I was very fortunate to have the chance to act as author escort for Australian author Garry Disher today, picking him up at his hotel, taking him for his appearance at the Velma Teague Library, and then taking him back. The Velma Teague Library was one of only two libraries Garry is speaking at on this book tour.
Garry Disher is the Ned Kelly Award winning author for his crime novel, Chain of Evidence. He's now on tour for the fifth Challis/Destry mystery, Blood Moon.
Before he could even start the program, an audience member asked about the spelling of his name, Garry. He said his family was originally from Scotland, so his name comes from places such as Glengarry. He lives in Australia, about an hour and a half from Melbourne.
Garry started the program by telling us that his love of books came from his childhood. His parents were readers, and there were always books in the house. He said you have to be a reader before becoming a writer. He taught Creative Writing, and he said invariably 30%-40% of his students were not readers.
But, his family lived in rural Australia, and they received books from the Country Lending Library, a train that came from Adelaide once a month. They couldn't select titles, but they could ask for types of books, so his father received books about WWII, his mother received romances, and he received children's books. He learned to create stories from his father, who told his own stories every night, ones he made up. His father also taught him pacing because he never finished the stories. He would say, I'll finish tomorrow night, and he never would. His stories were always cliffhangers.
So, Disher wanted to be a writer since childhood. He wrote short stories in college, and then went to London with friends. He traveled Europe, worked on a kibbutz in Israel, and then went on his own to South Africa, where he stayed for two months because he ran out of money and couldn't get home.
Back in Australia, he said he took an Australia history degree. Since he writes literary novels as well as crime novels, that degree helped him with the research experience. He's written books about Australia's Depression, and the war years. He had some stories accepted for publication, which led to a Creative Writing scholarship to Stanford in California. He was in his mid-twenties, in a very small program with others, including a woman in her 60s who was working on a story that went on to win the National Book Award. it was a small class, an intense workshop.
After Disher had a book of short stories published, he taught 10 week creative writing workshops. Then he taught creative writing at Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes. He taught part-time, and wrote part-time for ten years. Finally he quit to write full time. Disher said his income immediately plummeted. But, he is one of the Australian authors who now makes a living writing. However, in the early years, in order to survive he worked odd jobs such as driving a taxi, and writing book reviews. The average income for an Australian author is less than $10,000 a year.
Garry said he's written about 45 books, of various types, mostly fiction. He has written books for children and teens, some of them published in the U.S., including The Bamboo Flute and The Divine Wind. It was just by chance that he started writing children's books. When he was at Stanford, he wrote a final story called The Bamboo Flute. Disher's father left school at 12 in the 1930s in the Great Depression. He said he had a teacher that thrashed him with a cane. His only happy memories of school were of a bamboo flute that he made himself, and learned to play. He could play by ear, until he lost the tips of his fingers to a harvesting machine. Garry said he always felt so sad for this father, so he wanted to write the story for him. When he wrote the adult version, he wasn't finished with the story or character, so he redid it for children. He usually writes for teens.
Disher has also written literary novels, but they were not published in the U.S. He has two series of crime thrillers. The first books featured a bank robber, Wyatt. Those six books are scarce, and out-of-print. It's difficult to get copies of those because there is an underground readership for the Wyatt books. According to Disher, all fiction is driven by questions. For the Wyatt books, the question is, "Will he get away with it?" This series was inspired by Donald Westlake, who wrote about Parker, a bank robber, under the name of Richard Stark. Disher wanted to write about crime from the other side. The seventh book in that series will be out next year, after a gap of 10 years. It's at the editor's right now, with a tentative title of Dirty Old Town.
Blood Moon is the fifth in the Challis and Destry series. He showed us the Australian copy. In Australia, the books come out in trade paperback. They don't have a tradition of hardcover there, because books are so expensive.
John Harvey's Inspector Resnick books inspired Disher to write this series. They are police procedurals. Disher said he likes the regional setting rather than major metropolitan cities. Cities are anonymous. Harvey's books take place in Nottingham, England. Disher's take place on the Peninsula, an area defined by the coastline. It's near Melbourne, with a number of pretty little towns. Disher said setting is vital to fiction, particularly crime novels. Although Disher uses the Mornington Peninsula as the setting, he changes the town of Hastings to the fictional town of Waterloo, because he doesn't want residents to criticize the books if he changes locations or adds buildings to the town.
The series has a central character, Detective Inspector Hal Challis, but also a staff of characters. There are about thirty in the regional office. Disher said he likes a cast of characters, like Resnick's. There is always a central mystery in the books, but the police are investigating other mysteries as well.
Disher said it's important to provide a sense of place and community. The books include the public and private lives of the characters, including workplace tension. It provides the mood of the place. Disher said he's seen changes after seventeen years living on the Peninsula. The towns have doubled in size. Young families moved in, but, now, with the economy, many of them can't afford their houses. There are not enough schools for primary-age children. All of this causes strain, but, especially on the police. They feel it with the staff shortage. It may take a long time to respond to a call because there are only two or three cars on the road. At the same time, there are some of the richest homes in Australia in the area. There are extremes of rich and poor there.
But, Disher said the story comes first. He wants them to be good mysteries. He writes different sorts of mysteries. Chain of Evidence, the book that won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Novel, features people that disappeared. According to Disher, his books are not necessarily whodunnits, but why done it. He finds that more interesting.
Disher talked about the progression of mysteries, saying thirty to fifty years ago, in the American tradition, a private eye had a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer, and a woman with big breasts would come in and ask for help. But, the reader never met the private eye's family. They had no sense of his community.
But, when Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton came along, the major thrust of women's mysteries dealt with more personal issues. Characters who had to deal with ailing relatives, aging parents, even what was in the refrigerator to eat, were more real to us. We could relate to these characters. They weren't super heroes. We felt closer to them, although they would act when we didn't.
Garry was asked if his characters had major flaws, and he said sometimes it's not a flaw, but something makes him a sympathetic character. He then gave Inspector Challis' background. In the early novels, he worked in a different region, a rural one. One of the books is based on an actual case. Challis' wife had an affair with another policeman, and they conspired to kill him. They were caught, but this situation is the base to show readers something about Challis. He questions himself. Where did I go wrong? Why did she fall out of love with me? He doesn't hate or condemn her. He lets her call him from prison, but he doesn't love her anymore. This shows a side of Challis.
There is unresolved sexual tension between Challis and Sergeant Ellen Destry from the beginning of the series. Destry has a shoplifting habit. She hates herself for doing it, and feels guilty. Then, she'll return the item. But, in other ways, she's honest.
Scobie is a constable whose wife was sacked by email, and she didn't take it well. In Blood Moon, she is attracted to a fundamentalist, crackpot church.
Disher said, yes, he did get sick of writing the Wyatt series for a while. He still wants to write general fiction and books for children. When asked how he makes the switch from children's books to crime novels, he said most of those books are for teenagers. Themes can be darker for teens. But, the writing should be treated just as seriously. Disher said some of the best fiction in Australia and the United States is fiction for Young Adults.
When he read from Blood Moon, he commented that some of his storylines are based on actual cases or newspaper stories. The scene he read about he destruction of a house was based on such a case in Australia.
Garry said he tries to appeal to the reader's senses. Early on, he offered a story to be workshopped at Stanford. It was an internal story about a woman who sees an old boyfriend in a bar. But, afterward, one of the women told him, "Your writing suffers from sensory deprivation." He asked her what she meant, and she said, she can't see the character, or smell the smoke in the bar, or taste the pretzels. The story is all in your head, but I don't experience it. This lesson was one of the best he learned.
When asked about similarities between Australia and the U.S., he said there are more similarities than differences. But, he noticed three differences. He reads mostly American crime novels, and there is a multitude of police forces, and they don't work together. There are federal police, state police, sheriffs, local police. In Australia there are only two types, federal, and each state has there own, and that's it. The District Attorney is not elected, but appointed by the state. And, third, there is little gun ownership. Even farmers and ranchers need special permission to own guns. There was a terrible mass killing at one time in Australia, and, in response, all guns were banned. There are some, mostly illegal, but not to the extent in the United States. He wondered how does it affect crime in the U.S. Would it affect the crime rate if there were not so many guns?
Disher said he learned something from Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books. McBain's characters didn't grow older. Garry said in the first Wyatt book, he mentioned he was a Vietnam vet. By the seventh book, he doesn't talk about that, because if he had continued to age him, he would be in his 60s, not exactly the right age for a bank robber.
Disher ended his presentation by saying he does have an idea for another series. His talk was fascinating about writing and his books.
On the way back to Scottsdale, Garry and I had a wide-ranging discussion of the world of crime writing. He is a fan of Tony Hillerman. We discussed Jonathon King's descriptions of Florida, and Charles Willeford's, when we talked about authors who specialize in regions. I mentioned that Soho Press publishes regional mysteries, with Cara Black's books set in Paris, and Leighton Gage's Brazilian mysteries. That took us to Arizona publishing, and I recommended Poisoned Pen Press. When I said Desert Run was my favorite one of Betty Webb's books, because of the connection to the German POW camps here in Arizona, Garry said he had written a literary novel about an Australian man of German descent, who found himself interned during WWII because of his sympathy with the Germans. He went on to say one region of Australia had been settled by Germans, who actually started the winemaking industry in the country. We had time to discuss the support crime novelists give each other, whether they are in Australia or in the United States. In fact, Cara Black is going to take Garry to some of his events in the East.
How could I resist the opportunity to spend the time talking crime fiction with an author? I hope others get the chance to hear Garry Disher talk about writing and his crime novels on his U.S. tour.
Blood Moon by Garry Disher. Soho Press, ©2009. ISBN 9781569475638 (hardcover), 386p.