Award-winning novelist, playwright and poet Fiona Farrell talks about her broken city.
A walk on shaky ground
Someone said I'd need a four-wheel drive to get to Otanerito on Banks Peninsula for my interview with author Fiona Farrell, but I decided to risk it in a gutless old family runabout. I knew I'd be fine; I'd read how Fiona first journeyed there in a dusty Cortina, bouncing on to gravel, skidding into corners until reaching the valley that would become her home.
It was love that led her there. "A man I had met briefly at a poetry reading asked if I would like to come out to the peninsula for the weekend. I said 'yes'," she writes, recalling how this fateful meeting in 1991 coincided with a strong resolution to start living life courageously. "I would say 'yes' and have adventures, rather than backing off into caution and saying 'no'."
She and that man, Doug Hood, ended up sharing a house bus in the valley for six months, before buying an old farmhouse by the beach, converting the front part for use by walkers enjoying the Banks Peninsula Track, one of New Zealand's most beautiful private tramping tracks.
Getting there remains a bouncing, skidding experience, the gravel slipping beneath tyres in a slightly alarming way. California quail skitter into the undergrowth, the road climbs, winds and curls back down again, leading eventually to a cattle stop at the start of a farm track that doubles as a walkway. Down on the flat, past a flock of curious sheep, the track leads to a blue farm gate: painted on it are the names "Doug and Fiona". It's a challenging journey - as Fiona writes, "the hills here rise in an abrupt volcanic syncline from the sea to 700 metres" - but a Cortina did it, and so did my old car.
The couple's home these days is no longer the farmhouse, but a nearby sturdy sleepout, which Doug built. "Doug builds so solidly ... after the quakes, I felt more secure here, and there are only two of us," Fiona explains. The September 2010 earthquake shook the old farmhouse pretty badly. It has since been repaired, but Fiona prefers their snug retreat, equipped with its own kitchen and bathroom. "We still have the house for family to stay in and for walkers to use ... from here [the sleepout] we can also see the bay."
On a fine day, the sea lies flat and calm, an inviting expanse of summer blue beyond the garden of flax and cabbage trees; other days bring drama and mystery to this valley.
"Every so often, a fog just pours down the side of the hills like a waterfall. I've never seen that anywhere else. And we get vertical rainbows and circular rainbows. Strange things happen here. I was driving along the top road one day in a fog when a white peacock came out of nowhere and put his tail up! Last week I went out for a swim and there were kahawai cruising up and down, a whole school fishing out in the bay."
Doug has been actively involved with the Banks Peninsula Track since it opened in 1989. Fiona has walked the entire track four or five times - once completing it in a day - and regularly walks parts of it. She adores the beauty of the coastal environment and the different characteristics of the track's three bays. "Flea Bay is sandy and quite open and it's also home to a large colony of Australasian little penguins. The custodians of this bay are Shireen and Francis Helps, who are part of the group that looks after the track. The next one is Stony Bay, a rocky narrow bay, and the people there are Mark and Sonia Armstrong, who are highly creative; Mark has built these amazing little huts for people there. The third bay is sandy Otanerito."
There used to be track accommodation up the valley in some shepherds' huts. Then Doug opened the farmhouse for walkers, offering track accommodation from October to April. "He thought it'd be lovely to have a place where people could have a proper old-style Kiwi beach holiday with boogie boards, heaps of magazines and Scrabble for the wet days. After staying here, people can walk up through the Hinewai Reserve that is regenerating so quickly. It used to be just paddocks all the way down the valley, but the bush has just romped away."
Hinewai Reserve was founded on a 109-hectare block of farm land in 1987 by Maurice White and his family, with the intention of returning it to native bush. Under reserve manager Hugh Wilson, the birds are returning and the bush is fast growing back. The reserve has 20 walking tracks of its own.
The old farmhouse was built a century ago by "a sullen Frenchman called François [Narbey]" who arrived in the 1850s. He had married a young woman who lived in the valley and inherited the farm when her father died (accidentally, in a creek on the way home after a drinking bout, although local legend suggests he might have been murdered). The grove of walnuts planted by François stands to this day and his descendants still farm in the area. In The Broken Book, published in 2011, Fiona describes the walk she takes each morning before she begins to write. "I walk up to the waterfall. Out the gate and across the farm François inherited from his dead - maybe murdered - father-in-law back in 1854. Beneath the walnuts and the little hump in the long grass that marks the place where four of François's children lie buried. His wife, Mary, bore 18. In the photos she looks sturdy, like a small cob pony, with a determined chin."
Walking is something Fiona only truly embraced in her 40s. Growing up in Oamaru, walking was simply "a slog. A bore. A tedious tramp ..." Her perspective changed when she went to live in Menton on the French Riviera at the Franco-Italian border for six months in 1995, after receiving the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship. "We lived in an apartment overlooking the town, up a steep little hill. We didn't have a car. We walked instead ..." writes Fiona in The Broken Book, describing how their walks led to the discovery of a network of local tracks. As the summer progressed, the walks became longer. "Walking at my own pace with no yapping ranger at my heels, it was not only possible to cover long distances ... but to enjoy doing so." Now, every summer is devoted to walking here, and winter often brings walks overseas.
When Fiona's editor - Anna Hodge at Auckland University Press - suggested Fiona write a travel book, it was easy to choose a book about walking, describing all the places she'd walked to and what she'd thought along the way. Fiona began writing her travel book about walking, then the September 2010 earthquake threw everything into disarray. The Broken Book suddenly became a quake book too, ruptured and cracked. "A muddy rift rips through the surface of pages that had been as orderly and purposeful as a flat Canterbury paddock with its stock rotations and regular rectangular borders of fencing wire."
It is a book quite unlike any other Fiona has written. For starters, it is non-fiction, with a good deal of autobiography. Poems break the text. "Cracks open and stuff flies / up. Silt in dazzling fountains. / Grey stuff glitters in torch / light ..." So the poem (The Crack) goes, inserted disconcertingly within a chapter on walking in the Cévennes.
Fiona is best known as a novelist. Her first, The Skinny Louie Book, won the NZ Book Award. She has been three times a finalist in the NZ Book Awards (for the The Hopeful Traveller, Book Book and Limestone) and three times nominated for the international IMPAC Award (with two of the aforementioned books, along with Mr Allbones Ferrets, an offbeat novel that combines a love story with the tale of a New Zealand-bound shipment of ferrets). She was the 2011 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago and the inaugural Rathcoola Fellow in Ireland in 2006.
Her most recent poetry collection, The Popup Book of Invasions, written out of her experience in Ireland on the Rathcoola residency, was a finalist for the NZ Montana Book Awards for Poetry 2008. She also has two collections of short stories to her credit and has won many New Zealand short story awards.
The Canterbury earthquakes have brought a shift towards non-fiction. Along with The Broken Book, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Book Awards, Fiona has published The Quake Year, a collection of interviews accompanied by images by photographer Juliet Nicholas.
Fiona finds something a little unnerving about this more journalistic style of writing. "In a novel, there's always the out of being able to say 'it's a just a story'. This feels very different. It was quite a leap for me to write The Broken Book, where I'm not hiding behind a fictional character." She enjoys playing with structure, though. The Hopeful Traveller, for example, was written in two halves and can be read from either end. This playful spirit of experimentalism also shaped The Broken Book.
With "walking" as the book's loose theme, The Broken Book touches on her restless lineage; her father worked as a meter reader "walking up and down every street in Oamaru" and a great-great-grandfather used to push a barrow over the Kilmog to fetch sugar and flour from Dunedin. Fiona also describes one of the family's newest young walkers, her young granddaughter, Huia, walking steadily, "plump with confidence", along a wall, before jumping neatly to the ground.
Fiona has two daughters from her first marriage, which ended in amicable divorce after 25 years. Ursula, who is studying medicine in Dunedin, is mother to Huia, 5, and Ngaio, 3; and Susannah, who lives in Wellington, is mother to 22-month-old Eleni. "I love being a grandmother!" Fiona exclaims. "You get to have all the fun and none of the responsibility. I enjoy hanging out with them. I love their point of view and the way they see the world."
As someone who relishes going into a landscape to find things out by listening, talking and observing, Fiona has something of a child's natural inquisitiveness herself. Once, on her way to the waterfall, she saw "an eel as big as my leg" nosing its way across the sand. For Fiona, this big old eel on its way to the tropical waters around Tonga is a fascinating story in its own right. "For a hundred years she had lived in her dark pool, long before our neighbour slid down the sand dunes among the skulls and bones, long before we drove down the road in a rattling Cortina ..."
Her inquisitive eye is now being turned to the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes. When she walks to her secluded hut, it is to write about the politics of reconstructing a city "because it is so compulsively interesting to be on the edges of it all at the moment". This new book is in its early stages, but looks set to be another work of non-fiction.
Fiona had a flat in Christchurch that she bought about 2001 when her mother died. "Over the winter in 2010 we painted it from top to bottom ... and finally, one night in September, we were finished," writes Fiona, in The Broken Book. "A few hours later, the bed juddered. The window rattled and the wooden frame around our lives creaked like a little boat on a choppy ocean."
The flat is due to be demolished and Fiona "misses it terribly", along with the city in which she used to live. Yet, she is riveted by all the swirling activity, power politics and manoeuvring of post-quake Christchurch. "I'm fascinated by the plan for the city and the buildings we're going to put up and how our priorities have changed compared with the builders of the 19th century."
From all her walking and travelling, Fiona is clear that whatever city rises from the wreckage must be one that exists for its own citizens. "What destroys cities is building them for tourists. I have been a tourist and I'd say this to the planners: stop thinking we're living in a theme park; I think we should be thinking about what would make this a nice place for children, rather than a nice place for tourists or convention-goers."
Fiona's writing hut is a simple, plain place, the laptop perched atop a Formica table. It makes me think about words and how they walk across pages in such regular lines, yet may sometimes be rocked and broken by events beyond our control.
Ths pm is lk
A brkn cty
All its wds r
(From The Broken Book - The Poem That Is Like A City)
We walk to the sea and breathe the cool invigorating air. Then, Fiona holds the gate open for me to drive through. I trundle past sheep, over a shallow ford, up the farm track and back on to gravel at the start of the long, dusty drive home.