Making Connections

Being awarded the $75,000 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 2013 played no small part in...
Being awarded the $75,000 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 2013 played no small part in Greg McGee's latest novel, The Antipodeans. Photo supplied.

Having roamed from ground-breaking 1980 play Foreskin's Lament to crime fiction and places in between, Greg McGee traverses time and the spaces of northern Italy in his new book, writes Shane Gilchrist.

The way this conversation opens, I hope I don't end up in one of Greg McGee's novels.

''Are you related to any of the Gilchrist family from North Otago,'' he asks.

(Confirmation that is, indeed, the case prompts a digression into his school life at Waitaki Boys' High School in the 1960s, a time when he would possibly have bumped into a few of the rellies.)

Of course, this story is meant to be all about McGee.

Yet the brief sojourn in regional roots does, perhaps, have a point: you can take the boy out of Oamaru, but ... McGee lives in Ponsonby these days.

He has done since 1975, when he departed the University of Otago with a law degree and headed north to pursue a career that has morphed from legalities to literature.

Adopting the adage ''write what you know'', the All Black triallist, Otago, South Island, New Zealand Universities and Junior All Blacks representative of the early 1970s used rugby as the vehicle for his 1980 breakthrough play Foreskin's Lament.

Written the same year in which the New Zealand Rugby Union was subsequently found to have secretly drafted plans to host the Springboks in 1981, Foreskin's Lament was performed around the country, its themes of lost innocence resonating beyond the theatre.

McGee's television writing has earned him several awards, including Best Drama Writer for Erebus: The Aftermath (1987) and Fallout, a 1994 collaboration with Tom Scott that roamed over New Zealand's anti-nuclear stoush with the United States.

Other efforts?

Marlin Bay, Street Legal, and Orange Roughies as well as big-screen collaborations including Crooked Earth and Via Satellite.

Under the pseudonym Alix Bosco, McGee turned his hand to crime.

In 2009, he published Cut & Run (for which he won the 2010 Ngaio Marsh Award), following that successful genre debut with Slaughter Falls before deciding to put an end to the speculation and reveal she (Bosco) was, in fact, a he.

A writer who, clearly, likes to roam, McGee still gets down this way, too.

''I still have big connections down there,'' McGee says via phone from his Auckland home.

He then discloses a trip to North Otago a few years back provided good material for another long-simmering project, The Antipodeans, his new novel.

The reason for that visit?

Rugby.

Specifically, the rugby of Richie McCaw, the All Blacks captain about whom he wrote the biography The Open Side in 2012.

The ''Richie thing'' , a dream commission (''Things like that only come along once in a lifetime ...''), helped McGee put more flesh on the frames of two key characters in The Antipodeans.

''At that stage I had this idea of two soldiers, but I wasn't sure where they came from. I went back to North Otago. My parents still lived there. Well, my dad has since died ... but going back into the Waitaki Valley, the Hakataramea Valley and into Omarama ... these were places I visited with my dad, who painted houses.

''When I went down to research Richie's book, I realised this is where the characters come from; my home. From that point they had a real base and context that was enormously helpful.''

Spanning more than 60 years, set in Italy and New Zealand, The Antipodeans reprises themes McGee believes have been central to much of his work: the tension between generations; the effects of war and its often unseen scars; as well as love, loss, duty and friendship.

An epigraph by Australian author Tim Winton - ''the past is in us ... not behind us'' - informs the novel.

Take the character of Joe, a soldier who returns from Italy to New Zealand, where all is pristine, seemingly untouched.

As McGee notes: ''He felt he was a ghost moving through the landscape.''

Yet McGee wasn't interested in writing a war story.

''Our fascination with Italy is easy to understand. There's the food, fashion, culture and antiquity and all that, but I found Italians were also really interested in New Zealand. They saw it as a romantic place, at the other side of the world, without many people.

''I wanted to incorporate all that material, those connections between Italy and New Zealand and run it off a contemporary story, so it has become a quest about family connections that range from issues of love and blood and betrayals that date from the Second World War.''

To do so, McGee utilises three key timeframes in The Antipodeans.

Firstly, there is the wartime drama of northern Italy, following Mussolini's 1943 capitulation and the chaos that ensued.

Into this mix, McGee hurls Joe and another North Otago-raised soldier, Harry, and traces their relationships with a range of Italians, including those within the resistance movement.

The author also ranges to the present day: Harry's ageing son, Bruce, arrives in northern Italy on a mission to find the love of his life before he dies; Bruce is accompanied by daughter Clare who, while getting another insight into her father, is coming to terms with her husband's affair with a friend.

Sandwiched in between is mid-'70s Italy, much of which is described via the diary of Bruce: his relationship with a young woman, Cinzio, is at the heart of the dramatic tension of The Antipodeans.

The fact McGee chooses not to introduce this diary until more than a third of the way into his novel adds to the sense of mystery.

Oh, and Bruce happens to coach an Italian rugby team.

As did McGee in the late '70s.

Hmmm. A touch of the autobiographical then?

''I lived in Italy in the mid-'70s and coached rugby there. It made a huge impression on me.

''Italy was so volatile back then, with the Red Brigade and the Cold War, which seemed quite warm. In 1976 the Communist Party got a foothold in Parliament for the first time. Everything seemed so political. I was living in the middle of all that.

''At the end of my stay in 1978, my parents came over and I took my father around all the battlefields in which he'd fought.

''Really, his presence there unlocked something important for me. I took him to a village in north Italy and he started talking to Italians who were of an age to have been involved in World War 2.

''They traded stories. Dad told them of Kiwis and South Africans playing a game of rugby in Piazza San Marco after the liberation of Venice. And they told Dad that General Freyberg and his New Zealand troops were known as Ali Baba and the 40,000 thieves, because no pig or sheep was safe, and not in an Australian way.

''When Dad went home, an old guy took me to his stable and showed me an old barn that had bullet holes. A German stormtrooper had fired a submachine gun at an escaped Kiwi prisoner of war. I asked what had happened to the soldier and the Italian guy said he escaped and went on to fight with the Italian resistance.

''That was the first time I'd heard of the Italian resistance so when I got back to New Zealand I started reading up.

''A lot of the detail surrounding the characters actually happened, from the political stuff in the 1970s, to events in World War 2. There's a reference to a Gestapo chief being assassinated in a village. Well, that actually happened, though not exactly as I depicted it.''

• Let's look at another timeframe.

Three months.

That's about as far ahead as McGee has ever been able to plan, financially, in the 40 years he has been writing.

Thus the bestowing of the $75,000 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 2013 played no small part in The Antipodeans.

''It certainly helped,'' McGee confirms, ''and not just in terms of me being able to spend six months in the area. I was able to escape that freelance nexus of next job, next job.

''The Katherine Mansfield thing was just so liberating. In fact, for the three months before we went I was able to put off the commission work and concentrate on the novel. By the time I went to France (McGee lived in Menton on the France-Italy border), I had assembled 30,000 words.''

Having wrestled with ideas for the structure of The Antipodeans for ''years and years'', McGee found the application process helped sharpen his focus.

''One of the big things was discovering which character was telling which story according to the various timelines. The 20-page fellowship application was the first time I'd really worked out how the structure might work.''

The fellowship drove the book in other ways too, providing McGee with the head space to follow various threads of research.

''Because I was living in the area I was able to visit specific places, such as a German prison farm from which one of my fictional characters escaped in 1943. Then I found a cave in which two Kiwi soldiers spent a winter on the Yugoslav border.

''I was able to talk to my mates from the village about what was happening in the 1970s; I was able to walk through Venice and find the convent school where my character Cinzio would have been brought up.

''I'd get really excited by the research, rush back to Menton and write far more than I intended.''

So no long siestas after a couple of bottles of vino at lunch?''Well, I wouldn't say it was all work,'' McGee laughs.

''But I ended up writing 100,000 words that summer, partly because the relationships and structure of the book were so complex that I thought if I stopped it would all unravel, that it'd be too hard to hold it all in my head. So I really pushed myself to get to the end to complete a first draft.''

Within the diary of Bruce, the Kiwi coach of an Italian rugby team in 1976, there are occasional quotes, one of which reads: ''If you let someone obstruct you and do nothing about it, you may as well walk off the field because you've been intimidated and you're no good to anyone.''

Though this touches Bruce's daughter, Clare, as she struggles to pull together her life, the take-no-bull message offers a resonance beyond the pages of McGee's novel, prompting speculation that perhaps there's something personal in it.

It also has echoes of the sort of dialogue McGee included in Foreskin's Lament all those years ago, and thus faintly hints at some long-game narrative arc, offering an insight into something akin to a career mantra, too.

''I was told that when I played rugby for Otago,'' McGee reflects.

Yes, but doesn't life as a writer also require a certain strength?

Or, if not, at least an ability to move quickly, a sidestep from one chance to the next?

''I don't move on quickly from one of my own projects because they take so long to generate and gestate.

''But I am used to being commissioned and I can move quickly between those, because the investment in my life or persona isn't the same. It's more of an objective process, a bit like reporting on a story - it isn't your story.

''This book has taken a toll and I'm quite tired. At present, I'm doing other things for television, just to generate some money.

''I listened to Tim Winton when he was up (for the recent Auckland Writers Festival) and he said you can never assume you're going to write another novel.

''It is such a magical coming together of so many things that you can't take it for granted.

''I do have other ideas, but I wouldn't be so presumptuous to say they are going to work out.''

Briefly, back to the beginning. Rugby and roots.

Blues or Highlanders?

''Oh, Highlanders,'' McGee answers as quickly as he can.

''Absolutely.

''Or the Blues ... unless they are playing the Highlanders.''

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