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Interview: Paddy Richardson talks about By the Green of the Spring

Dunedin writer Paddy Richardson is a prolific fiction author. She has published two collections of short stories, Choices, If We Were Lebanese, and seven novels, The Company of a Daughter, A Year to Learn a Woman, Hunting Blind, Traces of Red, Cross Fingers, Swimming in the Dark, and Through the Lonesome Dark. Four of the last five novels have been finalists in the Ngaio Marsh Award. Paddy talks to NZ Booklovers about her new novel.

Tell us a little about By the Green of the Spring.

By the Green of the Spring follows the lives of Otto Bader, Pansy Williams and Clem Bright, the characters I initially introduced in the prequel, Through the Lonesome Dark. As children of Blackball miners, they are close friends until the eruption of WW1 changes their lives forever. This novel focuses on Otto who is torn from his home and family and Pansy, the love of his life, and incarcerated on Somes Island with other civilians of German descent. The novel moves between Otto’s experiences of the harshness and brutality endured by innocent men on Somes Island and Lena, their daughter’s, as Clem, the man she believes is her father, returns from war. As a child, with a child’s understanding Lena observes, Pansy her mother and the Bright family as they all attempt to heal past hurts and make new lives. It’s a story of injustice and brutality but also a love story and a story of hope and redemption.

What inspired you to write this book?

After I finished the first novel, I tried to write something very different but these characters were still very much with me. Besides that, readers said they wanted to know what happened next-and, in fact, I wanted to know what happened next! I especially wanted to find out about what may have happened to Otto, since in the first novel, he was taken by police and sent to Somes Island so his story was largely untold. When I began to look into the conditions for those sent to Somes, I realised this was a story which was important to tell. Many of the men sent there were ordinary respectable New Zealand civilians, who happened to be of German descent, yet they were incarcerated in dreadful conditions in crumbling ancient Quarantine buildings of the past, forced to do physical work that many of them were incapable of, and brutalised. But as well as the Somes Island story I wanted to find out about Pansy and her daughter Lena and it’s their story as well.

What research was involved?

I love research and there was a lot to do ! I was very fortunate to be awarded a Randell Cottage writers residency which enabled me to regularly visit Somes Island and to experience the wonderful atmosphere of that place where the men had been imprisoned. I stayed a few nights over there and walked around and swam there, as the men had done, and I also learned about the wind. I most definitely had to write that ferocious wind into the novel. I spent a lot of time researching in the Alexander Turnbull Library where I discovered there were a number of exercise books filled with the men’s writing, outlining their experiences- a real tingles down the spine experience. I also had to find out about stone-masonry, since Clem Bright becomes a stone mason in Oamaru. Place is very important to me in terms of writing so, since the Bright family eventually moves to Oamaru, I spent a few days there walking and looking and researching in the Oamaru Museum and Archive and I had a wonderful long chat with Bill Dooley, from Dooleys Masonry who knew so much of the history of Oamaru and of his stone masonry business.

What was your routine or process when writing this novel?

Before I start a novel, I always do a lot of reading around the topic and thinking. I read what I could find about Somes Island during the wars-it was also used as a prison during WW2. After that, it was a matter of writing a first draft and that’s just the routine I generally follow- writing over a set time during the morning into the early afternoon. I always find first drafts difficult because I don’t know what will happen but, in this case, I knew the characters and I knew the basic framework of the novel. Lena, though, was new and I very much have enjoyed finding her voice and writing her. I also really enjoyed the opportunity to write in the Randell Cottage which is a very old cottage in Thorndon and perfectly suited the times I was writing about. I decided to choose the quite large old house across the road for the boarding house Lena lives in as a student and I had fun describing it and the two sisters I imagined living there.

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

I think a kind of medley of WW1 songs. Maybe Keep the Homefires Burning which could wind through-it’s a sweet but plaintive song. I’d also like some German classical music-Bach, Beethoven, maybe some German street music.

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

Pansy- Anna Paquin, Otto-Nico Evers- Swindell, Clem- Chris Rankin, Lena- I don’t have any child actors that come to mind, but I’d love Thomasin McKenzie to play the older Lena. (What a dream!)

What did you enjoy the most about writing By the Green of the Spring.

I enjoyed all of it, though the Somes Island situation made me angry, but I most enjoyed writing Lena and showing her world through the perspective of her child-self.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I celebrated by going out with Jim, my husband to the Boulcott Street Bistro for dinner. Delicious. But I always do something to celebrate finishing main parts- such as a main draft. Some bubbly, maybe chocolate. Writing a novel is a long haul so you have to give yourself pats on the back along the way!

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

So many!... but To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara stands out. I read A Little Life a while ago and found it both beautiful and gruelling. This novel moves across characters, places, centuries and examines different realities such as in 2093, where the world is ridden with plagues and ruled by a totalitarian government. I have huge admiration for her writing which is incredibly powerful and often very moving and for the hugely challenging topics she chooses to write about.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m presently writing a contemporary crime novel around the #Me Too movement so this one is very different! These Blackball characters still haunt me, though, and there very well could be a time when they insist on a third and final novel.

Quentin Wilson Publishing


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