Ep 75 Meet crime thriller writer Tony Cavanaugh, author of ‘Kingdom of the Strong’

blue green ocean jetty in the foreground with the title of the podcast and a podcast description
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on print

podcast-artwork In Episode 75 of So you want to be a writer: Tourists pay to run a Scottish bookshop for a week, who exactly is an “emerging” writer, manspreading, fur baby, and other terms that have made it into the Oxford Dictionary, the ballpoint pen’s role in the demise of cursive handwriting, revisiting The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, do writers need self-belief or self-discipline? Five Aussie author blogs to watch, Writer in Residence Tony Cavanaugh, how to dictate to your phone, tips for finding beta readers, and more!

Click play below to listen to the podcast. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher Radio. Or add the podcast RSS feed manually to your favourite podcast app.

Show Notes

Shelf catering: tourists offered chance to run a bookshop on holiday

Letter: Emerging frustration

From mic drops to manspreading: an Oxford Dictionaries update

How The Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

What’s More Important for Writers: Self-Belief or Self-Discipline?

5 Aussie author blogs to watch

Writer in Residence 

Tony Cavanaugh

Black and white photo of author Tony CavanaughTony Cavanaugh is an Australian crime novelist, screenwriter, and film and television producer.

Tony has over thirty years' experience in the film industry, has lectured at several prestigious universities and has been a regular guest on radio commenting on the film and television industry.

His latest book is Kingdom of the Strong.

Find Tony on Twitter

Working Writer's Tip

How to find good beta readers?

Answered in the podcast!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers' Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

Share the love!

blue green ocean with podcast name and a description of the episode

Interview Transcript

Valerie

Thanks for joining us today, Tony.

 

Tony

Well, thanks very much for having me, Valerie.

 

Valerie

Now for readers who haven't read your latest book, Kingdom of the Strong, can you tell us what it's about?

 

Tony

Yeah, I can. It's about a cold case that's 25 years old. And the character in all of my books, Darian Richards is found at the beginning of the book sort of aimlessly sitting on a boat on a lake in the Great Lakes District in New South Wales. He's visited by old boss, the police commissioner of Victoria, who mentored Darian, whom had in fact retired and was then brought back by the government to sort of, like, keep the seat warm as they try to find a new commissioner.

 

What he asks Darian to do is, which is the thrust of the book, is to investigate a peculiar death that occurred 25 years ago in South Yarra in Melbourne, where a young lady, about 19 years old, whose name was Isabelle, was found in her house. And the coroner couldn't quite figure out if it was murder, if it was an accident, or if it was a suicide. And in the midst and swirl of the coronial inquest and the rumors at the time, it was said that there were three cops, Victorian constables, who were kind of involved, hassling her, that they worked for a drug lord in Melbourne. One of those cops, now, 25 years later, tipped to become the new commissioner. And, so the object in the exercise is the old commissioner, Darian's mentor says, “Exonerate him.” And Darian says, “Well, what if I can't exonerate him?” The commissioner says, “Well, if you can't exonerate him he goes down, but I don't for a second believe that he was responsible for that poor girl's death.”

 

And so Darian goes back to Melbourne, which is where he came from, ‘the city of murder' as he calls it, and he drives around and he just kept on remembering all of the mayhem and murder and slaughter that he attended when he was in homicide on Melbourne's streets and all of the suburbs. And, digs back into the past and investigates the three cops who are now quite high up in the police force, and he tries to find out what exactly happened.

 

Valerie

This is the fourth book in the Darian series, can you just take us back, because before you even started writing these books you had a lot of experience in the film industry, you've created and written for various television series, including, you know, Stay with the Sullivan's, Carson's Law, Flying Doctors, Day of the Roses… But, when and why did you start exploring crime writing and this series of books?

 

Tony

I wasn't always interested in crime. When I went to Flinders Uni back in the late '70s I became obsessed with crime and I read everything I could lay my hands, especially Brandon Chandler, who I just adored and kind of stayed with me and haunted me for years and years and years later. And, then as you said, I got heavily involved in film and television for many, many, many years. And then in the '90s I started going back into crime writing, when the Michael Connelly books came out. And, I love my Michael Connelly, he's great. All of his books, all of the American current crime writers right now are fantastic. I started to devour that world again, and then about five years ago, just when I started writing Promise I was at sort of a crossroads in my life where I had reached kind of a dark point. I had been to rehab a couple of times and I was completely pissed off at the world of filmmaking. I had a sort of catastrophic experience, my marriage had collapsed, and I found myself living in this grungy little motel room on the Gold Coast with no money and… it was drastic and horrible and all of that. In that sort of black hole which I found myself I thought, “You know, I'm going to start writing a book.”

 

And so I started just writing it. And, it just, you know, after about the first 20-30 pages I felt comfortable with what I was doing, and I thought, “Yeah, I think I can probably do this. I think I can figure out the process.” I had Stephen King's book on writing also, which was a great help.

 

I just spent a lot of time every day, just working on it. I had met the people from Hachette prior to that, a couple of years ago. I had a contact, and so when I was about 40-50 pages in I sent that down to Bernadette, who was at Hachette at the time.

 

Valerie

Bernadette Foley?

 

Tony

Yeah. She was very encouraging and urged me to continue. So, with that… and she was great all the way through. After I finished she handed me over Vanessa Radnidge, and she's my publisher now. Um, so the process of feedback with Hachette was great. And, that sort of helped me along the way.

 

Valerie

So those original 30-40 pages, they became the first Darian Richards book?

 

Tony

Yeah, they did. Yep.

 

Valerie

So, where did Darian Richards come from originally? How did you, you know, dream up this character and decide what he was going to do and what he was going to be like?

 

Tony

He's an amalgamation of about three very high-ranking police officers in Victoria, the only one who remains in the police department. I spent some time with these guys in homicide. St Kilda Rd down in Melbourne on this film back in the late '90s — no, about 2007-2008, actually. Also I created a series called Fire back in the early '90s in Melbourne and I spent some time with a police department there as well. I interviewed an arson squad cop, I can't remember his name, and he was completely and utterly burnt out because he had been chasing a serial arsonist for something like 18 months. And it completely destroyed him. They found him, eventually. But, not through police… a police investigation. It was simply a random phone call… a friend of the, um, serial arsonist.

 

But, this guy was… I could still see him, even though it was so long ago, he was just sort of bugged out, burned out, sort of leaning over… he was just really bitter and cynical. He made a big impression on me. When I was putting together the character of Darian and just thinking about all of these policemen that I'd worked with and talked to over the years, my guy was kind of born. And, I added a couple of sort of flourishes. I've always been obsessed with driving a red Studebaker and I've written in so many scripts where one of my characters drives a red Studebaker and every time the production designer comes to me in the office and says, “Tony, you know, we can't do this, we can't afford it, how about a Mustang?” And I've always acquiesced to the producer. I'm like, “Yeah, yeah, get the fucking Mustang. I know that the bloody Studebaker is too hard to get.” So, finally I've got the red Studebaker and it's fabulous, there it is in the books.

 

And a few other little bits and pieces of idiosyncrasies that, you know, I drew on from my experiences, like, you know, I'm hopeless with directions and Darian shares that with me. We're always getting lost.

 

Essentially he is… yeah, as I said he is a fictional amalgamation of about three or four police officers.

 

Valerie

When you're writing crime and serial killings and police work, I know that you did spend some time, as you just said, because of the film work you did with some police, but what kind of level of other kind of research have you had to do in this area? Into crime scenes and forensics, and, you know, the mind of a criminal and that sort of thing? Have you done a lot of research into this area, because of this?

 

Participant:

Yeah, I have. And, above and beyond what I've just mentioned, with those particular police officers down in Melbourne, I've spent a lot of time with other cops up in Queensland and in the territory, all over the country really. Just on various different shows. So, I was pretty familiar with the role of investigation, police investigation, and especially with homicide. So, I'd observed a lot of that, studied a lot of that, talked to these guys, understood kind of where they're at. I certainly understood the process of… the procedural process.

 

When it comes to the mind of a serial killer, though, that's a totally different thing. One of the people who I worked with is a profiler, he was trained by the FBI back in the '90s. He could break inside the minds of serial killers. But, aside from that I've done a lot of reading. There's a great book by Robert Hare, who's a Canadian psychologist called Without Conscious, which in many ways is sort of the Bible of psychopathy/sociopathy. And I've studied that again and again and again. About three years ago Simon Baron-Cohen, he's a professor at either Cambridge or Oxford, and a first cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, wrote a fabulous book called The Science of Evil, which is a more recent take on… and it's more of a scientific take on the notion of evil and psychopathy and narcissism and the lack of empathy.

 

And then, of course, there are all of the… there's all of the stuff that you can find online, like the chilling recount of BTK, after he was caught talking about the packages and how he would go off and stalk his victims. So, when I'm writing I've always got the internet up and I'm always on Wikipedia and I'm always going to all of these crazy sites reading about all of these insane things, with these shocking people. With all of that I felt comfortable… it was interesting when I wrote Promise, I wrote the serial killer… I made the decision early on to bring in the voice of the serial killer, but I brought him in in the third person. And when I got the editor's notes back she said, “Put his words in the first person, so it's much more direct and dramatic.” She was right, but it really freaked me out for about two weeks, I couldn't get my head around it.

 

He was such a nasty — even in the third person when I was writing him he was so horrific I literally, I'm not joking, this is not like me being silly, I eventually had to go and have a showers after I would write one of these chapters. I had made a conscious decision to not… you know, obviously we all center ourselves and we've all got our own moral boundaries in what it is that we write. I applied that in certain places. But, I did make a conscious decision to get into this guy's head and to write him as they are… not, you know… sugar coat it and make it sort of
G-rated or PG-rated, or even M-rated.

 

Valerie

Do you ever scare yourself with what you write?

 

Tony

No.

 

Valerie

I've always been fascinated thought by the minds of crime writers. Are you always thinking about crime? Do you sit there and think, “Well, I wonder how you might murder someone in that situation?

 

Tony

Ha ha! No, I don't. In fact the process of murder in my books is not one that I really think about, that much. I think about the psychology and what drives them and the narcissistic lack of empathy. All of my bad guys, so to speak, all of the criminals in my books are quite intelligent, articulate and very… and in the first book, Promise, the killer actually quotes a lot of these books that I've just been quoting, because he's read them all. And, so he's on top of it, he knows just as much… and, indeed, you know, that's borne out by the research, because I know, having spoken to my friend I just mentioned, who works as a profiler, he said that a lot of these guys when they go to jail they study up on this sort of stuff and become experts at manipulating the system, experts at manipulating the psychologists. And they just learn how to make it work. You know, not only charm, but great intelligence.

 

I don't think about the murder. But, funnily enough last year I was asked to work on Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Season 3. I'd always been sort of dismissive of the Agatha Christie style of crime writing. I've read them all, or many of them, when I was younger, and I just thought… you've got the Cludo approach, you've got a victim, you've got five suspects, and then you've got the drawing room scene where the hero sort of mangles to untangle it all and say, “YOU are the killer.” I always thought that was just easy, cheap bullshit. But, when I started working on Miss Fisher it was fantastic because I really got to understand how incredibly difficult that type of plotting and that type of crime fiction is. And, that requires a lot of thought about the murder, about the victim.

 

With Miss Fisher we spent a whole day, we had five days of plotting and doing a story conference. We spent an entire day on the white board just figuring out who the… they're on the screen for, like, 30 seconds, who the victim is and then how and why this person could have been killed by up to five men or women. So, subsequently, of course, who I said is on screen for 30 seconds, becomes the most interesting character in the show, because there are five people who have got five different reasons to kill them.

 

That was a really interesting process for me, very different in terms of thinking about crime, thinking about actual murder, the process of murder. And, also with Miss Fisher, like with Agatha Christie and a lot of those older English crime novels, the cleverness and the difference and the exotic nature of the killing, a killing, is part of the allure.

 

Valerie

Speaking of plotting and planning all of that out then, with your own books do you start with just the seed of an idea? Or have you already got a plot in your head before you start writing the whole thing? How does it work for you? Or do you just let it unfold, see what happens?

 

Tony

Yeah. I always start with an idea. It's so different from writing film and television, because with film and television… and when I write my scripts I really need an outline. If I write like I write the books, which is basically just letting it unfold and figuring it out as I'm going through it, without any clue where the fuck I'm going, it's so different when I'm writing the scripts, I have an outline, I know where I'm going, I know exactly what's going to happen. But, with all of the books… and I tried to do it with Promise. I thought, “Well, OK, this is the process of writing, this is what I'm familiar with. This is how I'm going to make it work…” It really sort of suffocated me in a way. So, I just abandoned it.

 

And, I felt OK about abandoning it, because I had been to a talk by Lee Childs a year ago in Brisbane and I actually asked him the same question. I said, “How do you plot? Do you plot? How does it work?” And he said to me, “I don't plot at all. I just start with…” He starts with an image he said, he just has a picture. It could be at the beginning of his book, or at the end of his book, it's just an image which he just then works from. And I am a big fan of Lee Childs.

 

So, having heard that, with incredulity at the time, some years before I started writing. I'm going to do what Lee Childs does and give it a shot and see if it works for me. And, it does. I find that it works really well with the books. It means a lot of rewriting, of course, but I don't mind that, that's OK.

 

Valerie

Once you get to the fourth book, your character, let's take Darian, he's unfolded over three books already, did you kind of think, “Well, where do I go to next?” in terms of his development? Or was that not something that was relevant to you because you were focusing on another part of the plot or whatever?

 

Tony

No, I always do think about that. I'm always conscious of each book… in each of the books the crime itself is not really very important to it, it's about the psychology. The purpose of this book and really what this book, Kingdom of the Strong, is really about abandonment by the father. It's about his relationship between his father, who did leave him when he was very young. And the police commissioner, the old police commissioner is a father figure to him. So, I'm exploring that relationship.

 

With each of the books it's… I need to find something along those lines that dramatically sort of anchors me in terms of the story and what my character's up to, and where he gets to, you know, where I start, you know? And, where he gets to by the end of the… end of the book. It's usually not a happy place.

 

But, in the previous book, in the Train Rider, I explored the notion of whether or not this particular character, Darian, can actually settle down and love somebody. Again, it's not a happy ending in any of these books.

 

Valerie

What do you find the most challenging about writing crime, or about writing generally? But, writing novels, I should say.

 

Tony

Gosh, I don't know. I guess being relevant, being interesting. I don't know.

 

Valerie

That's OK.

 

Tony

What's the most challenging part of it?

 

Valerie

Yeah.

 

Tony

Not writing bullshit.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Tony

Really… yeah. I strive very much to access the language and make my turn of phrase as compelling as possible. That, I think is the biggest challenge for me. I don't… the actual process of narrative and the story is not something that's not a big challenge for me, and that's because I've had 30 years of experience in film and TV. So, putting together the story… but, keeping the story fresh and original… it's easy to default, especially when you're writing crime or fantasy, it's easy to default to the familiar. I'm constantly sort of reminding myself not to do that. But, I think the biggest challenge for me is… aside from just keeping it fresh and interesting, and keeping… putting something together that the reader hasn't read before, the biggest challenge is accessing words, the language and not defaulting into hacky phrases, or that sort of stuff.

 

Valerie

When you are writing, when you're actually in the middle of your novel, what's your typical day like? Do you have a writing routine? Do you actually juggle script writing projects at the same time? Or do you have to focus on one thing at a time?

 

Tony

No, luckily I can focus on a whole bunch of things at one time. But, I do have a pretty strong regimen. I get up very, very early in the morning, about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning…

 

Valerie

3:00 or 4:00?!

 

 

Tony

Yep. And then I start writing at about 5:00 or 6:00, I started writing about five o'clock this morning, it's one o'clock. Yeah. I'm still writing now, but I'll finish up in a couple of hours.

 

If I'm writing a novel I usually work from about 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning through to about midday, one o'clock. Then I'll go off and do emails and if I need to do a meeting or whatever. Sometimes… I like to try and write every day. I like to try… Stephen King says you've got to write 3,000 words a day, Ray Bradbury said 1,000 words. It's good… Tony says, “Just write.”

 

Sometimes I write one word a day, sometimes I write 5,000 words a day, just as long as I'm actually in the world and, you know, thinking about it, exercising it and making it happen, trying to make it happen and not sort of walking away from it. As long as you're in, what I call ‘the zone', as long as you're in the zone and not taking time off and sort of spending a significant amount of time, days or a week away from the material, then I feel, you know, I feel OK about it. I never get into the book… it takes me 10,000 words to get into every book, up until then it's all stop start stuff, and I'm all over the shop. But, once, for whatever reason, once I hit 10,000 words I think, “OK, it's good, it's flowing now.” But, up until then it's hard.

 

Valerie

How long does it take you, generally?

 

Tony

Promise took about three months, but I wasn't doing too much else besides writing that. And it's usually about three or four months to do the first rough draft. And, then depending on the level of rewriting that's required after the edit comes back, maybe another month or six weeks.

 

Valerie

Wow, efficient.

 

What's next for you? What are you working on now?

 

Tony

Well, I'm doing a lot of film and TV work at the moment. I put Promise into development as an eight parter.

 

Valerie

Right.

 

Tony

I'm waiting to hear back from… about that. …move to the next stage.

 

And, I'm just writing a couple of scripts. And, I'm talking to Hachette about the next book, which is not going to be a Darian book. I'm going to leave him on the highway for a little bit.

 

Valerie

  1. Is it going to be crime?

 

Tony

Yeah, but it's going to be non-fiction.

 

 

Valerie

Oh, OK.

 

Tony

I mean that's pretty much all I read, is non-fiction. I'm just obsessed with non-fiction, histories. Not so much biographies, but this will be a biography.

 

Valerie

Great.

 

Tony

On the most amazing story of an incredible guy.

 

Valerie

What is the most rewarding thing about writing, to you?

 

Tony

For a long time it's just been my life. But, I'm a pretty boring guy. I don't go out very much and I don't really do very much. Sometimes I do a lot of binge TV-watching. I like Breaking Bad and Vikings or whatever.

 

Valerie

Oh yes.

 

Tony

But, aside from that I'm, you know, writing is my life. You know, I jump out of bed every morning — it's been fucking cold these past few mornings, even here at the Gold Coast. And I'm just excited about. I love it. I really enjoy it. It's my life, I can't imagine… well, I can, because I went through the process, there was a time when I didn't write and it was horrible. So, it merges into… my life is defined kind of pathetically, I guess, my life is defined by my… that's why I'm living alone in this big house… my life is defined by my writing and by my work. I'm a really boring guy to live with.

 

Valerie

So you've been writing for so long that obviously it's second nature to you, and it's your life. There are a lot of listeners who, it's not their life yet, but they actually want to be in a situation where it is, because they're aspiring writers, or they've still got their day job, or whatever.

 

Tony

Yep.

 

Valerie

And they're writing on the side. What's your advice to them? And we'll finish up on this, what's your advice to those aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you are one day?

 

Tony

Yeah, OK. There are a couple of answers to that question. Firstly, I'm just going to quote Stephen King. He's got two great pieces of advice, which are very simplistic, but very true. The first one is write. Actually just do it. And the second rule is to read.

 

And then I'm going to add to that you've got to be persistent. You've got to be passionate and you've got to be persistent. And you've got to believe in what you're doing. And you can't just do it for money, if you do it for money you're fucked. You've got to do it because you believe in it.

 

You know George Orwell's essay on Why I Write? The spirituality, the political nature of who you are and what it is that the writing means to you. As long as you can tap into that and access it in a way that is meaningful to you as a person, and as long as… of course there's a practical issue with a lot of people, and I have it myself because I teach at … film academy, and when I sort of think “I just don't want to be here, I'd rather be writing. But, I need the money to pay the rent.” So, there is the practical issue of juggling and balancing income-based work, which is kind of important. And the passionate work that you really want to be doing.

 

It's very difficult, this is a point I'm kind of pathetic, but also lucky in that I live alone and I can do what I want. I'm not married anymore, the kids are all grown up, all of that sort of stuff. If you're in a situation where you have those certain obligations… that's your life and you just have to find the time to close the door.

 

Doug Preston, who's a great American writer, talks about the need to just sort of go into your… he's married with kids, but he pumps out books every year… the need to go into your own space and make everybody understand that you need that hour or two every day, just to be on your own and to work the craft and to do it.

 

It really comes down to just doing it, believing in yourself, and being persistent and being passionate about what it is that you're doing.

 

Valerie

Wonderful, and on that note thank you so much for your time today, Tony.

 

Tony

Thanks for having me, Valerie.

 

Browse posts by category
Browse posts by category

Courses starting soon

About us

The Australian Writers’ Centre offers courses in creative writing, copywriting, freelance writing, business writing and much more. Our practical and industry-proven courses will help you gain confidence and meet your goals faster!

Contact us

Phone: (02) 9929 0088 Email: [email protected] Head office: Suite 3, 55 Lavender Street, Milsons Point NSW 2061

GET OUR FREE WEEKLY NEWSLETTER – WITH WRITING TIPS, COMPETITIONS AND MORE YES PLEASE!

Back to top ↑
×

Nice one! You've added this to your cart