A real shaggy dog story

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 06/04/2014
Margaret Mahy
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
NEW BOOK: Christchurch author Margaret Mahy's last book is expected to be published on Tuesday.

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A magic dog who grants wishes with the wag of his tail is the star of the last book children's author Margaret Mahy wrote before her death.

But the truth of the posthumously published story is even stranger than its fiction.

The Sunday Star Times has learned Mahy's final book, scheduled for first release here on Tuesday, was a commission from a world famous photographer and the son of one of Poland's richest men.

Tomasz Gudzowaty said he negotiated the book with Mahy because he was "seeking a way to share that feeling, that experience" of his friendship with his dog Naykee. "When the thought about the book crossed my mind for the first time, Naykee was in perfect health, and it might seem that our friendship - I think it's a proper word for our relationship - would last forever," Gudzowaty said.

"Yet I was aware, as every adult is, that nothing in this world is forever."

The nine-time World Press Photo award-winner and son of Aleksander Gudzowaty (a businessman who died last year and who was once estimated to have a fortune of $3.7 billion) said while he had thousands of images and video recordings of Naykee, he considered literature, "another medium of memory".

"I started to ask friends about their children's favourite books, to browse all available books of award-winning authors for children and teens - a new educative experience for me, by the way - and that's how I found Margaret Mahy. Only one book of hers, The Changeover, was published in Poland so far.

"I was so enchanted by the narrative - simple, readable, even for children, yet amazingly serious in the subject matter and the approach to the reader. It resounded with the echoes of the favourite books of my childhood and youth."

Gudzowaty wouldn't reveal the cost of his commission - originally conceived as a series of loosely connected stories and later revised to become a short novel - and said the only copyright Mahy had transferred to him related to any future Polish editions.

"The negotiations, whatever that may mean, focused on convincing Margaret that Naykee's story was worth being told, that it might be enjoyed by readers . . . I felt obliged to offer a fair amount of money, adequate to Margaret's rank in literature and she found my proposal fair and adequate."

Mahy died in July, 2012, aged 76, three months after being diagnosed with oral cancer. This country's most acclaimed children's author, she wrote more than 100 picture books, 40 novels and 20 collections of short stories. Naykee also died in 2012.

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In the new book, Tale of a Tail, a boy called Tom meets a man called Tomasz Mirabilis who has a dog called Najki, "a small shaggy dog with pointed ears, little wizard's houses filled with shadows . . . Surely the real Naykee is there," Gudzowaty said this week. "I had to accept also Margaret's decision to introduce Mr Mirabilis. Her fantasy is always based in commonsense reality, where dogs must be fed and cared for."

He said the book was finished just months before her death. "At the bottom line, the Naykee who will live forever in the book is her creation. Immortality is not for sale."

The news of Mahy's death was "hard for me to take," said Gudzowaty.

"I regret so much she can't see Tail of a Tale hitting the bookstores, can't discuss it with the readers during the meet-the-author sessions."

Two leather bound copies of the book, based on Mahy's original text-only version (illustrations were later provided by Tony Robb), were produced by Gudzowaty. "She sent one copy back to me, signed and adorned with a drawing from her own hand. She also wrote that she was delighted."

Mahy's daughter Bridget said that while her mother's older stories might some day be reworked, the new book (published here by Hachette New Zealand) was "pretty much it in terms of fresh, fresh material.

"She wasn't in great health when she was writing it. We were watching someone who was very tired, very exhausted. There had been this sense of slow decline in her latter years, in terms of her energy levels. I think, in a somewhat unbiased manner, that she was awesome at what she did. This is a book written with the same level of commitment, but maybe less personal energy."

Bridget Mahy said "every now and then" someone would propose a project - theatre productions based on her text, for example - "but this one felt bigger, because she has produced a novel".

She remembered her mother's early struggles to support her family through her writing. "As she would say herself, she was very attracted to the idea of earning money and she loved getting her envelopes with a cheque in it as a sign of her ability to generate income through her work."

She described her mother as someone with "amazing imaginative capacity".

"That's partly what is intriguing about Margaret. She's surrounded by relatively ordinary people, and I include myself in this. The imaginative doors are not open to all of us, and those doors, she kept them open from childhood, through to her adulthood. I don't want to use boring language like ‘unique' and ‘special', but . . ."

Bridget Mahy says she and her sister Penny have boxed up their mother's old files. "It's still relatively fresh," she says of her death. "There's a project, and individual project, to carefully go through her old bits of typing and try to match it up - was that story ever produced? How finished, or unfinished is it? As ever, there is that fundamental problem, that is her style of writing which no-one else can ever really manage properly.

"I know there are people who rewrite famous author's work and play off it. But you couldn't replicate it, I don't think, very well. I think it would be quite a challenge to channel Margaret."

Tale of a Tail by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Tony Ross (Hachette New Zealand, $19.99, released Tuesday)

- Sunday Star Times

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