Dame Fiona Kidman brings her high-flying heroine to Belfast

New Zealand author Dame Fiona Kidman's novel The Infinite Air is the extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman, her compatriot Jean Batten. On a flying visit to Belfast last week, Kidman told Michael Jackson her own story and that of her aviator heroine

Jean Batten was known as the Greta Garbo of the skies in the 1930s
Michael Jackson

AT 76, Dame Fiona Kidman has no shortage of stories to tell. The critically acclaimed author was at the Belfast Book Festival last week promoting her novel The Infinite Air, a "semi-fictional" story based on the fascinating life of New Zealand aviatrix Jean Batten.

Glamorous and world famous – she was known in her 1930s heyday as the Greta Garbo of the skies – Batten came to prominence in 1934 when she beat pioneering flyer Amy Johnson's record-breaking flight from England to Australia. And she was born in Rotorua, a town where fellow Kiwi Kidman herself spent most of her life.

Kidman has been writing for over 40 years, and has published an array of literary works, gaining a multitude of awards and titles, among them OBE, and Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in France. As well as a novelist, she is a scriptwriter, a poet, and a strong advocate for New Zealand literature.

But another important aspect of her life is her family. She and her husband Ian have two children, and five grandchildren who she “absolutely adores”.

Coincidently she began her career in writing when she became pregnant for the first time.

“I started to call myself a writer when I was 22 – that was in 1963. I was a school librarian in a boys high school at the time,” she said. “The principle saw my little bulge and said, ‘My dear, I think perhaps it’s time that you went home now and knitted little booties’. Because my husband taught at the school, the boys might have thought, ‘Look at what sir has been up to’',” she laughed.

“I spent my time during my pregnancy, not knitting booties, but actually writing a play, which I submitted to a competition. I didn’t win but I decided that this is what I was going to do.”

Like many in the creative arts, Kidman had to work other jobs to support her literary career and her family. However, her passion for writing has always greatly influenced her career choices.

“I always wanted to do different things to what the women in my suburb did,” she explained. “I thought I could earn a bit of extra money by offering myself to the newspaper and saying I can do some articles and book reviews for you, and then they took me on.”

Having worked as a librarian and as a journalist for a number of years, Kidman had her first publication more than 10 years after she began writing. She published a collection of poems in 1975; her first novel was published a few years later.

“My first published novel was called A Breed of Women – it was published in 1979. It was considered a very feminist novel, and it got me into a lot of trouble,” she beamed.

“The central character did a lot of things that everybody assumed I did. She drank too much, she had affairs – people thought it must have been based on me, which of course it wasn’t.”

A Breed of Women is a feminist novel and while it may not be based on Kidman’s life, she herself is a strong advocate of feminism.

“Some people look askance when you say that you’re a feminist because they think it means that you’re belittling men, and of course it has no such meaning to me,” she said.

“I simply believe that women should have the same rights to health care, to education, and to a choice of career as men. They should have the choice to marry whom they please and the choice to have sex with whom they please – and they seem to me to be human rights.”

Kidman may have geographical links with The Infinite Air's protagonist, but she also believes that Jean Batten embodies some of her own feminist principles.

“Jean made choices from the very word go. She had trained as a pianist and also a ballet dancer, and her excellence in both would have been sufficient to ensure that she had a career,” she said.

“She was an extraordinarily gifted woman. She chose aviation against all the odds, and I certainly think she was a feminist before her time.”

Batten learned to fly at a famous flight school by the name of Stag Lane where she socialised with some of the world’s richest and most famous people. Kidman’s extensive research into Batten’s life revealed plenty of interesting stories.

“At Stag Lane there are some great incidents that I’ve researched,” she said. “I found one story about the prince of Wales being taken off to Buckingham palace in the back of a laundry van because he was so drunk it was the only way he could get there.

“Nobody could know that this was the prince of Wales and he was p***ed as a fart.”

Although Batten was extremely famous during her early life, as Kidman explained, her career as an aviator was cut short by the British War Office at the outbreak of the Second World War, when her allegiances were called into question.

“She had went to stay with Axel Wenner-Grenn, who was a very a wealthy Swedish man and friend of Hermann Göring. A telegram came from the British War Office saying on no account fly back over Germany,” Kidman said. "War had been declared, but it didn't say that in the telegram."

“Axel rang Göring asked could she get clearance to fly back to England. She was actually the last person to be allowed to fly over Germany before the war. When she got to Britain there was a man from the war office waiting for her – they requisitioned he plane and she never flew again.”

Having lost her plane, Batten spent the latter days of her life living in obscurity in the Caribbean. When she died, she was buried in a pauper's grave.

While reflecting on the process of writing a semi-fictional novel Kidman said: “Although it is in a sense a fiction, I do like to honour the person’s life. I don’t want to give them outrageously different lives to the ones they actually lived.”

The book's dialogue is largely imagined by the author and aspects of the story, such an assumed affair between Jean Batten and James Bond author Ian Fleming, are based on research she carried out.

“A novelist can make some leaps that a biographer can’t,” Kidman said.

Although she was in Belfast for the city's book festival, the author had also come to research a new novel.

“I’m just starting to do some work on a novel that has got a connection with Belfast,” she said. “I’m here for five days and I’d like to cram as much of Belfast into the pores of my skin as I can. It’s very important, because when I’m writing about somebody from another country I really like to get a sense of that country.”

:: The Infinite Air is published by Aardvark Bureau and is available in bookshops and online now.

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