04 October 2016

An Interview With Antony Millen

Antony Millen is a Canadian living and writing in Taumarunui. Originally from Nova Scotia, he moved to New Zealand in 1997. In recent years, he has written three novels and seen short stories published in Landfall and Headland with another to appear in the December edition of Antipodes. He also won the 2014 Heartland short story competition, placed third in the 2015 NZSA Central Districts competition and spoke as a panellist at the 2016 Ruapehu Writers Festival.

Antony blogs regularly about New Zealand books and writers at antonymillen.com.

1) Antony, you publish your work independently. Is that a choice you always intended to make, and in practice, how has it worked out? Would you ever consider seeking to have your work published by a conventional publisher?

I always wanted to write a novel and sat on one idea for over ten years. As far as I was concerned, the night I completed the first draft was the night I accomplished my mission. But the draft begged the question, “what to do with it?” I did submit it to publishers. Random House New Zealand returned a very kind rejection letter.

My main purposes in publishing the book independently had little to do with confidence in the story and more to do with impatience. I could have submitted it to multiple publishers, each time waiting months for their verdict. Even it had been accepted, it would have taken over a year to see publication. I guess, after so long working on it, I was keen to see it in print sooner. I’m happy I did, as many of the experiences I’ve had as a writer since would have been delayed if not missed. Having said that, I did submit the draft of my third novel to publishers, but not many. I would be interested in working with a publisher for the experience of working through the process with one. Distribution is a pain, too, so if I thought someone could have help with that, I’d be keen as.

2) You teach New Zealand literature. What age range do you teach New Zealand literature to, and what kind of reactions do you get to that teaching? What types of New Zealand books work best with your students?

I completed my English Literature degree in Canada, so almost of all of the content I studied was Canadian, British or from the Classical world. Shifting to Taumarunui High School from a primary school six years ago has been a joy and complimented my own writing immensely, especially as I have had to immerse myself in New Zealand literature, both classic and modern. My colleagues have been a great help.

Of course, we study a lot of film as well, and our students aren’t reading as much as I would like. However, we’ve enjoyed work by Frank Sargeson, James K Baxter, Katherine Mansfield, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, Owen Marshall, Fleur Beale, Mandy Hager, and Graeme Lay.. More recently, I’ve introduced them to poets such as Nick Ascroft and Michael Jackson, short story writers like Tony Chapelle from Palmerston North, and snippets of novels by Jess Richards and Bianca Zander – writers I’ve met, reviewed and featured in blog posts. Tim Jones will get a look at some point. All great stuff.

3) And of course, you are also a reviewer. Do your reviews cover books of all sorts, or do you focus on certain types of books? What do you consider your job as a reviewer entails?

I’ll link this response to that recent infamous article in the NZ Listener, supposedly revealing that New Zealanders don’t like their own literature. In some of the Twitter and blog fall-out from that, the common complaint seems to be that not enough is being done to make people aware of what’s out there and how good it is. I see my role as a reviewer including that task: letting people know about some of the good stuff that’s out there.

I’m not an overly critical reviewer, but I try to feature books I genuinely have enjoyed reading, are topical, and that may need more publicity. So I’ve reviewed Anna Smaiil, Eleanor Catton, and Ted Dawe, but also lesser-known writers like Tui Allen and Nix Whittaker. I sometimes review books making the news or by people I know from Canada, but since I started blogging, my main focus has been on New Zealand literature, regardless of genre as long as it’s interesting to me.

4) You're based in Taumarunui. What's the writing scene like there?

I’m glad you asked! I feel it’s really blossomed in a new way in the time since I launched Redeeming Brother Murrihy. For years, there has been an active writing group in the area, facilitated by William Taylor until he passed away. The Taumarunui Historical Society, led by Ron Cooke, of ‘Roll Back the Years’ fame, publishes books about the area on a regular basis.

But now we have myself, along with Nix Whittaker, who works in my English department and writes sci-fi, steampunk romance novels; Stuart Campbell, who writes epic novels about ninja in Feudal Japan; and A.D. Thomas, who is an essayist and poet. Even our head of Social Sciences, Chris Brady, produced a memoir about his experiences living and teaching in London. ‘Iron sharpens iron’ is a good phrase – knowing others are doing it creates a little competition and collegiality. We’re all very independent, but we have our feet in the water. I think I may be mixing metaphors, but you get the point.

5) I grew up in Southland, and I have been back a couple of times for literary events, such as the Dan Davin Festival and its precursor. Taking a writing workshop at one of those events, I was struck by how deeply the writers - especially those writing for a New Zealand audience - felt an isolation and sense of disconnection from the "mainstream" of New Zealand literature. I know other South Island writers who feel this, too. Is this also an issue for writers in and around Taumarunui?

Absolutely. Sometimes it’s easy to take an attitude of ‘I don’t need to be connected’ and strike forward with an independent spirit characteristic of a place like the King Country and, I presume, like Southland. To each their own, but I like connecting and conversing with people who are doing the things I like doing and want to be doing more of. This doesn’t always mean meeting with a group for me. Social media is fun and can sometimes be enough. However, I did appreciate being involved in the Ruapehu Writers Festival last March and, as you know, attending some of the Off the Page sessions run by Thom Conroy and Massey University in Palmerston North.

There is isolation, but there can be ways around it – and I prefer to look at the isolation as an advantage, perhaps offering a vantage point varying from the mainstream, and speaking for those outside it. I don’t mean that to sound like I’m “championing the little guy” as it makes sense that some of the best writers should emerge from all over the place, not just the major centres. Tim Upperton recently pointed out on Facebook that, in his review of Hera Lindsay Bird in Metro magazine, he was acknowledged as a writer and poet from Wellington because, in his own (sarcastic) words, “To be a writer and poet in Palmerston North is impossible.” This is a nominee for the 2016 Ockham award for poetry talking – and, from my perspective, he’s not even from a small isolated place! But I think his comment applies universally to attitudes about where good writing comes from.

6) You're a blogger who is also active on social media. Are these promotional duties you have no choice but to do, or are they a joy to participate in, or a mixture? And how well do these connect you to the wider writing world?

The only duties I have as a blogger are those that I create for myself. However, sometimes I create obligations I resent having to complete. Resent is probably too strong a word, but this is one reason I’m not reviewing as many books at the moment and instead started the Weekend Name Drop series.

When I started the blog, I had no idea what I wanted to use it for. My first post was about an incident on a flight back from Sydney after seeing a Bruce Springsteen concert! Soon, I was reviewing books and writing about events or adventures I was involved in, including mountain biking trails in the Central North Island. These have connected me to the wider world and I enjoy checking the statistics for posts, I’ll admit that.

The Weekend Name Drop has been an interesting challenge, one that brings me weekly joy although there are times I wish I didn’t have to do it and wonder if it has taken the place of other writing at times during the year. I enjoy reconnecting with people who are doing creative things and deserve some wider recognition. I never wanted to write anything but novels, but now I’m blogging, writing short stories and poetry and even some essays lately.

7) You have a lot going on in your writing life. How do you balance that with the other lives you lead? Have you ever felt that writing was just too much on top of everything else?

Yes! In fact, as I write this, I am on the train to Palmerston North to meet up with my daughter. We are flying to Canada for a few weeks – the first time she’s been back since we moved here in 1997. It’s only my second time back. Other than the Weekend Name Drop and these interview questions, I’ve needed to put all writing aside to work and prepare for this journey. That was not difficult in hindsight, but I have been writing in some form almost daily for a long time now. Perhaps it is time for a break.

When I used to run, it read that runners fear missing a day because there is an omnipresent fear they’ll never start again. I think writers feel the same and, to be honest, I’m tired of writers boasting of all the daily pages they do. I can’t do it, really. I need to work and live and write when I have something to write about. I’ve even had to put aside my partially completed novel draft started during my Spinoff residency at the Surrey Hotel in Auckland last July. As I say, I’ve done it for a good reason and no longer worry that I won’t return to it. Just nobody tell Steve Braunias!

8) What, if anything, can you tell us about writing and writing-related projects you're working on at the moment?

The novel I started in July is a young adult novel, shorter than The Chain and less ambitious and complicated in terms of plot and settings. However, there is a depth in the relationships between the characters I am enjoying and challenged by. In short, it’s about three teenagers in a rural New Zealand town. One of them has taken off inexplicably, leaving her best friend confused and opening up an opportunity for the third to develop a new relationship. It also has rodeos, Canadian Mounties, girls beating up boys and a lighthouse.

I’ve been researching a much larger project for a couple of years now. It’s thematically related to my second book, Te Kauhanga, but with an eye to forming a trilogy of sorts. I’ve sketched out possible plans for a series for 8-10 year olds, and I am continually on the look-out for ideas for short stories and essays, particularly if they might lead to prize money or publication. Being honest.

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