Canterbury author rediscovers her inspiration in the nor'west wind after family tragedy

Sandra Arnold. Photo: Star Media
Sandra Arnold. Photo: Star Media
Writing has been a constant for award-winning novelist Sandra Arnold throughout her life. It has also helped her to overcome family tragedy. The Greendale resident talks to reporter Susan Sandys 

Did you start writing while growing up in England?
Yes, very much from being a child. It really came from my father’s story-telling. He had been in the Merchant Navy, he travelled to all these exotic places. He used to tell me about them. As I got older, I would give him the themes and titles of stories I wanted him to tell me. He would work on that for a few days, and then he would tell me those stories. So it really started like that. In my teens, I read the Brontës, Austin, Elliot, Hardy, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Flaubert, Hugo, Colette and Woolf. In my 20s I started teaching, got married, travelled, and wrote terrible poetry. In my early 30s, after moving from the UK to New Zealand, I began writing short stories for broadcast and publication.

What brought you to New Zealand?
My husband Chris finished his PhD in England and then he was offered a job at the University of Canterbury. The idea was to come over for a few years, just to have the experience of living on the other side of the world. But when we got here, we put deep roots down. 

How long have you lived at Greendale?
We moved here 23 years ago. It was after we had spent a year living overseas. Chris had sabbatical leave, so we went to Brazil. Our youngest daughter, Rebecca, was with us. She was 16 at the time. She rode horses on the farm in Brazil. So, when we came back to Christchurch, she wanted to move out to the country so she could take the horse we had in town out into the country. We found a bit of land and moved out to Greendale. We absolutely loved it – the peace and quiet. And it is just perfect for writing. I find when I am writing something, I really need silence and solitude. Today I can’t imagine that I would want to live anywhere else.

Rebecca Arnold with her dad Chris. Rebecca was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22...
Rebecca Arnold with her dad Chris. Rebecca was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22 and died 13 months later in 2002. Photo: Supplied
Your book Sing No Sad Songs is a memoir of your experience of losing your daughter?
Rebecca was diagnosed with appendix cancer at the age of 22, she died 13 months later in 2002. I couldn’t write anything after that, everything just completely stopped. I couldn’t read anything, except books on bereavement. In 2003, my husband and I decided we needed to change the environment, and the opportunity came to work in Oman in the Middle East for a year. That helped enormously, because it is a country so completely different to any culture I had ever been used to. The people I met, the experiences we had there, were really incredible. I kept a journal, so that actually started the writing process again. When we got back to New Zealand, I decided to complete a master’s degree in creative writing. Some of the short stories that came out of this were set in Brazil and Oman. They were broadcast on National radio, including one which was inspired by finding a stone with our daughter’s initial on it as we swam in the Indian Ocean on the second anniversary of her death.

Can you tell me more about finding that stone?
It was on the anniversary of her death, and we were talking about it. My husband – I think he stood on it – and he said there was something sharp, so he picked it up. It was a flat stone with limpets on it, and that’s what had prickled his skin. Where the limpets had worn off, there was the shape of an R, a perfectly formed R, which was her initial. We were pretty speechless at the time. We had quite a few experiences like that. With these sorts of things I keep a totally open mind. Some people say it’s a total coincidence, others say it’s a spiritual experience. My attitude is I keep an open mind, because the fact is I don’t really know. I just know that that particular incident was quite mind-blowing at the time, so I wrote a story about it. That story was The Stone and that was broadcast on the radio, and then later published in The Best New Zealand Fiction Volume 4. 

Sandra and Chris Arnold found this stone with an ‘R’ on it while swimming in the Indian Ocean on...
Sandra and Chris Arnold found this stone with an ‘R’ on it while swimming in the Indian Ocean on the second anniversary of Rebecca’s death. Photo: Supplied
You are a member of a writers’ group in Darfield?
Yes. I think it is really nice to connect with people who have the same sort of interest, because writing is of necessity a solitary profession. I also belong to the New Zealand Society of Authors. They meet in town.

You co-founded Takahe, the renowned New Zealand literary magazine?
Yes. In the 1980s, David Howard, who is a poet, rang me and asked if I would be interested in editing the fiction section of the magazine called Cornucopia that had been established in Christchurch. But when we looked at it, we realised that it was very amateurish and we needed to take it in a more literary direction. So we did that, and Cornucopia died what we called a quick and painless death. We started a new editorial board, David as poetry editor, I was fiction editor. Back then, we had a computer but no internet; it was all basically cut and pasted by hand. We were a bit worried because we thought of all the magazines which had appeared over the years only to rapidly become extinct due to lack of finance, staff burnout, that sort of thing. So we needed a name that would be appropriate for this magazine, or something that people thought would die and had not died.   It was my husband who came up with the name Takahe. That was after the bird which was thought to be extinct by the late 19th century, but was rediscovered in 1948, surviving in an area in Fiordland. We liked that name, and we thought it resonated perfectly with our optimism to survive. Issue one was published in spring 1989. Now it’s just the most beautiful magazine, and has got a really good team of very keen volunteers. It’s still going strong, when a lot of magazines don’t, so I’m actually delighted over that.

Sandra Arnold co-founded Takahe, the renowned New Zealand literary magazine. Photo: Facebook
Sandra Arnold co-founded Takahe, the renowned New Zealand literary magazine. Photo: Facebook
Is it true that nor’west wind can inspire writers?
I can’t answer for other writers but fierce winds have featured in some of my own work. My fiction often draws on environmental elements and their impact on people’s lives. In New Zealand, scorching nor’west winds rage across the Canterbury Plains in spring and summer. During one such blistering wind, I saw, scored into a wooden plaque in the local butcher’s shop, a quote from Gogol’s Dead Souls. It was: “The air is torn and thundering as it turns to wind, and everything on earth comes flying past.” Soon afterwards, I read Jan DeBlieu’s book, Wind, where she describes the different names hot dry winds are given in various parts of the world. She relates advice from medical professionals about avoiding major decisions when wild winds blow. With all this in mind, I wrote a short story that was published in Headland 8, When the Wind Blows, which explores the effect a prolonged nor’wester had on several families who lived on the Canterbury Plains.