[This issue, we sit down with Rem Wigmore. Here, they discuss the inclusion of Māori beliefs in their work; their forthcoming solarpunk novel, Foxhunt; and their other projects.]
ev0ke: Your first novel, The Wind City, is set in Wellington and draws upon Māori beliefs and folklore. The speculative fiction (and Pagan/polytheist) community in the United States is having a difficult conversation right now about indigenous spiritualities, cultural exchange and appropriation, and the inclusion of such spiritualities in fiction. Is the New Zealand community having the same conversation? If so, what is being said?
Rem Wigmore: Quite a similar conversation, I think! I’m Pakeha, which is the word for New Zealand European, and born and raised in Aotearoa. So I’m not the authority, but interestingly I’ve changed my opinion on this completely since the start of my career – initially I asked a lot of soul-searching questions and arrived at the conclusion that stories don’t belong to anyone, they belong to everyone, and I strongly disagree with that now. Everyone can appreciate the richness of Māori mythology and traditional beliefs, but Māori writers and creators should be the ones whose voices are boosted and appreciated. Otherwise it’s too easy to veer into appropriation.
One excellent book if one’s curious about Māori mythology is Pūrākau: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers, or one might try Steph Matuku’s new young adult novel, Falling Into Rarohenga, which is about the Māori underworld.
In terms of spirituality, I have no idea if it’s appropriate or not for Pakeha or other people who aren’t mana whenua to worship Māori gods, atua – I’d be fascinated to read any discussions on the subject! One thing I do know is that I’m grateful to have grown up hearing those stories, where the country I live in is a fish hauled from the sea, where the land lives and mountains walk; it helps with valuing the natural landscape, I think, knowing it is vital and alive.
ev0ke: The Wind City was released when you were only nineteen. Looking back, what do you wish that you had known as an author that you know now? What advice would you offer to other first time authors?
RW: Oof! A lot! I think I would generally recommend not feeling the need to publish at nineteen (technically I was twenty by the time it came out, but that’s still pretty baby, especially for an author). My writing skills were there, but I’ve learned so much since then. (And it’s generally regarded as good practice to live a life outside of writing – study and work and travel – but my skills and health personally don’t lend well to that, so I’m hopefully evidence that you don’t have to if it isn’t gonna work.) Most of what I’d advise is managing expectations. Your debut isn’t necessarily guaranteed to make some big international splash, and that doesn’t mean it isn’t good work and an achievement to be proud of; and if it does make a splash, you’ll suddenly be a lot more in the public eye than you’ve ever been, which brings its own gamut of challenges.
Another thing I’d tell my younger self: publicity is more your job than you think it is. It isn’t really possible in the industry as it is right now to stand completely apart from marketing; sorry. On the other hand it certainly shouldn’t be solely in your hands either. Networking is also more your job than you think, but networking is actually just ‘making friends and being decent to people’, so that’s not as scary as it sounds!
And then, also, don’t worry too much if time passes between your debut and your next published novel coming out – I think that’s pretty normal, especially if you don’t debut with a big publisher. I struggled a bit the first few years after my first book came out because I kept putting too much weight on each individual project, expecting too much, wanting each to be my next Breakthrough. But even the ones that weren’t still taught me a lot and were indispensable to learning more about my craft! Do your best to tell good stories, that’s all it is. Sometimes it gets hard, but follow the ideas that excite you, and the words will come back.
Also you don’t have to kill off characters to prove the stakes are high. You can, of course, you just don’t have to.
ev0ke: Your novella Riverwitch was a finalist for the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novella. Congratulations! What was it like to be nominated, and how did you celebrate?
RW: Thank you! I was really happy about it – Riverwitch was my first longform publication in a good six years, so it was reassuring that people liked it! I celebrated by basking contentedly in the praise of my friends. My local writing community also made one of our meetups be nominally in honour of the nominees, and this was after I’d already said I was going, so I couldn’t escape! The awards ceremony is August 7th, it’ll be fun to cheer on whoever wins.
ev0ke: Riverwitch is set in the small city of Hamilton. How is your writing influenced by the New Zealand landscape? Do you find yourself writing stories just so you can use certain natural features, or do you model fictional settings off real sites?
RW: Hugely, I’m hugely influenced by Aotearoa’s natural landscape, always more so than I expect for someone who grew up on very classic European-style medievalesque fantasy and whose first few works were roughly in that vein. I write about rivers constantly, the Waikato River and fictional rivers, rivers as trade routes, rivers as the hearts of regions. I have a mad love affair with rivers.
I was going to say that I don’t write stories just to use certain natural features, but, The Wind City and Riverwitch exist, so I guess I do, actually. It’s fun to bring out the spirit of a place, or represent it for yourself and others who might not get to see their home reflected in fiction otherwise. In my invented settings I don’t model things off real places very often, but I do steal the vibes here and there!
ev0ke: Riverwitch is also one of the novellas published under A Contemporary Witchy Fiction series (along with books by Andi C. Buchanan, Anna Kirtlan, Isa Pearl Ritchie, and others). What is the origin of that series of novellas? And how did you come to be a part of it?
RW: So in 2020 the whole country went into lockdown, which was a good call while still being complete hell to live through. With the news, and so many loved ones here or overseas in danger, and the isolation, it felt a little like the world was ending. The Witchy Fiction project was started with the basic idea of: what if a bunch of New Zealand writers wrote some cosy, feel-good novellas like an antidote to the grim times we lived in? Stories full of magic with a dash of romance?
The aforementioned Andi C. Buchanan is a pal and asked if I’d be interested in the project, and I’m very grateful!
I started thinking about what Aotearoa setting I’d want to write about that I hadn’t already, what place I knew well. Hamilton, Kirikiriroa, and if I wrote about the Waikato, why, clearly I’d have to write about the Waikato River. I doodled a fed-up looking woman wearing a ‘women want me, fish fear me’ shirt, and the novella was born.
(I wanted to bottle up some sunlight, peddle some good cheer to the world. I took all my most sun-soaked memories of walking by the river, hearing the bugs and ducks and smelling the mud, squinting when the sun shone too brightly off the water, and put them into the book. Something good to try and give the world, some hope to hold onto. I drafted Riverwitch at the start of lockdown and then couldn’t write a word for several months. I’m very glad I had a project to focus on.)
ev0ke: Foxhunt is set to be released by Queen of Swords Press in August. Solarpunk novels are hard to find, and solarpunk novels that draw on classic fairy tales are even more rare. What was the inspiration behind Foxhunt? How did you pull those disparate elements together into a cohesive narrative?
RW: Fairy tales are a subtle influence in Foxhunt, but there; some chapters are opened by stories my main character Orfeus was told by one of her mothers, Basma, and her influence bleeds into the tone of the book as well as being clear in Orfeus’s love of story and narrative. A main faction, the ecoterorrist Order of the Vengeful Wild, are heavily flavoured by Wild Hunt mythology. And since it’s set eight hundred years from now, our present-day world is nearly a fairy tale to the main characters.
I had a lot of different inspirations! One main influence was the Twilight Mirage season of the actual-play podcast Friends at the Table – it made me want to explore similar themes, a hopeful future and the flaws of near-utopias. I wanted to imagine a world that is better in many respects but still requires a lot of hard work and some moral ambiguity.
I had the character of Orfeus around in my head for years, in one form or another: a charming bard, arrogant but in her own way devout, with a ferocious bravery when it counts. I love a dashing rogue – this archetype shows up in The Wind City, too – but I play the trope fairly straight with Orfeus. Putting that character into this world automatically dictated what shape of story this would be: it would be tricksy, full of twists and turns, and songs, and stories. Quite early on I listened to the song “The Wolf” by SIAMÉS, and the plot started to fall into place in my head. Now there was something for Orfeus to fight against, a mystery to solve.
Orfeus is bisexual, passionate and confident, both well-loved and at times profoundly irritating. One of my favourite things in the book might be the understated poignancy – as a bard, researching old stories and songs, Orfeus is more aware of the past than most people in this setting, carrying all the details of what has been lost. The world she mourns losing aspects of is the world we live in right now. Writing her meant constantly looking both ahead and behind, at folktales and old sagas and then at how they might look eight hundred years from now; advances in technology, shifts in societal values, and the fact that the world we live in now is framed as a folk tale, and a cautionary one. (It’s painfully relatable: someone grieving the things we have lost – species, ecosystems as they once were – while working to preserve what can still be saved.)
I wanted something that felt almost like medieval fantasy, with a tactility that reflected a world where travelling far from home is rare, where resources like clothing and food are grown locally when possible and supplies are bartered, not bought and sold. Then adding over a couple of characters from an older trunked novel (Em and Bright, from the high-tech city of Farflung) inserted cyberpunk elements into the setting. I muddled all this together and rolled around in a world that’s joyously vibrant and full of variety, glimmering sunlit cities and trading-towns, luscious forests, fanciful names everywhere you look: at the end of the day a lot of the decisions I made were purely about doing what was fun or what I took joy in, which I refer to as being on my bullshit.
ev0ke: What sort of research went into Foxhunt? Long hours at the library? Long walks outside?
RW: Both! Yes!
There were less long walks than for others of my books, I think. I was working long hours during the planning and writing of that one, but it was October and November when I did a lot of the initial work, and the weather was warming, flowers ripe on the vine.
I read everything I could get my hands on about the solarpunk genre and movement – mainly a lot of articles about current eco-friendly technologies, and what ones we might have in future. (I’m fondest of air-cleaning algae chandeliers and stained-glass solar panels!) I put as much of that in my brain as would fit and started planning both the scientific advances and the soft sciences, the cultural changes and shifts in values that would occur over that long a time.
A reverence for the natural world is taken for granted, as it would have to be in a world striving to drag itself back from pollution and climate disaster. ‘Energy criminals’ are condemned more structurally than they are in our time, since legislature hasn’t yet caught up to acts of ecological devastation. I read a good article about smart cities and ‘dumb’ cities, using low-tech but eco-friendly solutions to help make cities more efficient and climate resilient, and I’m enamoured with that.
It struck me because of course, ancient technology isn’t necessarily worse. At the same time I had to be careful to avoid any kind of ecofascist, ‘humans are a virus’ type thinking – humans are a part of the ecosystem, like it or not, and ideal solutions don’t involve humans living in separation from the rest of nature, but together in balance.
As well, a lot of the background ecological knowledge I have sitting in my head just from being a nerd about biology filtered into it, I think.
ev0ke: Both Riverwitch and Foxhunt deal strongly with ecology, preservation, and environmental issues. Why is it important to you to feature these in your stories? And what role do these issues play in your non-writing life?
RW: Oh, boy, so much, it’s so important, as one can probably tell from earlier answers! I’m lucky in that when I was a kid my family did a lot of events with Forest & Bird (that’s a conservation charity), and their youth branch Kiwi Conservation Club. Four times a year my child self would avidly read these big fun magazines full of Ecological Facts presented by funny animal characters, and I remember going on a lot of long forest walks that I loudly protested but that still filtered into me: dense and green. There is no place like Aotearoa. I think of how the birdsong must have sounded here once and the pain of it pierces my heart. There are not words for this, for walking through woods gone quiet.
I think that’s probably why it’s important to me.
These issues play a similar role in my life as they do in that of any anxious millennial, I think, a looming weight it’s hard to think around. I do what I can when it comes to rallies, petitions, researching my political parties. (Returning more land to Māori management would be a good idea here, the same way returning land to Indigenous management is a good idea most places, ecologically sensible as well as just legally required.) I can’t do as much as I’d like and that’s where I hope my writing can help, in some small way – right now the grief of awareness can feel suffocating, and hope is an antidote to help us each do what we can, all pulling together. I made a joke the other day that what I did for the climate fight that day was set a timer to shorten my showers, and also we need to abolish capitalism. Because yep.
ev0ke: In addition to your own work, what are some of your favorite examples of speculative fiction? Which titles and authors are you always recommending?
RW: I can’t sing the praises of Neon Yang’s Tensorate novellas loudly enough. Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice is very well known but worth mentioning on the slim chance whoever I’m talking to hasn’t read it already. I’m enjoying Jenn Lyons’ epic fantasy series A Chorus of Dragons very much. Right now I’m also reading Robin Hobb, but I’m only partway through the Realm of the Elderlings saga so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it until I know quite how much my heart is going to get crushed! If one likes getting one’s heart crushed, Rivers Solomon’s beautiful book An Unkindness of Ghosts lingered with me for a long time.
Locally, Octavia Cade’s cli-fi thriller The Stone Wētā is indeed one I find myself recommending constantly; likewise my fellow Queen of Swords author A.J. Fitzwater and their warm hug of a collection, The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper.
There are so many more talented authors locally and overseas, these are just the ones most present in my head at this instant! I have more books to read than time to read them, which is the best problem to have.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
RW: I should have a website up by the end of August! In the meantime, here’s a cheeky link to Foxhunt or you can find me on Twitter at @faewriter.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
RW: I just finished drafting a gothic novella I’m very excited about! Genre-wise it teeters between romance and horror, and concerns a trans doctor in 1899 visiting the house of his long-time penpal and finding neither the house nor his friend to be as he expected. I’m extremely fond of this novella; it is crammed full of vampires.
Once I’ve polished off some other commitments, I’m looking forward to doing my first edits. Then, after incorporating any beta feedback, I’ll submit it shyly to a few places – so fingers crossed that’ll reach the world in some form or other within the next few years. I have a few other ideas noodling at my head, too. Writing stories with majority trans and nonbinary casts is my favourite thing right now. It is dangerously addictive now I have begun, and I do not think I will stop.