Romcom writer Sarah-Kate Lynch is deadly serious about her new work

by Clare de Lore / 03 June, 2018
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Sarah-Kate Lynch and Mark Robins on their 25th wedding anniversary this year. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection
For the better part of two decades, Sarah-Kate Lynch wrote some of New Zealand’s most popular comic-romantic novels. Her readership was global; her books sold in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US as well as in translation in some European markets.

She turned her humorous guns on herself in the often self-deprecating non-fiction works Stuff It! A Wicked Approach to Dieting, The Modern Girl’s Guide to Life and Screw You Dolores.

The last of her nine novels, Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga, was published in 2015. Her readers keep up with her life and her travels in two columns she writes for Woman’s Day, but if they are hoping for another novel, they might be in for a long wait.

The second of five children, Lynch was born in Central Otago, but spent most of her school years and her early working life in Wellington.

Her mother, Margaret, was a dietician and her late father, Sandy, worked in the finance sector. Margaret Lynch’s family farm was a favourite destination for holidays and shaped her daughter’s early career aspirations. She dreamt of becoming a vet, but one fateful science class changed the course of her professional life.

The launch of Dolci di Love. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

The launch of Dolci di Love. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

What happened in that class?

I loved Mum’s family farm in the Manawatu. I would go riding there, and spend time with the animals. I was good at maths and biology and decided to be a vet. But at the end of my sixth-form year, we dissected a rabbit. I thought it was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen. It smelt revolting; I nearly fainted. It had not occurred to me that vets dealt with the insides of animals.

What did you think being a vet would involve?

Did you ever watch All Creatures Great and Small? I thought I would be going to a farm and having cups of tea and eating homemade biscuits, and patting sweet little creatures back to good health and then repeating this pattern as I moved from one happy little farm to the next. I might sometimes deliver an adorable little bundle of fluffy something. So the dissection was a rude shock.

Another strong subject at school was English, but I was so busy imagining life as a vet, I hadn’t thought about what I could do with it.

Lynch’s favourite city, New York. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

Lynch’s favourite city, New York. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

How did you get into journalism?

I wasn’t accepted at first for the Wellington Polytechnic journalism course, although I eventually did that course, in 1981. So at 16, I became the advertising layout girl for Wellington Newspapers, and for 18 months, my job was to go and tell the scary people in editorial how little room they had for their fancy words because we had sold so many ads. That was important when I later became an editor, because I knew how the basic model worked: it’s advertising first, and then whatever space is left over goes to the editorial copy.

When did you start to get the chance to use your English skills?

As a kid, I read a lot and I wrote stories. One of my early works was a thinly disguised version of Anne of Green Gables called something like Jane of the Blue Barn. I liked making things up, although this is not so terribly helpful if you are a journalist. My English was better than my spelling. I distinctly remember one rejection letter, which said, “If you cannot spell ‘opportunity’, you do not deserve to have one.” Imagine! Rejected by Waipukurau for my bad spelling. I ended up moving back to Wellington and eventually got to work in radio.

The couple at the Taj Mahal, 2013. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

The couple at the Taj Mahal, 2013. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

I worked as a producer on Sharon Crosbie’s nine-to-noon programme and I have never laughed so hard in my life. The other producer, Maryanne Ahern, and I loved working with Sharon, and I would go home at the end of the day with my sides split. It was fabulous. I also produced Kim Hill for a while, and that was fun, too. Later in my career, I was appointed editor of the Woman’s Weekly. It was very demanding.

In what way?

I had never really been in charge of people before and that is challenging. I know how to write but when you are a magazine editor you hardly write anything. I loved putting the magazine out, but if I thought things were difficult in the magazine world then, it must be that much more difficult now. We didn’t have the internet, so our only competition was other magazines. We didn’t even have email.

How did you switch to writing novels?

When I was made redundant from a food-writing job for the New Zealand Herald, my husband, Mark Robins, was about to go off and work on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and I thought, right, I will go and write a novel. My first, Finding Tom Connor, led to my being picked up by an agent in London, who absolutely terrified me. She is terrifying just doing nothing, actually, but she really got to me when she said she’d represent me and what was I working on next.

Research for Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

Research for Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

This is one of the things I tell other writers: nobody is interested in your one book. Nobody. They want to know about and see the next one so they can decide whether you are worth investing in and promoting. So I sent her the idea for what became known in the UK, the US and throughout Europe as Blessed Are the Cheesemakers [its New Zealand title is Blessed Are]. My nine novels have sold in a whole range of different languages. Every now and then, I would get a book in the post and think, “What the hell is this?”, because none of the words was recognisable and the cover illustration offered no clue either.

Your last novel came out in 2015. What’s going on now?

Writing novels worked well for a few years, but then publishing hit a bit of a hiccup, like a lot of things in the modern world. About three years ago, I stopped being able to make a living out of books and I can’t afford to, nor did I want to, do it as a hobby after doing it as a job. I then turned my hand to writing for television, and that is what I am doing now.

A family reunion in Manawatu. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

A family reunion in Manawatu. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

What’s it like reinventing yourself and learning a new craft in your fifties?

It’s not easy, but the only person who stops you doing it is you. I ended up writing for Shortland Street and then I worked on 800 Words. I also worked on a thriller called The Bad Seed, which is an adaptation of two Charlotte Grimshaw books, and that got funded just before Christmas. Now I am working on my own thriller, which is in development. It is funny to me that, after 20 years of writing romantic comedies, I now have something of a bent for thrillers.

Any clues as to the plot, the setting or cast of your television thriller?

It’s not greenlit yet, but fingers crossed. It is an international co-production, set in the Marlborough Sounds. It’s a psychological thriller, hardly any blood at all. And although I have images in my mind of the characters, I haven’t thought of who will play them. Maybe that is because of the likes of Netflix – we watch a lot of Scandi movies and thrillers and none of the lead actors is well known to us. They don’t have to be any more.

At Gandhi’s house in Mumbai with taxi driver Pinto. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

At Gandhi’s house in Mumbai with taxi driver Pinto. Photo/Sarah-Kate Lynch collection

Do people who’ve loved your books still ask you for one more?

Sometimes people come up to me and say they are just hanging out for the next book, and that is lovely to hear. It’s not that I will never write one again – I am really looking forward to the time when I might be able to write a novel for pleasure – but it is hard for writers to earn a living. It breaks your heart a little bit when someone tells you they read your book because someone gave it to them after buying it from a second-hand shop and they are lending it to everyone who loves what I write. Remember my early start as an advertising layout girl? I know you have to make money to publish. I have a strong practical streak.

What do you enjoy reading?

At the moment, full-tilt thrillers. There’s that whole range of “on a” or “in the”, like The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn. Another I have enjoyed, even though I didn’t much rate the writing, was The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, because it had so many twists and turns. I really liked Liane Moriarty’s books, especially Big Little Lies, which I enjoyed before it was made into a TV series. I love the odd Lee Child or John Grisham. I sometimes wonder what people would make of me if I had an accident and all that was left was my Kindle. I have a very odd collection, including kooky memoirs. The most recent is Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood, a very funny memoir. Now I am not writing books, I can read one without either throwing it against the wall because I think, “How did that bunch of baloney sell 20 million copies?”, or weeping because it is so brilliant I can’t imagine ever sharing space on a bookshelf with it. Now I just read them for what they are.

This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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