Author Tony Chapelle's life lived literally

Author Tony Chapelle's study is a sanctuary.
Warwick Smith/Fairfax NZ

Author Tony Chapelle's study is a sanctuary.

Author Tony Chapelle writes life into words and Carly Thomas went and found out how. 

Life isn't always clear cut and endings are not always well defined. And for that reason Tony Chapelle does not lead his readers by the hand. He walks with them. 

Chapelle is a man of words, a lover of history and an author who takes life in his stride and tells it. He writes about being human, being vulnerable, real and present. Chapelle tells his stories from a place that he observes through astute eyes and he writes in the early hours of morning.

19th century novels are a passion of Tony Chapelle's.
Warwick Smith/Fairfax NZ

19th century novels are a passion of Tony Chapelle's.

It's the only time his household is quiet. Chapelle's house is one that shouts home and he shares it with his wife, daughter, his daughter's partner and their two children. It is a wonderful mix of grownup order and toddler chaos and the book-lined study is somewhat of a sanctuary.

Chapelle has always written, but since retiring from his academic job he has only, in the past few years, found time to really dedicate himself to writing fiction. He says it is something he is compelled to do. There are just stories in his head that have to get out. He finds stories everywhere and they can spark from a lot of nothing, which over time become recurring thoughts that eventually turn into something. Ideas are everywhere, he says.

"It can be an incident or a thing that just sticks. Something which gets in your head and stays. Just everyday things, I don't think you can really write outside of your experience."

Chapelle has been around on the short story scene for the past 10 years, getting short-listed and winning New Zealand short story competitions. He accumulated a hoard of life slice vignettes, which last year became his first published book, Original Sin.

It was Feilding publisher Rangitawa Publishing that saw his words fit between a cover and it was a foot in the door that saw him take the next step to having his first novel Merely a Girl come to life. 

Chapelle was accepted for a Society of Authors mentorship programme and was teamed up with New Zealand author Sue McCauley. She became a sounding board, an upfront first reader and a firm friend. Her reaction to the book? "Great, but cut it in half".

A tome turned into something less weighty, one book turned into two and Tony Chapelle became a novelist. 

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"Sue is wonderful, she is a real treasure. Her help was invaluable."

While his short stories are a voice from the provinces, his first novel is set in distinctly mid-Victorian England. It's a jump, but then when Chapelle gets talking about the books that have formed his inner world, it's not a surprise at all.

"My literary love is the 19th century novel. British mainly but also the French, Russian and the Spanish. I have literally read hundreds and hundreds of these novels and I just love them. I don't think we will ever be likely again to see the nature of the great 19th century novelist. To me they just create worlds that you could just get into. But they were relatable, they were worlds, with real people."

The world in Merely a Girl is that of 18-year-old Adelaide's. A girl of mixed-race, Addie is clever and passionate yet caught between what society expects and what she wants for herself. Acclaimed New Zealand writer Maurice Gee describes her as " tough, energetic, frustrated, vulnerable and not always admirable. A thoroughly believable young woman."

Gee also says that Chapelle writes with "a real Victorian voice". High praise indeed says Chapelle who can vividly recall falling in love with the tale of Nicholas Nickleby as a boy.

"I have read so much of that time that I can't really imagine writing any other way."

The centre of his novel Adelaide is "totally imagined" but she did evolve from somewhere.

"At least I thought she was totally imagined, but in fact I was drawing in part from my daughter. Often it is subconscious. The genesis of the novel came from my maternal great-grand parents. One is an almost historical figure and the other one, his wife, has nothing about her. So I thought 'that's not fair' so out of that came a totally imagined woman who got no mention at all in the history of my family. I imagined what she might have been like."

Chapelle's follow on novel, The Youngest Son, tells the story from the man that becomes Adelaide's husband's point of view and it highlights some of the prejudices of the time. It's a different voice, says Chapelle and it sits amongst others. There will be more stories, he adds.

Because for now it is peaceful in his study. The aquamarine blue walls shine a quiet light and the bookcases hold whole worlds. But soon the kids will come home, doors will open and little feet will stomp. Voices will fill Chapelle's home and his mind and it's these moments that will become his words. It is life that lights up Chapelle's computer screen, it may be 3am on a Palmerston North morning, but this is a place of stories. And where there is life there will always be words a will and a way.

 - Stuff


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