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Is Maurice Shadbolt one of New Zealand's top three writers or a flawed author and unlikable philander? His biographer, author Philip Temple, invites us to go on that fascinating exploration with him, writes Bruce Munro.
A half-broiled chicken thrown at Maurice Shadbolt by his then-wife Bridget Armstrong opens the prologue to volume one of Philip Temple's biography of arguably - and there will be arguments - one of New Zealand's finest writers.
The prologue's fowl does not take flight until the 1980s; well outside the chronological bounds of the just-published, first volume of Life as a Novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt. But Temple, himself an accomplished author, knows a great story when he witnesses one.
In 1984, following a party, he had gone with Shadbolt to the writer's Titirangi, West Auckland, home. When Shadbolt opened the kitchen door, he was hit on the chest by the chicken dinner flung at him by his enraged, actress wife.
She had come home earlier and heard an answerphone message left by poet Fleur Adcock, Shadbolt's then-girlfriend, about a secret trip the two of them had taken to Dublin, Ireland, while he was in Europe on a writing assignment.
The story is not just a startling opener, but one that begs many of the questions Temple is trying to answer in writing this comprehensive biography of a complex, influential figure in the literary and social history of New Zealand during the second half of the 20th century.
Was his sometimes-friend a talented author and valued contributor to Kiwi culture? Or was he a flawed writer and misogynist philanderer?
Temple is sitting in the book-lined lounge of his home on a quiet, tucked away, Dunedin, hillside street. The view out the window presents the southern city from an unusual, interesting angle.
Now 79, Temple is the award-winning author of about 40 books, including the best-selling Beak of the Moon, history prize-winning Wakefield family biography A Sort of Conscience and dystopian climate change novel MiSTORY.
He first met Shadbolt in 1967. He has been working on this definitive biography, in various forms, and long before he accepted the biographer mantle, since Shadbolt died in 2004.
"More than one person has said, `He's not worth it'," Temple says matter-of-factly.
Their statement can mean one of two things, he says.
"His writing is not important enough to warrant a book like this. Or, that his behaviour towards women was so bad you shouldn't be writing about it.
"I have tended to be attracted to subjects where this is the kind of opinion about them.
"I immediately think, this can't be right, what's the real story?"
Maurice Francis Richard Shadbolt was born in Auckland, in 1932, the eldest of three children. Growing up, he lived in Auckland, on the Coromandel and in Te Kuiti, in the King Country. During his working life he wrote 11 novels, four collections of short stories, a war history, some plays and two autobiographies. In 1989, he was awarded a CBE, for services to literature.
But that incomplete list does not convey Shadbolt's impact.
When he and photographer Brian Brake produced Gift of the Sea in 1963 there had never been a coffee table book about New Zealand like it. Within a few months, at a time when the total population of the country was 2.5 million, about 60,000 copies were sold.
"At the same time, his first collection of stories, The New Zealanders, which was published in London a few years prior, got massive critical praise from many prominent British reviewers.
"He came to prominence very quickly. He was about 30 at the time.
"Then people started to buy his books."
In time, he also became notorious for his multiple marriages and affairs. He was a celebrity writer in an era when talking about your achievements and seeking publicity was not the done thing.
"He was well aware of his celebrity status, and used that to push various causes."
He was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, sailed on an anti-nuclear protest yacht during French nuclear testing at Mururoa atoll and took part in the anti-apartheid protests opposing the 1981 Springbok rugby tour.
"So, he was quite a prominent social campaigner.
"He was one of the most popular and influential New Zealand writers during the second half of the 20th century."
The question of the quality of Shadbolt's writing - his place in the New Zealand literary pantheon - continues to exercise Temple.
He was prolific, uneven and sometimes brilliant, Temple says.
His research to date reveals that "some of his stories are, quite frankly, masterpieces".
"His first novel, to my surprise, Among the Cinders, was a terrific read. People overseas thought this, too. Germany, of all places, sold tens of thousands."
But other pieces of his work are not so good.
For example, Shadbolt's 1972 epic saga novel Strangers and Journeys. While it broke new ground and the first half was an excellent read, the second was "not so great".
Temple believes Shadbolt played a pivotal role, perhaps only surpassed by Barry Crump, in making the public take notice of New Zealand writing.
"Maurice was very conscious of New Zealand stories; he wanted to tell New Zealand stories.
"This was always his main driving force."
Kiwi stories were also being written by Ian Cross, Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield, but they were not being widely read at the time the authors were writing.
"My appreciation of his writing has improved. Some of his work needs to be taken more seriously."
Temple freely admits not everyone agrees with this view.
"He's continued to be given the thumbs down by the literary establishment. By that I mean, those who set themselves up as the literary arbiters of what is good and what's bad in fiction."
This literati, whose members Temple says "either have the luxury of academic tenure or are living off a bureaucratic pay scale", have routinely dismissed Shadbolt as "a journalist".
"What they don't want to understand is that Maurice is the very first New Zealand writer who lived fulltime on his writing."
To pull that off, he wrote enormously successful, popular books such as Gift of the Sea and The Shell Guide to New Zealand - the first one volume motorists' guidebook.
But even more important was the income from Readers Digest assignments; work he did for about 15 years until the mid-1980s.
The work paid handsomely and frequently took Shadbolt to Europe. Arranging the work was the Digest's Australia and New Zealand editor Frank Devine.
"Frank realised ... if Maurice did several articles over a period of six months, that was his money for the year. He was literally subsidising him to write novels."
Shadbolt needed a decent income, Temple says.
"Because he kept getting divorced and had to pay maintenance. He had five children.
"It was a bit of a chaotic life. I remember when I went up to stay with him, it was never a straightforward stay. There was always something going on."
Temple says the biography's title, Life as a Novel, was obvious from early on.
"Forget about his books , just his life created a novel.
"With his life, he was writing a dramatic, romantic novel."
Central to that was a string of marriages and affairs, and the repercussions that flowed from them.
Temple discerns a change in Shadbolt after an affair with Jenny Bojilova, an attractive, intellectual Bulgarian woman during a visit there in 1957.
"Up until then, although he'd been a bit freewheeling before he got married, as far as I can work out he was pretty faithful to [his first wife] Gill."
Temple says his research, including previously unseen written material, suggests that "once he realised women were attracted to him, he took advantage of it".
"Some women were just drawn to him.
"I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it was because some women couldn't stand him.
"But I think part of it was that he appeared to be quite vulnerable, but could also be very charming and good company."
The way Shadbolt treated women left many associates disaffected.
By the time Shadbolt died of Lewy body dementia in 2004, his former lifelong friend, poet and author Kevin Ireland, felt so estranged that he turned down a request by The Guardian newspaper to write Shadbolt's obituary.
He asked Temple to write it instead.
Temple says he had mixed emotions. He had also been quite upset with Shadbolt and had seen him infrequently from the late-1980s. But he kept in mind the help Shadbolt had given him early in his career as a fulltime writer and the good times they had together.
"Personally, when I stayed with him in Titirangi, I have these very warm memories.
"We would end up in his living room, which had big picture windows looking over the bush to the Manukau Harbour. I'd normally go up there in late-summer. We'd sit there drinking and smoking, just talking for hours about writing and people and all sorts of things.
"I mean, he was terrific company, one on one."
Later, Temple wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to Shadbolt for New Zealand Books, "alluding to his ability to fictionalize fact and factualize fiction".
Shadbolt, for instance, wrote several times over the decades of having played rugby against fellow Te Kuiti local, Colin "Pine Tree" Meads.
But the story details shifted a bit each time.
When Temple phoned Meads a couple of years before he died, he had no recollection of Shadbolt. The encounter between the All Blacks great and the writer four years his junior may have taken place, but perhaps in the school yard during lunchtime.
As a result of the New Zealand Books article, one of Shadbolt's former wives told Temple "Well if a biography is to be written, you're clearly the person to do it. Because you're not completely bamboozled by him, you can see what he was really like".
"Somehow," Temple says,"I was starting to be regarded as the person to speak to if you wanted to find out about Maurice Shadbolt."
Deciding to take the plunge and write the biography took some time.
"The thing that swung it in the end for me ... was that a lot of the story was in a broad sense autobiographical. I knew him, I knew a lot of the people that he knew, I knew quite a lot of the women and I knew what was going on in publishing and writing, especially from the 1960s onwards."
DECISION made, Temple committed himself to a thorough job.
Wives, children, friends and associates have been interviewed. Shadbolt's collected writings, held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, have been harvested.
"I discovered the handwritten journal he kept for 31 years, which amounted to 900 pages. I literally photographed the whole damned thing with my iPhone."
Back in Dunedin, the photos were all printed and catalogued.
The same was done with nearly 900 of Shadbolt's letters.
Insights are emerging, but it is still too early to say who exactly Maurice Shadbolt was or how he should be judged, Temple says.
He is taking a particular approach to researching Shadbolt that means he does not expect to have a full picture until he finishes writing the second and final volume.
And Temple is inviting readers to come on that journey with him.
In assessing Shadbolt's quality as a writer, Temple's approach means he is only reading his novels and other stories when he reaches the point in Shadbolt's own story that he writes that piece.
"That way, I can see why he is writing that particular thing at that time and what he thought about it.
"People still think Season of the Jew was his best book. I reserve judgement on that until I get to the end of everything."
The same gradual unfolding applies to understanding Shadbolt's inner world.
"In the first volume, I just began to understand his psyche and why he began to behave the way he did and how the depression started to come through.
"And literally where I'm up to right now, I'm thinking some more about this, and also about his drinking. I need to talk with one or two more experts, but I'm beginning to think that his cyclic depression and also the effect of some of these drugs, one or two of which were pretty powerful, plus the booze, became the governing thing. He couldn't get out of it. There was a steady addiction process going on.
"I still don't understand why he never properly came to grips with it. That's going to take me a while to figure out.
"I'll have to finish volume two before I feel I've really got it."
Life as a novel: A biography of Maurice Shadbolt, Volume One, 1932-1973, by Philip Temple, published by David Lling Publishing Ltd, $44.99, is being launched in Dunedin this week.