extraordinary experiences, like an all-expenses-paid trip to Bali when I won the Asia New Zealand Foundation Short Story Competition, going to the Shanghai Writers Programme and all the wonderful experiences I had there, meeting Seamus Heaney and having him tell 26-year-old me sternly to keep writing when I picked up the Feile Filiochta poetry award in Ireland, and spending the evening in the Friends and Family lounge before the U2 concert in Auckland.
So, it’s not bought me great monetary riches, but it’s bought me great dinner party stories.
How important is winning awards, and getting feedback from readers in keeping your writing?
Really, really important. I’d like to say I don’t care what people think, but I do. I don’t mean in the way it stops me from writing hard things, but in the way that if I’d never had any positive feedback at all the doubt would have gotten the better of me and I would have stopped writing long ago.
How do you use your writing skills in your day job?
I work in strategic communications and engagement, which is all about how to communicate the bigger story and connect with people. It’s fulfilling to tell stories in different capacities.
How do you juggle your life and other responsibilities with making time to write?
I’ve learnt to write in snatches, when kids are playing noisily around me, when I don’t want to, when I’m too tired, when I’m feeling flat. There’s always something writing or writing-adjacent you can do, even when you may not be at your best and that way you keep a toe in the water. I do everything I can just to keep a toe in the water, and then sometimes that leads to full body immersion, but with kids and a job and a house there isn’t much glorious uninterrupted time these days.
What are you currently working on?
I always have multiple things on the go at the same time, so one project I’m working on is a personal essay collection about childhood, family politics, parenting and love. And the other is my Shanghai project, a hybrid novel memoir about a runaway bride who finds herself hiding in Shanghai – the last place she remembers being happy, and it’s also about me, on the Shanghai writers programme grappling with where I was in my life post-separation.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. Do interesting things. Find your own voice. Allow yourself to write things without expectations or limits. Write into the things that make you scared. Then go deeper. Keep going.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t agonise so much, and just keep going.
How does writing make you a global citizen better connected to the world?
Participating in literary events and publications and exchanges creates so much connection and empathy with different cultures and ideas. It’s so important.
New Zealand writer Heidi North has won awards for both her poems and short stories, including an international Irish Poetry Prize, and has been published in anthologies and magazines around the world. Heidi was the New Zealand fellow in the Shanghai International Writers Programme in 2016. The same year she was awarded the Hachette/ NZSA mentorship to work on her first novel. Heidi has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland and lives in Auckland with her family. Her first poetry collection, Possibility of flight was published by Makaro Press in 2015. Her second collection, We are Tiny Beneath the light (The Cuba Press 2019), was launched by U2 when they used one of her poems from the collection in their 2019 Joshua Tree Tour.
‘Piha Beach, two years on’ by Heidi North My feet punch bruises in the black sand and I am back in the burn of childhood summers the circle of sentinel gulls their grey wings tipped to catch the light warn me back but I go down to the white foam edge bluebottles bloated with their pretty poison yield to the sharp edge of my stick I go down to the place where the wind kicks holes through my heart and there is a child down there too close to the ribbony horizon line holding his blue kite towards the updraft still smiling as it lurches against the wide white blaze of sky – and I smile and laugh and I run with him because how can I tell him all the brutal things are yet to come (‘We are tiny beneath the light’ has been published with permission from The Cuba Press)
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles