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Interview: Deborah Challinor talks about The Leonard Girls


Deborah Challinor is one of New Zealand’s biggest-selling novelists and every one of her books has been a bestseller in this country. Deborah’s novels are full of her trademark warmth and wit and centred around complex characters in beautifully-detailed historical settings. Her PhD in history contributes to her rich writing, and every book is meticulously researched.


Her latest book, The Leonard Girls (HarperCollins Publishers) is set at the hieght of the Vietnam war. Deborah tells us a bit more about it…


Tell us a little about your novel.

In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam war, Rowie Leonard is serving a 12-month tour of duty. She supports the war and is committed to caring for wounded New Zealand and Australian troops. After a few months, however, she realises that nothing at all about the conflict is as clear-cut as she’d assumed. Her younger sister, Jo, is the opposite – a student at Auckland University, a folk singer and a fervent anti-war protestor. But when Jo falls for professional soldier Sam Apanui, home on leave to visit his ill father, she finds herself torn between her feelings and her convictions. So, to resolve matters, she joins New Zealand rock band Dark Horse, about to depart on a tour of South Vietnam to entertain ANZAC troops, so she can visit Sam and Rowie. As the three of them grapple with love, loss, and the stresses and sorrows of war, each will be forced to confront and question everything they believed.


What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always wanted to write a novel about New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam war, and this is it. The Leonard Girls is the fourth and last book in The Restless Years series, which is about social changes and unrest in New Zealand, and to a lesser extent Australia, during the 1950s and 60s, and it seemed fitting to end in 1969 with Vietnam, a long and socially divisive military engagement for both nations.


What research was involved?

Actually, I’d already done a lot of research about New Zealand soldiers in Vietnam when I did my Ph.D. on the same subject in the 1990s, so I had a load of material on hand – books (including a couple of mine), photos, DVDs, etc. And two veterans – one from Victor 4 and one from the RNZNC – were very generous more recently with extra information. On one hand it was pretty liberating to be able to forget about quotes and footnotes and merrily fictionalise what happened in South Vietnam, but on the other hand it was a bit nervous-making because I thought the essence of the historical truth should still be told. It was quite a fine line balancing non-fiction with fiction. I think it always is.


The military bits, New Zealand’s protest movement, the political motivation for contributing to the American war, and the Agent Orange story aside, there were still some aspects of the story I needed to research, such as how the system worked for sending entertainers from New Zealand and Australia to South Vietnam, what they got paid, if anything, etc. And also the clothing, speech and music of the era - that was great fun to research. Being a child at the time I vaguely recall some of that, especially the music, but any excuse to look at hairdos from the 1960s on the internet and watching Credence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix on YouTube is a good one.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Same as it always is. I started with an outline I’d written ages ago, because I always use an outline, and went from there, though I admit I did write this one in a bit of a hurry, coming as it did after a family bereavement. The result of that was several unconvincing scenes and some lazy writing, so I had plenty to fix during the rewrite. But that’s OK, that’s what all the extra time between delivery of the first draft and the publishing date is for.


When I am writing I try to treat my work as though I’m at the office. I start at about nine, have a break for lunch, and finish at five or six, and I work five or six days a week. It doesn’t always work out like that but that’s what I aim for.


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

It’d be a fantastic soundtrack. For starters I’d have ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’, by The Animals; ‘Nowhere To Run’ by Martha and the Vandellas; ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix’; and ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ by Tom Jones.


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

Hmm. Possibly Frankie Adams as Gina; Rose McIvor as Jo; Brooke Williams as Rowie; Pana Hema-Taylor as Sam Apanui; Sala Baker as Eddie Irwin.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

Revisiting New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam, and being able to tell aspects of veterans’ stories through the voices and experiences of fictional characters. And finishing the last book in a series always gives me a nice, warm, satisfied feeling. If it doesn’t, I know there’s probably another book to come, even if I don’t know what it’s about yet.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Nothing – I never do. There’s always a new one to move on to more or less straight away.


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

Well, I’m writing this in February so I’ve only read a couple of dozen, but probably my favourite so far, at least in terms of being useful to me, is Catie Gilchrist’s Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends: Tales From a Colonial Coroner’s Court, HarperCollins Australia, 2019. Not exactly a cosy read but brilliant for accounts of all sorts of deaths and subsequent inquests in Sydney from the 1860s to the 1880s. Also great for a general physical description of Sydney during that period, and of social conditions. What a short, brutal, filthy, poverty-stricken life a lot of people had.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

A new trilogy (at least I think it’s only going to be three books) set in mid-Victorian Sydney/Auckland (that’s the 1870s-ish) about a young woman called Tatty Crowe who runs an undertaking business. Think coffins, beautiful black mourning gowns, magnificent horse-drawn hearses, terrible smells, funeral trains, and the odd murder.


The Leonard Girls by Deborah Challinor, HarperCollins Publishers, $36.99 RRP is out now