INTERVIEW: Tony Cavanaugh on ‘Promise’ (Hachette)

Tony Cavanaugh is a film and television writer who has just published his first crime novel, Promise (Hachette), a serial killer thriller set on the Sunshine Coast. He spoke to reviewer Ian Hallett. (See the book review here.)

Your novel switches between two narrators: Darian, a hard-bitten ex-homicide cop, and Winston, a depraved serial killer. How much research went into Winston’s character?
A lot; I had been studying the behavioural patterns and methodology of psychopathic violent repeat offenders for about 10 years before I wrote the book. This was for a TV series (that didn’t get made) and a film (that did). This work led me to develop a close working relationship with the then Chief Inspector of Homicide in Melbourne and with an FBI-trained criminal profiler who was with Homicide in Melbourne and now has his own business. Additionally I read quite a lot on the subject, most notably Without Conscience by Robert Hare (Guilford Publications). This research allowed me to understand the narcissistic and grandiose strains to these people’s characters; also the absolute lack of empathy to other people, especially their victims, the bragging and the belief that they are special and, finally the creepy ability to mimic other people’s emotions even though they cannot experience these emotions themselves. In writing Winston I assumed he was clever and had accessed this material so that he understood, on an intellectual level, how he operated.

Just reading Winston’s sections made me feel slightly soiled—he is such a vile character. What was your experience living inside his head, and how did you wash him out of yours at the end of each writing day?
Aside from the standard writer’s procrastination of vacuuming and cleaning up the kitchen on a far too regular basis, I had to have a lot of showers. Every time I finished a passage from Winston’s point of view I felt quite unclean. It was horrible. On the one hand I was happy with where I was going with him, on the other he was so creepy I felt tainted. Dirty. At times I worried that people would think I was a weirdo myself. Indeed a couple of the very first comments that came back to me from friends was that I must be sick. That bothered me and I have to confess that I did think about diluting Winston. But then I figured I had to stay true to his voice; it was my job to lay him down in all his nakedness.

I guess because of my background as a story editor with other scriptwriters and as a producer I was able to step back and analyse him as a character within the world of the book. In that respect I considered the most horrible criminal in modern culture: Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter. With Hitchcock’s great quote ‘The stronger the evil, the stronger the film’ in my mind, I set out to make Winston as compellingly awful as possible. Being able to analyse him in this regard, as a tool I suppose, made it easier for me to deal with him internally. Luckily he didn’t invade me when I slept and the showers worked.

This book has a very strong sense of place. What attracted you to the Sunshine Coast setting?
In terribly embarrassing and very poor circumstances I sped my car off a dirt road on the Noosa North Shore and into a tree. It was six in the morning and I had a bottle of vodka by my side. (Those days, I hasten to add, are well and truly behind me.) After I was escorted into the back of a paddy wagon I was driven to the Noosa police station. The middle-aged cop who was trying to get my blood alcohol reading (from a dodgy machine that wasn’t working) told me that he’d come up to Noosa from Victoria for the ‘cruisey’ lifestyle. It was at that moment that I just thought, what would happen if there was a really nasty serial killer on the Sunshine Coast? The police just aren’t equipped to handle that level of crime. They do drunks and sinking tourists in the surf, guys who grow a little weed, misdemeanours, that sort of thing. It was specifically that question which led me to expand my thinking about the Sunshine Coast. Full of tourists, itinerants, lots of little villages and vast tracts of land that are pretty much unexplored.

While this is your first novel, you have extensive experience in writing for film and television. How do you think this has influenced your writing style?
Writing for film and TV is so different because the script is not intended to be published. (At the end of a shoot you literally chuck them all in a bin.) Elegance of language, even grammar, isn’t really that important. One of the basic rules in film and TV writing is you ‘show’ don’t ‘tell’. Therefore you rely on basic action in the stage directions and let dialogue inform the characters. Another is that you can’t do an inner monologue or an internal conversation—I think that actually being aware that I was freed from these restrictions in the writing of the book was a huge influence and I tended to really go for it, with both characters. (I was, at the time, also reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (Picador), where the poetry of language is so overwhelmingly powerful.)

American screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote that all great scripts are due to structure, structure and structure. That’s been a huge influence in my screenwriting and I was lucky enough to start out as a script editor in plotting meetings on The Sullivans in the late 70s where I learnt how to plot and then how to structure. As I was writing the book those lessons really came into play. At the same time, I had recently been toying with non-linear structure in some of the TV and film dramas I’d worked on. Avoiding the standard narrative of ‘what happens next should follow’. In that respect I went back in time to Darian’s past as a cop and as a detective to hopefully inform the present tense narrative of him hunting Winston.

The other really big influence comes also from Hitchcock who writes about the audience instinctively second-guessing where the story and characters are going. Being as unpredictable as possible in cutting to the next scene (in what you see on the screen) is really important and I sort of tried to follow that line with the way I’d enter a new chapter, knowing that the reader would be expecting a certain event or action to occur.

That said the most important thing I ever learnt about writing when I was first starting out on The Sullivans was: be clear and don’t be confusing. (The second most important thing was: don’t ever be boring. Kubrick’s great ‘rule’ on what makes a good film was that it had to be ‘interesting’.)

Were you inspired by any other crime writers while you were working on this novel?
Yes, absolutely. I re-read some Raymond Chandler and have been mightily impressed by the great works of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Robert Crais, James Lee Burke and Harlan Coben. American crime fiction, at the moment, is just so awesome. Each of these authors is so good at narrative, at the exploration of the darkness within the soul and, like Chandler, in using great wit.

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