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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Deborah Challinor talks about From the Ashes

Deborah Challinor has a PhD in history and is the author of numerous bestselling novels, including the Children of War series, the Convict Girls series and the titles in the Smuggler's Wife series. She has also written one young adult novel and two non-fiction books. In 2018, Deborah was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature and historical research. She lives in New Zealand with her husband. Deborah talks to NZ Booklovers about From the Ashes.

Tell us a little about From the Ashes.

From the Ashes, set in Auckland in 1955-56, is a sequel to Fire (2006), and tells the story of what happens next to some of the characters who survived the fictional Dunbar & Jones department store fire of 1953. Allie Roberts and Sonny Manaia appear, as does Polly Manaia, plus some characters who were last seen in Blue Smoke, the third book in the Children of War series.

What inspired you to write this book?

I’m fascinated by the 1950s. It was a time of such disparity and social intolerance, but also of change. There’s a mythology surrounding the ‘golden years’ of 1950s New Zealand, asserting that unemployment was low and everyone enjoyed an enviable standard of living. The first part’s true, the second isn’t. The 1950s heralded the age of consumerism – but only if you earnt a decent income, and not everyone did. It was also during the 1950s that Māori began to migrate to the cities for work. Though white New Zealanders believed New Zealand had the ‘finest race relations in the world’, Māori encountered marked discrimination in terms of language, pay, accommodation, social opportunity and political influence. Signs outside pubs and barber shops stating ‘No Dogs, No Māoris’ were common. Mixed-race marriages were frowned upon, and often openly criticized. At the same time, women were still expected to stay home and enjoy raising their kids, although by the mid-1950s, 30% of New Zealand’s married women were in paid work. There was still a dreadful stigma attached to unmarried mothers. Pregnant girls left town to have their babies, then were strongly encouraged to give them up for adoption, a process in which the state and various church entities were heavily involved. It was this side of 1950s New Zealand I wanted to look at.

What research was involved?

This is always a difficult question to answer because research is such a dynamic process. I spend weeks, or even months if I’m putting together a series, writing outlines to make sure my story lines hang together historically. I do a lot of what I call macro research then. For From the Ashes I looked at things like Māori migration to Auckland, employment statistics, state house history, New Zealand’s mental health services, poverty in various suburbs, etc. But then I already had a lot of that information from writing Fire. Plus I needed to make sure everything would work for the following two books in the series. Then when I started actually writing Ashes there was also a fair bit of micro research. Examples: what were the dances like at the Māori Community Centre?; where did nurses train in Auckland?; how many Bethany homes were there in New Zealand in 1956 and what were they like?; how much did a fridge cost in 1956?; how many people had a telephone then?; what was getting an illegal abortion like?; where did Auckland’s tram routes go?; what train services were there to Wellington?; what colour lipsticks did Elizabeth Arden issue in 1956?; what were Auckland’s ‘in’ restaurants and clubs in 1956 and what was on the menus?’ You can find most of this stuff out if you know where to look.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

As mentioned, I write a fairly detailed outline first so I don’t get lost. Sometimes it changes a bit as I go along. Then, in theory, I write five days a week and aim for about 1600-2000 words per day, depending on my deadline. Sometimes I don’t manage this because life gets in the way, so I work in the weekend. I don’t edit as I go. If I did I’d never get past the first page. I give myself three or four weeks before I submit to edit and fix mistakes. I don’t worry if it’s not perfect, and it never is. The ms goes to a content editor (whom I respect hugely) for comment, and I do a rewrite. Then it gets edited three times after that before it goes to print. This, I feel, is one of the advantages of being traditionally published.

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

Songs I’d include on the soundtrack would be ‘Haere Mai’, by Daphne Walker and Bill Wolfgramm and His Islanders; ‘That’s All Right’ by Elvis Presley; and ‘Lawdy, Miss Clawdy’, by Lloyd Price.

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

I’d like to see Sally Martin as Allie Manaia; Manu Bennett as Sonny Manaia; Kali Kopae as Polly Manaia; Thomasin McKenzie (with her hair dyed blonde) as Pauline Roberts; James Rolleston as Johnny Apanui; Kimberley Crossman as Donna Roberts; Robyn Malcolm as Colleen Roberts; maybe Marshall Napier as Sid Roberts; Rena Owen as Wiki Irwin; and Nancy Brunning as Kura Apanui. All New Zealand actors, of course. See, I’ve thought about this.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Learning about the Auckland of my parents’ youth and, to be honest, having a break from writing about the 19th century. In some ways telling a story from the perspective of 150 years ago can be quite restrictive. But then again, sometimes it can be exactly the opposite.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I didn’t do anything to celebrate finishing the book. This is book number 18. Finishing books is my job. I just went on to the next one.

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

I read about four books a week, mostly non-fiction about economics, sociology, history, politics and psychology. It all feeds into my writing. One book that’s stayed with me is Teeth: Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, by Mary Otto, which considers the connections between dental disease and poverty, unemployment, low educational achievement, lack of social mobility and an inadequate public health system. Sort of like things are in New Zealand, but worse. It was eye-opening.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Next on the agenda is the third book in this series, House of Sorrows, which is set in Kings Cross, Sydney, in 1964-65 and is about Polly Manaia and her daughter Gina. The final book, Sisters of Mercy, is set in New Zealand and in Vietnam in 1969-1970, during the war. It’s about the same families who have appeared in the earlier books in the series, though some of the main characters in Mercy are only young children in From the Ashes. It will be my big Vietnam novel, and the most recent historical era I’ve written about.

From the Ashes by Deborah Challinor ($36.99 RRP, HarperCollins Publishers NZ). For details of Deborah’s speaking events see


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