Maurice Gee, master storyteller

Maurice Gee
Maurice Gee

THE MAN many consider New Zealand's greatest living author sits in a sunny corner of his living room in Nelson, thinking of another place, another time. As he talks about where he spent his own childhood, at Henderson near Auckland, 70-odd years drop away.

"I can't seem to get away from Henderson Creek," he says, in a voice that's little more than a gentle whisper. "It runs right through my imaginative life. So much happened to me there. I learned to swim there. I nearly drowned there. I saw a man die there; he dived into a pool and didn't realise the tide was out.

"I remember a great voyage with my older brother where we made tin canoes. We hammered all the corrugations out of some old iron, made wooden bow and stern posts and sealed all the nail holes with pitch, and we put them in the nearest pool to our place and went down Henderson Creek, right through the mangroves and out into the Waitamata Harbour. The tide was so far out we couldn't bring them back, so we just abandoned them and came home. I can still recreate every stretch of that creek in my mind, so it's not surprising that I set all kinds of significant episodes on that creek."

Significant? I'll say. In Gee's latest novel alone, the creek provides a setting for sexual voyeurism, cruelty to animals, the disposal of a body. Dark forces lurk in one of its deeper pools.

Access Road, published this week, has as its central theme a regretful examination of one's life from the perspective of old age but it is also a book about childhood, as many of Gee's books are.

I look across at this kindly gentleman, wearing a checked shirt, black corduroy pants and sheepskin slippers, with the sun streaming into a room bright with paintings and smart with books, and I wonder at the dark recesses of his imagination.

"These days Henderson Creek is smaller, of course," he continues. "It's shrunk and it's dirty. I don't think anybody swims in it anymore."

MAURICE GEE is a marvellous man to read, and better still to spend a couple of hours with. The 78-year-old is warm, clever, peaceful and funny, too, in an unflashy sort of way. I've read interviews where he is portrayed as an amiable old duffer with not much to say but this is not true. Today Gee talks at length about his life and work, though it's clear that he'd rather be writing than talking about it.

"Yes, that's true. As far as I'm concerned, my job is not promotion; it's to write the bloody book! I'm only doing one interview about this new book and you're it. No radio. No television. No writer's festivals. I've been asked the same questions over and over all my writing life. How do you get your ideas? Do you draw your characters from real life? Do you write on a computer? No, I use a biro and an exercise book but who cares? You want me to tell you about my religion? Atheist humanist. Politics? A natural lean to the left."

He gives a theatrically exhausted look, then smiles and carries on.

"These interviews give you a chance to entertain yourself by telling a few lies, or to practice your jokes but I can't be bothered, so I don't do it anymore. This leads some people to assume I'm stand-offish, or lazy, or anti-social but I'm not. I'm just minding my own business. I very much enjoy being faceless, and living quietly and privately."

The bare bones of that private life are as follows. Gee was born in Whakatane in 1931 and raised in Henderson, the middle child of three sons. His father was a carpenter; his mother, an aspiring writer. A former schoolteacher, hospital porter, librarian and postie, Gee has lived for decent spells in Paeroa, Auckland, Napier, Nelson, Melbourne, London and Wellington, and is now happily ensconced for a second time in Nelson with Margareta, his wife of 39 years. They have two adult daughters, one of whom, Emily, is also a writer. Gee also has a son from a previous relationship.

Gee was 16 when he knew he wanted to write, partially inspired by an early love of Charles Dickens. His first short story was published in 1955, when he was 24. His first novel, The Big Season, followed in 1962, and immediately met with the kinds of reviews that have followed him around ever since – reviews that celebrate the spare elegance of his prose while also clucking disapprovingly over his sometimes bleak portrayal of small-town life, his "sordid" sex scenes, his graphic portrayals of violence.

Gee began to attract serious attention at home and abroad with his 1979 novel, Plumb, which won Britain's prestigious James Tait Award for Best Novel (past winners include EMForster, Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie). Since then he has written extensively for both children and adults, won more literary awards than any other New Zealander and had several of his books turned into feature films (Fracture, In My Father's Den). A movie version of his children's fantasy classic Under The Mountain is due for release by Christmas.

Over the years, Gee has collected superlatives the way other people collect stamps. He has been fingered as "our greatest living writer" (writer Paula Morris), "the best prose writer of his generation" (poet Kevin Ireland) and "one of the finest writers in the English-speaking world" (London's Sunday Times).

"Well, it's nice to read that kind of thing but these are opinions, not facts. To be honest, `great' is a word I would hesitate to use about anyone writing in New Zealand at the moment. As a writer, I think I'm very good at making things happen, building up to an event, describing the event, finding the right language. I'm not terribly good at plotting and I'm not particularly good at thinking. Perhaps, if I was as bright as Karl Stead, my novels would be a lot better."

He looks at me with such a mischievous twinkle in his eye, it's hard to say if he's serious or having a sly dig at CKStead.

"But I do find writing immensely satisfying. You sit down in front of a blank page and a few hours later you have several pages of stuff you had no idea was going to arrive."

Access Road is, he says, his 30th book, and it was triggered by a trip Gee made a few years ago to his childhood home in Henderson.

"The current owner was sitting out on the front steps. He turned out to be a kid who'd lived across the street when I was a kid. He let me walk around the section. I found the old dunny out the back that the night man used to empty, which was now a tool shed. Going there woke the place up for me and the territory had a second coming in my head."

The book's central character is Rowan, an elderly woman who reviews her life from a comfortable beach-side house in Auckland's Takapuna. She considers the trajectory of her marriage to ageing piss-head Dickie, from youthful infatuation to disappointment then back to a more generous form of love. She worries about her daughter Cheryl, a "much-loved stranger". Most of all, she thinks of her brothers, Lionel and Roly, who live in the crumbling old family home "out west", in Loomis (a thinly disguised Henderson). One is a gentle soul, an ageing drifter who has turned the old family backyard into a marvellous garden, but the other brother is now bitter and bedridden, the keeper of a poisonous secret. What made him this way? Rowan combs their childhood for clues.

Gee revisits several recurring themes: fraught family relationships, the loss of childhood innocence, moral compromise, crime, violence. It will come as no surprise to regular Gee readers to discover that this slim volume contains more than one gruesome death, a scattering of rapes, a scene that might trouble the SPCA, even a geriatric brawl.

"I've been accused of being obsessed with violence but I really don't think that's true," says Gee with a sigh. "I'm not interested in the act of violence so much as the behaviour that preceded it and what the consequences are. But you have to describe the violent act well if people are going to believe it has such an effect on the characters. And the violence near the end of Access Road is more comedic than anything. You picture everyone running around madly, throwing punches and rolling around on the floor but these people are very old, and they're moving like stick insects. I think it's funny more than anything, even though somebody dies."

Elsewhere in Gee's books, the violence is considerably less droll. Cruel acts are frequently visited upon animals, presumably to illustrate the dark depths of the human soul. A racehorse is mutilated for money. A cat is skewered on a garden fork, arching its spine in agony against the tines. A man drowns a dog by holding it under the water in a swimming pool.

"The racehorse thing actually happened," says Gee. "A friend of dad's told him about a man who killed his racehorse in that way to get the insurance, and it stayed in my mind. But I invented the cat one."

And that graphic scene in Access Road, with the birds and the razor blade?

"I saw that happen with a kid I knew. I could tell his name, but I'm not going to, because he might still be alive. The point is, these scenes are in my books for a reason. To me, one of the greatest sins is deliberate cruelty. Religions have taken possession of the concept of evil but it's very real to me as an atheist. I have no doubt evil exists. What form it takes doesn't need to be specific. There's a scene in Access Road where a boy is down by the creek and he's aware of something moving in the depths of a dark pool. It terrifies him, and that's because it connects with something already in his head."

AS WITH most of Gee's books, there's a feeling of familiarity and truth to the characters in Access Road. Their personalities reflect a complex jumble of desires and insecurities, formative memories and half-healed hurts. Writer Carl Nixon was on the money when he wrote that Gee's fiction displayed "an insight into human nature worthy of a forensic psychologist".

Gee laughs out loud at this.

"Well, Access Road is largely about old people, so if I get stuck, I can just look at myself! The old guy with all the ailments in this book – they're mine. He has a condition called Polymyalgia, and so do I. It's a kind of arthritis in your joints and muscles, and it can be excruciating. All the drugs the guy in the book takes, I take. The heart thing the other guy has, I've had. The childhood stuff I've done, too. You know – playing in the haystacks, sitting by the creek, exploring old culverts."

Of course, all art is autobiography, to a greater or lesser extent. Some elements from Gee's life are regularly recycled in his fiction but one has to wonder where all the really dark stuff comes from. His books often unfold in some sort of uneasy territory midway between nostalgia and menace and he willingly sends his imagination into places that are blacker than the bottom of a well.

Gee has alluded in past interviews to some sort of mysterious trauma during his early years and also an unhappy romantic relationship during the 1960s. Some have concluded that these events have left a deep reservoir of personal pain that he draws from in all his writing. It's an attractive hypothesis. He's such a nice man, so outwardly calm and content but his prose often flashes with fury, seethes with fear and guilt.

"My childhood was really pretty happy," he says, looking slightly wary as we sail a little too close to some well-kept secrets. "We weren't a dysfunctional family but I had a sense that families could go wrong. I mostly remember very happy times, at least, until all sorts of other things came along and blasted happiness away for a while. But I'm not going to go into that. There were some unhappy times, that's all I'll say.

"Rachel Barrowman is writing my autobiography and I've been very frank with her. At first I said, no, please, wait 'til I'm dead! Then I thought, no, someone is likely to write one at some point, so they might as well get the correct facts. When her book comes out, people will know all about this stuff and they can make what they like of it and tie it in with my novels but I'm going to say absolutely nothing more about it right now."

Fair enough. And what he says next is enough of a bombshell: Access Road could be Gee's last novel.

"Not long ago I started a new novel and got 3000 words into it and it just died on me. I lost belief in it. It was an honest attempt to get a new book going and it failed, so maybe I'm running on empty now. Who knows? But I'm not worried. I've written 30 books now, and that should be enough for anyone, though I will have to find something else to fill in my time."

From across the room, his wife Margareta suggests he might like to get outside and do some gardening. Gee looks dismayed.

"As you can probably tell, I've never been an enthusiastic gardener. And it's possible that another story idea will come to me; I don't know. I can chatter away about the process of writing but in the end, I'm as mystified by it as anyone else. I don't know where it all comes from; it's just something I do. I just find stories and put them down."

Gee looks out the window as the afternoon sun illuminates the bright green leaves on a line of shrubs he's happy to neither weed nor prune. I imagine he's enjoying their vivid colour, but no; this masterful prose stylist is reviewing his last sentence for any weak words.

"Actually, you can take out the `just'. No. I find stories and put them down."


Access Road by Maurice Gee is published by Penguin Books, rrp $37.




Sunday Star Times