Why Kiwi author Dame Fiona Kidman used to be called Filthy Fiona

Her raunchy first novel was considered too shocking for New Zealand’s libraries, but Fiona Kidman has gone on to become one of our most admired literary figures, earning a damehood for her work. She talks to Judy Bailey about her “crotchety” childhood and the characters in her head.

I quite literally blow into Fiona Kidman’s home on one of those wild Wellington days. She lives in Hataitai, in a weatherboard bungalow perched on the hill overlooking the airport and the churning waters of Cook Strait. It’s the perfect place for a writer… removed from the world below yet still able to observe.

Fiona Kidman is an expert in observation. Her husband of 57 years, Ian Kidman, jokes that whenever they’re out for dinner he’s not allowed to talk to Fiona as she’s busy listening to other people’s conversations and noting their body language, storing the memories away for later use in one of her many novels or poems. In reality, I bet she makes a wonderful dinner companion. Insightful, with a dry wit, she tells a great story.

Dame Fiona Kidman is one of New Zealand’s most prolific authors. A novelist, poet, playwright and screenwriter for the past 50 years, she was made a Dame in 1998 for her services to literature. She tells me firmly, “I’m not a very damely Dame; it’s something I wear as lightly as I can. I like to be called Fiona.”

I didn’t think she would insist on the Dame thing. She is delightfully down-to-earth – and earthy.

Early in her writing career she was labelled “filthy Fiona Kidman”, for her graphic depiction of sex. Her first novel, A Breed of Women, was hailed as a seminal work in the 1970s.

It was also raunchy for the time and banned by schools and libraries. Of course, sales went through the roof. This was a mixed blessing for the fledgling writer.

“I felt overwhelmed for a while after A Breed of Women; everyone thought it was about me, but really I’d just taken the people I’d gone through the 70s with and put them into two characters. I felt embarrassed for my family. The aunts and uncles were deeply shocked. It was very painful. It was as if I’d let the family down.”

Prior to her book’s publication, she had entered a competition for playwrights in her local community. The judges’ comments: “This was probably written by the dirtiest minded young woman in New Zealand.”

Fiona explains that much of her life experience at the time had come from dating boys who were members of provincial rugby clubs. “My play was a female version of Foreskin’s Lament.” It was unplaced.

She suffered a lot of male put-downs early in her career. Labels like “The thinking woman’s Mills and Boon” and “The menstrual school of poetry”, were among the cheap shots bandied about. But she kept writing. Her next offering would be Mandarin Summer, published in 1981.

Fiona says she was “one of those children who wrote”. She was about nine when she decided to be a writer. She went on to win competitions for it but it was when she was confined to a hospital bed for months with a strange glandular infection that she really learnt writing was a way to make her place in the world, that it could change her circumstances.

She wrote to her parents: “I hate the food, I’m unhappy, I miss the cat, come and get me.” Sure enough, they came.

Fiona was born in 1940 to Flora and Hugh Eakin. An only child, she describes her mother as a determined little Scotswoman. Flora’s family owned a big sheep farm in Opotiki. Hugh’s family were Irish. He was a labourer on the farm. The two fell in love. Hugh left to work in Western Australia and Flora, against her parents’ wishes, followed him.

They returned to Hawera, where Hugh tried selling insurance. He enlisted during the war but ended up confined to various military camps in New Zealand with a form of TB. At war’s end, he moved north to an army hut on a plot of land in Kerikeri.

In the 1930s, Kerikeri had become a destination for ex-military men from the British army in China. Unwilling to return to the bleak English winters after a life in the East, they came, seeking the sun, on an organised settlement plan to live in what was then a tiny rural town.

Fiona’s dad found work with one of them and sent for his wife and young daughter to join him. What he didn’t tell his wife was that they would be servants for the former soldier and his family. When Flora arrived, she was taken to the kitchen where the lady of the house welcomed her, took her apron off and said, “Now Mrs Eakin, there’ll be 16 for dinner tonight.” It was a rude shock for Flora. She hadn’t realised she was to be the cook.

Fiona, nearly six at the time, felt out of her depth. She was expected to join the family’s teenage daughters for breakfast on the first day.

“Mum had to wait on us. The girls said to me, ‘Do the victory sign for Daddy.’ I didn’t know how, I couldn’t do it,” she says, the humiliation still vivid.

“I became a crotchety, difficult child. I was angry much of the time and unhappy.”

Her father was unhappy too – unhappy and unfulfilled. Kept home from the war because of his illness, he was also frustrated by being unable to follow his chosen career. He had wanted to be a journalist and later yearned to be a gentleman farmer.

Flora did her best. The army hut they were living in had no power and no running water but she would lay the table with linen every night. She was Fiona’s greatest companion.

“We would listen to radio serials and then go out into the orchard and role-play together,” Fiona recalls.

Although she was a clever child, Fiona wasn’t happy at school. “I was the youngest in the class by a year. I was bullied.”

At home she was equally unhappy. The military family treated her like a servant and she felt the injustice keenly. “I thought I was just as good as them.”

Her father eventually inherited some money and with it he bought a farm in Waipu. The move marked a turning point for the family. No longer feeling like social outcasts, they were welcomed into the community and soon had a wide circle of friends.

Fiona was determined not to follow the accepted career path for women of the day – to either nursing or teaching. Instead, because of her love of books, she ended up working in the library in Rotorua and it was there she met the woman who would change her life.

Kit Spencer, the librarian, recognised Fiona’s yearning for literature and writing and nurtured it, encouraging her to soak up Russian and French classics. It was also at the library that Fiona met her future husband.

A teacher at the time, Ian Kidman had come in with a group of students.

“See that man over there?” Fiona said to a colleague. “I’m going to put my stamp on him.”

And with characteristic determination, she did.

“I was 19 and he was 28. He looked a bit different.” Ian is Maori of Ngati Maniapoto descent.

“He was very handsome. On our first date he took me for a walk and told me stories. I was enchanted by this man who didn’t talk about rugby. Ian was thoughtful and interesting and always made me laugh.”

Almost 60 years later, they remain devoted to each other. Theirs is a relationship based on mutual respect. He modestly claims to be hanging onto Fiona’s coat-tails.

“She has great coat-tails,” he grins.

They’re quite a couple. Ian has an MNZM for services to the Cambodian community. For 16 years he spent his holidays working with landmine victims in Cambodia.

Fiona, meanwhile, was immersed in her writing, but also worked tirelessly for the literary community here and was the driving force behind establishing a writer’s retreat in Wellington. It’s a reciprocal arrangement with France – a French writer comes here for six months each year in much the same way as a New Zealand writer goes to France on the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship.

Fiona has dedicated herself to writing for more than 50 years. She’s disciplined, sitting down each day around 9.30am in a big, book-lined room under her house. A large noticeboard takes up half a wall and is where Fiona pins postcards from travelling friends.

There are also framed posters of early movie stars Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe and photographs of Katherine Mansfield and poet Robin Hyde. She tries to write 1000 words a day, stopping around 1.30pm.

“The stories find me,” she says. She draws heavily on her experience of small-town New Zealand. “My personal history is the genesis for many of them. I’m a good listener. I collect [stories] and tuck them away. I always have a notebook with me.”

Her characters percolate away in her head. She often talks to them out loud while she’s cooking or doing the dishes, trying out dialogue. She takes realism extremely seriously; so seriously that when she was writing her novel The Infinite Air, about New Zealand aviator Jean Batten, she took to the air in a Tiger Moth and did barrel rolls so she’d know how it felt.

Fiona guards her work zealously and never lets anyone see the book until her editor has read it… not even Ian. “I’m not precious. I really value the input of a good editor,” she says.

She has long been a mentor for young writers.

What do you need to be a good writer? I ask. “You need to like yourself,” she tells me firmly.

“I’ve learnt to come to terms with who I am and what I do. It’s a solitary pursuit, writing. When you go into that place where you write, nobody else cares.”

She’s pragmatic about her craft. “It’s a job, sometimes quite a hard job. I try to reflect New Zealand for New Zealanders but I always hoped that one day the rest of the world would be interested.”

She has cracked that international market. Her books sell well in Germany and France. At the most recent Frankfurt Book Fair, much to her amusement, she was deemed important enough to require a full-time bodyguard. The French have bestowed on her one of their most prestigious honours, a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur.

She’s beginning to find the physical demands of sitting in front of a computer for long periods of time increasingly taxing.

“I like living in the world, going to movies, travelling, seeing my grandchildren.”

The demands of the novel, she thinks, could soon give way to her first love – poetry and short stories.

Fiona and Ian have had what she calls “an adventure of life” together. They have two children, Joanna and Giles, and six grandchildren. She talks with delight about catching up with two of her adult grandsons in Europe on one of her many trips.

You just know they would be as delighted with her company as she is with theirs.

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