This reading life: Chessie Henry

30 August 2018

Everyone's talking about Chessie Henry's remarkable first book, We Can Make a Life, a memoir about family, earthquakes and courage, published by Victoria University Press this month. We invited Chessie to share something of her reading life with ARTicle readers.

Book cover by Keely O'Shannessey

Chessie's memoir We Can Make a Life

(VUP) is $35.

The first book to capture my imagination was ...

I loved Jacqueline Wilson. I read all her books over and over again. Some of the content was pretty heavy, but I think that’s what was so good about them; she totally got that young kids can actually handle a lot. It’s cool when you’re eight or nine to feel like an author is trusting you to be empathetic and handle some real-life, grown up stuff! And her books had the best illustrations.

"It’s cool when you’re eight or nine to feel like an author is trusting you to be empathetic and handle some real-life, grown up stuff"


The books and/or other writing that saw me through childhood were ...

Harry Potter! I sent what was basically an eight-page love letter to J.K Rowling (finishing with some detailed suggestions for what could happen in the end). I also loved the Wind Singer series.

The character in a book I most wanted to be as a child was ...

Charlie from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. The part where he actually finds a golden ticket in his chocolate bar is SO intense. But mainly I think when I was younger I developed this really uncompromising sense of right and wrong based on the books I was reading, and I desperately wanted everyone to think I was “good”. Charlie was such a clearly moral character.


The book I studied at school that has stayed with me most is …

I think reading Joan Didion as part of a Creative Non-Fiction paper at Massey. It was the first time I’d been introduced to essay writing, and I just had no idea that creative essays were a thing until then! It was like this whole form just opened up to me.


The author I am most likely to binge-read is ….

Arundhati Roy. Her writing is just so dense and beautiful and so unlike mine. When I’m struggling with my own writing I always flip through her books, and she’ll always be able to take me completely out of whatever narrow sentence I’ve got stuck on.

The book I am most likely to press on a friend is …

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I feel like everyone can enjoy that.

The book I most wish someone would write is …

I just want all my MA classmates to publish their books so I can read them all again.

The book I keep meaning to get around to reading but somehow never do is …

Basically all the books from the 19th Century!

The book I have reread the most is …

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. It’s another one I read over and over as a young adult and I still read it when I’m home sometimes. Also The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood. She’s so inventive; reading her always makes me feel excited about world-building.


The newspapers, magazines and blogs I can't do without are ...

I always read stuff from The Spinoff & The Wireless. I’m a bit obsessed with Manrepeller – it’s a fashion blog with such great/ funny writing. BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs & The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is my go-to listening. And Poor Melody Thomas from RNZ’s Bang! Podcast has now (embarrassingly) received multiple fan-girl emails from me… something I clearly have not grown out of, eeek. But really season 2 is so good, I keep posting it in our family group chat being like LISTEN TO THIS and they’re all like, please stop harassing us with your sex podcast….

"Poor Melody Thomas from RNZ’s Bang! Podcast has now (embarrassingly) received multiple fan-girl emails from me… "


If I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one book with me, it would be …

I think I’d actually try take some big book of poems, because you’d really have time to mull them over. Maybe like a New Zealand anthology of poetry. Or a book about edible plants so I could whip up a non-toxic leafy salad every now and again.

Bookmark, scrap of paper or turning down the corner of the page?

Corner of the page every time. Bookmarks are like water bottles to me, I’d love to be someone that carries one round all the time but I just end up leaving them everywhere.

The first 50 pages or bust? Or always to the bitter end?

Nah, I think you should never beat yourself up if you just can’t get through something.

The book I am always on the lookout for in secondhand shops is …

I can’t always afford to buy new books so I’m always pretty stoked to find great second hand scores. I used to trawl the SaveMart down the road from my house when I was at Uni! It makes book shopping more interesting because it’s lower stakes – not a big deal if you don’t like it if it only cost $2.

My favorite cinematic adaptation of a book is …

Most recently, the adaption of Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal. But also Life Of Pi, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Into The Wild.

The character in a book I'd most like to meet is …

Boris from The Goldfinch.


A line of writing I can recite from memory is …

I loved Roald Dahl when I was little, and I can still recite the whole of the poem The Pig. I was definitely one of those kids that was completely enthralled with everything he wrote.

My favorite 20th-century book is …

I think (for sentimental reasons) The Poisonwood Bible. Dad really loved it and gave it to me when I was really young, and I remember trying to read it but not getting it at all. It was cool when I could then return to it a little older, when I also knew Dad better as a person and could kind of understood why he liked it. Plus it’s just a great book.


The books currently by the side of my bed are …

I’ve just cleared the stack! The last three books I read were Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble, Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey, and Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. And now I’m eagerly awaiting Christchurch WORD festival to commence so I can go get some new reads. I can’t wait!

Read an excerpt from We Can Make a Life at The Spinoff.