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Johanna Moran

e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (February 2010)

Johanna Moran comes from three generations of published authors. After working as a flight attendant for seventeen years, she retired at thirty-six and went back to school, graduating with a degree in English Literature from the University of South Florida. She had been writing full time for fifteen years when The Wives of Henry Oades sold to Random House in 2008. It's based on a fascinating legal case, that of a man prosecuted for bigamy in late 1800s San Francisco after the family he believed killed by Maori made their way back to him from New Zealand.

Q: You mention at the back of the book that your father brought the abstract of the original case (on which The Wives of Henry Oades is based) to your mother's attention, and that she considered writing the story herself - how do they feel about your novel?

A: My father died in 1973. My 87-year-old mother is over the moon in her excitement about my novel.

Q: Travel between Europe and New Zealand was pretty dicey in 1890 with poor medical care, illnesses and deaths en route. Is what you described for the Oades family's voyage fairly typical of the times?

A: I had access to several journals written in the 1890s. So, yes, the Oades' voyage was typical of second-class travel.

Q: How did you go about researching Maori culture - and in particular Maori life in the late 1800s - for the novel?

A: I love to do research and spent long hours in the library. Redemption Songs - A Life of the Nineteenth-century Maori Leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki by Judith Binney was particularly helpful.

Q: I didn't realize that cannibalism occurred amongst Maori, the eating of Long Pig; was that common in 1890s New Zealand?

A: The final version of the novel was modified to reflect the fear of cannibalism as opposed to its earlier existence.

Q: One of your characters speculates that the reason the Oades were taken was utu (revenge) for an act against the Maori. Was utu-based violence a frequent occurrence or was this a rare event?

A: Consider our present world situation. Isn't conflict generally utu based? There was much blood shed on both sides in nineteenth-century New Zealand.

Q: Margaret learns in her time amongst the Maori that their conduct is regulated by tapus (taboos). Are modern Maori much influenced by tapus?

A: My studies are pretty much confined to the nineteenth century.

Q: The Maori fought the European invaders and maintained their own ways much more successfully than most indigenous cultures - did your research give you any insights into why this was the case?

A: The forbidding terrain - mountains, dense bush, wide salt marshes - would have helped keep the heartiest invaders at bay.

Q: Henry Oades' lawyer presses Margaret to agree to having her marriage annulled, and she refuses because it would make her children illegitimate - would that have really been the outcome?

A: Yes, indeed.

Q: Did the legal case play out as you presented it with each of the wives, in turn, forced to move out of Henry's home, or are you extrapolating from historical facts?

A: The latter.

Q: The letter of the law (because Margaret had been officially declared dead) held Henry Oades to be innocent of bigamy - would the ruling be the same in similar circumstances today?

A: I honestly don't know. But here's an interesting tidbit from the 1949 text, Readings in American Legal History: "... Oades produced the constitution of the United States, and read the tenth section of the first article, which expressly provides that no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts. Marriage, he said, was well settled to be a contract, and therefore no earthly power could deprive him of his vested right in his two wives."

Q: Were you able to find out much about the two real Mrs. Oades? Is there a historical basis for the two women eventually becoming good friends as you portrayed them?

A: The abstract did not delve into the interior lives of either wife, and I was glad. I had my own vision almost immediately.

Q: Can you tell us anything about what you're working on next?

A: I'm working on a story about a friendship between two nineteenth-century prostitutes, one of whom was in fact murdered by Abraham Rothschild.
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