From the Ashes
by Deborah Challinor
(Harper Collins, $37)

You can picture the scene: a warm day down at The Rocks, the birthplace of modern Sydney; tourists - who have replaced convicts, soldiers and sailors - throng the narrow and cobbled streets when, into this strolls a woman dressed like, well, one of the convict girls who arrived here in the early 1800s.

Of course, the tourists think she's doing some sort of historical re-enactment and it's only natural that they put money in the basket she carries. It was, says Deborah Challinor, New Zealand's highest-selling historical fiction author, easier to let them believe this than delve into the more complicated story of why she was rummaging around in the past – or trying to – so her 10th novel, and 12th book, would have an authentic ring to it.

"I just wanted to see what it was like walking up those stone steps in a long skirt," she says, of part of the research for her Convict Girls series.

Advertisement

How was it?

"It was difficult! I went around; touched all the walls of those old buildings … I feel like I'm there, I feel like I'm my characters. I'm walking down exactly the same streets that they walked down and I am in my characters' shoes; I know what the wind feels like that they would have felt; the smells – although I can't smell what they were smelling, I think it would have smelt a lot worse back then … "

Indeed, Challinor takes her research, for what might be dismissed by some as "popular historical fiction", extremely seriously. Because before she became a best-selling author – and for a number of years when she was – Challinor was an historian schooled in the need for meticulous and well-documented research that was thoroughly footnoted and referenced.

Every one of her novels has made the top five on the NZ fiction bestseller list, with six hitting No.1; she makes an income good enough to live comfortably on without having to work other jobs and, in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours, she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to literature and historical research.

Now her latest novel, From The Ashes, is out. It's a slight departure for Challinor, who's more often written about our colonial past, because it's set in the 1950s and is the first book in a new trilogy that will take readers into the Vietnam War.

A different time period perhaps, but the same commitment to excellence in terms of scrupulous research, well-drawn and complex characters – even the unlikeable you can't help but feel for – and a story which keeps you turning the pages long after you should have switched off the light.

It follows on from Challinor's 2006 book, Fire, which was set in Auckland during the lead up to the 1953 royal visit but based on the Ballantyne's department store fire of 1947 in Christchurch. So, maybe part of a quartet, then.

From the Ashes

focuses on three very different women, connected in one way or another, navigating the shifting social and cultural landscape of the 1950s when new possibilities and attitude changes bring freedom, joy and, of course, their fair share of heartbreak.

Past reviews of Challinor's books in this paper have described them as "the perfect blend of fact and fiction" and so it is here.

"The 1950s are one of my favourite historical eras because it was such a time of change in New Zealand and other western countries," says Challinor. "It was for everybody but for women in particular. I think it was the beginning of the women's movement even though you see all these advertisements with women prancing round the kitchen in high heels and frilly aprons doing baking for the family. I don't think it really was much like that …

"I think women had had a taste of that freedom during World War II and I think the 50s was when women started to think, 'well, I quite liked having my own money and a bit of freedom'. We look back as if they were the golden years, but I don't really think they were.

"There was this attitude that it was great for everyone, everybody had lots of money, everybody had a home and everybody had the cash to buy any appliance that they wanted but that just wasn't the case. Yes, you could buy your fridge and your electric mixer and your vacuum cleaner but only if you did have the cash and not everybody did.

"There were signs in pubs and barbers and various places saying, 'no dogs, no Maoris' [sic] and that's common knowledge. There were loads of pubs that Māori blokes couldn't go into; different parts of the picture theatres that Māori had to sit in. I don't think people now – young people now – realise it was like that."

As well as telling a rollicking good story, Challinor has made it her mission to explore how it was in NZ's past. Now 59, she remains disappointed that the teaching of NZ history hasn't advanced much from her own school days when she "vaguely remembers" making a diorama of a pā with little brown Kewpie dolls.

Challinor says it's "anger-making and really insulting" not to engage fully and frankly with our own history.

"It's insulting to Māori and it's insulting to Pākehā … it totally denies Māori ownership of the land before Pākehā got here; it totally denies their experience of what happened when Pākehā got here and it denies the Pākehā experience of when they got here. Whether that was a good or a bad thing, it just negates everything that came before 'modern times'."

That we're not interested or willing to talk about NZ's past is, of course, negated by the fact that her own books sell in droves and she receives from readers letters thanking her for writing about it.

"Which just makes me think even more, 'I have to get this right' and if I tweak it a bit, which I do do sometimes, I always put it in the author's notes what I've done."

Deborah Challinor is one of our most successful novelists with 13 bestselling novels to her credit.
Deborah Challinor is one of our most successful novelists with 13 bestselling novels to her credit.

Challinor started with non-fiction, turning her University of Waikato PhD thesis into Grey Ghosts about NZ soldiers and the Vietnam War. That lead to Who Will Stop the Rain? about the effects of Agent Orange on the children of Vietnam veterans. Then, she decided to have a go at a novel because she wanted to have a go at writing without footnotes.

She admits to be taken aback when Tamar was successful.

"It was my first book, my first go at fiction and I knew I could string a sentence together because I'd always written quite good essays at uni but stringing a sentence together isn't writing a novel is it? There'd been no indication from the publishers that it was going to be a really good book so when it sold really well, I thought, 'shit! It worked'."

Although Challinor has found she can "just let go" with fiction, she still has folders and folders and folders of notes backing up her writing in case someone ever asks her, 'Well, can you prove that?' She loves historical research and says because of that she doubts she'll ever write a contemporary novel. The Vietnam War is as far as she'll go.

She's learned the importance of writing a thorough outline for each book and series; that alone can take up to six weeks. She's also learned, as much from studying and teaching history as writing, that memory is a slippery thing, which is part of the reason we need to tell stories about our past.

"People remember major past experiences in different ways and everybody has a different point of view about the same event; each point of view is valid and that point of view might change as that person grows older and looks back on the event and it might change according to what happens in the person's life later on, but that doesn't reduce the validity of the point of view. That doesn't happen just to people who've been to war, it happens to every person. Memory is a very fluid thing … "