Here at Capsule, we LOVE some good New Zealand fiction – and author Deborah Challinor’s new novel, The Leonard Girls, is a perfect example of Kiwi storytelling. We chat to Deborah about her latest book – a historical look at the Vietnam War through the eyes of two Kiwi sisters who are on polar opposite sides of the war debate, her real-life experiences that shaped it, and why she loves the 60s!
This book explores a more recent historical period than many of your previous books. Did that make it easier or harder to write?
Easier, really, as I can actually remember the late 1960s. Mind you, my memory’s no better than anyone else’s, and by that I mean it’s unreliable and prone to inaccuracies, and as a child I wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on beyond my immediate orbit, so there was still a lot of fact checking to do. But I do have a better idea of what New Zealand was like in 1969 than, say, in 1869. And I’d already done a lot of research on New Zealand and the Vietnam war years ago at university, and written two books on the same subject, so I was able to use that.
Do you have a favourite character in this book?
I think it’s probably Gina, who’s very beautiful and fey and not traditionally clever but still emotionally wise. She has a rough start in life (described in Fire and From the Ashes, with the reason for that rough start revealed in The Jacaranda House), but she still manages to be adored by nearly everyone. Readers might feel I’ve given her a raw deal in the epilogue to The Leonard Girls, but I couldn’t just marry her off to some boring bloke just to tidy up her story arc, she’s too special for that, and this way readers can give her any future they want.
When you’re writing about women in the past and restrictions they may have faced does that frustrate or challenge you from a modern perspective?
No, I’ve got past being shocked by how badly women were treated in the past, and that was very badly indeed, especially via the English legal system, which almost all British colonies inherited. Enormous progress regarding women’s rights has obviously been made to date, but historical laws and social attitudes do explain the problems that relentlessly and at times fatally persist. That certainly doesn’t excuse them, though. In my view we’re still seeing eighteenth and nineteenth century behaviour from some men in a twenty-first century world.
Your books are all bestsellers in NZ, why do you think historical fiction resonates so much with NZ readers?
I think it’s nothing more complicated than people like to learn about history while they’re enjoying a good read. I’m frequently told by readers that they probably wouldn’t read a non-fiction book on a historical topic, but they do read fiction if they know the history is ‘right’ and they like the writing style and the characters. And every time I hear that it reminds me not to be lazy with my research, which is always a good thing.
Where do you draw the line between historical fact and fiction?
This is a tricky question. If a write a book full of nothing but historical fact, then really I’ve written non-fiction, haven’t I? If I fiddle with history and alter it to suit my story, then in my opinion I’m doing readers a disservice. Mind you, I did do that in my book Fire, which was based on the Ballantyne’s department store fire in 1947 in Christchurch: I reset it in Auckland in 1953 so I wouldn’t upset anyone involved. But I did clearly say so in my author notes. I had a similar situation in The Leonard Girls, which is partly set in Vietnam. Fact: the New Zealand rifle company Victor 4 really did serve in South Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. In the book, fictional characters Sam and Eddie serve in a fictional version of V4, so I had to make sure no character did or said anything that would bring members of the real V4 into disrepute. For this reason it’s probably less ethically challenging to write historical fiction that, frankly, doesn’t involve anyone still alive.
That doesn’t quite answer the question though, does it? Generally I’ll set up a framework based on solidly researched and accurate historical fact – a storyline if the major story arc hangs on a series of historical events, or perhaps just a historical environment if I’m only focusing on an era – and my characters will live fictional lives within that framework. Sort of like a historical skeleton filled out with fictional flesh. It gives me lots of scope for character development and action as long as they don’t break the rules of their time periods, and usually they don’t. Much.
I understand you did your PhD on Vietnam. What is it that interests you about this conflict?
I did my Ph.D. in the mid-1990s, when there were still barely any New Zealand academic or even popular studies about New Zealand and Vietnam, 20 years after the end of the war. In fact, I had to do some of my research at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. My interest was in the fact that, apart from those who actually served in Vietnam, it seemed no one else had an interest. Also, I wanted to know why our soldiers thought they were going to Vietnam, or wanted to go (New Zealand only sent professionals, not conscripts), what happened to them while they were there, and what happened when they came home. Finally, but just as important, I wanted to know how they remembered Vietnam, and why.
Your books really capture the flavour of the time, how do you research and get the little details right?
I look for the little details. I use photographs whenever these are available, so that’s from about 1860-ish on, when photography became more common. I read fiction and non-fiction from and about the eras I’m writing about – on all sorts of topics, not just what I’m looking for because I never know when I might find an absolute gem. I use old maps and plans, I go to museums to look at textiles and artefacts, I do site visits when I can, I smell and touch and listen to things, I literally and mentally put myself in my characters’ shoes. And a little bit of artfully-placed description goes a long way – that’s part of the craft of writing.
What songs / bands would you put on a soundtrack to this book?
Funny you should ask this. The HarperCollins New Zealand team put together a Spotify playlist for my Facebook Books page to promote the release of The Leonard Girls, made up of songs mentioned in the actual book. Here’s the list:
We Gotta Get Out Of This Place The Animals
I Heard It Through The Grapevine Marvin Gaye
Respect Aretha Franklin
Green Green Grass of Home Tom Jones
Harper Valley PTA Jeannie C. Riley
Walkin’ After Midnight Patsy Cline
Bad Moon Rising Credence Clearwater Revival
Nowhere To Run Martha and the Vandellas
All Along The Watchtower Jimi Hendrix
White Rabbit Jefferson Airplane
What do you love about 60s fashion and hairstyles?
I don’t think I do love some of the hairstyles – those beehives and all that lacquer can’t have been good for women’s hair! I do like the more Beatnik and Mod styles, though, which were a lot less tortured. The clothes were interesting, particularly the Mary Quant-inspired fashions – shift dresses, really short skirts, tights, etc. – and we did have plenty of that sort of thing in NZ as well as waisted dresses that looked more 1950s. When I was about seven or eight I was absolutely desperate to own a pair of white Beatle boots, but I was never allowed them. Perhaps that’s why I have a thing for boots now?
Which era are you heading into for your next book?
Back to the nineteenth century, 1860s-70s Sydney to be exact, in a series about a ruthless but still very likeable young woman with a strong social conscience who runs her own undertaking business. So think coffins, cemeteries, magnificent black horses, corpses, bad smells, beautiful mourning dresses, and the occasional murder.