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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Cristina Sanders talks about Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant

Cristina Sanders grew up in the family’s Gateway Bookshop in Wellington and has been a keen reader ever since. She worked in publishing and book marketing and had a career in business before becoming a writer.

An obsession with New Zealand's colonial history and geography defines her stories for adults and young adults. Cristina talks to NZ Booklovers.

Congratulations on being shortlisted in the NZ Booklovers Awards 2023! Can you tell us a little about your shortlisted novel, Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant?

Sure, and thank you very much for the shortlist. I’m delighted.

It’s 1866 and the three-masted sailing ship General Grant is on the southern route from Melbourne to London, with gold from the diggings secreted in returning miners’ hems and pockets. In the fog and the dark, the ship strikes the cliffs of the Auckland Islands, is sucked into a cave and wrecked.

Only fourteen men make it ashore and one woman – Mrs Jewell. Stuck on a freezing and exposed island, the castaways have to work together to stay alive, but they’re a disparate group with their own secrets to keep, and their only officer is disabled by grief after losing his wife in the wreck. A woman is a burden they don’t need...

What inspired you to write this book?

In 2019 I was sailing on the replica of James Cook’s Endeavour somewhere off the East Cape, and a fellow sailor asked if I knew the legend of the General Grant. As we rolled on the ocean with the rigging clattering and spume flying she told me of the doomed ship sunk in a cave, the bodies falling into the sea, the gold and the fifteen castaways. That hooked me as the basis for a great survival story. And then I learned one of the survivors was a young woman called Mrs Jewell, and everything just lit up.

What research was involved?

Lots! Most of what we know of the General Grant legend is from the castaways reports, which may not have been reliable. It was a trawl to find and analyse all sources of their time marooned, and follow up the characters' back-stories and after-life. I had help from other shipwreck enthusiasts (and we’re all sure the legend isn’t over, yet). The Island is almost a story character itself with its intense geography, wildlife and climate. I spent weeks learning how to make rope from flax and cure seal skin – only a pinch of which appears in the book but it was a fascinating study. I’m lucky to sail regularly on the Spirit of New Zealand with a weathered crew who fed me ideas and answered endless questions on the location, and also old boats and tall-ship sailing. The trickiest part was learning about closed group dynamics, combined with traumatic stress and figuring what that might have meant to a modest woman isolated with a bunch of sailors and miners in Victorian times. It’s not something you can google.

What was your routine or process when writing this novel?

Talk, research, write, run, edit, repeat. All equally important. I think the least of that was actually writing. I got pretty hooked on the story and worked on it full-time for nearly two years, enjoying every minute of it.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would included?

I found a couple of beautiful Gaelic songs that I imagined Mrs Jewell might have been taught by her mother, and had her sing these and others to the men at times of high emotion, for example when a small group set off in a small boat to find rescue. 'Fear a Bhàta' and 'Bà bà mo Leanabh Beag' were two I played on loop while writing these scenes and they sound like mist on water and sorrowful partings. Perfect.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Yes, I have my drawing board. Mrs Jewell is Kate Winslet at twenty-one, her husband Joseph is a scrawny Liam Neeson (as in Silence, 2016). Bear Grylls with a growth spurt and a digital black beard as James Teer. Andrew Scott playing Bill Scott. Might need a bit of time travel to get them all together.

What did you enjoy the most about writing Mrs Jewell and the Wreck of the General Grant?

Scurvy's open suppurating sores and the effects of dysentery. No, really, the weird places research conversations took me.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I’ve just re-read This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson which is my favourite book, hands down, ever. Darwin and Fitzroy on the Beagle, two hugely intelligent men, flawed by their era and culture. There is so much to learn from their adventures and insights.

I also loved The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Murder. Perhaps two.

The Cuba Press


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