Romance novel explores FIFO love

Romance author Georgina Penney Picture supplied

Romance novels proved a saving grace for Georgina Penney during her formative years. Now she's busy penning her own, centred on a group of West Australians.

Her latest, Fly In Fly Out, was inspired by a close friend who worked in mining. "When she started out on the North West Shelf over a decade ago, she was one of the few women working offshore and I loved to hear her stories," Penney says. "One day she challenged me to write a heroine who was a realistic lady engineer and I took the bait."

The result was Jo Blaine, a petroleum engineer who works on an oil rig off the African nation of Mauritania. It's a world away from the life of her sister, Amy - a hair- salon owner who loves dressing like a 50s movie star. She stars in Irrepressible You, published early last year.

Penney, who grew up in country Australia, knows all about working in tough conditions. "I have worked in shearing sheds, on the farm and even in a feed processing plant almost completely populated by men," she says.

"I've generally found that working hard earns you respect in any environment over the long haul. Although feedback from friends working in male-dominated industries is that they have to work even harder than the men to show they're pulling their weight."

In Fly In Fly Out, Jo - whose feisty attitude and short temper has earned her the nickname Krakatoa - returns to her Fremantle apartment after a long, stressful shift away to find a naked man in her bed.

It appears she has an unexpected lodger in the form of Stephen Hardy from the Margaret River winery where she grew up.

And the last thing she wants is him finding out that she's dealing with the aftermath of a childhood marred by abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father, an issue all too close to Penney's heart.

"My dad was a Vietnam War vet with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder who self-medicated with prescription drugs," she says. "Speaking out or protesting his often erratic and violent behaviour was seen as bad for everyone, especially my mum, so we kept quiet and pretended that everything was OK. The only thing that kept me sane through those years was reading romance novels."

The family also moved around a lot, something Penney continued into her adulthood. With husband Tony in the oil industry, she has lived in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Brunei Darussalam.

Strangely, moving to the Middle East revived her interest in romance novels after she found shelf after shelf of English-language novels with "old-fashioned bodice-ripper covers" at a bookstore.

"I remember listening to a BBC broadcast from Libya during the overthrow of Gaddafi," she says. "The BBC correspondent was asked about what she'd been doing during the shelling in Tripoli. She answered that she'd been reading a lot of romance novels because after seeing so much bloodshed, she needed the escapism.

"This reminded me how important the genre had been to my sanity when I was younger and re-reading a lot of my old favourites reminded me how good the writing can be."

Penney says she started writing romance because she needed something to occupy herself as the wife of an expat.

"Romance is universal," she says. "It is primarily written by women for women and that in itself should afford it respect. I don't know any other genre that routinely explores issues like negative body image, domestic violence, sexual violence, disability, postnatal depression, adoption, sexuality.

"It defeats me why books that deal with such an important part of who we are - the need for positive relationships with lovers, friends and family - get such a bad rap."

Now cosied up in the much cooler climes of Scotland, Penney is busy working on a story about Jo's best friend, war photographer Scott, and planning a trip back to Australia for the Perth Writers Festival in February.

"All my books involve characters you meet in Fly In Fly Out," she says. "I love writing about them so much I can't imagine letting them go any time soon."