Waikato writer Deborah Challinor is one of New Zealand's best-selling novelists, whose books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. She also holds a PhD in history, which means her books are meticulously researched as well as beautifully written. Challinor's 20th book The Leonard Girls (HarperCollins) is out now.
Huntly was a lovely place to grow up. Dad was a pharmacist, mum was at home and my sister and I had a pretty privileged childhood. Those were the days when, in the weekend, children would leave the house straight after breakfast and not get back till dinnertime. We'd spend the day wandering in a little gang with all the neighbourhood children and, when I wasn't out doing things, I was reading.
I went to Huntly College, but I didn't have a particularly illustrious career and I only passed a couple of subjects in School C. In 1976 I got UE accredited, so I got there in the end.
I had no idea where I was going, so my father made me apply for teachers college. The last thing I wanted to do was teach high school but I went along anyway, and I wasn't accepted. They probably sensed my lack of enthusiasm, although I still didn't know what I wanted to do, so I went to university and studied English. I didn't do very well so tried history. I really liked history and I completed an undergraduate degree in 1980. I wasn't fantastic but I scraped through. Next I started a Bachelor of Social Science, I'm not sure why, and that only lasted a year. In 1990 I did Intermediate Law but, at the end of that, I knew I didn't want to be a lawyer.
I didn't start actually using my brain until my MA, although I liked how history works, because it isn't about what happened, it's about how people think about what happened. It's not about facts, it's about interpretation and perspective. After completing my MA - according to my records I graduated in 1993 with an MA in history with first class honours - I finally got the hang of university and decided to do my PhD.
My PhD was about how people remember Vietnam and how no one's memory is perfect. While I was writing my thesis, my supervisor read it and said 'this isn't boring' and he suggested I try to get it published. I sent a few chapters to three publishers and got offers from two. I went with Hodder Moa Beckett because they offered the biggest advance. That book was called Grey Ghosts, a modified version of my thesis, with all the academic stuff taken out.
HarperCollins asked me to co-write a book with a woman who thought her child was affected by Agent Orange after her husband had been in Vietnam. During that process I talked to HarperCollins about having a go at a novel. That was Tamar, 20 books ago.
Writing a book is a long process and it's pretty solitary. Editing alone takes months and months and it's really intense. I'll get the manuscript back up to four times before it's ready to go to print. In the early days, I'd get on my high horse and push back against my editing team. I'd tell them: "You don't know what's in my head. You don't know what I'm trying to say. You don't have a PhD." But after three books I got off my horse because the editors were incredible professionals with fresh sets of eyes. They bring things to the process that I don't have and I really enjoy editing now. I also have a great team and they always make my books better.
Tamar was published in 2002 and I've done a book a year since, but I definitely hit walls. When I had the space, if writing wasn't coming easily, I'd move my desk around. That used to fix the problem but now I'm in a house where I can't move the desk because I jammed in with shelves full of books, so I move things around in my head instead.
There's no deep psychological issue. It's not writers' block, it's just a matter of getting my arse on the chair. Unfortunately I do spend a lot of time looking at cat websites. Some of my family think I'm brainless because I watch lots of cat clips and happy dog videos, but that's how I relax.
My dreams are very intense when I'm finishing a book, if I get to sleep at all because, when it's all coming together in those final weeks, it really winds me up. I wonder if I've got this thread tied in. Or what about that character? Are they plaited in? I don't know what it's like for other writers but for me, pulling it all together is very tense and hectic and exciting, then people ask when the next one's out.
My husband is an IT business analyst. He doesn't really read, but he does the cooking which is good because if he didn't, I'd starve to death. He also does the grocery shopping, because if I did it, all I'd buy is cat food, teabags and toilet paper.
I get a sore neck if I sit at the computer for too long. I have to remind myself to get up and walk around. I have three office chairs that all cost varying amounts of money, and none of them are quite right and every couple of days I'll change from one to another. My desk is huge and has stuff spread all over it, and I tend to write with my feet up on it. I really need to sit properly on the chair – not like a 5-year-old - and take proper breaks.
In my Convict Girls series, the four main women characters, Friday, Rachel and Sarah and Harrie, they all have elements of me. Friday is covered in tattoos. I'm not covered, but I have some tattoos. She's also an alcoholic and I'm a recovering alcoholic. Sarah has had a colourful life. So have I. Harrie has mental health issues, and I have too and probably will all my life. Aria, who's Friday's latest partner, she can be arrogant and put people off with her behaviour and that's me sometimes as well. All those women represent parts of me so, when people ask me where I get my characters from, and how do I make them come alive, I say I do it by watching myself.
I started drinking at 14 and thought it was the best thing ever. It made me comfortable in my skin, which I'd never felt before. The first 10 years of drinking were hilarious and absolutely fantastic. In my mid 30s it started to bite me in the backside and it wasn't funny anymore, but it wasn't until 1996 that I got sober.
I was in Australia doing some research for my PhD, and I realised I wasn't going to finish if I didn't sober up. I was pissing away my time but I knew I had a choice, and that I'd get much more done if I was sober. That was a no-brainer so I went to an Alcoholics' Anonymous meeting every day for a year, more or less, until I felt confident that I didn't have to go every single day. Then I went most days for maybe 10 years. I don't go every day now, I feel more confident, but I still go. I've now been sober 25 years.
I do have a Facebook page, but I call it the devil's mirror. I'm always relentlessly positive when I post, or I put up cat pictures. I never make political comments, in case I alienate people. I can't be me. I sometimes get the odd unnecessarily unpleasant comment from people, but that's their problem. I write books. I'm not here to educate people and I'll respond to every post unless they're a twit.
My books are never going to win literary awards because this country doesn't give awards to popular fiction. That's just the way it is. I've got used to that and I've moved on. When I experience disappointment, I always give myself time to grizzle, but only a limited time, then I look for the positives because you always win something when you miss out. There's always a silver lining. I do make a living and I'm a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for my contribution to literature. But I don't think everything happens for a reason, instead I think we dig the good out and forget the rest.
I don't believe what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, because what doesn't kill you can really run you down. Sometimes stink things happen, but it's your perspective that matters. I think life just happens, so you have to get up and keep moving no matter what.