A perfectly pitched page-turner - Regional News | Connecting Wellington
 Issue 196

Photo by Andrew Empson

A perfectly pitched page-turner by Madelaine Empson

Lauren Keenan (Te Āti Awa ki Taranaki) is a writer, reader, and doer of new things who calls Wellington home. In 2020, she published the autobiographical The 52 Week Project: How I Fixed My Life by Trying a New Thing Every Week for a Year with Allen & Unwin. In 2022, she tackled middle-grade fiction in Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time with Huia Publishers. Aimed at children aged seven to 11, the book follows two kids – Amorangi and his younger sister Millie – who must travel back in time, through various touchpoints of New Zealand history, up every branch of their family tree, to find their missing mum.

Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time was a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and longlisted for the 2022 ARA Historical Novel Prize that same year. In 2023, it scooped the NZ Booklovers Award for Best Junior Fiction Book.

Keenan was “pretty excited” to win the award, with the judges saying, “Amorangi and Millie’s mission to rescue their mum from the past results in a thrilling and enlightening romp through some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s history... Through the places they experience and the people they encounter, the book highlights racism and changing attitudes. But most of all it’s fun to read. Keenan has a knack for eloquently showing our younger readers how our past and present are linked, making them think while enjoying a skilfully written and perfectly pitched page-turner for young readers.”

What are Amorangi and Millie like and where do their adventures take them?

They’re Māori-Pākehā children and fairly typical siblings – they care very much about each other, but they also scrap a lot [laughs]. In trying to save their mum, they meet every one of their ancestors between now and when they first came to New Zealand in 1828. They experience Colonial New Zealand, the Great Depression, Parihaka as well, which is where I’m from. They end up in pre-history, pre-contact, which I really like – it’s something that’s always fascinated me. They get to see Mount Taranaki exploding, meet the giant hōkioi, Haast’s eagle. A key part of the plot is their grandma, who died just before the book opens. They miss her but when they go back in time, they get to meet her as a little girl. She joins them and becomes part of their adventures.

What inspired you to write the book?

Both of my grandmas died before I was born, so I always carried with me this idea of how cool it would be to go back in time and meet them. In 2019, when I first came up with the idea for the book, my mum was diagnosed with cancer and we were told that she probably wouldn’t make it. I started to grapple with losing my mum, and my children losing their grandma. My mum did pull through, but looking back, I realise that the story grew from those seeds.

I did a master’s in history, so I’m a historian by trade, and I’ve always been interested in my ancestors. I love the idea of going back in time and meeting them, at the same age that you are, and being able to connect with them on a new level. In Te Ao Māori, mātauranga Māori, there is a lot about the importance of your tūpuna. One of my favourite whakatauākī is that you go forward, you look back. [Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua: I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past.] Your ancestors, your tūpuna, are always on your shoulders to guide you.

What was the process of getting your ideas onto the page?

I wrote it real fast, 10,000 words in 2019 and the rest in the first lockdown. For that lockdown, I was overseas; we were in Europe at the time and we were stuck and I was pretty homesick. Writing was a therapeutic release.

I’m so intrigued by your first published book too… Tell me about The 52 Week Project: How I Fixed My Life by Trying a New Thing Every Week for a Year.

I’m equally proud of both books. I really enjoyed writing that one. The origin story is that it was winter and I was real lonely, and I had this night that I call ‘the 27 rejections of doom’. I was ringing everyone trying to hang out and then realised that 27 people had rejected me that night. I ended up going to the movies by myself and feeling like a real loser. I realised I needed to do something new, mix it up. I decided to do a whole year of new things, and then I wrote a book about it.

What were some of the things you did?

A big part of the book is talking about my relationship with my looks. Growing up and feeling insecure about how you look and how you present; a lot of my early ‘new things’ were about overcoming that. I got my colours done, which wasn’t my most exciting new thing but had the most lasting impact. The woman came to my house; I wore neutrals, no makeup, and then she did ‘the draping’, where I sat in front of a mirror and she put all these colours up to my face. Then she gave me this palette, ‘don’t wear these colours, do wear these ones, you can wear these ones if you want to, wear red because it doesn’t matter if it suits you, it’s red…’ I got fake eyelashes, which I’d never had before. They were awesome but made my real eyelashes fall out, which was not awesome. Wore bright red lipstick, which I was always too shy to wear. Then I pivoted to the physical stuff. Archery, entering a push-up competition, ziplining, parasailing, feeding a lion, swimming with sharks… But the scariest of all the things I did was stand-up comedy.

Oh boy. How did it go?

People laughed but in all the wrong places [laughs]. 

It sounds like the book was largely about self-love and self-discovery.

Definitely. The first chapter was about my looks, the second was about social media, how friendships have evolved, how social media can make it harder. I wrote about loneliness and connection, how people aren’t spending quality time together anymore. The third chapter was about womanhood, being a parent.

If you had to choose one quote to decal on your bedroom wall, what would it be?

‘Choose your battles’. Because you can’t do it all at once, and ever since I’ve made a conscious decision to do one thing at a time, my mental health has been really good. When I’m watching TV, I’m not surfing or scrolling. When I’m writing, I’m writing. If we’re trying to do too many things at once, we’re just cheating ourselves. When you’re talking to someone, be with them.

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« Issue 196, May 23, 2023