As a 70th birthday present to himself ten years ago, Maurice Gee promised he wouldn’t have to do any more of these festivals, so appearing as the honoured guest at this year’s Auckland Writers and Readers Festival was a big deal for all of us. This is a new initiative devised to celebrate New Zealand’s most accomplished writers, and festival director Anne O’Brien tells us there was no argument that Gee should be the first of these. Gee thought it would be churlish not to accept.
In conversation with Geoff Walker, Gee talks about his childhood and the huge influence of his grandparents and mother on his writing. He recalls his mother warming her feet in the fire while writing stories, some of which went on to be published in the magazines ‘Mirror’ and ‘Women Today’. Her proudest but final literary achievement was having a story selected by Frank Sargeson for publication in an anthology, and Gee believes she could have continued to become a well-known New Zealand author, if life hadn’t got in the way.
Although he’s never been interested in writing an autobiography in the past, Gee admits he is now working on a memoir. His first reading is from this and recalls his early introduction to literature by an elderly friend, Ben Hart. As a young boy, Gee was fascinated by the characters and adventures created by Zane Grey and says he must have read over 40 of his Old West novels. However, as he describes in his reading, he slowly fell in love with Dickens –it took a page to or two to get into.
Walker points out that many of Gee’s novels are in the style of an older person looking back on their life – Plumb of course being the great example of this. It’s well known that the character of George Plumb is heavily based on Gee’s own Grandfather, though he says the first half of Plumb’s life is the same but the second half is fictionalised. Gee had great admiration for his Grandfather as he does for his character. He says that old people have “whole lives” to look back on while they still continue living in the present. He likes to put characters into a situation where something causes them to reflect on the past, while simultaneously having an ordeal to confront in the present. Gee was expecting a question on this and had charmingly prepared a written answer.
The other question he anticipated with written notes was about the sense of darkness in his writing: “People always ask about that.” Having authored over thirty novels for both adults and children, the sense of darkness has emerged again and again for Gee. He sites Browning’s poem “Childe Roland” as a starting point for this fascination, particularly the end where Childe Roland blows the horn from the top of the tower, leaving the reader to decide what is being summoned. Gee says he read this as calling up the darkness that exists within everyone and pictured Childe Roland doing battle with his own sinister self.
The second reading is from Maurice Gee’s own favourite novel, Prowlers (1987). He says of all his older characters, Noel Papps is the most likeable. He reads with vigour the passage after Kate Adams has left with her tape-recorder; Papps both disgusted and fascinated by her.
Historian Rachel Barrowman is currently working with Gee to write his biography. Gee says he’s enjoying this process and is adamant that nothing will be left out. This is intriguing for a man who so rarely appears in public and who until now we have had to piece together through his characters – Jack Skeat of Going West being the closest to an autobiography as we’ve seen. He even requested no audience questions for this event, and admitted to being nervous in public.
But Gee is content and feels a sense of completion. He says that although he maintains a capacity for invention, he feels in his fiction he is now just inventing the same old things over and over and that it’s perhaps imagination that’s lacking. He accepts that Access Road, published in 2009 is his last novel and says “I look back on 30 or so novels and think “that’s ok”.”