24 July 2012

This is Margaret Mahy

'Good morning; Allen & Unwin; this is Susannah.'
'Good morning, Allen & Unwin. This is Margaret Mahy.'

Margaret Mahy.
Margaret. Mahy.
On the phone.
To me.
I mumbled something incoherent; I cleared my throat and tried to breathe as my Best Professional Phone Manner dissolved into a puddle of Unprofessional Stammering.

'I love you. I mean ... I love ... your books. I love you and your books. I love...'
'Thank you. Can I speak to Sarah, please.'

And so I transferred her. And then I sat quietly for a moment. And then I experienced an exalted moment of knowing I was working in a place where Margaret Mahy sometimes telephoned. She was writing Kaitangata Twitch and we (WE!) were publishing it. It's a moment I've never really recovered from.

Margaret Mahy died yesterday, aged 76.

When I found out, I rang my mum. Because it was Mum who read me The Great Piratical Rumbusitification and The Librarian and the Robbers, The Chewing Gum Rescue and The Downhill Crocodile Whizz. We had laughed and laughed and laughed. So now we cried a little.

And it was Mum who bought me a copy of The Changeover, but wisely left it on the shelf for me to discover myself. I avoided it for years because it looked like this:

and had "a supernatural romance" on the cover. 

But finally I picked it up, and by happy chance or grand design I was just the perfect age for Laura Chant and Sorry Carlisle, then Harry and the Carnival brothers, and Angela and Tycho. And I've been the perfect age ever since.

It's hard to define what it is that makes Margaret's writing so special. There is humour and wit and sadness, strength and vulnerability (and often strength in vulnerability), the wonderful terrible power of being a girl, and the breathtaking possibility and serious responsibility of making yourself, definining yourself, and then changing the definition.

Her writing means something powerful for New Zealanders - reflecting their stories, their land, themselves.
It means something adjacent to that for Australians, and something else again for the rest of the world - who honoured her with awards like the Hans Christian Andersen and the Carnegie.

I read recently that one of Jeffrey Eugenides's characters yearns for new words for complex emotions, for 'the happiness that attends disaster' or 'the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.' I want a word for 'the joyous aching melancholy one experiences while reading a Margaret Mahy novel.'

I find that feeling again in Karen Healey's writing, and in Penni Russon's, and in a different, fiercer way in Margo Lanagan's. I will always be seraching for it in new writers, and can always find it again in Margaret's 100+ books.

Where will I begin the re-reading?
Where will you? 

Thank you, Margaret. I love you. I love your books. I love...

*I believe it was about  five minutes into our first meeting with Karen to discuss her novel, Guardian of the Dead, that she pulled a battered copy of The Changeover out of her bag, and we knew then that we were going to get along just fine.

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