Researching Gang Girl proved an adventure in itself. I shall never forget the day I fronted up to a notorious gangster’s house hoping for an interview during my fifteen years as a rural doctor in the Gisborne region.
My heartbeat was even louder than my banging on the door. Eventually, a nine-year-old boy gingerly put his head around the doorframe.
‘Is your father at home?’ I asked.
‘I’ll go and ask him,’ the boy answered.
A loud voice boomed in the background. ‘Is it the cops?’
‘No,’ the boy replied. ‘It’s the doctor.’
‘The doctor? We didn’t call the doctor. Nobody’s sick. Are you sure it’s not the cops?’
‘Positive. It’s the same dude that stitched my hand.’ He shot me an evil look. ‘And it bloody hurt.’
The gangster eventually emerged, his bold, full facial tattoo radiating an immediate presence. He told me how he was forced to have the tā moko at a ceremony as a teenager. The tattoo was his gang patch. He described the pain then the bone chisel pierced his flesh. I had my opening scene.
I am overwhelmed at the fantastic response to my post on rebranding Amiri & Aroha as Gang Girl. Aroha’s struggle to escape from the Gang certainly resonates with so many of you.
Gang Girl is a work of fiction, but the story is solidly grounded in real life. Like Beth in Once Were Warriors, Aroha faces brutality and repression day in and day out. But Aroha is a strong woman who refuses to let the Gang crush her spirit.
While Gang Girl is in its final draft, Aroha’s struggle is far from over. I am working on two companion novels, Gang Blood and Young Blood. The birth of her son Arapeta throws Aroha into further conflict with the Gang. But a new breed of gangster is emerging. Sickened by the tyranny of the old guard, the young generation is determined to incite change. Can they take on the leaders and create a more just Gang?
For fans of the film trilogy, I can promise you the novel is heading in a new and thrilling direction. The ending will be radically different. I’m as excited as you are for the next chapter of Aroha’s story.
Back in September 2018, I attended a masterclass in commercial fiction with bestselling Australian author Fiona McIntosh. Since then, I’ve spent every available moment working on a complete rewrite of Amiri & Aroha, which I have now retitled Gang Girl.
I learnt so much at the masterclass. Fiona was quick to point out the immense potential of my dramatic opening scene. On reaching adolescence, Gang kids are given a full facial tattoo in a barbaric ceremony to pledge their allegiance to the mob. Workshopping the first chapter with Fiona proved a revelation. Fiona showed me how to tighten the scene and ramp up the tension. ‘Don’t be afraid to be brutal,’ she told me. ‘Make your readers feel the pain the kids endure when they’re chiselled.’ The result—a gripping opening chapter that Fiona told me was one of the most compelling she’d seen for some time.
The masterclass taught me to be bold. In reworking the story, I have contrasted Aroha’s innocence with the harsh reality of Once Were Warriors. At the heart of Gang Girl, we have a strong woman determined to take charge of her own destiny. The Gang stole her childhood. She won’t let them claim the rest of her life.
At Fiona McIntosh’s inaugural masterclass convention last October, I had the opportunity to pitch to two leading publishers. Both were enthusiastic about the project and I have used their feedback to further refine the manuscript.
I believe Aroha’s story will resonate with a wide readership. I hope to bring you more exciting news soon!
How fantastic to to meet best selling Australian author Michael Robotham at Fiona McIntosh's inauguarl mastercall conveentrtained us with the How fantastic to meet best selling Australian author Michael Robotham at Fiona McIntosh’s inaugural masterclass convention.
In his opening keynote, Michael enthralled us with anecdotes from his extraordinary career. He began as a reporter and sub-editor for national newspapers in the UK. He went on to be a ghostwriter for the likes of Lulu and spice girl Geri Halliwell.
Michael’s career catapulted when the opening chapters of his first novel, The Suspect, sparked an international bidding war at the London Book Fair. The rest is history and made everyone in the audience extremely jealous!
Michael’s talk was as captivating as his books and got the conference, in South Australia’s beautiful Clare Valley, off to a brilliant start.
Writing about the real-life events that took place during my time working in India brings back vivid memories. I will never forget the smiles on the children’s faces. They had nothing but their cheerfulness and unrestrained optimism convinced me of the indomitability of the human spirit.
A leper colony plays a pivotal role in The Road to Madhapur. A place of overwhelming sorrow, despair and heartbreak. Yet beyond the suffering, I found hope and joy. Fulfilment and peace. That leprosy mission was among the happiest places I have seen in my life. I hope I can get that exhilaration across in my writing.
Sincere thanks to everyone who responded to my previous post with such imaginative suggestions for the title of my new novel.
After much soul-searching, I have finally chosen a name for the project that reflects the thrust of the story. In the early chapters we meet a disaffected New Zealand doctor and an Australian missionary's daughter, both headed for the remote township of Madhapur in the Odisha state of India. Despite wholly different backgrounds and expectations, we sense from the outset that their worlds will collide. Caught up in the turbulent world of Indian politics and a community in crisis, tragedy propels their lives on an inescapable trajectory.
The real-life incidents depicted in The Road to Madhapur had a profound effect on me. With the first draft of the book now in the hands of my early reviewers, I am delighted that they are finding these life-changing events equally touching.
For the second time in my life, I have been pipped at the post. I recently started work on a new novel about a disillusioned young doctor who goes to work in India. After a Bollywood style romance with a missionary’s daughter ends in tragedy, he dedicates himself to building a well for the impoverished community. While a work of fiction and not autobiographical, the novel draws on my own experiences working in India and the story incorporates many real-life events.
I thought I had struck gold when I came up with the title The Good Karma Well for my book. Until I turned on the television and saw a trailer for a programme called The Good Karma Hospital.
Beaten to it again! Back in the 1980’s, I wrote a screenplay about two brothers, one of whom was autistic. This was to be my magnum opus as a filmmaker. Taking a break from preproduction, a friend urged me to see Rain Man in the cinema. The similarities with my story were heartbreaking. Nobody would believe that developed my script before seeing Rain Man. I put the project on the shelf and found it hard to get enthusiastic about another project for some time.
Although The Good Karma Hospital features a young doctor finding herself in an under-resourced and overworked hospital in India, my story is entirely different in concept and content. I need a new title to distinguish my book from the television series. I have given the project the working title of Namaste while I search for something more striking. The Namaste Well doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Any suggestions for an arresting title will be gratefully received!
On a recent visit to Melbourne for a medical conference, I had the pleasure of meeting best-selling Australian author Fiona McIntosh. Coincidentally I just finished reading her latest novel The Tea Gardens on my flight across the Tasman.
The Tea Gardens has particular significance for me. Like the novel's heroine, Isla Fenwick, as a young doctor I worked in India in a region of overwhelming need.
Fiona's evocative descriptions brought back that heady mixture of awe and panic as the sights, sounds and smell of India flood the senses. Even more revealing, the novel captures that strange combination of professional competence and emotional naivety that so many medical graduates experience on entering the outside world.
We meet Isla as she faces a personal dilemma on her return from India. In her own words, she recalls her defining rite of passage. Her journey begins in the grey streets of London in 1933 where her widowed father engineers a meeting with an old flame, the aptly named Jovian Manderville. But Isla made a promise to strike back at the tropical disease that took her mother's life.
We live and breathe Isla's journey to Calcutta and share her joy and despair as she sets up a midwifery clinic. Her attempt to save a girl whose pregnancy violates the caste system ends in tragedy and endangers the life of a brilliant but maverick colleague, Professor Saxon Vickery. Facing personal and professional ruin, Isla follows Vickery to the foothills of the Himalayas, where she finds love, forgiveness and guilt in a resolution that questions all that she holds dear.
Thankfully, my time in India was much less dramatic than Dr Fenwick's but proved none the less life-changing.
Fiona regaled a delighted audience at the Altona Library with tales of her trip to India to research The Tea Gardens. Her anecdotes ranged from the ingenious to the outrageous, seducing a member to gain entry to a gentleman's club in Calcutta. Fiona told us that she does not write about anywhere that she has not experienced first hand. It shows in her work. When you finish The Tea Gardens you too have travelled from the grime of Britain to the squalor of Calcutta and the ethereal beauty of the Himalayas.
I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy for Fiona's lifestyle. I'll have to set my next story further afield.
"Authors shouldn't write dialogue; they should let their characters speak for themselves."
Giving characters their own distinctive voice is the most profound lesson I have learnt from working with industry professionals. An interesting exercise at a table read of the Hīkoi screenplay was to remove the character headings from the actors' copies of the script and to see if it remains apparent to them when they are speaking.
Fascinating characters are essential for any work of fiction. I believe the success of Amiri & Aroha on the international film festival circuit is due to the audience's involvement with the characters. A competition judge told me he shed tears when the gang thwarted Aroha's childhood friendship with her cousin Hunapo.
Writing the novel has afforded the opportunity to develop these complex characters further. Understanding how they talk and react to adverse situations allows them to speak for themselves, adding tremendous depth to the story.
My old mentor, the late great David Lean, gave me this advice: "You must know what your characters eat for breakfast. It's not that you're going to show them having breakfast, but if you are to portray them accurately, you need to know them in that much detail."
During the shooting of Amiri & Aroha, I can recall some lively discussions between takes on what the protagonists would have for their breakfast. We all agreed that Amiri would be an eggs benedict man. We decided Aroha was more a muesli and toast girl, and there was no doubt that Hunapo would have eggs and lashings of bacon with black pudding, washed down with a swig of yesterday's beer.
Mathew Wikotu as the young Hunapo.
Alongside working on Hikoi, I've spent the last few weeks proofreading Amiri & Aroha. It's been a labour of love on a project that has been such a vital part of my life over the past decade.
The strength of a story depends on the depth of its characters. Correcting and enhancing the manuscript has afforded me a unique opportunity to reflect on the character arcs in the novel.
Amiri & Aroha depicts a woman’s lifelong struggle to escape the misery of her gang roots, a journey defined by greed, corruption and the redeeming nature of love. A diverse cast of characters shape Aroha's rite of passage: her father Tautaru, a loathsome gang leader; her downtrodden mother Ngaio; Kōkā, a mysterious matakite; and Amiri, the hotshot businessman she believes will bring her freedom.
Of all the leading protagonists in Amiri & Aroha, Hunapo is perhaps the most complex, and judging from the response of my early reviewers, he is also one of the most engaging.
Hunapo is Aroha's cousin and her only childhood friend. It's hard to resist the mischievous rascal at the beginning of the story. But life is unkind to Hunapo. Chosen as the puppet leader of the gang and forced into an abortive arranged marriage, he lashes out at those closest to him and betrays Aroha. Seeking solace with alcohol and debauchery, Hunapo degenerates into a drunken lothario but ultimately finds redemption as a latter-day Robin Hood, risking his life to give back the protection money extorted by the gang.
One of the joys of independent filmmaking is the discovery of raw talent. I was fortunate to find two brilliant actors to play Hunapo in the films.
As the young Hunapo, Mathew Wikotu's soulful expression captured the dilemma of a lost kid in a hostile world, his childhood stolen by a bitter family feud.
Shayne Biddle, fresh from his role in the critically acclaimed New Zealand film The Strength of Water, took on the challenge of the adult Hunapo. Shayne's remarkable screen presence further defined this tragically flawed but genuinely appealing hero.
I remain hopeful that following the publication of the novel, we can entice a studio to pick up the story for a fully funded feature film. I would be delighted to have both Mathew and Shayne in the cast.
Shayne Biddle as Hunapo
A couple of years ago, when Amiri's Child won an Award of Excellence at the Accolade Global Film Festival, a Hollywood producer asked to buy the rights for Amiri & Aroha. There was even talk of a mini-series, to be marketed as "the next Sopranos."
In so many ways, the offer was a dream come true. The sum on the table was significant and the deal hard to resist. What's not to like about a fully funded production of the story, with guaranteed distribution and a possible spin-off. So why did I hesitate?
Amiri and Aroha is a quintessential New Zealand story. In selling the rights, I would have lost control. It became apparent that the sorry would become Americanised, the Māori culture at the heart of my story would be replaced by American street gangs. After much soul-searching, I turned the offer down.
With two leading international publishers now interested in Amiri & Aroha, I am convinced that I made the right choice. The project began as a Māori take on Romeo and Juliet, and while the story is universal, it is firmly grounded in New Zealand life. The East Cape and the magnificent Rere Falls are as essential as the characters in the drama. I cannot imagine this story taking place anywhere else.
I only hope that we can find a New Zealand producer who is equally captivated by the story so that we can make the definitive film of Amiri & Aroha.
For the past ten years, Amiri and Aroha has been an essential part of my life. I have lived and breathed with my characters; I have been there with them at every step of their journey. I have felt their pain and shared their joys and sorrows.
Following endless revisions and many months of intense book editing, I have at last submitted the manuscript to leading international publishers for consideration.
For a little while at least, the project is out of my hands while I await the editor's decision. It is a strange feeling, having been so close to the story for so long. But I have not had time to dwell on this; with the novel complete, I have at last been able to clear my mind for the next project. It is now over eighteen months since the child poverty debate in the run up to the New Zealand General Election in September 2014 inspired me to make Hīkoi. Throughout the editing of Amiri & Aroha, ideas for Hīkoi have been running through my mind, but I found it impossible to develop them while still immersed in Amiri & Aroha. Refining the vision and working on the screenplay for Hīkoi is now my top priority.
And whatever the publishers' verdict, the Amiri & Aroha saga is far from over. For those many loyal fans who have been waiting patiently, we plan a limited release of the film trilogy to coincide with the publication of the novel and the films will be available to stream or download on Vimeo-on-Demand.
My dream remains a fully financed film of Amiri & Aroha. Local producers are calling out for captivating New Zealand stories. Amiri & Aroha could be just what they are looking for.
“Books aren't written - they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it.” - Michael Crichton.
Although I am far beyond the seventh rewrite of Amiri & Aroha, Michael Crichton's perceptive words seem particularly appropriate. After seemingly endless years of work, the novel is almost ready for publication.
The experience has made me think about the difference between editing books and films. The filmmaker has an arsenal of tools at their disposal: the inflexion of the actor, the juxtaposition of contrasting images, and perhaps most evocative of all, the musical score. The writer has only the power of the written word to create atmosphere and tell their story.
Editing the novel of Amiri & Aroha has been profoundly different from cutting the film. Today's audiences demand fast moving drama, often forcing filmmakers to shorten and compress their work to deliver an ever more intense experience. In many ways, writing the book has been the opposite. My early reviewers consistently challenged me to provide more detail and background, to fill in the gaps in the story that were inherent in the film, which is, of its nature, and episodic medium.
There are similarities in technique. Where the filmmaker cuts rapidly to increase tension, the writer uses short, staccato sentences to achieve the same effect.
The novel will provide the definitive rendition of the Amiri & Aroha saga. At 500 pages and 180,000 words, the book is a genuine epic, but at its core remains a heartrending and gripping drama. It is my dream that a New Zealand production company will pick up the story, and we will see the definitive film version of Amiri & Aroha!
Movies and medicine have been my life. Friends and journalists often ask me which is the closest to my heart. I invariably answer that I am equally passionate about both cinema and general practice. The common thread is an abiding interest in people’s stories. I discussed this in this in an interview with Rob Olsen in the current issue of the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network News.
Read the interview in the current issue of the New Zealand Rural General Practice Network News
As the Amiri & Aroha novel approaches publication, I have been engaged in some promotional shoots at significant real life locations which feature in the story.
The Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo must surely be the most beautiful church in New Zealand, and it plays a significant role in the developing drama.
Look out for some more pictures from our road trip to outstanding Amiri & Aroha locations.
Amiri & Aroha is truly a project that refuses to end. My recent post was premature. With a major rewrite complete and book editing underway, I thought I was putting the finishing touches on the novel.
On reflection, there are still critical areas that could be improved. The three opening chapters have proved particularly challenging as they differ significantly from the films and cover a considerable amount of new material that we were unable to shoot in the original pilot film.
The most rewarding aspect is that with each successive revision, the book becomes stronger and closer to being ready for publication. I am again indebted to my mentor, Joyce Cocchi for her advice and suggestions on making these crucial first chapters as compelling as possible.
With the prospect of a new and fully funded film series ahead, I feel confident that Amiri & Aroha will be keeping me occupied for a long time into the future!
Tonight I have put the finishing touches to the Amiri & Aroha novel and it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on a project that has taken over my life for the past decade. When I first developed the concept for a one-off independent short film, little did I think I would still be working on it over ten years later, let alone continuing to find new and exciting plot twists!
The success of the original film on the international film festival circuit, which started with a win at the Best Shorts competition, began an amazing journey that stubbornly refuses to come to an end. With so much added depth and complexity, the novel has enough intrigue for another trilogy at the very least!
I again wish to acknowledge the contribution of everyone who has shared this journey with me. I am eternally grateful to the cast and crew of the film trilogy, whose faith in the project helped to turn my dreams into reality.
I extend my most sincere thanks to my mentors, Joyce Cocchi, Warren Philp and Nicky Sinclair, who have read and reread the novel through countless drafts and rewrites and provided me with expert feedback. I am especially thankful to Joyce who has been an unfailing source of advice and inspiration.
Another stage of an extraordinary journey is almost at an end. After months of intensive work, writing and re-writing, the novel of Amiri & Aroha is virtually complete. It is almost time to hand the project over to a book editor as the road to publication begins!
Thank you again to everyone who has supported me throughout this amazing voyage of discovery. Your enthusiasm has been a tremendous inspiration. I would like to add a special word of thanks to everyone who has been in touch asking about the DVD release. It is immensely satisfying to all of us who worked on the films that so many of you want to get hold of your own copies of the trilogy. Regretfully, I have to ask you to be patient just a little longer. Negotiations are continuing with potential distribution partners and they have requested that we delay the DVD/Blu-ray release until after distribution is secured. We promise you it will be worth the wait! Watch out for a major release to coincide with publication of the novel!
In the meantime, Amiri has its own stylish new website at www.amiriandaroha.com. Why not check it out? There's a lot to enjoy, including cool new photo galleries with some hitherto unpublished behind the scenes pictures.
With my work on the novel nearly finished, I am heading back to the cutting room to work on the book trailer. Some of the images accompanying my recent posts show a selection of the graphics I have produced specially for the trailer, with a definite literary feel and will draw the story out of the page. A trailer is a specialised short film and at its best, a work of art in its own right.
It’s great to be in the editing suite again, creating movies. Keep watching this blog for an awesome trailer in the very near future!
Writing the Amiri & Aroha novel has been a wonderful experience. I have taken the characters created in the films to new levels and travelled with them on new adventures and experiences. Yet the journey has not been entirely without its downside. Working on the book has been a constant and painful reminder of the constraints of micro budget independent film making. Throughout my work on the novel, I have kept imagining what a wonderful film could be made with the depth and characterisation I have added in the book.
After discussing these thoughts with one of our distribution partners, I found myself crafting a new screenplay, incorporating all the new material and profundity from the novel. I am currently talking to film funding agencies about the possibility of shooting this new script with a full unit.
In a previous post, I suggested that the Amiri & Aroha story is just reaching its most exciting phase. I am now taking that thought one stage further.
2015 will be the year of Amiri & Aroha!
Creating the Amiri & Aroha trilogy has been a remarkable journey. I have met so many wonderful people along the way and forged such tremendous friendships, bonds that will last a lifetime.
Over the past few months, I have been privileged to make that journey for a second time, as I craft the novel based on the film trilogy.
Writing the novel has been a tremendous voyage of discovery. I have lived and breathed the story anew. I have shared in the characters’ joys and grieved with them in their sadness.
The book affords me the opportunity to tell the story as I had originally envisaged it, without the restrictions inherent in the making of a micro budget independent film.
Despite those enormous constraints, financial and otherwise, which were imposed on us during the making of the trilogy, the films continue to garner awards and engage film festival audiences throughout the world.
I extend my sincerest thanks to all those who have been in touch to ask when you will be able to see the trilogy. Rest assured I have been working hard behind the scenes to secure distribution, both for broadcast and a theatrical release. I have been working on some enhancements to the films, following feedback from film festival judges, our distribution partners and, of course, our wonderful World Premiere audience. I am grateful to you all for your unfailing support.
In so many ways, the Amiri and Aroha story is reaching its most exciting phase. Keep watching this blog!
In my last post, I commented on how well family medicine and film making have worked together for me. Perhaps more universally acknowledged is the link between literature and medicine, with many physicians having made their name as writers.
That illustrious list includes A J Cronin, who was a significant influence in my desire to become a doctor. I was particularly inspired by his novel The Citadel, the story of a mining company doctor's struggle to balance scientific integrity with social obligation. This book was directly responsible for the change to a health care system which was available for all, with the inception of Britain’s National Health Service.
Getting down to work on the novel of Amiri & Aroha is now a top priority for me. I have mapped out the structure in my head, including a number of intriguing story lines that I was unable encompass in the films. I must organize some protected time to develop these ideas and write the novel!