A knock-back doesn't have to mean a knockout

Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Robert Gott

headshot of Robert Gott
Robert Gott

There are two New Yorker cartoons I love. In one, a jaded couple is passing a bookstore and one of them is saying, “I’m tired of people who write first novels”. In the other, a man turns from his computer screen to his wife and says, “I feel I have at least one more unpublished novel in me”. Don’t worry, I’m not going to deconstruct them; I just needed an opening.

I wrote that tiresome first novel (Good Murder) and launched it at Readings, thereby achieving two ambitions. A friend helpfully pointed out that the people who come to a chap’s book launch are pretty much the same people who’d come to a chap’s funeral. The upside of this is that it gives the relevant person some idea of how many to cater for at the wake. As for the novel, the truth is that I didn’t so much want to write it, as to have written it. I knew it would be a crime novel, but I also knew that I wasn’t keen to set it in the present. These days, after years of CSI and other grim police shows, everyone knows the order in which different species of maggots appear on bodies. I didn’t want to receive outraged letters pointing out that my reference to coffin beetles was absurdly inaccurate. I was daunted by the prospect of getting the police procedure right, the legal issues correct and the forensics spot on. That eliminated the police procedural, the courtroom drama and the forensic investigative novel.

I had the germ of an idea which grew out of a story that I’d grown up with. I was born in Maryborough, Queensland (please take this into account), and everyone in Maryborough knows the story of a girl who went missing in 1942. She was found two weeks after her disappearance, floating in the town’s water tower. This meant that the people of Maryborough had effectively been imbibing her. This included my parents, whose liquid cannibalism was riveting for a sensitive child to consider. Fortunately, we were more Addams Family than Brady Bunch. There were rumours that the poor girl had been murdered, although having gone up to Maryborough to research the story, I discovered that her death was the result of a depressive illness. Still, that image was very strong and the date was terribly convenient. 1942 was pre-DNA, and it was a fascinating time in Australia’s history, with Darwin having been bombed in February of that year. I needed a protagonist and, for my own entertainment, I settled on writing in the first person, in the voice of someone who was a complete pill. I needed a man who was egomaniacal, incompetent, vain and unobservant. I made him an actor (please don’t join any dots), gave him an eponymous acting troupe and called him William Power. The Power Players travelled Australia putting on inappropriate Shakespeare plays (Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus) in an effort to raise morale and bring culture to the barbarians.

Will Power wouldn’t solve any crimes, but he’d stumble his way through to solutions provided by others with the misplaced self-assurance that he had, in fact, unravelled the mystery unaided. As soon as I began the novel, I discovered what many writers discover – the difference between a 10,000-word idea, and one that will carry the weight of 85,000 words. The body in the water tower was a 10,000-word idea. I needed more bodies.

I finished the novel and then I got lucky. The first publisher I submitted it to, Scribe, liked it, and was willing to take it on. All I needed to do was cut 20,000 words out of it and reduce the body count. I had perhaps over-egged that particular omelette in my enthusiasm. Will Power wandered incompetently through two more books, A Thing of Blood, set in Melbourne, and Amongst the Dead, set in Darwin and Roper Bar. I wrote a fourth Will Power and submitted it to my publisher, Henry Rosenbloom, at Scribe. He turned it down and suggested, firmly, that it might be time to write something serious. I trust my publisher’s judgment and although I was disappointed (I really liked the fourth instalment), I wasn’t about to waste the research I’d done. I stripped the plot back to its skeleton, repopulated it with members of the newly formed (1943) Homicide division of Victoria police, and made it very dark indeed. The result is The Holiday Murders, and Henry Rosenbloom was quite right. The ghastly reality of fascist organisations in Australia in the 1940s, sits uncomfortably in a comedy, but terrifyingly in a serious crime novel. I now have a brand new set of characters to write about and that’s a good thing. Sometimes a knock-back can work in your favour, if you’re able to get past that first indignant, gut response to it. The thing about writing is that it’s a misnomer. It should just be called re-writing.

About Robert Gott

Robert Gott has published more than 85, mostly non-fiction, books for children, and is also the creator of the newspaper cartoon 'The Adventures of Naked Man'. He is the author of the William Power series of crime novels, of which the third installment 'Amongst the Dead'was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Award for crime fiction. His latest novel, The Holiday Murders, was published in February, 2013. Read more about Gott’s books and order copies at Scribe Publications.