No Sense Of An Ending
Caroline Sanderson meets the recent OBE recipient in a London café
I can’t believe it’, says novelist Maggie Gee to me, and we both laugh incredulously. Do not be deceived, dear reader, by the dainty china cups of Lapsang Souchong we sip in that elegant basement café close to the British Museum. For it is of a pub that we are talking, and a quite ridiculous coincidence. The Red Cow in my native village in Leicestershire turns out to be part of Gee family folklore, rumoured to once have been landladied by a niece of her mother’s. Its name catapulted from the pages of Gee’s latest book My Animal Life; transporting me back to my gawky sixth-form self; a gulper of shandy on the pub’s Dralon banquettes.
This obscure, shared place between us is one of those strange happenstances that punctuate all our lives; the sort of unexpected human intersection that Gee captures so well, both in her novels, and in her 2010 memoir, My Animal Life; a wonderfully humane and engaging uncurling of what she calls ‘life’s lemon peel spiral’. The Red Cow mention is part of a rather sad episode that occurs after Gee and her two brothers have left home. After years in his shadow, her mother finally plucks up courage to leave Gee’s domineering, quick-to-anger father, and fearing that he will come after her, mother and daughter take off on a ‘panicky, zigzag trip’ around cheap hotels in the East Midlands. Eventually her father’s profound grief and despair at being abandoned persuades his wife to return. Later Gee movingly describes the twilight days of their marriage when, in slow, inexorable declines towards death from cancer and Parkinson’s disease respectively, her mother and father care for each other as best they can.
A powerful reflection on family and the ties that bind, My Animal Life is also about how Maggie Gee became a writer; from her first Sellotaped-together book, about a cowboy ranch – written by hand in blue ink on twenty sheets of Basildon Bond and sent in to ‘Mickey Mouse’ comic – to a scrupulously honest account of the career crisis in her late 40s when her established publisher rejected the book that was to become Orange Prize-shortlisted The White Family, and Gee despaired of ever being published again. Of which more later.
Why, after eleven novels and one volume of short stories did she decide to write a memoir? ‘I did want to get out of the box of fiction. But also I wanted to answer the questions at the beginning of the memoir; trusting in the process of writing as an act of discovery.’ The questions she poses are difficult ones. How can we be happy? Can we believe both in the soul and science? How can we bear to lose those we love most? How do we recover from our many mistakes? Why do we need art? Why are we driven to make it? And class: can we ever really change it? ‘Some of them involved remembering hard things and difficult parts of my life. But I wanted to write down my memories of my family for my daughter, Rosa.’
GEE ON BEING AWARDED THE OBE:
‘I didn’t really know what I felt when I found out. But the fact that my family and friends were so pleased for me turned it into something rather lovely. And it felt appropriate to receive it from the Queen herself given that she appears in My Driver: I ended up gabbling to her about the fact that she was in one of my books. And “Maggie Gee, OBE” does sound like a rather good chant.’
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A FRAIL BUSINESS
I’ve met many writers, but very few as rigorously self-aware as Maggie Gee, and none as candid about the bad times. This testing period made Gee realise that being a writer was no charmed life, but a frail business: ‘a castle of air and spun sugar’. After publishing another three novels, and giving birth to her daughter, she struggled to write the second in a two-book contract. ‘I went too fast. I rushed
it. I fluffed it.’ That novel, The Keeper of the Gate – eventually to become The White Family – was about race; its germ the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. But just as the country wasn’t yet ready to face up to the huge implications of that case for our police force, our justice system and our supposedly multi- ethnic society, so Gee’s publisher was not ready, it seems, for such a detailed and trenchant account of white racism. In 1995, the book was turned down.
The period she subsequently spent in the ‘literary wilderness’ is something Gee was determined to write about in My Animal Life. ‘There’s a big taboo about talking about anything apart from success. Careers are not for ever – you have to make them work. I know from teaching creative writing courses myself that the people who come through to get published are not necessarily the most gifted. You have to have a thick skin, and be able to cope with very personal rejection. Literary history is not foolproof. There’s no conspiracy about who does, and who doesn’t get published: it’s more a “simplification of talent”.’
‘My childhood still affects the person who writes now, for good or evil,’ remarks Gee in the course of our conversation. And that inherited Gee determination got her through the next few years. She wrote reviews; taught creative writing and wrote herself ‘out of trouble’. There were more twists and turns of the lemon peel to come however, notably when her next novel The Ice People was published in 1998; and the publisher went bust shortly afterwards. Despite everything, Gee refused to give up on The Keeper of the Gate. She asked black and Asian writers to read it, and their encouragement helped her keep that ‘show on the road’. And then finally, in 2001, The White Family was taken on by independent publisher, Saqi Books. Gee has been with Saqi ever since, her three latest books published by its sister imprint, Telegram Books. ‘They are people who really love books still,’ she says, with evident loyalty.
Published in 2002, The White Family went on to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Sunday Times review called Gee ‘one of our most ambitious and challenging novelists’. In 2004, she was elected Chair of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, the first woman to hold that post. ‘It meant so much more to me because, not so long before, I thought my life as a writer might be over.’
Since The White Family, and the renaissance of her career, Gee has continued to tackle big social themes in her novels. The Flood published in 2004 is set in a watery dystopian future; in a society threatened by a modern-day Noah’s Flood, where the rich live safely on the high ground, while the poor founder in a drowned no-man’s-land. My Cleaner (2005) introduces the memorable character of Mary Tendo, an ambitious and intelligent Ugandan woman, who works as a cleaner for the equally memorable, angsty middle-class Vanessa Henman in London and provides a vital domestic glue that the self-centred, damaged Vanessa cannot. Tendo reappears in My Driver (2009): having returned to forge a successful career in Uganda; she must brace herself for the visit of Vanessa, who is attending an African writers’ conference. All sorts of mayhem ensues.
Alongside their serious examination of issues of race, poverty and exile, and her razor-sharp focus on the ersatz liberalism of the chattering classes, Gee’s novels are also funny. In My Animal Life, Gee writes that she wants her books to express ‘the whole of me – politics and jokes.’ Is the comedy conscious then?
‘In life I spend a lot of time finding things funny... because life is totally absurd. Me most of all – I am ridiculous.’ There have, she says, always been funny bits in her books. ‘But people tend to get deafened by the fact that I do “big themes” like war or ecological disaster, and don’t notice. So much of reading is
about expectation. I remember a reviewer of The Ice People saying with evident anxiety something like “X almost seemed like comedy”, and in fact the novel is packed with comedy, despite its post-apocalyptic theme. My Cleaner and My Driver are explicitly comedies and satires. People did seem to love My Cleaner for that reason.’ Vanessa Henman is, she adds, ‘a wildly distorted fictional version of myself’.
MAGGIE GEE: THE CV
2010 My Animal Life
2009 My Driver
2006 The Blue
2005 My Cleaner
2004 The Flood
2002 The White Family
1998 The Ice People
1994 Lost Children
1991 Where Are the Snows
1985 Light Years
1983 The Burning Book
1981 Dying in Other Words
1948 Born, Poole Dorset.
Studied English at Somerville College, Oxford University (MA, B Litt).
1980 PhD in the 20th-century novel at Wolverhampton Polytechnic.
1982 Selected as one of the original 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ by Granta magazine.
2001–7 Member of the Advisory Committee, Public Lending Right.
2004–8 Chair of Council, The Royal Society of Literature.
2009–12 Visiting Professor of Creative Writing, Sheffield Hallam University.
2012 Awarded the OBE for services to literature.
Prizes & Awards
2002 Orange Prize shortlist for The White Family.
2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlist for The White Family.
Fellow, and Vice-President, The Royal Society of Literature
Kensal Rise, London
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My Animal Life by Maggie Gee
is published by Telegram.
It is also available on Kindle.
GEE ON HER INVOLVEMENT WITH THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF LITERATURE:
‘Being Chair of the Royal Society of Literature took
up a lot of time, and that is time away from writing of course. But both my father and brother were involved in the trade unions and this is something I can do
for my profession. And also not having had a job apart from writing since I was 32, there was a certain pleasure in having this one.’
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THE PLAITING OF FAMILY LINES
Born in 1948 in Poole in Dorset, Maggie Gee grew up amidst the wrangles of an extended family which pitched her father’s ‘upper working-class argumentative, Labour’ Gees, against her mother’s family, the Churches, lower working-class, and mostly Tory. ‘I am so glad that a lot of my birth family were working class.’ Such an upbringing, she says, gave her ‘an inherited sense of being an outsider, looking slightly askance at what the privileged get up to’, particularly in the context of the literary world. ‘You take nothing for granted, and perhaps see more of the absurdities and unfairnesses.’
Working-class and difficult he may have been, but it is from her father that Gee believes she got many of the qualities that made her a writer. ‘I adored my mother, but my father’s determination and eye for detail hold me in their pinions still, never leaving me alone: holding me up, driving me on’, she writes in My Animal Life. Gee’s father was also a trade union man, and a staunch Labour supporter, and this too has rubbed off on his daughter, although not, she says, in a party political sense. ‘I am very political, but that just means a) I want to understand what is really going on and why social phenomena occur, and b) I want to know where the power lies, and what is happening to the powerless.’ The Gee heritage has she says, given her a ‘mission to do something good in the world’. As well as writing her acclaimed novels, Gee has spent time on the committees of several organisations vital to writers: Public Lending Right, the Society of Authors, and the Royal Society of Literature. In the 2012 New Year’s Honours List, she was awarded the OBE for services to literature. Maggie Gee, OBE. Apart from anything else, how well it trips off the tongue!
The sense of traits handed down, and the extent to which you are able to break free of them to plough your own furrow has become an increasing preoccupation for Gee. ‘I have become more and more interested in genetics and the plaiting of family lines. Whereas in my 20s I wanted to invent myself from scratch, once we had a child I started to see myself as part of a pattern.’ For a long time, Gee felt like the first writer there had ever been in her family. ‘There were no “literary” precedents. I had no literary advice or contacts from my family, as my brothers and I were the first generation to go to university.
But later I realised that this was not quite true.’ Gee’s mother, who tempered her father’s driven nature with something of the ‘easy-going, anarchic’ side of the Churches, loved books and reading. She wrote poems in notebooks and sometimes sent witty letters and rhymes – ‘which she found very easy to write’ – to women’s magazines. ‘And then I remembered that her mother – my grandma, May Davies – wrote Christmas card rhymes in bulk and would take them in a suitcase to the railway station where she met a man who would buy the whole suitcaseful.’ And the pattern continues. Now in her 20s, Gee’s daughter Rosa ‘writes as easily as she thinks’, and lives in Paris, the founder of an award-winning literary magazine. ‘There’s some connection between language and rhyme, somewhere in the female line.’
Destined to be a writer then, Maggie Gee’s early career took off like a rocket. Between Oxford University and a PhD at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, she wrote her first novel, Dying In Other Words. It sat in a drawer for five years, after Gee had made a half-hearted attempt to get it published. Five years later, on a friend’s recommendation, it did find a publisher. Rave reviews from the literary establishment and a full-page extract in The Times followed. Then in 1982, Gee was selected as one of Granta magazine’s original twenty ‘Best of Young British Writers’, along with such literary-luminaries-to-be as Martin Amis, Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, William Boyd, Salman Rushdie and Rose Tremain. She was taken on by an agent who quickly sold her next two novels to Faber, and soon afterwards she got married to fellow writer, Nicholas Rankin. Of those early, heady days as a published writer she says ‘I was suddenly shooting down the rapids, though I didn’t have a clue how to steer the canoe.’ And predictably there were rocks ahead. Prizes came thick and fast to her peers but eluded Gee. ‘The family trait of anger let me down...I was young and headstrong, and believed the enormous praise I had received, and took it for granted that, if I was good, I would automatically get sales and prizes.’ Quarrels with publishers and agents followed.
GEE ON LIBRARY CLOSURES:
‘We are letting our communities be robbed. Amidst all the talk of libraries becoming irrelevant, a third of people still don’t have access to the Internet. They are the only free social centres we have left.’
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Mary Tendo and Vanessa Henman are among several recurring characters in Gee’s fiction. Does she revisit her characters because her novels are in some sense open-ended? ‘I never thought they were until I wrote The Flood and had a sudden revelation that the worlds of the novels could still be going on, and interconnected. That’s why I put characters from all my preceding novels into that book, and had enormous fun working out ways in which they could plausibly know each other. It gave me a marvellous feeling of bringing my whole imaginary world together.’
Gee’s novel in progress – entitled Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – also features the return of a character. Angela, a stroppy teenager in The Burning Book has metamorphosed into a bestselling but not terribly good novelist. She goes to Manhattan to read some Virginia Woolf manuscripts in a library, but discovers that she isn’t allowed to access the originals, only microfilm versions. Suddenly, Woolf materialises from the stacks 70 years after her death, only to be hustled out of the library, and turned loose on the streets of New York, a place she never visited in her lifetime. Later, when Angela goes to Istanbul to take part in a conference, Woolf goes too, and ends up having a jolly good argument with the academics. ‘I try to show what she might make of the 21st century – including America itself, the modern world of books, and her posthumous reputation. But actually, a lot of it is comedy again.’
Gee acknowledges Woolf – along with other modernists such as Nabokov – as a major influence on her own writing. But she is also hugely interested in, and encouraging of the work of new writers. She has just finished a three-year term as Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, and is currently a tutor for the Faber Academy. Asked what she is reading at the moment, Gee talks glowingly of the work of a Chinese-American writer on one of her courses. She maintains her links with Mary Tendo’s home country of Uganda: having first visited Kampala as part of a literary exchange organised by the Cheltenham Festival, she has since returned to the country several times, and keeps in close touch with a group of women writers there. Turkish writers are another interest since the British Council first sent her to that country in the 1990s. On the day we meet, Gee has been interviewing Turkish writer, Hakan Günday on stage at the London Book Fair.
Rather surprisingly given the shape of her own career, Gee, writing in My Animal Life, advises
people not to take notice of the literary pages, big bookshops or prize lists when looking for the best in contemporary writing. So where should they look?
‘I still think good independent bookshops are the best place. Get to know the people who work there, or one person you can trust. Reading groups are a great source of recommendations too because frankly, our friends are also people we can trust. Read the papers, but sceptically – if you read any reviewers regularly you will get to know if their taste concurs with yours.’
With all the uncertainty over the future of the printed book, is this a bad time to be a writer? ‘There is never a bad time to be a writer. It’s a wonderful thing to be: a great privilege. I love modernity and find digital exciting: it’s a revolution that I’d love to be part of. As a form, the novel hasn’t changed a great deal since the early 1900s. E-books have the potential to incorporate images, games, maps, snatches of music and so on; and these are creative choices that are very exciting to me. Writers have to change, and accept that there are new ways of telling stories. They must come up with ideas and see what publishers do with them.’
Towards the end of My Animal Life, having taken a long, sometimes hard look back down the lemon peel spiral, Maggie Gee finds herself at her desk, staring at the ‘blank page of the future’. What will she fill it with? What does she still want to write? ‘I never want to stop – I’m still full of writing, though life gets busier and busier and there are practical things I have to do, and distractions. But I would like to write another seven books at least, health allowing.’
When writing novels, Maggie Gee says that she always knows how they will end, often before she has worked out the rest. In life, it is an entirely different matter. ‘I don’t know the ending’, she writes at the end of My Animal Life. ‘Because there is none, until our planet is absorbed by our star. Our lives are so short, a breath, half a breath. This moment soaking up the sun.’ Not that Maggie Gee, author of thirteen books so far, intends to soak it up too much. ‘If I had written twenty, it would seem like I had not been lounging about in life.’ Time has been called. We drink up our Lapsang, and walk out into the sun to get on.