photo of Owen Marshall

MARSHALL, Owen

Often labelled a realist writer, Marshall prefers to think of himself as an impressionist.


Author entry from The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie (1998), pp. xxx. 
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MARSHALL, Owen (Owen Marshall Jones) (1941– ), short story writer and novelist, was born in the North Island town of Te Kuiti, where his Welsh grandfather farmed.
The third son of a Methodist minister, he grew up in an environment in which his father read aloud to his family, scholarship was revered, and the value of books unquestioned.
His mother—whose maiden name was Marshall—died when he was 18 months old.
His father remarried when Marshall was 5, and there were six more children.
His childhood, a happy time lived mainly in provincial South Island towns, would provide background for a number of stories.
After a boyhood spent in Blenheim—‘Seven years of summer days, tar bubbling on the streets’—the family moved, when he was 12, southwards to the town of Timaru, on South Canterbury’s east coast.
In this region of South Canterbury and North Otago Marshall has spent his adult years, and the affinity he feels with its people and landscapes is evident in much of his writing.

From five years as a student at Timaru BHS, Marshall went on to study for four years at the University of Canterbury—a period punctuated by two intervals of National Service in the military—before graduating MA (Hons) in 1964.

He received his Diploma in Teaching in 1965 and went into employment, firstly at a school in Timaru, but shortly after at Oamaru’s renowned Waitaki Boys’ High School where he rose to deputy rector before resigning, after some twenty-five years as a teacher, to write full-time.

Marshall, a voracious reader as a student, admired writers as diverse as Austen, Faulkner, Hemingway, Huxley, Chekhov and A.E. Coppard. To this list he later added great short story practitioners like Joyce, Babel, Pritchett and Sherwood Anderson.
However, he consistently rated two lesser-known writers, H.E. Bates and Theodore Powys, among his most important influences: ‘Their writing’, he stated, ‘shares two elements that particularly attracted me: firstly a marked felicity of language, secondly a persistent affection for the countryside and rural people.’

As a young teacher in his mid-twenties Marshall directed his powerful urge to write into two novels, neither of which found a publisher, but one of which he later ‘cannibalised—[with] a certain perverse satisfaction’ to fill in the background of many stories. Still unpublished in his early thirties Marshall decided to concentrate on short fiction, a form that interested him as a reader and continued to interest him as a writer because of its ‘constraints—possibilities [and] challenges’. Changing genres did not lead to immediate publication, but Marshall looked back on the period as a necessary apprenticeship.

Success came in 1977 when the *NZ Listener published ‘Descent from the Flugelhorn’—a story set in rural Otago about a rugby player’s encounter with a dying old man.
It was against Marshall’s nature to announce himself as an author—‘I have always valued the fulfilment of being a writer, rather than that of being seen a writer’—so using his Christian names as a pseudonym ensured some anonymity.
More periodical publications followed, but there seemed little prospect of a book. Finally Marshall gambled on the quality of his writing and paid to publish his first collection, Supper Waltz Wilson and Other New Zealand Stories (1979). The return was handsome: New Zealand’s master of the short story,
Frank *Sargeson, in his last review, confessed himself unprepared for the book’s powerful impact and passed his mantle to Marshall with the assessment that it was ‘As fine a book of stories as this country is likely to see…. And because of [its] density, one that will stand close re-reading for many years to come’ (*Islands 30, 1980).

Marshall admired Sargeson, and once said of *‘Conversation with My Uncle’ that ‘I have read whole novels that have less to say, and say it less well’ (NZ Listener, 17 Sep. 1988), but it is also clear that Sargeson exerted no stylistic influence on the younger man. Lawrence *Jones, in his essay ‘Owen Marshall and the Sargeson Tradition’ from Barbed Wire and Mirrors, argues that the similarities in their fiction come, in practice, ‘from the experience of a common New Zealand provincial environment’.

Following his debut, collections of Marshall’s stories appeared regularly, but now reviewers were almost universally enthusiastic, and he never paid for another publication. The Master of Big Jingles and Other Stories (1982) was followed by The Day Hemingway Died and Other Stories (1984); The Lynx Hunter and Other Stories (1987); The Divided World: Selected Stories (1989)—a mix of new and previously published material; Tomorrow We Save the Orphans (1992); The Ace of Diamonds Gang and Other Stories (1993); Coming Home in the Dark (1995); and, most recently, The Best of Owen Marshall’s Short Stories (1997), which collects sixty-seven stories from some one hundred and fifty published.

Marshall is too versatile, too adept at adjusting his narrative technique, ever to be described as a formulaic writer, but the body of his work does reveal certain themes, characters and settings recurring.
For example, the unlovely Ransumeen family, and the fictional town of Te Tarehi—the focal point of a predominantly Pakeha rural community—weave threads of consistency through segments of his work. Marriages, families and small-town life are often the focus, as is the relationship between the individual and those exclusive male preserves—societies of schoolboys, rugby players, farmers or war veterans— that dominate and confer identity in provincial New Zealand. And at the centre of many of these stories is a solid moral core of esteem for individual integrity.

Against this backdrop Marshall frequently fastens on the outsiders—the loners and misfits, underdogs and losers—who fail to conform. Some characters make grand gestures they alone understand, others live ‘lives of quiet desperation’, still others—the unlikeable and unredeemable—are caricatures, products of the writer’s ‘corrosive eye’.
It may be, as Marshall says, that ‘you can get a lot of emotional mileage’ from such characters, yet the way he uses them is often so idiosyncratic that what he illuminates confounds both expectation and preconception.
It is Marshall exposing what he calls ‘the fallibility of the real’, revealing the ‘things of great horror and ineffable joy’ that shimmer beneath the objective world.

Marshall’s empathic identification with small-town New Zealand is tempered by a penetrating realism. Lydia Wevers describes the story ‘Mumsie and Zip’ as ‘the blackest and most brilliantly sinister portrait of the suburban marriage in New Zealand fiction’ (*New Zealand Books, Dec. 1995). And Vincent *O’Sullivan notes how
 ‘A Southland Girl’ only succeeds when a missing context —‘one defining word [that] has been held over’—is supplied (‘The Naming of Parts: Owen Marshall and the Short Story’,
*Sport 3, 1989). When the girl’s lover is abruptly revealed as Maori, the narrative reassessment demanded exposes her protective parents as racists.

Marshall is acutely aware that his early stories have a male emphasis that tends to portray women as aggressive, self-righteous and hypocritical. It has, he explains, much to do with his experience as a heterosexual New Zealand male who was a pupil, and later teacher, at a single-sex boys’ school; who spent time in the army—where ‘I was confronted with the antithesis of individual integrity and the values of group loyalty and support’; and who played ‘a good deal of sport largely with young men of my own age’.
Time, marriage and the birth of two daughters have tempered this, and recent depictions of women elicit a broader spectrum of responses and evidence a wider range of narratorial sympathies.

Often labelled a realist writer, Marshall prefers to think of himself as an impressionist, and experimentation with narrative technique is a hallmark of his writing. In ‘Choctaw Princess’ his stated intention is to use the ‘rhythm, cadence and hypnotic quality of words’ to produce a ‘language mosaic creating pattern and mood’. In contrast, the narrator of ‘The Lynx Hunter’, who is walking to work, sets up in free indirect discourse a series of surreal self-representations, projecting himself onto his external environment, then interrogating and evaluating the self he sees reflected back.

Many critics rank Marshall among the finest, if not the finest, of New Zealand’s short story writers. O’Sullivan defines the terms of reference by which such an assessment is possible when he argues that Marshall ‘constantly tests and breaks expectation [and] drives the form and its possibilities further perhaps than any other New Zealander apart from the three it is necessary to think of if one wants to place him correctly. With Sargeson, *Duggan, *Frame.’

Marshall’s stories have been anthologised internationally and he has received numerous honours, including the Canterbury University writing fellowship, 1981; the PEN Lillian Ida Smith Award for fiction, 1986 and 1988; the Evening Standard short story prize, 1987; the American Express short story award, 1987; two second places for the Katherine *Mansfield BNZ Short Story Award; the 1988 Scholarship in Letters, as well as an achievement award in 1990; the 1992 Otago University *Burns Fellowship; and the 1996 Katherine *Mansfield Memorial Fellowship in Menton, France.

The award of the Burns Fellowship enabled Marshall to write his first published novel, A Many Coated Man (1995), which was shortlisted for the 1995 Montana Book Awards. The novel, set in twenty-first century New Zealand, begins with Christchurch dentist Aldous Slaven—out house-painting precariously close to live power lines—narrowly escaping electrocution. While recuperating from burns Slaven discovers that his near-death experience has gifted him with powers of oratory so compelling that he can spellbind crowds for hours, although afterwards he has no recollection of what he has said. In the dry world of New Zealand politics such ability to pull crowds and sway the masses by articulating simple truths is threatening, and his enemies attempt to silence him by incarcerating him in a ‘hospital’. Slaven escapes, however, re-establishes himself as the head of his Coalition for Citizen Power, and resumes his mission to put a sense of moral community back into politics.

A Many Coated Man is not realist fiction; rather, a subtle current of magic realism charges the narrative: characters die only to reappear later; a short doctor becomes tall and elegant; an enigmatic bald-headed man frequently appears, helping but never speaking; and of course there is Slaven’s own startling transformation. But Marshall’s underlying moral is a realist one of world-weary cynicism. The insidious political process triumphs as Slaven begins making the kinds of compromises all too familiar in recent New Zealand politics—negotiating potential coalitions with mainstream parties in return for concessions on his ideals.

Andrew Mason summed up the critical response to A Many Coated Man when he observed that most ‘reviewers, while admiring the lyrical character of the writing, have found the book flawed in technique and puzzling, even obscure, in its direction. Measured against Marshall’s short stories … the novel was judged a disappointment—interesting, yes, but a failure’ (*Landfall 190, 1995). Given such responses, it seems unlikely that novels will supplant short stories as Marshall’s most acclaimed genre. As Mason concludes, ‘with Marshall less is more.’

Since leaving teaching to pursue his writing, Marshall has run a fiction writing course at Timaru’s Aoraki Polytechnic and edited three books: Burning Boats: Seventeen New Zealand Short Stories (1994), Letter From Heaven: Sixteen New Zealand Poets (1995), and Beethoven’s Ears: Eighteen New Zealand Short Stories (1996). He collaborated with poet Brian *Turner and painter Grahame Sydney on Timeless Land (1995), a volume reflecting the three men’s passion for the Central Otago region, and he has written a radio play commissioned by Radio New Zealand.
Marshall has been interviewed twice: by Lawrence Jones for Landfall (150, 1984) and by Patrick *Evans for
In The Same Room: Conversations with New Zealand Writers (1992). A brief autobiographical essay,
Tunes For Bears To Dance To’, in Sport 3 (1989), recalls his beginnings as a writer.

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cover of The Best of Owen Marshall's Short Story

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Updated information

Marshall's novel, Harlequin Rex (1999) won the Deutz Medal for Fiction at the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.
He received an ONZM for services to literature in the 2000 New Years Honours list.

"Y2K is past, the computer and the fridge are still working, but in Owen Marshall's new novel Harlequin Rex the millennium has unexpectedly tossed up another problem, an epedemic called Harlequin which is working its way around the world early in the new century and is particularly effective, for some reason, in New Zealand... There was always an epidemic in Marshall's fictive world, in other words, a neurological disorder called the human condition..." writes Patrick Evans in  New Zealand Books.

Marshall has edited two recent anthologies of short fiction. Spinning a Line (2001) collects New Zealand writing on fishing and includes contributions from Keri Hulme, Brian Turner, Patricia Grace and Kevin Ireland.

In Authors' Choice (2001), New Zealand writers choose a favorite among their own short stories, and comment briefly on their choice.
The contributors are Barbara Anderson, Norman Bilbrough, Linda Burgess, Catherine Chidgey, John Cranna, Fiona Farrell, Patricia Grace, Russell Haley, Witi Ihimaera, Christine Johnston, Fiona Kidman, Shonagh Koea, Owen Marshall, Vincent O'Sullivan, Sarah Quigley, Emily Perkins, C.K. Stead, Apirana Taylor, Peter Wells and Albert Wendt.
 

 

 

 

 

When Gravity Snaps (2002) is a collection of twenty-four short stories that explore the worlds of small town communities, their loves and losses, their dreams and everyday lives.

In 2002 Marshall was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by the University of Canterbury

cover of Harlequin Rex

 

cover of Spinning a Line

 

 

cover of Authors' Choice

 

 

 

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