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Interview: Karen McMillan talks about Turbulent Threads


Karen McMillan is the author of 22 books, published in ten countries. She writes bestselling fiction, non-fiction that inspires and encourages others, and the bestselling Elastic Island Adventures series for children.

Karen talks to NZ Booklovers about her latest historical novel, Turbulent Threads. 


Tell us a little about Turbulent Threads.

Opening in Dunedin in 1890, Greer Gillies is orphaned at the tender age of 20 and begins working at Larnach Castle. Once, she dreamed of doing something with her love of literature, fashion or music, but now she is consumed by grief and the day-to-day drudgery of being a servant.


However, the 1890s are a prosperous and progressive time. Education, new business opportunities, the women’s suffrage movement – never has it been a more exciting time to be a young woman. This is something that Greer begins to understand when she ventures back to her old home in the Devil’s Half-Acre and is befriended by the Lebanese family who now live there, and later by Zhang Ming, known to all as the grandmother of Walker Street. Contrary to its reputation of being an unsavoury part of Dunedin, in this decade, it is a thriving multi-cultural area with Scots, Irish, Lebanese and Chinese immigrants living side by side, supporting each other in their endeavours.


As Greer slowly overcomes her grief and begins to forge a new life for herself, her story is counterpointed by the real-life story of William Larnach and his troubles, his marriage to third wife Constance that eventually resulted in scandalous rumours and his suicide in the house of Parliament.


Spanning from 1890 to 1899, Greer has many challenges thrown her way until she dares to forge her own pathway in life and business. There are also affairs of the heart; is it possible to find love and happiness?


What inspired you to write this book?

In many ways, this book is a love letter to my husband. It is inspired by our many trips to Dunedin (where he was born and lived for many years), his love of all things Victorian, and a growing curiosity about the 1890s in New Zealand, a time of prosperity and great social progress. I was also intrigued by William Larnach and his extraordinary and tragic life.


I’ve had the idea for this book for around ten years—the idea of a young woman finding her pathway in life at the same time that women in New Zealand became the first women in the world to have the right to vote in parliamentary elections. I wanted to capture the excitement of the times for young women, who got to do things that their mothers could have only dreamed of.


What research was involved?

This novel was very research-heavy, and I spent more time researching than writing the novel. But what a joy to go down this particular rabbit hole and pop up the other end, having immersed myself in this fascinating era of our history. Dunedin in the 1890s was definitely the place to be!


I was fortunate to be awarded a Robert Lord Writer’s Cottage Residency, which gave me dedicated time to walk the streets of Dunedin and imagine life in the 1890s.


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

Greer is a very accomplished violinist, and there is a playlist in the book that includes:

  • Three Romances for Violin and Piano by Clara Schumann

  • Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach

  • Chaconne in G Minor by Tomaso Antonio Vitali

  • Ave Maria by Franz Schubert

  • Caprice in A minor, Op. 1, No. 24 by Niccolò Paganini

  • Plaisir d’Amour by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini

  • Meditation from Thaïs by Jules Massenet


What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

The tender love story that is at the heart of this novel. Counterpointing Greer’s story with that of William Larnach. Having cameos of real-life businessmen Choie Sew Hoy and Bendix Hallenstein. Exploring multicultural Scots, Irish, Lebanese and Chinese heritage of Dunedin. The music and the fashion. The gowns in this book are gorgeous.  When I think about it, I enjoy everything about writing this novel!


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I have done many events around NZ—Auckland, Rotorua, Hawkes Bay, Hamilton, Wellington and Dunedin! It was so great to meet so many readers. Thank you to all the wonderful people who turned up at events. I have more invites for later in the year, so that is very exciting! So here I come, Palmerston North, Whanganui, Whangarei, and possibly some other places in between.


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

I have read so many extraordinary books recently, so to whittle down the choices, I’m going to choose my favourite thriller so far this year – Dark Sky by Marie Connolly, a page-turning read. There is a freshness about reading a crime novel set in such a remote and beautiful setting, a very different reading experience from one set in grimy city streets.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

I am being hosted by the Plantation Island Resort to research the next Elastic Island Adventures book. I look forward to spending time in Fiji.


More information about Karen is at www.karenm.co.nz



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