It is a pleasure to welcome Penelope Janu to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews for A Tea Break with Mrs B, a author interview series. To help celebrate the release of Starting From Scratch we sat down for a chat. Thanks Penelope!
What is your drink of choice as we sit down for a chat about your new book?
As it’s morning, a cup of Darjeeling tea.
Can you give us an overview of your writing career to date?
I started writing fiction around seven years ago, but before that I’d worked as a lawyer and legal academic, so I’ve always had a lot to do with words. My first novel, In at the Deep End, was published in 2017. Since then, I’ve had three other novels, and a novella, published with HarperCollins, and I have another book with them on submission.
Can you tell us what inspired the creation of your new book, Starting From Scratch?
I was doing final copy edits for my 2019 book, Up on Horseshoe Hill, in my local library, when I happened to look up and see a beautifully illustrated ‘coffee table’ book on display. The book detailed how to make flowers from paper, and I spent the next hour reading through it. Sapphie was a very minor character in Up on Horseshoe Hill, but as part of the copy edit, I wrote a paragraph or two about Sapphie making flowers from Italian crepe paper.
In the first scene of Starting From Scratch, Sapphie is alone in her farmhouse making flowers. One of the major themes of this book is ‘perfect imperfection’—something common in nature and also in people. The environment also plays an important role in this book, and Sapphie’s flower making and the love she had for her garden ties in with this too.
Did you have an affinity with a particular character in Starting From Scratch and why?
Like many writers, I tend to fall in love with many characters in my books! But much as I loved Sapphie, I also became very attached to her love interest, environmental engineer and very Finnish Matts Laaksonen. Matts’s job, working on worldwide projects for the protection of wetlands, gave him a reason to come to Horseshoe Hill—and to reconnect with Sapphie, his closest childhood friend.
Can you tell us about the close-knit community of Horseshoe Hill, which is the wonderful setting of your new release?
I’ve spent a lot of time the Hunter Valley region and the central west of NSW, including extended stays on farms. There are many small towns in the district that have a small primary school, a row of shops, a few smaller landholdings and many larger ones. Many families have lived in these areas for generations, others some come and go, but there is an emphasis on community and people keeping an eye out for each other. One particular character from Horseshoe Hill, Gus Mumford, epitomises these qualities. He is a widower of over twenty years, but still references many things by what ‘his Maggie’ would have done. He really took on a life of his own in this fictional town grounded in reality—keeping an eye out for people that are doing it tough, and also (often inadvertently!) giving advice on love and relationships.
What issues do you explore in Starting From Scratch?
While the story is a rural romance, I explored quite a few environmental issues in this book. When I worked as a lawyer, I had an interest in international environmental law, so I was aware of the Ramsar Convention, where countries around the world list significant wetland environments such as marshes, swamps, and other shallow bodies of water, and pledge to protect them. The Macquarie Marshes in the central west of NSW are one of the largest semi-permanent wetlands in Australia, and are crucial to the survival of many threatened and endangered species. Wetlands are often drained for development, and waters from rivers and streams that should be going into them are diverted into dams. This means many wetlands, necessary for biodiversity and habitat, continue to be lost throughout the world.
Starting From Scratch gave me an opportunity to explore the notion of wetlands—within a powerful love story of hope and second chances.
What is one thing that you really hope readers will take away from the experience of reading Starting From Scratch?
Sapphie had a particularly hard time growing up—her mother was addicted to painkillers, her parents’ marriage broke up, she lost her grandmother at a difficult time and her father, a career politician, continues to let her down. But Sapphie is resilient and looks for the good in people—she is happy in her career as a teacher and she loves and contributes to her community. Sapphie doesn’t need to fall in love to be happy—but her happiness will be enhanced by learning to trust, and giving a second chance to a man who has never stopped loving her.
What attracts you to the rural fiction/rural romance genre?
I love writing about characters and place, and rural fiction allows me focus on both of those things, while also exploring environmental issues. I’ve always read romance and I love a happy ending. I can’t really imagine writing in any other genre but romance!
Did you face any challenges last year in your writing career?
There were many challenges for all of us in 2020, but the worst for me was the loss of my sister, who was two years older than me, in late November. As one of my writing friends said, cancer is a bitch but at least you get to say goodbye. I think of this and still take comfort from it almost every day. My sister and I had some wonderful times together in the two years I was writing and editing Starting From Scratch. She’d worked as a hairdresser since she was sixteen years old, and was a mother of four, and she hated the idea of anyone ‘wasting their time.’ Wherever we were (often in a cancer ward!) she’d tell me to take out my laptop and write. So that is what I did. There was sadness last year, but a lot of happy memories too.
When you are not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I love to spend time with my husband and children. Most of my children have left home now, but there are still six of them to organise when we get together, and there are many friendly arguments and laughter over books, sport, politics, movies and many other things!
What book would you like read in the New Year period?
I’ve actually read a couple of crime books lately – Petronella McGovern’s The Good Teacher, and Rae Cairns’s The Good Mother. Both excellent and something different for me! The first of Alissa Callen’s series set in Snowy River district, Snowy Mountains Daughter, is out in February, so I’m looking forward to reading that.
What are you working on writing wise at present?
Just before Christmas I submitted my 2022 book, A Touch of Stormy Weather, to my publisher, so now I’m focussing on the characters for my next book. There is no title, but the book features a very feisty heroine naval officer who comes home to her regional roots, and a biologist that readers might be familiar with after reading Starting From Scratch!
Thank you for the lovely tea break and chat Penelope. Congratulations on the release of your new book, Starting From Scratch.
Thank you for having me to tea, Mrs B! I’m now on my second cup of Darjeeling…
For readers of Karly Lane and Tricia Stringer…misunderstandings and injured pride stand in the way of true love in this charming rural romance from an award-winning and much-loved author.
‘Penelope Janu’s fresh, bright, funny new twist on rural romance is an absolute delight. Her wit is as sharp as a knife. She is one of my absolute must-read authors.’ Victoria Purman, bestselling Australian author
After a troubled childhood and the loss of her beloved grandmother, Sapphie Brown finally finds somewhere to call home – the close-knit rural community of Horseshoe Hill.
The locals love Sapphie because she never gives up – as chair of the environment committee, with the children in her classes, the troubled teens at the youth centre, the ex-racehorses she cares for and even the neglected farmhouse and gardens she wants make her own. Sapphie gives second chances to everything and everyone. Except Matts Laaksonen.
An impossibly attractive environmental engineer who travels the world, Matts was Sapphie’s closest childhood friend. He came to deliver a warning – now he doesn’t want to leave.
All Sapphie wants to do is forget their painful past, but thrown together they discover an attraction that challenges what they thought they knew about each other. Do they have a chance to recapture what they lost so long ago? Or will long-buried secrets tear them apart?
Starting From Scratch by Penelope Janu was published on 6th January 2021 by Mira – AU. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Connect with Penelope here: