From Ahuriri to China

7 October, Havelock North Function Centre
Readers and Writers, HBAF 2017

The hook here is that Deborah Challinor is such a successful author and she is writing about our grandmothers, us, our backyard. She is one of ours. Coupled with Jo Morris, who has her own impressive credentials, this interview was full of pearls.

Where do ideas come from? Deborah’s least favourite question; she was pleased to get it out of the way. Her answer, in short, was that they come out of everywhere: a phrase; a curiosity about an event in home-town Huntley; the telly doco on the Waihi strikes where the miners’ women formed the Scarlet Runners… “Hmm, that could make a new story as well,” she said.

How do you research, what sources are most useful? Deborah lived in Sydney for four years as part of her research for her Kitty saga. Full emersion in the Rocks district gave her a feel for its cobble and brick, the smells and essence of the area. She took Tall Ships and Ghost tours, visited museums and their artifacts: all really useful for day-to-day details, the flavour of the times. And, yes, primary sources such as photographs – “they tell a lot”. She found old street maps and plans, but she absolutely loves old newspapers for their menus, prices and advertisements, not so much the ‘news’ that was as dodgy then as it is now. She tries to look at things through the eyes of her characters, “Always, always, always.”

Deborah’s sources are meticulously researched; she has Uni credentials that inform her knowledge of our historical lives. She doesn’t see her feisty women characters as that extraordinary (“They are loyal, they love, keep families together”), but says they have to do interesting things: “No one is going to read 130,000 words about someone who crochets.”

Stepping over homeless people to reach her panel appearances for the recent Auckland Readers and Writer’s Festival, Deborah was struck by the incongruity between the latest ‘must have’ book of poems and people sleeping on cold concrete, “What’s gone wrong?” Her conclusion: nothing’s changed, “Still people living in poverty, still people ignoring it.”

She laments PC correctness and fights nervous editors to keep time-appropriate terminology.  Writing from 9am-6pm, adhering to her spreadsheet and computer schedule of words required this week, she sits down and just does it.

Deborah lets Jo answer the question of an author’s role in helping address society’s failings (she has asked herself if this is jumping on the “Bono bandwagon”). Jo, who teaches writing inside the local prison, sees the good that Deborah’s books can do in introducing an alternative stance to impressionable minds.

What’s next? “It’s my goal to join up all of my novels…somehow.” Deborah also wants to write a book post-Fire, finish a trilogy she is writing, do a couple of ‘Convict Girls’ books and perhaps one more Kitty book, “But what do you do with elderly smugglers?”

The audience has loved this time with a woman we admire and can identify with. She has been so assessable; Kiwi in her modesty and knack for understatement, but having real authority on her art and craft. Her personality comes across as dry, funny, real, moral, true.

So much of value in just one hour! Thank you, Deborah and Jo.

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