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A writer in her residence

Fiona farrell web 1

A writer in her residence

Otago alumna Fiona Farrell has come a long way since co-founding The Oxford Strumpet back in the 1960s. This novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and journalist has added numerous awards, fellowships and residencies to her long list of works.

Writers’ residencies don’t usually come with cafés attached. Offices, always. Accommodation, sometimes. Espresso? Never.

Which is odd, when you think about it, given the amount of literature generated in coffee houses the world over. The screech of a steam wand, clinking crockery and the background thrum of conversation provide an ideal soundtrack for the solitary occupation of writing.

Luckily for novelist, playwright, poet, short-story writer, essayist and journalist Fiona Farrell, the three-month University of Otago Wallace Residency comes with a café just 22 steps down a winding staircase from the residency apartment. Plus there’s an art gallery showcasing one of New Zealand’s largest collections and – right next door – a primary school.

To the south-west, the industrial sprawl is framed by the Pah Homestead’s trees into an attractive composition in which planes hang above the Manukau harbour like heavy seagulls. The melée from the school playground tumbles through the sash windows. It’s here, above the coffee drinkers and art viewers at the TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre – removed from, but connected to, the people of Auckland – that Fiona Farrell writes.

All this is a long way from the Banks Peninsula bolt-hole where Farrell usually resides, a solid one-and-a-half-hour’s drive from Christchurch CBD where her red-stickered apartment awaits an insurer’s verdict. So the Wallace Residency, set up for Otago Arts Fellowship alumni and other creative scholars associated with the University, also offers her an interlude from post-earthquake life.

Even so, Christchurch is the ever-present elephant in the room that is best talked about first, for the events of the last two years have not only changed the city’s collective psyche for good, they have also created the kind of circumstances that fascinate observers of the human condition.

Farrell has, in collaboration with photographer Juliet Nicholas, produced a non-fiction work, The Quake Year, based on interviews with earthquake survivors. A collection of essays and poems, The Broken Book, a finalist in the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Awards, was also the product of the broken city. But Farrell is still intent on observing the positives – the creativity and the resilience of people – that this brutal time has revealed.

“It’s fascinating watching what happens when everything is shaken to pieces,” she says. “Seeing how people respond – it’s a riveting kind of drama. That’s what I’m writing about.”

Farrell is South Island-born, the daughter of an Irish Catholic, horse-loving, gambling, socialist father, and a Scottish Presbyterian mother raised on a farm just outside Dunedin – fertile soil for a budding wordsmith. Raised in Oamaru, she headed to the University of Otago where she enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts while residing in a York Street boarding house, St Margaret’s College and flats. It was, she remembers, a time of discovery: of words, of boys, of herself.

After graduating in 1968, Farrell moved to Oxford with her PhD student husband, Russell Poole. She enrolled to study Art History at the University of London, but neither of them would complete their respective degrees. It was the time of war protests and performance poets, of Mini cars, mini skirts and maxi coats, of touring the countryside in search of Romanesque churches and listening to seminal bands like The Who perform at the Hammersmith Palais and the first of the big outdoor rock concerts.

“I get a bit bored listening to my generation talk about [the 60s],” she admits. “But it was fantastic. It was just so alive.”

Oxford was a magnet for antipodean and American scholars – the likes of Paul Callaghan and Bill Clinton. Kevin Clements, who would later take up the Foundation Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at Otago, was there. Together as part of a collective – that favourite word of the ’70s – that included her husband, University of Otago Press publisher Wendy Harrex, Bridget Williams – later to found Bridget Williams Books – and economist Geoff Bertram, Farrell was involved in launching a broadsheet called The Oxford Strumpet.

“We all dobbed in 10 quid to start it,” she recalls. “It was several pages, printed and stapled, typed up on a Remington portable. We re-used Fat Freddy cartoons, which were the big thing at the time, with no worries about copyright. Then Wendy and I stood on street corners and sold it.”

After the second issue the printer was threatened with closure, the authorities at Oxford threatening to take all their work away from him. But with a spirit of protest that could only belong in the ’60s he refused to be deterred. The Oxford Strumpet was still in existence in 1990 when some of its contributors contacted one of the New Zealand founders to find out about the publication’s genesis.

“I think they thought it was produced by a bunch of Leninists, Trotskyites, Marxists or whatever – everybody was an ‘-ist’ of some sort back then,” says Farrell, “but it was actually a bunch of New Zealanders who got it going. I’m quite proud of that.”

The couple moved to Canada, where Farrell enrolled in a doctorate at the University of Toronto to study the work of T S Eliot. Soon after, however, she had her first child and the degree morphed into an MPhil in drama. The beginnings of her passion for the spoken word – as well as the written – were emerging.

Today Farrell is well known for both. Her play Chook Chook, commissioned by the University of Otago, is one of Playmarket’s most requested scripts. Her poetry, strongly rhythmic, has appeared in prestigious anthologies and her long form prose – including novels such as The Skinny Louie Book and Mr Allbones’ Ferrets – dances on the page with the energy of spoken words.

“I get very bored, very quickly,” she says of the variety in her work. “I couldn’t bear to write the same kind of book over and over again. Sometimes I’ve been told that’s a disadvantage, because I don’t build up a predictable range of work – I’m not just doing murder books or romances, for example. But I like that feeling of shifting gear completely. Writing a poem and writing a play are such totally different experiences.

“Drama is fixed in time and it’s very high impact, because it’s not just your words. How it looks on the page is one thing, but how it’s going to look on the stage is another.

“But I also like being able to think about things at length and have complete control of the whole effect. That’s why I like the novel and non-fiction – that feeling of sitting down and taking a couple of years to really think about something, in-depth.”

Farrell Farrell has been widely recognised for her work. In 1995 she held the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in Menton, France, and in 2006 the Rathcoola Residency in Ireland. She received the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction in 2007 and was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 2011. In 2012 she was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature – a slightly unlikely honour, she quips, for the daughter of a man more aligned with the IRA than the British royalty.

Such achievements, she says, validate the work of writers everywhere, while fellowships such as the University’s Robert Burns Fellowship and Wallace Residency ensure writers get long periods of time, uninterrupted by smaller “paying” jobs and the day-to-day demands of home life, to nurture larger works. In short, they make an important contribution to our literary landscape by enabling writers to concentrate on what they do best.

After this residency, Farrell returns to Canterbury and expects to re-engage with the debate about aspects of Christchurch’s rebuild. She will also recommence her regular visits to Dunedin, where her daughter is currently studying medicine, a journey that always involves an obligatory pit-stop in Oamaru for a McGregor’s mutton pie. Which proves that you can take the writer out of the South Island, but you can’t take the South Island out of the writer – even if she has enjoyed a three-month stint above in-house espresso in Auckland.

– REBECCA TANSLEY