For those unfamiliar with your writing, how would you describe your novels?
Psychological crime thrillers. I write most of my chapters in the first person, mostly from the point of view of my main character, a burnt-out former homicide cop who is reluctantly dragged into finding killers or solving a problem, usually for his own selfish reasons. He’s not a gun for hire and while I like the private investigator genre, especially the books by Raymond Chandler and Robert Crais, I’m not that interested in writing it myself. I also write from the point of view of my killers, which I guess sets up a cat and mouse dynamic in the books. I really enjoy exploring the thoughts of the psychopath and giving them a dark and twisted voice – even though it can be a draining and somewhat unpleasant experience getting into these characters’ heads. I like to do a lot of research, reading books like Robert Hare’s Without Conscience and the more recent The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen. I’ve studied a lot of the courtroom testimony of killers like Dennis Rader, who nick-named himself BTK (bind, torture, kill). I’m fascinated by how these people think and act. Although I’m not sure, having written two novels and into the third, if I’ll stick to this approach as I wonder if it will become predictable and formulaic. I’m going to try something completely new, for me, with my fourth novel. My writing is driven by the character’s voice, their thoughts and their desires. I’m not much into plot, even though in crime fiction it’s rather important and it’s certainly something I’m constantly thinking about to ensure the narrative is moving forward. A sense of place and atmosphere is important to me. In that respect I’ve been influenced by James Lee Burke’s evocative descriptions of landscape and Roberto Bolano’s sweeping, majestic prose that circles in on itself yet keeps moving, always pushing further and further with new thoughts and arresting imagery. My primary aim is to entertain and, if possible, leave the reader a little haunted by what my character’s desires, the decisions they make and the actions they decide upon.
You have set novels on the Gold Coast and on the Sunshine Coast. How would you describe the role the south east Queensland setting played in these novels?
When I moved to Queensland from Melbourne I was intrigued by two things: nearly everyone had moved here from somewhere else (it took me over a year to meet someone who was born in Queensland) and there was this very long coastline, from the NSW border up to Fraser Island which was a string of connected beach resorts, towns and cities, peppered with the occasional tract of uninhabited, wild bushland. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that in American life there were no second acts. Well, there were – and are – in Queensland. So many people have moved from down south to retire but, out of boredom or maybe invigorated by the sunshine, started new ventures or returned to their old careers in a new environment. From the glamour and glitz of the Gold Coast to the quieter and more sophisticated world of Noosa and surrounds, this entire region hinges on holiday escapism. I want to contrast the harder, grittier world of Melbourne (in terms of policing) with the sub-tropical playground of south-east Queensland where it appears, on the surface, that life is a party, where the surf keeps crashing and the lattes keep getting poured. As with the crime and violence that Chandler and others have written about in Los Angeles, another metropolis of dreams and escapism, the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast – connected as one big playground with Brisbane is the middle – I am drawn to ideas about darkness dwelling in this region. My lead character, Darian, has settled on the Noosa River, having retired abruptly after being burnt out, and simply wants to languish in the sun and by the flow of the water. It’s a naive hope. What he didn’t realise was that the dark past of his nightmares would be triggered again and again by the unexpected but inevitable crimes that occur in this holiday paradise. I wrote in Promise that the Sunshine Coast is a great place for a serial killer to operate: people up here have their guard down, they’re on holiday having fun and there’s a massive ebb and flow of itinerant workers amongst the tourists. Dark crime in a place like this is unexpected but of course dark crime is going to happen anywhere and without cessation.
What kinds of novels do you most enjoy reading, and do the novels you most enjoy reading have a strong influence on your own novel writing?
I pretty much enjoy reading anything, with the exception of fantasy, which I can’t get my head around. (Books that start off with maps of other worlds just frazzle me.) I mostly read non-fiction; history, social politics or whatever. I read as much crime fiction as I can. I love the works of James Lee Burke, CJ Box, Lee Child, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly and Harlan Coben. All of these authors have influenced me in terms of language, character and narrative – and, with Crais and Coben, their humour. So too the earlier works of Raymond Chandler, Micky Spillane, Rex Stout and Ross Macdonald. I think the biggest influences and the ones I constantly go back to are Damon Runyon (I read him out aloud – I just adore his quaint turn of phrase) and Roberto Bolano. I carry a Bolano with me at all times. I think 2666 is the best book I’ve ever read and I’m constantly buying cheap copies of it to give to friends. It’s a doorstop of a novel but utterly compelling and magical. His use of language, his flowing sentences, his poetry and his stories are mind-blowing. Other influences are Leonard Cohen and Alfred Hitchcock.
You also have experience working in film and TV. How would you compare writing for film or TV to writing novels?
Writing novels is delightfully intimate. There’s you, the publisher and the editor. Writing film and TV is very public. Your work is on display, even before you start writing the script. From the outline that forms the basis of the script your work is sent to numerous people; producers, script editors, TV networks or film distributors, government funding bodies, each of whom will respond with notes. You end up being a diplomat, having to justify your work. Believe me, it seriously drains the creative process. Emphasis is also given to getting it right before you write. The outline needs to be pretty detailed and everyone likes to sign off on it before you get the green light… or maybe that green light is abruptly turned red. It is often flashing orange.
When you write for film or TV you do not have the final say over the work. Not only is the writing interpreted by actors, directors, a myriad of heads of production like cinematographers, editors, and wardrobe and props people to create a visual narrative but the investors behind the film or TV series can and will pull their weight in order to protect their investment. It’s an expensive business – grotesquely so at times – that rarely allows for creative pushing of boundaries. It’s a simplistic statement but it’s true: you cannot deviate from an imposed formula. I’ve been used to this for many years. When story editing The Flying Doctors I would happily set aside a day a week just to respond to the notes from Hector Crawford, his team and the network. I became very adept at justifying the work of the writers (who I would shield from this process) within the parameters of the show. This extended to film scripts. On Once Were Warriors, which I story edited, I was asked to write a piece to convince nervous investors that such a dark tale could attract an audience.
When writing a novel a writer is respected and, at the back of your mind always, you know you have the final say. You can – and I’ve done it occasionally – disagree with your editor and leave a passage or a word or a whatever intact. That freedom does not exist in film and TV writing. Disagree and you’re sacked. Ironically, the freedom that I’ve experienced in this regard has meant that I listen more and take the advice almost always when it comes to comments about my work. When you have no freedom you tend to rebel but when you’ve got it you tend to respect your critics and do what they suggest.
Creatively, the novel allows you to delve into the thoughts of your characters. This is something you can’t do in scripts unless you use voice over. Scripts are comprised of action and dialogue. Narrative clarity and pace are paramount. When writing Promise and Dead Girl Sing I just loved being able to get into the head-space of my characters. I love being able to segue off into their pasts and their feelings. I love being able to deviate from the plot and shine a spotlight on minor or even trivial characters in order to create a mosaic-style world.
Who is one of your favourite characters from a novel and what made that character work so well for you as a reader?
Philip Marlowe – without a doubt. There’s a beautiful passage in The Long Goodbye where Marlowe stands on the balcony of his house overlooking the sweep of Los Angeles at night, reflecting on the “banshee wail of sirens” as cops scramble across the city responding to the calls of violence. It ends with Marlowe asking himself the question: do I care? His answer is no, he doesn’t. But of course he does; everything he does is because he cares, even though he knows it won’t make much difference and even though, in every one of Chandler’s stories, people lie to Phillip Marlowe, deceive him and betray him. I call it a ‘burden of righteousness’ that drives the character. He’ll always be lied to and he’ll always uncover a darkness but he’ll never stop.
What makes a good first chapter in a novel, or what is an example of a first chapter you really like and what made that chapter work so well for you as a reader?
A good first chapter for me gets me hard into the voice of the character, be it through a first or third person approach. It also hooks me into a narrative that is meaningful to the character in a thematic way. For me it’s also more than just the first chapter. It’s that first sentence. I really try to come up with an opening line that will arouse the reader’s curiosity and cause them to want to know more about the circumstances I’ve alluded to and the character who’s speaking to them. By the end of the first chapter I want the reader to be hooked – don’t we all? – and engaged with my character’s journey. My lead character is a dark and complex guy. He is the antithesis of a ‘hero’, who embarks on a chosen trek of self discovery or in order to solve a problem. Each of his journeys will take him to a dark place of nightmares inside him. I want it to be evident to the reader by the end of the first chapter that we’re on the road but the road will be full of anguish.
If you could bring one author back to life for the sole purpose of discussing writing novels, who might you choose and why?
Roberto Bolano. I’d ask him how he managed to weave his extraordinary stories into a narrative, what his process was, how his background as a poet influenced his work and what is it about the human condition that compelled him to write.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’m currently writing a third novel in this series of Darian Richards books. This one brings his nemesis, The Train Rider, up to the Sunshine Coast, where he sets about taunting Darian. He does this through a series of confessions at a church in Nambour, thus placing the priest in an impossible position. I’m fascinated by the idea of having to hold onto a secret even if it means an innocent person may come to harm. In this case, when dealing with a serial murderer. I’m also exploring the notion of moral culpability. My ex-cop, Darian, has taken the law into his own hands and killed bad guys whom he believes will re-offend, once they’ve been released into the community by a justice system which errs on the bright side of optimism when considering rehabilitation. The killer is aware of Darian’s past and he asks the question, which I guess is the central anchor to the book: what’s the difference between us? Darian has taken the lives of killers in order to prevent more murders. In that respect he’s a rogue cop as much as he is an expert in the more acceptable world of homicide investigation, but are these actions as morally reprehensible as those committed by the killers he abhors?
I love crime writing. It really allows me to delve into the dark world of the human condition. Thank God for Chandler who showed that this world can also be infused with some humour!
Tony Cavanaugh’s Hachette author page: www.hachette.com.au/authors/tony-cavanaugh