The 56th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1993 issue. The portrait is by Bruce Foster. The intro read:
Crop circles, the Bermuda triangle, the mind of David Lange – these are the recognised mysteries of our time. Yet an even greater mystery is Owen Marshall’s persistent lack of fame. He’s one of the world’s greatest living short-story writers, yet he’s hardly a household name even here in New Zealand. Kate Flannery [the writing name De Goldi was using then] visited him at home in Timaru.SOUTHERN LIGHT
The first time I met and talked to Owen Marshall I noted with great satisfaction how his farewell words brought us seamlessly back to the topic of conversation we had begun with a couple of hours earlier. I can’t remember the subject matter now, but at the time I thought, ah, tidiness, completion, he’s good at endings just as a short-story writer should be.
Six years on, as I return to his Timaru home, I find the inadequacy, the cuteness, of that earlier summary a trifle embarrassing. In the interim I’ve read all Marshall’s published fiction and am acutely aware that its depth and complexity goes beyond mere endings. I have some hesitantly framed questions to put in regard to this impressive body of work - seven volumes in 14 years. Also, rumour has it that Owen Marshall has written a novel and, from the master of the short form, this is something of a surprise departure.
Aside from his tertiary education and two stints as writing Fellow at Canterbury and Otago Universities, Marshall has lived in New Zealand provincial towns for most of his 51 years. He describes himself firmly as a provincial or regional writer. Born in Te Kuiti, he grew up in Wanganui, Blenheim and Timaru and has chosen to spend his adult life in Oamaru and Timaru. It is the sharply rendered social terrain of the New Zealand small town against which many of his fictions unfold. As we sit beside his open fire I ask him about his choice of small-town life.
“In part it is a reflection of my early personal history, but I like a semi-rural lifestyle, I think I operate best within it, I think I understand best the New Zealand life of small towns, of the rural hinterland.”
He likes the outdoor life, dislikes crowds and a lot of noise. But there are other less obvious differences which for him separate urban and semi-rural New Zealand. “I think it is primarily a matter of values and stance. Occasionally people from the larger centres have said that my work is dealing with a New Zealand of 30 or 40 years back – which makes me smile a little. Sometimes it is – deliberately, as when I’m writing about my own boyhood – but at other times it’s in fact talking about what is operating here and now in heartland New Zealand.
“What is New Zealand life in Auckland now is not the New Zealand life for Tuatapere, for Oamaru, for Methven. There’s a bit of a sociological timewarp operating and I think city people are inclined to forget that. The pace of change in those places is very different and even the nature of the change is distinct.”
Out of the singular rhythms and preoccupations of small-town New Zealand Marshall has crafted some of our literature’s modem classics. A sub-group of these, the boyhood stories, have now been collected in a new volume, The Ace Of Diamonds Gang And Other Stories, soon to be released by John McIndoe. The stories are drawn mostly from Marshall’s earlier volumes: “I think when I started writing I tended to exploit my own experience more than I do now, though I was never a closely autobiographical writer. I think writers are attracted by the freshness and insightfulness and vividness of childhood recollection and find it quite galvanising.”
These stories are vintage Marshall. It is recognisably, though not exclusively, a male world; the youthful protagonists, generally pre-adolescent and pubescent boys, collide with and try to make sense of the peculiar logic of adult affairs, though just as often it is the bitter realities of childhood that provide the “fairly harsh learning curve of youth” – as Marshall puts it.
A recurring preoccupation in the stories is the opposition between the clear-sighted young observer, with uncorrupted imagination, and the obtuse adult world, obsessed with the pragmatic. All his stories, in fact, deal in some way with this notion of division: between the artist and the materialistic world, the outsider and the community, the emotionally estranged husband and wife. Are the child with the honest eye and the artist aligned?
“Yes, I do think so. If you like, it’s doing a little redress of the balance of the artistic or imaginative view. It’s part of my nature, so it tends to come through in my writing. I think that our society is very materialistic and often the way the imagination is expressed in people’s lives is undervalued in society. I tend to be interested in how people succour the imagination, how they maintain their magnificent or trivial obsessions. I’m not suggesting that we should disdain conventional aspects of success. I just think we have to bolster other aspects of life – the inner life if you like, the internal passions, as opposed to the external ones.”
Nourishing and sustaining the inner life has of course been an article of faith throughout Marshall’s own writing life. He has lived that philosophy through 30 years of teaching, fitting writing into the bits in between work, family and community life – a struggle, he points out, experienced by most New Zealand writers. Ultimately he has made room for his writing by pulling back on other aspects of his life: sport and socialising, and teaching ambitions. “I have fewer friends now than probably 15 or 20 years ago.”
And his ambition, his desire to write, grew with a degree of success. “I didn’t write a tremendous amount before the first stories were accepted, because I had a lot of other things in my life, but my motivation and commitment increased when I began to master a few of the skills and to place some of my work.”
The careful juggling act which describes Marshall’s writing life, is in many ways expressive of the man – at least, as he appears to the observer, clear-eyed or otherwise. He is a measured man, as precise in his conversation as he is in his stories. He is reflective and controlled – just as well, I think, since the many interruptions to his writing might well have driven a less patient person up the wall.
“It may be a disappointing thing for people to hear, but generally I can pack up my work mentally and walk away from it. I enjoy what I’m doing, but I can usually switch off. Sometimes I’ll do it by going and having a game of squash or a walk. I’m still observing, the copywriter’s still there, but I’m not agonising all day about how I’m going to carry on tomorrow.”
Similarly, he says that his characters don’t haunt him. “I’ve been intrigued, reading in biographies of writers, that their characters have inhabited them. They’ve almost had a demonic possession, and I’ve always been rather wistful that my characters haven’t had such a presence, such a life of their own.”
This seems thoroughly consistent with the relaxed, congenial man, who has described himself, elsewhere, as a “rather placid person: and a temperamental optimist. But what of the cruel eye that can so cleverly convey, for example, the greed of an elderly man’s solicitous, expectant daughters: “sitting together like well-scrubbed pink pigs, and showing their hocks as they crossed their legs. . . their porcine eyes made significant appraisal of Mr Poose’s health.”
“The corrosive eye of the writer,” says Marshall, laughing.
Do the divided worlds of his stories reflect his own personality? “Grahame Greene said there was a splinter of ice at the heart of every writer and I think the writer has to keep the corrosive eye in check to some extent, because we’re part of the community that we comment on. Often the satire and the malice directed at a character in the story is actually the writer’s awareness of his or her own frailty and vices.
“I think the Swiftian disgust with life can be in the end an overly destructive thing. You need tolerance and wit and compassion, don’t you. I mean, I’ve lead a public sort of life in many ways, as an army officer and a teacher, and an administrator in various bodies, and I can operate there reasonably tactfully, I hope. I’m not a reclusive writer, yet the corrosive eye is there.”
Was his decision to use a pseudonym a conscious attempt to divide his public community life and his private writing life? “Marshall is in fact my second name, and my mother’s maiden name. She died when I was very young, so I thought it was quite nice to take her name. Looking back I think it was mainly that I wanted to separate my writing aspirations from my professional life. I think I was shy and perhaps even embarrassed in case I was no good at it.
“To show you how sensitive I was, I remember that I sent a manuscript off and notification of receipt came back on a card with no envelope and the name Owen Marshall clearly visible. I remember being very angry indeed that it had come through the postal services in that way. I didn’t want people to know.”
These days people are well aware that Owen Marshall is in fact O.M. Jones; he says he feels no great dichotomy in terms of the names. Though we are all various people within ourselves, he says, it is not a case for him of double personae, two Owens pulling him in different directions.
Perhaps it is the very steadiness of his personality, the careful integration of his two lives that has facilitated such a constant flow of stories over the 16 years since the publication of his first, “Descent From The Flugelhorn” (he has kept the manuscript copy of that story, written in green biro). The stories have ranged widely, too, in terms of technique. The Ace Of Diamonds Gang has collected some of what may be described as his more “realist” stories – it is this work which has earned him the tag, “Sargeson’s heir”. Marshall is flattered by the comparison and says he admires Sargeson’s legacy, but points out that in fact he has experimented with a variety of narrative voices and structures.
“I’ve enjoyed writing some post-modern stories, some surrealism, narrative scripts. Some of my stories are pure exercises in metafiction. I do use a lot of the devices of the realist – I’m a very visual writer – but basically I see myself as an impressionist, though whether other people do. . . Labels are inadequate, aren’t they?”
Given his pre-eminence in the short-story form, his assured hand with that moment of epiphany which the short story exemplifies, it may seem curious that he has turned to the novel. And Marshall himself, following the rejection of his first two novels 20 or so years ago, assessed his vision and the episodic quality of his work as being more suited to the compressed nature of the shorter form. Typically, he is sanguine about the possible critical reaction to his novel, which is now completed and awaiting a publisher’s decision.
“I’m not one to worry. I do have a slight sense that some people are waiting for me to step out of line. Some have been saying, try the novel, and some may well have been preparing the cudgel, but if you put your work out for publication you take what you get. I always said I wasn’t going to be bullied into trying another novel and I would only do it when I felt I had the subject – which I did last year. That coincided with being Burns Fellow, so I took the plunge and did almost all of the draft at Otago.”
The episodic quality is still there, he says. The novel has no chapters, for instance; its structure is fairly fluid. Though he never shows his work to others while it is in progress, he is quite happy to talk about the novel now that it is written. “It’s called Prometheus K and it’s set a little way in the future. It’s superficially to do with politics, but in reality has a lot more to do with the verities of the relationship of the internal and the external and the present and future with the past.”
Divisions again? But he is noncommittal.
Naturally, the move from short story to novel involved a different way of working. “In some ways it was easier – though I hesitate to say this since it may be a flop. But I didn’t always have to come up with something new. Each day I could come to my desk and know what I was doing. Of course, to some extent a cumulative anxiety built up as to whether it was going to come together, but at least I could see in advance what I was working towards.”
He hasn’t abandoned the short story. He is currently writing fulltime, working on short fiction and toying with the idea of a radio play. “I suppose what I’m really doing is waiting to see whether the novel has worked. I don’t want to commit myself to another novel until I see it has worked.”
The caution is characteristic of the man and understandable in New Zealand’s writing climate, where a commitment to a lengthy work may mean years without guaranteed income. Perhaps his needs are not so great now that his daughters Andrea and Belinda are launched on their own working lives, but he is aware that writing fiction will never sustain a sufficient living for himself and his wife Jacquie.
It’s a long way from the romantic notion of the writer in the garret, but then he has never understood, he says, why working in a garret should be any more conducive to good writing than working in an accountant’s town house.
“I think you need a breadth of experience, don’t you? You need to have been alone, to have brooded, but you also need to have been successful, convivial. And then it’s often stepping forth from what you have. We don’t all have to have sailed around South America before the mast to write an adventure story. There’s Janet Frame’s experience – a limited one in many ways. But because of the genius of the woman, immensely powerful material flows out from that experience.”
It’s the balanced kind of assessment I’ve come to expect from him over several hours of talking. But remembering the merciless eye of his stories, the bleak worlds conjured, the absolute awareness conveyed of human venality, I search around for the key to his seeming duality: the calm, organised, suburban man who is also the writer with the punishing pen. The epigraph to The Lynx Hunter? I ask: “One’s real life is often the life one does not lead.”
“I love that,” he says. “I thought that a very, very significant and interesting comment. I think it certainly applies to me and to a lot of people whose real concerns in life are internal rather than external. The life of the mind, if you like. They may spend most of their time wiping babies bottoms or making shortbread, but what really concerns them is their painting or their novel. That’s what defines them.
“I have a growing sense of the fallibility of the real – there are wonderful sights and textures and colours, and it all seems marvellously concrete on the one hand, and yet, what a miasma it is – it is really concerned with our imaginative conception of it. It’s something I love about Janet Frame’s writing: there’s this wonderfully realised exterior and yet a sense of strange things welling up beneath it.”
It occurs to me as I drive home that the same could be said of Marshall’s own writing, and as usual, he found the words first. I’ll borrow his other words about Frame (and her words too), for my own ending: it is the genius of the man that takes us beyond his deceptively simple, almost opaque exterior to his real life, the life of the writer in the room two inches behind the eyes.