Mining reality to write fiction

Dunedin author Ella West with her new novel Rain Fall, a teenage murder mystery set in Westport....
Dunedin author Ella West with her new novel Rain Fall, a teenage murder mystery set in Westport. Photo: Linda Robertson
Dunedin author Ella West talks to Bruce Munro about the difficulties and delights of writing a young adult novel set in a real time and place.

Annie lives on Utopia St in a charming West Coast town that is about to experience enormous upheaval. It sounds like fiction, and it is. Annie is the teenage protagonist in award-winning writer Ella West’s just-published fifth novel Rain Fall.

Fiction, except that everything about the setting, right down to the name Utopia St, is real.

West is the fitting pseudonym for freelance journalist, playwright and author Karen Trebilcock who, before moving to Dunedin with her husband, lived in Westport, on the South Island’s West Coast, for 15 years.

She decided to write a young-teen, murder mystery set in her erstwhile hometown after a return visit in 2015.

"Night Vision, my previous book, was in the New Zealand Book Awards that year. They used to tour the finalists, and I got to go to Westport," West recalls.

"One of the kids at one of those author talks said, ‘Why haven’t you written a book set in Westport?’ I didn’t have an answer."

Westport, a town of 5000 people at the mouth of the Buller River, 100km north of Greymouth, is a lovely place, West says.

"You’ve got the bush, the town, the beach, and, yes, the rain ... there’s a lot to write about."

That same year, the Stockton coal mine was put up for sale by Solid Energy. Its closure, and that of the local cement works, put 1000 people — equivalent to 20% of the total population of Westport — out of work.

"It was really horrific.

"People elsewhere in New Zealand didn’t know what Westport was going through."

It gave West an interesting setting and a compelling context in which to set a murder mystery laced with romance. It also gave her an unexpected headache.

"It is really hard writing about a real place in a real time.

"Because you want to make it real. But when does ‘real’ stop and ‘fiction’ start?

"I was quite careful. I hope people understand it’s a fictional story even though it is set in a very real place and time."

Her experience has taught her this is a valid concern. Night Vision was set on a fictional sheep farm inland from Ashburton, but West still had teachers contact her wanting to take their classes to the farm.

Having shifted away from Westport helped her tell the tale, she says.

"Don’t ask me to write a book about Dunedin.

"But being away [from Westport] gave some space so that I could write about it ... It gave me a different perspective."

In that sense, Rain Fall became a welcome "trip down memory lane" for West.

"I learnt to ride a horse in Westport. I rode a lot there.

"So the beach Annie rides on, yes, I’ve galloped a horse down that beach."

And the high school Annie attends is the same one West will soon visit to talk to the pupils about the book.

She admits, however, that everyone’s experience and view of a place is unique.

"The Westport I’ve imagined will not be the Westport anyone else knows."

When writing a novel, West begins with a rough story structure and an end point in mind and then fills in the rest as she goes.

Rain Fall was distinctive in that she also had several true, personal incidents set in Westport that she wanted to include.

"I would write in a memory and then go back and fill in the bits in between."

Incidents such as the man who kept a dead penguin in his freezer, which he pulled out at parties; the burial of a horse trainer whose horses, standing quietly in the paddock next to the Westport cemetery, suddenly reared up, neighed and ran around the field when the coffin was lowered into the ground; and travelling in a coal train through the Buller Gorge.

"The train trip is very spectacular and dangerous."

A background in journalism, means West does not write several drafts of her books.

"You go over it once and then fix it up a couple of times ... As a journalist you don’t have lots of time; you get it down once and you get it down right.

"It’s given me great training as a novelist. You can write fast. You order your thoughts and then go from the start and end at the end."

The upheaval Westport faced in 2015 allowed West to explore issues such as family and social disruption through job loss and the use of coal in an era of increasing concern about the environmental impacts of fossil fuels.

To date, all of West’s novels are mysteries written for 12 to 15-year-olds.

Thieves, which was published in 2006, was the first of a trilogy. Her fourth novel, Night Vision (2014), won the Young Adult section of the LIANZA Awards and was the Young Adult Children’s Choice winner in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Like her previous novel, Rain Fall is a stand-alone story, primarily because West does not  want to visit a second encounter with murder on one of her characters.

"How many murders can one girl witness?

"Hopefully it’s a once in a lifetime experience."

Judging from the fan mail West receives, New Zealand and Australian teenage readers are enjoying her books.

Night Vision has been used as an English text in at least one secondary school and her Australian publishers, Unwin & Allen, are keen for her to continue writing books set in New Zealand.

"Hopefully, with Rain Fall I’ve given Kiwi kids a book they can relate to and enjoy and learn from."

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