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Saturday, June 18, 2011

The virtual voyage of a village to New Zealand, 1842

Jenny Robin Jones in an earlier life
Interview with Jenny Robin Jones, author of No Simple Passage

Q. Your virtual voyage on the London is at the skirts of your great-great-grandmother, Rebecca.  What did she look like (in your imagination) when you started to write? 

A. My inspiration for the book was triggered by an image of nineteen-year-old Rebecca, at the end of a four-month voyage, giving birth in Wellington Harbour. It’s always like this for me, whether I’m writing or reading: look like is less important than think like.  This was stronger in my mind than an actual image.

 Q. An important element in the story is the journal kept by the young surgeon, William Mackie Turnbull.  By what happy accident did you find his journal, and how did you feel as you turned the pages and realised he was writing about Rebecca's shipmates?

 A. I found a microfiche copy of the journal at the Alexander Turnbull Library, so it wasn’t a case of turning pages but of deciphering with craning neck and watering eyes. Even so, it was thrilling to find the surgeon describing not only his passengers’ ailments but also their disobedience and his reactions. The journal enabled me to see Rebecca and her shipmates as a floating microcosm of society.

 Q. You lived in England from the age of three, and when you sailed back to New Zealand at the age of 21, the immigration department described you as a "returning" New Zealander.  How would you describe yourself now?

 A. My parents identified themselves strongly as New Zealanders and I grew up in the belief that I too was essentially a New Zealander. I adopted their loathing for class snobbery, their championship of the underdog and their love of sparsely populated areas. But with that divided upbringing I can never feel wholly of one country. Part of my motivation to explore New Zealand history came from a need to know the country at a deeper level – to feel its past in my bones.

Q. Before No Simple Passage, what else had you written?

 A.  I began with short stories and also wrote travel and other articles which were published in magazines and newspapers. For many years fiction was where my heart lay but my novels weren’t getting published and eventually I realised why. I am the sort of person who didn’t like playing with dolls because they weren’t real and found it much more satisfying to put her little brother in the doll’s pram.
         I wanted to write penetratingly about things that really happened and to shape them into an artistically satisfying story. When I invented I felt fraudulent as if I was no longer ‘telling truth’. It was excruciatingly painful.
        Eventually I stopped forcing myself and began to write in a way that enabled me to probe human behaviour with what my publishers have called a ‘forensic’ eye, and to feel comfortable speaking in my own voice. My appreciation of fiction enabled me to imagine myself on ship with the passengers and thus to put the book in the present tense even though I am writing about the past. I want the reader to feel what it would have been like trying to make wise decisions 170 years ago.
      With Writers in Residence: a journey with pioneer New Zealand Writers, which was published by Auckland University Press in 2004, I discovered my deep interest in pioneers – of all kinds. An interest followed up in No Simple Passage.

Q. Your research into the backgrounds and fates of Rebecca's shipmates is amazingly extensive and intensive. What was your most memorable experience while searching out the events and background for this book?

 A.  I looked up the militia records of Rebecca’s husband John and found that his claim for compensation had been rejected. I was transported in an instant back to the 24th of November 1896 and the disappointment of a man who had hoped that the country in which he worked so hard all his life would repay him with a little recognition.  I felt as if that man stood  beside me as I read his letter, and yet I could not comfort him.  The best I could do was tell the story and quote the entire letter in No Simple Passage.

 Q. And finally, how did you celebrate when No Simple Passage was accepted for publication?

 A. The arrival in my postbox of an advance copy of the book put an end to the private manuscript and announced the birth of something ready to be seen in public. About to depart for a 3-day walk in the Wairarapa with friends, I added it to my pack together with a bottle of Deutz champagne and that evening, with the book propped up on a table in the hut, we ‘wet the baby’s head’. 

 Thank you for your time, Jenny Robin Jones, and for creating such really interesting answers, which every aspiring writer of history will find fascinating.

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