Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Margaret Mahy: Enchanted by life's possibilities

Phil Taylor looks back at the life of New Zealand's best-loved children's writer

New Zealand children's author Margaret Mahy passed away this week at 76. Photo / File
New Zealand children's author Margaret Mahy passed away this week at 76. Photo / File

Fourteen years ago Margaret Mahy had a tattoo of a skull with a rose in its teeth etched on her right shoulder. She was 62 and had at last disregarded her mother's advice never to get a tattoo - "you'll only be sorry".

"I thought, I haven't got a lot of time to be sorry," she said, "and it might be rather fun to have a pirate tattoo."

Mahy, who died of cancer on Monday after a short illness, was one of those rare literary gems that it took a foreigner to discover. An army of readers around the globe came to love the prancing poetry and prose of the writer from Governors Bay whose work was translated into 15 languages, including Icelandic.

Her life and work have been celebrated around the world this week. The symbolism of her tattoo was noted by the New York Times, which said Mahy had told interviewers her love of children was rooted less in mothering instincts than in a sense of common cause.

Her credo could be found in A Horrible Haunted House, a 1997 novel, the paper said. "Surprises," she wrote, "were lurking in the heart of everything, and even a sensible life could be unexpectedly full of ghosts. That way was the best way for any sensible life to be."

Her own life was a hectic intersection of several lives. Mahy's biographer, novelist Tessa Duder, doubts Mahy slept more than four hours a night and says she was permanently tired. She worked by day as a librarian to support herself and her young daughters, who she raised as a solo mother, and wrote through the night.

There were times of financial and emotional hardship. She told in a 1987 Listener interview of leaving a sick infant to go to work, because the idea of asking for time off was "just so terrible. I'd get off the bus at night and immediately start weeping as I walked towards home."

The "surprise" that changed her life occurred in 1969, when New Zealand's School Journal featured in an exhibition in New York. By chance, her story The Lion in the Meadow was on the open page inside the glass case and was read with some astonishment by an editor. The editor rang her boss, New York publisher Helen Hoke Watts. Mahy was asked whether she had more material. She did indeed, 100 stories, representing 15 years' worth of mostly unpublished work.

Watts hastily arranged a visit to New Zealand. "I collected her from the airport and she stayed at the pub just up the road from my place in Governors Bay," Mahy recalled in a 2006 magazine interview. "She said, 'my God, this really is the end of the world - they don't accept American Express!"'

By the end of that year, Watt's company, Franklin Watts, had published six of Mahy's books.

"It was one of those romantic things that happen", Mahy said.

Mahy was born to write and did so almost until her death. A new book of nonsense verse, The Man From the Land of Fandango, is to be published soon and two manuscripts were in the pipeline.

"Even in her last few months when she was suffering and in a bit of pain she would say, 'ooh, that could be an idea for a story'," her daughter Penny Mahy said this week.

Duder: "Story-telling was so integral to her very being that she couldn't imagine life without being in the role of story-teller." She wrote her first storybook - Harry Is Bad - aged 7 and wrote most days for the next 69 years.

Duder, who puts her alongside Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame as women writers of genius, told the Herald that few were as accessible or as unaffected. "She would say, 'it's just me'."

She combined "the most fertile imagination", an "extraordinary gift of language" and a prodigious work ethic that produced more than 200 books.

Mahy spent a period caring for a relative suffering from dementia, and she never married.

"She has gone on record saying that she would like to have married but that it wasn't going to be for her," said Duder. She had expected to raise the children (Penny and Bridget, born six years apart to the same father) herself.

"I formed a permanent affection for a particular man," Mahy once said, "and I have, in fact, been very monogamous in those terms."

Duder's 2005 biography, Margaret Mahy: A Writer's Life was confined, at Mahy's insistence, to her life as a writer. "She said very firmly, 'I don't want a traditional biography within my lifetime'."

That would have involved interviews with family and friends. Now that Mahy has died, might a wider biography be a possibility? Duder has indicated only that she was updating her "literary biography".

Duder chose Mahy as the subject of her first major biography because she thought she wasn't appreciated in New Zealand as a serious novelist, as she is in England and America. "Her reputation seemed rather slighter than it really was.

"It seemed to me that she was known as a whacky picturebook-writer and a lovely public persona but not greatly else. I thought we needed to bring out a book that showed that behind the whacky picturebooks was a first-class mind."

Mahy demonstrated her quicksilver wit and great sense of mischievousness at a literary festival. She and Duder were on a panel where, in the style of television's Whose Line is It Anyway, each in turn would advance the story.

"Each time Margaret would turn the story on its head," recalled Duder. "By about the fourth round she was putting her contribution effortlessly into rhyming couplets. I swear David Hill, next in line, turned pale. .."

It wasn't until 1980, aged 44, that Mahy felt financially secure enough to write full-time. An avalanche of work followed. She won the Carnegie Medal, Britain's top award for children's literature, in 1982 for The Haunting, becoming the first author outside Britain to achieve the feat. Two years later she won again, with The Changeover.

The Carnegie Medal has been described as akin to winning an Olympic Gold. Many awards and honours followed, including, in 2006, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition given to a children's author.

A series of young adult books - The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters, Memory and The Other Side of Silence followed, all published (and acclaimed) overseas. This meant, for a while, Mahy was ineligible for New Zealand literary awards. In 1993 she was made a member of the Order of New Zealand - the highest of this country's honours and open to only 20 living people at one time.

Duder described Mahy as a guru and a friend whose generosity and delight in the success of others made her almost universally popular. Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, said Mahy was one of the few she "both liked as a person and admired for her extraordinary work".

Children's book writer and illustrator Gavin Bishop recalled her famous love of a party. A group attending a conference adjourned to a restaurant in the Viaduct Basin, where Mahy announced they all needed a drink and that she was paying.

"She ran her finger down the list of sparkling wines and chose one. 'We'll have that one,' she said very grandly. 'Very well, Madam,' said the waiter. 'A very good choice.' I looked at the wine on the list that Margaret had chosen and said, 'Margaret, you can't order that one. It's $200!' She replied even more grandly, 'yes I can. In fact, we'll have two'."

She remained candid even in her most embarrassing public moment, a drink-driving conviction in 2008. She had blacked out and hit a parked car. "Well look, goodness, gracious me. I was at fault and when you have been around a long time and are reasonably well known, that makes the news and you can't afford to be too precious."

She was born on March 21, 1936, in Whakatane, the oldest of six children. Her father, Frank, was a construction engineer; her mother, May, a teacher. Their home life was rich with adventure stories and the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, most of which Mahy came to know by heart.

She has described her childhood as "unorthodox". She was determined to make imagined scenarios real and this could get out of hand.

"I did tell children at school that I had been brought up in the jungle and could speak the language of animals," she told the makers of television documentary, Made in New Zealand: Margaret Mahy. As evidence, she would speak an inspired gibberish and consume leaves.

She suspected her motivation was that she wanted to live a fantastic life "because I was so enchanted by its possibilities". As time went by she found the best way of doing it was to write stories.

Mahy believed passionately in the power of imagination and was fascinated by physics, astronomy and philosophy. All were connected with truth. Most of the far-reaching scientific discoveries had involved imaginative acts, she told an interviewer. "Einstein once said that the best training for a scientist was to read fairy tales. Children's writers ask the same question as scientists: 'what if?"'

"I think her legacy is to have produced books that children wanted to read, which adults loved reading," Duder said.

"She wanted to share her love of story with as many people as she could. She would say to parents, 'read to your kids; share stories and they will enrich your lives in ways you can't even begin to imagine'."

The Storylines Children's Literature Trust is planning a public memorial gathering to honour Mahy in Auckland on Saturday, August 11 at 2.30pm. Venue to be confirmed.

- NZ Herald

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