Winning writer shares secrets - never be afraid to start again

By Dionne Christian , Dionne Christian

Author Catherine Chidgey with her award-winning book The Wish Child.
Author Catherine Chidgey with her award-winning book The Wish Child.

Several years after she'd started writing her fourth novel, author Catherine Chidgey tore the whole thing up and started again.

This week, 13 years after she first started writing that book - now called The Wish Child - Chidgey won the country's richest fiction award, the $50,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Yes, she says, it feels amazing to know she and her husband, Alan Bekhuis, can now pay a sizeable chunk off the mortgage of their Ngaruawahia home but, of course, there's more to it than that.

"To get that sort of validation for a book that took me more than 13 years to write is wonderful."

Asked what her advice to aspiring writers might be, she says not to be afraid, if something isn't working, to start again even if you've been labouring with a project for a couple of years. She also strongly urges would-be writers to find a writing group, read work to others and push past the first draft - or three - to silence the "inner critic voice" that says what you've produced is no good and you can't do it.

"I find making the initial marks on the page - getting the first words down - the hardest part of all. It's about getting past that feeling of self-loathing and of looking at your first draft and thinking, 'why am I bothering? There's so much wrong with this...'

"You have to keep going back and working on it and there's nothing like the rush you get when you do finish and that why I keep doing this - it's addictive, that rush."

It is a surprise to hear Chidgey battles with these sorts of insecurities, given she has experienced considerable success with each of her four books and won most of our major literary awards already.

But she admits The Wish Child was a struggle, partly because she and Alan were trying for a child and, after lengthy treatment for infertility, had almost given up on ever being parents. However, their daughter, Alice, was born in 2015 thanks to a surrogate which means they're now parents of a lively toddler.

While The Wish Child is not about infertility, this has clearly influenced the historical novel which is shot through with details about families and the relationships between children and parents.

Four judges, led by Peter Wells, decided it was the country's best fiction book of the past year after, Wells admitted, some discussion. He also said The Wish Child explores territory unusual for a New Zealand novel, given it is set in Nazi Germany during WWII with two children, who meet in the ruins of Berlin in 1945, as the central characters.

Chidgey acknowledges there is often an expectation, a pressure, on New Zealand writers to set their stories here but says she didn't want to limit herself.

"I have to write the story that is speaking to me; I wouldn't be writing good books if I stuck to material just because I thought I should. It's a bit like falling in love; you can't help who you fall in love with and you can't help the stories that you write."

There is a mysterious narrator, who is not revealed until the final moments of the book. Chidgey says the story really got going when, while writer in residence at the Pah Homestead, she happened across a Sky TV documentary in which this character was mentioned.

Up until then, the story was meant to be about a German boy whose mother was a Third Reich film star and the boy, discovering this later, questioning why she made the choices she did. Hearing about the narrator character, who she won't reveal for fear of ruining the book for those who haven't yet read it, everything clicked.

"It became clear that this was the way into the story and then it was a case of getting the historical details right."

Chidgey spent three years in the 1990s living in Berlin, and says the scars of World War II were still imprinted on the landscape particularly in the eastern side of the once divided city. The internet also made the finding of ephemera - like menus from the state-subsidised family cruises available to German families - that much easier to find.

She says The Wish Child is about the power of language and the written word.
"I hope I get to some sort of truth about that; that language and words have the power to corrupt and manipulate was something I wanted to explore."

Having taken more than a decade to produce this book, Chidgey is about to release a fifth book called The Beat of the Pendulum. It is completely different from The Wish Child in that it is contemporary and based on the principles of "found poetry" (where you take existing words or phrases - perhaps from newspaper articles or Facebook posts - and turn them into poetry).

It's a novel which Chidgey says doesn't really fit into any genre but celebrates language and tries to capture and keep those fleeting everyday conversations we have and forget. She gave herself rules, including that she had to write something down every day during 2016, and says it has become like a verbatim documentary.

With that finished, she's journeying back into the past for another historical novel that might just be set in Germany again.

- NZ Herald

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