Danielle Hawkins' novel When It All Went to Custard has been the #1 bestselling NZ book since its May publication. Monique Barden meets the Otorohanga farmer, vet and part-time writer to find out why.
"It gets tiresome, it's unrealistically busy and it's a real turn-off, because no one is actually that busy," said the publisher.
But Danielle Hawkins had the perfect retort when she told the publisher: "I'm not trying to make her sound like a superhero, that's my life!"
Now Hawkins' fourth novel, When It All Went To Custard, has been the best-selling New Zealand book since it was published in May. Naturally, publishers HarperCollins hope she'll deliver another one to them soon but that depends how Hawkins manages to juggle her writing with farming and vet work. Not to mention her continued recovery from breast cancer.
She wrote the book - the story of Jenny and her cheating husband - from her home on the Ōtorohanga sheep and beef farm where she grew up and now lives with her husband Jarrod and children Katherine, 11, and Blair, 8.
Except for the cheating husband and tedious job in building control, the lifestyle, events and things the kids say are pretty much straight from Hawkins' own life. The part-time large animal vet and part-time novelist manages it all, she admits, with great difficulty and some resentment.
"I have just recently started getting up at 5am and doing a couple of hours of writing," she says, "otherwise it just gets bumped for everything else. Then I get annoyed because that's the thing I feel like I really want to do. I mean it's hard to get out of bed at 5 in the morning and I'm not trying to imply that I always manage it but if I do, it's so worth it."
It was made all the more difficult because Hawkins was receiving treatment for breast cancer and she acknowledges at first, her latest book wasn't "happy" or "sparkly" enough.
"I wasn't despairing or sobbing on my bed or anything like that, we carried on and it was okay ... but still I found it hard to write. I find it hard to write anyway, it takes lots of concentration and when you're tired you don't concentrate very well," says Hawkins.
She rewrote – scene by scene – large chunks of it, along with altering the ending and says it was a huge effort reworking 40,000 words but she's pleased she did.
As a child, she was a prolific reader and fan of the world's best-known vet-turned-author, James Herriot. But the Brit, who wrote All Creatures Great and Small, influenced her to become a vet rather than a writer.
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"He does that [writing] beautifully though, talking about something technical without being patronising or being boring, which is way harder that you think," says Hawkins.
Vet work with sheep and cattle is a seasonal job for Hawkins who had just finished a round of pregnancy testing – the animals, that is – as When It All Turned to Custard was released. She says the novel is largely autobiographical, with Jenny living on a farm with her husband, two young children and their beloved dog Tessa and working part-time as a building inspector at the local council while Dave manages the farm.
It all goes to custard the day Jenny discovers Dave is having an affair with their neighbour's wife. As Jenny's family life unravels, she unwittingly becomes a solo mother and farm manager with a relentless daily momentum.
Juggling a gazillion balls in the air, coupled with a dry wit and a sprinkling of self-deprecation, makes Jenny instantly likeable and highly relatable to working mums the world over. The split is painfully upsetting for the kids but Jenny sticks to her instincts that her marriage wasn't right anyway.
"I thought, 'What would it be like trying to run the farm and the kids and everything when your husband does the farming?' But what if you'd married a dickhead? How would that go? And I haven't - I quite like my husband - so it would be tough."
Jenny's life starts to resemble a big pile of manure as she navigates her way through the divorce and what looks like the inevitable loss of the farm. Not only is she out of her depth, it's not something she wants to do on her own and when offered an eye-watering sum from a farming conglomerate, there's mounting pressure to sell up.
The challenge of keeping generational farms in New Zealand runs through the novel. Again, it's something drawn from Hawkins' own life.
"I love the farm, it's home," she says, of the property that has been in her family for four generations. "I have lived here all my life, it's special. The saddle paddock is where Grandpa found an old saddle in 1940 and all that stuff but I don't think I would be prepared to run it myself like Jenny. I didn't want to write that book where the girl bravely puts on her cowboy hat and turns into a McLeod's Daughter. Not that there is anything wrong with that ...
"Farms in New Zealand are worth lots but they're hard to run at a decent profit. There are superstars that do a fabulous job but I guess I purposely made Jenny's farm not one of those. I hope that we, Jarrod in particular, do a better job of it than Jen and her family but it's a really common scenario. I know it well."
Hawkins says the balance of being a vet and a writer stops her from taking herself too seriously. Watching sales figures and reading reviews can lead to "navel-gazing" but when attending a veterinary conference, no one will know – or care – that she's written a book and that, she says, is much healthier.
She started writing when Katherine was a baby, saying she wanted a project that was a little bit hard and something that needed to be concentrated on.
"I thought I would write a book but I didn't have a plan at all. I just started and, of course, that's a terrible way to write a book. You do actually kind of have to have an idea of what the plot is going to be. It was the worst book in the entire universe, but it was heaps of fun. I got totally addicted."
She gets most of her ideas come from spending time with people. If Hawkins is stuck, she'll catch up with friends and it tends to come right. She says doesn't copy people from her real life but she likes to use bits of their personalities.
"I think wouldn't it be fun if this person got terribly offended like this person I know? I'm much more interested in the characters and what makes them tick and trying to make sure people are pretty consistent than in the plot. I think that's a weakness of mine, I'm not very good at plots."
But there's a steady supply of content for her rural romance genre and while she has never felt like she's wanted to write a sequel to any of her previous novels, with this one she thinks it could be quite fun.