This is my second report of the sessions I attended of the first Yarra Valley Literary Festival. I hope to write up more, but you can also check Lisa’s blog for her posts. She did not, however, attend Christos Tsiolkas – see my post – nor this crime panel. Like Lisa, I really read crime, but I am interested in the genre as a form of literature, and I was very interested in these particular writers.
Festival director Michael Veitch introduced the panel, appropriately, as a cabal of crime-writers. It comprised Robert Gott (who didn’t make it, for technical reasons, until quite late), Emma Viskic and Jock Serong, with Angela Savage convening, again. Good on her. Again, I had quite a bit of breaking up in my reception.
I enjoyed the panel immensely. Savage, a crime-writer herself, was spot on with the questions, and the panelists were both thoughtful and entertaining. It turned out that they – with Sulari Gentil – had travelled to the USA as a sort of Aussie crime roadshow called On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America. More on that later, but their familiarity with each other meant that they related well on this panel.
Viskic said that, before publishing her first novel, she’d written two manuscripts – her burn-upon-death novels. The the problem was they were boring. The only bits that worked were the things she really likes about crime novels – the dark things.
Ex-criminal lawyer Serong said he didn’t gravitate to crime, and doesn’t see his writing as “a genre exercise”. But crime, he said, comprises “a great reservoir of human drama and characters”. He has an ambivalent relationship to crime, and is never sure whether he is writing it. Rules of backyard cricket has been described as “very noir”, he said, but On the Java Ridge is “very much about crime”.
He shared Gary Disher’s description of crime fiction “as a social barometer” which Viskic leapt onto, saying that crime offers “a great way of exploring what is right or wrong in society”. She was very funny about her own fascination with how to do crime!
Serong said his main driver is the exploration of character – and particularly of who Australians are. He said that we Australians have done well with COVID because, despite our seeing ourselves as larrikins, we are in fact “very compliant”!! Haha, I loved this. It’s helped, I think, that we’ve had coherent leadership, presenting us with a vision about what we’re aiming for – but he has a point!
What makes Australian crime fiction Australian – besides the setting?
Serong said that Aussies are doing crime differently to other countries: we are bringing indigeneity into our stories, and are exploring Australian identity in terms of how far you can push the Australian character.
He then said that outsiders would probably say landscape is what differentiates our crime. However, now we are seeing more crime set in cities and suburbs, which doesn’t reach the overseas market so well.
Viskic said that her work encompasses rural and urban landscapes, and settler and indigenous culture, that she’s drawn to urban and small town settings. She particularly likes the latter because it’s “more claustrophobic, more like family” which highlights her deaf detective Caleb’s outsiderness. She said she was always going to cover “black-white” stories. She’s not indigenous, but has indigenous family. She admitted that it’s a fraught thing to do, but it felt “cowardly not to do it”, like creating “terra nullius” all over again. Also, she said, Koori people, like deaf people, have been denied language and culture.
Why use fictional settings?
Serong’s first novel has a fictional setting, from “pure ignorance”. He thought a novel had to be fiction! His later books are all set in real places. He talked about research for Preservation which is set in a real place: the challenge of knowing how the rivers were then, which birds were there then, and of conveying the complex way Yuin people moved across the landscape versus his shipwreck survivors who just headed to Sydney, keeping the ocean on the left!
Viskic said that she fictionalises place for creative freedom. Once you name a place, specificity, which is important in writing, has to be right. She rarely uses fact in her fiction. But there is also the privacy reason, to avoid people feeling they know or can identify characters.
Series vs stand-alone?
Viskic always planned her Caleb novels to be a short tight series of three to five books, because events in the novels have consequences for characters, and she wanted her characters to grow over the novels. She’s coming to the end of this series, but was relieved to realise that she can come back and do another Caleb series later.
She also said that her novels can be read on two levels: the plot level, but you can also deep dive into the whys and wherefores. She’s less interested in who done it, and more in why and what happened after.
Serong, on the other hand, had not considered a series because he tends to jump around conceptually. However, Preservation is going to be the first of a trilogy, because there are more stories to tell about this 50-year period in Bass Strait history. It’s not a traditional crime novel, but colonialism could be seen as a high level crime. Stealing an entire continent is one of the great heists of all time (and it is accompanied by smaller criminal acts). There were moments of Eden, he said, when we could have made better decisions but we keep missing those opportunities. (Like, I thought to myself, the Government’s out-of-hand rejection of the Voice to Parliament!)
On the Run: Australian Crime Writers in America
At this point Robert Gott (who had convened an earlier panel) managed to join us, and the conversation turned to the crime roadshow, but look, I think I will save that for its own post. I’ll just say that Gott said it was Sulari Gentill’s idea, and that when she posed the idea the rest of them “complacently said, sure, whatever”. However, Gentill pushed on, they obtained an Australia Council grant, and off they went.
Savage commented that it was a real coup to pull off this trip, and its success has paved the way for more. It was the first of its kind but they don’t want it to be the last, they’d like to see it as “an inevitability”.
I didn’t record all the questions but there were questions about the relationship between crime and real life. Serong, ex-lawyer remember, said he was constantly amazed at what people get themselves into. Books and screen lag far behind real life, he said. On the other had, said Viskic, in real life you don’t have to be credible. Ridiculous crimes occur. However, in fiction, things have to be believable and motives have to be clear. People don’t tolerate much in the way of coincidences for example.
Gott added that real criminals are mostly boring, not very smart, dull-witted, so the crime is more interesting than the criminal. The implication was that fictional crime is more about character.
There was a question regarding whether Australian crime is in danger of going down the ultra-violent American route. Serong thinks not. We don’t have the guns for a start. Savage mentioned here Serong’s Staunch Prize win, noting that you can write riveting crime without including horrible acts of violence against women.
Savage also said that all of them have strong women in their work. She wondered whether this was particularly Australian, or just because of our time?
What do you think?
From Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (Online)
9 May 2020, 9:30 AM – 7:30 PM