I am often asked that age-old question: “How did you get the idea for your novel?” I can say quite truthfully that, like a butterfly, it fluttered by unexpectedly and I just reached out and grabbed it. The Sound of Butterflies was born.

The inspiration came in 2001 when I was doing an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, working on another novel. I was sitting in my living room and glanced up at some butterflies behind glass on my wall – they were from the Natural History Museum in New York and very beautiful. I thought: “What a gorgeous book cover that would make. I should write about a butterfly collector”. The first thought I had after ‘butterfly collector’ was ‘butterfly collector arrives home mute. Why?’ From there, the novel just poured into my head, and over the course of a weekend I filled pages and pages of a notebook with ideas for the story

I knew there would be a jungle, but I didn’t know where. I knew there were a lot of butterflies in Brazil, so I started researching Victorian gentleman explorers who went there, such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates. Their journals provided a wealth of material.

Then my brother mentioned Brazil’s rubber boom to me, which occurred around the turn of the 20th century. When I started reading about Manaus and the rubber barons, who lived an opulent and debauched lifestyle (sending their laundry to Lisbon to be washed, feeding their horses champagne to out do one another, importing the finest Italian marble to build an opera house that nobody wanted to perform in because cholera and yellow fever were rife) I knew I had to bring the story forward to that period. I found it fascinating and through my search could find no other English language novels set during that time (apart from one young adult novel) and just one film, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

The English portion of the novel is set in Richmond, just out of London (now considered part of London), where I lived in 1996 for a time. I fell in love with Richmond Park and gave that love to the characters of Thomas and Sophie.

I finished the book mid-2005 and it was published in New Zealand in July 2006. While it took three and a half years to write, much of that was taken up by research on subjects such as: butterflies, historical butterfly collecting, Victorian gentleman explorers in the Amazon, the Amazon river and its wildlife and ecology, the rubber boom and its impact on the people of Manaus and the Amazon, infectious diseases such as malaria and syphilis, Edwardian England – women, society, fashion and scientific knowledge – Kew Gardens, the British Natural History Museum etc.

Although it is a historical novel, it deals with some modern themes, and therefore has relevance to the world today. One of the horrors my hero, Thomas Edgar, encounters in the Amazon is the extraordinary cruelty inflicted on the native Indian population by some of the rubber barons. I have a friend who is a human rights lawyer who currently works for the UN in Afghanistan, but has also worked in Palestine and East Timor. She was more upset by the book’s violence towards the Indians than most people. She explained it was because even though the book was set more than 100 years ago, these kinds of human rights abuses are still going on all over the world, and it reminded her of that.

Also, while this is a book with big themes and exotic locations, on one hand it can be boiled down to a very simple story about a long-distance relationship – something I have certainly experienced, as do many other people today.

It seems to have been such a short journey from that first idea popping into my head to the publication of my story, but the ride has been thrilling.

— Rachael King