Our girls Paula and Rachael

Well, I say ‘our girls’, but really, we are having to share them both with the rest of the world – both are being published overseas in ever-increasing degrees.  Paula Morris’ latest book for teens, Ruined, is part of a three-book deal with Scholastic, and Rachael King’s earlier work The Sound of Butterflies has now been translated into eight languages (we counted them). 

A full room, a great chair (Dorothy Vinicombe),  and a very engaged audience meant the hour flew by, and I took so many notes I don’t even know where to begin.  Rachael has promised to chat with us back in Christchurch next week, but in the meantime, here are a few of the questions asked, and their respective answers.

What are the perils and pleasures of writing historical fiction?

Rachael: The pleasure comes in letting your imagination run away with your choice of character (you can choose someone as far removed from yourself as you like – Magpie Hall features as one of its main characters a 19th century heavily tattoo-ed English male taxidermist), but then you do need to ground them in some sort of reality.  And this is the perilous bit, she says: “When you’re reading my book, I don’t want you to be thinking about me and my research.  If you are, I’ve failed in my job.” 

Paula:  Once you’ve started a story, your research can lead you much more deeply into that story, if you let it:  “One thing leads to another.”  And if sometimes the research reveals facts that don’t fit with your plot, you must either choose to change your story, or to ‘ignore’ those facts. 

Exactly, comments Rachael:  “If this is fiction, I should be able to make things up, otherwise it’s not fiction.” 

Tell us about how you developed some of the other characters in your books.

For both writers, this turned into an exploration of ‘object as character’.  For Rachael:  In Magpie Hall, Henry’s cabinet of curiosities was pivotal enough, and had so much impact on those around it, that it really did attain ‘character status’; and for Paula, the same could be said of Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans, the setting for much of the action in Ruined.  In fact, Paula’s editor felt so much ‘love’ was going into the cemetery descriptions, she was asked to stop, already!

And finally, a question about how connections with new books can inspire revisiting of older classics.  For example, the Twilight series has awakened a huge surge of interest in Wuthering Heights, just as Bridget Jones’ Diary introduced a whole new set of readers to Austen.  The question then became:

Team Austen or Team Bronte?

RK:  Has always been Team Bronte, and although she hated Austen as a student, now fully loves P&P.

PM:  Both Team Austen and Team Bronte, always. 

Rachael did comment, however, that for her Wuthering Heights has always been a novel not of great love, but of great revenge, a statement fully supported by Paula, who added, “Yes, and a sadistic one at that”. 

Other highlights of the session included a detailed description of how to skin a tiger (Rachael), an illuminating discussion of tattoos in high society (Churchill’s mother apparently had one!), and a brief mention of Paula’s earlier career as ghost writer, featuring “trashy shopping and kissing novels set in San Tropez”.

A great session, great authors, and great books – go find them and read them both.  Now.