#EWF17 RECAP: Australian crime writers and the Murder(s) They Wrote

#EWF17 RECAP: Australian crime writers and the Murder(s) They Wrote
Emerging Writers' Festival 2017
Source: emergingwritersfestival.org.au

It’s a genre that exists in people’s nightmares, plays on them, and explores them. So why do so many people read and watch it?

This recap is a guest post by Claire Parnell. Claire is a literature x digital media academic currently teaching at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on pop culture, genre fiction (Romance, mainly) and digital publishing. It’s definitely not an excuse to just read romance, watch Netflix and tweet all the time. @cparnell_c

Photo credits: Claire Parnell

‘Who saw Melina Marchetta and Brandi and thought we were going to talk about Looking for Alibrandi?’ Angela Savage asks at the beginning of the National Writers Conference panel to responding laughter.

While I would have been so there for an hour of talking about Alibrandi, Murder They Wrote was a fantastic discussion in its own right. In the following 59 minutes and 30-odd seconds, Mark Brandi, Melina Marchetta and Angela Savage discussed their novels, the social constructions of crime, the characterisation of villains, and the ‘Literary v. Non-Literary’ crime genre.

A bit about the panelists

Starting out with her own brilliant brand of YA (Young Adult), Melina Marchetta [ T | W ] changed tracks quite dramatically when she published Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil [ BT | Amz | iT ] in 2016.

Mark Brandi [ T | F | W ] has written for The Age, The Guardian and The Big Issue. His debut novel, Wimmera [ BT | Amz | iT ], a distinctive small-town Australian crime novel, was published just a couple weeks after EWF.

Angela Savage [ TW ], the moderator for this panel, is an award-winning crime fiction writer [ BT | Amz | iT ], teaches creative writing and is currently completing a PhD in creative writing.

2017 EWF Murder They Wrote panel (Photo by Claire Parnell)
L to R: Melina Marchetta; Mark Brandi; Angela Savage.

Crime in real life

When it comes to crime ‘we think in binary terms’, but as Brandi points out, ‘it’s very fluid.’

‘In the media, there’s a huge fascination with crime – if it bleeds, it leads – but if you scratch beneath the surface, there’s very little understanding’ of the causes and contexts of crime.

Class and culture are inextricably linked in crime, and as Marchetta points out, criminality and policing have been very closely linked in Australia since early days of European colonisation. This social perspective of crime is a focus that distinguishes Australian crime lit with that of America, which is arguably more caught up in individualism and the pathology of the psychopath.

‘Criminality isn’t about something innate inside. It derives from circumstances and choices based on need,’ Savage agrees.

Genre v Literary

Most people think literary fiction and genre fiction are incompatible, Savaged posed to the authors early on. Brandi, gods bless his writer’s soul, disagreed:

The most important thing is the story.

And both Tell the Truth and Wimmera are character-driven stories.

Discussing how they came up with their characters, both Marchetta and Brandi discussed the influences of their work. (An aspect of writing also discussed in the fan fiction panel).

Brandi’s small-town crime story was heavily influenced by his upbringing in country Victoria, which comes through strongly in Wimmera.

Marchetta delves into the fears inherent in parenthood through her main character, Bish. Tell the Truth can be seen as a continuation of the family-drama focused writing she has developed in On the Jellicoe Road and The Piper’s Son.

Side note: Savage explained in a PhD moment that characters who allegedly have their beginning in dreams fully formed is known as ‘the illusion of independent agency… Fully formed characters are very similar to childhood imaginary friends.’ That is, authors who say characters just came to them fully formed are maybe a little full of it. (Another idea echoed in the fan fiction panel).

Bad Characters

Good villains have to be nuanced to be convincing.

It’s the difference between the evil Maleficent in Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent with an actual back story and reasons for acting the way she does in Maleficent (2014, starring Angelina Jolie). Backstory and emotional drive are important convincing factors when writing good bad characters.

Brandi talked about how exhausting it is writing darker characters: ‘It can’t just be an academic exercise, it has to be personal… You have to know them really well and get inside their head.’

Likewise, there’s a trap of exploiting victims in crime fic. Someone once told Savage that women make better victims because they’re more sympathetic, which she calls the same as ‘waving a red flag in front of a bull.’

She went on to write a novel where four men die instead.

The crime in Tell the Truth is eerily similar to the tragic events that have taken place in the UK over the past few months, despite being written well beforehand. If they’d already happened, Marchetta admits, she wouldn’t have written this story that, echoing the tragedy of the Manchester bombing, is ‘every parent’s nightmare.’

It’s a genre that exists in people’s nightmares, plays on them, and explores them. So why do so many people read and watch it?

Savage cites a founding member of Sisters in Crime when she said (I’m paraphrasing based on my messily-written notes): ‘We all work in the care industry, and so we go home and read about killing people.’

There’s something, Savage proposes, about reading a kind of justice that doesn’t always happen in the real world.

It parallels the argument in defence of the HEA in romance – Why would we want to read an unhappy end to a romantic relationship when that’s basically been my dating life ever since my first kiss with my best friend when I was five? – Who wants to read a crime novel where the murderer goes free?

No. No one.

One comment

  1. azteclady says:

    Thank you for these posts! Sorry it’s taken so long to comment; I’m always fascinated by how writers’ brains work, as I’m not one.

    One thing about criminality in the US: while it’s true that the media focuses a lot on the psychology/pathology of individual criminals, I think there’s a lot of truth here as well in the “criminality is based on circumstances and need” comment, particularly when you look at minorities and PoC. We talk a lot about the ‘school to prison pipeline’ for a reason, after all.

    Finally, I’m with you on the resolution to crime books–and why I recoil from anti-heroes (thinking of Dexter, both books and tv show). We live in a deeply flawed world where societies are inherently unjust, and where happiness is always fragile (health, accidents, wars, prejudice–they all impinge, regardless of whatever joy exists within personal relationships/families), so genres that provide structure and present justice as the default, rather than the exception, are a healing balm.

    …and now that I’ve preached to the converted, I’ll slink off.

    Thank you again!

What do you think?