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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Interview with an invisible thriller writer

A chat with famous playwright and pseudonymous thriller writer, Greg McGee, aka Alix Bosco

Cut & Run: When the Truth is No Protection
Ever since the launch of a new thriller series, beginning with the commercially successful, well reviewed, award-winning, Cut and Run, there has been huge speculation about the identity of the author, "Alix Bosco."  Theories abounded, and bloggers had lots of fun. 

Earlier this month it was revealed that Alix was none other than Greg McGee, wellknown writer for television, theater, and film.  Greg has very kindly agreed to subject himself to the following soul-searching questions:

Greg, you embarked on the voyage of life as a rebellious baby-boomer who happened to be good at the famous Kiwi collision-sport known as Rugby.  After playing at top level, including All Black trials, you exploded onto the literary world with an enormously successful play satirizing rugby culture, called Foreskin's Lament.  Not only did it get you a lot of admiring attention, but it happened at the indecently young (for a writer) and rather vulnerable age of just thirty.  

Did this sudden success mean that you felt confined to writing social commentary after that?  Stuck in a niche, as it were?  Is that the reason you chose to write thrillers under a penname? 

I guess it’s nice to be remembered for something! But you’re right, in that the success of "Foreskin’s Lament" back in the 1980s has proven difficult to get out from under. I’ve worked mainly in television and film since, but despite creating God knows how many different characters, many of them women, and despite winning every screenplay and scriptwriting award available in NZ, some of them several times over, and a Writer’s Foundation of America award, I’m still known as that bloke who played rugby back in the day and wrote that play about rugby, a bloke who writes about Kiwi blokes.

So when this character Anna Markunas started telling me her story, and it developed into a novel that happened to be a whodunit, I worried that Anna would have no chance of being received as a credible character if my name was on the book. By then I was very attached to her – she’d given me one of the best writing experiences I’ve had. My fears were confirmed by the readers of the manuscript, the very different responses from those who knew my name and those who didn’t. So, as proud as I was of my first novel I began the fight to keep my name off the cover. And it was a fight – no author means no interviews, and I was warned by Penguin and my agent not to do it if I wanted the book to sell. But I felt that my first obligation was to Anna, to give her a chance. So that’s how it all began.

One of the plays that followed [Foreskin’s Lament] was Out in the Cold, about a solo mother who cross-dresses as a man to get a job in the freezing works.  In many ways, it was a feminist as well as a social statement.  Did this influence you at all in the development of the character of the feisty and angst-ridden Anna Markunas?

Funnily enough, Joan, that’s my favorite play, after "Me & Robert McKee." In retrospect, I can see common elements. Outsiders are attractive to write, partly because many writers feel that they’re outsiders by virtue of their chosen profession (are we outsiders because we’re writers, or are we writers because we’re outsiders?), but also because of the unique perspective characters who are outsiders can bring to an environment. In "Out In The Cold," I wanted to put Jude into the most male environment I knew, the freezing chambers at the end of the slaughterhouse chain. She had good reason to be there, it was one of the highest paid labouring jobs in the land at the time. She was the ultimate outsider, but had to pretend not to be, to survive in that environment. 

Anna Markunas is also something of an outsider: her provenance is quite unusual for a New Zealander -  of Lithuanian stock, brought up by a solo mother who was a Second World War refugee, and whose job as a mid-wife took her from town to town, so that Anna was continually uprooted from school and friends and never felt that she really belonged. That’s an aspect of the pakeha [European] New Zealand character that really interests me, the longing to feel that we really belong here on this sliver of land at the edge of the world. Unlike the Maori, we Europeans have been here such a short time really, and while that youth gives rise to energy, robustness and a pioneering spirit, the flipside might be an insecurity about truly belonging. That’s certainly true of Anna, and it gives her empathy for other outsiders (who are often the kind of people who end up as victims in crime fiction and thrillers!).

 The first Anna Markunas book, Cut and Run, won the inaugural Ngaio Marsh Award, which was supposed to be presented at the Christchurch literary festival in September last year. Not only did a tragic earthquake fatally stall the proceedings, but you, as the anonymous winner, did not make an appearance.

It must have been hard not to feel bad about it (though of course you were not responsible for the quake!), because the bloggers had such a field day.  Any thoughts of turning the strange experience into a play?

I did feel regret at not being able to support last year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards, particularly after the quake delayed the original ceremony, but I didn’t realise my non-attendance was going to be such an anti-climax at the Awards ceremony because I didn’t know Cut & Run was going to win. Certainly, as soon as Slaughter Falls was chosen as a finalist this year, I knew I had to come out. I hope the support and the publicity my coming out has brought the Ngaio Marsh Awards this year has made up a little for last year. Don’t know about the play, Joan  – I’d have to cast myself as the villain, wouldn’t I?

Would Greg McGee have to cast himself as a villain? 

I personally feel that his very candid answers reveal him as something more than that ...

What do you think?

Comments welcome!


Shayne Parkinson said...

What a great interview! Joan, thanks for your thoughtful questions; Greg, thanks for your generous and enlightening responses!

Joan Druett said...

Good to hear from you, Shayne. This interview has been a very popular post, with a lot of comments offlist. Obviously, people are intrigued by the "coming out" of an anonymous author.