The exit interview: Dame Fiona Kidman tells Eleanor Black about her last day in full-time work and why walking away was a liberating experience
What did you want to do for a living?
When I was at school it was my great dream to work in broadcasting. I tried to get into broadcasting in Rotorua when I was 17 and they smiled at me sadly and said, "No, we don't think you've got anything much to offer broadcasting. Perhaps you could get yourself a nice little office job or something." In fact, I went and became a librarian, which was very helpful for what would end up being my future career - writing. With writing, I needed a steady income. Leap-frogging forward 20 years, I talked myself into a job as a talks producer on the Concert Programme for Radio New Zealand. By then I had written a lot of radio drama on contract. My job was to produce serious talks and to run a regular monthly programme, called Writing. I used to also produce poets reading their poetry.
How was that job?
In lots of ways it was a wonderful job - I did it for seven years - but as time passed I realised increasingly that what I had set out to be, a writer of fiction, was becoming less and less possible. I worked with the most wonderful people. Helen Young was the head of the Concert Programme and she was the most amazing and wonderful woman. In the office next door to mine there was Sharon Crosbie, who kept me sane; every afternoon we seemed to be in gales of laughter and affection. There were a couple of men who were perhaps the least charming of the entire broadcasting staff … One of them used to wear roman sandals with socks and take his socks off and cut his toenails on the desk. And then I had my first novel published around 1979 in the midst of this job and that had somewhat antagonised these chaps too. My novel was very much hailed at the time for being a feminist novel and they were distressed to have a feminist in the office. But more importantly, I experienced the loss of a couple of friends and I wanted to pursue my dreams while I could.
When was the moment that you made the decision?
Having had a novel published, I applied for this grant called the Scholarship in Letters, that was a sufficient amount to live on for a year. There was just one and I got it. I had to take a leave of absence from Radio New Zealand and as I packed up my desk and thought about where I should keep stuff [while I was away] I suddenly thought, "No, I'm not coming back. I'm not ever going to come back here, ever again, and somehow or other I'm going to be a full-time writer for the rest of my life." And I did. I walked out with the most enormous sense of freedom and relief.
Was that wonderful, to be able to concentrate on the writing?
It was tough; it was a pretty rash decision. Another factor was that both my children were teenagers by then, leaving school and not quite as dependent on us as they had been. Kids grow up, so it was a bit more possible but it was still quite hard going. I tell it as a sort of lighthearted thing but I suppose what I am really saying is that deep within me I knew I could come back to that job if I chose but I would be relinquishing the dream if I did.
How did you make it work financially?
I think I was lucky. My background had built up to such a level that I was able to get quite a bit of freelance work. For instance, The Listener, the moment I became free, offered me a regular column. I had done a lot of freelance journalism in my younger years, so I accepted quite a few contracts. In the 70s, I had worked as a scriptwriter for television and there was an independent film company that gave me quite a lot of work [after I left RNZ], so I would do television and film scripts, which was quite financially rewarding. But it's never been a financial bonanza, what I do.
Never a single day of regret ever - and never any desire to go back into full-time employment. That was 40 years ago.
Fiona Kidman's newest book, All the Way to Summer (Vintage, $40) is out now.