An Hour with Dame Fiona Kidman – WORD Christchurch

CoverFiona Kidman’s latest book All Day at the Movies explores what it means to be a woman in New Zealand. It’s an episodic novel  set over six decades. She explores where families were at and where they are going now.

Family is important to me as an only child I was often an observer looking in on families.

But she also says “I try not to put  my family into books”.

This novel was inspired by the sight of abandoned tobacco kilns.  Her father grew tobacco in KeriKeri and the memories of the Nicotiana scent drew her to setting her central character in the tobacco field of Motueka. The novel features a lot of pregnancies – as Owen Marshall observes, some more welcome than others.  One of her characters doesn’t know who her father is.

Fiona acknowledges pregnancy is a huge issue in women’s lives. She is an adoptive mother herself, and  acknowledges adoption was not handled well in the past.  Recently her novels are set around a central historical character – but in this novel she wanted to say something about politics, how decisions made in Wellington affect people’s lives.

Fiona has always been a political animal. She was part of the 1981 Springbok tour movement as explored in her novel Beside the Dark Pool. Exploring the social context her characters inhabit over the decades gives her a vehicle to say something about how Wellington decisions affect their lives.

Dame Fiona Kidman in interview with Own Marshall
Dame Fiona Kidman in interview with Owen Marshall

Looking at her characters as they deal with illegitimacy, estrangement, and abuse you may think she has a negative view of life and of men. But she says “I love men”. There are at least 5 positive men in the book, even though it may not seem that men come out well.

“I have had a lucky life” one of her characters says in the novel (and she observes it of her own life) which ends on an optimistic note. She looks at the circumstances of her characters and why things happen without making judgments. Authentic characters are important – how real people deal with things and how it affects them in 20, 30, 40 years time. Her characters become very real to her – they stand at the kitchen bench and come for rides with her in the car. By the time she sits down to write a novel they have their own voice which has to be listened to. Sometimes she is ready to let them go after a novel, and sometimes they don’t want to go away and reappear in another form like her character Jessie Sandal from Songs of the Violet Café.

Fiona has always been a feminist writer as is evident in  A breed of Women. She sees herself not as a woman’s writer but a writer writing for women. She first thought of herself as a writer as a 22-year-old in the 1960s. It was in an era when it was embarrassing to be pregnant. She had worked at Rotorua Library and moved to Rotorua High School library when she married her husband who also worked there. When she got pregnant, students remarked “Got her up the duff eh Sir!”, leading to a request for her to leave the school. Such were the expectations of the era.

She left and started writing – submitting a play for a competition. Her play evoked the comment that it must have been written by the dirtiest minded young woman in New Zealand.

I felt I did know stuff about being a woman that a middle-aged man in Wellington seemed not to know.

Fiona often struggled with expectations:

What am I doing sitting at the kitchen table, buying the kids clothes not preserving hundreds of jars and doing this.

She worked as a secretary of PEN and the NZ Book Council and hoped to help authors think of writing as working.

Her favourite genre is short stories but they don’t sell a lot of books and she loves poetry but working in other genres is necessary. She made as much money working in television in a month as writing in a couple of years.

  • Through working in television, she learnt to see as you would through the camera
  • through radio work she learn to listen especially to the silences
  • through journalism she learnt to ask questions

All have been useful in her writing work.  Poetry is not so much thinking about the audience more spontaneous.

Unsuitable Friends signed Signed by Fiona Kidman
Signed after all these years

Read more about Fiona Kidman from her official websiteThe Academy of New Zealand Literature, The New Zealand Book Council, and  Penguin Press.

Find books by Fiona Kidman in our collection.

WORD Christchurch

Take your pick of the best at WORD Christchurch

There is nothing like a book festival, the chance to luxuriate in an atmosphere charged with language, bathing your senses in rich text, balm to your soul.

At WORD Christchurch the words come flying off the page during readings, you will hear the inspiration behind your favourite authors work, you’ll be inspired to try new genres, enjoy poetry and become informed on global issues.

Book covers
WORD Christchurch related reading

So many authors will be present at this ear’s wonderful WORD Christchurch programme there is something for everyone but for me two sessions leapt off the programme’s pages. An hour with Dame Fiona Kidman our own literary giant and An evening with Justin Cronin and for someone new I have selected Canadian Tales: Elizabeth Hay. You may think a diverse choice but for me they are all powerful writers who hold you enthralled to the very end.

Fiona Kidman_c_Robert Cross_2
Fiona Kidman (photo credit: Robert Cross)

A little 1988 yellowed hard-covered copy of Unsuitable Friends has adorned my book shelf for many decades. It was my introduction to Dame Fiona Kidman’s work. Her characters struggle to free themselves from domestic constraints to achieve their dreams and to keep their moral compass. It is almost as if she is writing for her daughter who would be a contemporary of mine, as would she be of my mother. The book seemed written just for young women like me.

I remember arguments on the role of women in the house, Dad asserting that going to work had given my mother funny ideas! It was refreshing to read such vivid contemporary women’s fiction. No wonder she won the New Zealand Book Award for fiction that year.

Her urging of her female protagonists to not be bound by the constraints of their circumstance continued in her 2013 novel The Infinite Air about the enigmatic Jean Batten and in this year’s release All Day at the Movies. I can’t wait to get my hands on it. The outsider status of these characters is what appeals to me and it is this that also appeals in Justin Cronin’s writing.

Justin Cronin - Photo credit Julie Soefer
Justin Cronin (photo credit: Julie Soefer)

Man’s responsibility to use scientific discovery to the benefit of the planet as well as humanity, and the need to look to technology to solve man-made environmental problems is a big theme at this conference. Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic trilogy about an escaped laboratory virus fits right in here.

Not one to usually read a vampire tale I started reading The Passage as a read-a-like for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It was some time before I realized I was reading a vampire novel but not like any you have ever read. It’s a rip roaring yarn with fear and violence and with a cautionary back story.

I am saving the end of this trilogy till I can reread the first two, there are so many back plots and references I want to read them all back to back. If you are a Game of Thrones fan you’ll love it.

Elizabeth Hay
Elizabeth Hay (image supplied)

For my last pick I wanted an author I knew nothing about and comparisons to Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx mean she has got to be good, so I chose Elizabeth Hay. I’ve just started her much praised coming of age tale, His whole life, and it’s making me thirsty to read more. This Canadian has a lovely laid back style which entrances you and keeps you spellbound.

So why not make some picks of your own and join the party at WORD Christchurch.

More WORD Christchurch

Chatting with the locals

With Laurence Fearnley in Christchurch

Have you ever fantasised about having a chat with any of our local authors?

Whether this would be a dream come true for you, or your worst nightmare, you might enjoy having a look at some of the interviews that intrepid librarians have already conducted with local authors on your behalf.

What’s it like to get up-close-and-personal with an author whose work you love?

First read that author’s books! Sounds obvious, but… interviewers have been caught short before. You’ll start to feel confident. At this point, don’t be tempted to read other interviewers with their super cunning questions, it will crush you. The day of the interview dawns and you walk with boots of lead to the venue thinking all the while: Why, why, why do I do this to myself? The interview starts and amazingly, the esteemed author is a lovely, interesting talker as well as a gifted writer. At some point there is interview lift-off and you feel high. Back home, you transcribe the interview (this is so much easier to do if you remembered to switch on the recorder). And then it is all over. Until next time.

I counted at least twenty interviews with New Zealand writers at this library link; here’s a couple to get you started:

  • Paul Cleave Christchurch-based author of taut, psychological thrillers who has achieved international recognition
  • Sarah-Kate Lynch and Bronwyn talk food, drink, love and white pj’s in this fun interview
  • Laurence Fearnley  and I love the same book – one of hers – so that was a good start!
  • Fiona Kidman talks friendship and writing with Rachel

Top of my list of Kiwi writers to interview in the future would be Lloyd Jones and Shonagh Koea. How about you? Any New Zealand author you’d like to chat to, and what would you really like to ask?

The captive wife – New Zealand e-book month

When Betty Guard steps ashore in Sydney, in 1834, she meets with a heroine’s welcome. Her survival during a four-month kidnapping ordeal amongst Taranaki Maori is hailed as nothing short of a miracle. But questions about what really happened slowly surface within the elite governing circles of the raw new town of Sydney. Jacky Guard, ex-convict turned whaler, had taken Betty as his wife to his New Zealand whaling station when she was fourteen.

After several years and two children, the family is returning from a visit to Sydney when their barque is wrecked near Mount Taranaki. A battle with local Maori follows, and Betty and her children are captured. Her husband goes to seek a ransom, but instead England engages in its first armed conflict with New Zealand Maori when he is persuaded to return with two naval ships. After her violent rescue, Betty’s life amongst the tribe comes under intense scrutiny.

Based on real events, this is the compelling story of a marriage, of love and duty, and the quest for freedom in a pioneering age.

You can read The captive wife as an e-book from our Overdrive collection.

The captive wife is also available as a paper book.

Fiona Kidman – The Trouble with Fire

The Trouble with Fire

Friendship has meant a great deal to me over the years.

An Audience with Dame Fiona was a session I was looking forward to. I’m a great fan of Fiona Kidman. She made the decision to become a writer when she was 22 years old and hasn’t looked back. During her writing career she’s produced novels, short stories, plays, and poetry and has over 30 books to her name. Her stories are deceptively understated, real, evocative and moving. In the 1970s she was seen as a strong voice in the feminist movement and has fought relentlessly to improve opportunities for writers in New Zealand.

At the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, she was in conversation with friend and book disributor, Carole Beu. The mood in the room was relaxed. The audience was mainly women. Many were of Dame Fiona’s generation, most younger. She was greeted like an old friend.

In my interview with the author, Fiona Kidman tells me of an experience she had in the early 70s when she was on book tour. It was early in her writing career. It was pouring with rain and she had to stand on a wooden crate in the mud to speak. She didn’t expect many people to turn up in such awful conditions but over 2,000 women came to see her talk that day. It was then she realised that women were desperate to hear the voice of their generation. Her sincere interest in people and the events that shape their lives has kept her writing voice current. She writes our stories and we love her for it.

The Trouble with Fire is Fiona Kidman’s most recent collection of short stories. A central theme of fire, real and metaphorical, runs through the work. Lady Anne Barker sets fire to large tracts of Canterbury tussock land in the title story while fire-spotter, Samson, in Extremes surveys the forest for flames not realising that “there’s a fire burning on the hearth at home”. His wife is playing away.

Unplanned pregnancy is a topic touched on several times. Today, it’s hard to imagine how few choices women had only a generation before mine. As the author says, you either got married in a hurry if some chap would have you or you “went up north for a while”. Extremes is the story of two women who contact the Sisters Overseas Service (SOS) in Wellington for terminations and the decisions they make. Part Two follows the life of Joy Keats and the impact an unplanned pregnancy has on four generations of women connected to her.

Fiona KidmanFriendship is important to Fiona Kidman. She was born an only child and grew up without cousins. In the session, she spoke of three great friendships in her life. Her 28 year friendship with writer Lauris Edmond, her bond with Angela Carter, and her close attachment to Lois Minnit who was involved in SOS with her. Her oldest friendship is with a school friend she’s known for 66 years.

She keeps a folder full of interesting snippets from newspapers. Fiona Kidman connects deeply with people and it’s from her profound humanity that her stories flow.