Preeminent writer Fiona Kidman is the author of more than 30 books. Her latest, a kind of memoir, is a fresh collection of non-fiction works covering significant life changes, new writing and compelling journeys. Interview Josie Steenhart
A little over a decade since her last volume of memoir, Fiona’s latest book – So Far, For Now – runs the gamut from being a grandmother to becoming a widow (make sure you have tissues handy), from the suitcase-existence of book festivals to researching the lives and deaths of Jean Batten and Albert Black and from Paris and Pike River to Banff, Belfast and Bangkok, searching for houses in Hanoi and Hawera, reliving the past in Waipu and creating new memories in Otago.
You say in the preface, “As I confronted getting old, it seemed that nothing much more would happen, that the story was over. I would like to reassure readers that old age isn’t dull. Things keep on happening.” What are some things that have been happening to/for you lately?
I have had a fair while to get used to growing old now. I love to travel, especially in France where my books are regularly published in translation and widely read, so I’ve continued to go on book tours. That’s changed in the past two years of course, but with luck it will happen again.
I became a widow nearly five years ago. Learning to live as an independent woman has been challenging. I had never lived alone in my entire life. It’s not a situation anyone wants, yet at the same time, it’s been one of those journeys, for want of a better word, that has offered its own rewards, like belief in oneself and one’s capabilities.
You also talk about there still being pleasures all around. What are some of those pleasures for you of late?
My pleasures are pretty simple. One of them happens very early in the day. I wake about 5:30am, draw back the curtains and wait, cup of tea in hand, for the dawn arriving over Cook Strait. There are some tumultuous skies, sometimes flaming red, others thunderous but always exhilarating. I love conversation with friends, and there are several, who come here and share my space and we talk for hours.
I confess, I like to shop. In days past, when there were mortgages and pressing family needs, I didn’t spend much on clothes. Now I buy a few carefully chosen pieces. I’m a fan of uncluttered classic lines. I tend towards Caroline Sills and Juliette Hogan.
On your website you’ve said, “I remind myself that we only have one life to draw on and not a day should be lost to its possibilities” – was this harder (or perhaps easier) to maintain during the Covid lockdowns, and how did you get through those times?
I was supported by family during lockdowns; they shopped for me. The first one was hard in the sense that it happened the week of my 80th birthday and a big family gathering was planned, with overseas grandchildren due to arrive. Of course it didn’t happen. But perhaps age brings some level of acceptance. A part of me, the writer I suppose, did quite like the solitude once I’d accustomed myself to it.
Tell us a bit about your time in Dunedin last year…
I was the inaugural Irish Studies Writing Fellow at Otago University as part of the CISS department (Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies). I had a room in the Centre’s little brick building in Albany Street, with my name on the dark blue door, and that of the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid who had been the first Scottish writer two years earlier. There was a lovely feel about it. The staff, who organised my time there, and students who dropped by, were friendly and welcoming.
What are some of your favourite spots in the South Island, and why?
I’ve travelled far more widely in the North Island and it’s hard to pick out a particular South Island spot.
But I do love Dunedin where I have many friends – it’s a real writers’ town. The Caselberg Cottage, where I stayed during the Fellowship, is utterly beautiful. The cottage was bequeathed to artists and writers by John and Anna Caselberg; it’s situated at Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula, with a garden and the sea lapping beneath. So there is that.
I’m also very fond of some aspects of the West Coast and its rugged coastline. I’m a big fan of the Paroa Hotel, near Greymouth, right on the edge of the water, run by special friends of mine. You can probably tell that the sea is very important to me.