You worked for many years in horse racing before becoming a writer of novels with horse racing settings. Was the transition into becoming a novelist was made easier by writing about what you know?
It’s certainly easier to write about something that is second nature to you. The minor but telling details such as training jargon, the smells and sounds of a racing stable, all those hundreds of colourful characters I’ve met on racecourses around the country come naturally to me when I sit down and start work on a story.
How do you develop an initial concept for a story?
I generally start with a theme in my mind about ‘What if?’ a certain set of circumstances were to occur and kick around the possible scenarios that might stem from that. Now that theme mightn’t stand up to scrutiny as I think it through, or it might end up as a minor sub-plot, or I may even ditch the idea entirely. But if the idea starts to grow and it excites me, then I know I’m on to something.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
If I take Silk Chaser as an example, once I have the concept, I generally like to know how it’s going to end and work back from there. I don’t always know exactly how I’m going to get there, but it helps to have a clear view of how my main character is going to solve the (main) problem. I always keep a spreadsheet going on each chapter so I can track who did what, where. Along the way, sub plots emerge, characters develop, new difficulties arise.
Sometimes a minor character threatens to start taking over and you have to reassess where you want to go with them. Often I’ll have to stop and do some more research into a topic when I realise I don’t know enough about it. In Silk Chaser, I had to imagine myself seeing life through a serial killer’s eyes; I’ve found that my most challenging task as a writer to date. But I think it’s flushed out some of the best writing in me yet, because it’s taken me out of my comfort zone.
Your new novel Silk Chaser could be described as a serial killer thriller set in a horse racing setting. Do you see yourself branching out beyond racing settings any time soon, or will you be sticking to this as your specialty?
I see myself as a crime writer who happens to use racing as a convenient backdrop. Murder, assault kidnap, terrorism, occurs in every genre – The Scottish & Swedish noir, the New York private detective setting. The English country village… Because I have a sack full of memories I can delve into about racing, I’ve integrated those into all my books to date. But that doesn’t mean I’ll confine myself to that in the future.
Do you read much Australian fiction, and do you have some favourites?
Peter Temple, Ray Barret, Katherine Howell, Shane Maloney, Tim Winton are some Australian writers that I enjoy and regularly come back to. But I don’t tend to categorise my favourite writers into nationalities or gender; either I like them or I don’t regardless of where they come from or where the story is set.
What separates a great chapter in a novel from one that is not so great, or at least what do you usually like in a chapter?
I don’t know about other writers, but I get a chill in the back of my neck when I read something that stands out. It’s similar to hearing a great piece of music. And as a writer you get that same feeling yourself when you lay down words that you know truly hit the mark. If they can move you, then its fair bet they’ll have a similar effect on your reader. It’s a difficult thing to have every chapter a standout, though. What I try and aim for is consistency, each chapter’s scene leading you to the overall conclusion of the story. There are some chapters and pages that simply have to be good; the opening is obviously a deal breaker for most readers picking up a book. You’d better impress your reader then or you’ll lose them forever. But there are always pivotal moments in a book “Ah, that’s who did it…” which carry more suspense than other chapters, which may be steps leading to that moment. The finish of a book is always a tricky one and I don’t know how many times I’ve been disappointed by a sloppy ending chapter. I always like to leave the reader with the feeling that things have been resolved; not necessarily a happy ending, but that there’s hope for my main characters, a way forward.
What are some of the most important insights you have learned about writing fiction?
Don’t explain everything to the reader; they are intelligent enough to figure it out. Less is better – the art of writing is re-writing and it’s amazing how much you can improve a story by editing out unnecessary words/scenes. Be curious; if you get a good idea, challenge it, you may come up with an even better one. Read new authors and challenge yourself with something you may not usually pick up.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’d like to write something with an international backdrop and I’ve got a few ideas mapped out for that one. At the moment I’m finishing off a crime novel about an arsonist – Ring of Fire, which is due out next year.
The Australian Literature Review