The suburbs have been a mine of inspiration for journalist Megan Nicol Reed who found the makings of her sensational new novel in her own backyard. She talks to Sharon Stephenson about growing up with two mums and achieving her life goals.
If there was a patron saint of the exhausted, Megan Nicol Reed should be praying to him/her/them.
But that’s unlikely, given the columnist-turned-novelist isn’t really the praying type and, more to the point, doesn’t have the time.
Megan’s much anticipated debut novel One of Those Mothers is published on 21 March and with it comes the marketing merry-go-round: book signings, literary festivals and interviews with pesky journalists. It doesn’t help that the day we speak Megan is moving back into her West Auckland home after 18 months of renovations, Cyclone Gabrielle is bearing down and her first born Archie (18) is about to head to Dunedin for his first year of university.
Did she also mention that her husband George has the flu?
“Apologies for the noise and chaos, but I have to make my family lunch,” says Megan, skidding around the kitchen as she throws together Huevos rancheros for Archie and his sister Peggy (14) and reheats last night’s Chinese takeaway for her husband of almost 20 years.
Interviewing a fellow journalist can often be fraught because when the hunter becomes the hunted, bad things can happen. There’s the danger they’ll try to stage-manage the interview, skillfully deflect questions or, the one that those of us who make a living from words hate the most, demand to see the copy before it goes to print.
Not so Megan. The 48-year-old is interesting, clever, generous with her answers and laughs a lot. We work out that years ago I briefly worked for her at Sunday Magazine when she was doing maternity leave cover for the editor. “But then I got pregnant with my second child so I wasn’t there long.”
Many of us know Megan as the sassy slayer of sacred cows, first with her weekly column that ran in the Sunday Star Times for five years and, later, for another two years in the New Zealand Herald’s Canvas Magazine. Interesting, amusing and frequently controverisal, her words skewered everything from parenting and family dynamics to politics and growing up with two lesbian parents (more on that later).
“I focused on big ideas but accessed them from a small place. So, for example, current political issues but seen from my day-to-day middle class perspective.”
While Megan loved being a columnist, she eventually ran out of puff, not to mention tiring of the often toxic feedback.
“I probably had as many haters as I had fans. But the nastiness does wear you down.”
Sipping one of the many cups of English Breakfast tea she never quite seems to finish, Megan says she always wanted to write a novel. “I’d go to literary awards or interview a writer and although I was pleased for them, the little green monster would rear its head and I’d be jealous it wasn’t me.”
George, who recently sold his mechanical services company, generously permitted his wife a couple of years reprieve from contributing to the family’s finances so she could focus on full-time writing.
In the end, it took Megan seven years to finish One of Those Mothers. “I spent a while trying to figure out what I wanted to write.”
And then menopause gatecrashed the party, stalling Megan’s creative flow (“Things were a bit of a blur for two years.”)
Her lightbulb moment eventually came from an unlikely place – the American woman she’d nannied for in Paris 20+ years ago.
“She came to visit and while reading a bunch of my columns said, your book is here, in these columns. She was right because the book ended up being about the middle class community that is my life and about the petty middle class issues that I took the piss out of in my columns.”
The resulting book is a wild ride, focused around three couples and their offspring who live in Point Heed, a liberal postcode where everyone is mostly white and upper middle class, drinks too much, occasionally does drugs and sometimes fantasise about someone who isn’t their partner. But beneath the gleaming kitchens and late model European cars lurk dark secrets, mental health issues and buckets of anxiety.
When a local father is convicted of child pornography and granted name suppression, things go as badly as you’d imagine.
While Megan swears the book isn’t autobiographical, she admits there’s a lot of herself in the main character Bridget, a former journalist and mother of two with an over-developed sense of anxiety.
“Menopause really amplified my anxiety so I’ve channelled that into Bridget. My finely honed sense of guilt also makes it into the book – I have a comfortable, easy life compared to so many other people. But what do I do with that guilt? Even though I’ve never had to worry about being able to feed my kids, I’m only human with my own set of anxieties and worries, and it’s okay to feel like that.”
Megan gets extra brownie points for not shying away from the gritty subject of porn and, specifically, child pornopgraphy.
“Like so many people, I’ve always had that ‘Do I look, don’t I look’ thing with porn. But the idea of child pornography is so incredibly repellent. When I lived in Paris, the papers were full of stories about a child pornography ring in Belgium which I’ve never forgotten. And then a friend sent me a Guardian article about a husband in the writer’s social circle who was molesting children. It started me thinking about what something like that would mean for a tight-knit community, how it would impact on a social circle’s friendship.”
It takes a particular talent to see the humanity in situations like that but Megan nails it. I proffer she’s Aotearoa’s answer to Liane Moriarty, the Australian writer whose hugely succesful novels such as Big Little Lies and Apples Never Fall similarly colour outside suburbia’s lines.
“Thank you for saying that! If I was half as successful as Liane I’d be thrilled!”
Growing up in Auckland, the oldest child of “good hippy parents” (her father was an artist, her mother a clothing designer/teacher), when Megan was eight her mother left her father for Jan, “my other mother”.
“I knew it shocked other people but I fell in love with Jan and regard her as a very special woman in our lives. Mum and Jan have just celebrated their 40th anniversary.”
While Megan was never bullied about what was, back then, quite an unconventional living arrangement, she was circumspect about who she told.
“I remember a conservative friend saying her parents were fine with her coming for a sleepover as long as she didn’t have a shower or bath around my mothers because it wouldn’t be safe!”
Megan loved English at school, and it loved her back but, diverted by a desire to “save the world”, she did a politics degree and then worked for not-for-profit organisations for a while.
Her OE was two years in Paris where she got engaged to a Frenchman, originally from Martinique. “He wanted to speak English and I was a bit homesick by then so we, and his enormous Rottweiler, moved to Auckland.”
The Frenchman turned out to be a serial philanderer and eventually he and his dog were sent packing.
“I had to pay for them to get back to Europe which left me with a huge debt.”
By then Megan was working as a journalist, initially for TVNZ’s website, then for the Sunday Star Times.
All those years of journalism’s tight deadlines have served her well when it comes to her current career. “I’m a terrible procrastinator so I have to have a deadline to work to. I’ll say, I won’t leave my desk until I’ve written 500 words.”
She’s currently starting work on her follow up novel which be in the same middle-class suburban vein.
When she’s not doing that, Megan likes to walk the family dog Roxy (“I gave up my gym membership during Covid) and isn’t averse to spending time in the kitchen.
“I’m vegetarian and am currently having a bit of a Mexican phase, so I’ll make some hot Mexican-themed dips which everyone can help themselves to.”
By this stage of the interview I would have said that not much fazed Megan from a professional point of view. I’d be wrong.
Yes, she’s stared down the trolls and the keyboard warriors who poured their vitriol onto every column. But she’s genuinely concerned about how her first novel will be received.
“All the time you’re writing a book, you just want to get it out there. But now it’s actually happening I’m utterly terrified. I’m girding my loins for people to tear it apart! Having experienced that level of hate before, I kind of know what to expect but it’s never easy.”