Before I started to write Wild Latitudes my published adult fiction was five contemporary satirical novels mostly about male-female and family relationships. People were startled at the switch: the earlier work had won a lot of attention in my native New Zealand, why change at all?
Truth is, I had always wanted to write an historical novel that ripped the prim veil off part of NZ history. I also wanted to use what I knew of 19th Century Literature and mix it in a fantastical pastiche where the sober exterior conceals a seethe of passion.
Choosing the City of Dunedin was a no-brainer. It was established in the 1840s by staunch Scots Presbyterians. By 1860 the population of the city was still less than 2,000. Then in 1861 gold was discovered in the hills of the province. To use a cliché, all Hell broke loose and that’s certainly how those sober first settlers felt.
Over the next few years the town’s permanent population doubled, trebled then quadrupled. Worse, thousands upon thousands of itinerants arrived from all over the world to spend money and sow wild oats in the town before heading off to find their pots of gold. A wild west town in the South Pacific. The infrastructure of the town could hardly cope with the influx of immigrants and visitors hoping to change their fortunes and reinvent themselves.
To my mind, Dunedin at that time provides an hilarious image of adolescence when the daring and foolish try new guises to find what suits them best.
I have a long personal history with Dunedin too. My parents’ families had lived in or around it for two, in some cases three generations before I was born. I visited the city often as a child, and went to university there. Along with official historical anecdotes about local ruffians and rule-breakers, I learned a nifty family story about cross-dressing. One day my great-grandmother opened her front door to a well-dressed young man who asked politely if he might use the facilities. He was so well-spoken that she agreed. Moments later another knock at the door turned out to be the police. They were on the hunt for a woman dressed as a man, who had tricked another young woman into marriage. The polite young person had scarpered out the back gate. The glorious scandal! How much more glorious in a place with a puritanical reputation.
Wild Latitudes has its fantastical side. Yet everything in it is based on historical or scientific fact. For instance, in NZ it is lore that the first shipment of frozen meat sailed from Otago in 1882. But, to be specific, it was the first successful shipment from NZ, not the first in the entire world. And before you have success in any field there are bound to be failures. One early try, from Australia, apparently ended when the ship’s captain went to deal to the machinery and didn’t return for hours. His near-frozen body was hauled out of the hold by its ankles. Truth can be as ridiculous and melodramatic as fiction. And after all, fiction only describes human nature. What a species we humans are.
So, Wild Latitudes broke the mould for me. The Gold Rush broke Dunedin’s mould. Teenagers in any era do their darndest to break out of the strictures set by society and that exactly what the key characters do in Wild Latitudes.
Writing that novel was exhilarating. Since finishing it, I’ve written four fantasy adventures for children. But my next novel will be for adults again. I intend it to be just as rambunctious.
Barbara was Writing Fellow at Victoria University Wellington and Children’s Writing Fellow at Otago University. She holds the Esther Glen Medal for Best Children’s Novel, the Margaret Mahy Medal, and was made a Member of the Order of NZ for Services to Literature.