Otorohanga writer Danielle Hawkins knows a thing or two about life on the farm. She grew up on a sheep and beef farm, is married to a dairy farmer, and works two days a week as a large-animal vet. So it's no surprise that Jo Donnelly, the lead character in Hawkins' debut novel, should be a capable kind of lass, not afraid of getting her hands dirty, whether it be shearing sheep, milking cows or birthing lambs.
In our Q&A with Hawkins, she talks about how she became a published novelist, juggling writing and parenthood, and reading the last page first.
But first, a bit more about the book: Jo has only recently returned to the farming life. She's a physiotherapist who has walked away from her inner-city Melbourne life after catching her long-term partner and her best friend having sex in an armchair.
Confidence shattered, Jo takes up a maternity cover position in her (fictional) central North Island hometown of Waimanu, population 4000. There she is assisted by a receptionist whose principal interest lies in manicures, and enjoys the delights of dodgy male clients with recurrent "groin strain", and a stock-drench salesman with "breath that could fell an ox" who can't understand why she isn't dying to join him for dinner at the Cossie Club.
It could all be rather dire, but for the pleasure of evenings spent with her eccentric honorary Aunt Rose and her childhood-friend-turned-ruggedly-handsome dairy farmer Matt. Which is of course, where the romance begins.
It's an engaging first novel, light-hearted, easy to read and full of Kiwi in-jokes. Jo is an endearing lead; witty and self-deprecating in a very New Zealand sort of way, and her maiden aunt Rose is full of surprises.
Dinner at Rose's is published in New Zealand by Allen & Unwin and the rights have recently been purchased by Ullstein Verlag, one of the oldest and most respected German publishers, for 25,000 Euros.
Q: How did you get started in creative writing?
A: I started playing around with writing when my daughter was a few months old - suddenly I had a lot of time at home with a sleeping baby, and a bit more spare brain-power than I had when I was working full-time. My first attempt taught me mostly how not to write a book (eg if you have no idea what your characters are going to do next you end up getting them into situations from which you can't possibly extricate them) but it was so much fun I kept trying.
Q: Where did you find inspiration for Dinner at Rose's?
A: I wrote the kind of book I like to read. I like my characters empathetic and my endings happy, and I usually read the last page first just to check it's all going to be okay. And I set it in rural New Zealand, both because that's what I know, and because I get so tired of chick-lit that's set in Tuscany or Provence.
Q: Tell us about the process of getting the book published.
A: About three years ago I decided that since I was wasting such a lot of time playing around with writing, it would be nice to know if I was any good at it. So I asked Google how authors go about submitting manuscripts. The first thing I discovered is that every second person seems to have written a novel, and it's hugely difficult to get publishers even to look at your manuscript amongst the vast piles of the things that they receive. There are lots of experts available who will critique your manuscript for a mere $800, but I'm far too mean for that kind of thing. Instead I went through my bookshelf to see who had published my favourites. When I looked up Allen and Unwin on the internet I found that you can send an email containing a 300 word synopsis and your first chapter to a thing called Friday Pitch. You get a bounceback email saying that they've received it, that if they like it they'll ask for the rest and if they don't, don't hassle them. THEY ASKED FOR THE REST! They didn't accept it, in the end, but after a few months they sent me a very, very kind email saying they liked the way I wrote but not the plot, and why didn't I try chick lit in a rural setting because that sells well. So I did.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the novel's release?
A: Getting paid actual money for something I'd do anyway. If my hobby can contribute to decreasing the overdraft it will be very, very cool.
Q: You're a vet, mother of two and now a novelist - how do you fit it all in?
A: Writing is what I do for fun, so it's replaced reading and TV. I write at night after the kids are asleep, and if their naps coincide I get another hour in the afternoon.
Q: Your book has some very distinctive New Zealand elements and has just been purchased by a German publisher. How do you explain the book's international appeal?
A: I suspect that it's more of a German appeal than an international appeal - my nice Swiss neighbour told me she read Breakfast at Six, which is the nicest Kiwi novel I've ever come across, years ago, in German, and that the German public like things set in New Zealand. Perhaps it's the same as the New Zealand and Australian public liking things that are set in the south of France?
Q: Any tips for aspiring writers?
A: I've found that reading compulsively (I used to read and walk to school at the same time, and occasionally walk into power poles) has taught me what good writing looks like, and then practice and a huge amount of self-editing has got me closer to being able to do it myself. I hope. I don't know if there are people out there who can sit down and write elegant, lucid prose without having to go over it about five times and beat it into shape, but I certainly can't!
* Finally, we have had a request from Victoria University masters student Pia White who is looking for adults aged 16 and over to complete an anonymous 10 to 15 minute survey about their reading preferences and attitudes. The survey can be found at: http://is.gd/readnz (please copy and paste to your browser). Participants have the chance to win a $50 Booksellers book token.