An Interview with Owen Marshall

When undertaking new work I don’t read my favourite authors in case their influence on my own voice is too pressing.

Owen marshall

Owen Marshall has been described by Vincent O’Sullivan as ‘New Zealand’s best prose writer’ and has written or edited over 30 books. His latest novel Pearly Gates has been shortlisted to win the $55,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction, which will be announced live on the Ockham New Zealand YouTube channel from 6pm on May 12th here. Chloe interviewed Owen via email on his life in lockdown and his latest novel.

What does a day in the life of Owen Marshall look like pre-lockdown?

For many years I used to have a regular regime. When engaged in new writing I would have an early walk and then spend the rest of the morning at the computer.  Most afternoons I would edit, read, write reviews, or prepare teaching notes.  Or play tennis or squash!  Some evenings I would work as well, but not on new writing.  Now that I’m well into my seventies I do less, although I still love to walk and still find the mornings, when I’m fresh, the best time for writing. 

What does a day in the life of Owen Marshall look like in lockdown? Has lockdown taught you anything new? Have you got a routine or any rituals helping you to stay sane?

Lockdown should be ideal for a writer – right?  No distractions or interruptions.  In reality I have found it very difficult to concentrate and have written little.  I’m fortunate to have my wife with me, but we much miss our daughters and grandchildren who live in other regions.  Also we shifted house the day before lockdown and are surrounded by a mountain of stuff accumulated throughout 34 years in our previous home, and without the ability to sell, donate or dump any of it!

How do you prepare yourself for a day of writing? 

Almost always a morning walk of 30 or 40 minutes.  I try not to get caught up in answering emails after that and instead work in the morning and leave them until the afternoon.  When undertaking new work I don’t read my favourite authors in case their influence on my own voice is too pressing.

Was there a particular scene in Pearly Gates that you found challenging to write? 

Always I find endings a challenge.  I often have ideas for beginnings that I think will work well, but finding a satisfying and convincing conclusion is more difficult.  Endings are important – the final flavour left in the mouth of the reader.  

There’s a positive role model in Pearly, a strong marriage with Helen, healthy competition, a support network that most could only dream of, and a level of detail that builds up a picture of provincial Otago life so beautifully that I almost feel like I’ve lived there myself. If there’s one thing about life you hope readers take from Pearly Gates what is it?  

Most of my work has a focus on character and Pearly Gates is no exception.  Even so called `ordinary’ people have complex and contradictory psyches, and how they cope with the business of living interests me.  Pearly, like most of us, has strengths and weaknesses and they affect the choices he makes and his relationships with those around him.  I’m also interested in depicting the physical and social environment in which characters exist – where my characters are as well as who they are.  Landscapes and cityscapes affect the people who live there, and people have impact on their environments.

If you were quarantined with just one book on your shelf what book would it be and why?

Wow, that’s a hard one, and my choice would vary day to day and mood to mood.  Jane Austen’s `Pride and Prejudice’ pops into my head  – just for now.

At Unity Books, we’ve been making up fantasy lockdown dinners for x4. Which three guests would you invite and why? 

As it’s to be a fantasy dinner: I assume the dead can live and eat again.  Fiction writer H E Bates, neurologist Oliver Sacks, and our own Janet Frame.

Do you have any advice to get the aspiring writer’s literary career off the ground? 

Read and write, read and write, find others who do the same, and never give up.

Your literary career in New Zealand has been spectacular. What achievement are you most proud of? 

I’m just thankful to have been able to get most of my work published, and I’m grateful  for the support I’ve received from publishers, and through awards and residencies.  

Do you have a little celebration when you put the pen down and submit your final draft to the publishers? 

A sigh – partly of relief, partly of loss.           

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