Novelist's killer finally confesses

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 14/08/2011
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PETER MEECHAM/Fairfax Media

Greg McGee thought his name would kill the book. Now he has killed Alix Bosco.

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Two years after a mysterious author won a prestigious New Zealand book award, a real bloke's bloke steps out of the shadows to admit to Kim Knight that he is she – Alix Bosco.

Alix Bosco died at 9.28am on a Tuesday.

There were no bull sharks, no burnings, no drugged up psychopathic syringe stabbings, ala the victims in the award-winning crime novelist's books.

Who killed Alix Bosco? Greg McGee. In the hallway. With a single sentence: "My agent told me I should have shaved my legs."

Two years and two books later, Auckland writer McGee is finally 'fessing up to the oft-blogged rumour – he is she. Alix Bosco, creator of Anna Markunas; author of Slaughter Falls, a Ngaio Marsh crime writing award finalist, and Cut and Run, which won the award in Christchurch last year.

Why now?

"Mainly because of the award... last year I heard it was a real anticlimax when Alix Bosco won and there was no author to accept the awards.

"I felt kind of regretful, because the award had been postponed because of the earthquake and I felt a bit rotten about not supporting Christchurch any way I could.

"So when Slaughter Falls was made a finalist, I just thought, `the time is good'."

Not, McGee adds, that he expects to win again.

IT WAS, fittingly, a press release about the awards that prompted this reveal. An email from judging convener Craig Sisterson – would Culture be interested in interviewing the winner after this Sunday's announcement?

"Actually," I replied, "I'd like to interview last year's winner."

My phone rang immediately. Possibly Sisterson thought I was the stupidest reporter on the planet. Was I serious?

"No... yes... what are the chances?"

And so, on an almost raining Auckland Tuesday, I crunched up a gravel driveway in greater Ponsonby and pressed a doorbell. I was, I think, still expecting a twist. Bloggers had confidently named McGee as the author. But they had also cited everyone from Keri Hulme (not me, said the Booker Prize winner) to Bill Ralston, to Mark Broatch – regular editor of the Sunday Star-Times' Culture section.

In the end, Alix Bosco went quietly. Cheerfully even.

McGee met me in tan corduroys, a checked shirt and lumberjack boots. "My heels were killing me."

Under the shirt, a T-shirt – "Alix Bosco rocks" – a Christmas gift from his son's mother-in-law.

When McGee told his family he was coming clean, his son said, "It's been nice having a cross dresser in the family – but welcome back to loutdom."

The lout makes a good coffee. He takes the squashy couch in front of a gas fire and says: "Actually, it's good to come out."

GREG McGEE, 60, is forever known to the nation as a playwright. An Otago rugby representative, junior All Black and All Black trialist who went on to write Foreskin's Lament, described by journalist Anthony Hubbard as "the definitive denunciation of redneck rugby culture". In 1981, a year after the play was first performed, McGee burnt his trialist's shirt in protest at the Springbok tour. More plays followed. He wrote for television – Erebus: The Aftermath – before working on Marlin Bay, Street Legal, Orange Roughies and Doves of War. Film script co-credits include Via Satellite and Crooked Earth.

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He formed production company ScreenWorks with Chris Hampson and Chris Bailey. "We had a lot of fun, until it wasn't fun any more and I got out."

His most recent work was a play, Me and Robert McKee, about a man with writer's block.

"Everyone thought, `poor Greg, it must be autobiographical..."'

We now know he was working as Bosco. Was he ashamed, as has been suggested, of being labelled a crime writer?

"F--- no! I've been down and dirty in TV for years. I've got no reputation to defend in that respect."

Why the secrecy?

"Both books are told from the point of view of Anna, from one character. I spent the best part of a year seeing the world through her eyes and obviously I got really attached to her. When the manuscript went out to the readers, I had a worry about whether my name would sort of kill her.

"It's nice being known for something I suppose, but I'm the guy who once, back in the day, played rugby, and I wrote a play about rugby, and he's a bloke who writes about blokes and fair enough..."

In the publishing world, manuscripts are sent to a select group of readers for critical feedback. Cut and Run went to a panel of five. McGee insisted only two readers be told his identity.

"Sure enough, the two who knew who I was had major problems with the credibility of Anna. The three who had no idea found her engaging and credible – and at that moment, I knew that my name couldn't be on the front of the book because Anna would have no chance."

IT HAS been suggested the pseudonym was a publicity stunt. "Get real," says McGee. "This (Cut and Run) was my first novel, and I thought it was good. I desperately wanted to say `hey, look what I've done'."

Positive reviews help sales. The lack of an author doesn't. "Publishers in New Zealand don't really have advertising budgets to speak of, so the only promotion is authors going round speaking..."

Both his agent Michael Gifkins and Penguin recommended he use his real name. "I had to really fight for the pseudonym."

Bosco was born partly of his publisher's recommendation he choose a surname starting with A or B, because that would put his book first on an alphabetical shelf. But the word has resonance for McGee, who, as a rugby coach and player in northern Italy, learned to speak that country's language, and read its celebrated poet Dante. He apologises for sounding like a wanker as he recites: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura..."

McGee makes the last part of the quote (the shadowed forest) sound like "Bosco" – Italian for woods.

"Where I came from, I had to get a meal ticket." The boy who grew up in Oamaru, studied law at Otago University, and worked for four years with a Dunedin firm.

"If I'd stayed a lawyer... I think I'm so lucky to have been able to have a career as a writer, because if I hadn't been able to write, I would have been a sad person. I think about Dante's dark wood, and I think if I hadn't been able to write, that's where I would have spent a lot of time."

And Alix? His publishers thought his pseudonym should be gender neutral.

"That was fine, but for the bio at the back of the book, you have to choose between a him or a her.

"People in the trade give lip service to the ideal that there is an imaginative leap at the heart of creativity. In practice, a lot of people don't think that men can write women or vice versa."

His lead was a woman. So he would be too. The decision spawned column centimetres of speculation. Only a man would write those sex scenes; violence is portrayed from a female perspective; the author's favourite read Wuthering Heights (as revealed in a Listener email interview with Bosco) was a book only a woman would look back on fondly.

But the gender politics debate, says McGee, was an entirely unintentional by-product of his desire for secrecy.

FRIENDS AND family, of course, knew the truth. His agent, "has been very correct and careful" (indeed, as this interview was being set up, Gifkins consistently referred to the author as "she"). But no one ever asked McGee directly whether he was Alix Bosco.

"I think there will be a bit of anger on the blogs," he says of this reveal.

"A bit of a mixture of 'I knew it' and 'what a wanker' ... I want it to be really clear [the pseudonym] was my decision."

And here's the other reason for coming out. Greg McGee has another novel at the publishers. Working title: Love and Money.

"It's about all the different kinds of love – sexual, romantic, fraternal, paternal. And the money scourge. It's a big one . . . a big, ambitious novel under my own name and I don't want to be out there fielding questions about Alix Bosco and having to lie in public."

It was, he admits, becoming difficult. Witness his own prose, in a summer issue of the New Zealand Book Council's Booknotes: "I've been flattered by a rumour that I am Alix Bosco, author of Cut and Run," he wrote. "Having just broken the book down and reassembled it as a television screenplay, I can vouch for it as a beautifully structured whodunnit."

He goes on to say the follow-up Slaughter Falls, has a "great opening line" and, "in short, I'm still flattered . . . "

McGee laughs from the comfy couch. "It was very cheeky, but I thought, shit, every writer wants to write their own review. My only regret is I wasn't fulsome enough. I should have said this is a work of literary genius."

I READ THE Bosco books over two nights before this interview. And they're good. It's not just the writing or the plots – it's the delight at finding a name you recognise, a street you've walked on, or a magazine you've read.

"You know, we grow up and we read novels from America and England and we end up with quite intimate knowledge of these places, so when we go and see them they have a resonance. I thought, I really want to write about the town that I know and love, and Auckland – OK, I don't love all of Auckland – but I love living where I live, which is reasonably privileged I suppose.

"But, shit, I've lived all over Ponsonby, in all sorts of houses and hovels, and I just wanted to have little markers."

He moved to this suburb in the mid 70s. "It wasn't a bad place to admit you wanted to be a writer, because everybody else was aspiring to do something. You weren't regarded as some sort of wanker who was off his f---ing tree. None of us knew whether we were dilettantes or artists."

McGee's heroine Anna Markunas owns a painting by Tony Fomison and a vase by glass artist Anne Robinson. Her friend runs a cafe with T-shirts designed by artist Karl Maughan. Characters eat Vietnamese in Otahuhu and drink at Ponsonby icon SPQR (though Anna remembers when it was a repair shop for Russian motorcyles). I have to ask: How did he research a bondage scene in Slaughter Falls?

"I found this wonderful lady... on the internet. Just a quiet little suburban townhouse... she'd converted her garage into a dungeon. I said I wanted to come and talk... and I know she thought `yeah right'."

Research, says McGee, is one of the joys of being a writer. And he can thank a research assignment for a television show which never eventuated, for the corrupt Queensland cops plot in Slaughter Falls.

"Like a lot of stuff on TV, it didn't go anywhere, but it stayed with me."

The television version of Cut and Run is currently with NZ on Air for funding consideration. McGee says he'd like to see actor Robyn Malcolm get a kind of "Prime Suspect" vehicle out of Anna. "But I'm hardly unbiased."

WE'RE NEARING the end of the interview. McGee takes me upstairs "to the garret". This is where Alix Bosco wrote. The walls feature child's paintings by a now grown daughter, loose leaf blank sheets of A4 are held down by a river stone, there is a stack of half-finished readings (and one finished manuscript), and, on a shelf, the Ngaio Marsh award – a black velvet book-shaped trophy, inlaid with a mother of pearl rendition of the dame herself.

"I've been quite buoyed," says McGee, "by the fact that whoever Alix Bosco is, people think she writes quite well."

He'd "quite like" to do another Bosco. But Alix has served her purpose. "I've never had such kind reviews, and awards. It's been lovely. I wish it could go on forever... but I've had enough, really. It's run its course."

DOUBLE AGENT: MICHAEL GIFKINS, THE MAN WHO KEPT McGEE'S SECRET

I represent several authors who operate under pseudonyms and it presents a very real dilemma. I try to discourage any writer who wants to conceal their identity because this will severely undermine the normal marketing process. But if there's a very good reason to write under an assumed name – as there was in Greg's case, and also in the case of the internationally acclaimed Australian author Torsten Krol – then it has to be respected.

It creates continuing difficulties. The literary editor of a major Australian newspaper harangued me for the best part of an hour to reveal Torsten Krol's identity. Her final (and to her mind, best) argument was, "Don't you see that you owe it to my readers to tell me who it is!"

With Greg, there was an extensive debate on Craig Sisterson's blog as to Alix Bosco's identity. It became very provincial in tone, with claims and counter-claims flying. Finally I was asked by Graham Beattie, an alert and focused blogger, what the truth might be. By this stage I'd realised it was very simple – there was no way I was going to reveal any information at all because I was simply respecting my author's choice and it wasn't my position to play fast and loose with their trust.

Greg was always referred to as "Alix" in conversation and in email communication with his publisher and his editor. His real identity was allowed out only on a genuine need-to-know basis. Alix Bosco's email address would come up when I clicked on her name in my address book. Greg and I had discussions about leg-waxing and "new outfits" for various literary occasions which (fortunately) were not to be attended. The disjunction between the rather attractive middle-aged author who was Alix Bosco (a person who became not unlike Anna Markunas in the novels) and the potentially dangerous one-time Junior All Black No8 who was her doppelganger could become hilarious. I suspect Greg can legitimately be accused of flirting with his gentler side.

True, it's with a sense of relief that this charade can now be relinquished, but I leave Alix with a sense of loss since I've come to enjoy her company at my shoulder as much as I admire her as a seriously good writer of substantial crime fiction.

GHOSTS OF A PAST LIFE REBORN

Writers, says Greg McGee, regard anything they see, hear or experience as creative capital.

"There are inevitably ghosts of people past and present lurking in all my stuff, for the most part re-imagined and reconstituted and, hopefully, pretty much unrecognisable." Really? Culture played spot the real-life counterpart with some of

Bosco's more colourful characters ...

Detective Glucina: "Looks intimidating up close, the dark skull-cap of his number one haircut extending seamlessly into the black bristles shadowing his cheeks and jaw ... he looks like a recently retired Bulgarian weightlifter."  - Slaughter Falls

Rumoured to be inspired by: Rachel Glucina, tabloid gossip columnist. McGee: "I'm not prepared to answer that on the grounds that I might incriminate myself."

Fearless Phil Carrigan: "From time to time Phil invites me along to a restaurant he's reviewing, or a movie, or, much less often, a play  because he regards theatre as 'a bit of a wank for Cynthias from the North Shore'."  - Cut and Run

Rumoured to be inspired by: Peter Calder, food critic. McGee: "There's this critic who I loathe, and I thought, 'here's my chance'  ... the trouble is, I started writing him and ended up really liking him."

Mikky St Clair: "I've seen hundreds of shots of her in what used to be called the society pages  ... Mikky's face was so ubiquitous that it still registered, above her cavernous cleavage, in its two or three public expressions  pouting, smiling and, very occasionally, bewildered."  - Cut and Run

Rumoured to be inspired by: Nicky Watson, socialite. McGee: "Can you not guess? I'm glad it wasn't that obvious. We were living down in the Coromandel for a while ... "

Robert "Robo" Copthorne: "An ex-All Black prop from the early nineties with a comb-over, blazing rosacea and hardly any neck to support his triple chins ... " (he is later killed and eaten in an unfortunate incident with a bull shark in a Brisbane river).  - Slaughter Falls

Rumoured to be inspired by: McGee's real-life experiences as a former Otago rugby rep. McGee: "You'll notice he's from Canterbury. Says it all, I think. Wish fulfilment."

NGAIO MARSH AWARDThe second annual Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel will be announced in Christchurch on August 21. The finalists are: Blood Men by Paul Cleave, Captured by Neil Cross, Hunting Blind by Paddy Ferguson, Slaughter Falls by Alix Bosco.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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