Owen Marshall Biography
Nationality: New Zealander. Born: Owen Marshall Jones in Te Kuiti, 1941. Education: Timaru Boy's High School; University of Canterbury, Christchurch, 1960-63, M.A. (honours) in history 1963; Christchurch Teachers College, teaching diploma, 1964. Career: Deputy rector, Waitaki Boys High School, Oamaru, 1983-85; deputy principal, Craighead Diocesan School, Timaru, 1986-91. Since 1993, tutor, Aoraki Polytechnic, Timaru. Literary fellow, University of Canterbury, 1981. Awards: Lillian Ida Smith award, 1986, 1988; Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council scholarship, 1987; Evening Standard award, for short story, 1987; American Express award, for short story, 1987; New Zealand Literary Fund scholarship in letters, 1988, and Distinction award, 1989; University of Otago's Robert Burns fellowship, 1992. Agent: Glenys Bean, 15 Elizabeth Street, Freeman's Bay, Auckland.
A Many Coated Man. Dunedin, Longacre, 1995.
Coming Home in the Dark. Auckland, Vintage, 1995.
Supper Waltz Wilson and Other New Zealand Stories. Christchurch, Pegasus Press, 1979.
The Master of Big Jingles and Other Stories. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1982.
The Day Hemingway Died. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1984.
The Lynx Hunter and Other Stories. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1987.
The Divided World: Selected Stories. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1989.
Tomorrow We Save the Orphans. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1992.
The Ace of Diamonds Gang. Dunedin, McIndoe, 1993.
An Indirect Geography, 1989.
Editor, Letter from Heaven. Auckland, L. Paul, 1995.
Barbed Wire and Mirrors: Essays on New Zealand Prose by Lawrence Jones, Dunedin, University of Otago Press, 1987; "The Naming of Parts: Owen Marshall" by Vincent O'Sullivan, in Sport 3 (Wellington), 1989; In the Same Room edited by Alley and Williams, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 1992.
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In an essay in Sport Owen Marshall has written of his growing interest in books during his childhood and of his early attempts at writing, including two unpublished novels. He turned to the short story form in the mid-1970s and published his first piece in the New Zealand Listener in 1977. It was the beginning of a success which has been sustained since then, and which has gained him recognition as one of the most substantial short story writers in present-day New Zealand.
By 1979 he was able to present a collection of fourteen stories to the Christchurch publisher Pegasus Press. Supper Waltz Wilson and Other New Zealand Stories was financed by the author in a venture well-justified by the publication's success and by its favourable reviews. Frank Sargeson's praise helped confirm Marshall's reputation as an important new writer, and from then on his stories began to appear regularly in New Zealand periodicals and anthologies of contemporary fiction as well as being broadcast by Radio New Zealand. Three further books made Marshall's work widely available over these years: The Master of the Big Jingles, The Day Hemingway Died, and The Lynx Hunter. These were followed by The Divided World, a retrospective selection of his work in 1989, and more recently a new collection, Tomorrow We Save the Orphans, and a further selection, The Ace of Diamonds Gang and Other Stories.
Marshall's stories fit easily into a tradition of realism that has long been one of the strengths of the New Zealand short story; they serve, moreover, to extend and enhance that tradition. The narratives frequently describe a middle or lower-middle class New Zealand world, with its Anglo Saxon parameters of conventionality. It is a world that is frequently small town or rural in its perspectives, and masculine in its point of view, though Marshall treats his female characters with more subtlety and sensitivity than has traditionally been associated with male New Zealand writers. In some of his most successful stories—the title stories of his first two volumes, for example, or in "Kenneth's Friend," "Valley Day," and "The Paper Parcel"—his characters recall childhood and adolescence, the rites of passage, and the awareness of an impinging world that the young have to take into account. There are similar cool recognitions in his stories that tell of young adults who perceive the realities of an older generation's experiences of life, as in "The Day Hemingway Died," "A Poet's Dream of Amazons," and the superb study of a son's vision of his dying father—"The Seed Merchant." In Marshall's fictional world the sense of loss or of poignancy that habitually accompanies such awareness is not allowed to deteriorate into sentimentality. Indeed, Marshall is distinctive among the New Zealand writers who have treated such themes for his quiet ironic detachment, and for the clear-eyed recognitions (akin to those of his literary predecessor Maurice Duggan) of inevitability and common culpability in his little scenes from the human comedy.
Characterisation, perhaps even more than plot, is of principal importance to Marshall, and his proclivity for first person narration allows him both the opportunities for narrative insights, and the possibilities of unconscious ironic self-revelation on the part of his protagonists. He handles dialogue fluently and has a sharp ear for the cadences and nuances of the local idiom, but it is perhaps in his settings, of places and people alike, that New Zealand readers most clearly recognise an indigenous writer of considerable ability. Sargeson very early saw that Marshall could move us to "experience an environment which has mysteriously become a character in its own right"; the idea is as valid in Marshall's latest work as in his earliest.
Marshall's reputation still rests on his work as a short story writer at the present time, though his first novel, A Many Coated Man, written when he held the Robert Burns fellowship at the University of Otago in 1992, was published in 1995. A novel that is both wry and tragicomic, it looks at the politics and society of a New Zealand some years into the future from our own time when immense social and economic changes are reconstructing the nation and its sense of identity. It reveals many of the skills that have made Marshall's stories so popular, though tonal unevennness and a sense that the writer is possibly less assured in writing fiction on this scale, have meant a muted critical response to the book thus far.
A literary tradition of strength and vitality in the field of the short story has distinguished New Zealand writing since the late 1930s, and Marshall is clearly one of the most important contemporary exponents of the form. The last ten years have seen an increasing interest in the postmodern ludic invention in prose; some of New Zealand's best new writers have pursued this interest, but Marshall has to a considerable extent chosen to remain within an older tradition of realism that gives priority to characterisation and plot narration. Though some of the stories in The Lynx Hunter and the title story of The Divided World show an increasing preparedness to work experimentally with new forms and with nonrealist modes of presentation, Marshall is still primarily a teller of tales. His writings seek to remind us of the known and the forgotten alike; their narrative vision suggest the wish to reveal sympathies that are never sentimental, seldom other than compassionate, and always couched in the language of one who is thoroughly sensitive to the power of words.