This week we’re meeting Antony Millen. Antony is a writer and teacher in Taumarunui. He has written three novels, most recently in 2015 (The Chain). Antony was the winner of the 2014 Heartland short story competition and has seen stories published in Landfall, Headland, and Antipodes. He has just released second editions of his first two novels (Redeeming Brother Murrihy and Te Kauhanga).
We go straight to the heart of it, and I ask Antony what he aims to communicate through his stories: “Why are simple questions so difficult to answer? I suppose, looking back over the novels and short stories I’ve written over the past few years, and even in my essays and blog posts, I’m trying to tell people there is “more”, in the sense that there is more to life than what we may first perceive, or more to a story, or a person, or a situation than what is first presented to us.
On top of that, I’m saying that it takes some work to discover that ‘more’, but that it is often found right there in small, unexpected, everyday places. Thanks for asking this question. It’s helped me to see more of what I’m trying to do in my writing.”
Antony jokes that his motivations for writing are money and relaxation. “Or, if reality is any indication, the opposite of these. Writing is hard work, takes a great deal of my spare time and mental focus, and reaps very little in terms of physical benefits. I write because I’ve always admired writers and their work.
When asked what role literature has in our society, Antony says we must first define what is meant by literature. “One answer would be that literature subverts the norms we accept about our world and the people in it, to force us to see more in the lives of others.” To Antony, creativity is: “Discovering, subverting expectations, leading to deeper revelation for both the creator and the audience, cobbling.”
Although he is constantly re-inventing his routines, Antony likes order: “When I am drafting a novel, I need to be the most structured, the most disciplined, working to a word count each and every day. Otherwise it just doesn’t get done and I end up with a project waiting for my return as in my current situation. For the first two novels, I wrote at night after everyone in my household had gone to bed. For The Chain, I woke at 5am every morning, writing until it was time to go to work.”
He’s currently working on a YA novel about three characters in small-town New Zealand during the summer following their final year at Secondary school. One has gone AWOL, her bestie is struggling to locate her while trying to decide what to do in his future schooling, and the third is a bit of an interloper with his own agenda. “It’s taking longer than I thought! I’m still writing a draft I started during my Surrey Hotel residency last year. It’s a short YA novel I’m looking forward to getting on with it after re-launching the second editions of my first two novels.”
Apart from this, Antony has been preparing for a companion piece for Te Kauhanga, though it’s not a sequel. “The sub-title for that novel was A Tale of Space(s), reflecting the thematic base I started from. This next project will be a tale of time(s). Time is a much more complex notion and I envision a trilogy of sorts.”
How did you get to where you are now? “I read a lot as a child in Canada, mainly comic books, The Hardy Boys, and Louis L’Amour westerns. My parents were teachers and bought me classic books every birthday and Christmas. I studied English at university, including a thesis in Shakespeare. After 14 years teaching Primary school here in New Zealand, I switched back to Secondary in the role I still retain as head of English at Taumarunui High School.”
Recently, Antony has redesigned the covers for two of his novels, Te Kauhanga and Redeeming Brother Murrihy.
“I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was very happy with the original covers, but, the more I saw other books generated using the CreateSpace cover templates, the more I felt self-conscious of them. Leanne Reynolds is my son’s partner and I have known her and her talents for many years. She and I worked out an arrangement where I would get some new covers, and she would get some samples of work for her ever-expanding graphic design portfolio. At first we thought we would design one and tweak the other, but ended up with two completely new designs.
I couldn’t be more proud of the way they’ve turned out. For Te Kauhanga, the tree is the central image, uniting the characters, the setting, the background, and the resolution. It’s a simple image, but brilliantly designed. Redeeming Brother Murrihy is really about two brothers, both who are redeemed in their own ways. I love the way the river is flowing both toward and away from the enigmatic figure at the end, opposite the dense native bush at the other extreme. There’s a great deal of thematic relevance in this dynamic.”
Keen to support the creatives he knows, Antony ran a series of weekly posts in 2016 called Weekend Name Drop, where he shared the stories of artists whose work – or work ethic – he loves. I ask him about some of his most admired New Zealanders. “I still rave about Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. I like the work I’ve read by Maurice Shadbolt, Margaret Mahy, Frank Sargeson, and Witi Ihimaera. William Taylor had a profound influence on me in the short time I knew him before he passed away. My friend, A.D. Thomas, is an artist and writer here in Taumarunui. He and I regularly discuss and share pieces we’ve written.
How many names can I drop here? My son, Sam, is a singer-songwriter. I love his stuff. Artists? Leanne Reynolds, James Cannon. I tend to be inspired most by folks I know personally these days. Taika Waititi is pretty cool. It would be great to know him!” You can see all the Weekend Name Drop posts here.