Interview: Catherine Robertson

Catherine Robertson is a prolific writer of well-loved novels for adults, as well as being the co-owner of Wellington bookshop GOOD BOOKS. This year, Cyclone Gabrielle prompted her to write her first book for children, Pearl in a Whirl, brilliantly illustrated by Fifi Colston. Catherine talks to Thalia Kehoe Rowden about how it all happened. 

Thalia: Great work on this beautiful book, Catherine! My first question is a practical one: how on earth did you get such a topical story on the shelves so quickly!? 

Catherine: That’s all down to the children’s book team at Penguin, who shifted their whole schedule around to make Pearl happen in record time. I’m very aware that this is not the norm, and hugely appreciative. 

We were also super lucky that Fifi happened to be in between projects at the time because she was our first choice, and she was the perfect illustrator for the job.

T: You and Fifi clearly understand cats very well! Who are the cats that have been important in your own life? 

C: All my cats have been important to me, and all have had such distinct personalities. 

I have four cats at the moment, and on the pages in the book where Pearl goes to the cattery, Fifi included portraits of three of them (Bernie, Gertie and Gussie) as well as her own boy, Griffin, and her daughter’s cat, Howard. 

Here’s a photo of a typical cat pile in my house. 

Catherine’s cat pile

T: What drew you to writing about the cyclone at all? And, specifically, to write Pearl’s story? 

C: The Sunday after the cyclone, my friend, Amy, tweeted about her cat Pearl’s adventures in the flooding, and another friend, Dr Siân Robyns, tweeted back that she thought it would make a great children’s book. 

The Twitter thread that inspired Catherine’s book

Amy is Executive Officer of the Hawke’s Bay Foundation, and on that Monday she and I talked about creating a picture book as a fundraiser. 

On Tuesday, I emailed Penguin, and by Wednesday I’d started writing it! So I really have to credit Siân for kicking off the idea. I owe her a copy. 

And for me, personally, it was an opportunity to make a productive difference. I’m donating all my royalties to the Hawke’s Bay Foundation, and Fifi and the wonderful Wardini Books are also contributing a portion of their earnings from each sale. The Hawke’s Bay Foundation will use the money for cyclone recovery projects in the community. 

I’m donating all my royalties to the Hawke’s Bay Foundation…[which] will use the money for cyclone recovery projects in the community

T: This is the first picture book of yours I’ve seen—but perhaps you’ve got a few other manuscripts in the drawer? How are you feeling about moving from being primarily an author for adults to joining the world of children’s books? What differences are you finding between the two kinds of writing and publishing? 

C: I’ve always been daunted by children’s books because I know how difficult it is to write them well. 

When I was starting Pearl, I got some excellent guidance from my GOOD BOOKS co-owner (and Sapling founder) Jane Arthur. She showed me examples of books she felt really worked. And Diana Murray at Penguin was a very kind writing coach, steering me gently but firmly in the right direction. The trick is finding the balance of rhythm and rhyme without it sounding strained or forced, and working out how the words will combine with the pictures to make the full story. 

It was a steep learning curve, let’s put it that way! And I’m not sure I have another in me just yet, but I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to write about Pearl. 

T: If you don’t mind telling us, how are your own friends and family doing after the cyclone?

C: Our house is a little elevated and not too close to any major water sources, so we escaped with minimal flooding and damage. The day after, we didn’t have any phone or internet so it took a while to understand how terribly it had affected others. 

Friends like Amy, Pearl’s mum, lost their entire homes, everything. 

We hoped Pearl would help children and families to process what’s happened in a way that wouldn’t re-traumatise. It’s been lovely to hear that it’s had a really positive reception. Thanks to all the booksellers who’ve got behind it, you rock. 

We hoped Pearl would help children and families to process what’s happened in a way that wouldn’t re-traumatise

T: As well as being a creator of books, you’re also a bookseller. How has owning GOOD BOOKS influenced your writing, and how do you think about the book world? 

C: I did not think I could love books more than I already do, but there is something about owning a bookshop that makes them even more magical. 

I’m very spoiled because Jane manages the shop and does all the buying, so every time I come in, there are new gems and surprises. I treated myself to a GOOD BOOKS subscription, and the team are absolutely ace at selecting excellent reads for me every month.  

There is nothing like seeing your own book on the shelves of your own bookshop—and even better when you can launch them there!

T: What’s next for your writing? More novels? More picture books? 

C: I am working on a novel that will be published by Penguin Random House NZ next year (as long as I hit my deadline!). 

It’s completely different to anything I’ve written before. It’s based on a true story about my husband’s upbringing in Wainuiomata and his involvement in the Wainuiomata Cycling Club. After that, well, I am hoping there will be no more cyclones. But I’m always up for a story about a cat.

Pearl in a Whirl

Written by Catherine Robertson

Illustrated by Fifi Colston

Published by Penguin Random House NZ

RRP: $21.00

Buy now

Thalia Kehoe Rowden
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Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former co-editor of The Sapling, and a Wellington writer and human rights worker. She is passing on a family inheritance of book dependency to her two small children, and is delighted to be part of The Sapling, as it gives her even more excuses to read excellent children's books. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and ​at ​her parenting, spirituality and social justice website, Sacraparental.

Catherine Robertson
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Catherine Robertson is a best-selling novelist and feature writer. She reviews books for the Listener and is a regular guest on Radio New Zealand’s The Panel and Jesse Mulligan’s Book Critic slot. She is married with two grown sons, two Burmese cats, two rescue dogs and a powerful vacuum cleaner. She divides her time between Wellington and Hawke’s Bay. Catherine’s latest novel What You Wish For (Black Swan) is out now.