'Owen Marshall', Deidre Copeland, 2008.

The Interview – Owen Marshall

Owen Marshall needs no introduction to New Zealand readers, amongst whom he is considered to be one of our finest writers, and by most to be our best practitioner of short fiction — although, curiously enough, it was for a novel, Harlequin Rex, that he won the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

 He has published six novels, 13 collections/selections of short stories and three volumes of poetry. A memoir of his early career as a writer, Tunes for Bears to Dance To, was published in 2014 by Bridget Williams Books.

Owen has been much honoured for his work — he has held fellowships at the universities of Canterbury and Otago, and was the 1996 Katherine Mansfield Fellow to Menton, France. In 2000 he became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM), in 2012 he was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) and in 2013 he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Merit in Fiction. He was the inaugural recipient in 2003 of what has since been named the Michael King Fellowship. He graduated with an MA (Hons) from the University of Canterbury, which in 2002 awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters and in 2005 appointed him an adjunct professor.

Although time and circumstance did not allow John McCrystal the pleasure of interviewing Owen in person this time around — Owen lives in Timaru, and John in Wellington — they were able to hold a back-and-forth conversation by email. The following is the fruit of that dialogue, more or less. John and Owen had previously collaborated on a Q&A piece for the 2010 collection, Words Chosen Carefully (edited by Siobhan Harvey), and for this reason, much of their recent exchange was focused upon Owen’s most recent work. All the same, both felt some of the ground they covered overlapped with the 2010 interview, and they are grateful to Siobhan and to Cape Catley for their permission to use some of that material.

In his emails, as much as in person and on the printed page, Owen shows himself to be a thoughtful practitioner, engaged with and fascinated by the work of others even as he cultivates his own, highly distinctive voice.


Thanks for agreeing to submit to interrogation. What I propose to do is concentrate on your most recent work, although we can feel free to range more widely. So I’ll start with the most recent — Love as a Stranger (2016) — and work back from there. I presume the inscription on Emily Keeling’s grave in the Symonds Street cemetery was the inspiration. Where and how did you stumble across it?

Yes, several years ago after an Auckland Writers Festival event at the Langham Hotel with Fiona Kidman and Jenny Pattrick, I walked over the road and into the cemetery for some quiet time. I came across the grave with its poignant inscription. It intrigued me and I did a little research concerning it which proved that the murder had arisen from obsessive love. It was a theme that I thought would be interesting to explore in a contemporary novel.


Was the general idea to tell the story of a crime of passion (or at least, a tragedy inspired by passion) in a modern context? 

I suppose so, but I wished to avoid the more melodramatic possibilities of both crime and passion, and concentrate on the plausible growth of affection between two people, and the difficulties that created given the circumstances of each.


Was there any temptation (or pressure from publishers) to make this another historical novel? After all, the Keeling murder is a fascinating and poignant story, almost too gothic to have happened on King Street.

Historical novels are very popular at present both here and overseas, and I have no doubt the story of Emily Keeling and her suitor would make an interesting and powerful novel, but my concern in Love as a Stranger was to present a contemporary couple in very different circumstances.


How (and I suppose, why) did you choose to tackle it in the way you did — the eye-of- God point of view, inside the heads of both protagonists?

I thought it important that a reader have the means to understand both characters, see the development of the affair from the perspectives of two very different personalities. I especially wanted to avoid the creation of a deranged stalker and a cowering woman in peril.


Were there any difficulties for you in writing the inner life of a middle-aged woman? I have to say, I think you’ve pulled it off pretty well, but I’m a middle-aged man …

Challenge rather than difficulty, perhaps? And a serious writer enjoys that. Whether I have been successful others must judge.


Do you ever seek readers’ opinions on your work, other than through your publishers? Would you, for example, get your wife, Jackie, to read a piece and give an opinion as to whether you have got the feminine perspective right, or whether the voice sounds like a middle-aged man in drag? Not that I’m suggesting it does, of course!

I don’t like to discuss my work when it’s in embryonic form, or even an incomplete draft. It may not be logical, but I feel that the essence of the thing may be lost by premature exposure: that if I talk it out, I’ll lose the urgency to write it out. Once I have a version that I know will work, I’m happy to have comment and interrogation, and when it’s finished I willingly bore people with any amount of discussion concerning the book.

I wasn’t part of any like-minded fraternity when I began writing. I was living in provincial Oamaru and my writing was a personal thing, separate from my community interests as a teacher and sportsman. As the years have gone by, I have become more comfortable with the role of writer and so more ‘open’. My wife does comment perceptively on my work, and I’m fortunate to have scrutiny from such talented professionals as Harriet Allan and Anna Rogers.


You write under a pseudonym. Is that a reflection of that desire for separation?

Partly. I did want to keep my writing distinct from my teaching and so decided  to use my Christian names as a pen name. Also Marshall is my mother’s maiden name. She died when I was a small child, and so the use of  that name is also a sentimental choice.


You’ve spoken before about the tendency of some readers and reviewers to see you pushing quasi-Methodist morals in your work. You are careful not to judge your characters in the novel, but is there anything of a cautionary tale about Love as a Stranger?

I would say not. In the relaxed moral environment of 21st-century New Zealand the situation addressed is so common, and so often represented openly in a variety of ways in the media and art forms, that outrage, or judgment, seems passé to most I imagine.


I’d like to ask a couple of questions about Carnival Sky (2014), which I have only just come to read, and which I think might be my favourite of your novels. I have a sense that it mines more closely personal material than your others. There are echoes of some of the phrasing you have used in your memoir: ‘Our first selves are strangers to us’ [from the memoir] and  ‘Looking back on all of it, I do indeed find my young self largely a stranger …’ [from the novel]. Does the central plot in any way represent your own father’s last days? Is the awful, slow death of a loved one something of which you’ve had personal experience?

No. My father did die of cancer, but at eighty-five-years-old, and quite quickly and without prolonged pain. And he retained his mental alertness till the end, which was the boon he most desired. I have however heard sad stories of prolonged, agonising deaths of loved ones from people close to me, and I am a supporter of voluntary euthanasia in controlled circumstances.

What is reflected in Carnival Sky from my own life is the importance of the father/son bond. My mother died before I was three-years-old and my father was a very important figure in my life. I have talked at length of him in  Bill Sewell’s collection, Sons of the Fathers: New Zealand Men Write About Their Fathers (1997).


I imagine the sudden death in infancy of Charlotte derives from the kind of waking dream with which the parents of young children torture themselves, and that I gather from psychologists are an unconscious reaffirmation of the parent/child bond.

Again, thankfully, I have no personal experience of such loss, but any parent can imagine the terrible impact it would have.


Once again you’ve chosen the eye-of-God perspective — a God who is mostly interested in Sheff’s perspective, but who does allow his (or her!) eye to wander from time to time.

Yes, third-person narrative method again, but this time the `limited’ version.  Sheff’s view is dominant throughout. I find the distance provided by the third-person narrative allows profitable objective comment.


You choose the decline and fall of the newspaper industry as a setting rather than an ‘issue’ (to use a much abused word) that you grapple with or even comment upon. This seems typical. Do you have a view on the state of news media in New Zealand? Your work is, without exception (unless I’m mistaken) always largely aloof from ‘the issues’, even if they’re reflected, from time to time, in the mirror. Is this a conscious thing? Are you more concerned in your work, do you think, with the universal than with the mêlée around you? Or is it an artefact of narrative perspective — the hovering god who scrupulously withholds judgment?

I don’t completely agree with your view of issues being absent from my work.  In the novel Drybread (2007) for example there is considerable examination of the issue of contested child custody, and various social themes appear in the short fictions – treatment of the aged, role of the artist,  for examples.

However I think it’s true that in general my focus is on character, motivation and relationships rather than specific and topical issues. In Carnival Sky I deliberately make some observations concerning the declining standards of journalism, and the changing nature of the newspaper industry that to some extent explains that decline. This is subsidiary however to the main themes of the novel and largely to establish the character and views of my protagonist.


 I suppose I mean you aren’t exactly an activist in your writing. It seems to me you’re drawn to areas of moral complexity, and hence the child custody situation in Drybread, the euthanasia question in Carnival Sky and the eternal triangle in Love as a Stranger and The Larnachs (2011).

I’m not a political, or polemical, writer, and topical issues are rarely the origin of my work. I’m more interested in human predicaments and motivation than making judgments, or influencing opinions. My support of voluntary euthanasia is perhaps an exception to that general stance.


I’m intrigued by the choice of the names of the characters Sheffield and Belize. For me, one is a slightly squalid, utilitarian place, historically associated with the manufacture of quality steel, while the other is a slightly exotic place, whose glamour is both fabled and probably a little overstated. Were you seeking to evoke such associations with these names? Warwick, meanwhile, seems right for an accountant (I even know a Warwick who was an accountant before retirement). Do you have a method for naming your characters?

Names have significance and carry association. Those associations can be confirmed in the writing, or deliberately dispelled. I like watching the names when the credits roll after films and television programmes. Some wonderful names of actual people. Polly Coldsnow appeared in the credits of a Canadian programme.

I wouldn’t use a complete name deliberately, of course. Normally it’s a process of mix and match. Sometimes the names have associations known to me alone. Quite often in the course of writing, characters will shrug off the name they have been assigned and demand one more appropriate to the people they have become.


Polly Coldsnow sounds like a Bond girl. Carnival Sky saw the return of the Ransumeens.

The appearance  of minor characters with this name in various stories and novels  began as a personal idiosyncrasy, but it has begun to be noticed. I should therefore stop the habit, but who knows?


Please don’t on my account.

I’m interested that you have chosen Central Otago as the setting for two novels in which you have explored, in stark, pared-back realism, stories of raw, human emotion. What is it about Central that draws your imagination back, time and again? And why is it, do you think, that so many of our distinguished writers and artists are preoccupied with that place rather than some of the other (and many) spectacular places with which this country is blessed?

Almost all my life has been spent in the lower half of the South Island, and I often use my familiarity with landscapes there in choosing physical settings. Central Otago has a very individual and recognisable physical character and also a fascinating history. I find myself strongly drawn to it.  Also two friends of mine, Grahame Sydney and Brian Turner, live there, and powerfully represent it in art and poetry respectively.

The landscape affects the people within it, and the people affect the landscape they inhabit.  I like to reflect this relationship in my writing.  I like readers to have a sense of where my characters are, as well as who they are. My Central Otago tends not to be the tourist centres of Queenstown or Wanaka, but the sparsely populated  natural areas such as the Maniototo. I love the space, the sense of a landscape composed of essentials only, and of a history of stern endeavour and trial.


'Rural Delivery', Grahame Sydney, 2012.

‘Rural Delivery’, Grahame Sydney, 2012.


You are often congratulated on how powerfully you evoke a sense of place.

I do feel I’m a visual writer – that’s the sort of writing I like to read, rather than bloodless abstraction. I try to achieve strong settings, cityscapes as well as landscapes, for characters are partly defined by their physical context. In my novels Drybread and Carnival Sky the Central Otago setting is closely realised, but also functioning symbolically in relation to character and theme.


 Character is central for you?

Characterisation is fundamental in fiction for reader and writer. People are our vital interest in life – first ourselves as centre of the emotional world, then those around us with whom we form relationships, or merely observe.  So it is no wonder that readers come to books programmed to look for the people. What an advantage that is for writers. All the great authors, such as Dickens, Austen and  Flaubert, are superb creators of people on the page.

If  writers can create characters who hold the reader’s attention, they may possess many deficiencies of technique and still succeed, but if characterisation fails then it’s likely so will the fiction. What a tribute to  writers if their creations outgrow the book, outgrow the literary world itself, and enter the general consciousness of a people, or language. It happened with Oliver Twist, it happened with Quasimodo, some might say it happened with Harry Potter. People who never existed, yet are better known than millions who have. Character not only becomes story, it is story, and even more – it’s life.


Randomness is a big part of your writing.  The situations your characters often find themselves in through casual or disrupted lifestyles – any situation which throws unlikely mixtures of people together  where their lives intersect for a while, where some sort of exchange has to go on.

Life is precarious, happiness is fragile, triumph and disaster are only a random incident apart. My studies in history perhaps incline me to think in this way, but all the more reason to savour what is fine and good. There’s great apprehension, restlessness and also exhilaration in the kaleidoscopic free-fall that is human experience. I’m aware of the essential isolation in life: `Alone we are born, and die alone,’ Baxter says, yet that doesn’t make life any less worthwhile, our loved ones less precious.

I’m interested in the relationship of people to their environment. I’m interested in the clash of expectation with reality, the manner in which people cope with disappointment and diminished opportunity. For a writer, failure is often more fascinating than success.  I’m attracted by the natural humour of life, wry and sardonic though it may often be. Life is often a theatre of the absurd.


I apologise for this question, which is a bit like the kind of question people ask magicians when they are baffled by a trick. One of the blue notes (to slightly misuse the term that George Sand used of Chopin’s playing) of your writing for your readers is your ability to write concise, wry, often hilarious but always startlingly vivid physical descriptions of people. I think of the description of Attlee Kellor (from the story ‘Sojourn in Arles’): ‘a man whose insignificant body seemed just the necessary bearer of a large and pleasant face.’ I think of the character in Carnival Sky who has ‘a nose like a ploughshare’; I could name countless other examples.

Do you deliberately go out into the world and formulate such descriptions for people whom you observe, carrying their likenesses back in triumph to your fiction (Oh, look. There’s a man with a nose like… a ploughshare!)? Or does imagination work hand in hand with language here? As with all good magicians, the execution seems effortless: do you labour hard over such descriptions?

Writers need to be close observers, attentive listeners and shrewd assessors. I keep a journal, as I think most writers do, and jot down an assortment of notes, some of which surface in published work. In physical description, as in so many aspects of writing, what has come from life and what has come from the imagination finally become indistinguishable.


Since Harlequin Rex, your novels have all concentrated, in one way or another, upon the place and power of love in human relationships. It’s as often a destructive force (The Larnachs, Love as a Stranger) as it is a redeeming one (Carnival Sky, Drybread). Is there a reason for this preoccupation?

An interesting observation, and true enough if love is defined in its widest terms. Love of others, love of place, love of the  principles and histories that bind us together. Human aspiration, motivation, character and relationships are so central a part of life, and offer such opportunity to the artist/writer. John Cheever said that loneliness is a kind of madness. We search for fellows to hold hands with in the surging progress that is human experience.


Do you have a notion of your own literary preoccupations, or are they (to steal Gavin’s superb line from Carnival Sky) `like your own arse — you carry it your entire life, but couldn’t pick it out in a crowd?’

I have become aware of my own preoccupations, and probably inflicted them too often on readers. Despite myself I tend to circle back to certain central concerns, but also life’s experience tends to provide opportunity for fresh observation and understanding. I think my writing has been enriched by travelling and living overseas, something that occurred comparatively late in my life.  Also there are changes in perspective during life’s journey. Some of the things that interest me now, didn’t when I was younger.  I hope I can maintain enthusiasms, old or new. Alice Munro said, `This may be the beast that’s lurking in the closet in old age: the loss of the feeling that things are worth doing.’


You’ve published 13 collections/selections of stories now, and you have been much anthologised. For a lot of people, you are still first and foremost a writer of short fiction. Why did you start out writing short fiction (if there is a single reason)? And what draws you back to it?

There are two reasons, one artistic and one practical. From the time I became a serious reader I have been especially drawn to the challenges, possibilities and emotional rewards of literary short fiction. I found much satisfaction as a student in reading the stories from a wide range of international authors, and was drawn as a young writer to attempt the form myself. I have continued to enjoy more recent writers of short fiction, and observe the evolution of the genre. I admire the precision and balance of  the short story. A novel can often stumble and recover, but a short story cannot afford a slip. The best short stories it seems to me have a powerful sense of one-on-one — a direct arrow from author to reader.

Frank O’Connor called the short story the ‘lonely voice’, and said it spoke for the disenfranchised. I sometimes think of the successful story as being a combination of intransigence and poetry. Short fiction has an honourable place in New Zealand writing and, despite the marketplace’s preference for novels, it continues to be  produced in large numbers, given prominence by well-established national competitions, featured in school and university courses and gathered into collections. Our first internationally significant  authors, Mansfield and Sargeson, were short-story writers. In recent years, both here and overseas, there has been a noticeable growth of interest in flash fiction, perhaps because it suits online sites so well.

There is also a more mundane reason for my concentration on short fiction for much of my career — it suited my lifestyle at the time. I had a full-time job and a family, and writing had to be fitted around those priorities. I didn’t have sufficient confidence then, that years spent on a novel would result in something worthy of publication. Since becoming a professional writer in the early nineties I have had the blocks of time necessary for writing novels, and the encouragement  of publishers to do so. My love of the short story is abiding, but I also welcome the  challenge of writing full-length prose and poetry.


You have said that you find writing a novel is a daunting prospect. Has it become less daunting, now that you’ve stayed the course six times? Or does the investment of time and creative energy on that scale still make it scary?

I still find it daunting. Writing a novel requires a very considerable investment of time and intellectual energy, though it’s no more technically challenging than a short story. If a short fiction fails, you may have lost two or three weeks of your writing life. If a novel refuses to come together you may have lost many months, even years. I talked to Witi Ihimaera once about how daunting the novel can seem at its commencement. He agreed and said he focused on one chapter at a time. Good advice — the stage camps on the mountain ascent. And I think momentum is important in the first draft of a novel.


Your short fiction has many elements in common with the long, but there is a character to many of your short stories that doesn’t necessarily appear in your novels. I suppose it’s what one commentator calls the ‘suburban gothic’ quality, or what Vincent O’Sullivan once identified as your penchant for writing the horror of the everyday. Is this a fair observation?

The essential skills of fiction writing  are the same for both novel and short story, just adapted for the genre and the demands of the specific work. But each form has its particular strengths and advantages.

One example is structure. A short story can succeed as just a list, one half of a telephone conversation, or a physical description. It’s over before the lack of a plot is apparent, or damaging. Writing a short story is like coming to a creek and leaping over it: writing a novel is like building a bridge across a river. Some stories of course are very tightly plotted indeed.

As for ‘suburban gothic’ — because the story is a short course of treatment it can be a strong one, more powerful than can be sustained or tolerated in the novel. I suppose that illustrates another attraction of the short story for a writer: a chance to write in a variety of registers, and over a range of themes in a comparatively short time. A prose poem last week, a satirical piece this month, and a character-based homily the next.


How was the selection of your ‘best’ short stories made for the collection edited by Vincent O’Sullivan in 2008? Were you consulted, and if not, did you agree with this choices?

Vincent made the initial selection, but he did consult with me following that. I think my only suggestion was perhaps to include a couple more of the later pieces. I thought that Random House was very generous in allowing us 60 stories and 622 pages. Even that selection is not entirely representative, as the collection Living As A Moon was published in 2009 after Vincent’s selection.


What is it like being anthologised by others? Have you always agreed with their selection of stories to showcase?

It’s interesting to see what people choose, but I don’t try to influence that. Sometimes the anthologies have particular themes to address, or modes of writing to exemplify. Readers bring their own backgrounds, interests and obsessions, their own level of perception as far as life is concerned, and so response to one’s work is varied. Reading is a form of collaboration and each outcome is unique.


Sargeson is highly regarded as a short story writer. So is Mansfield. But when you began writing, there was something of a conventional view of the short story as a sort of transition, a rite of passage for a fiction writer en route to their real work, which was the novel. The short story seemed somewhat devalued — and it is tempting to connect this with the fact that while you have been very highly acclaimed for your short fiction, it is your novels that have received awards.

I can’t agree with the first part of your comment.  I would argue that, for much of the 20th century, the short story was more characteristic of our New Zealand fiction than the novel, and more fully developed. Our leading writers then, such as Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Dan Davin and Maurice Shadbolt, were all renowned short-story writers. That has changed. The New Zealand novel has come of age, partly through the cumulative authority of Janet Frame, and that’s to be celebrated. What is certainly true is that literary short fiction does not sell as well as novels, and that lack of ‘profile’ may disadvantage the genre. You may well be right that short fiction is at a disadvantage when it comes to major literary awards. Perhaps the unity of the novel gives it a monolithic quality that’s hard to get past for judges. On the other hand there are several well established national competitions for short stories alone.


Is the short story an endangered form? There are fewer publishing outlets than ever for individual stories, and collections of stories aren’t exactly flavour of the month with book publishers.

J.G. Ballard, who began as a writer of short stories, said in a Literary Review interview in 2001: ‘The short story seems, sadly, to be heading for extinction.’ Such predictions have been regularly made for most literary genres, often with cogent supporting evidence, but somehow the literatures themselves will not so readily give up the ghost. I have mentioned the upsurge of flash fiction, especially online, and some of our best writers continue to write short fiction. Fiona Kidman, Sarah Quigley, Frankie McMillan, and Carl Nixon come to mind. I believe there will always be those discerning readers who are aficionados of the literary short story. Who would deny the majesty of the best work of James Joyce, Chekhov, or Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro?


You have become somewhat more prolific as a writer of novels than you were. Are they crowding out your own short fiction, or is there room for both?

The professional writer is nudged by commercial considerations towards the novel, but I write first for myself, about what interests, or obsesses me. Also serious artists wish to challenge themselves. I am working towards a fourth collection of poetry in 2017, and I think there will be more short stories in time.


Photo credit: Grahame Sydney.

Photo credit: Grahame Sydney.


Are you one of these people who can keep a number of pieces of work on the go? A short story or two, perhaps a few poems, while your novel proceeds?

If I’m concentrating on short stories, I may well have a couple on the go at any one time, usually very different in nature, and I will push on with the one that accords with my mood on the day. My sad story and my happy story, if you like. If I’m writing a novel I concentrate pretty much on it alone, to maintain momentum and involvement. I cannot will the poetry the way I can prose, and poems tend to come when they please.


You have, on a couple of occasions of which I’m aware, beautifully described the gap between your vision for a piece of work and its execution as ‘the work twisting in the hand’. Does it cut both ways? Are there times when writing turns out unexpectedly better than you had imagined?

I find it intriguing that sometimes what seems a strong, promising passage or concept, is ultimately resistant to achievement, and another that initially seems rather doubtful, strengthens considerably in the process of writing. Almost always I’m aware that I have fallen short of my goal, by varying measures.

After reading some of the best passages from such as William Trevor, John Cheever, or Cormac McCarthy, I sometimes wonder why I bother writing at all, but thankfully that passes, and perverse self-belief resumes. We can’t all be first violin, and I find satisfaction enough in being second, or third, fiddle.


Do you ever go back and read your earlier work? Many writers remark that when they revisit their old material, they feel they could not write that way now. Does that strike a chord with you?

When I re-read early work, I often see things that I would do differently now, but I have no wish to alter them. The writing is a reflection of myself at that point in my life, and best left to be so. My writing has certainly changed, mostly for the better I think, but others should be the judge of that. There is an élan and daring in one’s early writing that is characteristic of youth, and often attractive despite imperfections. John Updike  wrote: `Most of the best fiction is written out of early impressions, taken in before the writer becomes conscious of himself as a writer. The best seeing is done by the hunted and the hunter, the vulnerable and the hungry: the “successful” writer acquires a film over his eyes.’


You have made little obvious effort to shake the label of a ‘provincial’ writer. Does this mean you are comfortable with it?

I’m a provincial writer in the obvious sense that I live there, but also to some extent in my choice of subject matter.  Almost all my life has been spent in smaller centres. In my reading I’m drawn to regional and rural writers. People like T.F. Powys, Alice Munro, H.E. Bates and William Trevor – more recently Annie Proulx. There are a lot of people writing about urban, cosmopolitan life and I like to give a voice to rural place and people. More so in my earlier work, perhaps, and it’s certainly not a fixation. I much admire Ian McEwan’s urbane, sophisticated books for example, and my latest novel is set in Auckland with city characters.


You’ve mentioned some of the people whom you consider to have influenced your writing. Are there others you’d add to that list?

Austen, Dickens, Chekhov, Joyce, Hemingway. Of the more recent brigade, I’d say Angela Carter, Bette Pesetsky, Donald Barthelme, Flannery O’Connor, David Malouf, Anne Enright … the list goes on.


And what about contemporary New Zealand writers? Are there any in particular whom you admire?

We have a large number of excellent writers. Lloyd Jones, Maurice Gee, Patricia Grace, Vincent O’Sullivan, Fiona Kidman, Fiona Farrell. Among younger ones Charlotte Grimshaw, Carl Nixon, Craig Cliff and Eleanor Catton. I first encountered Catton’s work when I was judging the 2007 Sunday Star Times Short Story Award, and realised she was  a major emerging talent. But mentioning individuals is invidious. We have so many gifted writers.


There’s a tendency to suppose that with success, there comes a certain immunity to criticism and less of a need for the support and recognition of others. You have been much honoured for your writing, with numerous awards and prizes. Do you nevertheless feel the need for recognition, support and encouragement?

Unless you’re particularly ego-driven, or super-confident, you need reassurance to persevere in the often flaky life of a writer. There are many reasons and pressures to give up, especially early on. Recognition and success are more important as incentives than rewards.

I owe a debt of gratitude to many people. My wife has been brave enough to support me in the risky life of the professional New Zealand artist. Frank Sargeson offered early encouragement – I have a letter he wrote to me framed on my study wall. Brian Turner and Barbara Larson were my first publishers, at a time when there was little other interest. Vincent O’Sullivan, Andrew Mason, Donna Chisholm, Patrick Evans, Grahame Sydney, Fiona Kidman, Bill Manhire, Roger Hall and Malcolm Gluck have all encouraged me in various and significant ways. I’m fortunate to have, as my long-term editor, Anna Rogers, who’s an accomplished author in her own right. My publisher, Harriet Allen, has a fine sense of literature and is personally supportive.


You were a teacher in your professional life before you became a full-time writer, and you have been a teacher of creative writing. Has teaching had an influence on your writing, do you think?

I was a teacher for 25 years, including roles as deputy and acting rector at Waitaki Boys’ High School in Oamaru, and after becoming a professional writer continued to enjoy the stimulus of teaching fiction writing quite regularly, first at Aoraki Polytecnic, Timaru, where for ten years I ran a seventeen-week full-time fiction writing programme. Later at the University of Canterbury I led a fiction master class for some years. Writing can be a selfish and isolating occupation and I enjoy the stimulus of teaching, and of being challenged in a collegial way in my opinions and reading choices. A writer needs to keep in touch with life.


Speaking of extra-curricular activities, you are quite involved in the administrative side of New Zealand letters, aren’t you?

I’ve willingly been involved in the arts sector and so endeavoured to give something back in return for the considerable support I have received in grants, residencies and fellowships. I was on the Arts Board of CNZ, and later on the board of the New Zealand Book Council for many years. I am a long-term member of NZSA and was its president of honour in 2007/2008 and among its inaugural  Honorary Literary Fellows in 2014.


Having touched on your memoir a little earlier, may I ask what the impulse to write it was? I imagine you are at the age and stage where publishers are haranguing you for a full-blown memoir, or an autobiography, or to submit to a literary biography? Did you write Tunes For Bears To Dance To in order to supply or to forestall this kind of plea? I think I’m asking whether we can expect more.

Geoff Walker approached me to write an autobiographical work for BWB Texts. I had contributed two short memoir pieces to Sport magazine, and elaborated on those. I have no plans for a full memoir, or autobiography, and prefer to be seen through the prism of my work.


What was the experience like of writing with yourself as the central character?

I became aware of the fallibility of memory. And, as you have mentioned, I did find my young self something of a stranger. The memoir is concerned only with my writing life up to the early 1990’s.


You used to describe yourself as by nature an optimist and intellectually a pessimist. Has this changed over time, or at all? You have grandchildren: what sort of world do you think they will inherit from us?

The description still fits, I think. Despite many disheartening developments in the world and fears for the future, I tend to enjoy life day by day. Perhaps that is because of present good health, and family support and closeness. I do have apprehensions concerning the world our grandchildren will face.


Another random question. Your experiences in foreign climes have demonstrably enriched your work. But you have also been to alien climes. Can you tell me what the Antarctic residency experience was like? As a place, it is almost devoid of nourishment for an artist such as you, whose focus is character and human interaction. Did you find your visit inspiring or (as some have) baffling, or even stifling of your craft?

I went to Antarctica as an arts fellow in 2010 and found it a fascinating experience. My academic background is in history, and the most interesting parts of the stay for me were visits to Scott’s hut at Cape Evans and Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. Great care is taken in the preservation and restoration of both of these physical reminders of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. It’s a spine-tingling experience and a privilege to step inside – and back in time. Aspects of my experience in Antarctica have surfaced in my poetry, but not so far in my fiction.


As I write these questions, I am moved to ask: what is the single most irritating question you get asked as a leading writer of fiction?

Not irritating, but certainly the most common and the most predictable is – Where do you get your ideas from!


So… Where do get your ideas from?

John, I hope we’ve covered that.


Photo credit: Liz March.

Owen Marshall. Photo credit: Liz March.


John McCrystal is a Wellington-based freelance writer, reviewer and former book review editor of North & South magazine. He has published eight books, including The Cars We Loved, a finalist in the 2002 Montana Book Awards, short stories, and a radio drama which was broadcast on National Radio.

'Novels stand outside time, with their narrative structure of beginning, middle and end. They outlast politics, which are by nature ephemeral, swift and changeable and can quickly become invisible, detectable only to the skilled eye. ' - Fiona Farrell

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