HIS short-back-and-sides demeanour stamps Garry Disher as the country boy he was, his shelf-ful of titles as the urbane literateur he has become. And if the dinkum values of farm life near Burra, the self-proclaimed "Merino Capital of the World" on the plains of South Australia's mid north, have never been forgotten, they exist now in a perspective shaped by international and intellectual travel. In Australian literary life, Disher is an Akubra-wearing jack of all trades, an honest tradesman whose professionalism has seen him write across all genres. He has the respect of publishers, critics and readers ... yet he is also an exemplar of a depreciated generation, those mid-career wordsters who inhabit an uneasy realm between bestsellerdom and youthful potential.
Fifty this year, he is by achievement and age beyond the Coming Generation, by sales and youth neither media favorite nor revered elder. In the past 20 years, he has published children's books (his first, The Bamboo Flute, won both the 1993 CBC Book of the Year award and best book of the year plaudits in the US), crime novels and literary fiction (including the critically-lauded The Sunken Road); he's also written and edited several short story collections, is a sought-after anthologist, a writing teacher and text book constructor
Yet even after 32 books of no little achievement, he is still only "making a living but it's patchy. I'm on a grant at present but generally they have been few and far between. This writer's career has been more droughts than floods, financially." It happens too often that good books and authors exist in a blind spot in Australia: "I'm very proud, for instance, of The Sunken Road - it had two editions in Britain and is about to be published in France, but it didn't get the attention it deserved here."
Despite this, he continues with the dedication of the driven, producing at a rate to shame more high-profile poseurs. Last month, he published Below the Waterline, an anthology of short stories he edited for HarperCollins. And this week he releases The Dragon Man, his latest crime novel, and one that may well move him to a new level of acclaim. It has the requisite pace and tautness, involving plotlines, evocative landscapes. More thaqn that, there's an atypically (for the genre) relaxed, almost introspective element abroad - characters develop complexity and lodge in the consciousness.
Disher now lives and works in a farmhouse on the Mornington Peninsula at Merricks North - "it's on the map but it has no postcode" - with his anthropologist wife and four-year-old daughter, Hannah. "I started late," he asides distractedly when I phone to hear that our agreed interview time won't work because he is "on public holiday child-minding duty". The exuberant background racket suggests next day might be more propitious. A few kilometres inland from the peninsula's beaches and bays, the farmhouse is on a hectare of trees and paddocks, tucked in among orchards and vineyards and a horse stud or two. He's given the same environment to his Dragon Man hero, Hal Challis, although the latter has a more modern house than the author's "70-year-old fibro in desperate need of a new roof and restumping".
The run of the place belongs to three geriatric sheep, and Disher limits his 'farming' these days to watching the grass grow and the birds swing by.
Here, six days a week "whenever practicable", he writes by longhand before transferring and editing to the computer - "mornings from about 7.30 is when I do creative work. The afternoons are for typing up, research, editing. Sometimes it takes a week to get a paragraph, other times pages flow." Integral to the process is the daily walk "to clear my head and solve plot problems. My books are very carefully planned and structured, and sometimes I seem to reach a knot that won't unravel. But a walk always solves it."
This farmhouse and its laid-back life style is the end-point of a journey that began when he left Burra High in Year 12 for Adelaide Boy's High: that was a real "culture shock, going from a co-ed school of 130 in a town where you knew everyone to a boys-only school of about a 1000 in the Big City". Shy and politely intimidated, he felt for the first time an outsider. At Adelaide University, he did first-year English ("which almost ruined my love of reading") before switching to Australian history and philosophy. After graduation, there was a two-year working holiday in England, Italy and Africa before he settled in Melbourne's Fitzroy to complete an MA at Monash. Here he wrote his thesis (Popular inland and outback authors of the 1930s and 1940s), and began to write short stories.
"I'd always wanted as a child to be a writer but I didn't know how you did it. But when I was overseas, I started to keep a travel journal. And in Italy, inspired by newspaper stories of a particularly lurid murder case, I wrote the beginnings of some very bad crime stories. At Monash, I thought it was time to do something about the writing dream. I had the very good luck to have my first story accepted by Overland, and I thought how easy is this. Then, of course, reality - I received all the usual rejections."
In 1978, however, he won a year-long creative fellowship to Stanford University in California, one of a dozen disciples there ranging in age from 20 to 65 who met twice a week to workshop stories and novel segments. "I learnt how to be a better writer there by learning how to be a better editor," says Disher. "We had the novelist Robert Stone for one semester, and he really tore my early efforts apart. As well as teaching me how to put the right words in the right places to make a sentence, he taught me to test the thought behind each sentence. I realised how derivative, cliched and dishonest I was often being." Those lessons have remained: "Now I rewrite as I go along, forever scrubbing and rescanning sentences and muttering 'wanker' to myself."
From California it was back to Fitzroy and a career as full-time teacher, part-time writer. "I taught without qualifications for a year until it was firmly suggested I do something about it." More uni, LaTrobe this time, for a Dip Ed. In 1988, he switched to no-time teacher full-time writer - "My income plummeted but I was much happier" - and moved soon after to Mornington.
Disher is hailed in crime writing circles for his Wyatt series, centred on a tough-minded, hard man outlaw, an anti-hero who in some ways redefined the genre. Trouble is, admiration did not equate with the sales. Which is one reason why Wyatt is now "in hiatus. Plus I needed a break from him - there was a danger the series might become formulaic, and I felt I had pushed him far enough. And despite the supportive reviews here and overseas, sales in Australia were pretty modest."
If he were positing reasons for that, "it might be because he was an outlaw (which turned American publishers off but didn't stop their bookshops importing copies) or it could be because women thought the books too 'blokey'. Yet the most enthusiastic fan mail I got was from women … it's a mystery really."
Challis is no Wyatt, although they share a maniacal concentration for the task at hand. Nor is he a Disher clone, although they share the landscape and tank water problems - "I know what it's like to run out of water in the shower with shampoo lather in my hair and eyes," he laughs. "It would be a shame to waste that experience." But in creating a character, he's "trying to get inside the skin of someone unlike me. I don't judge, I just try to understand and sympathise." (He admits, though, that there was probably an element of wish fulfilment in Wyatt. "He's not subject to the clutter, compromise and indecision that bedevils an ordinary life - he's always cool, single-minded and meticulous. And who wouldn't want to be like that?")
The Triumph-driving Challis is a regional homicide inspector and like Wyatt an outsider ("an impulse of the genre," says Disher in denying it's a personal trait. "Readers identify with the outsider - even a character like Sarah Paretsky's VI Warshawski, who has an extensive network of supportive friends and relatives, is ultimately alone when she must solve the plot's problems."). In part, The Dragon Man was inspired by the novels of English writer John Harvey, who "sets a central character inside a regional setting, with an ensemble cast; there is a compelling major crime but with a supporting range of linked minor transgressions. It allows a nice layering." And nice literary touches, too, like the character-suggestive lane Challis has to negotiate between his home and the real world: in winter it has "potholes, mud and minor flooding; in summer corrugations and treacherous soft edges".
For Challis (and one suspects his creator), it's as if in beaching on the Mornington Peninsula "he had come home, finally" after a career of being sent all over the state for murder and abduction investigations. Yet he is a haunted man - his suicidal wife is in jail, convicted of conspiring with her lover to murder him, his lover is an investigative journalist, the cops around him consort with criminals and compromise themselves. As one colleague put it, "he looked down a long unhappiness, and she didn't suppose it would ever go away". Or as Challis says, "I realise that I am different, I am separate from everyone else. No-one's saying 'come in here with us', they're saying 'stay out there and watch over us'."
"At one level," says Disher, "Dragon Man is a realistic picture of police culture - there's a community expectation that cops must remain clean and above reproach. But Challis understands that like all of us, they make mistakes, are subject to pressures and temptations. He might not forgive but he understands." Amidst this turmoil, Challis has a secret life as a restorer of vintage aircraft. His pride is a Dragon Rapide he is painstakingly reconstructing. "That was a little bit calculated," says Disher. "I knew he needed a private obsession to help define him but I didn't know what. Then I went to a local air show and was fascinated by these restored, 'seat-of-the-pants' propeller-driven planes from between the wars. And I wondered what kind of enthusiast would do that, what kind of solace might they get from restoring these planes."
Crime novels still bear an undeserved stigma, dismissed by some who should know better as predictable and lightweight. If it were once true, it isn't now - think Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Carl Hiaasen, Patricia Cornwell, Martin Amis, Michael Connelly, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin ... and pencil in there the name Disher. The genre boasts some of the more inventive, richly textured writing around, edged with social comment and laced with page-turning action. Literary and entertaining? Surely that's no crime.
This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1999
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