Talking with Anna Mackenzie, author of Evie’s War

Interviewed by Sarah Dickson

What was your inspiration for writing this book? Evie’s War began for me with family stories about the war. I knew them – vaguely – but there were quite a few gaps, so I started researching, and in the (very long) process of that I became interested in exploring our less told stories, and in particular in the experience of New Zealand’s medical services. I also wanted to look at the Western Front – there were some specific events that really resonated for me, so I decided to make them the core around which I wrote the novel.

Was the recent centenary of WWI the sole reason for you to set your book in this time period? The centenary is almost coincidental. I started thinking about WWI after my father died more than a decade ago, at which point I realised I didn’t have all the details of his own father’s stories from the war. It provided the motivation I needed to start researching.

What motivated you to focus on the war in England from the perspective of a New Zealander? Because my thought process began with New Zealand stories I stayed with that, even though I ultimately moved away from the specific detail of my grandfather’s war. Most people know very little about all the “behind the scenes” work done by New Zealanders. We tend to focus on a few images that represent the great mass of experience – the Gallipoli landing, for example, and mud-filled trenches. But the war encompassed much, much more than these things.

Would you write a book on the war in New Zealand? The experiences on the home front are fascinating, and important in shaping who we are today, but I have no plans to write about that at the moment. I wouldn’t rule anything out long-term though – I enjoyed writing historic fiction too much to stop!

I know that I definitely became attached to Evie. Did you become attached to any particular characters? Evie, without a doubt, but I became increasingly fond of both Edmund and Arthur as they developed through the novel. So many young mens’ lives were blighted by the war. These two, though immensely changed by their experiences, show us that the world can move on – limping, perhaps, but moving toward a brighter future.

Would you have considered writing a book from Edmund’s perspective? It’d be interesting, wouldn’t it? How different was the war for Edmund and his sister? They had quite divergent experience, yet they had in common that they understood what it was really like in a way their parents couldn’t (and didn’t seem particularly willing to try). I very much doubt this will be the last novel I write about war – the whole confusing, confronting morass of it still has me firmly in its grip.

When you were writing this book did you have a set audience in mind? I was really just writing the story that needed telling. Evie wasn’t initially the main character, but she took over early on and I let her have her head. She has such a story to tell…

How do you think we can make reading more popular to teenagers when they have social media at their fingertips? Stories are fundamental to human culture. They’ve always shaped us, just as we’ve always shaped them. They way we consume them might change, but there will always be room for all kinds of story-telling, I think. But there is something magical about the way a written story engages your imagination; you become involved in it in a way that no other media can match. That said, there have always been readers and non-readers. I don’t think that will change.

Do you have any advice for young New Zealanders who are aspiring to become authors? The best way to hone your writing skills is to write. Try to finish at least half your projects rather than constantly abandoning them to start something new – try short stories: the finishing is much more achieveable! Practice editing as well; it’s half the process. There are more tips on writing and editing on my website –

Is there a particular historical event that you would like to cover in the future? I’m a convert to historical fiction. I’m currently working on a novel set in a specific period of our past that is fascinating in itself, but also sheds light on who we are today. I doubt there is any period of history that doesn’t have great stories to offer.

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