interview: alecia simmonds

I was lucky enough to interview Alecia Simmonds for the Readings blog recently – here’s what she had to say about her personal take on true crime, Wild Man.

The scene where you witness Electro-Convulsive Therapy in your efforts to tackle how mental illness is treated is very raw and confronting. Do you think much of the problem with mental illness is that the solutions as well as the problems are hidden from the public eye?

I was really lucky to have a psychiatrist friend who allowed me access to the psychiatric ward for a day, and if it was raw and confronting to read about then imagine my shock upon seeing it! I still remember leaving the hospital feeling winded, shaken, and ultimately confused. As you say, part of the problem here is that the kinds of care I witnessed are hidden from the public eye and so instead we draw upon a rich repertoire of filmic representations – from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Janet Frame’s An Angel at my Table – as a substitute for reality. This blinkers us from very compelling arguments in favour of ECT, including the fact that it has very high rates of success for people suffering depression for whom all other forms of treatment have failed. It also prevents us from questioning why we are horrified at certain forms of mental health treatment, but give our bodies over so complacently to other forms of invasive surgery (notably cosmetic surgery) with more dubious, or simply non-existent, medical foundations. For me the most troubling part of ECT remains the problem of consent, the lack of adequate oversight and our tendency to seek bio-medical rather than social solutions for these problems. The woman I saw being given ECT would eventually have been spat out of hospital, with no step-down accommodation to go to and no vocational support or training, and would probably have ended up back on the streets until she suffered another ice-induced psychotic episode. At the point in time when I witnessed her drug-bloated body twitching to the 60-volt electrical shocks of the ECT machine, she’d already spent years in this cycle. Which goes to the flip-side of your question: these problems are in fact not hidden from the public eye, we just fail to recognise homelessness, or even police shootings, as mental health issues. We see and read about mental health problems everyday, we just call them something else.

While you have a legal background, like many readers, you are an outsider, looking in on this entire experience somewhat unfamiliar with the emotionally heavy coronial inquiry process as opposed to the media-saturated courtrooms of “objection” and angry banging gavels. This brings an immersive clarity into the experience—how did your narrative voice unfold?

It’s true that I have spent a fair portion of my life teaching and researching in law, so I was genuinely stunned to sit in on an Inquest and to find almost all the rules of evidence that go with an adversarial system banished. Rather than the staccato disruptions of a trial, you have the court performing a kind of therapeutic function: the Coroner was an immensely sympathetic man, the witnesses gave long (and, being hippies, at times incoherent and magical) narratives and the father of the man killed by police gave an unfathomably sad eulogy at the end. Given that I was surrounded by narratives, I felt that my task was to recount them in the most humane and empathetic way possible, but also to question these stories, to read them critically, against the grain, and to show why people may tell themselves a particular version of events. My narrative voice unfolded partly from the material I was given and partly from my own preference for writers who put all their doubts on the page, people like Helen Garner who go to dark places and who question their own motivations. Narrative non-fiction is ultimately a conceptually promiscuous genre to write within: everything can be potentially relevant to the story – conversations with friends, dreams, newspaper reports, academic studies and empirical observations. It’s about crediting the reader with the intelligence to form their own conclusions from the panoply of arguments, images and narratives that you give them.

When Evan’s father talks about his love for his son at the inquest, I cried for everyone who had lost him. Was it difficult for you, who spoke to all these people who loved him, to disentangle your emotions from the story?

That’s lovely that you had that reaction and in fact everyone I have spoken to who has read the book also cried in that part. As I said in the book, it was a moment in the Inquest when I was absolutely sobbing. We all were. And yes, it was immensely difficult to disentangle my emotions from the story, which is part of the reason why I didn’t. I instead used my feelings as a source of knowledge. I tried to show how our gut instinct or tears may lead us to conclusions that go against our ideological or academic positions. It doesn’t mean that they’re more authentic or truthful, simply that emotions can be tested against, and used alongside, other forms of reasoning.

As a story with multiple elements—psychosis, drug abuse, police killings, hypermasculinity—the books tackles all issues while honing in one aspect: how the mental health system failed Evan Johnson and everyone around him. When someone died threatening to kill people with a crossbow, we say “he should have been locked up”, when, as you point out, that’s only with the benefit of hindsight—society as a whole detests seeing people stripped of their freedom. When it comes to the brain, the science is still imperfect. Can you see anything changing in the way people like Evan are handled?

I think that mental health is an immensely difficult area of public governance: how do you formulate policy for such a broad spectrum of illnesses or behaviours? Custodial care may be necessary in extreme cases like Evan’s, but obviously locking people up would be a terrible solution for most people suffering mental illness. As far as anything changing in the way that people like Evan are handled, I think that we’d need a government committed to increasing funding where it’s needed: preventative care facilities in the community, more psychiatric beds in hospitals, step-down accommodation, integrated drug and alcohol rehabilitation services and vocational support. We went from having 30,000 psychiatric beds in the 1960s to just under 2000 public psychiatric beds today. These figures are extraordinary, really! And what they mean in practice is that the families or partners of people with mental illnesses are left performing an impossible labour of care: unpaid, untrained and vulnerable to violence.

Your description of the eerily beautiful landscape at the farm where Evan died—far away from communication, down a remote and unpaved road, unsignposted—is a vivid and unnerving experience. Are there other places that have given you such a visceral reaction, or seemed so haunted?

I lived in Paris for quite a few years and one of the things that I missed most about Australia was the bush: ‘her beauty and her terror’. And yes, I have had similar feelings when driving by myself through the red dirt country in Western Australia with no phone reception and just the howling emptiness of the land stretching before me. Of course, as I say in the book, these visions are a product of our colonial past. The land is obviously not empty, nor was it ever so – that feeling is indebted to a mythic erasure of Aboriginal people from the country. And this erasure in turn makes it haunted; haunted perhaps by history, by the violence and massacres that we fail to talk about. These unspoken stories of violence returns to us with a quickening of our pulse when we step into wild country; they return to us, as Ross Gibson has said, through that strange feeling of agoraphobia (a fear of its terrifying vastness) and claustrophobia (the eerie feeling that it’s in fact teeming with unseen bodies).

After the inquest, you speak to the coroner, a surprisingly appealing man who seems more emotionally invested in the case than expected. He warns about the dangers of how these stories are presented: “He was not a character out of Deliverance or Wake in Fright or something like that, not some sort of monster who just shares a human form with the rest of us. He was a man who had lost his mind, and it is a genuine tragedy.” Do you think the media reporting of these incidents, without adequate follow-up into their root causes and the fallout, feeds into everyone’s fevered view of these situations as spectacle instead of reality, therefore not having to consider further solutions?

Yes! That is such a big part of the problem. Evan Johnson’s case was reported by the tabloid press in the genre of ‘psycho attacks hippies with a cross-bow’ which contributes to stereotypes of people with schizophrenia as violent (they are in fact far more likely to harm themselves than anyone else) and sacrifices the humanity of the deceased for a sleazy marketable story. But similarly, in only focusing on the police shooting itself we lose sight of much more interesting and compelling questions: why are police on the front-line of mental health? Are gaols our new asylums? Why would we expect police to be able to play psychiatrist? I think that to properly answer these questions we need to look at the criminal law and our mental health system in tandem. We need to interrogate reality not indulge in a pre-scripted horror show.

Are there any books about the history, present or future of Australia’s mental health care system you would recommend to readers?

One of the things that fascinated me as an academic was that Australia lacks any comprehensive history of our mental health system post-1950. So hopefully someone will write this soon and we can all get a better sense of what happened when we closed the asylums and adopted a policy of community care. Until then, Stephen Garton’s Medicine and madness is great and in fact the best book I read on the issue was Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum. The Government Report Not In Service is an excellent compilation of oral testimonies from people who suffer mental illness and for people into theory or philosophy, I don’t think you can go past Peter Sedgwick’s Psychopolitics or, for a counter-opinion, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation.

interview: steve p vincent

I recently had the good fortune to interview tremendously likeable author Steve P Vincent, who happily answered my questions despite being quite the international jet-setter at the moment. Thanks a bunch, Steve! (I particularly like the way that his author picture makes it look like he’s reading this while you are.)

The intensity of your battle scenes are quite vivid – have you had any real world experience with weapons or taking over countries?

Does paintball count? Or reading lots of Clancy? Or video games?

I’ve fired a shotgun a few times, but can’t say I’ve done much in the way of armed combat. Luckily, I have a few people I can tap on the shoulder to answer stupid questions. One of them, Aussie techno-thriller supremo Nathan M Farrugia, knows everything there is to know, and kindly looks at things when I ask. He’s also a cheap drunk.

I adored how many tough women there were in this. Was populating the book with ladies a conscious decision?

I had a chat about this with a couple of other authors over the weekend, actually. Though I try to have at least one prominent, female viewpoint character in each of my books, I think the key is to write good characters. I’d love to see a time, in a few years from now, where we didn’t have to think about this, but with so many authors writing and representing females so poorly, we need to talk about it.

Half of the population is female, more than half of my readers are women – it’s not that hard. The key is not defaulting certain character achetypes to certain genders: helpless female, tough male. I try to write good characters that are interesting, and one of the ways to do that is to throw these boring, stale thriller cliches on their head.

I love all of my characters, in their own way, but I do have a special place in my heart for Michelle Dominique from The Foundation. In many ways, she’s the best villain I could write – male or female. One and Mariposa from State of Emergency kept it up, I think. The third Jack Emery book has fewer characters (at this stage), but there’s a kick-arse MI5 agent named Amy Fowler who is muchos fun.

What came first: the political science degree chicken or the political fiction writing egg?

The chicken. I had the degree in the bag years before I put down a single word of fiction.

What is your writing process? Do you write in silence, or have anything in the background? If so, does it change according to the scene you’re writing?

My process is evolving. I wrote The Foundation totally free range and with no plan, which is why it took 3 years and I junked 60,000 words along the way. State of Emergency was a little more planned, and my sanity benefited. I write at night and on weekends and try to get at least 1,000 words down per day. I’m a proponent of the ‘10k Day’ and there’s often a whisky sitting next to me.

The one constant is that it’s never silent when I’m writing. I live in a pretty small apartment, so I write in front of the TV with my wife next to me. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to bag a study of some description, but for now I have to make do with Outlander in the background. The only time I get shirty about noise is on the last couple of editing passes on a manuscript.

What benefits do you think Jack’s Australian background has in his character? From my point of view, apart from making him immediately appealing to me personally for patriotic reasons, I enjoyed the much more human lens he gives us to see this environment through, like his unfamiliarity with guns, as most Australians would have.

Purely selfishly, it makes him easier for me to write. But I also like the different perspective he lets me offer on US politics and global events. There’s so many giants of American thriller writing in this business, I felt like I needed to do something a little different. I wanted Jack to have a different perspecitve, and I wanted him to be an ‘everyman’ – not a ripped, sharpshooting action hero.

The gun thing is funny. It’s only now, in book 3, that I’m starting to realise I wrote myself into a giant straightjacket by making Jack so fragile. He’s a journalist, pretty unfit and doesn’t really know how to fight or shoot. This limits the sort of sticky situations I can drop him into, or at least makes me work harder to get him out of them. Luckily he has some badarse friends.

Is Jack Emery going to overthrow Tony Abbott in book three?

Nope! As much as he’d probably like to, he’s got bigger fish to fry than ol’ Tony. The third book, Nations Divided, tackles the toughest scenario yet: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. I finished the draft the other day, and it’s a lot of fun. It’ll be out in December if all goes to plan. After that Jack is going to take a holiday for a little while, because I’ve got something else bubbling away.

q & a with nadia dalbuono

Recently I had the epic good fortune to interview author Nadia Dalbuono, writer of The Few, for work! I really enjoyed the book and spent far too long angsting over these questions. (One of my colleagues offered me the last question, which I think I’ll use on everyone.) This was originally posted over here.

You’ve spent the past fifteen years travelling the world as a documentarian for various companies in the UK. Were you scribbling story ideas in your downtime while on location, or has writing fiction been a recent creative pursuit for you?

I wasn’t exactly scribbling ideas but I did get some inspiration from my travels. I have always wanted to write but never really had the chance when I was working in documentaries. They were very long days and we often worked weekends so there wasn’t really much time for anything else. In the back of my mind I guess I’d decided that I didn’t want to be on the road forever and that writing could possibly give me the opportunity for a more settled life. It was when I started working as a consultant and the hours were more regular that I was able to take up writing properly. I found that it gives you a real sense of freedom that it’s difficult to find in TV where five different people want to throw in their opinion before the cut is completed.

I spent a lot of my time reading The Few with my laptop on my knee and Google Maps open so I could trace Scamarcio’s path around Italy and the places he visits. What was it about the landscape that compelled you to write a crime novel?

The idea for The Few came while I was on holiday on the island of Elba. I actually wrote the second part of the novel before I had written the first. I was sitting on a balcony overlooking the sea on a lovely September evening and started wondering about how appalling things can happen in beautiful places. And then the idea for the book slowly started to take shape. If you watch Italian news you’ll see how some of the country’s most squalid crimes often play out against breathtaking backdrops. I think there’s something interesting about that dichotomy.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is descended from Mafia royalty, but has chosen to leave that life behind and dedicate himself to the right side of the legal system. When he comes across situations in which a swift execution would be a vast improvement over bumbling police and tangles of red tape, it really tests his ethical stance, and, in turn, ours as a reader. Do you feel that sometimes public opinion can match Scamarcio’s moral quandary?

Yes I do. And with some crimes more than others, it’s particularly hard not to let your primal instincts for a swift execution take over. I think for Scamarcio it’s doubly difficult because he’s come from a background where settling things with a gun was the norm. His ethics are further tested by the fact that he’s forced to work inside a system which is, at best, inefficient, at worst, fatally flawed.

What’s in store for Scamarcio?

Well his next investigation has far-reaching international implications and is anything but the quiet case he could have done with after the events of The Few. Because of the highly sensitive nature of this new inquiry he finds his position in the force compromised and his private life under pressure. He’s forced to do some growing up and ends the novel a changed man from the Scamarcio of The Few.

What other crime fiction are you enjoying reading at the moment? Do you think there are enough Italian crime writers to start your own organised crime outfit?

Oh yes we could definitely start our own little mafia. Camilleri would have to do the catering – although I’m not sure whether his mouthwatering descriptions of Montalbano’s dinners come from the writer’s own expertise…

And for once, I’m not actually reading a crime novel but am really enjoying The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I think she’s a stunning writer. As regards crime and thrillers in general, I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, Peter James, Linwood Barclay and Patricia Highsmith.

What’s an answer you’ve always wanted to give to an interview question no one has ever asked you?

The questions would be…

How do you stay motivated to keep writing before you’re published? How do you know that what you’re doing isn’t a complete waste of time?

The answer would be…

For me this was the hardest thing, sitting down at my desk everyday and wondering whether what I was doing would ever see the light of day. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for new writers. All around you, your friends are making strides in their careers and there you are doing something that might never go anywhere. In the end I decided to ignore all the self doubt and just escape to the world I was creating because I enjoyed being there and felt the need to keep writing, whether or not anyone else ever read the book. I told myself not to think about whether I found an agent and publisher and just keep going and worry about all that stuff later.

It wasn’t easy to reach this state of mind but I’m very glad I did and this would be my advice to all would be writers. Just concentrate on the writing and then worry about the next stage once you’re happy with what you’ve created.

interview: luke preston

This month, I had the totally rad opportunity to throw a few questions at Luke Preston (author of Out of Exile; read my overexcited review that spawns gleeful compliments like ‘rad’ here).

1. While you’ve gained success in the thrills and blood-spills of crime, you’re also a screenwriter—do you have devious plans in other genres, or are you intending to translate Tom Bishop to the big screen? (Incidentally I would enjoy the hell out of a Bishop movie.)

The beauty of screenwriting is that it takes a fraction of the time to write a script than it does to write a novel. On the flip side to that, a screenplay takes a hell of a lot longer to find a home, be financed, produced and distributed (and that’s if it does at all). I have a couple of action/crime movies in the works, which are both almost ready to go to market and hopefully one of which will be in the can by the end of next year.

There is screenplay of Bishop’s first rampage, Dark City Blue and every month or so a producer will get in touch regarding the film rights but it is yet to find a home. It’s a dangerous screenplay that takes a few chances so I can understand the trepidation of some of the more conservative filmmakers.

As for Out of Exile as a feature film? I dare somebody to try and adapt that. The novel is huge in scope and leaves a massive trail of debris in its wake. I’m not even convinced it can be adapted but I would like to see somebody with some guts try.

2. Is the process of writing as exciting for you as the finished book is for the reader? What do you do to wind down?

Writing Out of Exile was a hell of a lot of fun to write. The words came very easy and when it was all over I was a little sad to reach the end. When you finish a long form story such as a novel or a script, there is a short period of mourning afterwards. So usually after I finish I’m at a loss and find it very difficult to wind down. I do play rock ‘n roll on an old Gretsch hollow body with dirty strings. If my neighbours complain, it doesn’t matter I can’t hear them. I spend a fair bit of time watching old movies at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne and I try to get out of the house as often as possible.

3. What Australian authors, musicians or foods inspire you?

Paul Kelly is my favourite Australian storyteller. Every one of his songs is a small insight into the culture of Australia, its values beliefs and humour.

4. Do you have any crystal ball predictions for the future of Australian and international crime writing?

The world has changed significantly the past ten years so much so that many novels that were written pre 9/11 are so irrelevant that they are almost quaint. Crime fiction is always the first to reflect the times in which we live. It dramatises the hopes and fears of the everyman and if executed effectively, can carry extremely strong messages.

Fuck literary fiction. It’s safe, conservative and does very little to help the world understand itself. Those books are written by academics for academics so they can all give themselves awards and gentle pats on their overeducated backs. The rest of the world doesn’t give a shit. And it’s not some cosmic accident that Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series sells extremely well. Reacher speaks to the public’s growing concern that their corporations and governments are not going to look after them, but that there will always be somebody out there like Jack Reacher fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves. Books such as that reflect the needs and desires of the public.

In the last few years there has been a shift in crime fiction, both here in Australia and internationally toward stories that carry a bigger message rather than solving the most recent murder which is something I am looking forward to seeing more of.

5. As a fellow Melburnian, I got a kick out of the wanton destruction of my beloved city. Was it important to you that Bishop and co. trashed places you know intimately? Did you have to keep international readers in mind?

Both Dark City Blue and Out of Exile are very specific in regard to scenes being set in real places but the story is universal so it can travel across borders with ease. Occasionally there is an issue with language such as the word ‘boot’ may be confusing to readers who are used to the word ‘trunk’. Apart from that, there’s little that doesn’t translate in terms of story and character.

6. Do you have any astounding pieces of advice for aspiring crime writers?

The first book you write is bad. Burn it and go and write another. I guarantee the next one will be significantly better.

7. Did your research take you to any unexpected places, like prison cells or car boots?

Through research I’ve seen the inside of police stations, the back rooms of MC clubs and yes… the inside of a car boot. *If you are going to climb into the boot of a car, make sure the person who closes it doesn’t leave the keys in there with you.

8. Ex-cop current-fugitive Tom Bishop isn’t known for his outpourings of emotion, but do you find yourself feeling affectionately towards him? Do you miss him once you’ve finished a book?

I wouldn’t want to have a beer with Tom Bishop and I certainly wouldn’t let him borrow my car because he’ll return in it pieces. But I have a hell of a lot of fun following him on his adventures and when I’m finished, I do miss him a little bit.

9. Christie, Child or Chandler?

All three as well as Hammett, Ellory and Stark.

10. If your computer were to be impounded by the police, what would the most incriminating thing in your search history be?

THIS:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTyw6cq86kY

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Luke spent most of his twenties as a freelance writer, a private investigator and listening to rock ‘n roll. He drinks heavily on occasion, is a half decent musician and his idea of a good time involves a jukebox designed to bleed ears.Luke’s work has been recognised by The Inside Film Awards, MTV and The ATOM Awards. He writes in cafes, bars and in parking lots on the back of old fuel receipts and cigarette packets. He doesn’t believe in writers block or in the magic bullet theory and his favourite album is Exile on Main Street.Luke’s writing is as much influenced by AC/DC and Johnny Cash as it is by Richard Stark and Raymond Chandler. He has a Master’s of Screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts and has absolutely no intention of moving to a shack in the middle of nowhere. He likes bad traffic, noisy neighbours, cheap beer, loud bars and has been occasionally known to howl at the moon.