Old-fashioned fun - Jenny Pattrick

19:42, Oct 28 2012

Jenny Pattrick's talk at the Granary on Saturday came complete with an old-style musical interlude.

Author of the bestselling novel Denniston Rose, Pattrick was in Nelson to promote her newest novel, Skylark. Like Denniston and most of her earlier work, Pattrick's seventh novel is a historical fiction piece set in pioneer-era New Zealand, although it is also partially set in France.

Pattrick explained that she finished previous novel Inheritance while on the six-month Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in Menton at the Villa Isola Bella. Famous short-story writer Katherine Mansfield lived at the same house towards the end of her life, although Pattrick doubts they shared the same room.

“I think it was probably the gardener's toolshed,” she said of her writing room at the villa.

Nevertheless, the French setting “crept into” her next novel, and was manifested in main character Lily Alouette. Pattrick mentioned she originally wanted to simply name Skylark after its protagonist, but was told by her publishers that librarians and bookstore staff would have difficulty spelling the French surname and sales would be affected. “Alouette” translates to “Lark” in French.

As Pattrick's family are “very solidly” in the theatre, she said Skylark was “a novel waiting to happen”. He mother was a playwright and director, and her father was a director as well. She said she grew up participating on theatrical events- “Performing has been sort of part of my life.”

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Besides infusing the novel with material from her childhood and time in Menton, France, Pattrick drew upon resources from New Zealand theatrical historians such as Peter Downs. She also mentioned Papers Past, a resource run by the New Zealand National Library which yielded material such as early reviews, advertisements and editorial.

Lily is fictional, but much of the supporting cast is adapted from such real-life characters as privateer William “Bully” Hayes and entertainer Mrs W.H. Foley.

“I've cannibalised it outrageously,” she said of the historical elements.

Pattrick explained she made sure to keep each character working in the same artistic field and in the same geographical area as they did in real life, but all other bets were off. Some elements were worked in simply because she could not resist including them once she heard about them, such as Pollard's Lilliputian Opera.

The book follows the same basic outline as an early “playbill”. In New Zealand's pioneer days, theatre-goers would expect to see several performances in an evening, which usually took the form of “melodrama, musical interlude, farce”. Skylark's different elements fit together in a similar way, and Pattrick has even printed a program at the front of the book.

“It's all one story, but I've had a lot of fun doing that,” she said of the arrangement.

Speaking with organiser Jacquetta Bell, Pattrick agreed that historical fiction was becoming more popular in New Zealand. She revealed Denniston Rose was re-printed five times before it was even launched, saying the three books connected with that plot arc had sold over 100,000 copies.

“We're ready to read our own stories,” said Pattrick.

Near the end of the performance, she and husband Laughton Pattrick got up, and performed one of two old-time music hall ballads contained in the book. Leaning on a crutch, Pattrick asked if the audience could imagine “that Laughton and I are a pair of precocious nine-year-old twins,” in reference to the book. Pattrick really is a born entertainer and I applaud her for it.

Nelson