Maurice Gee is the first Honoured New Zealand Writer, a new Auckland Writers and Readers Festival award:

Conceived to celebrate New Zealand’s most accomplished writers, their body of work and the immense contribution they have made to the literary landscape of New Zealand.

Maurice GeeSo this could have easily been a worthy session, a bit of a literary pat on the back for one of our finest. It was far more.

Maurice Gee, ably assisted by publisher Geoff Walker,  overcame his nervousness and reluctance to appear in public. When he turned 70, his present to himself was to say no to any more public speaking – but he thought it would be mean-spirited and churlish to refuse this honour.

He talked about his themes:

I keep going back to the little town I grew up in.

The two leitmotifs in his work are the creek (danger) and the kitchen (his Mum there representing home and safety). He remembers a family walk that led to an encounter with a naked man cleaning himself in the creek: “I’ll never forget his black stare”. Apparently there were swagmen around Henderson in 1936. The other memory is an episode of bullying. A fat child was caught peeking in the girls’ changing room so a bit of mob justice is administered.

Writing was a natural thing in our family … It was no strange thing to write.

Gee talked about his mother’s writing career. He also had uncles who wrote, as well as an aunt and his grandfather. His dad was a carpenter who had at one time been a successful boxer. It was his dad that gave him the first book he ever enjoyed, a Chums annual from around 1917. It was a violent and savage thing.

After that he became an avid reader. He got into Zane Grey and “read 45 of his novels in an uncivilised gulp”. When he was 16, he met an old man called Ben Hart who asked “Do you like Charles Dickens?’  He thought it looked old-fashioned but gave it a try:

I fell in love with Dickens in Chapter Two … Ben handed out the novels one by one, mostly in order. Fellow feeling took the place of facile identification.

Gee’s novel Plumb saw him utilising the life of his grandfather the Reverend James Chappell:

Every novelist should have a remarkable grandfather.

The Reverend became an evolutionist, left “this great lying church”, was a pacifist and became a communist. Gee’s mother was the 11th of  his 15 children. He dragged the family to American in WWI and came back when the States entered the war.

Geoff Walker asked Maurice Gee why there are so many old people in his fiction:

Old people are full of years and full of experience … They have an abundance of stuff in there.  They present whole lives … yet they can be living intensely themselves in the present time … Past and present are flashing lights to each other.

His technique is to explore this “interleaving of past and present” … and then add “a little sharp bit at the end”.

When questioned about a perceived darkness in his work, Gee said:

I didn’t invent darkness and violence … You’ve got to be aware of the things that lurk. A violent act is a great peg to hang a story on. It creates behaviour and generates more story.

Maurice then mentioned the poem Childe Roland to the dark tower came by Robert Browning. He read it in 1948 and always wondered about the ending. He came to the conclusion that Roland had to fight the dark part of himself.

He paid tribute to his wife Margareta. Her diaries, and her research, has informed his work – even to the extent of using her diaries as a 16 year old to create the character of Ellie. He read from Prowlers - his feeling is that it is his best novel. He read an excerpt, acting the character of soil scientist with astonishing character, a diatribe against a pretty young relative and beauty under surfaces. It’s not every day you get to see a venerable older gentleman say: “Put on a brassiere, slut, before you come questing here again”. The reading ended with:

Here they come, the asteroids, the basalt moons.

Rachel Barrowman is working on a biography of Maurice, and he is also writing pieces of memoir himself:

I seem no longer to be able to write fiction … I can invent well enough but I seem to be inventing the same old thing … I quietly closed those exercise books … I have a sense of completion. I’d like to write a great big comic novel … I’m not a humorist.

His final words will resonate – they sum up the honesty and modesty of an extraordinary person:

I look back on 30 or so novels and think that’s ok.