WHAT NOW, FIFI?
The writer’s next chapter
By her own admission, Fifi Colston is not good at keeping secrets. Yet for three months, the 58-year-old creative powerhouse and former TV crafts presenter had to hide a doozy from her friends and family.
“The cat’s out of the bag now though!” laughs Fifi, relieved to finally reveal she’s packing up her home in Wellington to become the University of Otago’s Children’s Writer in
Residence for 2019. “Of course, my husband Adrian knew I was applying,” she says.
“But after the phone call telling me I had been chosen, I said to him, ‘How do you feel about moving to Dunedin then?’ and he cheekily replied, ‘Oh, so not Berlin?’”
It’s been a long time coming for Fifi, who has applied for the fellowship several times while also enjoying a rich and varied career as an author, artist,
costumier and award-winning wearable arts designer.
Now, along with looking forward to a change of scenery and a distinct lack of housework in the two-bedroom cottage she’ll reside in from February, there’s the “absolute luxury” of creating young adult fiction without worrying about how to pay the bills.
“Even though I do make a living from freelance projects and love what I do, I feel, with this residency, like I’ve finally got somewhere,” muses Fifi, from her studio in Hataitai.
A NEW NOVEL, PLUS A MOVE TO DUNEDIN, IS IN THE WORKS
“It’s a great acknowledgement for all those years of striving towards something.”
She plans to write and illustrate a novel about a girl who, because of something she finds, starts making a piece of wearable art. It should come as no surprise the idea embodies the three main strands of Fifi’s & own creative passions.
When the mother-of-two first started writing for young adults, her own children − Haley (now 30) and Rory (27) – were at high school, and she would find inspiration in their conversations.
“At one stage I went into Wellington High School and asked the principal if I could sit at the back of a classroom and just listen while watching the students’ body language.
“I’ll probably do that again in Otago because what’s important when you’re 15 is not the same as in your 50s!”
Born in York, Fifi arrived in New Zealand by ship in 1968, after her parents quit the air force and moved to give their three children a different life.
After graduating from design school, she initially worked as an artist for the advertising industry, while illustrating school reader books on the side.
Describing herself as having a “low boredom threshold”, she decided to shift into writing.
“I assumed it couldn’t be that hard to write a picture book. I went to workshops and wrote some terrible stories and sent them off to publishers who would reply, ‘Pop that in your bottom drawer, but please illustrate this book that someone else has written’,” she recalls.
“Later on, I had an idea for a junior novel and started writing. I purposely didn’t finish it because I didn’t have to submit it anywhere and therefore wouldn’t be disappointed.”
However, after Haley found
it and gave it a read, she asked her mum, “When are you going to finish that book? I thought it was quite good.”
“Haley doesn’t give praise lightly, so I was hugely encouraged,” says Fifi, “Then I saw a competition for getting a novel published, which gave me the push [I needed] to finish the manuscript and send it off.
“I won! And that first novel, Verity’s Truth, was published in 2003.”
Before galvanising her literary career, Fifi was recognised for her zany art and craft segments on TVNZ’s What Now, from the mid-1980s to 1990s, and the Good Morning show.
Give her a couple of egg cartons, a pair of scissors and a glue gun and she could “MacGyver anything” out of it.
“I’ve always loved looking at something and seeing an alternative purpose for it. It’s like brain gym. And I find writing the same. You give your character a problem and they have to find a way to solve it.”
Cringing, Fifi recounts the one time when her devised craft didn’t quite go to plan on live telly − and in front of someone she had hoped to impress.
“The What Now producer said to me, ‘We’ve got Richard Taylor from Weta Workshop coming on the show. He’s going to bring some props from the Braindead and Meet the Feebles movies. You might want to do a craft related to that.’
“So I came up with this gross-looking creation called a drooling alien, made out of a milk carton. It had a little repository cup made into a tongue, where baking soda and vinegar could be poured into it to make the alien foam and drool,” she recalls.
“While demonstrating it,
I said, ‘And now we put the vinegar in’, but looked around and realised I had forgotten the bottle of vinegar. All I could say was, ‘We might come back to it.’
“I felt like such a fool in front of Richard, who kindly said, ‘Nice to meet you – if you’re ever in Wellington come and visit us’.
“Years later, he was the one who presented my award at the World of Wearable Arts last year,” smiles Fifi.
“He said it [her design] was the most bonkers thing he’d ever seen. I think he’d forgotten about the drooling alien.”
Richard Taylor was on hand to present Fifi with a World of Wearable Arts award in 2017 for her piece The OrganFarmer (right).
Fifi says being creative with wearable art is great brain gym.
A writer and an artist, Fifi will be working on a new story when she moves to Dunedin.