Margaret Mahy, local hero (sculpture by Mark Whyte, photo from Wikimedia Commons)
I was one of the many people who was eaten up by story – not any particular story, but the platonic form of story that roars and devours us all (though people don’t always realise they have been swallowed). Writers are the ones who roar back, digesting while they are themselves digested.
– Margaret Mahy, Notes of a bag lady. Wellington: Four Winds Press, 2003
Since the death of author Margaret Mahy, expressions of grief have flowed not only from devoted readers, but from legions of authors and illustrators in New Zealand, Australia and around the world. It’s because as well as being phenomenally popular, Margaret Mahy was a writer’s writer.
Within the New Zealand children’s literature community there has been an almost non-stop wake for Mahy, in real life and across social media. It will perhaps culminate on 11 August when a nationwide read-aloud takes place in her honour.
Over the Tasman, writer, reviewer and editor Judith Ridge says, ‘As we are wont to do with successful New Zealanders, we naughtily liked to claim her as our own. Or, at the very least, we liked it when people assumed she was Australian!’
Unlike many New Zealand writers for children and young adults, I never met Margaret Mahy, or even had the privilege of hearing her speak at an event. But her work for all ages – her picture books, her junior and young adult novels, and her erudite and illuminating essays – have thrilled me, inspired me, and made me cry – those mysterious tears that come in response to astonishing human achievement.
Judith Ridge has said, ‘Mahy is an author other authors wish they were.’ And I think that sums it up.
Mahy’s quote above talks of the platonic form of ‘story’ – an abstract ideal. I can’t help but think that if there were such a thing as a platonic form of ‘writer’, Mahy might come close to it. Every quality that, as a writer, I aspire to, or like to imagine I already have in some small degree, Mahy had in almost superhuman abundance.
There was her fascination for and facility with language: as author Melinda Szymanik said, ‘Words behaved differently under her guiding hand.’
She also had an all-consuming love of story. And, as Elizabeth Knox writes so eloquently, there was her instinct for the significant:
People have remarked on her feeling for myth. But what she had a feeling for was significance. She saw possibilities for meaning, for story, in the way ideas fitted together, not mechanically, but as if this thought and that would suddenly seem subject to the same gravity, as if the way things fell together revealed the star they belonged to-the shining star, or the obscure one, whose only energy is gravity.
Mahy also had an utterly unique way of seeing the world, disarming honesty, a ferocious intellect, an insatiable curiosity and boundless empathy.
Then of course there are the qualities that technically might not be needed, but which most writers must envy: Mahy spoke as eloquently as she wrote, and she is said to have been able to get by on little more than four hours’ sleep a night. (What author struggling to balance family commitments and paid work, at the same time as keeping the fires of their writing career burning, wouldn’t wish for this?)
Margaret Mahy leaves an immense body of work. But she has also gifted us with something less instantly tangible. That is the massive effect she has had on the work of thousands of other writers.
Judith Ridge wrote to me: ‘Many of my writer friends cite Margaret as a huge influence, particularly writers of young adult fantasy, who have been deeply influenced by novels like The Changeover, Catalogue of the Universe and (my own favourite) The Tricksters.’
She adds: ‘I always cite Margaret as the greatest practitioner of the rhyming text for children to my creative writing students, and warn them if they aspire to write in this style, they have the highest of bars set before them thanks to her genius.’
New Zealand author Fleur Beale (recipient of last year’s Storylines Margaret Mahy Award) says:
I think it’ll be a while before we realise what we’ve lost. While she was here among us, we relished her presence both as an exuberant and generous personality and we stood in awe of her intellect and her genius. To a certain extent, she herself was the focus - the star in the firmament, the person we looked to for inspiration and guidance; she stood on the heights to which we aspire. In talks she gave, she threw light on the mysterious process of story. She was a go-to person for things literary. Now there is no ebullient, articulate Margaret and the focus must turn to her writing. I suspect that every time any of us discovers a Mahy book new to us, or rediscovers an old favourite, we will then begin to understand something of what her loss has meant. There will be no more stories. Those of us lucky enough to have known her, however slightly, have been privileged indeed.
I do believe we’re all better writers for having shared the earth with Margaret Mahy, but it will take distance to see more of the ways in which this is true.
In years to come the subtle patterns of influence will become more obvious in the works of others. I imagine these patterns will provide plenty of material for literary researchers and critics, but most of all they will prove just how much we, in New Zealand and around the world, owe to this very great writer, this literary treasure, Margaret Mahy.