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Vincent O'Sullivan awarded  CNZ's Michael King Fellowship

Distinguished poet, fiction writer, biographer and editor Vincent O'Sullivan has been awarded the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers' Fellowship to write a collection of short stories…


Distinguished poet, fiction writer, biographer and editor Vincent O'Sullivan has been awarded the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers' Fellowship to write a collection of short stories and two novels.

Read on for the Fronseat interview with Vincent O'Sullivan from 20th June 2004.Distinguished poet, fiction writer, biographer and editor Vincent O'Sullivan has been awarded the $100,000 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers' Fellowship to write a collection of short stories and two novels.

Read on for the Fronseat interview with Vincent O'Sullivan from 20th June 2004.Interview Courtesy of Frontseat with thanks

Presenter (Oliver Driver): This weekend writer Vincent O'Sullivan is $100,000 richer after being granted the Creative New Zealand Michael King writers' fellowship. Now there's very little in the writing world that this man can't tackle. He's the author of classics such as the novel 'Let the River Stand', The Play 'Shuriken' and the award winning poetry collection 'Seeing You Asked' and there's plenty more to come. Even though O'Sullivan thinks it's bad luck to talk about future projects, he let Frontseat know that he intends to use his new cash hoard to complete a collection of short stories and two novels. Jeremy Hansen caught up with him at home in the wairarapa.

Vincent O'Sullivan (author): I think writing, for me anyway, it is I suppose a pleasure and partly a physical pleasure of saying something satisfactorily which is an act of clarification at least for yourself.

Reporter (Jeremy Hansen): For Vincent O'Sullivan the role of tortured artist was never his destiny. He was born in 1937 and grew up in the Auckland suburb of Westmere, the youngest of six children in a Catholic working class family.

O'Sullivan: This isn't a very good thing for a writer to say I suppose but I had rather a happy childhood and remember Auden saying that most writers have unhappy childhoods and that the whole drive perhaps towards fiction, to the elaboration of alternative worlds and so on, can very clearly be related to this. But in my case it was an interesting and vivid and primarily happy experience.

Reporter: He's written biographies, poetry, plays and short stories and won a Montana book award in 1994 for his first novel 'Let the River Stand'. His late start as a novelist didn't seem to do him any harm.

O'Sullivan: By the time you're 50 you think well this - it's too late to, you know, become a provincial rugby player, it's too late to start writing novels at that point. So it was really more or less by chance that I started writing a short story that got out of hand for that first novel and so it was almost by mistake.

Reporter: Did you start out with something particular to say?

O'Sullivan: No not at all. I think there was nothing in my writing life I think that I felt the world would be at a disadvantage in not having. You know, even very very fine writers like D H Lawrence I find pretty unattractive really because I'm not interested particularly in writing that is getting at me, that has designs on me, that wants me necessarily to agree with it.

Reporter: The first in his family to go to University, he now has degrees from Auckland and Oxford. He's an internationally respected scholar of Katherine Mansfield and in 1994 spent a year as a Mansfield fellow in Menton. His most recent fascination is John Mulgan, author of the seminal New Zealand novel 'Man Alone'.

O'Sullivan: The very title 'Man Alone', which is so misused and misapplied in New Zealand, is used as a term of approval like a crumpy who can go up the mountain and come back with, you know, six boars on his back or something. The way he uses 'Man Alone' is in an elegiac regretful way, that what a dismal and sad and exploited community we must live in if individuals talk about themselves and regard themselves as men alone.

Reporter: Vincent O'Sullivan thinks of himself as a city guy but most weekends he abandons Wellington for the Wairarapa countryside. The rural getaways, however, don't mean that he's sidling quietly into retirement. He may be in his late sixties but most of his admirers believe that the best of his work is still to come.

O'Sullivan: There are vast areas still of New Zealand life that haven't been engaged with by artists and writers. We haven't had much fiction about the business world. We haven't had many political novels and the more subtle ones such as we, you know, our pretence that we are an egalitarian society, that class doesn't exist and so on, which is a fantasy because everyone knows it does, that's the sort of thing that I hope will be reflected in a lot of our fiction.

Reporter: Is New Zealand writing as distinctive as it used to be?

O'Sullivan: Oh yes, if we can possibly turn a happy story into an unhappy one we'll do that like a shot and I think there is, it sounds a bit glib, but there is a pervading gloom in New Zealand writing that has always been there. It's individuals whose lives generally go wrong and often go wrong because of an unsympathetic or obtuse or prejudiced society. Now you can say perhaps that writers are more alert to sleight than most people and this tends to be reflected in a lot of our fiction.

Reporter: Doom and gloom but underneath it an optimism about the literary terrain that lies ahead.

O'Sullivan: If you're an American or an English writer almost everything has been covered to some extent and you look sort of for the cracks in the tradition where you might be able to do something new. The whole point of my saying this is that there's a hell of a lot about New Zealand life that is yet to be addressed and that can only be a good thing for writers.

Presenter: And watch out for next month's Montana New Zealand Book Awards where Vincent O'Sullivan's biography of John Mulgan is a finalist.

The Creative New Zealand Writers' Fellowship was established last year to support senior writers wishing to work on a major project over at least two years. It has been renamed in recognition of the late Dr Michael King, his contribution to literature and his role in advocating for a major fellowship for New Zealand writers.

O'Sullivan, who retired as Professor of English at Victoria University in 2002 and lives in Wellington, says he is honoured that the fellowship carries Michael King's name.

"I first met Michael when I was working at Waikato University in the 1970s," he recalls. "At that time, he was a young reporter on the Waikato Times, where he brought a real seriousness to the reporting of local and Maori affairs. Following his career was to follow the emergence of an exceptionally wise and productive writer. He was also a remarkably selfless one. I can't think of any who did so much for his fellow writers."

For O'Sullivan, the Creative New Zealand Michael Kings Writers' Fellowship gives him "total liberty to spend a couple of years devoted to researching and writing the three works. There's still some essential research to be done out of New Zealand and the fellowship makes that possible."

His biography of New Zealand writer John Mulgan, Long Journey to the Border (Penguin), was shortlisted in the biography category of the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards announced in early June. Reviewing the biography in The New Zealand Herald last November, Michael King described it as "a fine and scrupulous biography" and concluded: "I can't envisage a better or more deeply satisfying book being published in New Zealand this year."

O'Sullivan's latest poetry collection, Nice morning for it, Adam (Victoria University Press), was published this year. One critic wrote that this latest volume "shows O'Sullivan in superb form: he just keeps getting better".

O'Sullivan was selected from an impressive line-up of senior New Zealand writers. Applications were assessed by an expert literary panel whose recommendations were forwarded to the Arts Board of Creative New Zealand for the final decision.

Alastair Carruthers, acting Chair of the Arts Board, said that Vincent O'Sullivan has made an enormous contribution to New Zealand's literature and is an acclaimed writer across a number of genres: poetry, novel, short stories, plays, biography. Also an editor and critic, he has just written his first opera with music by composer Ross Harris.

"Vincent has produced an extraordinary body of work and readers everywhere can look forward to reading the work that transpires from this fellowship," Mr Carruthers said.

At the recent Writers and Readers' Week, held as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival 2004, O'Sullivan was asked by an audience member whether he was planning to write an autobiography. The writer's response was: "Oh, I don't have the imagination for that."

Over the past 15 years, O'Sullivan's imagination has resulted in five poetry collections, two novels, two short story collections, three plays for professional theatre, several radio plays and the Mulgan biography. In that time, he has also edited numerous literary publications and is completing the final volume of the five-volume edition of The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, which he has been editing with Margaret Scott. He has also edited The Norton Critical Edition of Katherine Mansfield., which will be published next year by W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

O'Sullivan's entry in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, written by Professor Mac Jackson of the University of Auckland, notes: "O'Sullivan can mock, satirise and laugh, but he also finds dignity in unexpected places. He is interested in the borderland where truth and lies meet, both in life and in fiction itself."

The winner of many literary prizes, including the Montana New Zealand Book Awards for fiction and poetry, O'Sullivan was also the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton in 1994 and Director of the Stout Research Centre at Victoria University in 1997. He was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in 2000.

 Given Vincent O'Sullivan's long list of achievements, what else is there for him to achieve? "Anyone satisfied with what he's done has already given up being a writer," he says. "All I want to achieve is that the next book might be an improvement on the previous one."

The Creative New Zealand Writers' Fellowship was offered for the first time in 2003 to Timaru writer Owen Marshall as a result of the Government's additional funding of $1 million (inc. GST) per year made available to the literary sector. Part of the funding was also used to establish three annual Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement, worth $60,000 each and awarded in the categories of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

Vincent O'Sullivan and the recipients of the Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement will be celebrated at a special function in late 2004.

Written by

Arts Work Project

21 Jun 2004

Interests Creative Industries development