Maurice Gee

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Esteemed writer calls Nelson home

Maurice Gee was once described by Britain’s Sunday Times as ‘one of the finest writers at work, not only in New Zealand…but in the English-speaking world.’1

Gee 1960 FriedlanderMaurice Gee, 1960. Marti Friedlander. Courtesy NZ Book Council
Click image to enlarge

Born in Whakatane in 1931, Gee was the middle son of three boys.  His father was a carpenter, his mother an aspiring writer. One of her stories was included, by Frank Sargeson, in an anthology of New Zealand writing.  “But it was too late for her to write well. Her strength had gone on her family.  And we did not want a writing mother anyway. We wanted her to tell us stories.”2

 He grew up in Henderson- “no suburb of Auckland then but a country town with boarding house and blacksmith shop and a concrete-box town hall where the pictures (movies) showed on Saturday nights.3 Henderson Creek, where he enjoyed “…playing in the haystacks, sitting by the creek, exploring old culverts….”, runs through his imaginative life, with many of his books set there. His 30th book, Access Road (2009) was triggered by a return trip to his childhood home.4

“In the winter we ran to school bare-footed, breaking the ice on puddles with our toes. Steaming cocoa came around in kerosene tins and the stoves turned red behind their iron rails…..In swimming weather we went in classes down to Falls Park and swam in the brown salty water.”5

gee Plumb

The Plumb Trilogy. Penguin Books, pub. 2007

As a boy, he loved Robin Hood stories- tales of adventure, narrow escape and robbing the rich to give to the poor. From the age of 16,4 he knew he wanted to tell stories and invent people and worlds like his favourite author, Charles Dickens.6

After completing an MA in English from the University of Auckland in 1954, Gee taught for two years.As well as teaching, he has been a hospital porter, librarian and postie.8 In 1975, he plunged into life as a fulltime writer when Gee and wife Margareta moved from Auckland to Nelson, living off a small Literary Fund Scholarship.9 

“We arrived in Nelson and for several years were church-mouse poor, so buying cheap food was a necessity,” he wrote in the recipe book, Food Central. Pick-your-own fruit and vegetables and home brewed beer helped money go further. “So we got by, things improved, and Margareta was able to buy real coffee instead of drinking a make-believe sort made from roasted barley.”10

They moved to Wellington in 1989 when Gee won the Victoria University of Wellington’s Writer’s Fellowship for that year.  “There's so much in Wellington, it's a wonderful place to set stories in—it's got wonderful levels, you go up steps and down steps and you can drop out of one world and into another. It seems to me that when I write a novel I like to set it in the place I'm living in….”11

Most readers of Gee’s work recognise a location, landscape, person- or some aspect of their own lives. Gee agrees that family stories and his own life find their way into his novels. “All sorts of things do get into your books- your beliefs, obsessions, prejudices….”12   “One of my central obsessions is the difficulty of connecting, and my novels are partly about that.  Love runs into all sorts of difficulties,” he says.13

Gee cchMaurice Gee (2002) Courtesy Christchurch City Libraries

His maternal grandfather was the inspiration for George Plumb- the first in a trilogy. “James Chapple—the trials for heresy and seditious utterance (in Plumb) are based almost exactly on those episodes from my grandfather's life.”14  Plumb won Britain’s prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Award for best novel in 1979.15

Gee and chairMaurice Gee, with his seat on the bank of the Maitai River, Nelson. It was dedicated to him by the Top of the South branch of the NZ Society of Authors, 2011.
Click image to enlarge

Gee’s first novel, The Big Season, was published in 1962. Reviewers throughout his career have praised the spare elegance of his prose16 but struggle with the complicated, sometimes violent price of trying to do the right thing.17

As well as writing adult fiction, Gee has written for television (including Close to Home and Mortimer’s Patch).  His books include award winning novels: Plumb (1978), Live Bodies (1998) and Blindsight (2005) and children’s classics: Under the Mountain (1979) and The Halfmen of O (1980).  Several novels have been turned into films and television series.

Gee has won more literary awards than any other New Zealand writer- these include numerous awards in the New Zealand Book Awards, the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (2004) and in 2002, he was honoured by the Children’s Literature Foundation for his contribution to children’s literature.

In 2012, the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival honoured his lifetime’s work and Maurice Gee was named the festival’s inaugural honoured New Zealand writer. He confirmed at the time that he did not expect to write another novel. “I can invent well enough….it’s just not coming alive.”18

For a long time he has steered clear of writing a memoir saying: “you have to make free with other people’s lives and other people’s privacy and that’s a sort of imperialism.”19 But, now in his 80s, he has embarked on a small memoir20 and his official biography, written by Rachel Barrowman was published in 2015.21

And advice to aspiring writers from "the country's greatest living novelist?"22 “Read a lot, write a lot, keep on asking: ‘what happens next?’”23

2015
A Maurice Gee taster
Novels by Maurice Gee

* = Childrens
YA = YA
# - set in Nelson Region

Sources used in this story

  1. Johnston, A. (1993, July 3). Maurice Gee; our superb storyteller. Evening Post.
  2. Gifkins, M. (1988) Through the looking glass recollections of childhood from 20 prominent New Zealanders. Century Hutchinson. p 86
  3. Gifkins, p 84
  4. Smithies, G. (2009, October 40) Master storyteller. Sunday star times; p.C3
  5. Lay, G (2009) Way back then, before we were ten: New Zealand writers and childhood. Auckland, N.Z. : David Ling Pub, p 44
  6. Interview with Maurice Gee. Christchurch City Libraries:
    http://my.christchurchcitylibraries.com/new-zealand-childrens-authors/maurice-gee/
  7. Maurice Gee. Retrieved from New Zealand Book Council:
    http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/geem.html
  8. Smithies, G.
  9. Johnston, A.
  10. Food Central. Stories and Recipes from the Heart of Nelson published by the Nelson Central School Community Group, 2012
  11. Johnston, A.
  12. Maurice Gee at 2012 Auckland Readers & Writers Festival. Radio New Zealand, Sunday 16 December 2012
  13. NZ Book Council
  14. Johnston, A.
  15. Smithies, G.
  16. Smithies, G.
  17. Maurice Gee. Biography. Retrieved from NZ On Screen:
    http://www.nzonscreen.com/person/maurice-gee/biography
  18. Manhire, T. Maurice Gee reveals memoir plan at Auckland Festival writers finale. (2012, May 13) New Zealand Listener
  19. Johnston, A.
  20. Manhire, T.
  21. Personal Communication with  ‏@RachelBarrowman  Twitter March 5, 2015
  22. Hewitson, M.  (2006, 29 July) Maurice Gee- the man in a grey cardy  The New Zealand Herald
  23. Interview, Christchurch City Libraries

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