I had the pleasure of interviewing Garry Disher, aka ‘The Master’, in my second session at the Crime and Justice Festival 2010. Truth be told, I asked for this gig. I’ve never read a Garry Disher novel I didn’t like and this gave me an excuse to read more. Plus we’ve known each other for a few years–Garry puffed my first novel and we’ve appeared on panels together in the past–which makes the whole interview process more relaxed.
In preparation for the interview, I read two of Garry’s Wyatt novels, Port Vila Blues and Fallout, recently released by Text Publishing as The Wyatt Butterfly. First published in 1997, Fallout was the most recent Wyatt novel until the eponymous Wyatt, in 2010.
I also read The Sunken Road, a literary novel set in rural South Australia, which was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1996. I had intended then intended to read Wyatt but was seduced by the opening line of The Divine Wind, Garry’s 1998 novel for young adults (and a NSW Premier’s Award winner) set in Broome during World War II:
In the final weeks of 1941, when I was adrift in life and my sister was missing in a war zone, my father offered our home as sanctuary to a young Japanese woman named Mitsy Sennosuke, unaware that I was in love with her.
These turned out to be good choices as when I asked Garry which of his own work he was most proud of and why, both The Sunken Road and The Divine Wind made his top three. But I am getting ahead of myself.
With a license to talk about his career in its entirety, we started with what motivated Garry to become a writer when he was still a child. He described how he cherished books and reading as a boy growing up on a remote rural farm in South Australia’s wool and wheat belt. He spoke of his father who told made-up stories to his children at night, always concluding with, “We’ll have to pick this up tomorrow.”
“I guess you could say I grew up experiencing a cliff-hanger every night.”
We talked about Garry’s transition to full-time writing after years of teaching writing and writing history text books to subsidise his fiction. Asked what made it possible, he nominated persistence. He recalled “creative writing students who would have their first short story rejected by a publisher and drop out of the course.” Garry, by contrast, published short stories in literary journals, won a creative writing fellowship to Standford University, and returned to Australia to publish his first short story collections and novels.
Garry’s output is prolific: he has published over 40 books in genres as diverse as crime, young adult and children’s fiction, as well as short stories, literary fiction and non-fiction. He said working in a range of genres, writing for different audiences, kept his writing “fresh” and prevented him from becoming a hack. I have noted this good advice.
Garry also talked about where he gets his inspiration. Amongst examples of what might spark a question or kick-start a train of thought were newspaper articles, overhead conversations, turns of phrase. He spoke specifically about the historical documents that inspired The Divine Wind and another of his novels Past the Headlands, and writes about these on his website.
I had the chance to put a couple of questions to Garry that had been left on this blog, one of which was: ‘You have a reputation as being a bit of a SNAG [Sensitive New Age Guy]. Does the rather cold-blooded character of Wyatt reveal a hidden side to what makes you tick?’ Garry took this one on the chin, arguing that he has a reputation for being a SNAG because he writes strong female characters, from Anna Tolley — ‘leggy, wilful, auburn-haired, always answering back’ — whose story is at the centre of The Sunken Road, to Ellen Destry, who started life as a minor character but has ended up sharing the bill with DI Hal Challis in the Challis and Destry police procedurals.
Garry added that if anyone had been at his home the previous evening, they would not have called him a SNAG, and went on to tell a story about a difference of opinion regarding the necessity of purchasing a certain household item and his loathing of the kinds of shops from which said items originate. I won’t go into detail except to say the first three questions from the audience focused on this topic!
I also asked Garry about how his approach to the latest Wyatt novel changed or was influenced by the Challis and Destry novels he has written, and he suggested he has become better at ‘layering’ his writing. But I wasn’t the only one who thought he was being modest. At an earlier Crime and Justice Festival, Shane Maloney described Garry’s Wyatt books as possibly the best Australian crime fiction ever written. And Shane Maloney is never wrong. Take, for example, this description of Wyatt from The Fallout:
Had he ever been impatient? Had he ever been young? It sometimes seemed to him that he’d landed on the earth fully formed and always this age, always this careful. If there had been a time when he was a child, a youth, it was according to the calendar, not character. He supposed that that was a shame.
Good news is that another Wyatt novel is in the pipeline, not to mention a new Challis and Destry due out early next year.
Garry is a wonderful writer, a fascinating interview subject and a great mentor for aspiring and emerging authors — a rare combination and the sign of a true master.