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Book of the Week: Karyn Hay on creating nude postcards for her latest novel

The eternally awesome Karyn Hay delves into the story behind the story of her new novel, The March Of The Foxgloves.

I feel I could easily write a book about the writing of this book. Several years of research went into this novel, and because I did it ‘as I went’ it inevitably interrupted the flow of the work, sometimes for days on end.

I hoped readers would learn something new about New Zealand’s history, but I also wanted to add another layer to the concept of the novel, one that included a touch of glamour – by including illustrations: a series of original photographs and sketches that would be exclusive to the hardcover special edition.

Postcard No. 12 (Photograph by Vicky Papas Vergara)

 The March Of The Foxgloves is set in 1893, in both London and New Zealand. The main character, Frances Woodward, is a gifted photographer, but in the 19th century women did not have professions as such, so this was seen as more of a hobby.

My initial idea was to include photographs that Frances had taken on the voyage out to New Zealand, and then upon her arrival in both Auckland and Tauranga. However, technically, this would have been rather difficult to pull off, so I decided to take twelve photographs of “Dolly” from the postcard series that feature in the book. (Dolly is Frances’s friend, and the two of them make a small fortune selling risqué postcards of Dolly to select London clientele.)

To shoot these I went to Melbourne with Donna Mills-McArtney – who was instrumental in the art direction – to the studio of international award-winning fine art photographer Vicky Papas Vergara, using top Australian burlesque artist Miss Sina King as Dolly. All the clothing and props are authentic to the time, and were sourced from as far afield as France and the US. The coloured shots have been digitally enhanced by Vicky to emulate the hand-painted photographs of the era.

Postcard No. 8 (Photograph by Vicky Papas Vergara)

This shoot was quite a big call because I realised I would, in effect, be “casting” Dolly, and bringing the postcards to life at the same time.

Additionally, I was keen to include black and white sketches because Victorian novels would sometimes feature sketches done in cross-hatch, which is a shading technique using closely spaced parallel lines.

Donna introduced me to a Bangkok artist by the name of Rung Rutjanavech who was brilliant, considering his English was limited and I was overscrupulous; insistent on accurate representations of the scenes we were depicting, right down to the height of the 1890s shoe heel. We did 20 sketches all up, with me trying to describe the characters, explain the plot, and often acting out the scenes in front of him . . . but we got there in the end, after two weeks of working together in the business centre of the Le Meridien Hotel in Bangkok, and then via hundreds of emails over the following months.

Drunks Outside The Windsor Castle (Sketch by Rung Rutjanavech)

While I was in Bangkok, in between our sessions, I did some sketches of my own. Just a few observations of life in the luxurious bubble of Le Meridien.

Selfies in the Infinity Pool

It’s 8am and already hot. A woman is in the pool with her smartphone, holding it above her head, filming herself as she solemnly glides towards Infinity. Beside me, on the other side of the restaurant window, a family are sitting down to have breakfast. The restaurant is air-conditioned and the glass between us is dripping with condensation. For a moment, I think the family must be deeply religious because the three children have their heads bowed, but I see they are just looking at their smartphones. Later, when the children wander outside, they hold their phones at the ready, touching them lightly, scoping out the Infinity pool and its surroundings. The two girls take quiet pictures of themselves, while the boy glances furtively about, looking for his own opportunity.

The woman in the pool emerges from the water. She stops on the top step and poses before entering the luxury spa. She has her back to me so I can’t see whether she is smiling or not – but I doubt that she is. This is a serious business.

The Italian Restaurant

The food is exquisite. Two Frenchmen wait on us. The older, a Parisian, is the manager. He is watching over the younger man who is from Marseille and has recently arrived in Bangkok as part of his training for the hotel chain. They are – improbably – both amusing and discreet at the same time, appearing at the table now and then to ask about the buffalo cheese and the shaved truffles and the bread. The Parisian is ribbing the younger man mercilessly.

“He is not as handsome as they are in Paris! Look at his shirt! And his nose is not so attractive. He tries, but what can he do? He is not from Paris!”

The Parisian is extremely cheerful. In 24 hours, he is returning to Paris for a holiday, and to introduce his Thai wife of two years to his family. He says he cannot wait for a croissant, a coffee and to read his newspaper.

Dead weta in hut (Sketch by Rung Rutjanavech)

Caddies

The golf course is like minigolf but on a grander scale. Everything is man-made, including the waterways that are inhabited by huge native lizards called water monitors. The caddies, all slight young Thai women, live on the edge of the course in their own accommodation. They wear matching uniforms made of velour tracksuit material: pale blue long sleeve shirts, long pants, and white shoes. Their foreign legion caps have unusually large sun visors. They look as though they are dressed for a Florida winter. The golfing parties comprise of three or four men, and an equal number of caddies. The players wear short sleeves and carry large golfing umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. Sometimes they will employ two caddies; one to hand them the clubs, and another to hold the umbrella while they address the ball. The little groups pass by regularly, the caddies walking purposefully just ahead or behind the players, pulling their golf carts in the headache heat as if it were effortless.

The March Of The Foxgloves (Esom House Press, $85) limited edition hardback (750 copies signed and numbered by the author) is available from Unity Books, or online at esomhousepress.com 

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