Michael Bennett is an acclaimed New Zealand screen writer and director who’s debut novel Better The Blood has already sold for translation rights in six countries. It’s a nail biting crime thriller that is also a Trojan horse for complex, difficult themes.
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and in Binge Reading this week Michael talks about his debut novel, a serial killer investigation led by a tenacious Maori detective Hana Westerman which reveals a darker side to Kiwi paradise and highlights the truth that the past never truly stays buried.
Our free book giveaway is appropriately Crime Mystery and Suspense for September. You’ll find the details of how to enter, plus the shownotes for this episode on the joys of binge reading.com.
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Links in the episode
Investigator Tim McKinnel: http://www.zavest.co.nz/aboutus/directors.asp
Bishop Frederick Augustus Bennett: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3b29/bennett-frederick-augustus
Teina Pora: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teina_Pora
In Dark Places: (the non fiction book about the Pora case: https://www.womensbookshop.co.nz/p/true-crime-in-dark-places-the-confessions-of-teina-pora-and-an-ex-cop-s-fight-for-justice–2#:
In Dark Places, the documentary film: https://www.facebook.com/TVOneNZ/videos/1880106578748247/
Matariki film: https://www.nzfilm.co.nz/films/matariki
Paula Penfold: https://www.penguin.co.nz/authors/michael-bennett
Eugene Bingham: https://www.stuff.co.nz/authors/eugene-bingham
Leon Narby: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0621274/
Whina the movie: https://www.nzfilm.co.nz/films/whina
Taika Waititi: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0169806/
Quentin Tarantino: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000233/
Script to screen: https://script-to-screen.co.nz/
S.A. Cosby: Blacktop Wasteland https://www.amazon.com/Blacktop-Wasteland-Novel-Shawn-Cosby/dp/1250252687
Razorblade Tears: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250252708/razorbladetears
Val McDermid: https://www.valmcdermid.com/
David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Winter Counts: amazon.com/Winter-Counts-David-Wanbli-Weiden/dp/0062968947#:
Where to find Michael online:
That’s it for the house keeping
Introducing Michael Bennett thriller author
Jenny Wheeler: Hello there, Michael, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Michael Bennett: Tena koe, Jenny, thank you very much for having me. I’m very pleased to be here.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s fun to have another Kiwi author on the show, and one with such a fascinating book. This is your debut novel, and often we don’t take debut novels because we say we are The Joys of Binge Reading, so we like to have multiple books so if people like the author then they can go and read their back list.
We have made an exception here today, or I have, because number one, it’s a fascinating book, but also you are an experienced screenplay writer and you have also written a highly praised nonfiction book. What made you switch to the fictional novel form for your writing?
Michael Bennett: That’s a great question and I feel very complimented that you made an exception to have a debut novelist. Better the Blood, I guess just to talk a little bit first what the book is about so your listeners might know. It’s the story of a senior Maori cop in the Auckland CIB, Detective Senior Sergeant Hana Westerman, who finds a connection between a series of killings that haven’t previously been connected.
What Detective Senior Sergeant Westerman finds out is that in the 19th century, a Maori chief was brutally executed on one of the central Auckland maunga (mountain) by a troop of British army soldiers. She discovers that two killings that have happened today are descendants eight generations later of two of the soldiers in the troop that executed the Maori chief.
Film maker turned novelist
There were six soldiers in the troop back then and two descendants are dead now. Four more descendants are going to be killed unless Detective Westerman can stop the killer. I guess the readers or the podcast listeners will get that there are a lot of themes about colonialism and where we are in terms of 200 years after New Zealand was colonized, et cetera, within the story.
What brought me to writing this novel – as you point out, my background is very much as a filmmaker and a screenwriter. That changed about maybe seven or eight or nine years ago when I got very involved in Teina Pora’s case. Ex-detective Tim McKinnel, who became a private investigator, is the guy who saved Teina, who found his case.
Teina was in prison and he was a forgotten man. Tim came to me and he showed me the videotapes of Teina being interviewed for five days in the South Auckland police station by two senior cops without a lawyer present, at the end of which he was arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. Seeing those tapes was a seismic tectonic change in my life, Jenny. I can’t even begin to describe what it was like.
My son was a 17 year old at that point, the same age that Teina was when he was being interviewed, and I kept looking at this young Maori boy being questioned in this way that is so problematic, and who clearly had nothing to do with the crime, clearly knew nothing about the crime, and as a consequence of that questioning spent 21 years in prison.
A ‘tectonic shift’ led to Teina Pora book
Seeing those videotapes was a tectonic shift for me. It was a moment when I realized that I’d spent a decade and a half developing my skills as a screenwriter and a filmmaker to a certain point, and here was suddenly something I could use my skills for, that was really important, to help an innocent man get freedom and get justice. I made a documentary on Teina’s case and eventually I’d make a feature length drama.
After the documentary came out, I realized that there’s only so much you can put in a 60 minute documentary. I knew so much more about both the injustice behind the case and the complexities in that injustice, and what that says about the justice system and how Maori are not well done by within that justice system. But also so much more that I knew about Teina as a human being and so much more that I wanted to explore.
For the first time in my life, I actually thought about writing prose. I’d always thought, I’m not a prose writer. When I write, it’s always like a series of images in my head. I say that there’s a little movie screen in my head and I’m literally watching my characters and moving through their environment, be it a hillside or a room, and kissing each other or hitting each other or arguing or whatever. There’s a little movie screen in my head and my writing is just keeping up with that movie screen and putting down what I can see.
Writing prose a ‘joyful discovery’
I’d never thought about writing prose until I realized that I was indebted to Teina and his story – to explore this story much more deeply. So I thought I’d give a go and I’d write a nonfiction book about Teina’s case. What I’ve got to say is that it was such an incredibly joyful experience writing. I mean, it’s not a joyful story to tell, and I wish it was a story that I’d never had to tell, but it was a joyful experience, the writing of prose.
There’s a freedom in writing prose that you don’t have as a screenwriter. I don’t know if your audience necessarily knows much about screenwriting, but I always compare it to a haiku. It is a very structural kind of a writing. I’m probably going to make a fool of myself here, but does it have 14 syllables? There’s a definite structure, and it’s the same with screenwriting. With a feature film, something happens at minute 10, something happens at minute 18, something happens at minute 24. In almost every film you have ever seen, the same structure occurs.
But with writing prose, with writing that first non-fiction book, there was this incredible freedom. Yes, you have to keep the story moving forward. Yes, you have to keep progress happening, but you can spend a whole chapter just on a moment in a person’s life in a way that you can’t really do with a screenplay. Structurally there is, I think, a lot more freedom to take moments and to explore avenues that you would never have time to do in film and television.
Prose writing a form Michael loved
Having written that first nonfiction book, In Dark Places, I guess the idea for Better the Blood had been simmering away for quite a while. Having found out how much I enjoyed writing prose and the freedom prose offered me as a writer, I couldn’t wait to try and write Better the Blood as my first proper fiction novel.
That was a long way of saying that I came to prose writing very late in the piece after I’d developed my skills in screenwriting, and found that prose was a form of writing that I loved and couldn’t wait to do more of.
Jenny Wheeler: Perhaps a couple of quick questions on that before we embark on Better the Blood. Why did Tim identify you as a person who might be interested in those interviews? Had you already known him, or had you already done some work in social justice that made you a person of interest to him, as someone who might be interested?
Michael Bennett: I love that I’m a person of interest to a detective. Actually, I’ve never asked him that. I got an email in my inbox one day from Tim and he said, I’m an investigator and there’s this case I’m working on that you might be interested in. I have never got as far as to ask him, because he was a stranger to me and I was a stranger to him. I can only think that perhaps he’d seen some of my work. I had done some documentary work on ex-gang members who’d reformed their lives.
Social justice is a burning passion
Social justice is a burning passion for me in much of what I do, and so perhaps he had seen that stuff or maybe he had seen the feature drama that I made which was called Matariki. Check Set in South Auckland, it was a collision of a whole lot of different cultures over three days in South Auckland, kind of a multi narrative story that explored a whole lot of intercultural issues.
It was interesting. Tim is one of the smartest people I know, and he knew that he had to take on the legal system to get justice for Teina obviously, but he also knew that he had to get New Zealand behind Teina. He had to find the right people who would be passionate about telling Teina’s story. He talked to Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham and they did incredible work with what they were doing.
A whole lot of other people were working in different ways, and I was the guy who did the documentary and the book. The moment that I did see those videotapes, there was no turning back for me. I said to Tim, whatever I can do to help you do what you are doing, just tell me.
Jenny Wheeler: Better the Blood has already enjoyed the results of that previous experience of yours because it’s been sold internationally around the world as a six part TV series. Are we likely to see it in New Zealand, Australia, or the US? I’ve noticed most of those are foreign rights at the moment, aren’t they, or is it coming to a screen near us in the near future?
Being developed as a six part TV series
Michael Bennett: I really hope it is. Just to clarify that a little bit, Jenny, it’s being developed as a six part TV series, the rights to the TV series haven’t sold yet. The rights that we have sold, there have been nine translations of the novel itself, but there’s a TV series that is in development. My partner Jane Holland and I are a small production company, and the second last thing we did was the drama about Teina, In Dark Places.
Last year we did this beautiful little episode from the Television New Zealand Beyond the Veil series, a supernatural series about Patupaiarehe. It was such a beautiful experience. It’s a bit off piece, just to tell you. I directed it with my 18 year old daughter, who is a poet and a filmmaker and a writer. She’s an extraordinary writer. We co-directed, Jane my partner and Matariki, my daughter, and I wrote the film. My son composed the music. My daughter Mahina did the costume design, so it was this beautiful little family event.
We are developing the adaptation of the book into a six part series and there is a lot of interest in it, I think, and the fact that the book really seems to have reached out beyond, not just the shores of New Zealand, which was always something I really worried about Jenny. I think you’ll probably agree that it’s a very specific book about us here today, about the experience of Maori 200 years after colonization.
Nine international translations on the go
It’s very specific to New Zealand, and I always worried, is this book going to be able to reach out to audiences beyond the New Zealand context, who aren’t familiar with New Zealand and aren’t even familiar with Maori/Pakeha relations and our history.
What’s been really gratifying is those nine translations before the book was ever published anywhere. I still can’t quite get my head around that, because normally a book comes out and it does quite well and then translations happen. But there was this instant feedback from different territories that they really responded to the themes in the storytelling, in the book. So what it does make me feel is that there is an internationality. We’re not unique in our colonial experience in New Zealand. The problems of the colonial project for indigenous people have been replicated around the world, obviously.
I think maybe what it reflects is that this is a time when both indigenous voices and indigenous storytellers are being heard or being sought out, but also people are starting to understand, both on the indigenous side and on the colonizers side, that our colonial histories, wherever they are in the world, we need to deal with what has happened and we need to talk about these things.
Nail biting novel that’s a Trojan horse
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve said that you wanted to write a nail biting novel that became a Trojan horse for these complex themes and it is definitely a nail biting novel. The graphic aspect of it, the thing that really grabs you at the beginning is that this crime that happened in the 1860s in Auckland is captured on a daguerreotype, an old type of photograph, so you’ve got this very graphic image of six British soldiers standing under a tree with a man hanging above their heads.
This has real resonance with the Deep South in America and with the lynchings that happened there, so this theme of the imbalance of power and the misuse of power is very much a human one, isn’t it? It speaks to everybody, especially, I guess, in our times, as we’re becoming more aware of how that power imbalance can produce institutional inequality. Hana, the detective, has this experience in a personal way, because as a senior police officer she has experienced the way that authority, so to speak, can use people like her to try and further their own interests.
Maori officers on the front line at protests
In the book it transpires that she’s been involved in the past when she’s a junior officer, in some of the peaceful protests that happened in the 80’s, and they put the Maori police officers on the front line. It’s a similar experience, I would suspect, for black police officers in the US at the moment, so there is very much an individual response to these as well as the institutional, isn’t there?
I noticed one of your reviewers said Hana’s a great heroine and I hope we’re going to see more of her. I’m not quite sure whether that’s going to be possible, but she is a great character to be able to carry all these themes on her shoulders. She’s got the female aspect of it as well, of course, being a woman officer in a police force. So all of that, talk a bit about that.
Michael Bennett: I’m really touched that you’ve responded to those things, Jenny, because they’re all the real pulsing central themes to the story to me. Hana as a character carries so much complexity and so much inner contradiction, which is really important. In so many ways she’s relatable to all of us.
She’s a woman working within a very much male dominated police force. She’s Maori within a non-Maori dominated justice system. She’s a single mum who is trying her best to be the best mum she can to her willful, driven activist daughter. Her ex is also a cop. He’s a male, white cop and he has catapulted above her, probably not necessarily in a way that’s been earned, and is now her boss. All of these things, I think we can see resonances in our own worlds.
Maori and a woman in white man’s world
But what we can’t see is presumably not many readers have ever been in the position of having to stop a killer before they kill again. That’s something unique for Hana. It’s such an interesting situation. I’ve got a lot of cops in my family. I’ve got nephews who are cops, and it’s fascinating to me.
One of my nephews talks a lot about in his day to day work. Obviously it’s very difficult for him and a thing he talks about is that when he comes up against a young Maori person, who’s become a person of interest for the cops, one thing he always tries to do is he tries so hard not to arrest them. That doesn’t quite sound the way it’s meant to be.
What I mean by that is that his first instinct is always, even though it takes a hell of a lot of time out of his day, is to take that person back to their family, to sit down with the family and say, look, this has happened. I should be taking this person into the prison cells. I don’t want to, I want to try and sort this out with you guys. I want to see what alternative we can do to getting this kid within the system, because we all know that once you’re in the system, it’s so hard to get out of it. You’ve got a label, you’ve got an arrest.
The search for a killer reveals personal attitudes
I admire that so much. God bless the fact that there are Maori within the system, but also that the system is looking for Maori officers and Pacifica officers et cetera. One thing that I think is an important dynamic within the book is that Hana is a senior Maori cop, and her pursuit of the killer through the book makes her face a whole lot of things that she hasn’t actually faced before in her career.
As you said, she was involved in a situation early as a young cop where her senior officers sent in a whole bunch of Maori officers to remove peaceful Maori land protestors, who were quite rightfully protesting for the return of the land that they had every right to have. Which is a terrible situation. We know from our history that this has happened in New Zealand. It’s inspired by actual events that have happened, and that’s something Hana hasn’t dealt with over her career.
But also, she hasn’t dealt with a whole lot of stuff about the complexity of being a Maori cop within the New Zealand justice system. Most people would know that Maori are the most imprisoned indigenous race on earth. 53% of our prison cells are occupied by Maori where we are only 14% of the population. There is still so much work to be done. There’s an embedded racism. It may not be conscious and it may not be enunciated, but it’s there.
Hana – A cop confronting her own truths
Hana, as a Maori within the justice system, within the police force, in lots of ways her pursuit of the killer through Better the Blood makes her aware and confront a whole lot of questions about her role within the police force that she hasn’t confronted before. I think that’s one of the really interesting complexities of the book, that a cop pursuing a killer – the act of that pursuit makes her face herself in the mirror in a way that she hasn’t before.
As well as all the other complexities about her as a character, I think that’s one of the central things within the book. It explores some of those big themes that I’m trying to get out within Better the Blood.
Jenny Wheeler: Tell me about the title, Better the Blood. It’s an unusual title and I’d like you to tease out for us a little bit what you see in that title.
Michael Bennett: It comes from a quote. The full quote is “Better the blood of the innocent than no blood at all.”
It comes from the idea behind what is happening, that eight generations later the killer is using what happened 160 years ago, and the killing of the descendants of the British army troop, as a way of talking about the things that the killer thinks need to be talked about – injustice against Maori – and how 160 years after colonization things haven’t healed. Things are still not right.
Collective responsibility for colonial harms?
They are doing that through the killing of the descendants of the troop. Better the blood of the innocent than none at all talks about the collective responsibility. The victims eight generations later of the descendants of that troop, in the killer’s mind, carry the guilt of their ancestors’ actions. They may not have actually been there and they may not have actually executed the chief 160 years ago.
But what he is saying, and this is very much a theme in the book that is open for debate, and it’s not my place to say what the killer believes is right or wrong, and that’s absolutely part of the thematic debate of the book, but what the killer believes is that they carry the responsibility for their ancestors’ actions just as surely as we all carry the responsibility today to acknowledge that what happened back in the colonization of New Zealand is not healed and is an ongoing issue that we all should be aware of and we all should be confronting.
Jenny Wheeler: We’re starting to come to the end of our time. It’s been fascinating teasing out these themes, but I’d like to turn to talking a little bit more about your wider work.
Tutoring writing workshops around country
You’ve been very active in encouraging writing workshops around the country, focused on the Maori community, but not necessarily exclusively so. What have you seen in those and what have you got out of it yourself?
Michael Bennett: I cannot tell you how much teaching and passing on whatever it is that I’ve learned along the years has made me a so much better writer. I do a series of programs with an institution called Script to Screen. It is an extraordinary institution which is all about both raising the level of screenwriting in New Zealand in terms of skills, but also reaching people who aren’t necessarily thinking of themselves as being writers or filmmakers or anything of the sort.
What we’ve done in the past is every year we go to a different marae and it’s this beautiful weekend workshop where for the first day, I’m one of the tutors and we talk about filmmaking. We show short films and for me always the biggest thing is telling your story. I keep telling people who are interested in film, or maybe haven’t thought they’re interested in film before, that you shouldn’t be trying to be the next Taika (Waititi) or you shouldn’t be trying to be the next Tarantino.
Success equals ‘being the next you’
If you are going to be successful it’s because you’re going to be the next you. What people want to hear is the unique story that only you can tell, the story that’s beating inside your rip cage that you will die unless you get it out of you. So, we show a selection of films that me and the other tutors have made that are very much that. They have come from our own personal experiences, because I think all good art comes from your own voice.
Then on the second day all of the attendees come back and we sit around and I give them the task overnight of coming up with a five minute pitch of a story that comes from them, a personal story that no one else could tell. And it’s amazing. You see their faces on day one going, I can never do that. I can never sit down and pitch to a room of people.
Day two everyone is pitching these most personal stories. There are so many tears. Not everyone is going to come out of there and become a filmmaker, but the biggest thing to me, the biggest joy, is that everyone comes out of there going, wow, I do have a story that’s important, that should be told, and my life is important.
Remarkable discoveries in marae workshops
But the wonderful thing is that we also have had so many people coming out of there and go on to study film and to be inspired. In particular one year on one of the marae workshops, this young woman, she was 16, and she pitched this beautiful, beautiful story, which was basically about grief and about dealing with saying goodbye to somebody who had passed.
It was so good that we came back the next weekend. We sat down with her and helped her write the script. We came back the next weekend with Leon Narbey who’s one of the great DOPs, he’s just shot Whina. We came back the next week and shot this short film and about 20 young rangatahi (young leaders) from the marae became filmmakers. We made the film together and her film is just amazing.
She became the youngest filmmaker ever at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Her film went to Canada to imagineNATIVE, the biggest indigenous film festival in the world, and she’s on her way. She’s studying film.
Opening up story telling to others
It’s awesome to open up the world of storytelling to a whole lot of people who haven’t necessarily thought about it, but on a totally selfish level, being able to talk about that stuff does make me a better writer, because I have to be able to enunciate to them a whole lot of principles that maybe I haven’t consciously enunciated to myself. And so, there’s a selfish aspect to it as well, Jenny.
Jenny Wheeler: There’s so much we could talk about, and I am going to go over time because I do want to ask you about your own journey into filmmaking. I read a little bit online about how you were very much the model student who got a little bit sidelined into other interests. You went off to Australia to study filmmaking, and your first film I gather was selected to be one of the preview films or the preview for a New York Film Festival screening with a Quentin Tarantino film. You mentioned his name earlier.
It seemed to me that you had something marked in the stars for you right from the beginning, and you mentioned at the start that you saw things in images. Is that naturally inborn? Did you watch a lot of movies or TV as you were growing up? How did all that come about?
Michael ‘thinks in images, not words’
Michael Bennett: I can’t explain it, but I don’t think in words. I think in images and then I have to translate it into words. My mum was a really great writer. My mum met my dad because she was writing her thesis about his dad. Frederick Augustus Bennett was the first Maori Bishop of New Zealand. She gave me a passion for words. My dad was a decorated Spitfire pilot in World War II, and he gave me a passion for social justice and the two of them came together in a passion for writing for me.
But I’d never found the kind of writing that I wanted to spend my life doing until I found this thing called screenwriting. That was this moment of revelation to me. There’s this amazing thing that is this combination of images and words, and so after that it became my sole focus in life to get to the very best film school that I could get to, which was the Australian Film Television Radio School, and to get the proper training and to pursue that.
It was haphazard. My first degree was in psychology and I still think that in many ways the passion to find out about the human mind, how we work, the amazing, wonderful things we are capable of and the terrible things that we are capable of, how do these things coexist inside one brain? I still think my first degree in psychology is incredibly important for what I do now, but then I’m so grateful that I came across this thing called screenwriting. I feel blessed.
What Michael Bennett is reading now
Jenny Wheeler: That’s wonderful. This is The Joys of Binge Reading, so we do like to ask people what they’re reading, much in the popular fiction realm, so that people can follow up. What are you reading at the moment, and have you ever been a binge reader yourself?
Michael Bennett: My reading has really gone down over the years but just recently I’ve been reading a lot more. Some of the things I’ve been reading – S A Cosby I strongly recommend. He’s an African American writer. He’s written an extraordinary book called Blacktop Wasteland. It’s very much a crime thriller but it’s so full of humanity, and I guess that’s what I look for in my reading.
I do love genre and I do love action and crime, but it has to be a bit more than that. It has to be a bit more than entertainment. I’m a slow reader, and I don’t want to spend a week reading a book that I don’t feel moved by or feel like I understand a little bit more about humanity after I’ve read it. S A Cosby is very much that. His second book is also extraordinary, called Razor Blade Tears. I so recommend this guy to you.
I’ve been reading a bunch of stuff like Val McDermid who I hadn’t read before until she selected me for a panel at Harrogate and I read her and I suddenly realized why she is the godmother of crime. Fabulous, incredible writer.
Books Michael Bennett recommends
Another book that my publisher recommended to me is Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, who is an indigenous American writer. Again, it’s a crime thriller. I feel a real connection with what David Weiden is doing, and I think New Zealanders will when they read this book. It’s very much themes about indigenous characters and finding your place within your culture, all wrapped up in a thrilling crime story.
Jenny Wheeler: Those sound wonderful. I will follow up on those. A question I like to ask everybody, it just intrigues me, looking back down the tunnel of time, if there’s one thing that you could change, what would it be? Or it may not be anything.
Michael Bennett: That’s an amazing question. You always know a writer has to think when they say things like, that’s a great question, Jenny. What would I change? I feel like from the outside I look like I’m quite prodigious in the amount of work that I put out, but on the other hand, I wish I’d done more. I think I truly grew into my skin as a creator and a filmmaker maybe 10 or 15 years ago when I found the things I was passionate about talking about.
I mean, that passion was always there. During the 1981 tour, I was the captain of my First 15 and I marched down the street of our town during an anti-Springboks protest. I got absolute hell from the former captain of the First 15 for doing that.
Social justice concerns a family matter
Jenny Wheeler: For those who don’t know the significance of 1981, that was when the Springboks came to New Zealand and there was a huge public outcry. It was a famous period in New Zealand history where lots of people went out on the streets to try and stop the tour. They didn’t actually manage to stop the tour, but they did very successfully disrupt it. That’s just to give a little bit of background, and it would’ve been extremely courageous for a First 15 captain in those days to have done what you did.
Michael Bennett: I don’t know if it was courageous. I think all of us who went out and marched felt that you had to do it. We didn’t have a choice. Those things my parents gave me, and not just my parents, my grandparents as well, about social justice, were always there, and it took me a long time to get to the point where I felt brave enough to integrate that into my work. In lots of ways, I wish I got there earlier, but a career is a journey.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, absolutely, and you’ve got a good few productive years yet, so this is your golden time. That leads very nicely into, what is next for Michael the author? You are published by Simon & Schuster, which is one of the world’s biggest internationals, although there’s that little bit of controversy at the moment about their sale, isn’t there? Is there any likelihood of a sequel to Better the Blood, or what else are you going to be working on, because you’ve got a two book deal with them?
Working on the Better Blood sequel
Michael Bennett: Absolutely. I’m working on the sequel right now. I’m starting work on it. It’s that thing, Jenny, the difficult second album. But that’s all from within me as a writer. It’s that nervousness. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, I think writer’s block is part of the process. You have to have this churn of, can I do it, can I do it, and that feeds your creativity.
So working on the second book and again, desperately avoiding spoilers, but you mentioned something earlier about where we leave the main character at the end of book one in a complex place that leaves lots of questions about where she’s going. That is definitely one of the things that will be resolved in book two.
Jenny Wheeler: Also a very unfinished story about her daughter who you sense is going to be an amazing star in her own right.
Michael Bennett: That’s right. They’re such beautiful characters, and as much as I might have that little bit of writer’s nervousness, they’re such strong characters and it’s such a strong dynamic that I think I’ve given myself a gift in terms of writing the second book.
I am also currently working on a feature film. My partner, Jane, and I – our production company is working with another couple of production companies on a beautiful, true story about a friend of ours. Her daughter is a transgender dancer, a young Maori woman from Northland, and she went with her mum to Rarotonga and she fell in love with Cook Island dancing.
Exploring big themes within crime genre
She became so good so fast that she qualified to dance in Dancer of the Year, which in the Cook Islands is the equivalent of an All Black rugby test, or more than that here. It’s the event of the year. She was about to dance and she was told that she couldn’t dance as a young female dancer of the year because she wasn’t a young female. She’s transgender. So she fought and fought and got the right to dance.
It’s such a beautiful story. In a way, my life is crime right now, and it’s so beautiful. I love that, because I think crime is high stakes in a way, and you can explore such big themes within crime, but it’s also really beautiful to be doing this heartwarming story about dance.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s gorgeous. Do you enjoy interacting with your readers and viewers and where can they find you online?
Michael Bennett: They can’t. I do, but I fled social media quite a long time ago. I’m an overthinker Jenny, which you probably picked up on. Social media for me was like, I would get a post or a response and I would spend an hour thinking about, how do I respond to this post in the best possible way. So I’ve fled that. They won’t find me on social media, but I love interaction with readers, viewers, just anyone who’s driven to read and maybe to thinking about writing. It’s very heartwarming to have those interactions.
Loves interaction with people
We’ve just done a bunch of writers festival things, both in the UK for the book launch in the UK, at different writers festivals over there, but here at Kupu, the Rotorua Maori Writers Festival and Hamilton Writers Festival last weekend. We have got a bunch of festival appearances coming up around the country, and I love that interaction and people who are so passionate about the written word. It’s a joy.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, I saw you were in Hamilton. I was almost tempted to try and drive down but it was a little bit too hard. Wonderful to have had you on the show, it really is, and all power to you.
Michael Bennett: Thank you, Jenny. Thank you for your interest in the book and I hope your readers, if they do get the chance to read the book, enjoy it. Thank you for having me.
Jenny Wheeler: So it’s there online. I don’t think it’s published in the US yet.
Michael Bennett: No, it’s published in the US I think January next year.
Jenny Wheeler: But it will be online anyway already if they want to get a digital copy or whatever.
Michael Bennett: Absolutely.
Jenny Wheeler: Okay. Lovely. Thanks.
Michael Bennett: Thank you, Jenny. Awesome.
What you might enjoy reading next
If you enjoyed Michael’s dark thriller with social justice themes you may also enjoy another Kiwi author talking about her latest book – with related themes – the men who fought for their country and then were rejected when they returned home – Deborah Challinor on her historical novel, The Leonard Girls.
Next week on Binge Reading
Sophie Green’s latest book The Bellbird River Country Choir is warm-hearted story of fresh beginnings, unexpected friendships and the sustaining power of love and community.
Hi there I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and in Binge Reading this week Sophie talks about from the her unerring gift for making the Top Ten bestselling lists with books of female friendship and second chances.
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