WWI disaster inspires nursing novel

A story told to author Maxine Alterio several years ago, involving an incident on board the troop ship Marquette in October 1915, was the inspiration behind Lives We Leave Behind - her third fictional novel.

Alterio, who is speaking at Dorothy Brown's Cinema tomorrow about the book, said the conversation with the nurse historian about the experience of those on board the Marquette had stayed with her.

As the ship steamed from Port Said in Egypt across the Aegean Sea to Salonika in Greece almost 100 years ago, its French escort left once land was in sight. Soon after, a torpedo from a German U-boat struck the Marquette, killing 167 people, including 10 of the 36 New Zealand nurses on board.

''The plight of these nurses and the survivors stayed with me. Eventually I created two fictional nurses, Addie Harrington from Riverton and Meg Dutton from Tuatapere, assigned them to New Zealand's No 1 Stationary Hospital - somewhat of a misnomer because it was frequently on the move - and wrote about their wartime experiences in Egypt and France.''

Alterio, originally from Southland, said she visited Gemstone Beach in Southland and selected stones to represent the main characters, to help develop them.

''Addie's stone is dark green with a reflective sheen, whereas Meg's stone has gold hues and a quirky texture. The stone I picked up for British surgeon Wallace Madison, with whom Meg has an intense affair, is heart-shaped with an irregular fracture through the middle.

''I wrote the novel with these stones sitting on my desk.''

Alterio visited the Hocken Collections in Dunedin and the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington and ''trawled through'' letters from soldiers and nurses, newspapers from the era, and Kai Tiaki - a nursing journal.

The resulting book was about risk and consequence, love and friendship and loss and resilience, Alterio said.

Alterio will be speaking at Dorothy Brown's from 11am tomorrow.

Entry is free, however, bookings are encouraged.