Chessie Henry Q&A

You completed your MA in Creative Writing in 2016, where you wrote a MS for a fictional novel. With  We Can Make a Life you’ve produced an extremely personal, very insightful, family memoir. Can you tell us what the impetus was? Where did the memoir begin for you?

It felt like I was being drawn to it for a whole lot of different reasons! In part I think I was horrified that my MA was over, and I immediately wanted to get started on another project. And we’d just had the Kaikōura earthquake, and so our family was moving through that whole emotional process. And on top of all that I was observing my Dad getting increasingly overwhelmed by the intensity of his workload. He was an emotional and physical wreck. Then he found out he was getting the bravery award, and it was all such a massive contradiction to how he was feeling at the time… I could sort of sense that there was a strong story somewhere in all of that.

What was that shift from fiction to non-fiction like for you?

It was actually a real relief! I rather optimistically chose to write fiction for my MA because I wanted to try and figure out how to do it, but it was pretty daunting. So comparatively this book actually felt like it came out really naturally – I think because I was so certain that I wanted to tell this particular story it came out with a kind of confidence that I perhaps lacked in my fictional work. The biggest challenge was probably trying to reconcile how much to be truthful to my own understanding of events while still recognising what stories just truly weren’t mine to tell. I didn’t want this to feel hurtful for anyone, but I wanted it to be real and not feel glossy or overly presented. I think deciding to keep the style really simple and grounded helped a lot, too – there's a lot in there, so I basically just laid it all out in quite a straightforward, accessible way. When I was writing fiction I was really focusing on how to make the language sound crafted and beautiful; but with this, because it was so immediate and dealt with so many raw emotions (a lot of which weren’t mine) I was more focused on just telling a really honest story, if that makes sense.

In the book there is a very long interview with your father Chris about his experiences as doctor doing rescue work in Christchurch city the day of the 2011 earthquake. It is an incredibly moving chapter to read, and it’s something I carried around with me for a good few weeks after reading it. Can you tell me about deciding to interview him – what was that experience like for you?

I actually loved interviewing people for the book. I discovered so much stuff I didn’t know. That particular interview with Dad was extremely emotional – we were both in tears. We were talking while we drove from Kaikōura to Christchurch, and when we eventually arrived at our destination we both just sat for ages in the car not really saying anything.

It was strange writing the book while we were still so in the middle of it all, if that makes sense. We’d just lost our house, Dad was really struggling at work. I wanted to interview him about the Christchurch earthquake, but I had no idea that it would bring up so much underlying emotional trauma – I truly think that interview was what finally sparked Dad’s real-life breakdown that came a few weeks after. It felt like my writing at the time was so intertwined with what was happening in my actual life, and that they were influencing each other in this really immediate way. I actually felt a lot of guilt, after that interview – I felt really responsible for bringing it all up again. But we’ve talked about it a lot since, and I think ultimately it was a good thing.

After reading We Can Make a Life one can’t help but feel that they know your family! What was their reaction to you wanting to open up parts of your parents’ and siblings’ lives to a public readership?

That’s definitely been tough, because there are a lot of vulnerable moments in there. But right from the beginning we just kept really open lines of communication about it all. I had no desire at all to publish something that would make them feel exposed in a negative way, and I think the whole time I was very aware of how much I was asking of them – they really had to trust me. I guess we all understood from the start what the intention was, and they could see why I wanted to write it and how it could end up being meaningful work. But yeah, when it was finished I definitely passed it over to them kind of wincing and apologising! While Mum was reading it I was super torn between wanting to get as far away as possible, or sitting directly in front of her and watching all her reactions while she read. Luckily, my family all really understood it, I think, and although some parts were definitely tough for them I think overall they just felt really excited for me.

If there was one thing you would like readers to take away from your book, what would that be?

It’s funny, I really don’t know! I suppose even in these early days I’ve had a lot of people messaging me saying it’s made them feel really emotional, that they cried through lots of it. One man that said it made him realise that he’s still struggling with stuff, too. I think “resilience” is a word that gets thrown around a lot after trauma or loss and I think that’s great, because I know it has a place and purpose. But also I think it’s really important to not always be striving for resilience, but maybe just for emotional connection of some sort. I don’t think I wrote this to pass on one particular message or to make a point… it’s more just like “well, here’s a giant rollercoaster of emotions!” – which is pretty much how life is for everyone, as far as I can tell!

We Can Make a Life is being launched at WORD Christchurch Festival on Friday 31 August, 6.30pm. All welcome. Chessie will also be in conversation with her father Chris at WORD. See here for more information.

We Can Make a Life, pb, $35.