A conversation with Garry Disher

Garry Disher has written twelve books: four school text books, two writers' handbooks, two anthologies, and four works of fiction, (two novels and two story collections). He lives in Melbourne. The following interview took place in Hobart in August 1990 at the Kelly Steps Cottage where for two months he was a guest of the Tasmanian Writers' Union as its Writer in Residence.

Garry spoke initially of the diverse nature of his writing, and of his wish to channel more energy into creative writing in the future.

I entered the Australian history textbook game after a publisher asked me to write a school textbook. Because that one went well, they asked me to do three more, for different age levels. That was a good discipline. With fiction, every day's uncertain; but with writing non-fiction thee's a clear plan and a clear goal.

I enjoyed the research, and I enjoyed the good sales that school text-books can bring. But I want to concentrate more and more on fiction. That might be diverse in itself: this year I've written two children's novels, for example, which my agent likes and has submitted to publishers, though it's too soon to tell whether they'll be accepted. But most of all I'd like to be know, and test myself, as a writer of 'literary' fiction: of novels and short stories.

Your first novel, Steal Away was published in 1987. How does it feel to look back on it now?

I don't think it's an entirely successful book, and the writing of it was difficult. It went through four major drafts. I was knocked back by four publishers, and then Angus & Robertson said if I would care to rewrite it they would look at it again. Publishers are so busy I fugured they wouldn't say that unless they meant it, so I did a final rewrite, and they accepted it. But the entire structure of the novel changed as I wrote it. The rewriting entailed major changes - and it's hard to do that. Even one draft of a novel takes a long time to write, let alone four major drafts.

There's a great deal of strength displayed by the female characters in Steal Away.

I like the way women think and see the world - I've more women friends than male friends - and I feel they are more in tune with the thoughts and feelings of others. Men are often blind to people's thoughts and hopes and fears. I've often observed in relationships that men have a kind of ignorance of what's happening in the world around them, and it's something I very often write about.

Are you happier with your second novel, The Stencil Man?

The Stencil Man was a pleasure all the way. It's a very simple novel, simply structured - but I think it's got a strong interesting central character and tells a good story. It's been set on the school reading list in Victoria, which pleases me because it'll reach a wider audience; but I hope it means a few sales too. The Stencil Man admittedly is a short novel. I wrote it in one concentrated six month burst.

How did you go about putting together a book such as Personal Best? Was that your idea? Did you approach Collins/A&R?

The idea was mine, and my agent convinced the publisher that it was a good idea. To edit Personal Best I asked thirty contemporary Australian writers to choose a favoured story from the ones they had written, and to write a few hundred words about it - where they got the idea from, how they came to write the story, the problems of technique they encountered, that sort of thing. It came out in 1989, and there's another volume coming out in early 'ninety-one. That was interesting for me, to read a wide range of contemporary Australian short stories with the authors' statements.

With regards the two Personal Best volumes; they stem from my interest in creative writing, and what writers have got to say about the process of writing. In most anthologies - the Penguin Book of Australian Short Stories, for example - the editor chooses the stories, and I've often heard writers say 'I wish they'd chosen something else rather than that'. So I thought I'd give the writers a chance to choose a story they'd written, and to say something about the process of writing. I think basically that most of the stories are very good in Personal Best. Not all writers were very forthcoming about where they get their ideas from, and I didn't like all the stories; but of course I'd invited them to submit the stories, so I had no control over them.

Were there writers you approached who weren't interested in submitting material for Personal Best?

Only two or three, most were pleased to do it. The trick then was to get the story out of them; they may have been busy, or had an author's tour overseas or something like that, so my letters followed them all over the place: 'The deadline's passed, please send me your story.'

And what sort of rates were writers paid in this instance?

The Australian Society of Authors has a minimum rate of payment for anthologies such as Personal Best which the publisher adhered to.

How did you go about putting together the anthology of community writing, The Man Who Played Spoons?

After years of teaching, I was aware that there is a lot of vital, interesting writing going on in the community that no-one ever sees. I knew for example that in prisons, in rural areas, amongst women's groups, amongst ethnic groups, the TAFE Colleges and Adult Education classes, a lot of very good writing is being produced. Often it's the kind of material that the newspapers or little magazines don't want to publish. But I convinced Penguin it was a good idea. I advertised for writing groups all around Australia to send me manuscripts - I wasn't interested in so-called professional writers at all, but in new writers, members of writing groups and so on. I got 1,400 manuscripts from all over Australia, although in fact about 60% of them came from Western Australia. I chose forty out of the 1,400.

It's a book I'm proud of. I think it reveals that a lot of people write, that a lot of people write good material and have interesting stories to tell. A lot of those pieces were parts of memoirs, for instance of the migrant experience, the Aboriginal experience of growing up in the bush, memoirs of parent's cross-cultural experiences - as well as fiction.

Writers such as Tom Shapcott, Rodney Hall and Gwen Harwood have not confined themselves to any one area of the arts but have branched out - into music, for instance. In Steal Away you've written of a passion for acting, whilst painting is central to your short story 'Dead Eye'. Is writing your main focus, or are you equally interested in other areas of the arts?

I sometimes have an uncomfortable feeling that my life's a bit ... a bit narrow. I don't play or compose music for example. But I think writing has helped me look more closely, or with new eyes, at other art forms. I'm interested in the way a painter or a musician might see something. I think I've got a very visual imagination. I like films, for example, and I like looking at paintings. My head's always full of pictures.

I used to act a bit when I was a student, and write plays when I was a kid, so I'm interested in the use of dialogue, always jotting down conversations that I hear, just to get the way that people use words in everyday life. Certainly writing is not narrow in that sense, it's broadened my appreciation of other art forms. I like a quote by Simenon, the French crime writer who wrote the Maigret novels. He considers himself an artisan who'd like to carve his novel in a piece of wood. And I feel like that sometimes when I'm writing, I wish I could sculpt it so that I could see the shape of it, see where it's thin in some areas and thick in others and whether the shape is satisfactory. If you're a painter or sculptor you can stand back and look at the shape and see where it needs fixing up, but it's harder to do that when you write.

Recently I read the view of an Australian poet who feels that when our era has passed - in a hundred years hence for instance - and people are looking back at the society we live in, it'll be to our poetry that they'll turn to best understand our times. Do you agree?

No, I think I'd disagree with that. I think the great literary advances or experimentations in the twentieth century have been in the area of novel writing. There's been so much intellectual foment, for example, in Europe to produce writers like Milan Kunera, with his reflections on the communist totalitarian state. And then there's been the South American magical realists. And both forms have influenced Anglo-Saxon writers. I think modern novels represent the greatest strengths and influences in literature; they say more about the way that people live and think, create more absorbing imagined worlds, and deal more satisfactorily with ideas.

Who are your favourite writers?

For relaxation I read crime fiction but for some time now I've been reading a lot of contemporary American fiction, particularly short story writers like Raymond Carver, a very good writer who died about a year ago and who has had an enormous amount of influence. His short stories are very spare, and very powerful. Yet he led a sad sort of a life; early alcoholism, early marriage breakdown, poor health.

I enjoy reading Tobias Wolfe. I also like the Canadian writer, Alice Munro, very much. I suppose she's a regional writer in a way, she writes about a small part of Ontario where she grew up, about the small towns and small farms. I grew up in an area like that in South Australia; one day I'd like to write a cycle of stories about life in a small town, small farm environment.

Bobbie Ann Mason is very good, another American writer, she writes about Kentucky - again, about the small towns and small farms. I also like a writer called Richard Ford, who's coming to Tasmania in a few weeks time.

I don't read many English writers. It's not fashionable to like Kingsley Amis, but some of his early comic novels I like very much.

I also like Fay Weldon, Jennifer Johnston and Beryl Bainbridge.

Of Australian writers I think David Malouf's very good. Helen Garner hasn't written anything for a while, but I like The Children's Bach and her collection short stories.

You've a number of books on your shelves ... critical books by Derrida, etc ... are they yours?

They belong to a friend. I don't read any academic critical texts about theories of literature at all. It only gets in the way of the writing I think. Not that I'd say my writing remains static, I've seen it change and develop, and I'm prepared to read a wide range of fiction writers - experimental writers and traditional writers - I'm open to influences. But I'd never want to be influenced by literary fashion or literary theory.

What do you think of interviews? How do you feel about the writer becoming a personality: should the writing stand up by itself?

I think there's a tendency for off-the-cuff comments which one might want to rethink later.

I think many writers have a lot to offer in terms of ways of looking at the world, or looking at the craft of writing. That's one of the benefits of an interview. But the popular press has given a bad name to the literary interview, because the writer comes through as a personality, and the writer's tastes in restaurants or places to holiday or fashionable anxieties come through rather than any interesting opinion about literature or life.

Do you think writers have a moral function to fulfil?

I've often been afraid someone's going to ask me, 'What is your role as a writer?' I can't say that I have a role.

To look at in in the abstract, one of the most useful things that writers can do is entertain. There are different kinds of entertainment, of course: there's giving someone excitement with a thriller, or, with a thoughtful poem or novel, giving them something to reflect upon. I think entertainment's important.

In terms of moral responsibility, I think good writers help readers see the world in a slightly different way, and somehow make sense of it. I thought that, for example, when I recently read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. He's lived in Paris for a long time as a political refugee from Czechoslovkia, and although Europe has changed completely since he wrote his novel about totalitarianism, his unusual approach has helped me see the underlying patterns. He offered unusual insights into that kind of regime, its bullying, toe-the-line thinking and the way it can influence every aspect of the lives and mental states of people living under it. He made everything much clearer, especially the strange warped logic and the absurdities of it all.

I think that's what good writing can do: but I don't think writers should necessarily set out to do that, and I don't think other people should say writers must do that. If writers are writing well, they will entertain and help readers put things into perspective or see things in a new light, but I don't think they should have a self-appointed role to preach or change the world.

What are you presently working on?

At the moment I'm putting the finishing touches to a book. I'm writing a novella while I'm here in Tasmania to go with half a dozen stories that I've written about inner suburban life in Fitzroy. It's where I live, I'm interested in the things going on around me, and I'm interested in some of the tensions you find in Fitzroy which is an area where you have not only the old working class but the yuppies, the semi-artistic types like me perhaps, the wealthy and the poor, students, Aborigines and immigrants.

Something else threading through the Fitzroy book is the subject of pollution. I don't preach about pollution in any sense, but I believe - as any thinking person must - that I've become more and more aware of how careful we have to be, and how the pollution threat has moulded our lives and thinking, particularly if we live in a big city like Melbourne with the occasional toxic scare, the occasional toxic cloud. I'm interested in the environmental crisis as background. For example, in one of the stories there's a character who has an asthmatic child, and the child has to be kept indoors on smog-warning days. Bit by bit, we're starting to take for granted in our lives things that really shouldn't happen. So pollution is a theme running through all the stories. It's a book I hope to finish while I'm here in Hobart, and see published in 1991.