Books and Isolation
I don’t know why I write books. It was just something that started one day and never seemed to stop.
I do know why my books are all murder mysteries, though. And I know exactly when my writing started.
As a kid growing up in Hobart, I had a quiet life. Nothing to complain about. I’m the first to admit it was a privileged upbringing – not much stuff, almost no shopping, but a first class liberal intellectual and moral education at Friends’ and lots of outdoor and craft activities.
But mostly what I did was read. Probably not that unusual, especially among writers? I read everything I could get my hands on. Highbrow, lowbrow, Women’s Day, Phantom comics. When it comes to distinguishing between literary and popular fiction … it’s never been all that clear to me. In the long days and nights in Hobart in the sixties and seventies, I was always looking for an absorbing story, and characters I cared about. Still am.
The other thing I remember about those years is that I always had the feeling that there was a big fast-moving world somewhere, but it was a long way away. Maybe all Hobart kids felt like this.
Out on the back lawn
I can still remember the day I read my first Agatha Christie, some time around my early teens. It was A Murder is Announced and I was out on the back lawn, with about four pages to go. My parents were running around inside, trying to make me get ready to go somewhere, and I was sitting up against the garage, turning pages, basically hiding, because there was no way I was leaving until I’d found out the solution to this mystery. And when I got to it, I was just blown away – by how I’d been led along and then tricked.
Is it weird to have a book as a formative experience? Of course it didn’t feel significant at the time. But from that point onwards, I searched the library shelves for mysteries, trying to replicate that first thrill.
And now, decades later, I try to write books like that. I want them to be page-turners and intriguing puzzles, scattered with clues. And at the end the clues are pulled together, into the story of a terrible murder. Pretty classical stuff.
Not as simple as it appeared …
This is what Devastation Road was. I had set out to write an Agatha Christie style mystery set in contemporary Australia, in a peaceful, ordered country town.
But during the writing, I found I had written a scene in which two very young people pull a friend’s body out of a pond. Later they visit the bereaved parents of two dead girls. I found I had to write about kids coming to terms with mortality and the deepest grief.
Now writing murder mysteries wasn’t looking so straightforward. I was starting to see that my books needed to be deeper, more complex than I had first thought.
The Books Other People Wanted
My next big milestone was doing a PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT. That helped me to work out exactly what I wanted my books to be, and gave me confidence. Up until that point, I think I’d been trying to deliver all kinds of things – the books I thought other people wanted. And, you will all know, that never really works. You have to write the books you write, if that makes sense. There’s just no other way.
So now I have The Slipping Place, set in Hobart. It’s a page-turning murder mystery, rich in ideas.
Domestic Noir and Mind Games
My work is very much domestic noir. I write about families and close friends, people who think they know each other really well. But maybe they don’t. The main character of The Slipping Place, Veronica, couldn’t even be said to be an amateur detective. She stumbles around trying to help her son, and finds things out.
I think of my books as mind games. The Slipping Place is dark and suspenseful, with some terrible events, and I take a lot of care in describing Hobart, but the focus is what’s going on inside people’s heads. I’m fascinated by how we think about ourselves and other people and the world, what we say to each other, how we communicate, how we obfuscate … and how we lie.
Too Many Ideas
In a way the mystery structure is a scaffolding. Authors draw inspiration from many different places. My writing always starts with an idea. There is more about the ideas behind the novel here.
A Books About Mystery Itself
With The Slipping Place I set out to write a book that examined the place of mystery in all our lives – that sense we all sometimes have that there is a deeper layer of meaning that sits over and above and through the world we are seeing, but that this is something we can never quite grasp. It sits there at the corner of our vision, and vanishes as we turn towards it. This is a feeling that underlies much spirituality, philosophy and the making of art. I also happen to think it’s important for the popularity and longevity of the murder mystery genre. I think, in a small way, mystery stories touch on this much larger and very profound sense of the unknowability of life.
The writing of The Slipping Place began with some horrifying news stories of children being hurt in their own homes. It’s about how we ignore something that is intolerable. How we distance ourselves.
It’s also about what it takes to make a family, and about making art, and about writing, and bookshops, and that feeling we sometimes get when we just can’t get a handle on life. And, of course it’s about Hobart, my extraordinary, complex city, full of Antarctic light and darkness, a vibrant nurturing place on the edge of two great emptinesses. It’s about living at the far edge of the world, and feeling in danger of slipping off.
In fact I probably pile too many ideas into my books … but that’s a conversation for another time.
Death and mystery, on the lonely edge of the world. I didn’t write my first novel until I was in my forties. But the seeds were sown a long time before that, on a ragged lawn in Hobart.
One main inspiration for The Slipping Place was my love of Hobart and my yearning to return. I have lived on the mainland for over forty years, but I have always come back, two or three times a year for weeks at a time. It was only as I got older that I started to realise that Hobart still felt like home.
That is a simple phrase and quick to say, but it’s a very large and complex statement. It refers to what kind of landscape we find comfortable and beautiful, but it is also more than that. It is something about deep understanding.
I grew up on Hobart’s eastern shore, looking across at the mountain, Cornelian Bay and the Botanical Gardens, and also around to the bridge, the city, and out to Storm Bay. It was only after I’d lived on the mainland for some years that I started to appreciate what an extraordinary outlook that was. As I grew older I would find myself at different places, and people would say the view was beautiful, and I remember feeling bewildered – cold, and unsettled.
Of course, I could see what they meant. I can recognise all kinds of beauty in all kinds of places. But what I feel in other places is a kind of disconnection and a vague unexpressed homesickness. At some deep level I don’t understand other landscapes. To quote from the TV series Westworld, there is a faint feeling of, “That doesn’t look like anything to me.”