Thoughts on Big Red Rock appeared yesterday - here.
13-Point Plan For a Perfect Murder - last year - here.
Is the writing full time? If not, what’s the day job? Can you give us a quick biography of yourself?
Official Secretary to the Governor of Tasmania. It is a rare line of work. Greatly appreciated, intense focus required, long hours (well over 50 weekly) hence the writing is as and when.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
When you have an idea and you sit down to construct your story – do you know what the end result is roughly going to look like? Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go along?
6 to 9 months working on the plot and what derives from that – characters, settings, structure. This will become 10,000+ words of planning, none of which transfers to the ms. So when it comes time to write the book, all is known, leaving me creatively free to concentrate on the writing style, which in the Pufferfish series is at least as important as any other element. Readers like the dry humour, the strong descriptive location identities, plenty of character-driven dialogue and Pufferfish’s idiosyncratic take on our psychological complexities. The storylines serve that – the books are not so much about their plots as about what their plots reveal about us. In an exclusive Tasmanian setting, eh. (Come on down, there are only 500,000 of us enjoying the world’s 26th largest island.)
Are there any subjects off limits?
Buying into crime fiction means buying into awfulness, which means no limits.
But having made that observation, I do not like writing about or describing violence or depravity. Those are kept to a plausible minimum.
I’m just embarking on Big Red Rock your latest Pufferfish mystery and the ninth in the series, how long from conception to completion did it take? Was it a smooth process or were there many bumps in the road along the way? (Now finished and enjoyed!)
Planning, as stated above (plus repeat location visits to Uluru, and to Brisbane, Melbourne). I began writing Big Red Rock on Monday 12 December 2016 and completed it on Wednesday 19 July 2017. By contrast the writing of 13-Point Plan for a Perfect Murder (2016) took 28 days over the Christmas period of 2015 – I had 5 weeks’ leave and wrote like buggery! Hit the wall halfway through and had to take a day off, though.
I’m curious regarding Pufferfish. There were four books released in the mid to late 90s then nothing until the late noughties – did your muse desert you while Franz was on a sabbatical, or were you busy with other things?
The publisher of the first four was taken over by a much bigger publisher (Random House) which wanted nothing to do with Pufferfish. And my then Sydney literary agent couldn’t secure another publisher. So that seemed to be that, goodbye Franz. I then spent ten years researching and writing a 3-book natural history series (Thylacine; Tasmanian Devil; Shark, published by Allen & Unwin) after which Tasmanian publisher Forty Degrees South suggested testing the waters with a new Pufferfish. I did two with them, then moved to Fullers Publishing, also Hobart-based. Fullers is doing a terrific job re-establishing the series and I’m enormously grateful for that to owner Clive Tilsley, his crew and designer Julie Hawkins.
Is there one of your books you are more proud of than the others? Which would you press into the hands of a new reader?
Can’t really compare literary fiction, police procedurals and natural history.
Bitters End (Picador, 1993) is a tragic outback love story, a novel with an absolutely threadbare storyline. But it is all about mortality and it was turned into a $2.5 million feature film. My author’s cheque from that enabled me to probably push out a few more Pufferfish novels rather than get a real job.
What’s been the most satisfying moment of your writing career so far?
In 1987, an unpublished writer newly arrived in Melbourne, I received a telegram (surely one of the last ever) informing me that my London agent had found a publisher for me, Bloomsbury. It was thrilling. Bloomsbury published two novellas I had written when I was living in South Africa. I had written them in Cape Town when I was about 23 years old and trying to cope with making fiction out of the cruelty of Apartheid.
Is there any scope for a Pufferfish prequel and a look at the early troubles of Franz Heineken in Europe?
There continues to be interest expressed in a TV series; should that eventuate, his Rotterdam roots and reasons for being in Australia will come into play for sure.
Any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
Heaps. But having all been rejected, ‘gems’ is open to question.
What’s the current project in progress?
Researching and writing the first history of Government House Tasmania, which is a mid-19th century Victorian Gothic mansion on 37 hectares at the entrance to Hobart city. Anthony Trollope called it the finest Vice-Regal residence outside Britain.
What’s the best thing about writing?
It’s never boring.
Once I got over writer’s block (by getting stuck into the two novellas mentioned above) there hasn’t really been a worst. Bad reviews, for instance, are just something to live with … Swear and move on …
Lots. Non-mainstream crime fiction authors in the past few years include Denzil Meyrick, Jacob Ross, Leigh Redhead, Craig Johnson, John Burdett. But also some recent mainstream fiction: Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train. Michelle de Kretser, The Life to Come. And Beowulf (The 1957 Penguin translation, if you don’t mind.)
Just started Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J Ellis, and in the queue, The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography by Edmund Gordon, and Busted: The Inside Story of the World’s Biggest Ecstasy Haul and How the Australian Calabrian Mafia Nearly Got Away with It by Keith Moor (which I found at Tasmanian east coast Sunday market for $3, pic attached to prove).
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
That is a question for the late Jose Luis Borges, for whom I think the universe past, present and future is a single book. Something like that …
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
Cooking is a pleasurable and practical way to end the work day.
What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
Birdman. It was the first time I had been in a cinema for many years (and not since). I wanted to see on a big screen how it appears to be shot in a single take.
TV addict or not? What’s the must watch show in the Owen household?
I hardly ever watch TV. Some test cricket, ditto rugby union.-------------------------------------------------------
Many thanks to David for his time.
Feel free to check out any of his Pufferfish novels - I'm fairly sure you'll be thanking me later!
Full series is
Pig's Head (1994)
A Second Hand (1995)
X and Y (1995)
The Devil Taker (1997)
No Weather For a Burial (2009)
How the Dead See (2011)
13-Point Plan For a Perfect Murder (2016)
Romeo's Gun (2016)
Big Red Rock (2017)