Introducing Encore – a new monthly feature on Binge Reading – and Deborah Challinor, a top selling New Zealand historical fiction author and her latest book The Leonard Sisters,
This is where we talk to authors who have already been on the show about their latest book…
Nurse Rowie Leonard is pro war. Her younger sister, Jo is a protestor and they’re both in Vietnam. Rowie is serving a 12 month tour of duty supporting the troops, serving overseas.
Jo is a folk singer and a fervent anti-war protestor who falls in love with a soldier and goes to Vietnam with a rock band, entertaining troops. As the sisters grapple with love. loss, and the stresses and sorrows of war, each will be forced to confront and question everything they’ve believed in.
The Leonard Sisters is the fourth book and concluding book in the popular The Restless Years series, a story about two sisters and the Vietnam war years of the late sixties.
The Binge Reading interview with Deborah on Book #3 in the series, The Jacaranda Tree, can be found here: https://thejoysofbingereading.com/deborah-challinor-best-selling-sagas/
This Encore episode was first published on Binge Reading on Patreon as exclusive bonus content for Patreon supporters and is then made available to everyone two weeks later.
You can help support the show and get early release Encore episodes by supporting us for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a month on Binge Reading on Patreon.
Introducing The Leonard Sisters
Jenny Wheeler: Welcome to the show. Deborah. It’s fantastic to have you with us. Tell us a bit about your interest in the Vietnam war, because you did also do a PhD thesis on it quite a few years ago didn’t you? How did you get into it initially?
Deborah Challinor: I did my Ph.D in the nineties, and I’ve been interested in Vietnam since I went to university and I’ve first went to uni in the seventies.
I won’t say I tailored my studies towards Vietnam, but I did start thinking about doing some research towards Vietnam when I saw a documentary while I was at uni called Hearts and Minds, which was American, and it looked at all sorts of aspects of Vietnam from an American point of view and a Vietnamese point of view.
And it really started me thinking about the New Zealand contribution. And when I got to my master’s, I wanted to do some research on the New Zealand contribution, but I got put off doing that and I put that aside until I got to my PhD.
But there was really not much at all, in terms of research, done in New Zealand and that just spurred me on to do some original research of my own. And that’s how I got into it.
Academic research that sparked novel
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Obviously, a history thesis is a very different proposition from a novel, and this is a very engrossing family story of the way that the war impacted on individuals and their emotional responses to it.
Jo, one of the sisters is an anti-war protestor who actually at the beginning has quite a black and white idea about right and wrong and almost villainizes as the soldiers who are going there.
She blames them, for being willing to take part in a conflict, even if they’re professional soldiers, because in New Zealand, only volunteers went, nobody was actually drafted there.
Rowie was a military nurse. Who is about to take up a year-long post in a military hospital there. So they’re very much on opposite sides of the fence aren’t they?
It must have been interesting for you to set up those two opposite poles, right at the start of the story.
Deborah Challinor: It was, and I did that deliberately, so readers could have that contrast. And also against that, there are two other reasonably central characters who are soldiers, that’s Eddie and Sam, and they are cousins. They’re in Victor 4 company and they’re connected in a way to Rowie and Jo.
NZ sent professional soldiers to Vietnam
So you get the other side of the coin, of professional soldiers. You mentioned before that the soldiers who went were all volunteers, they weren’t volunteers really, I mean, they were professional soldiers and their job was to go and fight conflicts where they were sent, because I’m in professional soldiers are employees of the government and the government, as managed by politicians and politicians sent them to Vietnam. So I didn’t really volunteer to go.
Jenny Wheeler: That’s a good point, actually, because what I was meaning really was that there weren’t any people just drafted, but of course you’re quite right.
They didn’t have a choice about whether they went there or not because they were already in the services. That’s absolutely right.
And although they both had volunteered for a second, what would you call it second term? Second tour. That’s right. Their second tour, they had mixed feelings about the war themselves, didn’t they? And that comes through.
Deborah Challinor: Yeah, well, they certainly did. I mean, they feelings change as well, during the course of the book, for various reasons.
A sequel to The Jacaranda Tree
Jenny Wheeler: Yes, now the previous book in the series, The Jacaranda Tree. Now that was the one that we talked about in our first podcast episode together. And I’ll make sure that in the show notes, we reference that so people could go back and look at The Jacaranda Tree, but that one spent 21 weeks in the top New Zealand fiction list, and some of the characters from The Jacaranda Tree, including Polly and Gina, who are at another couple of very important characters were in that third book and reappear in this fourth book.
It seems to prove certainly that Kiwis are very happy to read fiction based on their own history.
Deborah Challinor: Yes, I’m pretty sure they are. The comments that I get on my Facebook page, and when I go out and talk to people is that, people actually learn their history reading New Zealand historical fiction and it’s, I think it’s really important to get the history right, and to show the different perspectives.
In the past we have a lot of our history has been presented by white blokes,
Jenny Wheeler: Yes.
Deborah Challinor: it’s not so much now, but it’s important to look at all sides, all sides of the historical perspective. And that’s why I write a lot of my history from the perspective of women, because you know, all history is not being lived by men. Amazing. I know, but it hasn’t.
Maori soldiers fighting in Vietnam
Jenny Wheeler: That’s quite right. And also with these stories, a very significant Maori content as well because the armed services were, I would think, outside of the Second and First World Wars, heavily Maori, because it was one area just like for black Americans, where they could go into a job and get decent pay and be trained up to something that they could work at after they leave the forces. It was one of the routes where they could find employment. Wasn’t it?
Deborah Challinor: Yes. Although interestingly. In the New Zealand military, I’ve had a lot of comments from New Zealand veterans saying that there was no, no difference between being Pakeha or Maori in the New Zealand military,
Jenny Wheeler: Okay.
Deborah Challinor: In the American military the racism within the military was still really awful.
And, and I touch on that a tiny bit in the book.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes.
But once Maori left the army – a different story
Deborah Challinor: But once you leave the military and New Zealand, of course, you went back to being Maori or Pakeha, but within the New Zealand, military there was no difference.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. Did your own views of the war change in terms of how you saw it researching for this book, as compared with the PhD thesis, was there any difference in what you turned up and what you came to understand about it?
Deborah Challinor: Personally?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes.
Deborah Challinor: How I felt about it?
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. The things that you learnt, in research in the individual stories that maybe weren’t quite so clear when you were doing the more historically academic research,
Deborah Challinor: My PhD was based on interviewing 50 Vietnam veterans. So I got, I got a lot of grassroots stuff from them anyway, so for me it wasn’t a particularly turgid and boring academic exercise.
Veteran experiences faithfully reflected
It was pretty interesting. And so I could move a lot of that information that I learnt into the book. And a lot of the veteran’s experience ended up in the book, and terms of the group talks among the veterans, like when they’re having a drunk night out, quite a lot of the discussion comes out and that’s real veterans speak.
Jenny Wheeler: Yes.
Deborah Challinor: But some new stuff that I discovered, but the book included the number of entertainers that went from New Zealand, particularly Maori show bands.
I had no idea that many bands went to entertain. I thought it had been a couple like the Maori Volcanics but it was dozens of bands,
Jenny Wheeler: Music has a lovely part of the book because Jo in the end goes to Vietnam as a singer in a band and Polly and Gina are the other band members.
So music plays a huge part on the book and you really get into the song lists and things.
So you talk a lot about the songs of those years and what was popular with the soldiers and what wasn’t that side of it is also very interesting. It makes it very much come alive.
The soundtrack for the seventies
Deborah Challinor: Well, I’ve certainly like music and I was a teen in the seventies, the seventies was my decade. And some people hate seventies because they don’t like orange and brown, but it was my decade, you know, and, and that the music from the sixties and the seventies, I really remember. And I had great fun looking up song lists, I really did..
I mean, you can’t beat YouTube for song lists.
Jenny Wheeler: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. You know, here in New Zealand, it’s not so obvious to people in other places and 60% of our listenership is in the United States. So, they, they may not have even heard of the Gallipoli campaign, which was the First World War campaign in Turkey, which is seen as the campaign that established New Zealand’s identity as something separate from being just one of the Commonwealth countries that have been colonized by Britain.
New Zealand and Australia boats, So that’s where the term Anzac came from. And we tend to, have kind of almost glorified that campaign, which was a failed campaign where we were actually invading somebody else’s country.
When you look at it now, we’re starting to reframe that, battle in a different light.
How military campaigns seen by a nation
But I wondered if anything similar happened to us over Vietnam. I’m thinking about things like perhaps a loss of confidence in institutions and our political leadership, over what happened with Vietnam, those men who went there and when they came back, they were almost vilified.
Even by normal people, they didn’t come back to a country which said to them, you’re great soldiers and here, come and join the RSA. (Returned Services Association) Even the RSA didn’t want them. Did it make us reframe ourselves, that war in a different way from what Gallipoli did?
Deborah Challinor: Well, the Gallipoli campaign was horrendous and it was an utter failure, thanks to incompetent British military commanders, including Winston Churchill.
I don’t know why New Zealand has picked that to go glorify, I’ve got no idea, no idea why people go to Gallup or late and celebrate it. but that’s a slightly different story.
Two campaigns – and two different responses
And I don’t know why people vilify the soldiers who went to Vietnam. It shows a deep lack of understanding of the politics of the time, because New Zealand belonged to ANZUS, the Australian New Zealand US Defense Alliance, and we had to send troops. That was part of the Alliance. Part of the Alliance also meant we had trade agreements with the US.
We had already taken advantage of those. There’s no way we couldn’t send troops. Keith Holyoake I tried really hard not to send anyone for years.
Jenny Wheeler: That was the New Zealand prime minister at the time.
Deborah Challinor: Yeah. It’s. He was called the most dovish of the Hawks because they refused and refused and refused to see anyone.
And then finally sent a civilian medical team and then was pushed and pushed, but President Johnson and America and to send non-combatant engineers.
And then finally in 1965 cent an artillery battery. And then when he couldn’t avoid it any longer 1967, he sent a rifle company. So he did his very best to send, no one, but the protestors crapped all over the soldiers that did go.
Personal stories take central focus
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. And also. without giving anything away about what happens in the story, the soldiers who were invalided out of service after they were injured in Vietnam also seemed to me from what you indicated in the book, not treated well either.
They weren’t really retired out with any honor. They were just more or less sent home and forgotten about.
Deborah Challinor: Yes. That is that’s based on an actual experience. So that’s not, that’s not fiction that’s personal experience. So yes, if you can’t do the job anymore, they weren’t useful anymore. And so that was called physical injury and also mental injury.
Jenny Wheeler: Yeah. Obviously. your research from your PhD thesis has come into great use in this book.
Deborah Challinor: Yes. It really, really was. And I mean, as something that’s had a huge impact on me at the time, I didn’t have to look anything up. It was all in my head. How many years ago was 1996 or can’t remember, I can’t count backwards either, but it was quite a long time ago. So yeah, it was just I had in the back of my head that I was always going to do a Vietnam novel and it’s taken this long for, my writing status to align, to do it. It’s not the great New Zealand Vietnam novel, but it’s my version of it and I’m glad I’ve done it.
The pink Citroën project
Jenny Wheeler: Yes. There’s some lovely little personal details as well. And one of the ones that I’d love you just to talk about a little bit is this pink Citroën that, features in the story, a pink Citroën that was given to the nurses that they could use for transport around the base. Tell us a bit about that.
Deborah Challinor: Yeah. I was think it was the Victor 3 company rifle company found – and I hope I’ve got that right because they’ll be pissed off if I haven’t – they found a black Citroën in the bush that belong to the North Vietnamese army.
So they dragged it out. They were told to leave it alone, but it didn’t, they dragged it out and took it back to Nui Dat, which is where the Australians and the New Zealand were based, and they worked on it in their spare time, which we didn’t have much of, in the workshop.
Donated to the army nurses serving
And when Victor 3 went home Victor 4 took it over and it was full of bullet holes. And they fixed it all up. Did the body work and painted it a bright pink and then donated it to the nurses at the Australian field hospital, down the road in Vũng Tàu, so that the nurses can drive around in it, and got to the beach and all that sort of thing, which was very gratefully received. And then they passed on, pass it on to the New Zealand Nurses who came up with them. So that’s nice, isn’t it?
Jenny Wheeler: Yeah. Lovely. Absolutely lovely. Have you ever been to Vietnam yourself?
Deborah Challinor: no, I haven’t wait. We had everything teed up and tickets to go and being COVID arrived.
Jenny Wheeler: Yeah. There’s a very real sense in the book of those locations, the places you’re talking about, really had this conviction you’ve been there yourself because it’s so real, so that’s lovely to hear.
We are trying to keep this shorter, so we will start to wind down. Tell me, is this book available internationally?
I know that your publishers are Harper Collins, New Zealand Australia, but if Americans are interested in getting hold of it, is it available in Amazon and places like that?
Deborah Challinor: I think we want to know a bit confused about this. People say, get my books on amazon.com. Sorry. it can get it as an E-book. Look, try amazon.com. But I know people in America can get it through there.
The Leonard Girls on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Leonard-Girls-Restless-Years-Book-ebook/dp/B09HN3KPBH
What Deborah is working on next
Jenny Wheeler: Excellent. Deborah, look, thank you so much for your time. Just one final question, I guess, what are you working on now? Can you tell us what your current project is?
Deborah Challinor: I’ve gone back to the 19th century and long dresses and it’s a new trilogy based on a young girl called Catty Crow who, inherits through slightly nefarious means an undertaking business. And she works slightly in the shadows, but she’s a heroine. So she works for good, but not always on the right side of the law
Jenny Wheeler: And is that set in New Zealand or Australia or both?
Deborah Challinor: It’s set in Sydney in the 1870s, but she does visit New Zealand.
Jenny Wheeler: Fantastic. It sounds great, it’ll be another winner, I’m sure, because you’ve done a whole lot of historical series that have had a lot of success. Haven’t you?
Deborah Challinor: Yeah. Yeah. That’s 19th century ones seem to go really well. And for some reason I’m absolutely fascinated with cemeteries and funerals and corpses. Don’t ask me why, but I am.
Jenny Wheeler: So that huge cemetery in Sydney. Was it the rock?
Deborah Challinor: Rookwood.
Rookwood will get the spotlight
Jenny Wheeler: Rookwood that’s right? Yes. That’s really a famous Australian cemetery, I guess. It’ll get a mention somewhere.
Deborah Challinor: I’ve been there three times.
Jenny Wheeler: Oh, that’s wonderful. Look, we look forward to that one, but thank you so much for talking to us today about The Leonard Girls.
Deborah Challinor: Again, thank you very much, Jenny.
Hearts and Minds documentary: You Tube; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ov4wBozhMw