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Interview: Trish McCormack talks about Girl of the Mountains

Wellington archivist and former journalist Trish McCormack grew up in Franz Josef. Her Philippa Barnes crime novels, including Ngaio Marsh Awards nominated Cold Hard Murder, are set in South Island national parks. Her book Jack’s Journey is based on the letters of a great uncle killed in the First World War. Girl of the Mountains is Trish’s fourth novel. Trish talks to NZ Booklovers.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was snowbound at Aoraki/Mt Cook village when my heroine Stella appeared in my imagination. A young woman storming up the Hooker Valley in the rain, then disappearing into the mist. I had no idea who she was, but I knew she was angry. Life and three other novels got in the way of this story fragment, but Stella kept making her presence felt, and as her personality gained definition, her story evolved.

Girl of the Mountains is inspired by the rich history of women mountaineers in Aotearoa. I’d been staying with one of them, Junee Ashurst, at Mt Cook when the snowstorm struck. She was a modest but hugely accomplished climber and a pioneer mountain guide. But she was sacked after the Second World War by a chief guide who didn’t want a woman on his team. Junee was just one of a pantheon of notables. Freda du Faur was the first Pākehā woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1910. Betsy Anderson became a guide at the Hermitage in the late 1920s – she is thought to have been the first woman mountain guide in the world. Katie Gardiner survived seven days sheltering in a crevasse during a blizzard in 1933 while attempting to climb Te Horokōau (Mt Tasman). Stella’s story is a portal to their world.

I love mystery novels in which actions taken by people in the past come back to haunt those of the present. Once I realized Stella belonged in the post-World War Two era, it was easy to imagine the conflicting journey her life would take her on.

What research was involved?

A lot! I’d spent a weekend at Aoraki/Mt Cook with June, researching women mountaineers for a dissertation for my Master of Arts in History at the University of Otago. As I grew more interested in the many women of the mountains, my research notes grew apace. So, when it came time to write the novel, I was spoiled for choice – or, to put it another way, I had far too much information! As a reader who likes the plot to move along, I knew I needed to find a way to salt gems of information in to enrich the story without slowing it down. Hopefully, I’ve achieved that.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I’m a terribly undisciplined writer. I admire people who allocate a certain time each day to accomplish a word count, but this isn’t for me. I can lose myself for a few days – or nights – and write myself out, then drop everything for weeks. In between writing bouts, I do a lot of thinking, usually while out climbing hills, and sometimes I pause to put a note on my phone, but mostly, my characters and their stories just swirl around in my head. I like to think the lack of routine gives my writing spontaneity, but really, it’s the way I do everything in life.

My earlier three crime novels were plotted, but Girl of the Mountains evolved. This, of course, meant a lot of editing and rewriting was needed after I finished, but it was worth it for the feeling of freedom and spontaneity when writing the first draft.

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

I don’t listen to music when I write, but Emmylou Harris is the soundtrack to my life. For Stella, I’d pick the song “O Evangeline” from her Stumble into Grace album. It’s dark but a sensitive reflection on the life of a strong, flawed woman.

What did you enjoy the most about writing Girl of the Mountains?

Stella. As her personality evolved, she made me laugh, but there were times when I wanted to shake her. She sure became real—ornery, talented and courageous. I also loved the way the story came together. It’s set in two time periods, the 1940s and the present day, which was challenging, but often, the two threads melded together as if by magic. And I loved it when ideas flowed when I was out walking.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I sent a happy message to my family, who are scattered from London to Dunedin, and then settled in with a large glass of red wine with my partner Paul, my great supporter in this and all my other writing projects.

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

That’s such a hard question to answer! I’m an avid reader and have read some fantastic books this year. But I’d probably choose Kristin Hannah’s The Women. I knew virtually nothing about the Vietnam War before reading this novel, and Kristin’s depiction was utterly engrossing. I was fascinated by the strong friendship between the women, the tough paths their lives took them after returning from the war zone to a country that didn’t want to know about it, and the way they recovered from the trauma.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

This is another mystery set in Abel Tasman National Park. Its spark is a creepy encounter I had while working as a hut warden there many years ago. It’s likely to develop into another dual-timeline novel. I’ll be doing a lot of walking in the hills around Wellington before committing anything to paper!



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