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The Lynx Hunter by Owen Marshall

Reviewed by Noel O'Hare

NZ Listener 1st August 1987

The camouflaged short-story writer

Owen Marshall is one of New Zealand's leading short-story writers. He is also very elusive.

How some writers come to choose pseudonyms can be intriguing, and sometimes revealing. Katherine Mansfield dropped her surname Beauchamp to spurn her father. Iris Wilkinson took the name of her dead son, Robin Hyde, gaining a nom de plume of ambiguous gender. Norris Davey was rejecting his puritan bourgeois background when he became Frank Sargeson.

Owen Marshall Jones uses his middle name for writing for a more practical reason: camouflage. "I've been able to be a very low profile, almost anonymous, writer within my community, which is the way I have wished it," he says. His appearance lends credence to the ploy. A tall man with that "Welsh pudding face" of the brothers in his story Effigies of Family Christmas, with his trim hair and moustache he might be an army officer or a police inspector.

And we are in a room that provides no clues to a writing life. The formal antique-style furniture, the old master reproductions, the piano, the family silver gleaming in the cabinet, the crackling log fire - it is a setting more suited to talk of church fetes and bridge parties than to an interview with one of New Zealand's leading short-story writers. Apart from a few reference works and a pristine set of encyclopaedias there is no incriminating evidence of books.

For a writer who has spent the last 20 years in Oamaru such discretion is perhaps understandable. The unhappy experience of that other Oamaru writer, Janet Frame, made to feel a " 'funny' peculiar person" and peered at "as if my schizophrenia were showing", casts long shadows. Short story writing in any case might be considered an eccentricity, an unprofitable solitary pastime, with a whiff of deviance about it. Not the sort of activity to be indulged in b the deputy rector of an Establishment school like Waitaki Boys High. Marshall, for that reason or another, has been circumspect. "I have kept my professional life separate from my writing life."

Sooner or later, however, one identity tends to obliterate the other. Solicitor Norris Davey is renounced and writer Frank Sargeson takes total possession. In Marshall's case it was Jones the teacher who seemed likely to do the obliterating. "I really had to make up my mind whether I wanted to carry on in the expected career path of teaching, which would almost certainly mean I would have less and less of a comparatively restricted time for writing."

Though he has never been a full-time writer (except for a spell as writer-in-residence at Canterbury University) Marshall has always taken his writing seriously. As others have. Many of his stories have been published in the Listener and regularly appear in anthologies. His first collect of stories, Supper Waltz Wilson was widely praised for its craftsmanship and story-telling skill, and subsequent collections, The Master of Big Jingles and The Day Hemingway Died, have enhanced his writer's reputation. He has twice made the short list in the Wattie Book Awards and in the 1983 National Book Awards. Last month he took the $5000 first prize in the American Express short story contest.

In a tradition of literary all-rounders he is an exception, a specialist short-story writer ("What vision I do have tends to the tableaux"). For that reason perhaps he is less well known than some of his contemporaries whose reputations have been built on less solid ground. It is not a concern, however. "The sort of pose, any status, being seen as a writer with a capital W, doesn't interest me." He has always been more interested in writing than being a writer, but finding time has always been difficult. In 1985 he gave Jones the teacher a push side-ways and resigned from Waitaki Boys High. For two terms an "unofficial sabbatical", he went on a writing spree, paying the bills with a part-time job in civil defence.

Now he is back in Timaru where he grew up. And back in teaching as deputy principal of a small integrated Anglican girls' school. A smaller school may leave more energy for writing though he worries that "teaching is drawing from the same sort of wells, the emotional and intellectual resources that my writing springs from". It is the sort of compromise that writers with families often have to make. "What I would choose to do as a single writer may be very different from what I choose as a married writer with two daughters." So the frustration of not having enough time remains, but Marshall is unwilling to ask further sacrifices of his family, uprooted and having to find new friends. "Why should they suffer because of my literary pretensions?" Caution also plays a part: "Full-time writing may not be the utopia I imagined."

The dilemma of the writer or artist in society is obviously a concern, the subject of several of his stories. In Rosemary for Remembrance, Norman, a potter, is bitter and estranged from his wife. He blames her because he had to opt for "superannuation security" and never had the chance to develop his craft. "If you can't do what you're capable of," says Norman, "it's difficult to be content. It's a cruel situation that."

It is not a situation that Marshall fears may result from his own compromise but "I do have times of bitterness when I fell, 'Why haven't I the time for this project or that project'.

"But writers and artists are not the only sort of people who have to make these compromises," he adds quickly. "Writers are great whingers, great moaners, aren't they? They have great resources of self-pity. There's a difference of what the writer thinks is the significance of the occupation in which he or she's engaged and what the bulk of society sees as significance."

OWEN MARSHALL was born in 1941 in Te Kuiti where his Welsh grandfather farmed but he has lived most of his life on the east coast of the South Island. His stories are stories of provincial New Zealand, of small towns and open country "with the occasional weatherboard farmhouses, half hidden in their screen of trees", of high country summers with their "simmer of heat from the road and the bare river line like a scar", of empty snowy landscapes where "the tussock was a rough coat over the hills and the only road cut through it".

They are stories about country school masters, farmers, businessmen, rugby players, vicars, soldiers, shearers, stock agents, poets, boys growing up and men growing old. The variety is impressive as is the deftness with which the characters are brought to life. They are stories often of quiet desperation but there is humour too - "I don't see myself as a po-faced serious writer all the time; writing can be fun," says Marshall. Critics have commented on his strong moral vision. Values are implicit; judgements are made. "What on earth is the point of it all?" would not be a common reaction to a Marshall story.

He grew up in a household with strong values, the son of a Methodist minister. "My mother died when I was very young, so my father was probably the dominant influence in my life." It was a household where "principles were enunciated and expected to be obeyed", remembers Marshall. His farther was a self-educated book-loving man who was able to transmit his passion for the written word. "Perhaps in many ways that was the main way he made contact with me, because he was a very self-sufficient, formal person in a lot of ways." It came as a surprise to Marshall later that a love of books was not universal.

Being a minister's son, in retrospect, had advantages for a writer. "The pastoral aspect of my father's job made me aware of people operating at different levels of society with different degrees of success."

An inclination to bookishness was balanced by a love of sport. Marshall represented South Canterbury in tennis and hockey. He remains a firm believer in the value of sport. "You learn all sorts of things about yourself, physically and psychologically. I think sport can be useful in self-knowledge and self-understanding. I'm not one of those people who knock all sports people as crass, insensitive, hairy slobs, not at all."

As a student at Canterbury University, he was an unlucky winner in the National Service ballot. A self-contained society with its own gods and customs and always the boredom of trotting "mile after mile with our thumbs braced in the rifle slings to stop the weapons from bouncing, as we had been shown, heading down the side road from Waiouru with out O'Brien boots raising the fine dust which drifted behind us", as he writes in The Naming of Parts. But he fitted in: "When you're young you find it easy to adopt the principles and standards of groups of people and institutions." He became a junior officer in the Territorials, a weekend soldier for four years until "it began to interfere with my teaching and my married life".

Would he support the reintroduction of compulsory military training? "From my very limited understanding of the way that modern warfare is developing," says Marshall in his judicious way, "I don't really know that perhaps that type of individualised training is in fact relevant now."

As with other subjects broached there is nothing expressed that a Rotarian would not feel comfortable with or would not reciprocate. Whatever passions hone the edge of Marshall's writing - and it can be scalpel sharp - they are not much in evidence. The impression grows of a mask worn too long, that it is Jones the teacher who controls the outer world and Marshall the writer has been driven inward, given expression only in the writing.

And even there he remains elusive. Though he has drawn on the experiences of boyhood, adolescence and army service for his stories, "there is very little that is directly autobiographical", he says.

Teaching, marriage, fatherhood, the central experiences of his adult years, are hardly touched on directly. "I try to keep away from any replication of my own situation," says Marshall. "I'm the sort of writer who keeps an intrinsic privacy about certain things in my life. I'm not very keen to exploit aspects of my life as they relate in a very personal way to other people. I don't think it's my right to do that. Whatever I choose to reveal about myself is my business but to exploit close personal relationships with other people is a loss of their privacy and probably the bigger fault on my part."

AS A WRITER living away from the main centres Marshall's dealings with other writers have been few. Apart from a strong and supportive relationship with his publisher, McIndoe, he has worked in isolation. Writing has had an effect on his personal life too; he has fewer friends than he had 15 years ago. "Writing tends to be a rather selfish, isolating activity. When the isolation imposed by the craft is compounded by the physical isolation of the provincial existence then it can become very noticeable."

It is noticeable too in his stories. Many are stories of men alone, often individuals with a personal vision, "the searing blue spark of the imagination", people who are "worth a dozen of the rest of us". Marshall says he tends to be interested in people who do not conform, "who resist the very powerful tendencies in our existing society to give them prepackaged, predetermined goals and objectives".

But isn't he a bit of a conformist himself, observing "all those petty social conventions" he talks about? "It's all very well," says Marshall, "if you're a self-employed sculptor you can break as many of them as you like. If you're operating in a conformist society you see how strong they can be."

But appearances are not to be trusted, an outward accommodation to social conventions may mean no more than that. In Marshall's new collection of stories The Lynx Hunter, Mr Jeffers in the title story walking to work sees "water buffalo wallow amidst the trees and meters of main street", "Janissaries ride by to meet their Turkish masters", "the snout of the lava flow smokes by the Farmer's Co-op". It is all very strange for a Marshall story, and unexpected, like finding Punks in a painting by Peter McIntyre.

"It's really dealing with the theme that because of conformist pressures people often tend to see what they're expected to see and say they see what they're expected to see," explains Marshall. Though he has been labeled an old-fashioned realist, he has moved on. The new collection is a departure from the mostly straight-forward story-telling of his previous books. "I still operate in a mode of apparent realism. I say apparent because sometimes beneath the attempt to capture authentic appearances and descriptions I would hope to suggest other realities."

The log fire has died away. Marshall fetches coffee and homemade biscuits, becomes the genial host again. Unlike his Mr Jeffers whose "pride encouraged me to speak of secret things, to open the nondescript coat we all possess", he remains a private man, with a writer's inclination to listen rather than to talk. There are only appearances to go on - and they are thoroughly unreliable.

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