Precious objects bring writing to life


A new writing festival using one of Dunedin’s largest historic mansions as inspiration is being held this weekend. Rebecca Fox chats with award-winning New Zealand author Catherine Chidgey.

From white cats to antique furniture to evening bags, Catherine Chidgey cannot resist collecting them.

The award-winning author believes that this ‘collecting gene’ she made her an ideal candidate to be a tutor at a new writing festival at Olveston in Dunedin.

“ For me, this love has always been linked to thinking about stories attached to these objects. ”

So, tutoring in a historic Edwardian house teeming with period treasures and encouraging writers to draw inspiration from an ensuing object is a ‘natural fit’.

”It is an excellent idea.”

Hamilton-based Chidgey is one of the writers attending The Great Write Inn Writers’ Weekend. Other main sessions include Emma Neale, Dianne Brown, Bronwyn Wylie-Gibb and Emily Writes, Fiona Farrell and Amy Scott.

Chidgey, who will zoom in due to Covid restrictions, loves Olveston, remembering her visits when she lived in Dunedin.

“It’s such a special place, a gem for the city and it’s fantastic to have a writing event there. “

In her session, she will share stories about objects that are important to her.

“There are a few objects that were very important to me in my writing, objects that ended up being really central in my two German novels and symbolically important to these novels.”

Another important object on his desk is a fossilized crab, a new species discovered by his grandfather in the 1960s.

“I used fossil imagery in my first novel, which features a character inspired by my grandfather, to talk about reducing the surface area of ​​matter to access the treasures hidden below. “

This is advice new writers will love given Chidgey’s debut novel. In a fishbone church, won the Best First Book award at the New Zealand Book Awards and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific). He also won the Betty Trask Award (UK) and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. His second novel, Golden Acts, was a book of the year in Time Out magazine (London), the LA Times Book Review and the New York Times Book Review.

His fourth novel, The wish child, was an instant bestseller, winning the Janet Frame Fiction Prize, the Nielsen Independent New Zealand Bestseller Award and the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize while her latest novel Sympathy at a distance has been shortlisted for the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

But novels don’t come without hard work and sacrifice.

Chidgey juggles writing and teaching at the University of Waikato and currently hosting the Sargeson Prize short story competition – New Zealand’s richest short story prize she has ever had. founded – around Covid-19 restrictions encroaching on Waikato.

It’s a bit of a scramble. What could go wrong? ”

She also suffers from a frozen shoulder which restricts her movements and causes pain. It also has an impact on her ability to write the way she is used to.

“I have to practice using Dragon dictation software but it is counterintuitive with the way I work.”

His usual practice when writing is to use a keyboard, to edit as he goes.

I change things so much, with every sentence. It’s a messy way of writing and that’s exactly what I tell my students not to do. ”

Fortunately, she is at the stage of editing her latest novel which is not so intense.

“It’s not in this generative stage where I have to produce 500 words per day. Editing is a bit easier. ”

Now having cortisone injections to help manage the pain, she is doing her best to cope with the condition which may take a few years to resolve and tries not to think that every tug she feels in her other shoulder is the start of another frozen shoulder.

“My friend Kate Camp, a poet, has a frozen shoulder at exactly the same time as I did, which is strange because we took the Creative Writing course together in Victoria together and published our first books around the same time. It’s a little scary. ”

The novel that Chidgey is editing at the moment is as far removed as possible from his earlier novels about Nazi Germany.

“I think I finally got Nazi Germany out of my system. I’ve been sitting with this dark material for two decades I guess. ”

His new novel, The carnival of the man with the ax, is located on a sheep farm in central Otago and features an unhappy couple. One day, the woman rescues a magpie chick and sets out to breed it against her husband’s wishes.

Magpie begins to imitate human speech and becomes an internet sensation causing more conflict.

“The bird suddenly brings in a lot of money that could save their farm but the husband can’t stand it and thinks the magpies are pests that should be slaughtered.”

The story is told by the magpie and writing it down was a joy for Chidgey.

It was a lot of fun. The bird is incredibly rude and irreverent. ”

But how do you go from Nazi Germany to an irreverent magpie? Chidgey is not sure.

“Honestly, I don’t remember. I was really ready for a change of scene and a change of pace. ”

There was the magpie she used to see from her home office window that looked out onto rural land before it was swallowed up by a new housing estate.

Or was it talking to her husband, who grew up in a sheepfold, about his experiences or reading his late mother’s diaries about the time?

“Sometimes it’s a weird organic process, where a novel comes from.”

She is also fascinated by the fickleness of internet fame and the way “everyone gets on the bandwagon” of the latest craze or famous pet.

It is here that she declares that she has a confession to make.

“ Our cats have their own facebook pages and I dress them up sometimes. ”

Chidgey says it all started when they lived in Dunedin when they were semi-adopted by a white cat called Snowball.

” He had a very good house but enjoyed visiting several others. ”

After moving to Waikato and undergoing unsuccessful IVF, they decided to have a cat.

They got a white rescue cat to honor Snowball, and she had different colored eyes – a blue and a gold – which is not uncommon in white cats.

Then the collecting gene was activated again.

“If we saw other white cats during rescues… we ended up with five of them. They ended up like odd-eyed pride on Facebook. ”

We also inspired a children’s book Jiffy, cat detective, and another book by Jiffy coming out next year.

Writing the children’s book was “a lot of fun” and a big break from writing novels, she says.

It’s a very different process. Having that to turn to in between the much more difficult work of writing a novel is fun. ”

Chidgey admits there aren’t enough hours in the day to juggle everything.

“I have a crazy schedule. These are basically two full time jobs. So I have no other life, no social life and I’m usually in bed shortly after 9 p.m. ”

Despite this, she loves both.

They feed off each other. I love being surrounded by new writers who are learning the craft and feeling like they want to take risks and try different things to figure out what they’re good at or what kind of book they want to write – it really is. energizing to be with this. ”

He also clarified his advice for new writers. The first thing is to show their work to other people.

Writing is a lonely act. It’s very easy to isolate yourself and get to the point with a writing where you can’t see the woods from the trees, you can’t see what’s wrong. ”

All writers at all levels should edit their work or have it edited, she says. For Chidgey, it started with the creative writing class she took with a group that met regularly to talk about their work.

“It was important to me. We continued to meet for years after the course ended. I always send Kate work [Camp] and share through work with amazing writing colleague Tracy Slaughter. ”

Chidgey also thinks it’s important to move away from big, abstract ideas like heartbreak, love, or beauty and focus on the little things instead to keep the writing from looking vague or unsatisfying.

” Focus on the small to talk about the big. Talk about really specific, concrete details. Like writing about an object and using it as a starting point to talk about one of these big, abstract ideas – as we will at Olveston. ”


The Great Write Inn is a Writers’ Weekend: October 16-17


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