Owen Marshall interview

by John McCrystal / 11 June, 2011
Owen Marshall’s first historical novel looks beyond the dominating presence of William Larnach to the love affair between his wife and favourite son.

You get something of a sense of the man William James Mudie Larnach was when you stand before his imposing house. Larnach was fond of calling it “the Camp” (after the cottage he and his family camped in while the main house was being built, and because they were obliged to camp in some combination of its many rooms for the entire 12 years it took a small army of craftsmen to do the finishing work), but it’s better known today as Larnach Castle. It’s a strange mélange of styles, once memorably described as “Scots Baronial meets Turkish Brothel”, and is both strikingly grand and somehow palpably tragic – much like the life of Larnach himself.

Larnach cuts a fascinating figure on history’s stage. As the castle and the ostentatious tomb he constructed for his first wife in Dunedin’s North Cemetery suggest, he was bombastic and pretentious, as self-involved and hell-bent on conspicuous consumption as anyone who ever built a mansion on Paritai Drive. In his day, he managed to soar to heights of wealth and power and then crash and burn, finally shooting himself in the head in Parliament in 1898 as he contemplated the ruins of his business empire and the rumoured possibility that his third (and much younger) wife was romantically involved with his favourite son.

It’s a great yarn, and Larnach is almost a Shakespearean character: Lear and Othello rolled into one. It was simply too good to let lie gathering dust in history texts, and sure enough a play about his tragic last days, Larnach – Castle of Lies, was written in 1993 (it was once performed for invited guests in the old building’s ballroom), and now there is a novel, courtesy of one of our finest writers.

Owen Marshall had visited the Camp several times over many years, as it was slowly brought back from grungy decay to restored glory. He knew something of Larnach’s story, and was always sensitive to the pervasive “air of aspiration and tragedy” that saturates the Camp itself. “Everything about Larnach was on a grand scale – success and failure – and his life ended in dramatic tragedy. But there were other family members with different lives and untold ­stories, and the possibilities there intrigued me more as a writer.”

It was when Marshall read King of the Castle, a bio­graphy of Larnach by his great-great-granddaughter Fleur Snedden, that he got a glimpse into the characters and the dramatic situation they found themselves in. “Many truths emerged there. Some rumours were put to rest there and others substantiated, and I saw the basis for a novel.”

Snedden’s book declares it a virtual certainty that William’s son Douglas and wife Constance de Bath Brandon, who was 35 when she married 57-year-old William, were having an affair. It’s this relationship that is the central focus of Marshall’s The Larnachs.

“It’s one of the oldest and most persistent plots in life and literature,” Marshall says. “The relationship triangle. But my emphasis is really on the younger two, the lovers.” William is in the background.

You sometimes hear of sculptors who can “see” the shape of their finished work in a rough block of marble; it’s a matter of liberating it. Marshall experimented with different chisels at first, too. He tried narrating from the third-person point of view – the prologue and epilogue are still in this voice – but it felt too impersonal. “It’s not just a matter of fleshing out a historical skeleton. It was more a case of finding an inner voice, an inner compulsion.”

He settled on telling the story from his characters’ perspective. “I initially toyed with the idea of having the three voices, William, Dougie and Conny, but I decided against that. Firstly, because it made the point of view more complex.

Secondly, because William tends to dominate any account, particularly in the historical record, and if permitted to bulk large, he would crowd out Conny and Dougie. Thirdly, this is not his story.”

Instead, Conny and Dougie pass the narrative back and forth between them. It’s an elegant device: it enables the reader to trace the growth and intensification of their relationship, from their initial diffidence towards one another to their impassioned mutual attraction, through its incremental steps. You can identify the little things they have in common, and the little differences between them – in precisely the same way lovers discover these details in one another.

While Marshall’s last novel, Drybread (2007), used a narrative arc that was suggested by “real life” events, this is the first time he has tackled a historical novel, where the narrative is all but supplied.

Drybread wasn’t an easy novel to write, he says, but “there were fewer obstacles to the writing”, in terms of facts that needed checking and areas that needed research. In The Larnachs, he has given due deference to the facts, where they are known. “I wasn’t prepared to write the novel unless the affair between Conny and Dougie was authenticated. The fiction writer makes up a great deal, but I felt certain core things needed to be true. If there wasn’t a sexual relationship between the two, I wasn’t prepared to portray one.”

Another of the hard decisions he made while researching his subject, Marshall says, was whether or not to approach the descendants. Fiona Kidman, writing her historical novel The Captive Wife, chose to do so, and received plenty of information, along with support and encouragement. “I deliberately chose not to. I didn’t want to raise expectations that I couldn’t fulfil, or create obligations to present their relatives, their ancestors, in certain ways, and so hobble the ­imagination.

“My book is not a biography and not a history. It’s a novel: the imaginative interpretation of a situation experienced by real people. I could have written a story based on that situation that didn’t mention the Larnachs at all, but I didn’t want readers to be able to evade the realisation that, although it’s powerfully dramatic, this is a predicament in which real people have found themselves.”

Marshall has an honours degree in New Zealand history, and although he did his best to get period detail right, he’s not too concerned that anachronisms or historical errors – “hopefully minor” – may crop up. “I’m more interested in getting some sense of validity in the emotional relationships, in attempting integrity and compassion in the creation of character.”

True to his previous books, Marshall takes pains to avoid making it into what might have been a “lurid, sensational” story, which is certainly the way it was depicted in contemporary newspapers. He was anxious that none of the characters was made to seem the villain of the piece, and even that none of the three characters acted out of malice toward one another. And sure enough, all three – Connie, Dougie and even the vain and faintly ridiculous William – finish up as objects of pity.

Yet to those familiar with Marshall’s writing, there are startlingly steamy moments and there’s less of the humour that is such a distinctive feature of his short fiction. Marshall acknowledges it’s probably true he uses less humour in his novels than in his short stories, but there’s a ready explanation in the case of The ­Larnachs. “I didn’t want to make it a comic novel, or a farce. After all, it’s not exactly a funny story. So much was at stake for these people – the greatest of happiness, and also tragedy. But there are lighthearted moments, as there are for all of us.”

There has been something of an ­efflorescence of historical fiction in New Zealand of late. Marshall says he wasn’t conscious of setting out to join a movement, but he finds himself in good company. “Maurice Shadbolt and others wrote historical fiction, and more recently I suspect Jenny Pattrick and Fiona Kidman have been very influential. But I think New Zealand is perhaps coming of age, in terms of feeling that it has an interesting and evocative history that’s worth portraying, perhaps even transfiguring in our writing. I’m sure that’s part of it.”

The Larnachs is an interesting development for Marshall. For many years pigeon-holed as a writer of realist fiction from a masculine perspective, he has proved himself far more than a one-trick pony. He has published two volumes of poetry and The Larnarchs is his fourth novel. Half of it is written from a woman’s point of view.

He doesn’t have a current project. “After being close to Conny and Dougie for so long, I need to let them fade before welcoming new characters. The next work will almost certainly be contemporary fiction, not another historical novel. In the meantime, my focus is on judging this year’s Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award, and some poetry ideas. Also, I’m on the board of the New Zealand Book Council, and there are interesting developments there.”
Marshall seems relaxed, and pretty happy with his lot, all told. You’d be hard-pressed to identify lines of bitterness on his face, but his laugh has left its mark.

“Living in Timaru, I’m not a member of any metropolitan literary clique, and no doubt there are disadvantages to that. But I’m happy to live where I do, quite close to the heartlands of the Mackenzie Country and Central Otago, and I’m fortunate in my writing friends.”

THE LARNACHS, by Owen Marshall (Vintage, $39.99).


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