The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand Authors edited by Deborah Shephard
Massey University Press, 2018
Albert Wendt reads ‘Used-by Date’
Twelve authors talk to biographer and historian, Deborah Shephard, about writing and living. It is a captivating new book. Deborah has done an excellent job drawing out stories and raising issues; from what it means to write alongside domestic and money-earning demands to coping with both success and failure. She is familiar with the authors’ books and the context of the times in which they were written. The interviews often feel like a warm and stimulating conversation rather than a pre-prepared interview. John McDermott took stunning photographs to accompany the text.
Joy Cowley’s interview is essential reading. I didn’t realise how tough things were for her in her first marriage and how writing became increasingly important. The depth and range of her revelations moved me. I have been a big fan of Joy’s writing for decades. Along with Margaret Mahy she has also shown me that writers can be generous beyond the writing desk – in the way they listen and back younger or emerging writers (from the child to the adult). Joy was motivated to write New Zealand children’s books because it was really hard to find local examples.
Writing was something I just did. Wanting to be a writer, well, that’s like wanting to be a breather. I just lived stories.
Joy said she used to think people were like apples that fell from trees when they withered and dried but that she now thinks of people as onions – beautifully layered. This is an apt description for the interviews, for the writing life.
Deborah undertakes the interviews on the author’s turf, often over several days, and that makes a difference. We discover that Fiona Kidman has images of her writing mentors on the wall: Robyn Hyde, Katherine Mansfield, Margurite Duras. When they talk about Fiona’s mother and her knowledge of china, there is some Royal Doulton with pansies on the wall . That this is the china that featured as decorative end pieces in Fiona’s poetry collection This Change in the Light adds layers for me. I feel present in Fiona’s kitchen and I am reminded of her terrific poems about her mother.
My way of communicating with the world from when I was a very solitary child was through the written word.
Fiona’s interview covers family, friendship and feuds, love and terrible loss, along with the origins of her novels, the way she brings them to life and the way her writing process has changed over time. Her novels catch me immeasurably with their humaneness, their warmth and empathy; and the meticulous attention paid to details (think dialogue, setting, signs of the time). I have just read her latest, This Mortal Boy, and I recommend it highly.
In her interview Fiona returns to the 1970s, a time when women were reassessing their roles, finding their voice, standing together and speaking out. I was fascinated to read the back story to her debut novel, A Breed of Women – the way an early unpublished novel, ‘Club Litany’, was shelved because ‘it wasn’t a book I was quite ready to live with’. That novel formed the basis of A Breed of Women – the novel that affected so many women at the time. Fiona talks about entering ‘some new hall of knowledge’ and the women who gave her both the confidence to write and the tools to explore feminist issues.
I was particularly drawn to Fiona’s struggle to find a way to put Māori in her novels – Fiona grew up close to Māori communities and married a man with both Māori and Pākehā ancestry and has a daughter with Māori and Pākehā ancestry.
Again I am riveted by the conversation; the way it takes me back to Fiona’s writing and the way I reconsider what it was like to write in a particular time in a particular place.
Owen Marshall’s interview begins with Deborah reading his poem, ‘Missing person file – Jane Ella’, aloud. The poem features his mother and his slender memories of her; she had died when he was young. She is also there because Marshall had adopted her maiden name as his writing surname. His father remarried and had six more children to add to the initial three. Owen wanted to stay at secondary school beyond 5th form so was allowed to if he paid for it and contributed a small sum towards the household. Fascinating – the commitment to learn when many of his friends were reluctant. Like his father he savoured books and academic learning along with outdoor activities.
I loved the way Owen described the relationship between experience and invention in a novel or short story:
Much of that is my own experience, but burnished and reformed by the process that is fiction writing.
And that Owen prefers the novel to autobiography when he is asked about his short memoir:
The memoir is based on two short pieces I did for Sport magazine and takes my life only to the beginning of the nineties when I left full-time teaching and became a professional writer. I did enjoy revisiting an earlier time and earlier self, but the experience hasn’t given me a desire to write my autobiography. I prefer to be seen through the prism of my work.
Albert Wendt, like Joy Cowley, has gifted us literature across diverse genres and has offered extraordinary support towards other writers, both emerging and established. In the interview he keeps some things private out of respect to the living but he draws us close to his lineage, to parents and grandparents, to the way writing both takes flight and becomes grounded. In a talk to students at his old school, New Plymouth Boys’ High he said:
Our lives are made up of great joy and love and also great pain and suffering and change. At times we feel like giving up. But this is the only life we have so we have to try and survive it, and enjoy it. Live it with integrity and honesty and to the best of your gifts.
I want to pin this to my wall. Like many of the authors I have read so far, the writing life is a life of both challenge and joy. It is also a life of reading, and in most cases from an early age. Albert is no exception. He read the Bible and then the School Journal before hiding himself away in the secondary -school library. Then his sixth-form English teacher gave handouts of The Waste Land.
I’d never heard of The Waste Land but when he began reading, shit, it was like listening to music and the way my grandmother chanted. We studied the whole poem for the next two weeks and my attention was held right from the beginning.
Albert talks about the way he has always been political; and of his willingness to write about and challenge racism. He talks about the way politics infused Sons for the Return Home. I remember reading this book the year after I had left school – and thinking, as it settled inside me, this is what writing can do. Albert said:
When I write it’s mainly for myself. I’m writing a book that I would like to read. It has to mean something to me and if it has some impact on the public then good, but that is not my aim. At the time I wrote Sons for the Return Home I had become politicised, and I still am, but I was interested in exploring colonisation, what it does to people, both the colonised and the coloniser.
I am also fascinated by the process of writing and the way it differs from writer to writer. Albert speaks of writing poems:
I deliberately set out to make them feel effortless, but to achieve that sometimes I had to rewrite and rewrite, or leave it for a few days and then go back to it. With my new collection From Mānoa to a Ponsonby Garden I decided to write a set of poems fourteen lines long each, and centre each one on this garden and this house and Reina, our cat, me, and any other creature that entered the garden, and see what happened. I was doing what I do with my paintings, deliberately limiting the colours, and the bloody poems began to take off. And instead of having short lines I decided to have fourteen fairly lengthy lines and make them appear just casual, and closer to prose.
I love this book. I love the way it returns me to writing I am familiar with and lives that I am not. It reminds me that the writing process is addictive, sustaining and for many a necessary joy. It is not a criticism – because I found the interviews I have read immensely satisfying – but at the end of each one I wanted to enter the room and carry on the conversation myself.
I shall read the other interviewed authors over summer: Marilyn Duckworth, Tessa Duder, Marilyn Duckworth, Chris Else, Patricia Grace, David Hill, Witi Ihimaera, Vincent O’Sullivan and Philip Temple.
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