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Critics beware: Writer Maurice Gee is back

Writer Maurice Gee. Illustration/Weef

When Maurice Gee published Access Road in 2009, he called time on his illustrious career. Now he’s back with a new book he hopes will appeal to younger readers as well as adults. 

In the previous half-century, Maurice Gee had written some of the most-acclaimed New Zealand fiction. Adult novels such as the Plumb trilogy, In My Father’s Den, Going West, Live Bodies and ­Blindsight had won countless awards. His novels for younger readers, sometimes pushing the boundaries of traditional age groups, had included Under the Mountain, the O trilogy, The Fat Man and the Salt trilogy and had also won many awards.

When Gee published his final adult novel, Access Road, in 2009 and declared it was his last book, his many readers and fans reluctantly accepted that everybody, sooner or later, has to stop. The ­publication of Rachel Barrowman’s exhaustive biography of Gee in 2015 rounded off his stellar writing career: the novels, the biography, the retirement. The remarkable output of the man often described as New Zealand’s greatest living writer seemed to have come to an end.

But now, a surprise and a delight for his many fans: a new children’s novel, The Severed Land, is being published by Penguin Random House in February, revealing this major writer in fine form.

Gee, who is 85, talks to writer and editor Geoff Walker, a former Penguin New Zealand publisher.

At the time you said that Access Road, an adult novel, would be your last book. You even mentioned starting another adult novel and abandoning it. But now a children’s book. What changed?

I thought Access Road was my last. It seemed to go over old ground and the last few words have the sound of an ending. I tried to go on because writing is my job. Something new, new territory. An old man sits in his darkened house. No one knows he’s there. The police don’t know. They’ve cordoned off the street because further up the hill a crazed gunman is taking potshots at anything that moves. He’s already killed two people. Soon he’ll find out the old man is there. A promising situation, I thought. But after 5000 words, it died on me. There was plenty to invent, but nothing, it seemed, for imagination to get hold of. So I gave it up. If anyone wants to use the idea, it’s free.

After that, I wrote a memoir of my parents and one of my first 18 years, not for publication, for the family. And after that, nothing for a while. Then a new figure emerged and started to haunt me. It was a girl. She was sitting high in the branches of a tree, watching something further down the hill. All day long she watched. I watched, too, and saw or imagined or decided what it was. That’s how The Severed Land began. (It’s working title was Girl Up a Tree.) Without ­knowing exactly where it was going or how it would end, I found some props and lines of advance – and it was great to be writing fiction again. I finished the novel and put it in a drawer and didn’t take it out for a year. Then I worked on it a bit more and saw it was okay, and here it is.

Gee at home in Nelson with writer daughter Emily. Photo/Alamy

Is there something about writing fiction for children rather than adults that is somehow more contained, more narrative-driven, that makes it attractive to you?

My children’s fiction is mystery/adventure, like The Fire-Raiser, or fantasy/adventure like the O and Salt trilogies. It’s narrative-driven, as you say, there’s always danger around the next corner. It’s fun to write. But it can get serious, too, and sometimes very dark. It moves towards mainstream fiction, as in The Fat Man. The Severed Land, though, stays fairly true to type.

Of course, you were once famously misquoted as saying that you thought writing for children was easier than writing for adults. But that’s not actually your view, I think?

A number of people were upset about what they thought I’d said. I said that it was easier for me to write the sort of books I write for children than the sort I write for adults, which is true. I said nothing about how hard it is for other writers and nothing about the quality of children’s fiction in general. But I nearly got expelled. One rather hysterical librarian said New Zealand libraries should refuse to stock my books. And there are still people who have a knife out for me. Some are described as “experts”. There are quite a few of those in the children’s book world.

I’ve been trying to pick the reading-age level of this new novel. Is it for intermediate readers? Or teen? Or is it even Young Adult? Or is it crossover (there are some references to prostitution)? Are you clear in your own mind about this? And does it matter?

It doesn’t matter. The story will appeal to good readers from about the age of 11 upwards and I hope to adults, too. But I guess it will be classified YA. Prostitution? Well, the girl at the centre of the story catches the eye of a troop of mummers who try to buy her for a night, and later a woman attempts to kidnap her for a brothel, but she gets away both times. Nothing sexual is described. In her world, there’s danger everywhere, and this is part of it. Most children old enough to read this book will know what’s going on and those who don’t can have it explained easily enough.

What was your starting point with world building? How do you as a writer go about establishing the rules and rituals of a completely new world? How far ahead do you plot it?

The forest world is peaceful and secure. What Fliss watches lies on the other side of an invisible wall that keeps her safe from the cruelty and greed that flourish there. She’s got to go through the wall, of course. I’m not interested in magic – spells and wizards, that sort of thing. There’s just enough here to set things up. Then it’s all movement and action and what-happens-next – an adventure story. As for the world on the other side – the river rolling down past plantations and towns – it’s an invented landscape. The city of Galp, where the river reaches the sea, suggests semi-industrialised, early Victorian London. The ruling oligarchy is invented, but the underclass of half-starved workers and slaves owes something to Dickens and to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. I think it all hangs together.

Gee circa 1995. Photo/Listener

The land is “severed” in the book by an almost impenetrable wall that divides good and evil and can be held in someone’s mind. It plays a central role in the story. What drew you to that idea?

The struggle between good and evil is ­central to the fantasy novel. It’s in Tolkien, for starters, and it generates the action in my two trilogies. Although The Severed Land is a stand-alone novel, it’s from the same stable as the Salt trilogy. It has the same hard edge. The wall hovers in the background all the way through, unbreakable and invisible, held in the mind of one old man – old “creature”. Once it’s established as real, we can move away from it into the badlands with Fliss and Keef.

But the story isn’t plotted, it more or less follows its nose. At one point I realised it needed to change direction and become more solid, and the man called Mutch stepped out of the shadows on the deck of a scow lumbering downriver to the city of Galp. I’d put him on board only a few sentences earlier and had no idea what I’d use him for – but without him, the story would have sunk.

There are marvellous names in the novel. First, there are people called drain-sliders and wall-men and dippers. And the characters’ names include Zizz and Shoo and Poddy and Goook (that’s with three “o”s). And, of course, the main character is called Fliss. I suspect you had a lot of fun with this.

Some of those “job descriptions” come from 18th- and 19th-century slang. There was a burglar called Spring-heeled Jack. He was a wallman and could leap over anything. A dip or dipper was a pickpocket. When Fliss escapes from slavery as a child, she becomes a mudlark, scavenging along the river banks. Then she runs with a gang of thieves on the streets of Galp. She becomes a dip and uses that skill twice in the story. I invented some of the other names, like drain-slider and bait-girl.

As for the characters’ names, Mutch comes from Mutch the Miller’s Son in the Robin Hood stories. Shoo and Poddy just popped into my head, but Zizz is Zizz because he has a broken nose and whistles as he breathes. And Goook earns his extra “o” because he’s the town crier. Fliss – I once knew a girl called Fliss, short for Felicity. Names of places, too – I ­particularly like Spool for the river and Galp for the big greedy city.

I got very attached to Fliss. She’s tough and clever and at the centre of everything. She’s what Americans would call a kick-ass girl. I prefer kick-arse. She carries the story. Her companion, the boy with two names, has in some ways a harder battle to fight. It’s a question of whether he’ll stay the Kirt he starts as or manage to become Keef.

Fliss is black and at one stage says “they made us slaves … It was our land …” In the novel, the land was invaded by the “Families”, who claimed it was empty. This suggests a sharp political thread in The Severed Land. Were you making connections?

That sort of colonisation and exploitation is a constant in human history. In The Severed Land, it’s particularly virulent. The Families – Despiners, Morrisettes, Carps and the rest – are similar to Company in Salt. They steal and enslave. They steal other people’s lives. I had in mind the extreme examples of Leopold of Belgium’s ludicrously named Congo Free State in the late 19th century, and the plantations of the rubber barons along the Amazon River. There were hideous cruelties ­practised in both places. In the Congo, they were what drove Kurtz mad in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and made him whisper at the end, “The horror! The horror!”

The Severed Land doesn’t describe anything like that, it’s mild in ­comparison, and the evolution of the tyranny is only sketched in. But Galp is a cruel and violent place, and its rulers are greedy and corrupt and hungry for power, and I’d ask people who think I’m exaggerating to have a look at the Belgian Congo and the Amazon plantations, and other places. The Severed Land is fantasy adventure, but shadows of that sort lie behind it.

Gee and family in the 1970s. Photo/R Milligan

In your adult fiction, you’ve also been drawn to explore some of the dark places in the human mind and character. Could you comment?

The boundaries blur sometimes. I don’t think there’s any need to protect children from these things if they’re legitimate elements in the story and are not put in simply to excite or disturb. Children of the age I’m writing for already know a lot, they’re beginning to see both sides, how can they help it? You’ll remember the fuss about The Fat Man. Dorothy Butler accused me of “robbing children of their childhood”, which upset me coming from her, even though it was nonsense. Children know or are ready to know, their minds are busy, busy, widening out and they can’t be stopped. It was a relief to me when Margaret Mahy came out with some sensible opinions about “dark and complex things” and “truths that children’s writers are generally expected to avoid”. Those truths – historical, social, psychological, human – are what I’ve tried to write about in both sorts of fiction.

You’ve written a number of series – the O trilogy, the Salt trilogy and the Plumb trilogy. It’s clear from the elusive ending to The Severed Land you’ve left the way open for a second novel, if not a trilogy. Are ideas percolating?

The Severed Land finishes with a nice rounding off. But the wall can’t stand ­forever, that’s made plain. Its lifespan is the span of a human life. And it’s ­unnatural; one day it has to fall down. As Fliss says, “You can’t cut a whole land in two. Not forever.” But a second novel would have to include revolution and war, and some sort of mending. I don’t think I can do those things, I don’t see my way. Perhaps someone else can try.

Lately, I’ve been writing about my wife Margareta’s childhood and girlhood – her birth in Sweden, the dangerous journey she and her mother Greta made in 1940, six weeks through Russia, Arabia and India, to join Greta’s husband, Oscar, a transtasman Teal pilot, once famous as “The Sundowner of the Skies”; then, as the marriage broke down, a childhood of shifting from town to town and school to school, with a foreign divorced mother in conservative New Zealand. When she was six, her life was saved by the new wonder drug penicillin. Then there was an interesting time as a teenager in the Hutt Valley in the Mazengarb years (after the ministerial report on “juvenile delinquency” was released). It’s a good story. I’ve enjoyed writing it.

THE SEVERED LAND, by Maurice Gee (Puffin NZ, $19.99), will be on sale from January 27.

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.