THE YEAR THAT
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