He put Australia on the Map
A few thoughts on the passing of Peter Corris, the father of modern Australian crime fiction – by Andrew Nette.
I suspect a lot of fans of contemporary Oz crime fiction, and more than a few of its current practitioners, may have forgotten or perhaps don’t even know the debt we all owe to Sydney based crime writer Peter Corris, who died 30 August 2018 at the age of 76.
Corris’ debut novel, The Dying Trade, was published in 1980 (something must have been in the water that year because it also saw the publication of Gabrielle Lord’s important first novel, Fortress about the kidnapping of a country school teacher and her students). The Dying Trade introduced the hardscrabble Sydney private investigator, Cliff Hardy.
Hardy is an ex-insurance claims investigator and army veteran, who served during the so-called “Malaya Emergency” in the 1950s when Australian troops were brought in to help the British control that country’s growing communist insurgency. In many respects, Hardy was typical of the breed of PI characters that were popular in the US, stretching right back to the work of Raymond Chandler. He liked a drink. His private life was a mess. He took his fair share of beatings and administered a few, seemed to be constantly broke, and had a troubled relationship with local law enforcement.
But Hardy and his Sydney setting were intensely Australian, a major departure from the faux American PI novels that had dominated Australian crime writing since the end of World War II. Hardy drank cask red (the wine cask being an Australian invention), he rolled his own ciggies, and drove around Sydney in an old Ford Falcon always in need of repair. Hardy’s Australianness and the vivid depiction of Sydney, from its architecture to its class politics and bent coppers was revolutionary at the time and the book, along with Fortress, breathed life into the genre that had been in poor health locally for much of the 1970s.
I first read Corris when I was living in the sleepy capital of Laos, Vientiane, in the early 1990s. Laos was very isolated. English language books were rare and my partner and I had to cross the Mekong to Nong Kai in Thailand just to make an international phone call. One exception to the dearth of reading matter was the Australian embassy library, in which I found an omnibus collection of three Hardy stories, The Dying Trade and two others, the names of which I can’t remember. Anyway, I devoured them and had to get friends in Melbourne to send me Hardy books in the post as there were no more in the library.
In The Dying Trade, Hardy is hired by a property developer to discover who is behind harassing phone threats to the man’s sister. As is so often the case in a good PI story, the apparent simplicity of the case is in inverse proportion to what is really going on. No sooner has Hardy started to probe for answers than it becomes clear the developer’s family harbours very dark secrets.
What I like about the Hardy books is the way the character’s work not only pushes up against Sydney’s dregs but also its elites, the shonky developers, greedy financiers and corrupt politicians. Indeed, all the Hardy books are shot through with a keen awareness that the misdeeds of the rich and powerful are usually far greater than anything the underclass can dish up, as well as harder to detect and prosecute. They also ooze an egalitarian point of view that pre-dates the wave of economic deregulation introduced in the 1980s, which would fundamentally transform the country.
Corris would go onto write 52 Hardy books and while I won’t begrudge an author the payday that is a long running series, I have to be honest and say I lost interest after the first ten or so. But those first four or five books, in particular, were absolute master classes of well plotted, politically engaged, hardboiled crime writing. Book two, White Meat (1981), was another missing person’s case that is partly set in Sydney’s Indigenous Aboriginal community. Number three, The Marvellous Boy (1982) sees Hardy employed by a rich widow to find her missing grandson. (This is one of the only two books published in Germany, the other The Greenwich apartments.)
Book four, The Empty Beach, opens with Hardy being employed by a widow to find her missing businessman husband. The action mainly takes place in Bondi – obviously far less gentrified than it is today – and gradually sees Hardy ensnared in drug trafficking and murder. The Dying Beach was the only Hardy book that made it to the screen, in a 1985 film starring Bryan Brown, who was brilliant as Hardy. The film did terribly at the box off and is still unavailable on DVD in Australia, which is a huge shame because it is excellent and the books would’ve made an excellent series. I firmly believe that the reason the film did so poorly was because it was ahead of its time in terms of Australian cinema, the dark themes, the fact that so much of the plot is left unexplained and the pessimistic ending in which justice is not served
Corris wrote 102 books in total, including a number of biographies and several other series. I particularly want to give a shout out to the eight little known novels featuring Ray Crawly, an incredibly downbeat series about a former journalist and his on again, off again job as an agent for a wing for the Australian secret service. The books, which I remember being in the tradition of the UK show, Callan, where actually made into three one hour television shows by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1986, starring the wonderful New Zealand actor, Bruno Lawrence, as Crawly. I recall someone telling me that the ABC lost or wiped over the tapes of the series, because it has never been shown again, a story, which if true, I will never forgive the national broadcaster for.
It took Corris four years to find a publisher for The Dying Trade. ‘They said that Australian crime readers wanted books about New York, Los Angeles or London,’ Corris said in an interview he did with Sydney crime fiction buff, Andrew Prentice, for the now defunct magazine I used to help edit, Crime Factory.
‘They weren’t interested in local crime apart from, as you say, the pulp stuff, Carter Brown, Larry Kent, which was really sort of faux-American. It really wasn’t set anywhere. But those publishers were wrong. There are letters in the Mitchell Library [one of the reference collections in the State Library of New South Wales] from some of those publishers saying, this will never work, Peter should do something else. Fuck ‘em.’
Taken with kindly permission from his Website Pulpcurry.
Andrew Nette is the author of two novels, Ghost Money, a crime story set in Cambodia in the mid-nineties, and Gunshine State. He is co-editor of Girl Gangs, Biker Boys, and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 to 1980, published by PM Press in 2017, (CrimeMag review by Alf Mayer here) and Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counterculture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1956 to 1980, forthcoming from PM Press in 2019. He has also written a monograph about Norman Jewison’s 1975 dystopian classic, Rollerball, just out with independent UK film and media studies publisher, Auteur.
As far as our research can go, Peter Corris had only 2 of his 102 books translated into German. The Marvelous Boy (1982) was published in 1991 as a hardcover by East Berlin publisher Volk und Welt, a famous GDR publishing house, and 1995 in West Berlin as paperback by Ullstein. Title: „Ein mörderisches Weihnachtsgeschenk„. Followed in 1991 by The Greenwich Apartments (1986) and again 1995 by Ullstein, as „Tödliche Videos„.
Excerpts from an in-depth interview conducted by avid crime reader and regular Crime Factory contributor, Andrew Prentice, that appeared in issue 14 of the now defunct online journal, Crime Factory, in September 2013.
Crime Factory: Your pre-writing career was academia and journalism, wasn’t it?
Peter Corris: Yes
Where did the shift take place into writing novels?
I was working at the National Times when the first of the Hardy books came out, in 1980. I was the literary editor, sending the books out, doing the reviews, and also doing some interviewing pieces, sports people, politicians…and the first book was a success, very well reviewed.
That was The Dying Trade?
That’s the one. And I’d already finished the second one because I enjoyed doing the first one so much, and had started a third one, and well, the ball just got rolling, even though it took about 5 years for the first one to get published. I gave up the journalism and was bringing in enough from the books and writing short stories to get going. I should add I had a working wife as well, which was helpful. In fact, I handed the literary journalism job over to her. That’s Jean (Bedford) of course, so she worked at the National Times and topped things up while I wrote.
And was there a particular reason why you left journalism?
I got sick of it. I got sick of the literary editor shit. I got fucking sick of new books, beautiful new hardbacks flowing in every week in their dust covers, filling the cupboard up. For the first year or so I thought, “This is heaven.” I took a hell of a lot of them home myself, got paid for the extra reviews I did outside of the paper. It was a dream job for 18 months but it got to the stage where I hated the look of a new book. It just sort of swamped me. It became so much more enjoyable staying at home, tapping away at Cliff Hardy. I’d found my niche.
What was the inspiration for Cliff Hardy?
Look, I’ve never known. It was really just to imitate Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald and see if I could. I’d tried a historical novel based on my PHD thesis and about 18 different publishers rejected it. So I had this idea. I’d been reading Chandler and MacDonald recreationally for years, and I thought, well, I’d try this. I felt like I really knew how they worked and what the formula was like and what changes you could make. I thought, Sydney, San Francisco, LA, I felt like there was a symbiosis there and figured, have a go at what you know you can write. Imitation was the stimulus. But after a few books, I felt I had an individual voice and the confidence to play around with the formula, say what I wanted to say, shit on people I wanted to shit on, things like that, so it took off creatively after a very imitative start, you might say.
It’s been often noted that up until the time the first Hardy came out, that most Australian crime fiction was the Carter Brown-style books that were very Americanised and this was the very first Australianised crime book.
And that’s why there was resistance to it from publishers for at least 4 years. They said that Australian crime readers wanted books about New York, LA or London. They weren’t interested in local crime apart from, as you say, the pulp stuff, Carter Brown, Larry Kent, which was really sort of faux-American. It really wasn’t set anywhere. But those publishers were wrong, there are letters in the Mitchell Library from some of those publishers saying, this will never work, Peter should do something else. Fuck ‘em.
Ha, we’d all like to say that about a publisher sometimes. And so in essence, certainly with the Cliff Hardy series, Sydney became as central a character as Cliff did.
I suppose so, but it was never a conscious thing. I was brought up in Melbourne, and well, I got away from Melbourne, don’t like the place, got away as quickly as I could. In the dreary working class neighbourhood I grew up in it was a grey, puritanical city. I know it’s not like that everywhere in the place but I finished university there, got to Canberra, tried Melbourne again, tried Gippsland, working at a CAE, and really, I just hated Victoria, I wanted to get to Sydney. I’d visited Sydney, and I wanted the warmth, the activity, the pubs staying open till ten o’clock, and so I said to Jean, that’s what I want to do, and off we went.
Mutual decision of course, and I love Sydney, I’m still wide-eyed about Sydney. I moved to Glebe, it hadn’t gentrified to the extent it has now, it was still a mixture of derros and crazies, old blokes in boarding houses. It had a seedy side to it as well as a gentrified side so it was a very interesting place to be. The novelty of Sydney was part of the early books and it just kept on going. I’ve kept going back into the city and wandering around because it changes so much. The urban landscape thing that people talk about, for me, it’s mainly just punctuation, pauses in the action, time for the character to reflect what’s happening. It’s not a central motif but it’s a useful device and I give it whatever shine I can.
What point did you think Cliff Hardy went from imitative to unique?
The Empty Beach.
And that was made into a movie.
That’s the one. Ratshit movie. Terrible film. But the money enabled me to put a deposit on a house. My stand-up comedy line is that I much preferred the house to the film.
It’s a great line.
I read online that you said The Empty Beach should have been called The Empty Cinemas.
Can’t take credit for that one, it came from the son of a girl I was living with at the time, he might have been 13 or 14, said that. The film was a failure, a terrible flop.
And yet it had some star power.
Oh, shit yeah. Ray Barrett, Bryan Brown, John Woods, but there were all sorts of things wrong with it. I don’t know whether you know David Stratton’s book, The Avocado Factory, about the Australian film industry? There’s a whole section on reaction to The Empty Beach in there.
I had various gripes, mainly about the script, which was rat shit. I was contracted to write a script, so I did, and they said… actually, I was contracted to write three, and then they had the right to get another scriptwriter if they wanted. That was fair enough. So, I submit the first one – too tough. Second one – too soft. Did the third one, and the producer said to me, “Peter, this is almost there.” And the next I’d heard, they’d chucked it out and got someone else in. But that’s film producers, you know? They have their irons in the fire and they take out the one that heats up.
(Laughs) That’s it in a nutshell. I mean, the movie played in the cinemas for a while, it played on TV, it was a video in the shops for quite a long time and it helped to stimulate the book, which went through three or four editions so the whole thing did give me a kick along – what they call it? A bounce. Political speak. Kevin’s got a good bounce, and I got a bounce out of the movie.
Any other film options on the Hardy books?
Many, many. Over the years, it keeps coming up, for film or television and keeps falling over for one reason or another. And when they pay option money, you welcome it because you don’t ever have to pay that back, and that’s happened several times. I’m not sure another film will make it; that sort of private eye story, being told things, knocking on doors, is a bit anachronistic. Crime films now are high-tech, very dependent on the workings of technology, CSI-type stuff. You’d have to set a private eye film back in the seventies and it’s expensive, costuming, cars, they have to mask the mobile phone towers, things like that. So I think it’s unlikely.
But everything old is new again, Peter.
Well, there’s that. I’ve written a couple of retrospective Hardy novels set back in time so I’ll get my agent to pitch it to a producer and see if she can get them interested.
Mind you, I haven’t read every Cliff Hardy, but I’ve read quite a few, and Cliff moves with the times.
Yeah, he does.
He’s got a mobile phone.
True. I had a mobile for a while but my eyesight was giving up and I couldn’t text, I couldn’t keep the screen stay live long enough to text, even “Yes, I’ll be there.” So Cliff doesn’t text either, he takes photos with his phone, and makes calls. He’s reasonable with email and Google but that’s about all. But his daughter Megan is pretty flash at that, as my wife is, so he’s got a back-up.
I’d like to think it could but it would take a tremendous commitment from someone who really wanted to do it. You’d need to have someone as good as the people who made Chinatown. To me, that is a superb movie, set back in the late thirties, early forties, around there, the timeline is a little indistinct, which you can do. You’d have to have a terrific script, really good actors…it might work, I mean, look at LA Confidential, that’s a bloody great film, even James Ellroy liked it and James Ellroy doesn’t like anything.
James Ellroy doesn’t seem to like anything or anybody.
No. I’ve met him a few times, a remarkable guy, mad as all hell.
I read an interview he’d done where he said he couldn’t wait for Bill Clinton to die so he can write a book about him.
He hates Bill Clinton. There was an interview he did with Bob Carr, who’s a noted crime reader, and Ellroy called Clinton a “weeny-wagger”, and Carr said, “You can’t say that” and Ellroy said, “I fucking can!” He endorsed a book for me once by writing, “This book is hotter than cougar come.”
He used to answer the phone with a howl and say: “This is the American Werewolf of American Literature.” Fucking mad. I thought his books were fabulous, up to, but not including, The Cold Six Thousand. I couldn’t read it. I couldn’t read Blood’s A Rover. I think he’s disappeared up his own arsehole as a stylist. Do you think?
Agree 100%. I loved LA Confidential, The Big Nowhere…
American Tabloid is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Exactly! One of the very best books. And that was the high point. And then he took on that cryptic, tabloid style, you couldn’t get a handle on character, or development, or anything. He says that he writes a complete summary of the whole book, about 200 pages, and then goes back and builds it up and that is the complete and absolute antithesis of what I do, which is start, and not know from one day to the next what is happening.
I ask that question of any writer I interview, haven’t interviewed Ellroy. But the others say the same: They start the book not knowing how it’s going to end. Carl Hiaasen once said it would spoil it for him knowing how his book is going to end before he starts it. That would be like reading the end of a book first.
I am exactly the same. The challenge is finding out what is going to happen and the anxiety of “Can I keep this going?” That keeps me interested and excited until about two-thirds of the way through where you have to have some idea how to shape it, and then that’s interesting in a different way. Agatha Christie wrote the last chapter first, so she knew what was going to happen so I guess its horses for courses.
I write the same way you described. Does it ever for you, lead to an impasse, where you think, I don’t know where to go from here?
So far, no. I’ve never had to abort a novel. Aborted a few short stories or put them on hold because of that sort of thing and I dread it happening in a novel, and the anxiety about that, as I say, is one of the fuels I use to keep going. There have been pauses, and times when I haven’t written for a day or two. I go out and see Jean, we have a drink, and it occurs to me what I have to do and I’m back on it, as it were. So, a few moments like that, but not terminal. Sick, ill, but not terminal!
We’ve talked a lot about Cliff Hardy but you’ve done so much more than just Cliff. There was also the Ray Crawly series, that became a TV series, didn’t it?
Sort of the other way around. My friend Bill Garner, wrote a lot of TV, wrote a lot of Blue Heelers and some plays, great guy, bloody good writer. He came up to see me in Sydney and said: “I’ve got the ABC to commission an espionage mini-series and I’ve got this idea. And we wrote it together, as a mini-series script. And it was bloody good. Bruno Lawrence was Ray Crawly, New Zealand actor, remember he was in Frontline? And he was Crawly, and he was terrific, very tough guy. So we did that and then I novelised our script, Penguin published it, it did well, and that kicked off the Crawly series. Bill would provide the basic idea, they were set in different places. They started really well but failed badly.
The last one was called The Vietnam Volunteer and that was published in about 2000.
And when did the TV series run?
It was a one-off mini-series, which the ABC showed and never showed again. I’ve had agents pleading with them to show it again, just for residuals, you know? An extra quid! But it’s never happened, not sure how you’d find it now, but it must be out there in the ether, you can probably download it somehow. It had some good people in it and was really very good. It wasn’t as good as Blue Murder, or Scales of Justice or Phoenix, those are outstanding series, but it was a hell of a lot better than some of the other stuff around.
You’ve written non-fiction. Biographies?
Well, “As told to”, not strictly biographies. I’ve never written an absolute, objective biography. But I’ve written for Fred Hollows, Ray Barrett, John Sinclair, Bill Hunter – which never saw the light of day. But always, “As Told To Peter Corris.”
What’s the difference, writing someone’s autobiography to writing fiction?
Harder work. Working from the transcripts, getting the sequences of events right, not committing perjury, slander, libel. Trying to capture the tone and manner of the person. I mean, it’s not too hard if the character you’re writing about has a really emphatic stamp to them, like, God knows, Fred Hollows did. But it takes longer. I love writing and the periods between writing I get bored and fidgety, Jean has to tell me to stop moping! And this form of writing can be more laborious, waiting for the transcripts to come in, and then you have to check and re-check, make sure you’re getting the good stuff down. It’s a different exercise but I’m too old for it now, my eyes have gone, I couldn’t work on the transcripts and do the interviewing.
Who was your favourite subject?
Oh, Fred Hollows. What a character, larger than life, could do microscopic eye surgery on a child and then shoot wild pigs with a 303 rifle. I’d love to have done a proper, objective biography on someone like Fred, someone with a cerebral and physical life, a popular and well-known figure. But that’s passed me by now. I’m down to Cliff. Browning’s gone, Crawly’s gone. I did three books about a witness protection agent named Dunlop…
That’s the one. Nobody wants historical novels any more. They only want to read Hilary Mantel… So I’m down to Cliff now, and I’m lucky, Cliff’s still a bread and butter man, and can keep me writing, keep some money coming in.
You age a serial character at one-third the natural rate.
The first Hardy I read was Aftershock, which was set in Newcastle after the earthquake. You were up there at the time, weren’t you?
Yes, I lived at Dudley, the house shook, and as we moved around we saw what had happened. There was really no way that such a traumatic event wouldn’t translate well into a Hardy novel. That applies to some of the novels but not all by any means.
So, Peter, not everything that has happened to Cliff has happened to you?
No, not everything. Though when I had a quadruple bypass that gave me the idea for another book and there probably are other examples which if we had five hours to sit here I’d remember. A lot of the stuff does derive from personal experience, especially the stuff around relationships, good relationships, break-ups… when that happens, the information goes into a sort of a well and you know how to write about it when you need it, painful or shameful though it may be.
Writing from personal experience?
That’s right. I don’t do a lot of documentary or physical research. The ideas come from my own life, my imagination and what’s around, what’s in the newspaper, what I hear on the radio or see on TV, what friends tell me, you know, just the basics of the life around you.
While Cliff Hardy is most identifiable with Sydney, a few novels take place in other locations. Are they places you’ve lived or visited?
The locales are important when they become familiar. There’s been a novel set in New Caledonia which Jean and I went to for a literary conference, that was Master’s Mates. Byron Bay has appeared in a few short stories.
The South Coast?
A few times, where we’ve lived at odd times on and off. It’s great territory for a novel, you’ve got the escarpment, the cliff road that fell apart and had to be re-built, that sort of thing, which translates well into a novel.
Very much so. Newtown, where we are now, figures a lot. This very pub has appeared a few times. Hardy’s office has moved around according to changes in the city. I mean, St Peters Lane in Darlinghurst. I went to have a look at it just a couple of weeks ago and it’s changed, it’s gentrifying. Next to the building where I imagined Cliff’s office to be there’s a new block of units and some of the streets have been blocked off to control the traffic and make it quieter for those who’ve bought terrace houses to live there (puts on a snobby voice) if you know what I mean. The end of King Street where he had an office, gentrified. It was a set of old buildings and they all got tarted up and the rents skyrocketed. And now he’s in Pyrmont. But he had to take out a mortgage on his Glebe house in order to be able to afford to be in Pyrmont. So when you ask does Sydney infuse the books, well, it does in this kind of way. It provides the working material that the story moves around.
It often strikes me that a long-running crime series set in a certain place can be a historical documentation of the changing nature of the setting as the story itself.
That’s certainly true. I think that’s very much true of Rankin and Edinburgh. I think Rankin is very conscious of his locale but for me Sydney is a little more subliminal in the Hardy books. Another one is Connelly and Bosch with Los Angeles. Those books really chart LA socially and physically. I don’t consciously do that about Sydney, but I could be lying to you about that! I’ve never gotten any payola from a publican or restaurant manager for including their establishment in my books but a few have thanked me. Although, Gleebooks (a famous Sydney bookshop) once gave me a brand new UBD street directory, because Hardy used to go in all the time and they told me I had to update my streetscape. So that’s the only payola I’ve ever had.
Do you read much Australian crime fiction yourself?
I don’t read a lot of crime fiction at all. I read historical novels, don’t know why I veer away from crime. I read the Scandinavian crime novels. Jean is passionate about them. I read the recent Rankin just to see what it was like. I would read a new Bosch. Peter Temple, I thought The Broken Shore was terrific, but wasn’t so fussed with Truth. I read a bit of true crime and wrote one not long ago.
Up until recently, you were the only writer flying the flag for crime fiction in Sydney. Everything seemed to come out of Melbourne.
Funny how it works. When I started, Melbourne didn’t seem the place to set a crime novel. It was more a place for espionage and political intrigue. But that all changed with shotgun blasts from Carlton to Brunswick and the gang wars.
There are a few more series based in Sydney now. I interviewed Lenny Bartulin recently, who sets his books in Sydney. He has a character called Jack Sisko, and Lenny, despite being from Tasmania, said that Sydney was an almost perfect place to set a crime novel, and that he almost wrote the first book with his feet, by walking around the place.
I have seen his work, and he continues a great tradition of crime writers who set their books in places other than that which they were born. Simenon was born in Belgium and wrote about Paris. Chandler was from Chicago and wrote about LA. Hammett was born in Baltimore and wrote about San Francisco.
Why do you think that is? Are they seeing a new place with fresh eyes?
I think that’s it exactly. It sounds a bit glib but I can’t think of a better reason why it happens so often. I’ve got no desire to set a book in Melbourne. I’ve got a book coming out soon called Standing In The Shadows. This is from Arcadia, I’ve published two historical novels with them that haven’t made any great splash. But this one is three novellas that trawl through the sexual underbelly of Sydney from the 1940s to the 90s.
That’s covering a lot of ground, Peter.
Yes. The first one is about a homosexual wrestler who is working in the years after the Second World War, and all the sorts of things he gets up to. The second one is about a transvestite draft dodger, set in Sydney in the late 60s. And the third one is about a lesbian literary agent in the 1990s (laughs).
That’s not going to be cutting too close to the bone is it?
No, it’s not, there’s a bit of transposition perhaps…but to the extent that any of these people are in Melbourne, they move from Melbourne as fast as they can. So watch out for that one.
So, tell me, Peter, if a filmmaker contacted you and said, ‘We want to do a Cliff Hardy movie,’ who would play him? If you got to choose?
Well, it’s funny. Over the years various people have been proposed. When it came close, at one time… do you remember Phoenix, the show on the ABC?
Remember Simon Westaway as Peter Faithful, big dark guy, who had been an ex-cop. Really good actor. He would have been a very good Hardy. Hardy is a big, dark guy, bit of a hooked nose, hard look to him, but funny. So I would have been very happy with that, but we never got to casting. And there was a weird time that seemed to get close, when Paul Hogan was in the mix. And I thought, well, if you were going to go funny and quirky, well, not my first choice but I wouldn’t have set my mind against it if the money was right.
I had not imagined Paul Hogan.
But you can, in a way, can’t you? But that didn’t go. But, if I had a choice, Russell, Russell Crowe. Right age, looks right, looking a bit knocked about, bloody good actor, and all he needs to do is just look… doesn’t need to say very much.
We can excuse the fact he was born in New Zealand?
Well, yes, and the fact he’s interested in rugby league, which I despise. And he’s probably a bit of a shit, but great on screen. I saw him in 3:10 to Yuma, have you seen it?
Yes, the western based on an Elmore Leonard short story.
That’s right, and there was an earlier movie as well. And there’s a point in the movie where they’re camped out, there’s a young kid, it’s dark, there’s a campfire and so on. And the kid says, “I don’t think you’re as bad as you’re made out to be.” And Crowe just looks at him, and his presence fills the screen, and all he says is, “Yes I am.” And you believe it. That’s an actor. What does he command for a film now? Is it twenty million?
He owns a football team. It could be anything.
He was thinking of selling it, wasn’t he? Anyway, maybe it’s fifteen million. Well, if not Russell… Mel’s a bit short, but he’s about the right age and looks a bit knackered. If they had short women, shot from an angle, Mel might work.
If Tom Cruise can be cast as Jack Reacher, Mel might be OK for Cliff.
I’ve read a few of the Reachers, some of them were very good. I didn’t see the film, can’t bring myself to think of Cruise as Reacher. Mind you, I think Cruise is a good actor. Have you seen Collateral? Great movie, he pulls it off brilliantly, almost playing against type as this cold assassin. He can’t help being five foot five. Rain Man, he was fantastic in that too. I mean he’s a pompous prick with the… what’s that whacko religion…?
Fucking whacko religions.
Another really good actor but in a whacko cult (laughs). Great as Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, that was one of the few Elmore Leonard books they managed to make a good movie out of, at least the crime novels. His westerns were better on screen, Hombre is one of my favourite films of all time but the crime novels seem very hit and miss. A lot of it is in the dialogue, that idiosyncratic dialogue that he does so bloody well and filmmakers seem to struggle to translate that to screen.
Get Shorty got that right, and so did Out Of Sight.
Haven’t seen that one.
George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, and Jennifer Lopez.
So you’re a movie man?
I am a movie man.
So am I. Very much, although my wife now has to conduct me into the cinema and place me down in the seat because in a dark theatre, I haven’t got the faintest fucking idea where I am. As soon as the screen’s lit and I’m close enough to see it and I’ve got my hearing aids in, I’m fine. I even saw The Great Gatsby the other day and I thought it was pretty good. I think Baz Luhrman should have been taken out and shot after doing Moulin Rouge and Australia, but this was not bad at all, and Strictly Ballroom was fabulous.
So we already know that you can’t go many days without writing…
Absolutely not, a week is hell!
So how do you structure your writing day?
I get up in the morning and listen to Fran Kelly on breakfast radio till about nine o’clock. I piss around for a while, not doing too much, then I turn on Michael Cathcart Books and Arts and if it’s about ballet or opera I turn it off and if it’s about theatre or film or writing I might listen. Then about ten thirty, I pour a big glass of wine, a bloody sight bigger than this (pointing to the glass of wine in front of him), then I’ll go in and write for an hour, always knowing from the previous day’s session where I’m going to start. Gets me to about twelve, listen to the midday news, have a sleep from one till two.
Very 71 years old of me. Then I’ll go for a walk, do some shopping, piss around, on some days do my AFL tips, fill in the time. And then I work again from five till six, another glass of wine. Occasionally, I might cook once or twice a week, watch a film at night and then read. Read, read, read. That’s a day. We’ve got grandchildren who come around and I’ll play with them, I’ve got some weights, a golf putting machine, I’ll play with those with the grandkids, bit of cricket in the back yard. That’s a day; bit of writing, family, reading, drinking. It’s a good life, I’m very lucky.
So if you had one piece of advice for a budding writer, if they came to you and said, Peter, I don’t know how to get started, not sure what to do to get published, what would you tell them?
Those are two different things. One is how to get published and one is how to write, which are we talking about?
Can you do both?
Both? OK, imitate the manner, the style and the form of the writer you most admire but using your own imagination and material. See if that works. As for getting published – Jesus, that’s hard now. You have to get an agent. And that’s not easy, not a lot of agents are taking on new talent. My agent, Gabby Naylor, who is terrific, isn’t taking on anyone new unless something comes her way that absolutely twists her knickers and that doesn’t really happen very much.
My suggestion would be to try and break into it some other way; through journalism, maybe getting profiles published, short stories, maybe something online, something like that, to build up a bit of a CV and then hope you can attract the attention of an agent. I mean, I was so lucky, it was much easier back in the late 1970s because that wave of interest in Australian writing was just starting to build and the few agents that were around were just getting going and were eager to take people on and work like fucking knaves to promote us. And that was good because like a lot of writers I was bored shitless by contracts and money and royalties and the like. Just tell me where to sign and I’ll write the book.
Yes, Silent Kill comes out in January (2014), that’s number 39 and they’re planning to make a fuss about number 40.
As they should.
Well, you know, it makes some sense. Now, I’ve written another one, but it’s a retrospective, set back in the 80s, and I’m pretty sure they don’t want a retrospective for number 40, they want a contemporary one, so that’s what I’m writing now. And it can’t come out till 2015 so the trick is to try and anticipate some of the things that might happen between now and then. The retrospective is called That Empty Feeling. I’ll leave that for when I’m dead and Jean can publish it posthumously and make some money.
Did you imagine back in 1980 when The Dying Trade was published that you’d hit 40 Cliff Hardy books?
Oh, shit no. I just did it as something to try and see if I could get a novel published before I was forty. And I made it by two years. And I’ve been blessed ever since, except I’m an atheist and atheists can’t be blessed.
With great thanks to Andrew Nette and Andrew Prentice. The complete interview can be found at Pulpcurry.com