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PETER TEMPLE talks with Ayo Onatade

Written by Ayo Onatade

 

You know you've read a good book because it stays with you long after you've read the final page, and the hairs on the back of your neck are standing on end. When I closed The Broken Shore, I felt a tingle throughout my body and I knew that I had read possibly one of the best crime books this year (2006).”   
Mike Stotter


Peter Temple, former journalist, is an acclaimed Australian crime and thriller writer who has won the Ned Kelly Award for crime writing in his native Australia five times. His novel, The Broken Shore (Quercus) won Duncan Lawrie Crime Writers’ Association Dagger for the Best Novel, the first Australian to do so. It also won the Colin Roderick Prize for best Australian book and the Australian Book Publishers' Award for best general fiction. Ayo Onatade managed to grab some time with him.

 

 

Congratulations on winning the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award!  How important is it to receive the recognition from your peers regarding your writing?

 It’s terrific because it’s always nice when people are making a judgment on you and they have a good comparative basis.  In other words, they read a lot, they know what’s out there, and they decided that in this year for this particular award you are the person.  It is a kind of affirmation of what  you do!  I’m thrilled!  I have had too many Ned Kelly’s I don’t think I’ll every see another one.  But, this is terrific, I am absolutely thrilled!

 

You were on a rather impressive list.

 It was a good list I thought.  I am familiar with three of them on it.  The others I  haven’t read and I didn’t want to read them once I knew that I was on the list.

 

You have received immense praise from fellow international crime writers about The Broken Shore.  Especially from John Harvey and Mark Billingham!  Did it come as a shock to you when your name was read out?

 It was, I had spoken to one of the nominees, and to me, he seemed remarkably calm.  I thought does this guy know something I don’t?  And I sensed in the people around me, the Quercus people, that they were pretty doubtful about the outcome as well.  There was a sense of great relief from everybody.  You can imagine the sense of anti-climax that everyone feels when you don’t win. 

 

In some ways, it’s just nice to be nominated because with the judges it is all about what they like reading as well and that is always a bone of contention about the books that don’t make the short list.

 I said to a reporter in Australia that I was perfectly happy to make the short-list, I would be perfectly happy if matters ended right there and then and that wining would be a fantastic bonus but  I wouldn’t feel any way that I had been let down.  I would for twenty-five minutes but after that I would think that at least I got on the short list.  I mean, not even John Cleary, who in his day was a very big name, never made a short list.

 

Don’t you think that people’s taste in crime fiction reading has changed quite a lot these days because of the availability of different crime writers?

 I think, one of the things, Britain and United States have in common is that they have always been pretty much stuck in their own world.  America is almost completely self-contained reading just about nothing from anywhere else.  Britain less so but with very powerful names from Margery Allingham to Agatha Christie, through to Ruth Rendell: a very powerful group of writers.  But you have always published American writers from Chandler to Hammett and people like that.  But it has been pretty much a self-contained world.  Australian’s never really had a look in to that society at all.  Now the continent is emerging and people are saying read books in translation.  I think that Miss Simila’s Feeling for Snow just changed the whole rules.  There had been Sjowall and Wahloo, before that, but not with that kind of international sales.

 

Don’t you think that it is possibly because the people now reading crime novels have a much more eclectic taste and are willing to broaden their horizons?

 Absolutely. And they are often people who are not just crime readers but  read widely across all sorts of boundaries.  They read literary fiction but they enjoy crime.  It is coming out of the closet.  People are actually able now to admit that I am mad about crime novels.  If I am looking for a book to read it has got to be a crime novel.  We had a judge of the Supreme Court, who’s a judge of the Ned Kelly who said that once upon a time I would have thought that my colleagues on the Bench would have turned up their noses at some of these until I discovered that they are all mad crime readers.  It is suddenly respectable, because a lot of it is very good.

           

What prompted you to write The Broken Shore?  It is very dark, atmospheric, and gritty and while it moves slowly, it certainly portrays the feeling for the Australian way of life outside the city and the Joe Cashin the homicide detective who is slowly trying to rebuild his life.

 I wanted to write something set outside the city.  I’ve done this before but on a very limited scale.  I always start off thinking that I want to write a fairly big novel and as you write it it gets smaller and smaller, and you think oh God I have got to finish this thing so I give it up. But this time I took a little longer and wrote it and I stuck to the fact that I wanted to write a bigger novel. I wanted to portray the world the way it is in small communities. 

 

It is not a matter about preaching at people, it’s not a matter of pointing a finger at anybody, it’s just a matter of saying this is the way it is.  And if there is racism in it, whatever prejudices that simply is the way it is.  I’m not saying how disgusting Australia is, how terrible it is.  I am just saying that’s it. That’s life.  When it came out, I was fairly apprehensive; you can get hit over the head very seriously in Australia for touching on some sensitive issues. And you always think that it is very difficult for people. 

 

I’m an ex-white South African, what right do I have to comment on race relations?  In Australia, people have said it’s right on!  That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t say I am proud but I feel a sense of satisfaction that I got it down properly and people are not arguing and saying for example if you portray a certain group of people in a certain way and there are people that are unflatteringly portrayed of every race, creed or colour in there, fine provided it’s just the people you are talking about. If people say that you have given an unflattering portrait of a group like the whole police force for example, then you have to say demonstrate to me that it is not so or I haven’t done so at all. I have just said this person.

 

And also, they have got to remember that it is fiction!

 Thank you. I said to a guy from an Australian newspaper who came to interview me here and really wanted me to give him a social commentary on Australia.  I said its fiction mate, its fiction.  I make this stuff up.  It’s not fantasy but its still fiction.

 

That then leads me to another question, which is, some people feel that crime fiction is the only way in which they can raise social issues that they feel very strongly about.  Do you feel that that is true?

 I think that is absolutely valid!  I support that image.  Really, inside the genre you have an opening for doing this.  And indeed, in a way you have duty to do that kind of stuff.  If you think there is an injustice there simply by exposing that injustice and you brought life to it, I don’t think it means that your characters can have moral views of outrage etc.  I’m just saying that the writer should be able to say just read the book; take the message from the book.  I don’t want to add another layer, you are able to see what I think, but you can mostly see what my characters think.  If you identify with my character and the words that my character used, you can take a pretty dammed fair guess what my own views are but I am not going to give them to you because that’s secondary. 

 

Where did the character Joe Cashin come from?

 My wife said to me once do you have anything except wounded men here? Ah, difficult.  In the end I didn’t know what I wanted, I just started writing it.  It eventually came to me that the kind of character I was creating was the sort of person, as you put earlier on quite rightly, who has suffered a great deal of trauma himself, has been taken away from the things that he can do and is very conscious of the fact that he has never done anything else but be a cop.  He has lost that inner sense, that expertise, also he has been responsible for the death of somebody else.  He is badly injured himself, he will never recover fully from those things and then he is fronted with what he clearly believes is an injustice.  It is not just a homicide and he is looking for the person who did it. 

 

He is seeing other injustices take place and I wanted to create a character who would because of the identification with the people concerned through his cousin and his mother’s family would actually feel.  I know what this shit is about mate but would also feel I have a duty to do this? And as I wrote it became more clear of Cashin, and I hate to say it, he is in the process of trying to  heal himself in this book and there is also a bit of redemption about the whole thing.  I mean those are terrible clichéd things to say but I didn’t start off wanting to do that but it was just as I wrote it became more and more clear that was what the book was doing to me.  I didn’t set out with any ideas of what he really was as a person that just emerged in writing, because once I introduced his family then things became more complex.

 

Have we seen the last of Joe Cashin?

 I hope to do a trilogy of which The Broken Shore will be the first one and the next one is called Truth and it is set in the city and it involves Inspector Valani the acting head of homicide who is Joe’s friend; but not an uncritical friend of Joe’s.  He is an interesting character: he is from a migrant Italian background, but a very Australian background because his father is not first generation migrant.  His father is, in fact, an Australian soldier.  There are lots of Australian’s of Italian descent who go back six, seven generations; that’s not unusual at all.  But I wanted him to have a complex family life, I wanted him to see City Hall, I wanted to see the corruption, I wanted to see what power does, I wanted to see how politics and power and policing actually intersect in the person of Valani and Joe makes an appearance in it but he is just a subsidiary character.  Then we have to see how the book goes, whether anybody likes it.  If there is any future in it at all.  In which case I might think whether these people going to handle another man in pain and the dogs.  Anthony Cheetham said to me are there any dogs in this one? I said no, no dogs and he said just one dog.

 

In the Evil Day is one of the latest of your books to be published by Quercus, what was the impetus for this story?  It is very violent, has loads of deaths and dirty secrets.  It conjures up a world where information is more dangerous than anything else including guns and explosives.

 Yes, it is a very violent piece of work.   I am interested in the subject.  I am interested in the subject of where technology takes us, the possibilities of surveillance, how it will eventually become such a powerful force. That, of course, takes you to areas which I don’t want to go which is civil rights, the right to privacy and things like that.  I thought that I would try and write a book in which an essentially moral person is engaged in this kind of occupation simply because he is another one of these “wounded men”!

 

He’s been a hostage in Beirut and all sorts of things as the main character, but I wanted to write a good mystery where we don’t know what is going on here.  I wanted a South African character; he was much more unsympathetic when I started.  I actually set out to write an extremely unpleasant character but as time went by I realised he had to have some kind of moral theme to himself, too.  I mean he will simply kill people but they are trying to kill him.  But he is also a person who is waking up to life.  Being in that kind of occupation leaves you with a dead centre.  It is very hard to be awake.  Lot’s of policemen are like that. It’s very hard to be normal with people who are not in that occupation particularly when you kill people. Nobody walks away when you kill people.  But I wanted to write an international thriller, I wanted to have Americans, I wanted to have bad people, plots and conspiracy, but I wanted to write an intelligent book, instead of a Tom Clancy type of book.  I thought is it possible to write an intelligent thriller on a fairly large canvass?  So it was just an experimental thing.

 

I thought, could I do it?  I had never written in the third person, that was a big challenge.  I had always written in the first person and you can get very comfortable with that and I thought I had got to break out of that, I‘d have a go.  I tried it and said no, it’s not working.  I thought may be I should put it back in to first person into the main characters.  That means that I couldn’t get into the minds of the other characters.  Now I messed around with it endlessly and I thought to myself just do it so I went back and put everything back into the third person.  Then all of a sudden the moment came when I realised I can do this.

 

Talk to me about the Jack Irish novels Are you ever going to go back to Jack Irish?

 I am under huge pressure to go back to Jack Irish.  I would like to go back to Jack Irish.  I didn’t try to avoid it but thought that I needed a break from it.  Because I have always written one series book followed by one standalone book.  So Broken Shore was a standalone, and in theory I should have gone back to do a Jack Irish.   Then again, I had a huge amount of pressure on me because Broken Shore has had some success not to do another Jack Irish just to do another standalone.  The future is uncertain and I am not sure what I am going to do.  I would hope to do another Jack Irish, I love them, and I am hugely attached to Jack. Jack Irish has a huge cast. There are thirty-eight continuing characters across the series.  I have got to wake every single one of them up for every book because I can’t get rid of them because then people complain.

 

How do you maintain your knowledge about all those thirty-eight different  characters?

 Absolute hell!  I have started the new one, just because I always have to write two books at the same time.  I get too bored with one of them.  So I have started the new one and I’m having to go back, not just to consult the most recent one, but to consult all four.  There are things I just don’t remember stuff about it!  There are thirty-two people and I’m finding that I don’t remember this character at all.  Who is this person? In how many books does this appear?   I get the feeling that I should be consulting a database.  I have always relied exclusively on stuff in my head.  Only write down things if I am drawing timelines or chronologies or trying to work out the relationships, how old his father would be.  I keep notes about that.  As far as notes on each character I just let it run.  Yes difficult stuff to do.

 

How do you write?  Are you a disciplined author or are you easily distracted?

 No, no, I just write the book.  I start off with a vague idea of what I want to do, just a rude idea.  I write a paragraph see how it goes. Not bad, I’ll do that! Don’t like it, I’ll chuck it away, leave it, put it in the store, mess around, and think.  Sometimes I write the ending, sometimes I write chapters in the middle and I’ll have several attempts at the start.  If I get to chapter three and I feel that I am beginning to go then I can more or less write from beginning to end.  But not always, sometimes I get to chapter seven or eight, then wham! Dead end, I don’t know where I am going! Let’s try writing it from the end again and see how it goes!  I try to work out the plot.  The plot has to come to me.  I just start off with one thing!  This is what’s happened. What’s going to happen next, I have no idea at all.  I believe that’s right.  If I don’t know the reader is not going to know either when they read the book.  It’s these authors that plot the whole thing out on a laptop you know, as a reader, when you pick you know what is going to happen.  Sometimes I feel that people are trying to write a film script in advance.

 

You have been writing for quite some time now, did you always want to be a writer?  

 Yes always, I wrote a book when I was eight.  I wrote a western in a class workbook with a pencil.  I always had a passion for writing.

 

Do you read crime fiction yourself and do you have any favourite authors?

 Yes I do, I don’t read as much as before I started writing crime fiction.  I read it, and I read everything.  I am keen on history, biography and politics and all sorts of things but I have always had a steady diet of crime.  When I started writing about 10 years ago, I started to get a bit of a fear of imitating people.

 

That is what a lot of crime writers have said.  That when they are writing their novels they won’t read crime novels.  They will read anything else but a crime novel.

 

Absolutely not.  I won’t touch it. I am absolutely strict about it.  In two ways – I’ll read it now and then somehow in the course of the next two months it will slip out or even worse I’ll be quite well into the book and I’ll read something and think that this has been done before and you know how terrible that is going to be?  That is the point.  I’ve always read crime but while I am writing, I just can’t.  I can read stuff in sub-genre’s like funny stuff because that’s not me, but if it is getting somewhere in the area where I am then no. It is a bit like finding someone wearing the same dress or tie that you’ve spent a lot of money on.

 

Part and parcel of being a crime writer is the camaraderie that is found amongst crime writers.  Do you enjoy that part of it?

 I don’t have anything to do with anybody.  I don’t have any experience of it.

 

You don’t go to conferences?

Crime writer’s conferences?  I have never been to one.  No one has ever invited    me to one.  They invited me to Harrogate but I couldn’t go.  I get invited in Australia because I am reasonably well known. I get invited to a lot of writer’s festivals and there will be crime writer’s there.  Sometimes I will meet them and I am always willing to talk shop with people.  Always talk about our publishers and money and crime writing.  But by and large, I just don’t meet them. 

Now I know John Harvey, which is a really great privilege.  We met in Melbourne and hit it off straight away and I had dinner with him and a couple of other people recently and I hope that he will come and stay with us in Australia

And I have now met Mark Billingham and also I am a great admirer of his so that was fantastic.  He was not what I thought he would be like which was also interesting.  He is actually nicer than I thought he would be.  He has a tremendous sent of humour and I would love to see him up on stage.   I am friendly with Shane Maloney in Australia, a crime writer called John Carroll who is a very slow producer and is totally unknown outside Australia and I know Peter Corus who is probably the best known crime writer in Australia and he’s a lovely bloke. 

But I have never discussed with any of those people, never ever discussed writing at all.  It’s good company and you would love to spend your time with these people.  But I live out in the sticks and there is only one other writer in town that I live in, one, and he writes literary fiction.  He wouldn’t talk to me.

 

Don’t you think that that is rather annoying because people don’t take crime fiction seriously.  I get so annoyed by the fact that crime fiction hasn’t won any major literary award.

 I got long-listed for the Miles Franklin award, which is an award for literary fiction. No crime writer in Australia has ever been long-listed for it. 

 

That’s because the judges had such good taste.

 Well, I commended them heartedly on their taste.  Lots of people were quite offended by the idea that someone from a “genre” should get on the list.  I am hoping that it sets precedence.  But I hope that I can write a book that can win the bloody Miles Franklin award and would shove it up them.  But I hope that someone else writes a crime novel and gets on it.  There is so much crime and it is so superior.

 

It’s very elitist when they do things like that.

It’s kind of like the world of the imagination against the people write about the realities of life.

 

I am sorry but you write about the realities of life in crime fiction.

I know, that’s the crime fiction ones, but you are up against the people who don’t write about it and that is regarded as somehow wrong.  It has always struck me that people who read literary fiction expect to come away from it improved.    I have had people say ‘have you read Henry James or Proust ?’ and if you said no then they would say that you really should as if in reading that you would actually be improved.

           

But I would say to them have the read any Raymond Chandler?

Well exactly!  But they would say what sort of moral improvement do you expect from that?  None, absolutely none and I don’t care.  I’m not looking for moral improvement.

 

How do you relax when you are not writing?

Well I write every day of the year but all my interests can be brought into my writing.  I have been distracted in recent years but I have always been interested in cabinet making.  I have been a very serious and dangerous punter.  I have won and lost a lot of money on the races in my day.  Mostly losses.  I am interested in all kinds of things.  I am not a big relaxer I have taken my dogs for endless bloody walks, long walks.  I love music and I have music on all the time, but that’s while I am working.  I like making things with my hands and I’drather work with my hands than write any day.  I’m much more a manual person than I am anything else.  I don’t think that I do relax; my wife would say, “relax” what would you know about relaxing?

 

If you had to pick five books to take away with you which would they be and why?

I would always take some poetry with me because I love poetry. He is unfashionable but T.S. Elliot remains the touchstone for me in modern poetry.  I am a great reader of plays and I would take a Pinter with me just to sharpen up my dialogue and just to show to me that you don’t have to explain anything because it’s all there.  I would take – this is going to too sound pretentious,  I would take The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II by somebody called Bradel which I have now managed read about half  and it’s taken me over ten or fifteen years.  I have got to finish this one.  What would I take in literary fiction?  I would want to take a new John Updike anyday and I would look on the lighter side in recent times I would look for a Denis Lehane.  I would be happy to try a Pelecanos.  That would pretty much cover it.

 

Thank you very much indeed.

It was lovely talking to you.

Books by Peter Temple:

  • Bad Debts
  • An Iron Rose
  • Shooting Star
  • Black Tide
  • Dead Point
  • In The Evil Day  Aka Identity Theory
  • White Dog
  • The Broken Shore
  • Truth (2008)

 

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Peter Temple



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