Deborah Challinor is a best-selling historical novelist whose books consistently rank in New Zealand’s top five for fiction, many of them making it to number 1. Her latest book, The Jacaranda House, is her seventeenth and it’s a story of mothers and daughters, dark secrets and the healing power of love, set in the King’s Cross Sydney club scene of the 1960s.
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Deborah talks about how she was discovered by her publisher because she wrote an “entertaining” PhD thesis, and why she loves her flawed characters.
You’ll find links to Deborah’s books and website there too. While you’re there, leave us a comment or a suggestion. We love to hear from our listeners, and we endeavor to get back to everyone who contacts us.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- How a chance comment led to a publisher
- The joy of writing series
- Wars ‘not won on foreign battlefields‘
- National honours a big surprise
- Crime and suspense writers she enjoys
- The fascination of the mortuary train
Where to find Deborah Challinor:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny Wheeler: But now, here’s Deborah. Hello there Deborah, and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Deborah Challinor: Thank you very much.
Introducing Deborah Challinor
Jenny Wheeler: I always like to start with this question because it’s one that readers love to know the answer to. How did you start with your fiction writing? We will cover the fact that you were already doing a lot of academic writing, but how did you start in fiction? Was there some once upon a time moment when you thought I really must do fiction, or I won’t have realized what I want to do in life?
Deborah Challinor: I suppose it started when I was doing my PhD thesis and my supervisor, the late great Laurie Barber, told me it was actually readable and quite entertaining which is apparently rare for a PhD thesis. My thesis was published as a book with some modifications, with the boring bits taken out, and that turned out to be quite successful and got to number four on the New Zealand nonfiction list.
After that I thought maybe I can do fiction, so I got myself an agent who at that time was Glenys Bean and with her I got a contract with Harper Collins, New Zealand. That turned out to be the three-book series, Children of War, and away I went.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s fantastic. As you’ve mentioned that first book, let’s talk about it now. That was Grey Ghosts. It was research you did into the experiences of New Zealand vets in the Vietnam war. What did you find when you wrote that book? What were your conclusions or discoveries?
Vietnam War ‘life-changing’ event
Deborah Challinor: When I went into that piece of research, I expected to find that all veterans had been badly psychologically affected by that war. That’s not what I found. I found that some had, and some hadn’t. That was an interesting finding. I found that those who had been impacted were really badly impacted and those that hadn’t been weren’t, or else they were, and they weren’t telling me. But it was a life-changing event for all of them in one way or another.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s interesting. Was there any way you could measure what it might have been that made the difference between whether they were badly impacted or not? Was it simply the experiences they had, or was it something else in the environment?
Deborah Challinor: It’s possibly related to whether they were life-long regular soldiers, or they signed up for a shorter period. All our soldiers were regular force. They were all very well trained and I’m convinced of that. Some soldiers signed up for a shorter period, some were in the army for 30 years. I think the longer term soldiers who’d served up to 30 years, the longer they stayed in the army afterwards, possibly the less the impact, but I’m a bit hesitant in saying that because I’m not a soldier. I didn’t go to Vietnam. I’m just an observer. It doesn’t make me an expert.
Jenny Wheeler: After that great beginning – it’s a wonderful compliment to be told that your thesis is really entertaining – you became a number one best-selling author and you’ve just published your 17th historical novel. That one is called The Jacaranda House. It’s set in Sydney in the 1960s and I’m thinking that this might be the most recent timeframe you’ve written in with your historical novels. Would that be right?
Researching ‘recent’ history
Deborah Challinor: It is. It’s set in 1964 so it is the most recent timeframe. That’s historical for me because I was only four or five so I can’t quite remember it. I’m still doing research for that period. The book that comes after it, which I’m writing now, is set in 1969-70 and that will be the very last book I write because I can remember that and if I can remember it, to me it’s not history.
Jenny Wheeler: I understand, but do you mean the last book altogether or in that series?
Deborah Challinor: No, in the series, but it will be the most recent historical book I will write.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. I did go to Kings Cross at that time because I’m older than you, and it was the time when the Americans were there in great numbers because Sydney was a rest and recreation place for the soldiers that were in Vietnam. It’s interesting to me that that Vietnam theme still comes through. You make reference to it in the book, don’t you?
Deborah Challinor: Yes, I know and that’s deliberate. I picked 1964 for The Jacaranda House because to me it was the height of Kings Cross, the height of its glamour before it started to slide down and become tarnished when the heroin came in with the American soldiers and the gloss came off and it got a bit seamy and grotty.
At the time of The Jacaranda House it had spectacular stage shows and that’s why I picked that time period but by the end of the decade things were getting a bit shabby in the Cross.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. You tackle a sensitive and topical issue in the story as well. Your set of characters include a transgender couple who are working in the Kings Cross nightclub scene and there’s also a very strong underlying theme of estranged mother and daughter relationships. Was it difficult to research this topic?
Chloe & Zoe – dream interviewees
Deborah Challinor: No and yes. That transgender thing – if we’ve got time I’ll tell you a little story about that. I plan my books years ahead and about four years ago I was in Sydney and decided I need to interview some transgender girls who were working in the Cross. I walked down Oxford Street to the Stonewall Hotel, which is an LGBT hangout, and I asked various people if they would like to be interviewed for this book and got told to f… off by a few people.
Eventually I met a couple of girls who I will call Chloe and Zoe. They said they would come back to my hotel with me, which was Sheraton on Hyde or something. We went back to my hotel which was quite flash, and they are about seven feet tall these girls in their perspex heels and huge hair.
We’re walking across the foyer of the hotel and we got the filthiest look from the concierge, but I thought I don’t care, I’ve paid for my room, I can do what I like in it. We hopped in the lifts and went up and were chatting away having cups of tea.
There’s a knock on the door and it’s the concierge saying, excuse me, Madam, are you alright? Yes, I’m fine thank you. I ordered room service hot chips for all of us, and we spent about three hours, the three of us, talking about what it was like being transgender. It was one of the most amazing discussions I have ever had.
Out of that came a lot of the information I used for the two characters in the book, Rhoda and Star. It really was extraordinary. They were the most amazing people and I’m never, ever going to forget that. Apart from the concierge’s interruption. That was an amazing learning experience for me, and it was so generous of those two women, it really was.
The exotic characters of the Cross
Jenny Wheeler: Do you think the concierge was concerned for your safety?
Deborah Challinor: I think he was, in a strange sort of way. What is this stupid old woman doing taking two transgender people to her room? I think he assumed I was going to be robbed or done over something, but I didn’t think so. In a way it was nice of him, but rude as well to assume that was going to happen.
Jenny Wheeler: It says something about the whole social context, doesn’t it? There were some remarkable personalities in the Cross during those years and some of them make their way into the book. I’m thinking of the witch, for example. Do you have any favorites from your research of that time?
Deborah Challinor: I did quite a lot of research on Rosaleen Norton. I think she was an amazing woman. The witch of the Cross, she was a New Zealander and to have stuck to her guns believing what she believed her entire life, which she did until she died in her early seventies, and not deviated from her beliefs and gone on and on with it and done her art against all the dislike and derision she received for it, and the court cases and the publicity and just stuck with it is extraordinary, especially during those years.
Jenny Wheeler: I was amazed to see in the end notes to the book that you wrote it in four months. It’s a big book that tells a big story. I would imagine that would only be possible when you’ve already written 16 books before it?
Deborah Challinor: Normally I’d say it’s a result of rubbish time management, only having four months left to write it in, but it doesn’t actually take that long to write a book because in advance, I do quite detailed outlines. I’ve got an outline to work off so that takes out mistakes. I never go off on a tangent and have to go back and fix something.
The Restless Years series
I do a lot of what I call macro research in advance, so I’ve already done that. In this case my father was really sick, and I had to spend a lot of time looking after him so I didn’t have a lot of time to write it anyway. Plus this is the third book in what is a quartet (Book Three in The Restless Years) so I knew a lot of the characters anyway.
I knew Polly, I knew Sonny Manaia, I knew Awhi Manaia. It’s not a lot of characters for me to need to develop. I didn’t know Rhoda and Star and I didn’t know a couple of the others, but that’s the beauty of series. You don’t have to get to know all your characters with every new book.
The writing doesn’t actually take that long as long as I get my bum on my seat in my office. It’s research, it’s the planning that takes the time.
Jenny Wheeler: You’ve mentioned that there’s going to be another book following in this series. Who are the characters going to be in that one? Do we know any of them yet or are they a completely new set?
Deborah Challinor: No, you do know them. They’re children at the moment and they were children in the last book. They played little tiny parts. They’ve grown up. There’s Donna who’s the sister of Allie, Sonny’s wife. She’s a nurse. She goes to Vietnam. The book is set in Vietnam and New Zealand in 1969-70.
There’s Sam Apanui who’s the son of Kura. There’s Eddie Irwin who’s the son of Wiki Irwin. They both go to Vietnam. They’re only children in this book and little children in the previous book. There’s the daughter of Ana and David who’s Leonard and their child Joe goes to Vietnam as an entertainer, so it all ties and weaves in a big fat plait.
A champion of series stories
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds wonderful. You’ve amassed a great backlist of historical fiction. We’ve mentioned that this is the 17th historical fiction book you’ve written. Your first trilogy Children of War was set in New Zealand and then you went on and did the Smugglers Wives series and the Convict Girls series. That was the Sydney based one.
You obviously love creating whole communities of characters and from what you’ve said with this book, that’s very much in evidence, isn’t it?
Deborah Challinor: I enjoy writing series because I do get fond of my characters and it’s nice not to have to let them go with every book. I find it easier because I don’t have to come up with a whole set of new ones with every book I write. It’s a bit lazy really, because it’s less work and you can pick up a story from the last.
I mean, there’s one long story arc that goes over each series with smaller story arcs in each book and I find it quite exciting planning that out in advance. Also, readers can emotionally invest in the characters if they’re with them through a series. It’s fun connecting. It’s my goal to connect every book I’ve ever written.
Jenny Wheeler: I was really impressed because right at the very beginning with Children of War you said that you saw it as a trilogy right from the beginning. It was always going to be a trilogy. That seems to be quite brave when you’re just starting out on your very first book. What do you think gave you that sense of confidence?
‘Wars are won at home . . .’
Deborah Challinor: That might have been arrogance actually, not confidence. The three wars, the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War are quite close together and what we thought was our military prowess was really important to us as a nation. We decided we were forged as a nation at ANZAC Cove which is a mythology I don’t really buy into. I think our nation was forged at home, not somewhere else in the world.
I wanted to have a look at that. I wanted to pull that one apart. I don’t think wars are won in foreign fields. I think wars are won at home. Soldiers go away and fight but if there’s nothing to come home to, where’s the victory? That’s one side of it, but we had our own wars here in New Zealand, didn’t we? We had New Zealand wars. That’s where our nation was forged, and we still haven’t got the balance right. We haven’t sorted out the Treaty.
Jenny Wheeler: No, we haven’t. I feel your background as a social historian is coming through here and also that aspect that in a lot of the earlier histories women’s role was very much overlooked or underestimated. There’s a sense in your stories that you’re writing that anomaly too.
Deborah Challinor: Yes. It used to be that men wrote history, so you got men’s history written by men about men and it was nearly always white men, white men who were victors. That’s the history you got, that’s the history you read and that was the history that was published. But that isn’t all the history. There’s never one history. There are thousands of histories, depending on who you are. There’s not one version of history. That’s a really hard lesson to learn. There are loads of versions of history and they all add up to make a universal experience.
Family history plays a role
It drives me mental when people say, no, this is what happened in the past. Is it? Yes, it might be from your point of view, but not from hundreds of other people’s points of view.
Jenny Wheeler: The Convict Girls series begins with Behind the Sun. You’ve said that there was a deeply personal motivator behind those books. I wondered if you’d like to elaborate on that for our readers.
Deborah Challinor: My great x 5 grandmother, whose name was Mary Ann Anstey, was a convict and she was transported on the Lady Julian which was part of the Second Fleet. That ship was also known as a floating brothel and it arrived in Port Jackson, Australia in June 1790. She married my great x 5 grandfather, William Standley, who was a marine on HMS Sirius from the First Fleet which arrived in Port Jackson in 1788.
I don’t know if Mary Ann was a prostitute, either in England or on Lady Julian. She was transported for seven years for nicking two silk handkerchiefs from the shop of George Stubbs in Birmingham. She was my starting point for those books, and she morphed and splintered into Friday Woolfe, Harriet Clarke, Sarah Morgan and Rachel Winter, the four main characters of those books.
I wanted to look at what life would have been like for convict woman in Sydney and bring that story to life. They are my actual ancestors. They married and I think they went to Norfolk Island for quite a while, not because they had done more crimes in Australia because that is where you went if you misbehaved in Australia. I think they went there and had some business.
A best selling history
My story is set 40 years after my great x 5 grandparents’ time. Also, my story was set after the Female Factory at Parramatta had been established so I wanted to have a look at that. That’s my personal connection, plus I had quite a lot of other male ancestors who were transported. It’s quite a criminal family, my family, but not just me.
Jenny Wheeler: All your books have reached the top five in the New Zealand fiction best seller lists. Six of them have reached number one. You consistently get great reviews and you have been compared to people like Philippa Gregory. Australia’s answer to Philippa Gregory, I think the Brisbane Times said, or else Kate Furnivall, who is another very well thought of historical writer.
I wonder, what keeps you going now? What mountains are left to climb? Do you see yourself getting to book 30?
Deborah Challinor: I can’t get on the New Zealand bestseller list anymore because I’m published by Harper Collins, Australia. I’m an international writer, apparently, so I have to get to the top of the international best seller list. That’s another little mountain to aim for. It was a little bit annoying but there are always new mountains. The biggest mountain is telling essentially the same story over and over again, which is what all writers do I think, in new and interesting ways that readers find satisfying.
The way to do that, in my opinion, is to keep creating appealing and flawed characters. I think the beauty of writing characters is you have to make them flawed. That’s a tip for new writers. Don’t write perfect characters because no one wants to read perfect characters. Make them flawed, make them people you can cheer for.
Yes, there are mountains and yes, there will be book 30 and hopefully there will be book 40. I don’t know if there will be book 50. I’m not that young anymore.
National honours for literature
Jenny Wheeler: In 2018 you were made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for your services to literature and history, so you’ve already got official recognition for your work. Did that come as a surprise to you?
Deborah Challinor: Yes. I nearly died when I got the letter from the Department of the PM or wherever it came from. I had no idea what it was. I never, ever thought that my commercial popular fiction would be recognized at that level. Not in New Zealand because we don’t recognize commercial fiction here. That was exciting and yes, I was really thrown.
Jenny Wheeler: And they called it literature. I don’t think there’s anything to be shamed about it as commercial fiction. In fact, I think it’s really important to write good commercial fiction that lots of people are going to read. But they did call it literature, Deborah, so you can take that and have a feather in your hat as well.
Deborah Challinor: Yes, I did feel a little tiny bit of that, I must admit. It was very satisfying.
Jenny Wheeler: Especially as you say on your website that you started out studying English at University and you dropped out because you kept failing at it. Now you’ve written 17 best-selling novels. It’s pretty amazing. What made you change your mind about English?
Deborah Challinor: I did keep failing. I just couldn’t get the hang of it. It was boring and I lost interest. I didn’t care about the hidden meanings in writers’ imagery and that sort of thing. I just wanted to read their books; I didn’t want to pull them apart.
Jenny Wheeler: It sounds like you failed at writing the sort of essays they wanted written more than anything else.
Best selling author failed English
Deborah Challinor: I did. I got D’s. Clearly, I’m a storyteller, not an analyst. That’s what I do. That’s all I do. I tell stories. So I changed to history because at the time it seemed more straightforward and defined, but it really isn’t. At the time I thought it was, but I’ve never regretted changing, and that’s not to denigrate creative writing degrees. I don’t at all, but I’ve never regretted it.
Jenny Wheeler: Turning to Deborah as reader, because this is The Joys of Binge Reading and I like us to be able to inspire people with books they might like to take up or have a look at that they haven’t heard of, what do you like to binge read and what recommendations would you have for listeners?
Deborah Challinor: I do binge read three or four books a week but it’s mostly nonfiction. Call me boring but I read history and politics and sociology and economics because it does inform my views of the world, which I find help me when I’m writing historical fiction. I don’t read a lot of fiction but when I do my favorite writers are Mark Billingham and Stuart MacBride who are British crime writers.
I quite like crime. Stuart MacBride is a bit splattery but I can live with that. I like Phil Rickman for supernatural suspense. He writes the Merrily Watkins series. I really like Laurie Graham, she writes historical fiction, books like The Importance of Being Kennedy. If you Google her, she’s done some fantastic historical fictions and she’s really witty and clever. I noticed she’d been dropped by her publisher Quercus recently and I thought I’d better up my game if she’s getting dropped by her publisher.
I was reading Kate Atkinson religiously until I read A God in Ruins and I was so upset at the ending of that. Have you read that one?
Favorite authors and books
Jenny Wheeler: No, I haven’t.
Deborah Challinor: Okay. Well, I won’t say what the ending is in case listeners want to read it, but she played a mean trick at the end of it and I was so upset by it that I said I am never going to read her stuff ever again. But I did. I’ve just read a book by her called Big Sky, which is one of her books from the Brodie Jackson series which is her series about a private detective. That was pretty good. She writes historical fiction too. But I was upset by A God in Ruins, which is something I shouldn’t say about another writer.
I do read a bit of historical fiction but not a lot because I’m worried I’m going to accidently plagiarize someone.
Jenny Wheeler: With Kate, I guess it’s a reminder to you that readers can have very strong reactions to endings.
Deborah Challinor: Yes. I was really emotionally invested in a character and she employed a literary device and I found it so upsetting. You can’t do that to readers. But I think it won an award for something.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, it’s interesting isn’t it? I’m not saying this happens with Kate, but I do know some of the authors you really love and you follow, after they’ve written a lot of books, you start to feel as if their editors get to be very either complacent or slack. You start to feel about some big names with later books that this would have benefited from a slightly more stringent edit. There’s a feeling that they let them go on and on because they’re a big name. I’ve found that two or three times and I’ve thought, I wish the editor would exercise more judgment here.
If you were doing it again . . .
Deborah Challinor: Yes. Well, they will sell. They’re going to sell anyway because they’re such a popular and beloved name.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s right. We’re coming to the end of our time together now so circling around and looking back down the tunnel of time, at this stage in your career, if you were doing it all over again, would you change anything, and if so, what?
Deborah Challinor: I don’t know if I would change much because it’s all worked out quite well. I might have started earlier because I didn’t start writing until I was 40, but maybe I wasn’t supposed to.
Jenny Wheeler: Maybe you didn’t have the emotional experience to be able to do it.
Deborah Challinor: No, because my characters live a lot of lives in my books. Maybe I hadn’t until then. Maybe it just wasn’t time.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s another theme that runs through your characters. A lot of your characters are people on the lower half of society, the ones who are struggling or haven’t had the advantages or things are against them. You have a soft spot for the battler and the loser.
Deborah Challinor: Yes, because all major characters in books have to have a battle to fight, otherwise they’re boring and you don’t invest in them. They’ve got to go through some amount of fire to come out the other side, otherwise they’re emotionally drab and you don’t care about them.
Jenny Wheeler: There is a social justice aspect to it too. I feel that you are making a point about some of the conditions that people had to face, particularly with your convict relations, maybe. I mean to be transported for stealing two handkerchiefs is unreal today, isn’t it?
Deborah Challinor: Yes, it does seem a little unrealistic.
What’s next for Deborah the writer?
Jenny Wheeler: What is next for Deborah, the writer. You’ve mentioned the follow up to The Jacaranda House. Has that got a title yet?
Deborah Challinor: It had one. It was going to be called Sisters of Mercy but that’s a bit Catholic church and I don’t know if we want a Catholic church name for my next book because of pedophile connotations.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, and maybe it wouldn’t accurately reflect it anyway because they’re not in any sort of religious order are they?
Deborah Challinor: No, they’re not. It’s two sisters who go to Vietnam. My thought was to keep the sisters in and twist it round somehow. That’s the working title. It’s probably not going to be the actual title.
Jenny Wheeler: When is that one due out?
Deborah Challinor: Not until October next year, but it has to be delivered by the end of this year, but that’s okay, I’m part way through, I’ll belt it out in the next couple of months.
Jenny Wheeler: This will be the last in this series. Have you got any thoughts about new series after that?
Deborah Challinor: I’m not looking at a series next. I’m looking at maybe some spinoff books from the Convict Girls series. In one of the Convict Girls books Aria, who became Friday’s partner, she’s the Maori woman, her uncle’s head was stolen by an ethnologist and sent to England.
I’m thinking about a story where Aria and Friday and maybe Sarah go to England and steal it back. That’s a maybe. I haven’t finished with the story around Harry and Rachel’s ghost, or is she just Rachel’s imagination because that was never made clear in the series. I’m thinking about something around that.
A train track to a cemetery
I’m pretty sure about a story set in 1860s Sydney based around Rookwood Cemetery which opened in 1867 which is that huge cemetery out near Leichhardt. It’s the biggest one in the southern hemisphere. The funeral, the funeral train from Central Station and undertakers and mourning rituals and maybe resurrection, because I’m absolutely fascinated. This is what a ghoul I am, I’m fascinated by all those 19th century mourning rituals.
Jenny Wheeler: I’ve got a relation who’s buried in Rookwood. In fact, I tried to find his records, but his records don’t seem to be there, but he definitely was buried there. He was working in a hospital in Sydney at the time he died.
Deborah Challinor: Every time I go to Sydney, I go out there and have a good poke around. It just fascinates me. The fact that there was an actual train, a funeral train with a funeral platform which has been done up and it’s at Central. That’s probably going to be a goer, that one.
Jenny Wheeler: Is that train still on display somewhere?
Deborah Challinor: The train’s not, but the platform is there. It’s on your left as you go into Central on the train. It’s beautiful and it was designed by a woman architect.
Jenny Wheeler: Is the cemetery still functioning as a cemetery?
Deborah Challinor: Yes. It’s got a million souls in it now.
Jenny Wheeler: That sounds fascinating. Do you like interacting with your readers and if so, where can they find you, particularly online at the moment because a lot of our listeners are not in New Zealand and also with COVID the movement of things is still a little proscribed, particularly in Australia. How can readers connect with you?
Deborah Challinor: I’ve got a Facebook books page, which is www.facebook.com/DeborahChallinorBooks. I post on that once a week most weeks. Occasionally I forget.
Where to find Deborah online
Jenny Wheeler: So people can reach you through there?
Deborah Challinor: Yes. It’s not like a friends page, it’s a books page and I post every week. If someone posts, I’ll always reply. I’ve got a website, deborahchallinor.com but it’s a bit out of date. I have to do something about that.
Jenny Wheeler: I’ve noticed in the past that you do quite vigorous book touring, you go to libraries and so forth. Are you able to do that this time with this book? Is anything like that planned?
Deborah Challinor: No, not this year. The COVID has squashed that because this book was to be out in April and there were no shops open in April so it got put off until August. We didn’t know what the state of play was going to be with moving around the country and then with Bauer Media going down and no magazines being available, there’s no tour this year.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Those are all blows to the local cultural life, but hopefully they still might be resurrected.
Deborah Challinor: Yes, hopefully.
Jenny Wheeler: It’s been great talking. We have come to the end of our time together but thank you so much and congratulations on such a fantastic career.
Deborah Challinor: Thank you very much.
Jenny Wheeler: My pleasure.
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