10 Questions with Deborah Shepard


1. It must be good to see The Writing Life sent off to print.

It’s a strange feeling letting go of a manuscript that has occupied your every waking moment for three years. There was a sense of huge relief that the work was finally done but also an underlying anxiety — did I catch every proofing error? Has anything been overlooked? That’s when I had to remind myself that I wasn’t alone in the enterprise and was in fact supported by a highly skilled editing team whose process was rigorous.

2. Proud of it?

Yes I feel immense pride and satisfaction because it is a lovely book — the stories are absolutely compelling — and the book itself is a beautiful object. I’m hugely thankful to photographer John McDermott for his iconic black and white author portraits and for his cover image of Patricia Grace on the beach at Hongoeka Bay, Plimmerton, and to Massey University Press and designer Kate Barraclough for their commitment to such high production values and a most elegant design.

3. These twelve writers clearly impressed you greatly. What can other writers learn from them?

At times it did feel as though I was sitting at the feet of a selection of New Zealand’s greatest authors listening to their stories of the triumphs and vagaries of the writing life, and yes I was in awe of them. But equally I found them to be warm and hospitable and easy to be with. What might other writers learn from them? The role of persistence and keeping on even when there are knock-backs and disappointments. These authors are seasoned in the art of rallying after a setback and there is much we can learn from them about their techniques and processes.

4. What can those working in the broader creative sector learn from them?

These authors demonstrate the value of perseverance and self-discipline and the importance of holding onto self-belief in the pursuit of the artistic practice. There is a sense in these accounts of the writer as worker going daily to the desk to draft and craft tens of thousands of words, not waiting for inspiration to strike, but doing it day in and day out until the job is done. I also noted that they are skillful strategists, actively planning ahead, searching for the next idea that will lead to another book and publishing contract.

5. Of course they are more than writers. They have all been part of building this nation’s cultural capital, haven’t they?

This is one of the exciting aspects of the book because here are twelve accounts of New Zealand’s literary history told by twelve writers who were developing their careers over the same timeframe, from 1959, through a golden era of publishing opportunities to the more unsettled and fragmented climate of today. Alongside their accounts of the creation of a significant body of work they have all contributed in practical ways to the development of our literary culture, working as advocates for the writing community and spearheading campaigns through The New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) and Storylines to improve conditions for authors. They’ve been active in the promotion of writing and books and taking the world of ideas to school students through the Writers in Schools programme and to festival audiences throughout New Zealand and internationally. As a group they have contributed vastly to our understandings of New Zealand culture and history, with biographies of writers, artists and historical figures, scholarly texts, histories, memoirs of the literary life and anthologies of Māori and Pacific literature. My only regret is that I couldn’t interview more of our acclaimed authors to further enrich our understandings of our literary history.  

6. What’s one new thing you learnt while working on the book?

I had imagined, because these authors are widely fêted, and their bibliographies are vast, that they had enjoyed a charmed experience, and while it is definitely the case that they were carving out their careers during a golden era in publishing both locally and internationally, when an author could dream up an idea for a book, write a line or two of explanation to a publisher and promptly receive an offer of a contract from each of them, what I hadn’t expected to encounter was so many rejected manuscripts, burned manuscripts, unfinished projects and unsuccessful funding applications. One author applied for a writing award six times before she won it!

7. And another new thing?

I learned more about the ebb and flow of the writing life, and of the value of having a philosophical as opposed to a reactive attitude towards its challenges. I also discovered that it is sometimes possible to rescue a rejected manuscript and give it another chance at life.

8. Were you surprised by how open they were with you?

I was moved by their generosity and receptivity to the questions that delved deeper into the authors’ personal experiences of disappointment, grief and challenge. One of the advantages of interviewing authors in the latter stages of very fruitful and productive lives was their accrued sense of satisfaction at having created a body of work that will outlive them and this made them more open to discussing the complexity of being mortal.

9. Spending time with them all must have been a privilege. But the project was huge. How did you manage to work your way through it?

The book began as an oral history project with a brief to interview eight authors for the New Zealand Society of Authors. Because this initial phase was funded by an Award in Oral History from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage I had to work to a timeframe that allowed just five months to research and conduct the interviews. This meant there were only two to three weeks to read and cram and prepare extensive question sheets in advance of each interview. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard, or kept such long hours. The regime was relentless, but the work was absorbing and so rewarding. Sometimes serendipity arrived just minutes before the interview and I would find a critical poem, or a passage in a book that would then trigger a rewarding line of discussion. Phew. Once all twelve interviews had been completed the MUP deadline allowed me one month to edit and shape each individual chapter. This was a massive task involving the distillation of verbatim transcripts, ranging in length from 40,000 to 56,000 words, down to something nearer 14,000 words. As well I employed a participatory methodology that entailed an additional to-ing and fro-ing with the authors to further clarify and sometimes expand or re-shape the accounts. I was acutely aware throughout the process of my great good luck to be working with some of our finest wordsmiths and thinkers, people who by aptitude and practice are primed to reach in deep to find their answers.

10. What are you reading at the moment?

In preparing for a new course on memoir and biography I have returned to Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, which offers both a fascinating insight into the dynamics of that famous relationship and a thought-provoking critique of the biographical practice, argued by a very astute and refreshingly opinionated journalist. Her behind-the-scenes portrayal of her own interview with Plath biographer Anne Stevenson, who recounts the devastating interference and manipulation of her text by Ted Hughes’ sister Olwyn, Plath literary executor and gatekeeper, is both brilliant and unsettling, giving a reader interested in the practice of biography plenty to think about.