The work of author Maurice Gee ranges from children's classics Under the Mountain and The Halfmen of O, through a range of television projects, to roughly 20 adult novels, including Plumb, Live Bodies and Blindsight. His novels often touch on dysfunctional families, and the complicated, sometimes violent price of trying to do the right thing. All, whether following a hobo squatting on the side of Tinakori Hill or aliens lurking under Rangitoto, are known for their keen sense of place.
Gee was born in Whakatane, but grew up in Henderson — then a country town, now part of Auckland city. His father was a carpenter whose tools proved useful in constructing the boats in which Maurice paddled down the creek to Waitemata Harbour. Henderson has resurfaced in many guises in Gee's work, including In My Father's Den, and the breakthrough Plumb trilogy.
Gee began writing as a teenager. His first short story appeared in Landfall in 1955, by which time he had completed an MA in English at Auckland University, and begun working as a teacher. Debut novel The Big Season was published in 1962, based partly on his experiences playing rugby. Gee became a full-time writer in the mid 70s, as he got busy on Plumb — based partly on his extraordinary grandfather — and released his short story collection, A Glorious Morning, Comrade (since then novels have been his preference).
The first screen adaptation of Gee's work was a 1976 television adaptation of horseracing story The Losers.The title story from the Glorious Morning collection — the tale of an old man escaping his daughter's home — marks a rare time that a local story has inspired two film adaptations: one in 1982 (adapted by John McKay), and another by Adam Luxton in 2009.
Gee needed to diversify to make a living from his writing. He did this through better-paid work writing for children, and for television. After approaching the producers of soap Close to Home, he ended up writing dialogue for around 11 episodes. Gee also contributed to Country GP and popular police drama Mortimer's Patch.
Though he enjoys fiction more, Gee found satisfaction in the "team-writing" aspect of television, which saw him working closely with a producer and script editor. Gee especially enjoyed writing for Mortimer, "and was very disappointed when they stopped it after two series" (the show was renewed three years later for a third and final season). Among his contributions was high-rating, award-winning episode 'Fighting Johnny Fuller' 1981), the story of a fading ex-boxer who may be a murderer.
Gee's work on Mortimer's Patch led to 1984 spin-off movie Trespasses, which he co-wrote with producer Tom Finlayson. Directed by veteran TV talent Peter Sharp, who has filmed much of Gee's work, Trespasses incorporates a number of Mortimer's Patch characters into the story of a young woman (Brit actor Emma Piper) caught between a fundamentalist father (Patrick McGoohan) and the leader of a commune (Frank Whitten).
Gee's first book aimed at children was 1979 classic Under the Mountain, a science fiction adventure of good and evil, involving aliens with links to Auckland's volcanoes. The bestseller was adapted by Ken Catran for a much-loved TVNZ series in 1981, and 28 years later became a Jonathan King-directed feature film.
Two later kidult novels began as projects which Gee originally created for television. As he writes here, The Fire-Raiser, Gee's favourite televison project to that date, was inspired by research into a Nelson primary school. Two real-life figures — an arsonist who burned down the school, and an inspirational headmaster — were reimagined for this WWI-era tale of school-children, facing off against a small-town arsonist. The Fire-Raiser won GOFTA awards for Gee's script, Best Drama Series, Children's Programme, and Peter Sharp's direction. The five-part series sold well overseas, where it was reconfigured into tele-movie Undercover Gang. Gee also wrote a companion novel, which later won American publication; his adult novel Prowlers also has some links to The Fire-Raiser, including its setting.
In 1988, Fire-Raiser producer Ginette McDonald enlisted Gee to write a follow-up. Drawing on his war-period memories of growing up in Henderson, he wrote The Champion, a the story of a black American GI billeted with a Kiwi family during WWII. Director Peter Sharp remembers the show proudly, but argues that it "slipped into obscurity through bad timing, no publicity, and the lack of awards that year".
In 2004 Gee's novel Crime Story — written in France while he was 1992 Katherine Mansfield Fellow — was adapted as a feature by Larry Parr. Delayed by the collapse of Parr's production company, the film finally premiered in March 2004 under the title Fracture. The film was praised by The Press (Christchurch) as "competent, confident and complex". The storyline involves two families linked together by a crime.
The most acclaimed adaptation of Gee's work to date is In My Father's Den, also released in 2004. The original 1972 novel revolves around the death of a teenager, and the teacher suspected of her murder. Director Brad McGann's script relocates the story from the Henderson-like town of Wadesville to central Otago, and changes central character Paul Prior from a teacher to a much-travelled photo-journalist.
In September 2004 Gee received an excited email from McGann, telling him that Father's Den had won the International Critics' Prize at the Toronto Film Festival. "It gives me a lot of pleasure that I'm responsible for a small part of it," said Gee at the time, "but the film is Brad's." The Toronto award was the first of a 19-strong awards haul, including NZ Screen Awards for McGann's direction and script, plus best film.
Gee's acclaimed 1992 novel Going West has inspired arguably the most unusual film yet based on his work: a two-minute animated piece for the New Zealand Book Council, that became a breakout YouTube hit. Gee's pages and words literally come to life as the tale is told.
In 2003 the Arts Foundation of New Zealand gave Gee their highest honour, by naming him as one of the foundation's first icons. The following year he was given the Gaelyn Gordon award to mark Under the Mountain being a "much-loved" work of children's literature.
No fan of public speaking, Gee later made a rare public appearance when organisers of the 2012 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival named him their inaugural Honoured New Zealand Writer. Gee revealed that he is working on a memoir of his early years.
James Croot, Review of Fracture - Christchurch Press, 11 September 2004
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Andrew Johnston, 'Maurice Gee - Our superb storyteller' (Interview) - The Evening Post, 3 July 1993, Page 13
Toby Manhire, 'Maurice Gee reveals memoir plan at Auckland writers festival finale'. NZ Listener website. Loaded 13 May 2012. Accessed 16 May 2012 (broken link)
Robyn McLean and NZPA, 'Novelist Gee hails film prize' - Dominion Post, 21 September 2004, Page A4
Rebekah Palmer, 'Storyteller' (Interview) - Salient, 26 April 1988, Page 7
Nelson Wattie, 'Gee, Maurice' (Profile). New Zealand Book Council website. Accessed 16 May 2012
'Maurice Gee' (Profile). Arts Foundation website. Accessed 16 May 2012