The Interview: Vincent O’Sullivan
Majella Cullinane writes:
Vincent O’Sullivan was born in Auckland in 1937 and is considered one of New Zealand’s foremost writers. Author of several poetry collections, his collection Us Then won the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Award. He has written three novels: Let the River Stand, which won the 1994 The Montana NZ Book Awards; Believers to the Bright Coast, which was shortlisted for the 2001 Tasmania Pacific Region Prize, and his most recent All This by Chance which was shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Fiction. He has written several short story collections, and his Selected Stories: Vincent O’Sullivan was recently published November 2019. As well as writing plays and libretti, he was joint editor of the five-volume Letters of Katherine Mansfield and has edited a number of major anthologies and a biography of John Mulgan, Long Journey to the Border. In 1994 he was the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton, France. He was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 Queens Birthday Honours and was the New Zealand poet laureate 2013–2015. He lives in Dunedin.
I first met Vincent when I moved to Dunedin to take up the Robert Burns Fellowship in 2014. In 2016, he kindly agreed to be my secondary supervisor for my doctorate in Creative Practice which I completed in 2019. Vincent discusses what shaped him as a writer, his poetry and fiction, his writerly preoccupations and what he’s working on currently.
MC: You have said before that you prefer not to be called a poet or a fiction writer, but rather consider yourself as a ‘writer,’ was the decision not to choose one form of writing conscious or accidental? What I mean here Vincent is, do you think there’s a danger that if as ‘writers’ we write in more than one form we may possibly not reach the same degree of excellence were we to choose one form only?
VO’S: It’s not so much what you want to be called as simply what you do. You think, ‘that mightn’t be a bad idea for a story,’ or the line comes of a poem you decide to keep on with. Or you’re reviewing a book, correcting an essay. That’s ‘writing’ too. One way or another, it’s what you spend most of your time doing, as another person might make a living adding up figures or building a house. It’s what you do because you like doing it, and one hopes, it will be worth the effort. You do it to the point when in other people’s eyes it is what predominantly defines you. Which make it ‘ordinary’ in a way that matters to me. I’m sceptical about any group, whatever their work or tastes happen to be, who want others to regard them as ‘special,’ as in some way ‘the chosen.’ Just get on with your job. If it turns out to be cutting diamonds rather than picking apples, then bully for you.
I know what you mean by the dangers, as they’re sometimes called, or spreading yourself too widely. But why think if you wrote less poetry, say, you’d write better prose? You can become a bit precious if you agonise over it. Is spending a day on a story costing you a sonnet? As if it matters much to anyone else. (Remember Flaubert musing on having sex – ‘There goes another novel.’) It’s workshop stuff really, a matter of deciding where your time’s likely to be best spent. And of course, what you most have the urge to do. You have to listen to that.
MC: Do you consider yourself a disciplined writer or do you write when the spirit moves you so to speak? Do you have any specific rituals that you need to enact before getting started?
VO’S: Every writer is ‘disciplined’ while they’re writing, even if it doesn’t particularly seem so at the time. What the question usually means is do you work with a structured time table, or more haphazardly? I tend to be in the second group. Some writers I know won’t answer the telephone during writing hours. Others wouldn’t call off a day watching cricket even if it meant breaking a deadline. What it comes down to is sooner or later finding the time in a way that suits your temperament, or that fits in with other obligations. Novelists, not surprisingly, are more likely to be better organised, because the scale of what they take on makes such demands. The fact is poets don’t need to get out of bed in the same way prose writers do or spend so long at their desks.
MC: So you don’t plan too much what you’re going to write either then I suppose?
VO’S: Not at all. I remember visiting the home of William Faulkner, my favourite modern novelist, and being struck by the way he had written the plan of A Fable around the walls of his study; what would happen on Monday, what on Tuesday, and so on, as his story followed through the events of Holy Week. (Drink, as well as fiction, partly accounted for this.) I’ve envied writers who know what’s going to happen from their first capital letter to their last full stop. For me, knowing one’s characters is the compelling drive. Once they’re in mind, something has to happen, and the story grows from our knowledge of them.
MC: Irrespective of how many novels, poetry books, etc. that a writer may have written, writers often talk about frequent spells of debilitating doubt. Do you think this doubt or fear lessens as you go on, or is that niggling always there? Or perhaps some writers are immune to it?
VO’S: If you don’t have doubts about your work then you’ve lost a very useful friend leaning over your shoulder. You can’t afford to fret too much, but if misgivings aren’t there to some extent, you’re at a disadvantage. In any case, other writers and reviewers usually prevent you getting too far away from a fairly clear-eyed assessment, unless you’ve already networked a bevy of obliging train-bearers. Which is not so rare as you might think.
MC: In terms of writerly influences who would say has influenced or impressed you the most?
VO’S: I think the authors we most admire may not be the ones that most obviously influence us, because they may be the ones we take the most care not to sound like. We don’t want to sound derivative. Years ago I heard someone saying an interesting thing – the writers we may learn from the most from are good writers we read in translation. Anything we pick up or learn from them may be thematic or formal but not stylistic, in the sense it might well be with a writer in our own language.
MC: Although you were born and bred in New Zealand, your father and many of your extended family were Irish or of Irish heritage, how much, if at all, do you think this affected your writing in terms of style, interest and perspective?
VO’S: When I was in my teens I couldn’t believe, when I first read Portrait of the Artist and Stephen Hero, that Joyce knew so much about the kind of life that was so close to the Auckland world I grew up in. But for better or worse, when I began to have a shot at short stories myself, I felt it would be a mistake to write about that kind of overlap, without sinking into parody. Perhaps the biggest challenge for a young writer is not to sound like someone else. No doubt it was a matter of sheer lack of confidence as well, or to put it a little differently, a matter of accepting the discrepancy between what and where I was, and the scale of what I admired. In a vague way, I suppose, I realised it was better to try to sound like where you came from, dull as that might be in comparison, rather than where I might like to be. But I regret now of course that it was also silencing a legitimate part of oneself.
This leads on to a discussion that some New Zealander writers find uncomfortable. But what do we mean, if we want to talk about a European New Zealander’s literary whakapapa? Some I have spoken with seem to feel that from the moment their forebears arrived here from wherever, a kind of fernleaf guillotine came down, severing from what preceded us, as we moved towards becoming ‘something no one had counted on.’ You’re here now, mate, you’re not there. Of course, it’s not that easy, and in literary terms, impossible. There can be a curious sense with some that one is obliged to suppress too close an allegiance to one’s own past beyond a certain date – the very reverse of what whakapapa or its equivalent may be in any language. To some extent of course there is a sense of fabrication in what we personally make of things, but no one has the right to label it invalid. Keats is a much part of my ancestry when it comes to the language I speak and write, as if I was born in Putney. So is Swift. So is Lawrence. If we say they are. It seems curious that at a time when individualism, when personal display, at least theoretically can make peacocks of us all, there might be resentment at choosing, in Rimbaud’s phrase, our ‘imaginary museum,’ our defining ourselves by what matters most to us. To deny that too vehemently easily becomes a cute variation on censorship.
MC: You’ve spent quite a bit of time abroad. In England as a student in Oxford. You show a deep affinity for Greece and Greek mythology, which features in your poetry and more recently in your latest novel All This By Chance. You’ve travelled in South America and worked as an academic in Australia. How important do you think it is for the writer to experience time overseas and now, if at all does it feed into the work? Do you think it’s more important for a New Zealand writer, in the sense of distance from the rest of the world, to travel?
VO’S: Keith Sinclair used to say there was nothing like travel to confirm one’s prejudices. It is hardly an issue any longer, with travel made so easy and inexpensive. But essential – it will always remain that. For a Pākehā writer, it confirms how important it is to trace at first-hand the strands of our own traditions; to put some distance between ourselves and the sometimes fashionable silliness of thinking that as south Pacific white folk, we are unanchored from what we came from, either recently, or a few generations back. The European waka is a capacious one. But travel is also centrally important to come by a sharper assessment of what we are as writers at home. It is easy to think of Wellington, say, or Christchurch, as the all-defining arbiter of taste or value – until we’re a few hours offshore. Travel is the shortest cut to independent thinking.
MC: You didn’t write your first full-length novel Let The River Stand until you were in your fifties, a novel which draws on your childhood experience of living and working in the Waikato. Your second Believers to the Bright Coast came five years later and is told from multiple perspectives. Undoubtedly these years were filled with writing poetry, short stories, biographies, etc, but was there any particular reason you didn’t write your first novel until the 1990s?
VO’S: The main reason I didn’t write a novel earlier was really a matter of confidence. I’d written quite a lot of short fiction, but that’s a very different kind of writing, asking for a different set of interests and intentions. I’d always thought novels were just too big an ask. Once I left Waikato though at the end of the Seventies, my feeling for the place, my long family connections with it began to stir in a new way, and shorter stories weren’t so appropriate for what I wanted to do. The next novel Believers to the Bright Coast, covered a far wider narrative reach, but then with full time work at the university, the long haul of co-editing the five volumes of Manfield’s Letters , the years working on the Hotere biography that Ralph had invited me to write, and its being sabotaged by his Pākehā ‘minders’, another novel seemed a mountain range too far. I know ageing gets a bad press, but one thing it can be generous with is time.
MC: Could you talk a little about your first two novels: Let The River Stand and Believers To the Bright Coast. I believe you consider Believers to the Bright Coast as your favourite novel. If so, why?
VO’S: Let The River Stand twists the strands, as it were, where the life of each character also defines the lives of the others. Yet each has to stand (or try to) in the currents of time as individuals, variously implicated, free, contradictory, as of course people are. We all want to live straightforwardly, but being human means this intention is always taken off course by how others impact on us. The great contradiction in life and in fiction, is we still believe in freedom, even as entanglements throw a net across us.
I enjoyed working on Believers to the Bright Coast more than on anything else, as it set the challenge of making believable what a precis of the book would suggest are pretty weird characters and situations. Fiction also seems to me the obvious way to consider ‘morality’. How people relate is always, sooner or later, an ethical question, but as writers we still have the obligation to make our telling entertaining. The title suggests some people are ‘believers’ in one of many kinds of behaviour that will take them to a ‘bright coast’ that in one way or another will fulfil them. When ordinary good people run up against inexplicable evil, then everything about them sharpens, their behaviour is raised to a more significant level, as their assumptions are challenged, their notions of reality tested. With Believers, I wanted the characters to be as diverse as possible – a French nun, the madam of a brothel, a backward young man, an ‘evil’ and enigmatic killer, and to throw them into a narrative pattern where their lives were convincingly probable. There is no ‘underlying message’ beyond the lives themselves.
MC: Your third novel All This By Chance was shortlisted for the 2018 Ockham Fiction Award, and was described by The Listener as a ‘landmark book’. It received rave reviews. This novel begins just after WWII when Stephen, a kiwi training to be a pharmacist meets Eva who has grown up in England unaware of her Jewish ancestry. Can you talk a little bit about what prompted the story?
VO’S: I’d read off and on about Jewish experience, and for a boy who started school during the Second World War, and later became more aware of European history, the Shoah remains the most significant human event of my lifetime. I don’t see how you can separate it from Jewish experience anywhere. If there was only one Jew living in New Zealand, then it would, inevitably, be part of New Zealand as well. But I couldn’t be more insistent that All This By Chance is not a ‘Holocaust novel’. That’s quite beyond my competence, and in my view, beyond my right to deal with simply as a story. The novel is about a number of individual characters, some Jewish, some not, most of whom live in an ordinary Auckland suburb, and how their lives are touched to various extents by War, and what it led to. The section that deals explicitly with an concentration camp for women is mainly told through the eyes of a non-Jewish prisoner. It was important for me not to barge in, pretending to a perspective which could never be mine. In fact, I’d not have pushed on with the novel were it not for an old friend and archivist at the Holocaust Centre at the Wellington Synagogue. He was constantly encouraging and patient with what must have seemed my outsider’s chutzpah. Of course, there was going to be a great deal I didn’t and couldn’t know. But we have more in common with others, than we have separating us. Avoid errors, he advised, do your homework, write what it is about your characters that you think you can fairly say. The effort of that establishes its own level of respect. If your story then works, well fine. If it doesn’t convince, it is only a novel that doesn’t come off, after all. That may be a reason not to read it. But it is not an argument against making the attempt. That was wise advice. I weary of those self-appointed horses of wisdom who neigh on about ‘appropriation’.
MC: The novel moves around in time and location, starting in the 1940s and then jumps forward to the 1960s, 1970s and then forward to the 2000s. Can you tell us how you decided on the structure and setting?
VO’S: It was a story across seventy or more years, and because of the fracture lines and fragmentation of history, it could only be told as a kind of verbal jigsaw. It needed small and convincing narrative details to suggest a perspective that was not possible overall. In some ways, it’s not an ‘easy read’, but then it had to be true to perhaps the final truth of the twentieth century – a dislocation of a world that nothing could restore as it had been. Each section, whether set in Westmere or Africa or Athens or Wroclaw, is the story of a splinter from a picture that doesn’t exist.
MC: I get the sense that you have a deep respect and interest in your characters Vincent. Are you one of those writers who believer characters dictate a story or are you very much the master of their destiny. Are the characters in your novels or short stories you’ve disliked and if so, why?
VO’S: Yes, whatever narrative theories come and go, and which generally don’t interest a writer half as much as they do academics, almost every reader is primarily interested in character. Even straight-out adventure stories have to happen to someone. For a writer, it is not only what characters do, but the numerous ways in which there are discrepancies between what is done, and what is intended or thought about, that carries us through. And it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with liking a character. Writing fiction is a structure enterprise – a trademan’s challenge to find the most satisfactory way to get this or that effect. For example, there are two pretty vile New Zealanders in All This By Chance, shallow, self-obsessed, who see life in terms of spectacle rather than responsibility. They share a particular kind of moral vacuum. But as a writer, to try to get them across convincingly is not at all a matter of approving or reprimand, but of how their story is told. And you hope they might be entertaining for a reader, as well as repellent. There are ones I’m glad I don’t have to have anything to do with, but they’re more the self-satisfied, got-a-tip-about-themselves typical New Zealanders of a certain kind. Really unattractive bastards, like the Chow in Believers, or Fergus in Believers, I’m drawn to in a way because there’s always a fascination in making characters do unspeakable things. It doesn’t do to think about this too deeply!
MC: I remember reading somewhere that writers essentially write the same book over and over with perhaps slight variations in terms of setting or characters. Are there themes or concerns in your work that are intrinsic across forms, or does it vary depending on whether you are writing a short story or poem or novel, for example?
VO’S: I suppose as writers we all like to think we don’t repeat ourselves too obviously, or work over the same few obsessions or patterns, although even the greatest writers do that don’t they – Faulkner, Stevens, Yeats. But it can take a while to know what our own compelling drives happen to be, until they’re pointed out to us. This is a question that readers are more likely to get right than we are.
MC: Is there anything that has been said about your writing that you believe has not quite captured what it is you were trying to say?
VO’S: The one thing that deeply irritates me is the way some critics in our own small pond like to slap the label ‘realism’ on anything grounded in the experienced everyday world. The word in fact covers the greater part of fiction if used loosely, which is the very reason it should not be. Fiction demands far more subtlety when a work’s style or narrative method or depiction of time is at the centre of its telling. I think the short story has suffered the most from this simple-minded approach, and the dominance of a banal academic expertise in pedalling it.
MC: Moving on from your fiction to your poetry Vincent, in Judith Dell Panny book: Let the Writer Stand, she writes about you: In poems that may initially seem light-hearted and amusing, irony and satire can mask, and subsequently disclose harsh reality or human deceptiveness. Do you agree? What is writer Vincent O’ Sullivan attempting to mask? (if anything) Does the writer reveal and hide, do you think?
VO’S: The poems may mask something, but that is not the same as the writer masking or keeping something under wraps. A poem is shaped and placed ‘out there’, like a piece of pottery say. ‘Masking’ suggests it refers back to the author through a cunning biographical by-way. Sometimes a poem may of course speak directly, from the writer to the reader, but mostly there’s a ‘wobble’ in the line of communicating, diversions of pace, reference, rhythm , line length, imagery, all kinds of things you want the reader to attend to that aren’t autobiography yet aren’t necessarily an attempt to mask it either. But a ‘personal’ poem is a long way from ‘Here, I want to confide…’‘ (As far as Dickinson from Whitman.) There’s a possible difficulty at times in that I see a poem as a fictional construction, much as a story may be. No one thinks for a moment that the first-person narrator of a story is the real life ‘me’ of the writer. But many poetry readers persistently expect the ‘lyrical I’ when it comes to poetry, the assurance that the first person is a ‘real’ and not a fictive persona, a signal of confessional intent. I tend to think of ‘tell me a story’ and ‘tell me a poem’ as rather similar statements. There may be shreds of real experience, elements of personal emotion, but the entire link with biographical fact is undercut by the form and traditions of poetry, which allow so much leeway in how a poem elaborates or pares down. But anything like a generalisation about poetry can of course be rattled by a contrary example. ‘True of this poem’ is at times as much as we might reasonably say.
MC: When you began writing poetry was there any conscious decision/influence to emulate a particular school of poetry? For example, many New Zealand poets of your generation were drawn to American poets, e.e Cummings and the Beatnik poets, for example. Who are/were your influences?
VO’S: I suppose I came to an interest in poetry in fairly much the same way as many people – being carried away by Keats as a teenager, seeing the RSC New Zealand tour of Othello as a fourth former, being fortunate with a fine English teacher. The excitement of reading Fairburn and Glover and Mason and realising poetry was written here at home. At university, I tended to be drawn to the English/Irish modern writers, because, although I might be at the other side of the world, there was no wrench of feeling ‘distance’. I was stunned by Robert Frost because of how immediate his poetry was to the grain of everyday life, and to the way we talk about it. My own early poetry and first books were dire, chopping blocks that resembled nothing more than the solemn dull chunks they were. I wasn’t drawn as those ten years younger were to the ‘new’ American verse. I had nothing in common with it and found the excitement when Robert Creeley visited several times impossible to share. It took me a long time later to come to Wallace Stevens, still the modern poet I admire most. Often of course the poets you consistently return to are not the ones you obviously picked up ‘leads’ from. They were too big, too magnetic, to risk getting too close to. The only ‘fashion’ that counts is the one assembled for oneself, however eccentric it may seem to others.
MC: What inspired your series on the Butcher and co, and the Butcher Papers? [They are funny, irreverent and poignant]. [‘We have been so priestly faced/a whore couldn’t have seen him without shedding hymns.’ ] Were you trying to push boundaries a wee bit, do you think?
VO’S: Ever since I was a child, butchers shops struck me as places of shivery enchantment, a step away from the everyday and yet there at the centre of it. Even talk seemed different in those white tiled spaces, saltier, cheekier, with the carcases clanging along on their huge hooks, the sawdust floors, the great chopping block’s altar, the striped aprons, the leather holsters with their flashy knives. If this wasn’t romantic, then just let me know what was? The Butcher poems drew on that childish sense of the exotic and allowed me a different kind of diction that could handle a slab of meat or chatter on about religion and love or whatever, but in a distinctly Kiwi way. The trouble was one had to break free from that kind of verse, but it had given me the confidence to use my own voice, to bring the high and the low notes closer together.
MC: The theme of death is significant throughout your poetry. Do you think this is at all connected to being brought up in the Catholic faith, or do you think writers in general are drawn to exploring mortality?
VO’S: It becomes something of a cliché, this suggestion that my sometimes writing about death means I am obsessed with it in an inevitably Catholic way. It seems to me pretty hard to imagine not being aware of what is inevitable, and twinned with birth, what no one can get away from. If death defines the kind of being we are, then how we think of it can be as diverse as there are individuals. If you’re not aware of death to some degree, then you’re pretending to be other than you are. Every story ends with it, if it is told long enough. But the story, for all that, need not be obsessed with it. Just don’t make out it’s not there.
MC: There was a sense in the 1970s, as some critics suggested, that having established your reputation in poetry, you wanted to spread your wings into short fiction and novels? Would you say this is true? In terms of form, what commonalities helped you make the cross-over? (if you can call it that)?
VO’S: Although I know it may seem a contentious answer, I think that it’s a useful and probably healthy thing for a poet to have an interest in some other form of writing. Unfortunately, in a world of few poetry readers, the atmosphere surrounding those who are interested in writing and reading it can became rather too like a hot-house. It’s important that we take poetry seriously, but there are some unattractive ways of doing so. When I read a contemporary American poet who writes that poetry ‘recreates the most primal sense of entitlement to breath and music, to life itself,’ I want to go outside and watch kids throwing stones. Poetry confers no special status on the person who writes it, whatever the enlightenment or charm that the best poetry offers. When I began writing prose fiction ‘spreading my wings’ had damn all to do with it. I liked the idea of trying to write stories, and to try something so different from poetry, but without giving poetry up. To go into a different kind of form because it was challenging, I suppose, and because it was also a satisfying thing to do if it came off. It’s a lovely form of narrative – concise, focused, laser-accurate when it is in the hands of a Mansfield or a Salter or a Tóibín, or others one can think of. There isn’t time in a short story for things to go wrong and then to be patched up. It’s the litmus test for how quickly, how precisely, a character can take shape, a situation defined. And there’s a great sense of freedom too, of language let off for a run, but too briefly for it to be bailed up by quite other demands, as it is with novels.
MC: Victoria University Press, your publisher for some years now, recently brought out your Selected Short Stories, which includes thirty-five stories from seven collections published over the last four decades, what’s next on your writing agenda?
VO’S: I’ve enough poems on hand for what I hope will be a Collected Poems next year, and I’m working in a spasmodic way on some new fiction. But for a writer to talk about what he has in mind reminds me always of boxers at a weigh-in before a fight; fifty percent will wish they said nothing.
Majella Cullinane writes fiction and poetry. Her debut novel The Life of Death and second poetry collection Whisper of a Crow’s Wing were published in 2018. She recently completed her PhD in Creative Practice at the University of Otago.