What historical fiction means to me: Deborah Challinor

‘Kids should read and learn more about history. Our past informs our present, and today’s young people are tomorrow’s adults. It will be very useful if they are able to build on the past’s victories rather than repeat its failures.’ Deborah Challinor.

Without a doubt we are living through historic and troubling times. Many parallels in historical fiction may resonate with new depth as we seek to make meaning of our current situation; historical fiction may offer us some respite and escapism. More than ever it seems important to be able to read for so many reasons, but not least, to lift our spirits and give us focus other than just the Corona virus. 

With this in mind, we ask you to share and support historical fiction authors in  the Fostering Fiction Friday posts on the HNSAustralasia Facebook Group, and we also want to share with you some of the positive and uplifting responses to the ARA Historical Novel Prize that we’ve received from authors and other authorities within the publishing industry.

Having recently announced the inaugural ARA Historical Novel Prize, a new $30,000 historical fiction award, giving Australian and New Zealand authors the opportunity to be recognised as outstanding writers within the historical fiction genre, what better way to spread the positive news than hearing what some of our favourite authors and agents, publishers and booksellers, have to say about it?

We posed a few questions to them and here, Deborah Challinor tells us what she believes the ARA Historical Novel Prize might mean, not only for the winning author, but also for the historical fiction genre in general:

In your experience as a writer and reader of historical fiction what is its particular appeal? 

I think historical fiction is appealing because it’s a painless way to learn about history – providing the author has done her/his research properly. It’s learning by osmosis, and entertainment/escapism at the same time. What more could you want? 

How do you think a prize such as the ARA Historical Novel Prize helps to raise the profile of historical fiction in general? 

I’m not aware of any other literary prizes in Australia or New Zealand for historical fiction, and I’ve been writing historical fiction professionally for 20 years. This appears to be a first. There are prizes for other types of writing – the most publicised, rightly or wrongly, being literary fiction – and for crime, fantasy and romance fiction, which is all great, but historical fiction seems to be considered the somewhat shabbily-dressed poor cousin of the literary world—unless you are Hilary Mantel. But it has been a staple and a favourite with readers since … readers have been reading, and it’s time it is officially recognised.


What difference would it make to an author’s creative life to win a significant sum of prize money? 

Unless you’re an internationally bestselling writer who constantly sells many thousands of titles, writing is not a very lucrative business. Yearly incomes go up and down. There is constant pressure to get the next book out. Yes, most authors are paid advances, but in instalments. Royalties are paid only twice a year. Having a sizeable sum of prize money in the bank as a backstop would most definitely reduce financial worries. It can be hard to be creative when you’re worrying about paying the rates, the power bill, or the kids’ school fees. 

Prize money notwithstanding, what are the additional benefits of entering a high profile writing competition for a published author? 

When I’m in a bookshop looking for fiction, I often find it hard to choose what to buy. There is a lotof fiction. If I see a sticker with ‘Winner of the …’ on a cover, I’d probably buy that book. Frankly, I’d definitely want ‘Winner of the ARA Historical Novel Prize’ on the front of my historical novels. Winning literary prizes brings industry and public acclaim. Maybe it shouldn’t quite so much, but it does.  

Which sub-genre of historical fiction are you pleased to see is eligible, and why do you feel it is important? 

I’m really pleased to see that the Children and YA subgenres are eligible. Kids should read and learn more about history. Our past informs our present, and today’s young people are tomorrow’s adults.  It will be very useful if they are able to build on the past’s victories rather than repeat its failures.

What do you think makes a standout historical novel?

Historical description and colour, the more the better. Sights, sounds and smells. I like to feel I’ve been transported to the time and place I’m reading about. And it should all be seamless – no anachronisms, no lumpy history dumps, no long and unnecessary explanations of how butter is hand-churned. I just want to see characters – in whom I will be very invested because they’re so well-drawn – living authentic contemporary lives. Well, as authentic as the story arc allows.


Deborah Challinor is the author of 16 bestselling historical fiction novels, two works of non-fiction about the Vietnam War, and a young adult novel. In 2010 she moved from New Zealand to Newcastle, Australia, to write a series of novels set in 1830s Sydney about four convict girls inspired by her own family history, but returned to New Zealand at the end of 2014.

For four years she has been the number one bestselling author of fiction in New Zealand, in 2017 she received a distinguished alumni award from Waikato University, and in 2018 she became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.  

Deborah was born and raised in Huntly, New Zealand, and attended Huntly College. She has a Ph.D. in history from Waikato University, wrote an opinion column and feature articles for newspapers, has edited special publications and books, and taught researching and writing historical fiction, and general New Zealand history, at university level for several years. She writes fiction full time, and her books are sold in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Germany, Russia and Czechoslovakia, and in eBook, audio and large print formats.

Her new book, to be released in May 2020, is The Jacaranda House, a sequel to From the Ashes, and is the third in a quartet set in New Zealand, Sydney and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s.

You can connect with Deborah via her website or on Facebook.

This interview was compiled by HNSA Marketing Coordinator, Lou Greene. Lou was winner of the HNSA First Pages Pitch in 2017 and she long-listed in the Richell Awards. Last year, as well as being short-listed in the HNSA short story competition, she was a recipient of an ASA Mentorship Award. Lou has an MA Modern History and has recently completed a dual timeline, novel manuscript. Find out more about Lou’s writing from her website, or connect with her via Instagram or Twitter.


The ARA Historical Novel Prize, for published historical novels by Australian and New Zealand authors, will be worth $30,000 to the winning author. With entries opening on May 1, it is a partnership between generous sponsor, the ARA Group, and the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA), in association with the New England Writers’ Centre. HNSA is delighted and proud to introduce this initiative, which celebrates the diversity and strength of an increasingly popular and acclaimed genre.

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