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Christine Leunens: The woman behind the blockbusters

Starting a new chapter in New Zealand led to Hollywood movie deals and a tiny house!

Her books are loved by movie makers with one being adapted into the Taika Waititi film JoJo Rabbit and her latest, In Amber’s Wake, being adapted by the producer of Thelma & Louise. The Weekly chats to Christine Leunens about what makes a story great.

Your new book In Amber’s Wake is set amidst some turbulent times for New Zealand in the 1980s. The Rainbow Warrior attack and the Springbok tour protests to name a few. How did you research those events?

I did a lot of reading of books and I also looked into encyclopaedia and all kinds of library collections. But then I talked to real people, which makes the difference for me because I have to know how these things affected you and your family in daily life. With the Springbok protests, a lot of families were at war.

Sharing Oscar glory with Taika.

You live in Nelson but you were born in the US to a Belgian father and Italian mother. How does it feel to have so many different cultures living in you?

Well, my husband is French, so that complicates it even more. The Italian view of time is different from Americans. I remember sitting at a bus station here and there was a bus waiting to go. There was a Māori family saying goodbye and at some stage the bus driver got quite cross because they weren’t able to say goodbye and I thought back to my Italian family. It would have been the same.

What do you owe your parents?

I would say my Italian mother taught me to appreciate the old ways. We were in the United States but we lived very much in the old Italian way – probably from the late 1800s. If we wanted a snack, it was dried figs or dates, and every kind of nut. This was strict Italy and there was a real clash, but now I appreciate it. I owe to her my deeper connection with nature and to where food comes from.

With husband Axel.

What is the best thing about your life at the moment?

To see so many years of writing come to fruition. I’m working on the film of In Amber’s Wake at the moment with the producer of Thelma & Louise, so all this is happening and there’s lots of excitement.

You have a husband and three sons, so writing books must be difficult to fit in around family life. How do you keep yourself centred?

When my sons were younger, I’d actually write in the car a lot. While they were at music lessons or sports practice I’d be in the car writing. And then I would make use of the golden time when everyone was in school or at work.

The couple with their then-young sons (from left) Victor, Alexandre and Philippe.

What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?

The emotional comfort of a family. I find that having a family and just cooking for them or cleaning the house allows me to settle into life and nature. My writing is very important but you need some kind of nest to be able to do it.

What is the nicest thing you’ve ever bought or done for yourself?

Coming to live in New Zealand. I’ve never regretted it and each day I’m so happy to be here.

What qualities does a good friend need for you?

A good, good heart. Everything grows out of having a good heart, trust and values, caring and then just appreciating really simple joys together.

Taking a stroll on Rabbit Island, Tasman Bay.

What advice would you give 15-year-old you?

Back when I was 15, I used to think that I had to be good at something. So, sports or singing and I wasn’t good at either, so I was written off. Now I would tell myself not to let others write me off so easily and actually it’s okay to just be okay.

What books are on your bedside table?

I have Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, who is a Nigerian writer, The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw and I’m re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. I think more needs to be made

out of the themes of social justice she brings to life in her writing.

You’re cooking for friends – what is your signature dish?

I got this from my mother. It’s fresh ricotta spinach ravioli finished with a homemade tomato basil sauce. It’s not as hard as you might think making ravioli.

Tell us something we don’t know about you.

We recently downsized into a little cottage unit which is the size of two tiny houses, one on top of the other. We got rid of so much stuff because our house used to look like a big museum, which was a nightmare at first but now we love it.

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