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Yarra Valley Writers Festival 2020 (online):  If I tell you I’m going to have to kill you (Crime panel)

May 10, 2020

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.

Crime panel

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.

Why crime?

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”.

Q&A

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
Livestreamed

19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2020 10:45 pm

    The irony is that although I ‘dont read crime’ I have read both Jock Serong’s novels and liked them both,though On the Java Ridge suited me better because it asks disconcerting questions about how we treat refugees. In other words there’s definitely a crime in the novel, but the real crime is our inhumane refugee policy.

    • May 10, 2020 10:56 pm

      Yes, that’s what he said – ie, that that was the real crime. I gave Mr Gums Preservation, planning to read it, but I haven’t yet.

      And, yes, I’m like you. I “say” I don’t read crime, but I do read the odd one. It’s more that I don’t seek crime books per se.

  2. May 10, 2020 11:00 pm

    I don’t like whodunnits or detective stories, and I particularly dislike those hackneyed world weary alcoholic detectives with relationship problems.
    On the Java Ridge was similar in a way to City of the Dead, (A Claire DeWitt Mystery), by Sara Gran which was more about the crime of neglect that made Katrina so deadly.

    • May 11, 2020 8:24 am

      When I watch detective or crime shows I rarely follow the plot. I’m more interested in the relationships. I agree about hackneyed detectives, but I like seeing relationships between detectives in well-writtenstories. I also like crime shows which explore social issues. I haven’t, I will now admit, ever read Agatha Christie and I have never greatly liked the Agatha Christie TV series though they’ve been on in front of me on and off over the years.

      • May 11, 2020 9:04 am

        LOL Maybe it’s AC who put me off for life… I read every one of them when I was in my 20s, and I read some of them again, translated into Indonesian. I’ve tried PD James too, when someone told me #wrong how much I’d like her. And I’ve read half a dozen of those ones set in Venice, I can’t remember the author’s name now, but I got sick of them in the end too.

        • May 11, 2020 3:17 pm

          I think very early on I knew crime wasn’t for me. I can’t recollect reading one crime novel until, I really don’t know. I did read, in my forties, a Sue Grafton with an American reading group, and that Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow around then too. Then of course I’ve read the occasional one since blogging. Ah, delving into my brain, I did read Josephine’s The daughter of time in my teens. I think that’s technically crime?

          However, in the 2000s my family (that is the older ones – my parents and my husband’s mother) did used to read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books. I’d buy the latest one for our summer holiday trip, and we’d all read it. That was a rare bit of so-called “beach reading” for me and it was fun because it was a little family tradition.

          I have only read the PD James Jane Austen novel, which was OK but not really my thing. I think the Venice writer you are talking about is Donna Leon? I had a volunteer who loved those books, but I haven’t read them.

        • May 11, 2020 5:16 pm

          Yes, Donna Leon, that’s her. Well, Venice, what more needs to be said?!

        • May 11, 2020 8:39 pm

          True … that would almost make me read her!

  3. May 10, 2020 11:53 pm

    I have not read a lot of crime fiction but I have meaning to delve into it. I am glad to hear that Australian crime fiction is less violent then the American version. I guess that might be true of crime fiction coming from societies that are less violent then America.

    • May 11, 2020 8:28 am

      Thanks Brian. I think that’s what Serong was suggesting. I’m sure we do have our violent crime-writers here but it seems from those questions that it’s not typical or a trend.

  4. May 11, 2020 7:37 am

    “we are bringing indigeneity into our stories, and are exploring Australian identity in terms of how far you can push the Australian character” reminds me – did I so need – of my favourite author of all times, the late and very lamented Peter Temple; the quote might have been written of him, too.

    • May 11, 2020 8:30 am

      Ha, I like “did I so need”. That says it all, MR! I agree, it could be said of him too.

  5. May 11, 2020 2:48 pm

    I am not averse to reading detective novels, and have a pretty good collection of classic crime fiction.

    Probably the first detective fiction I read as a child was the Napoleon Bonaparte novels by Arthur Upfield, featuring a half caste aboriginal detective. Haven’t read the books for years, so can’t comment on their quality in today’s terms.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Upfield

    • May 11, 2020 3:02 pm

      Thanks Anne. I remember Arthur Upfield from my youth, not from reading him, though his books were in the house, but from the Boney series which would be politically incorrect now, but we loved them back then. I’m guessing you saw them too?

  6. May 12, 2020 12:45 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I read a lot of crime fiction, and I’ve been delighted to see the rise of strong female characters in novels as well as an increasing number of female authors. I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie (although I have read some). I like situations/events/crimes that make me work in order to try to work out ‘what’, ‘why’ and (sometimes) ‘how’.

    • May 12, 2020 2:14 pm

      Thanks Jennifer. I think I would enjoy some of these crime books – I have liked some one-off crimes. I liked Peter Temple’s The broken shore, particularly because of the social issues it covers. I’m not really interested in plot so much as why is the author telling this story.

  7. Claire Louisa permalink
    May 14, 2020 12:25 pm

    This would have been a great panel to listen to, thanks for sharing.

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