Renée Hollis 

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My brother and sister-in-law used to be worried about Renée. She wasn’t doing the things they expected of a daughter.

 

Rather than settling down with a mortgage, a husband and two point five kids, she applied for a teaching job on Manihiki, the most remote of the Cook Islands. On her return she published a book of her photographs from the island, and this was soon followed by further pictorial books (Artists of Golden Bay, People of Golden Bay, etc).

If you want to earn a fraction of the minimum wage, and work sixty hours a week, then a good way is to produce and marketing your own books. The time commitment is extreme, the return is minimal. In order to keep from starving, Renée supplemented here earnings with relief teaching.

In 2012, seven years after returning from the Cook Islands, Renée took up a teaching position in Botswana. There were approximately 700 students at her school. The majority came from neighbouring countries, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, plus a smattering from India. The only white kids were sons and daughters of the minority of white teachers. People sent their kids to this school, to learn English.

Botswana is twice the size of New Zealand with half the population. It’s about the same size as Queensland, and occupies the same latitudes. It’s HOT. Most of the country is taken up by the Kalahari Desert. 

Not long ago, Botswana was one of the poorest countries in the world, but thanks to diamond mining in recent decades it has been rising. Renée encountered more western comforts in Botswana, than at Manihiki. There were supermarkets and good roads, and though her accommodation was basic, it had air conditioning. 

Not long after returning from Botswana, Renée came up with a more ambitious book idea:  A compilation of interviews with centenarians. This was to be all consuming. She travelled up and down the country, in pursuit of lucid interviewees three times her age.

Renée is a quiet listener. Her demeanor opened flood gates of reminiscence. After twelve months of interviewing, she had a mountain of material. Fortunately, she’s also a hard slogger.  Keepers of History: 'New Zealand Centenarians tell their Stories' was to be thousands of hours in the making.

What unfolded next reminds me of a saying “The harder I work, the luckier I get”. Dunedin based publisher, Exile Publishing, took Renée on board as an author, and then offered her work.                

 

Now, after three years at head office, she is doing the same job from home in Nelson.

 

Working in isolation is not for everyone, but for Renée, it’s a perfect fit.

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Keepers of History was a mammoth undertaking, eclipsed only by her latest book 'Voices of World War Two: New Zealanders share their stories. If that sounds familiar, you may have seen the story about it on TV One’s ‘Seven Sharp’, or heard Renée being interviewed by Jim Mora on National Radio last Sunday.

Voices of World War Two: New Zealanders Share their Stories is great for snacking. That is, dropping in on one person’s account and then some completely different experience the next time. The book is packed full of photographs and graphics from the war years.

And It’s a great Christmas present.

 Signed copies of the book are available at Eyebright.