Each week, we ask a public figure to choose three of the seven deadly sins to confess to. This week, giant of New Zealand literature Vincent O'Sullivan enters the box.


Has your relationship with wrath changed as you've become older?

A thing has to be pretty provoking for me to get into a real rage with it. I probably find as I get older that there are more occasions. For example, one of my horrors of getting older is, I remember Dan Davin saying the last time I saw him: "One of the worst things about getting old isn't this business of the bits that don't work and the rest of it but you start to like everybody." Well, I'd hate to get to that stage.

I just think that if you lose your capacity for being moved or angered by things that may have provoked you 20 years ago, if you've levelled off to that extent, I think the board's been playing just a bit too thin. I wouldn't care for that. I'd hate to think my last years were spent benignly on my veranda in a rocking chair, saying, "G'day" to everyone who goes past.

Sounds a bit, "Do not go gentle into that good night".
It is a bit of that. You wouldn't want the revs to run down to that extent that you don't actually know you're not moving.


Do you think we've got more to be wrathful about now?
I think so, because things like climate change, overpopulation, poverty: these aren't things we can do absolutely nothing about. They're things that we've helped bring about. If there's an avalanche and it catches a good friend, you're saddened by that, you're not angered by it, but when something is happening because we've done it, and our greed over a long period or our indifference toward other people causes it, well if you're not wrathful about that, I think you should be. If that's sinning, bring it on.


I'll give you an example of writer's pride that I sort of deeply sympathise with and only wish I had the courage myself to go along with. I don't know if you've ever come across any account of John Osborne, the playwright, when he died. Of course, he'd had several arguments with people in the theatre, directors and that sort of thing and at his funeral he had a sheet of butchers paper just torn off and put up on the church door and he had a list of names of people and he said if they showed up to the service they could eff off. That's the kind of admirable pride I'd aspire to ... it's a marvellous thing to have done.


Sloth might have got an upper hand if it hadn't been for deadlines, so you might say it's that long shadow of sloth that gives you the space actually to work in, because other people are constantly prodding you. I remember when I was a student in England, Evelyn Waugh writing in the Sunday papers about sloth but I seem to remember it was other people's sloth that so enraged him, because he said everything from - say - sloppy proofreading to bad theologians was all the result of sloth and bore out the slide of civilised values. I'm not going that far. It's just interesting the different ways you can come at it.

It's interesting generationally, isn't it? There was possibly a stigma attached to sloth back then, which isn't there now.
We can joke about sloth. Our parents and certainly our grandparents couldn't joke about it because it meant you just weren't willing to earn your keep and that sort of thing, whereas we don't have the same horror of being regarded as a bit slack, do we?

How important do you think it is to good writing to have an element of sloth involved?
It depends. I'm always very impressed by writers who have a very strict regimen that they keep to. I admire it, but I certainly don't envy it. I think it's just if you're an artist of any kind, you're inclined, I think, to work in bursts; or you take days off or you find excuses to say, "I can't work today"; and so on. I wouldn't have done without sloth for worlds.

I'm hesitating here because I know that there's a certain amount of self-indulgence in that I can afford to say sloth's a good thing because it fits into my job. When I was working as a teacher, there was the same impulse to be slothful but there just wasn't the same opportunity to exercise it.


Vincent O'Sullivan is a finalist in this year's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and will be appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival, which runs May 13-19. writersfestival.co.nz