A story's setting influences more than where the events take place. A great setting can induce strong emotions and influence how characters act as well. In this guest blog post, J.P. Pomare shares how he chose the setting of his suspense novel Call Me Evie (March 2019, Putnam) and how his visits to the town influenced the book.
I grew up near Rotorua, on the North Island of New Zealand, on a horse racing farm where once a year the butcher drove out to open the lamb’s throats. In winter as my brothers and I waited for the school bus, we broke the ice in the cattle troughs of nearby paddocks, picking up the shards and pretending to stab each other. In summer, we pressed tiny stones into the soft patches of road tar to spell curse words that would set and harden through winter, pressed deeper into the road by the passing cattle trucks.
When I began to write my debut novel, Call Me Evie, I noticed a trend of Australian settings attracting international attention. I thought, why not New Zealand? What makes Australia so special? I realized books like Jane Harper’s The Dry, succeeded first by invoking a vivid and rich foreign setting. Then she let the atmosphere—the stifling heat, the dust, the small town claustrophobia, the dry river beds—drive the narrative. A place in New Zealand immediately sprang to mind, somewhere I had wanted to write about for as long as I could remember.
I recalled my weekend trips away to the coastal town of Maketu with friends as a teenager. The closest police station is a half an hour’s drive, but Maketu isn’t on the way to anywhere so if the police were in town it meant something bad had happened. Each trip out there felt like a dare. It is rugged yet beautiful; a sheer cliff face, a stony beach, grass creeping up rusted out car bodies, tethered horses and goats grazing at the roads edge. The landscape seems struck from the earth as if by axe blow.
Through the years that I worked on Call Me Evie, I returned to Maketu as much as I could to snap photos and make notes. I was the magpie, diving in and out, slowly building a nest. I recorded a video of the drive into the sleepy village. I sat for hours at a time, observing the people that passed by, with my notebook in my lap and my ears pricked. I learned that setting isn’t just when and what, it’s also who.
Who are the people that populate this town? How do they really treat newcomers? When I was younger there were incidents with the locals. A strong local gang presence didn’t deter us nearly as much as the children of about 12 years old—old enough for cruelty but still too young to know better. One weekend as we were departing, they hurled gravel at our car and when we stopped and climbed out to chase them, they simply stood there for a moment, before bending to pick up more rocks to throw. I was disconcerted, dumbfounded, but beneath it all was a single resounding thought: This would be the perfect place to hide out.
Strong emotions are amber—they preserve memories whole. I didn’t want to focus only on the moments of fear or anger. Writing a psychological thriller about a place like Maketu meant there was an obvious risk that the negative elements would burden the setting and color the world of Call Me Evie so bleak that there would be nothing else to it. To limit this bias, I made sure to record the moments of intrigue and beauty.
I focused on the positive interactions with locals and viewed the place through a dispassionate lens. This meant noting the buttery aroma of grilled snapper drifting out from the fish and chip shop. This meant noting the pleasing red haze of a flowering pohutukawa before the sea. This meant noting the lightening-strike white grins of children as they built the courage to leap from the rocks into the cold estuary. I wrote about the three-legged dog that belonged not to a family but to the community, everyone tossing it chips and stroking its patchy coat. I wrote about the way people greeted each other, no words, both eyebrows raised, face angled up with the hint of a smile. These are things I’ve come to associate with Maketu.
Perspective changes with distance and through the writing process, because writing real-life settings requires balance and an outsider’s objectivity; hopefully, I got the balance right lest I be chased out of town, again.
J.P. Pomare has been short- and long-listed for a number of writing prizes, including the KYD Unpublished Manuscript Prize, Ellen Kemp Memorial Prize, Sheila Malady Prize and The Kingi Mckinnon Scholarship. He produces a literary podcast called “On Writing,” for which he has interviewed bestselling authors. Call Me Evie, his first novel, was published by Hachette Australia, Little Brown/Sphere in the UK and Putnam in North America. Pomare lives with his wife in Melbourne, Australia.