THE YEAR THAT

Owen Mar­shall

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

In 1985 I de­cided to re­duce my teach­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and con­cen­trate on writ­ing fic­tion. I was act­ing rec­tor at Waitaki Boys’ High in Oa­maru — a school of more than 900 boys and with a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion es­tab­lished by Frank Mil­ner. I re­alised that if I car­ried on, writ­ing could never be more than a hobby and I craved the op­por­tu­nity for more than that.

To pro­vide some small in­come, I ac­cepted a part-time po­si­tion as civil de­fence of­fi­cer for the Waitaki Dis­trict. My wife, Jackie, was un­der­stand­ing and sup­port­ive — but also ap­pre­hen­sive, nat­u­rally enough. I couldn’t have made the de­ci­sion with­out her agree­ment and I wouldn’t have been able to main­tain re­solve with­out her. We had two young daugh­ters to pro­vide for and free­lance writ­ing is a dicey busi­ness. I was un­fa­mil­iar with its va­garies. Pay­ment is ir­reg­u­lar, pre­car­i­ous, al­most al­ways mod­est and I was ac­cus­tomed, since univer­sity, to hav­ing a re­li­able job and in­come. We were soon un­com­fort­ably aware that more money was go­ing out than com­ing in. To many I ap­peared to have done a fool­ish thing.

Emo­tion­ally it was a chal­leng­ing, some­times buf­fet­ing pe­riod. I came to re­alise that hav­ing time to write is no guar­an­tee of qual­ity in what is pro­duced, nor that it will be ac­cepted by pub­lish­ers or ed­i­tors. One is at the mercy of other peo­ple’s predilec­tions. I re­call once driv­ing with my fam­ily to visit friends in Cen­tral Otago. Our daugh­ters were talk­ing hap­pily in the back seat and I had an epiphany of sorts, a flar­ing aware­ness of my fam­ily re­spon­si­bil­ity. I thought: “What the hell have I done by re­lin­quish­ing a se­cure po­si­tion and put­ting my fam­ily in fi­nan­cial jeop­ardy be­cause of my own fan­ci­ful and self­ish de­sire to be a pro­fes­sional writer?” The de­ci­sion kept me awake some nights, but also pro­voked a fierce ur­gency to pro­duce ma­te­rial.

In the end, the move was jus­ti­fied, I hope. I did take other teach­ing po­si­tions from time to time, in­clud­ing cre­ative writ­ing classes at Ao­raki Polytech­nic in Ti­maru and the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury, which ap­pointed me as an ad­junct pro­fes­sor in 2005. I have been the for­tu­nate ben­e­fi­ciary of the grow­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port for New Zealand writ­ers and artists, hav­ing held res­i­den­cies at the uni­ver­si­ties of Otago, Can­ter­bury and Massey and been awarded such sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance as the Michael King Fel­low­ship.

I was able, even­tu­ally, to be­come a pro­fes­sional writer and pub­lish more than 30 books. I now spend most of my time do­ing what gives me the great­est sat­is­fac­tion, but in 1985 noth­ing of that was as­sured and I still re­call the year as one of hope, de­ter­mi­na­tion, ap­pre­hen­sion and an el­e­ment of guilt. Of­ten in life there’s a sin­gle, well-de­fined path ahead but ev­ery now and then there’s a cross­road and a sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sion to be made. Con­se­quences of that de­ci­sion may be bind­ing on your­self and oth­ers you care for.

To some ex­tent the chal­lenges and vi­cis­si­tudes of that time came through in some of the peo­ple and sit­u­a­tions I wrote about. Many of the char­ac­ters in my early writ­ing are fringe peo­ple, for my own sit­u­a­tion gave me a greater sym­pa­thy for and un­der­stand­ing of peo­ple who don’t have a sure foot­ing in so­ci­ety. The loss of com­pla­cency and se­cu­rity isn’t plea­sur­able, but per­haps salu­tary for a writer. I be­lieve it was for me. As told to Paul Lit­tle.

VIEW FROM THE SOUTH BY OWEN MAR­SHALL, PHO­TOGRAPHS BY GRAHAME SYD­NEY (RHNZ VIN­TAGE, $40).

I still re­call the year as one of hope, de­ter­mi­na­tion, ap­pre­hen­sion and an el­e­ment of guilt

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