Best-selling author Kerre McIvor starts a new chapter in her career

by Clare de Lore / 10 January, 2018
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Kerre McIvor at home. Photo/Clare de Lore

The birth of her grandson kick-started an eventful 2017 for broadcaster Kerre McIvor, and her year ended with another milestone.

She has been named as the successor to Leighton Smith, the host of Newstalk ZB’s morning programme. Smith, who has reigned in that coveted time slot for 32 years, will retire at the end of 2018.

Born in Tuakau to Mike and Colleen Woodham, Kerre and her younger brother Tony moved with their parents to Pukekohe, Tokoroa, Turangi, Waihi and Hamilton, as Mike, a bank manager, took promotions within the National Bank.

In her late teens and early twenties, she was the fresh-faced, precocious talent on TV’s Fair Go. There were lean periods, too, especially when her daughter, Kate, was little and the TV work sometimes dried up. To make ends meet, she waitressed and later ran front of house at Wellington’s legendary but now-defunct Cafe Paradiso.

Now the afternoon-show co-host on Newstalk ZB and a columnist for the Herald on Sunday, McIvor is also a bestselling author, with three non-fiction books to her credit: Short Fat Chick to Marathon Runner and Short Fat Chick in Paris have combined sales of more than 34,000 copies. The two books will be released as one volume next year to mark 10 years since the first was published. Her third, Musings from Middle Age, explored the ageing process. McIvor’s also been published in Lonely Planet’s An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips from 35 Great Writers, edited by Don George, alongside the likes of Richard Ford, Alexander McCall Smith and Jan Morris.

McIvor, 52, and her psychologist husband, Tom McIvor, live in Grey Lynn. Daughter Kate, son-in-law Ranko and their son Bart live in London. She remains a party animal, but has occasional teetotal breaks from the companion she calls “the piss fairy”.

Books have been a constant theme in McIvor’s life. She spent a decade as the publicity face of a major chain of bookstores.

With Kate, 1989. Photo/NZ Woman’s Weekly

How much reading was involved?

I had to find four a month that I really loved and was prepared to recommend, so that meant reading about 12 to get to that. It was quite full-on. Some I picked up and didn’t finish, because I thought, “No, I don’t like you.” They weren’t all easy reads – I recommended some challenging ones, such as Edwin + Matilda by Laurence Fearnley.

What’s the downside of being paid to read?

It is interesting doing something you love as a job because I couldn’t just savour a line and delight in a word and think how perfect and go back and read it again. Sometimes you need to let a book sink in and let it resonate with you for a while and absorb it – there was no time for that. I am really enjoying now being able to go into a shop and pick out books that intrigue me or interest me.

Did you find yourself on the road promoting books you didn’t like?

No. And I can’t think of a single author who we took along whose book I hadn’t read. I learnt a lesson about reading right through to the end [when I was reviewing books] for Good Morning [a weekday TVNZ show that ran from 1996-2015]. I was at university as a mature student, doing a radio show and a TV show, I had Kate and Tom, and I was also trying to keep up the reading. I was given a Miles Davis biography to review. Mary Lambie, the host, said, and this was on live television, “So, you’re recommending it?” and I breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Absolutely”. I thought I had got away with not quite getting to the end of the book, but she then asked, “How did he die?” I looked like a meerkat at the proctologist’s. I stared at the camera, just hating Mary in that moment, but she pressed on, “He is dead, isn’t he?” and I just blurted out, “Heroin.” Well, he was a jazz player, right? [Davis died in 1991 of a cerebral haemorrhage.]

McIvor with grandson Bart this year.

McIvor with grandson Bart this year.

Your three books have all sold well: one was a bestseller. But now you’re screwing up your face – why?

Well, because they are readable but I fancied writing the great New Zealand novel. I thought when Kate was born that I would take time off Fair Go and that it would be so easy because she’d be sleeping. That did not eventuate – if I got out of my dressing gown by the end of the day, it was a triumph. But I am really proud of the fact that my first book, Short Fat Chick to Marathon Runner, was the catalyst for so many people to do extraordinary things. I still get people telling me years later what they have done and they give me a big hug. I love that.

Is there another book in you?

I would still like to have a proper stab at fiction because I love the detective genre and I have an idea percolating away about what I want to do with it. I love researching things – I miss that from my studies [McIvor was a mature student at the University of Auckland and graduated with a degree in politics and history].

On Fair Go in 1988.

What are you reading at the moment?

I am rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and loving it as much as when I first read it. When I was studying, I loved Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, because it was such perfect chewing-gum reading. I think I read some novels too young and I want to go back, as I have with The Handmaid’s Tale, because when you are 13 or 14 you can’t really understand grand passions and love and all that. You think you can, but you don’t have a clue. I thought I was terribly ‘thing’ wandering around boarding school with a copy of Doctor Zhivago but … really? And I was put off, for life, from taking a younger lover after reading Colette’s Chéri.

Tom read a Pablo Neruda poem to you at your wedding. What was the significance of that?

When we first met, he bought me a Zambesi coat and a book of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, so I wasn’t going to let him go. Reading got us together, really. I was at [fashionable Ponsonby restaurant] SPQR one night after I had finished talkback on Newstalk ZB, having a glass of red wine and unwinding with a book. When you finish at midnight, it is a bit hard unwinding in a flat – you don’t want to disturb other people. Tom told me later he was curious about who would go to a bar at midnight to read on their own. That would be me.

Leighton Smith has a huge following for his right-of-centre positions on a range of issues, especially climate change, which he believes is cyclical, not man-made. What’s your view on that and what’s in store for listeners when that changeover happens?

I have different views from Leighton on a number of issues. But if I can be half the broadcaster he is, I will be very happy.


McIvor in 1992. Photo/New Zealand Woman's Weekly

McIvor in 1992. Photo/New Zealand Woman's Weekly

That’s a very diplomatic answer …

I have been filling in for him for 20 years and when I first started doing that, I’d come on and say, “It’s 7 minutes past 9, Kerre Woodham filling in for Leighton …”. I couldn’t even finish the sentence before the first text would come in with “Nooooooooo”. An old lady once rang during the newsbreak and spoke to the producer and said, “Tell that girl that Leighton doesn’t ask us what we think, he tells us what to think.” Hilarious. I am not going to be telling people what to think.

You’ve become a grandmother with the arrival of Bart. What was the first book you bought for him?

The first thing I did was go and buy Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. It had been one of Kate’s favourites and it was what got her through teething, the metronomic beat of the story. Now I am so delighted that Bart is fascinated with books.

You lined up Kate’s favourite books from her baby days to share with Bart. What are your favourites, and his?

His father wanted to start him on Homer, but I got out the Margaret Mahy and Lynley Dodd books, as well as Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Meg and Mog. The great thing about having children and grandchildren is you can relive your own youth, happy memories of reading and your favourite books, and do silly things in playgrounds – the sort of things you put aside when you became a grown-up.

This article was first published in the December 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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