Monday, 17 August 2015

Six questions for Tim Corballis

Tim Corballis's new book, two novellas, R.H.I. combines historical research with fiction to tell the story of two twentieth-century lives. Joan Riviere (the 'R' of the title) was an early English psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud's translator. Herman Henselmann (H) was a German architect, famous for many of the post-war buildings of the German Democratic Republic. The two novellas about their lives form an incomplete history of Europe's twentieth century—its wars, politics and thought.

Tim Corballis (Fiona Amundsen)

Can you explain where and how these novellas started? When did you first learn about R (Joan Riviere) and H (Hermann Henselmann)?

Im not sure where I first learned about RiviereI think it was in any essay by Adam Phillips, but it was a long time ago and Ive completely forgotten the context! I think I kind of invented a significance for her that is probably different from her objective significance. I became interested in the idea of someone who feels like she is a mask, and perhaps nothing behind the maskand the idea of trying to sympathise with such a person. You know, the problem of understanding what is going behind the mask when the mask is also everything. Thats what interested me about writing about her.

My interest in Henselmann is an easier story: hes impossible to avoid in East Berlin, or at least his buildings are. Karl-Marx-Allee as its now known, formerly Stalinallee, is just around the corner from the flat that Creative New Zealand rents for their Berlin Writer in Residence. At first these things strike you, as a visitor from somewhere like New Zealand where monumental architecture and planning are really pretty unknown, as just big. But the Soviet inspired socialist realist architecture is also pretty strange, so I was curious to find out where it came from. Once Id read a bit about Henselmann, I became pretty interested in his situationa believer in high modernism kind of forced to adopt the Soviet style, but he also I think was genuinely persuaded of it too, even though he then changed his mind again later So its another kind of mask without interior I guess.

Did the two stories always feel like they would be novellas or is this a conclusion you came to as you wrote? Is a novella just a shorter novel, or did you feel that there was something in the construction that sets your novellas apart from the novels youve written?

The book about Riviere was always going to be a novella, initially part of a trilogybut the other two projected novellas came to nothing. Henselmann was added later. In fact I did initially submit R to VUP on its own, but realised in discussion with Fergus that another companion novella would be good.

From the start, though, I liked the structure of three (later two) novellas that speak to each other thematically. Ive always, in my longer-form writing, thought in terms of structure: large movements or sections within a work, say, rather than chapters, plots, rising actions, climaxes, denouements. And Im also interested in the juxtaposition of unrelated materialso juxtaposing materially unrelated, long-ish forms made sense to me.

These works are different in so many ways from my earlier novels, that its hard to say whether length is really a factor in that difference or not. Im currently working on a novel, and it shares a lot of features with the novellas, so maybe not. But I saw the novellas a kind of sketches I guessnot biographies, but small snippets of a life or a situation. That doesnt justify much length. To lengthen them, to give them novelistic arcs, would be to impose a fictional structure on themsomething thats done often enough, but Im not really interested in doing it. Ive added fictional’—in the sense of made up’—material in them, but I havent wanted them to conform to the expectations of the biographical novel that things will develop in a certain way, that there will be a meaning or a lesson to a life, etc.

In your introduction you call yourself a trespasserin history and biography and describe your expertise as an expertise of not-knowing. Is this what fiction can offer traditional historical interpretation, a messing-up, in a way, of History with a capital H?

I hope so. Fictions a complicated word here though, since I think the danger behind much history writing is precisely that it hopes to give narrative coherence to eventsto give it a fictional arc, a meaningful arc. Think of Belich, for example, whose histories of New Zealand always seem to end in the glorious present, in the moment of maturity and decolonisation. What a wonderful novel! Historians can be wonderful synthesisers of huge amounts of factsbut whats interesting to me in these novellas is the possibility of letting facts remains unsynthesised, unshaped, stubborn, confusing. Maybe that can be called fiction toothough its a very different sense of the word. I hope it can open up the possibility that a life doesnt need to be narrated to be valuable, to be enjoyablethat different things can be made out of a life than the stories were used to. Something like that, anyway.

I think your approach to history accidental also begins to articulate your approach to fiction a way of resisting the clear arc, the easily understood meaning of a story.  How hard is this to do? Sometimes it seems to me that it is almost impossible to avoid the arcin fiction or perhaps in any sort of story-telling. What do you think?

I think youre probably right. I mean, there are stories told in these novellas too. I do structure them in ways that interrupt a more expected narrative arcand of course Im by no means the first to do that. Even a non-story could be read as a kind of story, anyway, whose meaning is there is no meaning’… so sure, its hard to avoid. Maybe its partly about how a reader comes to the work too? Thats partly why I liked the idea of an authors note: something that can kind of prime a reader not to want to understand everything, to allow the form of the work to be true to the difficulty of understanding the world. I guess the main thing I would want to avoid is the need to understandI want to give not understanding its own forms of pleasure.

You have a clear aesthetic statement about your novellas you say that theyre an Antipodean form, and that their form is a form for the internet age. Can you explain these statement a little more here?

The relationship of the Antipodes to somewhere like Europeand I guess other places too, partly just by virtue of distanceis that its very easy to take stuff out of context. We read European books here without knowing well the very dense worlds of thought and argument and politics that they come from. Im thinking partly about the histories of psychoanalysis and communism that I write about in R.H.I.these were never strong public movements here, and they certainly arent now, so these bits and pieces of history can seem here like theyve come from outer space. Theyre totally out of any context that can give them their full meaning. I like that we can then pick them up and make something new out of them. Theres a freedom in forgetting all that dense culture, but taking its tokens and ideas, thanks very much, and constructing something.

The internet is another name for all that. Its a name for the way information can so easily float free from its contextand for how impossible it is ever to have a view of all the information out there. It inevitably comes in the form of bits and pieces, snipped here and reported there. So the process of making somethingthis resembles ideas of sampling and remixing, but has an older heritage toothats interesting to me. Maybe its a way of coping with that big world without needing an overarching story Instead you pick up its flotsam and jetsam, stick them together, and hope that the result is a partial view, sensitive to whats out there, but not summarising of it.

Youve been writer in residence at the IIML this year how has the year gone for you and can you tell us something of the project youve been working on?

The years been very productive so far. For the first time in years, Im finding my writing day very longeven, sometimes, too long! That means Im kind of loading myself up with projects. The main thing is a novel with a time travel premise, which should be complete at least in draft form by the end of the year, but Im also working on various essays and a project that starts with interviews of a small handful of Victoria academics.

R.H.I. will be launched at 19 Tory St this Wednesday 19 August. 5.30pm–7pm. All welcome. 

R.H.I. is in all good bookstores and the VUP online store now.

Monday, 3 August 2015

August newsletter

 Three new releases in August

James K. Baxter: Complete Prose has been a long labour of love for its editor Dr John Weir. He began the project back in 1965 when he produced a bibliography of Baxter’s poetry and prose. Through a shared interest in literature and religion, he and Baxter became close friends and confidants. Although primarily known as a poet, Baxter was a prolific prose writer, very little of which was previously published in book form.

Dr Weir says the prose tells the reader much about Baxter as a person.

“The quality which he regarded as most essential in writing was honesty. He doesn’t gild the lily. So his prose tells us that he was an honest man, a conflicted man, a man who felt a compulsive obligation to help people who were being trodden underfoot by the industrial, political and social juggernaut of our times. And it reveals that his preferences and prejudices were lifelong – the opinions and values which he held as a young man in his late teens and twenties weren’t greatly different (though less urgently expressed) than those he held late in life.”

A seminar and launch for James K. Baxter: Complete Prose will be held at Te Taratara ā Kae in the Kelburn campus library at Victoria University on Saturday 29 August. Seminar speakers include Dr John Weir, Dr Paul Millar, Colin Durning, Eli Kent and John Baxter. Dave Dobbyn will perform Baxter's "Song of the Years" at the launch. All welcome to attend but RSVP is essential.

James K. Baxter: Complete Prose
4 hardback volumes in a box set, $200rrp
Available in good bookshops and through our online bookstore from 13 August.

Two new novellas by Tim Corballis, R.H.I., combine historical research with fiction, blurring and refocusing our ways of seeing the past. Joan Riviere was an early English psychoanalyst and Sigmund Freud’s earliest translator. Hermann Henselmann was a German architect, famous for many of the post-war buildings of the German Democratic Republic. The two novellas about their lives form an incomplete history of Europe’s 20th century – its wars, its politics and thought.

Tim says that the novellas offered him a chance to reflect on the idea of history, a way to mess with simple historical interpretation.

"Historians can be wonderful synthesisers of huge amounts of facts – but what’s interesting to me in these novellas is the possibility of letting facts remains unsynthesised, unshaped, stubborn, confusing. Maybe that can be called fiction too – though it’s a very different sense of the word. I hope it can open up the possibility that a life doesn’t need to be narrated to be valuable, to be enjoyable – that different things can be made out of a life than the stories we’re used to. Something like that, anyway."

Tim will present a brief moving image presentation about the novellas on Wednesday 19 August, 5.30pm–7pm at Concerned Citizens Collective, 17 Tory Street, Wellington. All welcome.

R.H.I. will be available at good bookshops and through our online bookstore from 13 August.
$30, p/b.

Joan Fleming's remarkable second poetry collection, Failed Love Poems, is a book of fiction and slant autobiography. You can read the first poem in the book, "Traces", on our blog here, and where she also discusses the provenance of this poem. She also talks about the choice of the striking Kushana Bush illustration which is featured on the cover, which Joan said she thought of immediately as the perfect cover image.

"The details are both delicate and visceral. The lovers are touching tenderly, but there is something between them, keeping them apart. In a way, the entire book is about that ‘something’ – the sometimes unspeakable, sometimes unseen thing between lovers that keeps them from happiness."

"There is joy in the book too, though. I don’t believe in 'failed love' as a failure, not really. The relationships that don't last can teach us as much as the ones that do."

Failed Love Poems is released on August 13.

You can hear Joan reading on Poetry Day at Unity Books, Wellington, Friday 28 August, 12pm–1pm.

Reviews, news and podcasts

Rachel Barrowman's Maurice Gee: Life and Work has received some wonderful reviews, most recently this one in the Stuff book section. Damien Wilkins' launch speech and a note from Maurice Gee can be read on our blog here. Rachel was interviewed with Kim Hill on July 25 and you can listen to that podcast here.

We are offering free international shipping on Gee biography purchases on our website. Enter 'Gee' in the coupon code field at the checkout.

"Reading Morgan’s debut is utterly rewarding as it sets every part of your readerly self on high alert, every bit paying attention to the pulse of the poem." Paula Green reviews Some of Us Eat the Seeds by Morgan Bach.

We are delighted to hear that Anna Smaill's debut novel, The Chimes, made the 2015 Man Booker Prize longlist. Anna's debut poetry collection, The Violinist in Spring, was published by VUP in 2005.

NZ History Seminars are a rich resource for listeners interested in an enormous variety of topics. One of the most recent features Grant Morris on James Prendergast, an infamous figure in New Zealand's legal history.

The Arts Foundation podcasts on the RNZ also feature a number of VUP writers – this one features Bill Manhire, Geoff Cochrane, composer Ross Harris and film maker Louis Sutherland. Listen here.

Fiction writer Pip Adam is now reviewing books on the new Jessie Mulligan 1–4pm show on Radio New Zealand.

Ashleigh Young asked some writers and artists about criticism of their work on her blog here.

Events in August

Writers on Mondays
All sessions take place at Te Papa Marae, 12.15pm–1.15pm

3 August: Anna Smaill and Tim Corballis
17 August: David Coventry and Hamish Clayton
29 August: Best NZ Poems 2014

Book launch
R.H.I. by Tim Corballis
5.30pm–7pm, Wednesday 19 August
Concerned Citizens Collective, 17 Tory St, Wellington.

Auckland library event
An Hour with Helen Riddiford, author of A Blighted Fame.
Helen will discuss her biography which traces the life and extraordinary career of George Samuel Evans. Wednesday 19 August, 6pm at the Leys Institute Library, 20 St Marys Road, Ponsonby, Auckland. Gold coin donation, light refreshments provided.
RSVP: (09) 8908755.

National Poetry Day
Friday 28 August
Vic Books, 10am–11.30am: Poetry reading including Ashleigh Young, Anna Jackson, Jane Arthur, Harry Ricketts, Cliff Fell, Faith Wilson and more.

Unity Books, 12pm–1pm: Poetry reading includes Joan Fleming, Geoff Cochrane, Anna Jackson, Nina Powles, Helen Rickerby and Chris Tse.

More information about Poetry Day here

Seminar and launch
James K. Baxter: Complete Prose
Saturday 29 August, seminar: 3.15pm-4.45pm
launch: 5pm-7pm
RSVP essential to attend the seminar and launch

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Failed Love Poems

Joan Fleming's second poetry collection Failed Love Poems is released in August. We asked Joan to discuss a poem from the book, and also her choice of the wonderful Kushana Bush illustration for the cover.

Joan Fleming, author photo by Kate van der Drift


The gift of the woman is that she comes from a series of alcove
in a tangle of flowering. The gift of the man is that
he knows
where he comes from. The mistake of the man is that he
thinks he knows.
When I dipped my arms in source colour and dragged them down the wall
how clear
I was being. Here are the handprints of the woman as she presses
and folds
her body to the ground. Here is the time it takes for the chicken
to stop
its live signalling and know where it comes from. Hands, feet, fire, colour,
shape, chicken, film. It takes a length of struggle for the wings to
their beating once the head is gone. Here are the traces of
the woman who scooped
the shape of her body then rose and took photographs. After I went
the window the women I had needed in life asked Where is Ana Mendieta?
One man
thought he knew what he had heard me say which was no no no no no.
The truth is,
the mistake of the man is that he disassembles materiality storey by storey.
The gift
of the man is that he tallies his bricks and pushes the source away.
In life
I flamed and scratched and I wore the taunting mask when we drank and
the truth
is I loved him. He was larger than me and what he made on the gallery floors
cast all
kinds of shadows. But I was very clear. I dug my heels in and
no one knows
how quickly I went out the window. After we made love I covered
his face.
I covered his face with my hands.

“Traces” is the first poem in the book: a small biography in verse, about a love that failed so spectacularly and disturbingly that I had to write about it. Ana Mendieta was a Cuban American 'body' and performance artist. Her simplest works are the most haunting to me, like the work she made by dipping her hands and forearms in blood and then slowly wiping them down a gallery wall. 

She had a tempestuous relationship with her husband, the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre. One night, after a violent argument, she somehow “went out the window” of her 34th story New York apartment. Those are Andre’s words. He was acquitted of murder in 1988, and his story about what happened that night continues to shift and change.

There are other details about Mendieta’s death that I couldn’t get out of my head. When she fell, her body made an imprint on the roof of the deli on the ground floor of her apartment building. This imprint is eerily suggestive of her ‘siluetas,’ where she created the shape of her body in hollows in the earth and then documented them with photographs.

I don’t know what happened that night, and neither does the poem. I wanted to write something crystal clear yet mysterious. The images of the poem came quickly, quicker than the form, which took some time to resolve, but when it finally did, it felt inevitable.

The cover of Failed Love Poems, illustration by Kushana Bush

Kushana Bush lent us her image distracted kneeling lovers for the cover. I’m so struck by this drawing. The details are both delicate and visceral. The lovers are touching tenderly, but there is something between them, keeping them apart. In a way, the entire book is about that ‘something’ — the sometimes unspeakable, sometimes unseen thing between lovers that keeps them from happiness.

There is joy in the book too, though. I don’t believe in “failed love” as a failure, not really. The relationships that don't last can teach us as much as the ones that do.

Failed Love Poems by Joan Fleming is published on August 13 and will be available in all good bookshops and through VUP's online bookstore.
$25, p/b

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Some of Us Eat the Seeds launch speech

Last week we launched Morgan Bach's poetry collection, Some of Us Eat the Seeds, to a huge crowd at Unity Books in Wellington. Thanks to those who came to support this fantastic debut book, and to the book's editor, Ashleigh Young, whose launch speech is published below.

Morgan Bach (author photo: Grant Maiden)

Every author has their own special reaction when they see their published book for the first time. Everyone is pleased, usually in a proper, self-contained way. But my favourite so far has been Morgan’s reaction. There’s a photo of her holding a copy of this book for the first time – Kirsten had just given her a copy – and she’s holding it up with an expression of disbelief and bafflement and, finally, glee. It can be easy to become jaded in publishing. But we have to hold on to the glee of the arrival, the glee of making a thing that earlier was buried in the whole mess of experience and didn’t seem possible. So, she has done it, and here is a book of exciting, intelligent and extraordinarily affecting poems.
Can I just say, also, that Morgan has always been a big supporter of other people’s creative projects. She has a certain steely stamina when it comes to celebrating and enthusiastically sharing other people’s work. So it is satisfying to be able to celebrate her work now, at her book launch, when she can’t escape, like lecturing someone while in a moving car. 
I would admire Morgan’s work even if I didn’t know her well. She is also my oldest and dearest friend. Our friendship has miraculously survived the editing process, and it seems the last major hurdle our friendship must overcome is this speech. This book is strange and beautiful, to be savoured, and to be moved and unravelled by. It is about leaving and returning, uplift and descent. It’s a collection of some weird seeds of experience that some of us eat around or spit out but that some of us swallow whole, along with flesh, pith, peel. It examines what kinds of things grow in us.
I think Morgan has carried the makings of this book around for a long time, and thankfully, her tutors and classmates during her MA year in 2013 at the IIML seem to have persuaded her that yes, here at last could be its point of arrival. You can see a lifetime in this book – in family and friends and lovers, cities and flats lived in, hills climbed and parades walked through and night buses taken, alongside a no-less vivid dreamworld, in which fears, anxieties, and resolve take root. These poems have the poise and assurance of somebody whose way through has by no means been easy, but who has gathered up her boldness to tell it, as in her poem ‘The plot flaw’ where she tells us ‘I played defence, 
but I’m better at attack’ and ‘I angered blindly, now I harbor wild calm.’ This book harbours a wild calm. 
Morgan’s work is, remarkably I think, able to convey the storm, the refusal of events in our lives to stop growing in us, in poems that are very finely and skillfully drawn. I don’t think this is a dark book, but it wants to examine darkness, understand the anatomy of darkness – the same way an astronomer is interested in stars or a neurologist is interested in the brain – and in how the dark, rather than the light, reveals our character. And in fact it sometimes seems that in this world the light is foreign and abrasive, as in a poem that describes her father’s experience as a migrant to New Zealand: ‘the sunshine so bright / every eye in the family deteriorated’. These poems describe deep rifts between people, and in people. These rifts open, sometimes close again, sometimes just remain. In one poem, ‘Headless Men’, people mill around a deep crack in the earth.
They stare in,
bent forward, the winter skin showing above their collars.

Alone or in groups they stand beside the crack.
Sometimes they step over it, sometimes they leap.
This book seems to be doing just that: sometimes peering, sometimes stepping, sometimes leaping. And Morgan is always taking us by the hand and leading us down, or over, in her unflinching way.
In one poem she describes standing underneath a steel sculpture of a giant spider, ‘a poor shelter from the beating sun’. This narrator will always prefer a giant spider to the sun, a giant spider that’s not even very good at blocking out the sun. She’s the traveller who stops to look at the half-a-tarantula on the footpath instead of walking quickly by, the passenger in a small plane who wonders if punching the pilot in the face might be preferable to flying through turbulence. This gumption is set against the fears and traumas of childhood, as in her poem ‘Education’:

When I started school I was afraid
of all the other people in the world.

One boy bailed me up in the cloak bay
the hooks pressing into my back
and threatened to stick a pin in my eye.

And indeed this narrator shows us that fear of other people is completely justified. People are terrifying. They pair off around you, they go missing, they break your heart, they want to stick pins in your eye. But in many of these poems the narrator is challenging fear, staring it down.
I like to watch the things
I am afraid of

like planes
and weddings

and surfers on waves
bigger than buildings,

people running and perfect
tame gardens.

More viscerally, in one poem she describes, in scene after scene, her father’s many gruelling deaths on screen, as an actor: ‘I can’t recall what got him when I was twelve,
but I do remember that he put a meathook through a man’s throat before he was taken out.’ By staring down what is frightening, this narrator learns the world and herself more fully – and is not defeated. Morgan brings us intimately into her world and shows us someone turning spiders into shelter, darkness into strength.
Like most people our age now living in Wellington, Morgan has lived in flats all over the city. In one flat, that had sloping floors and amazing fungi in the bathroom (on Devon Street) there was this tall prickly conifer in the front garden, shooting straight up like a stalagmite, with no other trees around it. The opposite of a perfect tame garden. I wouldn’t have looked twice at this tree – it seemed to me pretty ordinary – but the way Morgan talked about this tree, giving it a personality and even a sound effect and a hand motion – ‘foom!’ – gave it a rebellious character. It was ‘the crazy conifer’. Her poems describe similar ways of looking. A human eye becomes an illuminated planet, with rivers and deserts. A cigarette has a little red tongue like a thirsty animal. ‘A dog running cold through the waves / is as happy as fire
/ ripping up the land.’ A culumus cloud is ‘brain-tissue white’, and streets ‘roll up like stockings’. In this world, every object has its own personal force. This is Morgan stopping and peering into that uncanny deep crack in the earth.
The poems contain less literal fruit than you would think. But there is some notable fruit in the cover artwork. The illustrator Rowan Heap had to be careful not to depict any kind of clustering seeds, as in the innards of a capsicum or a rockmelon. This is because Morgan has a peculiar phobia of clustering seeds, known as trypophobia. One loophole in this phobia, for Morgan, is pomegranate seeds. It is telling that the title and cover image of this book should be located so closely to the author’s own discomfort and trepidation – to the point where she was forced to send Morgan and me detailed descriptions, with images, of which seeds were OK and which seeds were definitely not OK, so that we could create a small safe space in the seed landscape. I wonder if for Morgan, the act of writing some of these poems was also to eke out small safe spaces. Of course, writing also entails risk. Choosing to write of our experience is a bit like the family in her poem ‘Vampires’, who always choose to watch a vampire movie because it makes them feel safe: ‘There is reassurance / 
in a vampire’s behaviour.
 / It will always go for the throat.’ Morgan’s work calmly embraces the certainty of bloodshed and turns it inside out, into a gift to others, and into generous connection.
So here’s to bloodsucking vampires and crazy conifers. Here’s to standing underneath giant spiders, to surfing six-storey waves and playing attack, to homesickness and homecoming. This is a wonderful and very beautiful book and I hope that you will celebrate it too. 

Morgan signs at Unity Books (photo credit: Matt Bialostocki)

Some of Us Eat the Seeds is available now at good bookshops and through VUP's online bookstore
$25, p/b

Friday, 10 July 2015

Maurice Gee: Life and Work is launched

Despite the inclement weather, a large crowd of readers, writers and Maurice Gee fans filled out a warm Unity Books last night for the launch of Rachel Barrowman's biography of Gee, Life and Work.

Damien Wilkins gave a wonderful speech to launch the book, and Fergus Barrowman closed with a telegram from Mr Gee in Nelson. Thanks to Damien and Maurice for allowing us to publish their kind words here.

Damien Wilkins, Fergus Barrowman and Rachel Barrowman (photo credit: Jane Harris)

It’s a real honour to launch this book. We’ve all been waiting for it, looking forward to it, hassling Rachel about it, bugging her for Gee gossip—what secrets did the great man tell her? What has she discovered through her elegant and subtle and persistent sleuthing? So finally to have it in our hands—and to weigh such a handsome hardback, feel its solidity and significance—I imagine it not only as a terrific release and relief for Rachel but seriously as a special and moving moment in our culture, and a gift to us.

I say it’s moving because Maurice Gee writes fiction. That’s what he’s done with his life. And then for someone to come along, someone who was born the year after Gee published his first novel, someone skilled as a cultural historian but also beautifully responsive as a literary reader, and devote almost ten years of her life to researching and thinking about and writing the story of that fiction writer’s life—I find that powerful and affecting. 500-page biographies of New Zealand writers belong to a rare species. And I can think of no better photo opportunity for the Minister of Arts and Conservation, Maggie Barry, than to be pictured cuddling this book before it’s released into the wild. The Minister isn’t here so let me do a bit of cuddling.

There’s a great photo in this book of Maurice Gee in a white singlet digging a hole for his septic tank. You don’t have to think for too long before coming up with its symbolic appeal. Yes, this writer has been excavating our waste systems for decades. What’s especially good about the photo is that it captures the process at its dirtiest. I mean Maurice looks buggered, straddling the hole, the sun beating down on his red face and neck, piles of fresh dirt around, broken bits of concrete. It’s been awful out there on the slope beneath the house but you’re going to feel good once it’s done and you know you haven’t paid another man to do it for you.

It’s an image then we can savour not only for its tempting literary meaningfulness but also for its suggestion of graft, labour, commitment and self-reliance. We use the phrase ‘a work of art’ fairly loosely and unthinkingly, hurrying to the created thing. One of the contributions high quality literary biography can make is to remind us of how an art form such as the novel is work—a matter of showing up each morning, putting in the hours, being dissatisfied, getting it right—as right as it’ll come—and signing off on it before moving on to the next job. You might even get paid. Luckily for his readers, though not always easily for Maurice Gee, the job of novelist seems to have been the only thing he was good at. Although I’m sure he did a fine job with the septic tank.

Of course everyone is interested in money and writers are interested in what other writers earn. So the question is: How do you go about constructing your income stream if all you really want to do is make up stories? Read in one way this book is a sort of instruction manual for anyone with an interest in following suit or simply following how one writer did it. And I value intensely Rachel’s dedication to such details. She’s down in that hole with Gee, getting dirt on her shoes and working up a sweat. But of course the story is much more than royalty statements, grant applications, the odd windfall, the many setbacks . . .

For a start there are all those books to read and consider in the light of the life being revealed. This biography is thoroughly engaged with Gee’s fiction and Rachel’s expert delineation of the family tree, the family Gee, which sets out how one book is connected to another, this is tremendously valuable. And it’s never done in the niggardly way which aims to shrink everything to a neat template of correspondences—here’s the real creek and here’s the invented one. When Rachel tests the life against the work she wants to amplify and enrich and suggest. And I especially like one aspect of Rachel’s account of the writing—that is, she always leaves in place the author’s own avowals of ignorance (‘I don’t really know what I’m doing’), of uncertainty (‘I tried to get close to that experience but who knows’), of fear (‘I seem to have come to an end’). These are recurring notes. Partly, of course, they’re a form of self-defence. The aw gee-shucks of Gee. But Rachel understands too that these moments communicate something about writing itself; that it always takes in the possibility of not writing, of not turning up for work. Gee may present as an unpretentious carpenter—look at the cover shot, sleeves rolled as if thinking how to tackle the skirting board—but his life story is remarkably chancy and non-compliant, made from unlikely leaps as much as from dogged toil. From the outside we discern steady progress, books written as regularly as eggs laid, but finally we see inside the life and understand something of its costs, its crises, its victories too. A small example: It’s amazing to me that Gee struggled so much with Meg, a novel I think of as kind of perfect. It’s amazing that Prowlers was originally called Papps.

Let me finish by saying one more thing about the scope of this book. Anyone’s life becomes on closer inspection a group portrait and although Maurice Gee’s career must do without creative writing courses, Rachel convincingly recreates the friendships and relationships that in many ways mimic the kind of support structure available now. There’s a lovely evolving set of insights into how people such as Maurice Shadbolt, Kevin Ireland, Robin Dudding, Ray Grover, Nigel Cook and others interacted with our man. Gee’s friends are Rachel’s friends too and therefore ours, helping us see her subject from different angles. When Gee was doing scriptwriting for television and earning better money, Shadbolt reports back to Ireland that at the Gee house there are ‘hints of prosperity’—‘hard booze in the cupboard now instead of home brew.’
I think Rachel’s feel for the telling remark, the revelatory incident, from what must have been a large archive of letters, interviews, essays, reviews, as well as the fiction itself, lends her text not only its narrative drive but also its tone. The book sounds like Maurice Gee without being his mouthpiece. It’s intimate but also pitched at a crucial remove. This poise allows the book to be fundamentally sympathetic to its subject without sacrificing loyalty to facts which emerge that the hagiographer or even simply the fan might baulk at. I mentioned at the start this business of secrets, new things about Gee’s life that will alter how he’s read. I’m sorry but I’m not telling. Rachel’s biography needs to be purchased to learn these things.
Obviously you’ll want to read it to know how the Plumb trilogy came to be written. Or Prowlers. Or Going West. That would be enough. But such is Rachel’s achievement that gradually you feel something else going on. Through scrupulously attending to this remarkable individual, the biography’s single focus starts to do that wonderful thing: it expands, it blossoms, and somehow captures the broad view of a society in motion; it lets us see not just how he lived but how we lived too. That also feels fully in tune with the working art of Maurice Gee. 

–Damien Wilkins, 9 July 2015.


A note from Maurice Gee

Reading Rachel's book has been a strange experience for me. Seeing my life unroll again, or play as though on a screen, made me want to applaud myself for getting so much done, in work and relationships, and at other times had me squirming with embarrassment at my stupidities and shrinking with shame at cruelties and waste.

It's all in the book. This is the biography I asked for when Rachel and I first spoke about it nine years ago. 'Put in whatever you can find,' I said, not quite understanding that she'd find so much. But I don't like biographies with holes in them. This one has no holes except for those Rachel has uncovered in her research and looked into with a clear eye. The research has been thorough, unrelenting, illuminating - illuminating even for me. 

Did I really do those things? Yes, I did. And I had those two larger than life grandfathers, that saintly grandmother, that generous tough-guy father, that happy then sad, beautiful and gifted mother. I lived that energetic childhood and misshappen adolescence and young manhood, before coming to what I call my second life, with Margareta, my wonderful wife, with our daughters and my son - the writing life that they made possible.

Rachel has knitted the parts together with skill and patience. She has shown where the novels came from, surprising me with her insights. She has written it clearly and with style. I'm biased of course but I think this is a biography full of life, and a wonderfully readable book.

Thank you for it, Rachel, and thank you for giving me so much of your own writing life.

–Maurice Gee, July 2015

Rachel Barrowman signing for Ray Grover at Unity Books (photo credit: Jane Harris)

Maurice Gee: Life and Work is on sale at all good bookstores now. 
You can also purchase it at VUP's online bookstore here.
$60, h/b.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

10 Qs for Rachel Barrowman

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.