History between the lines

By Dionne Christian , Dionne Christian

Author Jenny Pattrick has long been fascinated by New Zealand history.
Author Jenny Pattrick has long been fascinated by New Zealand history.

When Jenny Pattrick's The Denniston Rose appeared in 2003, her publisher warned her it was taking a "terrific punt" on her story about a young girl in the bleak coal-mining settlement of Denniston in the 1880s.

New Zealand historical fiction wasn't exactly known for rocketing up the best-seller lists.

Pattrick, a former teacher and jeweller who was once president of the now defunct Crafts Council of New Zealand and the Arts Council of NZ (Creative New Zealand), crossed her fingers and hoped there were readers as fascinated by our own history as she was.

The publisher's punt, and Pattrick's faith in our growing interest in local stories, paid off. The Denniston Rose was a sensation, becoming one of the country's biggest-selling novels. The sequel, Heart of Coal, did almost as well.

Both books were subsequently published as illustrated editions, featuring photographs and archival material to show the history of the Denniston coal-mining plateau on the West Coast.

"If you'd ask me when I wrote The Denniston Rose whether there was much interest in our history, I might have said no but, since then, I think there's been quite a growth in New Zealand writers writing historical fiction," says Pattrick.

"I think it's because we're all becoming more interested in our own history and stories. I've always found it fascinating thinking about how people survived in those days and I am a great admirer of those early pioneers, Maori and European, who managed to make a life for themselves here."

Her ninth novel, Leap of Faith, returns to the hard scrabble times of our earlier history.


This time, the action takes place on the equally desolate North Island volcanic plateau, circa 1907, where there's a race against time to complete the main trunk railway between Wellington and Auckland.

When Pattrick saw parts of the railway around the Matakohe Viaduct being repaired, she started reflecting on those who originally constructed some of the trickiest engineering in the county.

"I found photos taken at the time and there were the workers ... with no scaffolding, no harnesses or any other safety equipment. A lot of them were former sailors who had a head for heights from climbing rigging. What they managed to do with basic equipment, picks and shovels, was amazing."

How there weren't more accidents is equally amazing to her.

"Dynamite was used to blow away entire hillsides; because it was so cold up there, the men would sometimes collect sticks of dynamite and carry it in their jackets to keep it warm because it wouldn't ignite below a certain temperature. There were a couple of occasions when men tripped and blew themselves up."

So Pattrick had the nuts and bolts of the story, but needed to put a more human face to it.

For that, she introduced miners and their families who would have travelled north to work, and earn good money, in temporary worker settlements.

A much-loved character from her earlier stories returns, but Pattrick wants that to be a surprise for readers, and there are miscreants, the misunderstood and the plain malevolent.

It's all there in rich detail: treacherous weather, near-impossible deadlines, sly grogging, suspicious deaths, budding romance and a lot of facts about how one cuts through near-vertical mountainsides and bridges deep gullies to build a railroad.

She admits to enjoying the research possibly more than the writing.

"I always start with the research and then there comes the point when I have to start writing, but making up my own stuff is not as much fun ... it's more of a discipline to sit down and write."

That said, Pattrick prefers writing fiction to the idea of trying her hand at non-fiction. The former provides more freedom to craft her own characters and to explore what life was like for a diverse range of folk. The recipient of the 2009 NZ Post Mansfield Prize (now the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship), Pattrick has previously aimed for a book about every 12 months. Leap of Faith has taken longer, partly because she is nursing her husband, Laughton.

Don't ask her what's next, she says, because she has no idea. Yet. Having written since 1959, including songs and musicals for children, there's little doubt it won't be long until something catches Pattrick's eye.

"I think I'd quite like to write a play; I like making up stories."
* Jenny Pattrick joins Catriona Ferguson to discuss Leap of Faith and writing historical fiction at the Auckland Writers Festival; Heartland Festival Room, Aotea, on Saturday, May 20, 3pm-4pm.

Leap of Faith
by Jenny Pattrick
(Black Swan, $38)

- NZ Herald

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