‘The novel is about making believe your world is real’: an interview with Peter Temple

The death of Peter Temple at the age 71 has robbed Australia of what is undeniably one of its most influential crime writers. His Jack Irish novels were made into a popular television show by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Broken Shore, which won the coveted British Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award in 2007 – the first Australian author to do so – and Truth, awarded the Miles Franklin in 2010, were significant works of local crime fiction that, arguably, helped usher in the popularity of literary crime fiction in Australia.

David Honeybone, former editor of the influential hard copy magazine, Crime Factory [the precursor to the on-line magazine which I helped edit for a number of years until it recently ceased production], and a fan of Temple’s work, interviewed the author for issue 2 of the magazine in 2010. As a tribute, Honeybone generously shared his interview, in which Temple recalls his national service in the South African Defence Force, his literary influences, the challenges of translating his uniquely Australian dialogue into other languages, and what degree of realism a crime author should be aspiring to in their work.

Peter Temple is a South African by birth and an Australian by choice. A former journalist, he is one of Australia’s most successful crime writers, having five times won the Crime Writers’ Association of Australia’s Ned Kelly Award.

Creator of the popular Jack Irish series (Irish is a solicitor turned unwilling private eye with a taste for horse racing and Australian Rules Football), and three stand-alone crime novels, his breakthrough came with The Broken Shore (2005). It won the world’s biggest prize for crime writing, the British Crime Writers’Association’s Gold Dagger. His latest book, Truth, a companion piece to The Broken Shore, was published in Australia in 2009. It has been shortlisted for Australia’s premier literary prize, the Miles Franklin, which has been won by such luminaries as Patrick White, Thomas Kenneally and Peter Carey. Truth was released in the US in May, 2010. Peter Temple spoke to David Honeybone about all manner of things from his home in Victoria.

How did you get into journalism?

I was in the army, stationed in Cape Town, and about to be discharged. I walked into the afternoon newspaper and asked about a job. The deputy editor interviewed me. I was wearing paratrooper boots. I later found out later he liked that sort of thing. Not that I was paratrooper. I was under false pretences, as usual. He interviewed me and then said, sorry, the cadet intake is closed. I went back to the Castle and got on with being a guard commander. The next day he got a message to me saying they had decided to add one person to a cadet intake, which was fantastic because it was the only cadet school in the country. So careers begin.

Was the army your national service?

Yes. It was about a year in the first instance. And then you went back for a spell every year. That seemed to go on forever. It added up to quite a lot of wasted time.

Was it just tedium and boredom?

It was physically quite hard. And it was tedious too. But when your breaks are between bouts of extremely tiring activity done wearing a full pack, there is no such thing as boredom. You slump against anything and smoke a cigarette, waiting for them to shout at you again. I managed to read one book in a year. I read no newspapers at all – never saw a newspaper, only left camp twice, I think, no pass-outs. And there was nothing to read. I brought this one book in with me and they would have thrown it away had I not hidden it. So it was not exactly an intellectual environment. I read my book very slowly. But there was very little time to read. If you weren’t cleaning your stuff for inspection, you were out there dirtying it, being chased and sworn at. (He laughs.)

Very degrading?

That’s what it felt like in the beginning. You get used to it. A very high casualty rate for a peacetime army. Death from heat exhaustion was not unusual, people run to death, usually on what were called chase parades. Group punishment for individual infringements. They even killed an MP’s son in my company on a chase parade. Firearm accidents were common. Some fatal. Fair number of suicides.

To go back to the journalism, the media play such a big part in your books. Did you deliberately want to keep that connection?

I’ve always been interested in the relationship between the media and society. I loved Australian newspapers from the outset. They were of a very high standard when I got here. The National Times was full of fine investigative journalism. I think all the city papers were good. Not to have something so central in our lives play a prominent part in my books would seem remiss.

Especially radio?

Well, I like the sound of radio. And I like shouting at the radio. I love the way you can catch the sound of a city from the radio. In Adelaide, the radio tells you you’re in Adelaide. They might not mention Adelaide but there is a certain tone to all Adelaide stations that says Adelaide. Then you go to Sydney and the distinctively strident sound of Sydney commercial radio assails you immediately.

The last time we spoke, ten years ago, you cited Charles McCarry and Elmore Leonard. Do you still hold rate both of them highly?

Yes, I do. McCarry wasn’t very well known in Australia then and he was at his peak. He’s lasted very well. His later books are a bit florid but earlier ones are terrific. But Elmore Leonard suffers from over-production, which will get anybody in the end. If you tell certain kinds of stories, after a while you will repeat yourself. But his best is wonderful.

When you say you like writers, have they influenced you?

I would say only in the sense that many things influence you. I’ve just enjoyed them enormously. Of people who have influenced me, one who comes to mind is John O’Hara, the American novelist who published before the war, didn’t write again until 1949, and wrote his last book in about 1964. I loved the dialogue, the interest in people and social mores. And they made wonderful movies. Ten North Frederick, for example.

What is it about the dialogue?

Good dialogue is harder to do than it might appear. I have always tended to the spare side of things. I don’t like to describe if I can get dialogue to do the work. The Friends of Eddie Coyle was a landmark for me. I loved the street talk, the power of it, the lack of exposition. I don’t think there’d be a person who’s read him writing in America now, both in the genre and outside, who isn’t marked by Higgins. Sometimes people say to me that my dialogue is cinematic but when you try to transfer dialogue people think is cinematic to a screenplay. you realise how uncinematic it is.

You were working on a TV adaptation of a Jack Irish novel.

I wrote one for Bad Debts and it failed to jump the last hurdle.The usual reasons, budgetary constraints, that kind of thing. So it disappeared and came back to life this year with the talented Andrew Knight writing the screenplay, to be produced for the ABC by the impossibly gifted Ian Collie of Essential Media.

Was screenwriting enjoyable?

Well, I wrote an original screenplay for a TV movie called Valentine’s Day, made for the ABC, and I didn’t enjoy the experience much. Too many people involved, too many people’s opinions on how it could be improved, on the plot, on how to write dialogue. It taught me that I am not a collaborator by nature. It is better just to take the money. Sell your book and run. And hide.

I want to ask you about The Broken Shore and Truth. The Broken Shore was your break-out novel, it gave you international exposure.

The Dagger did that, yes. It was a few years after its publication in Australia.

Did you find it a life-changing experience?

No (laughs), in a word. It did change certain things. All of a sudden, there were foreign rights sales. For example, we sold it to probably the most august publishing house in America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which has published more Nobel Prizewinners than anyone else in the world. Of course, the book bombed in the US. But I can always say Jonathan Galassi liked my book.

Is there a glossary for Truth, as there was for The Broken Shore?

There is. Part of me thinks one shouldn’t do it but, on the other hand, some of the language is impenetrable. If you’re not an Australian or haven’t lived here, you cannot know what is being said. I thought, why shouldn’t I tell readers what these things mean? And I rather enjoy writing the definitions.

Did translations pose a challenge?

They can be difficult books to translate. The French translator, who has lived in Australia, asked me many questions. The Italian translator doing Truth lives in Perth. He emails most days, sometimes three or four times, with very amusing and pointed questions. He will say, there is nothing like this in Italian, nobody speaks like this. So you have to use use some kind of patois, perhaps from the Marseilles or the Naples underworld. Translating Agatha Christie or Jane Austen, that’s just plain stuff, you can translate Enid Blyton into any language, that’s why writers like these are so popular.But when you get to something like The Broken Shore or Truth, the language is not all standard English. What is said in one or two words can take two or three sentences in another language. It is compressed. You need to unstuff it, and in the unstuffing of it, you unquestionably lose a lot. The essence of Truth is that it is compressed. Decompressing it introduces a wordiness, a loquaciousness that detracts from that essence. How do you maintain Cashin or Villani’s character when they now have to speak in long sentences? It’s very difficult and challenging.

There were four years between The Broken Shore and Truth. Was it ever a case of: how do I follow The Broken Shore?

Oh, yes. I had talked loosely about writing a trilogy but when the time came to write another book after The Broken Shore, in theory a second book in the trilogy, I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t want to carry on with Cashin, so it took a long while to arrive at Villani. I stared at The Broken Shore for a long time. Then I read some sections and I realized that Villani was a possibility. So I thought, well, I’ll see if I can pursue him, create the character. And then, as is the way I write, he grew and grew. I had always wanted a book set in the fire season, long before Black Saturday. And then that actually happened.

You were still writing?

I’d nearly finished. It was a shock. It felt wrong to seem to capitalize on it. But when I read what I’d written. I realised that if I pushed the setting of the book two years out from the fires, then it would be looking back on them. And then it became possible.

But Truth is neither a sequel or a prequel?

That’s right. It goes off at a tangent. It takes a minor character and creates a new direction for him to go. If there were to be a third book, I would have to take a third character and go somewhere with that person.

Is that a possibility?

If I ever got round to it. Initially, I thought it would be difficult to do but as times passes I’ve become more comfortable with the idea. I now see how to do it, the narrative to it, but I’m scared of repeating myself, I hate repeating myself. I try to do something different each. With Jack Irish, I’ve tried hard to keep the books fresh.

Villani is your most complex character yet.

His complexity of course emerged in the course of writing. He became real to me quickly, which was a new experience. Part of the complexity is due to his circumstances, but it’s quite a difficult thing to pull off when you chose, as I have for some lunatic reason done, to write in the third person from the restricted point of view of the first person. You have all the disadvantages of the first-person and none of the advantages of the third.

With Truth, as in your other books, you like to skewer hypocrisy. Is that one of the perks of writing?

Settling scores with people (laughs) is also very important. Why write if you plan to deny yourself the pleasure of inflicting some of your views – not all of them, some of them – on your readers? It’s one of the interesting things to do, to have characters who have your point of view, see the world as you do. And some who don’t.

Do you think crime writing allows other perks in that respect?

The genre can range far and wide, it doesn’t have any great purposes of education or moral uplift. You don’t have to feel that at the end of your book people should say: I feel elevated, I’m a better person. The genre allows you to explore all kinds of issues. It allows you to stare at society. A crime is the excuse for writing crime fiction. All the best crime writers have been interested in broader issues, used the genre to write about the world, about society.

You have some strong views about research?

I don’t know about strong. When people ask you whether everything you’ve written is based on research, they’re missing the point. Fiction is making stuff up. Some of it may be factual, in that the places exist, that real people are named. There may be real events, real procedures people follow. And if you want to give a detailed description of an operation on a brain, you’d better find out something about brain surgery. On the other hand, if you simply wish to convey the impression of what it’s like to operate on a brain, then you are more interested in the surgeon’s feelings than anatomy or surgical technique. Of course, you do want to convince the reader that you know what you are talking about. But you don’t have to have ridden a horse in the Melbourne Cup to convey what it might be like.

So the idea that writers should drive around in squad cars with policemen in the small hours of the morning before they write about the police is a complete nonsense. If you want to make a documentary about cops, if you want to make The Wire, then yes, go and do that, because authenticity is all you have.

The novel is about making believe your world is real. The novel is about the quality of the writing, the writer’s ability to hold you and entertain you and move you. A transcript of cops ordinary talk or a step-by-step account of police procedure would bore readers witless. Novels are all about compression, about using fragments to represent the whole. The world doesn’t really work the way the world works in fiction. Fiction is entertainment that should make you think. Great issues of morality and justice and law and fairness, these are not about procedure. The difference between entertaining books and boring stuff is that the former avoid all that clogging detail. But the detail you have needs to be correct. Out there are detail freaks who read your book and say, Aha, there isn’t a tram stop there, mate, it’s a block further down! Gotcha!

You’ve met those people?

I meet them all the time. I admire them (laughs). I admire their attention to detail, I admire the close reading of my works they have done.

So would you check the calibre of a gun then?

Of course. You don’t want to make a fool of yourself. And I’m interested in stuff like that. For example, in Truth Villani has a Glock pistol. Wrong? We’ll see. Yesterday, the Victorian police force announced they were staying with Smith & Wesson handguns. But, strangely enough, a month after Truth came out a senior officer appeared at a press conference, in uniform, with a Glock in his holster. Writing two years ago, I took an informed punt that the force was going to re-equip with Glock because I follow the Glock campaign to dominate the police world. So I think I may still be right about the Glock at certain levels of the Victorian force.

What’s next? Will be there another Jack Irish?

A Jack Irish would make a lot of sense. People like Jack and would like a fifth one. Some people. Ten people. My film man would like a fifth one and I’ve got about 25,000 words locked away on the hard drive of a two-year-old iMac that has died. Are you listening, Apple?


5 Responses

  1. Stephen Wm. Irving

    Excellent read – have just finished Truth and The Broken Shore, driven by impulse to re-read both in short order, finished just before hearing of Peter’s passing; this article adds to an insight into his love of storytelling.

    The tempting thought of another Jack Irish, even the kernel of a bit of an idea for a third novel in the line of Cashin – Villani – Dancer(?) is mouth-watering to say the least.

    Peter Temple will be sorely missed, at best we have his novels to delve into in times of need.

    • Stephen, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I do remember reading in an obit for him, rumours of an unpublished manuscript, so you never know what might turn up.

  2. Pingback: CrimeMag: Editorial Ausgabe März 2018 - CulturMag

  3. Pingback: A Big Farewell for Peter Temple - CulturMag

  4. Vale Peter Temple… what a talent. The eye of an artist for detail. The writer who led me to write Australian crime.. But as noted, a writer I could not read while writing… his talent was such that his characters would consume mine, and echoes of his narrative begin to take over. Still my favourite books… all of them. Sadly missed.

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