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Ockham literary winner Catherine Chidgey opens up

Catherine Chidgey. Photo/Ken Downie

It took Catherine Chidgey 13 years to write the novel that won the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

“We have called up the spirits and can no longer get rid of them.” – The Wish Child.

Catherine Chidgey’s novels are full of bone and hair; of glass, fossils, metal, death and inventories. Her first novel, In a Fishbone Church, published in 1998, offers Etta’s trousseau: “… a dozen hemstitched supper cloths with matching napkins (linen); … two dozen pairs of cotton bloomers …”

In her new book, The Wish Child, the story of two German children growing up in Hitler’s Germany, Sieglinde Heilmann’s mother, Brigitte, obsessively catalogues the silverware as the limitations of the beloved Führer’s ambitions become increasingly apparent. Berlin burns and Sieglinde curates her shrapnel collection. “Look,” she says. “That one’s a flower, and that’s a ship …”

Chidgey’s densely layered lyricism has reviewers reaching for such words as haunting and spellbinding. The Wish Child, with its mystery narrator’s elliptical observations – “Let me say I was not in the world long enough to understand it well …” – has a touch of magical realism. In the book’s author photo – dark blue lace, pre-Raphaelite hair – Chidgey looks fully capable of binding a spell.

So it’s a surprise to find that she creates her much-acclaimed atmospherics in a modern brick house in a development on the edge of lifestyle blocks off the main drag in Ngaruawahia. The household includes her husband, Alan Bekhuis, and their daughter, Alice, who is nearly two and, the day we call, at day care.

Chidgey was raised in Lower Hutt and has lived in Christchurch, Dunedin and Auckland. When she was 16, she went to Germany for three months on an exchange and lived there again for a few years in the 90s. In 2001, when she was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship, she spent six months in Menton in the south of France. Her friend, the poet Kate Camp, is the current fellow. “She keeps posting all these photos of it on Facebook and I think, ‘I’m going to have to block you.’” Nostalgia. “Yeah. It was so magical.”

Chidgey at 2 in 1972 with mother Pat, father Les and older sister Helen.

The writing room is in the Villa Isola Bella, once home to Mansfield. “There’s no phone and no internet, or there wasn’t then. There’s barely a power point.” No distractions. “The most you get is a couple of literary Kiwi tourists wandering by. ‘That’s Katherine Mansfield’s villa.’ It was probably the most fruitful time for my writing that I’ve ever experienced.”

It’s the sort of interlude that must spoil you for … “Ngaruawahia?” she laughs. “And Hamilton. It does a bit, yeah.” Family brought her to the town: her sister was living in the area and her mother now lives in Hamilton. Though mysteries and inventories lie just beneath the surface in her house, too. Bekhuis is a world expert in the alchemical field of daguerreotypes, the first commercially successful photographic process. There’s Chidgey’s impressive antique bag collection, displayed on the walls and stowed away in drawers. “I stopped at 150. Then I started collecting art deco jewellery. All of that is in the bones,” she says.

Her grandfather collected fossils. One, a new species of spider crab named after him, sits on Chidgey’s desk. “He wasn’t an educated man but he had that one tunnel-vision interest. Bus groups of 60 people would come to his house to see his collection and Nana would make 60 cups of tea while granddad sat there holding forth. I collect cats. And antique handbags.”

The cats. There are five, pure white, all rescued, with mesmerising mixed-colour eyes – one green, one blue. One is deaf and, unaware of his volume settings, howls so loudly that the door to the garage where they spend the night had to be reinforced. “We can still hear it.”

“I so don’t want to encourage the crazy cat lady reputation,” she sighs. Too late, possibly. Yes, the cats have cameos in her next book, The Beat of the Pendulum. Chidgey set herself the task of writing an experimental novel using found texts collected daily for a year. “Because I sure as hell didn’t want to be embarking on another historical novel having just done so much research for [The Wish Child].”

It turned out to be a huge undertaking “and exhausting, because every single day, I had to gather raw material from somewhere”. She collected everything from background chit-chat at the supermarket to conversations with her mother and Bekhuis. “Or having very one-sided conversations with Alice.”

With Pat at Oriental Bay, January 1973.

To recap: The Wish Child was first published in 2016, The Beat of the Pendulum is out in November, “and I’m about 10,000 words into the next novel”. Chidgey also teaches creative writing at Waikato University in Hamilton and at the Manukau Institute of Technology, an up-to-two-hour commute north.

However does she do it? “Thirteen years,” she says by way of explanation. That’s how long The Wish Child took to write. She doesn’t want that to happen again. Though she’s philosophical about the long stretch between books. “It needed that much time and I’m not sorry.” The book is rich in detail from wartime Germany. “Strength Through Joy”, the name of the leisure organisation that helped ensure the Nazification of every aspect of a citizen’s life, is the title of one chapter. The characters can seem at first like vehicles for broadcasting the propaganda of the time, when a twisted ideology informed even a school visit to a biscuit factory: “‘Our biscuits contain only the purest ingredients, children,’ she said. ‘They are free from any trace of inferior cinnamon or low-grade sugar. Who can tell me what inferior means?’”

But always there’s an undertow of unease. The spirits have been called up and there’s no getting rid of them. Country boy Erich is plagued by memories that don’t quite fit the life he is living. If that cradle was not his, then whose?

The spectre of the Third Reich’s eugenics movement casts a powerful shadow. The Holocaust is not directly addressed, but it’s always there, clamouring away at the edge of things. Brigitte takes Sieglinde to an auction of household goods at an apartment that seems to have been hastily abandoned – crumbs are still on the table. “Mutti would not tell her why Dr Rosenberg was no longer their doctor, why a different man sat at his desk …”

Meanwhile, in the countryside, Erich is on his way to being a good little Nazi. But both children ask the questions the adults don’t dare to. “That turned out to be quite a useful device, being able to throw into relief their own misgivings through what they say or don’t say to their children,” says Chidgey. “I was able to show the parents reassuring their children – ‘No, no everything is fine. We can’t be bombed’ – but you can hear the doubt in their voices.”

War and the usual family secrets and lies eventually bring Sieglinde and Erich together in the ruins of Berlin, in a section of the book that contains a devastating scene of innocence brutalised. That violence is one horror too many, said one reviewer. Chidgey is unrepentant. This is history we need to keep revisiting, she says.

“It haunts me partly from living in Berlin for three years in the mid-1990s. You could still see the shrapnel scars on the buildings, particularly in the East. It horrifies me – I’m going to sound ancient now – that there are young people walking around today who have so little knowledge about the Holocaust, what actually happened.” The Wish Child was launched the day that Donald Trump was elected. “The launch was happening as the tide had turned. It was freakish.”

The writer at work. Photo/Ken Downie

The Wish Child also tallies the cost of all manner of fake news. Sieglinde’s father, Gottlieb, has an important job during the war: he excises with a sharp scalpel forbidden words from books: “love”, “defeat”, “mercy” … even “sorrow” is verboten. But the words flutter off to collect in his trouser cuffs and refuse to go away. Years later, Sieglinde does the opposite kind of work, piecing back together Stasi files shredded in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The book is also about the power of language. “Oh, totally. It was used as a tool of manipulation. I find that fascinating, as someone who’s obsessed with words myself. And not just that [language] was manipulated, but words were often given their opposite meaning.” God is a sort of absence. “What does God mean in the context of the novel? I quote a Christmas carol in the book. One of the lines is ‘God has left his throne’, and I felt like that is what happened in the 20s, 30s and 40s. The throne was vacated and someone else took up that seat, crowned himself and was worshipped. It was a kind of religion.”

Chidgey was raised a Catholic. “I’m not a believer any more. But I’m grateful for the focus on language it gave me, the focus on the musicality of language. I got that from the Mass and from the hymns. I don’t think my ear would have been attuned in the same way if I hadn’t had that exposure.”

The novel mines a dark vein. There’s also wintry humour, especially through the recurring voices of bewildered patriots Frau Miller and Frau Müller, a double act like Didi and Gogo in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, waiting for salvation that never comes. They work making bronze heads of the Führer, some of which develop unfortunate defects.

Frau Müller: The tip of the nose, the left ear …

Frau Miller: That’s the fourth nose this week.

Frau Müller: It’s not an omen.

Frau Miller: Of course it’s not an omen.

The Wish Child is a powerful act of imagination built on hard slog. “I’ve got a file of research notes that is longer than the novel of stuff that I haven’t used, so it’s a matter of sifting through the vast quantities of material on something like World War II and deciding what to leave out.”

The other reason the writing took so long: another story, as remarkable as any in Chidgey’s fiction, was playing out in her life. She was trying to have a child.

“That was definitely part of it,” she says. “Just physically going through the IVF mill was very hard on me in terms of my creativity, in terms of being able to string a sentence together. I found the drugs, the hormones, had quite an impact and I just wasn’t able to function for those few years that we were doing it.”

It wasn’t just the drugs. “It was that whole roller coaster of getting your hopes up. Let’s throw another $15,000 at it and it will work this time. We kept saying we have to draw a line under this for our own mental health, my physical health. But we’d get to that point and think, ‘But we haven’t thought about trying overseas at this amazing clinic where they’re less conservative than the clinics are in New Zealand.’” There was a trip to an expert in Las Vegas. “The feeling that we were taking a big gamble was not lost on me, and losing a whole lot of money. It didn’t work.”

With Pat after climbing the Siegessäule in the Tiergarten, Berlin, 1996.

After trying adoption workshops – “By then we were in our early forties, and it was so unlikely we would ever be chosen” – they turned to surrogacy. Alice was born, and when she was nine months old, Chidgey and Bekhuis decided to pass on the favour: Bekhuis became a sperm donor for a woman on a forum Chidgey is part of. “It worked the first time, and now Matilda is alive and kicking.” Their own surrogate, Lila, has two little girls. “So we have this lovely extended family. Alice is absolutely in love with her cousins or whatever it is we’re going to call them. She’s got three half-sisters, effectively.”

Words like “journey” and “roller coaster” are unavoidable. “Back at the start, if somebody had said to us, ‘Oh, you’ll end up having a baby by traditional surrogacy’, we would have thought that sounded way beyond our comfort zone. That’s just a bit too freaky for us, thanks very much. But what you’re prepared to try keeps shifting. And now, we look at Alice and we think she’s the baby that we were meant to have and I wouldn’t swap her for the world. She is our baby.”

Despite its grim subject matter, The Wish Child has the uplift of a sort of unconventional love story, too. When we spoke, Chidgey knew only that she had been shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards’ Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize, along with Owen Marshall, CK Stead and Emma Neale. She’s won her share of prizes, including the $60,000 Prize in Modern Letters. She must be an old hand at shortlists.

“I don’t like finding out publicly when everyone else finds out. That’s horrible.” You have to put on your Oscars face. “You do. ‘It’s lovely to be shortlisted,’” she says, demonstrating a graciously gutted quaver. “It is, though. It’s nice to get the recognition,” she says. “It’s worth a hefty whack,” she muses. $50,000. She’s bringing one of her antique handbags to the event. It’s the one decorated with acorns, for luck.

In the meantime, there are books to write. Motherhood and her teaching commitments changed how she works. “Just over the past couple of months, I started a new routine of getting up at 6.15am and going to my office for a couple of hours before I have to go and do my other work.

“I’ve heard writers say over the years that that’s the most productive writing time, when you are still in that hazy, dreamy state. I’ve always resisted it, because I’m not a morning person, but it’s desperation. I’ve got no other writing time or it’s very piecemeal.” There are rules. “No email, no checking the phone. None of that. Not allowed.”

She’s not enjoying the getting-up part. “But I’m loving the peace and the clarity of thought. And I seem to be still switched off as far as the internal critic is concerned, or less aware of that voice shouting at me.” The Wish Child will be coming out in the UK in July. You’d think by now the internal critic might shut up. “That never goes away. No. I’m not the bullet-proof writer, by any means.”

She does, currently, sound like a driven one. “Thirteen years,” she intones. “It’s driving me to get the next book finished. I feel like I’ve got time to make up. Now I feel that fire under me to get another one done and another one and another one …”

Catherine Chidgey appears at the Marlborough Book Festival, July 28-30.

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.