Paekākāriki author Helen Heath has caught the bug and can't stop.

Winning the Peter and Mary Biggs Poetry Award at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards last week for her latest book Are Friends Electric?, Helen's short career has already been hugely successful.

Writing what she said were "terrible, angsty poems" as a teenager, later in life Helen gained confidence to make something of her writing.

"I had my first piece published in my late 20s, and then I had a couple of kids before I decided to make the time to commit to being an author and make it more of a goal to put something substantial together.


"I applied for classes at the Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington and when I got accepted that made me more disciplined."

Helen Heath with her award winning poetry collection Are Friends Electric? Photo / Marcel Tromp
Helen Heath with her award winning poetry collection Are Friends Electric? Photo / Marcel Tromp

Helen's debut collection of poetry, Graft, the result of her masters study, was published in 2012 to critical acclaim and won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book for Poetry award in 2013.

Completing a PhD in creative writing, Helen's thesis comprises a poetry collection, Are Friends Electric?, and research project examining how contemporary poetry can actively participate in interpretation of scientific ideas.

The poems investigate how we incorporate technology into our lives and bodies, stemming from Helen's experience.

"It's quite a quirky, eclectic collection. There's lots of sound poems of people doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things with technology.

"The second half I wrote while my brother-in-law was dying of cancer and I was thinking about if I was my sister, what would I be thinking about? Is there some way I could preserve him so I couldn't lose him?

"I was reading lots about contemporary technology and what was possible.

"So it took me down this rabbit hole of speculative writing about how technology could keep us close with those we have lost and how our experiences of grieving and remembering be altered by technology.


Now an award winning book, Are Friends Electric? was the result of five years research, mixing academia with creativity.

"It's conflicting doing a PhD in creative writing because you're doing a thesis which is academic speak, which is one style of writing, and then at the same time in tandem trying to write the creative pieces.

"It was sometimes hard switching between the two of them.

"I would have to take a break from one to write the other."

Both styles of writing influenced each other with Helen even including footnotes in Are Friends Electric? using them in a way you would use hyperlinks in an online academic text.

"There was so much research that crept into the poems that I didn't want to exclude.

"I was constantly thinking about how a piece of writing references lots of other pieces of writing and how they all talk to each other."

One of her biggest writing influences is fellow Kāpiti poet Maria McMillan who she has worked with and is a sounding board for creativity.

"It's really nice to have pairs you can talk about your writing with.

"There are certain things we've got in common and when you've got people that are struggling through the same kinds of creative problems that you are, it really inspires you to keep going, to keep each other propped up, and to give each other feedback on your work."

Receiving the award for New Zealand poetry award Helen was completely stunned.

"I found out at the awards night itself and hadn't even prepared an acceptance speech.

"It still hasn't quite sunk in, I'm still walking around with my head in the clouds."

As a communications advisor for the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa, Helen spends most of her working life writing but still loves to write in her own time.

"I love writing. When you get the bug and it becomes a compulsion and you can't stop yourself — that's when you know you really are a writer."