Necessary Secrets
by Greg McGee (Upstart Press, $38)

Even if you've never heard of a "hypnagogic state", you've no doubt experienced it: the state between being awake and asleep when you have bright ideas which can be so inspiring – so visionary – they're almost like hallucinations. You tell yourself you'll remember them but you never do and in the morning all that remains is a trace of those brilliant insights, shimmering mirage-like.

Greg McGee forces himself to wake up and write down his thoughts.

It means when he gets up in the morning, his working day is already partially mapped out on papers scattered on the floor of the bedroom in his Westmere home. He collects up the papers, along with his thoughts and heads to his computer, often writing for most of the morning before doing research or refining what he's written earlier.


"But I don't sleep much when I'm writing," he says.

Having some sort of a map was all the more important for McGee when it came to writing his latest book, Necessary Secrets. Released this week, it's a pacy and urgent examination of modern family life in New Zealand.

At times, it's dark and disturbing – almost too real to feel like fiction; at others, it's wry and funny and optimistic. Just as McGee didn't get much sleep while writing it, you're likely to be awake into the small hours of the early morning reading one more page.

It starts with Den, who's turning 70 and is about to die, so he's gathered his three children, Will, Ellie and Stan, at the family home where they're joined by a couple of renegade outsiders, Jackson and Lila. As soon as you're comfortable with Den – as McGee says, endearing despite his obvious faults – you switch from a first-person narrative to Will then Ellie and, finally, youngest son Stan.

Their sections are written in the third-person but you always feel as if you're seeing what they're seeing. It's sharply observed social commentary that doesn't for one moment feel preachy or distant. Some of it isn't very nice; despite that, if you're of a certain age and disposition, it's scarily relatable – maybe not the arson and murder but addiction, infidelity, work and money problems, the pressing issue of who you are and where you are going even though you thought you'd have this stuff sorted years ago.

McGee has written for theatre, television, film and, to top those achievements, award-winning crime fiction and literary novels and 2012's biography of All Black great Richie McCaw - The Open Side.

Necessary Secrets draws on all this experience. It's not crime fiction but you can see – feel - elements of the genre McGee explored seven years ago when, under the pseudonym Alix Bosco, he wrote the Ngaio Marsh award-winning Cut and Run (and, later, the nominated Slaughter Falls). As a screenwriter and producer, he'd already been writing crime with television series like Street Legal and Orange Roughies.

"But, you know, I've come to the conclusion that, in New Zealand, crime doesn't pay."

It has similar themes to McGee's more literary fiction, Love and Money and the Ockham NZ Book Award nominated The Antipodeans, because it deals with family, generational conflict, the continued hardening of society. He says it will be interesting to see how readers cope with the subversion of genre.


The NZ Book Council website page on McGee notes: "All McGee's stage plays are centrally concerned with the loss of collective values and individual altruism in an increasingly materialist and selfish society. Their dramaturgical power relies on vigorous comedy to relax an audience into familiar territory; then bitter paradoxes and social pain emerge to leave the audience uneasy about the society it shares with the characters of the plays."

That's an apt description of Necessary Secrets, which may be a book but, like his most famous work, the 1981 play Foreskin's Lament, holds a mirror up to contemporary New Zealand. One of the most influential plays in our theatrical canon, Foreskin's Lament ripped open long-held cliches about our "rugby, racing and beer" culture from the inside – McGee had been an Otago rugby representative, junior All Black and All Black trialist – and left them wanting.

Necessary Secrets started life as a play about three years ago. Back then, it was called Flame and McGee admits he was doing anything he could not to write another novel because "writing a novel is too hard". The problem was that writing it as a play was also too hard.

"The constraints of theatre have helped me in the past, in some ways," he says. "The physical dimensions and that sort of thing restrict you to dialogue and actions as a demonstration of character but, in the end with this, it became really frustrating and I dumped the play.

"I wanted to jump across landscape and point of view … The really big thing that you miss when you're writing for theatre and TV compared with books is that you can't really get inside the characters' heads. That what I love about novels; you can go inside the characters' heads and know what they are thinking."

So began a thrilling but equal parts terrifying attempt to write another book. Den was in the play – McGee kept his part – but wrote parts two, three and four not really knowing what was going to appear on the screen in front of him from one day to the next.

He drew on his own experiences: the sometimes brutal nature of working in a creative industry disrupted by the digital and the virtual; he talked to family and friends involved in horticulture in Motueka and Nelson and he pulled together years of observations about Auckland and its disparate nature.

Some of the most visceral sections of the book involve Ellie, a social worker charged with the task of keeping victims of domestic violence safe. McGee is candid when he admits there is no way of not implicating his wife, Mary, a senior advocate for victims of domestic violence for more than 30 years, in the story.

"Obviously the insights I have as to what Ellie does are very much from Mary, living with her for so long and seeing and hearing what she would go through," he says. "Going in, I kind of knew quite a lot about these worlds but I also knew what I didn't know so I went and got that. I almost put the cart before the horse because open-ended research, I would just drown in it, so I basically know what I'm looking for before I start researching it.

"My job as a writer is to write about the sea I swim in but the way I tend to write is that I circle round it a bit to begin with but then, once I am on the chase, I write reasonably quickly. I don't worry about word counts or anything like that ... One thing that's really important to me is that the book flows. I don't want to write stuff that is difficult to read; I don't want to put obstacles in front of the reader."

McGee says it sounds a bit too "metaphysical" and ever so slightly pretentious, but each day he sat down with the characters and let them guide him. He has no idea where aspects of Will – "he's a terrible man" – came from and says certain of Will's actions shocked him.

"There's a scene where Will goes back to his little apartment above a fish shop and has an encounter with Lila and I wrote that and thought, 'Where the hell did that come from? That's pretty raw.'"

Not worrying about word counts or deadlines was liberating. After years of working in theatre, TV and film, he appreciates the writer's role is essentially to provide a structure for a blueprint of a story that will only be told if numerous other people bring their talent and money to the party. Even then, there will be guarantee your story will be anything like the one you had in mind.

That's what draws him to writing books but McGee reckons no matter how successful you've been, you can never take for granted that that will help you.

"It's arrogant to assume you will ever write another one because so many elements have to come together to make a novel worth a damn ... you can't be so arrogant to think you're just going to turn out another one and that's the way I feel about it. Each one is so uniquely demanding and they can die on you."

And it's getting trickier for those in the creative industries – be it film or literature – to break through all the noise out there, to find the right platform and get noticed, he says. In the halcyon days of TV, when he started out learning as the industry did much the same, there were only two or three channels watched by nearly everyone.

"If you were lucky enough to get something into production on screen, you were guaranteed an audience, a huge audience," he says, recalling the success of the 1987 mini-series Erebus: The Aftermath, that he wrote.

"It was on TV 1and it out-rated the news. It was the first time anything had done that in drama but the thing was, there were really only two or three choices. You basically had a captive audience and, so, whatever you wrote was sort of water cooler conversation the next day whereas now, it's just so much more difficult."

Still, he's almost certain that boys like he was – born and raised in Oamaru, mad keen on rugby but also wanting to pursue a career in the arts – have an easier time today. McGee didn't tell anyone he wanted to be a writer; he went to law school instead of following his heart and studying English and would sneak off to the library to write poetry.

Much of Foreskin's Lament toyed with the tension between these two worlds and how out of place the more intellectual lead character, Foreskin, felt. While saying he's not part of that world any more, McGee reckons a youngster like he was would have an easier time of it.

"I think we've made huge progress, I really do," he says. "I do see actors who play rugby and there are gay rugby teams. I think professional rugby has to be inclusive; you can't marginalise people in the same way that you could in the old amateur days. My only question now would be if you were playing professional rugby, how would you find the time?

"I just hope that Foreskin's Lament is a creaky old period piece that has no relevance at all to modern life except maybe to show what we were a long time ago..."

* Greg McGee appears at the Featherston Booktown Festival in a Who's on the Couch? session. Featherston, in South Wairarapa, was made an official booktown in 2015 - one of 22 in the world. This year's festival features 60 events and 65 guests including Wellington writer Megan Dunn, Lloyd Jones, Dame Fiona Kidman, Kate De Goldi and Ashleigh Young. The festival runs on May 11 and 12.