A literary dame's inspiration

21:22, Jul 03 2014
Fiona Kidman
WRITER AND SUBJECT: Author Dame Fiona Kidman, whose most recent novel, The Infinite Air, is based on the life of early New Zealand aviator Jean Batten, will speak at the inaugural Marlborough Book Festival.

Dame Fiona Kidman is one of six authors who will speak at the inaugural Marlborough Book Festival on Saturday, July 26 and Sunday, July 27. The author of The Captive Wife and The Infinite Air answers questions from festival trustee Sonia O'Regan ahead of her sessions in Marlborough.

You often write about strong female figures, including Jean Batten in The Infinite Air and Betty Guard in The Captive Wife. What draws you to their stories?

My life has been influenced since childhood by strong women who have coped in the face of adversity. Although my early life was not entirely easy, I doubt that I could have achieved what I have had I not had their support and belief in me. I was given responsibility when I was a young woman and did my best to rise to the challenges offered. I suppose there is an attraction towards women who have survived in spite of the odds.

In the case of Jean Batten, she was a figure I learned about when I was working as a librarian at Rotorua Public Library. Rotorua was Jean's birth place. People used to come into the library and ask the staff if we knew her whereabouts. This was during her first period of apparent disappearance and withdrawal from the world, so of course we knew nothing but I wanted to know more.

My husband, Ian Kidman, influenced my interest in both Jean and Betty Guard, as it happens. He was a schoolteacher on the whaling station at Arapawa Island in the 1950s, originally settled by Jacky Guard, Betty's husband, and Ian was also a pilot in the 1950s and has a lifelong interest in aviation.

It's no mean feat to conjure a character to life on the page. What are some of the secrets of developing a character the reader can relate to?


First of all I have some kind of empathy with the central character; it's impossible to live the time it takes to write a novel if you dislike the person at the heart of the story. I think about them, do research, if material is available, and then I simply try to inhabit their heads.

Of course sometimes there will be other characters one doesn't have the same sympathy for, and you have to do them justice too. So life can get uncomfortable if the voice settling beside you while out driving the car, or when you are just going to sleep, says or does something you don't like. But there it is, you have to listen to what they are telling you about themselves.

Writing a novel based around historical truths must have its challenges and its benefits. What is one of the challenges and how do you overcome this?

Hmm. It is a balancing act writing fiction based on real people. There is a duty to truth in so far as you understand it, but there are some things you - or any non-fiction historian - can never know, like who said what and how people really felt. I think the writer has to just trust their instincts that they are inventing these things in the spirit of the character.

Booksellers News says your short stories remind them of those of (Nobel Prize winner) Alice Munro, saying: "Though they are very much of a time and place they have a universal dimension." Are you a fan of Munro and did her Nobel Prize win help to lift the profile of short stories?

I cannot tell you how much I admire Alice Munro. Her work has been a shining light and inspiration to me for almost as long as I can remember. It is a bit early to tell whether the Nobel has lifted the overall profile of short stories. People have such fixed views on whether they like or dislike them. I love them and read more short stories than I do novels.

What is your routine when you are in the thick of writing a novel?

Getting to work by around nine every morning and working through until about one. Real life has to have its place too. Towards the end of the novel though, routine, real life and everything go out the window while a relentless drive to finish the first draft takes over.

I hear you love travelling, particularly in France and Greece. What was it about these countries that won your affection?

I don't travel nearly as much as I would like to. But I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship which took me to Menton. An affection for France turned into a passion I suppose. My work is widely published and reviewed there, so I have many French friends. I am also involved in the Randell Cottage Writers Trust here in Wellington, that hosts a French writer for six months of the year. Greece, what can I say about that beautiful country? We have family links there and I feel more relaxed in that country than I can begin to describe.

Any recommendations for travellers to either country?

As in any country with a different language, I think it is courteous to try and learn enough phrases to make yourself known in a friendly way, and to make oneself aware in advance of cultural differences that you need to observe. I've spent a considerable amount of time in Asian countries, where that is very important.

You say on your website that if your characters have made a dish you will have made it too. I love this. Which of your characters is the best cook and what is their dish?

I wrote a whole novel set in a restaurant in the 1960s [Songs from the Violet Café], and its rather imperious owner was a woman named Violet Trench. Because of the period, the food was fairly basic fare, but she could cook a mean steak and held forth about the best way to do it at some length. I also wrote a series of linked stories that people think of as a novel, called The House Within. The central character was called Bethany Dixon who over a period of years became a chef and wrote recipe books. She was probably the best cook; she experimented with old family recipes.

Can you finish this sentence for us. I'm looking forward to the Marlborough book festival because . . . I love to meet readers and share their stories as well as my own.

The Marlborough Express