Garry Disher's fiction by category
Garry Disher’s Fiction by Category
Steal Away is structured as a series of fragments and deals with a man in midlife crisis trying to make sense of his present through memories of his childhood and adolescence.
The Stencil Man stems from research I did for an Australian History textbook, in which I uncovered letters from Germans and Italians who had been interned as a security risk in World War 2. This happens to the main character, Martin Linke, who is politically naïve, anxious and bewildered. He makes stencils of his German past to send to his children, who are being minded by his sister-in-law. Afraid that his hated ex-wife will take them from him, knocked back when he appeals to the tribunal for release, and worried about bullying from pro-Nazi elements inside the internment camp, he escapes…
The Sunken Road is my most ambitious novel, and one I’m proudest of. It was nominated for the Booker Prize by my English publisher, and received rave reviews, but apart from a couple of shortlistings, sank without trace in Australia. It’s my belief that it wasn’t “read” properly, that it was assumed that a crime and children’s writer couldn’t write a “literary” novel.
It’s structured as many fragments, each one telling the life story, but from a different angle each time (the titles include School, Water, Dogs, Dirt), of the main female character, and is set in the small-farm, small-town region of South Australia where I grew up. Details accumulate through this repetition, and secrets rise to the surface. In this sense, it’s ultimately linear in structure, but I was trying, in the telling, to suggest that real life and memories do not run in a straight line but are subject to chance, luck and meanderings.
Past the Headlands came from the same World War 2 research as The Stencil Man. I was struck by the power of two documents. The first was a letter written by a woman alone on a cattle station near Broome in 1942, at the time the Japanese were overrunning Malaya and Singapore and bombing areas of northern Australia. One day she found herself giving shelter to Dutch colonial officers and their families, who were fleeing Sumatra and Java ahead of the Japanese advance (many people like them lost their lives when Japanese planes shot up their waiting seaplanes in Broome Harbour in March, 1942). This woman stuck in my head (the isolation, the danger, the efforts to communicate, her bravery, etc).
The second document was a war diary written by an Australian army surgeon who escaped Singapore ahead of the Japanese and was stuck in Sumatra, trying to get out. Here he treated many of the civilians (and Australian Army deserters) fleeing from Singapore. He was captured by the Japanese, but survived the war. But his last few diary entries detail how he and a mate were waiting for a plane or a ship to take them out, then one day he wrote, “Davis [his mate] left last night without telling me”. So much for mateship.
I spent years trying to find my way into their stories. At one stage I spent a year writing 40,000 words before realising it wouldn’t work. I put it aside, then realised one subplot didn’t belong, so extracted it and turned it into a separate novel The Divine Wind, which has sold 100,000 copies around the world, won a major award and been published as both a young adult and a general market novel.
But cutting it out like that freed me up to write about the woman and the man betrayed by his mate, in Past the Headlands.
Play Abandoned is a black comedy set in a beachside hotel.
Her, about a young child sold to a wandering tinker and his wife in the backblocks of Victoria before the First World War, is more lyrical in style, despite the uncomfortable nature of the material. Like The Divine Wind and Past the Headlands, it draws on material I found while doing research for the various history textbooks early in my writing career. I made several attempts to begin the novel over many years, waiting until the main character walked and talked and was fully formed in my head.
The Wyatt Novels
I freely admit that the idea for Wyatt owes a lot to Richard Stark’s character, Parker, in a series of novels in the 1960s (and a late burst in recent years). But only the idea: Wyatt evolved as my character, and the plots, structures and characterisations are not borrowed but entirely my own.
Wyatt is a professional hold-up man: banks, payroll vans, jewel heists, etc. We don’t learn much about him and that is part of his appeal. He’s cool, all business, with not much of an emotional life, doesn’t suffer fools gladly (but is sometimes forced to rely on them), and although not a thrill killer will kill those who cross him. He has certain standards: no drugs, for example, no unnecessary violence. Readers say “I don’t approve of Wyatt but I want him to win”, which is exactly my intention.
After a hiatus, I’ve brought him back in Wyatt (2010) and The Heat (2015) from my Australian publisher, Text, American publisher SoHo and German publisher, Pulp Master. On a recent tour of the USA, I met dozens of hard-core Wyatt fans, who brought me their old Australian editions for signature.
The Wyatts are hugely popular in Germany.
The Challis and Destry Novels
These are police procedurals cum whodunits, defined by:
1. A distinct setting (the Mornington Peninsula, southeast of Melbourne, Australia), a region of small coastal towns, a pretty landscape, some light industry, boutique vineyards and tourism, with an interesting social mix of the very rich and the very poor, some ungoverned coastal development and new housing estates that are under serviced by public transport, schools, welfare support, police numbers, etc. I am as interested in the sociology of the region as the landscape, and the prevailing tensions are terrific background for a crime novelist.
2. A major character (Inspector Challis) but an ensemble cast of other characters, detectives, young beat/patrol car uniformed cops, etc etc. In fact, Sergeant Ellen Destry has become more interesting to me as the series progressed, and in the award-winning Chain of Evidence she is the main character, and in future novels will be in charge of the sex crimes unit.
3. A major crime (usually a murder – but what interests me is the why, not the who or how – i.e., murder as the fallout of something more interesting), together with minor/local crimes (I love reading the local paper for stories of ride-on mower thefts, the arrests of hoons performing burnouts in quiet streets, the arrest of a man urinating on his ex-wife’s front door, etc)
4. The public and private lives of the main characters (a marriage on the rocks and workplace bullying alongside the step-by-step stages of police work, for example).
There are several novels in the series.
Standalone Crime Novels
It's important for writers to push at their boundaries and not get stuck in the rut of series-character novels. The highly-praised (winner of my third German Crime Fiction Award) Bitter Wash Road is set in the South Australian mid-north of my childhood and deals with a disgraced young city detective demoted to uniform and sent to a little one-officer police station in the bush, where he feels like a fish out of water and realises that the local police are feared and loathed. Under the Cold Bright Lights is set in Melbourne and features a burnt-out cold case detective trying to juggle his confused personal circumstances with three old suspicious deaths while giving shelter and aid to a woman and child who have escaped a violent, controlling husband and father.
Children’s and Young Adult Fiction
Rather than discuss all, I’ll say that my characters are often on the margins for some reason – they don’t quite fit in. This is not to say they’re misfits or loner heroes. Paul lives on a farm in The Bamboo Flute and yearns to be part of the town kids’ world. Hartley Penrose in The Divine Wind has suffered an injury and can’t take an active part in the war effort. The narrator of From Your Friend, Louis Deane has newly come with his family from the city to a small coastal town and hates it. The children in Ratface belong to a religious cult and slowly realise things aren’t right in it. The children in Ermyntrude Takes Charge belong to a musical family. In Eva’s Angel, two Australian art students find themselves in unsettling circumstances in Italy.
I suppose in all my fiction I like to explore characters under strain.
My interest in Australia’s recent past is revealed in The Bamboo Flute, The Apostle Bird (both the Great Depression of the 1930s) and The Divine Wind (World War 2).
The illustrated novellas Blame the Wind and The Half Dead, and the short story collection Restless, are driven by elements of the horror and ghost story genres. Two-Way Cut is a straight out crime/chase novel. There are some crime and mystery/suspense elements in the novels Ratface, Walk Twenty, Run Twenty, The Apostle Bird, Moondyne Kate, Maddie Finn and Eva’s Angel.
After completing a Masters in Australian History at Monash University, I was commissioned to write four Australian History textbooks for schools. This brought in a useful income while I was still trying to establish myself as a fiction writer.
I taught creative writing in the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne, and later in a professional writing certificate course at Holmesglen Technical and Further Education (TAFE) College (in fact, I helped to design the original course for the Victorian TAFE system). My creative writing handbooks grew out of my teaching and writing experiences. The latest (Allen & Unwin, not Penguin) edition of Writing Fiction is the best of the three editions, and one of the best in Australia. It’s a practical, reflective book, not designed for teachers and students who take a theoretical or analytical approach to writing fiction.