We continue our extraordinary series of portraits of New Zealand authors as Aimee Cronin (words) and Jane Ussher (pictures) profile novelist Catherine Chidgey
From Catherine Chidgey’s doorstep you can see right into the colourful room of her young daughter Alice, pictures and photos all over the walls. Look out to the street, a handful of houses, behind them a grassy hill filled with hungry cows. Her house is reasonably new, very ordinary, and it sits on a half-old half-new street in Ngaruawahia, where the footpath suddenly changes from faded to white.
She answers the door dressed in a pink top with a pink flower in her hair and a black kimono style robe with birds on it. She’s the sort of person you would expect to meet coming down a grand staircase, clutching a curved and polished bannister, holding a fan in the other hand. Her hair is largely to blame for this, so red, so long and put up in an old fashioned way that no one ever sees in a 50-year-old these days.
Maybe it’s the hair. Inside, a warm house, a worn leather lounge suite, a large trampoline just outside the door dominating any view from the couch. The walls covered in vintage purses trawled for on eBay, there are also antique dressers, a box full of a young girl’s Shimmer Art, pink plastic toys, old vases, old cameras, a very white cat called Mintie who pauses at intervals to have his ears scratched and to drink from a vase, “a terrible habit!”, and a black and white photo in a vintage frame of some old movie stars. Why a photo of these two strangers in the lounge? It turns out to be her wedding photo. Chidgey and her husband, both startlingly attractive, look so bold and serious as they stare down the lens, like estate owners in another, grander world. Chidgey points out the small mesh bag, similar to ones from the wall, slung delicately off her wrist. She does and she doesn’t belong here, where she is.
People get up to all sorts of things inside their houses. It’s hard to imagine many spending 17 years researching Nazi Germany, reading 6000 pages of the war crimes trial transcripts for the 32 Buchenwald defendants, thousands more from the Nuremberg trials. She goes to work at the University of Waikato as a creative writing lecturer, but wakes in the morning and writes, goes to bed writing, researching. Her office has an old computer disconnected from the internet to avoid distractions, dozens of pink post-it notes line the wall, each one a step further along in the plot of her new book. In here, she says she plods away, hours every day, pushing herself to get 200 or so words a day. “More often than not, it’s hard slog. It never really pours out of me, and for a lot of the time I am thinking, this is terrible, this is probably the worst sentence that has ever been written, what are you doing, backspace, backspace, backspace.” Practically two full time jobs running alongside having a daughter who is five. “It’s insane. I’m looking at your face and I realise that, yes, I do sound like a madwoman.
“The motivation comes from wanting it badly enough. And also, I do feel I have to make up for lost time because I spent so much time writing The Wish Child [her fourth novel set in Germany during World War Two, published in 2016], 13 years that I am not going to get back. I feel like there is a fire in me now, so I have got to make up for some of that time and also I turned 50 this year, so that has really spurred me on as well. The clock is ticking.”
This new book, Remote Sympathy, 154000 words diligently typed on that old computer, revisits Germany during The Second World War, specifically the Buchwald concentration camp where Chidgey herself spent the night in 1996 on a field trip when living in Berlin, “a place so full of ghosts.” It’s told from the point of view of three central characters who all need each other: Lenard Weber, the German doctor with a Jewish grandfather who invents a machine meant to cure cancer, Dietrich Hahn, an SS officer and his sick wife Greta Hahn who lives in denial about the fact she lives on the edge of the camp.
Chidgey takes great care to avoid “too much horror centre stage”, instead she walks the line between suggestions, hints and gestures. She’s damn good at this, creating an enduring sense of heartbreak and horror as the story unfolds. In one scene the officer’s sick wife Greta has prisoners from the camp make curtains for her room and when she finds fault in the fabric, a curtain maker, knowing that any small issue could mean life or death, stumbles from the chair. Greta misses the point entirely, but the magnitude of her decision to send the curtains back is elegantly illustrated in the text and Chidgey revisits this in the book. “…there was something way up high, a smear on the glass as if a bird had flown into it at full speed. I couldn’t bear it when that happened; I didn’t want to look outside for fear of what I might see … the smear vanished and reappeared depending on where I stood, sometimes hidden against the sky, sometimes white against the treetops. To begin with I couldn’t make out the shape – slowly, slowly – I began to see Emmi was right. It was just a hand print, and there was nothing outside the window; no clump of cold feathers, no eyes like dots of glass. I remembered then: the prisoner stumbling on the step-ladder, grabbing at the air.”
Chidgey’s battle with infertility has been widely talked about as the reason for her long break from writing. As in her own life, infertility features in the book and she talks about it “bubbling away between the lines.
“That very difficult period is very much in the past where it belongs, but it still informs who I am and it always will.” She says she hates that it stopped her writing for 13 years, but it also led her to write The Wish Child “and I feel a great attachment to that book, so I guess it’s a pay-off”. Chidgey and her husband Alan Bekhuis (a mechanical engineer and daguerreotypist) finally had their daughter Alice by a surrogate in 2015, Bekhuis then became a sperm donor to a girl who lives in Auckland and who the family keep in touch with. There are touches of Alice everywhere in the house, thank god for the child really, as Chidgey puts it: “she has been a source of light and humour and hope” while Chidgey doggedly researched and wrote about Nazi Germany all those years.
In Remote Sympathy, Dietrich and Greta long for a second child, but Chidgey says having Alice at 45 both exhausted the family unit and completed it. Still, there’s a sadness wrapped up in the way Chidgey thought things would turn out and the way they did. Tears in her eyes. “I used to grieve and I suppose a part of me still does grieve for the fact that I won’t ever have part of dad back in the form of a child- my dad who I lost in 1995 to cancer. I always thought, I will get part of him back when I have my own child, I will see him in my own child, and so I grieved that for a long time. If I dwell on it I do still feel sad about that, that there won’t be that genetic mirror there. But if someone said to me today, you can have that but the price is that you have to give up Alice, there is no way that I would want that.”
Catherine Chidgey remembers the staircase in Auckland where she was born, but she grew up with one sister in Lower Hutt where she says they lived “a very ordinary, Kiwi, suburban childhood.” Her mum was mostly at home but worked in credit control occasionally and her dad was a builder and then a construction manager for Carter Holt who liked to read books about Nazi Germany. She was a girly swat at school, she was socially awkward and she was sick all the time so she got to stay home and write little stories and poems, “I always desperately wanted to write.” She says growing her hair long at age 14 was the most rebellious she ever got as a teenager. She studied French and German and moved to Berlin in the 90s where ideas bubbled within her for decades and where she decided she was far enough away from home to show some people her writing.
She didn’t meet her husband until she was 36 and it was ties to family that landed her in Hamilton and then Ngaruawahia, where she feels lucky to be surrounded by such rich history. She studied Māori at Te Wānanga for three years “in the hideous IVF fertility period when I couldn’t focus on writing, but my brain seemed to be ok with learning another language”. She likes it here. “I’m definitely an introvert and a homebody, I like the quiet life.” The town librarian asked if she was the writer Catherine Chidgey the other day; that had never happened before. She would like to have a bigger house and a little writing shed in the garden.
She says she won’t write about Germany again. Her next book is set in Otago on a high country sheep station and the story of a strained marriage is told through the eyes of a magpie. A lightness has come into the house since she changed topics, she says. “It has been really fun inhabiting that feathery skin.” There’s a feeling she’s cut ties with her last book, something removed about her when asked about the dark themes in a book of this nature; where sympathies lie with each character, what she would have done in their shoes, what any of us would do. “I honestly don’t know how I would have acted,” she says, simply. God knows it’s a question you could ask yourself for hours, for days, for 17 years.
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide
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