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Interview: Jenny Lynch talks about The Secrets They Kept

Jenny Lynch is a former editor of the NZ Woman's Weekly. She has also been an actor, photographic model and a Playboy bunny. She has lived and worked in the USA, Canada and Australia and is the author of four non-fiction books including a fashion history, Ready To Wear: The changing shape of New Zealand fashion and a memoir Under the Covers: Secrets of a Magazine Editor. The Secrets They Kept is her first work of fiction. Jenny talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about The Secrets They Kept.

It is the story of a young woman's quest to discover the truth about her mother's unexplained death -- and her own identity -- in the face of tight-lipped evasions from her secretive, God-fearing family. Helena Anderson knows there is something she is not being told. She suspects it is something terrible.

What inspired you to write this book? 

Many years ago when I was a teenager my grandmother told me about a tragedy involving a young woman, a distant cousin, that took place in the early years of last century. The story haunted me and I longed to write about it. Now 70 years later I have. Not my relative's actual story but an imaginary one I have built around her.

What research was involved?

Not a lot. I have written about the world I know. This largely revolves around family (what family doesn't have secrets?) and a lifetime of experience which includes almost 30 years in journalism. I have always been curious about people -- the way they live their lives, their beliefs and the motives behind the sometimes appalling things they do. It was what drew me to journalism and my work as a magazine feature writer, during which I talked to everyone from celebrities to psychics, provided a wealth of information to incorporate into my relative's story. The Secrets They Kept is largely set in Auckland between the 1960s and late '8os but also includes several overseas locations. It was important that details of all of those places be absolutely accurate. So some research was involved there.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I did not have a set routine. Initially, Secrets took the form of a short story. Then one day about 15 years ago the plot of the entire novel with its twists, turns and startling conclusion just 'arrived' out of the blue. I worked on the manuscript on and off for perhaps 18 months, adding details to the narrative and developing the various characters. Most of the latter evolved from tiny bits and pieces of people I had met over the years, but some bore no resemblance at all to anyone I had ever known. Like the plot itself they just 'arrived.' Eventually, however, each imaginary person became as vividly real to me as a member of my ( decidedly less complicated) family. The novel went through several substantial revisions, also a period on the back burner, before being accepted for publication in late 2022. A long and windy road? Most certainly. But as they say in that television cheese ad: 'Good things take time, you know.'

If a sound track were made to accompany your book name a song or two you would include.

My musical interests centre on light classics and musical theatre which makes it difficult to think of anything that would be appropriate. However, I watch a fair bit of television drama and am often irritated at the way the loud musical background competes with what the actors are saying. So if my book ever landed up on screen I hope that the musical accompaniment would be kept to a minimum. An opening theme tune? Not really a song but, perhaps, Solveig's Song from Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite.

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

The heroine, Helena, is five years old at the start of the narrative and her mid-twenties by the end. This would present a huge casting problem. In terms of local talent, I could see fresh-faced Thomasin McKenzie playing the adult Helena. Jennifer Ward-Lealand would be perfect as Helena's imperious grandmother although she would need a lot of ageing makeup.

What did you enjoy most about writing The Secrets They Kept?

Developing the various characters. The first step was to give them appropriate names. ( I admit to using personal preference.)The heroine had to be someone to whom readers would respond with affection and concern. Helena is a name I love. So Helena she became.  By contrast a particularly obnoxious male landed up with one I dislike. ( Apologies to all you Dougies out there!). I narrowly avoided making a blue with the name of Helena's likeable great-aunt. I was ready to call her Aunt Betty until I discovered that 'Aunt Betty' was also a brand of heat-and-eat puddings available at supermarkets! She became Bernice. The Secrets They Kept is narrated by Helena, herself. So the most absorbing part of the whole project was getting inside Helena's head and letting her tell the story in her own words. While doing so I felt myself actually becoming Helena, and feeling her emotions. In other words, I inhabited Helena much as an actor inhabits the roles he or she plays.

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

I am mostly a reader ( and writer) of non-fiction. The book that has grabbed me this year is Diana Mosley -- Mitford beauty, British fascist and Hitler's Angel by Anne de Courcy. It covers the former society darling's infatuation with fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosely and her friendship with Hitler. How such a woman could fall for a self-centred womaniser like Mosley and see Hitler in a positive light beggars belief. De Courcy delves into Diana's passionate nature and tells her story in a way that encourages readers to draw their own conclusions.

What's next on the agenda for you?

I have written the first rough drafts of 30 short stories. They are all tales of the unexpected. My next task is to sort out which are the best ones and complete them to the best of my ability. Hopefully, the collection may be published in due course.

Mary Egan Publishing


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