The Writing Life: Twelve New Zealand authors by Deborah Shepard (Massey University Press, 2018), 463 pp., $49.99
In her introduction to The Writing Life, Deborah Shepard highlights the determination and passion of the twelve writers she interviews and curates into this collection. Shepard has selected a diverse group covering many genres: from writing for children, to many approaches to the novel, poetry and non-fiction. The writers are Joy Cowley, Marilyn Duckworth, Tessa Duder, Chris Else, Patricia Grace, David Hill, Witi Ihimaera, Fiona Kidman, Owen Marshall, Vincent O’Sullivan, Philip Temple and Albert Wendt.
The interviews show that adversity breeds a certain compulsion, which becomes the grit that seeds the pearl of craft. Shepard refers early on to a line in Owen Marshall’s Janet Frame Memorial Lecture of 2007, in which he refers to the ‘hammering out’ of New Zealand writing:
When I reread those comparatively early New Zealand writers, who, unlike Katherine Mansfield, chose to stay in New Zealand, people like Frank Sargeson, RAK Mason, James K. Baxter, Robin Hyde, O.E. Middleton, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, E.H. McCormick, I have a sense of work being cut and hammered out of adversity.
Marshall refers to his predecessors, but Shepard locates something similar in the lives of her selection of writers, all of whom were born in the 1930s–40s and share commonalities of adversity, whether it be childhood poverty, the austerity brought about by WWII, a difficult or absent parent, racism, sexism, abuse, controversy, loss/death, or the being ‘other’ of being a writer here.
In each interview Shepard builds her questioning from childhood, colonialism, politics, through the fledgling stages of early writing and into careers, passions, relationships and writing practice. She enters the text only in discrete but informed insertions or with new questions, which are never superfluous. I like the way she indicates where the interviewee laughs throughout the book with a simple [laughs]; this helps the reader stay close.
Each writer is presented in an admirable manner that is easy to relate to and that inadvertently reveals Shephard’s own kindness, intelligence and sensitivity. There are a few incidences, for example, where a response might be heading near dangerous territory, and rather than letting that play out, Shepard seamlessly steers the conversation away. This reads as kind rather than censorial. Sensitive material is handled well too. For example, with regards to the controversy about uncited material in Ihimaera’s The Trowenna Sea, her questions help shed light on the impact such an event might have on a person. Ihimaera says it ‘reminded me that I am human’, and went on to produce his best work.
Then there’s O’Sullivan’s long list of male writers whom he admires and one female, Mansfield. This seems a bit awkward given his interview’s context – in a book alongside some highly estimable female writers. It stands out. But perhaps by not asking about this, Shephard’s role as interviewer avoids veering into judgement. O’Sullivan’s interview is otherwise full of generous and honest conversation.
A few of the writers come across as self-censoring, like veterans of the interview, but never without sharing something significant of themselves. This connects to what they say about living in the public arena and needing to protect the privacy of family and friends. A few are more gregarious, punctuating the conversation with surprisingly ‘carefree’ revelations. In each interview there are gems that pop out, such as Else doing a stint in Albania; Hill being a ‘badgeophile’ with a rugged-looking mother; O’Sullivan’s family growing ‘the odd vegetable’; Kidman learning to shoot a gun early on; and Temple forecasting the death of the apostrophe. There are many other wonderful and light-hearted moments.
Shepard’s questions fall within dominant themes and are similar for each interviewee – but with tweaks that reveal her rigorous ‘homework’ on the oeuvre and biographical detail of each writer. She prefaces each interview with a scene-setting prelude. For example, before the interview with O’Sullivan she writes, ‘Vincent is a master of many genres, and I was in awe of him’; before Kidman, ‘This was the interview with a feminist icon I’d been anticipating.’
A short childhood is common to most of the writers. Many discuss the travail of what was their ‘working class’ or village-bound life, and how this was a time of simple joys but also of sheer hard work. From the age of around five many worked at chores to help keep the family afloat. Schooling was brief where parents favoured their child’s early fulltime employment; others were encouraged to exceed the working class ‘lot’. But whether short, tough or wonderful, childhood was where many of these writers began to ‘write’. Kidman discovered, while lying in hospital at the age of six, that sending her parents a letter asking them to come and get her worked: ‘… writing works, people do something’.
The mind of a child as a filter and maker of ‘truth’ is evidently key in the formative years of many of these writers. Grace recounts how she mis-remembered the details of a tangi, making it more real (and more beautiful) to herself by the addition of angel wings and a mystical canoe:
What I recall of that day didn’t happen in reality. I recalled, not a coffin, but a green and white canoe, pointed at each end, being lifted by two Pākehā men in tweed overcoats and carried towards the beach. Bunched under the men’s overcoats were angel wings. I recounted all of this to my mother.
Shephard’s groundwork enriches the interviews. She says to Cowley: ‘In your memoir you wrote “as a child I never felt young”,’ to which Cowley immediately responds, ‘I always felt old’. To Ihimaera, who wrote his first stories on his bedroom walls, she suggests he was perhaps mimicking his mother, who wrote the family genealogy on the hallway wall. Ihimaera responds that she is the first to make that connection.
It emerges that family and commitments make room (even in busyness) for the writing life, supplying it with material and the writer with their identity. But there is also a sense of compulsion: ‘Wanting to be a writer, well, that’s like wanting to be a breather,’ says Cowley. Wendt says he wrote ‘to change people’s views’ about Samoan culture with its astonishingly high suicide rate and domestic violence. According to Duckworth, ‘When you stop writing it’s as if you’ve stepped out of view, been sucked off the screen, obliterated … you’re only a writer while you’re writing and being published’. Oh no!
There are blended selves and blended families among the writers, and we are shown how the writer-self is a conduit for multiplicity – even a multi-genred repertoire forged in order to feed mouths. For example, when Shepard comments that Temple’s ten novels are quite different in style, he says he’s always been an ‘explorer’, and his diversity also has to do with the need for economic survival in New Zealand.
The Writing Life shows that far from being born prolific (intrinsic talent aside), these writers have ‘made it’ as a result of hard work and determination. Many were not university trained, confirmation perhaps of the innateness of a writing life. Each of the writers has amassed an impressive number of merits, awards, and honours, carving out their place in the context of practice in Aotearoa New Zealand and effectively paving the way for others.
Almost all of these writing careers have been problematised through the politics of New Zealand as a colonial outpost: a far-flung place that educated its young according to an English model. For many, the childhood home did not hold many books, and New Zealand writing wasn’t taught in schools until university – and seldom even then. The writers read European and American classics. Given their isolated context, carving out a niche for a unique voice was always going to be difficult. Ihimaera says: ‘My work was considered folk art, not English lit.’ A British-colonial lens was the default, indigeneity and difference were smothered, and the potential of the marginal voice was unknown until the work of writers such as these twelve infiltrated ‘New Zealand-ness’, helping to articulate a broader identity.
There is a general weariness about reviews. Shepard asks each writer about them. Duckworth feels that ‘reviewers mostly misread’ the ending of her book Married Alive. (The idea of ‘misreading’ is interesting for the tension it sets up between the writer letting go of, rather than trying to control, reader perception.) According to Duder, negative reviews ‘can strike at the heart of you’. Grace says: ‘Reviews are not written for me. My job is done.’ And as Kidman experienced with one ill-informed and cruel review, ‘You can, however, recover from anything if you put your mind to it.’ Adversity becoming determination, again.
These twelve writers have become intrinsic to our literary canon, holding among them examples of ground-breaking work from Māori, Pākehā, Samoan, female, feminist, male, and other categorical points of view. But there is also a sense among the writers of being global citizens as well; maintaining an outward view to ‘over there’ alongside an inward one that treasures (or reacts against) the uniqueness of here.
Deborah Shepard’s The Writing Life is a warm and approachable resource about a time and place in New Zealand writing that exemplifies the beginning of literary diversity and inclusion here. We are shown how a literary art is born both because of and despite adversity, and fed by passion and determination.
TASHA HAINES is completing her PhD looking at the hybrid form in contemporary fiction. She has had short fiction and non-fiction published. She has a master’s degree in fine arts and has lectured in interdisciplinary studies for many years. Tasha is co-creating an interdisciplinary public art work in Venice during the 2019 Venice Biennale.