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Interview: Deborah Challinor talks about The Jacaranda House


Deborah Challinor talks to NZ Booklovers about The Jacaranda House.


Tell us a little about The Jacaranda House.

In The Jacaranda House, Polly Manaia, who fled NZ in the previous book in this series, From the Ashes, is living in Kings Cross in 1964 with transgender flatmates Rhoda and Star. She fetches her daughter Gina, now eleven, from New Zealand to live with her, but still isn’t able to dispel the ghosts she keeps at arm’s length via her drug and alcohol use. And then Polly’s mother arrives in Kings Cross to take Gina back, which only makes matter much, much worse.



What inspired you to write this book?

This is the 3rd book in The Restless Years series (a quartet), following on from Fire and From the Ashes. Polly is a sex worker so it made sense for her to head to Kings Cross when she left New Zealand, though by 1964 she’s become an exotic dancer. The Cross interests me because in the mid-60s it was at its most glamorous with dinner clubs, cabarets, tantalising dancing girls and all-male revues. This was before the sex shows, prostitution, vice and corruption became blatant, and heroin use became a major problem at the end of the decade.


What research was involved?

Quite a bit was needed into the character of Kings Cross in the mid-1960s, using books, photos and documentaries. I also needed to look into the lives and works of real people who appear in the book, like the Reverend Ted Noffs, who ran the Wayside Chapel, and Rosaleen Norton, the Witch of Kings Cross. I also interviewed several Australian transgender women, working as entertainers at the time I talked to them, whose experiences of life helped create the characters of Rhoda Dendron and Star E. Knight. There’s lots of material on the internet, and in books, about: the Beatles, TEAL airlines, drug addiction, 1960s fashion, etc., so I didn’t have to go far for that.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I was a bit pressed for time with this one and wrote it in four months, so I wrote eight hours a day, six days a week. I always start with a detailed outline, for which I will have already done a fair bit of the ‘macro’ research, which means I only need to do the fiddly little bits of research, eg. what were wallpaper fashions in 1964, as I’m writing. I never read what I wrote yesterday, but I do refer constantly to my outline to make sure I’m staying on track. I put a lot of effort into making sure my outlines are sound – however, having said that, sometimes I do deviate. At the finish of writing, I do one big read-through, fix the worst of the mistakes, and send it off to the publisher with my fingers crossed.


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

1964 was a fantastic year for pop music so I could choose endless songs, including: ‘House of the Rising Sun’ by The Animals; ‘She Loves You’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ by The Beatles; ‘You Don’t Own Me’ by Lesley Gore; ‘Pretty Woman’ by Roy Orbison; ‘Bits and Pieces’ by The Dave Clark Five, and honestly I could on for ages.


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

Difficult to say because, to be honest, not being a film buff, I’m not really up to date with today’s actors, which possibly makes me sound quite sad. This is the sort of question I’d probably be asking my readers on my Facebook page www.facebook/DeborahChallinorBooks/ not me.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

I think researching and writing the Rhoda and Star characters.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Nothing. This is my seventeenth novel, and twentieth book, and finishing the writing isn’t ‘finishing the book’. There are six months of editing to come after that, while I’m trying to write the next book in the series. A book isn’t really ‘finished’ until it’s in the bookshops.


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

I don’t read a lot of fiction – mainly books about history, economics, sociology and politics. A memorable read was The Arsonist: a Mind on Fire (2019), by Chloe Hooper, about the hunt for Brendan Sokaluk, who was gaoled for 18 years for arson causing ten deaths during Australia’s Black Saturday in 2009. It’s both fascinating and deeply disturbing. He said he didn’t mean it, but after he lit the fires he went home to watch them burn from his garage roof. Were his acts deliberate, or were his mental health issues to blame? Chloe Hooper also wrote The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2008), another excellent book.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m currently writing the last book in this series, which doesn’t have a title yet. It’s set in 1969-70, in New Zealand and in Vietnam during the war, and features characters from the previous books, including Polly and Gina Manaia, David Ma’u, and the Leonard, Roberts, Irwin and Apanui families. And I’m thinking about what to write after that. Back to the 19th century, I think.

The Jacaranda House by Deborah Challinor, $36.99 RRP (HarperCollins Publishers New Zealand).

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