March 2010


Vanessa Johnson’s debut novel Lush was released in January. Born in New Zealand, she’s lived in Sydney and London, and worked in magazine publishing. She lives in Auckland with her husband and son. (Interview by Paula Phillips)

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  1. 1. What inspired you to write Lush?

    I was at home with a baby so I decided to get into some creative writing. I took a course on short story writing where I wrote my first short story and entered it in the Sunday Star Times Short Story competition. It managed to get highly commended which meant it was in the top 13 entries of about 1500. I found that quite inspiring so I took another course and started a novel, which turned into Lush.

  2. 2. Did you have to do much research into alcoholism?

    Yes, I researched alcoholism and I learned that it’s a progressive illness that worsens the longer you drink. I asked several doctors about how they’d diagnose a binge-drinking problem and they said they’d expect to see all sorts of relationship problems surrounding the individual. It surprised me that there wasn’t a definitive test or a particular physical symptom that would confirm it. So I learned there are a number of levels to alcoholism. I wanted to present Lydia’s drinking problem as a journey from cloudy denial to realising with crystal-clear understanding that her binge drinking had crossed a line. I made Lydia in the early stages so that she had a chance of turning her life around without having to detox at a rehab clinic.

  3. 3. Is there anything of you in Lydia?

    There’s a lot of me in Lydia. I set Lush in the London that I know and with characters who were the sorts of people I’d met. I used my own experiences of working in London where drinking after work is the norm, and expanded on the idea of what would happen if you didn’t realise that you had developed a drinking problem and were the last one to know. There’s only one character in the book who I’ve taken completely unchanged from real life – Phoebe - my much-loved cat, now deceased. She died of old age a couple of years ago and was never run over by a taxi.

  4. 4. What did you love most about Notting Hill?

    The atmosphere, Portobello market, the great vibe, the way it looked, everything really. It’s a fantastic part of London and we had some great years there.

  5. 5. Why didn't you set the book in New Zealand?

    Mostly because I was missing London so setting Lush there meant I could revisit my favourite haunts and enjoy imagining it all again. It was escapism. I was also told that setting a book in New Zealand is unlikely to make it appealing to overseas publishers so that played a part in my decision even though I know now it’s not strictly true. More important for me was that I had never read a chick lit novel set in a major overseas city where the main character is a New Zealander, so I wanted to play with that idea.

  6. 6. You set Lydia's friend up with a children’s entertainer like the Swedish version of the Wiggles. What inspired that?

    In a word: humour. To me it seemed funny that Miriam thought she’d nailed a rock star and ended up with a kids’ entertainer. Also, I’d been watching a bit of kids’ TV myself and a certain member of the Wiggles had started to look rather attractive... I blame sleep deprivation for that.

  7. 7. How did your book deal come about?

    I submitted Lush and waited for a response, pretty standard really. By about the third attempt I got a yes.

  8. 8. What are you working on now?

    Another chick lit novel which I’m calling Family Matters for the time being.

  9. 9. How did you react when you found out your book was being published?

    I was elated, like every first timer. Finding a publisher had been my goal. My next thrill was when Lush reached the number one spot for bestselling New Zealand fiction. It was something I’d never dreamed would happen and it was a complete thrill.

  10. 10. How have you enjoyed doing publicity?

    It’s been a blast! I did my first-ever TV interview recently live on Good Morning, a show in New Zealand. It was a bit nerve-wracking leading up to it, but the interviewer was great and made it easy for me. As scary as the prospect of live TV was, my overall feeling was how lucky I was to get to promote Lush on TV. More than anything I’m grateful because as a writer I want my book to be read so promoting it is just part of the job and I’m happy to do it.

  11. 11. Had you previously written anything?

    I wrote my first novel in 1996 when we were living in Sydney but never found a publisher for it, so Lush is my second novel.

  12. 12. How did you get into writing? Did you always want to become a writer?

    Always, even when I was quite young I loved writing stories and diaries. All of my jobs have involved writing and editing. It’s what I enjoy doing more than anything else.

  13. 13. Do you have a reason why you picked this particular genre?

    I think because it’s the best fit for my voice/style. In chick lit you can be funny, slice-of-life and poignant in a contemporary setting and make observations about life. Plus, there’s got to be a romance and all those things appeal to me.

  14. 14. What’s your favourite vacation spot in the world?

    That’s so hard because I have a long list but Mykonos rates very highly. I set some scenes there in Lush – escapism again. I’d go back there tomorrow if I could.

  15. 15. If you had to have dinner with any 3 famous people dead/alive, who would you choose?

    I’m not going with world peace or human rights activists here, but Richard Curtis the famous screenwriter is someone I’d love to have dinner with because he wrote some of my favourite movies. Nancy Meyer is another screenwriting genius, having written and directed Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated – so Nancy is my second choice, and because we’re on the subject of chick lit I’d have to say Marian Keyes because I’ve enjoyed all her books and I’m sure there’d be oodles of witty conversation.

  16. 16. What are your goals for 2010 ?

    My personal goals are to finish writing Family Matters and to try and get into the habit of regular exercise. It’s a modern behaviour that so far completely eludes me.

  17. 17. Do you have any advice for people wanting to become writers?

    Other than keep at it, I’d say believe in your story and your ability to tell it because self belief is the most valuable asset there is.

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