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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksMay 19, 2023

‘Each book is such a different creature’: An interview with Catherine Chidgey

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Books editor Claire Mabey speaks with Catherine Chidgey, whose novel about a toxic marriage, as narrated by a magpie called Tama, won the Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Books Awards 2023.

Claire Mabey: Morning, Catherine! Congratulations, and how are you?

Catherine Chidgey: I’m delighted and exhausted in equal measure.

How did you celebrate last night?

I went to the after party upstairs at the Aotea Centre. I observed the after party from the periphery for a while because I was having a lot of photos taken and doing interviews. But once I got to join the party it was lovely to talk to Acorn Foundation trustees and reminisce with them about the incredible woman that Jann Medlicott was, and to celebrate her legacy, which is extraordinary. She gifted this prize in perpetuity; and the money goes up in line with inflation every year. It’s an extraordinary thing, and has brought so much more attention to New Zealand fiction, the way that a stonking big cash prize does. 

I also got to chat with the three New Zealand judges of the fiction category. Stephanie [Johnson], Jemma [Morrison], and John [Hura]. I also noticed that John Mitchinson, who is the international judge this year, started following Tama on Twitter.

John Mitchinson, international judge for the fiction category at the Ockham’s, tweeting about The Axeman’s Carnival.

How did Tama celebrate?

He ordered $64,000 worth of deep fried cockroaches from room service. So he had a great time. My husband Alan and daughter Alice, who’s seven, were also there last night. It was a very late night on a school night for them by the time they got back to Ngāruawāhia, but it was magical to have them sitting there in the audience. When I was up on stage I could see Alice looking so excited and so proud.

That is so lovely. I was thinking about Tama’s voice, how extraordinary it is, and wondered whether having a young child around helped develop that voice?

I hadn’t thought about that but that’s probably true. I did want to make his voice very distinctive and quite different from the human voices in the book, so he had to have a different cadence to his voice. And in particular, I wanted to tap in to the musicality in Magpie calls. So I was conscious of using repetition and using rhythm and in trying to replicate that kind of lilting waterfall that you hear when magpies are warbling and calling. 

Tama is a foundling, and a mimic, and a collector. He also bears witness: is he a bit like a writer?

Yeah, I think that’s probably why I felt like I identified with him so deeply. I mean, obviously, he’s a part of me, he’s my creation. There’s always something of me in all of my characters, no matter how distant they are, they’re from my own experience. I established him as an outsider: a stranger in a strange land, a creature from the wild who is shifted into the domestic sphere. And because of his status as outsider, he acts as a witness to what’s going on within the four walls of this house and what’s going on inside this marriage.

It’s such a stunning achievement, what you’ve pulled off: the authentic voice of an animal. What kind of research did you do? Did you read other books that feature animals who can speak?  

I actually steered clear because I’m quite superstitious about reading anything that feels quite similar to what I’m writing because I don’t want to be influenced by that. But in terms of research, I did a huge amount of research into magpie anatomy and behaviour, and the history of magpie introduction and distribution in New Zealand. A lot of that was quite dry scientific reading. 

I read a lot from an Australian researcher, a woman called Gisela Kaplan, who’s basically the world authority on the Australian magpie, and gleaned all sorts of fascinating pieces of information that I put into the characters. For instance, the fact that magpies can sing two notes at once. This informed the two voices that I give Tama in the book. There’s his internal voice, where he’s narrating his story to us, and that voice is eloquent and musical and often quite lyrical. And then there’s the voice that the humans hear, which is everything he says in quotation marks in the book, and all of that is pure mimicry. It’s quite different from his other voice and to a lot of the humans it sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s saying, and he can’t understand what they’re saying. But, man, he knows better. And Marnie knows that, and so do I.

Other things that I found out about magpie anatomy feed the story too. For example, the fact that their eyes are laterally placed, so they can see one thing with the left eye and another thing with the right. In the book, the right eye is being used for things like objects and routine and is associated with a calm state; and what Tama sees from the left eye is associated with emergencies, fear, strong emotions and a particular position or geography. So even though the reader won’t know about those left eye/right eye distinctions, I still wanted to express the fact that this amazing creature can see the world in a different way from what we can. It also feeds into what I wanted to do with the two different worlds in the book. There’s the wild, and there’s the domestic, and they brush up against each other and bleed into one another in the story. And Tama has a foot in both worlds.

There’s an emotional and spiritual depth to the magpie world as well: there’s a structure for belief and history. What informed that aspect of Tama’s world?

Again, the research. It was coming to understand that it is very hierarchical, and that certain behaviours won’t be tolerated. If a magpie steps outside what is acceptable behaviour, they will be ostracised, and often it will get quite violent until they’re forced to leave the group. If that happens, they most likely won’t be able to join another group and will live out their days alone, which is associated with a much lower life expectancy. So that kind of research really grew that aspect of the book for me, that a flock would have these rigidly enforced rules and trauma.

For Tama, being tainted with having stayed in the human world and being attracted to the human world means he is no longer welcome in his flock and with his family.

You’ve written this extraordinary lineup of novels that just keep on coming. I’ve read about your work ethic, your dogged writing schedule, and I wondered, aside from just actually doing the writing, and writing furiously, what advice you might offer to those working on a novel?

Yes, apart from going to your desk regularly, I would say join a writing group, share your work with other writers.

Seek out those people who are attuned to the kind of thing that you are producing. And that doesn’t mean that they are people who will tell you that every single word is perfect and doesn’t need changing. But it’s been so important for me over the years to have writer friends who I can show my work to, and who will pull no punches about telling me what’s not working and what is. We need that kind of encouragement. Writer-friends, Tracey Slaughter, Elizabeth Knox, they’ve been so invaluable to me when I’ve got to the point where I can’t see the wood for the trees, and I can’t tell anymore where I should go with it, or what I should get rid of. You just need outside eyes on a work as long as a novel because you get so close to it that you often end up losing sight of what you should be keeping and what you should be doing.

Does writing get easier for you as you go? Or is each book a new challenge?

I think each novel is its own challenge; each book is such a different creature. It feels like a mountain to climb when you’re on page one. Or they are for me, anyway. And I’m always trying to do something different or trying to push myself in a different direction or take on a different challenge.

But I think I’ve got more organised in terms of how I write, much less chaotic. I write more sequentially these days, which is useful because it means I end up throwing out a lot less. For my earlier books I would allow myself to work on whichever bit seemed most interesting on that particular day. That is one way of doing it, and it worked for me for a while. But it did mean that I would often, when I looked at all the material that I had, end up with three different things that couldn’t possibly belong in the same novel because they contradicted each other, so I’d have to throw two away. I’m working more efficiently these days.

How does the prize money impact you?

I mean, it’s huge. It’s a life changing amount of money for a writer, for anyone. The cost of living is spiralling out of control and we’re definitely feeling the pinch. So it’s probably quite a boring answer to say that I’m going to throw it at our mortgage. But that’s what I’m going to do with it. And it gives me such a feeling of stability to be able to know that I can chip away at that big debt. Every writer needs somewhere stable where they can write, and for me that’s home. It feels quite special to be able to use the money for our home. 

You have a new novel coming out soon, called Pet. Can you tell us what it’s about?

It’s a literary thriller set in New Zealand Primary School in 1984. It’s narrated by a 12-year-old girl who comes under the spell of a glamorous, charismatic new teacher. Gradually Justine begins to see that something is quite wrong. 

The Axeman’s Carnival by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35) can be ordered from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

Pet by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $38) can be pre-ordered online here.

Catherine Chidgey appears at Auckland Writers Festival in an event called “What the magpie says”, 11.30am, Friday 19 May at Aotea Centre.

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