An Hour with Vincent O’Sullivan: WORD Christchurch Spring Festival 2020

Vincent O’Sullivan (DCNZM) is one of New Zealand’s best-known writers. He is a poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, critic, editor, biographer, and librettist. Former Poet Laureate and recipient of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship (1994), O'Sullivan jointly edited the five-volume Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield (with Margaret Scott). He has won many national book awards, three times for fiction and three times for poetry, and has edited the edited generations of collections of New Zealand authors.

Most recently Vincent has written artist Ralph Hotere's biography, The Dark is Light Enough.

Ralph Hotere: The Dark Is Light Enough: A Biographical Portrait

Vincent talked with fellow author Paul Millar this Friday afternoon at Tūranga in the WORD Christchurch Spring Festival.

O'Sullivan's newest collection is called Selected Stories, while a poetry anthology, Things OK With You? is due out in 2021.

Selected Stories

Paul began by acknowledging the mana whenua of Ōtautahi.

Then he held up a copy of Landfall Magazine, from 1952, and read the third stanza from Vincent's first poem to be published, 'Antigone', in this issue. It would appear that O'Sullivan found his voice at an early age (21), observes Millar. O'Sullivan's reflection of Kiwi vernacular and idioms, with no 'oxymoronic choice' in this particular work creates a sense of looking upwards, aspiring to something. O'Sullivan is somewhat embarrassed at this digging up of his early work.

O'Sullivan is a prolific writer. His last contribution to fiction was 2018's All This By Chance. Beginning with a young Kiwi man seeking his fortune in post-war London, it's a gently treated story of the Holocaust from the point of view of three generations of Jewish women who emigrated to New Zealand.

All This by Chance

About the only thing missing in O'Sullivan's work, asserts Millar, is an autobiography. The closest we get is Still Shines When You Think Of It - a 'Festshrift' (a collection of friends and fellow writers' memoirs and tributes to him).

Still Shines When You Think of It

How little we know of his life! Says Millar. 

O'Sullivan: "I don’t really care for the main character enough..."

Millar: "You don’t have the imagination for it?"

"I find it difficult to tell the truth for that long." Here he quotes Katherine Mansfield: ‘"I falsify a little."

Katherine Mansfield's New Zealand

Millar:  'When did you start writing?'

O'Sullivan says he started at fifteen, when he read eighteenth-century poet Keats by mistake. Then he wrote at university (of Auckland).

'Though nothing could be as good as what was on that page' (Keats).

We discuss one of Vincent's mentors, Charles Brasch. O'Sullivan remembers all were in awe of this reserved but encouraging tutor, but there weren't many laughs with him. He was a man who put his wealth entirely into the arts; a cultural hero, says O'Sullivan.

Millar: "Who else influenced you?"

O'Sullivan: "When books are not around everything is a surprise."

Is this why you're so diverse?

"I write what is attractive at the moment; interest makes the (format) decision."

Does Vincent have a writing routine?

Maurice Gee, Maurice Shadbolt had a regime, a sense of temporal dedication. Vincent is a dabbler: "This’ll do for today." When he was working full time in teaching, it was "Whatever time you could make." I can relate to that.

Does Vincent O'Sullivan identify with professional writers? Vincent:

"I hope not! It depends. We all write about ourselves to some extent.

O'Sullivan's never been a fan of confessional poetry. "It's as if you're a failure if you don't have something dreadful to confess, or gone through a few marriages."  O'Sullivan had an ordinary upbringing in an Auckland suburb, he says (although many of the Great Odes are confessional). O'Sullivan muses on the fact that in prose and stories written in the first person we accept the convention. Yet in poetry "we’re hamstrung by ‘I’ speaking. Why can’t poetry do that?" Assume a persona... Here O'Sullivan reads ‘Don’t Scrap Those Second Best’ - a love poem in the first person. 

Politics in writing? When in Greece, O'Sullivan was driven out by a coup. This gave him a convincing link to writer/soldier John Mulgan. Vincent says he's not necessarily good at writing about politics.

"I can do drunken socialist but capitalism and socialism as a subject are not the place for intellectual discussion."

O'Sullivan is more likely to write with close focus on an event or personality, using various techniques to get that across.

Long Journey to the Border

We discuss theatre in the context of politics. Drama is an exception. "All my dramas are political," says O'Sullivan. Theatre can’t help but be political." Shuriken (1983) explores the implications of the deaths of Japanese prisoners-of-war in Featherston in 1942.

Millar: "Do politics prevent certain kinds of writing?"

O'Sullivan: "Where does literature go in the age of spectacle? Escapism?" He points to the variety of post war German fiction that didn’t engage with the violence of war.


An audience member asks: "What form do you like to play in most?" Vincent likes all form: "You can’t get away from form...writing without structure is like removing a blancmange mould too early. It keeps you in place."

O'Sullivan's approach to biography? "It should be shaped and selected: not everything you need to know about someone. Never speculate. Use evidence."

This is why O'Sullivan doesn't focus on John Mulgan's possible suicide: no one is really sure about it.

Vincent then treats us to a poem about poetry: ‘After Lucy Tinakori’s Famous Party.’ Its hilarious as it pokes fun at the attitude that (these days) every child is a winner. Holly insists she lost at pin the tail on the donkey: 'the tail should be on arse!' Lol.

Taboos? "If it’s offensive enough I’ll write the poem straight away: no no-go areas."

O'Sullivan reads one last poem, 'The Story of Born Again Brightly,’ about a dermatologist (Gold Finger) who charges a lot of money for his consults: there's 'nothing (he) can’t fix;‘ ‘investment melanoma’ or a ‘ganglia of hardened envy...’ 


Vincent O'Sullivan appears in three events at WORD; An Hour With Vincent O'Sullivan, Remembering Ralph Hotere, and Dear Katherine.

Vincent O'Sullivan

Find books by Vincent O'Sullivan in our collection.

WORD Christchurch