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A Lifetime Of Letters – Frank Sargeson

A single pencil-written letter by New Zealand writer Frank Sargeson to the American short story writer Sherwood Anderson was the only prompt Dr Sarah Shieff needed to start compiling a whole book of Sargeson’s letters.

“It was one simple fan letter from one writer to another, so touching and personal, and from that, I wanted to read more,” says Dr Shieff, a senior lecturer in English at the University of Waikato. Four and a half years later, Letters of Frank Sargeson will be formally launched at the University of Waikato Student Centre on March 14.

Dr Shieff tracked down about 6000 Sargeson letters, the majority in Wellington’s Alexander Turnbull Library, and set about selecting 500 of them for the book.

“That was a publishable size and I selected on the basis of biographical and literary interest, historical interest and general liveliness.”

Frank Sargeson, grew up in Hamilton as Norris Frank Davey. Although he is best known for his short stories, he was also a playwright, and an acclaimed novelist and memoirist. The letters show his literary output in an entirely new light.

He wrote letters to friends and lovers, and to prominent and aspiring writers in New Zealand and overseas. They reveal him to be an environmentalist – he made his own compost, and as early as the 1940s objected to the use of chemical fertilisers in farming. In the ‘50s he was deeply opposed to atmospheric nuclear testing. He also appealed to government to award state pensions to poorer writers.

“Frank loved looking after people,” says Dr Shieff. “He made his home available to other writers, and gave away most of what he earned to the shabby older men he was so fond of. But he could also be malicious, gossipy and interfering. He really was a character in his own life story.”

Letters of Frank Sargeson, selected and edited by Sarah Shieff, is published by Random House and retails for $49.99.

Dr Sarah Shieff with her latest book – Letters of Sargeson which will be launched at the University of Waikato next week.



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