Monday, February 11, 2019

Where do ideas come from?

This is a question writers are often asked. Readers wonder if we write from experience and to what degree we are the fictional characters in our short stories and novels. This notion intensifies when a story is narrated in first-person or set in our hometown or city, or if the characters work in professions with which we have longstanding associations  — in my case, thirty years as a tertiary educator.

I draw on a blend of experience, emotional memory, observation, curiosity and imagination to create a work of fiction. When I write in first-person the ‘I’ is not me. However, the technique allows me to move closer to a main character and to create a sense of immediacy or urgency in the writing. Setting a story somewhere with strong personal connections or meaning helps me evoke a vivid sense of landscape and place. I often treat the setting as a character in its own right, believing that place influences our fictional characters’ sense of themselves, and how their lives unfold, and sometimes unravel. Physical landscape interacting with emotional landscape enriches the themes of a story or novel.

A reviewer once noted that I write short stories about love, loss, sensual power and letting go, an accurate observation. These themes also occur in my novels, along with belonging, identity, racial tension and alienation. Why these particular preoccupations? With each book I write, I unearth additional answers to the question and gain insights into their hold on me. Fundamentally I write to make meaning of what it is to be human.

My short stories sometimes begin with an idea (for example, the ramifications for a woman who fattens up her husband so his lover will leave him) or a theme (entitlement, say) or a possibility (winning Lotto) or a question (what if a character walked into a shop during an armed robbery?). The first of these four examples developed from a conversation with colleagues about diets; the second arose after I learned of a powerful man who was prepared to risk everything to father a baby; the third stemmed from reading an article about the perceived link between wealth and happiness; the fourth came in response to glimpsing a sensationalised headline in a newspaper.

Ideas for my novels come from a deeper place and can have a lengthy gestation. Ribbons of Grace (Penguin NZ, 2017) was inspired by a conversation I overheard as a youngster between two men at a New Year’s Eve party in Arrowtown: "When they laid out that Chinese miner they discovered he was a she." Initially their exchange intrigued me; later in adulthood it haunted me. Forty years on I wrote the novel in part to resolve the ambiguity and also to explore what might have led a female sojourner to disguise herself as a male and travel to another country.

Lives We Leave Behind (Penguin NZ, 2012), was born of desperation. During a meeting to negotiate a contract for my first novel with Penguin managers, publisher Geoff Walker asked if I had a second book in me. Realising this was an important question that required a confident answer I said — despite having no glimmer of another project in mind — “Yes, I do.” To my horror, Geoff then said, “Tell us about it.” Thankfully I remembered a story a friend had told me years before about a group of First World War New Zealand nurses on board a troopship that was torpedoed in the Aegean Sea. Until I began relaying the nurses’ story to Geoff and his colleagues, I had not thought of fictionalising their plight. I left the meeting in a state of shock tinged with exhilaration, having accepted the offer of a two-book deal.

The idea for my forthcoming novel Wait for Me (Penguin Random House NZ) came about in another surprising way. As recipient of the 2013 Seresin Landfall Otago University Press Residency, I was on a six-week writing retreat in an isolated bay in the Marlborough Sounds. In my proposal I had stated that I intended working on a second story collection. Usually if I make a commitment I stick to it. However, I woke on the third morning in the bay with a cast of characters, settings, time periods, and several storylines for a novel. The compulsion to capture and work on these nocturnal developments meant shunting aside the short story I had been labouring on and entering a novel-writing frenzy. By the time the residency ended I had written three chapters, made notes for four more, and drafted a synopsis. I had also devised a possible structure for the book, which I later discarded although it served me well as a first draft. The ending I had in mind remained throughout subsequent drafts and will appear in the final section of the published novel.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog, my ideas come from many and varied sources. A few arrive as gifts. Most however evolve through dogged perseverance working in tandem with imagination, informed by what I hear, see, feel, taste, touch, read and think about. There is an element of mystery at work too. Something I don’t want to examine, or bring, even partially, into the light, in case it dissipates and I am left wordless and rudderless, unable to write.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Who Cared? - Otago Nurses in WW1

Earlier this year I had the privilege of working on a collaborative project with staff at Otago Museum, Otago Polytechnic lecturers and Bachelor of Design (Communication) third year students on an exhibition based on my novel Lives We Leave Behind (Penguin Books, NZ, 2012; Editions Prisma, France, 2013).

This free exhibition runs from 26 September 2015 to 31 January 2016, 1877 Gallery, Otago Museum.

Publicity material extract: 
“Experience the realities of war with three nurses from Otago at the No. 1 New Zealand Stationary Hospital, Wisques, Northern France. Step inside their world, watch them at work, pick up and read their letters, touch their few possessions and discover their most private thoughts.”

Poetry Competition
We invite members of the public to write a poem of less than 200 words inspired by the exhibition Who Cared? Submit your entry before 11 January under one of these categories: Year 1 to Year 13 students or the Open Section.   

To enter the poetry competition online and for full terms and conditions visit:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

International Food Design Conference, Dunedin, July 2014

Lucky me! Last week I was given a ticket for the Gala Dinner held at Otago Polytechnic on the final evening of the conference. In an email the day before, we were told to wear comfortable clothes and sensible shoes – a clue that this culinary feast was going to be out of the ordinary. In fact it was extraordinary. As Charmian Smith wrote in the Otago Daily Times, Wednesday July 9, 2014, the event “told the story of the Sargood Centre, from its pre-European history as a Maori place of learning, through the 1925 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition for which it was built, to its use as an art gallery and, more recently, as part of the polytechnic.”

Guests met and mingled at Manaaki, the polytechnic hospitality centre. After enjoying parcels of duck and crayfish, plus a beverage or two, we were transported in a heritage bus to the Sargood Centre where we were immersed in a carnival atmosphere, complete with quirky booths, gin slushies, popcorn, disembodied hands offering tasty morsels, and delicious lamb cutlets peddled from a cart.

We later became part of an art ‘exhibition’ in another building, where we encountered cubes of botanical gel in spoons embedded at various levels into plinths. We had to eat the cubes without using our hands. Not as easy as it sounds.

Finally we were escorted into a funky space with lights and music and handed plates of lemon curd, passion-fruit sago, tiny balls of sponge, miniature macaroons and a huhu grub injected with a citrus type substance!

Everyone had a fabulous night thanks to the amazing Culinary Art Degree staff and students, and everyone who assisted them.

This photo of Margo Barton and me was taken in the 1920’s South Seas Exhibition mid-way through the evening.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Seresin/Landfall Otago University Press Writing Residency

During September and October 2013 I spent six weeks as writer-in-residence at Waterfall Bay, a beautiful secluded spot in the Marlborough Sounds where I worked on a second collection Stories Bodies Tell and a third novel The Gulf Between. Shortly after arriving I fell into a daily rhythm of writing, walking, thinking, reading, and writing again. In the evenings I recorded in the attached notebook, a gift from a friend, my reflections on reading for pleasure and reading for research, observations about adapting to a bush-clad landscape and extreme weather patterns, and insights into the benefits of abandoning regular life to focus for a while on the work of writing. My first experience of a residency has convinced me to apply for others. First, though, I must unpack and then revisit the words I wrote at the bay.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Film Options

In October 2013, along with Penguin (NZ), I signed a film options contract for my first novel Ribbons of Grace, another first for me. Whether we go to the movie depends on funding. Fingers crossed!

French Edition

In July 2013 Editions PRISMA (France) published Des vies derriere soi, the French edition of Lives we Leave Behind, which Penguin (NZ) released in October 2012. The French edition came about after Debra Millar gave Penguin’s French agent a copy of the NZ version of my novel at the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair. The agent loved the book and worked hard to place it with a French publisher. It’s been a real thrill to have my fiction translated for the first time.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Dunedin launch of Lives We Leave Behind

Last Thursday, in the company of family, friends and book lovers, nurse historian Pamela Wood launched my new novel Lives We Leave Behind at Technique Restaurant, Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin. Colleagues and students from the School of Hospitality set up the venue to resemble a military hospital base complete with canteen, flags and sandbags. They also themed the food to match the settings in the novel: NZ, Egypt and France. To signal the French phase, Monsieur R, complete with black beret and heavy accent, entered the room, blew a whistle and welcomed us to France. Bronwyn W-G and Erin from the University Book Shop sold out of books, Bronwyn H connected my Brisbane-based daughter online and Steve took the photos. Then when people left, the students, dressed in army uniforms, presented everyone with a beautiful hand-made paper box decorated with a red poppy and containing a small Anzac biscuit. So a memorable evening for many reasons!