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Career

It's all in the genes for this mother-and-son writing duo

Catherine Robertson and her son Callum are both published authors.

By Julie Jacobson
The first hint the Robertson family are not your usual bunch is the bright yellow car parked in the driveway.
Then there's author Catherine – mum and newly-minted empty-nester, swinging open the door of the clan's Wellington home dressed also in yellow, a shade not too far removed from the chin-highlighting buttercups of our childhoods.And at the end of a long hallway that runs between the "adults'" living area and the "kids' wing" of the house, older son Callum is standing in the kitchen wondering whether the yellow T-shirt he borrowed from his dad might need a quick iron.
The NZ Woman's Weekly visits during a spell of unusually good weather in the capital and the sunny scene that greets us seems symbolic of the Robertsons' perenially positive spirit and creative closeness – particularly that of matching mother-and-son duo Catherine and Callum.
Catherine and Callum both have new novels in stores now.
The five-time author and her husband Dave have been business partners for almost 30 years now, moving between advertising and marketing consultancy work to product branding and people management. Both their boys, Callum (26) and Finn (21) work with their dad, and have just moved into a flat together.
Finn, who has a BA in Sociology and Criminology, is in the process of writing a dystopian novel for young adults.
But today, of course, is all about Catherine and Callum. Not only do they share the same love of yellow and a first initial, but several personality traits – perfectionism, tick; introversion, tick; only members of the family ever on time, tick – and they are also both published authors, with new works currently in bookstores.
Callum's is in the form of a graphic novel, Bird Dog, while Gabriel's Bay is Catherine's fifth fiction title. Unsurprisingly, given the many hours mum and son have spent yabbering – they frequently take beach walks with the family's two SPCA mutts Jake and Beanie – their books' themes are closely linked.
Think prejudice, social injustice, inequality and the often confronting nature of New Zealand masculinity.
In Callum's case, the issues are ones he faces on a daily basis. The Fine Arts graduate came out as gay in 2015, after years of feeling he didn't fit the stereotypical Kiwi male mould.
"Bird Dog is based around growing up in Wellington as a closeted gay man and having the nagging doubt that there's probably something up, but you don't have the tools, or the knowledge, or even want to talk about it," he tells.
"It's not a comfortable feeling, so you put it to one side and keep going. A bit of time passes and it comes back, so there's a lot of uncertainty. I came up with this term, 'straight camouflage', something you build around yourself. I was good at that."
Callum has quit his job as a barista to focus on writing full-time.
Adds Catherine, "I wasn't consciously aware of how similar some of the things we deal with in our work were, but we've often talked about them. I look at my sons' experiences and my husband's – as a young man, he didn't like rugby, he was a cyclist and he was an artist, so he did everything he wasn't supposed to as a male growing up in New Zealand. Callum is the same and I've watched him grappling with that."
For Catherine, broaching some of those darker subjects while still keeping the overall tone light was also a way of breaking out of the "chick-lit" category her previous work had been slotted into.
"I suppose a good analogy is a chef like Nadia Lim," she explains.
"Nadia grates a lot of zucchini and carrot into sauces and things to disguise them, so your family gets their vegetables without knowing they're there. Humour is like that – it's a fantastic way to get your point across without force-feeding the reader."
The 51-year-old, whose previous books have all been New Zealand bestsellers, admits she never had any great urge to become a novelist, but rather fell into it when she found herself out of a job in the early 2000s and took a creative writing course at a local community college.
"We were living in San Francisco at the time. Both the boys were in school, so I just thought, 'Maybe it's now or never...'"
Walks on the beach help both mother and son come up with their novel ideas.
Catherine made several attempts at writing books before her first novel, The Sweet Life of Darrell Kincaid – described by the Weekly's Kerre McIvor as "a warm, laugh-out-loud romantic comedy"– was picked up by a publisher in 2011.
She has since gone on to complete an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and is chair of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors and a member of the New Zealand Romance Writers Association.
As we're talking, Callum offers to make a coffee. There's a very large espresso machine plumbed into the kitchen bench and he's a trained barista, so yes please.
Catherine laughs. "I'm so thrilled he's decided to actually stop working full-time making coffee to concentrate on his art. I think it's what he needs to do.
"You know, I'm so proud of both my boys. The pair of them are amazing. And this one, the determination and dedication to his work... I know how hard it is."
As for her own writing career, Catherine's already planning a sequel to Gabriel's Bay later this year, along with two new romance novels she hopes will be published in the US. It looks as though the Robertsons aren't resting on their laurels just yet.

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