in the Age of Therapy
Power of the Sun
(published as Spreading words with dinky-di determination
in The Canberra Times on 21 October 2006)
Australian crime writer Peter Temple’s latest novel ‘The Broken
Shore’ is breaking the boundaries between crime writing and literary
fiction. Carol Middleton speaks to a rising star.
For the New York edition of his latest novel The Broken Shore, Peter Temple
was asked to compile a glossary of Australian words and phrases. Without
this glossary, American readers would have found whole passages of the
book impenetrable. Even with the glossary, they will probably still struggle
with the laconic, truncated sentences. Temple is a ruthless editor of
his own work and admits to deleting 10,000 words from the final draft
of The Broken Shore before handing it to his Australian publisher, Text
Publishing. He is happy with the idea of a glossary if it takes his books
into the overseas market. Up until recently most publishers found his
books “too Australian” for non-Australian readers. He would
not dream of changing the dialogue, which is quintessentially Australian
and “a large part of the book’s charm”.
Charm is not the word I would apply to his style. Other words spring to
mind: trenchant, muscular, funny. The black humour that is part of Australian
police banter is threaded through the dialogue. Not the stuff of literary
novels, surely, but maybe this is the key to his acclaim as a writer.
When he gave up teaching journalism and communications at university in
1995 (he pioneered the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT
in Melbourne) and turned to crime fiction, he decided to write the sort
of books he liked to read. He was not interested in replicating the Australian
crime novel that might as well have been written in England with its neutral
educated voice. He wanted to capture the reality of Australia and its
people. He wanted his characters to speak like people in the pubs in Sunshine,
in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.
It is ironic that Temple should be propagating the Australian language
overseas. He was born in South Africa and has only lived here since 1980.
But he feels “more Australian than anything else” and has
an acute ear for the Australian vernacular, which he picked up during
the years he spent in Melbourne, eavesdropping in pubs. It is a city that
he loves, that he used to walk around at all hours of the day and night,
before moving to Ballarat, his present home. Now that he visits Melbourne
infrequently, he tries to keep pace with the changes in the city and in
its human geography.
A closely observed Melbourne is the setting for his four Jack Irish crime
novels: Bad Debts, Black Tide, Dead Point and White Dog. The first, Bad
Debts, was published in 1996 and established his fan-base in Australia.
He never intended the book to be the first of a series. It was taken up
as a two-book contract, but Temple felt he had said all he had to say
about this character Jack Irish in the first book. So, with relief and
a sense of freedom, he wrote a stand-alone novel An Iron Rose, before
embarking on the arduous task of reviving the large cast of thirty-two
characters in the Jack Irish novel. Since then, he has alternated his
four Jack Irish novels with stand-alone novels: An Iron Rose, Shooting
Star, In the Evil Day and now The Broken Shore.
In the Evil Day was his attempt at an international thriller. It was set,
not in Australia this time, but in Johannesburg, Hamburg, London and the
United States. Brought out with the title Identity Theory in America,
it was not a success, but is now being republished after the influential
US website headbutler.com posted a rave review by Jesse Kornbluth: It's
a brilliant piece of writing first, a thriller second. On the strength
of this review, its Amazon listing jumped 20,000 in one day.
It looks like Temple’s international following is set to grow even
more with The Broken Shore. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the New York
publishers, have published 20 Nobel Laureates since 1946, so Temple was
astonished to find himself in such good company, especially for what he
considers is “the most Australian of my eight books.” It is
also coming out in France, Britain, Germany and Holland. The Broken Shore
has gone beyond the crime genre and found new converts among readers of
literary fiction. It was long-listed for this year's Miles Franklin award
and has just been awarded the 2005 Federation for Australian Literary
Studies' $10,000 Colin Roderick award for the "best book about Australia".
These accolades are added to the four Ned Kelly awards he has won over
the years from the Crime Writers' Association of Australia, including
best novel award for The Broken Shore.
In The Broken Shore, Temple returns to Australia, to country Victoria,
which is his current stomping ground. He wanted to get out of the city
in this novel and write about the wide open spaces. He wrote it “in
a despondent frame of mind”, thinking it might be the last book
he ever wrote. He did not even care if was published. But it is his favourite
now. “You don’t have to enjoy writing a book to do a reasonable
job. You just have to sit down every day.” He has his theories about
why the book is more accepted by the literary world. “It unfolds
at a leisurely pace; it is more about character; it lacks the single-minded
pursuit that is the objective of crime fiction; and it deals with family
and friendships, which are usually the province of literary fiction.”
Unlike most literary fiction, The Broken Shore is very funny. Temple believes
most writers are afraid of jokes, particularly local humour, and think
their jokes should be universal. He does not worry about this. “I
just ask myself: does this amuse me?” He loves the idea of coining
phrases that pass into the language and talks with enthusiasm about the
“near genius” of Barry Humphries, who invented thousands of
Australian expressions such as technicolour yawn and splash your boots
that did not exist before, but are now believed by many to be part of
the Australian vernacular. “If you can invent something that is
seen to be quintessentially Australian, you have found your place in that
society.” I suppose that would be especially satisfying for a writer
born and bred in South Africa.
Temple credits much of the success of his latest book to Text Publishing
and in particular to Michael Heyward, who “could sell sand to Egypt”.
The Broken Shore was published as a crossover, rather than a crime novel,
with a cover that would appeal to a different readership. “It worked,”
says Temple. “It has made a lot of people, who would not normally
consider crime writers, thinking them to be inferior creatures, have a
look at it”. He is now inspired to continue in this vein and has
started a sequel to The Broken Shore, but without the protagonist Joe
Cashin. He has obviously learned not to set himself up for another series
that will require repeatedly waking up a cast of continuing characters.
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