Twelve Questions: Paula Morris

Paula Morris is a short story writer and novelist who has spent most of the past 30 years out of New Zealand. She returns today to teach creative writing at the University of Auckland.
Returning Kiwi author Paula Morris  is an advocate for New Zealand art and artists. Photo / Mike Brooke
Returning Kiwi author Paula Morris is an advocate for New Zealand art and artists. Photo / Mike Brooke

1. You're in the running for the Sunday Times EFG prize: How do you wish you could blow the winning £30,000?

I owe every penny of it, so it would buy a lot of peace of mind. I've been living beyond my means for years. Who have I borrowed off? Family, friends and credit cards. I'm surprised I haven't borrowed money off you actually. But I owe less than a lot of people owe on their mortgage. Sometimes I do really worry about it and at times it's made me miserable and stressed. Last year I had six weeks of daily radiotherapy (for LCIS, a carcinoma) and I forgot all about (the money). But I wasn't able to write and work and pay bills. Around that time American Express cut me off after 20 years of being a customer. I called to say I'm going through this (treatment) and I haven't been able to finish my book that I needed to finish to make money and they said 'oh that's so sad' then a letter arrived saying I was cut off.

2. You had an extraordinary year of highs and lows last year. Describe the good bits.

The best bits of last year were my two writer's residencies, one in Svendborg, Denmark, in the farmhouse where Brecht lived in exile in the 1930s, and one in Bellagio, Italy, in a palazzo overlooking Lake Como. I felt incredibly lucky to be in both places. I got lots of work done, made new friends and explored new places - all things that make me happy. Also, in Bellagio we were served drinks every night at 7. There were about 15 residents there, all paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation, and we would dress for dinner, men had to wear jackets, then go up to the big villa for aperitifs. There was brilliant conversation and presentations of people's work. Oh yes, I spotted George Clooney's house in Lake Como. I knew that if I stared out the bus window long enough I would spot it.

3. And the bad?

In the span of a year some people very close to us died: my dear friend Sarah Doerries, my mother, my husband's younger brother. At times, it was too much sadness. You have to accept the grief is going to be ongoing. It's always going to be there. I'm bracing for it coming home - it will be so strange that my mother won't be there. She was so happy (husband) Tom and I were coming home.

4. What have you learned most from the year?

I didn't appreciate, perhaps, how much it means to hear from other people, how important it is to accept being comforted, and to embrace the kindness of friends and strangers. Even the smallest thing - a little note that you get in the mail from someone who has heard the news and wrote a few lines about your friendship with them. Old and new connections meant so much to me this year. I'm more determined than ever to keep those connections strong.

5. What did you learn most from your mum?

My mother really thought that anything was possible for us, that there were no limits to what we could achieve. "The world is your oyster" was the annoying refrain from my youth! But I think overall I have a positive attitude, and lots of determination and energy; I look for opportunities rather than obstacles, and that's down to my mother. She was someone ready to move countries, more than once, to change her life, so maybe I learned that from her as well. And talking. My mother was a world champion talker. I learned that skill maybe too well.

6. Describe your Auckland childhood.

Paper dolls, colouring books, reading. Falling off skateboards and bikes. Swimming. Watching old movies with my mother, especially musicals and Westerns. Staying with my grandparents on Jervois Rd. I loved staying with them. Brownies and piano. Singing in school and church choirs. Writing stories.

7. Your life reads like a Sunday Times travel supplement. Do you ever long for a permanent home?

Most people do think I lead a charmed life of constant holidays but it's not all like that. I've had some terrible jobs, too. It would be nice to have a place where all our things could live, even if we abandon them there on a regular basis. I've promised Tom that this is the last time our worldly possessions will cross oceans on a container ship. I'm working on a personal essay called On Coming Home for Bridget Williams Books, so this notion of a "permanent" home is one I'm thinking about a lot right now. I don't know that I've ever longed for one, though.

8. What were those terrible jobs?

In 2010, I took a job at a university in Scotland, and it was a disaster. I felt demoralised and anxious most of the time. I had to account for every minute of what I was doing and a lot of it was time in the office doing admin. It was so different to other universities I have taught at where your own writing was considered important. It was a terrible situation for me, and I only stayed because I couldn't afford to leave though I should have just quit and become a waitress. In the end I took a part-time job at the University of Sheffield, just to escape. Not the best move financially, but crucial for my mental health and my writing.

9. You had a decade in New York in your 20s. Did that make Auckland seem a little like a cultural wasteland?

I would much rather live in Auckland than in New York, though my husband may disagree. He lived in New York City for more than 20 years, and it's still his favourite place. New York is a great place to see visual art, of course, and theatre, but the comparison is a little unfair: Auckland isn't even as big as Kansas City.

And anyway, there's plenty of creative talent in Auckland. What we need more of is integrated public transport, especially ferries and trams.

10. Do you share any of Eleanor Catton's recent views on New Zealand?

I've not kept up with the debate much as I've had a hectic January, getting ready for the move from the UK, including meetings and research trips in London and Brussels, and the chaos of packing. I suppose I have the views of someone who's been away for most of the last 30 years: that a country and its current government are two separate things. Politicians come and go. In other countries, when I'm at festivals or conferences or meetings, I'm an advocate for New Zealand art and artists rather than any sitting government and their policies. I've seen Alan Duff recognised by passers-by in the street in Berlin, people coming up asking for his autograph. I doubt that happens to our politicians much.

11. Tom travels with you and your work. Has that been hard for him?

We met 17 years ago and have been married for 15. Tom is a writer - advertising copywriting was his background and yes, it's been a bit tough for him. It's hard to always get challenging, rewarding work. People often assume we've moved for Tom's work. They'll say 'so your husband works for the university?'

12. You also write young adult novels. How did that happen?

I was doing ghost-writing in that area. I've done lots and lots of ghost-writing, it's quite common in young adult novels. I was doing a lot for one person - I can't say who it is - and I thought 'this isn't the kind of novel I'd write'. I'd have girls doing things rather than just shop. I'd loved Trixie Belden as a girl and I like books where the girls, and boys, get into mischief and mystery. The thing that's a big problem in young adult books is cellphones. You've got to get the characters away from their phones so they can use their brains to solve things.

- NZ Herald

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