Michael Gifkins, literary agent, editor and author, died on Monday night. His long-time friend and colleague Geoff Walker remembers him here and reminds us that before Michael became a literary eminence he had been a fisherman, wharfie and stonemason and then taught at Auckland University. I might add that he also wrote an excellent column of book-trade gossip for the Listener. He was a wicked gossip.
My copy of his first short-story collection After the Revolution (Longman Paul) is enscribed for me and dated 29 November 1982. That was from the book launch, which is where we first met. There is a line in the title story I have always remembered, in a scene from a game of tennis:
She paused to hitch a collapsing sock, and Antony’s gaze was rewarded by a pair of delicate olive legs, and the poignant marbling of a varicose vein behind one slender knee.
Observant, sensual, witty and with a hint of cruelty. That was Michael. At least, the first three attributes were. The hint of cruelty, in my experience, was not in the life but in the writing and was one element that gave it a distinctive edge in New Zealand writing at the time.
There were two more collections of short fiction, Summer is the Côte d’Azur (Penguin) in 1987 and The Amphibians (Penguin) in 1989. He had been writer in residence at Auckland University in 1983 and then Menton fellow in 1985, when many if not most of these stories were written. There was “Providing Intelligence” in Sport 6 and “Romancing Alison Holst” in Sport 8 but as far as I know that was it for publication.
Soon after Michael returned from Menton, so probably 1986, in the upstairs bar at what is now the Mercure hotel we had a drink. Possibly two or three. He talked of writing a book of essays. He would have started it: I wish he had finished and published it. He was a clear, bracing thinker about New Zealand culture, its place in the world and the internal relations within it. His view was very different from, say, Michael King’s, but was just as thoughtful, informed and considered.
So I always enjoyed talking with him. He was so smart, so urbane, so sophisticated and with a hint of wickedness. And always high-grade gossip. I didn’t know quite anyone like him. How did Westlake college produce this? When I told Elizabeth Smither that he had died, she replied:
Michael was the equivalent in the literary world of Peter McLeavey in the visual arts. He and Peter invented themselves, down to the smallest details, but they brought high standards and the flavour of something different and better.
He was a brilliant editor of fiction: he told me about one famous author’s award-winning novel that he still had shoeboxes full of ditched chapters from it.
And then he became a literary agent and was brilliant at that too. Just ask Lloyd Jones. Friends of mine asked him to represent them: he was kind and courteous in declining to do so if, to be coarse, he couldn’t see a buck in it. He put many, many hours into manuscripts he could see a buck in. Ming Cher’s Spider Boys, for example, which he worked on for so long and which was nearly made into a movie. And then came Lloyd Jones’s Mr Pip. Ka-ching!
That first book of Michael’s was a deal too: from memory, he presented the publisher with a package of edited text, type-design and cover art, so all the publisher had to do was press the print button and distribute it. Canny as: a lower cost for the publisher, so a higher return for the author. This is not so different from the self-publishing that authors do on Amazon now. Michael was years ahead of his time.
He was very good to me – he sent me editing jobs he had been offered when he had moved on from that, and was always very generous with his time. I spent many years advising members of the NZ Society of Authors on publishers’ contracts and whenever I got stuck I would consult the expert. Every time, Michael sent a long email explaining the technicalities of particular clauses. There are well over a dozen New Zealand authors who unknowingly received free advice from our top agent.
But what I remember most is his charm. He really made you feel that he was delighted to see you. His face lit up. He was a great networker so would eventually move on to someone more interesting, attractive or useful, but until then you were given major charm.
As you can see in that photo above (click on it for a larger version). I was going to crop it so it was just Michael but I have left it entire to show him in typical convivial context, surrounded by writers. This was an evening at the Frank Sargeson house in Takapuna in the late 1980s or early 90s. That’s Lisa Greenwood foreground left; Caroline Ireland and Elizabeth Caffin on the right; and in the centre is Michael, typically delighted to be talking to whoever the obscured woman is. It is a classic Michael Gifkins expression and that is how I will remember him.