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Writer Deborah mixes her passion with history: ‘I’m here to entertain’

Novelist Deborah talks about her love of characters, cats and quizzes
Deborah Challinor holding up her new history based bookPhotos: Juliette Drysdale

Deborah Challinor is a prolific writer of popular history-based novels, with 21 books published and just as many in her head waiting to be explored. A Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her contribution to literature, she completed a Master of Arts in history with first-class honours before going on to do her PhD on how New Zealand veterans remember Vietnam. She sent it to three publishers, received offers from two and the rest is history.

The Weekly sat down with Deborah, 65, at her Hamilton home to chat about her latest book, Black Silk and Sympathy.

Deborah’s latest book takes another fascinating journey into the past.

How much time goes into your historical research?

A huge amount. I’m a historian, but I’m here to entertain, not educate. It has been over 20 years, so it’s not like I’m starting with a blank page every time. This series started while I was in Sydney over 10 years ago and grew out of visits to Rookwood Cemetery. It’s the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere, with well over a million souls. That started things ticking over in my head, but I was working on my Convict Girls series, then my Vietnam series.

A book can take a year – I write in series and that takes a couple of months working out what’s going into at least three of the books. My agent submits it to the publisher and if they accept it, I’ll write the first draft for five or six months. Then it’s another six months going through four or five rounds of editing.

What is the hardest part of your work?

There are times when I can’t think of a single word to write, but I find mixing up my routine can be the circuit break I need – even if that’s moving my office around and facing a different direction. The day before, I always leave myself notes so I don’t start in front of a cold page.

Once you’ve written the book, do your characters leave you or do you wonder what happened to them?

They stay with me, so my head’s getting quite crowded! It’s a treat for me to write about them again and a treat for longtime readers. There are characters in this Undertaker series that were in the Convict series. I keep a list of everybody and have thumbnails of when they were born and who they’re related to. I’d never throw those away – I’d be in the poo!

If you were to time-travel, what era would you have liked to live in?

The Edwardian era [1901-1914]. Women had the vote and the Married Women’s Property Act meant they didn’t have everything stolen off them when they married. The 19th century was a bit grim. Tattie, the main character in Black Silk, is an apprentice undertaker in a male-dominated world in 1865. Imagine plumed horses and all the finery of the procession. How does Tattie carry a coffin in a long dress? How did women sit down on the privy with crinoline? Those are the things I think about.

Deborah Challinor reaching for one of her history books at the top of a bookshelf
The history buff will keep the stories coming for her readers.

You would be good at a history quiz…

Yes, and music from the ’60s and ’70s, and literary questions. Arron [Paul], my husband, and I do three or four quizzes a day.

How long have you been married?

We’ve been together for 33 years and married 25 years. Arron is an IT enterprise architect, but don’t ask me what that is! I think he’s clever at creating new things.

How would you feel about your books being turned into movies or a TV series?

The money would be good. I’m earning probably half of what I was 10 years ago because the industry has shrunk. But I would be worried about the guts of the story being significantly changed. The scriptwriter and producer would need to be sympathetic.

What keeps you going?

I don’t want to do anything else. I will do this for however long I have my marbles – it makes me happy. And knowing readers enjoy the books makes it worth it.

What else makes you happy?

We are huge Warriors fans. Up the Wahs! I get out in the garden – but that’s more like standing on the deck and pointing while Arron does the work. He also does the grocery shopping and the cooking. I love cats, but both of my cats died in the same week last year. That was terrible. So I have to watch cat videos for half an hour every day for my mental health.

How do you cope in those challenging times?

I’m 28 years sober. I started drinking at 14 and gave up in 1996. I go to meetings but not regularly. I know when I’m going off course and getting depressed – spending too many days on the couch watching crime programmes. I pull myself up and try to think positively.

To buy your copy of Black Silk and Sympathy, follow the link here.

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