Garry Disher is an Australian writer well known for
his crime fiction worldwide. He also has a successful track record writing literary,
children’s and young adult fiction. Mr Disher cut his teeth, in the crime
genre, with a heist novel featuring his now cult character Wyatt in the 1991
novel Kickback. Wyatt has appeared in
a total of seven novels. The most recent, simply titled Wyatt, appeared in 2010 (after a 13 year hiatus) to rave reviews.
It received a starred review from Publishers
Weekly, and even more impressively, won the prestigious Australian Crime
Writers Association’s Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction.
Mr Disher is also the writer of a series of police
procedural novels featuring Hal Challis and Ellen Destry. The first title, The Dragon Man, appeared in 1999 and the
latest, Whispering Death, was
published in 2011. The fourth novel in the series, Chain of Evidence, won the Ned Kelly Award for Best Fiction, and
was named by Kirkus Reviews in its
Best Books of 2007 (Indie Books category).
His most recent crime
novel is the excellent Hell to Pay
(published as Bitter Wash Road in
Australia) featuring a, so far, non-series police constable nicknamed Hirsch
stationed in a small South Australia bush town. Mr Disher was kind enough, and
showed an amazing amount of patience, to answer a few questions. The questions are italicized.
the United States you are most well known as a crime novelist, but you also
write children’s and adult literature. Is one type of fiction more difficult to
write, and do you have a favorite?
I don’t have a favourite,
all three satisfy me creatively and offer the same creative challenges. It’s assumed that writing for children and
teens is simplistic and therefore easy work, but the reverse is true. Perhaps I have tested my creative boundaries
with the ‘literary’ fiction, but I take care with the craft aspects whatever I
write. However, I’d argue that writing
crime fiction has taught me an enormous amount about creating and maintaining
tension and suspense, which has helped with my children’s/YA and general
read that you received a creative-writing fellowship to Stanford University in
California. When did you attend Stanford, and was it a positive experience?
Also, as a fan (it’s an imperative since I’m from Utah) I must to ask, did you
meet Wallace Stegner while studying at Stanford?
The Australian Stanford
writing scholarship was set up by a wealthy Australian who had studied at
Stanford. It no longer exists, but for
many years the scholarship would go to a poet one year, a fiction writer the next. I value my time at Stanford very highly. The scholarship came at just the right time,
when I’d had some success with short stories in little magazines and
competitions, but yet knew nothing about the craft of writing. By the end of my time there, I had a clearer
grasp of fiction writing techniques, saving me years of hit-and-miss writing,
and, more importantly, knew how to edit and rewrite my work. Yes, we (my class of twelve fiction-writing
students) did meet Stegner one afternoon.
A very genial, knowledgeable and gracious man.
an interview I read that you enjoy watching “crap American crime shows on
TV.” A habit we share. What are some of
your favorite television shows?
I have corrupted my
daughter into watching with me: anything from Justified, Dexter and Breaking Bad (incidentally, these are
classy, not crap) to CSI Miami
repeats and Criminal Minds, which are
crap. In fact, one tires of crap TV
quickly: the absurd plots, the bad acting and the aridity of formulaic
writing. I should also mention some of
the British shows, like Scott &
Bailey and Prime Suspect, and the
Scandinavian shows, like The Killing
and The Bridge (the US version of The Bridge was terrific).
of television, Internet Movie Database (IMDb) identifies five television films, featuring a detective
named Cody, based on characters created by “Garry Disher.” Are these films
based on your work? If so, did you develop the characters for television, or
are they based on your fiction?
Many years ago, after the
first three or four Wyatt novels had appeared, I was approached by the Sydney
producer of a water-police series to create a new character for a series of
two-hour tele-movies. They paid me
enough to clear my mortgage, but… First,
I created an undercover policeman, having met one recently and been struck by
the strange double-life he’d led, infiltrating biker gangs (and the fear and
the ambiguity), but learnt to my cost the producer had a certain
happy-go-lucky, cheeky-grin, surfer dude actor
in mind (“He can’t do dark,” they told me).
So back to the drawing board. I
later went on to write three storylines for the scriptwriter, about a
cheeky-grin cop named Cody… One story
involved art theft. The producer told
me, “We see our audience as the western suburbs [i.e., blue collar workers] of
Sydney: they’re not interested in art theft.”
That was my introduction to the world of writing for film and TV.
an interview for the State Library of Victoria you said, “A good crime novel
tells us about the world we live in. Tells us about human nature. In many ways
literary fiction has let us down on that front.” Would you expand on this idea?
Why do you think current literary fiction is failing?
I feel sometimes when I
read the latest highly-praised literary novel that it’s rich in
characterization and absorbing themes and gorgeous language, but I’m dying for
something to happen, for a character to do something (walk through the door
with a gun in his hand…?). At the same
time, these novels may go deeply into characterization and relationships, but
exist in a kind of vacuum when it comes to the world surrounding the
characters—the world of tension between rich and poor, of the stranglehold of
fundamentalist thought in public debate, of corruption in government and
business, of everyday racism, sexism and homophobia. Crime novels tackle these things.
this same interview you said, “Reading is vital to me as a writer.” You further
said you tend to read bad books critically, but you read good books for
pleasure. When you read a bad book do you look for what doesn’t work, and learn
from it? As a writer do you learn more from a good book, or a bad one?
Yes, I do look for what
makes a bad book bad. It hones my
critical editing abilities, which I hope helps me look for what is weak or
poorly thought out or badly expressed in my own writing. Good fiction will also help, for I might see
how other writers solve certain technical problems (I learnt how to handle an
ensemble cast by reading John Harvey’s Inspector Resnick novels, for example).
have two current series characters: Hal Challis and Wyatt. Each is very
different from the other. One (Challis) a career police inspector, and the
other (Wyatt) a career criminal. The Challis novels are police procedurals
written with deliberate style and pacing—the crime is often revealed in stages,
and never rushed—and the Wyatt novels are stark, and somewhere near hardboiled.
Do you enjoy writing one over the other, and does each style demand different writing
(maybe craft) approaches?
I wrote the Challis and
Destry novels as a change from writing the Wyatts (six in six years, at the
start). The Wyatt novels follow a
certain formula (Wyatt identifies a place to rob, robs it, is betrayed, gets
his revenge), but that doesn’t mean they’re easier to write. I’m a planner, spending weeks on a plan
before I start, and every book poses challenges (balancing character and plot,
whilst listening to my instincts). In
both series, I take the reader into the minds of the bad guys as well as the
good (it’s great for creating tension if the reader knows more about a
situation than the hero does), so my thinking processes are similar. The book that posed the greatest challenge is
my latest, Bitter Wash Road
(unfortunately titled Hell to Pay in
the States) for I do not stray from the thoughts, hopes and fears of the main
agree. Bitter Wash Road is
a much better title than Hell to Pay.
It features a very likable protagonist named Hirsch. Can we plan on seeing him
I have been making occasional
notes for a follow-up Hirsch novel but nothing definite or any time soon.
novels, particularly the Hal Challis police procedurals, have a very strong
sense of place. As an example, in the first Hall Challis novel, The
Dragon Man, you describe the heavy heat
of mid-summer, Challis showering with a bucket to capture excess water for use
in the garden, herons feasting on mosquitoes, etc. What is your expectation for
setting within a story, and how do you deal with it as a storyteller?
I know from teaching
writing that beginner writers take the setting for granted. “Two characters are having an argument in a
sitting room: okay, there’s a TV set, a couple of armchairs, a bookcase, that
will do.” It won’t do. The setting is vital. If handled carefully (certain objects
highlighted, or described in a certain way, appealing to the reader’s sense of
touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing), a setting can come alive, seem
tangible, and say something about the characters and the atmosphere.
Challis, especially in the early novels, is something of a broken man. In The
Dragon Man you introduce the backstory of
his wife, her affair, and the attempt she and her lover made to kill Challis.
This is juxtaposed with Hal’s efforts to rebuild an old de Havilland Dragon
Rapide airplane. Did you intend this to be an image of destruction and renewal?
Or did you have something else in mind?
I simply wanted to show a
shy, somewhat sad, careful man with an interest that would absorb him, after
his recent heartache. Plus, I love old
with Hal Challis, I recently read the latest novel, Whispering
Death, and I was struck that the cycle
may be at an end. He sells his car—a now unreliable Triumph—and the Dragon
Rapide he has restored over the previous novels. Not to mention he is involved
with Ellen Destry and his life seems to be quite nice. Is this the final Hal
Refer to the question
above. It’s not the latest Challis, for
I’m halfway through a new one. But I
like to keep the series fresh for me as a writer and fresh for the reader, and
so the characters change over time (marriage, job-rank, place of domicile,
etc., etc.). I couldn’t see where the
plane-restoration theme could continue, so found a way of jettisoning it for
the future. So, yes, a cycle has
finished, but not the series.
Whispering Death also
featured an enjoyable Wyatt-like—professional criminal—called Grace. She is a
thief who is running from more than just the police, and there is a hint that
we may see more of her. Something I would very much enjoy. Do you have plans
for Grace in future stories, maybe even one of her own?
I loved creating
Grace. She’s whispering in my ear about
a job she’d like to pull (I just have to think who her nemesis could be).
Wyatt novels have been favorably compared with Donald Westlake’s, as by Richard
Stark, Parker novels. There are similarities, but there are also significant
differences. The most obvious is, Wyatt, while controlled, is more emotional
than Parker, and even remorseful of the consequences of his actions. When you
set out to write the Wyatt novels had you read any of the Parker novels? Were
you influenced by the Richard Stark novels?
I was greatly influenced
by the Parker novels. But I had to make
Wyatt my own character, not a clone of Parker.
So now and then we see a little way into Wyatt’s inner life—but I don’t
want to take this too far. If we cared
too much for him (he had an unhappy childhood or he robs banks to pay for his
little niece’s leukemia operation), he’d be less forceful and compelling. He’d no longer be Wyatt.
After a 13 year hiatus (1997 to 2010) you
wrote the seventh Wyatt novel in the self-titled Wyatt. Can we look forward to
another Wyatt novel in the future?
The new Wyatt, #8, is
coming out in Australia late 2015. The
Australian title is Down to Dust, and
I hope my US publisher, Soho, picks it up.
superficial question. The novel Wyatt is billed by Soho as a “Wyatt Wareen novel.”
Is this actually Wyatt’s last name?
I have no idea where the
name Wareen comes from. I have never used it. The character has always simply
been called Wyatt. I have a vague idea that a reviewer some years ago called
him Wyatt Wareen, but where he got the name, I have no idea.
heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you
were stranded on an island and you had only one book. What would it be?
I think a big fat,
well-illustrated history of art. It
would be instructive and nourish the imagination.
opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your
novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?
It’s always the latest
one: Hell to Pay (titled Bitter Wash Road in Australia)
as we discussed earlier, you are an avid reader. Do you have any particular
favorite writers—in any genre, including literature—that have influenced you
the most as both a writer and a man? Are there any Australian writers you would
like to mention?
Among Australian writers,
Peter Temple is peerless (crime), and so is Helen Garner (‘literary’ true
crime, as well as literary fiction). For
her short stories, the Canadian, Alice Munro.
In terms of crime writing influence, I’ll name John Sandford. He’s a
very tricky and sneaky plotter, and clearly loves creating his bad guys. In terms of prose style, Richard Ford and
Raymond Carver, both of whom I met when they visited Australia.