Interviewing someone you admire is daunting — there’s the risk of disappointment if they don’t live up to your expectations or, worse, loathing if they turn out to absolutely horrible. Luckily, there was no chance of this happening when I recently spoke with Australian crime fiction writer Kerry Greenwood for Arts Hub. Kerry has been writing award-winning and best-selling novels for 18 years … she’s just finished the 17th Phryne Fisher novel and published the fourth Corinna Chapman installment. Here’s what we talked about….
Kathleen: What essentials do you need to write?
Kerry: Just me. I don’t need a particular place, time or piece of technology. I need a biro and that’s all. I usually write at night. I’ve never written fiction before 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I can write fact before that, but never fiction.
Kathleen: Do you write wherever you happen to be after 3 o’clock?
Kerry: If I’m writing a novel, I try to write at home on my very old Mac classic computer. I once wrote the first chapter of a book sitting on the steps of a Chinese airport with what sounded like World War Three breaking out overhead. I wrote the start of a novel in Venice sitting on a bridge.
Kathleen: Do you write chronologically or bits here and there?
Kerry: Mostly I write chronologically. The story begins at the beginning and goes through to the end, where it stops. If I’m writing in a style or form I haven’t done before, like when I first started writing children’s books, I’ll have a chapter that just insists on being written and I won’t know where it fits in the book. I’ve stopped arguing — there’s no point in kicking against the bricks, so whatever a book wants me to do, I just do it.
Kathleen: Your writing requires a lot of research, particularly the Phryne Fisher novels. What’s your research process?
Kerry: It’s just a standard research process. I start with a question or an idea. The book I’ve just finished writing has a subplot relating to treasure and the fall of the temple in Jerusalem in the Roman occupation. So I read a couple of books on the Roman occupation of Judea and it lead on from there. I ended up doing most work on General Allenby’s Campaign to take Palestine for the Allies in 1918, which was a bit of surprise. I just go with whatever happens — one idea leads to another, which sparks something else … it’s a chain.
Kathleen: It sounds very intuitive.
Kerry: Oh yes, it’s not sensible. I don’t think writing a book is a logical process at all. You write from where you dream, not where you think. I work as a duty solicitor for Victoria Legal Aid and I had this idea at court for a book I was writing. I thought, “South China Sea pirates”. Then I thought, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m writing about the death of a lady who works for a women’s magazine and that’s got absolutely nothing to do with South China Sea pirates, so shut-up”. I went into my local library on the way home and thought, “If I can put my hand on a book about South China Sea pirates in the twentieth century, I’ll do it.” And there on the returns tray was a book called The Black Flag: True Tales of Twentieth-Century Piracy by James Hepburn and I thought, “I can take a hint”.
Kathleen: Wow. I wonder what the other people in court would have thought if they’d known you were dreaming about South China Sea pirates.
Kerry: Luckily they didn’t! The magistracy has forgiven me for being a novelist, but I just make sure I don’t stray in that direction too often. It’s like some people only get really good ideas in the shower; I get them in court.
Kathleen: Tell me about the little note at the end of your books welcoming readers to email you on anything but research inaccuracies.
Kerry: (Groans) There’s a phalanx of people who live only for writing to authors. I got these from the first novel I published. People write, “That was a very interesting book Kerry, but it’s impossible for … or are you aware that….”. It really ruins my day. I’m as accurate as I can be, but there’s always the possibility, especially in historical novels, that one is going to make a mistake.
Kathleen: Well, a lot of information about everyday life in the past is hard to find.
Kerry: Fortunately for the 1920s there are newspapers, so you can find out how much a pair of stockings cost. The more obvious something seems at the time, the less likely people are to record it I was writing a book called The Green Mill Murder, which is about a very impressive dance hall where the National Gallery of Victoria is now. It was made in the shape obviously of a green mill and there were endless pictures of the outside, but none of the inside.
Kathleen: And your murder takes place on the dance floor, doesn’t it?
Kerry: Yes, there were no pictures of the inside because everyone knew what it looked like. I eventually found out through a series of extremely complicated co-incidences that it was a Dutch interior in blue and white, with a theme of milkmaids and cows. I was going to have to move that whole story to another place because the way I write is to let my research create a picture, which a book uses to tell me what to write down.
Kathleen: Why does detective fiction genre appeal to you?
Kerry: It didn’t originally ... I originally wrote historical novels. I used to love historical novels and science fiction because I didn’t want to write about the present, which was ordinary compared with the past or the future. After four years of hawking an historical novel around the traps and getting nothing but more coffee rings on the front page, Hilary McPhee from publisher McPhee Gribble asked me to write a detective story. I said “yes” in 15 nanoseconds in case she changed her mind! It’s turned out to be fascinating because I’d always read detective fiction, but never with the intention of writing it. I’d been cramming my head so full of detective stories that my unconscious absorbed all its conventions. I just finished the 17th Phryne book, which feels like someone has taken a sack of rocks off the back of my neck, and it came out to exact right number of words, so it looks like I finally know how to do it. It took a long time to trust my intuition, but I’ve learned to stop fighting and follow whatever direction a book wants to go. I just have to type fast enough to keep up and I never get writer’s block.
Kathleen: I love that idea of an unconscious process working to write books for you.
Kerry: I do the research first to set up the situation and the circumstances so the intuition has enough to feed on. So while I’m doing the research, it’s constructing the book. Sometimes characters do the unexpected. In one of the Phryne books, I was typing at 3 o’clock in the morning and I thought, “Phryne, you’re not going to shoot that person,” — type, type, type — “Oh no, you are going to shoot them.”
Kathleen: Allen and Unwin hosted a competition earlier this year for readers to make up a character for a Phryne Fisher novel. Does the adventure you’ve just finished include the winning entry?
Kerry: Yes. Mr Leonard Palisi was invented by a lady named Anne Paul. It’s the first time I’ve done something like that.
Kathleen: What was it like?
Kerry: I could have been in trouble if Mr Palisi had refused to talk to me, but he fluttered in, settled down and the whole thing worked beautifully. I had a three or four line character sketch from the inventor, so I knew he was bald, he was an undertaker and he liked birds. So it was enough without making it too much.
Kathleen: Which detective fiction novelists do you read?
Kerry: I read everyone, but instead of Agatha Christie, I prefer Dorothy Sayers. I find Agatha Christie too simple and facile — I can predict what is going to happen. And her characters are all cardboard people, whereas Sayers has real people. She even has a flawed detective who has had shell shock during the war.
Kathleen: That’s interesting what you say about the well-rounded characters. For me, your crime fiction is British rather than American in that it’s about the characters more than the crimes.
Kerry: Yes, it certainly is. The world is mostly people driven, so my plots are mostly character-driven. In the end, it’s only people. In terms of realism, both traditions are equally unrealistic. But if I had to choose between being down in the gutter with Sam Spade or sitting on the lawn with the butler bringing cucumber sandwiches, you can guess which one I’d prefer.
Kathleen: How do you respond to detective fiction’s low status compared with other genres?
Kerry: (Wry laugh). Absolutely. It’s the “When are you going to write a real book Kerry?”. This is bound to happen because there’s a hierarchy of importance and propriety in literature. The literary stuff is important, but the romance, detective stories and science fiction — all the ones I really love — aren’t important. I used to get annoyed about this, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. They [the critics] can have their opinion and I’ll have the readers and sales! At the moment, one of things driving the huge success of detective stories and science fiction is that literary fiction has become inaccessible — it’s impossible to read because it has no plot. Most people read for recreation, to feel happier or to be transported to another place, and that requires a narrative and happy ending, which are comforting. I like it when people say, “When my mother was dying, she read your books because they made her feel better”. It’s an honour.
Kathleen: Does what you see as a duty solicitor influence what you write about?
Kerry: Not really. The thing with detective stories is that they are fundamentally false. Most crime I come across is incredibly dumb, silly and just not fictionable, unless I was writing the saddest book that said, “Yes, people are very stupid and do not do this boys and girls”. My writing has a happy ending. I can follow every clue, knit together every strand of a story and a person can close the book and say, “That was very satisfactory”. Whereas the real world isn’t like that. It’s very unsatisfactory. I rarely see happy endings in court. The same people come back again and again, and we have conversations along the lines of “I said you’d go to jail if you stole another car”. Real crime is dreadful and heart-wrenching … but mostly it’s incredibly dumb.
Kathleen: On the surface, Phryne and Corinna are very different, but their approach to life is actually very similar, isn’t it?
Kerry: Phryne was designed as a hero. When I decided to set a story in 1928, I thought of who was writing detective stories then. They were writing racy heroes, so I wondered what would happen if I wrote about a racy female, if I gave her everything a hero has — money, position, beauty, aplomb, skill — and watched what she did. No-one had written about a racy female hero, except in cartoons, such as “Modesty Blaise”. All the other female detectives of that time were worrying about things like their weight, so I wondered what would happen if I gave a woman all the traits of a character like Leslie Charteris’ ‘The Saint’. Phyrne really is quite ruthless. She doesn’t care, for instance, if she decides to walk on the wing of a plane and she’s not particularly concerned with other people’s feelings. Whereas Corinna is much more like me in that she’s what they call a “traditionally built” woman — that is, a fat woman. It’s a lot easier to write a Corinna book because I don’t have to research the period, but she is not me. For instance, she had an unhappy childhood and I didn’t, she’s an only child and I’m the eldest of four, and she had an incredibly unsatisfactory husband and I didn’t. She’s had a much harder life than I have. She’s determined, but she makes mistakes, gets tired and gets hurt. She’s not like Phyrne. How do you find them similar?
Kathleen: To me they’re similar in that they have the same moral universe. By that I mean they share the same sense of what is right, they have strong ideas about charity, they’re not afraid to go against society’s grain and they have a habit of rescuing strays — whether people or animals.
Kerry: That’s a good point and their values are probably the same as mine. I don’t know whether I could write a series of books about characters who inhabit a vastly different moral universe from mine. That would be hard. Yes, a strong sense of propriety is something you absolutely have to have, that everyone needs. Certainly Corinna has a very strong mothering instinct. She hasn’t got children, but she does have cats who will only let you mother them to a certain extent. She does tend to pick up strays, people like Jason for instance who is lost, stolen and stray. His character also makes me feel better because I love the idea of someone rescuing one of my clients at Victoria Legal Aid.
Kathleen: On a less serious note, a strong theme of food runs through your books. You describe every detail and ingredient of every meal in detail and even include recipes at the end. If you were one of Phryne or Corinna’s criminals and had one last meal on earth, what would it be?
Kerry: (Without missing a beat) Smoked salmon blinis as an entrée, honey roast chicken with wild rice stuffing and steamed vegetables as a main, followed by lemon meringue pie and oat cakes with cheese, washed down with Veuve Clicquot bubbly, a bottle of aged red, a something harder to follow and plenty of coffee. And if I could waddle in front of the firing squad after that, a firing squad would be welcome to shoot me!
Kathleen: Tell me more about your obsession with food.
Kerry: I grew up in a family of cooks. One grandmother made “flow” food — soups and stews — and the other made afternoon tea things, such as brandy snaps. I learned to cook watching my mother and was very proud when I was 10 and allowed to make the gravy by myself, standing on a chair to reach the stove top. Cooking is a powerful thing, a way that women can take charge over other people. I was a baker when I was at university because the hours suited my study and have also worked as a pub cook. But people don’t have time to cook anymore, which is sad. The media packages stories about the “obesity epidemic”, but it’s so hard now for anyone to come home and spend time in the kitchen, especially single parents who spend all day at work. And I don’t see it changing because most of us learn to cook by watching our parents. How will the next generation learn when their parents don’t cook?
Kathleen: Finally, what’s the most important piece of advice you’d like to share with other writers?
Kerry: Keep writing. So many people start novels but don’t get beyond the first chapter because they silence themselves by being overly critical of their work or being perfectionists. Just get it out and come back to tidy up later. When I finish a novel, I always go back and re-write my first chapter. It’s inevitable. The novel is already in your unconscious, so let it get out. It wants to be written and you can edit later.