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Mal Peet: Whimsical Alchemist

Elspeth Graham, Amanda Lewis, Mal Peet, and Tim Wynne Jones at Snapes Point, near Salcombe, Devon, March 2012. Photo credit: Janet Irwin.

Elspeth Graham, Amanda Lewis, Mal Peet, and Tim Wynne-Jones at Snapes Point, near Salcombe, Devon, March 2012. Photo credit: Janet Irwin.

Mal Peet’s first novel was published when he was fifty-six; his last this past fall, just over a decade later. A late bloomer, you might say, and what a vivid, abundant, effulgent bloom it was.

Peet died of cancer on March 2, 2015. He had been diagnosed sometime around Christmas. I saw him only last October at his home in Exmouth, Devon, England, and he was as full of life and laughter and exuberance as ever. I’m still kind of agog. He’d burst into my life as surely as he burst onto the literary scene, and it hardly seems possible that there will be no further books from this extraordinarily talented man. Nor will anyone get to further enjoy his other great talent for friendship.

Since the publication of Keeper in 2003, Peet brought out six novels. That first book won him the Branford Boase Award for best debut novelist; Tamar won the Carnegie; Exposure won the Guardian Prize; and his other young adult novels were all paid tribute to in one way or another, most recently in 2012, when Life: An Exploded Diagram won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award.

A very heady decade-and-a-bit, to be sure.

Everywhere you look in the British press and the Twittersphere, fellow writers seem to be amassing strings of adjectives to try to capture something of Mal Peet’s particular gift. David Almond called him a “beautiful funny brave bright tender man.” Jane Winterbotham, of Walker Books, talked of a “warm, witty, energetic, life-loving man.” Author Meg Rosoff wrote a glowing piece in The Guardian and in an email to me summarized her feelings: “I loved him to distraction — the kindest, most adorable, most talented man.” “A gent & a genius,” tweeted Patrick Ness. And John Green called him “one of the greatest YA writers.”

Peet might have disagreed about this last assessment. He felt lumbered with this label — admitted to not really knowing what a “young adult” was. Teenagers, he said, never call themselves young adults. As Rosoff says in her Guardian article, “The category of Young Adult… couldn’t properly contain his work, which was too literary and too sophisticated to fit into any ordinary marketing department’s plans.”

With the 2014 publication of his first adult novel, The Murdstone Trilogy, Mal took the opportunity to go on a bit of a rant about the whole business of whether it really was his first adult novel. The video posted on his agent’s site is worth a viewing to hear an excerpt from the book, but also to get a sense of the writer himself, his nimble mind and irreverent humor. It’s worth it just to hear him talk of Tolkien as “such a humorless old trouser-cough of a writer” and then to admit, humbly, that in the new book he rather “Murdstoned himself” — drawn into the sword and sorcery world he was forced to create for the novel even as he was lampooning the genre.

Speaking to The Bookseller about The Murdstone Trilogy, Peet said, “It’s definitely not my attempt to break out of the YA bracket, because if I were to say I’m breaking out of it, I’d have to recognize it [as a genre]. I can’t really claim it doesn’t exist and simultaneously break out of it.”

But he didn’t need to write an expressly adult book to let us know where he stood on these matters. In his acceptance speech for the Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor, he talks of Life: An Exploded Diagram “willfully refus[ing] to conform to the orthodoxies of young adult fiction as zealously defined by the literary Taliban of the blogosphere.”

Perhaps what it all boils down to is simply an enthusiastic desire, fueled by a vivid and original imagination and a brilliant mind, to write without blinders on, without gatekeepers. He was a writer, by his own admission, “who for the sheer merry hell of it likes to write against the grain.” A writer’s writer, according to his friend Meg Rosoff, a sobriquet echoed by Mal’s agent Peter Cox, who went on to say, “Mal was universally adored and admired by other writers. His talent was as prodigious as his warm, wide-open heart.” It’s the two things you see everywhere in the outpouring from the literary community: his prodigious talent and this heart of his.

Writing didn’t come easily. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t get around to it until he met and married Elspeth Graham, when he was forty. Until then, he’d been “pissing about,” by his own estimation, but in fact he’d been traveling and teaching and had gone a long way toward earning a PhD in literature. Then there was Elspeth. “We decided we could write a book together,” he said. “She decided she knew what people wanted to publish, and we’d write it together and I’d draw it. We were immediately a dismal failure.” But writing for educational publishers did eventually put food on the table and paid the mortgage. When he got “bored with writing eight-page books,” he turned his hand to fiction.

He wrote slowly. He found writing “a complete bloody slog.” When he could drag himself up to his desk in the attic, he said, “It takes me a good hour to persuade myself I’m not a complete failure.”

I stayed in that attic office on my last visit. It’s not a cozy writerly retreat so much as an industrial work zone. His desk sits under a large skylight that let in, on my visit, the soggy October light of an English seaside town. I’d been traipsing along the southwest coast from Lyme Regis for a couple of days and gotten almost as far as Sidmouth, where they had agreed to pick me up. Instead, Elspeth and her brother rescued me at the donkey sanctuary a couple of miles northwest of our original rendezvous site. I felt right at home with the donkeys. Mal was busy with something, which, by the time we arrived, included throwing together a fabulous meal. And so we spent an evening of eating and drinking and talking our fool heads off about books and life and how excited Mal was to have David Fickling publishing the new book and how Candlewick was going to publish Murdstone in the States. And the next day I was off on the train to London. Another whirlwind visit. Every visit with Mal and Elspeth was a whirlwind, full of vibrancy and conviviality and over too soon. Who knew this one would be the last?

As luck would have it, my wife Amanda Lewis and I met Mal at exactly the right time. It was 2011, and we were off to England for the year. Both Tobin [author M. T.] Anderson and Elizabeth Bicknell [editorial director at Candlewick Press] had made it abundantly clear that we needed to meet Mal and Elspeth. You don’t turn down such a high-powered demand. Amanda and I were each embarking on historical novels, at the time, and here was a writer whose every novel had touched on how history shapes us. In Mal’s British Council statement he spoke of his “rather passionate belief in our need to be connected to — and to learn from — history. I now realise, somewhat to my surprise, that this is an underlying theme of my novels.” Novels “about people whose lives are altered or shaped by events that took place in the distant past; events of which they are, at the outset, unaware.”

It was a message that resonated with me. And Tamar hugely inspired my own new novel, suggesting a shape I hadn’t yet seen and that would take me another couple of years to fully grasp.

He was this, too: deeply inspiring. Starting to write in your fifties. Finding it hard to convince yourself you’re not a complete failure and then just doing it, if for no other reason than to fight off the “old enemy, boredom.”

But perhaps for me the most inspiring message Mal had to offer was his gleeful bending of the rules that can seem to govern our writing if we’re not careful. He felt those rules and convention were only interesting “when they are subverted or used to disguise the author’s intent.” “My own way of doing this,” he went on, “is to attempt a sort of whimsical alchemy whereby seemingly incompatible genres are brought into unlikely partnerships.” It’s a statement that reminded me of what John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction about how “genre-crossing of one sort or another is behind most of the great literary art in the English tradition.” We’ll never know just how far Mal Peet might have gone with his natural affinity for mucking about and challenging expectations. Turning things on their head. His was a bold and original vision that reflected a quite remarkable and complex man. Rosoff said of him, “His humour was shot through with blackness, his gimlet eye with kindness, his substantial talent with modesty.”

Tobin Anderson was the first person I phoned — in shock — at the news of Mal’s passing. When he heard I was writing this tribute, he wanted to add something. I’ll let him have the last word.

“Mal was, above all else, a raconteur — both in person and on paper. Over wine, his stories featured a dazzling combination of erudition and scurrility. In print, every book was utterly different in tone, setting, and voice — yet always was uniquely his. It’s hard to believe a voice so strong, so individual, could ever be silenced — and no, Mal, I’m not just saying nothing could ever shut you up. But his voice will continue to speak to readers, though he himself is gone.”

Tim Wynne-Jones About Tim Wynne-Jones

Tim Wynne-Jones received the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction for his novel, Blink & Caution (Candlewick).

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Comments

  1. Such a lovely tribute. Thank you, Tim.

  2. I was never fortunate enough to have met Mal, but after reading this wonderful tribute I feel as if I did. Thank you for opening a window onto the life and attributes of such an extraordinary man, and my condolences to you. I guess we need to treat every encounter with loved ones as the potential last one.

  3. bernie peet says:

    Thanks for those lovely words about my big brother Mal.

  4. Linda Ford-Bedard says:

    I have never met you, Tim, but over the last few visits with Mal and Elspeth, I certainly heard of you and Amanda, around that dinner table during those conversations you describe so well. You have done a wonderful job here, of capturing the essence of the man whom I was lucky enough to have as a friend since the sixties. Such a great piece of writing, in fact, that I am in the loss of bereavement all over again, and I can hear him telling me not to be so daft, to stop these tears right now.

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