# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
Hello, I’m an Australian writer, mainly known for my off-beat crime novels but have also produced an historical fiction story, and am just about to have my first sci-fi novel published. If there is a unifying theme to all my work, I guess you might say that there is a splash of surrealism in everything I do. It’s been said by reviewers that I “see the oddities and imperfections that others miss.” I write about the extraordinary within the ordinary, the illogicality of accepted norms and the life that happens between the cracks. My most recent book is Welcome to Ord City – a satirical crime novel set against the backdrop of Australian refugee politics. My next book is Asparagus Grass – a sci-fi novel about the real reason the Earth is such a screwed up place.
# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
I have any number of responses to this question, but will limit myself to one.
I woke one morning from a dream where there were just enough shards of imagery lingering in my mind’s eye for me to perceive that I have a dream suburbia – just slightly different from the real suburbia where I grew up in Northern Sydney
This led to a realization that there were incidents in my life that I was suddenly no longer certain had truly happened. Which incidents were dream and which were real?
The corollary to that thought was the underpinning idea for a deeply psychological crime thriller. That crime thriller became my most popular book – Straight Jacket, where (as I wrote the draft) I was setting up two completely different endings, but when I got there, I came up with something much better. No-one has ever guessed the twist conclusion to SJ – or any of my books to the best of my knowledge.
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
The Urge. I couldn’t stop writing if I wanted to (and I have occasionally wanted to) but some inner compulsion forces me to keep churning out a page or two every day.
Also, I never get sick of walking into a book shop and seeing my work on the shelves. That’s a powerful incentive.
# How do you deal with creative block?
I don’t really get writer’s block but I do, from time to time, need to stop and work on something else so I can go back to a particular project with a fresh brain. I tend to work on several projects at once so that’s easy enough to do.
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Depart too far from the spine of the story. The plot is what holds your novel together and the closer you stay to the bones of the plot, the better you’ll hold a reader’s attention. If you wander off on tangents that don’t kick the main story along, you lose momentum. Readers will put down your book and maybe never come back. That’s if the book gets published in the first place.
# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
I suspect that’s a very personal thing. I gather that writers working with major publishers have very little control. I’ve always worked with small publishers which can be frustrating from a marketing resources perspective, but it does give me plenty of say in such things as titles and covers.
My approach to titles is always to have a few working titles listed at the very top of the draft – until the perfect title suddenly smacks you between the eyes.
As for covers – I always have a vision – but I always use a professional and am happy to consider their suggestions. In describing my vision to professionals I’ve never been disappointed in the way those visions are translated to a final product. If you want your book to look professional, don’t skimp. Cutting corners to save a few bucks will lose so many sales that you will struggle to hit the critical mass necessary for the book to take off under its own steam.
Any book has to be given its best possible chance and a great cover can help you get to critical mass – especially if working with small publishers or self publishing.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
There have been some famous examples of authors getting into flame wars with readers on review sites. I strongly advise against this sort of behaviour as, at the very least, you’ll lose your authorial mystique. At worst you can lose your entire career.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve never had a bad review, with the exception of a handful of low Goodreads ratings. Such occasional bad reviews in democratic cyberspace are inevitable – you can’t please everyone, no matter how good. The best approach is to ignore such reviews but I have once or twice responded (not publicly, and very gently) when reviewers made some offensive claims about the subject matter that simply weren’t true. Even doing that I agonized over as some would feel a bit creeped out being contacted by an author. It turned out to be a net positive experience but I probably wouldn’t do it again.
# How has your creation process improved over time?
Before I’d ever finished a novel – back in my dabbling days – I used to have this occasional fantasy of just snapping my fingers and my half baked idea would appear in my hand as a finished novel.
Wouldn’t that be nice!
What I eventually learned is that the journey to becoming a writer is the true reward. You don’t get that by snapping your fingers. You get it by knuckling down and taking the time to learn how to write something worthy of being read. There is no such thing as a natural born writer – just people who got there by going on the journey. And it’s a real commitment – years spent alone in empty rooms tapping your life away on something that (in all likelihood) will never be published, or at least never read.
My creative process is now fully honed, after nearly 30 years, so writing is effortless and fun. But it took a long time and a lot of learning from mistakes to get there.
I always have a lot of ideas rattling around in my head but sometimes I’ll suddenly have what I call the “framing idea”, which is essentially a motivating idea for a story and a bunch of my stray ideas will clunk neatly into that frame – and a story explodes into my head. In the moment the story idea is born, I can already see the main characters and the key facets of their condition which give effect to the motivating force powering the story. I’ll typically start writing immediately – plot features; character notes etc and even start a rough introduction. Usually I’ll get about 30pp in after a week or so, then put it aside to think about it until I’m ready to make that story my main focus. This can sometimes take years.
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
These things can all happen at the same time.
When I finally worked out how to plan and finish a novel I was just exhilarated in those final weeks working towards the conclusion. I thought I had completed a work of genius and was having the most delightful daydreams of publishers driving dump trucks full of money up to my house and signing away the film rights in a Manhattan skyscraper… So when the first rejection slip arrived I laughed. When the second and third arrived, I shrugged. Their loss. As the rejection slips continued to pour in I was thinking: “Has the world gone mad? Does no-one appreciate my brilliance?”
Funnily enough, I can’t read two sentences of that manuscript now without vomiting blood so I guess what that means is that what I thought was my best turned out to be my worst. I’m a much better writer now so I can see clearly what I was doing wrong, and am surprised I might ever have been naïve enough to think otherwise.
Related to this – it took me 15 years of writing seriously (while working full time) until a publisher finally said yes. At the launch of that book someone asked me was it hard to get published, and I thought: “Well no, the first publisher I showed it to accepted it.” But of course that could never have happened without the 15 years of learning how to tell a story. I guess what that means ultimately is this: if you have the right product, it’s easy to get published. If you don’t have the right product it’s impossible.
I guess the best thing of all is this… Several tens of thousands of people have read my books, and people send me emails from all over the world expressing their enjoyment. I find that both humbling and endlessly inspiring.
# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
When I first started writing seriously I was writing the books I wished someone else had written, so I could read them. Turns out, I was writing for an audience of one.
These days, with several novels published and more in the works, I write for a substantially wider readership but that is not something I’ve consciously chased. My work is not as obscure or self-indulgent as it used to be and that probably arose as a natural consequence of finding an audience. I think you need to write for yourself to learn the ropes and discover your natural voice – but to really grow into the best you are capable of being – you need an audience.
Which means you learn how to write books that others might actually be interested in reading – or even purchasing.
# What are your plans for future books?
When I first started writing I had this image of myself as the Stanley Kubrick of novels – never working in the same genre twice. But agents and publishers (and readers) force you into a pigeonhole. If you develop a particular audience, they want you to go on serving that audience and try to dissuade you from other paths. I’m mainly known for unusual (darkly comic) crime novels but I’ve also done a commissioned biography, an historical novel, and I’ve just signed a contract for my first sci-fi novel (Asparagus Grass) which will turn into a trilogy. So, several different genres, but my beta readers would all tell you the voice is consistent. Just like Kubrick’s movies – you can always tell it’s him.
# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
Quirks are only ever claimed by the non-quirky.
Having said that, and on reflection, I guess I’ve developed a fairly unique personal myth system over the course of my life and frequently mine that myth system for ideas and images. For example, the number 242 seems to crop up all the time in my life so I use it also in my work.
Some might call that quirky. Others might call it deluded. They’re probably both right.