Zane Lovitt: Author of The Midnight Promise

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image-zanelovitt200Melbourne writer Zane Lovitt’s first book is The Midnight Promise. Told over a collection of 10 crime mysteries, it is the story of private inquiry agent, John Dorn. It has already garnered critical praise and comparisons to Australian crime writer, Peter Temple.

Zane Lovitt was formerly a documentary filmmaker before turning his hand to crime fiction, and his short stories have appeared in Scribe’s New Australian Stories 2 and in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. In 2010 he was awarded the SD Harvey Short Story Award for ‘Leaving the Fountainhead’.

Click play to listen. Running time: 23.08

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Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle
Thank you for joining us, Zane.

Zane
You’re very welcome.

Danielle
First of all can you just tell us a bit about your book, The Midnight Promise?

Zane
Sure. Well, it’s called The Midnight Promise. It’s a collection of ten stories narrated by the central character, John Dorn. He’s a private investigator working in Melbourne, in contemporary Melbourne. While each of the stories – they’re meant to be discrete, self-contained stories, and they are – I don’t mind calling them sort of hard-boiled crime stories, as much as one hates to just reach for labels. I think it’s fair to call them that.

So, what’s going on, as much as they are sort of self-contained stories, what’s going on in the background of these stories, John’s personal journey where he’s having to come to terms not only with all the miserable stuff he gets exposed to in his day to day job, but also with his own sort of self-destructive methods of dealing with all of that miserable stuff, you know? He uses his humor as a crutch, and he uses his drinking as a crutch, but the thing about a crutch, of course, is that it’s by definition not a permanent solution. And that dictates the direction he’s going in and it is what comes to a head for him at the end of the book.

Danielle
It’s quite a unique way to tell a story of one character, essentially through ten short stories. What came first for you, John or those stories?

Zane
It definitely would have been John. I think I decided like ten years ago that I was going to write a crime book, and I was immediately confronted by the issue that I didn’t know how to write a crime book. So, I had play with it. The method I sort of resolved to do was to alternate my time between developing a full length story, and that’s really what I thought I was starting out by doing, like a regular novel. And, also spending time writing short stories, what were going to be very, very short stories, like a couple of pages each, just as exercises to sort of get my head around a character and get my head around the voice.

That’s sort of what I started out doing. What basically started to happen was something that was very new to me, which is I really started to like what I was doing, I really started to like what I was writing. I’m sure there are writers listening to this who know what it’s like to be more or less overwhelmed by self-loathing in response to the quality of work you produce.

My point is certainly now exception in all of the artistic pursuits that I was involved in. There was stuff that had merit, but nothing that I thought that was actually good, like ask people to pay to see it good.

So when I began to enjoy reading back on what I had written and what I found myself – when I found myself excited to get back to the stories, when I was rushing back to the desk to write more I was feeling surprised. And as those stories sort of grew longer, as I sort of unpacked them, the full length novel which I thought I had been writing wasn’t really exciting me, it wasn’t the reason I was rushing back to the desk. So I worked on that less and less until I eventually realized these shorter stories were going to be what the book was.

But, in answer to your question, it was only then when I sort of stepped back, and I really did have like seven or eight of these stories done when I realized that was going to be the book, it was only then that I was able to step back and see what was happening for John, and the direction he was moving in.

So it certainly began with the character. I was very interested in writing a hard-boiled, as it were again, private investigator-style story. The stories themselves really just began as exercises.

Danielle
I guess it probably happened quite organically then. Once you had decided on this series of short stories how did you plan the book so that there was that common link throughout? So that you could tie it altogether as one book?

Zane
Well, like you say I mean it really was a very organic thing, there was no planning – there was no planning happening, which was good because the stories themselves are meticulously planned. I don’t really put pen to paper until I know a huge amount of what’s going to happen and I know entire dialogue interactions, and certainly how the story is going to result. So that part is very carefully planned. I know there are a lot of writers out there who don’t really appreciate the idea of planning or sketching an outline, whatever term you want to use, but it was certainly what I was doing for the short stories. And, ironically enough there was nothing like that going on for the bigger picture, which makes that bigger picture, to me, sort of quite exciting… the thing that I find most exciting about the book, because everything else had been so carefully thought through, this sort of what you might call the foreground stories had been so carefully thought through. But, what was happening in the background was just sort of John’s own thing.

Danielle
You kind of had John in your head the whole time, but where did the inspiration for these stories come from, because I know the first story particularly – I love that. It was so clever, and I wonder where they came from. Are these from real life happenings?

Zane
None of the stories are from real life, but certainly – I mean I was doing a law degree when I was writing the book mostly, and there was a lot of real life stuff that sort of sneaked in. I mean that first story you refer to, you may remember there’s sort of a little anecdote that John tells about Jim, who’s a bloke who falls asleep in a park, that’s a real story. That’s actually a real case that really took place in terms of what happened to that poor guy when the police came along and picked him up.

There’s some real-ish kind of stuff that happens in the background like that throughout the  book, but the stories themselves – that’s just my imagination to a large extent.

Danielle
Right.

Zane
And it’s me trying to reach for it. It’s a lot of similar kind of stuff to what Sherlock Holmes traditional stories were, you know the short stories, or Continental Op stories by Dashiell Hammett, perfectly self-contained little private detective stories, basically. That’s what I was reaching for.

Danielle
Before you were writing you were a documentary film maker, is that right?

Zane
Yes

Danielle
So what inspired you to move from that to writing?

Zane
The writing has always been the thing that I wanted to do, I can say that without doubt, as far back as I can remember. But, for about ten years I thought that the means by which I would deliver the stories that I created to an audience would be by cinema. And as much as I did do a lot of work in non-fiction film, I was also really interested in the fictional stuff as well. But, what eventually had to happen, about five years ago, is I had to accept that I don’t really have the right personality to be a filmmaker, to be someone who leads a film crew. I came to realize there are people who are writers, and there are people who are leaders, and those groups very rarely overlap because you’re fundamentally different kinds of people. Writers are fair more voyeuristic, they prefer to sort of step back from the action and watch it unfold and then just kind of judge it. Often they only want to be sort of as much involved in any given scenario as a system will provide them with some kind of insight into that scenario or system, but they don’t really want any responsibility. Leaders on the other hand have to focus not on what’s happening around them in order to analyze it the way a writer would, they sort of focus on themselves. They want responsibility as a way of focusing attention on themselves. Leaders are people who really do consider themselves to be at the centre of their universe. As much as that sounds pretty narcissistic, it’s absolutely necessary if they want to be confident enough to inspire people to follow them. That’s what a film director absolutely has to be. That’s how you get a film crew to work for you for 24 hour stints and for ten years at a time. It’s how actors are made to feel safe enough to open up their vein, which they feel they have to do.

There are very few directors, I think it’s fair to say, and this includes sort of the great auteur, there are very few directors who are also writers, who sort of started out with just a black page and wrote their own screenplays. Many of them were part of a writing team, or adapted their material from a play or from a book, but they hardly ever really started from scratch and wrote and directed their own stuff. There are exceptions to that. But the reason for that is because they’re not just different skill sets, they’re just different personalities. They really do require totally different personalities, in my opinion.

When I sort of came to the terms with the fact my personality was that of the writer, I was suddenly free to focus on that. Now with my first book coming out, I’m very happy that’s what I did.

Danielle
Yes. Was there anything in film-making that has helped your writing? Anything about that creative process that’s similar, or helpful in any way?

Zane
Absolutely. Mostly I’d say it’s kind of the innovation and story structure that films can demonstrate. You would have noticed that a lot of the stories in my book are not told chronologically, and the order things happened causally and not the order in which they are presented to the reader, and that’s something in which I find endless entertaining as a reader, or as an audience member. I really do consider playing with time to be an end unto itself. I don’t think you need a formal reason to do it. I wish more books did that. I love reading stories and watching movies that sort of make me work. One of the best ways to do that is by messing with the chronological structure, and that’s something that movies and TV, I think, are willing to do more than prose fiction. I mean certainly, again, there are exceptions.

But people talk about how there are less and less readers of books these days, and people are often claiming that this going to some kind of – not ignorance – not only ignorance, but kind of a general dumbing down of the audience, of a laziness of audiences, where they prefer to flop in front of a movie screen, or TV screen, or computer screen to have a story told to them. My feeling is exactly the opposite. Audiences are accustom to very complex tricks and very complex methods of story telling, largely unaccountable, the movies of all things. And, I don’t think books are really kind of keeping up. People want to be made to work. They want to be given two dots and a pen and join the dots themselves rather than being spoon-fed information. It seems to me writers of books – they need to do more than just create quirky characters, and list all of their favourite adjectives, and rely on cliché, which I think happens reasonably often. They really need to get the reader to work, really from the very first sentence. I think that’s something movies do more than books. I certainly try to do it in this book. I feel like that largely comes from watching too many movies.

Danielle
I was going to ask actually if you watch a lot of movies.

Zane
Yes. I think it’s fair to say that I do. I think there would be no end to the hyperbole that you’d hear from my wife you were to ask her if was into the movies. She would highly agree with that.

Danielle
So are you also a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes?

Zane
I am. They’re still stories that I reach for. Just the other day I was thinking about, there was a story, I think it’s in the first – I’ve got three collections of short stories, and the first one is called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I think it’s in there, it’s called “The Red Headed League.” I was thinking about that the other day, I was thinking, “That could be the closest thing I can think of to a perfect story.” There are plenty of other candidates, but that one is just a beautifully put together very simple, but wonderfully eloquent unfolding of a classic Sherlock Holmes set-up, which is that there’s a paradox that he gets presented with, and it turns out that the bad guys were kind of brilliant in what they were trying to do, but they just didn’t count on coming against someone even more brilliant and he sort of resolves it at the end.

It’s something that I still find myself reaching for. It’s one of the reasons why I think I was interested in writing short stories, because I like to sit up in bed at night and read a short story before I go to sleep. The potential to get a beginning, and a middle, and an end all in one sitting is still very attractive. And I don’t think there are too many more satisfying reads than a Sherlock Holmes story, because of that classic Sherlock Holmes structure of paradox development resolution, you know? I still find that very attractive.

Danielle
Yeah. It’s tough to do that successfully, with fewer words. Have you ever found it hard to get the story that’s in your head into the shorter form?

Zane
Yes, and those stories are in the book. I mean some of the stories are like 15,000 words long. There are others which turned into 20,000 words, and they had to go.

Maybe one of the reasons they had to go was they didn’t quite cut it, but also when you’re writing a book that you eventually realize, “OK, this is going to be a collection of short stories, even if we want to call it a novel,” which I dare say I do, it is going to be a collection of stories and you can’t just chuck in a bunch of novellas, or very, very long short stories. So, yeah, some of them got out of hand in terms of word length.

But the challenge of trying to get a reasonably complicated, or at least reasonably complicated characters and their interactions out in a very small amount time, I mean there is a story in this book called “Comedy is Dead,” in which it’s just a conversation between two people. I mean that’s pretty much it. There’s a little bit at the end, but it’s pretty much just a conversation, but that conversation in all of – I think it’s only about 4,000 words long, really needs to produce a whole world around the two characters, one of whom, of course, is John and the other one is the guy he’s talking to.

But, the challenge that is sort of the reason why I want to do it. It’s finding a way to just glimpse something, in this case an interaction between two people, and it’s sort of from that glimpse the world in which they live, and all of their back story and the reason why there’s so much tension in what they’re doing within that moment, that’s certainly the challenge, but it’s also the reason why I think I want to do, and the reason why I wrote it, because that challenge is the fun type.

Danielle
Yes. So, are you working on anything at the moment?

Zane
I certainly am.

Danielle
Long form or short story still?

Zane
I think it’s time to try to write something that more than a few thousand words long. It’s definitely going to be crime fiction, but I’m pretty sure that’s the only kind of stuff that I’m ever going to want to write.

More than that I can’t really go into, not because I’m being to precious about, I honestly don’t know. It’s all sort of stuff that’s sort of swirling around in my head at the moment, but I’m definitely going to be trying to write something that you’re more inclined to call a novel.

Danielle
So, at the moment you’ve still got it swirling around your head. Once you get to the writing stage do you have some sort of routine that you stick to when you’re writing?

Zane
I do, it’s sort of all influx at the moment, because I’m working full time, but I wrote most of The Midnight Promise, when I was starting I could generally kind of dictate my own hours, in a sense. But, it’s always the first thing I do when I wake up.

I could certainly say that. And pretty much without exception it’s been the very first thing that I’ve done every single day for about six years now. I also sort of try to squeeze in a second session later in the day, if I can.

But, look, the fundamental part of my routine would have to be caffeine. It’s a very, very close friend, and I would marry coffee, if it were legal. It wakes me up, and writing earlier in the morning is a wonderful time to do it, because you don’t have that added guilt of having to be at work, or running an errand, or calling somebody on the phone. And, usually our neighborhood is quiet enough for me to get something done.

Danielle
The coffee shop is open nice and early as well?

Zane
A lot of this book was written in coffee shops.

I’ve moved on from that. That’s not the routine that I’ve got anymore, but certainly there was a time when three or four places, I suppose, right throughout the northern suburbs would be, would see me walking through the door first thing in the morning, sitting down with my laptop.

I don’t do that anymore. I get too distracted when I’m sitting in a café.

Danielle
Of course. Just one final question for you. Do you have any advice for new writers?

Zane
Yeah. I find it a really interesting question, actually. I read about Paul Auster driving, he was interviewed for something or other. And Paul Auster was asked exactly that same question, “What’s your advice for new writers?” His response was, “Don’t do it, get a real job. Because if you commit to a life of writing fiction, then you’re committing to a life of frustration, poverty, and loneliness.”

And those are three, I think reasonably appropriate words for it, in a sense. It’s a very lonely pursuit, as opposed to other art forms. There’s not a lot of money for it, even if you are reasonably successful. And, of course, there’s a lot of frustration and rejection that comes along with it. I’m not at the point of suggesting that is good advice to new writers. Thankfully, it’s too early for me to reach that level of cynicism. But I find it kind of mind blowing that someone like Paul Auster, he’s extremely successful, you know Underworld is dedicated to him. He’s like the definitive New York intellectual.

And here he is miserably saying, “I made a mistake. If I could do it all over again I wouldn’t.” It’s kind of disturbing.

Danielle
Yeah, it’s always easy to say that from that position of power, though.

Zane
It’s like when you’ve made you can sit there and say, “Yeah, I don’t know how I feel about this anymore.” But, look, the only thing that I’d say – the best lesson that I think I could impart is simply to play the long game. It took me five years to write this book, and that was five years of never once thinking, “OK, now it’s ready to send to a publisher,” or, “I’ll send a publisher this draft and see what they think.” I really did work on it every day for five years without showing it to anybody really, until eventually my girlfriend, now my wife, needled me into showing her some of the stuff I was writing, but that resolved to get it as good as I could get it before actually presenting it to the world, I think it’s the reason why I got published. If I had sent it to text two years ago, or three years ago, I may have had a decent enough draft, but I’m not sure if a decent enough draft is really good enough these days, publishers being sent as many manuscripts as they generally are.

I think the advice I’d give is not just the obvious stuff, you know, like learn to deal with rejection because that’s what is coming down the pipe, I think sort of learn to be patient and get the thing to as good a level as you can, because if you don’t and you get a knock back you might find yourself never completing it. You’ll find yourself never redrafting it, because you lose your confidence. That’s as much as I can offer, I think.

Danielle
It was very good advice. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Zane
You’re very, very welcome.


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