Maurice Gee had a very good night, a big night out, at the Montana book awards this week. He won the Deutz medal for fiction and co-won, with Fiona Kidman, the Readers' Choice award. He was called, by the judges, "the country's greatest living novelist".

"You know," he says the next morning, sounding faintly astonished, "last night I wasn't in bed 'til 1am. The first time in many years I've been up past midnight. We didn't get out of the place until midnight. Then Margareta and I broke one of our golden rules.

"When we got back to the room we opened a bottle of one of the little whiskies from the mini bar. I thought, 'Oh, well. I've won some money. I can afford it'."

He is usually in bed by half past nine. He does not feel the need for a social life.

So, here he is, a bit tired, fretting a little because Margareta, his wife, is back at the hotel feeling unwell.

He has exquisite manners, so he will put on a happy enough face and sit for a while in a comfortable chair at the library and do another interview.

He is very calm, outwardly, about doing interviews. But he doesn't seem to enjoy them. He is very private. He hates speaking in public.

"I haven't got a lot of confidence. Whenever I'm asked to do it, I either say no, or I thoroughly prepare because I can't talk off the cuff or extempore at all. Oh, I get terribly nervous and sweat and have to go and have a shower afterwards."

Being interviewed makes his palms hot, he says, cheerfully, "But it only happens when you win a prize or something like that. You get ignored thoroughly the rest of the time, which is what I like. I wander around Wellington an unknown face. Oh yes. People don't recognise me, which is good."

Nobody at the central city library so much as casts him a sideways glance.

We are at the library because there are books here, for props. Because of that anonymity, he seems to require some context. We are in the children's section which is fine with Gee, who says his children's books "do better than the adult books, actually".

An eager librarian struggles over with a pile of Gee's adult books and he says mildly, "Good heavens. Look at this!" as though somebody else, not the quietly spoken, gentle man in the grey cardigan and sneakers had written them all.

Of Blindsight and the previous night's win, he says, "The readers' one was the big surprise to me, and it was particularly pleasing because I've never regarded myself as being a writer with a big reader base. Well, you see, my sort of fiction is usually described as literary fiction. It's a term I hate, yet it seems to be one in general use.

"I would like to be a popular novelist. In fact, getting that readers' prize seems to indicate that I'm on the edge of being popular, of being a popular novelist. But it's too late."

He is 75 next month and, apart from a few aches and pains and "having a bit of trouble now with short-term memory, which is a bit scary ... the brain's all right and as long as that's working I'll keep writing."

That "it's too late" is typically self-effacing. Our greatest living novelist, say the Montana judges. Rachel Barrowman, who is writing his biography, says he is widely regarded as this "private and retiring and ordinary man".

A few notes on an ordinary man. He has been married to Margareta since 1970. They have two daughters. He has a son from a previous relationship.

He lives in Wellington but is hoping to buy a house in Nelson soon. The Montana money, $16,000 will help. As a kid he was known as Mossy. He grew up in Henderson - which he writes about, a lot - and is Loomis in the fiction.

"Yes, I've done my childhood pretty thoroughly. The Henderson Creek stuff. In almost every book, even the non-Henderson books, the non-Loomis books, many of them will have an eel or something like that in them somewhere. I've got a creek running through my brain. Yeah, it's there. I'll never be rid of it."

He is, says, Kevin Ireland, who has known him since they were teenagers, "deceptive. His father was a tough guy and Maurice was a tough guy too. He just doesn't look it. But he was a very good rugby footballer."

Being called the greatest living novelist is, "you know, lovely to hear but it doesn't mean anything. Well, it can't be measured. You can equally say that three or four other people are. Oh, should I mention names? No. I won't mention names."

He does not mention names. Or write criticism. Or make public comment on other writers. The Gee piece in critic and writer C.K. Stead's collection of essays on New Zealand writers, Kin of Place, is titled: Maurice Gee, Moralist. Stead says Gee responded "by giving his next novel the sub-title 'a moralist's tale'."

Gee linked the two together in an interview, Stead says, "My calling him a moralist and his naming his next novel, as cause and effect - and his remarks about me there were quite positive. But the naming leaves it open for readers to make of it what they will. I read it, not as apologetic, but more as an assertion: 'Okay so I'm a moralist. Whatever ... Here's another novel for you to chew on'."

Stead says of Gee that he is "genial, modest, hugely competent. A good carpenter, builds a good house. There's also a very dark streak in his fiction - a lot of horror and violence, which I see not as sadistic but masochistic; sensitive identifying with the victim, but it can be almost gratuitously grim (a matter of individual taste, of course)."

Still, decorous is a good word for him. And "remarkably humble", says Terry Sturm, just-retired professor of English who is working on Allen Curnow's biography.

Sturm deserves an honourable mention in the Gee story. He is the boy who drove Gee from teaching, further towards writing. At Henderson Boys' High, Gee encountered a smirking boy who knew more than he did and realised his failure as a teacher.

Sturm says, "It makes me feel that, whatever modicum of truth is in it, I played some role in one of our great novelists."

He has observed Gee over the years. He says one of the reasons he is so likeable a fellow is that he seems "genuinely not interested in any special claim being made for him". Which could make him sound like a man with no ego - which can't be true. "No, it can't, but it's never on display."

Says Gee, of awards and "greatest" tags, "They are honours, yes". Two others: the 2004 Prime Minister's Award named him as one of the 10 living New Zealand Icon Artists in 2003.

"Getting the Prime Minister's prize and the Icon, yeah I enjoyed that. Especially the Prime Minister's prize. I liked that very much. Well, partly because it had a whacking great sum of money attached to it."

He has always said he wouldn't write his autobiography or a memoir. Having the biography done, "is odd. I didn't really feel there was a life story there. I mean, who's going to read it?"

A small tease seems permitted: it will be a pretty racy read, won't it? "Oh, yes, there are certain episodes there and some of them don't reflect any credit on me, but there you are."

He says he has not always led a blameless life, writing in his toolshed. He never wanted to do his own life: "I just don't want to go poking around in there. Whether it's a fear of destroying something, or finding out too much ... "

But he has taken to having a biographer with courteous alacrity. It means he can say that he has undertaken "not to do any autobiographical interviews. I'm sorry about that. Were you going to get autobiographical?"

The poet Kevin Ireland thinks about the idea of a biography of his old mate, laughs long and says, "He's always very nice, you know. He fills in a few little bits but he's always very detached."

He, for one, will read a Gee bio avidly. "Is he going to let go and say where all these amazing insights come from? And the cruelty and the violence and that savagery? Of course there are their opposites [in the writing] but there is this dark side ... and it's full of turmoil and angst.

"He knows very well where it comes from; he's always been right up front with his friends: 'I know where it comes from, but I'm not saying'."

As for the episodes which Gee says reflect badly on him: "I've known Maurice for a long time and I think he probably genuinely feels that. But I think it's not true. I think that most of Maurice's life reflects great credit on him and I just think that he's very much a puritan and that's a puritan attitude."

He agrees he was a puritan once, but not now. Barrowman says he has written "about the burden of puritanism". Also, "There's that undercurrent of darkness and lurking and sometimes quite unexpected violence in his books."

Gee has talked about not wanting to betray people and Barrowman thinks he would mean "betrayal of friendship or intimacy or understanding rather than betraying any necessarily huge secrets or confidences".

Ireland says Gee is the great concealer while his books "are about seeing people, watching people, people watching each other, people looking in through doorways, people watching through little chinks in people's personalities ... It's sometimes called voyeurism but I think when it's great art it's not voyeurism - it's a way of looking."

In the meantime, is it wrong to think that we somehow know Gee from reading his books? "No, I don't think it's wrong," he says. "Obviously all my attitudes, beliefs, opinions, prejudices and so on get into the books. I couldn't prevent them getting in if I tried because that's me and who I am."

Although, he doesn't want to go too deeply into the process of the writing or "the reasons I am the way I am and how my writing depends on me being the sort of character that I am".

He agrees he is a cautious person. "Yes, I'm fairly careful in what I say and do."

Here he is being effusive about his award-winning book: "There are no printer's errors and things of that sort and it is a perfect book in that sense. There is not a single mistake in it."

He likes the cover too: "Design-wise it is perfect." As for the words. "It is a nice, tight, controlled, exact sort of book." He is happy with it.

A story about Gee. Many years ago Gordon McLauchlan did a profile of Gee for television. The director, desperate for images which didn't involve Gee sitting writing in his tool shed, resorted to getting him mowing the lawn.

"Yes! And he got me picking a lemon off a lemon tree. Which is the classic one: everyone picks a lemon. And when Gordon got back to Auckland, he said to someone, 'Maurice Gee's a nice guy, but he doesn't do anything'."

McLauchlan has always denied it. This story has become part of the myth of Gee and for good reason: it's a story he likes because it doesn't involve him having to say anything about himself. It reduces him to the writer in the tool shed.

He has hobbies. "Reading. Yes, that's my hobby. It used to be going for long walks up hills but I've got a back problem. I can't do that any more. So we go for long walks on the flat."

At which he is gone. A man in running shoes and a grey cardigan, happy now that he is out in the street where the country's greatest writer can be thoroughly ignored.