‘Her’ begins in 1909 and spans ten years. We meet the protagonist when she is three years old, “a tawny-headed, scab-kneed, fearless scrap of a girl”. She is sold for nine shillings and sixpence to a shadowy and foreboding scrap merchant and his brood of bought slaves. She is nameless. The book explores a dark side of history, especially women and girls battling poverty and violence. What drew you to write this tale?
Like most fiction writers, I’m a hoarder of news items, overheard conversations, incidents I’ve witnessed, anecdotes, experiences, interesting-but-not-relevant-at-the-time snippets of information. One of these was reading an archive item about a child being sold to a farmer and his wife in some rural backblock at a time when isolation, distance, no means of communication and a lack of welfare scrutiny meant it was never investigated. I thought about that child for years until she was fully formed in my head, making several false starts because I didn’t know enough about the subject yet.
I also drew on my grandfather’s stories, especially his experience of returning from the war in Europe and within a few months burying two of his sisters in the influenza epidemic of 1919.
You have an MA in Australian history. What kind of historical research helped you form this narrative?
The history MA developed my research skills and familiarity with the various state archives and libraries, and the War Memorial, and I put this to good use early in my career when I wrote a number of history textbooks, followed by novels set in the recent past (the Great Depression and the Second World War). So I knew where to go for information to help flesh out the world of ‘Her’. But I try not to burden the story with period detail.
You are known for your evocative sense of place. ‘Her’ is set in the bush around Bendigo. What made you choose this setting for the novel?
I don’t know the area all that well, but wanted somewhere not too far from Melbourne, somewhere not too sparsely settled. Somewhere I could imagine a scrap dealer/rag-and-bone man roaming on a horse and cart, selling useless stuff to farming people and in small towns.
‘Her’ is your most recent novel in a career that covers multiple genres, from crime series to young adult fiction, short stories and books on the craft of writing. How have you seen your writing change and develop over the years and across genres?
I hope I’m getting better at it, but knowing more about the writing craft doesn’t mean the writing gets easier—the opposite, in fact. In terms of my approach, I’ve come to appreciate the value of planning. I need to hold the whole book in my head (and on scraps of paper…). I still trust my instincts over the plan, however. And crime-fiction techniques have helped me in my other types of fiction writing: using delaying and withholding tactics, where to place turning points and sudden reversals, how to get readers to exercise their minds about the wrong character or issue, how to employ partial and doubtful outcomes. And I adhere strongly to Charles Dickens’ approach: “Make ‘am laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait” (especially the last bit).
In what ways has your approach to writing remained the same?
My approach hasn’t changed really. I plan, I write the first draft longhand, I edit/rewrite as I go along, I use short, clear sentences, I try to convey scenes as if they were a film clip (what things look like, what is said, what is done, what the emotional atmosphere is).
‘Her’ has been described as completely different to anything you have written before. Do you agree?
I don’t agree. It feels like all of my other books. Or rather, the subject-matter is different, but the writing experience was just the same.
You have published over 50 books. What is the best piece of advice you received when you were an emerging writer?
Very early in my career I won a creative writing scholarship to Stanford University in the US, on the basis of a handful of short stories that I’d managed to get right without knowing how. But when I workshopped my first story in the class, it was pulled apart and I was told my writing suffered from “sensory deprivation”. What this meant was, although the characters and setting were clear in my head, they were vague on the page. That’s when I first heard the expression, “good writing makes pictures in the head”, and I was shown how this may be achieved by appealing to the reader’s sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste.
Garry Disher grew up on a wheat and wool farm in South Australia. He has an MA in Australian History and has lived, worked and travelled in England, Italy, Israel, the USA and southern Africa. In 1978 he was awarded a creative writing fellowship to Stanford University, where he wrote his first collection of short stories. Garry worked as a writing lecturer between the years 1980 and 1988, before becoming a full-time writer. He has published over fifty books, including short story collections, literary novels, writers’ handbooks and award-winning crime thrillers and children’s titles.
‘Her’ by Garry Disher is published by Hachette Australia, available now