Books were a huge part of Catherine Robertson’s upbringing, so perhaps it’s no surprise that she’s now a best-selling author, publisher and bookshop owner. Sarah Catherall finds out more.
Not many authors are able to hold their book launch in their own bookstore, but Catherine Robertson now can. In April, the best-selling New Zealand novelist launched her seventh book, Spellbound, to a Wellington audience at Good Books, an indie bookstore which she opened last year.
Owning a bookshop was never part of the 55-year-old’s life plan.
Mind you, it was only two decades ago that Catherine even thought about writing fiction. Always a reader rather than a writer, she laughs that her first novel was so bad she stashed the manuscript in a drawer.
She wrote another one, though, and her debut novel, The Sweet Second Life of Darrell Kincaid, was published in 2011. All of her books since then have been New Zealand bestsellers.
Standing near the counter at Good Books, Catherine’s dark bob falls forward and her bare arms reveal striking tattoos, which were inspired by book characters or works by her favourite artists. “I keep adding to my tattoos. They’re all just random designs I like,” she says.
The idea to own a store came to her about a year ago, when she and her friend, Wellington poet Jane Arthur, decided to try to buy a bookshop in Karori – bang in the middle of the Covid lockdown. That purchase fell through, but they got the bug and found an empty shop, which they renovated and opened late last year. “I love working in the store, and it’s also a chance to support New Zealand writers,’’ says Catherine.
She’s done well at carving out a multifaceted literary career. Along with being a prolific novelist – noted for publishing seven best-selling novels in a decade – she’s a Radio New Zealand panellist, and she reviews books and also chairs sessions at literary events. But she shakes her head remembering her first book launch a decade ago. It took some time for her to feel confident about reading her excerpts in a crowded shop.
“At school, I never did drama or speech; I’ve never been one to speak up in public. But readers need to know you exist. Look at the bookshop,’’ she says, sweeping a hand around shelves. “There are so many books coming all the time. Unless you’re a Booker Prize winner, or a pick for a mega sale of the year, you’re going to have to do your own community profile building because otherwise, who is going to know? Even though I’ve done a reasonable amount of public stuff, most people don’t know who I am in the wider world.’’
Growing up in Wellington, Catherine was an obsessive reader from an early age and churned through the many books her mother brought home from the library each week. At the age of four, Catherine insisted she didn’t have to go to school because she could already read. “My grandfather pointed out that I had simply memorised the picture books and therefore was not actually reading at all. I was outraged,’’ she laughs.
“In Form 2 [Year 8], the teacher would just stick a book in my hand at reading time, because he knew I’d take myself away to a corner and just read, while some of the other kids needed way more help.’’ And she aced School Certificate English, being handed a staggering 99% grade.
However, she was a reader first and didn’t write stories as a child or teen. Instead, she left school and gained a BA in English literature, before working in advertising for 20 years. She never thought seriously about creative writing until she was in her mid-thirties, living in the United States with husband David and two sons. She lost her job in the dot-com bust and wondered what to do next. She enrolled in a community college creative writing class in 2001 in San Francisco and started penning her first novel – the one so bad she never tried to publish it.
But it wasn’t until after Catherine and David returned to Wellington and established their marketing business, Eleven, that she started to take writing more seriously. That’s when she began writing her first published novel, followed by two more which would become the Imperfect Lives series. Constantly pushing herself to explore new genres, Hiding Places came next in 2015 – her most literary novel.
Catherine began writing Gabriel’s Bay and its sequel, What You Wish For, after graduating with an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. Her latest, Spellbound, wraps up the stories about a medley of characters with interwoven lives residing in a fictional seaside New Zealand town.
Along with being prolific, another of Catherine’s talents is that she is a businesswoman – she worked as a director at Eleven before she opened her bookshop. Now, she’ll take that further by self-publishing. She sits back in a chair in the mezzanine above Good Books and talks about why she’s taking the brave step of self-publishing and reissuing her Imperfect Lives series offshore.
One of Penguin Random House’s star authors for a decade, the publisher has given Catherine its blessing to have the electronic rights and book rights outside Australasia. “The originals are only (barely) available online in NZ and Australia, so I’ll be reaching a whole new market,’’ she says. “The self-publishing thing has made me feel for the first time that I’m in charge of my writing career. I love my publisher and I love my editor, but you’re very reactive; you hand this thing over and you can’t do anything.’’
The self-publishing thing has made me feel for the first time that I’m in charge of my writing career
Catherine’s fiction publisher, Harriet Allan, who has worked with her for more than a decade, explains why the books are bestsellers: “The humour, the settings we all feel we know, the characters that we also feel we know, the way she can make you laugh but also think about the serious topics she tackles, the warmth she exudes for her of characters and the way she makes you feel for them without being sappy – reading these novels is like a warm hug.”
As a female novelist, one of Catherine’s noticeable talents is her ability to write vivid, engaging male characters. She understands men and thinks this is because she has two sons.
“I’m very interested in what makes men tick and some of the things they struggle with in living up to societal expectations,” she says. “We position male role models as sporty and heroic. I wanted to deal with how men at different stages and ages cope with being men. One of my minor but important characters, Jacko Read, is a massive giant who is like a superhero. But he wears a frilly red apron and has no trouble accepting anyone who comes into his life.’’
Yes, Spellbound is a feminist book. “It’s about supporting everyone, men and women, to get rid of the things that oppress them. To get rid of the things that prevent them from being their whole selves. That applies to men too. Patriarchy is a system, and I’m interested in systems that control us or oppress us.’’
Catherine weaves themes through the books, without overdoing it, and Spellbound is about power dynamics.
“I really wanted to talk about the unpaid work that holds communities together because the jobs need to be done. The downside to that is officials looking in see volunteers doing things for free and think, “That’s happening, I don’t need to do that.’’’
She should know. Catherine is generous with her time as an arts volunteer. She’s vice-president of Romance Writers of New Zealand and a trustee for Wellington’s popular, ever-growing literary festival, Verb. Since 2019, she has taught creative writing at Arohata Prison and helped a prisoner learn literacy skills at Rimutaka Prison, an experience which changed her life. “It’s hard for middle-class, middle-aged white women to get out and see a different side of the community unless they’re involved in voluntary work in a hands-on way,’’ she says.
Catherine agrees that anyone reading her books would know her politics veer to the left. “I’ve always been interested in social justice or injustice and how difficult it is for people who don’t have the privilege of birth or race or money to get what they deserve to get out of life… I’m anti the myth of individual self-help that everyone should be able to lift themselves up.’’
I’ve always been interested in social justice or injustice and how difficult it is for people who don’t have the privilege of birth or race or money to get what they deserve to get out of life
Just a couple of weeks before Spellbound hit the shelves, Catherine started another new chapter when she relocated to her second home in Hawke’s Bay with David. In 2015, they built a stunning modern house amid grapevines in Te Awanga, with a panoramic view of the ocean and the soft, pale cliffs of Cape Kidnappers. She is inspired by the landscape, saying, “Right now, the poplars and grapevines are yellowing. It’s so stunning,”
Hawke’s Bay brings fresh changes for the author. She’ll continue her arts voluntary work, including possibly teaching creative writing in the regional prison. Her other great love is her animals – two rescue dogs who she walks daily and two Burmese cats who love the wide, open spaces.
“I love the peace here,” Catherine tells. “We’ve made lots of friends here over the years and there’s a really vibrant artistic community. It feels good. And I will still go down to Wellington for visits and launches at Good Books.’’
Catherine can write anywhere. Always with a book on the go, each morning she sits down for a few hours to work on her next one – for the first time, she’s writing a book based on a true story, about David’s former cycling club. She isn’t giving too much away, but you can bet that one will join the shelves at Good Books in the next year or two.