Sunday, May 13, 2012

An Hour With Greg McGee (Auckland Writers' Festival 2012)

Back in the day, I had a vague awareness of Greg McGee as having a rugby connection before he became prominent as a playwright, thanks to Foreskin's Lament. Then he basically dropped out of my consciousness, but I thought I should check him out at the Festival.
I am glad I did. He has recently published a novel, Love and Money: I already have a copy on the way.

It is set in the mid 1990's in New Zealand, more specifically Auckland (and even more specifically Ponsonby and Grey Lynn), mining the particularly rich pickings provided by the time: an election, Rugby World Cup, the stock market crash, communes (Centrepoint in particular), a strident form of feminism which had as its focal point the "treeping" of Mervyn Thompson. Although the urban dictionary says treeping is a form of peeping tomism from within a tree, here it has a more particular meaning: Mr Thompson was tied to a tree and assaulted, so there's an analogy with raping intended.

The interview was conducted by Finlay McDonald: he and McGee are old mates and it showed - this ran very much like a conversation, although structured to fit in with the strictures of the Festival. There was a running gag about McGee's being provisionally gendered, thanks to the news coming out recently that he is the author of two detective novels by the apparently female Alix Bosco. Apparently, there's another to come: McGee was very impressed that Val McDermid thought he actually was a woman writer but says that now everyone knows he's a man, he'll be extremely self-conscious writing as a woman (and hopes wearing a G-string might help). I've never read any of these novels, but intend to remedy that.

I didn't really plan on blogging the Festival, so didn't even have a notebook for this session but so many points were made and came to my mind I rushed out to the $3.50 Japanese shop and bought some notebooks between sessions. It does mean I can only write from my memory of this session. I do recall the reading: the text was funny, colourful, consciously New Zealand and involved a toilet falling through the floor when a fellow (a property developer I think) sat on it. Finance seems to be the major pre-occupation of the novel, which is not surprising given that it is set in the period immediately before the 1987 crash. This led to two anecdotes, the first being about McGee's financial acumen. I can remember that in those days, Alan Hawkin's Equiticorp was a high-flying market darling. McGee got in early, thanks to having a connection within the firm, and made quite a tidy paper profit. Then in around August 1987, his wife demanded a new kitchen, which she considered much better than paper money. So, McGee was forced to sell, then watch his shares soar further, but only for a month.

The other was about a prior version of the novel, which was a screenplay. He found his producers refused to take the story seriously: this was in about 1986, and he had the story end with a major stock-market crash. The producers thought that so unbelievable that the viewing public would not buy the story: history not only proved this prognosis wrong but wiped out the producers in the process. The essential story remained with McGee for years, but he couldn't get it sorted, not until he read Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap. This inspired his narrative device of having the various chapters told from the perspective of several people connected to the central character, Mike, generally either by being an ex or having a connection with an ex of Mike's. Writing the novel in 2011 presented a different problem: he had to locate it accurately in 1987, which is both quite some time ago and had particular things in the public consciousness. Of course, many things have happened since 1987 which might not have even been thought about then (such as rights to matrimonial property), and his proofreaders found that he had put things in the minds of his characters which didn't really come along until later: he described this as a problem of telescoping events.

I haven't retained much memory of the details of the novel, but Greg McGee can be heard being interviewed on Radio New Zealand by Kim Hill.  They get into a bit of a bust up over the nature of Mike's character: feckless loser or aspiring actor and good man?

Possibly because of his rugby connections, McGee is writing a biography of All Black captain Richie McCaw, which has led to some interesting encounters with the public: they obviously recognise McCaw in a way McGee has never had to experience.


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