The Mahy Questionnaire: Catherine Chidgey

It’s time for the return of the Mahy Questionnaire – and what better way to kick it off again than with literary legend Catherine Chidgey? Devourers of books for grown-ups will be well-acquainted with Catherine’s name, with some serious prizes and plaudits for novels such as The Wish Child and Remote Sympathy – and most recently, The Axeman’s Carnival. But here at The Sapling, we’re rather fond of her picture books starring a cat called Jiffy. Jiffy’s Greatest Hits came out late last year and straddles that line of hilarious and educational that only particularly cunning picture books can do. So, here’s what Catherine has to say when faced with the 23 most pressing questions in letters…

Image of author Catherine Chidgey, a woman with long wavy red hair and a green velvet blazer. Superimposed on the image is the cover of her book "Jiffy's Greatest Hits', which is orange with a white cartoon cat on it.

1. Describe yourself in three words

Introverted, obsessive, uncouth.

2. During the height of adolescence, was it a good changeover?

No. While I looked like a boy, I had no idea how to talk to one. Mum made my clothes, including a ruffled, lace-embellished orange taffeta gown for the school ball.

3. Are you haunted by a particular memory?

See above. Also: when I told my lovely dad that rabbits were my favourite animal, he gave me the tail of one he’d shot.

test alt text

The Haunting by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1982)

4. MM: “Imagination is the creative use of reality.” Is this true for you?

Absolutely. All my books are “real”, in that I am always drawing from my own experience, even for characters vastly different from me. This is key to emotional truth in writing.

5. Have you ever owned a rattlebang car?

My first car was a boy-racer Corolla with a spoiler. I didn’t know about cambelts (I’d had a sheltered childhood) and when it broke between Dunedin and Christchurch I kept driving, leading to a written-off car and an unscheduled stay in Oamaru.

6. Which witch? Identify a favourite one from literature.

As a child I was hooked on boarding-school stories and stories with magic, so of course…Mildred Hubble in The Worst Witch.

7. Come dance all around the world. And see all the beauty that surrounds us. Words for a romantic or just being mindful?

I am all for dancing and seeing beauty. With this in mind, nobody should have to see me dance.

8. A lion in the broom cupboard or a lion in the meadow?

A lion in the meadow. My husband still has his treasured 1970s copy and it’s been a delight to read it to our daughter.

test alt text
The Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jenny Williams (F. Watts, 1989)

9. When have you been at your most discombobulated?

When first lecturing via Zoom, with a screen full of people watching me stuff everything – and I do mean everything – up.

10. What is your most favourite thing to do on a summery Saturday morning?

Lie in bed with the windows open and write.

11. In what way might you be a trickster?

I like to bury “Easter eggs” in my books.

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy (J.M. Dent, 1986)

12. Have you ever been rewarded when looking down the back of the chair?

Uncle Joe had a couch that always produced 50-cent pieces…planted, I now realise.

13. A pirate for a mother or a jester for a father?

A pirate for a mother. Then I could inherit all the sparkly ill-gotten treasure, rather than a silly hat with bells.

14. Would you babysit someone else’s shadow?

Only an obedient one. And I don’t do nappies.

15. “Horrakapotchkin,” said the cat. “I want to write a poem.” Is that how it works for you?

No, and I’ve tried all sorts of magic words. None of which are fit to print here.

16. What I like for dinner when I am on my own is… (entertain us)

The blood of younger, more talented writers.

17. If you find yourself nose to nose with a shark, the only thing to do is to ….


The Great White Man-Eating Shark by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jonathan Allen (J.M. Dent, 1982)

18. MM: “ If things were fair, all stories would be anonymous…set free from the faults that go with its author’s name.” Would you set your stories free in the name of anonymity?

Yes! Never a bad review then.

19. You’re at a party and someone finds out what you do. What is the question they invariably ask?

EITHER: “Where do you get your ideas from?” OR “Can you read my novel and give me some very detailed feedback?”

20: Who do you go to be entertained by linguistic pyrotechnics? Or entertained by songsense nongs.

Poetry (Tracey Slaughter, Tusiata Avia, Kate Camp, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’) and my parents’ old record of the Goons.

21. Which way does your heart lie: between the stars or anchored to the trapeze?

Between the stars…I want to go to Niue, which is an official Dark Sky Nation.

The Wind Between the Stars by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Brian Frood (J.M. Dent, 1976)

22. Would you rather be followed home by hippos or giraffes?

Giraffes. We have some very tall hedges that are out of control and could do with a bit of nibbling. I do not garden.

23. Never mind a baby in the bubble. Would you rather – rice bubbles, bubble gum, Bubble O’Bill ice cream or Michael Bublé?

Hubba Bubba will always have a piece of my heart.

Catherine Chidgey
+ posts

Catherine Chidgey is a multiple award-winning novelist whose books have achieved international acclaim. Her debut novel, In a Fishbone Church, won Best First Book at both the New Zealand Book Awards and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Golden Deeds was a Notable Book of the Year in The New York Times Book Review and a Best Book in the LA Times, while The Wish Child won the Janet Frame Fiction Prize, the Nielsen Independent New Zealand Bestseller award, and the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize. Her sixth novel, Remote Sympathy, was shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK) and shortlisted for the DUBLIN Literary Award. Her new novel, The Axeman’s Carnival, set in rural New Zealand and narrated by a magpie, is also releasing in October.