The Interview – Fiona Kidman
Fiona Kidman was born in Hawera in 1940. She has worked as a librarian, journalist, radio producer, and script writer, and has published more than thirty books – among them novels, story collections, memoirs and poetry. Her first poetry collection was Honey and Bitters (1975) and her first novel was A Breed of Women (1979). In 2009 the writer Sue McCauley described her as an inspiration to many New Zealand woman writers in the 70s and 80s, because she was someone ‘else without a university education or the right kind of family connections. Another outsider’.
A staunch advocate of other writers, Kidman has been awarded an OBE and DNZM for services to literature, and the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement, as well as numerous international awards. She even has a street named after her in Rolleston, a town in Canterbury.
‘Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.’
You’ve written three novels that I know of to date, using a factual canvas: The Book of Secrets (1987) about the migration of a religious community to Waipu in New Zealand from Scotland via Nova Scotia in the mid-19th Century; The Captive Wife (2005) about Betty Guard a white woman who was taken as a prisoner by Maori in 1837; and The Infinite Air (2013) about New Zealand aviator Jean Batten. There’s a few things I’d like to talk to you about in terms of turning fact into fiction, but we’ll start with the most obvious. In a world full of the most marvellous real life stories just waiting to be plundered, what do you look for in a subject? And is there a moment of absolute clarity where you know this is the one?
In a sense, I think I’ve written a quartet of historical novels, because there was Paddy’s Puzzle (1983) about Auckland in World War II and a young woman called Clara who defies convention and lives and dies on her own terms. I can honestly say that I have never gone looking for any of my subjects, I’ve simply tripped over them; they’ve hurled themselves out from behind the bushes, in the same way that a dose of poems do every few years. I can’t tell you where Clara came from – the source is something I’m not prepared to reveal. Suffice to say that my husband lived in the building of the book’s title when he was child.
The Book of Secrets is based on an old woman who I used to see when I passed her house on the school bus on the way to Waipu District High School. In terms of real life, I realise that I got her wrong and I paid a price for that in terms of my relationship with the Waipu community, although that was later resolved. In a way, from a writer’s point of view, it’s probably just as well I was naive about that, because there would have been many constraints on the fictional work and I don’t think I would have written the book that I did. That book appeared in 1987 and its never been out of print and is still being translated abroad. I was haunted by the woman at that house though, and from very early on in my writing life I knew that I would write about her.
The Captive Wife arises out of a narrow escape from living on Arapawa Island. My husband, Ian, worked as a school teacher at the whaling station there in 1951. He left there but planned to return. After we were married he put it to me that he apply for a position at the school again, and I yelped a horrified ‘no’. I couldn’t see myself in that environment. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the countryside and isolation, I’d had plenty of that as a child, but I didn’t want to enter what I perceived as a closed community. But over the years Ian would talk about the island and it began to acquire a mythical quality. Then I read somewhere about Betty Guard and her captivity and it just fell into place, that this was a story that epitomised so many aspects of women’s lives – being anchored in one place, discovering one’s sexuality in surprising ways, and so on. I had to write about her.
The Infinite Air? Again, an early life experience. I went to Rotorua and worked at the public library for some years in my teens. That’s where the aviator Jean Batten was born, in the street a block away from the library, and people used to come into the library and ask me – or any of us young women on the desk – if we knew where Jean Batten was these days. Of course we had no idea because by then, in the 1950s, she had begun her long reclusiveness, and few people knew where she was then. As it turns out, at that time she was living down the road from Ian Fleming and Noel Coward in the Caribbean. It took me longer to acknowledge the way Jean had dogged my footsteps, and it was actually a television documentary that depicted her in a very negative way that made me sit up and take notice. It didn’t fit with my image of Jean. Anyway, I capitulated, she wouldn’t leave me alone. And the other thing was that Ian had learned to fly in Tiger Moths and he has had a lifelong association with aviation and knew such a lot about the planes she flew.
You will notice I talk about Ian a lot in relation to all these books, except for The Book of Secrets. We have been married for 56 years, some would say a marriage of opposites although I don’t think that’s really true. We have, on the one hand, kind of egged each other on, on the other, allowed each other the space to do our own thing. I doubt that I would have written the books if I had been in a conventional marriage, but without the marriage we have had, I don’t think there would have been the layers to the work that I’d like to think I’ve achieved, difference has in its own way been rewarding. I suppose, too, that it is one of the signature notes of my work. Difference. I haven’t thought about it quite like this before, but I do see that I’ve turned over and again to women whose lives are different as a source of inspiration. You asked if there was a moment when I knew they were the right subject. I guess so, the moment when we turned and looked at each other, those women and me, a kind of flash point that said, that’s it, you’re on.
Making up stuff about real people which of course you have to do when you’re turning historic events into fiction felt a bit transgressive to me when writing about Phar Lap’s people and subsequently I was very gentle on my characters . Do you find it hard to make that leap from the bare threads that research turns up and into a full-fledged character complete with all the usual flaws and feet of clay? Some characters must be harder than others to find a way into … surely?
I think I have a ruthless streak which, by and large, I manage to keep under wraps, except when I write. When I sit down at the computer, the ‘real’ people and their relatives often fly out the window. But as I mentioned, had I been more aware of the real story of the woman who I deemed ‘the witch of Waipu’ in The Book of Secrets, I’d probably have been more circumspect, but the book would have been less in terms of a fiction. I tend to live inside my characters for a long time when I’m thinking about a book. They go with me wherever I go, and sit beside me in the car. This is true, I’m talking to them all the time. And what is happening is that for the most part I’m thinking about how I would have responded to their situations had I been in them.
This was particularly true of Betty Guard, about whom very little was known – and I take some credit for uncovering her true origins and giving her to her descendants – generally, in historical references she was a footnote and referred to as ‘the woman’. I loved giving her a full-blooded persona and thinking myself into the pa sites where she was taken, and discovering both captivity and a wild freedom of the self.
Jean Batten was undoubtedly the hardest. There is an image of her out there which I disagreed with, but it pervades pretty well all the existing literature and the Internet. She is portrayed as conniving, greedy and arrogant. I read her own works closely – two memoirs, one a young woman’s glorious adventure story in Solo Flight and the other harder-going, rather disjointed account in Alone in the Sky, written just after her fiancé Beverley Shepherd had been killed in an air accident. The person I read was spirited, often kind, but also driven by the circumstances of her early life which included considerable hardship.
I didn’t get a lot of help from her surviving relatives. In fact one of the younger ones was so astonishingly rude to me that it took me a while to pick myself up from that. But in a sense that offered me a freedom to invent, I wasn’t beholden to anyone really. The Jean I had to put on the page was my own interpretation. For instance, she has been portrayed as having grasped from the wealthy family of another man called Victor Dorée who provided a plane for her first attempt at a record. If you look closely at what happened, they dispatched her from London with great fanfare and a camera crew, and then when she crashed in Karachi just a week later, they abandoned her to her fate.
Now my interpretation of that is that they wanted the glamour of a long-distance aviation star and were willing to pay for it. When they didn’t get it, they dumped her without ceremony. A bad investment in fame, in other words. Had it not been for Lord Wakefield noting her plight, who knows how she would have escaped that. Anyway, I had to determine for myself the Jean who emerged from my research and then go with it, in the different situations that history has provided.
I did wonder if Jean was the hardest because of her mythology (which is always skewed) and the fact that there was quite a bit of existing writing about and by her which, from my own experience with Phar Lap I know can mire a narrative. Funny how in order to find a “true” voice you’ve got to almost throw out the research and let it find its own life.
I don’t try to bend clear historical fact. When I was researching Jean I came across a woman who believed she was Jean’s daughter, and had said so in a magazine article. This woman is dead now and her name doesn’t matter, but I was sidetracked for months trying to establish whether this might have been true or not. There did seem on the face of it some evidence in her favour. It would have been great to have put that in the story but it became clear as time passed that it could simply not have been true. Indeed, to the woman’s dismay, I was able to establish who her mother really was, and that was very sad. I did contact one of Jean’s more helpful relatives, and as the story unravelled I could see that imposing a child of Jean’s, fictional or otherwise, on the family was not on. I wouldn’t have served any of them well had I used this story, nor Jean, nor myself as a writer for that matter.
But in the sequence to do with Ian Fleming, it is really true that they lived close to each other, and partied a lot, along with Noel Coward. I don’t know the exact nature of their relationship but there are some clues, not least that Jean and her mother left Jamaica a week or so after Fleming had to make a hasty marriage to another woman. I don’t take them inside the bedroom, but I do imagine the sexual tension that almost certainly existed between them. I genuinely believe that there are elements of Jean in Solitaire in Fleming’s Live and Let Die, and if I’m right about that then it opens up some very interesting possibilities, which is more or less where I leave it in the book.
Moving on to your short stories, but still keeping with my theme of true stories and other fictions. Your short fiction really blew me out of the water … you legend. I particularly like how you crack open characters in just a few lines of dialogue, exposing them but never judging. I get the feeling that the stories are built on the foundations of those amazing oddball moments, sometimes your own, more often others, that you store away, earmarked for future use. An archive of all too human failings and foibles. That killer line in ‘The Italian Boy’ … you know the one … that’s got to be true. Right? You can’t make that stuff up. Is this the case? And are you a frightful eavesdropper and the person who people tell things? And how does your short story process differ from your fiction? I suspect it gives you far more opportunities to really have a bit of fun.
Yes, I was an eavesdropper without peer until my hearing went, and it’s a great disappointment not being able to hear conversations three tables away in a restaurant. I’m a good lip reader but hearing aids just don’t offer the same piquancy of other people’s dialogue. I used to listen in to conversations on the party line when I was a child. This, of course, is the sort of nastiness one expects of only children, but it takes a certain skill to go undetected. Although, looking at it in a more positive (or defensive) light, the only child is constantly on the look out for nuances in people’s behaviour towards them, there is none of the cut and thrust of sibling lives. And yes, people tell me things but I don’t use things friends have told me without their permission. At least, not intentionally, because of course things get embedded in memory and it can be hard to recognise where they came from.
I do clip oddball things out of newspapers and store them away. For instance, there is a story of mine [in 2011’s The Trouble with Fire] called ‘Preservation’, about three school friends who are reconnected when one of them goes to prison and wants the others to borrow a dress from a shop for her mother’s funeral. After the dress is returned it causes havoc for its next wearer because it’s infused with embalming fluid. This is based on a story I cut out from a consumer column perhaps twenty years ago. It was a story just itching – if you’ll forgive that – to be written but it took years and years for it to take shape. I’d been visiting a women’s prison and it all clicked into place.
Yes, my short stories are different from my novels. They usually arrive fully formed in my head, the shape of them established when I begin, even though I will do lots of re-writing. I am a follower of Alice Munro, I guess like hundreds of other writers writing contemporary fiction. But she offered up the possibilities of that long, loping kind of story that is so different from, say, the well-made O. Henry story. Actually, I love O. Henry, but these were not the kind of stories I wanted to keep writing. I’d begun to try out stories like that (the long form) as early as 1980 when I wrote ‘Desert Fires’ [published in Mrs Dixon & Friend (1982)], before I’d read Munro. Coming across her work for the first time was like a validation. And, at the same time the Mrs Dixon stories were developing, stories about a particular woman that kept recurring over nearly twenty years. Eventually she had her own book The House Within (1997) and I don’t want to resurrect her in old age, she is where I left her. She had a little of me in her I guess, perhaps of ‘the road not taken’ variety.
Which brings me to ‘The Italian Boy’. There is quite a lot of Fiona in Hilary, and some of the more disreputable aspects of her childhood that don’t appear in the memoirs [At the End of Darwin Road (2008) and Beside the Dark Pool (2009)], I have to give you that. But there is a kind of angle from a writing point of view and about where my fictions developed. I’ve talked a lot about my childhood friend M. with whom I spent a great deal of time, and summers writing magazines together. The good children’s childhood. But there were others. There was T., the Māori friend, the forbidden friend who I used to visit and sit on the steps of her grandmother’s whare, where I shared the unspoken language of the outsider.
Then there were the bullies, some of whom appear in ‘The Italian Boy’ and who T. used to protect me from with her fists in the school ground. And there was another friend who I’ve never mentioned at all. I used to stay at H’s house quite often and she at mine. Our mothers’ were friends and it suited them for us to stay together. H. had an extraordinary volatile imagination and we used to tell each other outrageous stories which we convinced each other were true. They were scatological, sexually although mostly inaccurately explicit, and full of terrifying apocalyptic stories of the world blowing up, Stalin taking over the world and so on. Sometimes she told me she had done things which it became clear were not true, although I tried to match her.
When it came time for high school, H. was sent off to a boarding school as nice girls with parents who could afford it did, and I went to college on a long school bus trip each day. I continued in the vein of outrageous storytelling, as Hilary does. And I suppose the whole point of what I’m trying to tell you is that the fictions I told were compelling to my listeners and I enjoyed the power of my own narrative. Lies catch you out and so they do with Hilary, even though the better part of a lifetime has passed when hers finds her out. The whole ‘what is truth, what is fiction, what do you make up’ comes into it.
So now you want me to tell you if anyone ever told me I had a beautiful c**t. Well, no, they didn’t. However, when I was sixteen a very attractive young man told me that I had a beautiful body and he was sure I would be a good fuck. My cheeks scorch when I tell you that I was both flattered and excited at the time. I was still a virgin but I liked the idea that I was desirable. Although the ‘c’ word goes back centuries, it still has the power to shock in a way that ‘fuck’ doesn’t any more, and I thought it would carry greater weight. I recognise the obscene and derogatory implications of the word and I don’t use it myself. But in the mouth of the boy it still carries a kind of longing that makes Hilary tingle.
In the archive of my human foibles, as you so aptly put it, there lurks a latent desire to shock, and its amazing how just a word can do it. I’ve learned over the years that less is more.
The c**t sentence was so great because it just comes out of nowhere and punches the reader between the eyes. I hooted with laughter because it was so unexpected and perfectly vulgar.
Last question. What are you reading/writing about at the moment? You can say none of your beeswax. My current party line is I’m writing a social history about Glad Wrap. Fascinating subject.
At the moment I’m reading a huge pile of New Yorkers which my friend Michael Harlow sends me each week. I’ve got behind with them because I’ve been away. I love the short stories and the reviews. The book I’m about to start is the very well-reviewed Stalin’s Daughter by Rosemary Sullivan. It comes via a recommendation from a friend in Ottawa. Her book club is reading it. The nice thing about this group is that they read my work as well. But this is a bit of a departure from my usual reading which is almost always fiction and poetry. Piles and piles of poetry, read and to be re-read.
My own new work is a novel called All day at the movies. I describe it as an ‘episodic novel’ that follows the fortunes of one family from the 1951 waterfront strike to 2015. I’m tentatively beginning a new novel that I’m not ready to talk about yet. It’s set in the 1950s and the research has recently taken me to Belfast. But one thing at a time. I need a bit of a break between books. ’I can’t wait to read your new novel Daylight Second, what a great title. I’ve always been a huge fan of your work. Bring on Phar Lap. Best of luck with it.
Kelly Ana Morey writes both fiction and creative non-fiction and occasionally dabbles in the poetic dark arts. Her latest book, Daylight Second, is a novel about the Depression-era racehorse Phar Lap.