WHAT NOW, FIFI?

New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - CONTENTS - Fleur Guthrie

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.

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