Fancy Goods questionnaire: Hilary Simmons

hilaryHilary Simmons is the new assistant editor at Books+Publishing. We asked her to share her reading fancies.

What are you reading right now?

I just started reading Various Pets Alive and Dead on the commute to work this morning (Marina Lewycka, Fig Tree). She’s the one who wrote A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Penguin). I’m hooked already—she has this brilliant ability to combine farce, irony and compassion.

What book do you always recommend?

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (Canongate). I know nothing about the film adaptation with Scarlett Johansson—although I’m planning on checking it out—but the book is excellent.

What book are you most looking forward to?

Helen Garner’s new nonfiction book, This House of Grief (Text). I think Garner does nonfiction best; I can vividly recall reading Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador) for the first time. Also, the new short-story collection by Margaret Atwood that’s out in a couple of months and Dress, Memory by Lorelei Vashti (A&U).

What book made you wonder what all the fuss was about?

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult (A&U), who always writes the same parental-trauma-porn where whatever the worst case scenario you can conceive of for a family comes to pass. Or The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury)that was a story that held me right up until the end when everything got tied up in an infuriatingly neat package which felt like it was pre-destined for Hollywood.

What’s the best book you’ve read that no-one’s ever heard of?

This Is How by M J Hyland (Text). I wouldn’t go so far as to say no one’s ever heard of it as she’s got a cult following, but she deserves a wider readership. It’s a masterful study in claustrophobia, loneliness and possibly madness—but you can’t quite tell.

Obligatory desert island question—which book would you want with you?

Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (Faber).

Is there a book you’ve bought for the cover?

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables from the Penguin Clothbound Classics series, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. It’s all inky blue binding and entwined red birds.

Hardback, paperback or digital?

Paperback. Nothing compares to the weight, feel and smell of a real book. I learnt that from years working in a bookshop—you see customers covertly stroke books and sniff their pages. I think ebooks are well-suited to travel because of their transportability and they’re amazing for academic texts or research purposes. But I prefer to have a real book in my hands that I can drop without fear and/or spill coffee on. I never know what to do with the paper jackets from hardback books, so paperback all the way.

If I were a literary character I’d be…

Anna Karenina crossed with Jo March with a little bit of Nancy Drew thrown in for mystery factor.

The best thing about books is…

They don’t mind when you forget their names.

Taking a gamble: Michaela McGuire on ‘Last Bets’

authorMcGuireMichaela_boxWhen Michaela McGuire came across the death of Crown Casino patron Anthony Dunning in the news, she began to follow the court case and was eventually inspired to write Last Bets (MUP, June), a ‘grown-up book’ about the gambling industry. She spoke to Portia Lindsay. Read Lindsay’s review here.

Last Bets is about gambling, but also thoroughly demonstrates how a trial works. Were you drawn to this story as a court case as well as a gambling issue?
Absolutely. Working in law firms has been paying my bills for years, but I’d never been involved in a criminal trial, much less inside a courtroom. I spent a total of nine weeks observing this matter make its way through the courts, and became completely obsessed. I think I drove all of my friends a bit mad, actually. At parties I’d just drag somebody into a corner, tell them my theories then demand their opinions. It was fascinating, watching lawyers and witnesses grapple with different versions of the same story until a verdict was eventually reached. Being present in court while the defence quite regularly argued for certain details to be struck from witness statements, and the newspapers, was an eye-opener for me, as well as all the careful closed-door discussions that took place once the jury had been excused.

You certainly interviewed some interesting people and dedicated a lot of time to the trial of the bouncers. What was the most challenging part of writing this book for you?
As well as the boring stuff like figuring out how I was going to afford to live while I sat in court then wrote this book, I found it difficult to balance my account. I spend a lot of time probing the gap between ethics and the law, but wanted to do so without getting too bogged down in the legalities, politics or the moral high ground. It took me a while to find my feet and to feel comfortable writing, well, a grown-up book I guess. The toughest part was probably landing interviews. I was never able to speak formally with Crown Casino or the Victoria Police, and had to rely on a lot off-the-record conversations. I spent two hours chasing David Walsh around Hobart, essentially being interviewed for an interview, and he definitely put me through my paces.

How did writing this book change the way you view gambling?
I had a very negative perception of gambling going in, which was actually what sparked the idea for writing this book. I’d worked in a casino when I was 20 and loathed every moment of being there, then instinctively transferred that hatred to all elements of gambling. It was when I realised that I couldn’t articulate what it was that I found so off-putting that I decided to investigate the issue more fully. I have a more nuanced understanding of gambling now, and a better idea of the peculiar effect it can have on individuals as well as institutions.

Do you already have plans for a new book or are you waiting for another issue to grab you?
I’ve spent the last six years working on back-to-back books, so I’m going to attempt to take it easy on myself for a little while. I’ve got the first glimmers of an idea, but want to take a bit of time and make sure it’s the right story for me to take on.

What was the last book you read and loved?
I was reading a lot of nonfiction while I wrote Last Bets so the first thing I did when I handed the manuscript in was open a big, fat novel. I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Little, Brown) and just loved it so much. For the three days it took me to read it, I woke up every morning feeling so excited that I’d get to read such a compelling, intelligent, fun book that day.

Artistic licence: Emily Bitto on ‘The Strays’

authorEmilyBitto_boxEmily Bitto’s debut The Strays (Affirm Press) tells the story of a young girl ‘wooed by a progressive group of artists living in 1930s Melbourne’. She spoke to reviewer Emily Laidlaw. You can read Laidlaw’s review here.

The Strays can be read as a fictionalised account of the now widely celebrated Heide circle of artists, who, like the characters in your novel, created unconventional art in Australia while leading very unconventional lives. What drew you to their stories and how did you research this period?
I was certainly inspired by the stories of the Heide circle, including John and Sunday Reed, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester and others, but I should make it clear that readers shouldn’t expect any direct resemblance to these historical figures or the specifics of their lives in The Strays. What I have drawn on is the idea of a group of unconventional individuals coming together with the idea of separating themselves to some extent from mainstream society, which I find a really fascinating phenomenon and a rich setting for a novel because of the tensions and intrigues that inevitably occur when intense personalities are brought together in this way. In part I steered away from trying to create a direct fictional account of the Heide circle because what happened at Heide was almost too dramatic to fictionalise. It would have read like melodrama. So I’ve read a lot about those individuals, but I created my own distinct characters and story in The Strays.

In researching the novel I consulted a range of sources, including numerous accounts of the rise of modernism in Australia, novels and memoirs set in Melbourne in the 1930s and 40s, and books about the Heide circle, for example Janine Burke’s wonderful The Heart Garden (Knopf), about Sunday Reed, but what I found most useful in terms of getting a sense of the personalities of those now canonical artists, and most resonant for me as a writer, was reading their letters, particularly between Tucker and Nolan and between Joy Hester and Sunday Reed. I also read letters and other documents in the Reed collection in the State Library of Victoria, which is an amazing resource. However, having said all that, I really didn’t want my novel to read as heavily researched historical fiction—I wanted it to have a contemporary voice too, and I hope that has come through.

The_StraysA fine knowledge and appreciation for art history is evident in your debut. Looking to your own craft, who are the artists or writers who most inspire you, and did any influence in particular the writing of The Strays?
The novel started its life as half of a creative writing PhD, and in the research component that I submitted alongside it I looked at the way artists have been represented in contemporary fiction. I read a lot of artist novels and in that sense I couldn’t help but be influenced by that tradition in writing The Strays, and thinking a lot about the place artists occupy in our culture and the many competing ideas about the nature of creativity. But in terms of the writers who have most inspired me as a reader I’d probably list mainly modernist writers and writers who have a strong focus on language and mood—writers like William Faulkner, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, and more recently people like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, as well as lots of poets. Michael Ondaatje was a particular touchstone for me when writing The Strays because I can tend to get a bit wordy and he is someone whose prose is very imagistic and rich and yet also very economical. I read him to remind myself to rein in my prose and focus on the image.

1930s Melbourne depicted in The Strays is a very uniform and creatively staid city. Through researching this era, how would you compare it to the Melbourne of today, especially in terms of opportunities for artists?
I chose to set The Strays in 1930s Melbourne because it was a time when there were potentially really serious consequences for artists who broke with convention in terms of what should and shouldn’t be represented, not only morally but also in relation to realism vs modernism, figurative art vs abstraction etc. It was a very conservative culture, and a number of obscenity trials happened around the time. But I suppose with that also came the thrill of participating in something genuinely new and daring. I think artists today, whether visual artists, writers, or any kind of creative producers, struggle because there is really no true avant-garde any more. Of course there are places in the world where there are extremely serious consequences for artists who defy repressive regimes of various kinds, but in Melbourne at least, we have our Bill Henson hysterias every now and then, but generally perhaps artists suffer from having it too easy rather than from too few opportunities.

Much anticipation surrounds The Strays since its shortlisting for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. How does it feel to be releasing your first novel?
It feels incredible, and incredibly terrifying.

What was the last book you read and loved?
Jim Crace’s Man Booker nominated Harvest (Picador)—for the incredible rhythm of the prose, which is something that’s so rare for prose writers to pay attention to these days. It was almost written in iambic verse at times. And the way it created such a vivid, self-contained world was magical. Every metaphor and image was taken from that world and worked to build it in the mind of the reader. I’m currently finally reading A Death in the Family, the fist in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series (Vintage), and I’m loving it too.

Fancy Goods questionnaire: Brad Jefferies

bradphotoBrad Jefferies is the new publishing assistant at Books+Publishing. We asked him to share his reading fancies.

What are you reading right now?

Late last night I finished Wayne Macauley’s collection Other Stories (Black Pepper). Very funny and absurd (mostly) little stories. I’ve forgotten the name of it, but the story where the politician commandeers a tractor on a rampage through the city was my favourite.

What book do you always recommend?

Ever since Craig Silvey replied to one of my friend’s fan-emails following up on the Batman vs Superman debate, I’ve been pretty insistent about Jasper Jones (A&U)—mostly because Silvey seems like a really nice person.

What book are you most looking forward to?

I’d really like Julia Gillard to rip into Kevin Rudd in the book she’s writing. If she is (again) too gracious to do so, then I’m looking forward to reading Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (A&U).

What book made you wonder what all the fuss was about?

Am I allowed to say The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion, Text)?

What’s the best book you’ve read that no-one’s ever heard of?

Way to Go! Sadness, Euphoria and the Fremantle Dockers by Matt Price (Fremantle Press). Price knew that being able to laugh at yourself is a key skill for us Dockers supporters.

Obligatory desert island question—which book would you want with you?

Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway). As well as being a great book, I think it would humble me and stymie any thoughts I had about trying to swim my way to safety.

Is there a book you’ve bought for the cover?

Not recently, although if a book is part of a series I feel obligated to buy and read the whole set so it looks nice on the shelf.

Hardback, paperback or digital?

Paperback. I do have an ereader, but I only use it when I’m desperate for something to read and I haven’t got a print book handy. As for hardback, those slips they put over the cover really annoy me. Am I supposed to read with them on, or put them aside? If I put them aside I never see them again, and if I leave them on they crease and tear in my bag. Paperback is much simpler.

If I were a literary character I’d be…

I planted out my herbs and chilli plants yesterday, and it was hard not to imagine myself as a tiny, apartment-bound modern day Thoreau (even though he’s not technically a character) tending to my Walden (which is actually a balcony).

The best thing about books is…

They help me to understand all the strange things and strange people in the world.

INTERVIEW: Katherine Dorrington, program manager of the Perth Writers Festival

With the Perth Writers Festival just around the corner (21-24 February), Bookseller+Publisher spoke to program manager Katherine Dorrington about the festival’s highlights, its focus on literary writing, politics and journalism, and her favourite sessions.

What do you anticipate will be the highlights of this year’s Perth Writers Festival?
There are almost too many to mention, but I’ll give it my best shot! Without a doubt my number one highlight would be Margaret Atwood. She is such an influential writer and brilliant storyteller. I’m also really looking forward to hearing China Miéville speak. I’m a huge fan of his writing and I’ve never had the opportunity to hear him live.

I think Kevin Powers will be a big hit with our audiences. His book The Yellow Birds (Hodder) was on numerous ‘best of’ lists for 2012, and I’m looking forward to hearing him speak about his remarkable novel. Lawrence Norfolk is also high on my ‘must see’ list; his brilliant depiction of 17th-century England, John Saturnall’s Feast (Bloomsbury), astonished me with the amount of historical research he undertook.

The other major highlight for me is a series of events called ‘Out of the Box’, which focuses on television drama as serious form of storytelling rivalling cinema and literature.

What sessions or which authors do you think will attract the big crowds?
Margaret Atwood, China Miéville, Anna Funder and Phillip Adams are the authors I think will attract the biggest crowds, but I also think some of our events such as the Poets VS Novelists Debate, The Stella Prize Trivia Night, and the Family Day will also be really popular.

What about your personal picks? Which authors are you most looking forward to hearing talk about their work?
From our international line-up I loved Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars (Headline), so I’m really looking forward to hearing him speak, and also Steven Poole whose new book, You Aren’t What You Eat (Scribe), should generate lots of debate, which is always great for a festival. I’m really excited about our opening address, On Art and Politics with Ahdaf Soueif—it’s a great way to start a writers’ festival and epitomises what the festival is about, the place where storytelling and art inform and examine real life. The other international author I’ll be making sure I’m in the front row to listen to is Edward St Aubyn as I find his prose very polished and witty.

Australian authors I’m keen to listen to include Andrew Croome, Graeme Simsion, Benjamin Law, Anna Funder and Michelle de Kretser among many others.

What is the theme or inspiration for this year’s festival?
This year some of the threads running throughout the festival include a return and focus on literary writing with authors such as Edward St Aubyn, James Meek, Michelle de Kretser, Kevin Powers and Anna Funder. There is also a strong focus on politics and journalism with writers such as David Marr, Laura Tingle, Maxine McKew, James Button, Phillip Adams, David Uren, Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. I’m also interested in exploring the changing nature of the modern soldier with Chris Masters, Kevin Powers and Major General John Cantwell.

Australian literature is often dominated by the Eastern states. How do you plan to highlight talent from the West?
To be honest I don’t think of it in those terms. We have a wealth of talent here in the West that includes authors who are recognised internationally as well as nationally. I would imagine that most book lovers appreciate good writing no matter where it’s from. However, I’d like to highlight just one key partnership we have with writingWA and Wines of Western Australia. This year we are featuring a number of WA writers in an event called ‘A Glass of Wine and a Good Book’, involving two of life’s great pleasures, reading a book and drinking wine!

Will the festival be using digital programming to reach audiences online?
While we are very active online in the way we interact with our audience, we don’t have any specific digital programming planned for this year. However, the festival is planning on employing a digital producer for 2014 and I think there could be some exciting developments in this area for future festivals.

INTERVIEW: Steve Grimwade, director/CEO of the Melbourne Writers Festival

This will be Steve Grimwade’s final year as director of the Melbourne Writers Festival (23 August to 2 September), with Lisa Dempster recently announced as his successor. Grimwade spoke to Andrew Wrathall.

Can you explain this year’s festival theme ‘Enquire Within’? 
The theme is, centrally, a call to action. The most obvious reading of the theme is that a writers festival gives us the prime opportunity to investigate the ways in which writers make us think and feel. The theme also speaks to the very heart of the festival experience—to seek to go further into the writers mind. Finally, to ‘enquire within’ is an invitation to a great gathering—and to our hub at Fed Square. It’s a call to bring together people who are passionate about ideas, curious about our lives and the society we live in.

What do you anticipate will be the highlights of this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival?
This is an unusually hard question, given that highlights are to be found where individual fancy lies. I can imagine that looking over Roz Chast’s shoulders, as she draws live in the Atrium, will send quite a few people aquiver. But fans of This American Life may rather enjoy the festival’s home-grown equivalent—The Radio Hour—sixty minutes of A-grade documentary radio created right in front of your eyes (with writers, musicians and technical sorts all on stage making it happen). Many in my own staff team are longing to meet the delightful Pico Iyer, a man whose being and writing chime with lyrical beauty. Highlights are where you find them, and they’re just as often on a small stage as they are a large one.

What sessions or which authors do you think will attract the biggest crowds?
An easy question! Our audiences have been unreservedly drawn to the gregarious, thoughtful and delightful Simon Callow, and they have equally, unanimously, joyously been electrified by our New Yorker writers. (Those New Yorker events that are yet to sell out are just seats away from that very eventuality.)

What about your personal picks? Which authors are you most looking forward to hearing talk about their work?
Each and every one of them. But I suspect that a more direct answer may be: John Lanchester, a writer whose suite of talents astounds me; Gillian Mears, who speaks so graciously about her work (and who is a charmed writer); and Martha Nussbaum, a major philosopher whose energy is breathtaking.

To speak of a few specific events, I’m hoping I can somehow swing across to Liner Notes as they celebrate David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust; I love the line-up for our You Animals panel (Tim Flannery, Sonya Hartnett, Anna Krien and Charlotte Wood); and I reckon we’ve got the best line-up for ABC TV’s Q&A in quite some time—Simon Callow, Joumana Haddad, Anthony Appiah, Sefi Atta and Germaine Greer. No polly waffle!

How has the festival changed over the past five years and how do you see it evolving after you leave?
My desire has been to open the festival to more readers and more writers, and to honour the ways in which writing connects us all. By continuing to broaden our focus—by not limiting ourselves to one view of ‘good writing’—we’ve drawn readers from a much broader range of backgrounds. (Some 30% of our audience are between 18-35 years of age, and I think that makes for a particularly vibrant festival.)

Significantly the festival has had to deal with two major changes over the past five years—the first, our move to Fed Square, which has been a wonderful blessing on most levels. The second is the introduction of the amazing Wheeler Centre into Melbourne’s cultural landscape. This has been tricky for most literary organisations and event organisers—and we’re only now beginning to gauge the effect of its price point and programming. I’d hope that governments in the near future understand that the festival delivers the most amazing bang for buck, and that increasing our funding levels to those received elsewhere—such as at the Sydney Writers Festival—will enable us to offer far more free events. By doing that I have no doubt that we’d then speak to a much greater audience.

How will the festival evolve?
Well, that’s a question best left to my successor, the fabulous Lisa Dempster. But the largest gap I rue not filling is having the finances to establishing a greater physical presence at Fed Square.

Will the festival be using digital programming to reach audiences online?
We have, for years, been at the forefront of discussing digital publishing’s effect on audiences—and we’ve run public conferences on Digital Publishing and the future of journalism. We continue to run the latter—the New News conference—which is even more of a highlight of this year’s program (and very necessarily so).

We have also, for years, engaged a variety of the city’s favourite literary bloggers to engage with our own guests and to report from our events. This year I believe we have over eight bloggers reporting from events and we’ll be showing a live Twitter stream at our New News events. In addition to this we’re live streaming a small number of schools events and we also record all our events, offering an array of pod and vodcasts after the physical festival is over.

Interview: Chip Rolley, artistic director of Sydney Writers’ Festival

This year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival (14-20 May) is the third to be programmed by artistic director Chip Rolley. He spoke to Andrea Hanke.

What do you think will be the highlights of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival?
It’s always difficult to pick favourites, especially in a festival that features over 400 participants in over 300 events. Judging by the early ticket sales, Edmund de Waal and Jeffrey Eugenides are runaway bestsellers. But others are knocking on the door.

What sessions or which authors do you think will attract the big crowds?
There’s a lot to choose from, but I think the largest crowds will be lining up for Jeff ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ Kinney, Jeanette Winterson and Jeffrey Eugenides. And then we’ve got Roddy Doyle together with Sebastian Barry and Tom Keneally. Of course Stella Rimington and Kathy Lette will pull in crowds. And there’s a lot of curiosity about Joe McGinniss and Michael Hastings.

What about your personal picks? Which authors are you most looking forward to hearing talk about their work?
I am really keen to hear Susan Swingler, whose memoir House of Fiction (Fremantle Press) lifts the lid on one of our literary legends Elizabeth Jolley. And I’m always attracted to the new voices—authors like Sjon from Iceland, Riikka Pulkkinen from Finland, Chad Harbach with The Art of Fielding (Fourth Estate). And I’m keen to hear Jesmyn Ward, whose book Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury) is one of the most moving novels I have read in some time.

How did you decide on the theme for this year’s festival?
I’ll never forget when the ex-News of the World journo Paul McMullan told the UK Leveson Inquiry into the media, ‘Privacy is for paedos.’ The audacity of it: if you’re concerned about privacy, you must have something to hide. That crystallised for me the question of where we draw the line between public and private. The sense that that line is vanishing has been building for years. Not just because of UK scandal rags, or even the increased state security apparatus. But with social media we post things about ourselves that in previous times we might not have even told our loved ones. It seems to me it’s the question of our time—and it’s a question writers have been asking themselves for years. For us, it was a perfect way to give the festival itself a narrative.

Will you be doing anything different this time around? Any strategies for attracting younger crowds?
I learned a long time ago (back when I worked in magazines in New York) that the minute you start trying to attract younger crowds, you’ve lost the game. Smells like Teen Spirit. If we ensure our programming is driven by strong ideas, people of all ages—young, old and every age in between—will come to the events.

You’ve got a couple of pretty big-name authors in attendance (Jeffrey Eugenides, Jeff Kinney …). Any outrageous tour riders?
Are you referring to that rumour we have to buy a life-time supply of drawing paper and Textas in 36 colours? I’m contractually bound not to say anything about it.

Interview: Felicity Higgins on ‘The Mothers’ Group’ (A&U)

Fiona Higgins’ debut novel The Mothers’ Group (published in excellent time for Mother’s Day) follows the lives of six very different mums in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. It covers some ‘dark territory’ but is no ‘misery mumoir’, writes reviewer Felicity McLean. She spoke to the author.

The Mothers’ Group is your first novel (following your memoir, Love in the Age of Drought). How did you find the shift to fiction?
Liberating. With Love in the Age of Drought, I was constrained by the truth. It was my life I was writing about—and if I didn’t tell the truth, a bunch of witnesses (including my husband) would be holding me accountable! The Mothers Group freed me up to explore themes about parenting and relationships in a really creative way, taking my ideas and storyline in almost any direction. It was such a different and satisfying experience. That said, I think the characters in the novel are all very real. In fact, it was as if this group of real people just came and plonked themselves inside my head while I was writing! And their issues are real: they’re striving so hard to be the mothers they want to be, yet so often they fail (in their own eyes, mostly) to achieve that goal. This is the experience of many mothers I know, including me.

You cover some dark territory in The Mothers’ Group, exploring issues such as infidelity, substance abuse and birth deformities. Was any of this content based in your own experiences of motherhood?
I’ve chosen to explore some of the hardest issues about mothering that people rarely talk about, that’s true. The thing about taboos is, you’ve got to give them a decent airing before you can start tackling them. But the novel is equally about love, friendship and commitment—all of which I’ve experienced intensely since becoming a mother myself. None of the content in the novel is a direct replication of my own experience of motherhood, but certainly there’s an aspect of myself in all the characters. So, for example, there’s quite a tough, brittle character in the novel called Ginie, who is almost diametrically opposed in temperament to a gentle and generous Balinese character called Made (pronounced Mar-day). Well, on a bad day in my household, I’m Ginie. On a good day, I’m Made. And I think this is the experience of many mothers—they have good days, bad days, and everything in between. The question is—can society, and can women themselves, be generous enough to accept this reality: the imperfection of the flawed mother?

Who do you see are readers for The Mothers’ Group? Fathers not just mothers? Women beyond just those with children?
While I think the book will appeal most directly to women and men who are parenting younger children, there’s plenty in it for anyone interested in human relationships and family dynamics—dads, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or women who are childless by choice or circumstance.

What was the last book you read and loved?
The Life
by Malcolm Knox. I was hospitalised at the time, just before Christmas, so had this unexpected window to read it. I’d picked it up before but had been daunted by its style. But this time, once I was in, I was hooked. The main character—a washed-up former champion surfer, living with his mum in a retirement village—was so poignant and compelling. I found the style and language utterly engaging and, living on Sydney’s northern beaches, I felt like I’d met a few of the characters. Once I was discharged from hospital, I went out and bought copies for surfer mates of mine.  And funnily enough, it’s a book where maternal power is brought to bear with devastating force. Once again, it’s all about mum!

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.

INTERVIEW: Meet Laura Kroetsch, director of Adelaide Writers’ Week

Adelaide Writers’ Week is just around the corner (3-8 March). Eloise Keating spoke to new director Laura Kroetsch about her first festival, her favourite sessions and the themes behind this year’s program.

What do you think will be the highlights of this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Week?
For much of our audience the highlights will be discovering new writers and some really great books.  Among our many treasures, I think audiences will fall in love with American novelist and short story writer Ron Rash. Rash is a gorgeous speaker and his books are a delight. I’m also predicting people will be quite enchanted by Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret. Keret’s oddly funny and always surprising. I think our audiences will be as charmed by our two titans’ of Spanish literature, Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vasquez. I’m also predicting that our audiences will love British biographer Selina Hastings, and her terrific biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray).

What sessions or which authors do you think will attract the big crowds?
We have some truly wonderful big-name writers coming this year and we are expecting big crowds for Kate Grenville, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray and the crime-writing superstar Jo Nesbo. I also think Glen Duncan will pull in the numbers as his recent novel, The Last Werewolf (Text), has enjoyed huge success. We’re also expecting big numbers for Greg Chappell in a session that will see him in conversation with Malcom Knox, we’ve never really celebrated sports writing at Writers’ Week and we are hoping for a good crowd. We also feel confident that our speculative fiction writers will also enjoy big audiences, in part because Robert Shearman’s ‘Doctor Who and Daleks’ was our first ticketed session to sell out.  I’m hoping for big audiences for Kelly Link and Margo Lanagan, two great writers who deserve the huge audiences they enjoy.

What about your personal picks? Which authors are you most looking forward to hearing talk about their work?
There are some writers that you get a bit selfish about, and these are, for me, my more recent discoveries. I’ve loved Kate Grenville for over a decade, probably longer, but I only met Jenny Erpenbeck as a writer last year. Her novel Visitation (Portobello Books) is one of the best I’ve read in years.  Technically I began reading Michael Crummey about 10 years ago, but he’d slipped from my mind. Fortunately a mutual friend told me to read his novel Galore and I’m so delighted he is coming to Adelaide. I’m huge fan of noir novels and so am really looking forward to meeting Megan Abbott—she is the real deal. Poetry is a passion and among our poets the one I most look forward to meeting is Dionne Brand. Her long poem ‘Ossuaries’ is a must read—even for those who don’t think they like poetry.

This is your first Adelaide Writers’ Week. Is there anything new or different that you have introduced?
We’ve changed a lot—not what makes this event great—but a lot nonetheless. We’ve redesigned the site. We’ve traded the tents for sail cloth, we’ve moved the booktent and the caterer to another part of the garden in an effort to make the site more comfortable and we’ve even got new chairs—they’re green. We are thrilled to be hosting our first kids program—it will run alongside the regular program on Sunday 4 March and will include a story tent, a giant Leafy Sea Dragon and some very clever craft. We’ll also, in an effort to attract office workers, run a series of lunchtime and early evening sessions designed to appeal to office workers, or indeed anyone who has never been to a literary festival before. The series will feature both fiction and nonfiction and we hope to see a few suits in our new green seats.

There has been a trend towards issues-based programs at recent writers’ festivals. Are there any particular issues or themes that inform this year’s event?
The demand for issues-based conversation is a fascinating one, and yes, we now have a focus on nonfiction that we haven’t had in past festivals. Among the many issues that I hoped to present is a conversation about religious tolerance, and in doing so to attempt to provide a counter-balance to the story so popularly presented by Richard Dawkins in 2010. That answer comes from two extraordinary journalists, Eliza Griswold and M J Ackbar, both of whom are writing about the religious tensions in the Middle East with insight and generosity.  Like everyone else in Australia I too burn to know more about China, and am delighted to be presenting both Jianying Zha and Paul French. I realise now, looking back over the program, that I have a lot of writers coming who in both fiction and nonfiction write about the experience of immigration, and as a new migrant myself, it strikes that this is, for this nation of immigrants, one of our most enduring questions.

For more information on Adelaide Writers’ Week visit the website here