• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Interview: Fiona Kidman

Fiona Kidman talks about her thematically linked collection of short stories.

In the three remarkable linked stories at the centre of Fiona Kidman’s short story collection The Trouble with Fire, underground peat fires seethe below a Waikato farm, flaring up periodically – rather like the secret buried within the unhappy, divided family who struggle to farm the land. “Fire is a metaphor for memory coming back and grabbing you by the throat and shaking you around,” says Kidman of the book, which features fire as a central theme. She and husband Ian both remember the “dark little fires underground” that poured smoke over the Waikato, and as a child she saw – “I’ve never forgotten it” – the massive fire that destroyed Shropshire House, the grand Kerikeri property where her mother had worked as a cook. “My mother wanted me not to see the fire – but it was leaping above the great tall gum trees. Because there were citrus orchards, you could smell the fruit sizzling.”

Kidman is 72 now – “I’ve called myself a writer for 50 years this year” – and is still prolific, publishing two volumes of memoir, a collection of poetry and The Trouble with Fire in the past four years. It’s a drizzly, miserable Wellington day when we meet to talk in the Hataitai house where she and Ian have lived for more than 30 years. She’s recently back from France, where she has been promoting the French translation of The Trouble with Fire and (along with Patricia Grace and Alan Duff) appeared at the Étonnants Voyageurs literary festival in the Breton city of Saint-Malo. Some 200 international writers travelled to the event on a specially commissioned “book train” – “an extraordinary experience”, says Kidman.

En route back to New Zealand, at Singapore airport, she was “absolutely thrilled and very surprised” to receive the news that the book – already a fiction finalist for the New Zealand Post Book Awards – had made it onto the shortlist for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. “I don’t expect to win it,” says Kidman cheerfully, before the July 5 announcement. “Just being on that shortlist is a big enough thing.” She’s pleased to see another story collection (Sue Orr’s From Under the Overcoat) alongside hers in the New Zealand shortlist (“short stories are a very important part of our literature”), but less happy the finalists have been limited to three. “It’s not representative of the full range of wonderful fiction that came out in New Zealand last year.”

Kidman’s best stories feel novelistic in their scope, sweeping back and forth in time, with confident segues to introduce entirely new characters and eras. “The short story has been evolving and changing,” says Kidman, who cites short-story maestro Alice Munro as her inspiration. She prefers to work with a “longer, looser form, which may or may not strictly be called a short story”. In the complex stories in The Trouble with Fire, memory is a central preoccupation, arising unbidden, or sparked by a surprise visit or even a smell. Characters keep secrets from one another, tell half-truths and lies, while others struggle to excavate and interpret hidden pasts. “I like the idea that time is a moving, fluid thing,” says Kidman. “We wear the past in some secret part of our being.” The passage of time conceals “all sorts of mysteries and secrets. If you look at a pile of birth certificates going back two or three generations, you find interesting things – a grandmother who only signed with a cross, or somebody who had more children registered than one ever knew about. In a way you can only come to a kind of conclusion, particularly with women’s lives, which are not often the focus of historical accounts.”

The lives of women, as always, remain a central concern in this collection – as do aspects of New Zealand history, and contrasts between the rural heartland and cities. Kidman’s women sometimes pay high prices for their social or sexual transgressions; in one story a pregnant teenager is sent up north to have her baby, with far-reaching consequences, while in another a young woman hides her pregnancy and is helped by the feminist Sisters Overseas Service (SOS) to fly to Sydney for an abortion. Kidman was involved with SOS in the late 1970s, billeting women on their way to Australia for abortions. She remembers the United Women’s Convention in Wellington in 1975 – International Women’s Year – as a turning point in her life, the impetus for her to write her first published novel, A Breed of Women.

Does she see herself as a political writer? “Yes and no. There’s an awareness of me having a political stance, which is socialist, left-wing, feminist. But I don’t sit down thinking about wanting to convey messages. I’ve wanted to write about the experiences of the people I know, the people I’ve been close to, particularly women. “I think of myself simply as a storyteller, a narrator.”

THE TROUBLE WITH FIRE, by Fiona Kidman (Vintage, $36.99).