Rachel Barrowman's much anticipated biography of Maurice Gee is released this Thursday (9 July) and ahead of the release we asked her about her experiences working on the book.
How long has the bio taken you? When did you begin?
I started working on it midway through 2006. It’s taken me quite a lot longer than I anticipated – which is all to do with life – mine – getting in the way along the way. Also, Gee has had a long and very productive writing career – seventeeen adult novels, thirteen children’s novels, a volume of short stories (and writing for screen). So it was always going to be a big job.
When did you first approach Maurice Gee about the bio? Had he had other offers?
It wasn’t quite exactly a matter of me approaching him. One or two people had been gently persuading him that there should be a biography, and that it would be better that it was by someone he was comfortable with and had said yes to, that he should take the initiative; if he kept refusing, someone would go ahead and do one anyway. At the same time, I needed a project and I was suggested to him. He had read my Mason biography and liked it. I think I was unthreatening as a potential biographer.
So one day in 2006 he contacted me and asked if I would be interested in recording some interviews with him. He’d decided he needed to, that it was time to get some stuff down on record – and that if I wanted to go on from there and do a biography, he was (albeit still hesitantly, I suspect) happy with that. He would regard me as his ‘authorised’ biographer to the extent of turning anyone else away. So we went ahead with the interviews and I applied for and got the Michael King Fellowship.
What was he like to work with?
He was very open, generous and honest. He said at the outset that he didn’t like the term ‘authorised biography’, in the sense that it implied he was maintaining/wanted to exert control. It was to be my book, he wouldn’t interfere. As far as he was concerned there was no point in doing a biography if it wasn’t to be ‘warts and all’, and he said that he would be as honest and open with me as he could.
So he didn’t place any constraints around it (except regarding a couple of subjects where other members of his family were involved and where he told me he would need to know they were happy with them being written about – so that was about their sensitivity, not his. But in the end there were no issues there). There were, it’s true, one or two things he was reticent about in those initial conversations and which I came across in my research, but he was forthcoming when asked.
Five or six months after I got started he and Margareta moved from Wellington to Nelson, and since then our communication has mostly been by email: me asking questions as I went along, him remembering or elaborating on things, and also keeping me up with what he was doing. He was still writing – four novels published since 2006.
What were some surprising details you discovered about his life?
I really didn’t know anything much about Gee’s life, so there was all sorts of stuff that was new and fascinating. Dedicated readers of Gee’s work will know that his fiction draws heavily on his childhood and family history, and the few (short) pieces of memoir he’s published have covered that territory, but there’s a lot else that he has not previously spoken or written (directly) about publicly.
You’ll have to wait for the book to find out more though!
One thing I didn’t know was that he’d written quite a bit for television: Mortimer’s Patch, notably (early 80s small-town cop show, very successful), and a feature film (starring Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame).
The bio is also very much about his fiction – did you reread all the books? Did you get the sense of themes he would return to/characters he would reinvent in the novels?
When I first started working on the biography, the first thing I did – alongside the interviews – was to read them all in order of publication. I hadn’t read all the novels: not the pre-Plumb ones, with the exception of In My Father’s Den which I only read after the film came out, and I’d read few of the short stories. Nor had I read many of the children’s novels – only The Fat Man and Hostel Girl, and none of the fantasy ones. Now I’ve read them all at least twice and many of them three times.
Repetition, echoing – of themes, incidents, places, images and metaphor – is a significant feature of Gee’s work. A fugue-like quality. (This is also a quality of the novels themselves: Plumb, and the Plumb trilogy, especially.) Reading the novels (and the short stories) through in order, what comes through very strongly is not just the sense of Gee’s distinctive ‘territory', but the novels’ own life story, if you like, how they relate to, speak to one another, either distantly, and through the commonality of language and metaphor, etc, but sometimes more directly, as in The Fire-raiser providing the basis for Prowlers, and Hostel Girl for Ellie and the Shadow Man. Often those connections are smaller and less conscious, and it was fascinating to recognise them. I enjoyed reading and re-reading the novels (and stories) very much and I’ve written more about them than I think I anticipated I would when I started.
Did you have any favourites?
When pressed for a favourite I might say Prowlers, which is Gee’s favourite too. It was the first novel he wrote after the Plumb trilogy and the enjoyment he had with it is palpable. And I have a special fondness for A Special Flower, which is probably his least known novel (it’s the second), and the least Gee-ish (though in some ways it’s very Gee). A quite strange, creepy novel. It’s also the one novel he has not wanted to see reissued.
Of the children’s novels: The Fire-raiser, The Fat Man and Hostel Girl. I’m less a fan of the fantasy novels but that largely reflects my own reading preferences.
How was the process of researching and writing different or similar from the Mason bio?
Quite different in a number of respects. Firstly, Mason died in 1971, so I couldn’t go straight to the source, so to speak, as I could with Gee; nor to contemporaries.
I started the Mason bio with a previous, unpublished biography and the research for that biography available to me as a starting point – though the book quickly became my own and I supplemented that material with my own research. But you could say I had a ‘head start’. With Gee it was all mine from the outset.
Thirdly, Mason’s literary oeuvre was quite small. Gee has had a 50-plus-year writing career, which has produced 33 books. So it was bigger deal, in a number of ways. Certainly it felt like a bigger challenge (and for all those reasons).
But in terms of my own method, and my approach in terms of style and form, these were pretty much the same. With the form and style of the biography – a chronological life narrative, weaving the story of the literature in with that of the life, wanting to let Gee’s character and the themes emerge from the narrative and quotation and not be too heavy-handed or directorial – I was aiming for the same thing.
How does it feel to complete the book?
A little unreal; a little scary.
What do you think literary biographies add to a body of fiction or non-fiction work?
I find it hard to answer this. The relationship between the literature and the life is really the point of ‘literary biography’. Of course. But of course, the extent to which and the ways in which they relate will vary hugely from subject to subject. With Maurice, those connections are pervasive and subtle and, I believe, important.
This is not to say that one needs to know about the life to appreciate the novels; not at all. But the two do inform each other, in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Are you nervous about Maurice's reaction to the book?
No, because he has already read it. I sent it to him when (and only when) I had a complete draft done, which was in August last year. Naturally I was nervous. But his response has been very generous.
How he will feel once it’s out there in the world is another question, of course. (I think we’ll both be feeling a little terrified.)
Maurice Gee: Life and Work is released on Thursday 9 July. A launch for the book will be held at Unity Books in Wellington. All welcome.