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Interview: Dame Fiona Kidman

On her newest award-winning novel, This Mortal Boy

Flash Frontier: Let’s begin with This Mortal Boy, which is your eleventh novel. The book has won accolades far and wide: Winner of the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, the NZ Booklovers Award and the NZSA Heritage Book Award for Fiction. The story takes readers back to 1955 and the real-life murder case involving Albert Black, the last man in New Zealand to be hanged. How did you become interested in the case in the first place, and how did you begin to bring it to the page in novel-form?

Fiona Kidman: Like several of my novels, I believe This Mortal Boy was one of those ideas that had been burrowed in a dormant form for much of my life. I read a newspaper article that revisited the trial and Albert’s execution, one of those anniversary pieces. And I thought, oh yes, well I know about that, of course I do, I was around when it happened. I was curious because the man interviewed, who went by the name of Pooch Quintal, had been a friend of Albert’s and trying to give his version of events for his whole life since the trial and Albert’s death. He had committed a fairly minor crime the day after the incident in Ye Olde Barn café where Alan Jacques (aka Johnny McBride) died. Pooch was sent to Borstal in Invercargill and the police refused to allow him to come back north to give evidence for Albert at the trial. It varied from much that was given on the stand. The last thing on my mind was to write a novel about this, but when I began to look into it, something seemed wrong. I mean, something about the evidence and the verdict that didn’t add up. I was hooked.

FF: You were a teenager when this murder made headlines. Did it impact you as a young person then – and do you think your own ‘reality’ of experiencing it made the approach to writing about it that much more immediate? We wonder whether your own proximity to this event helped or hindered your ability to avoid sensationalism or sentimentalism with a topic such as this? In other words: how do you maintain the balance between closeness and distance – a critical element to writing something so immediate in its landscape of time and place?

FK: I was fifteen when it happened, just a year younger than some of the girls who were involved in the incident and gave evidence. It’s difficult to look back with the hindsight of sixty-four years and tell you exactly what I thought about it at the time. But as I say, the story was there, and knowing about it was part of my lived experience. My father was an Irishman – born in the UK, but with a strong Irish pedigree – and I think that my response to Albert, or Paddy as I think of him, was coloured by that. The father in the book is fiction, up to a point, but there are echoes of my father in him, and in Albert himself, the homesickness for one thing. I’m interested in issues of social justice, and injustice, the plight of the outsider, something we are far from over yet. And, I have to say, I loved the music of the era, and I was a rock ‘n roll kind of girl and I identified very strongly with that time in our history.

FF: Was creating Albert Black’s life and times challenging? Horrifying? Illuminating? Did you ever want to step away from the project, or did it create a pull in you that would not let go?

FK: Both horrifying and illuminating. Because you can live through a time and not get a real perspective on it until its over, and then you see you have been part of history. I came from a pretty conservative background and although I was a rebel of sorts, I didn’t understand all the ramifications of the Mazengarb Report, or the enthusiasm for the death penalty, or the nonsensical approach to human sexuality. They were just the realities you lived in. So looking back and seeing close up how damaging all that was, was educational, to say the least. Once I was committed to the project, I was in it. I didn’t want to shy away from it.


On writing historical fiction

FF: You say you like going the places your characters go. In the case of This Mortal Boy, for instance, you went to Mt Eden Prison and walked the halls there. What is the strangest experience you’ve had, retracing steps of your characters?

FK: I do like to go to places where events took place, yes, that’s true. I went to Belfast when I was preparing to write This Mortal Boy. Births, Deaths and Marriages there were very helpful. I was able to walk up the path to the house where Albert and his family lived when he was first born. I knocked on the door but there was nobody home. But I could see his mother in my head, walking up that path with her baby swaddled in her arms on a summer’s day; he was born in July.

Strange experiences? Well, people can be very rude when you start digging around, and I won’t repeat the worst instances. But when I was researching Betty Guard’s story for The Captive Wife, I discovered that the cottage hospital where I was born in Hawera was on the road that led to the pa site where Betty was held captive. That spooked me, because I left Hawera when I was an infant and had no idea. I should add there that the Guard family have been immensely supportive and kind to me, they weren’t the rude ones!

FF: Your novels include works as varied as: Mandarin Summer (1981), set in the Far North amongst colonial expatriates; The Book of Secrets (1987), based on a historical account of Norman McLeod, a Scottish preacher who led a band of immigrants to Nova Scotia and subsequently Waipu; and True Stars (1990), a critique of new right economics and changes that New Zealand society underwent in the 1980s. With all of your historical research, you still remain first and foremost a novelist – and so we wonder: where is that line between history and fiction, for you? What is important to portray in a kind of ‘true’ sense, and how to you create fiction out of a particular sequence of events or set of characters?

FK: I don’t pretend to be an historian, I just find facts interesting. But when I wrote The Book of Secrets I stepped over some boundaries in terms of giving away the identity of a character on whom the novel was based. My story, based in the Nova Scotian community of Waipu, where I went to school for some years, was fictional and for many people it was very unflattering. There is a long story there about my eventual reconciliation with a community I love. But I learned something important, namely that if you are going to take real people’s lives, you need to follow the essential truth of those lives, not make up relatives or children they didn’t have. But at some point you enter the world of fiction; as near as possible I become the person I’m writing about. I hope that doesn’t sound too weird, but it’s the only way I can put it, and I live for a long while trying to think like that person. When the reconciliation with the people of Waipu occurred, some twenty years after the book was first published – it’s still in print by the way – I said that the woman who was the witch figure in the book was actually me, that I’d lived in my head as a witch for the years it took to write the book.

FF: You have also given voice to New Zealand women: in your first novel, A Breed of Women (1979), a story about change in women’s lives during the 1970s; in The Captive Wife (2005), based on the kidnapping by Taranaki Maori and subsequent violent rescue of Betty Guard and her two children in 1834; and in the novel The Infinite Air (2013), the story of Jean Batten; and All Day at the Movies (2016), called a ‘social and cultural history’ of a family led by matriarch Irene Sandle. Your interest in women and their particular situations at particular moments in time cannot be overlooked. Do you consider yourself a champion of women – as writer, advocate and storyteller? Do you choose topics that are perhaps obscured by history and then brought to a new light through the lens of a novelist? And do you think the novel can do something for these stories that other writing cannot?

FK: I’m interested in the lives of people who have been marginalised in some way or another, and I try to bring some other truth into the light, who they really were, why their lives mattered. Of course you could say that Jean Batten’s life has a very public account, but I disagree. She has been painted in some very unflattering ways, and because they have been presented as ‘truth’, as ‘biography’, they have become the record. I try to be a bridge between the known and the unknown, to take the facts as I find them and fling them in the air and find the story. So in Jean’s case, I’m not saying this is fact, I’m saying based on what I’ve found, these are the possibilities and probabilities of her often mysterious life, and they’re dramatic and intriguing.

A Breed of Women was a conscious attempt to write about the lives of women in the 1970s, how those years of feminism and upheavals changed us all. But after that there was not a conscious trajectory of writing exclusively about women. And I think that perhaps I deserve more credit than I’ve been given for exploring men’s lives too. All Day at the Movies, for instance, was a quite conscious attempt to explore male grief, tenderness and endurance in relationships.


On process and the approach to writing

FF: You are one of New Zealand’s most prolific and successful writers, having been doing this since you were 22. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process – and how it has changed over the years?

FK: I began to write on the kitchen table in snatched hours here and there when the children were very small, in fact even before the first one was born. After they came along, I would get up at 3 a.m. to write for an hour or so before the dawn, furiously handwriting in notebooks. Now, of course, nearly sixty years later, the routines have changed . There were the years when I worked in broadcasting, as a radio producer and later as a television script writer, and fiction and poetry were snatched pleasures then too. Now I work on a computer, I have a room of my own, and since Ian died nearly two years ago, more solitude than I could ever need or want. I wouldn’t mind some of the old busy times back, but there it is, you can’t have what isn’t there.

FF: “This was probably written by the dirtiest minded young woman in New Zealand.” That was said by the judges for a play competition in which you entered a version of your first novel, A Breed of Women – and the novel was published to raucous views. How do you think your mindset influenced the way you wrote that play/novel – and how has that evolved, or changed, since 1970s New Zealand?

FK: Well, going back to my earlier comments, I did want to tell how women had lived their lives in the 1960s and 1970s. The outcry was huge and for a long time very invasive, it affected my personal life. I had to make some big decisions about whether I could carry on as a writer because there would always be this image of me who had said very frank things about women’s sexuality. I decided I would live with it. It’s about truth telling and I didn’t want to live my life as a lie. My family stuck by me. Ian became very interested in some of the subjects I was writing about. For instance he had learned to fly Tiger Moths for the RNZAF in the early 1950s and he was very involved with the writing of the Batten story. So what had once been scandalous just became who we were.

FF: Your 2014 novel, Songs from the Violet Café, may seem a departure from your NZ-based stories. Can you talk a bit about this story – what inspired it, how you went about telling the story of Jessie Sandal, whose encounters take her on an unexpected journey to a faraway place?

FK: Yes, a bit of a mixed bag, that one. I’m not sure whether it works or not. I wrote it after quite a long silence. I nursed my mother at home for seven years and didn’t write much during that time. I was finding my way back as a novelist when I wrote Songs. I started out with a handful of young women who reflected some aspects of the years I spent in Rotorua. But they were make believe lives, fictions, and the characters had to go some where after the tragedy on the lake. Ian and I travelled a lot in Asia in the ’nineties, in the times when my mother was having respite care. Ian had started doing voluntary work with landmine victims in Cambodia, so I’d spent a bit of time there. So that was where I sent Jessie. Jessie’s story picks up again, of course, in All day at the Movies. I like doing that, bringing characters back into later books. Because they have become so real to me. The House Within, linked stories about Bethany Dixon, was literally written over twenty-five years, a few stories published in magazines every few years.

FF: What is your writing habit? Where do you sit? What do you like to eat or drink while writing? Are there small luxuries you allow yourself, or is your approach one of strict regulation and austerity?

FK: My old house on the hill overlooking Cook Strait has been altered and changed over the years and family have come and gone, and the places I write in it have changed too. At the moment, my study overlooks my garden, such as it is. Right now, there are eight tui in a huge kowhai tree which we planted long ago. I have a fairly disciplined morning, from roughly nine, through until one o’clock. I stop for a cuppa around eleven, eat lunch when I’ve finished work for the day.

FF: Can you talk about poetry and how your poetic writing might impact your novel writing – or the other way round?

FK: I began to write poems in the 1970s when I seemed to be surrounded by poets. Lauris Edmond was my very close friend. We were in a circle of poets, many it must be said were men: Denis Glover, Alistair Campbell, Sam Hunt, Vincent O’Sullivan. I hadn’t thought of writing poetry but then I wanted to try my hand. In 1975 there seemed to be a constellation of women poets who came together: Rachel McAlpine, Jan Kemp, Marilyn Duckworth, Elizabeth Smither, Meg Campbell (Alistair’s wife) myself and Lauris. We started doing readings together and there was a kind of sea change. Riemke Ensing published Private Gardens, bringing together New Zealand women’s poetry and it was a kind of validation of local women’s writing. Now Paula Green has done something similar in Wild Honey and there are all these amazing young women poets and that’s good. But I think of myself as a storyteller and the narrative voice is probably a more truthful reflection of what I do in my writing


On the short and shorter story

FF: You are also an industrious short story writer. Next year, you will turn 80 and release a new set of short stories. Does your approach to short story writing differ from your novel writing?

FK: Generally I know when something is going to be a short story rather than a novel, it tells itself in my head. I love the form and started out as a writer of short stories. I like to read them and wish that more people did because its got harder to publish them these days. The forthcoming book does contain some of my earlier work too, so ‘new’ is not entirely true of all of it. The book is called All the way to summer: stories of love and longing and I think, looking back, they reach deeply into what I have been trying to say about the world and relationships as I’ve seen them over all these years.

FF: And let’s go a step further and talk about the very short form. You judged the 2015 National Flash Fiction Day competition with Owen Marshall. Back then, you admitted in an interview with Rebecca Styles that you had more experience reading flash fiction than writing it. Has that changed? Have you had a crack at the very short form since then?

FK: Forgive me, no. I haven’t. I’ve been preoccupied with many things in that time frame. Two new novels, research and travel. Grief. Well, that’s big, it consumes one. Perhaps its time for me to try new things. I admire much of the flash fiction I read.

FF: What are you currently writing?

FK: Finishing the edits of All the way to summer.

FF: And finally – do you think books you read influence the way you think about writing?

FK: Possibly. I read a lot of the Irish writers. Anne Enright, Sebastien Barry, Maggie O’Farrell. Wow. I suppose it’s the Irish in me. But in terms of form, Alice Munro’s long short stories have been a great influence on my writing. She opened up new possibilities for me.

FF: And what are you currently reading?

FK: I have just finished An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Its about a young black man wrongly incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. I think its an important and very moving book.

Fiona Kidman has written and edited more than thirty books. She started her working life in a miscellany of jobs, settling to be a librarian. Over her career, she has also been a screen and radio writer and radio producer. Her work is widely published overseas. She became a Dame in 1998. Other honours include an OBE, the French Legion of Honour and a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters (Chevalier des Artes et des Lettres, France). Her most recent novel This Mortal Boy was awarded the Ockham Acorn Foundation Prize for Fiction 2019.

To read an extract of This Mortal Boy, see Penguin New Zealand.

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