Interview: Philippa Werry talks about The Other Sister
Philippa Werry talks to NZ Booklovers about The Other Sister.
Tell us a little about your novel.
The Other Sister is a sequel to The Telegram (2019). I didn’t finish that book intending to write a sequel, but I began to see there could be one, focusing not on The Telegram’s heroine Beaty but on her younger sister Tilly. However, I’ve tried to write it so that it can be read on its own, regardless of whether people have read the earlier book.
What inspired you to write this book? What were your main influences?
I’ve written a number of books based around themes of war, peace and memory. The Telegram deals with the role of girls and women in wartime, and what happened in the communities back home when the men went off to war. The Other Sister takes place a few years later, and looks at how a community picks itself up after such cataclysmic events as a world war and a pandemic, and in particular, how young people find their way in such a situation. That all became weirdly relevant as I was writing in the middle of the covid pandemic.
Another influence was the life of my great-great-aunt Louisa Bird, who was among the first group of NZ nurses to leave for WW1 in 1915. A few years ago, after I’d been to Gallipoli, my aunt lent me Great Aunt Louie’s photograph album. Some of the photos, taken in Egypt, show her and other nurses on camels at the Pyramids. Others show grand hotels turned into hospitals. But there are also photos taken after the war, when she was Matron at the Evelyn Firth War Veterans Home (opened in 1920), and I found them very poignant: men in bathchairs glimpsed through the trees, others on crutches, or sitting with the nurses on the verandah of the Home. That made me think more about the whole question of “what happened afterwards”. The Home isn’t there any more, but it used to be near the Parnell rose gardens in Auckland, overlooking the sea.
What research was involved ?
The first thing was to choose a year to set the book in, not too far after the end of WW1. I didn’t know much about the early 1920s, but I discovered that the Prince of Wales visited in mid-1920, which caused huge excitement throughout the country, and it was also a time when many communities, large and small, were starting to plan and unveil their own war memorials. Once I’d decided on 1920, I went through a year’s worth of newspapers on Papers Past, looking for other events. That was when I came across the In Memoriams notices, which I’ve used at the start of many of the chapters.
What was your routine or process when writing this book? Do you have a typical writing day?
My writing day depends on whether I’m doing research, writing or editing (a lot of it is editing) or other writing-related work, like assessments or admin. Much of the research can be done online, but I’m lucky that the National Library, Turnbull Library and National Archives are close at hand if needed. During the week I sometimes look after my two gorgeous mokopuna, and I meet up with a writing group one morning at a café, but otherwise I’m working from home. I started writing (for the School Journal) when our own three children were young, so I’m very used to working in and around everyday life.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?
I love many of the characters, especailly Tilly, and I enjoyed finding out about a period of NZ history that I hadn’t known much about. I also enjoyed writing the school scenes which lighten up some of the sadder moments. Figuring out how to write a sequel stretched me as a writer, as did writing about the same family and community from a different point of view.
What was most challenging aspect?
It’s always a challenge to fit the history in without making it seem like a history lesson. I always find out such a lot of fascinating stuff when I’m doing research, and it’s a temptation to squeeze it in, but it only works if the research is relevant to the story.
What’s next on the agenda for you?
I’ve got a picture book coming out next year, and working on that has been a lovely process so far.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Walking, swimming, movies, cryptic crosswords, lots of reading – including to my mokopuna!
Is there anything else you’d like to add about your experience writing this book?
I’m grateful once again to my editor Sue Copsey and designer Cheryl Smith for all their wisdom, expertise and hard work. We aimed for a look that would tie the two books together, so I’m also very grateful to Lemuel Lyes (https://historygeek.co.nz/author/) for giving permission to use an image from his collection for the gorgeous girl on the cover. Lemuel found the postcard in a secondhand bookshop and suspects the photo was taken in New Zealand, perhaps in the 1910s, but isn’t sure of the exact location. I contacted Lemuel after seeing the photo on his blog (https://twitter.com/LemuelLyes/status/1297061695404142593) and he was very generous in allowing me to use it. We both hope that someone might come forward with a clue to her identity!