Australian crime fiction is alive and well and Iain Ryan and Andrew Nette are leading the charge by producing gritty, hard-boiled stories you won’t be putting down in a hurry. I have reviewed both of their books this past week and you can find out my thoughts here and here.
I caught up with Iain and Andrew recently to have a yarn about their writing habits, their books and their future plans shortly before they had to shoot off to do a “job”. Thanks to both for taking the time out of their busy schedules and answering my questions. You can find out more about each author at the bottom of the article through the various links. If you enjoy reading crime fiction then you should be reading books from these two fine writers. Enjoy.
BtB: Firstly, thanks heaps for stopping by. Let me start by asking why crime fiction? What is it about the genre that compels you to write these stories?
Iain: It’s what I know as a reader, that’s the main thing. But the great thing about crime fiction is that it’s such a broad umbrella. It seems to always provide some sort of context for what I want to write.
Andrew: My answer to this is always the same. Done well, crime fiction is the best vehicle for writing about social ills and the societal changes. That’s always been the case in my opinion, dating back to the greats like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, probably earlier.
BtB: When and why did you decide to write fiction?
Iain: Someone else made that decision for me. In my late twenties, my life got a bit crazy. I was in a touring rock band and in the middle of all that chaos, a friend died. I was having trouble dealing with it and a friend suggested I speak to his therapist. Now, as a musician, I was broke so I couldn’t afford proper therapy. But my friend’s psychologist did me a deal: each week, he agreed to met me in the park for a chat, as long as I paid him cash. I went and it helped. After one of those sessions, the therapist sent me away with some homework: Have a think about what you might like to do with your life? Don’t stress on it. Don’t concentrate. Just carry the question around and come back to me with an answer. The next week we’re sitting on a park bench looking at the Brisbane river and I rattle off my list of possible options. When I got to Write a novel he stopped me and said, ‘That’s the one.’ By that point, this guy had turned my whole life around so I trusted him. The next day I started working on a book.
Andrew: I always find this a tough question to answer. I mean, I’ve always been a big crime fiction reader, but I’m not sure when I wanted to be ‘an author’. I do remember, very clearly, when I decided I wanted to write a novel. I was in Cambodia in 1996, working as a wire service journalist. I’d first visited the country in 1992 and it had fascinated me from the moment I first arrived. The people, the contrast between the anything goes, Wild West atmosphere of Phnom Penh and the hardscrabble but incredibly beautiful countryside. History oozed from the cracks in the French colonial architecture and protruded from the rich red earth, sometimes quite literally in the case of the mass graves that litter the countryside. Things happened every day – terrible events and acts of heart breaking generosity you couldn’t make up if you tried. I always thought Cambodia would be a good setting for a crime story but was too caught up in the day to day reporting of events and trying to make a living as a freelance journalist to put much of a dent in the book. That didn’t come until nearly a decade later, when one day I sat down and started reading through some old notes. In early 2008, my partner and I quit our jobs and moved to Cambodia for a year with our then two year old. I freelanced as a journalist, did fixing work for foreign TV crews and finished the first draft of what would be become my first novel, Ghost Money.
What or who are some of your influences when writing?
Iain: I was an average student in school so I had to study like crazy to get through it. But after school, I went to a rural Queensland university and I had lots of downtime. I started reading fiction again. For whatever reason, the first book I picked up was Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. That’s a surprisingly noir novel for a mainstream bestseller. That got me interested. About a year later – after dozens of fairly routine crime potboilers – I picked up a copy of J Mag and for some reason there was an article in there about The Most Violent Fiction (or something like that). That introduced me to Bret Easton Ellis and James Ellroy and twenty years later, they remain two of my primary influences.
Andrew: Like Iain, Ellroy is a big influence. He’s not as popular as he once. His shtick has worn thin and his most recent novel, Perfidia, was really disappointing. That said, his influence on countless crimes writers, myself included, simply cannot be over emphasised. His early books are great, but works like The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere blew a giant hole in what people thought crime fiction could be and do, which so many of us are still jumping through. Another crime writer who is not a prominent as he once was, but who had a big impact on me, is Peter Corris. His Cliff Hardy books were first crime stories I read to successfully put a local spin on the key tropes of hard-boiled crime fiction. I’d also have to mention Donald Westlake, particularly his Parker books, the Red Riding quartet by David Peace because it is just such a dark, deep series of books, and, more recently Megan Abbott because of her prose style. She makes me aspire to be a better writer.
BtB: Tell us about your latest releases…
Iain: Drainland is set twenty years after my debut Four Days, with some of the same characters. It’s a fairly dark, fairly brutal police procedural set on a fictional island off Australia’s east coast. I’m self-publishing this series for fun, so Drainland draws in a lot things I love: Frank Miller’s Sin City, James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, J.G. Ballard’s off-kilter settings, Ian Fleming’s tropics and so on. I’m writing the third book in the series at the moment and having a blast with it.
Andrew: Gunshine State is my attempt to do a quintessential Australian take on heist crime fiction. I also wanted to try and do justice to the bizarre and shady past of what was once Australia’s premier holiday destination, the faux Miami known as Surfers Paradise, where a chunk of the book is set. The main character, Gary Chance, is a former Australian army driver, ex-bouncer and thief. His latest job takes place in Surfers Paradise, working as part gang run by an aging stand over man, Dennis Curry, who runs off-site, non-casino poker games, and wants to rob one of his best customers, a high roller called Frederick ‘Freddie’ Gao. The job seems straightforward but Curry’s crew is anything but. Chance knows he can’t trust anyone, but nothing prepares him for what unfolds when Curry’s plan goes wrong.
BtB: Melbourne, in particular has a rich and colourful history with crime, particularly during the late 90s to around 2010 when the Williams family were heavily involved in a number of gangland style executions. What are your memories of this time and did it influence your writing in any way?
Iain: I was living in Queensland at the time and we had our own problems.
Andrew: I was in working in Canberra until the early 2000s. When I moved back to Melbourne I remember the gang wars, such as they were, going on in the background. What I remember are the funerals of the various gangsters, the amazing ritual and theatre of organised crime grieving that accompanied them. That period has not influenced my writing. I am more interested in its earlier period, the battle for control of the Painters and Dockers Union in the late sixties and early seventies, the history of which I touch on in Gunshine State.
BtB: How does the writing process work for you? Do you set a word limit for each day, or is it more of a case of writing when you have the time?
Iain: Haha, Andrew’s going to love this one. Typically I get up early and write before my daughter wakes up. If I can get 500 words in a day, I’m happy. And that’s all it takes. It’s weird but for me 80% of what appears on the page is just the sum of all these hour-long blocks where I’ve smashed out a couple of hundred words in the dark.
Andrew: Yes, Iain and I have a running joke about posting our word counts on social media, which is something I never do. Apart from the fact that I write every day, I am not sure I have a writing process. What I work on totally depends on deadlines and what the most urgent writing task facing me is. I try and put in blocks of time on longer term, more substantive projects, like fiction, but that does not always work out.
BtB: I hear a lot of writers talk about “writers block”. Is it something that troubles you, and if so, how do you get through it?
Iain: I work in a university and academics – like journalists – quickly learn to write to a deadline, not inspiration. That said, I definitely go through fallow phases. You have to give it a rest. What works for me is to never write on the weekend. It’s strictly a Monday-through-Friday deal. I know it works because the words come a lot easier on Monday than Friday.
Andrew: My answer is a bit similar to Iain’s. I worked for many years as a journalist and still doing a lot of freelance journalism, so writer’s block just don’t enter into it. That said, of course, there are times when the words flow easier than others. I find it hard to write fiction at night, especially if I have been working on other projects during the day.
BtB: One of the things writers hate it seems is self-promotion. It’s a tricky one and it’s a necessary evil. Where do you sit with self-promotion? Is it something that you really dislike and how do you do it?
Iain: You don’t promote yourself, you promote the book. But I hate all this bullshit about sensitive artistes refusing to do the muck work of writing. What fucking year is it? If you won’t promote your book, who’s going to do it? Honestly? And I refuse to see how an author advertising their own work on Facebook – for example – is any more crass than some legacy publisher putting your cover on the side of a bus (except that it costs a lot more and it’s less effective). Nevermind, that some of my favourite legacy authors are the biggest self-promoting windbags of all time. Where would James Ellroy be without self-promotion? I know the answer: back at the golf course, caddying for rich fucks who accept how the world works. Phew. I’m done now. And I’m so glad I got that off my chest. PS: Join my mailing list.
Andrew: James Ellroy is the fucking king of self-promotion, and I love him for it. Again I agree with a lot of what Iain says. What I would add is that self-promotion works better when there reciprocity involved. I pay more attention to people hawking their stuff when I know they have reviewed or pushed other writers as well. I can’t stand writers, even quite famous ones, who just push themselves and never support other authors. I just turn off when they post about their stuff and, I suspect, a lot of others do, too.
BtB: I know a lot of writers work with music playing or their stories are influenced by music. Is this the case with you?
Iain: It really depends on what I’m writing and where. At the moment, I’m trying to work quietly so that the baby sleeps longer. But at different stages of my life, I’ve written to different albums. It can really help. I’ve written a lot of stuff to two particular Ben Frost records, Theory of Machines and his collaboration with Daniel Bjarnason on Solaris.
Andrew: Occasionally I may have jazz playing (hell, that makes me sound like an old codger), but I prefer silence when I write.
BtB: Suppose both of your recent books were selected to be made into movies. Who would star in the movie adaption and why?
Iain: I can’t cast Jim Harris in my mind. I don’t know why. But Laura Romano – from day dot – has been an exercise in perverting Maggie Doyle from Blue Healers. A red-headed Lisa McCune would tear it up as Romano.
Andrew: Except that he is now too old, Bryan Brown would’ve been a shoe to play my main character, Gary Chance. The other possibility is Michael Shannon, who played the obsessive and corrupt FBI agent, Nelson Van Alden, in Boardwalk Empire.
BtB: I know Iain is originally from Brisbane but now resides in Melbourne. Why did you decide to move from the Sunshine State?
Iain: I moved down here for work. I love Brisbane. I miss my friends and I really, really miss the warm mornings. Melbourne has its upsides. It’s bigger. The food’s better. And in Brisbane, I didn’t know a single other person who wrote crime novels. Now I do.
BtB: Andrew, I know you are a huge pulp fan and are currently working on a monograph of the 1975 classic ROLLERBALL. What is it about this particular movie that gets the juices flowing?
The Rollerball books is for a UK academic publisher and I have never written anything like it before, so it is a bit of challenge. Rollerball is a fascinating film on many levels. It’s among the most potent of the large number of dystopian science fiction movies to appear in the seventies. Arguably, it is also the most influential. The film simultaneously exhibits the cinematic aesthetic of mainstream, exploitation and art house cinema. The book will also look at other films in what I am calling the ‘the death sport’ cycle of cinema, Running Man (1987), Death Race 2000 (1975).
BtB: What else is coming up for the rest 2016 and beyond in regard to your writing?
Iain: I have another Harris/Romano book coming in November. It’s called Harsh Recovery. And there’s a bunch of edits on the go. That’s my year.
Edit: Since this interview took place, ‘Harsh Recovery’ has recently been released. Check it out here.
Andrew: I am currently doing a PhD on the history of Australian pulp paperback publishing and have just co-edited a book on youth culture and pulp fiction from 1950 to 1980, which I have to make some serious headway on. I am also attempting to find time to write another novel.
BtB: Any other projects you want to talk about?
Iain: My next project is abs of steel.
Andrew: I want to watch every single heist film ever made. Whenever I think I am coming close, more pop up.
Find out more from Andrew Nette at Pulp Curry.
Check out books from Andrew Nette at Amazon.
Find out more from Iain Ryan at Iain Ryan.
Check out books from Iain Ryan at Amazon.