Jenny Pattrick’s latest novel Heartland is a thoroughly rural New Zealand story that I found hard to put down. Manawa, a waning little village neighbouring the “real” townships of Ohakune and Raetihi and in the shadow of Mt Ruapehu, is the scene of this story. Unlike some of Jenny’s historical books, Heartland is set in a recognisably modern era. But just like her historical novels, Heartland is a unique window into a community. I chatted with Jenny about Heartland, her characters, and writing.
The characters in Heartland are eccentric, lovable and thoroughly authentic. When you start a book like this, do you have your characters thoroughly defined, or do they reveal themselves as you reveal their story?
A bit of both really. Some of these characters were already defined in earlier radio stories. The three old sisters are rather like three old great-aunts of mine who lived together in Auckland and were daunting to me as a child. But usually I write a pretty detailed outline of my characters before I put them into a story. Then, if they are well thought out, they will of course develop a will of their own and I will bow to that will. My characters don’t fit a mould, they are real people who do real things. They may seem larger than life, but there is no point writing about dull people.
Sticking with characters for a moment, I noticed that when Donny Mac behaved less than admirably, I found myself, as a reader, hoping he would not be caught. Is there a fine balance between an affable character and what they can get away with doing in a story?
Yes I suppose there is. I hadn’t thought about it. I tend not to write black and white characters. It’d be hard to find a thoroughly bad or purely good character in my novels. There may be some readers who want Donny Mac punished. If so they may be rather narrow in their outlook, like Miss Roe!
I felt at times like you were inviting the reader to see this township through two different lenses – through the community that live there and the frequent visitors. Is this something you have experienced in small communities?
I have lived in this particular community off and on for 40 years. As a townie, I suppose. But my son has lived in our cottage there as an inhabitant for about ten years, so this gives me a way in to meeting and knowing some of the locals. So I guess I can look from both angles. Do you think I let my ‘townie’ lens take over sometimes? I didn’t want to.
No not at all, I think you have a lovely way of showing how a townie and a local might see things differently. For example the Art Exhibition – the way Vera is portrayed as eccentric – almost as a town attraction by the townies and as a beloved icon by the locals. And the scene in which the young townie girl wants to interview her and her indignant mother thinking it’s a right. I might have been one of those mothers once!
This is based on a real incident – one wet holiday time, there was an art exhibition and my own children probably took part. What the townies view as quaint and eccentric and weird is actually someone’s life.
There are probably many dying little towns around New Zealand where there is no other reason for existence other it is home for a group of people living their lives authentically. These are real people with proper depth of character.
On the theme of communities, this, like some of your other books reminds us that communities are groups of people. When you approach this type of book do you have a real community in mind?
Well the real place this novel is based on is Rangataua, where our family has a cottage. But the community of eccentrics is entirely imaginary. There are, however other eccentrics living there! My publisher tells me I like to write about a community and I guess she’s right. I have a big family and great group of friends; community is something very important to me.
When you are starting a new project, what comes first for you – the story, the setting, or the time period?
In most cases it’s the setting. New Zealand has an amazingly dramatic landscape; strong settings have an identity of their own which are challenging to get down in words and which help contribute towards a dramatic narrative. The time period is also important as that suggests what events might contribute to the story. Then there will be a theme. The story comes last I think.
Your books have a strong New Zealand flavour. Are you ever tempted to make them less kiwi?
I suppose they would sell better outside New Zealand if I did, but no not really. Catching the Current is set to a large extent in Scandinavia and Inheritance in Samoa, but they both relate to New Zealand. There are plenty of good lines of investigation left in New Zealand and I live here and understand this place. Why would I want to write about elsewhere?
Jenny, you have been described (appropriately) as a great storyteller, and I wonder whether that’s how you define yourself. And, is there a difference between storytelling and writing?
I try not to define myself! I was depressed when my wonderful editor at Random House told me I was a popular writer not literary. I tend to read so called literary novels. I don’t like labels for writers. In my mind,there is absolutely no difference between good storytelling and good writing of any other sort. I am as concerned, I think, to make my writing come off the page in a rich way as does a good literary writer. There are some ‘storytellers’ whose writing is dull; where the story is all and the words are simply there to get the narrative moving. I don’t like reading those novels, though there are many worthy readers who do. I would feel particularly depressed if my writing was considered to be like that!
Heartland could be a YA novel, since the 2 main characters are young adults. Have you any plans to write for that audience?
I would like to write a YA novel, and have an idea for one. In this novel my voice is in a yarning style – telling the story pretty straight. Sometimes I use different voices, but in this one it is simple approach start to finish. This approach could suit itself to YA genre.
Your characters in Heartland have fallen on hard times, but they are survivors.
Yes I’m interested in writing about survivors. They are more interesting than those who succumb to hardship. Or more uplifting, perhaps,
I think you write books about communities…
My publisher tells me that and I think its true. Community responsibility is a theme in my books, something I feel strongly about.
How many of your novels are in print still?
All of them.
That’s incredible success. How about The Denniston Rose – the book that started it all? How many copies of those are still in existence do you think?
There are about 60,000 sold and over 100,000 of that trilogy.
That means that literally hundreds of thousands of readers have read your work, and still are enjoying it. Do you think you have become a ‘safe brand” for readers?
I don’t really want to be put in a box, and although I have had success with my historical novels, I don’t want to be confined to that. Heartland is not historical but it is still a book about a community and their lives.