Malla Nunn: Australian author, screenwriter and director

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image-mallanunn200Malla Nunn is an Australian author, screenwriter and director. Her latest book is Let the Dead Lie, the second Detective Emmanuel Cooper novel. Originally from Swaziland, she emigrated to Perth with her parents in the 1970s.

Her twin passions are English and History and she spent some time in America working in theatre and film. She’s written and directed a number of short films, including ‘Servant of the Ancestors’, which has won awards and been shown at film festivals all over the world.

Her first novel was A Beautiful Place to Die, which was also the first in her Emmanuel Cooper series. The series is set in South Africa during the apartheid era and has scored her a Sisters in Crime Award for Best Adult Crime Novel and a nomination in the 2009 Edgar Allan Poe Awards.

Click play to listen. Running time: 30.06

Let the Dead Lie

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Malla.

Malla
Oh, it’s a pleasure.

Valerie
Tell us when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? When did you know that you had this love for words.

Malla
I’ve always had a love for words and that was as a reader, especially as a child growing up in rural Swaziland, it was an absolute escape pod to get a book and read it. It seemed such a marvelous thing.

I didn’t actually connect the fact that I could be the person to produce this magic. I just loved sort of reading the books. I did want to write, but I thought, “Oh, I think I want to write little bits here and there, but I really want to be an actress.”

I sort of took off on that thought.

Valerie
Right.

Malla
And even when I was making… I then sort of realized that acting was really not my thing because I absolutely hated auditioning. Then I started working on film scripts. That really got me into writing, and also I just loved the idea that I didn’t have to present myself to a panel of people just to actually do the work. I started writing a little bit for film.

I think I’ve always had an absolutely love for stories. After doing film I bit the bullet and decided to actually have a go a writing a novel, which was quite terrifying because it’s such a commitment. You always think, “Oh my gosh, what if it fails. That’s a couple of years down the drain.”

But, I just wanted to do it. I think that’s the thing. I just felt I had a story that was in me.

Valerie
When was that? How long ago was that that you decided to write a novel?

Malla
I’d been working on film sets and making films for a few years. Mainly working on films sets, because when you work in film it is a delicious jackpot win if you actually get to make a film. You spend an awful lot of time writing films, trying to make films, working on film sets.

I really wanted to write during that time. It felt like such a big commitment that I didn’t go ahead.

I went and I made a documentary with my mother in Southern Africa. I realized that there were all these other things that were holding me back from writing about South Africa. One of them was the simple fear that I sort of didn’t have a right to write about South Africa because I’m from a mixed race community. We’ve always been treated a little bit as if we have no place in that society, who don’t belong to either tribe.

My mother went back and did this incredible ceremony, which included her getting naked in a river in rural Swaziland, and get goat bile dumped on her…

Valerie
Oh.

Malla
It was full on, hands to the wheel kind of stuff. I just looked at that and I thought, “You know, she knows she’s an African woman. She’s got every right to do whatever she wants.” It kind of made me feel quite foolish about not having the guts to write a novel.

Valerie
Right.

Malla
She really inspired me to sort of think about there’s certain things in life you should just do.

Valerie
How long ago was that?

Malla
That was ten years ago that she did that. I made a documentary for SBS about her ceremony and going back with her.

I came back from that and it really… in a weird way it really let Southern Africa into me in a positive way. I never really liked it, even growing up. I always felt a bit of a stranger there.

Valerie
Writing a novel is very different to writing for film. It’s a different syntax. It’s a different pace. How did you get into the mindset of the right techniques in order to transfer your writing into writing a novel?

Malla
The interesting thing is that most people have read novels, but most people haven’t read film scripts. I think it’s actually… film scripts are so much leaner, and they’re so much cleaner on the plot points and story points. You have to be very disciplined to work in that area.

People don’t generally sit down and write read screenplays for pleasure because it’s such a visual art form. It’s all about things that are going to be projected onto the screen. You do learn to pare things down a lot from film, and try not to put unnecessary things in. You can take that to writing a novel.

But the essential thing I think I had in terms of a transfer was time. I suddenly had time, I was a stay at home mommy, I had time then.

I loved reading books. It just felt I really had no excuse to go ahead. Also with film you’re writing it, but you’re forward thinking onto making the film you’re thinking, “It’s a very expensive process and it takes a long time,” and you can do film on the cheap, you just make them yourself. But, it’s always contingent on a group of people.

If you’re a novelist, really, you can go to the local store and with ten dollars in your pocket get all the tools you need to be a novelist. Do you know what I’m saying?

In a way you’re freed up much more in terms of just a pen, a paper, and then thinking, “When this is finished this the product.” When you finish writing a script it’s just the beginning of a long process that may or may never happen. I guess the same as a novel, but I think there’s something about once you’ve finished the novel that’s it. It stands alone.

Valerie
Your first novel was A Beautiful Place to Die, which was also the first in your Emmanuel Cooper series.

Did you always know that you were going to write that book? How did the idea come about? What made you think, “I’m going to set the book here, and it’s going to be crime…”? Tell us about that.

Malla
I’d always felt that if I was going to write about South Africa that it had to be tremendously worthy, and very political, and very deep. I’m essentially not that sort of person. I love crime books. I love reading crime books.

When I went back to make my documentary with my mother, my now husband came along. We got married in a traditional African ceremony. We traveled afterward. We went to a little town on the border of South Africa in Swaziland. It was the most beautiful river.

I remember looking at it and thinking, “Isn’t that interesting, it’s a river but it’s a border as well between one kind of life and another kind of life?” I think that just sort of rested with me, came home, I edited my film, had a baby. I was thinking about Southern Africa a lot anyway, and that was partly because I had my son and it never occurred to me that it would bother me that he would not have an African childhood. But, it did. I thought, “He’s never going to know what it’s like to smell rain when it comes down.” “He’s never going to know what it’s like to feel- to walk through that kind of country.”

I was becoming very sentimental essentially about the place. I mean honestly it wasn’t as if I sat down and did a lot of thinking. I just got an image in my head and it was like being handed a photograph. It was dead body in that river that I’d seen in South Africa.

Valerie
Wow.

Malla
It was on a border. I thought, “Oh my goodness. It’s a crime book and it’s on a border town.” Then it just kind of took off from there. That original image just kind of pulled me into the story. I was position of actually finding out why that guy had died. I actually had no idea when I started.

Valerie
Some writers say that they plot out the whole story. Others writers say they start with image, and idea and they just go from there.

Would it be safe to say you’re the latter then? It just sort of unfolded?

Malla
Yes. Yes. I understand why people plot because it stops you from going off, veering off in odd directions and having to backtrack, but my process is very much… I actually love the discovery as I’m writing.

Sometimes my characters will do things and I will go, “Gosh, that’s amazing.” Although some times I get them into situation where as their parent I’m not clever enough to get them out of it.

I do quite a lot of that.

Valerie
What happens then? Do you have to kill your darlings then?

Malla
Ruthlessly. It’s just an awful feeling.

I just have a separate little folder of file where all my darlings are sent. They’re retired in the desperate hope that one day I’ll come back and find them again and give them life.

Valerie
Crime usually involves a great deal of research. How do you do that?

Do you go to South Africa a lot? Do you research in some other way?

Malla
What I essentially do in my first draft… my books are set in the ‘50s so I’m aware of the bigger parameter that I have to stick with when I’m writing about the ‘50s. There’s only very light background research on the ‘50s and then a bit more political research.

I write the first draft using common sense. I do some research… I’ve got sort of a gallery South African literature plus photography books. I’ll go on the net. I’ll look at things on the internet. With the internet you’re not actually sure about the providence of the knowledge. It’s fine, but it’s not really… I can’t take it that it means anything really.

I will put things into my story and then I send it off to a guy called Terence King who is my police. We know my police and police editor. He’s an ex-policeman and his Dad’s an ex-policeman. What Terence does is he’ll read through my manuscripts and he’ll come back and say, “Malla, the uniforms were actually a khaki. They only become blue in 1956s.”

Valerie
Right.

Malla
The thing is he- see he will physically get in his car and he will drive to Pretoria and he will sit down for two- like his whole afternoon and he will go through the original files.

Valerie
Wow.

Malla
So it’s just an amazing gift that’s happened because he loves doing that. He just adores the research aspect of it. I will do a little bit and he will absolutely do the hardcore deep research that just sort of has to be right, in terms of the details. I’m lucky that I do have him backing me up. That leaves me free to actually just do stories first of all, again, with just my plain research that pushes me through.

He’ll come in and he’ll basically give me pointers about where I’ve gone wrong and tell me where I have to change things.

Valerie
A Beautiful Place to Die received rave reviews and you scored a Sister’s in Crime Award. Did you expect for your debut novel to be so successful?

Malla
No, I think you can dream, and I certainly did dream, because I think you have to be a dreamer to be a writer anyway.

Valerie
Yep.

Malla
I did dream. I thought… but my dream actually went as far as, “I hope it gets published.”

Valerie
Yes.

Malla
I really just wanted somebody- and we had this conversation with my husband where he said, “Look, Malla if you sell it anywhere, even if it’s for like $1,000 in like Upper Bolter then we’re going to take that as a sign you should probably write a second novel.”

Our limitations- we just put the smallest- I mean I put all these limitations on my dreams because we know writers. We know writers in film. We know writers in fiction. It’s a very hard road.

Valerie
Tell us about the road to publication then. You finished the book, what did you do next?

Malla
Again, it was one of those fortuitous things where I hadn’t actually finished the book. What happened was… my husband is a film producer. He had gone to film school with a friend, a lady called Siobhan. Siobhan decided after film school that she didn’t want to be a producer. She wanted to go back to agenting.

I knew her socially. I didn’t assume ever that she would become my agent, but I was trying to get into a writing program where you go and they give you a week and you just get to write. You get fed, and you get feedback on your work.

I really desperately wanted to do this. I wanted some time to go and try and finish my novel. I called Siobhan and said, “Look, I’m trying to get into this writing program. Will you read the first 30 pages of my manuscript?” I think I had about 150 pages then. I said, “Will you read the first 30 and give me some feedback so my application is really strong?”

She said, “Fine.” I got call from her saying, “I read all 150 pages. I love it. I want to represent it when you’re finished.”

Valerie
Wow.

Malla
I said, “Great.” I was feeling enormously confident. Like, “Yeah, you genius.” I sent everything off to the writing program,” and was promptly rejected.

I didn’t even get a phone interview.

Valerie
Oh dear.

Malla
I had rungs of what you could get. The very last one was phone interview, and I didn’t get that.

I just got a, “Thank you so much for your application.” One of those letters. In other words, “Get lost.”

Valerie
Oh dear.

Malla
I was distraught and I thought, “Oh my gosh. I’ve made a terrible mistake. And I called Siobhan up and I said, “They rejected me. They don’t want me.” She said, “Look, good agents are fabulous.” She said, “Malla, they have made a huge mistake, because you’re going to finish that book and we’re going to get it published.”

That’s what I needed at that stage, because it’s so devastating to get those letters where someone basically goes, “Oh, well you tried…but you know what? It wasn’t good enough.”

You think, “Oh, I secretly suspected that. I secretly suspected that it was no good and it was rubbish. This is the proof.”

Siobhan just said, “No. Finish your novel.” I went ahead and I did finish it and she took it out to publishers. She was really specific when she said to me that publishers now are less generous than they were ten years ago.

When you put a manuscript into a publisher now you should assume or you should make it to a stage where the publisher feels that they can simply take it to the printer and say, “Print it up.”

It has to be at a very high level. They no longer feel, “Oh, what a genius. We’ll spend ten months editing this with the author.”

Valerie
Yeah.

Malla
They may do that if you’re established, but if you’re a first timer you should do all the work. They should feel like they don’t have to do very much work. That is what I was told.

I did do a couple of drafts, and it was very time-consuming. But, it was made very clear to me that the draft had to be really excellent, in excellent shape.

Valerie
Yep.

Malla
Siobhan took it out and it went to acquisition at two places and failed. They didn’t buy it. Then it went to Pan Macmillan and they bought it.

Valerie
Wonderful.

Malla
I’m very lucky.

Valerie
The rest is history.

You say that you’re a stay at home mom and you had the luxury of time when you wrote that first novel. Tell us about the writing process. Did you have a daily routine?

Still now when you do your writing, when you’re actually writing a novel, do you have a routine that you stick to? Or any particular things that you always do in order to get into the zone?

Malla
Yes, well the first thing I have to do to get in the zone is drop my children off at school.

Valerie
Yes, that’s handy.

Malla
I’ve noticed that I cannot enter the zone when I have two children running around who want to be fed and entertained.

My routine is actually fairly simple. I drop them off at school. I zip back and I write for the couple of hours that I can write. Then I go and pick them up and it’s all over.  Then maybe I’ll write a little bit in the evening, after they’re in bed.

What I’ve started to do now, and it is a real luxury, and I’m very happy I can have it. If I do go away for a couple of weeks during the year- probably three weeks, maybe four weeks if I’m lucky- where I actually go away to a… a friend’s mum has a cottage in Pearl Beach.

Valerie
Right.

Malla
I go away, then I have a full week of absolute no domestic duties, no children, nothing. I just write.

Valerie
Wonderful.

Malla
That is a tremendous luxury.

Other than that I write between my life.

Valerie
Yes.

Malla
I kind of have to. There is no ivory tower for me, as much as I’ve asked for one. There is none. I just have to write when I can.

Valerie
How much time lapsed between when you finished the first novel and you decided to get stuck into the second?

Malla
I was so hysterical about the first novel. I was so sure that it was going to fail, and that it was never going to sell- I just had the deepest feeling in my bones, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

Valerie
That’s optimistic!

Malla
Yeah. You know? Who the hell was going to read a novel that was set in South Africa in the apartheid era? What was I thinking?

I called my sister up and I said, “I’ve made a terrible mistake. What am I going to do?”

She said, “Start the second one.”

I said, “But that makes no sense.”

She said, “Start the second one.”

I went, “OK.” I just started the second one because it kept me occupied.

Valerie
Yes, right.

Malla
Then my husband said, “You know, Malla… that’s right, Babe. Just write the second one because even if the first one doesn’t sell the second one probably will.”

You need equally delusional people in your life to help you with this task. I had these two people basically- my husband and my sister- whispering, “Just go ahead. Go ahead. I know you’ll sell the second one even if you don’t sell the first one.”

So I did. I just started writing the second one purely on adrenalin and fear.

Valerie
Wow.

Did you know it was going to be Emmanuel Cooper? Did you know that you were going to continue that?

Malla
Yes. I had always felt that I wanted to write a crime series because I had fun… when I was reading crime I was kind of… I would sort of pick… I picked up a Walter Mosley book and then suddenly I had gone through six books with the same character. I just love that.

Then you pick up a Henning Mankell, and then you go through six books with that character.

I quite love the process of knowing this person, and finding out more about them in a series of books. It was always in my head that if I’d be lucky enough- but left to my own devices I would have written one and then run away terrified.

I had supportive people. Both who said, “You wanted to write a series, do the second one.”

Valerie
Tell us a little bit about your latest book, Let the Dead Lie.

Malla
Let the Dead Lie is a continuation of A Beautiful Place to Die. We’ve got the same detective, Emmanuel Cooper. Manny’s life has changed quite dramatically. He’s living in Durban, a port city in South Africa.

He’s suffered quite a few setbacks in his life. He’s in a very different place from where he was at the end of the last novel.

It’s really quite a lean race against time. It’s also about Emmanuel sort of, I think finding his power again, and finding out who he is again in the process of trying to solve a murder of a little boy that he finds on the docks in Durban who’s been killed.

It’s kind of a discovery. Emmanuel is trying to discover who the killer is, but Emmanuel is also kind of getting back to who he really is basically. That is somebody who is emotionally and intellectually engaged, and loves to be physically involved in his work. He’s sort of been sidelined.

For me, it’s a classic character going through a situation, finding out who they are. But, it’s a real race against time, because he hasn’t got the luxury of sitting around for two or three weeks. He has to solve this mystery really quickly otherwise he, himself, is going to be in really huge trouble.

Valerie
With your background in writing films, have you ever considered turning your novels into screenplays?

Malla
Yeah. That’s one of those sideline dreams. It really is like, “Wouldn’t that be great?”

The truth is I quite love doing novels.

Valerie
Right.

Malla
To me film is a whole other thing. Again, when I finish my novel it’s finished. In film you’d finish a screenplay and then comes the incredibly painful task of shopping it around, and getting advice and getting interest.

We went through this sort of… it was a relatively emotional process to begin with. I’ve now disengaged from it, which was about a year ago we had quite a lot of interest from a company, a major movie company who will remained unnamed. The novel went all the way to, I think, like the personal reader and then it was turned back.

Valerie
Right.

Malla
The great thing about film, it’s such a dream-maker.

Valerie
Yeah.

Malla
It’s so big. It’s such a dream-maker. It’s so delicious. “Wouldn’t that be fabulous?” Then, “No.” You have to be prepared for a series of those things where you get quite close and then you have to pull back.

For me, I just love the idea that I’ve been given a chance by Pan Macmillan and Afa Books, and Pan Macmillan in England to sit down write, and finish my product. Then I go to a bookshop, “Wow, there it is.”

Valerie
Yes.

Malla
I don’t have to wait for some movie star to pick it up and go, “I think it’s great.”

Valerie
Yeah.

Malla
I’ve not a finished product and it’s out there. People get to read it. I get the feedback.

That is not to say that over a glass of wine, in the evening, my husband and I don’t play, “For who would you cast as…”

Valerie
That was my next question!

Since you’ve obviously thought about it…

Malla
Well, I have never been able to come up with a good suggestion.

Valerie
Really?

Malla
A friend called the other day and said, “I’ve just got it. Maybe Liam Neeson. What do you reckon?”

I’m like, “Hmm, I don’t know.”

Then somebody else- I’ve forgotten the suggestion. I get some really, really odd ones.

I actually, personally, don’t have a feeling about who it should be. I kind of veer to and fro. Unfortunately for me too, I have a husband who works in film…

Valerie
Yes.

Malla
If somebody makes a suggestion he will say, “Oh, that guy’s box office has been down for three years now.” “You’ll never get a movie off with that.”

It’s harder to be romantic about it when you’ve got somebody who actually is in the business.

Valerie
Yes. Are you now working on the third?

Malla
Yes, I am. Lucky, lucky me. I feel just really very blessed because the Pan Macmillan in Australia and England, Afa in America have given me another two-book deal. I get to write four Emmanuel Cooper mysteries in total.

I’ve got book # 3 and book # 4. I’m working on book # 3 at the moment.

Valerie
Right.

Are you still enjoying the process? Are you still discovering Emmanuel?

Malla
Loving it. Loving.

Partly that’s because Emmanuel is not a big talker anyway. He never came to me and just off-loaded, and ‘blah,’ ‘blah,’ ‘blah’ and told me all about himself at all. He’s not that kind of guy. When I go back I do have to spend quite a lot of time just easing in, and going, “Come on Emmanuel give me a bit more.” “Let me find out a bit more about you,” because he’s not a new-age in that he doesn’t feel like I’m his therapist.

Valerie
Yeah.

Malla
I actually love finding out more about Emmanuel as I work. To me, he’s a really interesting guy. He’s very complicated and complex. He’s one of those creatures who is certainly of his time, but sort of rises above the time that he’s in, because he’s got a tremendous amount of experience of the world.

For him South Africa is not the be-all and end-all. He’s been out. He’s seen the world. He’s a little bit more sophisticated than the society that he’s living in.

Valerie
Do you plan to continue writing this series? Or do you have other plans for other genres, even?

Malla
I will write the next two and then I guess I’ll see how I go, but I do actually have one of those classic, little books that’s been sitting in my bottom drawer now for probably six years. I keep thinking, “Oh, come on. It’s not even a long book. I can get it done quickly between the other books.”

But, I can’t. I think that after I finish my fourth Emmanuel Cooper novel I might want to take a bit of a rest, I might not because actually I’ve got another little storyline that I probably would like to do with Emmanuel at the end there.

I haven’t put a book limit on Emmanuel yet. I think he’s going to do that for me.

Valerie
Right. Is the other book crime as well? Or something different?

Malla
No. It’s a bizarre- this is maybe why I haven’t finished it… it’s a really bizarre mix of like- oh, what do you call it? You know the South American Magic Realist’s Edition?

Valerie
Yes.

Malla
Yeah, well this is sort of a magic realist little book set in China. God knows where that came from.

Valerie
Oh, right.

Malla
It just did, and it’s just there. It’s sitting there and I’ve got 40 pages of kind of going, “Well, when you have time, Malla, come back to me.”

Valerie
It’s obviously something that you need to explore, I think.

Malla
Yes. There is something there, because that story will not die.

Valerie
Yes.

Malla
That little idea keeps coming back to me. Maybe after the fourth book I will do this other, but certainly I have got other things that I would like to write about. Yes.

Valerie
Finally, what’s your advice to people who are listening who want to do what you’re doing? Who want to be writers? Who are were you were before you wrote  your first novel?

Malla
I think the only advice that I would give people is really simple, which is to write. I mean that is… I know it seems ridiculous, but you do actually have to make a pattern of writing. You have to make space for it in your life, no matter how busy you are.

I think what people also have to feel, really, is that whether or not you feel like you’re working toward publication or not, writing is in and of itself a beautiful gift in which you can express yourself creatively.

Please do it, because you’ll love it. It makes you feel good, and enjoy it. Try to enjoy the process. I know that’s hard because you’re somehow terrified it’s all rubbish, but it never is because you’re expressing yourself whether other people feel that or concur with that or not. I think it’s an act of creation. I think you have to go ahead and you have to create and love the idea that you’re creating it.

Valerie
Wonderful.

Malla
Also read. Read.

Valerie
Definitely.

Malla
That’s like eating.

Valerie
Yes. Wonderful. On that note thank you very much for your time today, Malla.

Malla
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


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