For the past few years, the name of author Catherine Robertson has gradually become more and more familiar. It began with her first book, The Sweet Second life of Darrell Kincaid (2011), before two sequels the following year, then a career blossoming into the realms of prolific with The Hiding Places in 2015, Gabriel’s Bay in 2018 and What You Wish For in 2019. But without a doubt, the real success that Robertson holds closest is not that impressive list of published work, but in her ability to keep her mind sharp so she can not only keep writing, but also keep doing the doing the things she loves outside her writing career.
It’s a hot, cloudless day in February. And in the small Central Otago town of Alexandria at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, the town doesn’t have much to do except cater to wine-trail tourists sniffing out some of the region’s best Pinot Noirs.
But while Alexandria is known for the vineyards that fill the surrounding countryside, it is also known in New Zealand literary circles as a sort of enclave for writers. That class of people who crave places with fresh air and silence and wide-open landscapes on which they begin sketching their characters, and bending their minds to creating something from nothing.
Because if Alexandria is known for anything beyond its wine-making, it’s that. A town which has an unusually high number of published authors all buried in their own rabbit holes among the sun-burned and rocky hills that made painter Grahame Sydney a superstar. All churning out their own masterpieces feverishly and all thirsty to connect with others who battle with the muse on a daily basis.
And so that’s the reason Catherine Robertson has been invited here today. Because she was visiting some friends, who told their friends at the library, and soon there were a bunch of other literary-type friends from around the district gathering in the fiction section to hear her read and ask her questions. That’s pretty-much how it happens in parts like this where everyone’s connected to everyone else in one way or another.
But then if you add on top of all that the extraordinary high number of writers living in the area, this is one library talk that becomes more interesting than normal. Because as she firstly reads from her latest book, What You Wish For, her talk then turns into a literary discussion on a level most book readings would never approach.
And that’s when an interesting point gets raised. Not about character development. Not about story arcs. Rather, it’s a point that Robertson almost makes in passing:
“I can’t remember who said it,” she says, “but someone once said ‘I don’t like writing, but I love having written’. It’s a bit like going to the gym. I don’t love it when I’m there, but afterwards I like the fact I’ve done it. Because, I think writing takes a lot of intellectual and physical effort as well.’
And with that, a conversation begins about one of the most over-looked parts of the writing process - staying mentally agile. And there is no one in the room more aware of that than Catherine Robertson – a woman who came late to writing and had to work hard to catch up with her contemporaries who had been working on their craft much longer.
“I think what I love most about writing is being able to inhabit a different world and different people’s heads. And I love to be able to explore people's personal issues and social issues. It’s kind of an escape. But because you have to concentrate on every word that you write, it is a job. It’s a task. And it takes a lot out of you – even though you’re sitting at a desk – it takes a lot of physical effort as well.”
And that’s the unique point that Robertson makes about staying mentally agile – because this is a woman who is not just a writer. She’s also a mum. And a career woman who also finds time to write book reviews for magazines and radio and work as a volunteer teacher for the Howard League’s literacy programme in a local prison.
And so for all those writers who cram into the Alexandria Public Library on this day to hear her talk, the most valuable piece of information they glean is not about story structure or character development – it’s about how to balance work, family and personal interests – and remain mentally fresh to create and write efficiently.
“I’m very good at scheduling,” she says. “And I’m also very good at understanding how long things are going to take. But I also understand how you brain and your body are so intertwined. If your body is tired, your brain is going to be tired. And of course, I need my brain to be on peak form to be able to write to the standard I want to. So to create that energy and help my body do that, I need to look after my mitochondrial health. And to do that, it needs to be a systemic thing – I have to look after my diet, make sure I have good fitness. I need to get enough sleep. And to do all of that, to enable that to work as well as possible, I take my MitoQ supplements as well.”
And it’s when MitoQ enters the conversation that the talk gets interesting. Because most people know that looking after what you eat, exercising and sleeping well are important. But it’s when you start talking about the little extras that ears begin to prick up. Especially for women of Robertson’s age who are beginning to also feel the effects of perimenopause.
“I don’t think MitoQ is the cure for anything. It’s not going to make me live until I’m 170. But being aware of my mitochondrial health is something I am thinking more about. And MitoQ helps me do that. And through taking my MitoQ supplements I have noticed increased energy levels, I’ve noticed that the hormonal changes for perimenopause have evened out a lot. And I notice that everything is more even and I think my body just works a bit more efficiently.”
And it’s that understanding of efficiency that keeps driving Robertson and allows her to find that balance between passion, family and career.
“I think, what I want to get out of writing, is to do it as my job for as longs I possibly can,” she says. “So if I can keep my mind sharp, and my body fit and healthy then there’s no reason that I can’t write until I’m 102. That’s my goal.”
“I think what I love most about writing is being able to inhabit a different world and different people’s heads... It’s kind of an escape. But because you have to concentrate on every word that you write, it is a job. It’s a task. And it takes a lot out of you."
"Being aware of my mitochondrial health is something I am thinking more about. And MitoQ helps me do that... And I notice that everything is more even and I think my body just works a bit more efficiently.”