Poet’s journey captured in book

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As publisher Robbie Burton said, it was not your usual book launch.

A magician pulled coins from behind children’s ears and tunes were strummed on a hand-crafted acoustic guitar.

Grandmothers and grandchildren took centre stage as other supporters sat on rows of seats beneath honour boards bearing the names of soldiers and sportsmen. Plastic cups of punch were offered to all and, afterwards, dinner: two criss-crossed legs of ham, buns, cheese and tomatoes, followed by cups of tea and homemade cake.

It was the best of times, said Burton, who launched Jillian Sullivan’s book A Way Home in the community hall of the town she now calls home, and it was a journey on which Sullivan was accompanied by friends as she found her place in Central Otago.

It tells the story of Sullivan’s move to Oturehua and building of her strawbale house – which was no ordinary construction.

With her builder son-in-law Sam Deavoll as project leader, builder, mentor and teacher, Sullivan dug and hammered to build a frame for her new home and piled straw-bales into its walls. Mud and limewash then encased it. There was physical proof of Sullivan’s new life.

With wood smoke pluming “above a frosted roof”, Sullivan said the house now felt like an anchor in her life.

“After completing a huge project, it’s an affirming feeling to exist inside it, to have it as a major part of my life. The house is a source of pleasure, a stimulus of memories of all the people who helped on it and a comfort. It reminds me of what is possible when you believe in something enough to begin it and keep on going.”

Sullivan, who is the author of 11 other books and whose awards include the Highlights Fiction Award in the United States and the Kathleen Grattan Prize in New Zealand, said this latest book – like the house – was a case of “digging in and keeping on going. I did four major drafts – it started as a much shorter how-to book for would-be builders, and became a record of one person’s way of finding a new life and a new community; of being connected again to a vibrant life after loss. It could stand as a metaphor for anything you chose to do. There’s always a journey, with hesitations, and thresholds, and the point of commitment, where once you are deeply in a project, all sorts of help arrives that you didn’t imagine or expect. Things as instant as the farmer next door giving me an old bath to slake lime in, or a stranger turning up with the skills and encouragement I needed at the time”.

Mentors for the construction of the house came in various people, but also from within, Sullivan said in the book.

“Sometimes the mentor that arises is your own self; the strengths you have within you, your own courage, your own skills and intuition and readiness to work – these become the mentor energy.”

But despite the work involved, life became “simple and clear”, the changing light of the Ida Valley illuminating all the while. When the sun came up, Sullivan and her son-in-law would often down tools.

“We knew how fleeting the light changes were: Mt Ida translucent in the early dawn, late afternoon gilded light on Rough Ridge, and then at the end of the day, on a good day, the Hawkduns and the Ida Range pink as well; a showcase of folds and ridges before dark and starlight appeared.”

New neighbour, friend and fellow writer Brian Turner contributed physical work and sage advice towards the project.

“When you have a lot to achieve, instead of panicking, act with composure. Stay aware, and look and listen,” he said.

At Sullivan’s book launch, Turner said Oturehua could be referred to as “Oturehua ‘where the hell is that’ Central Otago”.

“But it is very much somewhere. It might be the middle of nowhere but it is also the middle of somewhere.”

He said Sullivan was unaffected, unpretentious, generous, modest and extremely talented, “with a decent sense of humour”.

Sullivan’s friend, mentor and fellow writer, Joy Cowley, said at the launch Sullivan’s book was testament to what could come from change and loss. A “wounding of the soul” sometimes happened when you were meant to move “to a larger place”, she said.

Sullivan is now planting trees and tussocks around her house and planning a vegetable garden, and is “halfway through” a novel.

She also wants to keep promoting natural building and help others build sustainable, natural homes.

She is taking an earthy approach to publicity about her book.

“I’m making mud and taking it to Christchurch as part of a talk about the book at the bookshop there. They wanted a hands-on event. I love sharing the joy of earth plastering.”

A Way Home is published by Potton and Burton. RRP $39.99.