Who are the Patterson Girls? Our Q&A with Rachael Johns

rjHappy publication day to Rachael Johns! Find out about the four sisters that feature in the internationally bestselling author’s new novel The Patterson Girls, and read an exclusive sneak-peak from the book! You can read a full blurb of the novel here or visit Rachael’s website. Rachael is heading on a tour of five states to promote the new book, so check out her tour dates to see if she’s heading to a town near you! 

Do aspects of yourself (like the chronic arachnophobia) often slip into your characters as you’re writing?

I’ve not yet written about a fear of spiders, but I think bits of me will always slip in without me even thinking about it. I recently heard Graeme Simsion talk and he said that characters are one third the writer, one third people the writer knows and one third imagination, and that really resonated with me. I write about the human experience, about universal emotions such as grief, love, loss, family, etc and these are all things I’ve experienced to different levels. In my first book Jilted, I definitely mined my own experience of first love, and in Man Drought the character of Charlie was very much inspired by my grandfather. When friends read my books, they often say they get lost in the reading and forget it is written by me, until a certain sentence that sounds exactly like me and then they remember.

Why did you decide to join the Romance Writers of Australia, and how did this decision influence your career?

I joined RWA after almost ten years of writing and trying to get published. I’d completed a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in writing and still hadn’t learnt much about how to write a page turner. Maybe I’m just a slow learner but that degree definitely could have been improved. Years later, I remembered reading an article while I was at university about Mills and Boon books and I decided to try my hand writing one. Of course at that stage I’d never even read one, so I immediately did an internet search and that’s when I found RWA. I joined and it was the best $80 I ever spent. I started to learn about craft, conflict and all the other building blocks required to write good fiction and I began to meet other serious writers. RWA also gave me the opportunity to attend conferences and it was at one of these conferences I met my publisher. Without RWA I’d probably still be unpublished.

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Heartbreak at 17 catalysed your first foray into writing. Now you’re an established, bestselling author, what drives you to keep writing?

I’m lucky enough to write as a full time job now and therefore a number of varying things drive me to sit down at the keyboard and write each book. One is that I don’t want to go back to a ‘real job’ – I like working from home and the flexibility that gives me as a working mum. I also write to get the voices out of my head – this may make me sound a little crazy, but any writer will understand what I mean. Another thing that keeps me going is my readers – through social media, emails and face-to-face events, I receive so much encouragement to keep going from them. Lastly, getting new covers and seeing my book on actual shop shelves – there’s no buzz quite like it.

Who are the Patterson girls?

The Patterson girls are four very different sisters who grew up in a small town in rural South Australia at their parents’ motel. Three of them are high achievers and one of them sometimes feels like the black sheep. The oldest, Madeleine is an obstetrician; Lucinda, the only married sister, is a schoolteacher; Charlie, an exercise instructor and barista; and Abigail, a violinist. They all moved to various parts of the world after leaving home and as a result are no longer as close as they were growing up.  Like all siblings, the dynamics between the Patterson sisters shift constantly and they have the usual sibling rivalry as well, which makes for lots of fun scenes in the book.

Does the novel feature one sister more prominently than the others as a main protagonist, or do you balance the novel between all four characters? If so, was this balancing act challenging?

Initially I thought The Patterson Girls would be more Lucinda’s story than any of the other sisters. I’m an organic writer and so I don’t outline or plot much before I start, therefore the characters of Madeleine, Charlie and Abigail really came to life on the page. By the end, the story became equally about all of them. This is why it is quite a long book – all four women wanted their story to be heard. I think every aspect of writing is challenging and working out which scene is best in which character’s head is also a challenge. Sometimes I get it wrong the first time and wonder why things aren’t working. The moment I try it from another character’s point-of-view, it often flows.

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What happens to the sisters in the novel?

Without giving away any spoilers, all four Patterson sisters go through a journey of self-discovery as they learn about themselves, their family secrets and their sisters. They return home to help their father through his first Christmas without their mother and also to help him prepare the family motel for sale. During this process they discover a family secret that makes them all rethink their wants and goals. The secret affects them all differently and as they go back to their separate lives, it also affects their decisions and relationships leading them to some crazy decisions. Finally they come together again and their experiences draw them closer than they’ve been for a long time.

Why do you object to labelling your work as ‘women’s fiction’?

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Rachael Johns

I know marketers and booksellers need labels to place and promote books to readers but women’s fiction makes it sound like men won’t get anything out of these books. Whereas I have a number of male readers and I’d love a term for books that can be more inclusive to both genders. I believe my books deal with life issues that are valid for both males and females – the yearning for love and family, the experience of loss and grief, etc – therefore it would be good to have a term that doesn’t make male readers feel like their love of ‘women’s fiction’ is something they should hide or feel ashamed of.

What should a good romance novel achieve? Any examples of great ones you’ve read recently?

I read to escape and relax and when I read romance I’m looking for this to be achieved through a heroine I can relate to and a hero I can lust after. That doesn’t just mean a good looking guy, but a man who is smart, funny, kind, caring, etc… I don’t ask for much really. I want to feel like I’m on the rollercoaster of love with the characters and when I finish the last page I want a smile on my face. I also enjoy a cast of quirky secondary characters and a unique twist on a classic romance plot. Some of my all-time favourite romances are Marrying Daisy Bellamy by Susan Wiggs and Wallbanger by Alice Clayton.

Romance writer Anna Gracie joined us a few issues ago to write a piece championing romance novels, in response to the tendency of some (snobby) writers and academics to look down their noses at the romance genre. Have you ever found yourself in a similar position, defending the integrity of your craft?

I do get the odd snide remark from acquaintances and occasionally from friends’ husbands, people who think romance books are trashy and writing them must be easy. I tend to take these comments like water of a duck’s back because people with any knowledge about the romance genre know better. I do get cranky when I hear about how writing for a living in Australia is practically impossible and that only a few authors can do so, because that is simply not true. I know many romance writers who make way more than a good living from their books, but these authors are generally not considered when people make these assumptions. I once heard a famous romance author say that when anyone mocks romance writing, she doesn’t really care because she’s laughing all the way to the bank. The fact is romance books sell higher than any other type of fiction and so I’m proud to be associated with romance books and authors.

Can you share with us a teaser paragraph or one of your favourite sentences from your new novel?

Madeleine might appreciate her desire to have a child but would no doubt tell her to stop being so emotional about it. She’d tell her science could fix almost anything these days and she should book herself an appointment with a fertility clinic and find out if there was anything technically wrong. All very well but you had to have been trying to conceive for a year before any of those doctors would give you the time of day and she’d only gone off the pill eight months ago. Charlotte would ask if she’d tried alternative therapy and suggest she and Joe go on a yoga holiday to get in touch with their inner fertility, or worse, some kind of sex therapist, as if that was the problem. And Abigail would get her drunk to try and take her mind off it all.

Keep reading The Patterson Girls here.

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