The Author – Mary J. Oliver

Mary J. Oliver Interviewed by

Dr Salma Siddique* 

D.S.S.

You’re no spring chicken, Mary. If this is your first book, what have you been doing all this time?

 

M.J.O.

I might not be the oldest person to get their first book published, but I must be pretty near. I was trained in the visual arts and spent a lifetime teaching art and initiating and exhibiting collaborative installations. I taught in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow and at Falmouth University in Cornwall, and all sorts in between. 

FISH close up.jpeg

Photograph by Steve Tanner

D.S.S.

Tell me about the collaborative installations.

M.J.O.

One was a project involving my mother, my two daughters and myself; we all contributed an image and some text relating to

our experiences of birth, sex, and death - which I then co-ordinated into a large lightbox called Consequences.

D.S.S.

So when did you switch to writing?

 

M.J.O.

After I retired from teaching. I was ill for two years and thought the sky had fallen in. But as I recovered, I realized I was freer than I’d been in my whole life. Neither my husband nor I had to go to work anymore, our children were grown up and living independent lives with children of their own. I had my old mum to keep an eye on; apart from that, I could do whatever I liked. I couldn’t believe my luck.

 

D.S.S.

And why did you switch?

 

M.J.O.

I'd become aware of an absence in my life that I realised was to do with my father. He seldom spoke about the years he’d spent in Canada before he met my mother. In fact, always on the periphery of the family, he seldom spoke at all.

 

Twenty-five years after his death I suddenly wanted to find out who he was and started researching. This resulted in a massive amount of written material, which I decided to distill into something more crafted and manageable. Ten years later I find myself holding this small, condensed poetry-prose memoir, told in the imagined voices of those who knew him. With lots of pictures. Who’d have thought Jim Neat would have a book written about him? And his own website!

D.S.S.

Publishers have to sell to bookshops and bookshops have shelves with labels on them. Seren is selling this under the Memoir category. Does that mean it’s all true?

M.J.O.

No. It feels entirely true to me in spirit. But sometimes I augmented tantalizing fragments of information with fictional details, including some imagined characters. In order to keep the story concise and spare, I simplified when necessary and merged some events and, where the narrative demanded it, changed some names.

 

It’s about memory, different peoples’ perspectives. It is not the whole truth. But what is? It feels like my truth. My intention has been to make a small work of art out of an ordinary man’s extraordinary life. And for it to have restorative effects on his family.

 

D.S.S.

You've made the essential absence of your father very present in the relationships that you found along the way. It seems this has allowed for a re-writing / re-righting of your connection with him. Does that feel true? 

M.J.O. 

I suppose it does, now you put it like that. I set out to write about him. But it's a lot about me too. And daughters world-wide, I suspect.

D.S.S.

It has that same collaged, feminist, collaborative element that you explored in your visual work.

 

M.J.O.

Yes, the similarities in the process were fascinating. ‘Making the thing work’ is what it’s all about. One way or another, you just have to find out how to make it work. There are so many possibilities and permutations.

 

D.S.S.

So never give up?

 

M.J.O.

No, please don’t ever give up. Jim wasn’t valued in his own lifetime, but through creating an elegy like this, and giving his life relevance, I've learned we can memorialise the dead and at the same time revitalise our own future. Amazing!

 

D.S.S.

Now it’s finished, what’s your plan?

 

M.J.O.

I still write every day and am involved with lots of writing activities in Cornwall. But the intensity’s off; this was a major mission. I’m giving myself more time now — for swimming, walking by the sea, boxing, table tennis, traveling, family and friends. 

*Salma Siddique PhD, is an academic writer, clinical anthropologist and psychotherapist

based in Dundee, Scotland. She obtained her doctorate from the University of St. Andrews.

She supervises trainees and qualified psychotherapists in their practices.

© 2020 by 10 Ten Design. 

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