Thursday, April 15, 2021

Historical injustices and homemade knives: an interview with David Whish-Wilson

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the latest instalment of our 9mm interview series, which is running weekly in 2021. This author interview series has now been running for over a decade, on and off, and today marks the 227th overall edition. 

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Western Australian author David Whish-Wilson to Crime Watch. I had the pleasure of meeting David when he passed through London a couple of years ago (oh for the days of travel and hanging out with people), and along with being a terrific storyteller he's also a good bloke. David's led a well-travelled life, though he's called Western Australia home for a long time. 

The author of the highly acclaimed Frank Swann series set in 1970s-1980s Western Australia, David was raised in Singapore, Victoria, and Western Australia. As a young man he headed abroad on his 'big OE' (as we call it Downunder), and lived and travelled throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, working as as a "barman, actor, streetseller, labourer, exterminator, factory worker, gardener, clerk, travel agent, teacher and drug trial guinea pig". It was during those travels he began publishing short stories. 

David's novels and short stories have been shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award, Vogel/Australian Literary Award, and WA Premier's Book Awards. His crime novels have real depth of character, setting, and societal issues to go along with the thrilling plotlines. As I say of his crime debut LINE OF SIGHT (the first Frank Swann novel) in SOUTHERN CROSS CRIME

"Whish-Wilson creates a bleak yet compelling portrait of a time and place where crime and graft are rife, and even the honourable are tainted. Atmospheric and stylish noir more than police procedural, LINE OF SIGHT doesn’t provide pat solutions."

David, who lives in Fremantle, also began the first prison writing programme in Fiji and has taught writing in the prison system in both Fiji and Western Australia. His latest novel is SHORE LEAVE, the fourth Frank Swann tale, and he also teaches creative writing at Curtin University. 

But for now, David Whish-Wilson becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm. 


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
That's a deceptively tricky question, in that most of my favourite crime novels have been standalones by writers such as Megan Abbott, Peter Temple, James Ellroy et al. I guess my favourite crime protagonist is an anti-hero, namely Parker of the Richard Stark novels. While I've always had a soft spot for Dave Robicheaux as a detective character, and a few others, on fellow-Aussie crime writer Andrew Nette's recommendation I read the Parker novels quickly and then re-read them soon after. 

I like his character's hungry animal instincts and strong moral code, plus his absolute focus on the job at hand. I've always been a sucker for a heist movie, and despite the similar plotlines of the Parker novels there's always enough dramatic tension drawn out by emphasizing something that all good crime fiction does, I think, and that is looking at people in extreme situations - there isn't much more extreme than the high stakes game of pulling off a big score and then surviving the inevitable aftermath.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
When I was about six or seven my mother gave me a copy of the Illustrated History of Australian Bushrangers. It was gruesome and illuminating, and I thrilled to the tales of the wild men and women who lived outside the harsh colonial law, and who more often than not suffered the consequences for it. It was great, too, to read something set mostly in the kind of outback terrain that I then inhabited with my friends after school, on the outskirts of our remote Pilbara mining town. We didn't play 'cowboys and Indians' but more 'trapper and bushranger', alive to the injustices of the period and playing them out in hunt and chase narratives that took place in dried gullies and high gorges. 

It didn't surprise me at all to later learn that a high percentage of the first films made in Australia were bushranger films, although they were banned in some jurisdictions because of the mocking of authorities and behaviour of the crowds. As kids, we loved all of that stuff, especially the deification of the rebel character, which I guess justified our bad behaviour at school, although we were sadly blind, as per the period, of the 'true history' of the places we newly colonised, where real rather than imaginary crimes had taken place in clearing the area of its Aboriginal inhabitants.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I was lucky enough to be mentored by the writer Bruce Pascoe when I was just starting out. I was working as a labourer in Wellington, New Zealand, and then a bartender in Tokyo, posting my stories in by snail mail and almost disbelievingly finding them published in the journal Australian Short Stories. At that stage I wasn't taking writing seriously, and didn't know any other writers, and it was Bruce who metaphorically gave me a kick in the arse and suggested I do exactly that - take writing seriously. 

There followed a couple of shortlistings for the Vogel Australian Award for an unpublished young writer, and later (in 2006) the publication of my first novel, set in Berlin in 1933 - THE SUMMONS. My first crime novel, LINE OF SIGHT, followed a few years later and was started in Suva, Fiji, where I worked as a creative writing lecturer for a couple of years. 

4. Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I am by nature a lazy person. I enjoy doing very little. I enjoy having a drink with friends, snorkelling with my family on the local reefs, cooking, or because despite being lazy I'm also a compulsive maker - I like making practical (ie chef's) knives in my backyard, campfire forge, which is a bit like writing a novel because its time-consuming and wearying in a pleasant way. Every now and then I get itchy feet and then I like a good long 6-8 hour country drive - that's the Western Australian in me coming out - heading out into the desert with my kids to camp where there are no other people.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I would suggest, respectfully, that Perth and Fremantle are places that often conceal their most interesting aspects behind either a beguiling surface charm, or a layer of unpromising material. To that end, I'd greatly suggest either pre-loading by reading the local historians and crime writers before arrival, or heading directly to one of our terrific indie bookshops, to get the best recommendations. I'd also encourage people to find out where there are Noongar tours of country that will, from my experience, deepen your understanding of this place, and why it feels like it does.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I worked as a casual actor and extra in Bollywood, and in Kenya. While there are few places more dull than a movie set (although Bollywood was pretty lively - on one move, Karma, they blew up a gigantic timber palisade with real gelignite without telling us what was going to happen, and the shock wave bowled us all over), over the years I have developed a deep admiration for the craft of acting. Because the thought of doing it terrifies me, I'd probably want to act as myself (my god that would be a boring movie.) Or, if you're asking my ego - Brian Brown circa the 1970s?
7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or a bit special to you for some particular reason, and why?
I think it would have to be LINE OF SIGHT, because there was so much at stake. Because the novel described the real-life murder by WA detectives of a friend of mine's mother (the 'brothel-Madam' Shirley Finn), and because there had always been an enforced silence around the murder, the research journey that involved interviewing dozens of citizens, ex-cops, and prostitutes from the period was extremely cagey. Around the time the book came out I started getting threats, which escalated for a while to the point that it was clear that some people key to the story were considering violent payback, or worse. At the time I was kind of in denial, my stubborn streak was aroused, but in retrospect, I took a serious gamble in writing that book. While for the crime reader it's probably just another novel, and despite the fact that I just need to think about it (as I'm doing now) to get the chills, I'm proud that we stuck with it and brought the story out into the light, where it deserves to be.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
I can still see the handwritten message from Bruce Pascoe telling me that he was going to publish my first story. I probably still have it somewhere. Even then, it didn't seem quite real, possibly because I was living in Tokyo and I received my published copy in the mail. I can't remember an actual celebration - in those days I celebrated every night, but I'm sure it was a good one.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
When my first novel was coming out, a caring writer friend of mine gave me a book called MORTIFICATION, detailing all of the bad and humiliating things that have happened to writers at festivals and readings over the years. It's a very funny and cathartic book, that I now press on young writers going out into public for the first time. My first Perth Writer's Festival appearance was a very humbling experience - I sat at the signing desk next to Gregory David Roberts, who'd just released SHANTARAM. He had a line going out the door and round the block, while I sold a single copy of my novel (to a friend). Despite this, I remember thinking, Ba, I've read MORTIFICATION, it's not as bad as when XXXX fell off the stage drunk at a reading into rows of empty seats, or when YYYY....

Thank you David. We appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

You can find out more about David and his writing here, and follow him on Twitter. 

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