Margaret Mahy died and I wanted to write about how great she was and is.
But I couldn’t.
I’ve done it before – here, look, here is a perfectly comprehensible article about her status as a New Zealander writing New Zealand.
But I can’t do it now, not yet. Over the last couple of days, as tributes to her genius and character have been made, I’ve been increasingly aware of how big she was, how much she did. I can’t write about her work at this moment; maybe in a handful of moments, maybe in a year.
But I can write about me. This post is about me, and the three times I met Margaret Mahy.
There was a conference on young adult literature taking place in Christchurch. I wasn’t officially an attendee, but I was doing my honors year of my English BA, and one of the papers I took that year was on young adult lit. The course convener, Anna Smith, thought that I should pursue fiction writing and snuck me into the keynote speeches.
I met Kate De Goldi, and told her how much I liked her work (she hadn’t yet written The 10pm Question, the most excellent book featuring anxiety disorder that I have ever feasted gladly upon) and mentioned that I was thinking of taking her YA Creative Writing course in Wellington the next year. I wanted to be an author, I thought, possibly.
“You should,” she told me, and I promised to think about it more, but I was distracted because there, THERE was Margaret Mahy, and I had brought a copy of The Changeover with me. Stammering, fumbling, overwhelmed, I asked her to sign it. She did, and she smiled at me.
I had moved directly from Fuchu to Melbourne, with not a day’s grace between, so that I could both finish out my contract in Japan and take up my scholarship offer from the University of Melbourne. It was Christmas before I could get home, to find the stories of friends and wrap myself up in family.
I had written a book that hadn’t yet been titled Guardian of the Dead and it had acquired an agent. Every time I remembered this, my fingers tingled, my whole body going warm and electric. I remembered it on the night my friend Jeff and I went to see the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) in a Christchurch theatre, and settled in to watch the festivities.
At the interval, when the two women to the right of us left to stretch their legs, Jeff turned to me. “I’m sitting beside Margaret Mahy,” he said.
“We have to swap,” I said immediately, grabbing his arm. “Swap, swap seats with me, Jeff, I have to-”
Jeff, who knew and knows me well, was already moving. When she came back, I awkwardly said hello, and how did she like the play, and I admired her so so much and by the way I had written a book that had an agent (!!!) and I had used some ideas inspired by The Changeover in the manuscript. I think I had enough manners to say hello also to her daughter, Bridget.
She talked about Shakespeare and Christchurch and the interesting difficulties posed by writing one’s own real places, and I managed a few phrases I don’t remember, but later Jeff told me I hadn’t looked as stupid and overwhelmed as I felt. It is to the great credit of the actors that I was able to watch the second half with anything that resembled attention.
My first novel had been published; my first novel had lovely reviews, my first novel had been nominated for awards. I had been invited to the Auckland Writers Festival to speak to schools and to tell a true story in front of a huge audience, besides people who actually made their living telling stories. Immediately after the Festival were the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. My first novel was a finalist.
So was Margaret Mahy’s umpteenth picture book, The Moon and Farmer McPhee.
“Oh, she’s here,” said Abba, the excellent Allen and Unwin publicist. “Would you like to say hi?”
“Yes, please,” I said. This was a thing writers did. I was a writer, saying hello to another writer. This time I would be calm and composed, this time I would say something close to witty, this time, though I could by no means speak to my idol as an equal, I would at least manage to do it in a manner approaching professionalism.
Trailing Abba, trailed by my parents, who had flown up to be with me on this special night (and also to lay eyes on the daughter they hadn’t seen in nearly two years), I wriggled through the crowd ofâ€¦ colleagues? My colleagues? Oh lord, was that Tessa Duder?.
“Hi, Margaret, this is Karen Healey. She just wanted to come and say hello.”
She turned around and looked me in the eye. “Karen Healey!” she exclaimed. “But you’re a wonderful writer!”
My knees nearly gave way. My tongue grew three sizes, sloppy and enormous behind my teeth, which froze into a rictus grin. “Thank you,” I sputtered. “Thank you, thank you so much, I just love- I mean I- your books-“. I escaped back to our table. My mother stared at me and I stared back. My dad, less cognizant of the crucial event of my life, decide it was time to get a glass of wine.
“Margaret Mahy has read my book and she thinks I’m a wonderful writer,” I said.
“You don’t even care if you win now, do you?” she asked.
“No. This is the best thing, right now.”
And so it remains.
Margaret Mahy died. All her stories have been written, but they have not come to an end. Every time a reader enters or re-enters one of her startling, sumptuous worlds, a new story is created, between that reader and her work, the output of her brilliant mind and astonishing imagination.
I met her three times (a magic number, a Mahy number), but she has always been omnipresent to me. Her words, her stories, the idea of her are woven into the entirety of my reading and writing life; which is to say the entirety of my conscious life. The first book she had published, years before I was born, was the first book I can remember reading. The Lion In The Meadow is a book about the power of story, about the fantastic in the ordinary, about the way lions and dragons can enter one’s life if you just open a matchbox.
I am so grateful that she lived and worked, and that I met her, those precious three times.