I went tonight to a book launch for two of New Zealand’s leading writers: Fiona Kidman and Fiona Farrell. Kidman was promoting the second volume of her memoirs, Beside the Dark Pool; Farrell was promoting her new novel Limestone.
A woman from the group who had organized the talk, Women On Air, introduced the writers, commenting on the confusion possible with having two Fionas on stage. Then the two Fionas each talked a little about the genesis of their new books and gave a reading. Then the moderator asked a few questions of the writers, before the audience was invited to ask questions of their own. Finally there was the opportunity to buy the books and have them signed.
Before her reading, Kidman commented that writing a memoir was a strange project to undertake. She wrote the book while residing in Menton, France, as the 2006 Mansfield Memorial Fellow. She admitted that she was far more interested in living in Menton than writing the book! She found it strange that writing about your own life requires a lot of research, and she found it very hard to be objective. The said that even non-writers should consider writing some sort of memoir, as it was a great gift to leave the family. As an example, she said that the forty-page document hand-written by her elderly arthritic mother was one of her most cherished possessions. Kidman drew a distinction between autobiography and memoir: she said that with an autobiography the writer undertook to tell the whole story, while in a memoir the writer could choose what to tell and how to tell it.
Kidman then read a funny section from her book concerning the time she met Peter Ustinov. It was an interview for a TV documentary that Ustinov was making. In it, she was supposed to talk about famous New Zealand murders, but found herself unwilling on the day to talk about such matters, so just had a general chat with Ustinov. Her segment didn’t make it into the documentary.
Farrell also wrote her new book while on a writer’s residence, as the Rathcoola Fellow in Ireland in 2006. She started off with a fascinating discourse about limestone (the stone itself, not the book). She said that she had always been drawn to limestone country, a feeling I personally know very well. She said that she had been born in Oamaru, which sits on a bed of bryozoic limestone. She said that the limestone was made from the remains of tiny little creatures that lived about 30 million years ago. She claimed that each creature spent its life in a tiny little box, repeatedly dying and being regenerated before eventually dying for good and becoming part of the limestone. She said that she was innumerate, and had no concept of millions or billions of years, but these little creatures living out their lives before eventually forming the rock upon which she was born have her a good handle on how old the planet is.
She got the idea for the novel Limestone while driving through limestone country in Ireland. She decided that she wanted to write a book that told both a small, human-scale story, plus a larger story of the whole world.
In the structured Q&A session after the readings I found the question of how politics informs their writing the most interesting, if nothing else as a study in contrasts. Farrell said that she had been brought up in a very socialist family, where cups of tea would be thrown at the TV in outrage at footage of Muldoon, and considered politics the most interesting aspect of human nature. She found the efforts of people to organize and get their voices heard fascinating. Kidman on the other hand grew up in a right-wing household, where the biggest quarrel she ever had with her parents happened on the day she joined the Labour Party. She described herself as a accidental activist.
The most interesting tid-bit to come out of the audience questions concerned post-completion rituals. When Farrell has finally finished a project, she takes all the manuscripts and burns them in the vegetable garden, and then plants vegetables in the ashes!