07 March 2008. 11.25am
For those of you not familiar with the event, every 2 years the city of Adelaide in South Australia hosts a Festival of Arts, and a part of the festival is Writers' Week, a 6 day program of local, national and international writers (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, war correspondents, essayists) speaking about their work, launching new novels, and discussing themes of their work on various panels, as well as various 'meet the author' sessions. It is the biggest and longest running Writer's Festival in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the most well-respected, and it's free! Staged in the serene environs of the Pioneer Women's Memorial Gardens in open-walled tents, it's always a relaxed and enjoyable week.
Usually the list of writers visiting are mainly writers of "literary" fiction but, perhaps due to the popularity and prestige the crime genre has achieved in this country, the last few festivals have seen crime writers added to the bill. 2 years ago I had the great fortune to hear Val McDermid, Michael Robotham, Andrew Taylor, Nicholas Jose and Minette Walters. This year it's been a bit lighter on for crime writers, but I've been introduced to writers of crime I wasn't aware of, such as Patrick McGrath, Thomas H Cook and Peter Corris. Patrick McGrath was fascinating; he spoke about having his novel, Spider, adapted by David Cronenberg, and about growing up living in the grounds of the mental asylum where his father worked, and then about the moment when he realised he would have to write seriously about schizophrenia if he was going to have believable characters.
This afternoon I'm off to hear a panel of crime writers: Garry Disher, Gabrielle Lord, Denise Mina and Marshall Browne, and I'm really looking forward to that. I have to wait for the gardener to finish before I can leave for town, but it's already 38 (celcius) outside, so I'm in no hurry.
My thoughts on what each writer has had to say later on...
Although Garry Disher isn't the most charismatic man in the flesh (which writers are?), he made some valid points about crime writing and crime readers and writing in general. He mentioned that when he won a scholarship to Stamford University, he was hurt by the comments of a fellow student when she said his work suffered from "sensory deprivation". But over drinks, she elaborated, saying that he wasn't using smells and tastes and sounds to bring a location, a room or a scene to life. Disher then consciously changed that and found much more commercial success after that. But he still struggles to survive on income from writing, despite having published 40+ books in a variety of genres (about a quarter of that crime). His biggest market is in Europe and he went on for a while about Australian Crime still suffering from the 'cultural cringe' here at home. I think I know where he's coming from. When I tell my friends who rad crime that they should read Michael Robotham, they're keen until they find out he's an Australian. Never mind that all three of his thrillers to date are set in the UK and Europe. And I've witnessed shoppers put Peter Temple's latest crime novel back again when the shop assistant said words to the fact that he was their favourite Australian crime writer. 'Oh, he's Australian?' And back on the display table it goes. But only Australian readers/book buyers tend to suffer this cultural inferiority complex. I even sense it in myself sometimes, but have forced myself to fight it. Strange what your cultural upbringing bangs into you, isn't it? I've gone out of my way now to start reading a Shane Maloney novel, in his Murray Whelan thriller series. Started today and it's fantastic. Why do we fear our own writers, or if not fear them, rank them below overseas produce?
But on writing crime - Disher acknowledged that Crime and Mysteries have moved on a lot from the early 'cosies' and puzzle solvers of AC's day, into the realm of real characters with real flaws, and recently into a crime with a high level of forensic investigation. What he believes the next trend will be (or hopes it will be) is the exploration of a murder or other crime's affect on communities and families, rather than just on the police and/or detective protagonist involved.
Gabrielle Lord (another Australian Crime Writer who sells better overseas than at home) believes the murder of a crime novel acts as the 'MacGuffin' in the story, and can be ultimately unimportant. The real issues become how the murder or crime affects the characters. The Crime is just the impetus to drive the plot, to solve the mystery, but what Lord's interested in is the impact these events have on the characters.
Lord also mentions that she loves research because she gets to talk to forensic experts, pathologists, drug-users, prostitutes and police officers and learn what their lives are like and the layers of community and coded communications that exist in any profession.
Marshall Browne (yet another Aussie who relies on overseas sales to survive) subscribes to the theory that genres are false walls put in place by the media and there are only 2 kinds of books: those you like, and those you don't. He reckons the novel's role is to engage the reader and so called "crime" where he is pigeon-holed is so successful because it does just that; it engages, it's interesting, it thrills, and it provides an element of danger and excitement.
Denise Mina is from Scotland, and she said she always wanted to write Crime because it was regarded by literary community as trash. She think that misconception is freeing the writer to push boundaries and defy conventions because what the hell have you got to lose? She said that Crime fiction shouldn't have to justify itself against literary snobbery or aspire to be more "literary", but rather literary fiction should aspire to have crime fiction's immense readership and popularity. She too called on the novel's need to engage with the reader and said that crime fiction is often more relevant because most crime writers for the most part have to churn out a book a year to remain relevant (and fed) and so the writing tends to be about issues and themes relevant now! even if set in the past, they are about today!
Anyway, that's my report on Crime Writers at Writers' Week 2008. Any questions?