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The Drive to Write

How did the daughter of a mechanic end up becoming a novelist? Says Bronwyn Tate: “My parents brought us up to believe we could do anything. I once said to a group of friends that I was going to write a book. They laughed. That’s when I decided I was going to do it, to prove them wrong.”

Bronwyn Tate’s ‘long slow apprenticeship’ in writing is now bearing fruit. She has published not just one novel, but two. The latest, Russian Dolls, has been selected as a Top 20 title in the 1999 Listener Women’s Book Festival, and looks set to equal if not surpass the success of her first novel, Leaving for Townsville.

“It’s taken a lot of work, because I didn’t have an academic background, and wasn’t that good at English at school. We didn’t have thousands of books at home or intellectual conversations over the dinner table (they were mostly about fixing motors!). But I’ve always had an imagination, which is a most wonderful gift.”

Russian Dolls is a novel with a large framework. Against the backdrop of generations of the same New Zealand family going back to 1868, a woman of today uncovers the tale of her maiden great aunt and a soldier in World War I. In the process she finds other family stories against which her own experience since she left home stormily at the age of seventeen reverberates.

Tate writes of the main character: ‘Isla is caught by an updraught of history, not the kind found in books but the sort of history that people lived.’ Isla returns to her rural home town after many years away, to care for her ageing mother. She encounters people from her past and skeletons in the family closet.

The novel’s title symbolises the generations of a family, and repeating family patterns. Bronwyn Tate has always been interested in family history, and in 1985 organised a huge family reunion to celebrate 130 years since her ancestors first settled in New Zealand.

Writing Russian Dolls required Bronwyn Tate to do considerable research about the First World War. She had books and maps open at her desk and all over the dining table for weeks on end. “Also I had some letters, written by my great uncle, which inspired that part of the story. I used them as a basis for Charles Kavanagh’s war experience. They helped me get the mood and the language right.”

“The novel has some parallels with my own family, as in the great-aunt and great-uncle who corresponded during the war. But the story in Russian Dolls is not their story, and that’s about where the similarity stops.” In many respects this is a New Zealand story rather than a personal one as many Pakeha New Zealanders share the same pattern of generations: the pioneers, the war generations, the baby-boomers, and contemporary equivalents. The universal qualities of the novel have set Bronwyn Tate’s writing career firmly on track.

About the Author

Bronwyn Tate wrote Russian Dolls when a Creative New Zealand grant enabled her to give up teaching for a year. Her first novel Leaving for Townsville was published by the University of Otago Press in 1997, and her short stories have been published in magazines and broadcast on radio.

She was toured nationally as part of the 1997 Listener Women’s Book Festival Top 20 promotion. Among other appearances, she has been a guest writer at the Going West literary festival, and on the television show, The Write Stuff. She lives with her husband and three children north of Auckland, and belongs to a writing group called the Exploding Meringues.

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