Bestselling New Zealand author Danielle Hawkins lives on a sheep and beef farm near Otorohanga with her husband and two children. She works part-time as a large animal vet, and writes when the kids are at school and she's not needed on the farm.
When It All Went to Custard (HarperCollins) is Danielle's fourth novel, and tells the story of the year after Jenny's life falls apart following news of her husband's infidelity. It's the story of farming, family, pet lambs and geriatric dogs, choko-bearing tenants and Springsteen-esque neighbours. To quote the book's excellent tagline:
Odds of saving marriage - slim.
Farming experience - patchy.
Chances that it'll all be ok in the end - actually pretty good.
Danielle Hawkins - who is also a keen gardener, an intermittently keen cook and an avid reader - agreed to answer some questions for us as part of our 'ReadNZ' series.
Kia ora Danielle, and congratulations on your new book! Can you tell us a bit about it?
The book’s called When it All Went to Custard, and it’s about a woman called Jenny Reynolds whose life is pretty much like mine – married with children, living on the family farm, working part time – until she discovers that her husband is even less satisfactory than she’d thought and he’s been sleeping with the next-door neighbour.
Which is surprisingly un-devastating, but does leave her with the big problem of trying to run a farm she’s only ever been peripherally involved with. This is the story of the year after Jenny’s life fell apart – a year of small children and pet lambs and geriatric dogs and chokos and a neighbour who looks a bit like Bruce Springsteen.
You’re a busy mum, farmer and vet, as well as a novelist. What draws you to writing, and how do your different roles intersect in your creative work?
I think that what I love about writing is getting to make something just for myself. The only reason I do it is that I want to, and that makes a lovely change from the rest of my life. Parenting and cooking and housework and vet work and helping on the farm are all excellent things to do, but they’re often not that mentally stimulating, and writing’s a great contrast.
All my different roles weave together to shape my creative work – which is just a classy way of admitting that I write about people like me who do the things I do, because I’m far too lazy to research settings and situations I don’t know!
What is it about rural New Zealand that makes a good setting for a novel?
I don’t think that rural New Zealand is a better setting for a novel than anywhere else – but it’s my setting, and I love it, and I like the idea of showcasing it to readers.
In an article on Stuff, writer Catherine Robertson wrote that you were a genius humourist, and that genuinely funny writing is quite rare. What are the challenges of writing humour, and how important is it to you that your readers laugh?
My absolute favourite books are funny and charming and uplifting, and I’d love to manage to write like that myself. I think ‘genius humourist’ is being much too kind, but what a delightful compliment! Writing humorously is harder and slower than describing something straight – you have to find just the right turn of phrase, and be really careful not to labour the point and underline your jokes, or you’ll kill any wit or sparkle they might once have possessed.
The Book Council is currently running a campaign called ‘Read NZ’. What does that mean to you – how important is it that we read books from this place?
To answer that selfishly, if New Zealanders are keen to read New Zealand books, that’s a big help to Kiwi authors! It’s tough for anyone in the world to get published, but it’s even tougher if you happen to be from a small country with a small book-buying public, and you happen to set your books locally rather than internationally – you just don’t look like a great investment to a publisher.
To answer the question in a broader and more philosophical sort of way, I think that the more people read the better they get (I know I’m biased; I’m a bookworm and an author), and that it doesn’t really matter whether they choose Kiwi books or books from anywhere else, as long as they read something!
Is there anything about New Zealand novels that sets them apart do you think?
No, I don’t. There are wonderful New Zealand novels and dire ones, just like there are great books and lousy books from everywhere else in the world. Praising a book just because it’s from this country gives me the same uncomfortable feeling as hiring someone because they belong to a minority group – it’s sort of insulting.
Which New Zealand books or writers have been special to you in your life?
Margaret Mahy – wasn’t she amazing? Her books are all lovely; from Jam and The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate to learn to read with, to The Very Wicked Headmistress when you’re a bit bigger, to The Changeover, which is one of my very favourite Young Adult fiction books of all time. I love Mary Scott, who had such a delightful turn of phrase and described 1950s sheep farming so beautifully, and A Good Keen Man by Barry Crump. And I adore The Witch’s Thorn by Ruth Park, which is set in the 1930s and brings small town New Zealand to life more vividly than anything else I’ve ever read.
What’s next in store for you?
I’m writing a story about the princess of a made-up country, who’s kidnapped by a very incompetent group of revolutionaries. It’s probably career suicide to switch genres like that, but it’s fun!
When It All Went to Custard by Danielle Hawkins is out now, $35 RRP (HarperCollins). For details of Danielle’s speaking events and book signings click here.