Thursday, October 21, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about crime - with the Sisters in Crime

While it was an eventful journey just getting to the event, once we all landed safely we had a great night with the Sisters down in Melbourne last Friday.

The panel was chaired by Robin Bowles, who'd done her homework on Sulari Gentill and Angela Savage just as effectively as she had on me. For two completely different takes on the same night, check out Sulari's blog and Angela's blog. And just to prove the old adage that three eye-witnesses will provide three entirely different descriptions, I'll now add another.

Place is my "thing". It's what gets me excited about reading crime and it's what excites me about writing crime. With a great deal of help from a marvellous editor, Dr Malcah Effron, I have recently finished a chapter for an upcoming academic monograph on what I've dubbed "The Politics of Place" specifically how place is developed in Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead and Sara Paretsky's Blacklist as they chart the disintegration of western legal values and traditions in the wake of 9/11.

In both Sulari and Angela's novels, place is given a high degree of attention but in very different and interesting ways.

Sulari commented that she had had letters from elderly people whose memories of the New Guard in those days of madness in Sydney during the 1930s had been reawakened in the pages of her novel, A Few Right Thinking Men. I feel that this kind of response is a real tribute to the sense of political and cultural place Sulari created and proof, yet again, that a real sense of place involves a whole lot more than just getting the names of the streets and the numbers of the buses right. It involves creating a real sense of the place, of the culture, of the conflicts, of the news and the gossip and the violence and the struggles, just as it was in that time for those people.

Like her first novel, Angela's second, The Half-Childis set in ThailandWhen Angela began talking about writing Thailand, a place she loves and wants to share with her readers, she described her unease when she acknowledged that writing crime set there would mean dredging up all the negative stereotypes people harbour about that country; crime, corruption, drugs, vice, sex, exploitation. For her this meant she had to think carefully about how she handled the material, about making sure her characters and issues were real and complex.

This area of discussion came up towards the end of our allotted time, unfortunately, as it is something that is also of concern to me in my work. How to write about issues such as police corruption with nuance and depth, avoiding the cliches, making it real without making it repellent, keeping it authentic which means, to some degree showing how and why it occurs with subtlety, even empathy.

I related very strongly to Angela's concerns in depicting an Asian setting with both honesty and affection, as I have set the events of Book 2 in Cabramatta in early 1993. A quick glance at the headlines of that time ticks all the boxes of a great crime novel; young, violent gangs fighting and killing over a share of the drug market, home invasions and extortion, gambling and prostitution, drug sellers taking over the streets, crime out of control, police overwhelmed - every headline a story. And every headline fodder for those who did not want to see the development of an Australia where a good percentage of its population would not come from Anglo-Celtic-European backgrounds but from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos.

No doubt about it, Cabramatta in 1993 was quite a place. A complex, rich and troubled place, where some kids went "out to play", ra choi, and ended up dead, others went to school while their parents tried to learn English, worked two jobs. Some kids went to jail and some kids went to university, carrying all the weight of expectation on their shoulders that they could claw back something of what their parents had given up to come to Australia.

It this nuanced Cabramatta I want the next book to explore. A place where kids dealt drugs and carried knives and lived in groups like little families taking care of each other, while behind closed doors, other families, damaged beyond all repair by war, just tried to hold on.

One of these days Angela and Sulari and I will have to have a good long talk about writing honestly but with nuance about places and people that are all too often seen in black and white*.

*Which is to say we're available for weddings, parties anything ....

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sisters in Crime and a Stitch in Time

I am a pretty uncoordinated person. Never ask me to dance. In fact, discovering aqua-aerobics was a huge boon. No longer condemned to hide in the back row of the gym, stumbling my way through another series of complicated moves, always a beat or two behind the music. Oh the joy, of thrashing away in the pool where no one can see you moving below the neck.

My uncoordinated approach to movement often sees me shoulder charge into doorways rather than moving gracefully through them, pinball off the edges of tables and somehow be able to trip over a dust mote. So on Friday night, battling the wind, the driving rain and a thick layer of treacherous slippery foliage that had been stripped from the trees by day of vicious weather, I was tiptoeing very cautiously from my hotel to the edge of the road to try to flag down a cab to attend my first Melbourne writing event. 

Sisters in Crime, a meal at Bell's Hotel to be followed by a good chat about crime with two wonderful writers Sulari Gentill and Angela Savage, with Robin Bowles on hand to steer the conversation and keep us on our toes.

I was feeling pretty good, the terrible weather at least providing the excuse to give the black winter coat that goes swoosh a final trot before summer, make-up was in place, hair not looking too weird, all I had to do was find a cab. Miraculously one appeared creeping up Fitzroy Street and pulling in as I waved my hand. 

Ever so carefully I stepped off the curb, my leather soled cowboy boots, a souvenir from a ski holiday in Steamboat Colorado, have a tendency to feel like they're skating on ice when its wet, but I remained upright and advanced on the cab, steadied myself on it before opening the door, leaning down to speak to the cab driver. Unfortunately, as I performed both actions simultaneously I ended up clobbering my face with the edge of the door.

Reeling back, I kept hold of the door, cabs on a wet Friday night in Melbourne were not to be given up so easily. I bent down to talk to the driver, to tell him where I wanted to go and noticed he was shrinking away from me.

"There is a little blood," he said just a little nervously. 

I reached up, touched my forehead, which it was true did now feel a trifle lumpy. My fingers came away bright red and wet.

It was a similar moment, to the way I felt as I sailed through the air two days before the Joss Whedon event at the Sydney Opera House - oh nooooooooooo. But, whereas that fall had seemed to take forever as I flailed and fell through the air prior to crashing in an ungainly pile on the ground, this one seemed to have happened before I'd even realised it. 

Reluctantly I released my cab back into the wilds of Friday night and ever so carefully retraced my wet slippery steps back into the Tolarno Hotel, digging a crumpled tissue out of the handbag to press against my forehead. A quick check in the mirror of the ladies room by reception was enough to convince me that a Band-Aid at least was going to be required if I was to speak at my event without blinking through blood.

At the reception desk Amanda had just started her shift, she looked up and sprinted out from the office, insisting politely that I should sit down and she would get something. I retrieved my running list for the night and managed to punch in the number of my soon-to-be-equally-marvellous-under-pressure publicist from Penguin, Dianne Biviano, and leave a message, at which point Amanda returned wearing latex gloves and bearing a fairly large dressing which she pressed against my head and started talking stitches. 

At this point my natural instincts to not-feel-very-well-at-the-thought-of-blood-kicked-in and I slumped back in the lounge, feeling just a bit too warm and murmuring things like, "but I have to give a talk".  Amanda took over my phone and my now slightly blood spattered running list -

and in short order Amanda had organised Dianne to collect me, had been in contact with Carmel Shute who supplied the location of the closest doctor's clinic, for which Amanda then printed up a Google map, whilst supplying me with water and a lolly. 

By the time Dianne arrived to take over and ferry me to the Acland Street St Kilda super clinic, I'd rallied to the point that I ooohed and ahhhed at my first glimpse of The Palais from the Coles Supermarket carpark. The clinic was doing brisk business but thanks to Amanda's preparatory call, we found that walking in with a head wound is a good way of getting a bed and a good lie down. There, the lovely Sara cleaned the wound and provided me with an ice pack which felt so good I didn't want to give it back and the equally wonderful Doctor Bert who, in between treating a bustling waiting room, managed to pop in an injection of anaesthetic along with a few neat stitches, and a classy little dressing to cover it up.

Thank you again, Amanda, Dianne, Carmel, Sarah and Dr. Bert.

And so it came to pass that on a wild and wet and stormy night in Melbourne, I was only a little bit late to my first big adventure and had an excellent night, in fine company, sharing some great conversations about crime.

Of which more later .......

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Having a chat and working on my three-legged table

Four bookclubs in the last few months, two by twitter and two with friends who inflicted suggested The Old School to their clubs. Different experiences but all vastly good fun.

Bookclub by twitter is intense. An hour of frantic reading, typing, keeping it concise, checking to see what's come through on the feed and backtracking to answer ... lucky the cyber drinks & nibbles are, well, imaginary. I was lucky to do one with the NSW Writers' Centre and the second with Avid Reader Bookstore in Brizzy. I'd have loved to have been sitting on the backdeck of Avid with their gang, but twitter was a great way of connecting to a live bookclub when you can't be there in person.

Bookclub with live readers is a far more leisurely event. You have a few hours to talk, about "the book", about other books, about politics, about life, about great TV and movies. Oh, and then of course there are the drinks and nibbles. Yum. Thanks Helen and Kate for lending your bookclubs to me for the night.

Now looking at some more live appearances. Off to Melbourne tomorrow to a Sisters in Crime event, From the Sydney of the Past to the Thailand of Today, with Angela Savage, Sulari Gentill with Robin Bowles interviewing us. Friday night, Bells Hotel, South Melbourne, brothers-in-law welcome.

Sulari's A Few Right Thinking Men and Angela's Behind the Night Bazaar, are crime novels which are as different as they can be from each other and from The Old School. Sulari's involves the New Guard and political intrigue in 1930s Sydney, Angela's, set in mid-1990s Thailand, involves police corruption and child prostitution rackets, and mine, set in Sydney in the early 1990s deals with police corruption, land rights and the Vietnam War. To some extent we are all a little bit stuck in the past!

The range of topics is a good example of why I love crime. It provides a sturdy skeleton but what goes around it, well, that's as unique as the author cares to make it.

And that's why I was thrilled to be asked to be on a panel for the Emerging Writers' Festival Roadshow when it swings into Sydney next month. More about that in an upcoming blog but at this stage put Sunday 7th November in your pocket and come on out to the NSW Writers' Centre in Rozelle. The session I'll be doing is titled Genre is Not a Dirty Word.

If free events are more your speed then come along to Kings Cross Library on Tuesday evening 26 October for a talk in the library about writing crime about Sydney. You may need to book details here.

Now off to work on my 3 legged table ...

... that pile of paper there is my three-legged table. It's Book 2, finally printed out but still missing one major plot line which I now need to weave through it. The subject matter has been intimidating me for a wee while. Then had a mental breakthrough a few days ago. Realised I was approaching it ALL WRONG. Could almost hear all the little levers and gears clicking into place for new approach. 

So work printed up (with very wide margins all round - don't panic at the size of the pile yet Jo!) so that I can now start reading through what's there, editing as I go and writing in the fourth leg. 

I can share the first line ...........

It was still a wound, not yet a scar.