NZ Lifestyle Block
The (not very) romantic real life of a country vet
Romance writer Danielle Hawkins is sharing her real life (and some good advice)
WHO: Danielle Hawkins
WHAT: part time, best-selling author, part time farm and pet vet
WHERE: Otorohanga, 50km south of Hamilton
When Danielle Hawkins was on maternity leave with her first baby, she painted the house. “Compared to working full time as a vet, there was a lot of spare time to fill up, so it was just a nice project. When I finished, I wrote my first book. Painting the house with a newborn sucks – you pour paint into a tray and the baby wakes up – so the book was a much better project.”
The four best-selling books she's written since then have won praise from fans from around the world: Dinner at Rose's, Chocolate Cake for Breakfast, The Pretty Delicious Café, and When It All Went to Custard.
But her newest book is a real-life look at her day-to-day role as a vet, writer, mother, friend, and farmer in rural Waikato. While there's a little romance here, a bit of matchmaking there, and a little canoodling with her husband, it's mainly about the pragmatic, often funny side of life.
A very nice farmer rang me at work today and asked me to come out on Wednesday and remove the warts from the penis of one of his sale bulls.
Having managed to evade penile wart removal in 19 years of veterinary practice, I asked Bill, who has been a vet for 40 years and knows everything, for advice. Apparently, it's easy. You simply massage the bull's prostate glands per rectum for two or five or 10 minutes; the penis becomes erect, an assistant at the bull's side grabs it as it emerges and holds on for grim death (if they miss it you've got another 10 minutes of prostatic massage), you inject a little bleb of local anaesthetic at the base of each wart and burn them off with the electrocautery machine.
Dear God. It sounds like an absolutely brilliant way to get your head kicked in.
While that story made it into Two Shakes of a Lamb's Tail, some of her favourite war stories didn't.
“Unfortunately, you can't use some of the really good stories because they're too recognisable, so that's a bit sad!”
In the case of the bull penis, it was a happy ending (not in the way you think).
Two Shakes of a Lamb's Tail covers a year of Danielle's life, including the 2020 level 4 lockdown.
HAVING MANAGED TO EVADE PENILE WART REMOVAL... I ASKED BILL FOR ADVICE. APPARENTLY IT'S EASY. YOU SIMPLY MASSAGE THE BULL'S PROSTATE GLANDS...
“When you get up in the morning and just write down what happened yesterday, it’s fairly easy, way easier than anything I’ve written before. Most of the work of writing (fiction) is trying to figure out where the story is going to go and make everything fit together.”
The book includes some juicy family drama, but it’s not quite as it seems.
My sister-in-law Diane (James’s brother Thomas’s wife; they live two kilometres up the road on the men’s grandparents’ original farm and are slightly superior to us in every way) just rang to ask why her mother’s cat might be pacing the hall and yowling all night. How should I know?
She told me that they started lambing last Tuesday and they’ve all but finished. They’ve only seen about five dead lambs (they have 2000 ewes), and every tripletbearing ewe is feeding all three.
She also told me that she finally started my new book a few weeks ago, having borrowed it from James’s mum – it would never occur to her to buy one – but, somehow, she just couldn’t get into it.
‘I passed it on to Nicky Jones at the medical centre,’ she said. ‘She actually quite liked your last one.’
I hung up the phone in the state of indignant wrath Diane so often induces in me.
Turns out, Danielle doesn’t have a bitchy sister-in-law, but she is based on passiveaggressive snark she’s encountered.
“Anything you read about me is true,” says Danielle. “Anything that happens to anyone further away had to be changed so no-one recognised themselves. That character (Diane) was so much fun, she was so bitchy and snarky, and I thought I’m going to give all of it (the bitchiness) to her.
“It’s a tricky one, you know. My husband and kids, they can’t disown me. But you actually can’t write down everything perfectly accurately about your friends and relations or you’d have none, so it’s all changed and twisted around and hopefully no-one is recognisable.”
So far, she says, no-one has figured out who is who.
“The last book I wrote – When It All Went to Custard – is totally fictional, but some guy rang up the publisher, terribly upset,
THE BOOK INCLUDES SOME JUICY FAMILY DRAMA, BUT IT'S NOT QUITE AS IT SEEMS. TURNS OUT, DANIELLE DOESN'T HAVE A BITCHY SISTER-IN-LAW.
saying how I dare I write about his life. I didn’t know whose life it was! They asked me do you know this person? I had no idea!"
Danielle says she became a vet because as a child, she loved the books of Yorkshire vet-turned-writer, James Herriot. And just like Herriot, she’s in the unusual position for a modern-day vet of switching between farm livestock and small animals in her three-day-a-week role at the local Vetora clinic.
“More and more I find that when I’m at home for a few days, it’s really nice to go back to work and talk to people, and then when I get sick of that, I can go back home and go ‘ahhhh.’”
She and husband Jarrod (James in the book) run cattle and sheep on her family’s 450ha (1120 acre) farm where she grew up. The road home is steep and winding, 15km east of the bright lights of Otorohanga (population 2740).
Before the road was sealed, the school bus had to turn back before it got to the top, which gives a sense of the gradient, but the view is worth it. To the west are the mauve slopes of distant Mt Pirongia. Everywhere in between is rich with dark green patches of native bush.
Danielle spends a lot of time working on the farm with Jarrod, checking and setting more than 450 bait stations and possum traps, planting trees, and other work. Some of her to-do lists in the book – that she then achieves in record time – are enough to exhaust you just reading them. This one was for Boxing Day 2020.
1. Shovel half a cubic metre of gravel off the back of the ute so we can use it to go down to the river for a barbecue (fairly urgent – barbecue is at lunchtime).
2. Remove weed mountain from the spot where the gravel is going.
3. Get the gas hot plate out of the shed, make sure it works and fetch the gas bottle from the woolshed (assuming it’s at the woolshed and not in some other random location down the farm).
4. Make bread dough so we can have cheesy flatbread at the barbecue.
5. Defrost two packets of sausages.
6. Clean the house.
7. Fold washing mountain
8. WRITE (progress currently very poor).
9. Collect a trailer of dirt to backfill the retaining wall, and spread it.
10. Make garden absolutely stunning by 29 February.
11. Check stoat traps.
12. Finish spraying tradescantia.
13. Mow lawn.
Okay. The first five items are urgent; the rest can wait.
“Sometimes, I tend to wind up and wind up and think ‘must do more, must do more' which is no fun for anyone. I do like having a to-do list and charging on through it, but I can get overexcited and overdo it which is not a smart way to live.”
Throughout the book, the family accumulates new animals. There's a little goat kid that appears out of nowhere when they're in the bush (now named Gaston), the yearly gaggle of lambs (Danielle hand-raises a dozen lambs or so, either abandoned or orphaned) and several wild birds.
“No birds at the moment. But birds are quite good because they're only babies for a very short time, and about the time everyone's enthusiasm is waning, they fly away. They're excellent pets for animal crazy kids.”
Pigs Bubbles and Onion are family favourites, with their mum preferring to buy free-range bacon.
“My sister has a succession of pigs, and all their gorgeous little girls sit around the table, asking ‘is this Hazel mum?'”