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Challinor, Deborah
Writer's File

Deborah Challinor

Challinor, Deborah
In brief
Deborah Challinor is a bestselling novelist. She has written a range of historical fiction, though her first titles were non-fiction history books. Her first historical novel, Tamar, was published in 2002 and has been reprinted numerous times. The Tamar series continued with White Feathers and Blue Smoke. Union Belle, Kitty and Fire are among her New Zealand bestsellers. In 2016 she released The Cloud Leopard's Daughter (HarperCollins NZ).
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    HarperCollins NZ
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Challinor, Deborah (1959 – ) is a novelist. Born in Huntly, she holds a PhD in New Zealand history from the University of Waikato. Challinor has worked as a fulltime writer and historian since 2000.

Primarily known for her historical novels, Deborah Challinor’s first published books were non-fiction history books, including the best-selling Grey Ghosts: New Zealand Vietnam Vets Talk About Their War (Hodder Moa Beckett, 1998), and her 2000 book exploring the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Agent Orange and the Children of New Zealand’s Vietnam Veterans (HarperCollins NZ).

When it comes to fiction, attention to historical detail is an important part of writing for Challinor. ‘I base my novels on actual historical events, and it’s very important to me to research those events in depth and to present them accurately,’ she says.

Her first historical novel, Tamar (HarperCollins NZ), was published in 2002 and has been reprinted six times. Part of Challinor’s ‘Children of War Series’, Tamar is set in Auckland, Hawke’s Bay and South Africa and covers the period from 1879 until the Boer War. The series continues with White Feathers (2003) set in Hawke’s Bay during the First World War, and Blue Smoke (2004) set in 1931 Napier.

Challinor’s fourth novel, Union Belle (HarperCollins NZ, 2005), tells the love story of a young woman caught up in the 1951 waterfront strike, and was at the top of the New Zealand fiction bestseller list. Reviewing Union Belle in North and South magazine in April 2005, Warwick Roger commented that: ‘You can smell the beer and cigarette smoke in the public bar of the Huntly Hotel, hear the band at the Saturday night dances at the miner’s hall … it’s a book I kept sneaking back to whenever I had a spare quarter hour, eager to advance the story.’

In 2006, Challinor’s second series of historical novels, the ‘Smuggler’s Wife Series’, begins with Kitty (HarperCollins NZ, 2006), set in the Bay of Islands just prior to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Kitty was a number one bestseller, and received a Gold Premier New Zealand Bestseller Award. Its sequel, Amber, was published later in 2007 and also became a bestseller. Amber opens in New Zealand in 1845, on the eve of the Northern War in the Bay of Islands, in which Kitty is caught up. The third title in the Smuggler’s Wife Series, Band of Gold, was published in 2010 and became another bestseller. Set later in 1854 in Ballarat, Australia, Kitty becomes entangled in the Victorian Gold Rush. Challinor has said about the series: 'They turn up at different global events that, basically, I want to research. I never write about events I’m not interested in. I write for me, really. I write the books in order to do the research. I gather the historical bones, then cover those with fictional characters' (Otago Daily Times, November, 2016).

Fire (HarperCollins NZ, 2007), Challinor's seventh novel, is set in Auckland during the hype leading up to the royal visit of 1953, but is based on the Ballantyne’s department store fire of 1947 in Christchurch. A powerful and dramatic story of passion, ambition and greed, it became a number one bestseller.

Isle of Tears (HarperCollins NZ, 2009) is a story about 14-year-old Scottish immigrant Isla McKinnon and her younger brothers and sister. When they are orphaned they are adopted by Taranaki Maori and become caught up in the wars in Taranaki, the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty.

A revised edition of Challinor’s Grey Ghosts (HarperCollins NZ) was published in 2009. This edition included a new chapter on how the New Zealand Vietnam veteran community has fared since the book was first published in 1998.

Challinor’s ‘Convict Girl Series’ published by HarperCollins Australia, begins with Behind the Sun (2012) and follows on with, Girl of Shadows (2013), The Silk Thief (2014), and A Tattooed Heart (2015). Loosely based on the histories of her own Australian ancestors, Challinor tells the story of four convict girls, Friday Woolfe, Sarah Morgan, Rachel Winter and Harriet Clarke. Canvas magazine (NZ Herald) writes, “This is girl power, historical fiction-style. Our four heroines meet in the late 1820s in London's Newgate Prison ... They soon board a ship to Australia where they'll carry out their sentences and, during the months at sea, form a strong bond. The way they look after each other during some very tough times indeed is moving, and Challinor is a master at keeping you invested in the story.”

In 2015, Challinor released her first fictional account of the Vietnam War, My Australian Story: Vietnam (Scholastic Australia). The book is set in Australia and aimed at a school age audience. Reading Time (The Children’s Book Council of Australia) writes, “This is a very good book about a family and a neighbourhood living through the late sixties, a period that changed our world forever. It is pacey, funny and sad, written with gusto and empathy.”

The fourth novel in the Smuggler's Wife series is The Cloud Leopard's Daughter (HarperCollins NZ, 2016), which sees Kitty and Rian Farrel tangled up in a quest to rescue a friend's kidnapped daughter.


  • Deborah Challinor's website
  • Deborah Challinor's Facebook page
  • Deborah Challinor's author's page on the HarperCollins NZ website
  • Interview with Challinor about Kitty on Stuff
  • Interview with Challinor about Band of Gold on Radio NZ
  • Interview with Challinor about A Tattooed Heart on Stuff
  • Review of My Australian Story: Vietnam on Reading Time (The Children's Book Council of Australia)
  • Interview with Challinor about writing and The Cloud Leopard's Daughter in the Otago Daily Times