Welcome to the sixth in a series of pieces we’re running as part of ReadNZ, which is a campaign to get more of us reading books written by New Zealanders.
Think of any type of storytelling, and there’ll be a New Zealander who is good at it.
We produce a huge range of fantastic books here in Aotearoa, and we want to help readers find something new to them!
Kirsten McKenzie is an author who can't be pinned down to one genre. She has written historical fiction and horror novels, including the recently-published Doctor Perry, which has been described as "a hoot of a creepy read - and one that will make you think more about paying attention to your kids and looking after the old folk."
Kirsten also works in her family's antique shop, surrounded by the mysterious objects of eras past, which no doubt provide plentiful inspiration for her novels. We asked her about historical fiction in Aotearoa and what makes it special.
Hi Kirsten, please tell us about your work.
My first historical fiction novel, Fifteen Postcards, was published in 2015 by Accent Press, a UK publisher. The story follows Sarah Lester’s quest to save her family’s antique store and find her missing parents, taking the reader on a journey through the gold fields of New Zealand, the hill country stations of India, and Victorian London.
I started writing it on a slow day at work, in my own family’s antique shop. Fifteen Postcards was followed by a sequel - The Last Letter, published by Accent Press in 2016, and I’m currently working on the final book in the trilogy - Telegram Home, due for publication in November 2018.
As an antique dealer, I have loved being able to incorporate New Zealand antiques into my stories, creating storylines around actual pieces which have come into our shop.
In between writing The Last Letter and starting Telegram Home, I look a break from historical fiction, and wrote two horror novels - Painted in 2017, and Doctor Perry which was published in May 2018. The idea for Painted came from the upstairs art room at our antique shop - Antique Alley, which is stuffed to the rafters with old art. And Doctor Perry is set in a retirement home, so again I got to incorporate lots of old stuff - the belongings of the residents at the Rose Haven Retirement Home…
The Book Council found in its research last year that New Zealanders really enjoy reading historical fiction. Why do you think it’s such a popular genre?
New Zealanders enjoy historical fiction because our own history is so limited - 800 or so years old.
To reach back in time and live vicariously through the words of someone else, in a time not of our own, holds a powerful sway over our psyche. The history taught in schools is limited to certain major points in history — the NZ Land Wars, the US Civil Rights Movement, WWII, but there is so much more history out there, which most of which we are never exposed to except through the pages of a book.
Through the power of words we can be in Egypt, or in a Roman settlement in Gaul. We can wander the streets of Glasgow, or navigate the fjords of Norway. Through the words of the right author, we can feel the intense heat of the deserts of Africa, or the exquisite moment a mother holds her baby in a traditional whare in Rotorua.
There is no Flight Centre deal that could take you to as many places as you can visit within the pages of an epic historical fiction tome!
Is there anything about New Zealand historical fiction that sets it apart?
The beauty of Kiwi historical fiction authors is that their stories are contained within narrow borders. We are a small country without the numerous European borders to play with, and we don’t have the vast history of Africa to draw upon. So our plot lines and our geographic references are more confined than those of English or South American authors, or Indian authors.
Our internal plots have to have more magic to create the drama and majesty that overseas authors incorporate by mere proximity to centuries old monasteries or ruins or cultures long forgotten by anyone other than scholars.
Our distance and our size, and our smaller window of history, give New Zealand authors a unique voice which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
Which local historical fiction novels would you recommend to a new reader?
I especially enjoyed the book Purgatory by Rosetta Allen, based on the 1865 Otahuhu murders. It isn’t a book about grand momentous occasion, but Purgatory shows how a small local event can be woven into a wonderful narrative, with characters you can feel and believe. Rosetta skilfully wrote from the child’s viewpoint, and that was a refreshing voice to read.
Andrene Low’s fiction is a little more recent, covering the hedonistic 1970s, with a dash of sexual revolution thrown in. Darkly funny, her first book Friday Night Fever starts in small town New Zealand, before moving offshore to Melbourne. I suspect that much of what Andrene wrote about 1970s New Zealand may still exist in some parts of the country.
And Vicky Adin’s books — especially Gwenna The Welsh Confectioner. With a strong female protagonist, and set in Auckland, this book was a joy to read. It’s a marvellous thing to be able to read a book and “see” where the author is talking about. The K Road we know and love now, was vastly different in Victorian times, but through Vicky’s storytelling, we can identify with the location so vividly. That’s what makes her books so enjoyable.