FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Did you always want to be a writer?
No, not specifically, though I was always quite good at stringing a sentence together. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for ages, then I decided to train as a historian, which is my passion and which took seven years. I suppose now I AM a historian in a lot of ways. I’ve never done a creative writing course, though I’ve taught creative writing and historical research quite a bit in workshops and at university level and I really enjoy it. Except for the administration side of things.
Do you think anyone can learn to write?
Just about anyone can learn the craft of writing, and it is a craft. I learned most of my craft through Romance Writers of NZ, and Romance Writers of Australia, though I don’t actually write romance. But, in my opinion, to write books that people really want to read, you also need a dash of natural talent – the ability to know what makes a good story and create characters readers truly care about – and I don’t know where that comes from.
Was it hard to find a publisher when you first started out?
Actually, no. I was in the right place at the right time. In 1997 when I was writing up my Ph.D thesis about New Zealand Vietnam veterans, my supervisor suggested I send some chapters off to publishers. HodderMoaBeckett made me an offer; ‘Parade 98’, the unofficial welcome home for Vietnam veterans, was coming up in June 1998, which meant guaranteed sales for the book, which was called Grey Ghosts.
After that I was approached by HarperCollins NZ who wanted someone to write a book about the impact of Agent Orange on the children of some New Zealand Vietnam veterans. That book was called Who’ll Stop the Rain.
While I was writing that, I was also working at the Waikato Times as their librarian (I’m not a trained librarian – the job was filing newspapers and updating the story database) and I ended up writing a regular opinion column and some feature articles, though I’m not a trained journalist either. I also started writing Tamar, my first novel, which was accepted by HarperCollins NZ. I’ve written for HarperCollins NZ, and now HarperCollins Australia, ever since.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I get asked this question a lot and it surprises me because I always assume people are full of ideas, but perhaps they aren’t. Mine come from things I’ve seen and heard and thought and read and imagined – everywhere, really.
Mind you, being a historian, I tend to look backwards, not forwards, so you won’t catch me writing science fiction, though I do read a bit of it. Mostly I think about what it would be like for ordinary people to live during a particular event or time period, and it goes from there. So the skeleton of the story is always real history, and the flesh that fills it out is fiction, to use a slightly gross metaphor.
Do you think you’ll ever run out of ideas to write about?
Unlikely. History is full of, well, history, and every single person lived it a slightly different way. There are endless perspectives.
Do you do a lot of research for your books?
Yes, because the storylines depend on it. But being a historian I thoroughly enjoy the research, so it’s hardly a problem or a chore. I use primary sources such as letters, diaries, maps, newspapers, documents, music, and oral histories, and secondary sources like histories, films, documentaries, plays and novels, and I'll go to museums and historic houses and sites. And into the archives of department stores, and to old pa sites, and down underground mines, and on tall ships...
You say your books are historically accurate. But are they really?
I do the best I can to get facts right using the resources available. But perception and memory are as individual as the people who generate them, primary and secondary sources almost always have agendas of some sort, and landscapes change over time. History is a very fluid and inexact science. And to be blunt, not everyone, past or present, is going to agree on what things were like, why they happened, or even sometimes when or where they happened. And I do write fiction – only the bones of my books are based on real history. But occasionally, I do get it wrong. Once or twice I’ve changed things a bit to suit the story – but if I do that I’ll always say so in the author’s notes.
Do you find it easy to write?
Not always. While I do have days when the ideas and words fly out faster than I can type, they happen less than I’d like. Some days I have to push myself to write anything, which is odd, as I like to write. At the end of every day I make notes about what I’ll be writing the following day, which helps, but sometimes it’s extremely difficult to get my bum to stay on my office chair. It’s a momentum thing, I think. When I’m on a roll, it’s great, but if I have to stop for anything, I find it hard to get started again. And, believe me, in life there are quite often things that have to be stopped for. Treating writing like a normal job helps – working from eight till five, at least five days a week, and knowing I won’t get paid if I don’t.
Do you have the whole story in your head before you start?
I always have the opening scene, and the final scene, but often not the middle bits – which, unfortunately, is the bulk of the book. This is where I always get stuck, and get what I used to think was the DREADED WRITER’S BLOCK, but which, after nearly 15 years of writing full time, I now recognise as inertia due to really rubbish plotting skills. I just don’t know what to write next because I haven’t planned it.
For me, the way to avoid this is to come up with quite a comprehensive story outline before I start writing, and keep working on it as I go, so I’ve got a template of sorts and can’t get lost. I’ve tried storyboarding, and file cards, and coloured sticky notes and all the rest of it, but writing a boring old outline seems to work best for me.
And if I’m still stuck and can’t write anything I rearrange my office and turn my desk around. That works, but don’t ask me why. And it only works after everything else hasn’t.
You’ve written books set in both the 19th century, and during WWI, WWII and the 1950s. Which is your favourite time period?
I have to say it’s the 1950s, because New Zealand society was changing so much then – we were developing into what I consider to be ‘modern New Zealanders’, and readers can remember back to that time, which makes the era quite rewarding to write about. And easier to research as I can do oral histories with ‘eye witnesses’, which really helps me to get a flavour of the ‘New Zealandness’ of the time. Naturally I’m not old enough to have experienced it myself. Well, only as a nappy-clad infant at the end of the that decade.
But there’s a lot to be said for writing about the 19th century, as, after all, what happened back then formed us as New Zealanders. I also find the interaction between Maori and Pakeha endlessly fascinating, and something which obviously still has repercussions today.
What do you like to read?
I’m a bit of a crime fan, so I read a fair bit of that. Mark Billingham, earlier Stuart MacBride – both dark and gritty but funny – early Minette Walters, Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby series – extremely dry, observant and entertaining. For tales with an eerie Celtic flavour you can’t go past Phil Rickman, particularly his Merrily Watkins mysteries. For humour I like Marian Keyes, and Jilly Cooper, and also Laurie Graham – so sharp! And for horror I’m a Stephen King fan. Strangely, I don’t actually read that much historical fiction, though Charlotte Bingham writes a good one, and I love Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John series. And I like Roddy Doyle and I LOVE Kate Atkinson and early Pat Barker, especially Union Street and Lisa’s England, and the Regeneration trilogy. I read a couple of novels a week so I could go on, but I won’t. I also read a fair bit of non-fiction – histories and biographies and that sort of thing.
Can you make a living being a fiction writer in New Zealand?
It depends on where you sell your books. If you can sell a decent number overseas you can do reasonably well and, yes, make a living. If you only sell in New Zealand you’ll make less money even if they sell well, because the market is much smaller. A writer who only sells in New Zealand probably couldn’t afford to live off their income.
Are there any questions you don’t like being asked?
It’s not that I don’t like this question, it just baffles me. It’s when someone discovers that I write books and they say; ‘Would I have read anything you’ve written?’ Well, how would I know what someone’s read and what they haven’t?
Several things I am a bit tired of being asked is to talk during an interview about my latest romance, or ‘bodice-ripper’, or my ‘feisty’ heroine. I usually get asked this by people who haven’t done their homework and actually read the book. For a start, I don’t write romance. I write historical fiction. Bodice-rippers are stories about heroines who get raped by the heroes, and I don’t write about that, either. The word ‘feisty’ originally meant either small, angry dog, or fart. I do write about small, angry dogs, and farts, but neither of those have ever played central or pivotal roles in any of my books.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I have three suggestions. The first is to read constantly – non-fiction, literary fiction and genre fiction. Don’t be a snob. Try everything. There are millions of good books out there, and even badly written books have something to teach you.
The second is to actually write something. Don’t sit staring at an empty computer screen too nervous to start. You can’t fix it if there’s nothing to fix. Just bash it out then go back and play around with it later. You can pay someone else to do a final edit. In fact, you should.
The third is to join a writers’ association. For example, Romance Writers of New Zealand – even if you don’t write romance. I don’t and I learned most of my craft from RWNZ conferences. Or the New Zealand Association of Authors. Or Romance Writers of Australia. Any group in which you can talk to other writers and learn about the craft and the industry. I really do recommend this. It’s hard going being a writer by yourself.