author post: david rollins

David Rollins a Sydney-based ex-journo, ex-advertising, now-pilot and now-author with a stack of thrilling novels up his sleeve and more to come. After his Special Agent Vin Cooper books, including the pulse-stopping Standoff, he’s now tackling the historical thriller with Field of Mars, tracing a lost legion in Ancient Rome. As a renowned nosey parker, I asked him to write about how he works.

 

I often get asked what my writing process is. The fact is, writing a novel is a pretty romantic notion for a lot of people. But is it? Most people envisage that they’ll be sitting in their study, soothing music playing, and otherwise undisturbed while the creative juices flow. Hmm…my reality is that I write at a desk in my bedroom, facing a brick wall. I used to listen to music, but for some reason I don’t any more. I used to do that so I could block out the real world and concentrate instead on the world playing out behind my eyes. I don’t need to do that anymore. I can hold reality at bay at will. I write sitting in departure lounges, or on planes, or in the back of taxis. I can write anywhere. Sometimes I have to because there’s not enough time for that desk in my bedroom.

For years I wrote 2000 words a day and I was religious about it. Sometimes that writing would start at 6 am and finish at 8 or 9 pm – whenever that 2000 words was on the hard drive. Some days I could peel off 2000 words a few hours. Sometimes the words come fast, and sometimes you have to lever them out with a crowbar. These days, there’s so much else I have to do that I’m happy if I just advance the story. Even a couple of hundred words, if that’s all I can manage.

When I’m in the middle of a manuscript, I go over and over the dialogue in my head until it sounds about right. Sounds cool, right? But often this happens at 4 in the morning when I’m trying to sleep. Or when I’m trying to exercise. Or when I’m watching my daughter play soccer. Or driving. Or at a restaurant with friends. In fact, sometimes I wish the voices in my head would just fuck off and leave me in peace. My wife will often say, “Hey, where are you?” because I won’t be in the here and now, I’ll be in someone else’s skin, in some other place, and, recently, in some other time. It’s relentless.

I also don’t always know exactly where the story will go, though I’m reasonably clear on where it will end up. I write a kind of an outline and this includes several key scenes I can see clearly. The outline is important – if it works, I know the book will work. This is my “spine” or “railway tracks” – I’ve heard a number of writers call this different things, but it’s all the same. If I don’t have something like this – even a paragraph – I know I might lose the plot.

You want to know one of my most favourite sounds? It’s the clatter of fingers on the keyboard of a computer. What a beautiful sound – all those words and thoughts being created. It’s like a rush of new life.

Is writing a novel romantic? Maybe it is, I don’t know. What I do know is that no one else will write it for me. If the words get written that’s me. If the words don’t get written that’s also me. So instead of going to the pub, I write. Instead of going to watch a game of rugby, I write. I’ve missed quite a lot over the years. And maybe lost a friend or two also. But in their place I now have 10 novels and each one has been its own adventure. I went to Siberia to research THE ZERO OPTION. And the Thai-Burma border for A KNIFE EDGE. For STANDOFF, I went to Colombia, Panama and Texas and hung out with The Texas Rangers and watched drug couriers come across the Rio Grande at night. I’ve also met some great people, though admittedly some of these have been conjured in my own brain.

And when you write the novel, you live with these people in your thoughts for the duration. That’s not always a good thing, believe me, because a novel has to be convincing. If you can’t convince yourself that the characters and the situation (or plot) is real, you can forget about convincing your readers. So when I’m deep in the story, the lines of what’s real and what’s in my imagination can get a little blurry. My family is used to it now, but the outcome is that I’m thought of (I believe) as being either vague and dreamy. There’s no room left in my head for names or faces or places that aren’t in my current book. It’s weird, I guess, but that’s how it rolls for me.

international review: cecilia ekback, wolf winter

Swedish Lapland, June 1717 (note, I virtually never read things set in the past): Finns Maija and Paavo take their children Frederika and Dorotea to Sweden, away from the fear that has beaten Paavo into a shadow of the man he once was. They settle in Lapland, beside the mountain Blackåsen, ill-equipped for living in an isolated and storm-racked area, and have been there only a short time when the two girls take their goats for a walk and stumble upon the body of a man. Wolves, or a bear, Maija tells them. But she knows it is not true. And so their new home becomes not one of hope, but one of fear renewed, atmospheric tension and a landscape as brutal to your home and body as it can be enchanting in a painting.

Maija is a female protagonist so organically heroic it seems not at all out of place in these long past times; things need to get done, and Maija is the one to do them in this land of endless days that in winter turn into eternal nights, and men too trapped by their land, their anxiety and their stoic manner to do anything but shake their heads at a torn-up body in a glade. And so she is the believable midwife turned farmer turned 1700s-era forensic investigator when no one else bothered to try. As those around her say, the mountain is bad, but is it the people on it who are bad, or is it the land itself? The sorcery trials of the past still have their grip on everyone’s lives, but the question is whether Maija’s staunch faith in reality and God is the way, or if it is blocking her ability to see the truth. It doesn’t pass my informal wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if-there-was-never-sexual-assault-in-crime-books test, but I was up until 3am reading this haunting thriller (partly for deadline reasons and partly using deadline reasons as an excuse to tear through it in a terrified way), and by then it was as dark as the book itself. My advice: read it in the sun.

sulari gentill, a murder unmentioned

There is something so completely delicious about Rowland Sinclair and his louche band of comrades, the rapscallion Australian heroes of Sulari Gentill’s 1930s-set series. I could eat them all up with a silver spoon: flamboyant poet Milton Isaacs, loyal landscape painter Clyde Watson Jones, frequently nude sculptress Edna Higgins, and Rowland Sinclair himself, rich, connected, tough, determined, and honourable in a political sense, if not always within the confines of early twentieth century upper-class society. They are as merry to join as your most entertaining group of friends, though (I assume) get imprisoned and accused of murder at a higher rate.

In this, Rowland’s sixth mystery, a secretive family subject is brought to light after the gun used in his father’s death some thirteen years earlier was found in a drained dam at the family’s country homestead in Yass. His friends had all been led to believe that the late Henry Sinclair had died in a much more respectable and quiet way, and Rowland’s own family has been disinclined to discuss the issue until now, when it seems apparent that the finger of blame is now pointing squarely at our hero himself. So Rowland and all his friends avail themselves of now-classic cars and now-frightening airplanes to arrive in New South Wales’ Southern Tablelands, clear Rowly’s name, and do their darnedest to offend everyone’s sensibilities, make Rowly’s stuffed-shirt brother Wilfred shout about respectability and save the day.

With cameo appearances from historical figures even I recognised—Bob Menzies in the Sinclair kitchen, Edna Walling in the garden, and Kate Leigh grinning lasciviously at Rowly in a jailhouse crowd—and a real sense of fun to the book alongside some quite genuine tension, this is historical crime for those in the know and those—like me—who can barely remember what happened last weekend, let alone what the proper etiquette and outfit would be for a spot of post-murder supper. My one criticism would be that there is an inappropriately randy character with the exact same name as my father (who admittedly would have been four years old at the time), but as long as you are not me or my sisters, you could probably overlook that rather alarming moment without thinking anxiously about calling your father with a stern tone.

 

A Murder Unmentioned is a November release. And you should buy it.

review: kerry greenwood, murder and mendelssohn

Phryne Fisher is luxuriating about her home when she is called into action by her favourite policeman, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson: an orchestral conductor has been killed, a musical score stuffed down his throat. It’s a touch dramatic, and Phryne is on board to find out what happened, and, well, if she must join the youthful, volatile and attractive choir, then so be it. During all this, a beloved old friend from the war appears in town, shadowing a ridiculously handsome and emotionally deficient mathematician with whom he is hopelessly besotted—and who is in grave peril. In all, it is exactly the kind of mess Phryne lives to tangle herself in.

A few times in my life I have had the pleasure of going to a fancy restaurant for a degustation. Hours are spent poring over the tiniest of dishes, all of which are immaculate in creation and decadent on the tongue. No expense is spared and the waitpeople will refill anything, even the bread basket, and treat you like you are royalty and not some bogan from the suburbs who is unused to thirteen courses, instead more often indulging in two (a bowl of spaghetti accompanied by only the tappiest of water.)

Reading Phryne Fisher is like a degustation menu at Melbourne’s fanciest restaurant. Everything is luxurious, delicious, and sensual. Immersing yourself in Miss Fisher’s world, full of espionage, choristers, murder, expensive wines, and lovers, is a true delight. It’s been a while since I last read a Miss Fisher book, but now I remember exactly why I loved the last one. Sure, people are murdered and Melbourne in 1929 was just as unpleasant and occasionally scungy as you imagine, but while you have Phryne swanning about the place in silk undergarments, knowing all the right people, concocting the most outrageous of plans and kicking bad guys square in the nuts, it’s difficult not to fall completely under her spell. It is not without fault—sometimes the book lingers on uninteresting moments, and I did get a little tired of Phryne’s virtually supernatural flawlessness in both looks and talent in far too many fields, and having to hear about her beauty from everyone every second page (yes yes, she’s super hot and smells divine, we get it)—but I derived far too much pleasure from reading this to be truly concerned. Such fun.

review: sulari gentill, gentlemen formerly dressed

While I am a month behind on reviewing this here, know that I have been verbally reviewing this to anyone who has come within a five-metre radius of me at work who has requested my opinion. (In previous bookstores, offering advice about what to read was how I spent the majority of my time; at my current job, it seems all the customers are far too independent to want to know what I can offer. It’s like they’ve grown up, and I’m still a mourning parent who wants their kids to ask them for help again. So when someone asks my opinion, I essentially become an attack dog of information.)

This is Gentill’s fifth Rowland Sinclair book, and the first I’ve read. While coming to the series later means I’ve missed some entertaining-sounding past capers that are commented on during the book, nothing that is necessary goes unstated, and if anything, this fabulous book has just made me want to go back and read everything. Rowly, an Australian who has just spent part of 1933 being tortured in Germany, escapes to London, ally to Australia and his ancestral homeland. With his arm still broken from his attack, he gathers all of his considerable wits and money, deposits himself and his bohemian sidekicks in a swish hotel, then decides to use his aristocratic background to gain audience with someone who will listen to his story and heed his warning about Hitler really, seriously not being a great guy. Upon opening the door to his first meeting, said contact is found skewered to his bed with a sword and in a state of dress not generally seen on men of his calibre in public. Such shenanigans embarrass the police sufficiently that they do not feel compelled to spend a large amount of time investigating; thus, Rowland and his cohorts now have two things on their to-do list: warn of impending danger, solve crime. Put this on your list: read this book.

I enjoyed this so immensely that I read parts out to my partner, laughed out loud, did some vocal cheering and always put it down with a smile on my face. It’s not that it’s exclusively light-hearted – fascism and murder isn’t an endlessly pleasant topic – but the characters, from Rowly’s artistically inclined inner circle (from poets to sculptors, and progressive to fuddy-duddy, but all loyal and clever) to those he encounters along the way (from friendly strangers to cameo appearances by such folk as HG Wells), just enliven the book completely. There is a brawl with fascists using some interesting props, and an incident at a train station that caused a fainting epidemic and had me in stitches. There are set pieces and characters I’d love to revisit. As it is, one reading has left me entirely happy for now, and the delight in this book should be shared. Good for young(ish, I mean there is scandal) and old (my grandmother would have been thrilled with all the good manners the roguish Rowly knows, and that he bumps into members of the monarchy), it’s a good present for about everyone you know, including yourself.