Tina Shaw’s new novel was released March 24 – one day before New Zealand went to Level 4 Alert Lockdown. It’s an eerily timely novel, exploring an isolated post-apocalyptic world. We are pleased to sit down with Tina and talk about the inspiration behind the novel and where it’s going now, even in lockdown. We begin with a bit about the book, and then an interview with the author.
We were probably doomed from the moment the virus hit the airport.
Several years after a global meltdown, New Zealand, along with the rest of the world, is still in chaos. No electricity, no broadband, and people are in survival mode – at least until somebody turns the lights on again.
Ruth has always led a sheltered life. Pre-Crash, she worked as an Ephemera Librarian, now she is managing a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle. But her sister is dying from tuberculosis and her love for Juliana propels Ruth to undertake a perilous journey.
She intrepidly sets off from Auckland to find the man known as Nelson and his rumoured stockpile of pharmaceutical drugs. Word has it he is based at the old Huka Lodge. Along with the handsome Lance Hinckley and enigmatic Adebowale Ackers, Ruth travels by steamboat up the Waikato River – the only practical way. The group journeys through settlements that have sprung up along the river as people try to re-establish their lives in this precarious time. With society itself broken, will Ruth manage to keep her commitment to her sister without compromising her own values?
Inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this post-apocalyptic, partly comedic novel reveals that things are not always what they seem.
Tina Shaw: Ephemera originally kicked off by my wondering what life would be like with no internet and no power, what would such a world look like in Aotearoa? It seemed pretty attractive … and once I started thinking about a river journey, I was also inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which has always been a go-to book for me (that and the film based on it: Apocalypse Now). Additionally, I’m a Waikato gal at heart – I grew up in the region and in fact I’ve now come back to live near the river itself (we swim in it during summer), so that’s been a big influence on the novel.
TS: Yes, the river acts as a kind of character in the novel. It’s a constant, always there, always influencing what the characters are going through, and of course, because my little band of characters are steaming up the Waikato River, it is obviously all around them – a big part of their journey.
TS: Yes, big fan of Heart of Darkness which I originally studied at varsity. I particularly enjoy the various renditions of the novel into other forms, such as the film Apocalypse Now, actually about the Vietnam War and a journey up a river into the darkness of that country then. Heart of Darkness impacted my novel mainly in a very obvious way – it gave me the character of Nelson, who is loosely based on Kurtz from Heart of Darkness. Both are characters who succumb to darkness in their different ways. Another parallel is that the journey in both Heart of Darkness and my novel is dangerous in some way to the main character. My character Ruth – an ephemera librarian – has been shunted out of her usual world and into this riverly one in which things are not quite what they seem. Her destination offers another parallel, though an intentionally funny-ironic one: in Heart of Darkness Kurtz is holed up in a primitive village, while Nelson is based at Huka Lodge, now no longer a luxury resort but taken over by a pretty degenerate bunch.
TS: I think it’s going to change your view of the world, on a physical level, but also subtly – because of the movement, the fluidity and the sense of the land (and time) passing. I think you might start to see less of what you are physically seeing and perhaps start to look within. That certainly happens to Ruth to some extent … she starts to ponder various things from her past, and in fact, her character starts to change a little the longer she spends on the river.
TS: The similarities, I find, are a bit spooky. Initially, the theme of isolation was more of a speculative one for me, but now, in lock-down, it’s become so much more real. It’s not a huge step for me to imagine NZ becoming shut off from the rest of the world as in my imagined story … already, we are shut off because of border controls.
Here’s a passage from the book:
Juliana was in the hall. ‘You’ve heard the news?’ she asked immediately. I nodded.
She followed me to my room, talking the whole time. ‘They’re talking about a worldwide collapse of some kind.’ I dumped my bag and jacket. ‘We’ve got in extra water, Lance is coming round later with some stuff, tins of food –‘ She ran a hand through her hair. Her face had a sheen of sweat, and I could tell she was thinking hard. ‘We’ve got to hurry up and stockpile everything we need before the whole thing turns to shit.’ What was it with everybody today? ‘I’ve got to talk to the hospital, I’ve been trying to call the clinic,’ she said, looking distracted. And why would Juliana be trying to talk to the hospital? She was two months into her treatment regime, had enough medication to sink a ship, and a nurse came in every day to help administer it.
‘Don’t worry, it’s just the airports,’ I pointed out reasonably, still in denial. ‘It’ll be temporary – till they can sort things out.’
She looked at me as if I was mad, then hurried away, already making a call on her mobile. Thank goodness one of us was thinking that day, otherwise we would have been in a much worse position than we were. Lance came round an hour later with three large containers of water. ‘The supermarket shelves were just about empty by the time I got there,’ he gasped in dismay. ‘I had to fight to get this!’
That was the beginning, really. It wasn’t that long before the power gave out and didn’t come back on. Water stopped coming out of the taps. The internet was dead. Mobile phones no longer worked. Some people threw themselves off the harbour bridge or tall buildings. Others hunkered down, went to ground. Buses ground to a halt, vehicles gradually disappeared from the streets, the city emptied out, the streets were dark, and the looters moved in. I dusted off my bike one day and cycled in to the library along an empty motorway. It was the eeriest thing I had ever experienced. I saw a man walking towards me in the fast lane, heading west, and he didn’t even see me. He had tears running down his face.
TS: I reckon flash fiction in Aotearoa has become more sophisticated, more confident as a genre. And I think people like writing it because it’s short and focused, you can condense an idea into 300 words and present its essence. Those are all qualities that I like to think I bring to my novel writing. I tend to think in scenes anyway, which breaks up the great big canvas of a novel into smaller bite-sized pieces, a bit like writing flash, so you can concentrate more on self-editing and detail. There’s a world in little details.
TS: So far, we haven’t had all that much response yet, because the novel came out just as we went into lock-down so reviews and interviews simply disappeared (helped along by Bauer Media, who shut down various book review outlets, aka, magazines). I am pleased to see this early comment from a review on Amazon:
Right from the get-go, I hooked into this compelling adventure, Tina Shaw’s characters and plot are alive, leaping from each page into your imagination. I couldn’t put it down.
Ephemera by Tina Shaw
Publisher: Cloud Ink Press
Release date: 24 March 2020
Available as an e-book from Amazon and Kobo, and in print form from the publisher, Cloud Ink Press, and from independent bookshops once the postal system resumes.