Fowler lives on beautiful Waiheke Island, a laidback and somewhat rural gulf island in the Auckland harbour, about half an hour by ferry from the main CBD. She has worked in a variety of jobs over the years, including renovating houses and boat building. Eventually she decided to return to university as an adult student, to indulge her passion by studying archaeology and ancient history.
In an interview in July to celebrate her debut novel, she told her hometown newspaper, the Gulf News, that “I had been buying houses, doing them up and selling them. I had a bit of money as a result and woke up one morning and decided I wanted to take a few years out of my life to go back to university and study.”
It was while she was completing those studies for her Bachelor's degree, that Fowler decided to take a creative writing course. Her tutor happened to be iconic New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera, whose award-winning works have included the book that became acclaimed film Whale Rider, and Ihimaera suggested she apply for a place in the small but diverse class in his very selective yearlong Masters programme. From 32 applicants for the course, six were accepted; all women, ranging in age from 23 to 56.
It was during the yearlong Masters course, in which students were asked to write a 70-90,000 word novel to second draft stage between March and October, that Fowler worked on WHAT REMAINS BEHIND, mentored by both Ihimaera and award-winning New Zealand author Emily Perkins. She was thrilled when it was picked up for publication by Random House New Zealand soon after - the only manuscript from a new writer they are publishing this year (from the 600 or so they receive from hopeful new/unpublished writers annually). Random House Fiction publisher Harriet Allan said Fowler's novel stood out from amongst the hundreds they are sent because, most importantly, "I simply wanted to keep reading".
Fowler’s debut combines her twin passions, centering as it does on a dig near a small rural town in the Kaipara. In WHAT REMAINS BEHIND, Chloe Davis is a contract archaeologist who has returned to her family-owned farm to excavate, before the farm is subdivided for lifestyle blocks, the ruins of a religious community that burned to the ground in the 1880s, killing several people. Already under time and budget pressure, Chloe and her team soon encounter local resistance, ranging from bar fights to sabotage and vandalism. Is someone worried that uncovering the past could upset the present?
Chloe’s life and work is further complicated by the unknown motives of old acquaintances and interfering relatives. The story switches regularly between Chloe’s present-day narration, and journal entries made by Charity, a young girl living in the isolated religious community in the lead-up to the tragedy.
You can read an extract from WHAT REMAINS BEHIND here, and my review of it here. You can also read a review by the Otago Daily Times (from the opposite end of New Zealand) here.
The novel has a slow build, and pulls you in gradually, unfolding leisurely rather than having an early or graphic hook, so in some ways it is paced like a traditional amateur detective novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, when speaking to the Gulf News, Fowler described her taste in fiction as ‘classic whodunnits’; Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh. Fowler is currently working on the second draft of the next Chloe Davis novel, which will be set on Waiheke Island.
You can listen to an extract from WHAT REMAINS BEHIND and a good interview with Fowler from Radio New Zealand's Arts on Sunday programme with Lynn Freeman, here. The interview covers the plot and writing of the book, Fowler's interest in archaeology, her next book, and some other fascinating topics.
Have you read Dorothy Fowler? What do you think of historic mysteries? Do you like books with a slow burn, rather than an early hook and fast-paced thrills? Please share your thoughts...