Maurice Gee: Our Superb Storyteller
By Andrew Johnston
With his prize-winning fifth novel, Plumb, Maurice Gee
became one of New Zealand's premier writers. Now his
10th novel, Going West, is attracting fresh critical and
popular acclaim, both here and in Britain. Maurice Gee
talked to Andrew Johnston about Going West, about living
as a writer, and about Wellington.
In 1989 Maurice Gee and his family moved from Nelson to Wellington; Gee had won the Victoria University Writer's Fellowship for that year. He spent most of the year writing his ninth novel, but when The Burning Boy was finished Gee found he still had a couple of months of the fellowship left.
“I thought it would be sensible just to carry on, so I started a new novel almost carelessly, without giving it much thought. That's probably why I ended up back in Henderson in the first chapter.”
Henderson, west of Auckland, is where Gee grew up, and—renamed Loomis—is the setting for large chunks of his best-known books, the Plumb trilogy.
When you mention Maurice Gee, the first thing people usually say is, “Oh yes, Plumb.” Plumb captured the public imagination the way few New Zealand novels have done before or since: its central figure, the rational, irascible George Plumb, is the kind of fictional character once met, never forgotten.
Gee built on Plumb's rich possibilities in Meg and Sole Survivor, which completed the trilogy, then wrote two novels set in Nelson, Prowlers and The Burning Boy. Those books have done well, but the novel Gee started “almost carelessly” in late 1989 seems set to eclipse them.
Going West was published first in Britain, as all Gee's novels are. The Sunday Times reviewer Andro Linklater said: “Gee deserves to be regarded as one of the finest writers at work, not only in New Zealand . . . but in the English speaking world.”
When the book was published here most reviewers hailed it
as Gee's best since Plumb, and Michael King in Metro
called it “the novel of the year”—as early as March. (It's
also in that magazine's “Hot” list for July.) Plumb won
the Wattie Award, the New Zealand Fiction Award, the
Buckland Award, and Britain's James Tait Black Memorial
Award. Going West looks likely to be a prizewinner too;
it's a frontrunner for the this year's Wattie Award, which
is announced on August 2.
Going West is about two friends, Jack Skeat and Rex Petley, from their boyhood on Loomis Creek to Rex's mysterious death, at the age of 58, while out fishing in the Hauraki Gulf. As the novel opens Jack, an archivist-turned-librarian, is sitting down to write about Rex's life. He's not the first to do so: Rex had become a celebrated poet.
“I wanted to write about someone's work,” Gee says. “I thought, should it be a man of action: a policeman or someone in the military? Professions are interesting, but of course once you've selected one you've got to research it properly, work out the ways that it's going to alter a person's life.
“What sort of adjustments does a person make because of the profession he follows? What ways, working back the other way, does his work shape him? You've got to be careful . . . so in the end I chose a writer, because that's what I know, but I also decided he would be a poet, to make it a bit harder for myself.”
Rex Petley doesn't fit the usual stereotypes of the poet: he's both a poet and a man of action—an outdoors type who turns to fishing and factory work to make his living. He's based a little on the late New Zealand poet Rex Fairburn, Gee says, but only a little, and not on anyone else.
Gee himself doesn't write poetry—“not since I was about
16”—and there are no “Rex Petley” poems quoted in Going
West, but Gee's language in Going West, as in all his
novels, is poetic in its stylishness, its easy and
sophisticated shifts between different tones and points of
Jack Skeat is writing about Rex Petley the way Maurice Gee writes his novels—longhand, in exercise books. But Jack Skeat has two types of exercise book, and so the novel has two types of narrative. In one Jack writes in the first person, as himself; the other is written in the third person. But we gradually come to realise that Jack has written them both—just as we gradually come to realise that Going West is as much about Jack—his life, his frustrated ambitions and especially his marriage—as it is about Rex.
With its similar structure, period and setting, is Going West almost an alternative third volume of the Plumb trilogy? “Yes it is rather. And I suppose there are similarities between Jack Skeat and Raymond Sole [in Sole Survivor]—and a marriage is central to both.”
Jack Skeat's statement, early on in the novel, that “marriages are more interesting than affairs” could apply to many of Gee's novels, in which the vicissitudes and rewards of long-term relationships are fondly and honestly examined—most notably, in Going West, Jack's marriage to Harriet.
“Whether they're formalised or not,” Gee says, “marriages
are at the middle of most people's experience, and usually
take up a large chunk of life. The other thing that seems
to stand at the centre of my work is suburbia. I forget
who it was who said that the ideal place for a writer to
work is in the suburbs, where everything is
happening—family life is going on, and wives and kids and
so on are very much at the front of things.. I suppose the
other side of that is the work side, which people
frequently say doesn't have its proper place in New
Zealand novels . . . I like my characters to have a job
and to have a mental life.”
If there's a bit of Maurice Gee in the writer Rex Petley, there's also a bit of Gee in Jack Skeat. “Jack started as a librarian and became an archivist,” Gee says. “I also trained as a librarian—I suppose you could say one of my trades is librarianship—so there's a similarity there.”
“The other, deeper similarities I don't really want to go into—the ways in which Jack resembles me and in which Rex resembles me.”
That reticence about his own life is characteristic of Gee. Thirty-seven years ago, Gee hitch-hiked down the North Island with namesake and fellow novelist Maurice Shadbolt. The journey in many ways marked the beginning of Gee's writing life. But while Shadbolt has just published an autobiography, One of Ben's, (which is also a frontrunner for this year's Wattie Award), Gee says he has no intention of following suit.
“A lot of people are doing them, that's fine —there's Keith Sinclair's, recently, which we're lucky he finished before he died—and I find them interesting to read, but I don't want to do one myself because I've got large areas of my life, big events in my life, which are still, as far as I'm concerned, private. It wouldn't make sense to write about them.
“Also, you have to make free with other people's lives
and other people's privacy, and that's a sort of
imperialism: you set youself up in a little empire, in
which you're the centre and other people become your
If Gee hasn't writtenabout his own life—apart from brief published reminiscences of childhood—he has written about family, in Plumb. “George Plumb's early history follows very closely the early life of my grandfather, James Chapple—the trials for heresy and seditious utterance are based almost exactly on those episodes from my grandfather's life. I gave Plumb three months more in jail than my grandfather got, though—14 months seemed to fit better into my time scheme than 11 months.”
The writing of Plumb, in 1976, marked Gee's plunge into the life of a full-time writer. “We had just moved from Auckland to Nelson. I got a Literary Fund Scholarship, I think it was worth $3000 or $4000, and we existed on that for a year. That enabled me to start writing full-time. I was 45 and I'd been sitting on this mountain of Chapple material for many years, knowing that I wanted to write a novel using my grandfather's experiences . . . if I'd started earlier I don't know whether I would have managed, perhaps it was luck that I didn't get a chance to do it until I was mature enough to handle the stuff properly.”
But the success of Plumb was not enough to bring in a living income—Gee estimates that even now a novel will earn him at most $20,000, for two years' work—so he branched out into better-paying writing, for children and for television.
“Children's fiction began partly as a deliberate attempt to widen my writing base, and also because I had young children and wanted to write something for them, but certainly it was an attempt to make more money. That's why I went to TV, too—I simply wrote to the people who produced Close to Home . . . I wrote about 11 episodes of that. When I say I wrote them, I did the dialogue for them.
“I could turn an episode around in about three days and get $200 or $300 for it, which was great money in those days . . . that's how I lived, writing dialogue for television. Mortimer's Patch followed—I really enjoyed Mortimer's Patch and was very disappointed when they stopped it after two series.”
Gee concentrates on writing adult novels, though, because that is what he does best. Several scholarships and fellowships have helped him write those novels. “I think I've had the Literary Fund Fellowship four times, plus I had the Burns Fellowship back in 1964 and the Victoria University one in 1989. I've had an enormous amount of help from the Literary Fund and the QEII Arts Council, I can't give them enough thanks.”
Gee also spent part of last year in Menton as Katherine Mansfield Fellow; he took the first chapter of his 11th novel, Crime Story, and came back with the novel nearly completed. He's just sent it off to his publishers in London.
“It's a fairly simple, linear novel, it lacks some of the complexities of the others. It's a less literary novel, and it may be more accessible for that reason. People often accuse me of writing complicated novels that aren't accessible to the average reader, whoever that may be. This isn't a deliberate attempt to reach that person, but if there is such a person then this novel's got a better chance of reaching them.”
The crime in Crime Story includes white-collar crime; Gee says some of his feelings about contemporary greed are behind the novel. “I don't like this system that allows people to drop out the bottom . . . in a country where that happens, there's something basically wrong. These days it seems to me, the way things are organised, people are in the service of money instead of the other way round.”
Reviewers here and overseas have praised Going West for its evocative descriptions of Auckland and Wellington, particularly Wellington. Gee likes living and writing here, and plans to stay, though he would like to move a little closer to town—to Wadestown or Kelburn: “I'd like to be able to walk to town, it's a bit far from Ngaio. I'd like to have a place that sees the harbour, because that's one of the great things about Wellington, it's so dramatic.
“There's so much in Wellington, it's a wonderful place to set stories in—it's got wonderful levels, you go up steps and down steps and you can drop out of one world and into another. It seems to me that when I write a novel I like to set it in the place I'm living in . . . Crime Story is also a Wellington novel.”
Gee isn't sure what he'll move on to next. “I've got the first chapter of a children's book written, but whether I'm going to be able to write it I don't know—I don't know what I'm going to be doing next . . . possibly something for children, possibly something for television, maybe another novel, I'm not sure.”
Gee's dedication to his writing over the past three decades has resembled the commitment that some of his characters show to their own work, to their relationships and to their friendships. The rewards of staying the distance, his novels imply, are rich and various and impossible to predict: now his readers, in novels like Going West, are able to benefit richly themselves from the commitment Gee has shown to his craft.
© Andrew Johnston