Rural romance writer Danielle Hawkins swaps love for livestock in her chronicle of Kiwi farm life. Sharon Stephenson meets the woman behind the words.
We’ll get to her novels in a minute. And life on the 450ha Otorohanga farm that’s been in her family for three generations.
But first, Danielle Hawkins wants to talk about a morning spent massaging a bull’s penis.
“I had to remove warts from it,” says the part-time vet. “You massage the bull’s nether regions and then you can burn the warts off. It’s a brilliant way to get your head kicked in by an angry, amorous bull!”
Fortunately, Danielle didn’t get her head kicked in. But it did give her plenty of fodder for her fifth novel, Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tale: The Diary of a Country Vet.
She’s a farmer, a vet and a writer to boot! Danielle’s latest release is Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail: The Diary of a Country Vet (HarperCollins NZ, RRP $37.99).
PHOTO BY JAMIE WRIGHT
It’s Danielle’s first toe-dip into non-fiction, documenting the 43-year-old’s life as she spins numerous plates as a vet, farmer, novelist, wife to Jarrod, 44, and mother to Katherine, 13, and 11-year-old Blair.
Danielle is speaking to me from the porch of her family home, a farm her grandfather established when he returned from World War II. Halfway between Otorohanga and Te Puke, she describes it as “very pretty, with views across to the Kakepuku Mountains and Mt Pirongia in the distance”.
PHOTO BY JAMIE WRIGHT
This is the setting for Danielle’s latest book, which charts a year in her life, warts and all. From wrangling 1100 ewes and an extended family to dealing with constipated dogs, rogue cows and knocking her garden into shape for her sister-in-law’s wedding. Throw in a global pandemic, predator control and writing best-selling novels, and it’s an action-packed year. You don’t need me to tell you it doesn’t go smoothly, but that just adds to the LOL moments.
It’s a radical departure for Danielle, whose four previous books – Dinner at Rose’s, Chocolate Cake for Breakfast, The Pretty Delicious Café and When It All Went to Custard – have revolved around rural romance. Or what high-brow critics dismissively call “chick lit”, but the rest of us call a good time.
“I hate that term, and romantic fiction, but it’s the genre it gets put in, so what can you do?” says Danielle, with what may or may not be an eye-roll.
It’s why she enjoyed writing this story. “I was in the middle of writing a book that wasn’t going so well when my publisher suggested I change tack and write about my life. I thought the diary format would give people who don’t know much about farming a chance to understand what farmers actually do.”
With around 86% of Kiwis living in urban areas, our connection to rural life isn’t the strongest.
“The less you know about something, the more likely you are to get the wrong end of the stick about it,” says Danielle. “I wanted to show that farming is neither romantic, glamorous nor easy, but it is a wonderful way of life.”
Danielle was never on the fence about sharing her rural routine and giving Kiwis a glimpse of country life.
PHOTO BY JAMIE WRIGHT
I wanted to show that farming is neither romantic, glamorous nor easy, but it is a wonderful way of life.
The non-fiction format also allowed her considerable freedom. “There’s no real beginning, middle or end and it doesn’t have to be tied up in a big bow as it does with fiction. I just got up at 5.30am each morning and wrote for an hour about the day before and kept doing that until I’d covered a year.”
Danielle is at pains to point out that while the events in the book and her immediate family are real (although she’s given them different names), others are a composite of people she knows.
“Otorohanga is too small and I’d be run out of town if I used actual people! But the things that happen to me and these people are real.”
Ironically for a best-selling author, there was no model for being a writer in Danielle’s childhood. There was, however, lots of reading. Raised on the farm where she still lives, Danielle’s parents were steeped in books and science – her father was a chemistry and physics graduate.
“It didn’t occur to me to follow the arts route because I always thought scientists were more useful people than arts graduates!”
There wasn’t, admits Danielle, much in the way of a plan B. “I loved the James Herriot books as a child, so being a vet was all I wanted to do.”
After she graduated, Danielle worked in a two-person practice in Mangawhai, doing everything from clipping alpaca toenails to healing pet dogs.
She met Jarrod when she was called out to treat one of his cows. They started dating six months before Danielle headed to London for her OE.
“In the end, I only stayed in the UK for six months because I missed Jarrod so much.”
It was while on maternity leave with Katherine that Danielle started to write.
“Being a vet is hard and there’s no extra brain power to do anything else. But suddenly I was at home with a young baby and had the mental bandwidth to focus on something else.”
That something else turned out to be a dystopian novel which was roundly rejected by publishers who suggested she write rural women’s fiction instead.
“I thought I had to write this utterly unique story, but when the publishers said rural romance sells well, I realised I could do that because it’s basically my life.”
That life was disrupted by cancer in 2017, when Danielle found a lump in her right breast. Initially doctors thought it was benign, but when the lymph nodes in her armpits swelled up, Danielle went back for a second opinion.
“Thanks to my vet training, I knew something wasn’t right. And I was correct because they said to me, you’ve got a Grade 3 carcinoma which has spread to your lymph nodes and you start chemotherapy on Tuesday!”
There was also a mastectomy and a 20-hour operation to recreate her breast, which didn’t go to plan.
“But I’m so lucky that, four years down the track, I’m cancer free. I’m not sure if I’ll write about my experience, but I do know my way around hospitals now, so who knows – that could make its way into one of my books.”
With her four previous novels having hit the bestseller charts both here and in Australia, it’s natural to assume that Danielle, at some stage, might want to chuck in the three-day-a-week vet gig to focus on full-time writing.
“Absolutely not,” she says, almost before the question is out of my mouth. “Writing is so lonely and introspective that I end up talking to myself. I love being a vet and it makes a pleasant break from the farm, family and writing!”