Lunch with NZ’s most popular author

Oskar Howell travels to Otorohanga to interview Danielle Hawkins, author of When It All Went to Custard, over a delicious two-course home-cooked lunch.

Come for lunch, said Danielle Hawkins. The biggest-selling novelist in New Zealand lives on her family farm overlooking Otorohanga. Her views are breathtaking: Kakepuku mountain rises from the plains, and farms dot the foothills of Mount Pirongia in the distance. Her lunch is pretty spectacular too.

She’s made freshly baked sourdough bread to go with cauliflower soup, and a lime and coconut cake for dessert. The interview was conducted over the dining room table.

As she poured the soup into bowls, Hawkins began answering questions about her novel When It All Went to Custard, which has become a publishing sensation – number one on the New Zealand best-seller list for months, only toppled for one week when Fiona Kidman won the $50,000 Acorn prize for fiction with her novel This Mortal Boy, but Custard promptly regained the top spot and has stayed there ever since.

From the beginning, Hawkins had a clear location in mind for the novel. Her family farm acted as her inspiration for the station where most of the story takes place. The farm has been in her family for three generations. Her grandfather bought it when he returned from World War II, and Hawkins and her husband Jarrod now run 500 cows and 500 sheep.

It really shines through When It All Went to Custard. Hawkins writes knowingly of the fresh mornings, the freezing rain, and the rolling hills and gullies of the fictional settlement of Tipoi. A story of betrayal and struggle, the novel follows the main character Jenny, after she gives her cheating husband the boot and juggles a sheep farm, council job and a coterie of well-meaning friends, all the while looking after her two children Lily and Nathan.

Jenny can never seem to catch a break. The bills begin to stack, the useless advice from friends stacks even higher and the troubles never seem to leave her side – just like her loyal dog Tessa.

It’s very good fun, but the first draft was written in fear and agony. “I really struggled with this book,” she said. “At first I was writing it and enjoying it. Then I got sick. I had cancer and was having chemo. I thought, ‘I haven’t got anything else to do, I’m going to bloody keep writing this book.’

“So I kept on writing and kept on writing, and I knew I wasn’t writing very nice stuff and that was depressing, but I didn’t stop. I felt this great sense of obligation. I struggled through it and struggled through it and struggled through it. I wasn’t feeling very cheerful and it really showed.

“Eventually I struggled to the end of this thing that was a bit of a dog and I sent it off saying, ‘I don’t like it very much but I’m sick and I can’t look at it anymore.’

“And they [HarperCollins, her publisher] wrote back and said, ‘Yeah we don’t like it either.’

“I was like, ‘That was constructive, thank you.’ It was kind of crushing.

“I had to do lots and lots of rewriting. But I knew I hadn’t got it right. It just needed to be made nicer all the way along. By the end of the first draft, poor old Jenny was the most unfortunate person in the world and everyone was trying to shaft her and they were all just a pack of total mongrels and no one was any good. I had to go through and make everyone a whole lot nicer.”

The novel is written in the kind of hushed voice, quiet chit-chat style that New Zealanders do so well.

“I really like getting dialogue right in books,” she said. “I was reading a book a few years ago and at the end the characters got together and the guy takes her in his arms and says, ‘I want to make babies with you! Lovely babies!’ No man would ever say that.

“So if the dialogue feels Kiwi, it’s because it comes out of my accent.”

The fictional town of Tipoi is half Te Kuiti, half Putaruru. Jenny works in a council office, which Hawkins based on the Waitomo District Council.

Lunch, done.  Photo: Oskar Howell

As she cleared away the cauliflower soup, Hawkins said the experiences of the characters – from farming to floundering – were based on experiences of real people. Like Jenny, Hawkins’ family also lives close by.

“Mum and Dad are just down the road. But they’re not the parents in the book, and neither is my sister. She’s a particularly nice girl, married to a particularly nice fellow and they live in Te Kuiti. The only similarity is that she’s a lot thinner than me.”

The cancer and the rewrite meant she missed her deadline, but the publishers were understanding, and patient.

“They were very, very nice about it,” she said. “It had a delivery time but I got cancer, and they just said, ‘It doesn’t matter when it turns up.’ That was really lovely. So I only put pressure on myself.

“But it’s a shame it’s not very well paid, writing. Well, the authors aren’t very well paid. I don’t know if the publishers make any money out of it or not - I suspect they make quite a lot more than we do.

“It’s really easy to get bitter and resentful, you know - something that is paid like a hobby and you have to treat it like it’s a job. For me, it really pisses me off and I get quite bitter about the whole thing and it’s better just not to get bitter and to keep enjoying it.”

HarperCollins turned down her first manuscript. “They said, ‘Try rural women’s fiction- that’s what sells really well.’ I went, ‘Oh that’s kind of easy cos that’s my life.’”

She wrote Chocolate Cake for Breakfast, which became a best-seller. When It All Went to Custard was the second in her two-book deal with the publisher.

She served her coconut and lime cake. It was sublime. We had seconds, and she talked about the book she’s currently writing.

“I’m trying to set it in a made up fairytale-type kingdom and I’m struggling a little bit with that,” she said.

“You can’t write in a Kiwi idiom cos that would just make it ridiculous. You’ve got to make sure they’re not saying, ‘Ah, she’ll be right!’ But having taken out all the little ‘chur bro’ and stuff, I haven’t got anything to replace it with. So it’s coming along rather slowly.

“I thought it would be fun, cos it’s the kind of book I like to read. She [the main character] lives in this castle and her father’s quite a nice man but he kind of wanders around in a selfish way, wanting to shoot everything that moves. And she gets kidnapped by revolutionaries but they’re really inept and don’t know what they’re doing. She ends up rescuing them.

“I’m trying to do it without being exactly like Terry Pratchett or being really lame. A bit fairytale, so it reminds you of Cinderella as you go. She’s got this crazy great aunt that won’t cut her hair. But I’m not sure if I’ll be able to pull it off.”

It’s a radical departure from Chocolate and Custard.

“I just felt like I had explored all the storylines of girls a bit like me who had lived rurally. There’s only a certain number of things that could happen. Once you’ve had the unexpected pregnancy storyline and your husband wandering off, you’re kind of done.”

Leaving the dining table and walking out onto the patio reveals the true beauty of the farm setting: a panoramic view of the whole region. Her pigs trot up the hill to greet her. A pīwakawaka flits around the fenceposts, and a tui bathes in the birdbath, enjoying the pale sun. Hawkins has seen a resurgence in native birds on her farm, and the bird bath seems to be a selling point.

She said, “I think I’ll keep writing for the rest of my life.”

When it All Went to Custard by Danielle Hawkins (HarperCollins, $35)

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