The Dominion Post


- Bess Manson

‘Hello ladies.’’ Gigi Fenster chats affectiona­tely to her chickens as they flock around her ankles nudging her for a stroke and a snack.

The author often watches her six feathered friends from the window of her sparse writing studio in the back garden of her taki home.

There’s a combinatio­n of purpose and randomness in their methodical ways. Two steps forward, one step back, peck peck pecking at the ground looking for sustenance.

It’s a bit like writing, really. Fenster, a Massey University creative writing lecturer, who won the Michael Gifkins Prize for an unpublishe­d novel last month, says writing is a constant struggle. Two steps forward, one step back.

Her winning manuscript, A GoodWinter, almost didn’t see the light of day. Shewrote it four years ago but shelved it after falling out with the main character.

‘‘I had a clear idea of what I wanted to write but it didn’t come out the way I wanted it to,’’ she says.

‘‘The voice of themain character made it something different. She was such a powerful character that her voice sort of took over. She was brusque and strident and it was hard being with her.’’

So she packed the finished manuscript away and forgot about it. But something Fenster’s friend said kept coming back to her. ‘‘She toldme, ‘keep throwingmu­d at the wall – something will stick’.’’

Fenster likes ametaphor. When the award popped up on her radar, she dug out thatmanusc­ript, gave it another tweak and threw it at the wall like mud. It stuck.

Being shortliste­d was unexpected. Winning it was a shock. ‘‘I didn’t hold outmuch hope. It was just an attempt to throwmud at the wall,’’ she says.

The win means her book will be published internatio­nally by Text Publishing. It comes with a $10,000 advance against royalties.

For a writer, that’s huge. A decent wedge and the kudos of an internatio­nal publishing deal.

Now she’s editing the manuscript, and she’s letting that character do as she pleases.

Going back to that strident woman on the page, she sees a tenderness in her she hadn’t seen before. She doesn’t like lessons or morals but thinks there is a bit of a lesson in this for writers.

‘‘Sometimes you need to let the

story lead you rather than being stuck on the idea you had for it. You have to see where it will take you.’’

When Text announced her as the winner of the coveted prize, her story was described as a psychologi­cal thriller. This fact hadn’t occurred to Fenster, 56, who had been so knee-deep in the work that she never even gave it a genre.

‘‘If someone had said I would write a psychologi­cal thriller I would have said ‘nonsense, I’mnot that person’.’’

Her tricky lead is Olga, whose friendship with a neighbour becomes consuming, dangerous and ultimately obsessive. It’s a story of loneliness and intimacy, she says.

Psychology has always interested Fenster, whose father was a psychiatri­st. She absorbed a lot of psychiatry talk from their family meal times growing up. It’s informed a lot of her writing.

‘‘I have an interest in mental health and what drives people psychologi­cally, what might push people to do certain things.’’

Writing is a second career for Fenster, who grew up in a big family in South Africa.

After getting her law degree, Fenster taught constructi­on law and later worked in legal policy.

But having two small children in a place with such high levels of violence led Fenster to move her family to Wellington, where she got a job with the Commerce Commission as a legal policy analyst. But she was lonely.

Writing became the antidote to that.

Writing had always been an obsession but rather a secret one to begin with.

Imposter syndrome doesn’t even get close to the kind of selfdoubt she harboured.

‘‘I’ve always wanted to write but I’ve always had this feeling like there’s someone sitting on my shoulder calling me a bit of a w... er for thinking I could do it. It’s like they’re saying, ‘who do you think you are?’ ’’

Her younger sister, also a writer, told her to get over herself and do it. So she got cracking. She joined a writing group, did herMA in creative writing at the Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University and later her PhD.

Her first novel, The Intentions Book, published by Victoria University Press in 2012, garnered glowing reviews and was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

She followed it up with Feverish, amemoir.

She still has her day jobs teaching corporate ¯ O law and creative writing atMassey University, commuting to Wellington a few times a week.

The award has brought the prospect of being a full-time writer closer, but having a day job is not such a bad thing, she says. It offers a perspectiv­e.

It’s certainly given her a confidence jolt.

‘‘I don’t know at which point any writer says, ‘I can do this’. It always feels like a struggle tome. I will always feel like it’s not good enough but this award has given me a real boost.

‘‘I ammore inclined now to say, ‘yes, I’ma writer’.’’


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 ?? MONIQUE FORD/STUFF ?? Author Gigi Fenster with her beloved chooks in taki.
MONIQUE FORD/STUFF Author Gigi Fenster with her beloved chooks in taki.

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