Odd men out – McGee & Mahon

I am not overly familiar with the work of Greg McGee, nor that of Sam Mahon but I was intrigued by the description in the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival programme of them as “the odd men out in our national literature”. I suppose it is difficult to categorise a rugby player/lawyer turned playwright, and later screenwriter (McGee) and a painter/sculptor/biographer/environmentalist (Mahon). It turns out this descriptive phrase was only used by festival organiser Jill Rawnsley because McGee refused to be saddled with the label “Rennaissance Man”. Really Mr McGee if the rugby boot fits…

Superficially McGee and Mahon (which, as a combo, has a ring to it should they ever consider starting a legal practice together) seem perhaps an unlikely pairing for a literary talk but as soon as McGee started his reading it all clicked into place. He read from a chapter of his memoirs Tall tales (some true) that dealt with television drama Erebus: The aftermath, the script of which he adapted from the book Verdict on Erebus by Justice Peter Mahon, father of…Sam Mahon. Probably everyone else in the room had made that connection already but the penny only dropped for me at that point. The part that McGee chose to read expressed his disappointment in New Zealand, which he reflected, has a dark side that takes delight in targeting those that stick their heads “above the dull parapet of convention” and challenge the powers that be, the unfortunate victims being people like Peter Mahon (he of the eminently quotable  “orchestrated litany of lies”).

Sam Mahon’s choice of reading material couldn’t have been more different. He read from the first few pages of the opening chapter of a new manuscript, the chapter entitled “funeral”. I considered this quite a treat (like getting to see a new baby before other friends and family members). Mahon prefaced his reading by explaining that he is a non-fiction writer even when exploring fiction saying, “although it’s not the truth, it’s actual. Yeah?”

Of course I had no idea what he meant by that. It became clear some way into the chapter. I had just been enjoying the lyrical delights of descriptions such as “his adam’s apple struggled like a mouse in a sock”, when said character declared “Rod Donald died”. And again a penny dropped, and the “actual”, and indeed the funeral of the chapter title made more sense. Joyce mentioned in Friday’s audio wrap-up that Tash Aw’s lyrical descriptions were lovely but forgettable and left her cold but Mahon’s definitely carried emotional weight and maybe I am just projecting but I got the sense that Mahon himself was quite moved as he read. Certainly I found it poignant and touching.

And then things completely shifted gear as McGee, Mahon and Geary got into the conversational side of things. Though Geary was meant to be directing the questions at the two Mr “M”s the rapport all three shared made it a much less formal affair. They would quip, quote each other and answer each other’s questions and it wasn’t too much of a stretch, if you squinted your eyes, to imagine that you were eavesdropping on three friends solving the problems of the world from the comfort of a leather armchair over a pint at the pub.

The conversation ranged far and wide. They discussed the process of writing, Mahon having once said that it is “sometimes like a glandular secretion”. On using real people as templates for characters McGee reflected that “most people that you write about fictionally don’t recognise themselves” and seemed quite pleased of the fact. They talked about politics (is the honeymoon over for John Key as the super-city rears its large and not pretty head?) and television (Boston Legal, Outrageous Fortune, and Deadwood all getting the thumbs up from McGee) and how to make water sexy (0r at the very least more interesting).

By far the most impassioned topic for Mahon was what he considers the lack of public consultation with regards to public art in Christchurch. He feels quite strongly that decisions on what sort of art graces our public places should not be determined by a select few, that there should be a more democratic process that allows for input from the people and artists of the city rather than “academics”.

In response to a question from a rather familiar looking audience member named Richard, Mahon also confessed that he is “not online” (a quality that he apparently shares with Robert Fisk), and so he has to go to libraries to do research for his books whereas McGee pointed out that to be any kind of writer you must first be a reader and that libraries give him the ability to catch up on all the books that he wants to read, there being so many on his list that he couldn’t possibly buy them all…though he was quick to point out that his own book is very reasonably priced.

And that’s just the merest nibble out of the corner of the unexpectedly delicious biscuit that this session turned out to be. I hadn’t known particularly what to expect from this hour with the odd men out of New Zealand literature but I left wishing they could have carried on talking for another hour, or more.

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