By Jamie Ryder
If creativity represents an ocean, then the written word flows as a river towards its source. Literature is the beating heart that supplies knowledge to the body of society. Writers are a unique breed and no two are the same. It seemed only fitting, therefore, that a particular writer should speak about her work in a place that celebrates the written word. The Anthony Burgess Foundation played host to ‘Maggie Gee in Conversation with Gregory Norminton’ in conjunction with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) and the Manchester Writing School (MWS).
Gee is the author of 12 novels including My Cleaner and My Driver, an acclaimed writer memoir’s called My Animal Life and The White Family that was shortlisted for the Orange and the International Impac prizes. She appeared at the event to talk about one of her earlier novels, The Ice People, and her latest novel called Virginia Woolf in New York.
The event began with the manager of the Manchester Writing School, James Draper, welcoming everyone and passing over to his colleague Gregory Norminton. He characterized Gee’s work as having “variety” and writing about events that “travel around the world and through time.” He compared her work to Anthony Burgess who wrote with a similarly varied palette.
The introduction gave way to readings from two Creative Writing MA students, Merrie Williams and Bryn Fazakerly. Merrie read an extract from her novel set in Manchester between 1979 and 1988. Bryn read a short story about a homeless man in a futuristic setting. Both pieces were praised by Gee for their diversity and strength of description.
Norminton began the interview, contrasting the stories that had been read with the domestic and dystopian elements of Gee’s works. He inquired about the diversity of her material. She mentioned that publishers “don’t understand” because writers always want to do something new. They don’t want to be pigeonholed into writing one kind of genre because the nature of writing is about freedom.
Norminton moved on to ask about recurring themes. Gee said that authors desire to write about a portion of their childhood. People “write to understand,” to find meaning in their work and connect with other people. She talked about her memoir and how she wrote about her childhood experiences affecting her future content. In the memoir she states that art is “an act of rebellion running towards the light.”
The discussion shifted to whether writers need to have a “wound” in order to create. Gee admitted that “we all have wounds” and that suffering helps people to be kind to each other. Gee went on to discuss her interest in climate change, citing The Ice People and The Flood as examples that highlight the shifting world around us. She wished to write about it because she realized “ice ages are relatively long” and we may “cycle back towards that.” She was interested in showing that “the government is shrinking.” Gee’s work is characterized by her desire to see how the world alters in the future. The beauty of writing dystopian fiction is that she wasn’t “held back by realism.”
Norminton asked about her opinion on characters who have a “malevolence” about them and how she approached writing them. Gee stated that your job as a writer is to be “authentic” and not to hold back. She referenced a racist boy in her own work and admitted that the way to make him seem realistic was to make him comical. When it came to her process, Gee said that she liked to write out of the house and carried a notebook around. She talked about her new book Virginia Woolf in New York. Woolf is one of her heroes and the idea came about when researching her archive in New York. She used Woolf to “examine the book trend” because she noticed all the major book stores were closing down. The Woolf in her novel is Gee’s own interpretation, rather than a historical commentary. Gee treated the audience to a rendition of Woolf’s voice as she read an extract to an enthusiastic response.
The discussion opened up into questions and one person asked about her writing method. Gee said that she “writes the ending first.” It helps her to have a goal to work towards. Another question pertained to asking about her journey as a writer. She said that “ignorance helped her” and insisted that “if you finish a novel then you’re a novelist.”
That sentiment echoed the spirit of the event. Novels are a work of art that take time, patience and sacrifice. The first step is finishing. Writing comes from the heart and Gee understood the connectivity between page and audience. The conversation morphed into a rapport that encouraged writers young and old to pursue their love of the craft. Such is the environment that can be found at the Manchester Writing School.
Jamie Ryder is an aspiring novelist with an appreciation for the fantastical and a love hate relationship with the written word. You can read more of his work on his blog.