Maurice Gee’s latest children’s novel, The Fat Man, this year won the AIM Children’s Book of the Year award, the AIM Junior Fiction award and the Esther Glen award (which is made annually by the Library Association for the most distinguished contribution to literature for children). It is just now being picked up and exclaimed over by the Australian literati and, like other children’s novels by Gee, it will probably be made into a film or television series. It is a very filmic. (Gee: There’s a company who have an option on it, they’re now trying to raise money. I’d like to write the script myself.)
As well as the acclaim, there has been controversy. Some people think it’s a bit too meaty for kids, particularly those kids for whom schools and libraries buy “junior fiction” ‑ ie children between 8 and 13. As any adult knows, there are huge variations of worldliness, experience, reading and analytical skills, insight and intelligence in any group of children without taking age levels into account as well. So the controversy is not surprising.
The set‑up of the story is one of the classic thriller structures. A stranger ‑ the fat man, Herbert Muskie ‑ comes to the peaceful little town. Using terror, (“If you tell … “) he threatens the safety of a good character ‑ a boy, Colin ‑ and his family. Colin doesn’t tell about the original encounter and therefore becomes more and more enmeshed, more and more compromised.
It’s brilliantly told by a master storyteller. The pace never flags, the characters are all colourful and believable, the sense of time and place (small‑town New Zealand, 1930s) is acutely real.
But pervading the whole story is Gee’s portrait of the boy Colin. It is a tour de force, another example of the depth of Maurice Gee’s insight into the nuances and ambiguities, the verity of a living person. No teacher should shield children from this. It is what true literature is about. This insight alone gives The Fat Man an almost revolutionary importance in the world of children’s books.
In an interview Gee said The Fat Man started as a children’s novel.
Gee: I remembered an incident from deep down in my childhood. I must have been 4 or 5 years old, just after the depression. My brothers and I were walking with our mother along Henderson Creek and came across a naked swagman ‑ we think he was a swagman ‑ standing waist-deep in a pool, washing himself with a bit of yellow soap. I’ll always remember the look he had. These dark eyes. He stood absolutely still and just watched us. That image surfaced when I was trying to get an idea for a children’s story and so I thought I’d start with a character of that sort, down by the creek.
JH: How did he become an evil man?
Gee: I remember bullying in the playground and I remember incidents with our school fat boy. He was bullied and tormented. I remember taking part in one episode. It comes back to me, the feeling of shame, even now, 50 or so years later.
The playground can be a fairly desperate place. What I did with this book was to sit down and try to write a story. I had no general points that I wanted to make. I simply wanted to put a number of people into a situation and let the story work itself out from there. And in a way I discovered the story as I went along. I didn’t know many of the things that were going to happen.
I’ve known children deeply upset by far more gentle books than The Fat Man. I don’t believe that this book is going to upset children ‑ because none of the central relationships are actually damaged, none of the characters in the book that children are going to identify with are damaged. They are put under terrible threat, but they’re not damaged. The parent‑child relationships continue and the friendship between the two children and so on.
JH: It will take the girl Verna a good while to recover. But what I feel about a book like this is that it gives kids practice in looking at things like bullying and malice and hypocrisy, thinking about what to do about them ‑ at a remove, when they’re not actually impinging on their own lives.
Gee: It’s one of the functions of literature, isn’t it? Catharsis. Aristotle’s theory. There are, too, limited signals given early in the story that it’s all going to come to a satisfactory end.
JH: I’d like to talk about the style of telling. We have this intimately observed protagonist, Colin, who himself observes intimately ‑ which is unusual in children’s literature, and makes the book very gratifying for an adult to read. It’s the style you use in adult novels. Is this a new direction in your writing for children?
Gee: It’s a different sort of book from most of the children’s books I’ve written, but not so very different from The Champion. That was very closely observed. But The Fat Man is quite deliberately a genre book, I suppose it could be described as a psychological thriller for children. I wasn’t thinking of a particular age level as I wrote. I thought it was more or less open‑ended, and realised after I’d written it that adults might enjoy it.
JH: The thing that most makes it a story for children, probably, is that the view is innocent, it’s told through the eyes of a child.
Gee: Exactly. For instance, there’s obviously a little bit of sexual tension in Muskie’s feelings for his stepdaughter which are complex and, far from innocent, far from fatherly. But Colin, being a kid, is unaware of this dimension. Now, if I’d been writing the story for adults, that’s something I’d have had to look at. Also Muskie’s treatment of his wife, that’s another area I’d have had to look at much more closely. But I didn’t move into those areas because I wanted to keep it on the level of a child’s understanding.
JH: An adult reader has the satisfaction of figuring out those things for him/herself, of knowingly following the echoes.
Gee: It’s an issue that does interest me. Typically in children’s fiction, children go through all sorts of terrible adventures ‑ exciting, frightening adventures ‑ but they come out the other end unscathed. You’re left with kids who’ve done wonderful things ‑ saved the world maybe, saved the universe ‑ but they seem to come out with their psychology unchanged. Yet these kids have got to go on through life. Obviously the children in The Fat Man are going to be very deeply affected by what has happened to them. There is a price to pay.
JH: And fiction should reflect this truthfully.
Gee: The difference between writing for children and writing for adults is rather interesting. When I’d completed one of my children’s books, The Fire‑Raiser, I asked how would these children go on through their lives? And I wondered: Is there a way of telling for children that can be transferred to adult writing? So I took the children from The Fire‑Raiser and put them into an adult novel, Prowlers. I retold the story of The Fire‑Raiser in the first few chapters of Prowlers because I wanted to see if, in fact, these adventures would work in an adult book ‑ whether you could transfer the children across to an adult book.
I found, of course, that you can’t. The adventures are far too piled up. The children’s psychology is all wrong ‑ it’s far too simple to be transferred to an adult book. In an adult novel you have to look at things from different perspectives, adult perspectives. So the children in Prowlers are quite different from the children in The Fire‑Raiser, which is why, in the end, I changed their names, signalling that they’re different beings.
JH: Colin’s perspective is very intriguing in that it’s sometimes only shared with the reader ‑ because he can’t bring certain things up with other characters in the story. So the reader comes in very close to Colin.
Gee: He cannot communicate to his parents what he knows about the fat man, what he senses about him, the nature of him.
JH: There are some wonderful observations, too, from Colin’s point of view, that all children will recognise. I loved Colin’s irritation with his mother: “He wished she wouldn’t change all the time, be nice for a minute or two, then get nasty.” (Exactly as a boy would view her.) And the way he liked chopping wood with his father because they “seemed more together”. And how, after the mother had sold the father’s boxing cups, Colin noticed his father “didn’t kiss her when he left, just plodded away up into the ranges, out of sight.” Such vividness and a sort of helpless, impatient tenderness, very much a boy’s.
Gee: It’s what you find as you’re writing. You don’t plan for that sort of thing. This is just what happens in the course of telling the story.
JH: You get very close under the skin of your characters. The dialogue, the images, are perfectly pitched at Colin’s age. Can you easily go back to innocence?
Gee: Yes. In the act of writing you go from this world into that world and once you’re in that world ‑ the world of the story ‑ that way of seeing becomes your natural way of seeing. Occasionally you’ll make a false step, or do something wrong, and I’ve no doubt done it in this book here and there.
JH: There’s the ability to imagine, to sympathise with other people, which Colin has. Contrasted with this is Muskie’s ruthlessness. In your adult novel Crime Story, you have a number of characters whom I would characterise as being bereft of imagination. Go‑getters, but indifferent really to other people. In this sense rather like Muskie. Are these the people you see as most dangerous?
Gee: I think so. You can call it lack of imagination, but I call it not having a proper sense of the reality of other people. This is the point to which Herbert Muskie has gone.
In my adult fiction, there’s also Duggie Plumb. He has no sense of the reality of other people, he doesn’t know what other people are. They’re simply beings who move around within his range of vision and can be used.
JH: Such issues in a book like The Fat Man are important to face up to ‑ in terms of becoming civilised adults. I feel that as a teacher I’d probably stop here and there while reading the book aloud and pose questions such as: “I wonder why Herbert would do that?” or “What would you do if you were in Colin’s shoes?” To help kids work out their own forms of protection, I suppose. And to get them to reflect on nasty parallel situations some of them might be aware of.
Gee: I think it’s a tough story. I don’t quarrel with the people who say it’s a tough and violent story. I meant to use pity and terror ‑ which are a large part of fiction. But the story moves on through those things to some sort of satisfying resolution. They’re not used in the way I would use them in adult fiction.
JH: The setting for this novel, New Zealand in the 1930s depression, is wonderfully evoked: the primness, the general reticence about discussing certain things, not “making a fuss”, the big gap between kids and adults.
Gee: It was still heavily authoritarian in those days. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of fun going on in the family. But Dad would snap his fingers ‑ go to bed ‑ and you went.
JH: Are your parents there in the book?
Gee: Not really. Some of the detail of their lives is there. Laurie, my father, was a very good amateur boxer and he won a stack of cups which they had to sell in the depression. By the time we came along he had only a few tiny ones left. He used to tell us marvellous stories about the men he’d knocked out in the ring. Mum used to tell equally marvellous stories about people’s hardships in the depression when they couldn’t manage to pay the rent, that sort of thing.
JH: An interesting thing to be reminded of, too, was the tolerance towards old people who were going a bit dotty. Now they’re likely to be stuck in a “home”.
Gee: Yes, I suppose that was a feature of life. Certainly the extended family was much more common among the pakeha than it is today. We had my father’s father with us for a while. He was a tough old bugger, drove my mother mad. When he snored you could hear it all the way through the house. And he was always on about kids needing hidings. It was like a dose of medicine. A kid needed a hiding to smarten him up, set him right.
We didn’t have a car. We walked everywhere. Later on we had bikes. No telephone. No refrigerator. I can remember rushing outside to see an aeroplane. All the technological stuff that has comes into children’s lives ‑ everyone’s lives ‑ has altered the way children see the world, I’m sure.
I haven’t tried to write a realistic novel about present‑day children. I’m not sure I could. I’d have to put them into a fantasy situation. I resist, because for one thing. I wouldn’t know the language of today. I wouldn’t be aware of half the situations kids get themselves into now. I don’t know what they’re doing in the classroom any more. And the street life is so different – I don’t know anything about it.
There are parts of New Zealand where I could be only a tourist now. Where the young go ‑ not the children, but the late teens and the early 20s ‑ the things they’re doing now are totally strange to me. They’ve got a whole new language which I’m not privy to. And I can’t generate the interest in learning this language that I perhaps should. Even in adult fiction, I know now that when I try to fit in someone young I’m likely to get their language wrong. I put into their mouths my old slang ‑ which they don’t use any more. Words like “joker”, for instance.
JH: Do you think there are things modern children have gained ‑ for instance, the freedom to express themselves?
Gee: Yes, certainly. And the dreadful puritanism that crippled so many of us has gone. It survives, though, in the fundamentalist sects who are very busy indoctrinating children. Not only the fundamentalists either ‑ plenty of mainstream churches do it too.
JH: “Loomis” ‑ your old home town ‑ really, of course, Henderson, now an Auckland suburb ‑ is looming largely in your work lately. Is there some search going on?
Gee: I have this creek ‑ Henderson Creek ‑ where I seem to have spent half my boyhood. Marvellous and terrible things happened on the creek. For example, that’s where I got my first sight of death. I saw a man dive into a pool where he thought it was deep, but it was shallow and he broke his neck. He died on a blanket on the side of the creek. And the only people with him, as everybody ran off for help, were his girlfriend ‑ rocking back and forth and crying ‑ and me. And I couldn’t get away because every time I tried to move off, she’d say “Don’t go, don’t go”. That sort of thing the creek threw up.
It was one of those creeks with a deep green, bottomless pool with big eels and so on, a place where the dangerous things were likely to happen, the mysterious things. The awful fascination of it. The mystery that might lie around the next corner. I can remember my brother and I making tin canoes and sailing right down the creek until we came to a tidal part, miles and miles just paddling down the creek. One of the wonderful things we found was a dead pig floating in the water with eels nibbling at its sides.
I’d run home from the creek to the safety and security of the kitchen. There’d be my mother at the stove. And so these two things became balanced in my mind ‑ one the place of safety and affection, the other the place of adventure, danger, excitement. And death.
What we’d been doing on that occasion, myself and two other kids, was watching these two couples on a blanket ‑ we’d wanted to see sex, we’d wanted to see something forbidden. Instead of which we saw death. Now this sort of thing gets deeply into one and the creek keeps getting into my fiction.
JH: Egalitarism would have been a very strong feature of your family’s beliefs?
Gee: Absolutely. Getting somewhere by your own efforts. Responsibility. But welfarism was also very strong. “We must help people who can’t help themselves”. Saint Michael was our domestic saint.
During the course of the story Colin’s father has come down to size. I had the experience in my life of a person whom I’d mythologised ‑ because of the stories I’d heard about him, stories that were handed down. This was my grandfather. Eventually I came to see him as a fallible human being. And Colin has, in a way, mythologised his dad: The boxer who can knock anyone out, who can beat anyone in a fight, the brave, larger‑than‑life hero. But he comes to understand that his father is an imperfect human being.
This, I guess, is the meaning of the book. Colin accepts responsibility. He is, in fact, helping the fat man, the fat boy, escape. Even though he’s got this other understanding that really the flying fox is too fragile to support him. But he’s still got to try and help him escape.
In the writing of the book I was concerned with story ‑ and in getting the story to a satisfactory conclusion ‑ rather than meaning. I always am. But a meaning will come together as the story goes on and you come to understand yourself that it has a meaning.
Judith Holloway is a writer for children and a tutor in Writing for Children at Whitireia Polytechnic, Porirua.