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Acclaimed writer Greg McGee on his family's stolen children

Greg McGee this year. Photo/Supplied

Greg McGee always knew his great-grandfather had kidnapped his father and uncles as infants, but now he’s revealing that startling family secret for the first time.

It’s hard to imagine the heartbreak endured more than a century ago by a young Ōamaru man named Jimmy Sparks. Not only had he lost his wife as she gave birth to their third son, but also he suddenly found himself without the children. His father-in-law, Simon McGee, a farmer, abducted the three little boys, and threatened his grieving son-in-law with a shotgun whenever he tried to rescue them. It if sounds like the makings of a good plot for a novel, it is: Greg McGee’s 2014 novel The Antipodeans, is, in part, inspired by his real-life family saga.

McGee’s old friend Sir Bob Harvey once told him, “If you are going to get up in front of an audience to speak about yourself, you’ve got to get naked.” McGee’s no prude, but until now he has kept his metaphorical clothes firmly buttoned up. He’s finally talking, as he approaches his seventies, about the family kidnapping, which even close friends say they have never heard spoken of. But McGee has always known about the dramatic snatching of his father, Bill, his twin brother, Wattie, and their newborn brother Mick. After the boys’ mother, Nellie Sparks, died, they found themselves living with her eight sisters under the roof of the formidable Simon McGee. 

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Like his father, Greg McGee, from working-class Ōamaru, grew into a tall, strong man. But in contrast to the secrecy surrounding Bill and his brothers, Greg McGee has been in the public spotlight most of his life. He shone, first on the rugby field, becoming a Junior All Black and then an All Blacks triallist. Later, he joined the anti-Springbok-tour movement, famously burning one of his prized rugby shirts at a protest march.

McGee was the first in his family to go to university. He did a law degree, then worked for a short time before deciding he couldn’t face 40 or more years in that profession. He was only 30 when he came to public prominence again, with his acclaimed and groundbreaking rugby-themed play Foreskin’s Lament, which premiered in 1980.

Since then, McGee has become one of our best-known and most-successful writers, producing novels, a biography, a memoir, plays and film and television scripts. TV and film have been kind to him – he won awards for the TV mini-series Erebus: The Aftermath and Fallout – enabling him to pursue other writing projects, including the award-winning biography of All Blacks legend Richie McCaw, The Open Side, and Tall Tales (Some True): Memoirs of an Unlikely Writer.

Greg’s great-grandfather, Simon McGee, with his second wife, Mary, and eight of his nine daughters in 1906. Photo/McGee family collection/Supplied

Under the pseudonym Alix Bosco, McGee was a runaway success as a crime-fiction writer. Bosco’s Cut and Run won the 2010 Ngaio Marsh Award for best crime novel. The award was accepted on Bosco’s behalf so that McGee could hide his identity. But when Bosco’s second novel, Slaughter Falls, was nominated the following year, he felt obliged to out himself for fear of Bosco earning a reputation for ingratitude. He quit the Bosco identity and will not return to her award-winning ways. Perversely, The Antipodeans, which had the better part of two decades in gestation, made the long list for the 2016 NZ Book Awards, but was not shortlisted.

In his latest novel, Necessary Secrets, McGee’s fictional Kiwi family is headed up by Den, who is turning 70 and facing death. As it happens, McGee will turn 70 next year, but, unlike Den, he’s in good nick and making positive decisions about his future. Eighteen months ago, he and his wife, Mary, a social worker, decided to sell their loved, but cash-sapping, old villa in the eye-wateringly expensive Auckland suburb of Herne Bay. They’ve moved to a large, light-filled home in Westmere, with a slightly lower price tag and less maintenance. The couple have three adult children and three grandchildren.

As McGee contemplates a lifetime’s work, he’s lifted the lid on the startling family history that has inspired characters and plots in his writing.

With his wife, Mary, and parents, Joan and Bill, in the mid-90s. Photo/McGee family collection/Supplied

Why now?

I’ve always been careful about not talking about my background – even in my memoir, which is the one thing I regret writing, mostly because I didn’t actually talk about my family origins. My parents are dead now, but I just know they wouldn’t have wanted these things made public – not that there is anything shameful.

Is that because of the nature of the secrets or were they just intensely private people?

What happened with the McGees is just so Appalachian. Dad and his twin brother were infants when they were taken by their grandfather, after their mother – his daughter – died giving birth to their brother, Mick. My father was never sure how much of what Simon told them was true. He did know that his father was Jimmy Sparks, but was Jimmy the ne’er-do-well, drinking and gambling man as portrayed by Simon? A lot of that might have been self-serving, because Simon wanted to justify his kidnapping of the boys.

Did you know your great-grandfather McGee?

Maybe I met him, but I was probably only about two or three when he died. By all accounts, he was an enormously strong man, Scots-Irish from Northern Ireland. He was a farm labourer who ended up owning a small holding, Devil’s Bridge, at the back of Ōamaru. He was a hard man – he had nine daughters, but wanted sons, partly because it was free labour. Dad and his brothers worked very long hours on that farm and they were very poor. Dad talked about not having shoes until he was quite old, and they used to ride the horse to school. My father was a hard man, too, in some ways, and you could understand that. But he was a lot softer than the grandfather who brought him up.

Aged 3, with brothers Richard, 4, and Peter, 2, in Ōamaru. Photo/McGee family collection/Supplied

Did your father have any connection with his father, Jimmy Sparks?

Not that I know of. Simon McGee kept him off the property with a shotgun on the few occasions he did turn up. Jimmy disappeared and I don’t know what happened to him. After the death of his wife, giving birth to Mick, just think: he’d lost his wife and then his three children. From that point, he was sort of wiped from our family history. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to find out who he was, and what happened to him, because if my father hadn’t been kidnapped by his grandfather, I’d have been Sparks, not McGee. Greg Sparks? I don’t think so. I prefer McGee; I’m happy with that part of it.

You dodged that name, but it’s a sad story.

It is and then, after that, there was a religious schism in the family – Dad was brought up Roman Catholic, along with his aunties/sisters and his two brothers, but he decided to become an Anglican for Mum. From that point on, they were basically ostracised by the rest of the Catholic side of the family, which included Dad’s eight surviving aunties/sisters. I presume they would have been prolific breeders, because they were raised as Catholics.

Did they go forth and multiply?

When I was a reasonably well-known rugby player, I’d be playing around the country and I’d be in a bar somewhere and someone would come up to me and say, “I’m so and so, and I’m your cousin.” I sort of knew the story, but I would say, “Funny, my parents never told me about that. That’s bullshit.” I did that because I knew Mum and Dad felt pretty abandoned by that side of the family, apart from Dad’s twin brother. He always maintained contact and I know those cousins, Patricia, Michael and Pauline, and they helped me a lot with the part of Necessary Secrets set in Golden Bay.

In an Otago v Wellington match in the 70s. Photo/Supplied

So, how many were there in your family?

Mum and Dad had four children aged five and under, plus another one after that, so five of us. They really struggled and could have done with a bit of family help. So, when these people came up to me, I would just brush them off. On behalf of Mum and Dad, I felt obliged to say, “No, why wouldn’t my parents have told me about you?” – the reality was that they had, but I was a vengeful bastard.

But nothing is wasted for a writer?

Yes, and so the McGee story became the story of Joe Lamont, the central figure in The Antipodeans. And as I said before, the one thing I regret writing is my memoir, for various reasons, but mostly because it just burns up creative capital. You can tell these stories in much more interesting ways. For instance, in The Antipodeans, Bruce Spence’s story – the diary of him playing in Italy is basically my story. But if you read about it in my memoir and read Bruce Spence’s, his story is way more interesting than mine. And Sparks is the name of the family in Necessary Secrets. Why burn up creative capital by doing a memoir?

Maybe some people just don’t have a good novel in them, but still fancy putting something down about their life.

A novelist once said, “Shit, if you’ve got only one book in you, why bother?” It’s such an exacting pain in the arse to do. All around a writer there’s raw material. We had to sell our house in Herne Bay. It sounds Irish, but it was worth so much that we couldn’t afford to keep it or fix it, but then it became a central part of Necessary Secrets.

With wife Mary and children Guy, Oliver and baby Caitlin. Photo/McGee family collection/Supplied

Part three of Necessary Secrets is about Ellie, the daughter, who works as a frontline advocate in domestic violence and goes back into it. Was your wife the inspiration for her?

Of course. I’ve heard these stories for so long from Mary. And I thought someone should write about how it is on the frontline and what they do and the difficult positions they’re placed in.

Does turning 70 soon inevitably shake up these things?

I was brought up, not in a rich household, but at a very rich time in New Zealand. We were perhaps the second- or third-richest nation in the OECD, there was free education to university level and high-paying jobs during the summer. Like a lot of other boomers, Mary and I were lucky. We bought a house at the beginning of the high appreciation of housing. Looking at the generation below us and the grandchildren, and what’s waiting for them, I don’t think history is going to regard us boomers kindly.

How have you made a living out of writing for so many years?

Television’s been very good to me, and writing for television has given me a life as a writer. I’m moving back to television now because I’m excited by the chance to work with Lee Tamahori on a project that was chosen for the recent Raupapa Whakaari Series Drama Lab [designed to develop high-end adult drama series that will appeal to the international market as well as local audiences].

On the set of the Theatre Corporate premiere of Foreskin's Lament in Auckland in 1980. Photo/McGee family collection/Supplied

You’ve said your novels often come to you as ideas for a film (Love & Money and The Antipodeans) or a play (Necessary Secrets).

Yes. It’s as if I’m deliberately finding some way of avoiding the fact that I’ve had an idea for a novel, because the novel is so much more difficult and demanding than if you’re writing a film or TV script or even a play. It’s sort of a blueprint for something that’s yet to happen. All these other people will come, with their talents and money, and the final product may not bear much resemblance to the blueprint you put down. Whereas with a novel, you put in the footings, you decide on the cladding, where the windows are and where the light falls – you do everything. You can go anywhere, you can do anything. And, in some ways, the choice is frightening, particularly after writing within the constraints of stage, film and television.

So, is writing a novel exhausting?

Yes, and I think it should be. That’s why I keep avoiding the novel and thinking this is a play or this is a movie – anything but a novel.

What kind of novels do you like to read?

They have juice; they’re not bloodless. I like reading novels that read as if they just had to be written.

Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

Such as?

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton; Anne Kennedy’s The Ice Shelf; Anne Enright’s The Green Road. I like Maggie O’Farrell and AM Homes: their books read as if they just sort of spilled out, and the stories just had to be told. And even though I know that’s not how it happens, I like that feeling.

Is that a mark of success for you, as a novelist?

Yes, and I also concentrate hugely on flow. I don’t want to read a novel that looks as if someone dragged it out of their arse with huge difficulty. I read my novels back to myself to try to identify the clunky parts. Great athletes make difficult things look easy; I want my novels to read as if they were easily written.

Necessary Secrets (Upstart Press) is out now.

This article was first published in the June 29, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.