Wendyl Nissen is a journalist, broadcaster, magazine editor and the author of 10 books, mostly about living a chemical-free, old-fashioned life. Her Natural series has coined the catchphrase 'It's okay to be a nana'!
Her latest book, My Mother and Other Secrets, released in April, is a fascinating and moving memoir about the ups and downs of her relationship with her mum. We caught up with Wendyl to find out more about her investigative journey to uncovering her mother's family secrets.
What is your day job?
Writer and magazine editor.
What is your connection to Vic Books?
My books are stocked on your shelves!
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm writing the third book in my "Natural" series. Natural Home and Natural Year sold well so now I'm working on Natural Care. Post-Covid I think we are all caring and being kinder to ourselves and others, so this will be the ultimate guide to doing it naturally!
Congratulations on your new book! This family memoir is very different to your previous books - how was it to write My Mother and Other Secrets in comparison? And what was the writing process like during lockdown?
Lockdown was a gift because it gave me the luxury of just writing a book instead of having to earn a living at the same time. I was focussed and loved the process so much. Research is one of my favourite things, so going down those rabbit holes was fun.
As a journalist, it's second nature to want to find answers and dig deeper - what spurred you to start finding out more about your own family history?
I always wanted to find my mother's birth father, but she was never keen so when she died I knew I could do it. Within 48 hours I had found him and had 20 new cousins.
My Mother and Other Secrets is brave and honest and your investigations into your mother's life uncovered many family secrets and stories. What was one of the most life-changing or impactful stories you discovered?
Discovering where my mother came from, her birth mother's history, her birth father's history and her adopted mother's life, filled in a lot of gaps for me. Māori can whakapapa to where they came from and I think Pākehā should do that too. It helps you stand on your own two feet and feel grounded. The most life-changing thing for me was accessing my mother's medical records and putting her life together so that I could finally understand why she was so troubled and sometimes very cruel to me. I could stop hating her and understand why that happened. It changed me.
When your mother was diagnosed with dementia, how did your relationship change?
Dementia killed off the two personalities in my mother that I hated and feared. Instead I got a nice, sing-song, happy woman who told me she loved me and was proud of me for the first time in my life. I gave up my job to help my Dad look after her and have never regretted having those two years with her, it was a joy and a privilege.
In this book, you talk about the care your mother and your family received by the medical profession following the diagnoses of your mother's dementia. How do you think this can be improved and did you gain support from other's going through similar experiences?
Since the publication of my book I have heard from people in the medical profession that the treatment of my mother was unethical. So I'm glad I wrote about that. But at the time, I never reached out or even knew if there was any support available. When you are in crisis, you just get through day by day. Since publication I have heard from Dementia Northland who said they could have helped, which left me wondering why none of the many doctors and medical staff we saw ever suggested it. I think there is an ingrained attitude that when you have a dementia patient, there's nothing out there and it is up to the family to cope.
What are some of your favourite books about family relationships and did you have these in your mind when writing My Mother and Other Secrets?
I love The Mirror Book by Charlotte Grimshaw, but I didn't read it until after my book came out. We both had similar stories but we told them in very different ways. I am a big reader of memoirs, biographies and collections of letters because I'm essentially a very nosy person. So if anything, I wanted the book to make my reader laugh and cry and feel involved in the story, rather than just reading a history of my family. I worked hard with my writing to make that happen.
Your book portfolio includes bestselling guides, recipes and personal insights and they are loved by New Zealand readers. What can we expect next from you?
Fiction. There I've said it. Once I've finished the book I am writing, I'm going to try to write fiction as a challenge. It scares me but I want to give it a go.
Some quick fire book recommendations please!
I've just finished reading (in order):
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley
A Lonely Man by Chris Power
The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell.
All wonderful. I always keep by my bed Love Nina by Nina Stibbe for laughs, and will read anything by Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Virginia Woolf any time of the day. My bedtime read is always Virginia Woolf's diaries which I have read and re-read.
What are you reading at the moment?
From the Centre by Patricia Grace.
What do you like about it?
I love memoirs and I love Patricia's writing, so it's a joy.
Which literary character do you most identify with?
Laurie the narrator from Rose Macauley's Towers of Trebizond. I love the humour, observation and willingness to try anything. I also love that I finished that book and only then realised that Laurie is not gender specific. Love it!
Hardback or paperback?
Flat white double shot.