Ep 196 Meet Garry Disher, author of ‘Her’

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 196 of So you want to be a writer: Take part in our awesome ‘So you want to be a writer’ community survey. The curious case of whether someone scammed a book’s way onto The New York Times Bestseller List. Plus, how to find time to write and cool character development exercises to help you nail your characters. Our writer in residence this week is Garry Disher, author of Her.

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Show Notes

Community feedback on ‘So you want to be a writer'

Did This Book Buy Its Way Onto The New York Times Bestseller List?

How to Find Time to Write

8 Character Development Exercises to Help You Nail Your Character

WIN: Signed books plus money-can’t-buy Mapmaker cap

Writer in Residence

Garry Disher

Garry Disher is one of Australia’s best-known authors.  He was born on a farm in South Australia, and decided in childhood to become a writer, influenced by a love of reading, his father’s original bedtime storytelling, and the isolation of farm life.

A full-time writer since 1988, he’s published 50 books: general/literary novels, crime thrillers, story collections, fiction for children and teenagers, anthologies (as editor), creative writing handbooks and Australian History textbooks.

His crime novels are rapidly earning an international reputation, with editions published in the USA, England, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Italy, Spain and Hungary. He’s made three author tours of Germany, where he’s won the Deutsche Krimi Preis three times, appeared on best-seller lists and been a guest of the Munich and Cologne writers’ festivals. In May 2009 he toured the USA, following rave reviews for the Challis and Destry crime novels and Chain of Evidence being listed as a best-book-of-the-year by Kirkus Reviews magazine. Chain of Evidence and Wyatt won crime novel of the year awards in Australia, and several of his other titles were shortlisted.

His latest novel is Her, published in 2017 by Hachette.

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Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

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Interview Transcript 


Garry Disher is one of Australia's best-known authors. A fulltime writer since 1998, he's published 50 books: general literary novels, crime thrillers, story collections, fiction for children and teenagers, anthologies (as editor), creative writing handbooks, and Australian history text books. His latest book is Her, which is described as a dark unsettling tale that will stay with you long after you finish reading. And, having read it, I can definitely vouch for that. So welcome to the program, Garry.


Thanks Allison.


So we're going to start by going way back into the mists of time to the beginning of your journey, as they say these days, as an author. You've been a fulltime writer for a really long time now, but how did your first book come to be published?


My first book was a collection of short stories. Like many writers, I started with writing short stories for literary magazines. And the first story I ever sent to a magazine called Overland – which is still in existence – was published, and about a year later I got a cheque for $100. So I thought, that's it, I'm a writer at last.

But the next few stories were rejected by magazines. But that's what it's like for new writers. Quite a few knockbacks and the occasional acceptance. But through all that I was writing for school and university magazines. But I'd always wanted to be a writer. That was in my early 20s that I made a serious effort to get published.

And on the strength of about five or so stories, and winning some short story competitions, but still not knowing what I was doing, I was awarded a creative writing scholarship to Stanford University in California.


Oh wow.


And that one thing was the best thing that could have happened to me at that stage in my career. A very intensive workshopping environment, and I learnt a lot very quickly. I learnt what I was doing wrong. I learnt how to rewrite, which is a critical thing to learn, I think. Just as much as learning how to write is learning how to rewrite and how to edit. And on the strength of earlier stories and the stories that I wrote that year, I came back to Australia and put a collection together and was published by a little press which has since gone bankrupt. Probably because of my book. And that was the start for me. Short fiction in literary magazines.


Okay, so when you switch – sorry.


I'm not saying that short stories are a springboard to novels. I think short story is a distinct form in its own right, and a very powerful and very artistically satisfying form. Short stories should never be denigrated. But I couldn't hope to make a living writing short stories. If I spent a month writing a short story and then got a free copy of the magazine at the end of it, I knew I wasn't going to make a living as a short story writer.


So that was the question I was going to ask you. Because we have discussed short stories quite a lot lately, because they seem to be making a comeback as a form. And there are a lot of competitions, a lot of short story competitions around at the moment that we are encouraging our listeners to have a close look at. But they are a very complete artform unto themselves. So at what point did you make that decision to think, I can't make a living as a short story writer. I'm going to write a novel. And was that a difficult transition for you to make?


No, it wasn't a difficult transition. It just was a logical transition, in the sense that I felt that I'd mastered – well, obviously I hadn't mastered the short story form, but back then I thought I had because I'd had about 30 or 40 of them published. And my next thing to try, artistically, was to write a novel. And the first one I wrote was, it got knocked back by a lot of publishers. But Angus and Robertson said, if you'd care to rewrite it, we'd like to look at it again. And publishers never say that, usually. So I went away and rewrote it and they published it.

But back then I was teaching creative writing, so I didn't in a sense need the income from writing. But I did know overall that if I were purely a short story writer, I wouldn't make a living from it.


So what has changed? You've been writing for a long time now, you've been a fulltime writer for a long time. What has changed, what changes have you seen for you as a writer since those early days when you first started out?


I was writing so-called literary fiction early in my career. But I started writing for children, kind of by accident. In the sense that one of the short stories that I had workshopped at that American writing class was for adults, and it won a short story competition and was published in a literary magazine.

But I always saw its potential – and I'm often like this with some of my earlier work, a character won't leave me alone, for example, or a situation – and I can see the potential in that short story to be a children's novel. And I wrote it. And it was published in 1992 and it's never been out of print. And it won the Children's Book Council Award.

So it introduced me to the world of writing for children and teenagers, which is a very rewarding world, I think. The world of the children themselves, teachers, librarians, parents, booksellers. The world of writing for adults can be a bit backstabbing in some senses.

So I originally wrote Her as a young adult novel, but my publisher insisted, no, it's more like a crossover novel. It's for a general readership. But there's no reason why a young adult can't read it, too.

But another direction for me in my writing was to write crime fiction. Because I've always loved reading it. Perhaps we can blame Enid Blyton with The Famous Five and Secret Seven stories when I was a kid. Which was simple adventures of kids outwitting bad guys. So I've always loved reading crime fiction and I was determined to write my own.

So I suppose if I'm known at all in Australia, it's for the crime fiction which has dominated my last ten or fifteen years. But as a writer, I also need to keep pushing at my boundaries. And that's how my latest book Her came to be written. I didn't want to write yet another crime novel. Even though they're always new to me when I start them, there's always a new challenge, but to write Her was a different kind of challenge, different use of language, different way of thinking about characters, and so on.


I do want to talk about Her, but I just want to ask you this question before we get to that – because I think it is quite an interesting one – is that you do write across a whole range of different genres and sections of the bookshelf. How do you decide what you are going to write next and what form a particular idea will take? How did you know that Her wasn't a crime novel?


A few factors come into play. One is that I'm sometimes bound by a publisher's contract.


Ah yes.


Usually I sign up for a two-book contract. And it roughly works out to be one book a year. But there are deadlines, and they like to publish me at a certain time of the year, and so on. So I know that, okay, this year I better get cracking on my crime novel if I'm going to get it to them in time, and that sort of thing. So that comes into play.

But sometimes, too, just simply a tiredness or a wanting to have a change, to think about characters and settings in a different way. And even though there are crimes, if you like, in Her, it's not a crime novel. I tried several times to start the novel over the years. The first three pages, which I think have quite a strong impact, I write those probably seven or eight years ago. And made several attempts since then to find my way into the story. But all I had was a situation and it wasn't quite enough.


Okay. So where did you begin with it? Because as you said, the first three pages are very, you know, there's a lot of impact in them. There's a lot of impact in the whole novel. It's one of those, I think, very short, like it's not a particularly lengthy novel. It's a very lyrical novel. The language is beautiful. But it leaves quite a lot unsaid between the lines. There's a lot of in-between the lines for the reader to actually do some work as well. And I think that that also brings the impact to it. So where did you begin with it? Did you begin with that situation of those first three pages? Or was there a character or a voice? Or where did you start with it?


A few things came together. I've written, I've got a master's degree in Australian history, and I've written some history text books. And I've used some of the research I've done for the history text books for schools in some of my novels. Like, Past the Headlands is a World War II novel, for example. The Divine Wind is a World War II novel.

And I sometimes… Well put it this way: I wasn't a very good historian in the sense that I could see the potential for novels and short stories in a lot of the stuff that I was unearthing in state libraries and archives and the war memorial and so on.

My novel Past the Headlands grew out of a woman's letter, written in 1942, when she lived on a Kimberley cattle station and looked out her kitchen window one day and saw a group of Dutch people straggling across the paddock towards her. And they had escaped the Japanese, and their plane had crash landed on the beach near her cattle station. And I wrote it into my little history text book, but I couldn't get that woman out of my mind. What's she going to do with these strangers who suddenly turn up on your doorstep? So, that's how the novel came to be written.

And the idea for Her, I haven't been able to find the source since. Again, proof that I'm not a very good historian because I didn't write down the source. But I had read about a poor family in the back lots of Victoria selling their 3-year-old daughter to a travelling tinker and his wife. And the child was, well, she was enslaved, really, in many senses. That's all I knew about her. But she wouldn't leave me alone. I wanted to find out who she was. Not that actual person, who she was, but the woman I was starting to imagine in my head, or the little girl, rather, who ages about ten years in the course of the novel.

So I always in the back of my head was this little girl, she was growing into my imagination. I started to see her and hear her. I couldn't write it earlier until I could see her and hear her. I knew she couldn't be, obviously she's a victim, but ultimately she can't be a victim. She has to be a strong indomitable character. And I knew I had to think about her until I knew her, and then I could see how she would respond to some of the challenges she faces.


Yeah. And there are a lot of challenges. In the sense that, the story is as much a voice and character study as it is about exactly what goes on in the story. But there's a very firm hand on that plot. The reader is always wondering what's going to happen next to this girl. Do you think that that's your crime fiction experience coming out? Like, in that sense of not losing track of the story even though you are really developing a character and a voice there?


I think you're right. I think I have developed techniques as a crime writer that can enrich fiction writing for anybody. For example, carefully placed turning points, buried secrets coming to the surface, getting the reader to exercise their mind about the wrong issue, delaying and withholding tactics. The reader badly wants to know, but your job as a writer and as a crime writer, is to not satisfy that need. Partial and doubtful outcomes, and that sort of thing. And I think they are techniques that I have learned as a crime writer and I think they have enriched my other types of fiction.

Also, I love a quote from Charles Dickens. He said, “make them laugh, make them cry, but crucially make them wait.” In other words you string the reader along. You don't spell it all out. There's a kind of a frustration that sets in.


There is. And the thing I found interesting about it is there's that sense of foreboding. You're waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole way through. What is going to happen here? Is that a difficult thing to sustain? Or does it come easily once you get the voice of the book? Like, is sustaining that wait as a writer, is that a difficult thing to do?


I've learnt to do it, I think. I still get it wrong sometimes. Placing the wrong emphasis, or revealing information too soon. That's why it can help to have a good editor. And it can also help to put a work aside for some time, a few weeks, come back to it with fresh eyes. That always helps, I find.


So what is your process for writing a novel? Are you a planner? Are you someone who plans it all out in advance? Or do you catch an idea and start writing?


No, I'm a planner. And I should stress to new writers that there's no right or wrong about this. I happen to be a planner. A lot of my colleagues claim that they don't plan. But I plan in minute detail. I spend weeks and sometimes months on a plan.

But then again, I always trust my instincts, though. If halfway through the writing, or even earlier than that, if there's a little voice niggling at the back of my head saying, “she's not going to do this” or ” he can't do that” or “what if he did this instead?” I always listen to that voice, which is my instincts really. So always listen to your instincts, if you have to be a planner. Don't be too bound to the plan.

But I realised I needed to plan… The Irish writer Seán Ó Faoláin said there are three elements you need at the start of a story: a character, a situation that the character is in, and a promise. And it's the promise for the reader and the writer of an answer further down the track. The need to keep writing, the need to keep reading.

And I started all those early short stories, and the two or three earlier novels, I started them like that. But when I started writing the crime fiction, I realised that a different technique was needed. I needed to stay a step ahead of the reader, I needed to tease the reader more. So I became a planner.

Also, crucially, early in my crime writing career, I had a very good editor. He's based in the Blue Mountains. And he told me about my, the first chapter of my novel, he said, “do you realise you've introduced 19 characters? Do we need them all? Do we need them all now? Do they all deserve equal weight?” And he said, “logically, you've got a character getting a letter on a Sunday.” And that brought it home to me the need to plan.

And so part of my planning process is not only what event follows another, but what might be happening meanwhile somewhere else, and what season is it? At five o'clock on a Friday afternoon, can my character drive from Melbourne to the Mornington Peninsula in an hour? No. Because it's five o'clock on a Friday evening.

So I need to know where my characters are at each hour of the day on each day of the week. And that has got me out of an enormous amount of trouble in terms of time logic.


Do you use a spreadsheet to do that? Or how do you, on a practical level, how do you organise that planning?


Scraps of paper. I recycle all of my old manuscript drafts. So I write longhand. I can't think through the keyboard. So I write longhand in a blue biro. If it's a black one, the magic leaks out the window. And I write the first draft of my novels on the backs of printed manuscript pages. And then I type it onto the computer, editing as I go along.


Goodness me.


But those same scraps of paper, I use for my planning.


And how long does it take you, given that you are writing longhand, on average how long does it take you to write a novel that way?


I can write very quickly. And at the same time as I'm writing, I'm making notes to myself, and asterisks and arrows, and crossing out. So I'm writing and rewriting as I go along. And I can do it quite quickly. So I write about a book a year. The writing process itself is probably nine or ten months.

I don't think in terms of needing to write a word limit each day. I write for a certain number of hours. And in that period, I might write five or ten pages, or I might only write a paragraph. As long as I do the certain period of time each day.


Is it a routine? Do you get up at 5 o'clock every morning and do it? Is there a set pattern to your writing routine?


It's roughly from 8:00 to 1:00 each day, six days a week. Not on Sundays. In the afternoons I don't write. But I might type up manuscript pages or check things in the library or mow the lawn or whatever.


Oh you mean other things outside of your office? Now, you've worked as a writing lecturer in the past, what do you think that teaching other people how to write taught you about writing?


Well, I never promise my students anything other than to show them techniques. So I would talk about characterisation and effective ways to characterise somebody. Use of descriptive language, or use of thoughts, or use of dialogue to characterise somebody. And other uses of dialogue, how it can, carefully placed, it can reveal crucial plot information, for example. The strengths and weaknesses of the first and the third person point of view, and so on. And how important setting is. Because I think a lot of new writers don't pay much attention to the setting, but I think it's one of the most vital elements.

So that's all I promise my students. And so I was helping the good writers to become better writers. At no stage did I ever promise to anybody that I would teach them creativity, or to become writers if they weren't, if they didn't have some sort of spark. But they were all there because they had the desire.

But another thing I think some of them lacked was persistence. And I've learnt that over the years, the need for persistence.


And is that persistence in learning the craft, persistence in getting yourself published? Is that just persistence across the board?


It's persistence across the board, I think. I had, every year, say in a class of 20, there would be someone there who I thought was a better writer than me. But every now and again, or quite often, too often, and it's a sad thing, they'd send a short story off at my urging, and it would be rejected by a magazine perhaps, and they would drop out of the class sometimes.

That's what I mean by persistence. Part of that persistence is developing a thick skin. But it's not a judgement on you. It can be many things. Maybe the piece you've written is weak, but maybe too, the magazine is full of stories for the next year, or the wrong sort of person read it, or whatever it might be.


How do you feel about the promotion side of the writing job? Because I think a lot of people who would be starting out today, there's a lot more onus on writers now to actually promote as well, and to kind of be a part of the process of getting the book out there. Is it something that you do only when you have a book coming out? Or do you work to maintain a profile in between?


I only do it when I have a book coming out. I'm not a warm and cuddly person, I don't think. I can't hold an audience in the palm of my hand.

Put it this way, I'm often asked to give talks at local libraries, and I love doing that because I've got a small group and they are keen readers and they are there to hear me, and I can flourish in that sort of environment. But in other ways, I just want to keep my head down.

I'm not a natural at publicising myself. I willingly take part in anything that the publisher arranges for me. I think that's important; it's part of my job. But in terms of say social media, like Twitter or Facebook or other avenues of promoting my work, I don't do any of that. And I probably should. I probably would get more sales. But I'm not interested.


Okay. Fair enough. I think it's important to know your strengths and weaknesses as part of the process, don't you?




And what are you working on at the moment? I'm assuming that you, given that you are essentially on a book a year, you'd be working on next year's book?


Yes. But I have a confession to make. I'm doing it as a PhD, this novel. I realised a few years ago that a lot of my colleagues, my peers who I met at writers' festivals, said that they're doing the same thing because of the scholarship money. Because even though I've had 50 odd books published and becoming better known, my income is very, very low. And it's declining over the years.

So I thought, well, if I did a PhD and wrote a novel as part of the PhD – but it's more than that, I also have to write an academic work of about 20,000 words about the creative process, but it has to draw on original research and so on – I thought, I'm getting a novel out of it over three years but I'm also exercising my mind in a different way. And I'm being supported by the scholarship.

So I am currently writing a novel called Mischance Creek. And it's a follow on from my novel Bitter Wash Road, which is a crime novel published about two years ago. It was supposed to be a standalone crime novel but, again, as I said earlier in this interview, sometimes a character won't leave me alone. So I knew I wanted to write another story about this character.


And I'd imagine, you obviously have a very strong interest in research, research is obviously something that you love, given the Australian history books that you've written. So the research aspect of that PhD would probably appeal to you almost as much as the novel?


In a sense, yes. But it's a different kind of research from the history research where I was looking up facts and following leads of that kind. This is literary theory, which is quite new to me.

So I'm interested, the part of the academic work that the thesis is going to be about, in the use of setting in fiction writing, because I'm a strong believer in the vital sense that setting has – that it's not just a place for the action to take place, there's more to setting than that. And I wanted to know what other academics have said about use of setting.

And I've discovered there's a whole new world of literary theory called geology and literature, or I can't remember the exact term for it, but more and more geographers looking at literature as a way of understanding place.


Because a sense of place is very, very definite in Her. You know immediately where you are. And I find it really interesting because often I think people think that to really evoke a setting you need to use a lot of words, and a lot of description, and a lot of detail. Which I often find as a reader I will skim anyway. But I find with your, particularly with this novel, you are giving the setting in not a huge number of words, but it's a very evocative thing. I feel that that's obviously a skill set that you have developed over a long time. But what do you think is the key to evoking that setting? Like what are some of the things that you consciously think about to evoke a sense of place?


Well, another very useful lesson I learned at that American writing class, I jumped in the deep end by giving a short story to be workshopped. It was about a young woman going into a pub and seeing her old boyfriend there and trying – it's a very internal story – she's trying to decide whether she's going to hook up with him again or not. To cross the bar and go and talk to him or flirt with him or whatever it might be. At the end she decides she's not going to, that she's moved on in life. That's okay for a short story to do that; there doesn't have to be a car chase. Just a subtle shift in the character's viewpoint is enough for a short story.

But the story got pulled apart by the class. And someone whose opinion I trusted because she'd had several stories published by The New Yorker magazine, she said, “your writing suffers from sensory deprivation.” And so I was quite crushed. But I was determined to know what she meant. So afterwards we went to the pub and she said that good writing makes pictures in the head. And she said that in your short story it's probably there in your head, but it's not on the page yet. So the story is not in my head yet, she was saying.

She said, “I can't see what this girl looks like. Is she short, fat? Blonde?” Etc. Sense of sight. She said, “I can't hear the jukebox in the corner of the bar.” Sense of hearing. She said, “I can't smell the cigarette smoke.” She said, “I can't taste the pretzels on the bar.” She said, “I can't feel the dampness of the tabletop from spilt beer.” So all the senses are useful if used carefully to bring a reader into a scene. So that was the most useful writing lesson I've ever learnt.

So now when I'm describing a place, even a person, in subtle ways I try to evoke one or more of the senses. And partly too it's my short story writing is get in, get out, don't linger. And it's one of the lessons the famous Raymond Carver tried to convey. Get in, get out, don't linger. So when you do get in, it has to be as clear and evocative and as succinct as possible.


Which is excellent advice. And you have actually given us a whole lot of excellent advice here. But I am going to finish up by asking you the question that we ask every single person that we speak to. Which is, Garry, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers?


First, I'd say be a reader. In the ten or so years that I taught creative writing, I would say a good 30 – 40% of my students didn't read. They wanted to write. They loved storytelling of some kind or other, or thought it might be a fine thing to write, but didn't read. I would name authors that I thought might be well known but they'd never heard of them. And I realised that they weren't readers. It's the first thing, to be a writer is to be a reader.

I would also say, don't talk about writing: write. Even if you don't feel like writing, even if it's junk. The actual act of writing actually unlocks more words, unlocks your brain, gets the words flowing eventually.

And one I touched on before was persistence. Don't give up. If you send a short story off or a poem and it's rejected by a magazine, don't see it as a rejection of you. Just keep writing. That, I think, those three things are the most important.


And they are all fantastic. Thank you so much for your time today, Garry. I know how incredibly busy you are, and I know that you are working on many things as well as telling the entire world about Her, which I think is fantastic. So best of luck with it and best of luck with your PhD and we really appreciate your time today.


Thanks Allison.



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