Thursday, December 30, 2010

Mark Amery on Maurice Gee

The 28th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1996 issue.  

The intro read:
Maurice Gee’s new novel Loving Ways explores the territory around Nelson and between members of a fractured family. Once more, there’s a murder – but he denies being fascinated by violence. “All that fuss over The Fat Man was nonsense,” he tells Mark Amery.
“It’s the only thing I can do well,” says Maurice Gee, about writing fiction. “I like the exploration of setting rudimentary people in motion, seeing them grow round, seeing them progress through a story, inter­relating, and then bringing it all to some satisfactory conclusion. That’s a voyage of discovery for the reader as he reads. It is equally so for the writer as he writes – and it’s hard work, and sometimes painful.”
That telling of a good story may be the basic element behind the success of Gee’s writing, but when you’ve written as many novels as he has (12 adult novels and another eight for children), readers will always try to find another way to track the movement between the stories.
With readers of Gee, it’s often location. His new novel, Loving Ways, sees him return to the Nelson region, the location for two previous novels, Prowlers and The Burning Boy, after another two (Crime Story and Going West) took us to Auckland and Wellington.
The pages of Loving Ways reveal the Nelson region as an area Gee dearly loves. The story sweeps from a pottery at one end of Golden Bay to an orchard on the Tasman Bluffs at the other, and then over the Takaha Hill to Nelson. Bringing together two middle-aged brothers and a sister who have the same father (a dying Nelson orchardist) but different mothers, it charts the personal territory between them and, in doing so, the geographical as well.
Gee, his wife Margareta and their family lived in Nelson for 13 years. In 1989 they moved to Wellington, Gee taking a writing fellowship at Victoria University and Margareta a job at the National Library.
In 1993 they made a return trip. “It was that trip,” he says, “revisiting numbers of old friends in Nelson, then going over the hill and stopping on the way at an orchard above the bluffs [where Margareta had worked] and then visiting some friends who had a pottery in Parapara – all these things came together, everything was suddenly alive for me again, and I very much wanted to base a novel in that setting.”
While the seeds of Loving Ways lie in Gee’s love of this landscape – it even ends on his favourite beach, Wharariki, in Golden Bay – the novel is rarely directly descriptive of the scenery. “It is very much a landscape book,” he says, “but I don’t do the landscape. I just let it happen – I don’t try to describe it. I allow the landscape to grow around the people, and the interaction between the two is the natural one we experience in any location we happen to live in.”
The switches in location between books that readers notice are probably not all that important to Gee. He shows more eagerness to set new challenges for himself with every work, be it the research involved, a few new technical challenges or a different approach. “I quite enjoy making things hard for myself,” he admits. “That’s why, for example, in Loving Ways you’ll find in the middle of the third person narrative a section written as an interior monologue. I found that the narrative was running along in a very headlong way, and this was a way of stopping it running too headlong.
“I was rereading Ulysses at the time and I thought, why not try an interior monologue? I’ve never tried that, it’s going to be hard, can I do it? It slows the story down and gives it suddenly a new focus, and then allows you to get back into the narrative progression of the rest of the story.
“You don’t have problems like that writing children’s books,” he says. “But in a sense it’s still a challenge for me, it’s making things hard because I’ve got to concentrate very closely on the narrative pace, just getting on with the story. I can’t allow myself any indulgences.”
In Loving Ways Gee also keeps up his and our interest by moving from character to character in the third person, which he felt appropriate for a book where he wanted to bring three members of a family back together after a long time. This common narrative device, he says, allowed him to move freely between the three people, rather than lumping them into one action.
“It throws the time scheme out a little bit in the second part. I have to go back in time at one point, which I hope hasn’t made it too confusing.”
While Gee became interested in seeing how he could bring this family back together – how it fitted with their expectations, and what sort of chemistry was between them – that wasn’t clear when he set about writing. The act of writing for him continues to be a voyage of discovery.
“I wasn’t aware of all of this when I started. It developed as I wrote. I wasn’t, for example, aware that May and Alan [the daughter and one of the sons] were going to get on so well. It simply happened.”
Loving Ways ends in a violent act – a murder. It’s something Gee is under­standably defensive about, considering the heated debate last year over the violence in his Aim Children’s Book of the Year Award winner The Fat Man.
“Dorothy Butler recently said that I at some point said I was fascinated by violence. If she says that I said that – well, I suppose I did – but the point I’d like to make is that I’m not interested in the act of violence. I’m more interested in the cause of the act of violence and in the consequences. That’s what interests me as material for fiction.
“This novel may end in an act of violence, but I wouldn’t say it’s pessimistic. This is a fairly optimistic novel in that a number of people come through having won small victories.”
Gee has recently reread The Fat Man. He is currently working on a film script of it, and says he still feels “a little sore” about the attacks that were made on the book.
“All that fuss over The Fat Man was nonsense, really. I’ve had an enormous amount of letters from children about it and none of them complained. Their response was very positive. I still see it as a good story and that’s how the children who write to me saw it.
“Some people like Dorothy Butler saw it as something else, but I’m not going to let that stop me from writing children’s fiction. I may go on and write a bit more after this one. I see Dorothy Butler at this point as St Peter at the gates of New Zealand children’s literature. And perhaps I’ll slip past her with a book at some stage!”
With Loving Ways released this month, Gee is already halfway through his next book. “In a sense the novel we are talking about now is a dead one for me. I don’t mean it’s dead between the covers, but for me it’s finished and gone. It’s a year since I worked on it.
“The ‘live’ one has the working title, and I’m sure it will be the final title, of Live Bodies, which I tell you in the hope that you’ll print it in Quote Unquote so no one else will run away with it!”

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