The 36th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the July 1993 issue. (At least I think it’s the 36th – the count went awry some posts back.) The portrait is by Becky Nunes.
The intro read:
Maurice Gee is once again a contender for the Wattie awards, with his 20th book, Going West. He talks to Nigel Cox about writing, readers and the way our critics keep measuring his novels against the massive success of Plumb.
RULE OF PLUMB
If you didn’t know him as a writer, on meeting Maurice Gee it’d be hard to place him. A rugby coach, maybe, without the paunch or the heartiness. A successful carpenter. A printer? Yes, a craftsman of some sort. But Gee is one of a tiny cluster of our writers for whom greatness seems possible and he appears to be on the brink of international recognition. His recent novel, Going West, had the English reviewers juggling superlatives.
It’s been a long, tough climb to this altitude. Gee started writing when he was 17 and wrote five or six chapters of a novel that “was supposed to make war impossible for all time”. He published stories in literary magazines, and then in 1962 Hutchinson in London brought out his first novel, The Big Season.
Over the next 10 years he produced three more novels, each better than the last, supporting himself by working as a teacher, librarian and postal worker. But time to write was snatched from the minutes left after everything else had been attended to. In late 1975 Gee and his family moved to Nelson, and by 1976 he was saying in an interview, “I have now reached the stage where I’m determined that I’m not going to stop writing for the rest of my life.”
It was in Nelson, committed to writing fulltime, that he was finally able to turn his attention to some material he’d been saving. His grandfather, James Chapple, had been imprisoned for sedition during World War I, and Gee adapted and developed his life to make the novel Plumb, which won the James Tait Black prize for the best novel published in Britain that year, as well as the Wattie and the New Zealand Book Award for fiction.
Prowlers, published in 1987, is Gee’s favourite among his novels (“I liked that nasty old bugger, Sir Noel”), but Plumb still occupies his thoughts: “I sometimes play the game of wondering what my grandfather would think of George Plumb. I don’t really think he’d be terribly pleased, not because he’d think it’s a misrepresentation of his life, but because I think he would have disapproved very much of modem fiction.”
The great success of Plumb seems almost to have become a problem for Gee. In New Zealand, readers and, especially, reviewers, can’t see past it. Judith Medlicott on the National Programme said Plumb was “terrific”, but that Going West had “some major flaws”, was “a bit turgid”. Phil Coogan in the New Zealand Herald said that “... the narrative shifts which seem more self-consciously clever than useful, the frequent discourse on the nature of writing and language, and the slow pace, combined to disappoint me.” Tall-poppy time?
Other New Zealand reviewers have seen the novel’s achievements more clearly, but it was with a sense of speaking to a prophet perhaps not quite fully honoured that I
began this interview.
These days writers often have to be able to read from their work, to give performances. Is that a bad thing?
Not a bad thing. What I’ve discovered is that I enjoy it. I’ve found I can actually throw myself into a reading. I went to Toronto, for the Harbourfront Festival a couple of years ago – you get invited over, they take you to Niagara Falls and put you in a hotel, and show you the hospitality room that has every sort of booze you can imagine. In return for this, in the week there, you’re asked to read for half an hour.
I had a great time with the reading, more than any I’ve given, really threw myself into it. Did the voices, things like that. I get keyed up. After that performance in Toronto, one of the women administrators said, “As soon as you started reading, I thought, Good God, he’s been at drama school” – because I was reading a passage from Prowlers, doing the old man, and the voice was ancient, trembly. But I had to disillusion her. I said, “No, I was just so bloody nervous.”
In 1979 you described yourself as “the least known of the New Zealand novelists”. Has becoming better known produced any problems for you as a writer?
None. I think I still have a very low profile, compared with someone like say Alan Duff, or Janet Frame. I’m still fairly anonymous, I pass incognito in lots of places... But I don’t think a lot of people know of me. I guess I’ve got a steady readership, but if you asked me to put a face to them, describe them, I don’t know who the hell they are.
I’ve got no complaints about my readership. If I want more readers I’ll try a more popular sort of novel. And in fact I have tried to write a popular novel and it didn’t work – it only got to about three chapters. I got disgusted a few years ago about the small amount of money that I was writing for. I said to myself, I will sit down and I will write a big sex-and-violence bestseller for international consumption, and I wrote three chapters of this thing and I began to feel... degraded. Because so many of those things turn on violence towards women, and I found that that’s what I was doing – it was part of the recipe. And after a while I thought, God, I don’t want to do this any more. So I stopped. That was the major reason.
The other reason was that I didn’t think it was working. You can’t write even that sort of novel according to a recipe. I’m sure that the people who write them, Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, people like that,
Maurice Gee: “The reviewer is a reader who gets one vote just like every other reader.”
believe in the bloody things. I mean, hasn’t Sheldon said that God gave him this great gift? Not that when I write I have an audience in mind. I write a “literary” sort of novel, but I don’t do it deliberately, I do it because that’s the thing I do. When I’m putting the words onto the page I have absolutely no one in mind. There’s only one thing directing me and that’s story. It’s only afterwards that you begin to think, Who’s this for, and how are they going to receive it?
Do you have an image of the story as you’re working? Is it a rope in front of you that you’re being pulled along?
No, no, I don’t think so. I’ve often got an idea of where I’m going to – that’s kind of a peak at the end – and there’s one or two peaks along the way that you work towards but, to pursue the metaphor, the flat areas between those peaks are as strange to me as they possibly could be. A reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen and I don’t.
So, in the beginning, it’s all very arbitrary. You make certain selections, of names, places, ages, and you get three or four pages down. But then that arbitrary thing stops, for me, because what you’ve got on paper begins to generate things out of itself. And then it becomes a kind of a struggle, to hold what I think of as being my story against what the story wants to be, the two things pull in different ways, and you steer a course down the middle.
The London Sunday Times review of Going West said that you are one of the finest writers at work in the English-speaking world. How do you react to that?
With astonishment. I wonder how these people make these judgments. I’m not objecting to it, because everybody’s interested in praise, and that has been immensely useful as a quote. I mean, it’s the sort of thing that you’d pay someone to write about you, because it’s quotable on the back of your next book and it doesn’t do you any harm at all. But then you have to sit down and look at it closely and say,
“What does it mean?” And it means nothing. It’s nice to have it said about you, but how does this man know this? So in the end it becomes one person’s opinion, the reviewer is a reader who gets one vote just like every other reader, and this one [he laughs] voted the right way.
On the other hand, you don’t seem the kind of writer who’s completely oblivious to the reactions to your books.
No, I’m not. I read reviews with a great deal of interest. They make me very, very angry at times, especially those that expose themselves – you know from the internal evidence of their own review they haven’t read your bloody book. Sometimes it seems so arbitrary.
I’ll give you an example: two English reviews of Meg came out in the same week. One finished by saying, “There is not an ounce of gusto in it” – that was a woman called Angela Huth. And then a guy called Martin Seymour-Smith said, “It’s full to the brim with a Joyce Caryian gusto”. What can you say?
There seems to be an attitude when approaching your work, in this country at least, that your best book, Plumb, is already behind you. Are you haunted by Plumb?
No, I’m not. I’m pleased by Plumb, I don’t want people to forget it, I want them to carry on reading the thing, but I wish they wouldn’t try everything that I write against it. That’s a little annoying, because I think I’m going on and changing all the time, and to have a kind of a static pole standing in the middle of the ground back there and being tied to that pole, it’s annoying. Plumb really doesn’t have anything to say about Going West that I can see.
You’ve written a number of books in which elderly narrators look back over their lives. It’s produced wonderful results for you, but I can’t help wondering if what is yielded by this kind of book might have become over-familiar to your readers.
I think that’s fair comment. Most of them have been reflective novels, people looking back and gathering significant parts of their past. Trying to make sense, coming to a stance in relation to their past, to find out how they should carry on in the future.
But it’s for that reason that in my next novel, Crime Story, I deliberately decided to break out of that and write a novel of contemporary New Zealand, set in 1992, occupying five months of time, with the characters resolutely not looking backward – well, they do a little bit [laughs]. There are various public events which have their parallels in the “real world” out there, so it’s a novel that looks much more at the way New Zealand is now. Not because I’ve felt any real lack of anything in the earlier novels, but simply because I wanted to see if I could write a different sort of novel.
The Burning Boy was an attempt to do that, too. I didn’t enjoy it as much as writing the backward-looking novel which covers a large slice of time. That allows me to play around with time, and put thing against thing, to balance and carpenter in the way that the other sort of novel doesn’t – I find that’s what I enjoy doing most.
How do you react to the suggestion that there’s been more refinement than development in your recent work?
Well, I’ve got to rule out of discussion the one that no one’s read yet, Crime Story, that may develop in certain ways. Yes. I think that’s probably fair. I think there was a big leap forward between Games Of Choice and Plumb, there was definitely development there. I’d say since Plumb it probably hasn’t developed in any significant way. I don’t mean that I’ve been writing and re-writing the same novel – I’ve been shifting ground, but not in any artistic sense. I’ve never sort of experimented or gone beyond the format, if you like, that I found for Plumb.
You said in 1976, “If I could write thrillers as well as Raymond Chandler does, I’d be perfectly happy to write a thriller.” It’s obvious now that you can write as well as Chandler, and your new title is Crime Story.
It’s not a thriller. I still have that ambition – perhaps the next adult novel will be one. I’d very much like to go into that area, but I don’t know what sort of thriller it would be. I guess I did a sort of thriller in In My Father’s Den. It’s something I’d like to try again 20 years later and see whether I can do better than that, although that’s a little novel that still satisfies me.
You said recently, “I think I’ve got 10 good years of writing left.”
I was 60 then. If I get to 70 with my mind alive enough to continue writing fiction, I’ll be happy. But I’d like to still produce three or four novels if I can.
How close are you now to what you had in your mind’s eye when you began as a writer?
I don’t know what I had in my mind’s eye. Probably something very unreal, like inventing a fictional world rather like the world of Charles Dickens, who was my road into the writing of fiction.
I almost consciously started writing fiction because I’d enjoyed being in Dickens’ fictional world so much. I wanted to try and create one of my own. When I got going, the other strong strand in my life was a didactic one, one which came from my grandfather. That was the one that overpowered the fictional, the character thing, when I first started writing. But I soon abandoned that and saw that what was alive in what I was doing were the people, rather than the ideas.
I don’t know. I don’t think that what I’ve done could have been anything I could have begun to imagine.