A book I really enjoyed reading this year was the Wellington political intrigue novel ‘The One That Got Away’ (Town Belt Press), by “Jennifer Palgrave”. Jennifer Palgrave is the pen-name for Lois Cox & Hilary Lapsley. I interviewed them about the book.
This is a real Wellington novel (although partly set in the UK), with places like the Whistling Sisters and Te Papa. What gave you the idea to write about a plot to kill David Lange?
We were talking about the disastrous effect Rogernomics had had on New Zealand and remembering how divisive the policies had been, not only in the country but also in the Labour caucus. With feelings running so high, David Lange wanting to stop for a cup of tea might have seemed outrageous enough for a fanatic or two to consider poison…
While this is a work of fiction, there are a number of real people mentioned in the book, like David Lange and Kim Hill. Were there ethical considerations in how you portrayed people?
We had to be aware of such considerations. We wanted the novel to seem possible but, for example, we couldn’t have portrayed some of the real people enthusiastic about Rogernomics as villains (although we were tempted). We were happy to feature people like Kim Hill doing what they do in public weekly. Some of the more private scenes involving Lange, for example, his kindness to the fictious MP, Michael, can be imaginatively deduced from the various memoirs written about him and the era. Other scenes like the Oxford debate have been exhaustively described in non-fiction pieces.
One of your characters talks about women in politics doing “emotional shitwork”. Do you think things have changed much since the Lange era?
Any place where men and women interact, that still goes on to some extent! But we’ve had three women Prime Ministers since then and there is a much greater proportion of women in Parliament now. We hope things have changed.
You wrote this collaboratively. What was your process?
We talked about the shape of the book as well as the plot details as we went and would each write particular scenes. All done in longhand at the dining table! Then we would dictate them to each other as we typed them into the computer. Some editing would happen then. Once we had a full draft, we edited together – and now, we’re not even sure who first wrote various pieces.
How have you drawn on your own experiences in writing ‘The One That Got Away’? Was there much research involved?
We’re old enough to have lived through the eighties as adults, and Lois was very involved in the Labour Party until about 1984. We used places we knew and experiences we’d had to flesh out the story. For example, Hilary had enjoyed a holiday on Naxos; and Lois had spent time in Cambridge, though not as an undergraduate. We both like the walks around Wellington – and Lois confesses that Monty in the book is very closely modelled on her daughter’s late dog, Duchess. Some of the house interiors are based on houses we know – but our characters are not based on the people who live in them.
We still had to do research. We read about the international money-go-round and the lives of the super rich. The books we mention in our afterword reminded us of the time and told us more about the inner workings of Lange’s office.
Who do you think this novel will particularly appeal to?
As our heroine identifies as lesbian, we expected that we would get a readership in the lesbian community but have been pleased that many others have enjoyed the book too, for its portrayal of politics then and now.
What’s next for “Jennifer Palgrave”?
We’re glad you asked that. We’ve been writing about what happened to our heroine Lauren, the year after the events in The One that Got Away. In that book, she helped with Jacinda and Labour’s successful campaign in 2017. Now Lauren has turned her attention to climate change and finds herself embroiled in the possible murder of a climate change activist. The book about that adventure will be available in early 2021.
Where can people buy a copy of ‘The One That Got Away’?
Unity Books and Another Chapter in Wellington have copies and the Women’s Bookshop in Auckland. It is also available online as a Kindle book.
Thanks Lois and Hilary. Looking forward to the sequel!